Tuesday, 29 January 2008

What If the German Invasion of Western Europe in 1940 Had Been Defeated? - Scandinavia

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Roads: Alternate Outcomes of the Second World War’ It is available for purchase on Amazon:

UK readers might prefer to access it through:

Goths and Discrimination - Leading to Death

I am grateful to Alterphobia for his/her comment regarding the case of Sophie Lancaster which I am ashamed to say I entirely missed being reported last August. I suppose it is because I am an electronic Goth who sits at his PC late into the night rather than out and about talking to people. Sometimes I feel very connected with what is happening as a result, but in this case feel really embarrassed about this gap in my knowledge, especially as it was so much more serious, not to spout a truism: being refused access to a bus is bad, but death is far worse. You can read about the murder of Sophie Lancaster in many places over the internet. To summarise, she was 20 years old when she and her boyfriend Robert Maltby (21) were attacked in Rossendale in Lancashire (which borders on Yorkshire where last week's less grave incident occurred) while walking home across a park early on the morning of 11th August 2007. She died later from head injuries; Maltby went into a coma from which he has subsequently recovered.

The police and the victim's family feel the couple were attacked for being Goths. Yet, Sophie's mother notes that there are violent attacks in the area anyway, as there are in the bulk of British towns these days. Five boys between 15 and 17 have been arrested for the murder and face trial this March. So far we have not heard if they targeted the couple because they were Goths or simply because they happened to be passing by at a time when the boys decided to attack people. We should know more following the case. It may also be that small-town police are often a bit clueless and light on the fact that this couple were a bit 'different' as an explanation when in fact they may have equally been killed if they were chavs. In my town people of all kinds have been stabbed or kicked to death even; a lot of violence in the UK is mindless. However, we do know that crime against people from particular cultures is common across the UK. Gays and people from ethnic minorities have been attacked just for who they are; this has even gone to the extent of bombings as at the Admiral Duncan pub bombing and the Brick Lane pub bombing in 1999. Goths like people from ethnic minorities stick out especially in small towns and anyone who looks different is likely to be discriminated against and now easy targets suffer violence as well as verbal abuse. Being in a sub-group, as the law now recognises for racially-motivated crimes, increases your chances of being attacked, that appears certain.

The Lancaster case differs a bit from the Graves/Maltby case of last week. In terms of being banned from the bus, the motive was as much of them being sexual fetishists in domination and submission who happen to be Goths as being Goths per se. However, to discriminate against fetishists is along the same path, i.e. to discriminate against someone because of how they dress and the sub-culture that they identify themselves. Interestingly this has provoked me to think again about how I view women who veil their faces. I have worked with quite a few in my career and there are practical difficulties in terms of identification especially in this age when every business and I guess universities and colleges do too, uses identity cards. In addition, there is also a sense that Muslim women face family pressure to dress in a particular way, that they themselves may choose not to do. In addition, I do think education and religion should be kept separately. However, I am increasingly feeling that we should be tolerant of how people dress. There are some health and safety grounds and in some circumstances you would ask a Goth to remove their long coats or body piercings in the same way as you might ask a religious person to change their dress or remove insignia. However, these cases are few.

The murder of any person, especially a young one, is terrible. Goths though are literate, caring and intelligent and the reaction to this particular case has been widespread across the World, featuring a number of concerts in the UK, USA and Australia, some even covered on television. Her family are gathering funds to provide a memorial against hate crime. Importantly it has led to discussion of crimes against sub-cultures and a Number 10 petition to widen the definition of 'hate crime', to include crimes committed against a person or persons, on the basis of their appearance or subcultural interests'. This will not eliminate such attacks over night. However, it should strengthen the position of people from the Gothic community and others like bikers and ravers when people attack them or discriminate against them in any way. I do not think it will eliminate violence against Goths and I certainly think there are chavs who exploit the passive nature of Goths to taunt and assault them. However, I think that by developing protection for sub-cultures many other forms of discriminatory behaviour (to eliminate discriminatory attitudes is a lot longer and tougher process) will be choked off.

The online petition is at: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/goth-hatecrimes/ You have to be a British citizen (or resident) in order to sign up. The deadline is 28th March 2008. I urge you to sign up and get your friends and relatives to do so too. There are currently 2,521 signatures, we all need to see more there. Whilst I wish that Sophie Lancaster was still alive, the least we can do is take steps will make sure her death was not in vain.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

What Use is History?

I have just read 'Foundation' a short story by the London-based author China Mieville. He writes contemporary set stories with elements of both grim realism and also fantastical aspects. That story features a US building inspector who had served in the war in Iraq and was involved in burying Iraqi soldiers alive. As you read it, you think, that is grim but what is more shocking is that you find out it is true. Apparently 'The Guardian' reported in 2003 how US troops using tanks fitted with sand-ploughs had run over Iraqi trenches burying the soldiers alive.

Someone once said to me that they could see no point in anyone actually researching history at university because surely we now knew everything that had happened and surely there was nothing else to find. An old woman said that you needed to study history so that you could teach the children 'that we beat the Europeans and they should not be coming over here trying to take control' in a single sentence indicating her own ignorance of history. On the basis of the first woman's comments, there are many subjects we could simply stop researching. 'Why bother with geography? We know where everywhere is now.' ; 'Why bother with physics? We can all see gravity at work.'; 'Why bother researching religion? We know what God wants.' and so on. Yes, we could simply settle down being happy with what we have and not explore it any further. Yet, the World is not static as climate change, AIDS and fundamentalism show. Yet, even then, surely the past does not change, does it?

Well, to me it seems more that we only know a fraction of what actually went on. In the 1960s people started investigating 'everyday history' as they realised actually we knew quite a bit about what kings, queens and presidents did but very little about what the bulk of the population actually did in history, despite the fact that the very large majority of us are the ordinary people. We are the ordinary people of the 21st century and in decades let alone centuries to come we are going to be entirely forgotten as people study President Bush's actions and maybe those of Queen Elizabeth II. Already the Iraqi soldiers, young me choked to death in blind panic as sand was shovelled over them are forgotten.

In addition to the sweep of history literally neglecting billions of people's lives, much of history is hidden. Channel 4 began a series in 1991 called 'Secret History' which has looked at a lot of hidden bits of history, about scandals and things people even today do not want you talking about. Put the series into a search engine and you find scores of its programmes discussed at length online, examples include the fiasco of HMS Glorious in 1940 (shown 1997), about the Comet aircraft crashes of the 1950s (shown 2002) - provoked lots of controversy, the Charge of the Light Brigade fiasco (shown 2002), Ivarr the Boneless a disabled Viking leader (shown 2003), under-age recruits in the First World War (shown 2004), the so-called 'headless man' in the Duke & Duchess of Argyll's divorce (shown 2004), the story of Mary Seacole the often neglected black nurse in the Crimean War (shown 2005), one on wartime crime in the UK (when everyone now praises how the British all pulled together, in fact crime was soaring). One which became even more relevant was about how the British aerial bombing Iraqi insurgents in northern Iraq (then part of the British Empire) in 1920 with gas, something Saddam Hussein was to repeat 70 years later. Similar bombing in what is now Pakistan in the 1930s gave the RAF a distorted view of how effective aerial bombardment could be as German cities were a lot tougher than Iraqi or Pakistani villages.

Another resource I have been looking for is a long list with little one-page articles about serious strikes and unrest in British history, a lot of which gets forgotten about or pushed under the carpet. I came across it a few years ago: http://libcom.org/tags/world-war-1 is one interesting section about the early 20th century when the UK seemed to be in meltdown. The site does not tell you much about itself but it seems to be focused on labour history and in particular strikes and unrest; they have the anarchist icon of a half-black, half-red star at the top. They are apparently so-called 'Libertarian Communists' which is an impossibility. Communism by definition is based on strictures and constraints whether these stem from the economy, or from societal or political power and the rules they impose. Libertarianism is a right-wing tendency (as Communism is left-wing) and believes in the total freedom of the individual to choose what they want to do, so these two things cancel each other out. Consequently it may be a joke. Alternatively it may be a consequence of the same kind of attitude as the Nazis. 'Nazi' is the contraction of the German words for National Socialist. Again national socialist combines the left-wing element of socialism, with its emphasis on international co-operation and equality whereas nationalism is right-wing and emphasises the distinction of each nation and that some nations are more important and powerful than others. So Libcom sums up a similar contradiction.

Despite their bizarre political approach (and I cannot accept that they use 'working class' but do not tolerate 'middle class' as a term, they say it has no economic basis so is illegitimate, but you could have always said that about the working class which in itself was so economically diverse as to be meaningless), anyway, despite this the articles do not seem to be pushing much propaganda and are a good start for finding out about bits of hidden history. Interestingly they adhere to the guidelines of 'The Guardian' for submitting articles and they seem to be written by people outside the group itself which may explain their quality. It is good to see these kinds of parts of history mention, though I must say that things such as the Liverpool General Strike of 1911 and the Etaples Mutiny of 1917 now get a lot more coverage than they once did and this seems to be one of the wonders of the internet and history teachers looking for something a bit more radical to include in their lessons. The Libcom site lists a lot of events that you can then search for specifically and then turn up the single topic articles that are out there (again often from left-wing radical groups, so bear that in mind as you read) on these topics.

While looking for the Libcom page surprisingly I did find a current Ministry of Defence document about the UK's 'resilience' to such things these days. I do not know if it is the sort of thing they should have freely accessible online by just searching, but maybe it is just another sign of the government's current data security problems! It was written in 2002 so I guess it is probably felt to be out of date. However, if you want to write a novel it might have some good ideas about how the UK expected to resist (I imagine given the date the focus was Islamist terrorism) attacks or internal unrest in the early 2000s. See: http://www.ukresilience.info/upload/assets/www.ukresilience.info/defencecontrib.pdf This turns out to be part of UK Resilience, a body I have never heard of, but is apparently part of the Cabinet Office, that rather odd bit at the centre of government. The website is apparently aimed at 'civil protection practitioners', a job title I have not heard of, maybe it is a career to get into as the site lists all the things the government is currently seeking to scare us with. The homepage is: http://www.ukresilience.info/ Apparently it uses the 'UK government access key system' but unless somehow my computer has been equipped with that, it is currently not working as I am busily wandering around the site (with its wonderful acronyms such as CONOPS - UK Central Government Concept of Operations, apparently). As I say there is always a lot of secret corners out there and sometimes you can accidently shine your light into one. Go and have a look.
There are probably hundreds more corners of history in Britain, let alone across the world which have been forgotten, distorted or concealed. If we persist with faulty history then our perceptions of the present and our expectations for the future are distorted in a way which is unhealthy for our societies.

Heath Ledger: Why?

It appears that the 28-year old US actor Heath Ledger has died of a drugs overdose. I thought we had got beyond that even in Hollywood society and River Phoenix's death in 1993 at the age of 23 was the last of this kind and that they would go through rehab and managed to survive even if dimmed. Clearly that is not the case and there are still so many easily available drugs around that a movie star with a growing reputation could snuff himself out so early. I know Ledger has attracted most attention for 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005) for which he got an Oscar nomination, but I would also point you, if you are doing a deserved reviewing of his filmography look at '10 Things I Hate About You' (1999), a high school adaptation of 'The Taming of the Shrew' by William Shakespeare and probably the best of such adaptations (I am not counting 'Romeo + Juliet' (1996) as it is an interpretation as all the lines are Shakespeare's) and always gets good reviews for a whole range of viewers, in which Ledger plays the quiet but rugged hero of the movie really. A similar part but with him clearly centre stage is in 'A Knight's Tale' (2001) which I thoroughly enjoy. Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer is a treat but Ledger plays the hero's part very well and again it is enjoyable, possibly not high culture, but certainly a cut above a lot of stuff that comes out of Hollywood. It is sad that the cineam going public has been robbed of a rising star that whilst attractive, had a lot more than the good looking boy actors and it is likely that he would have developed into a real draw for any movie he appeared in. Why he had to throw that away for some hours' buzz, I guess we never know if we do not live in that kind of environment. However, I do know we are going to be poorer without him.

P.P. Since I produced this posting it has come to light that Ledger died accidentally from a bad combination of prescription tablets. I am glad that it was not as a result of narcotics use, but it is still a shame that he was in such a situation that he had a need for such a range of medicines and the cause of his death does not alter the loss to cinema that it has resulted in.

The Goths and the Bus Discrimination

It is interesting given what I have been saying recently about Gothic culture and how on the fringes there is some overlap with aspects of sexual fetishes as both aspects came together in a news story today. Dani Graves, a 25-year old male Goth and his fiancee Tasha Maltby, a 19-year old Goth and a student tried to board a bus in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. They were wearing Goth clothing (not that incredibly unusual, though Goths are rarer than they once were, token ones even appear on popular soap operas so few people can be ignorant of them) and crucially Dani was holding a leash connected to Tasha's collar.

Now, this is not an overly common thing among Goths, though it is not unknown. As I have noted before, Goths, though often quite shy people, like to surprise and even shock mundane society. They are also more open about their feelings, especially their passions, whether they are dark or light in tone. They often wear clothing that has sexual overtones, for example leather and corsets. Collars were an element of punk culture of the late 1970s too. The collar and leash use comes from a sexual fetish, dominance & submission, in that one partner has ownership or control of the other and treats them unequally like a possession or a pet. Typically this is done with full consent between two partners. In some relationships one is always the dominant and the other the submissive, sometimes people switch. It may be combined with bondage or sado-masochism. As I have noted before such fetishes, once the realm of secret clubs and the bedroom have been straying more opening into public, being used by the media, especially in advertising and by movie makers. You can go to fetish clubs and see this and just typing such phrases into any search engine will provide you with a range of images and stories to keep you occupied for the next day and night. However, it remains still very edgy in mundane society, especially a small town in Yorkshire, it is hardly central London or Manchester.

The reason why this has got into the newspapers and the radio (and it is interesting to see the response of the 'Daily Mail' seem as the epitome of Conservative, Middle England attitudes, they seem not to know who to censure on this, though it did say 'they live on benefits in a council house' as if they were being subsidised by the state and should have this stopped), is that Dani and Tasha were barred from getting on a bus by the driver who said, 'we don't let freaks and dogs like you on.' Now it is an interesting question to ask whether they were barred for being Goths or fetishists, I guess it was mix of the two, it was outside the driver's understanding and he could not accept it in his sight. Goths are renowned for their non-violence, so it is not that he could have felt threatened. The bus company have come out with some feeble excuse that it was unsafe for Tasha to be leashed, but they never raise that when toddlers wearing reins come on the bus or even real dogs.

Tasha described herself as 'I am a pet, I generally act animal like and I lead a really easy life'. She sees the collar and leash as part of her culture and a free choice that was not harming anyone. I agree with her whole heartedly on those grounds. It is a choice and clearly was consensual. Dani was shoved back by the driver who was actually off duty at the time and natually he has made a complaint against the driver. As Tasha noted it was certainly discrimination, though I would not go as far as her to say it 'almost like a hate crime' but it does signal a slippery slope which does lead to hate crime very easily. I remember Mark Thomas, the comedian-cum-political activist talking about a campaigner for Goth Rights who came on a demonstration he organised. Maybe such a campaign will have to swing into action to protect the right to be a Goth and not be discriminated against for how we dress and what we believe (if I substituted Christian/Muslim/woman for Goth, I think few would argue with me). Wave the black-on-black flag and stand up and say 'I am Goth and proud; Goth Rights Now!'

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Rooksmoor's Guide to Attending Weddings

As regular readers will know, this blog is very much about downloading things from my brain into a more reliable storage space than my memory. To some degree, I have realised it is part of maintaining my identity in the way that I keep a diary and photos of people I have known. As my memory worsens, if you took those things away from me, it would be like erasing me as I am. I could start again but I would be a different person. To some degree this betrays an arrogance, that the identity of me at the moment is worthwhile maintaining in any form, given that many people and identities are wiped out forever on a second-by-second basis. All I can claim in defence is that I am rather attached to my current self and would be rather lost without it.

So, anyway, this brought me to the realisation that one topic I had not covered that was at the centre of every summer for me 1991-2001 is going to weddings. In that period I attended 16 weddings and was invited to 4 more, if I remember correctly, that I could not make it to, one each in Scotland (I was living in London), Germany, Malta and South Africa among them, and given, as I outline below, my income was low, I could not afford the flights to any of these, let alone the accommodation. In terms of presents I set a limit of £30 (€40.20; US$58.50 - the £ is currently sliding against the € and US$ despite financial difficulties especially in the USA) per each one but as much on travelling there as it took (I had no car), which meant I could spend £250+ per summer, at a time when my rent was £300 per month and I earnt £792 (€1069; US1544) per month before tax. The amount I spent on presents did not rise but of course the travel costs did.

In most cultures weddings are big events. A friend of mine attended one in Korea where there was a hall holding about 400 people and the bride changed clothes into 7 different costumes and the groom into 4; the wedding lasted all day. They had traditional Korean and more typically Western rituals as part of the whole process. A French wedding friends of mine attended similarly went on for 12 hours by the time they left. There was a procession around a local lake and lots of bad singing, plus at least two meals. The British tend to do a lot less at weddings, though one I went to had 14 pages to the order of service, two priests and holy communion for Catholics and Anglicans, prayers in English and Latin, lots of hand shaking and the service lasted 90 minutes, wearying for the nine under-5s there, two of whom only spoke German. They do spend a lot of money but it does not really go on anything that obvious to the guests. In the UK like the USA weddings have become an industry (this seems less the case elsewhere in Europe, but if I am wrong let me know) and in my town there seem to be regular wedding fairs advertising the whole range of things from the venue (things took off when in the early 2000s, I think, places like stately homes began to be licenced to have the actual ceremonies at them rather than just the reception), to catering, flowers, dresses, catering, table settings, thank-you scrolls, petals to be spread, hot air balloon to leave in, band/DJ and so on. When I started this long run of wedding attendance (and I had been to a few before, but just family ones) in the UK it was on average £8000 that was spent on weddings, ten years later it was £14,000 (€18,900; US$27,300), now some of that was due to inflation, though that had been a few percent in that time, but a lot of it was the increasing range of items to include. The scale in some cases has grown, the largest one I attended had 143 guests and I was so far from where the speeches were being given that I could not hear what was being said, and the laughter rippled back along the three huge tables of guests as we realised we were supposed to be laughing.

So that is the shape of weddings in the UK today, big unwieldy things which are a minefield in terms of social behaviour. One wedding in Essex and one in Hampshire, I was only invited to the reception as at the time I had the shortest distance to come of all the guests many of whom were coming from abroad. However, it turned out I was the only guest not invited to the ceremony (being single I am often an odd number to fit in) and so on both occasions it looked like I had either deliberately avoided the ceremony or was just negligent and turned up late. If you are going to have some guests only coming for one part, make it a decent number. Us poor guests will have enough to face without such further embarrassment.

Culture can be a big challenge and I have seen this handled well and have seen it handled badly. At a wedding in Coventry there was an Indian and a German getting married and the bulk of their friends were British. In most cases the three groups of guests had no common language. However, the groups were of equal size and large enough that they could function without difficulty or with people sitting on their own with no-one to talk to. The worst handling of cultural issues was at a Scottish wedding in Surrey. The bride's family were Scottish and the groom's English. The whole theme was very Scottish with Scottish music and dancing and all the bride's guests in traditional Scottish garb. The English were not permitted to dress this way as it was seen as fake and so we came in usual wedding clothes, smart suits and dresses. This, however, prevented us from taking part in the Scottish activities, we were not permitted to dance and so on. This even included the groom's family, who embarrassingly were forced to sit on the side. The whole event looked like simply the bride's family absorbing the groom (who was in Scottish clothing) rather than two families coming together. It really soured the event. I went with some other (English) men and gatecrashed another wedding in the same hotel and ironically we actually got a warmer welcome there than we had at the wedding we had been invited to. The organisers (and the bride and groom are usually too busy, so the family members) should really work hard to ensure that no guests feel isolated. People are being thrown together from different backgrounds, so you should at least try to have a reasonable sized group of each.

This element links to another thing, which is, I wish the bride and groom would actually discuss their wedding arrangements. I know that often it is organised by the bride and her mother and female relatives and simply imposed on the groom and the men, but it can be terribly embarrassing when one side does not know what the other side is going to do. I think in the Scottish case this was deliberate spurning, but at a Wiltshire wedding, the bride launched into a speech outlining the wonderful characteristics of the groom in her speech (it is unusual in the UK to have the bride speak, but she had been in amateur dramatics) and then he came up and he had just formal things to say (the groom usually thanks all the people who organised things) and tried to add impromptu compliments to his wife and it came off very badly because he is not good at improvisation and you could feel the whole hall squirming in embarrassment. Not a good situation to put your husband in. They should have talked it over in advance, especially given how well organised the rest of the event was.

Food. Now, weddings can be tiring and hot, sometimes boring. However, people do not get that hungry. They expect food as part of the process (they usually expect free drinks and one of the biggest complaints is when they have to pay at the bar), but people hosting the wedding go far too far. People do not want to sit down to the equivalent of a Christmas dinner in June. However, the caterers advise them (not surprisingly, they are trying to make a profit) to have so many alternatives and so many courses that you get overloaded and it seems a waste. When I was earning only £792 per month, my intention was always to eat at least as much in value as I had spent on the present (which meant occasionally sneaking out chunks of Stilton cheese wrapped in tissues). Generally it is not difficult to do. At a Kent wedding I attended, we had snacks and then sat down to the lunch at 3pm. This lasted over 90 minutes, so we rose from a three-course meal, plus cake, at around 5.30pm. At 7pm the buffet dinner was wheeled in, with mounds of drumsticks as deep as my forearm. No-one could face it. It is not the done thing to run off with food even from a buffet, women are in a better position as they can put it in their handbags but for men you just have to keep going back and eating as much as you can. Wedding organisers (and in the UK, it is still not typical to employ someone to do this, it is usually family members) should realise people cannot eat loads more than usual and in fact often less than they normally would. Have a nice show, but do not overdo it. Have a cake people actually like to eat (a white iced sponge cake was the best wedding cake I ever ate) rather than the heavy fruit, marzipan and icing fortress that is traditional and that few people want more than a nibble of. The most extreme case was a wedding cake topped with a icing replica of the church which the couple kept in their house for years afterwards.

Picking up people at weddings. In my period of greatest wedding attendance I was on the look out for a girlfriend and thought that weddings would be a good place. However, they were just a source of humiliation on that front. Do not believe the movies about getting to kiss the bride's sisters or friends or whoever, it just does not happen, and it is only years later that I realise I was working under an entirely false assumption. Those women who are looking for a partner do not come to weddings alone. Even if they just get a blind date or a friend they come with a man. This does not mean they are not single before or after the wedding, but for the wedding they are with someone. Thus, the women who are on their own at weddings either want to be single (often very aggressively as their backs are put up by the uber-romance of their friend's/relative's wedding) or lack the social skills to find a partner. The number of women I met at weddings that it was clear that even in their 20s and 30s they had no intention of leaving the parental home, was quite surprising. Weddings tend to bring such women out. So, do not bother trying to find dates at a wedding (now funerals are somewhat different, but you should not go beyond 'can I call you?' stage otherwise it seems offensive, but it can be a good starting point). Instead if you are a man, get drunk (or stoned or both; at the Kent wedding I had to load four stoned people into a taxi, having extricated them from various bushes around the hotel so they could catch the last train. Most left at least one item of clothing or their wallet/purse behind), dance madly and eat as much as you can stomach.

Bores at weddings. I have probably now become one of these so it is good I no longer get invited. Partly this goes back to the point about getting groups of guests to interact. Generally people are grouped by age or profession. I tended to get put on tables with other business people and then when I did that volunteering at a primary school sometimes got moved to the table for teachers. In both cases I was patronised by people far more successful than me. I generally in response came out with outrageous suggestions (my favourite one is to suggest that the state starts giving hard drugs police have seized to elderly people for free to make them happy and reduce the burden on the health service; back in the 1990s when there was a glut of butter in Europe the government began dishing it out to old people). A common attitude that people told me at length was that because I was not some wealthy businessman with a huge car that I was somehow a burden on the state. Another common one was that because I was single I had no idea how to wash and clean things (my flat was always immaculate as I do not want to live in squalor and had no-one else bar me messing it up) and must live in a pile of disused pizza boxes. Someone in Kent actually said to me 'oh, you can't know anything about cleaning'.

The worst one of all for patronising attitudes, though came at a wedding in Worcestershire. I had had to travel from London by train at great expense, changing twice and using three different railway companies to get there. I had to leave the wedding before the speeches had even started so that I could catch a bus cross-country to Birmingham (about 35 miles; 56km away) because no train would get me back there to get my connection to get home (I could not afford the hotel charges to stay). A man at my table who had driven from Surrey in his huge car was interested that I had come by train and lectured me throughout the afternoon about how much better it must be now that British Rail had been privatised and broken into separate companies. I told him how complex the journey had been and how much cheaper and easier it would have been with a single company (the connections did not match up, a train would arrive 20 minutes before I arrived to catch it and then there would be no other for 2 hours) and it did not penetrate his brain at all, he so believed in the wonders of Thatcherist privatisation that he literally did not hear anything contrary to that even when I had to leave mid-way through dessert to ever stand a chance of getting home.

I suppose one key issue here is that there is an assumption that you advance in life roughly at the same speed as your friends. By the mid-1990s it was clear that I was well out of step and this is why other guests had so much trouble with me. My income was a third or a quarter of what theirs was. I had no wife not even a partner and I had no young children. I did not work in a profession and I never went on holiday even. They envisaged me as a reckless young (rapidly ageing man) who in some undetermined way was using up their taxes and lived in squalor and so they felt they had to tell me the error of my ways. Of course, I did not like how I was living and constantly tried to change my standing (once I almost got one woman to come to a wedding with me, but at the last moment she changed her mind) and get a better job (applying for on average 125 per year). I might have mixed with an odd crowd as by the 21st century, 95% of my friends were married and I have now only had the second divorce out of that lot in 2007. I mixed increasingly with my brother's friends who for some reason were less attracted to marriage, settling down and getting on, though none of them was starving or doing badly.

Having been 'promoted' to the teachers' table, where the discussion was just alien to me, and my knowledge on general education issues was scoffed at as irrelevant, I tended simply to get ignored. The best guest I was ever put next to, was at a wedding in Berkshire. For some reason I was on a table of gays (who stereotypically were great dancers and loved the disco, demanding 80s stuff the DJ had not played in years) and one lone father. The father was constantly busy talking to people especially the bride's sister who he had been brought by, but who had already moved on to someone else. His daughter who was three sat next to me and proceeded to count everyone's buttons. For her it was a novel experience as she never wore dresses and she enjoyed spinning around in the one she had on. We had fun rhyming things like 'ham' and 'lamb' and she would disappear off to appear between the bride and groom and then back under the tables. I almost choked when she picked up a roll in one hand and a circular pat of butter in the other and proceeded to bite from each in turn, feeling herself looking very grown up. She went back for more butter. It was the first time I had not felt patronised at a wedding.

One final thing before I go, this depends on your own status, but generally, if you are single, the wedding will be the last time you ever see the couple. This has happened to me on so many occasions. The last view I remember of my school friend at his wedding was him standing to speak in a small village in Worcestershire as I rushed out the door (profiteroles in hand) to catch the bus, 11 years ago.

To summarise, weddings seem no less common than in the past, no matter what social class you inhabit. I generally enjoy them because they are usually happy events. However, these days I think I would be more careful, the potential for expense and humiliation are very high as a guest. It is almost like going back to a school reunion, unless you match or have exceeded the achievements of not only the hosts but the other guests, then it is going to be embarrassing. Go to get drunk, go for free food but do not go to find a date. Try to ensure there is at least a small group roughly like yourself (you will band together in defence against the rest) and that you are on the same table as them. So much planning goes into weddings, but little thought seems to be given to the people dragged along to attend it. I guess they are not the focus of the event, but at least people could give some thought to not putting them in awkward situations and the fact that they cannot consume vast quantities of food. Fortunately most people I know (including the gays) are now married, so this will not be a challenge I have to face. However, I hope that some of my pretty extensive experience in this field may help you out.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Was 'Uninvited' the Covert Crossover Goth Hit of 2007?

Despite the fact, that somewhere in the bags of CDs and even cassettes (remember them?) that lurk in corners of my house because I have moved so often there is a copy of 'Jagged Little Pill' by Alanis Morisette (1995) and the builders working opposite the last house I lived in played it repeatedly (I will say nothing bad about builders, but their musical tastes were a little suprising), somehow I had not managed to encounter the track, 'Uninvited' which was released by Morisette in 1998. It was on her fourth album, 'Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie' (1998) which seems to have been far less successful than its predecessor. Maybe it was too long coming and Alanis's window had closed. Maybe I did encounter single and perhaps it just made no lasting impression. She gets a lot of radio coverage still, but this one does not seem to crop up wherever I drive. Thus, when I heard the cover by The Freemasons released in 2007, it was as if I was coming to the track for the first time. It was sung by Bailey Tzuke, probably haunted by the fact that everyone says she is daughter of 1970s ballard singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke (who had a wonderful voice and amazing big hair and may still have, but I have not heard or seen her since a greatest hits collection in the late 1980s). Her voice is similarly suited for wistful tracks as her mother's was, though maybe with maturity (she is only 20) it will gain Judie's strength.

The Freemasons' original cover version was cut down to 3.08 minutes, perfect for radio and yet so edited that it seems to be a natural length. Despite the electro/house backbeat, it is a ballard with the woman concerned analysing the romantic interest of the 'uninvited' person and gradually her feelings towards them, (I assume it is a him), altering from suspicion to consideration. It is nice that it does not move to consummation, but in the space of three minutes with quite a lot of lyrics for a house track, has shown a development in a relationship. The reason that I view it as a crossover Goth hit, is that aside from one track from Evanesence, in the UK nothing from the Goth scene has managed to peak into the mainstream charts even now they have mutated with the impact of downloads allowing album tracks and oldies to come back into the ratings. It managed to reach Number 8 in the UK charts.

Why do I view it as a Goth track? Well, a number of reasons. Goth music tends to be put in the rock category but there is a clear electro/house/dance sub-category of it anyway. Soaring, passionate, female-voiced lyrics with a tendency for introspection but also strength is a basis of a lot of Goth music. This song has that. In addition, the supernatural is a bread-and-butter theme in Goth songs and the 'uninvited' reminds you of a haunting or even vampires who supposedly cannot enter a house uninvited. The lyrics (see below) give a sense of someone from a different culture speaking about love and the 'love like mine before' suggests a timeless or enduring nature of whoever she is addressing, again fitting the ghost/vampire explanation. The words 'stoic' and 'unworthy' hint at the literate language used by Goths with Victorian overtones. Goth songs also are about love and passion in both a physical and a mental/emotional way and this tune emphasises the latter. The story is unresolved by the end of the song, allowing the listener to write their own, probably positive ending, but not doing all the work for you. So, on these bases whether Morisette or the Freemasons envisaged it, they have created a good Goth song that I am pleased to hear and we could do more with.

Like anyone would be
I am flattered by your fascination with me
And like any hot-blooded woman
I have simply wanted an object to crave

But you, you're not allowed
You're uninvited

An unfortunate slight
Must be strangely exciting
To watch the stoic squirm
Must be somewhat heartening
To watch shepherd meet shepherd

But you you're not allowed
You're uninvited

An unfortunate slight
Like any uncharted territory
I must seem greatly intriguing
You speak of my love like
You have experienced love like mine before

But this is not allowed
You're uninvited

An unfortunate slight
I don't think you unworthy
I need a moment to deliberate

Charity Begins At School 2: Some Additional Points

Further to my post of last week, I came across some more interesting figures on private schools and the damage they are doing to education in the UK. This comes from the BBC News website where they point out that whilst private schools take 7% of pupils, they employ 14% of the teachers in the UK, so are 'creaming off' the best teachers from the education system that 93% of the population will go through. These teachers have been trained by the state and increasingly have been given generous bursaries for subjects like mathematics and modern languages. The staff to student ratio in private schools is 1 teacher: 9 pupils, in the state sector it is apparently 1 teacher: 18 pupils, though in fact that usually translates into 1:30 in most classes. In addition more male teachers (and more of them who have more than one degree qualification, i.e. an MA/MSc or a PhD) go into private schools, which you may argue allows women to progress better in the state sector (female teachers earn 7%-22% less than men if they teach in the private sector, depending on the subject area they teach), but at a time when the lack of positive male role models for boys in schools is a clear problem, it might be healthier to keep more of them in the state sector.

Apparently parents who send their children to private schools are complaining they pay twice, once in taxes to the state school system they do not use and once again to the schools directly, so they seem to be expecting some rebate. On the same basis I expect a rebate for the nuclear weapons I do not use or the health care system in Scotland or troops sent to Iraq, none of which I have use for. The arrogance of these parents is stunning, but possibly not surprising.

The only solution I see to the parasitic nature of private schools is to close them down. You need to wipe out their charitable status immediately as they are profit-making businesses. You need to stop them recruiting any more pupils and feed the money saved from the end of their tax breaks improving state schools. With parents who have previously exempted themselves from caring about their local communities by sending their children private, actually now having to pay attention to local state schools we can expect an improvement in the support and resources they receive, though unfortunately in the already prosperous parts of the UK. Scrap private schools now and help the future of the UK and its people.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Countering the View that We All Have the Potential to Learn Everything

At this time of year when people are trying to carry out new year's resolutions you often see advertisments for foreign language courses saying something like 'in just x months you can be speaking y confidently'. The implication is that anyone who buys the course will be able to develop a reasonable grasp of the language. My experiences suggests that that is not at all the case and everyone should tread a little carefully before parting with their money. I have just abandoned my evening classes in Chinese which I have been doing since September. My company has increasing links with various parts of China and it seemed sensible that I learn the language so I could be polite to visitors and not be completely lost if the company sends me out there. I find it challenging to learn alone so signed up for a face-to-face class with an enthusiastic teacher and students. A couple of them were older than me but most were in their 20s and I should have realised I was going to be facing problems when all the older students left throughout the early weeks. However, I will always give things ago and not abandon them quickly.

The reason I have abandoned the course is that a week before the exam my grades have slipped very badly. At first I was getting over 70% which I thought was reasonable given this was a beginners' course. Even when I did the listening comprehension with flu I scored 64%. However, I realise this was just a 'honeymoon period' and this week I was unable to scrape more than 5% in two written exercises (despite having spent hours over last weekend revising this particular aspect) and only got 48% for the oral part (40% is the pass mark). It is clear that I have the capacity for a few words and phrases of Chinese but nothing more. The teacher of course, in line with the usual attitude that if you try hard enough you can succeed. No, that is not true, each of us has mental and physical capacities which we cannot exceed and these deteriorate rapidly after we turn 30. I remember reading a comment in which a man said (bizarrely) that you know when you are still young when if someone wiped out your family you could go to a remote monastery, train in martial arts and come back and avenge them. By the time you pass 30 you are the one who stands on the sidelines as some hero comes in and does the avenging. Unfortunately for me that is what is likely to happen in my company environment now that I know I will never have even a child's grasp of Chinese.

I am not a person to give up easily, but as I look back on my life, it is not so much with a sense of shame, as with growing humility (and maybe a more realistic outlook on my abilities). When my father was at school in the 1950s, if a child was no good at something s/he was told outright. Being educated in the more woolly 1970s there was a step away from that, I think partly with the general move in the UK of schools away from the so-called 11-Plus exam which segregated children for life by ability at the age of 11 (ability was not the only factor, the number of children who got to the higher class 'grammar schools' depended on how many places there were in the district so in one area with many grammar schools you could get in with a much lower mark than you would need in an area with only one grammar school. Given that these schools were often single-sex, there was often also an imbalance for boys and girls) towards the comprehensive school system (which covers the bulk of the country, bar Kent and Buckinghamshire, but is now under attack from more school selection processes). As a result we were all told that we could all achieve anything we wanted. Having that lesson pressed into us from the age of 5 through to even 21 at university, it is difficult to shake, but my life has proven that it was a lie.

So what have I signed up to, to find that I was incapable of getting anywhere:

Aikido, I studied this for 12 years at 4 different clubs each with a different approach because I moved around the country. I saw people achieving black belts after 3 years and for my 12 years of effort what was I? A yellow belt, the one just off the bottom and I have the suspicion that one club just gave that to me because I turned up every week and they felt sorry for me.

Canoeing, I tried canoeing and embarrassment there was quicker as they would not permit me to join the club as I did so badly in the lessons. Again it was portrayed as a sport that all can do and after 6 weeks of almost drowning as I could not lift my head from the water one week and legs covered with bruises it was deemed that I was too much of a hazard (I almost ran over a scuba diver training in the same location) which did not help.

Fencing, I thought well, if I cannot do the intricacies of Aikido maybe something a little more straightforward would be better. I did fencing for 2 years and had reached the level of ability when a woman 20 years older than me could hit me in the same precise spot 6 times out of 10 (causing a very painful bruise on that spot). Again, even people older than me passed me into competing in competitions. Again the sport had suggested that it could be done by anyone with average fitness and I was not seeking to be world champion or even just district champion, but as with Aikido it became apparent that I could not attain a level good enough to function effectively at the club (this is effectively what happened in Chinese, I was so below the ability of the other students that I could not do conversation or pair work exercises with them).

Go, you can see an Oriental theme developing here. I have always been interested by games from around the world, but despite reading about them, generally I am poor at them (the 6-year old son of my housemate is almost at the level he can beat me at chess; he develops his structures too slowly, otherwise he would win, given how easily he puts pins and forks on my pieces). I thought Go would be an interesting, elegant game. One trouble was that in the club most of the members were of high level, one was also a Master (the level below the better-known Grandmaster rank) in chess already and the other players competed at national level. However, you would think that this meant some of them would be good teachers, especially as at least one of them worked for a local university. One week (by fluke it seems) I almost defeated the head of the club, so I was confident that for once I was actually improving. I had been playing at the club for 2 years by then. When I commented to another of the skilled players that I felt that I was actually improving, he said I was deluded, it was just that they had stopped beating me so comprehensively so that I continued to come and pay my club fee, and that in fact I was not better then than when I had first started. Of course, I left.

So, physically and mentally it is clear that I should be very suspicious when anyone advertises anything as being something that anyone can learn. I know that it is in their interests not to be honest about the fact that most people will get nowhere as they need members/students and the money they bring. There are people out there who can do these things. As I have said, I have seen people in a matter of months get to a national level. However, I think these people are rare. I have known people who can grasp languages quickly. In the 1980s I met a (British) man who spoke every language in Eastern Europe and said his Hungarian was poor but them demonstrated his knowledge of poetry rhythms in that language, something the bulk of us could not do even in our own language let alone one were are 'poor' at. He went off to lecture in China. In the 1990s I knew for a time a man (again British which counters my point made in an earlier posting that the British cannot do languages, but maybe these exceptions prove the rule) who taught himself Korean. He bought one of these book-and-CD (in those days it might have still been cassette) kits through the post and proceeded to teach himself Korean. It was interesting that when he got to the cassette for Part 4 (the final section of the course) he found it was identical to the cassette for Part 3 and it was clear that the company had been sending out the wrong cassette for quite a while but clearly no-one had ever got to the final stage to find out the error. He ended up keeping his diary in Korean and the last I heard he had moved to Seoul, had married and had two daughters.

So, there are people out there who can achieve these things, but I think they are a tiny fraction of the UK population. Whilst I would never want to dim the dreams of young people, and I know from friends that poor performance at school does not bar you from success or from picking up subjects later (one issue about sending children to school so early in the UK and making them choose which pathways they want to take at 14 or even 11, is that some people have no idea of their strengths at that age and only find them when they become adults) and the UK is good for adult learning, I do think we need to present a realistic picture of people's abilities to them. It is not healthy to keep saying to people, in a very American way 'you can achieve anything you want to achieve', just look at the USA to see how that is not the case even in the 'Land of Opportunity'.

In particular as is becoming apparent to me, abilities do deteriorate quickly and even if it is accurate to say to a 20-year old that they can achieve big things if they try, this is no longer true at 40, let alone 50 or 60. By the time you reach stage you have to be given the attitude of a woman I worked with who joined a gymnastics club in her mid-20s and they told her bluntly that she would never achieve anything more than she had achieved as a child doing gymnastics. That principle should be emblazoned on every club or course brochure.

Why is it important to have a realistic appreciation of our capabilities and the level they have deteriorated to? It is because 'humility' and 'humiliation' come from the same source. I have learnt that humility this week, that I cannot achieve what a 20-year old student can achieve, but it comes at the price of humiliation and I feel completely useless this week. That is one reason why I blog, to cast off the bits of lead from my life and also hopefully this will be a warning to myself when I am tempted to sign up to a course promising me a new skill.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

The Normality of Violence in UK Schools

One thing about having a housemate who has a 6-year old child is that you get exposed to some of the goings-on in schools today, away from the distortions of the media. Back in the early 2000s I used to volunteer to read in schools to show children that men actually read (seven of us men used to go from our work once per week as all the staff and governors at the school next to the works were female and schoolboys, many of whom had no fathers at home, saw reading just as something that girls and women did), so was aware at least of the happenings in one school, but nowadays I am dependent for any information on UK education for the various media and other sources such as the child in the house. This latter source is revealing quite startling developments in UK education.

As I have said before, I live in a prosperous suburb where people are obssessed by consumption of cars, electrical goods, houses, etc. I have lived in very much poorer areas, notably in East London and Coventry. The crime rate is not very high, even burglaries seem lower than you would expect maybe because it abuts a very wealthy area with presumably much better pickings. I am giving this context to show that it is not a part of the UK where muggings are daily occurrences and there are drive-by shootings on the weekend. A couple of times a year a young person gets stabbed and once per year a middle-aged person gets kicked to death, but that seems typical of most medium-sized towns I pass through as I drive around the UK and pick up local news. What startled me was revelations about how normalised violence in schools seems to have become even in a prosperous area such as my neighbourhood. The boy in question last month was involved in a gang of seven boys who surrounded a girl in a classroom and proceeded to kick her. The cause seems to have been one of the boys, a very charismatic ringleader it seems, being embarrassed because his parents were friendly with the girl's parents and she was often at his house, something a 6-year old regards as uncool. (The whole incident alarmingly resembled a gang rape). This month, my housemate's son decided for seemingly no reason to start biting another boy he was arguing with about switching off a computer. He sunk his teeth in so deep that marks were still visible hours later.

In the UK the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old. Which means that if this boy keeps up such behaviour for another four summers he will soon be off to youth court on charges of assault or ABH (Acutual Bodily Harm) and presumably some kind of detention. Now these incidents happened in a school, in fact a Christian faith school and you do ask what were the teachers doing in terms of monitoring what was happening. The school seems to be so fearful of being sued by one parent or another that it appears to be unwilling to admit any responsibility for anything and accuses parents who try to find out what has happened of improper interference. Surely the school has some responsibility for what happens on its grounds? Can someone with legal knowledge tell me if 'loco parentis' has been removed from teachers? This washing of their hands of such incidents (and I assume there are many more going on given this is just one boy from one class, though he may be exceptional, from the previous incident there seem to be at least six others who behave the same). Primary schools usually have their 'golden rules' emblazoned everywhere around the school, but from what I gather this school does not under some assumption that Christian children do not need such explicit rules about not bullying. Even adult Christians need the word of the Bible interpreted for them often, let alone 6-year olds.

Putting aside the school and its unwillingness to face responsibility, what about the behaviour of the child. Surely someone should be communicating that such violent behaviour is not appropriate anywhere let alone in the school. The child had no explanation for why he did it, so it seems that he regards biting deeply as part of the normal arsenal of things he can use when another child annoys him. I know in London bites by humans on people exceeded bites by dogs on people back in the 1990s, so maybe many people consider it somehow 'normal'. Even if in the school they choose not to refer to normal behaviour in society, or the risks in coming years of police action, as a faith school do they not say something about God watching and noting such behaviour?

What is alarming for UK society as a whole is, if there seems to be no way to stop violence which goes beyond horse play or pushing and pinching, among children in their second year at school (and when did it change to the fact that UK children now start school a year earlier than we did, i.e. at 4 rather than 5? - clearly this is related to the Blair/Brown governments' obsession with targets for pre-school and school-aged children, the teachers have to get them in early to get through it all), then what hope is for when they are teenagers and begin to see carrying a knife as normal. This is clearly where the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor (who was only 10 when he was murdered by other boys) stem from. This is clearly going to be a problem facing the whole UK, wealthy suburbs are not going to exempt. Even religious schools though they are much lauded by the government seem impotent and parents seem to be unable to communicate a sense of how severe such behaviour is. It is alarming at how normal events which should be seen as frightening and unacceptable seem to have become even in a school that seems well-funded and without other major problems.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Removing One 'Wrong' Does Not Automatically Put A 'Right' in its Place

It is always interesting listening to apologists of something who know that general consensus about what they are saying will be hostile so they wrap up their statements in conciliatory phrases especially if they are eating in your house at the time, but then with rather veiled statements proceed to make outrageous statements. In the UK it is not the done thing to say to them 'your views are entirely offensive stop', society requires you smile and admit they have a point. I would support this view, because I heartily support the view that whilst I may disagree with someone they have the right to express any views they choose and if I tried to prevent them then I would be behaving as badly as the views they outline. As noted in a recent post, some will see that as a weakness of the liberal humanist approach, but in fact in line with a comment I saw in a newspaper recently referring to the BNP (British National Party the main UK fascist party) 'given them enough string [i.e. not even rope] and they will hang themselves' as typically bigots show themselves up as stupid and hateful far better themselves that we could ever hope to do.

Now, in this context, I had a white former South African woman in my house last week. She is 28 so was born in 1980 when apartheid was in place but still only a teenager when it finally ended in 1994. Like people interested in the country she has seen the difficulties with crime, violence, poverty and AIDS that have plagued it since and she now argues that many Blacks in South Africa would prefer a return to the apartheid system because it at least had stability. To some degree that is a rather rosy view of the 'stability' of South Africa especially in the 1970s and 1980s with its economy suffering spiralling inflation and heavily armed police riding around beating and shooting people and internicine murders between different Black factions. It is clear that many Whites who grew up during the period were oblivious to the severity of events going on. They say the British had exaggerated information, but it is clear that having a free press we did not have to have exaggerated reports to see how bad the situation was. South Africa had no television broadcasts before 1977 to help keep people in ignorance and even then news was heavily censored. The one incident that they are most suprised to hear about the attack of the extreme AWB against the ANC conference in 1990 which almost triggered a civil war.

Apartheid South Africa was a society divided on racial grounds denying people access to areas and facilities such as schools and hopsitals based on their racial categorisation, something that had only otherwise been seen in Nazi Germany, hardly a good role model. The woman knew I had been in the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which for liberals in the UK was almost assumed and I recognise now I could have been much more active than I was. Anyway, she said to me, had I been to South Africa and I said no (partly because flights there are beyond my income) but I also said because I knew how violent and crime-ridden the country was. She ridiculed me saying well, surely those were the people in control that I had campaigned to liberate. Of course that is a foolish statement but you can see why Whites in South Africa see a direct connection between the end of apartheid and the rise on social problems. This, however, is a very simplistic view and is similar to the difficulties in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is right to campaign against dictatorships but you cannot assume that simply removing them will create peace and democracy; that is actually the harder job than removing the dictatorship and yet it is the one people pay least attention to.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement campaigned not to create a South Africa which was crime-ridden and violent, it aimed for a state which did not have a divisive social and political structure and gave the majority a voice but in the context of freedom for all people no matter what their ethnic background. It also gave people the freedom to be criminals and to be violent in a way that they have that freedom (and use it) in the UK, USA, France and so on. There are some points to note. Democracy does not suddenly manufacture a feasible economy. As in the USSR before its collapse, a distorted economy of the kind which is prevalent in Africa and was also in the Communist state is going to leave certain people in poverty to an even greater extent than they are in the democracies, because the authoritarian state can restrict their movement to find work and to protest against conditions in a way democracies cannot do. So in Russia and South Africa you still have the weak economy from before but people can take action to improve their situation and the easiest way is always to commit a crime. In addition creating democracy does not overnight erase social inequalities and whilst Blacks and Coloureds are now in a position to become prosperous in South Africa, the richest people there are still White as they were in previous decades. This will also take time to change and the Mugabe model in Zimbabwe has proven itself to be the wrong way to go about it.

Democracy itself (let alone a fair society and despite many Americans' views the two are not necessarily linked) takes a long time to establish. In the UK it took centuries and as yet we are still not a truly democratic state as half of our parliament is unelected. In France it took centuries and a bloody revolution. In Germany it took two world wars and the Nazi regime before enduring democracy was established. The USA had a colonial war, a vast civil war, rioting and unrest to even establish its current form of democracy, again taking centuries. So why does anyone think that democracy can really truly be established in South Africa, Russia (which had never even tried democracy before the 1990s), Iraq, Afghanistan in the space of a few years and peacefully, when the bulk of the lauded democracies had to go through decades and decades of bloodshed to get to often quite imperfect democracy now.

It is a human tragedy that when dictatorships end it takes so long to establish some degree of stability, even to reduce the 'normality' of violence to an extent when it becomes exceptional rather than taken for granted. However, this is no excuse to say, well as democracy is so violent and unstable in the first few decades then we should not bother and stick with authoritarian regimes instead. This is like saying a woman should not let the baby out of her womb simply because it is going to be a painful process often needing lots of input from doctors and nurses. When things change you need to look forward. No-one fights to help criminals prosper, they fight for all the ordinary people, the bulk of South Africans and Iraqis who simply want to be able to go work in the morning, feed their families, come home, eat and go to sleep; to not be stopped and checked all the time, not to be arrested with no cause, to disappear, to be tortured or shot. In addition, they would like to be able to shape the government in the direction which fits with their values (though most people are quite happy if it just leaves them alone) and to be able to protest freely when things upset them. These are the people that anyone opposing a dictatorship is campaigning for. Yet, everyone, especially governments must remember, that taking away the dictatorship is not the end of the process rather it is just the brief introduction to a process that will stretch over the following decades.

Online Steampunk Resources: 'The Heliograph' and 'Gothic Steam Phantastic'

Following a recent posting on this blog by MCG, I followed his link and it took me to a wonderful steampunk magazine: 'The Heliograph' which was produced for a number of editions in 1996. I recommend you take a look as it has some wonderful steampunk images and fascinating short stories for passing the time when you are in a steampunk frame-of-mind in front of your computer. The link is: http://www.sottisier.co.uk/heliograph/index.php

P.P. Since posting this link, I have come across another resource entitled 'The Heliograph' (making the third one I have heard of with that name, the other being a magazine about wargaming colonial era wars) which is the title of a blog which covers a whole range of steampunk themes as well as information about actual Victorian history for useful reference and has loads of interesting links to follow up. A lot of it is about a steampunk community in Second Life making my inability to get my avatar in there in any decent shape and particularly in the Goth lord with steampunk gear that I wanted, even more frustrating. Anyway its URL is: http://voyagesofdrfabre.blogspot.com/

While discussing online steampunk resources can I suggest you also have a look at Gothic Steam Phantastic which is a forum for discussion about steampunk and is a good place for references to ideas, books, films, etc. in the steampunk genre. It seems to be run by Dutch and German fans but the bulk of postings are in English. My 'The Grey Commission' was first posted there and there is occasional short fiction located there. The link is: http://www.xs4all.nl/~vanip/gsp/gspindex.htm

While I am thinking about such things you may also enjoy 'Transactions of the Royal Martian Geographical Society' which was produced 1991-2000 in support of the role-playing game 'Space 1889'. It envisaged Victorian explorers of the solar system with imperial battles transposed to Mars. There are editions available online in a wonderful style reminiscent of 'The First Men in the Moon' by H.G. Wells (1901). It can be found at the following link: http://www.heliograph.com/trmgs/ The company which produced this now concentrates on 'Zeppelin Age' which is a proposed role-playing game set in the 1920s and 1930s but where airships have been more successful, what I might term 'bakelitepunk'. This link is: http://www.heliograph.com/zeppelinage/

I have just encountered Brass Goggles which bills itself as a looking at 'the lighter side of Steampunk'. It has a good watching brief on examples of steampunk in our modern day culture in visual, video and written media, plus events, from the UK, USA, Europe and farther afield and has wonderful images which may inspire your own steampunk activities. See: http://www.brassgoggles.co.uk/brassgoggles/

I came across another slightly different one which envisages superheros appearing on Earth in the 1880s and distorting the history of the world as we know it in terms of countries, technology, etc. as viewed from the alternate 1994. It is called 'Overman 1994' and was apparently inspired by a rather steampunk story which ran as a serial as part of 'The Two Ronnies' comedy show: http://www.wolfram.demon.co.uk/rp_ch_om_1995_top.html#tl

Another resource supporting a game is the Castle Falkenstein site. It has a lot of interesting resources about things like aerial, land and air vehicles, wars, countries, secret societies, currency, medals and the role of women in a Victorian alternate world setting of 1870, apparently for a role-playing game of the same name, which I must confess I had never encountered. I was interested to find that a character from the CSA I am using in a story I am writing is also listed here. Lots of interest and inspiration for steampunk fiction: http://www.asmrb.org/michaelb/FalkIndex.html

P.P.P. - 22/02/2009. The Gothic Phantastic site seems to be a little moribund these days, but a more vigorous steampunk website is The Smoking Lounge, which appears to be associated with a journal too. It has discussion boards of the kind of the Gothic Phatastic site has about all sorts of steampunk media and culture: http://www.ottens.co.uk/lounge/index.php

Charity Begins at School

One recent government announcement I welcomed is the review of the charitable status granted to private schools. It seems odd that profit-making bodies which charge fees so hight that only wealthy people can afford to send their children to them get charitable status in the UK which means they get tax breaks which saves them millions of pounds per year. They trumpet their academic success, but it is unsurprising when they have such high staff to student ratios; most children would benefit from having greater time in class with their teacher. In the average school lesson of 45 minutes, with the common class of 30 pupils, each pupil will have an equivalent of 1.3 minutes with the teacher, if you take out the time it takes for them to come in and settle down. Every time another pupil is disruptive they effectively steal this time from their fellow pupils as the teacher has to take out time from teaching to deal with it. Of course typically pupils are taught together, but with smaller class sizes in private schools each pupil is far more liable to get individual attention and their education will benefit. As I have noted in previous postings pupils from richer families benefit educationally even when they are in the public sector let alone when in schools with a selected intake.

Whilst I sympathise with the argument that the UK should have no private schools and certainly no 'public' schools (as in the weird UK definition, i.e. elite private schools, as opposed to state schools which are free and open to the public), you can argue that if someone wants to set up a business teaching people they should be free to do so. The difficulty for private schools is the buying power of the middle class has fallen. If civil servants and teachers had as much buying power as they did in the 1950s they would be annually earning over £80,000 (US$157,600; €111,200) whereas they earn around £25-30,000 per year. This means it is difficult for private schools to charge high enough fees to fund the number of staff they want because otherwise they would lose many of their middle class clients who in many cases are the bulk of the parents using some of these schools. This is why financially they have to retain charitable status. Many grant scholarships and open up their facilities to neighbouring communities, but that is the least that should be expected, as the bulk of us pay for state schools through our taxes and are also paying for private schools through charitable status tax breaks even though our children will never get the chance to go to the school let alone be a pupil at it.

Allowing the private school sector to contract from its current standing (2500 private schools in the UK taking 6-7% of school-aged children) would benefit education as a whole across the UK. The schools do not have to teach the National Curriculum which means that the pupils often miss out on in particular the social education which is important in making the pupils tolerant and open-minded, something which is important to have among the people who will make up our elites in the decades to come. Secondly, money saved from not granting all these tax breaks could be channelled into improving schools and their buildings and paying state sector teachers decent salaries. Many schools are suffering from decaying buildings and over-crowded classrooms, partly because money is being siphoned off to grant tax breaks to private schools. A third benefit is that it would make comparatively well-off middle class parents send their children into the state sector and with it bring funds and support for many ordinary schools which will benefit them. The top echelons of the middle class do not care about ordinary state schools or how far they decay because they exempt themselves from that system; they are rich and articulate so can turn their strengths into these ordinary schools. In addition, their children will mix with ordinary people which hopefully will begin to break down the barriers in our society which are painfully harsh; maybe the rich children will despise the ordinary ones, but the ordinary pupils will see that the elites are in fact just human like themselves. It would also provide a more level playing field for ordinary pupils as those pupils who otherwise would have gone to private schools would have to work for their education and their qualifications rather than being led through it by one-on-one tuition in their small classes.

Thus, I urge the government to strip all private schools and certainly all public schools, of charitable status immediately. The collapse of the private education sector cannot come about fast enough (I imagine many private schools will find ways of wriggling out of it, but even if we lose 30-40% it will begin to help change occur) if we are going to achieve a truly well-educated and less socially-divided UK.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

How Does Liberal Humanism Survive in the Age of Fundamental 'Truths'?

This might seem overly philosophical and to some extent represents the fact that my brain seemed to wake up after falling into disuse over the weekend. I thought of a lot of things to blog, but given my poor memory have forgotten most of them, bar this one, but I hope they will come back to mind, probably when I am driving down the motorway and can do nothing about it. Recently at the company I work for I was interviewed by a woman and the only recording device she had was her mobile phone. The first time I have seen an hour's recording captured that way. Anyway, today's posting was prompted by a review in 'The Guardian' newspaper on Saturday of 'The History Man' by Malcolm Bradbury (1975; TV series 1981 - I actually sat behind the author once in a cinema, a nice man, appeared very much as you would expect). A lot of the review was about the economical writing of the book and the focus on the outward perception of things rather than any concern for inner thoughts. However, the part that provoked my thinking was the novel's exploration of the weakness of liberal humanism with, to quote, 'its built-in tolreance and self-doubt' in the face of 'those convinced they have a monopoly of the truth'. When it was written Marxism (represented in the book by the 'hero' Howard Kirk, a university lecturer in sociology) seemed to be the prime source of those who felt they had the monopoly on the truth. Soon after though came two more sources to eclipse the Marxists - the New Right and Religious Fundamentalists. These are the two broad groups who seem to challenge liberal humanism today.

Now, I know for US readers anything called 'liberal' seems dirty, sordid, corrupt even. The USA is the only country in the English-speaking world where you can insult someone by calling them a liberal, maybe because they have more of the truth monopolists of both the New Right and the Religious Fundamentalist categories than anywhere else. For the rest of us, liberal humanism is what marks out life in the early 21st century from that of the early 20th century. It seeks to protect us from the random nature of life which can lay low even the most wealthy and wreck the lives of anyone else less rich. In particular it encourages us to have a 'safety net' for people made vulnerable through disease, poverty, old age, war, ignorance, bigotry and so on. It also tries to stop the spread of violence, corruption, narcotics, etc. reducing us all to barbarians. It makes war seem like something to avoid and embrace instead getting along with people and respecting them. Of course it is a constant battle and one that in many parts of the World is being lost, but that does not mean there is any reason to give up the fight.

People may argue that liberal humanism appeared at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, but it has been around lurking in the background for many millenia. In Ancient Rome you had slavery and gladiatorial fights but you also had the chance for manumission and the grain 'dole'. In the Middle Ages there was constant warring and narrow-minded attitudes and persecution from churches but there was also alms-giving, hospitals and concepts of chivalry (however idealised they may have been) that sought to dissuade people from abusing the poor, slaughtering prisoners and raping women.

Yes, liberal humanism does embrace self-doubt and tolerance. If it did not embrace tolerance then it could not exist, it would not embrace humans and humanity in all of its diversity. To have any feeling for humans obliges you to be tolerant. As to self-doubt, I would argue that it is not really doubt, rather it is self-questioning and self-verifying. You may argue then how does it verify that what it is doing is correct, and certainly approaches can be contested. However, surely it is better to actually seek to verify your actions rather than steam ahead dogmatically. In addition, the truth monopolists are not free from doubt and in fact are often fearful of defeat, part of the motive for driving them on. Take one example, the Nazi regime in Germany. The Nazis argued their empire would last 1000 years, yet on the other hand they were so fearful of the Jews that they felt they had to wipe them out. Yet, in turn, they thought the Jews were weak compared to the Aryan race and corrupt, so you might ask them 'why do you fear these people if they are so weak compared to you?' Thus, to say that fundamentalism lacks self-doubt is wrong. Every revolutionary body or fundamentalist religious group has a tendency to fragment which may show confidence in oneself, but doubt in the self of the broader grouping as it previously existed.

Liberal humanism is certainly under threat, possibly because it is hard to sell the necessary positive image when there seem to so many fears. The threat of nuclear war which it seemed able to address has now been replaced by the threat of terrorism (though of course it has been around for decades, it has just started to be used in a much more aggressive way as a threat) and ironically environmental damage which requires liberal humanism to effectively address. The fact that liberal humanism is still alive at all, reflects the huge leap in communications of the past two decades. Without the internet I imagine we would be living in much more authoritarian times. It is no wonder that dictatorships such as China and Singapore (until it found it was too expensive to continue doing) censor their people's access to the internet. The shift of the post-war consensus, notable in the UK towards the so-called Thatcher Consensus, but common across the Western world with the rise of the New Right in the 1980s matched by similar rise of authoritarian attitudes in many Muslim states made it easier to make the step to the next stage in the 2000s which is a rapid erosion of civil liberties, ironically in the name of protecting freedom in the face of comparatively small threats which have been exacerbated by bigoted, aggressive moves in the first place. In this world it is now normal to accept detention without trial for a month or even years (once you reach Guantanamo Bay), the use of torture by even low-level soldiers, invasion of countries to secure resources, greater control of movement of people and a general sustained hysteria.

How can liberal humanism survive? To some extent by becoming devout. It might seem weird to say 'yes, I am a devout liberal humanist'. Whatever people might say, in fact that is not contradictory with saying 'I am also a Christian/a Muslim/American'. All gods love the people they oversee so any worshipper should love humans too. Religions and the American constitution tend to praise mercy and respect for people and it is there in the Bible, Koran, Torah, US Constitution if you look no matter what people might tell you. The key thing is to see what the key tenets are of liberal humanism. They are few and are easily applicable in many circumstances, it is just that all decent people have to keep saying them loud and proud. The key aspect is to treat people like people. Even to treat people like animals in this age of increased rights for animals, would be a step up in many places in the World. Do not torture, do not detain without charge, do not make people homeless, do not deny them drugs you can afford to give them, do not deny them food you throw away in vast quantities, do not kill or harm someone because they look different from you or follow a different view, let people meet, let people speak, let people travel. Everything we expect for ourselves is the minimum we should allow others.

I passed two postcards in people's windows over the past few months. One showed a refugee family behind a barbed wire fence, with the text explaining how they had fled to the country portrayed to escape repression only to step into repression. The other showed the Statue of Liberty against the Stars and Stripes, and said that the USA that person believes in would never torture people. Liberal humanism is not weak and people need to see that. It is a far better counter to fear and danger than any amount of repression and authoritarian attitudes. What will destroy it is people believing it has no tenets and that it is already dead. The bulk of you know what the World needs because for most people it is what they, as a human like all the rest of us, needs.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

How do you Kill a Vampire in the 21st Century?

This is a bit of a continuation of the previous posting and covers some thoughts about the changing aesthetic of the portrayal of vampires in media. I feel that I should be addressing more serious content, but I have to confess that I am exhausted. I have been in bed by 20.00 all this week and yet the return to work has been much more of a burden than I had anticipated and is really taking a physical toll on me. Consequently despite having lots of ideas for posts I am really lacking the mental energy to articulate them properly and the physical energy to stay up and type them into the blog. This is a pity as having steamed ahead with many of my writing projects over the Christmas period I had hoped to be able to continue that momentum now, but I suppose that is the price one pays for getting old.

So, today's posting is nothing very erudite, but when I was thinking about how the fashions associated with vampires had changed, reflecting shifts and interests within contemporary society, I also thought about how vampires are shown to be destroyed in movies, books and games has changed too. Partly this is because vampires since the 1990s have shifted from purely horror movies really into the action genre and consequently there is a desire to be able to blast away at them with excessive amounts of ammunition and yet ultimately be able to kill them. Even when guns are not used, as in the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' series (1997-2003), there is much more martial arts involved before Buffy can shove her stake into the vampire's heart. In addition, typically the vampire dissolves very quickly into dust rather than dying slowly and in a way that they can be resurrected for the next movie.

The ability to resurrect a seemingly destroyed vampire is an interesting one.  In movies in which the stake simply keeps the vampire dead, of course, it can be later removed and the vampire can come back to 'life'.  I am trying to think of a movie in which I have seen this happen.  These days vampires usually dissolve dramatically into a shower of blood or ash.  Interestingly in 'Ultraviolet' this ash is collected up and then stored in a chilled repository.  However, in the final episode the dust of a vampire (played by Stephen Moyer who apparently plays the lead vampire in 'True Blood') is brought back into existence by pouring the blood of another vampire on him.  What is fascinating is that his clothes are perfectly restored too, probably a good thing as he is on a bridge in London at the time and runs off into the streets.

In recent tradition, vampires are killed by exposure to sunlight or having a stake driven through their hearts. In addition if their 'sire', the vampire who made them a vampire is killed, they may die or return to being a human.  This is what happens at the end of 'The Lost Boys' (1987) when the grandfather literally drives a vast stake into the chief vampire. Destroying the coffin in which the vampire is supposed to sleep (and often contains earth from where they were conceived) is another way. Vampires are generally thought to be able to be burned by fire and also die if they have their heads chopped off. They also suffer damage from having holy water thrown over them and are repelled by crucifixes and by garlic. The probable reason for garlic being a factor is that it is good for improving people's blood circulation and there is an association between vampires and coagulating blood. Flowing water can either repel or damage a vampire depending on the story.

To some degree the shift in killing them comes from a move from the portrayal of vampirism as something spiritually evil or inherent in a vampire to something more like a disease that potentially anyone can catch. There are some exceptions to this. In 'Dance of the Vampires' (1967; known as 'The Fearless Vampire Killers' in the USA) there is a Jewish vampire not repelled by a crucifix.

The long-running UK science fiction series, 'Doctor Who' has had a couple of vampire stories. In November 1980 there was the 4-part 'State of Decay', with Tom Baker as the Doctor, in which there are ordinary vampires and Great Vampires, an alien race from E-Space. Once the last Great Vampire has a spaceship rammed through his heart all the others die. However, a more interesting twist came in the series in 1988 in 'The Curse of Fenric' which features alien 'haemovores' (literally blood eaters) in North-East England in 1943. The so-called Ancient Haemovores come from Earth's future when the planet has been wrecked by pollution. They transform humans into standard haemovores. In contrast to other vampires they can operate during daylight (or certainly as grey as the light is in Northumberland) but they are immune to bullets. However, they are not immune to faith, but not necessarily just Christian faith and a Soviet soldier who is one of a number at the base where the haemovores appears, manages to destroy one through his faith in Soviet Communism and the Doctor himself uses his faith in his past companions to do likewise; the vicar like the priest in 'From Dusk to Dawn' is impotent because he has lost his faith, in this story because of the inhumanity of the war. So, there are occasionally slightly different methods, but even the newest of these is now 20 years old and pre-dates the growth of Matrix-influenced vampire movies.

Stakes through the heart still seem to work, though in 'Lifeforce' (1985) and another movie I saw that I cannot remember the name of, it is the solar plexus, which many people, such as those who study tai-chi see as the source of human energy, that has to be the target for it to work. Possibly this is because vampires are supposed to have no pulse so there is doubt whether their hearts would be working.

So, what other ways are vampires killed in modern day stories? Many in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' seem able to knock away crucifixes even if they burn them, suggesting only a very large one would do them serious harm. Many even run around in daylight, simply smoking as they are exposed and able to deflect that by covering themselves in blankets, though sustained exposure will kill them. The most extreme example of this is in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003) movie in which Mina Harker a vampire, is shown standing in brilliant sunlight sunning herself on the deck of the 'Nautilus'. We never find out what can kill her, she seems to be very powerful, leaping up buildings and turning into a flock of bats when running around Venice.

The issue of immunity to sunlight same seems to apply to some extent in 'Underworld' (2003) though in the unnamed East European city it is set in (one guesses it is Hungarian) there rarely seems to be much daylight anyway. Instead, the werewolves against whom the vampires battle fire bullets containing ultra-violet light sources in them which is like sunlight exposure from the inside out. Artificial light sources are used in 'Blade II' (2002) and in a steampunk way in 19th-century set 'Van Helsing' (2004) (which, to balance back the other way, also permits holy water to harm vampires).

The nature of bullets which harm vampires is an interesting point. Generally the standard lead ones inflict no damage. Interestingly in the UK television series 'Ultraviolet' (1998, not to be confused with recent movies and games) saw the unit opposing vampires firing carbon bullets (there is a mention of wooden bullets being used previously). The sense here is that carbon is the basis of organic chemistry; organic effectively implying 'life' and so life as opposed to death or undeath of vampires. In addition, in fact, a wooden stake really is just a big carbon-based bullet. More controversial is in the 'Blade' series in which it is silver which is said to harm vampires. Everyone knows it is werewolves that are harmed by silver (its similarity in appearance to the Moon); though in 'Underworld' it simply burns and stops the transformation of werewolves. Consequently, the vampires have to use silver nitrate, a form of silver that is liquid at room temperature which kills the werewolves by harming their blood circulation.

Given the connection with blood and perception of vampirism as a disease, there are medical approaches to quelling it. In 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992) and 'Blade', characters see through the microscope how the balance of red and white blood cells change in vampires making them need blood to survive. In 'Near Dark' (1987) two characters are cured from being vampires by blood transfusions and in 'Blade' the hero is supplied with an intense anti-coagulant which causes vampires to expand in seconds and burst dramatically. In fact, you would think it would be the reverse and something that stopped blood flow would harm them more.  However, the vampires simply kind of suffocating would be less visually dramatic than their bloody explosions.

Water, bar in the game 'BloodRayne' recently mentioned here, no longer seems to do any damage. Though in some traditions vampires cannot pass flowing water let alone go into it. However, in narrative terms this restricts them even further than sunlight, not allowing them out of the average Romanian village. In 'From Dusk til Dawn', holy water works when the priest recovers his faith which he does supririsingly easily. It shows why (holy) water is less popular as a weapon against vampires in movies as I guess it would remove the drama if we saw vampires being levelled by people with water pistols, power showers and hosepipes. A lot of action movies need the hero to act with ingenuity and anything too simple would undermine that.

As noted above, the villain has to be destroyable, but not too easily. It is interesting in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', when Dracula appeared, he proved to be basically indestructable and it was only through the heroine showing him how tiresome it would be for him to keep rematerialising and being killed again and again that he effectively gave up. Vampires are renowned for taking many forms, usually bats of different sizes, sometimes wolves and occasionally as clouds, but that does through up the issue of what happens if when in that form someone simply sucked them into a vacuum cleaner or dispersed them with a fan or something; probably why that form of manifestation is no longer common.

Another issue is reflections. Again, this partly stems for vampires being seen as effectively dead and so deemed not to have reflections. There is a great scene in 'Van Helsing' in which the heroine sees in a mirror that she is the only human in the crowded ballroom. Other movies do not worry so much about this aspect as it does seem a bit strange that somehow plain glass reacts differently to the light bouncing off vampires compared to that coming off humans, animals and in fact almost everything in the world. Maybe the suggestion is that the vampires absorb the light. In the UK children's televisions series, 'Young Dracula' (2007-2008), Dracula can only see his own reflection when he is actually inhabiting the body of Van Helsing. The most extreme example of no reflections is in the 'Ultraviolet' series.  In it vampires cannot even be captured by audio or video recording devices meaning they are invisible to cameras and have to use artificially created voices when they want to telephone people.

It is interesting to see the different rules which apply to vampires in current media and how vampires are becoming more robust, with fewer weaknesses than they once would have had. This reflects the desire of writers to have strong opponents and ones who can stray much farther afield than down from the castle to the local village. I am sure there will be many more twists and re-interpretations in the coming years. I recognise I have only seen a fraction of the relevant movies and very few books, so it would be great to know other different examples of how to kill vampires that you have seen.

P.P. 04/10/2009
With the unending supply of vampire series appearing there seems to be weekly new examples of how vampires can be killed or not. Not having much time or the patience for reading these my input is mainly from television and movies. 'Twilight' (2008) shows vampires sweating in a gleaming crystalline way when standing in bright sunlight, but not burning up. In fact the 'Twilight' the vampires are probably the hardest to kill of all of these movies and series, as, to destroy them both in the book and the movie, you have to rip them 'to shreds' and burn the pieces because otherwise these pieces can reassemble.

Having re-watched 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992) recently I was reminded that even the original Dracula was immune to daylight, though he was weakened. I remind the woman in my house of this when she complains that vampires should burn up rapidly in daylight as they sometimes do in 'Blade' and certainly in 'Ultraviolet'. This point is questioned even on the IMDB entry for the 1992 movie, but as that was very close to the original novel, it seems what Bram Stoker intended and certainly overcomes the difficulties of writing vampires to be so vulnerable.

I have started watching 'Moonlight' (2007-8) series which, despite the title, is about vampires rather than werewolves. It is interesting to note it stars Sophia Myles who played vampire Erika in 'Underworld' (2003), but this time as a human, Beth Turner, a television reporter. She teams up with vampire private detective, Mick St. John. In this series vampires can walk in daylight (if wearing sunglasses) but bright sunlight weakens them steadily. Silver simply paralyses them rather than kills them. I have not seen many episodes but generally the only way to kill vampires is to behead them or blow them up. Interestingly in this series, vampires images could not be captured by traditional celluloid photography but can be caught by digital photography which is a variation on the rules in 'Ultraviolet', though when that series was produced digital photography had not yet become common.

I watched the entire series of 'Blood Ties' (2007; series 2 about to be released on DVD) which is set in Canada rather than the USA. In some ways the set up is similar to 'Moonlight', though in this the heroine Vicki Nelson is the private detective and Henry Fitzoy, (Duke of Richmond and illegitimate son of King Henry VIII) is a vampire graphic novelist who assists her. In this story vampires are 'dead' during daylight hours and will burn up if exposed to sunlight. There is also a device called an 'Iluminación del Sol' (Illumination of the Sun) which is a flat circular metal object from which extend claws that dig into a vampire, weaken them and allow them to be controlled by whoever put the device on them. In this series most of those who are killed are other creatures from different mythologies as diverse as Amerindian and Greek, so we see a variety of ways of killing these creatures rather than vampires.

The acclaimed series 'True Blood' has come to the UK on a pretty obscure channel that I cannot receive but is due to move on to Channel 4 which I can get. As yet I do not know what vampires can be killed with in this series, so I will check back here with a discussion of it when I know.

P.P. 04/06/2011
I have now watched three series of 'True Blood'.  There are a couple of interesting ways to harm/kill vampires in the story.  Silver burns and in sufficient quantities paralyses vampires without killing them.  At one stage a vampire is threatened with being locked in a silver coffin for five years as punishment for killing another vampire.  The prime way to kill vampires is to ram a wooden stake through their hearts at which stage they inconveniently turn into sticky strands of blood occupying as much space as their bodies did rather than the easier to clean up dust of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'.  The vampires are harmed by sunlight which steadily burns them though does not kill them instantly.  In both the first and the third series various vampires are out in the sunlight being burnt but are able to recover after a good meal of blood.  In the first series a small group of vampires are destroyed by fire when the house they are sleeping in is torched.