Sunday, 29 June 2008

Where Did UK Veterans' Day Suddenly Come From?

I was quite surprised on Friday (27th June) to find that in my diary it had been designated Veterans' Day (UK). No-one seems to know why that day had been picked (the US Veterans' Day is 11th November which is Armistice Day in the UK and Remembrance Day across much of Europe; the UK Remembrance Day is on the nearest Sunday following Armistice Day; in Germany it is on 15th November). It was the day in 1746 when Flora MacDonald helped Charles, the Stuart pretender to the English throne escape and the day in 1940 when USSR invaded Romania and in 1941 when Hungary declared war on the USSR; in 1974 President Richard Nixon arrived in Moscow for historic talks with Nikolai Brezhnev. So not really a day of great British success or conflict. On a more UK note it is the day Tony Benn in 1999 announced his retirement and British actor Hugh Grant was arrested in 1995. It may be supposed to be the last Friday in June, but why have we suddenly got a Veterans' Day anyway? We have Remembrance Day and that has become taken more seriously since the mid-1990s. It is now marked on the actual 11th November with a silence on public transport, in shops and in schools and things, something that was done in continental Europe, notably France and Belgium, but until the mid-1990s everything was reserved for the nearest Sunday, Remembrance Sunday.

Veterans' Day is different, it seems. I was alarmed as unknown to me it was another step that I noted in the UK's path to a police state to begin celebrating militarism to a greater extent. Veterans' Day is about combatants who are still alive. It has been taken right from the USA as 'veteran' in the UK has never been a term associated with soldiers, it is more typically used as a term referring to cars from the early 20th century. The UK government seems compelled not only to ape US foreign policy but also its cultural policies too.

Clearly I do not read the right newspapers to pick up on such developments as Veterans' Day because I had seen nothing about it until it appeared last week, though clearly it had been scheduled last year when the 2008 diaries were being printed. Perhaps they are sneaking it in quietly so that it does not face challenges. The only event I heard about on the radio was that 6 police officers in Hampshire who had formerly been soldiers had been awarded commemorative medals, they were picked at random. Hampshire is a very militarised county it has Aldershot at the North end of the county, a major Army centre in southern England and there are 5 regiments based at Winchester in Central Hampshire and it also has a lot of connections with the Navy too through Portsmouth. So if there were no marking events there I doubt there would be any elsewhere. This of course might change in the coming years.

What is this Veterans Day about? Well, earlier in the year the government said it wanted to raise the profile of the military in British society. Britain has always been a very militarised society and soldiers are highly respected, though in recent years young men have also seen them as an easy target for attacking too as a kind of challenge. As a result wearing uniforms in public has fallen away but is now being actively encouraged. The key thing is that Britain has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003 and the steady rate of deaths in both countries as well as in locations like Kosovo constantly need replacing. The Territorial Army which is the part-time force is really being used all the time now as a reserve force with many units serving long periods outside the UK. If the UK wants to sustain its military involvement across the world, then it has to keep up its level of recruiting. Unemployment has been low for many years now, so young men and, increasingly, women are not being driven into the armed forces in the way they have been in previous decades by economic pressure. Of course making higher education inaccessible to working and lower middle class people will help boost recruitment and I imagine soon we will see an increase in military scholarships.

So, given that young men are attacking soldiers rather than wanting to join them, the government has decided to adopt this proactive approach, however softly they start it. It also fits in with the steps that are being taken towards a police state by bringing more of the population into uniform and raising their status amongst the populous. This helps establish an attitude of deference to authority which the government fears is lacking especially among young males with whom it has had particular issues and who have been the main target of ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders). More uniforms on the streets also cows people from protesting or 'causing trouble', so it is a natural development; another step down the path the UK is taking to an authoritarian state.

How do you really respect military personnel? Not by giving them some made up day seemingly picked at random, but actually supplying them with decent equipment and support so that they are not so easily killed as they are being in both Afghanistan and Iraq, not only by fire but through accidents. I have no issue respecting the military, but I think there is an issue about how they are used, the way they have been used in authoritarian states before, to represent the government and its strength; to intimidate people, however implicitly, through their presence. No case has been made publicly for having a Veterans' Day. Its name seems out of step with UK terminology and it seems to have been sneaked in without discussion about what it is supposed to achieve. If there was genuine support for such a day, then surely the government could have done it with more pride and arranging proper events. This is why I am very suspicious that it has very little to do with serving service people and more to do with the government's continuing attempts to suppress liberty in UK society.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

When Counter-Factual Becomes Controversial

It is a rare event when people playing around with counter-factual, what if? history provoke much interest in the popular media. To some extent this is because it often needs at least a decent knowledge of the real history to understand the divergence. This was why the movie 'Fatherland' (1994) which envisaged a Europe in which the Nazis won the Second World War went straight to video in the USA and similarly, 'C.S.A. - The Confederate States of America' (2004) disappeared without a trace in the UK, I cannot even find it in DVD stores. So counter-factuals in the popular media tend to attract only limited interest among the small, if not insignificant fans of such fiction and movies, who are often into science fiction too, so are semi-marginal to mainstream culture. It is rare that much interest is evoked.

A few years ago, probably around the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, I read an article, I believe in the 'Daily Mail', a very populist-nationalist UK newspaper I tend to avoid, but anyway it had an article written as if reporting the news for that day in 1995 in a world where the UK had been defeated by Nazi Germany and the leading members of the Royal Family had Germanicised names and so on. No-one asked how they dare do that, it was taken as a bit of fun and a reminder of what could have happened and why we should remember to be grateful for those who had fought and died 1939-45.

When I was growing up I remember an advert in the early 1980s which showed the UK's flag, the so-called Union Jack, but with the corner quarter with a hammer-and-sickle on a red background so making it appear that the UK had become one of the states of USSR (all the Soviet republics, places like Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Estonia, etc. all had their own flags with a hammer-and-sickle but with different symbols as well presumably to be flown at cross-USSR events). It was challenging, but no-one kicked up a fuss about it. Being a young counter-factualist I cut it out and kept it, I should have held on to it until the age of scanning as I can find no example of it online, so had to make my own one which you can see below as an illustration.

Whilst searching for this I did find a US version probably making a similar point. Anyway, this was released as an advertising campaign at the height of the Cold War (the period 1979-85 is often called the Second Cold War as it followed an era of detente), when most of us thought there would be a Third World War and many Britons anticipated a Soviet invasion, but there were no calls to ban the advert or boycott the company. People accepted it for what it was, an advertisement and something thought provoking. There was even a TV series called 'Comrade Dad' (I think 1986) where the Soviets had invaded sealing all the UK leaders in their nuclear bunkers and setting up a Soviet state in the UK.

Flag of the Soviet Republic of the British Isles (c. 1983)

Flag of the USSA?

However, a counter-factual advertising campaign by the Swedish company Absolut, who makes spirits, notably vodka, has triggered a mass of complaint in the USA and you can find it wall-to-wall across US blogs and it seems to have damaged the company in the USA despite the fact that the advertisement was aimed at Spanish-speaking countries in Central America plus Mexico (which people tend to forget is actually in North America and is now part of North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) with Canada and the USA).

What this has revealed is both the arrogance of the US public but also their incredible sensitivity. I attended a talk a couple of years ago when the speaker reminded the audience that, even today, most US citizens subscribe to the view established in the 19th century, that the USA has a 'manifest destiny', in other words, it was always fated to be the leading liberal democracy in the world and play out the role that it is doing at the moment. Of course, as most people know, especially those interested in counter-factuals, the USA could easily have ended up very differently to how it has and in fact it was almost chance and then later lots of money, that meant the USA is the shape and size that it is now. As I have noted on previous blog postings the area of the USA could these days cover easily 3-4 sovereign states, possibly ones where French, Dutch, Spanish or Russian was the predominant language. It was only by a close vote that the USA did not have German as an equally recognised language to English for official documents.

Internally, as I have noted before, you may have ended up with a native American state or a Mormon theocracy or a whole host of states which do not exist. The border with Canada could be very different, let alone that with Mexico. However, of course to the average US person all of this is rubbish and the USA was always going to be the strength and size that it is now. More than that, to say anything different is to be offensive and to open yourself to attack. The campaign by Absolut has triggered more reaction in the USA than any other counter-factual I know. Let us have a look at it as it is very pictorial.

Original Absolut Advertisement, April 2008

The message is simply, that Mexico rather than losing the territory it did after 1836 simply held on to it. This would have left it in control of Texas and states across the South-West to California. This would give it the current US states from West to East: California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma. Of course, many of these states have a high Hispanic population anyway. If we look at maps from 1835 we find this is really what North America looked like at the time, anyway, though with the Americans also claiming control of what is now British Columbia in Canada.

North America in 1835

However, clearly to say that this is possibly how North America could have turned out is apparently incredibly offensive to Americans in a way that actually puts them in more of a bad light than if they accepted it. (It reminds me of what I wrote a few months back in the posting ‘Denying the Counter-Factual’:  In this posting I outlined how a computer game permitting ‘what ifs?’ of the Second World War would not accept a Japanese invasion of the USA as feasible but a German invasion of the UK was seen as fine. Compared to Mexico, the USA remains an incredibly wealthy and powerful country; surely they could accept a little joke or speculation, graciously. Someone at Absolut could have gone further and used a 1783 map instead. However, I feel that somehow the USA would have engineered a war against Mexico or Sweden as the result of their fury of a contemporary map created on the basis of this one:

Actual North America, 1783

The reaction from the USA to the Absolut advert has been vigorous. They have indulged in counter-factual maps by the dozen, somehow seeking to get back at the original advertisements. However, these do two things, either demonstrate the racism which is clearly inherent in the outlook of so many US citizens and also continue with the myth that the USA has been the defender of the whole globe for democracy when, for decades, they have been propping up dictators all over the world.  Remember Saddam Hussein was supported and armed by the USA until they tired of him.

USA's Iron Curtain

This is not actually far from the truth of what goes on along the border with the USA anyway. Their border patrols constantly police a barren border to stop people coming into the country and supplying the cheap labour that the USA still seems to want despite its economic troubles. Despite both countries being in NAFTA there is not free movement of labour between them or with Canada (the quota of Canadians allowed into the USA is 80,000 per year and it is always over-subscribed). Of course you can easily view the map the opposite way to the US creator did, and that is the Mexicans getting so annoyed about elderly US people crossing the border to make use of Mexico's cheap, efficient socialised health service because health care and dentistry in the USA is so expensive that it is outside the reach of millions of US citizens. At the US-Mexican border you can see queues camper vans of elderly Americans trying to get across the border to exploit the Mexican health service. Maybe one day, Mexico will say enough is enough and bar them.

American Formal Imperialism Goes Mad

This one is a simplistic come-back at the original advertisement and shows none of the knowledge of history of that one. Mexico has done nothing bad in this campaign, it did not encourage Absolut to draw up maps of it still controlling more of North America. In fact if the USA had wanted this model then they probably could have done it in 1850s or the 1870s. They may have achieved it as early as 1846 when the French were trying to turn Mexico into their colony. The USA would rather have a poor weak neighbour to its South than invade and run it as a colonial territory. This model would also ensure as is beginning to happen now, that Spanish would be the predominant language of the USA, unless whoever produced this map envisaged mass cultural processing of the Mexican population.

Greater Texas

People with regional interests seem to have got on to the bandwagon, with a semi-comic one of an expanded Texas. I doubt any history behind this has been thought through but one could envisage Mid-West states in the 1840s adhering to a confederation sponsored by Texas. Of course Texas had to yield much of its land to the North and West on joining the USA anyway.

This one taps into the surprisingly enduring affection among many Americans for the CSA. Interesting to note no West Virginia, presumably it would have been reabsorbed by Virginia as part of any peace treaty with the USA. Interestingly, the CSA in this seems to have no effort to expand West as it could have done after 1865 (New Mexico did not become a state in the USA until 1912) and Oklahoma was not organised at the time at all, so I would have expected to see the CSA farther West.

Modern Day Confederate States of America

Now, there are spin-offs from the first advertisement which have been taken up by others who have been keen to emphasise what they see as the USA's central role in defending democracy in the World. Most crudely, in the first we see the assumption that a smaller USA would not have been in a position to send troops into in North Africa in 1942 and Europe in 1943. Of course with far less of a Pacific seaboard the smaller USA may have become more sooner involved in Europe and perhaps it would have been the Mexicans fighting the Japanese over economic penetration of China, the Philippines and other Pacific islands.

Greater Deutschland

This makes numerous mistakes. Outside what he saw as Greater (ethnic) Germany and its colonies in eastern Europe, Hitler (like Napoleon) always preferred puppet states to annexation, so it would be unlikely that he would have annexed all these lands and certainly would not have bothered with Spain, Portugal and Italy all difficult countries to fight in and friendly to Nazi Germany anyway. Like the planners of 1914, he also accepted the need for 'windpipes' in war and this is why plans for the invasion of Switzerland were dismissed and there was no attempt to conquer Sweden though after the relative ease of Norway it would have been even easier to take Sweden and its invaluable iron ore.

All of modern day Poland has been annexed on this map, but there has been no attempt to go farther despite the Baltic States and the Ukraine being seen by Hitler as natural settlement areas for the Germans. This suggests, maybe, an inconclusive war with the USSR which led to the Germans taking the rest of Poland but being kept out from going farther. Interestingly, all of North Africa is outside German control, even though the UK has been conquered. Perhaps the Americans hold it. The USSR was always interested in Libya after the war, so perhaps, by invading through Turkey they have swept through the Middle East and North Africa taking these lands from Britain, France and Italy while the Germans were preoccupied elsewhere.

This one is more subtle and is more realistic. What we see is that the 'Nordic' areas have been annexed to Germany, so absorbing Denmark, the Netherlands and all of Belgium, though taking in Slovakia (which was a puppet state during the war) as well as Bohemia-Moravia. The pinky areas of the Baltic States and Belarus are presumably the areas being developed for German colonisation in the short-term.

The darker brown countries seem to be German allies, though in our world northern France and Norway were under German military occupation in a way Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria were not until near the end of the war. The paler brown ones such as Serbia, Montenegro, the Ukraine, Greece, Turkey and Spain were different to each other in our history. Why there has been intervention in Spain and Turkey I do not know, perhaps these are countries being economically exploited by Germany. The Serbia in our world was run by the military, Turkey was neutral as was Spain though under Franco sympathetic to Germany. This map suggests Serbia is a puppet state, but not an ally in the way Norway, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia are shown as being. Finland and Vichy France in blue are presumably not hostile to Germany but not allies either and that is close to reality. Interesting are the neutral states of Switzerland, the area around St. Petersburg and the Crimea, the latter two presumably as a result of the peace treaty between the USSR (seen in mid-green) and Germany.

Countries in white are true neutrals - Eire and Sweden. Italy retains its hold on its gains in South-East France, Corsica and Greater Albania. Libya is not shown on the map but we can assume Italy has held it and has possibly taken Egypt from the UK.

Of course, what this map completely neglects is that without US and UK intervention in Europe especially from June 1944 onwards, the centre of Europe most likely would have come under Soviet control. From 1943 the USSR was beginning to roll the Germans back across Central Europe. Whilst they may not have wanted to go beyond the Rhine, if D-Day had failed, it is generally accepted that Germany would have come under total Soviet control and that Communist parties certainly in France and Italy where they were very strong anyway would have come to power, most likely in Greece too. So, if this world is based on a weaker USA because half of North America would be Mexican then it is likely the hammer and sickle would dominate the centre of this map rather than the swastika.

Palestine Resurgent

Another twist on a smaller, weaker USA is the fate of Israel. In this one it no longer exists. This one is rather harsh on the Jordanians assuming that they would have been absorbed into a larger Palestine, which at times in the 1970s might have appeared to be the case. I assume this map suggests the weaker USA could not fund and arm Israel during its wars of 1948, 1967 or 1973. If it had come about from the British selecting a different option either in 1919 or in 1948 then you would expect to see a stronger Jordan (given it has long been a UK ally). It might be doubtful whether Israel needed such US support anyway to win, but, again, of course, many of these maps are based on the assumption that without a strong USA the world would be a very different place and, for some people, a worse place. This map might also be the outcome of something like the Jewish homeland in Alaska which has been discussed before on this blog.

Now, there have been a few counter-factual maps that seem not to extend from the original one showing a smaller USA, but have got on board with the 'Absolut' trend of varying pictures of the world.

Anti-Muslim Immigrant Map

This one seems predicated on the basis of fear of immigration, especially of people from a Muslim background. It shows England/Wales/Scotland as North Pakistan, though immigration from Pakistan is at an all-time low. Similarly immigration from Turkey to Germany is overshadowed greatly these days by immigration from eastern European countries now in the EU. Indonesian immigration into the Netherlands similarly does not appear to be on a great scale, and the country takes immigrants from many countries, personally, I have noted in particular from Vietnam. Albanian immigration into Italy is long-standing, but again these people are weak in society and not in a position to challenge politically. Italy economically penetrating and dominating Albania as it did in the 1930s might be more of a feasible development. The revision of the reconquista to restore the Moorish Emirate seems very unlikely, and if so, then surely Portugal would be there too. The Chechens are certainly in no position to control Russia.

Other, less xenophobic situations, shown are the reunification of Ireland which currently might be more certain but steps in that direction remain slow. Austria-Hungary, presumably from the economic penetration of Hungary by wealthier Austria, again, might be feasible, but unnecessary now that both are part of the EU, they do not need such formal control. The British taking over the Balearic Islands, is fun, but actually it is the Germans who own far more property on the islands than the British, though they do make up a large slice of visitors. Why Bosnia has become a sultanate and Poland gone back to being a principality (surely it would be a kingdom?) is not explained or clear, especially given the lack of monarchs in North African and Near Eastern states, you have to get to Jordan to find one. Overall, this may be from a US perspective that sees Europe as 'soft' on Islamist terrorism. Of course France has been very strict in Francifying immigrants and keeping religious dress out of public life, so this can hardly be seen as 'soft' they just did not want to be involved in a foolish war in Iraq which had nothing to do with terrorism or Muslim fundamentalism.

Persistence of the Abassid Caliphate?

My medieval Middle Eastern history is quite weak but this looks like something along the lines of the Abbasid Caliphate of the 9th century but without its expansion into central and western North Africa, it is closer to the extent around the mid-7th century CE, though constrained by modern state boundaries, they clearly did not think they could let Libya on board or reconquer down the Nile. This state, of course, with the oil and military power it would possess would be very powerful in world affairs but face immense internal turmoil between the Turkic groups, the Arabs and the Iranians, plus language challenges, as most people in these states know Koranic Arabic, but Turkey speaks Turkish and Iran, Farsi. Also the difference between say Istanbul, Cairo, Lebanon, Dubai, Baghdad, Jeddah in themselves and, then, against say rural Yemen, would be immense, so these divisions might severely weaken the state on world scene.

Persistence of Western Roman Empire and Byzantium

Now, if some of these maps lack knowledge of history others have a perceptive grasp. This one seems to see the persistence of the division of western and eastern Roman empire in 395 CE. However, with some oddities. Despite presumably a Christian Roman empire, Islam has come to Spain, maybe following a Roman crusade to recapture the land or possibly it was bought by the Roman empire, which in its earlier history was quite renowned for tolerating numerous religions. England has been lost to the Roman empire, but, as happened in our 11th century, has become united with Denmark. We believe that the Romans penetrated farther into Germany than we once thought but lost most of it by the first decade of the 1st century CE, but here the Roman Empire has remained across Germany with the states beyond its borders evolving into ones similar to what we have today such as Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Baltic States and Russia.

On this map, Byzantium never fell or was never weakened and it faces the Assyrians rather than the Seljuk Turks. Armenia seems unravaged by Turkish or Mongol incursions, suggesting that things in Central Asia have been more divisive with the steppe tribes in-fighting preventing them coming West.

Presumably in this world there have been no 'dark ages' and Roman civilisation has continued to prosper. Would it still be a world of slavery or would technology have advanced? This might be a Europe with rich ancient culture but technology of the middle ages. Would Latin and Greek be the linguae franca of much of the world?

Persistence of Canaan

This sees the persistence of Canaan from the Biblical times, probably in existence as early as 2350 BCE. Now, this may be an anti-Jewish map or certainly anti-Zionist as Jews perceive Israel as a sanctification of Canaan when it became their homeland. Now in the USA there is a lot of protest when any public person has a map which does not show Israel on it, despite it having been out of existence for millennia. So, I would take this one as suggesting, probably from an Arab perspective, that it would be better if Jewish involvement in the Middle East had not come about. That would not have eliminated the Jews as a people and we might see another part of the region as being Israel, possibly on the Arabian peninsula or in Iraq. Of course, to say such things is in itself painfully controversial as in Jewish and, thus, Christian faith, the land of current Israel was designated for the Jews by God. So, this one, possibly superficially bewildering for many people goes could prove to be the most controversial of all, going to the issues around the states of Israel and Palestine and their perceived origins in ancient history.

Overall it is quite outstanding that an advertising executive could promote such a reaction to counter-factual scenarios. However, as is often the case, they tell us as much about ourselves, especially contemporary US, Arab and Jewish sensitivities as they do about the history. In my view, US hysteria about the original advertisement suggests they need to grow up and recognise that you can indulge in questioning. To be so hostile to a single map that was not even aimed at the US market, suggests an incredible sense of weakness and a stunning arrogance that your truth is the only truth and beyond that it should not even be questioned or explored. That is as anti-intellectual as the non-democratic regimes the USA prides itself on overthrowing.
Victory of Nazi Germany

Thursday, 19 June 2008

What Would I Do Differently If I Lived My Life Again

I remember back in the 1980s in a Sunday magazine there would be a column about 'What I Wish I Knew When I Was Eighteen' and this post is similar though for me it goes back before that age. To some extent it was also influenced by the movie 'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) an incredibly bleak movie (though it is now on to its second sequel). In contrast to the Catholic-orientated focus of Hollywood movies since the 1960s which I have commented on before, it has a more Calvinist, predestination approach that harks back to the Film Noir genre of the 1940s. It is a counterpoint to 'Groundhog Day' (1993). 'Groundhog Day' argues that if you work hard and keep persisting you can turn around a grim existence into something better. In 'The Butterfly Effect' in contrast, the main character has the chance to go back and alter parts of his past and tries to improve things for the people around him and in fact makes it worse and worse on each occasion, more get abused and injured and he is increasingly disabled. Ultimately he goes back to being in the womb and strangles himself with his umbilical cord and then it shows removing himself from the equation actually makes loads of people's lives better. Many of us feel that we are actually a discomfort to the world. However, that perception that your whole life from birth is not only a waste but actually damaging is pretty hard to swallow. I tend more to the 'Groundhog Day' approach and feel that with greater insight or even simply taking more time to consider things then I could have led a much better life.

The factor that confuses the issue is that the key way I would have lived my life differently is probably have to have killed myself when I was a teenager. I did not have a happy childhood but it just got worse afterwards. I know it would have upset my parents but given how they went on to humiliate me utterly and cause me to be ill in the subsequent years, I doubt they would have missed me long. Of course with me out of the way my younger brother may have suffered more such damage, but given his more laid-back attitude maybe it would have impacted on him less. I would hope that with my death my parents would have realised that they had been making my life unhappy and would have felt remorse, it is the least they deserve, though I doubt it would have affected them much or for long.

Of course, as has been proven in recent months, I lack the courage for suicide. I think that given the high rate of suicides among teenage boys in the UK, if I was going to be able to do it, I would have done it and so it would have happened for real by now anyway. If I cannot bring myself to do it as an adult with access to so many more means, then I was unlikely to do it when I was 12. So, assuming I bottled out then and stayed alive. What things would I have done differently. One thing is I would hope to have quite a lot more courage. I have noted before how fear has stopped me going to and seeing so many places and certainly stopped me having success with women. Even if I was courageous on say one out of ten occasions that I lacked courage, then I think my life would have been a lot richer and a lot happier. I never seemed to lack courage in standing up to my parents and that simply led to more condemnation from them and greater humiliation at their hands, but standing up for what I believed in at school and elsewhere would probably have helped me, it may though, have led to even more bullying. Given that I got bullying at all levels of my school life right up to when I was 18, I guess it could not have been any worse and appearing tougher may have scared off other bullies.

Though I think I would have benefited from being more courageous, I think I would have saved a lot of time, discomfort and money by realising what I was not able to do. As I have written before I was useless as judo, canoeing, fencing, go, aikido, ten-pin bowling and Chinese all things I took courses in, sometimes repeatedly for absolutely no benefit. I could have put my efforts into things that I have had more success at, generally nothing sports or language related.

I was unfortunate when a teenager to witness men on at least two different occasions being utterly humiliated when they asked women out. This scared me away from doing this and at least on five occasions I walked away from women who were asking me out. Of course, you are not going to succeed on every occasion and even when I gained some courage I offended one woman so much by asking her to go out with me that she demanded an apology. However, if I actually had had more dates and break-ups and new relationships, then I would a) have become more adept at doing it and b) more immune to the embarrassment it can bring. Of course I could not have removed the scars on my body which made me feel so awkward, but I would have sooner realised that women do not really give a damn about such things if the man treats them properly and seems to have had some confidence. I also think that if I had had sex before I was 34, then I would not have run into the problems with women despising a virgin in his 30s. There were certainly women when I was 18-21 who would have slept with me but I walked away from because I felt so inadequate. If I had more courage I would have also contested other men for them, rather than simply giving up on a woman when I saw another man interested in the vicinity. I also wish I had learnt far quicker to forget about the women I fancied in my youth and not agonise over what might have been. Also I wish I had understood that we are not living in a Jane Austen novel and women pay no attention to little notes of affection, these days they want to be asked directly. I wish I had joined a dating agency in 1994 when I first moved to London rather than waited five years. I had more success by far when I did than before and I could have had a great deal more in that mid-1990s period when okay I was not rich, but I was younger (27-32 in 1994-9), of course if I had had sex earlier and more confidence with women, then it would have increased my chances even more, but as it was I could have had a lot more dates (something I thoroughly enjoy), in a city I love, London, with so much to see and do there that is better with someone than alone. In general I wish I had had the courage just to ask women I fancied out rather than agonising over it until they found someone else. Usually the rejections have not been painful.

I certainly wish I had studied different subjects at school. I would have worked far harder at Chemistry and Physics and taken German rather than Latin, though given my difficulty with languages the outcome would have been little different. I certainly should not have taken English 'A' Level (which I failed first time and only scraped through on retake), I should have gone for Law and then applied for a Law degree and got a job in the law. It is an area which fits my personality and I would not have had the many years (up until I was 33) of earning less than £10,000 or periods of unemployment. Once at university I would have worked a lot less than I did. I worked incredibly hard, in the library most days until 9pm when it closed, and yet I still only got a 2:1 degree. I could have got the same and had more socialising and getting on with women rather than day-dreaming about them.

I wish I had never thought I could be a teacher. Taking a TEFL course was an error, partly done to keep my parents off my back, but it was clear I was useless at it and imagining myself in some remote East European city teaching English filled me with fear. Trying to be a school teacher was even worse. Even if I had not failed the course, the job would have stressed me out so much as to probably have led me to retirement from illness by now. Of course, if I had studied Law, then I would not have ended up in this awkward position. The alternative was to get into the civil service sooner than I did. Of course if that letter from the Inland Revenue had not been disposed of by my useless flatmate, I would have been at the exam and be a tax inspector by now, so even opportunities to get back on track failed.

Housing of course has been a bane of my life throughout. It was always something that alarmed me especially when applying to university. On each occasion I seem to have picked a place with a bad landlord/lady, in Coventry, in Oxford, in Norwich, in Milton Keynes, in all of these places I had to move on. Maybe it is simply that such a high percentage of landlords/ladies are bad and that I could not escape having troublesome ones. In recent years it has got worse as outlined on this blog, but in those cases there was little property to choose between. Of course I should have sold my London flat before they started dumping £14,000 charges on me, but that would have been counter to all the advice I had been receiving about renting out property up until then. Certainly in terms of flatmates I would have been far, far more careful, particularly in terms of the complete nightmare in London a man who stole and broke almost everything he came into contact, sub-let the living room and threw litter at our neighbours. I just wished I had waited for the woman who was coming to see me after him. I am very bad at picking people. Every removal company I have ever used has been terrible, even though in Milton Keynes, there is a large selection of decent ones. I always pick the worst from any list and so if I lived my life again I would rely on other people's opinions much more.

If I lived my life again I would buy far fewer non-fiction books and far fewer computer games. I tend to buy both as retail therapy and then they just gather dust. I have a few computer games I replay repeatedly over the years. Not buying these things, not drinking coffee daily from the cafe would have saved me thousands of pounds over the year (I had spent over £2080 on coffee at work since I joined the company in Summer 2005, which I could have made myself in my office). This money would have gone into holidays to places I want to visit and still have not done such as Budapest, Florence, Lyons, St. Petersburg and Japan.

If I lived my life again and had the chance, I would have gone to the weddings in Germany and Malta that I was invited to but bottled out of attending. They would have been fun or at least an experience to talk about. I could have attended the one in Scotland too if I had not done the TEFL course which started the day of the wedding (a Monday, unusually). On one-off incidents, I wish I had not taken the bus back from Coventry to the party in Oxford and stayed the night with the woman who had invited me. I had walked away from her when we had been on a date two years earlier when another man interested in her had shown up and started making advances (the whole relationship had been very hesitant as I never had the courage to tell her how I felt about her, and her friend said that because I was two years older, I was too old for her) and staying that evening would either had re-ignited the relationship or it would have snapped me out of the wistful way I thought about her for a decade later. I knew she was popular, but if she had told me right out, 'no', then I could have moved on. I almost jumped off the bus when it came to a stop and ran back, but it seemed too movie-like at the time. I have always been too romantic in an ineffectual drippy way and not in a robust, actually achieving something way.

I wish I had heeded the advice in 'The Guardian' in about 2003 about never going on holiday with your girlfriend. Every holiday doing that has been a huge mistake and usually ended the relationship. Weekends away are safe, but anything long is fatal and led to lots of heartache.

There are very few things in my life that I am proud of that I would repeat if I lived my life again. Of course, putting all these variations in would mean I would not encounter many of the circumstances, though, for example, in the case of housing, I am sure I would have had equally as bad landlords/ladies just with different names and houses. If I still ended up in certain circumstances in my re-lived life again then I would happily do them again. The first is help a woman with a child in her hands pull an elderly man who had fallen off the back of a canal boat in a lock on the Oxford Canal, out of the water. The second is, dissuade a woman who had been living with a man for many years, from trying to seduce me or trying to have sex with me. She went back to him and confessed her attempted infidelity, not something I advised, but a consequence of discouraging her from trying to have a sexual relationship with me. Obviously it would have meant sex a few years earlier than I got it, but I am morally proud of me getting her to do the right thing and remain faithful (ten years later they are still married).

I do not think my existence has harmed people. It has disappointed a lot of people, but in fact in most cases they have probably found better outcomes not being intimate with me than if they had done. For me though if I lived my life again, I would strive for a wider range of experiences at an earlier age, leading to a fuller engagement with adulthood at an earlier period (17-22 rather than 34-8) based on a better career plan and a mixture of greater caution and greater courage (I think the two go hand-in-hand as with the flatmate and removal company, having the courage to say 'no, you are useless, I want someone else'). However, I cannot get over the fact that actually removing me from the system would benefit a lot of people. I would not be taking up the job that someone could better use than me to lead a successful life. I suppose if it comes down to it, I do feel like 'The Butterfly Effect' character, if you feel your life is invalid then the best option will appear never to have started it.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Attack of the (Card) Clones 2: The End of Chip & Pin?

Just three months after I had my debit card cloned, I was telephoned by my bank yesterday to say that it had happened again. Rather than Sri Lanka like last time, on this occasion people were trying to use a copy of my card in Indonesia and the Philippines. This suggests that there are sophisticated networks between small towns in Hampshire and locations right across South Asia to scan and send on the information about debit cards. The last occasion really woke me up to the dangers of having your card cloned and I had been very careful where I used it, restricting myself to one supermarket and two petrol stations, but clearly this was not enough. I remembered I used it at a nature reserve in the New Forest and at a swimming pool in Dorset, but those hardly seem places where the staff would be involved in such crime, but perhaps I am wrong. It is clear that to someone in a low-paid job in a petrol station, providing card data to criminals who approach them and offer them a slice, is a very attractive proposition. As regular readers will know I drive a lot around the South of England and I heard that one Dorset petrol station I had used in the past had been raided by police because 25 cards had been cloned there. Interestingly though, talking to the bank special investigations team yesterday they told me not to always blame petrol stations (though Shell stopped the use of chip and pin for most of last Summer because £1 million had been scammed through its service stations) and that nowadays criminals will sit on a cloned card for a while before using it so that you cannot work out where the likely place was where it was cloned.

Personally, this latest incident will lead me to start carrying around more cash than I have for ages. With my weekly petrol bill having risen from £30 (€38; US$59) to £48 (€61; US$94) in the last year, I will need quite a lot and of course that opens me up to having my pocket picked or being mugged for the money, old fashioned crimes. More broadly such regular crime raises the question whether the chip & pin approach has been a complete failure. The introduction last year of chip & pin to shops seemed to bring us in line with countries like France which I know had had the system since the early 2000s and it seemed to be more of a secure system than signing had been. However, by making the whole thing electronic it also meant that the transaction it is entirety can be transmitted to a waiting cloner. I never had problems with any cloning until this year; signing for me was a safe system, though I accept the banks may have seen it differently. Now, though I have absolutely no confidence in the chip & pin system as I have been warned by my bank and others that even cashpoint machines (ATMs in the USA) can be rigged to scan my card. So I step back say 30 years and go and queue at my bank every couple of weeks to get cash out over the counter. This of course will be even worse news for banks who like to get people out of branches and using as much electronic equipment as possible as it reduces their overheads greatly.

The chip & pin system seems to have failed to provide the security it promised. Will it be abandoned? I imagine the next step will be to introduce those small coding units which most of us now have to use when banking online. You put your card into that and type in the amount of money you want to spend and so on and it generates a one-use code number which you then enter into your online facility. If you have a string of payments you have to go through the process for each one. Now this will slow things up in supermarkets, but I can see a time very soon when people will carry these around to generate a unique number every time they use their debit card so that even if it is cloned, the cloners will lack the necessary one-use number. Now it means lots of complex programming for all the shops and so on to use a system like this and transactions will take longer (but much quicker than cheques used to be, people forget what it was like shopping in a supermarket when cashiers had to read the price off everything and type it in) and people are not tolerant at delays in shops even of the length which were common just 20 years ago.

The alternative is to do what my father and now myself are doing, go back to cash. The Germans did this up until the 1990s. Whereas in the UK we gave out credit cards to every student when they started university, in (West) Germany you could not even get one until you were earning about DM60,000 (about £18,000 per year in those days), there were not cashpoint machines in any great numbers and people even bought cars in cash. The trouble in the UK is that the largest denomination note around is the £50 note (€63; US$98) and even then you rarely see it and pubs and some shops will not take it, so you are stuck with the £20 note (€25; US$39) whereas if we used euros you can get the €100 (£78; US$155), €200, €500 notes. I know the €200 (£156; US$310) and €500 (£390; US$775) notes cannot be used in certain locations such as petrol stations, but they are there if you want to buy a car or a plasma television or whatever in a way that they are not in pounds sterling. To buy my last car which cost £1600 I would have needed 80 notes, 32 notes if I could get £50 ones; in euros I could have done it with 5 notes. For me the age of chip & pin in shops is over, it is back to cash.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

'Pre-Charge Detention': Wrapping Up the Destruction of Liberties in Weasly Words

Any hope I had for Gordon Brown, any belief that his imminent removal was being over-exaggerated and a hope he would continue has been eroded utterly by his pig-headed push to extend the period without charge from 28 days to 42 days. There is utterly no need for this measure. The USA has only 2 days (though prisoners taken to Guantanamo Bay are exempt) and even places like Turkey which hardly has a good human rights record only has 7½ days. Why does the UK have so much more and wanted it extended? I have no love for the Conservative Party, but am heartened by David Davis the Shadow Home Secretary resigning because he opposes this legislation. He is resigning his seat too and will campaign at the by-election as an independent on this issue. A Labour MP for Rotherham, Dennis McShane, was on television this lunchtime saying he could not believe that a Conservative (the party has a history of supporting strong law and order legisation) is opposed the 'necessary' stronger legislation (McShane listed the things he wants including identity cards for foreigners and more CCTV as well as this extended detention without charge), but he cannot see that this shows that the Labour Party is moving so far to the right-wing in its rush to abolish democracy in the UK that it is leaving the Conservatives behind.

The other thing that sickened me is how the BBC is now referring to detention without charge. It has gone from being called that, i.e. 'detention without charge' which it is, to now being termed 'pre-charge detention' to make it sound like some kind of preliminary process that will always lead to a charge. Of course this is not the case. If the police need 42 days to get the evidence to make a charge it suggests that the case is pretty weak anyway. In fact what the 42 days are about is less to do with gathering evidence and more about psychological pressure and presumably ultimately torture to get the suspect to confess. This kind of detention does not lead to charges as clearly was seen in the Hicham Yezza - Rizwaan Saber case last month. Rizwaan Saber who is studying a PhD at Nottingham University was arrested along with his academic supervisor Dr. Hicham Yezza who is of Algerian origins (he has lived in the UK since 1995 when he was aged 17). Saber's research meant he had to study terrorist literature. He had been accepted into the UK to study this area (which clearly is an important one which speaking Arabic he would be ideally equipped to focus on) and was using resources publicly available on US government websites. Both men were held 14th-20th May and were released without charge. So they were in 'pre-charge detention' for six days, but of course it was not 'pre-charge' because they were doing nothing wrong. The government is clearly embarrassed by the whole incident and are now trying to deport Yezza back to Algeria despite him living here for over a decade and working as an academic (who are usually exempt from immigration regulations to promote contact between universities and their staff across countries).

The Yezza-Saber case is alarming for two reasons. First it shows how even with the 28 days detention without charge it is being used improperly. Second it shows an aspect that I neglected to look at in my posting on the creation of the police state in the UK, that is the suppression of academic freedom to research what is seen as important. This is a form of censorship and seems to have slipped by without the bulk of the population being aware of it. Self-censorship seems to be increasing off the back of it with the BBC coming up with euphemisms and weasly words to conceal the actual severity and speed of the erosion of our civil liberties. Brown you have lost any support I had for you. You could have turned back the tide of Blair's authoritarianism, instead you have decided to extend and accelerate it. I hope that you will lose the vote on extending detention without charge and that it will bring down your government in the way that you have been warning Labour MPs that it will. You are not fit to hold office in a democracy, you need to go.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Authors, Writing and the Internet

As you know, I enjoy writing fiction, some of it I show off here. The other resident of my house similarly writes, though neither of us really discusses our writing in more than general terms. Late into the night, single lights are left shining over a glowing computer as we hammer out our latest work. I have a problem that when I leave my office I often find the house in utter darkness and fumble around trying to find the light switch which is at the far end of the corridor outside my office, wired in by people who clearly did not write late into the night or, maybe, carried torches. I have been writing since I was a child. I used to always get good marks in my creative writing lessons and it seemed to help me in my exams. I have done reasonably well in a few competitions, but I am not one of these people who enters loads of things. Given that so many people write now, I have no hope of being noticed. There is a computer in almost every house and we can all hammer away to write our stories. I suppose we all dream of being like J.K. Rowling, because, with so many chances to get on and escape our lives being closed off, writing a bestseller remains one way out.

The scale of how much fiction writing is going on in the UK nowadays was revealed by a friend of mine. She had entered a novel-writing competition run by Amazon. They had 34,000 entries; my friend got through to the 'short list' of 5000 novels. These were judged for the first two phases on a regional basis, with members of the public writing their reviews of novels put forward. I reviewed a couple, of course like most people, including my friend's. There was a final 10 novels but I stopped at that stage because they were almost all the same, and incredibly bland at that. The process showed me that such a public vote on writing leads to a kind of homeopathic procedure and you end up boiling down anything to interest to the blandest least offensive novels.  Even Richard & Judy, the UK's self-appointed promoters of literary taste (and however you might dislike them, they have done a great deal for promoting writing in the UK) make often less easy choices and certainly less bland choices for their recommendations.  Their novel-writing competition of a few years ago had 49,000 entries.

Perhaps universal democracy in selecting novels is flawed, we need things that challenge the reader rather than are simply mush. It seemed to be the same issue that has been highlighted by the most anodyne of British broadcasting, the 'Book at Bedtime' on Radio 4 in which a current novel is read each evening. There have been complaints that the last two have been too challenging and bleak. It seems we want to be wrapped in cotton wool in even our book choices these days, but, unfortunately, that way leads to the death of literary culture. Even J.K. Rowling whose work is heavily rooted in the public-school novel traditions, breaks away at times and writes maturely for young people, and, at a length (around 700-800 pages), that many adults would shy away from.

I go through phases of writing short fiction, novella length and then novel length and often then go back again. I like to get my details in my novels precise, whether they have a current or a historical setting. I bought a book in the 1990s (I thought) about writing fiction. However, within the first chapter it said there was no point an 'amateur' writing fiction as they could never do a sufficient level of research to produce a novel that would not be picked to pieces by readers. Instead, the book advised, 'amateur' people (and surely all authors are amateurs until they are published, I guess unless they are journalists first) to stick to writing non-fiction books about their hobbies or local areas.

Of course, this was utter rubbish. For a start, readers are tolerant of 'errors', especially if they pander to what they think is the correct fact (it is often harder to feature the truth in a novel than what is the accepted truth). Even Ian Fleming made blunders about certain guns and holsters and things like that, and yet, none of his books seem to have been out of print in the whole of my lifetime. The other thing is that people often start writing fiction about what they know, their town or their job, and this allows them and others to have confidence, and from this, they build into being an author on broader issues.

A friend of mine always complained because I wrote stories about women or people from different cultures, that she felt I could not know anything about. I said, well it would be very tedious if all I produced were stories about a man in his thirties, working in an office and living in East London. Writing is about escapism, after all. I think we should take on the challenge of writing as different people. We can never have been all the people in any story, so we always have to look through the eyes of others. This perception we gain from observing and reading ourselves.  I used to set myself the task while sitting on London Underground trains, of describing, in my mind, the people sitting opposite me and I still find my descriptions of people are often stimulated by pictures I see. In fact, these days, for my stories, often I do not make up people or their clothing, I simply describe ones I find by surfing the internet.

For people who worry that they do not know enough about the world and the views of others, I always recommend that they start writing science fiction or fantasy novels, because then you are free to create the whole world and it does not matter if ice is lighter than water or not, or that a certain gun is of a particular calibre, or a town is not in a certain place - it does not matter, you decide all of those things for your world. When writing, it is astounding how quickly the fictional 'universe' takes on a logic of its own. Even in a contemporary piece, well-established characters quickly give momentum to the story in how they act and will be expect to act or respond to any situation.

The internet has revolutionised fiction writing. When I was writing in the 1980s and 1990s, I would spend hours pouring over factual books getting details especially for my stories set in 1920s Munich. I would have to get maps and lists of names appropriate for the time. I would have to read up on appropriate cars and clothing and weaponry (these were murder mysteries) and assemble them in a huge file. Now I can research as I write. If I want to describe a house in the Bavarian Alps, with some Googling I can find half-a-dozen pictures of them in minutes. If I want to find the distance between two towns, I use the AA website and get it in seconds.

Maybe this is why writing novels has become so popular, it is so much easier now to get accurate information quickly. I must say you do find, though, that sometimes you keep running up against identical resources, the same essays repeated again and again, sometimes simply translated into another language, but saying the same thing. This can be frustrating as you cannot push on beyond that level of knowledge about something. However, this has always been a problem for authors, even 'professional' ones. They have no greater ability to acquire knowledge than you or I do. The internet has democratised a reasonable level of knowledge and certainly can give you more than enough accurate data to produce credible stories.

The minutiae you can tap into is astounding. As in the past, authors benefit from the painstaking of people interested in individual towns or particular foods or trains or ferries or guns or police forces or whatever and writing about these things as a resource that fiction writers can also tap into. Just remember not to choke off your narrative with too much detail so the story drowns in it.  Few readers are fans of Cubist writing.  If you include too much detail you end up with something like 'The Mezzanine' by Nicholson Baker (1989) which is a novel entirely about one man's travel up an escalator during his lunch break and covers only a matter of seconds in time! Detail is good, we can get lots of it easily now, but, as Ian Fleming showed, it should not get in the way of a good story.

Is This the Mantra for UK Society of the 2000s?

I have to apologise for another posting stimulated by reading 'The Guardian'. I suppose this is why people buy newspapers in order to be informed and have their thoughts stimulated, but I suppose in this day and age when we are obliged to be seen to be unique and ever inventive I feel it is a cheat and that I should be constantly generating ideas of my own. I suppose it is also the fact that I notice now that no-one I know reads newspapers and certainly never discusses them so if I pipe up about something I have read it falls dead. The woman who lives in my house has no interest in current affairs and gets angry when it is implied that she is as prone to political and especially economic developments as the rest of us; she sees economic issues as simply between her and the other person whether they are a representative of a utility company or one of her customers, and nothing broader than that. To some degree this is a protection against us being brought down by all that is wrong in the world. My mother talked about this as being seen as something to do to prevent depression coming on, i.e. not worry about things that you cannot change such as starvation in Africa or bad political regimes. I find that a hard tenet to accept. I acknowledge it can reduce personal depression but surely it abdicates all control to those people who tell us not to worry ourselves about these things so that they can get on with being tyrants. I suppose my mother removes herself one step as she contributes to charities generously, especially people like Oxfam, so I suppose she does a little part to enable others who want to be involved to do so. Interestingly Oxfam now produce these brochures in which you purchase an item for a village say a well or a goat. They seem to have come to the conclusion, like those charities that provided child sponsorship that people have a difficulty comprehending fully starvation in a whole region but they can get their heads round providing food for a small village or one family or schooling for a child, it is on a human scale.

Sorry, I am rambling off. Back to the apology about newspaper-inspired blogging. The other thing for me is being of a liberal disposition, it is rare that I actually encounter people who are anywhere near in me political terms so they are very dismissive of any of my views. I remember in the early 1990s talking to man who said that everyone accepted that what Margaret Thatcher had done was necessary and good for the country and was incredulous that I did not accept that. Of course nowadays even the Labour Party seems to accept that they cannot reverse many of her policies, but that does not mean that Thatcherism has to be accepted as being or having been 'good' for the country. In fact many of the factors of social deprivation, social division and crime that the Conservatives bemoan are a direct result of Thatcherite policy. When I was in London I met a few people from the other extreme: in the constant belief that the British political system should be brought down by revolution. Maybe I am saying I am something like a Fabian of the early 20th century, seeking change but in a way which does not cause utter chaos. I know history too well to ignore the fact that revolutions badly handled lead to tyranny and a move right away from what the revolutionaries sought to achieve and usually play into the hands of the right-wing nationalists and conservatives rather than anything more democratic. So I am rather used to being a lonely voice, which is clearly why I have turned to blogging, which in the majority of cases is about lonely voices shouting electronically and to a large audience of people not paying much attention than if you did it in your local pub.

Anyway, what I was going to write about this morning was an essay by Andrew O'Hagan printed in Saturday's 'The Guardian'. It comes from his new book 'The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America'. I must say that reading this essay I am not encouraged to buy the book. He has lots of good ideas but he needs to really work at editing them. I was bewildered by his jumping from his own reminiscences to references to his family to the state of the USA today to British society and back again. Maybe I am just not intelligent enough to follow it but my view was that essays should be very crisp and quickly comprehensible. Finally, I reach my point which is that this essay contains a series of statements which as a kind of mantra and agree with O'Hagan that they cut to the endemic problems of UK society. To quote, the UK has:
'Culture as social balm.
Spite as entertainment.
Shouting as argument.
Dysfunction as normality.
Desires as rights.
Shopping as democracy.
Fame is the local hunger in so much of this...'

I would argue that dysfunction has always been normality and it fact forcing people to be 'normal' was what caused a lot of difficulty and personal distress in the past. What I in fact think is that dysfunction has not become argument, but like spite, is now entertainment. So many 'documentaries' are the television equivalent of freak shows of the touring fairs of the past. We have a parade of people who have disabilities or psychological issues and we are encouraged to comment. This is no different to paying to go to St. Mary of Bethlehem hospital on a Sunday in the 19th century to gaze at the insane people locked in cages. Steadily from 'fly-on-the-wall' documentaries, in the search for ever more enthralling images we have got back to the freak show culture. That is the 'culture' which acts as social balm. Culture has long seen to have socially adhesive qualities, but now it has come down to a level that every amateur is an entertainer and what they provide is Schadenfreude. Watching parades of people on the numerous talent shows who lack talent is like holding a treat up for a dog who is never going to reach it, but he keeps thinking if he tries he may do so, just this once. Back in the 1970s there was a series called 'New Faces' which was little different to talent shows today, but no-one on there was literally 'hopeless', i.e. with no chance of getting somewhere. Some were better than others, but you did not find those who should have had no hope of a career in entertainment. Modern British television has made it so that everyone has the chance to become a celebrity through the wide diversity of 'reality' shows, and this 'local hunger' drives people with false hope and so provides the fodder for the millions to revel in the humiliation of these people.

I think O'Hagan somewhat neglects this freak/humiliation show aspect, but he is right that 'spite is entertainment' in that so many quiz and game shows now include and element in which you have to trick or betray fellow contestants. It probably started with 'Fifteen to One' but that is pretty anondyne compared to the next big leap 'The Weakest Link' and follow ons like 'Golden Balls' and 'Shafted' (the names themselves smack of the glittering things put on offer, the need to betray and even a eugenic sense of who is the 'right' and 'wrong' people to be playing). It is forgotten that it is you versus the programme makers it becomes you versus everyone else. Even the 6-year old in my house opens boxes of eggs to see if one is broken as if it was part of the game show 'Deal or No Deal' in which contestants open various boxes to see if they have won large or small sums of money. If such dog-eat-dog culture is penetrating to primary school children then what does that offer for our future? This is a useful tool for those in power as it means we blame each other and see our rivals as people on the same level of us rather seeking to challenge those who rule us. It is gladiatorial fights for all, when in fact it is the Emperor that decides who dies.

Shouting as argument fits in very nicely with this. Much of what O'Hagan's views stem from are not really the television programmes I have mentioned so far but the ones such as Oprah Winfrey, Ricki Lake, Trisha, Jeremy Kyle, etc., that have grown over the past 15 years in which people, usually, poor working class people, come on and air their grievances in front of an audience. It is another form of gladiatorial fights, and often descends into violence. It is supposedly tempered by the fact that the programme producers offering counselling, but of course they could do that without parading people's problems in front of a baying crowd. These people shout. They believe they are in the right. Self-righteousness can be empowering but it also blinds people and can lead to aggression where none is needed. As I have mentioned before we are tutored in being angry by 'reality' programmes showing people receiving poor customer care at airports, etc. By becoming angry the staff can dismiss you without addressing the real issues. None of these programmes ask why the customers are being treated so poorly in the first place, because of course that would end the programme makers' access to this material. In a society in which we have so few rights, anger is the last refuge and potentially the only way of achieving things, but it an instant, violent anger not the kind which sustains campaigns, it is the type of anger that those in power want us to have, not the kind of patient anger that causes them trouble.

Anger also stems from the sense of desires being rights. You hear about schools and universities being sued because in the students' eyes the teachers have not delivered the education they feel they have a right to. As someone said to me recently, people see universities like a fast-food restaurant whereas in fact they should see them more like a gym, just joining does not guarantee a fit body, you have to go regularly and work at it. However, we all want to pay our fee and be guaranteed success. We feel we have the right to drive huge cars (though I am glad to see rising fuel costs has slashed the number of 4x4s being bought), be able to speed without fear of penalty, be able to shop 24 hours per day, park right outside the school, even not have Germans on our beach (one group of British holidaymakers have tried to sue the holiday company over too many Germans at their resort and German authorities are now advising Germans to stay away from British holidaymakers, what a state we are in!), be able to keep eating without becoming ill and so on and so on. Any concept of society as being a balance of duties and entitlement has gone. No-one has a sense of duty, they only do things for reward, yet they expect to be entitled to everything. Of course, with the focus entirely on consumption, as long as that is satiated, they do not expect anything more.

Shopping is democracy. I think that is a real phrase that sums up so much of what is wrong with UK society, though I talked to a woman from Dubai the other day who complained British shops should stay open until 10pm as they do in Dubai (which has even less democracy than the UK so clearly needs more shopping!). Interestingly French, Belgian and German shops have much shorter opening hours than British shops and the French have their elections on a Sunday, when the shops are shut. As long as we can consume, British people feel free. They pay a high price in debt and bankruptcy, but they are clearly happy to make such sacrifices for their treasured 'democratic' right. Of course shopping is not democracy, even the right to shop is not democracy, it is division and exclusion. It depends on money which we have in varying amounts. Each vote in a democracy should count equally, but in consumption it is the differences which in fact we are concerned about. We actually want people we see as not of our type excluded from the shops we frequent. Now with home grocery deliveries we do not even mix with the rest of the public, in fact we shout out our exclusivity by the expense of the supermarket we have delivering to our house. Of course, as long as we can feel we can access shopping then we do not start complaining for other things. This is the opiate of the 21st century UK person, it dulls them to the pain of a decaying society and their mounting debts. Whenever the phrase 'retail therapy' came into use then we should have recognised our society was in need of real therapy.

O'Hagan has produced an epigram of the ills of UK society. As he correctly identifies it stems in part from looking too much to the USA which in itself has actually forgotten many of the facets that made it a worthwhile country in the past and replaced them with anger to disguise division and give a false sense of worth. The UK receives a distilled version of this, made worse by the fact that Britain has always been far more hierarchical and bar for a few years there has never been an opportunity for anyone 'to get on' here. We live in a neo-feudal state so all of these issues of consumption and anger and violence are as damaging today as they would have been in the 13th century, when at least you had religious precepts, developing civic pride and an aspiration to some kind of 'chivalry' however false it might have been in reality, to temper the impact of such individualistic behaviour and the damage it wreaks on people. Those tempering aspects are gone and we now face the full force of the individual becoming all powerful.

The Inspiration of 'The Water Margin'

These days British children have so many televisual role models to look up to everyone from the Bratz to Tracy Beaker to Young Dracula to Harry Potter or Hermione Granger the owners of Pokemon or Storm Hawks or even a Transformer and of course old stand-bys such as Doctor Who. Back in the 1970s there were fewer characters that gave you role models. Of course Doctor Who was around then, but who were you when you had to have a role to act out in the playground. For the boys who liked football you were someone from Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds United (yes, these days unbelievable) and for those with an eye on the future, Wimbledon. However, when not playing football and having tired of Doctor Who we came down to characters from two series which seemed to be repeated constantly on British television in the late 1970s and early 1980s: 'The Flashing Blade' (1967) and 'The Water Margin' (1973). 'The Flashing Blade' was a French series dubbed into English and cut from four 75-minute episodes into twelve 22-minute ones. It seems to have been set during the War of Mantuan Succession (1628-1631) between France and Spain-other Habsburg lands-Duchy of Savoy as the action revolves around the siege of Casale capital of Montserrat in 1629 and a French agent to relieve the French garrison there. So lots of dashing men in loose shirts and riding boots fighting with swords and flintlock guns.

Even more enduring was another dubbed series, 'The Water Margin'. This was first aired in the UK between 1976-78 in the UK early evening, despite scenes such as that in the first episode when a man's chopped off head is shown bouncing along, quite heavy stuff before the watershed. It was repeated in 1987 at the time of the general election and I had been watching it religiously as they ran it on consecutive nights. However, after 13 episodes it was halted due to election coverage (I think there were other reasons for this as I will discuss below). The wonderful thing about 'The Water Margin' was that it has a serious story and a great theme tune (as I have discussed before) but there is also humour and wonderful fight scenes. Some of it, especially around the exploitation of people is realistic but other elements were fantastical such as a man who could run the speed of the wind. The story was written by Shi Naian (1296-1372) and completed by Luo Guanzhong (possibly 1330-1400), and was based on the activities of Song Jiang and his 36 companions in the Huai River region of China in the 1120s before their defeat by government forces in 1126. The book came to be considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. In 1757 it was produced in Japan as the 'Suikoden' ensuring that the story became embedded in Japanese culture too.

The story of 'The Water Margin' is about 108 heroes very diverse in nature and abilities who come together to oppose the government of the Song dynasty, who hid out in the marshes of Liangshan Po (i.e. literally the water margin of the region). This was one of the winning elements of the series for fans because everyone had their favourite whether it was the disgraced hero soldier (Ling Chung), the tiger-fighter (Wu Sung), the 'ox' (I think Lu Ta), the tattooed swordsman, the man who could run as fast as the wind or one of the female characters, one of whom fought with two swords (Hu San-niang). The stories were dramatic with lots of personal sacrifice and betrayal, but with comradeship leading to victory of adversity. The dubbing was typical of that of martial arts movies of the 1970s not helped by the fact that many of the western dubbers had to do voices for more than one of the characters. However, the series was fast and exciting. I have never seen the whole thing right through and hope to be able to afford to buy it on DVD. I once saw the whole thing on video cassette stretching the whole length of a shelf in a small video shop in London, it looked very impressive but I would not have been able to afford it (or carry it home).

So, one can see why 'The Water Margin' appealed to youthful viewers, but why it endures is because of what it encourages us to do in our modern society. I particularly felt this during the Thatcher years when it was being shown. The references to 'the cruel and corrupt government' seemed as relevant in the 1980s as it might have done in the 1120s. Other titles for the novel are 'Outlaws of the Marsh', 'The Marshes of Mount Liang' and 'All Men Are Brothers' which is probably why the Communist regime still under Mao Zedong in 1973 was happy to allow this Chinese classic to be filmed by a Japanese company in China, not seeing the irony in the focus of the story. The message of 'The Water Margin' was hammered out each week first of all in the title, intoned by Burt Kwouk. You can find and hear it on YouTube and see why it always provoked a reaction. It seems that the opening line is not included which was 'As sparks fly upward, man is born unto sorrow' which sounds like a generic Chinese motto. However it then went on into specifics:

'The ancient sages said: "do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?" So may one just man become an army. Nearly a thousand years ago in ancient China, at the time of the Sung dynasty, there was a cruel and corrupt government. These men riding are outlaws - heroes - who have been driven to live in the Water Margins of Liang Shan Po, far to the south of the capital city. Each fights tyranny with a price on his head, in a world very different from our own. The story starts in legend even then, for our heroes, it was said, were perhaps the souls reborn of other, earlier knights.'

How great is that, it says that by banding together you can become strong and defeat a cruel and corrupt government. In addition at the end of each episode was a summary with a moral about what needed to be done next. In some ways it was very much like a Western and one can see easy parallels between the characters of 'The Water Margin' and gunmen in some Westerns such as 'The Magnificent Seven', of course itself derived from the Japanese 'The Seven Samurai'. This reference, I think was seen by the creators of the series as can be seen at the end when some of the heroes literally ride into the sunset with a rather clip-clopping tune. I think the parallels stem from ideas of duty and responsibility that come from handling a sword or a gun, something that seems very much forgotten in our age which seems so violent but in fact is almost on par with say 12th century China, 16th century Japan or 1880s USA/Mexico.

Thus, you had an action series which gave you suggestions for a way to live under a regime you did not feel was right, far better than sermons. It gave a sense of strength and that this was a serious series to be paid attention to compared to more popular entertainments. Watching across the numerous episodes and remembering all the characters seemed to give it gravitas. Everywhere you look there are positive reviews about this series and I know it probably would seem dated today, but it is a series I think it is important for children to watch and learn from. As it said in the last epsiode: 'Legend says these were reborn heroes already shaped for what they did by what they had done before. How often must it be done again; over and over again? As often as is necessary. Governments still govern, yet when sage and fool; king and peasant find a cause and Earth and Heaven mingle, there will come times when good and peace prevail. "Before you seek change", the sages said, "be very sure you have savoured all the joys of the present." Sometimes there is nothing to do but wait for the rain. Only men who face the time without illusion or fear will endure any fate to its end.' This suggests that there are some people who have the strength to resist 'the cruel and corrupt' and bring Earth and Heaven to mingle, it is up to those with that strength of character to bring about the necessary change and not shirk it as so many seem to these days in favour of an easy life that simply perpetuates misery for so many.