Wednesday, 24 September 2008

'The State We're Not': Essay on British Identity

I came across this essay on my work computer. It was my entry for the 2006 Pimlott essay writing prize. You can see by looking at the winning entries which I am sure are available somewhere online, why I stood no chance. Foolishly I went for a jovial, populist tone rather than the serious academic one of the winning entries. However, that tone probably makes this essay more suited to this blog environment. The title set was: 'Who Do You Think You Are? Can History Help Us to Define British Identity Today, or is it Part of the Problem?'. What I titled my essay is 'The State We're Not' a reference to Will Hutton's book, 'The State We're In' (1996) which was about the running of the British state. My essay is more about British culture and identity. Speaking to a woman from the Galicia region (which has its own language and culture and now a degree of autonomy) of Spain recently she was struck by the fact that Welsh people in Britain call themselves Welsh (there was a man present who had just done that) but English people called themselves British. As I have noted before, that is partly due to the difficulties around English identity. Anyway, I did not get to hear much about Galician vs. Spanish identity, but it did encourage me to dig out this essay, which I hope you find interesting.

'The State We’re Not'

Looking around UK society today, it is difficult to find positive examples of an appropriate British identity that you can adopt. How do you show you are British? Do you choose to be emblazoned with the Cross of St. George? Are you a Sunday-morning kilt wearer? Do you robe yourself in the garb that Victorians thought Druids wore? In most cases Britons will answer no. It is no easier when you go beneath such surface details. So how do you define yourself as someone who is British? Is it by the town you live in, even though you dislike your neighbours, let alone the people from ‘the estate’ or those from ‘the posh houses’? Is it by the team which you support, though that too is likely to divide you from more people than it is to link you with them? Is it by your language – one which is evolving quicker in Tokyo, Delhi, Beijing and Los Angeles than it is in Britain? Is it in the sense of what is ‘right’, the moral lead that Britain gives the world, though the more is known of our human rights record the more embarrassing it proves? Is it the ability to complain but not to act; the ability to seek to blame rather than to help? Maybe, but if not, how then do we define ourselves?

I would argue that in an era when many traditional views ‘Britishness’ are dismissed, it is only by defining what we are not that we get a sense of what it is to be British. The highly edited view of history in popular usage provides the tools to determine what so many of us brindle against. A fuller view of British history would provide a different picture, but one which most of us are not interested in hearing. Every country has dark and light sides in its story, and it is often hard for peoples to address the less palatable ones. The British feel we hold a trump card which means that when countries are challenged to tackle their history, we can claim, ‘well, we were the winners’, we decide what goes into the story and how it is told. Yet, I believe this let-out cheats the British of their true identity, something richer and more complex, and thus fascinating. Above all, something that would allow us to think and operate fully in the twenty-first century rather than with one foot still mired in the 1940s.

What, then, do we feel we are not? Stop someone in the street and these days most would say we feel we are not European. Many Britons welcome the proper teaching of History because it shows our young how we beat the ‘Europeans’. Even though Britain’s fighting men and women are lionized and national service would be returned at the drop of a referendum, we contrast Britain’s freedoms with the supposedly or once militaristic states abroad, notably Germany, Russia and Argentina. Somehow the British can love the military without there being anything wrong with it, whereas for others it is an ingredient of dictatorship. Having fought with every neighbouring country, and many others, in the preceding centuries and won, we believe this still equips us to tell them how to behave, whilst making their suggestions to us irrelevant.

‘Europe’ currently provides us with the scapegoat for all that is bad, from the comic regulation of our fruit and veg, to the level of taxes and the influx of foreigners. We expect special exemptions because we were the winners whereas the others were the aggressors or losers; we are the model that they should adopt. Our dismissing of anything European leaves us oblivious to facts like the French retirement age of 60 and that Belgian employees get 14 months’ pay each year to give them summer holiday and Christmas money. We are happy that the Europeans supply us, as they have for decades, with cheap shopping and cheap holidays, without ever asking, why these things are so expensive at home. Even if we do challenge such discrepancies there is always a simple answer: that must be something to do with the ‘EEC’. History can show that the British have had much exchange with the rest of Europe. As we find from among our surnames, despite our aspirations for isolation, there has long been traffic in both directions and connections with France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Greece and Russia to name a few.

We are less certain about this aspect, but generally we agree we not American. As with the Europeans, we feel that the Americans are somewhat na├»ve and in need of guidance from us, their elders. British history shows that our forces turn up first and stick it out, whilst cajoling the Americans into action. We admire their tough business practices, but would be bewildered if turned away from a hospital for having no health insurance or finding nowhere to ‘sign on’ after a few weeks unemployed.

In other ways we feel the Americans are soft. The ‘we-can-take-it’ attitude through centuries of fighting has meant that, unlike the squeamish Americans, generations of Britons raised on weekly casualty reports from overseas, if even from just across the Irish Sea, means we do not whimper as the death toll mounts. What goes for abroad applies to the home front too. September 11th – what is all the fuss? Who marks the days to remember Brighton, Docklands, Enniskillen, Guildford, Harrods, Manchester, Omagh and more? Is there a day in the British calendar on which some civilian has not been blown apart? The British have been through it and ‘keep on keeping on’. So, however much we would have liked to have our representatives in the Senate and have long preferred a bomb with a US flag on top, anything closer is only going to come once the Americans have matured to our level. Of course if we just viewed our Victorian history, we would know that, first, very many Americans have British roots, though these have been far more quickly lost than those with Irish, Italian, German or Polish connections. Second, that the current actions of the USA would look right and proper to those who had lived under any of Palmerston’s governments. Whilst this may not make them excusable it allows them to be understood and anticipated.

We are determinedly not political. ‘I don’t do politics’ has even been legitimised as a kind of catchphrase. We certainly do not see that the changes we desire, whether great or small, will be engineered or prevented by politics. There is a clear division between the outcomes we want and any method of achieving them that we will accept. Never educated about how our state works, we feel inadequate in any discussion of politics and this unease means, as a topic for discussion, politics is banned from dinner tables and sofas the length of the country. Such aversion, plus television, draws away those who once would have filled the ranks of the Chartists, the Suffragists, the Mosleyites and their opponents, and the anti-poll tax rioters. Nowadays we have a single, ineffectual, political weapon, the moan, used as we stand in the queue, as we shout at the television or at the drivers in the cars around us. Being British means being able to complain better than the rest; if it was an Olympic sport Britain would head the table for medals. Of course, Britain has never moved forward relying on simple complaints. Without something more dynamic in the past we would lack votes for many men and for all women; reasonable working conditions would be rare. Not knowing how such things were brought about, breeds both complacency and fatalism.

Anyone can bear witness that we are not merciful. News reports on the arrest of a murderer elicit scores of volunteers to be the executioner. In a country where guns are all but illegal, we would rather have every officer armed and a large portion of the ‘right’ people properly equipped too. Whereas we will not march, or certainly not more than once, to oppose a war or poverty or banning fox hunting, we relish the chance to pick someone else’s fight, even better if it is simply based on rumour and assumption. Rather than the activist we prefer to be the on-the-spot vigilante, to make the streets safe for us ‘decent’ people through our rage. Arbitrary justice is our favoured form with no time for lenient judges and the complexities of proof. We are British because we know what and who is wrong, and what ‘they’ should suffer as a consequence.

Feeling as powerless as we do in this society, the only tool of ordinary Briton is anger. From airport check-in desks to traffic jams we swear and jibe, hoot and jab with righteous indignation and a ‘how dare you!’ It stretches from those whose tack is ‘don’t you know who I am?’ to those who fall back on ‘do yourself a favour mate’. We are united and divided against each other in our ferocity. Our personal anger expelled temporarily, we slump back in our chairs to watch master classes in temper on our television. Reality TV shows us the reality of both our inability to cope with anything that confounds our plans and the force we use to challenge such ‘injustice’.

We are not tolerant. Whilst we may be sympathetic and occasionally reach a short way into our pockets to help, we would rather foreigners’ problems were dealt with in their own countries. For us, the words ‘asylum seeker’, no longer have any connection to persecution and torture, simply designating people who are not us, people who get greater benefits and an easier life than we will ever have, and yet who are at the heart of every local crime. Maybe this should not be surprising, as many corners of British history show where such tensions lead, from the forgotten anti-Semitic rioting of the First World War, through the Notting Hill riots of 1958 to the recent Bradford riots. Many of us define ourselves as not being ‘them’ - those invaders or in turn, not being ‘them’ – our attackers. Forgotten too is the fact that the British Isles are a landscape of settlement from pre-history to today; that the first Arabs arrived as Roman troops and racial legislation appeared in the 13th and 16th centuries. Through the centuries Britain has been a place of refuge. From Huguenots refugees of the 17th century through Jewish ones of the 19th and 20th centuries to the East African Asians of the 1970s, those fleeing persecution elsewhere have injected culture and prosperity, and contributed to the Britain as it is today. Forming opinions from perspectives that lack a sense of history may be a defining characteristic of the British, but it is liable to choke off such input in the future, leaving a society of stagnant attitudes and a stagnating economy.

Despite regular claims to the contrary, it is clear the British are not classless. E.P. Thompson argued that class was not about our place in an economic structure, but about our perceived standing in relation to the others around us in society, especially as consumption is now the basis of how we define our status. We define ourselves against everyone else we encounter; there are not three classes, but millions. I look down on him because his car has 0.2 litres less capacity than mine; I look up to her because her shoes came from that store; I look down on him because he has got last year’s toy; I look up to her because she got the chair by the window in the Television Room. Every aspect of our persona from where we live and work, and especially what possessions we have, separates us. You may argue that other countries are equally as divided, but the British add extra layers based on the less tangible aspects – our accents, our names and our attitudes. Ironically our consumer society means we are united in debt. So many of us teeter on the edge of bankruptcy; we are as vulnerable of a fall as any Victorian character of a Dickens or a Charles Palliser novel. For all our fine distinctions, so many of us are just a few purchases away from penury.

We are not intellectual. We relish the ability to dismiss learning; we are the only nation who can say someone is ‘too clever by half’ as if there is a quota we should not exceed. It is common to laud the self-made man, but such references now neglect that such people were also self-taught men and women as two examples from among the praised show: Brunel went to college, in France of all places, and Stephenson attended evening classes. These men did not despise learning in a way those attempting to be their equivalents do today who somehow assume great business people are born not painstakingly crafted.

Another role model swept under the historical carpet in more recent decades is that of the self-teaching trade unionist, probably best embodied by Peter Sellars in ‘I’m Alright Jack’. Whilst the movie ridiculed, it did note a common type of the 1950s: a man working to advance himself through study. Ironically, now, in a time when more people than ever can access education whether face-to-face or online, you cannot even satirise such people, because they have been wiped from history and a person’s knowledge of a football team’s record or the latest ‘Big Brother’ happenings win him or her higher status than any ability in history or engineering.

We are not lazy. Britons are united in how long they work. How would the Victorian reformers view our work practices now? A century and a half of legislation has not eliminated the long hours and the workplace injuries. Whilst we may have fewer bank holidays and work longer hours than colleagues in neighbouring countries, every employee is made to feel greedy for taking off time that is legitimately theirs. No comment on workplace sickness is unaccompanied by allegations of malingering; no reference to statutory leave is not countered by talk of how many millions each bank holiday costs employers. The history written in the future is more likely detail how many who were made unemployed by the minimum wage than to outline how many chip shop workers, as a result of its introduction, for the first time could afford a portion of fish and chips from an hour’s work.

We are not celebrities. The magical aura that so many Britons grasp for shows how many of us will not attain it. Our voices will never be spurned by a panel of experts, our dressing gowns will never be viewed through Channel 4 cameras, we will never be asked to escape from a jungle, and we will never attend Elton’s or the Beckhams’ bash. Yet, because the day-to-day work of most is so devalued, we aspire for our fifteen minutes of fame or notoriety, as if something not done in front of millions of viewers lacks value. Those of us who fail to become the latest manufactured pop idol, are thus left with nothing but shrieking in public places and condemning anything that we feel is alien, to give us some sense of being worthwhile.

So what is the role of history? The first question has to be – which history? Two decades of schools focusing on the history of wars and ‘great’ people has left so many of us without a history that relates to our present. Just as much as the ‘losers’ like France and Germany, China and Japan are having to address their histories, with all their difficulties, so must Britain. There are too many dark corners that to many have become myths to be denied. Who remembers that whilst Churchill never ordered a miner shot. he favoured sterilising habitual criminals? Who now believes that in 1910 King George V thought the country was on the verge of civil war? Who is familiar with Britain’s ‘punitive’ aerial bombings over Iraq in the 1920s? Who talks about keeping Jews out of air-raid shelters in the early days of the Blitz? Who describes that the Catholics welcomed the British Army into Northern Ireland for their protection in 1969? Who teaches what issues caused the Three-Day Weeks? Who can explain why the Community Charge was dubbed the ‘poll tax’? An incomplete, or even worse, a selected history, makes for an incomplete national identity. An identity for the future cannot be one that has its feet mired in a distorted view of the past. It has to be based on the good and bad of every country, not viewed rosily nor seeking to demonise those of other times and places.

How can history play its part in identity? With so much negativity, who can offer a solution? Where is the focus of pride? Maybe television offers some answers, look to Tony Robinson and to the late Fred Dibnah. These ‘amateur’ enthusiasts were in a position to interpret history to be both interesting and relevant in a form accessible to viewers. The stories they have told are of a Britain in all its complexity, involving all kinds of people. They successfully highlight that the great moments of history have been underwritten by hard slog. The great cathedrals, the burgeoning cities, the glorious victories, the NHS are all built on sweat and ache of millions of hands motivated by an infinity of thoughts and ambitions. There is a place for the rulers and the governors in such stories, but they are not us, they are not the people who actually did the things which have created the Britain and thus the Britons which we know.

What If Elizabeth I Had Not Become Queen?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Exits: REVISED. 'What If?' Outcomes for Tudor and Stuart Monarchs’ by Alexander Rooksmoor. It is available for purchase on Amazon:
UK readers might prefer to access it through:

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Being 'Past It'

I have commented before about how having become 40 in the past year, I realised that all the things people said about this phase of your life were lies. Life does not 'begin' at 40, in fact so many things that had been open to you in previous years are now shut off. In the UK it becomes far harder to get a job when you pass 40 and you are more likely to be the one who is made redundant when there are cutbacks. Unlike in some cultures, experience is not valued in UK business, rather low salaries and malleability are those things that are the most rated.

As you are growing up you soon learn that the doors close behind you pretty quickly as you age. A school-aged child soon learns that they are now unable to go in the part of the park reserved for toddlers or sit around all day watching CBeebies and having a snooze in the afternoon. This is particularly the case in the UK where children now typically start school at 4 (compared to 5 when I began and 6 even now in Sweden and South Africa) and by the time they are 7 they are sitting their first exams. It is ironic that maturation of children is now accelerated in the UK by this country's (or certainly its government's) desperate need to monitor everything and yet, juvenalisation of adults continues.

We sort of freeze our children at 11-14 constantly sitting exams but never taking on any responsibility and being ferried around by their parents. Hence people in their 20s and 30s take on minimal responsibility for their health or their behaviour, so we have binge drinking and an unwillingness to recognise the consequences of your actions or make any effort to change them or society. This is a society in which our parents now take responsibility for us until they die.

Anyway, as we pass through life the doors are always closing behind us, but in exchange we get given new things. Okay, so now I have to go to school but I have a big group of friends and find out new things and go on trips and so on. So now school has finished and my life lacks structure and direction, but I can drink alcohol and take drugs and have sex without too much hassle and so on.

People are very aware of these stages, despite the fact that in the UK we have long lacked proper rites of passage which make it difficult to see these change. I think we should have a civil version of the Jewish Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah (the female equivalent) which comes around 13 and there is a recognition that the child is coming into adulthood and importantly, that they now put aside childish things. Such rhetoric is part of Christianity but the British Christian churches (despite the increase in popularity of their schools) seem to wash their hands even more of the role of maturing young people than they have in the past. Sorry, we are moving off into a whole new topic.

Back to the point, despite the British lack of rites of passage people are quite sharply aware of these steps, as I am here with being 40. When you become 30 you look around at/think back to how many of your contemporaries got married. I attended 6 weddings the year I turned 30. I felt it was like the party game musical chairs, i.e. when the music stops drop down on the nearest chair or you miss out. In many cases people marrying at that stage just seemed to have plumped for whoever was convenient, because otherwise they would miss the vital date. No-one saw me as a suitable candidate, perhaps because at that stage I was dating women either 2 years older than me or 7 years younger and I never anticipated being married myself even if they had been willing. In the former case she wanted a husband taller than her, rather than the same height (6'0") which I am; she did find him.

When you turn 40 you lose so much, as I outline in this posting, but there is nothing you are offered in exchange, there is nothing new that you are able to do or access. You have the same worries as you had at 35 but fewer opportunities to counter-balance them, no wonder we hit 'mid-life crisis'. The only thing to look forward in my life now is retirement. At a minimum that is 25 years away and more likely given population changes and economic needs, 30 years away. In addition, retirement is no longer the time when you can sit back and relax and enjoy hobbies.  Instead the financial restraints, the number of pension funds that have been raided by companies, means, actually, it is the time when you drop into poverty.

So, the next big milestone for me, like millions of other Britons, is going to be even worse than this one. My father, now 70 himself, once mooted why more pensioners do not take hard drugs. They have nothing to live for except dying when they can no longer afford to pay the fuel bills, so, he suggested, why now go out in a heroin-induced haze at 66? He is of the generation with good pensions and good health so is enjoying travel and exercising, reading, eating out, all those things that will be denied my generation as we fight each other to try to secure that job collecting up the shopping trolleys at Tescos so we can afford to have a single heater on in our homes.This is jumping forward in time a bit, let us come back to the situation for me now. In recent weeks other things have re-emphasised to me how I have passed a point of no return. Two colleagues in the wider business that I have tried contacting, have turned out to be on maternity leave, one with her first child, one with her second. Both of them are in their late twenties, but with lots of time to produce the three children which seems to be the standard number for middle class British families these days. I know, as a man, I can keep on producing children until I am in my 70s, but female contemporaries of mine are very unlikely to be able to do so. So, if I entered a long-term relationship now then there would be no children out of it.

As it is, for me, the age of relationships seems passed. This was re-emphasised by another colleague, a newcomer to the company, working as a PA. Initially she dressed in a low-key almost, dour way, but in the past week her wardrobe has changed to over-the-knee boots, shrugs and short dresses and her hairstyle from a simple ponytail to elaborate tresses. The mumbled conversations on the telephone in the office, with her back turned to the door, suggest that a relationship is afoot which has provoked her changed style. There is no way I can envisage, at my age, provoking such a reaction in a woman these days, let alone actually starting a new relationship. From men I know, a decade or so older than me, I am aware that even if you can get a woman to go out with you she is simply interesed in a platonic relationship and any steps towards anything physical, however mild, ends the relationship immediately.

Of course, the women out there of my age are unlikely to be particularly enthralling. Recently I stumbled across an online discussion about making Easter gardens, by a woman I had known at university. At that time I knew her, she had been incredibly sweet but also sexy. As I have recounted before, I completely bungled any relationship with her, something I had regretted up until now. However, reading the discussion about such a mundane issue on a website group for Christian mothers, I did think, well, even if we had hit it off, then no doubt this would be the kind of woman I would be married to now, and my life would be no better than it is for me anyway.

I suppose we all turn into our parents. For me that is a particularly unpleasant phenomenon and I shudder when I hear my father's expressions in things I say as I would loath to be ever as mean spirited and have such a violent temper as him. However, what I am saying here, is maybe we cannot escape that development. At best, we can only be incrementally different to our parents, despite how we may appear in our 20s. To discover the sweet and sexy woman has mutated into a Christian mother and an expert on Easter gardens reveals that it can even happen to those you do not expect it from.

The other thing is health. Compared to even just five years ago when I would spring from bed and cycle to work I am now in a situation in which getting up in the mornings is a long and painful process. My joints seem to hurt constantly and lethargy is also a constant companion. It does not matter how early I go to bed, I still wake exhausted. Even a light meal leaves me bloated and without appetite; nothing seems to have flavour. All my faculties seem to be crumbling away rapidly. I already take seven medicines each day and a varying number to counter their side effects. I still have 25 years of working life, if not more, as the working age is liable to rise in that time, what is it going to be like trying to get ready for work when I am 65 if it is already so tough now?

Life does seem incredibly tedious. By the time you reach 40 there is nothing unexpected left. You have a very jaded attitude to things. Nothing is stimulating, it is simply tedious. I suppose we know too well how expensive everything costs. Travel and holidays are too expensive to consider and anyway, you know all the things that are going to go wrong at the airport, with your luggage, with the hotel, with the food, with thieves, etc., etc. Exotic places seem simply to hold hazard, expense and trouble and prove to be more of a burden than if you simply sat at home. Even going to Belgium and to Bath, hardly exotic in anyone's view, proved to be a series of problems and expense. It is not that I am jaded from having seen and done too much, in fact the reverse.

The 1990s were probably my decade of opportunity, I was aged between 23-33. However, I earned £5408 (€6,814; US$9,626) per year at the start of the decade and £9500 (€12,065; US$16,910) at the end and, of course, that was with UK high prices on food, clothes and rent. I had three holidays in the 1990s: one week on a canal boat in the Midlands, one week in a house in France and two weeks cycling between cheap hotels in France, that was it. I did not experience any of the changes in Eastern Europe or go to India or anything. Of course if I had tried, no doubt I would have had all my belongings stolen or I would have been killed or caught some terrible disease. This sort of thing is going to be very common for people who have just left university this year and have thousands of pounds of debt.

Due to the difficulty of finding work, I was a little ahead of my time. British young people today are being constrained into the kind of dull life that I experienced even before they turn 40 and they will envy their European counterparts who at least have a little more ability to experience something different. My brother's wife is about to have a baby in Belgium and I can tell now that his/her life will be far more interesting than that of the 6-year old living in my house who will never go to university and will probably be shot dead in Iran or Syria as part of a British invasion force 12 years from now. The same applies to that boy's cousin just about to be born, though, given how repressive his parents already are, his grim life will start from the moment he sees daylight.

I know I am 'past it' as the popular British phrase says. I have got as far in my career as I will ever get. I have had all the relationships and all the travel that I will ever have. My income will decline from now on and my life will be grey and plagued by ill-health. Of course, anyone over 40 knows all this. However, this message is to anyone who is under 40, even if you are 35: get out there, spend and travel as much as you can, have as much sex and alcohol as you can get. There is no future. You have another forty or fifty years once you turn 40 and the greyness of those years will seek to erase any excitement that you might have had up to then, so you must build up an excellent resource of thrilling memories.

Do not believe the lie, life does not begin at 40, it begins its agonisingly slow descent to death. I suppose I am fortunate. I was told back in the 1980s that I had a life expectacy of 51. I have had premonitions, surprisingly precise ones, that I will die in a car fire in Spain in 2024 when I am 57. The premonitions suggest my father will die in 2020 at the age of 83 and my mother, 8 years later, at the age of 90. So they will have had a good 'innings' as us Britons describe it and I should only have to bear the next 11-17 years. Looking at it that way, however, it seems like ages. So, anyway, do not be like me, heed my warning, and live an interesting life before the greyness subsumes you.

Friday, 19 September 2008

'Ultraviolet' - The Television Series

If you want to watch the television series 'Ultraviolet' (1998) I warn that this posting gives away a lot of details of the stories that you might want to find out for yourself.I have just finished viewing the boxed DVD set of the British television series, 'Ultraviolet', not to be confused with the Mila Jovich movies of the same name. 'Ultraviolet' has a strong cult following and there is good coverage about it on the internet, but there are elements of it that I want to explore myself. It was shown in 1998 on Channel 4, in the UK. It ran to only six episodes. Though it finishes with potential leads into a sequel, the writer Joe Ahearne said that it was intended only to be that long. There is a comprehensive interview with him on the official website run by the company that produced the programme (since the late 1980s most drama series shown on British television have been made by small independent companies rather than the broadcasting companies themselves). See:

What is special about 'Ultraviolet'? It is a vampire series, focusing on four members of a special British unit whose job is to investigate what the vampires want, how they are going to achieve it and to ultimately eliminate them. The unit is very mysterious. The vampires suggest it is a Vatican-backed organisation, partly because the leader of the unit, Pearse Harman, is a Catholic priest, or possibly a lapsed priest. In fact, it is clearly an official part of the British police system. Its agents pose as CIB (Complaints Investigation Bureau, not the Companies Investigation Branch, which was a civil service unit 1985-2006, now the Insolvency Service), a real section of London's Metropolitan Police. This unit featured most prominently in the BBC series 'Between the Lines' (1992-4). Wrongly, on the box of the DVD collection, the text says that the unit is called CIB and that this is specially set up to combat vampires; in fact the title CIB is simply a cover for when the members of the unit are investigating other police officers and this deception is quickly revealed.

At other times, the team in 'Ultraviolet' present themselves as so-called 'T Section', an anti-terrorist section of the police service, though at the time, in reality, this role was filled by the Anti-Terrorist Squard of the Metropolitan Police. Certainly the unit portrayed in the series, with small but well-equipped headquarters can call on a specially equipped armed police unit with ease. So, we get a sense it is a paramilitary unit (the armed police wear balaclavas to conceal their faces, as SAS troops do when in action in civil situations). Thus, probably the closest equivalent is the section of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) which Mulder and Scully work for in 'The X-Files' (series 1993-2002). Unlike the USA's FBI, the UK has no national police force but sometimes the Metropolitan Police officers work on national issues.

The Code 5 Unit Members

One characteristic of the series was the scientific approach to the issue of vampires. One of the team, Dr. Angela March (played by Susannah Harker who had had great success in the renowned 'Pride & Prejudice' (1995)) is a haemotologist whose husband, a leading doctor in the same field, and her younger daughter, had both been 'crossed over' by the vampires. The vampires are never referred to as such in the series, they are always 'Code 5s' (because the Roman numeral for 5 is 'V') mimicking the way the British police characterise different racial groups by code numbers, e.g. IC1 refers to Caucasians. In the series the vampires are colloquially referred to as 'leeches'.

The scientific aspect runs right through the series and it is interesting to see issues of concern in the late 1990s which have so quickly fallen out of the public view. The vampires are concerned that their food supply (humans) is being contaminated by disease. There are references to BSE (better known as 'mad cow disease), Gulf War Syndrome and sickle cell anaemia. Other contemporary topics which get drawn into the plots include police corruption, child abuse, immigration, ethnic cleansing, the after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster, the impact of damage to the rain forests, the possibility of nuclear winter and climate change.

Dr. Angela March played by Susannah Harker

The vampires are also seeking ways to spread their control of humans. When a victim is bitten in 'Ultraviolet' the wound is invisible except under ultraviolet light, it heals quickly and the victim has no memory of the attack. However, it infects them, making them irritated by light and religious symbols. It also makes them far more amenable to suggestions and so more likely to comply with subsequent attacks by the vampires. The vampires hope to spread this infection through an altered form of meningitis. In equally sophisticated plotting they seek to breed vampires through in-vitro fertilisation packaging vampire DNA in human sperm. They also try to develop artificial blood which is sustainable over a long period.

Dr. March studying a Code 5 wound under ultraviolet light

The way that the vampires are fought always raises interest and as with these other aspects it is on a scientific basis. In this 'Ultraviolet' is the precursor of movies such as 'Underworld' and especially the 'Blade' series, from 1998, (though, of course, that movie's bases go back to comic strips of the 1970s, so can be seen as a precursor of 'Ultraviolet'). The team use guns which fire carbon-tipped bullets and grenades with carbon shrapnel. Apparently these were proceeded by 'wooden bullets' that one vampire refers to. Dr. March has isolated allicin from garlic which is seen as the active ingredient against vampires and it is used in gas grenades.
Carbon-tipped Hollow-point Bullet
Pistol with Code 5 Detecting Sights

Interestingly vampires in 'Ultraviolet' not only have no reflection, but cannot have their voices or images recorded or transmitted by video, ultrasound, telephones, etc. To send messages they have to use voice synthesis systems. Nor can their fingerprints be taken even just using ink, which to me seems rather ridiculous. The invisibility to video means that the team's guns have small video screens so that they can tell the vampires from the normal population. If killed, the vampires in the series burst into huge flames and ash is left, something else seen in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'Blade', though in this case the explosion can be very forceful: agent Vaughan Rice escapes from a disused warehouse by killing a vampire and so blowing a hole in a steel door.

Vaughan Rice played by Idris Elba

The ash can be reconstituted (clothing the vampire in what they were wearing at their time of death too) by having vampire, not human, blood poured on it. To avoid reconstitution 'dead' vampires are kept in steel cylinders in a large chilled vault. The character Michael Colefield does use a stake once, a large shard of wood blown from a wooden children's roundabout, though he drives it into the right side rather than the left, heart side, of the vampire's chest to kill him. Apparently the carbon just has to enter the chest cavity to work.

Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield played by Jack Davenport
Standing in front of the vault of Code 5 remains

Ultraviolet light on its own does not seem to harm the vampires, though sunlight burns them very quickly and unlike, say, the vampires in 'Blade', they cannot recover from this. The vampires are immune to pain killers and cannot be anaethetised. March has to operate on the vampire Hoyle while he is fully conscious and wittering on.

The vampires are shown as being incredibly arrogant and manipulative. To weaken the opposition they seek out what each individual wants and exploit this, for example, through providing specific medical care or appealing to their desire for power or sex. They play on Michael Colefield's guilt over killing his friend, Jack Beresford, (played by Stephen Moyer who appears in the recent US vampire series 'True Blood' as Louisiana vampire Bill Compton) who had become a vampire, and his feelings for his Jack's fiancee, Kirsty Maine. They do this in order to recover the remains of Angela March's husband, Robert, a leading haemotologist who had been turned by them. Michael expunges his guilt by tricking them into reviving Jack rather than Robert.

The vampires argue that they do not force people into vampirism, but this is untrue as they manipulate them and have no qualms in forcing children into the condition if it gives them who they want, in particular control over powerful individuals and specific scientists. This gives them a modern unpleasant air which is different to the scares of traditional horror movies. It also seems to have parallels to how people are manipulated by the state. The vampires portray themselves as victims of a policy of racial extermination and argue that they are the ones seeking peace, though on their terms, which seem to be in a darkened world where humans are kept like battery hens for feeding.

Overall, the tone of the series is very low key and bleak which means it does not appeal to all viewers. There were attempts to replicate it in the USA with Idris Elba (who plays Vaughan Rice, a soldier who was a veteran of the First Gulf War where his unit was eliminated by vampires) repeating his role over there. However, the reason it failed (the pilot was never broadcast) is because the Americans cannot tolerate gloom in the way British audiences can. This is noticeable even in 'The X-Files' and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (series 1997-2003, with 9, not 7, series despite what many websites say) that there is an upbeat resolution even if individual episodes are bleak (and with 144 episodes there was room for that).

The casting was very good for adding to this gloom. Philip Quast, an Australian actor who played Harman had experience of playing priests before and brings a sober attitude that suggests that he is less confident in his faith than he later proves to be. Susannah Harker has a perfect mournful appearance, which worked so well as her Elizabeth Bennet being so out of her depth in 'Pride and Prejudice'. She acts well as a person who have lost a loved one and are trying to move on through work in particular but unable to do so. Idris Elba has a tough character who speaks softly and is probably the least complex, but this cold front reinforces the others. Jack Davenport who plays the 'hero' Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield was effectively reprising his cynical lawyer Miles from the very successful series 'This Life' (1996-7) an approach which has done him well in the three 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies (2003-7) as Commodore Norrington. Corin Redgrave who plays Dr. Paul Hoyle in two episodes and ends up effectively as spokesman of the vampires, again is like the character he played in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994), polite, but arrogant and not someone you would want to spend time with.

Reverend (?) Pearse Harman played by Philip Quast

You do wonder if some of the names were particularly chosen. In Vaughan Rice, Rice clearly has parallels to the vampire author Anne Rice, and Vaughan to leading US author Robert Vaughan, who served in Vietnam and won the Air Medal with a V for Valour, amongst other numerous decorations. Angela March, well Angela and Angel is a typical connection; there was the screenwriter Joseph Moncure March; the March family are in 'Little Women' (1868); Frederic March acted in 'Long Day's Journey into Night', but perhaps now my links are getting too tenuous. In Pearse Harman, Patrick Pearse was an Irish author executed following the 1916 Uprising, there are lots of authors called Harman, including one from Australia, and Andrew Harman who writes comic fantasy novels, including 'Farenheit 666' (1995). Maybe this breaks down when you get to Michael Colefield as I can find no writers with that surname.

Overall 'Ultraviolet' was an excellent piece of work in bringing established horror concepts into a contemporary setting whilst addressing other grave issues facing the world. It has a consistently effective style featuring action, but not overly dependent on it. Yet, it shocks us and holds our attention in more sophisticated and subtle ways that are not purely dependent on the vampire element, but also nasty aspects of our own modern society, e.g. a paedophile used by the vampires and a woman carrying a vampire child. In turn, as some of the vampires do, this challenges us to reflect on how nasty humans are and whether we are actually no better than vampires. It also set down the foundations for the 'scientific' influenced vampire stories of the late 1990s and 2000s. It seems about time that we have something new that is like this.

The USA seems to be producing numerous vampire series and I will have to see the quality of these in coming months (I have series 1 of 'Blood Ties' to watch). Unfortunately, the 'Blade' series was pulled after only 13 episodes, suggesting the US audiences are not tolerant of complex stories of this ilk, even when backed with action. Saying, that 'Supernatural' has persisted well, though perhaps audiences associate with two clean-cut, white, American young men more easily. I have hopes for 'True Blood', but I doubt the Americans can pull off the really heavy impact of UK series, with moral dilemmas and foreboding. 'Ultraviolet' is a little classic and I advise you to go out and buy or rent a copy.

P.P. There is a good review of the series on another Blogspot blog: 'Talesin meets the vampires'. It is run by an author of vampire stories. The posting about 'Ultraviolet' is at:

P.P.P. Interestingly I have come across an anime movie released this year called 'Ultraviolet: Code 044' which is about a genetically engineered woman ('044') in Japan who works for a government organisation that eliminates 'Hemophages', as the vampires are termed. Unable to kill one 'Bacteriophage' (what that is, you have to imagine) during a battle she ends up on the run from the agency and the vampires.

P.P. 12/01/2012
I should have spotted this sooner, but you can now watch the entire series for free via the 4OD service run by Channel 4:

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Property in the UK 11: Overload at the Tax Office

As I have commented before, financially my life is very much on hold at the moment. I expect to be made redundant in August 2009 and to have my house repossessed a couple of months after that. In the meantime I am waiting for a capital gains tax bill. This is because, foolishly, I got work outside London and so instead of selling my flat immediately, I rented it out. This brought huge charges (over £16,500) from Newham Council and so no profit on letting it out. It did rise in value which is one good thing and helped me to buy my current house which otherwise I would not have been able to afford, and so stopped me being constantly kicked out of houses by greedy landlords wanting to play the market by playing with people's lives (this happened to me twice in 2007 losing me thousands of pounds in moving twice and causing a lot of stress).

Selling my 'business' has left me with a capital gains tax bill. I have no real idea how much this might be, something between £3000-£8000, with the best estimate at £6,600 (€8,316; US$11,748) and I have saved up less than half that sum so far. I rang the Revenue & Customs's 'Time to Pay' helpline which simply had a woman telling me how foolish I was not to hold back more money from the sale and that going bankrupt was immoral. Anyway, I dare not buy or plan anything until I know exactly what the final bill is going to be and so whether I need to put the house on the market or try and beg another loan from the bank. So, I asked for all the relevant forms as soon as I could once the financial year ended in April. I was sent the wrong forms twice and on the third occasion the correct form but an out-of-date one, i.e. for 2006-07 rather than 2007-08 which is what I am dealing with. Anyway, after all that, I get my form completed and in at the end of July.

Now, anyone who deals with the Revenue and Customs, which is a lot of people these days since self-assessment for small business tax was introduced in, I think, 1997, anyway, the late 1990s, knows that this year they have reduced all the deadlines. Now you have to submit any paper-based assessment by 31st October and if you want the tax people to do the tax calculations, you must get it in by 30th September. You used to be able to submit up until the end of January and the end of October if you wanted to have it calculated (and for the bulk of us who cannot afford an accountant at £1,200 per month [€1,512; US$2,136,] this is a must; I never got more than £700 per month in rent on my flat and that was before maintenance charges). They are trying to cajole people to submit their forms online. If you do that you can have up until 31st January to do it. However, given the government's appalling record of losing our data, in recent months including information about millions of child benefit claimants, names of prison officers and police applicants amongst others, few of us trust these systems and prefer to stick to paper.

Six weeks having passed since I submitted my form, I rang Revenue and Customs to see if they could tell me my bill. They said that they should be able to, but the tax office that handles my account is totally snowed under with returns brought on by the shortened deadline and that they can give no indication of when the calculation will be complete. I was told also that if I had submitted the form after 30th September then they could not have provided the capital gains tax bill until March even though the due date for payment would be 31st January and as I have been repeatedly told there is no flexibility with that date. As the man pointed out quite blatantly this means I could have been expected to pay a bill before I even knew the sum I was being asked for! Apparently this is totally legal. The trouble is of course is that they assume we all have accountants who can give us a close estimate that we can pay on and top up if we are wrong. As the man indicated, if you pay insufficient, then you get penalty charges imposed, so you might as well clear out your accounts and send it all and I may be compelled to do that if I get no information.

The Revenue and Customs's plan has backfired and they have brought a crisis down on their own heads by cutting the deadline times. They have to recognise that many people distrust online submission of things. Often you encounter poorly designed websites that send you round in circles. Often websites give no indication if the information has gone through or been received so that you have to ring up anyway to check. Then there is the issue of data security which the British government and its civil service seems to have the worst record on in the world. As I have noted before because of debit card cloning, I, like many people in the UK have moved away from using electronic payments and gone back to cash or even cheques.

So, I sit here, hoping that in some office in Manchester they can get through the backlog of forms sent in and then tell me my bill in a reasonable time, so I can start finding out whether the house which I foolishly used this money to buy and is now worth £20,000 less than when I bought it in December 2008, needs to be put on sale in the weak housing market, whether I can borrow the sum needed or whether I have to take the 'immoral' option and go bankrupt. The not knowing, though, I think is the most stressful aspect, and I am angry with Revenue and Customs for them catching me up in the consequences of their misguided experiment.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

UK Social Divisions Hardened By Education

If you want to know where Britain is going in terms of its social structure it is always worth reading the Education pages of websites like the BBC. Their stories, as is suitable for a website, are usually tightly focused, but it only takes reading a few stories to begin to see an overarching picture. I have commented before about how higher education is becoming closed off to children from both middle and working class backgrounds because of the huge cost and the debt it throws people into. The fees on study in England are likely to be uncapped in the coming years. Already students leave university with debts of £15,000 (€18,900; US$26,700) and this expected to be up to £17,000 this year. There are bursaries available, but actually you have to come from poor backgrounds to qualify for these and while they are not negligible to the poorest students, they leave out a large chunk of the population.

The government has been driving to increase the number of people going into higher education for over a decade now and they are succeeding, though the rise has slowed down since 2002 and it has still benefited middle class people more than working class. We are getting simply more people from the class that was the one which sent their children to university before. Public spending has risen on higher education by 48% 2000-2005. The UK is now about the OECD average for attendance at university which is 56% of school leavers going into higher education. This fits a common trend. Countries with smaller populations such as Australia (about 16 million people) and Iceland have seen the largest jumps and the highest level of participation. Poland, Finland and importantly the USA have seen larger jumps than the UK and have higher participation. The UK does lead EU rivals like Spain (which has recorded a fall in university students since 2000) and Germany as well as Japan. However, it is clear that this shift in the UK is having other collateral effects that might not have been anticipated. It is actually reversing rather than improving opportunities for social mobility.

I have noted before how a degree is almost becoming like a baseline qualification for people to get any kind of decent job. Reports on the BBC have shown that as a consequence the gap between those people who have degrees and those who do not, in terms of income, is actually widening. In 1997 graduates were likely to earn 53% more than non-graduates throughout their careers, now the figure is 59%. To some degree this is unsurprising, given the vast debts students now incur they will press for salaries which will help them pay this back. It is not only a an issue of income, but also the range of jobs to which you must have a degree to gain access. This situation has been worsened by the government cut-back of funding into 'lifelong learning', i.e. people going back to take new courses and/or retrain when they are in their 30s-60s; the number of people doing this kind of learning has fallen by 1.5 million compared to 2006. The UK is in danger of becoming even more like France, where if you have the misfortune to have trained in an industry which has become obsolete you find it almost impossible to get into another profession because of the training requirements. Basically, the UK is moving to a 'Brave New World' pattern. Rather than being categorised at 11 as used to be the case, it will now come at 18 and those who get a degree go into the 'Beta' class (most of us cannot get into the 'Alpha' class even with degrees because of the engrained position of wealthy families and privilege in the UK, you are categorised into that or not, at birth) or the 'Delta' class or even 'Gamma' class.

The split is not even. With women making up 56% of university students, there is going to be an imbalance with more female Betas than male ones. This is already happening and is clashing against a system in which women still earn 17% less than their male counterparts in the UK. Either this 'ceiling' will be broken or it is another way to keep down salaries as more of the Beta class is come to be made up of relatively cheaper women, so again keeping even skilled and well-educated people away from the decent incomes of the Alphas, the super-wealthy. The other thing is that it is very racially imbalanced. The fact that more people from Asian backgrounds go into medical professions compared to Caucasians who are the most numerous racial group in the UK, has long been a trend. However, in other reports, the continued challenges of advancing children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds is still being noted. The blame seems to be levelled in turn at institutional racism, that schools give up on black children from the start and at youth culture among Afro-Caribbean children, especially boys, which glamourises crime and violence.

Personally I think both factors are to blame. However, I think this also neglects that actually all youth culture nowadays for whatever race the children come from glamourises a criminal lifestyle. This is as detrimental for girls as it is for boys as it suggests that it is good for them to become blond-haired, air-headed 'bimbos' who gain acceptance by complying with the demands of males and concentrating on fashion, binge drinking and drug-taking. For boys it is that they need to be tough, drink, take drugs, have lots of unprotected sex, carry a knife or a gun and buy credibility by being violent and carrying out criminal activities. This goes for white children, mixed-race children and Asians as much as it does for blacks. None of this is new, you can go back to 'West Side Story' of the mid-1950s to see similar views.

I agree that Britain like many countries in the EU suffers from institutional racism, but I think that on top of that is institutional class prejudice as well. It has long been recognised that teachers give up on working class children and it has been proven that intelligent children from such backgrounds fall behind less intelligent children from wealthy backgrounds almost immediately on entering school. This is because teachers privilege the language and culture of the middle classes and schools are dependent on the costly support for learning at home that comes through buying computers, paying for after-school classes, etc. that only middle class people (and increasingly only the top end of that bracket) can afford. As children are tested so regularly at school, the curriculum has become too large to accommodate in the school day and so it spills after school. The six-year old in my house is already doing homework, five years earlier than I started it. Homework increasingly needs an internet connected computer, a colour printer and has always needed a quiet spacious place. With libraries now noisy spaces with no room for study, those without sufficiently large houses are going to lose out. Problems identified in the 1950s are back with a vengeance. Of course Afro-Caribbean families are often working class and so suffer these issues twice over. Racial definition is too simplistic in the UK anyway, especially given how many mixed-race families there are and siblings and half-siblings with different skin colours actually get treated the same, not because of their particular individual racial characteristics, but because of the home context they come out of and how that is perceived by teachers.

So, even if there was not an active policy of hardening social divides, trends in British society, exacerbated by government policy are actually doing this. However, there is an added element which I picked up on in June and that is, that the privileged are beginning to bite back. Now more than even in the Thatcher years they are losing their shame about their positions and the benefits they gain. They seem to believe that the era of democratisation of the 1960s and 1970s is truly at an end, probably helped by the Blairite party having been in power and the Conservatives moving away from grammar school Thatcher and Major to Eton-educated, clearly elitist, Cameron. The statements of Rear Admiral Chris Parry in regard to keeping ordinary children out of private schools proved to be too rich, but it did mark a trend which it is clear is not going away and the privileged are becoming emboldened after his ranging shot. Vice-Chancellor Alison Richard, head of the University of Cambridge has said that universities should not be about social engineering. Effectively she was telling governments to back off and stop telling the elite universities to let in more ordinary people. Reports in July 2008 showed how there had been little improvement in the elitist approach to entry to all universities. Ironically Cambridge allowed in 59% of its students from state schools (which make up 93% of the secondary education sector) this year, the highest percentage since 1981. However, I doubt this level will be sustained. In addition, this figure also shows that by getting 41% of the places students from private education are effectively almost six times over-represented at Cambridge.

As I have noted before, Britain is moving to a very hierarchical society in which social mobility will be very limited. Education was once seen as a way to break such patterns but now it is clear it is simply reinforcing them. Any attempt from the government to challenge these things either economically (look how the windfall tax is being choked off by utility companies) or by policies is stopped by the ultra-rich and other privileged sectors of British society. After a few decades of having to keep their head down they feel their time has come and they are speaking openly about keeping back those (the majority) from other sectors of society and teachers are active collaborators in this. All are happy to have a youth culture that they can condemn but are actually please because it stops too many people questioning and challenging the hardening status quo.

'It's Chess On Wheels!': The (Cycling) Tour of Britain

Cycling fans out there will be aware that the Tour of Britain started on Sunday. It has now grown to 8 days, reflecting the quite abrupt upswing in the popularity of cycling in the UK as a sport. We have had a few abortive bursts of enthusiasm around Chris Boardman in 2000, but his unfortunate accidents in the Tour de France to some extent meant that was not sustained. Now, though it is not just one man, it is a number. Mark Cavendish winning four stages of the Tour de France and three in a row on the Tour of Ireland; Bradley Wiggins (who looks terribly like Rhys Ifans) who won gold in 2004 and two golds this year, Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny, Jamie Staff, Ed Clancy, Paul Manning and Geraint Thomas all winning. Wiggins and Thomas are in the Tour of Britain, Cavendish is not, but other Britons like Ian Stannard, Rob Hayles and Ben Swift have been very prominent. This means that there will be stars of cycling to carry it on certainly to the next Olympics and hopefully beyond.

A lot of the British success reflects finally feeding through state funds into sports training. The UK does not have to be a success at everything, but it is nice to have some specialities. These have tended to be elitist sports such as horse showjumping and sailing. Cycling is a much more democratic sport and actually, though often you would not know it, actually has numerous clubs and an strong amateur backing across the country. Schemes to bring on young riders are clearly being vindicated in our home race. I know that the Tour of Britain is never going to rise to the level of the Tour de France or even the Giro d'Italia, but I would be very happy if we had 2 weeks of cycling round Britain drawing leading teams from across the world. We have Agritubel, Barloworld, Team Columbia, racing all teams that were prominent in the Tour de France, though here they send only 6 riders rather than the usual 9.

The tours are not only about cycling, but also drawing the attention of the World to the country. This was clearly a goal of the recent Tour of Ireland. However, I think it probably had the opposite effect. The weather was so dreary that after 5 days you began to feel that Ireland is just a grey and windy country. The weather for the Tour of Britain is turning out to be even worse with seemingly incessant rain. What is interesting is that though both Ireland and Britain lack mountains of the calibre of the Pyrenees or the Alps, they do have very nasty climbs. This was shown when so many riders were blown away just circling the city of Cork and is appearing again in Britain. This is because the UK tends to permit much sharper rises on roads than in say France. The other noticeable thing in Britain and to some extent in Ireland, is how narrow the roads are not only in rural areas but also in towns. Thus, racing in these circumstances brings its own challenges. Also noticeable is how in contrast to France where the roads seemed to be relaid anew when the Tour comes and are very smooth, is how bumpy and pot-holed the road surface is in British towns. Milton Keynes, a new town, had a reasonable surface, but coming into Newbury you could see riders caught out by having to bump along the road at speed. Anyone who has cycled in the UK knows how bad the road surfaces are and it is quite embarrassing to have this exposed to the World.

The growth in the number of TV channels in the UK is helping sports like cycling to get coverage as with the Tour de France and the Tour of Ireland, coverage is on ITV4. However, the funny thing is rather than Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen who are experts at their commentary, relaxed, interesting but never foolish, we have two others, Hugh Porter and Anthony McCrossan, who is incredibly knowledgeable but comes across rather like the Gordon Brittas or Arnold Rimmer geeky characters portrayed by Chris Barrie with classics of commentary howlers like 'the cacophany of the crowd', 'the corrugations of Shropshire will break the hearts of many riders', 'The bunch are boring down on the breakaway group' and this 'it's chess on wheels' which just completely cracked me up with laughter. Porter's best one was 'he's going to unseat young Ben Swift from his jersey'. Ned Boulting doing the off-commentary discussion is fine and his co-discussant, Paul Manning himself a cycling gold medallist, seems rather lacking in experience on screen, but I imagine will improve in time. It can be tough going from sportsman to television presenter and as Cadel Evans has shown, good screen presence does not go hand-in-hand with strong cycling abilities.

The editing is poorer on the Tour of Britain. When breakaways are caught, you do not see it and you come back from a cut to find not only were the people who were leading by 4 minutes been miraculously swept up but a completely different set of riders have opened up a huge gap. This makes it difficult to follow. As commentators notice they are settling into the job and seem to calm down. Their enthusiasm is great if sometimes with hilarious consequences.

So, having boycotted watching the Beijing Olympics on moral grounds, I am glad to see exciting cycling in Britain and I hope that it will build and improve and very soon Britain can be a cycling nation cycling alongside France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Australia, Colombia and even Kazakhstan.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Sarah Palin as the Manchurian Candidate

It always very frightening as someone living in the UK to watch the US Presidential elections unfold. As we speak English coverage of the events is easily accessible to us. In addition there has been a long and close relationship between the USA and the UK which means that political developments in that country, especially in terms of foreign policy and to a great extent economic policy as well, impinges heavily here. Of course US foreign and economic policies impact on almost every country, but I think it is because British culture borrows so quickly from US culture that we feel it very quickly. In fact the average British person pays more attention to what is going on in the USA than they do to France let alone Germany or our other partners in the EU which are geographically much closer. Partly this is because so much of culture in terms of music, television and movies comes direct from the USA. In fact, though, this is sometimes good in showing up our differences as American humour though it sometimes works, can also fall flat in the UK and our perception of fashion and of the rest of the world is very different. Our attitude to guns and religion, two pillars of contemporary US society are completely opposite to those of the USA and this is why the announcement of Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate last week is so alarming to us.

Britain is a secular society. Most of the people who send their children to faith schools are neither devout nor regular attenders at religious services. They just like the selectiveness of faith schools. Only about 4% of people in the UK regularly attend a church service. People from other faiths notably Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism who live in the UK and make up a few million people are probably more attentive to attending, but even among these communities it is less common. Any DIY store has more people in it than any church on a Sunday in the UK and in some areas any DIY store has more Muslims in it than the local mosque on a Friday too. Tony Blair tried to make the UK more religious but most British people are not interested. We tend to see the American evangelicals let alone the fundamentalists as actually rather odd, and even quite scary. I think it is probably something to do with irony and cynicism which are so prevalent in the UK. We dislike anyone who is so certain of themselves and the message they are bringing. This is why even ardent Christians in the UK tend to adopt a far quieter tone than their US counterparts. I think it also stems from British individualism. Church means community and we are very against having anything to do with community, and as I have said before, British people do not like responsibility. They like power and to be heard, but they are unwilling to do anything in return and as any American (Christian) will tell you, a community needs people to put in as well as take out. So, when we see someone like Sarah Palin who introduced religion into the local government politics of a town of only 5000 people, then we get worried that it is going to spread even further upsetting our status quo.

As for guns, though we have far fewer gun deaths than the USA they hurt the British a great deal more. We also see a direct connection between the ownership of any guns and gun deaths, whereas the Americans, Palin in particular, see a difference between them happily gunning down bears and moose and shooting wolves from a helicopter and drive-by shootings in Los Angeles. We do not see a difference. Maybe it is because hunting in Britain has always been elitist, on privately owned land and not always involving guns. In the USA gun ownership is seen as a democratic element, in the UK it is seen as the realm of lunatics or snobs. Maybe I am wrong in this because Canada has more guns per head than the USA and the wide open spaces that the USA has but far lower gun crime.

Thus, you can see why Sarah Palin is frightening to the British. She comes across as a gun-toting fundamentalist and one who is liable to take that attitude into the foreign policy field with all the nightmare outcomes we have seen in Iraq. Of course, we have been here before. She is more articulate than George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan though sharing the same views. This is part of the problem. Bush has proven to be pretty ineffectual. In a crisis such as the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001, he just froze like a rabbit in headlights. However, that meant that the response though over-dramatic, was slightly less catastrophic than it might have been. Palin in such a position probably would have interned every Arabic-American in the country (bar those like the Bin Laden family who were close friends of the President and make great financial contributions, of course) stirring up racial hatred on a scale not seen in fifty years. If you think the Americans are no longer capable of this, you should have read what one Thai woman working in a shop on the East coast of the USA said following the 2004 tsunami. Whether clear of or oblivious to her origins, customer after customer said they felt that the people of South-East Asia had suffered the tragedy because they did not believe in God. This showed immense ignorance, as there are millions of Christians in the region anyway and where does it say God punishes unbelievers (since the Deluge) in this way? Also what does that imply about the three hurricanes currently lashing South-East USA, in the Bible belt? Anyway, the added element of Palin is that though her experience is not extensive, she comes across as efficient in a way Bush and Reagan never did. Efficiency combined with dogmatic views is very hazardous to people. Hitler was more efficient than Bush ever was, but equally as dogmatic, Stalin was equally dogmatic but even more efficient than Hitler so killed millions more and remained in power longer, thus you can why we worry over here in the UK.

Now, of course, you may say, well she is only going to be Vice-President. Who remembers anything Dan Quayle achieved or even Al Gore (he is better remembered for what he did after he left office than when in it)? I think Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice have had more impact during the Bush years than Dick Cheney (or even Bush himself). The hazard is of course, if that she may not remain vice-president for long. John McCain is currently 72. If he wins a second term in 2012 he will be 80 when he retires in 2016. Ronald Reagan was 70 when he came into office and 78 when he left and ill-health affected his career. Sarah Palin is currently only 43 and will be only 51 by 2016 so far younger at a time when you would be thinking that she would stand for President than many of her recent predecessors, Bush was 52, his father was 65 when he took office, Bill Clinton was 47. Of course with McCain's age she might take up the reins far sooner. McCain is seen as a maverick and not an extremist, certainly a more old-fashioned Republican in style than the New Right. This is why he picked Palin to appeal to the more extremist wing of the Republican party.

They have been growing in influence since the Reagan days and their policies are leading to abstinence as a state-promoted sexual policy and the teaching of creationism in a country which is turning up some of the most exciting fossils in the world. The death penalty has increased in usage year on year, guns are not being controlled and the prison population of the USA is close to 1 in 100 people in the country. With Palin in power they would not have to wheedle and persuade, their policies would become the mainstream and so shutting out the bulk of the American population. It will also hearten such extremists across the world raising global tensions and meaning that with the UK probably under a Conservative government lacking in any policies, that we too will begin to be bugged by their self-righteous, bigoted policies.

Why have I called Sarah Palin, the 'Manchurian Candidate'. Well this goes back to the movie 'The Manchurian Candidate' (1962; remade 2004). In this the vice-presidential candidate has been kidnapped whilst fighting in the Korean War and taken to Manchuria (North-East China) where he was brain-washed by the Chinese before being returned to his unit. The conspiracy is to get a Communist-controlled person to become US President. This involves having another brain-washed person assassinating the president and so his vice-president taking over, as Lyndon Baines Johnson did after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1961. Of course no-one needs to assassinate John McCain, he may fall infirm or die of his own accord. If not Palin only has to sit it out until 2016 to be elected on her own accord. So, as in the movie we have a vice-president ready to step into his shoes and assert a more radical policy. This is what the New Right have been working on for the past twenty-five years. They know they cannot probably get one of their own elected directly, at least not for a couple more decades, but this back-door way secures them control of the White House and God help the rest of the World, when this happens.

Why TV Historical Settlement Re-enactments Fail

This is one of these issues which has been sitting around in my head for years. As you know I have an interest in all kinds of history and so over the years have often been attracted to watching re-enactment television programmes. I was told that the first one was in Scandinavia in the 1970s and put a group of people into an Iron Age village for a period of weeks and got them to live like inhabitants of the time, though they allowed them glasses and matches, presumably to stop them stumbling around and spending hours on camera trying to start a fire. The BBC ran its own series 'Living in the Past' in 1978 in which six couples and three children lived in an iron age village for 13 months. They had a follow-up programme on BBC4 in May 2008.

However, the problem was that the people in the experiment did not see the world in the way that Iron Age people did and whilst they went through the religious rituals, I remember even raising a burning wicker man, they did not believe in them. In subsequent decades I always thought that rather than the people they get who tend to be teachers or accountants with very 20th-21st century views they should get people into New Age beliefs who fit in much better with the views of the Iron Age. This approach was revived by Channel 4 in 2001, partly on the back of 'reality' television programmes like 'Big Brother' and this series, 'Surviving the Iron Age' included three people who were children of people who had appeared in 'Living in the Past'. There were numerous other ones in that era of reality television

One key issue is that people cannot shake off their contemporary attitudes. We live in a very selfish society especially in the UK, and yet one in which democracy is taken as the norm. These dynamics simply do not work in a more primitive society. In 'Surviving the Iron Age', they elected their leader, a woman, and yet then would not comply with the instructions for chores that she gave out. One woman in particular, like many people who feel disempowered in the UK, felt that having children gave her special privileges. Ironically she would not be the leader of the village and yet wanted to control her own day-to-day life. This is typical of modern British society people want power without responsibility and to be able to criticise those in power and seek to subvert the laws they set. Unsurprisingly this village broke down. Iron Age life needed day in-day out drudgery. It was also ruled by power. In a village where people disagreed with the leader they would either leave and set up their own village somewhere else or they would fight possibly to the death to assert their position. This cannot happen on modern British television. Once in power they would rule, they would simply use their position to whine about everyone else's ineffectualness. Another man with all this arguing going on effectively martyred himself by working madly and silently until he was sick and had to be removed. What we saw played out were modern neuroses and nothing historical. It did show why community action fails so often in contemporary Britain as everyone is so self-centred and will not accept the authority of others.

The dreariness of the past I think is often overlooked by people going on these things. I found it interesting in 'Frontier House' (2002) a US series set in 1883 Montana that the teenage girls smuggled in make-up and even the mother complained of loathing seeing herself without make-up. To British audiences this seemed actually comical. In 'The Edwardian Country House' (2002) in the UK the main problem was with the women acting as the young female servants who kept on leaving. It was clear they could not stomach the long hours and hard work and being taken out of the social network of mobile phone usage and their boyfriends. Again, those who felt powerless used a sexual aspect as an assertion of their right to better treatment. As with the mother in 'Surviving the Iron Age', these teenagers argued that having a boyfriend somehow should bring them special rights. All of us are a lot weaker physically than our ancestors, few of us do heavy labour in a domestic or an industrial or agricultural setting. Above all we are used to have few regulations on our lives about who we contact when. We work far shorter hours and even at work are free to phone or email family and friends. Above all we expect constant entertainment not day after day of no free time and nothing to do. In some ways these problems showed up the sharp differences between then and now but you do wonder how blinkered the people who went on the programmes were.

Part of the problem are that you cannot exempt the people from our modern rules. In 1978 the iron age livers could slaughter their own animals, in 2001 that was no longer legal and had to be handled by a proper slaughterman. In 'Frontier House' one family clearly went on the show assuming that they would be able to gun down wildlife freely and blamed their failure on the fact that on conservation grounds they were not able to do that and instead had to get pre-slaughtered meat from the local native American population. That was as much about the American right to bear arms as anything else and any man who had spent as much time hunting as the man in the programme wanted to do would have neglected his other jobs and also decimated the local stock of animals very quickly. Also I would have liked to see him hit things with a flintlock rifle rather than the high-powered firearms he seemed eager to use.

The other interesting problem is participants taking everything too seriously. This was noticeable on 'The Regency House Party' (2004). Sensibly no participant was made to be a servant, there were people employed to be the servants but we did not see their lives and presumably they did not have to live in the conditions or to the timetables of servants of the time. The idea was that as in the Regency period (1811-20) a group of young men and young women (with elderly female chaperones) were brought together in a large house for the Summer to engage in entertainments appropriate to the time and to find a marriage partner. Thus, the tone of this programme was much lighter and interesting covering pastimes of the era. However, one chaperone in particular behaved as if it was all real and went around trying to set up her lady with the eligible bachelors. It was as if she had been brought from 1811 to the modern day. It was clear that she was selected because her whole manner was imperious. She fitted in too well. Something similar happened with 'The Edwardian Country House' (2002). The younger son (I think he was around 10 years old) in particular was a terrible bully of the servants including his tutor (the boy misunderstood the role of tutor and pupil in that time) and it was clear he would have been the perfect brat for that period but was incredibly rude in a way his parents did not control. The family are the Oliff-Coopers and I think the name gives away the kind of pretensions they have. Most people in the UK are descended from workers, and yet as a friend of mine once said about the millions of genealogists in this country, we all assume we are descended from royalty or at least nobility. In addition, in this self-centred society people are often more than happy to treat the people who are working with them like scum and see nothing wrong with it. Of course, if the boy had behaved in 1908 as he did in the programme he would have been caned by his father and the family would have struggled to get any servants. Interestingly one of the outcomes of 'Frontier House' was that one of the participants left his family after the series and was allowed to continue living in the house in all its simplicity, after the series finished. Now seeing how he lived would be interesting television.

The trend for such programmes was extensive at the start of the 2000s. I have not mentioned 'The 1900 House' (1999) which was like 'The Edwardian Country House' but on a smaller scale in suburbia. Again the children missed their friends and I think they should have allowed visits from friends suitably dressed, because of course real children in 1900 would have had a social network that these were denied. They also missed fast food, which like mobile phones (and make-up for Americans) is another modern addiction. This was followed by 'The 1940s House' (2001) in which the family did pretty well. Again it was missing the social network for friends, family and neighbours that would have been there in the real 1940s. The other problem with this one was the panel of experts kept mucking around with things far too much, partly I think because this one was on a smaller scale so there were fewer natural crises and no-one whining about being a servant. The interest in these programmes has not abated. BBC made 'Coal House' (2007) over two series. This was set in a miners' cottage in Wales in the first series in 1927 when the economy was depressed and the second series in 1944 when despite the war coal was in demand and things were marginally better.

As noted above, the Americans have followed the British trend. Not all of these series have made it on to British screens. The last one I saw was 'Pioneer House' (2004) (known as 'Colonial House' in the USA) set in 1628 and again the power dynamics of the village seemed to jar with what went on then and you could see the inevitable train crash as they whined at each other rather than got on and grew food. The Americans also did 'Texas Ranch House' set in Texas in 1867 with the difficulties of rounding up cattle and having horses stolen. A lot of personality clashes for people too. Again, the women find life very dull. This is a fact people, is that the life of all people, especially women, was incredibly hard and dull even up into the 1970s and for many women across the world, even today. People should remember this when they condemn feminism so vehemently. The Australians did 'Outback House' (2005) set in 1861 New South Wales. The Germans have done 'Black Forest House' (2002) set in 1902 a kind of rural version of the 1900 House, they did an 1855 emigration ship and a 1950s girls' school. Britain has also done ones set during military service of the 1950s and schooling of different eras too. So perhaps the fashion for these programmes has not died. They are painful to watch, but given that 'Big Brother' has reached its ninth series, many viewers actually love watching people being self-righteous and shouting at each other.

What these programmes show us, surprise, surprise that even the recent past was a lot harder for people living in western Europe and the USA than it is today. It also shows how quickly we have lost the skills of our ancestors, not just the abilities of iron age people, but the stubbornness, the resilience, the ability to tolerate tedium and to work hard and look undecorated, of even our grandparents' generation. Any of the people who featured in these programmes would have problems adjusting to moving from a bombed house or being a refugee in the way people just in the 1940s did. We have come to a situation where we feel comfort is our right. However, we also feel that we should have power, especially in terms of choice, without accepting any responsibility not least for our own actions. The reason why the communities set up on these programmes fail is because we have no experience of community of any kind in our day-to-day lives. We all live in very atomised existences and are far more likely to bellow at our neighbours about their noise or where they have parked their car than ever talk to them in a calm tone, let alone compromise with them. In our consumerist society 'compromise' in anything has become a dirty word. It is seen as failure, as neglect. If we compromise we have not done the best for our families and so are neglectful of them. There is no sense that hard work, loyalty, sober-headed discussion and actually doing a compromise, are things that benefit not just us but the people around. We are not divorced from them in the way too many of us think. No wonder children fall into violence, easy sex and drug-taking. They have no skills in negotiation, are shunned if they compromise. They also want, they crave constant entertainment or they whine. Is it no surprise that addiction to mobile phones or playstations so quickly turns into addicition to drugs?

I think a lot of lessons from these programmes are lost. The participants come away from the failures they have contributed to ever more self-righteous than before. They have done nothing wrong, it was always the fault of others, there is no compromise. Such attitudes in the past led to death and in fact, though a little less directly, they still do.