Monday, 23 November 2009

The Super Information Highway Choked with Weeds

When people wrote science fiction in the past even when they began digging into the cyberpunk dystopias in the 1980s they did no address one of the major downsides to the area in which technology has leapt forward in the past thirty years, i.e. internet communication.  Even in the movie 'Blade Runner' (1982), Rick Deckard who is dealing with rogue replicants running around the city does not switch on his computer and have to wait thirty minutes while it installs all the different updates without there actually being any apparent change in how his computer runs.  He does not open his email account to find the important messages dumped in Junk and the whole of his inbox filled with stuff advertising drugs to keep his penis erect or ways he can liberate millions in funds in some far away country or even ten advertising emails from the last company he shopped from.  When he searches for data he is not sent off to a different search engine which takes only one of his terms and then lists things he can buy rather than the information he wants. 

This kind of thing is the reality of using computers and communication devices today.  I answer my telephone and I find five times out of six that it is not even a human trying to sell me something, it is simply a recorded message; my text inbox on my mobile phone is filled with messages advertising things.  I know I do not know lots of people and in fact my friends tend to write postcards to me, we are that archaic, but stuff I do not want is now sent to me far more often than anything I am interested in.  The closest I have seen to all of this in a science fiction novel was the subliminal advertising in 'The Merchants' War' by Frederik Pohl (1984) in which people are bombarded with advertising that they are not even aware of constantly.

I play 'World of Warcraft' and I guess that makes me vulnerable.  People want to break into accounts on the game so that they can benefit their own game characters by asset stripping your character and also because game items and game money sell for real money on auction sites.  Thus, people use spyware to try to identify my login and password and sometimes they are successful.  If something is recording your key strokes then it does not matter how complex the password is they will read it.  I have just started a new job and was told my password must not use any words that appear in any dictionaries anywhere in the World.  How can I know that?  I cite the case of the Commodore computer company who found the title of their machine the Vic and that of their Pet were rude words in France and Germany respectively; the same happened to the pop group Roxette who had to perform as The Rockers in South-East Asia.  How do I know that my made up password is not some legitimate word in Thai or Samoan or something?  In addition, how am I supposed to remember it?  One company I worked for made you change your password every month and you could not repeat a word until 10 months had gone by.  Trying to remember the password for that account as opposed to all the company websites I have to log on to in order to buy a train ticket or a book or simply check my bank account means you end up with files of lists of different passwords.

Of course, all this security is necessary as we are under constant attack.  My World of Warcraft account was hacked and I could not access it for two weeks.  This also seemed to open the gateway for a lot of mal(l)ware (I assume it is 'mall' as in the US shopping centres as it is usually trying to sell me something, but increasingly I see it written as 'mal' which is quite ironice, but perfectly appropriate as in French 'mal' means sick or bad) and spyware.  I have McAfee package that I pay for, the free AVG one as backup and now Spyware Doctor to catch the persistent spyware the others seemed unable to get.  I have spent over £60 on subscriptions and protection.  I have not had my account hacked again (yet), but now whenever I switch on my computer I have to wait ages for updates and scans.  I keep on being asked if I want to run additional scans.  The systems do (generally) bounce off the spyware but as a result my internet browser keeps on recording failed connections and asks me if I want to restore a whole string of links to those connections every time I want to browse the internet.  I  know these security systems are important but they are intrusive and keep bugging me to buy an add-on or run a scan when I want to get on with my work or play.  I get severely annoyed when battling some difficult monster in Azeroth to have the game minimised so that I can be asked once again if I want to run a scan. 

The updating means that it takes about 10-20 minutes once I switch on before I can actually do what I want to do.  Ironically I am now reading newspapers far more than I have done for years as I sit at my desk waiting for the download or the check to complete and have nothing to do except pick up the newspaper and read.  I do not want to clean up my desktop of items, if I did I would delete them myself.  I do not need to be asked two times every time I switch on if I want someone to do it.  I am an adult, I can make decisions myself.  I know how to write a letter, I do not want to do it in a juvenile, American way, why do I have to keep telling the system that?  I disable and I disable, but it seems that constantly I am being bugged to do something the way someone else wants to do it not.  Would you drive a car which decided the way it would take you to the shops?  To some extent I do, my sat nav comes up with the strangest routes and has been proven to be unable to deal with the narrow backstreets of Exeter without trying to get you to drive through a house at the end of a cul-de-sac (this happened twice last week on different cul-de-sacs).

The most annoying thing is despite all the security I have bought (or perhaps because of it given the fact that anti-viral software now seems to come with its favoured search engine and none of them are the one I prefer) every time I search for a term, such as today, for 'Victorian labour newspaper' I click on one of the results and instead of being taken to the page of Wikipedia or Spartacus or some other general historical resource, I am taken to another search engine which gives me a list of shops in Victoria (Australia) or even a list of employment agencies or just a list of newspapers.  These results are always commercially focused not the knowledge-focused answers I was seeking in order to write a story or find out about something.  Sometimes my security systems seem able to stop this but sometimes like today they lose the battle and so my searching time is doubled or trebled.  In fact if I analyse my work on a computer, probably 20% of my time is disabling or reversing things that the computer, a service I have bought into or even worse some intruder software is trying to get me to do.  Far from being the speedy way to get information it is increasingly becoming a very slow way and one filled with frustration.  To a great degree internet searching is now censorship as I am told 'you must be interest in buying not learning' and 'even if you want to know something, you must only learn it from one of our sponsoring partners'.

I know we may never rid the world of the thousands of people who want to peddle stupid stuff to us.  I would hope though that we could get more of the things we subscribe to, to work in the background and for computers to accept that we can make a choice and if we say we do not want to clean up our desktop or to write a letter our way we are allowed to do that.  If we change our minds in the future we will let the computer know.  What we have now was never the image of the future.  If people selling services knew how resentful you come of something you have subscribed to if you constantly get updates and queries then hopefully they would back off.  I do not know when this will end, but for me, it had better do so soon, because battling every day to get my computer to do what I want to do is driving my blood pressure sky high.

P.P. 26/11/2009: Well, mistakenly I thought that things were beginning to be resolved with my computer until I turned on yesterday and found that somehow the machine had 'forgotten' that it has an internet browser.  I worked for three hours, and then, the woman in my house, far more expert at ICT, tried for four hours to restore the browser.  We stripped away a lot of software, did a system restore, re-loaded Internet Explorer 8 and so on, but still I cannot browse the internet.  Client systems such as the World of Warcraft still work fine, but anything that needs a browser in place such as the McAfee anti-virus software will not work and keeps sending alarmed messages.

This is one of those situations in life when people say 'but that's impossible' and say 'but have you tried ...?' only to recommend an approach you did six times three hours ago in the hope that it would just work 'this time'.  Then they begin to doubt your competence, 'but you must be doing something wrong', they say and disbelieve you can have such a problem unless you actually show it to them directly.  I have had these kind of responses over the years with everything from televisions to telephones to cars and, of course, computers.

If anyone can explain how you can be accessing the internet one day and then the next time you switch on not only has the browser entirely stopped working but it appears impossible to install a new one, despite good internet connection (as proven by the World of Warcraft connection) then I would be interested to know.  If you could provide a solution to this situation, I would be extremely happy.

P.P. 2/12/2009: The problem was finally resolved.  After seven hours' work from myself and the woman in my house, I paid for two hours' work by a 'computer doctor' (costing £102; make sure you book a 'no fix, no fee' person) to resolve it in my house.  He could not do it there so took it away for another day to wire it into his next work and bombard it with anti-viral software.  All other software had to be removed though documents, photos, etc. were quarantined and have not been lost.  He said that he had read 400,000 people have suffered from this very virulent kind of virus and anti-viral software even stuff you pay a subscription for, generally cannot fight it.  I can understand people hacking computers or using spyware to get access to your bank account and to steal money, even (though to a lesser extent) people getting into your computer so they can steal the virtual money and magic items you have in 'World of Warcraft' but in this case I have been told it was simply a question of revenge.  Apparently the man who hacked my 'World of Warcraft' account in October was angered by the fact that through friends alerting Blizzard who run the game, he had my account taken from him and given back, so he sent out a virus which 'jammed open' my computer allowing all the nasty stuff viruses, mallware and spyware which is constantly on the internet seeking a chink in the armour, to flow into my machine, as some kind of punishment for me getting my own account back.

I have commented before about the twisted morality of a lot of people active on the internet.  Ironically while the internet gives you potential access to millions of people it seems to narrow many people's horizons and makes them feel that their greed is all that matters and to sate it is legitimate.  There is a spectrum from bloggers like me who arrogantly think people might be interested in what I am going on about across the vindictive who relish their power in turning people's lives upside down.  I almost feel there is more honour in someone who steals money electronically than in someone who behaves in a childish way, hitting back at people because they will not give up their toys to them for free.  My key concern is, given the level of anti-viral, spyware and mallware protection I had what is to stop this all happening again next month?

Undemocratic Appointments to the EU: No Surprise Given the Approach the UK Favoured

It is bitterly ironic that now that the president of the EU and other 'ministers' or high representatives have been appointed for the EU that Britons are whining about the process.  The British have in fact always favoured a less democratic approach to the EU as Tony Benn has long noted, there has been a 'democratic deficit'.  This goes back to the period 1978-9 when the European Parliament was being created.  It is not like most parliaments in that it is not the place for legislative initiative, this insteads come from the European Commission, effectively the civil service of the EU, and like most civil services members are appointed rather than elected.  Britain was more than happy for the European Parliament to be toothless and by the early 1980s it was clear that the Council of Ministers, made up of the prime ministers of the member states was to be the real driving force of the community.  This is why you tend to see legislation for the EU coming out of those meetings hosted by the prime minister of whichever country was currently holding the presidency of the EU.  The British liked this approach because it made them feel they were yielding no sovereignty to the EU and in fact that they were pulling back some degree of sovereignty lost in simply joining what was then the EEC.  It could be argued that the Council of Ministers is democratic as the members of it were elected in their individual countries, but in fact it meant the electorate did not have a say on how the EU is being run.  In addition, this simple assumption that the prime minister was the natural person to sit on the Council created the kind of atmosphere in which last week's deal to appoint a president seemed quite natural.

Of course,  new president, Herman van Rampuy was elected prime minister by the Belgian people and you could argue that he has gone through a partial democratic process.  I think he should have his position ratified by the European Parliament.  A better process would have been for the parliament to elect the president and the other ministers.  Many countries have an indirect election of presidents, notably the USA where the decision comes through a college system rather than directly electing the president as happens in France.  However, because of the sustained weakness of the European Parliament, encouraged by the British for the past thirty years, such an approach was ruled out for selecting a president.

The British are not a politically sophisticated nation.  Most people have little understanding of the UK political system and a large majority of the potential electorate never votes.  They argue that they 'don't do politics' but then turn round demanding very political changes such as the expelling of immigrants and the return of the death penalty.  To the British the kind of balances which are sort when a coalition government comes to power are an alien concept.  The UK has not had a coalition in 64 years so unlike in neighbouring states we have not come used to how these systems work, so they seem even more improper to us than countries which do truly engage with their political systems.  Of course, the UK is currently the least democratic of all the member states of the EU in having half of its parliament appointed predominantly for life rather than elected.  This is one of the comic things about Lady Ashton becoming high representative for foreign issues.   She was appointed head of a local health authority an unelected position and then was made a life peer and appointed commissioner for trade before being appointed to her new role.  Only in the UK where members of parliament, i.e. members of the House of Lords, can be appointed could such a career path happen.  This is why it is ironic when right-wing commentators like Daniel Hannan whine on about the lack of democracy in the EU process.  The problem begins here in the UK and its undemocratic system, something the Conservatives have always backed.  Our undemocratic tendencies have led us to support rather than challenge when these things are built into the EU structure.

Of course, it is handy for the right-wingers to portray the EU as undemocratic.  By being unwilling to engage with the European Parliament which has representatives directly elected by the British public, they have hampered the one element which could promote democracy.  This is partly because they have a patronising attitude to the British public and as a result the electorate is going towards the demagogues of the UKIP and the BNP who offer politics on the level of the average person with lots of shouting and jumping up and down that Britons love.  We want policy stemming from indignation rather than rational thought.  All of these difficulties are great for those who want the UK to leave the EU.  Some have a fantasy of entering NAFTA others want us to simply float on the edge of Europe trying to get our goods in passed the EU tariff barriers or expect to re-invent trade with former colonies the bulk of whom need development aid and are not in a strong position to buy from the UK certainly not when compared to the millions of well-off EU consumers.  Even independent states Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are in the EEA and Switzerland has numerous bilateral deals with EU, not its member states.

As always the British want to have their cake and eat it.  They insist on democracy in the EU but have always favoured a structure which actually weakens the most democratic part of the union.  They want democracy elsewhere in Europe but also want to retain half their parliament unelected and do not even get me on to having an unelected head of state and the fact that so much legislation is implemented and extended through royal prerogative (I know it is delegated to the prime minister who is elected, but it allows him/her to introduce numerous laws without parliamentary scrutiny which in itself is undemocratic).  The bulk of British people have always been told the EU does them harm, but where would the majority of items in Lidl and Aldi be if we were outside the EU?  If we want to have more of a say in what happens in the EU we need to engage thoroughly with it (the UK always has only half of its quota of European Commission staff because so few people apply and the number has to be made up by English speakers from other European states, even from ones outside the EU); heckling from the sidelines achieves nothing.  Support the European Parliament and ensure it gains the powers it needs to democratically monitor and police the EU otherwise the back-room deals the UK has always favoured before will continue to dominate.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

When Remembrance of the Past becomes Militarism for the Future

This was something that struck me then I saw it picked up by 'The Guardian' editorial last Saturday too.  I rarely agree with the editorials even if I do find journalists in that newspaper I share a viewpoint with.  However, it did seem to capture the unease that has been growing within me around the regimentation of remembrance.  Having been someone who in his youth argued for more remembrance, I am bitter now that I have come to feel that recent changes have taken things too far and it now needs reining in.

In the UK up until the mid-1990s remembrance was associated almost exclusively with Remembrance Sunday, the nearest Sunday to 11th November.  There would be sales of poppies by the British Legion and especially children and the elderly would buy them and the funds would go to help the wounded and their families and families who had lost husbands/fathers in war.  Of course, the iconography of the poppy is strongly related with the First World War, but though there is often a direct association with that conflict Remembrance Sunday is supposed to be about all conflicts.  Apparently since 1945 Britain has had deaths of service personnel in conflict every year except 1968 and I certainly know that growing up in the 1970s reports of deaths and maimings of soldiers in Northern Ireland were as regular as they are now from Afghanistan.  A friend of mine lost her brother in the Falklands conflict in 1982 too.  Despite the way we portray Britain, it is a very militaristic country, we have constantly been involved in conflicts in a way many neighbouring states have not, certainly since the end of the colonial empires in the 1960s-70s, now 30-40 years ago.  Much of this involvement I have disagreed with, but this does not stop me admiring those people who fight and are wounded or die and to raise funds for them, I feel is vital.

As someone always involved in history, in the 1970s and 1980s I felt too much was being forgotten about what earlier generations had experienced.  I still think this is the case especially when I hear that 'oh, the Holocaust, it was so long ago' despite the fact that survivors are still with us.  In that period aside from perhaps buying a poppy only those with a direct connection with the military or those who were regular church attenders tended to reflect much about what was being marked, even if just about the First World War, let alone any subsequent wars.  I felt we should move to what happens in France, where even now you can still see the marks of wars in so many parts of the country, but particularly the North which I have spent most time in.  From the Belgian border deep into Normandy you walk in the foosteps of millions of soldiers and almost every town is one that features in history books.  My view was that we should have Remembrance Day, i.e. have a bank holiday on 11th November no matter which day of the week that fell and have all the shops closed and all kinds of memorial activities, secular as well as religious.  People forget that many Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews died fighting for the British Army in the First World War and subsequent conflicts.  Britain still has Gurkha forces.  Of course, some people felt that remembrance was an element of the past and anticipated that in time it would fade as an activity.  Apparently the government considered dropping it after the Second World War.  However, to a large extent remembrance has always been driven by the public, from the building of the Cenotaph to local war memorials and events, it has been a public force of will not necessarily something officials have been able to control.

Having been driving through rural Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset in the past couple of weeks I constantly see memorials in even the tiniest villages.  War has impacted on all locations in Britain.  For me remembrance is about remembering that the people who die in wars are generally not heroes, they are simply ordinary people sent to fight by people who are not at risk.  This was brought home sharply to me in the early 1990s when I was in the Imperial War Museum, a large section of which is dedicated to the First World War and where they now have a database of war memorials.  A woman, a little younger than me, this was 1992 so I would have been 25, said, standing among all the materials about the First World War, 'I don't really know what all the fuss is about the First World War; none of my family suffered in it'.  I was rather stunned by that, especially as she was there with a school party and was apparently training to be a history teacher!  My mother's father and uncle both fought in that war and survived into the 1980s, due to a generational slip, my father's grandfather also fought in that war and died in the 1920s as a result of gas poisoning he had suffered during the war.  They experienced horrors, but I do not engage in remembrance for the specific personal connection, but more broadly because I mourn that young people were sent often to be slaughtered in futile actions.  I asked her what was the lowest rank that her ancestors in the war had been, and she answered colonel.  One of her living relatives was a serving brigadier.  In that instant I felt as much distance between her (though socially I have climbed far higher than my grandparents and great-grandparents) and me as I feel my ancestors would have done. 

My father's grandfather had served in the Boer War and had been decorated.  He was called up in 1914 and served an 18-month tour of duty.  He was a sergeant but was demoted twice for hitting silly officers commanding suicidal missions.  He was lucky not to have been executed.  He ended the war back as sergeant because all those above him were killed.  He was big man, a prime target, so you wonder if he was trying to stay alive.  However, I think that given his proven bravery, he was not afraid of facing the bullets but what he, as a very experienced soldier, was not going to let amateurs from a social class that had not seen hardship (40% of volunteers in 1914 were turned away on the grounds they were malnourished) and were willing to toss away lives.  To some degree, you might feel wrongly, this has left a rather class-orientated angle for me regarding remembrance.  I see it as a reminder to the elites that they should value life and not waste it as they too often do.  People from the upper classes do die in wars too and the elites of 1914 were stripped of many of their best and brightest as much as the working and middle classes were.  My referencing social class aspects in my remembrance is probably a bad step on my behalf because it politicises remembrance and that is at the root of the current difficulties.

What began to happen in the mid-1990s was partly what I had hoped for in the preceding decades.  Whilst shops did not close on 11th November, suddenly, primarily driven by tabloid newspapers there was a two-minute silence (up from one minute) and not only on Remembrance Sunday but on 11th November too.  I remember the first time when travelling on an underground train and people were invited to be silent at 11 o'clock; a couple of years later I was in a shop.  I used the minutes to reflect on people I knew had died in the First World War whose records I had seen at the National Archives (only 40% remain as the rest were burnt as a result of bombing in the Second World War).  This seemed the right way: remembrance now was impacting on everyday lives for the bulk of the population. 

Fifteen or so years on, things may now beginning to go too far.  Remembrance is now being very mixed up in political issues.  I commented earlier in the year about how the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin had been asked not to wear a poppy outside of the remembrance period, because he seemed to be trying to associate it with his racist views.  Military leaders attacked his used of particular imagery because they are aware he does not see many British service people as legitimate, despite the fact that the British military has always had a range of ethnicities and religions.  This trend of the BNP would be easier to contain if there was not a parallel pressure from the tabloid media.  I am not accusing them of backing the BNP but they certainly are seeking the regimentation of remembrance.  There have been demands that footballers should wear embroidered poppies on their kits.  A lot of this stems from an attitude that a 'real' man backs the military and is in line with other things such as a Veterans' Day.  These trends seek to move away from a sombre, sober remembrance of conflict to something more celebratory of the military.  The rise of the charity Help for Heroes, is not a bad thing in itself and they do good work, but that more exclamatory title as opposed to the calmer, British Legion, unfortunately is being hijacked by those who feel that we should all be compelled to celebrate the military.  It is interesting the shift in the British Legion's poppy campaign this year to using more of the current photographs that Help for Heroes does.

The issue is particularly poignant at present because every week British soldiers are dying.  Things are reducing in Iraq but Afghanistan is dragging on as a British soldier from the 1840s or a Soviet one from the 1980s could have told you it would.  The Retreat from Kabul in 1842 may be seen as a shameful action on the British Army's part but it did prevent thousands of men dying there in subsequent years.  The mixing up of remembrance with celebration of the current military now is almost becoming, if you do not support the current battles then somehow you are shaming the previous dead.  This is a difficult leverage to contest and it was particularly notable that in pictures of parliament not a single MP was not wearing a poppy and absolutely everyone on television wears one.  It has been a uniform that everyone in the public eye must wear or face being challenged that they do not care about Britain's military; not even that they do not remember previous sacrifices. It has been great for the British Legion who have sold record numbers of poppies and the funds are useful for those soldiers coming back wounded from Britain's various current wars, but to some degree, the whole thing is becoming regimented even mechanised.

Politicians feel pressured by the media as they know that any one of them who has no poppy will be ridiculed or severely attacked in the press.  Any complaints around militarism and certainly initiatives like the white poppy movement which arose in the 1980s are now excluded from debate.  As was noted in 'The Guardian' civilian casualties of war are ignored entirely in this process, partly, I imagine because of the resentment against asylum seekers who are blamed for so much, but of course, in many cases are fleeing from the wars that the tabloids want to celebrate.

Militarism now dominates the media; it is a baseline assumption for so much of what we are presented.  Of course, while I was hoping for for greater attention to remembrance, the right-wing has been more successful in using remembrance to leverage participation in militaristic attitudes.  Some generals are seeking to separate out these different approaches, but these are subtle things that the bulk of the population does not have the time or inclination to work on.  Alongside the assumption that immigration is wrong, that racism is acceptable, that the EU (or insert whichever international body you favour) only does Britain harm, that the death penalty is naturally right, we now have the assumption that militarism is good, it makes Britain strong and anyone who does not support that line is weak and a traitor.  Such characteristics are seen in all authoritarian and Fascist states.

Remembrance has been taken by the popular media and those people who run it to promote militarism and this trend has stepped up a gear in 2009.  This creates fertile ground for extremism.  It also betrays the bulk of the people who have died fighting for Britain.  The bulk of them never went to war to defend an ideal of a militarised Britain, they went because they had to or at least because they felt it made their families safer.  Many of the people who died fighting for Britain were not white and were not Christian but they still died fighting for a country that seems increasingly likely to deny their right to be acknowledged as Britons.  We need vigorous steps to depoliticise remembrance, to bring militarism out into the open and keep it away from the proper remembering of those who sacrificed so much.  Otherwise this trend will simply create a country eager for a larger military and even more battles across the world which will lead to even more mutilated and dead service people and civilians.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My 2009 Whitby Gothic Experience

Perhaps I am not the best person to comment on the Whitby Gothic Weekends.  I have attended the October occasions (there are ones in April too) now for two years running, but in both cases I have been working on a stall so have spent my days busily selling people stuff and the evenings falling asleep very early, so missing out on the broader experience, in particular the bands and cabaret.  However, being in one of the prime trading venues of the weekends, I do get to see a large portion of the people attending.  I also pop out to get fish & chips and so do get the chance to see something you are unlikely to see anywhere else, which is a town which (even if for three days) appears to have a population which in the main is Goth.  Of course, that is just the Goth visitors (and there are others notably caravan enthusiasts but they are often indistinguishable from the resident population) laid on top of the people who live there the rest of the year.  This fantasy is made more realistic by the age range of Goths at Whitby, you can see every age from Goth babies to Goth elderly people.  I think for a Goth you never feel anywhere as at home as in Whitby over these few days.

I was told by locals that more people attended than ever before.  I have no way to judge the accuracy of that, but it was certainly well attended.  Sunny weather on the Friday and Saturday meant it was easier to promenade in your full glory.  Sunday morning had very heavy rain and winds remained strong in the afternoon even when the sun came out.  However, the reasonable weather (in contrast to the hail that lashed me as I unloaded last year) helped bring things alive, though I have to sympathise with the leatherwear trader who has a tent outside the leisure centre which blew away.

Looking around Whitby you would have the feeling that Gothic culture is alive and well.  Though there are always people you have seen before, it is very heartening that there always seem to be people for who are coming to the event for the first time.  In addition, it is good to see in this age when chav culture seems so dominant among young people that there are Goth teenagers, there is another generation following on behind us, we are not the last.

Goths tend to be well off and they save up for the Whitby Gothic Weekend and this may counteract any damage that the recession is doing to the sale of Goth items.  Sales seemed no less vigorous than last year (on the stall I worked on, in fact much better).  The range of items always seems to expand and this year I saw Gothic style collars for cats and dogs as a new area.  Clothing is obviously an important part of the business as is jewellery but it is good to see Gothic artwork around too in terms of pictures and sculptures.  The number of Goth bands releasing both CDs and DVDs seemed undiminished.  Though I did not get to it, I noted that there was a Goth wedding fair on.  I know that Goth styling is leaking into muggle wedding styling too, so it is nice to see that we can make a proper claim from where it came from, because, of course, Goths are romantic and Romantic and a lot of muggle couples could learn from the intimacy, the passion and the caring that you see in many Goth relationships.

One of the highlights of attending the Whitby Goth Weekend is to see the outfits that people are wearing and the range was certainly impressive once again.  Clearly black is the dominant colour, but this year dark green, especially on some Victorian dresses and some jewellery was making an appearance.   After a brief appearance in mainstream fashion a couple of years back, it was probably not surprising to see numerous fascinators on show, not least, as one woman told me, they stay in place in better in high winds than standard hats.  I also noted that there was more 18th century garb alongside the more usual 19th century outfits, many of which, especially on the women, were stunning.  Talking with wearers, it is clear that many make their own outfits and it is good to see that the Gothic culture is keeping alive such skills.  I doubt you will attend many events where people are working with sewing machines on their stalls, these days.  Of course, the spectrum is wide, and at one end you have the futuristic techno outfits and there did seem to be more gas masks apparent than before, giving a truly alien appearance to the wearers.  At the other end is the 18th century stylings.  Whilst tricorns are far from rivalling top hats, they did seem more numerous than last year with long coats, waistcoats and breecher to match; as a adjunct there were quite a few Jack Sparrow-styled men.  This may be an area for expansion for Gothic culture in the coming years.  Steampunk has been growing in significance among Gothic culture.  In the USA it is large enough to be having its own events, but in the UK it comes in alongside the 18th centuryers.  The distinction tends to be that the leather is brown rather than black and with ubiquitous brass goggles.  Paired couples in complementing steampunk outfits were quite numerous; stunning were various steampunk 'angels' wearing folding metal wings, some stretching a metre above their heads.  Not easy to manoeuvre in a busy trading area but impressive all the same; apparently they were made by people local to North Yorkshire.

There were some other notable outfits worn by men.  In particular, an excellent Blade, the only black person I saw attending the event.  The swirls cut into his hair combined with the shades and especially the armoured waistcoat really brought it to life.  Of course, these days in the UK even replica guns and swords are out.  I saw a larger than life Beetlejuice, for those of you too young, check out 'Beetlejuice' (1988) of course directed by Tim Burton and starrring Michael Keaton as the eponymous annoying, jester-like ghost, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and a young Winona Ryder.  Apparently for some reason the costume is back in fashion for mainstream dressing up but a Goth produced a great home produced version.  Rather leftfield, but impressive still was the Malchik or Droog from 'A Clockwork Orange' (novel 1962; movie 1971 which provides the costume details) in a kind of longjohns and bowler hat.  I have clearly been missing trends in costumes as again there seems to have been an explosion in such attire, even Drac-in-a-Box sells the bowlers now.  I guess people are raiding every corner of culture over the past 300 years for new outfits.  I suppose men find it harder than women to find something distinctive.  Anyway, I admired the man who had gone to so much effort at Whitby, down to the single false eyelash, included in the original movie due to a 'wardrobe malfunction' when the other one fell off.

Of course, traders come and go, but it was good to see the bulk of the long-standing ones there.  It was a shame that there was no charity stand as there was last year, but running a stall needs a lot of commitment and energy.  I would liked to have seen some literary input.  I know there was a poet trading in the Rifle Club last year, but it would be good if there was an event bringing together Gothic authors and poets.  There might have been one, but I was oblivious to it.  A session of readings and Gothic writers and poets talking about their work would be excellent, though I have heard that the bookshop in town gets rather pestered with such writers wanting book launches there, perhaps another venue could be found.  Crime and romance writers seem to be welcomed in every town, I feel an outlet for the numerous Gothic writers out there would be a real plus.

I heard criticisms that the cabaret had too much burlesque and not enough variety in performers.  Not having seen it myself (by then I was asleep) I cannot comment directly, but imagine it is difficult to find Gothic style performers.  It would be good if the Circus of Horrors or even some of their performers could come to Whitby during the weekend to perfom, but I guess they make enough money playing larger towns and mainstream venues.  Perhaps a Gothic talent show could be instituted.

There was discussion of a new Gothic event in York in July, DV8.  I suppose it depends on the weather, because whilst the winds will be lower, the heat is liable to be higher, rather sticky for Goth outfits.  Saying that, York is a lot easier to reach than Whitby.  You can get from London to York in under 2 hours on the train but the remaining sixty-four kilometres to Whitby can take another hour or more; even driving up from Scarborough, the next nearest town to Whitby, twenty-five kilometres away, can be rather tortuous.  The centre of York has suitably historic streets and the town has numerous hotels, just like Whitby.  The key problem is, in July York has numerous mainstream tourists and the Gothic hordes will be competing with them for hotel rooms and street space.  However, there are insufficient Gothic events in Britain and any addition is all for the good.

I know there has been tension among the different organisers of the Whitby event, but I guess that is inevitable when something has been running since 1994.  I was glad to find that the rumours that a Christian group equating Gothic culture with unChristian viewpoints had tried to book out the venues usually used by the event, such as the Metropole Hotel, were actually unfounded and the non-use of some venues simply came from disagreements with individuals.  However, after what was a very successful year, it seems that the weekend will continue to prosper.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and recommend it to all Goths, book now for 2010.  Hopefully one time I will be able to indulge in more of the events and not simply see all the excitement from behind a stall.

Are Britons Only Socialist in Times of Crisis?

Many people argue that the British population is inherently conservative and for most of the time, Conservative, i.e. supporting the policies of the Conservative Party.  I suppose that most people who are generally comfortably off, no matter where they live have a tendency not to want that disrupted and to keep out others from enjoying what they and their families have.  It is a trend even in states such as China, which is Communist and founded on revolution and in which a lot of things still need to change, let alone countries, that whilst suffering from a recession currently, are far better off than those countries where the bulk of the world's population lives.  Recently I have noted people who whilst they want to reduce pressure or upset for themselves actually want other people to suffer more 'for their own good'.  Of course, the standard thing about pressurising unemployed people to take low-paid work and uproot and move right across the country or face punishment have been wheeled out again as the level of unemployment has risen.  However, I have encountered people saying Sweden is now lagging because its policies of equality means there is no 'edge' to drive people to work harder.  These people love having the whip cracked as long as it is on other people not themselves.

You might ask, well, 'what has this to do with Socialism?'  You may ask 'what is Socialism, anyway?'  It is a term that even the Labour Party dropped more than a decade ago.  The wealthy actor, Alan Cummings, when interviewed recently listed it as the extinct thing he would like see revived.  A lot of people equate it with Communism and they think that died the day the Berlin Wall was knocked down in 1989.  Of course, saying all Socialists are Communists is like saying all Conservatives are Fascists: inaccurate and ignorant of how the political spectrum works.  Of course, that was how many people have liked it.  In particular, Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister 1979-90), who, on more than one occasion said she wanted the elimination of a spectrum of political parties and preferred to have simply two very close to each other as is the case in the USA, often equated not only Socialism but the Labour Party (which often had more Liberal than Socialist policies) with the Communist.  In that way she could portray them as a the 'fifth column' or 'the enemy within', in league with the USSR to undermine democracy in the UK during the Cold War.  Of course, Socialists are passionate defenders of democracy as are most Conservatives.

What is Socialism? Well, the key word is 'social', it is a political philosophy which sees the benefit of the whole of society as the key driving force.  Of course, Margaret Thatcher argued that there was 'no such thing as society' and emphasised that it was individuals' desires and units no greater than families who should drive what happened politically and economically.  Socialism argues that people are different, they have different needs and abilities but they should be looked after when they cannot look after themselves (such as when ill, pregnant, unemployed or elderly) but also that they have responsibilities to the rest of the community and that whilst they are free to make their own way in the world and make profits (this is crucially where Socialism differs from Communism) they should not do so by exploiting people whether in their own country or in other countries.  This means employers should pay decent wages, have reasonable working hours and conditions and listen to the people that they are employing.  A key objective of Socialism is that everyone has equal opportunity, whether it is in terms of access to health care or education or to get on in their lives.  Vitally Socialism is against people being barred from certain jobs or other opportunities simply because of what social class they come, what gender, age or ethnicity they are.  In the 1960s this approach, seen with the creation of numerous new universities to allow people greater opportunity to go into higher education, was condemned as 'meritocracy', i.e. that people with ability could succeed.  Of course, this has been turned around from a negative term to a positive one.  As I have noted regularly on this blog since the 1980s we have moved too far away from a meritocracy to too many people simply getting good positions because of what family they were born into or which elite school they attended.  Opportunity is now less than it was thirty years ago.

A lot of Socialist principles overlap with Liberal ones and probably the most Socialist governments in British history, those under Clement Attlee 1945-51 actually pursued a Liberal policy.  Rather than having a controlled economy in line with what Socialism advocates, after 1948 they used Liberal Keynesian approaches, manipulating rather than directing the economy, notably through shifting interest rates.  In terms of health and social welfare, though they created the National Health Service, they permitted private, fee-taking doctors to continue practising and rather than funding a lot of health and social welfare from direct taxation as you would expect a Socialist government to do, they widened welfare insurance, which had been introduced in the 1910s and created National Insurance in line with what the Liberal, William Beveridge had advised during the war.  The idea is that you pay into national insurance as you would any insurance so that you build up a fund that you can draw upon when you need it, for example, when ill or elderly or out of work.  Of course, as with all insurance, some people never make a claim whereas others claim often, but that reflects the diverse needs of our society and that is not something we should try to restrain.

The most Socialist element was nationalisation of key sectors of British industry.  The focus was on the 'commanding heights', i.e. those sectors of the economy that fed through into many others.  Thus, coal mining and the railways were nationalised.  The fact that these industries had been run poorly or inefficiently before was a good reason for the state to take over.  Gas extraction and provision; electricity generation; water supply; coach transport; airlines; freighting and later steel manufacture were all nationalised; though some steps, such as with airlines had been taken before the war.  Other countries, notably France did the same kind of thing.  The British, however, even with nationalisation, tempered Socialism with Liberalism and had a very 'arms length' control by the state of these industries and did not direct them in the ways they should stimulate the economy the way that even right-wing governments in France did especially with the largest state-owned company in France, Electricite de France (now EDF Energy).  Often, as with the example of gas and water supply what we saw in the UK was really just grand 'muncipalisation'.  Many suppliers had been established by city councils in the 19th century and the regionalised approach to gas and water supply (and some water regions, such as City of York, were very small) was continuing this 19th century approach rather than moving to a really Socialist method. 

In later years nationalisation in the UK was not used as a way to try to stimulate the economy but rather to bail out failing companies such as Rolls Royce in 1971 (nationalised by Edward Heath's Conservative Government), British Leyland car manufacturers in 1976 and British Aerospace made up of a number of aeronautical manufacturing companies and British Shipbuilders, the same for that industry, in 1977.  It is unsurprising that nationalised industries that had failed continued to suffer but it meant that nationalisation was now seen as a failed economic policy and this was at the time when New Right ideas were rising both in the USA and the UK emphasising the reduction of all state control or even regulations and clearly nationalised industries were an anathema to such thinking (notably the economic viewpoint held by Margaret Thatcher).  Ironically Thatcher's government nationalised collapsed chemical company, Johnson Matthey in 1984. 

Despite the emphasis on nationalised industries the state sector was never larger than 20% of the economy compared to 90%+ in Communist countries.  In the 1980s and 1990s the nationalised industries were sold off by the government which brought revenue to the state.  The idea was ownership would be held by numerous small shareholders but generally they were bought out by large companies and increasingly ones from abroad.  Whilst there have been regulators of these former nationalised industries control over prices and profits and trying to keep up quality has not really worked; many have a near monopoly and as has been seen in the past couple of years attempts by government to stop them charging high prices and providing poor service have failed.

Conservative propaganda about Socialism has always been pretty successful.  In 1992, Labour did not win the election after a successful campaign arguing that its policies would lead to higher taxation, a view that even Labour supporters seem to come to believe.  In the 1950s the Conservatives argued that Labour's nationalisation was akin to a command economy and though Winston Churchill shot himself in the foot in 1945 likening the Labour approach to the Gestapo by the 1950s the Conservatives were successful in portraying themselves as the party of freedom against Labour's restraint and austerity.  In the late 1940s, of course, the public had been used to both restraint and authority so that argument had little impact.  In addition, Labour does seem to offer solutions to ingrained problems and in 1945 the public had been really voting on the problems of 1931 rather than the post-war era.

The reason why Tony Blair was so focused on manipulating the media was because he knew from history how long it had been manipulated against anything Labour had done.  However, he went so far in making the Labour Party seem acceptable to the media that he sheared it of the bulk of its Socialist principles.  Clause 4, the part of the Labour Party constitution which advocated nationalisation, was scrapped in 1994.  On coming to power in 1997, Labour in fact went further than the Conservative governments by denationalising the Bank of England and so giving up even Keynesian control over interest rates.  I believe that Tony Blair was neither a Socialist or really a Conservative, he was a Blairite and created a personal party out of the shell of the Labour Party; using Christian Democrat principles as the covered, but really based on his own ambitions and simply what he felt was 'right'.  This is why people feel Socialism is dead in Britain, but in effect we probably have not even seen a mildly Socialist government in Britain at least since 1976 if not since 1970 and that is the way company bosses like it.

The key problem for Labour, aside from the fact that the financial sector always tries to make a run on the pound and destabilise the economy, in fear of what constraints they will be put under, is that trade unions see an opportunity to get the deals that they have battled to achieve under a Conservative government.  Now, as in 1978/9, they are busily undermining the Labour government with demands and strikes that make it appear to voters, ironically most of whom will be workers, that the government has no control.  Of course, part of the problem is that no British government has been able to tackle the greed and huge profits of those who run business, so it is unsurprising that workers want more.  If the utility companies had been compelled to pay a windfall tax and bankers to limit their vast bonuses, ironically I think we would be seeing less industrial action.

Anyway, having cantered through Socialism, you might be thinking why is that relevant now?  Well, it is my suggestion that the British population while Conservative most of the time, turns to Socialism when things are going wrong.  In 1945 Socialism was seen as the way to avoid a return to the Depression of the 1930s and the economic slump that had followed the First World War.  In 1964 Socialism was seen as the way to stop Britain's industrial stagnation, unwillingness to modernise and thus its slipping competitiveness from worsening.  In 1974 Socialism was seen as a way to heal the sharp rifts in society and especially in industrial relations.  Of course, there has always been ambivalence as the elections of 1951, 1964 and 1974 showed and the wealthy always pull out the stops to prevent the advent of a truly Socialist government.  This is one reason why Gordon Brown who, unlike Blair, is a Labour leader, has come under sustained media attack throughout his term in office.  However, it is clear that the British public is drifting back in a Socialist direction once more.

Of course, it is not pure, unadulterated Socialism, there are other trends such as blaming problems of immigrants, which are an anathema to Socialism but almost seem to have become a norm in much discussion.  However, adherence to the National Health Service and a national innoculation programme to combat swine flu is one characteristic of a more Socialist outlook. People do not seem to realise that in the USA they would have to have health insurance for things they currently get for free and once they were elderly they would find it difficult to get cover.  Most likely they would be paying for innoculations.   I know prescription charges have risen but no-one pays for innoculation and the elderly and people like me with a lifelong condition, diabetes, who need constant medicines, do no pay.

There are, in fact, demands that the NHS expands it role and does more to provide treatment for the elderly, and for example, one-to-one care for premature babies.  Such things are costly and perhaps people are unwilling to tolerate the tax to pay for these.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whilst re-inforcing pride in the military among the British population, are seen increasingly as hopeless and people are calling for an exit.  The Conservatives argue that Labour has not provided the military with the equipment it needs, something I agree has been a problem, but how does anyone expect David Cameron with all his emphasis on cutting public spending to be able to afford to send even one more helicopter to Helmand province? 

The key area where we are seeing a return of Socialism is, ironically, in terms of the previously most controversial aspect of the ethos, nationalisation.  We now have a larger nationalised sector in the UK than at any time since about 1986.  The British government took over the Docklands Light Railway in 1997 and effectively the railway track of Britain is run by Network Rail a company without shareholders but underwritten by the government.  In 2008 Northern Rock building society and the mortgage lending part of Bradford & Bingley building society were nationalised. The government took over 60% of the Royal Bank of Scotland and 40% of the HBOS-Lloyds-TSB banking conglomerate giving it a large slice of the British banking sector, especially in mortgage-lending which has always been a key element in shaping the British economy.

It is unlikely that even Clement Attlee would have been able to control such a large aspect of the financial sector.  The closest we came was when Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of the Labour Party said around the time of the 1992 election that the investment group 3i would be nationalised under a Labout Government to form the basis of state investment in private industry.  The uproar was such that the idea seems to have been entirely forgotten almost immediately.  Interestingly, this year, finally, the government is compelling credit card companies to raise the minimum repayment level on the amount people owe.  This should have come in at least 10 or 15 years ago and could have restrained some of the overheated consumption and massive debt that amounted during the late 1990s and early 2000s that has distorted the economy in an unhealthy way.

All of these steps have been taken with no dismay from the general public.  When there is a crisis they expect the government to step in and sort it all out for them.  The rest of the time they whine about over-regulation, the 'nanny state', that taxes are intolerable and so on, not realising that lack of regulation has led to much of the crisis we are now in and that expensive bail-outs can only be funded by taxes.  Again nationalisation, which seems such a dirty word in most years, is seen as the solution.  Again, however, as in the 1970s, it is being used to catch falling businesses.  This is the wrong way to approach the economy.  Northern Rock should have been nationalised before it started its mad approach to mortgage lending.  I would have taken it over in 2005 at the latest and then, rather than it being a drag on the British economy it could have been used to stabilise house prices and provide stimulus to new business. 

With the first £1002 train ticket for the journey from Newquay in Cornwall to Kyle of Lochalsh in western Scotland, a distance of 2,720 Km (a round the world air ticket can be bought for £800 and you can travel from London to Zurich on the luxury Orient Express for £1000 or from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway - 5,806 Km for only £995) and most inter-city rail fare prices having trebled in the past 15 years, a period in which inflation has been below 3%, it seems apparent that if we want a mobile population using the greenest form of transport around, i.e. electric trains, then we need the whole rail system back in state control.  You find that the only people who praise the privatisation of the railways are people who never travel on trains.

So, are we seeing a Socialist conscience developing among the British population, wanting a tax on bankers' bonuses, limits on the pay of the wealthy, better value public transport and a health service expanding its scope combined with a tolerance, possibly even an enthusiasm for privatising what are now the controlling sectors of the British economy?  People would argue, as historian Corelli Barnett did in the 1980s that the British have become too used to the 'teat' of state intervention and would be traumatised to have it taken away from them and left to fend for themselves.  However, of course, with Thatcherite policies a great deal has been taken away and yet there are still billions of pounds of benefits that people who are entitled to them do not claim.  Britons are an independent people that still like to make their own way as best they can, despite all the propaganda about benefit swindlers and dole scroungers.  Ironically no-one goes after the tax defrauders who owe millions in total to the British economy but they have taken out to tax havens.  We need to go after these people and make them contribute the way I and the large bulk of ordinary British people do.  We have no choice about paying or not paying tax, so why should the wealthy get to make that choice?  Hopefully people are beginning to realise that only a tiny fraction of the population are ever going to win the lottery or set up a business we can sell for millions or become a pop star or some other kind of celebrity, so instead of thinking it is alright for the rich to get away without pulling their weight because one day we might be one of them, more of us need to make sure there are opportunities for a decent life for all.

The veteran Socialist politician Tony Benn often recounts when he was on a train that broke down and how it suddenly seemed as if people were becoming Socialist, sharing out the food and other supplies they had, working together to make the best of a bad situation.  When the train was running smoothly of course they did none of this.  People often refer back to the 'wartime spirit' when people supposedly collaborated in the way that Benn saw them do on that train.  Historian Nick Tiratsoo has shown that a lot of that was exaggerated and we know that 'outsiders', often Jews, were kept out of air raid shelters and whilst the bulk of the population was struggling to feed their families on rations, those who could afford to, could eat unrationed food in restaurants.  However, though it might have been exaggerated it does seem that, possibly counter to what you might expect, in crises Britons become less rather than more selfish.  It is a shame that they cannot maintain that attitude in the better times.  I know David Cameron thinks he will walk into being the latest Conservative prime minister but the recession has reawakened the dormant Socialist tendencies in the British population and if Labour appeals to those rather than trying to be a pale version of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative party, it may win at the next election.