Abba in Glasgow

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The news that Spandau Ballet (who I hadn’t realised were back together) have split up again reminded me of a photo from Q magazine in c. 1990 of bandleader Tony Hadley in the company of two female fans. It accompanied one of those deeply sardonic interviews conducted by Tom Hibbert, erstwhile Smash Hits snarkist extraordinaire. Hadley was flanked by two middle-aged women for whom the encounter clearly represented the highlight of their lives, the realisation of a decade-long dream, because the expressions on their faces were flushed with unadulterated joy. It was, however, not a flattering photo of any of the three subjects. Hadley’s face didn’t express any enjoyment whatsoever but was that of a man imprisoned in anguish. In front of him stood a pint glass which was distinctly half-empty; he looked like a man who’d just had explained to him that he was Tony Hadley and that the year was 1990.

Thinking of that photo put me in mind of a story about a young girl from Glasgow who was obsessed with Abba. As far back as anyone could remember (this was the late 1970s), her bedroom walls had been festooned with images of Anni-Frid, Benny, Bjorn, and Agnetha (her favourite). When the news broke in mid-1979 that her idols would be visiting her hometown, her screaming was so loud it brought people running in from the neighbouring close to find out what was wrong. In the weeks leading up to the concert she was uncontrollable, talking nonstop about which songs they would play (her favourite was, naturally, ‘Dancing Queen’) and what the girls would be wearing. She didn’t sleep for a full week before the day of the gig.

It finally came: November 13th 1979. The concert was everything that she had dreamed of. It wasn’t just Agnetha’s outfit that sparkled: the whole night, inside and outside the Apollo Theatre, was filled with glitter. They started with Voulez Vous (the title track of their latest album, which she’d loved so much she’d almost worn through) and included so many of her favourite songs she felt like she would burst with joy: I Have A Dream, S.O.S., Take A Chance On Me…. Between tracks she and her friends tried hard to catch their breath and remind each other what songs they’d already done so that they could capture every moment to relive later, but then the opening bars of the next song would sweep in and they’d be off, dancing and bawling their hearts out. Summer Nights City, Does Your Mother Know, and then, just when she was starting to feel scared that they’d miss it out for some reason and that The Way That Old Friends Do would be their very last song, that ecstatic piano riff that sent her soaring above the crowd like an angel, so high up in the rafters, having the time of her fucking life, that she then spent the whole of the final number (Waterloo) in floods of tears, her mates trying to console her at the same time as dancing for all they were worth…the last words Benny said from the stage were “We love you, Glasgow!”.

Abba, man. We love you. Unforgettable. They floated home, singing and screaming and bawling all the way.

She read all the reviews she could find in the local papers and added them to her collection. In the new year she was suddenly seventeen, just like in the song. Every time she and her friends met they couldn’t stop talking about the concert. Then, in summer, they heard that Abba had a new album coming out, in November, with a single due in July! She counted down the days again, imagining the lyrics and the songs and the photo on the sleeve. She had to wait to get the single as they were away with her gran in bloody Greenock, where there wasn’t even a record shop, but when she managed to get her hands on ‘The Winner Takes It All’ it broke her heart it the sweetest possible way, it made her suddenly feel like an adult. She loved the sorrowful tone, and the fact that at the most intensely tragic moment of the song the backing singers seemed to be singing (she argued about this with her friends) the refrain ‘BIG ONES, SMALL ONES’ felt like the funniest joke she’d ever been told.

She was ill in bed the day the album (‘Super Trouper’) was released. Bloody mumps. Nae bother, because as soon as school was finished for the day her best friend rushed into town, bought the LP and then got the bus to hers, fizzing with excitement. She ran up the stairs and, giggling and shaking like loons, they put the record on the turntable, sat back on her bed and awaited the worst horror of all.

 

‘Lexit’ supporters welcome new round of austerity

Supporters of the ‘Lexit’ faction in last June’s EU referendum have proclaimed themselves “satisfied” with Chancellor Philip Hammond’s explanation that Brexit will necessitate a new round of austerity for the public sector.

Jane Blobb, from Sheffield, said she was “not in the least bit surprised” that Britain’s leaving the EU will now serve as a pretext for even more cuts to services essential to the running of society. “It’s just what I expected”, she said. “I mean, Remain voters did warn me that this is exactly what would happen, that they would use it as an excuse, another ‘shock doctrine’ if you will, but I’m not in the least bit bothered that they are indeed doing so, because…er…the EU is a…capitalist club. For…neoliberals”.

Fellow Lexit enthusiast, SWP member John “Johnny” Johnson of Hemel Hempstead, agreed. “It’s a price worth paying”, he said. “We’ll almost certainly see the end of the NHS now, and I helped make that happen. As a lifelong socialist, I’m proud of the decision I made. The EU is a bosses’ club. A neoliberal one.”

Hammond also warned that their calls for wage hikes for teachers, nurses and others may have to mean tax rises for millions and further ‘savage’ cuts to social welfare benefits.

“Well that’s fine,” said Billy Bonehead as he folded and unfolded a three-day-old edition of the Morning Star while waiting for the off-license to open. “I haven’t worked since 2013, and I’ve been sanctioned six times for the pettiest reasons you can imagine. I’ve been staying on a friend’s sofa for the last three months and it’s getting to be a real strain. But if Mr Hammond says that we need to tighten our belts even further, I can respect that. People like him have got a difficult job on their hands managing public finances, and at least it’s not the EU calling the shots this time. They’re neoliberals, you know.”

Hammond, one of the ministers battling for a “soft” UK exit from the EU, defended the 1% pay cap for public sector workers, declaring the Government “must hold our nerve”. He also said that any attempts to address the climate crisis would now have to “take a back seat” to efforts to promote economic growth at any cost, and that any responsibility the UK has to help tackle the global refugee crisis were “not now a priority”. He added that the Government is looking seriously at abolishing corporation tax, bringing in a ‘fasttrack’ fracking compulsory purchase order system, erasing all health and safety legislation from the statute books, tripling VAT and replacing the progressive tax regime with a flat tax, in addition to reintroducing conscription, setting up a network of Victorian-style workhouses, decriminalising child labour and introducing on-the-spot execution of dissidents. This was all necessary because of Brexit, or “whatever you choose to call it”, he added.

“Fair enough,” said another Lexit supporter, Sadiq Eejit of Birmingham. “That’s more or less what I voted for. As long as it doesn’t affect my political principles, I’ll put up with it. God knows what sort of world my kids will live in. It defies thinking about. But as long as we do whatever Mr Hammond and Mrs May think is necessary, we’ll get through this. We’re all British, after all. I’m sure after a few more decades or possibly centuries of entirely necessary austerity and corporate looting, we’ll be back on our feet again, and then there’ll probably be a revolution, or something. Did you know that the EU is run by neoliberals? It said so on The Canary.”

Additional reporting courtesy of The Huffington Post.

Pynchon and postal deregulation

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Photo borrowed from Pynchon in Public.

In Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ the character Oedipa Maas seems to discover an underground postal network known as W.A.S.T.E. and connected to a shadowy organisation with medieval roots called the Trystero. Or maybe it’s merely a conspiracy to make her believe that there is such a network. This is Pynchon, after all, and it is 1966, on the West Coast, where LSD was beginning to reveal hidden patterns and correspondences beneath the bland surface, “other modes of meaning beyond the obvious…like the matrices of a great digital computer”, another “separate, silent, unsuspected” America. Oedipa suspects she has stumbled upon:

a secret richness and concealed density of dream…a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system.

(…)

For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by US Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private.

So far, so libertarian. The novel involves a complex metaphor which can be and has been picked apart in various ways*. Here I want to focus on communication in relation to the private and the State. As the reference to a computer suggests, Neoliberalism has realised Oedipa’s dream, in the form of the internet, also a long-term concern of Pynchon. Is it free or controlled, radical or repressive? Is Tristero the heterotopian deep, dark web, as explored in ‘Bleeding Edge’ (2013), or is it Google, Facebook and Whatsapp? At a certain point it contained the potential to be both, and Pynchon explores those historical moments, unearthing the buried wires that could have gone in all sorts of directions.

While it’s hard to imagine a centrally-managed and state-owned internet, it’s not hard to remember when the postal service was run in such a way. When I was growing up there was a single state-owned postal network in the UK. If you wanted to post a letter or parcel, you went to the post office, and receiving post was a matter of waiting until a postman or woman, employed by the same organisation, turned up in the morning. It wasn’t perfect: sometimes he or she would be late, very occasionally missives wold go missing, there was no internet so you couldn’t ‘track’ what you’d sent, and often – horror of horrors – you had to stand in a queue at the post office itself, but on the whole the system functioned well. I never remember any of my friends or family suggested we scrap the whole thing and replace it with chaos.

With the ‘liberalisation’ of postal services around Europe and some other parts of the world, the sending and receiving of physical objects has, rather than being ‘liberated’, become immensely more inefficient and time-consuming. The fact that certain neoliberals love to boast about ‘disrupting‘ settled industries is exemplified in the amount of hassle involved in identifying which kinds of stamps can go in which kinds of post boxes, staying at home all day in the vain hope that whichever bunch of shysters has been entrusted with your package might deign to turn up at whatever time best suits their employers, calling round two or three mobile phone numbers in the hope that whichever subcontracted individual (working for a subcontracted subunit of a global cartel) has your parcel is still awake and hasn’t flown away to Ibiza for two weeks. By contrast, Oedipa’s system of wandering round the Bay Area all night on the lookout for tramps dumping handfuls of letters into posthorn-marked dustbins starts to look like a far more efficient and reliable system.

Still, onwards and upwards. Far more important than the need of ordinary people to dispatch and obtain goods and gifts is the sacrosanct desire of ‘entrepreneurs‘, those modern-day counterparts of Jay Gould, to profit by acting as entirely unnecessary middlemen (or perhaps that should be highwaymen) in any inter-human transaction. Following on from EU-wide deregulation, both Royal Mail and Poste Italiane are currently being privatised, after years of having been, in accordance with Noam Chomsky’s prognosis, run into the ground. For someone who comes from the UK and now lives in Italy, questa non è una buona notizia.

At a generous estimate, 30% of things that have been dispatched to us in Rome over the last few months of friends and family generously dispatching gifts for our new baby simply haven’t arrived. Others have taken months to turn up. On occasion, tracked packages have apparently arrived at the nearest delivery centre and sat there forlornly for several weeks despite my increasingly bad-tempered exhortations to the people personning the Poste Italiane Facebook page to ask someone to pick them up and bring them to the address written on the cazzo label. At one point I posted them a link to the Italian Wikipedia page about the film ‘Il Postino’, so at least they might understand what the purported function of their organisation was. A volta la ironia si perde nella traduzione.

Last month, the pursuit of a tardy passport delivery occasioned a visit to the local sorting office. Having negotiated the security system (bloke enjoying a ciggy, listens to my garbled explanation and nods me through) I made my way upstairs into a huge room contained what looked like avenues of undelivered parcels. It seemed to be a mausoleum of things that could be delivered, but probably won’t be. Like with gravestones, the names chiseled, printed or handwritten with misplaced optimism on the envelopes marked only a permanent resting place. Excitingly, on the other hand, it appeared that I could wander round and pick things up – I might even happen upon the parcel of baby clothes my sister sent over a month ago! Perhaps I would come across that book of poetry I’d ordered from a US website three months ago, or the TRUCK FUMP! t-shirt my wife had bought as a Christmas present! Sadly, given the enormous piles of pacchi in ritardo mounted up around the warehouse, untroubled by the attentions of the few yellow-tabarded staff standing around in a desultory fashion waiting for lunchtime, it seemed unlikely. It would have been like looking for a needle in a deregulated haystack.

Maybe I should have just asked them to send the parcels via W.A.S.T.E.

*Pynchon later expressed dissatisfaction with the novel: “I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then”.

O português dos outros

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In the documentary ‘Citizenfour‘ (2014) we see the campaigning journalist Glenn Greenwald speak at a senate hearing in Brasília to draw attention to the British authorities’ treatment of his partner, David Miranda, who had been detained  for nine hours upon arrival in the UK on jumped-up counterterrorism charges. (The hearing starts at 1h26m.) Having made his home in Brazil, Greenwald made his statement and responded to questions in Portuguese. Although the theme of the hearing was deadly serious, I found it hard to hold back my laughter and difficult to imagine that the assembled journalists were not doing the same. Glenn Greenwald is an extremely brave and principled journalist and the way his partner was treated was outrageous, but his Portuguese was (at least at the time) a bit shit.

Mas quem sou eu para rir? – But who am I to laugh? Well, I lived in Portugal for several years and take an interest in other people’s (particularly English speakers’) command of the language. It’s not entirely a healthy interest, containing elements of snobbery and jealousy, but it is hard not to be competitive, and to try to resolve anxieties about one’s own abilities by means of judging others’ over-harshly. One of the first proper sentences I taught myself to say was ‘My ultimate ambition is to speak better Portuguese than Bobby Robson’, the football manager whose struggles with the language were the source of much mirth and affection:

It became a running joke with friends to take the piss out of British people who spoke Portuguese with no attempt whatsoever to mimic the way local people spoke. Although (adopts very strong English accent) EU NÃO CONSIGO ENCONTRAR BONS EXEMPLOS DISSO ONLINE, anyone who is able to distinguish Portuguese from Spanish will find this clip of the Portuguese writer José Saramago (who exiled himself in Lanzarote and married a Spanish woman) speaking the latter similarly amusing. He simply never made the slightest effort to modify his voice to the sounds of the neighbouring language. I met countless compatriots whose attempts to speak with Portuguese grammar and words but with the sounds of Hemel Hempstead were probably endearing to someone but grated on my ear. 

Ridiculing others was one way of addressing my own anxieties about my pronunciation, and thus about my own legitimacy as a Portuguese speaker – of course, my own command of the language was never by any means perfect, despite my very best attempts to delude myself otherwise. When it came to visiting Brazil, I felt a large chip missing from my shoulder, given that it took a conscious and constant effort for me to speak the jollier version of the language rather than the more slavic-sounding European variety. I envied those foreigners who had learned the more gregarious Brazilian language first, accompanied by that physical volubility natural to Brazilians. As it happened, most other gringo tourists I met there spoke portuñol, but when I was hanging out with Brazilians for prolonged periods and my energy (not, like theirs, inexaustible) started to run down I eventually reverted to my most relaxed version, which is strongly luso-accented and, to Brazilian ears, sounds sometimes cute but mostly sort of backward.

The resulting resentment is probably an ingredient in my wanting to find fault with the esforços of someone like Greenwald, who, after all, succeeded where I failed. Of course, it’s only fair to acknowledge that in the hearing he was under immense pressure. Even Manu Chao, interviewed here before a live audience in Goiás, gets visibly and audibly nervous when obliged to address a roomfull of highly attentive native speakers. I’ve never had to do anything similar, and if I did the results would be atrocious. As the New York Times reported, in his interview with the then-Brazilian President, Greenwald performed extremely well, and he has given numerous interviews and reports which demonstrate that he was having a bad day. Perhaps the fact that his partner had been arrested for terrorism put him off his concordâncias nominais and made him keep forgetting to roll his erres appropriately.

Comedy aside, I’m opposed to language shaming per se. It’s particularly unpleasant and unfair (although very prevalent, particularly when it comes to public figures) in the case of foreigners speaking English, a language few truly choose to learn. There should be a camaraderie among foreign speakers of a language. It takes courage to put one’s aspirations and identity on the line in such a way, and being mocked for doing so is often traumatic.

My Portuguese is now officially enferrujado – rusty, at least when speaking. Fortunately Brazilian music is so rich and enjoyable that I am regularly exposed to new and old vocabulary. In the last couple of years in Mexico and Italy I’ve managed to overcome some of my preciousness about Getting It Right when speaking other languages. I’m not from either place, but I get by, in the sense that I can do what I need to do and I don’t get nervous when interacting with strangers. I think that a lot of my prior anxiety came from trying too hard to fit in, to step outside my own skin and discard my own identity. In such a situation it’s inevitable that you will feel like you’re in a No Man’s Land when trying to reach the other bank of the linguistic shore. As you can see from that poorly-assembled sentence, even my own command of my ‘own’ language isn’t always up to scratch. As for Glenn Greenwald, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist rather than an academic linguist or a language freak, and he uses his experience and skills in both English and Portuguese to expose injustice and hold power accountable at every turn. If he were ever to see this website, he’d probably partir-se a rir: piss himself laughing. And if he heard me speaking Portuguese, he’d likely switch to English quicker than you could say “cê é gringo, né?!”.

Finland, Finland, Finland

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It’s refreshing right now, in the sweltering midday heat of Rome in early July, to remember that there are places on this planet which were once coldIf only we’d all done more to prevent the planet overheating in the first place. I did try, a bit. In early December 2009 I had two trips planned to Nordic Europe* within the course of ten days. My plan was that I would visit my friends in Tampere (in Finland), fly back to London and then, the following day, take another plane to Copenhagen to join the protest at the Climate Conference. As it happened, on the morning after returning from Finland I was too skint, exhausted and hungover to travel to Denmark. At least I avoided any awkward questions about my dependence on unsustainable modes of transport. 

Not that I regretted  going to Finland: I subsequently went back twice in the space of three years. It was somewhere I felt an immediate affinity with. On my first visit I took immense pleasure in the complicatedness of the language. It was about three degrees and falling quickly in the early December Helsinki midafternoon, as I wandered round in circles both concentric and eccentric and asked passers-by one of the two or three phrases I knew: ‘Missä on… Ekaterinaburgkatu?’ – Where is Ekaterinaburg Street? I had no idea what the answers meant but, having long held the opinion that the best way to discover a new city is to get lost in it, didn’t mind zigzagging around for a couple of hours. Paying careful attention to where people were pointing eventually helped narrow it down when the winter wind became too much to bear.

The people I was staying with in Helsinki were from Russia but had made their home in Finland. Ironically, it was partly through them that I began to get a sense of the unfussy hospitality which characterises Finland, which is, after all, not Brazil: it’s not a culture which goes out of its way to impress or charm visitors. People instead exhibit a quiet, uneffusive generosity. Some of that stoicism must be to do with the climate. In the Kiasma gallery I came across a remarkable artwork consisting of a wood cabin, starkly furnished, complemented by a toy train set which gave off an occasional melancholy wail. Inside the cabin TV screens showed blurred images of snowstormed forests soundtracked by heartbreaking stories of people going missing in month-long blizzards.

Subsequently learning something about history introduced me to the concept of sisu, a kind of hardiness particular to Finnish culture  and strongly associated with the staggering sacrifices of the Winter War with Russia. On the subject of suffering, getting deeper into Finnish culture would would mean dealing with the terrifying range of cases central to its famously impenetrable language (essive, inessive, ablative, illative…), which despite my attempts to rationalise them away as sort-of-like-prepositions-but-just-tagged-on-as-suffixes defy normal human understanding.

Heading north on the train I appreciated the silence and space. Outside the main cities Finland often feels barely inhabited. People told me that you can travel for days through the forest and not see a helvetin soul. This sparseness seemed to extend to the consumer economy. I enjoyed the fact that on the train there was a drink you could buy called ‘coffee’, as opposed to the skinny-grande-double-pump-caramel-gingerbread-latte-nonsense on offer in more crowded parts of Europe.

Tampere felt familiar, unsurprisingly so as it’s known as the Manchester of Finland. It has lots of remnants of its industrial past and maintains a similar deadpan sensibility: not so much dry as frozen wit. Among most Finnish people generally I’ve noticed (and admired) a certain earthiness which connects to my own northern roots, particularly when it comes to swearing. I am (courtesy of my friend Steve) the proud possessor of two of the most uproariously graphic insults in any human language, and although posting them here might result in my getting banned from WordPress for life I’m happy to email them to anyone who requests them.

Although it doesn’t reveal anything particularly edifying about my lifestyle at the time, I liked the Finnish relationship with drink. It felt that you could (if you had the money) sit in a bar in your trusty old pullover and three pairs of pyjama trousers and continue drinking until you passed out gracefully onto the sawdust floor to the sound of muttered voices and plaintive blues music. The limited variety of menu options and the narrow range of eating establishments suggested a disinterest in food which I, living in food outlet-saturated London at the time, found refreshing. There was also a carefreeness in the way that people left you alone. Nobody started talking to me just because I was from elsewhere. The society didn’t need my presence, and I appreciated its cool (because uncool) indifference. My memories of my first visit are suffused in a bluey-white blur of very strong alcohol and the weave of extremely thick socks. 

Out on the streets I found more signs of that unfussiness and lack of pretension. I was amused by the surreality of Tampere’s musty Lenin Museum and the existence of a strip bar simply called ‘Big Tits’ (I didn’t go inside to find out how big). Finland’s neuroses (about drink, sex, other people) seemed to be on the surface. Maybe that’s what it (famously) has in common with Japan, a place I’ve still never been to but have heard described as having no subconscious. It’s easy to diagnose what’s wrong with Finland: it’s cold most of the year, people drink too much, nobody says please or thank you and everyone commits suicide regularly. As it happens, in ‘The Spirit Level’, published earlier that year, I’d read that in happier countries people kill themselves more. Lots of people doing themselves in is a better indication of social bonhomie than everybody killing everyone else.

I took a trip to my friends’ country home in a tiny village called Auttoinen. Their house was a sprawling place of immense human warmth reinforced by the (exotic by comparison with private rented apartments back home) decent insulation and central heating. The energy-saving ethos extended to the local bar, where words were employed sparingly by the local ‘juntti’ (yokels). You couldn’t call it entertaining but it was, also, exotic. I recognised the mood from any number of films by Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s leading exponent abroad. This clip succinctly captures the dark, dour wit of many of his works, and if you’re intrigued and have got ten minutes to spare, there’s another short film here (the subtitles are in Spanish, but don’t let that you put you off) (unless you don’t understand Spanish, obviously*).

My second visit took place during the summer solstice in 2011. Between June and August all of Finland heads for the countryside, particularly the lakes, of which there are apparently well over 100,000. If you can avoid the enormous local horseflies known as paarma – not quite as big as your average baby shark, but six times as vicious – it feels like paradise. At a midsummer party in Auttoinen I made friends with increasingly cheerful locals and some expat Africans who told me some hilarious stories about their interactions with more taciturn Finns. A Tanzanian told me about the marked difference between taking a seat on a nearly empty bus back home (sit down next to new friend, shake hands, pass time of day) and doing so in Finland (see other passenger, leave bus, go home, shoot oneself in head). It was difficult for them to adjust to the less convivial culture, and they were working as cleaners or musicians while trying to establish themselves. They seemed frustrated with the lack of opportunities for advancement open to them, but not about to give up on the country having invested so much time and energy into it. They were true Finns now, after all.

The next day on the train to Helsinki I picked up a leaflet aimed at newcomers wanting to learn Finnish. It was written in (excellent) English and was entirely positive in tone, rather than admonishing as would be the case in the rather-more-grudging UK. Back in the Kiasma I bought a book published by Sternberg (in the same series and spirit as the same publisher’s duo of Momus novels ‘The Book of Japans’ and ‘The Book of Scotlands’) which posits alternative future Finlands to replace the inevitably collapsing Welfare State, including a Finland which is repurposed as a nuclear waste storage facility. Another thing it imagines is a road bridge between Helsinki and Tallin, and as it happens I spent my 37th birthday travelling by ferry between Finland and Estonia, where I’m surprised to find that, contrary to everything I’ve ever been told about the Finnish language being totally unique but for a deeply buried lexical connection to Hungarian, Estonian looks and sounds almost identical. There is a short but silly photographic account of my adventures in Tallin here.

If lakes are important to the Finnish summer experience, having access to an island multiplies the fun. A friend of a friend had borrowed half of a small one for the season, and we spent an endless night with his friends from the other side of the island drinking something that tasted like licorice but had a strong aftertaste of something like ayahuasca. You couldn’t really call it a late night because night didn’t arrive, dusk turning straight into dawn. Waking up in the cabin it no longer felt like there was any limit between myself and other objects. PerkeleFrom downstairs I could smell my friend (who had been in Finland for more than ten years and so had acquired a measure of sisu) frying up some bacon. When I showed my face, which evidently looked like it’d just been through the winter wars, he politely invited me to go and jump in the lake. Having taken his sterling advice and chilled my bones to the marrow, I then went straight onto the small sauna he’d prepared and stayed there til it felt like all the alcohol I’d ever consumed was washed out of my skin, then took another dive into the lake, went back in the sauna, repeated the whole rinse cycle two or three times, and then began replenishing the lost salt and alcohol with a bacon sandwich and a beer.

One my third visit, in June 2012, I was accompanied by my then-girlfriend-now-wife. Being from Italy, she had been reliably informed by older, wiser generations of compatrioti that Finland is freezing cold all year round and that she would almost certainly get eaten by a polar bear. In reality it was 30 degrees. After a few days in Auttoinen introducing her to my friends and soaking up the rays (and the rain), we headed for the Turku archipeleago, where, driving round the labyrinth of tiny islands along tiny twisting roads and on and off, it felt like I was finally unravelling the tangled mess I’d made of my life. In Turku itself we stayed on a large boat in a cabin the size of a small mosquito, and by day walked around the town cooing at all the wonders of the nordic model of social democracy, with its large well-illuminated library reminding us that shopping need not be the be and end-all of a city. We visited the castle, and admired the fact that it wasn’t suffused in marketing overexcitability, that it wasn’t trying too hard to sell itself to us as ‘the authentic Finnish experience of medieval Suomiland’ or whatever nonsense some marketing genius in London would have been inspired to think up.

I’ve never lived in Finland and probably never will. I’m aware that many do and find it frustrating and unwelcoming. Personally, I find its existence a comfort. If, in the thankfully unlikely event I ever found myself existentially alone and listless, I would take a plane to Tampere, don my favourite pullover and at least three pairs of pyjama trousers, and head for a downtown bar to partake in a delicious, revolting glass of some sort of weird licorice drink, and after two or three sips lower myself gently to the sawdust-strewn floor. In the meantime, in summer 2018 to be precise, I will be back there, now-wife and new-baby in tow, for a hopefully paarma and polar bear-free midsummer holiday. Nähdään pian!** 

*This now links to a version with subtitles in English, but I thought this was quite a good joke so I’m leaving it as it is, thanks anyway to Sandrita Toledo.
**This used to say Scandanavia but I was swiftly put right, kiitos Richard Millar.
***I told you the language was tricky, it took me about ten minutes to type that phrase.

P.s. Anyone worried that nordic countries are being invaded by legions of hate-filled new arrivals who don’t respect basic values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence will find supportive evidence for such a view in a Facebook group called Foreigners in Finland, where immigrants from Italy, Bulgaria and the UK (the sort of people who are so patriotic they couldn’t stand to live in their ‘own’ countries) spend their time in Finland bitching about other, less privileged, newcomers. I believe the local phrase to describe such people is ‘vitun urpo’ (not that they’ll have bothered to learn the language, but still :-)). This one’s for them 

Tory MPs call for pretend rethink in response to Corbyn threat

Theresa May is facing a chorus of Tory demands for the appearance of a radical overhaul of state funding for public services as cabinet ministers and senior Conservative MPs back the simulation of a commitment to higher pay for millions of NHS workers, more purported cash for schools and the feigning of a “national debate” on student debt.

The prime minister’s waning authority was highlighted as her health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and education secretary Justine Greening lobbied for an “easing” of austerity and senior Conservative MPs insisted that the fact that public services have clearly been in growing peril for several years as a direct and deliberate result of Government policy could have political consequences without the pretence of urgent loosening of the purse strings.

Separately, Damian Green, the de facto deputy prime minister and a May loyalist, hinted at a PR initiative aimed at giving the impression of a wider rethink when he said there might need to be talk of a national debate about the level of student fees, in order to appeal to younger voters. He stressed that the outcome of such a debate would be a “foregone conclusion, naturally”, given that all current Conservative MPs, and particularly those in the Cabinet, continue to believe that poor people should “pay through the teeth” to obtain even secondary education.

The level of internal pressure for a series of gestures indicating a purely notional abandonment of austerity puts chancellor Philip Hammond under huge pressure to consider seeming to raise taxes to fund any extra public spending. It comes as the official body that regulates nurses and midwives – the Nursing and Midwifery Council – prepares to reveal new evidence on Monday of a growing crisis in the recruitment of nurses, something about which top Conservatives are said to be “entirely sanguine”, given that they believe such a state of affairs to be politically desirable.

Government sources made it clear that Hunt was prepared to publicly “take on” Hammond and call for the lifting of the maximum 1% pay cap for nurses and other NHS workers, citing as evidence a hard-hitting report by the government’s own NHS pay review body published in March this year which reveals no new information whatsoever, “it’s just that in the General Election Labour did much better than expected, so we have to say we’re going to change things, even though we’re not”. The sources stressed that Hunt’s “change of heart” would not go beyond a series of concocted headlines in sympathetic newspapers and said that “articles like the one you’re writing will hopefully help give people the right, that is to say the wrong, impression”.

In the NHS pay report, the government’s advisers warned that the cap “will not be electorally sustainable for much longer” and said the cost (in parliamentary seats) of plugging gaps caused by staff shortages could soon be greater than the “savings”. It also highlighted the effects of Brexit, saying “changes in the UK’s relationship with the EU may reduce the ability to fill shortfalls in staff numbers from overseas”, and that this is important “only because it could lead to the replacement of a Conservative Government by a Labour one, which we’re all desperate to avoid. I mean, Brexit is going to be an absolute farce, but at least it’ll be a profitable one for those in the know”. The report concludes that if the Government “plays its cards right” the chaos resulting from EU withdrawal will allow it to impose “the ultimate shock doctrine”, with “not a brick” of the post-war Welfare State” left standing, but stresses that for such a goal to be reached the Conservatives will have to “cling to power as if to the edge of a cliff”.

Meanwhile, there are growing worries about the possible loss of political power occasioned by the otherwise unproblematic lack of nurses and other NHS staff in areas of the country where the cost of living is highest, notably London.

The Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP who is seeking to extend her term as chair of the Commons health select committee and who profits directly from NHS privatisation at the expense of both her constituents and her erstwhile patients, said: “We have got to address this and work out at the same time how to seem to pay for a better settlement for public sector workers. Is that the sort of thing they want? Can I go? I’ve got a meeting with a private healthcare company that pays me £70,000 a year for five hours’ work and a couple of judiciously-placed parliamentary questions.” Another Tory MP, Dr Dan Poulter, who works without any apparent moral qualms as an NHS psychiatrist with patients whose mental health has been exponentially worsened by Government policies specifically designed to do as much damage to the public health system as quickly as possible, said that while difficult choices had been made to improve public finances, “the time has come to lift the pay cap and reward nurses, midwives, doctors and other health care professionals. Will that do? It makes me physically sick to say such things even though I know it doesn’t really mean anything in policy terms. I’m sure if we just throw the plebs the odd crumb of hope we’ll be through this by Christmas”.

A poll for the Observer by Opinium shows the extraordinary extent to which May has lost the trust of voters since the height of her popularity in April, and equally strikingly, since the June general election.

Over the same period, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has called for an end to austerity and the public sector pay cap, has soared in public esteem. On 19 April, May’s net approval was +21% (when the number who disapprove is subtracted from those who approve) while Corbyn’s was -35%. Now May is on -20% and Corbyn on +4%. Since the general election 61% of voters say their opinion of May has become more negative. Labour (45%) is now six points ahead of the Tories, who are on 39%, enough to give Labour a clear win if another election is called.

Last week Tory MPs were ordered to vote down a Labour amendment to the Queen’s speech calling for an end to the public sector pay cap. Hunt accused Labour of using the NHS as a “political football” in the vote and said that the selling off of the health service should be a “non-partisan” issue, even a source of national pride. Aspiring Tory leader Andrea Leadsom accused the Labour leader of a “blatant lack of patriotism” for suggesting that Britain’s “lazy, overpaid, good-for-nothing” emergency services personnel should receive a pay rise for the “frankly quite pointless” work they do.

But while the Conservatives do not want to be seen to be responding to Labour pressure, behind the scenes there is a growing view that May and Hammond will have to give a clear signal that the government will change direction before parliament breaks for the summer on 20 July. There is a widespread belief in the party that the public will have “forgotten” such a pledge by the time the autumn session opens, by which point influential pro-Conservative media figures such as Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and George Osborne will have successfully identified a plausible new scapegoat to distract “rabid” voters.  Many Tories say the £1bn deal to secure the support of the DUP has made the case for the public sector pay cap impossible to defend, so feigning a change in policy “will have to do” until new targets for public opprobrium are successfully established.

Zac Goldsmith, the racist Tory MP for Richmond Park and racist former London mayoral candidate, said much progress had been made in privatising education. “But the financial pressures are mounting fast and the government cannot avoid providing a better funding deal,” he said. “I can’t believe I actually got reelected”, he added, and said it was now his political priority to draw the Goveenment’s attention to a series of “surprisingly sophisticated” policy proposals outlined in a selection of BNP leaflets from the early 1990s. Asked about whether he would also pressure the Government to take action on Climate Change, he laughed heartily and slapped our reporter on the back, repeating the phrase “top hole”.

Green, the first secretary of state and an outspoken critic of people “sitting at home living on benefits” while he works hard representing the interests of private water companies in parliament, said yesterday that the level of tuition fees may need to appear to be reconsidered in order to reach out to younger metropolitan voters. He said he was confident that the “kinds of hopelessly naive, dope-addled scum” who voted Labour in such droves “could easily be bought off by a couple of vague gestures from Number 10”. While £9,000-a-year fees allowed high quality courses and teaching, student debt had become a “huge issue”, but said it would “of course, in reality” remain Conservative policy to privatise all aspects of higher education “thoroughly, entirely, absolutely”.

Answering questions after a speech at the Bright Blue think tank before he left to attend “another of these educational finance knees-ups”, Green said the only way to cut fees and retain standards would be to put up taxes. “Governments would have to take money from everyone at work and companies that provide jobs to provide those essential services. And while we have no intention whatsoever of doing that, it may well be that this is a national debate that we need to appear to have in order to stay in power.”

Additional reporting courtesy of The Guardian.

Lesson plan: Is it right to burn money?

A great theme for a lesson is one that makes your students sit up and go WTF WAS THAT?! In all my years of trying to provoke my students this is the lesson that has generated most furious debate as it opens up a lot of political issues that people tend to take personally, like money, wealth, value and waste.

The lesson should take about 75 minutes and will work well with any class above B2.1/Upper Int. Access to an IWB will facilitate things immensely.

Procedure

  1. Show this film clip, giving students time to identify what’s happening (ans: some people are burning lots of cash).
  2. Do a quick straw poll: Who thinks it’s right or wrong?
  3. Get them to look up online who the KLF were, specifically how they got the money in the first place.
  4. Establish that they were an (unusual) pop band who had huge success. Show a couple of short clips from their videos.
  5. Elicit ideas as to why they decided to burn a million pounds. Show this photo to get them started. Get students to look up any articles in which the members of the group explain their reasons for what they did, and share what they find.
  6. Using the collocations dictionary ozdic.com, point out that you can, regardless of the legal or moral implications, burn (as in waste) money. Students in pairs list other ways of ‘burning’ money.
  7. Share their ideas on the board.
  8. Students prepare for a debate. Who thinks the KLF were right or wrong to burn money? Help with arguments on each side. Encourage them to use real and hypothetical examples of similar cases.
  9. Hold the debate – you can follow the procedure described here.
  10. For homework, get the students to write an IELTS-style essay setting out the main points on each side and giving their own opinion.

    C’est tout!

    Stealing books from the KLF, Parts 1 and 2

    Part 1

    Sometime in c.1994 a fax arrived at the radio station where I worked which had me and my then drinking partner Brian punching the air with anticipatory glee. It invited whoever fancied it to Dublin’s most salubrious nitespot The Pod to hang out with none other than stadium-techno prankster Bill Drummond, who had just a short time before burned his bridges with the music industry and thrown every remaining penny it’d rewarded/bribed him with onto the pyre because whyever not. (You can see the resulting documentary ‘Watch the K Foundation burn a million quid’ here). The event was to mark the publication of a book he’d written about a trip he’d purportedly undertaken to the North Pole in the company of Zodiac Mindwarp (of minor 1980s pop fame). On the evening in question we ambled along and got stuck into the free Canadian beer, chatting with the other liggers who included minor Dublin pop aristocracy such as the erstwhile Paul Wonderful, aka the funniest man in the world, who would just a couple of years later introduce the world to his masterwork Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly. At some point a huge book started to circulate, a version of the work being launched, which was said to be bound in calfskin and to exist in a limited edition of only five copies. It was all a bit silly, and in our mounting giddiness we may have spilled a bit of free beer on some of the pages, which as I recall featured pornographic photos in which the faces of the participants had been replaced with the heads of Disney characters. Our sense of exhilaration at the absurdity of the occasion and the fact of our presence there hit new heights when Bill Drummond himself limped in, accompanied by some bloke wearing a frilly shirt and an expression of considerable self-importance. Emboldened by our or third or was it thirteenth free bottle of Molson Export or was it Big Rock, we pushed through the crowd and introduced ourselves, explaining to Bill (who, I seem to recall, had green teeth) why burning a million pounds was totally the right thing to do, displaying a indepth knowledge of his movements and motivations derived from obsessive lifelong study of the music press and generally (we thought) being uproariously entertaining. At some point it became clear that there were still some other people in the room who wanted to talk to Bill, a fact that Mr Frilly Shirt was keen to stress, but his constant interruptions only prompted Bill to utter the following deathless phrase in his uplands lilt: “Nooo, these are the only interesting people I’ve met all night!”. Confirmed in our ascendency to the position of Coolest People In The World For One Night Only, we continued to celebrate by chugging even more ice-cold free Canadian lager, which served to make the evening even more deliriously exciting, and also to disorient us to the point where we lost contact not only with Bill but with each other, and from the heights of fraternising publicly with one of the world’s hippest human beings (with whom we were, we believed, just on the brink of exchanging contact details in preparation for a joint trip to Shangri-La), the evening descended precipitously into a messy finale of fallen barstools, broken glass, heavy-handed bouncers, and an eventual fine of three thousand pounds imposed on Brian for, with catastrophically ill-judged overexuberance, jumping up and down on one or two cars in the immediate vicinity of Harcourt Street, which is, after all, where Ireland’s largest police station happens to be located. Luckily, by the time the gardaí got involved, I myself was stumbling northwards feeling like I’d been blessed by the Pope of pop himself.

    The following morning, buoyed up with starstruck hubris and basically still drunk, I floated into work and bathed in the admiration of my colleagues, some of whom had no idea who Bill Drummond was but seem impressed that I’d managed to survive the whole escapade. Brian hadn’t, in the sense that he now in almost all certainty faced the prospect of having to find a proper job for a few months to pay off his debauchery. At lunchtime we staggered off down Wicklow Street towards a local greasy spoon which we hoped might soak up some of the excess blood in our alcohol streams. As we walked and tried to relive or at least recall the glory of the previous night, we were startled to be violently set upon by one of its protagonists: Bill Drummond’s frilly-shirted assistant, who ran across the street and set about trying to kick us both up the arse while shouting something about a missing book. We were nonplussed, and after some slapstick tomfoolery managed to get him to give up and fuck off. It was only when we got back to work that someone pointed to an article in the gossip section of the hot-off-the-press Evening Herald, which reported that former pop icon Bill Drummond had successfully launched his new book, but that in the process it appeared that someone has stolen a special edition of which there were only five in the world, and that he and his publishers were keen that it be returned in its original condition as soon as possible.

    The whole experience was so exciting and so very odd that I promptly forgot to tell one of my very best friends (a fellow KLF enthusiast) about it for several years. When I finally remembered to do so, it turned out to be somewhat serendipitous, because he responded with the following anecdote: 

    Part 2

    Summer 1999. My girlfriend and I are living on a shared giro of £52.something pence a fortnight. She likes to spend much of this money on brand name suntan lotion which she applies to her entire body, every day, regardless of season. We can scarcely afford to eat, never mind go out and get drunk. She did have very soft skin, though.

    We were living in a boring city in the UK where we, alongside our similarly financially endowed friends would seek out any free cultural events, no matter how mundane. So imagine my joy when I saw posters advertising a talk by fucking Bill Drummond from out of the KLF, a band I had loved since the 1980s, for free!

    It was taking place in a posh and inevitably boring “brasserie” pub. The premise of the event was thrilling: Drummond had written his autobiography, 45. He was 45 years old at the time and most of the records he’d made played at 45rpm. The book was seven inches square to represent a 7″ single. But this evening, he announced that his publisher’s lawyers had said that twelve anecdotes from his text were unpublishable and as he anyway preferred the twelve inch single to the seven inch, he had decided to self-publish twelve copies of the book with the twelve unpublishable anecdotes published within, in a hardback twelve inch squared format. These twelve books were scattered around various tables at which we were sitting, and by each book was a packet of crayons.

    He told us that if we wanted to, we could leaf through the book, read parts, make comments or drawings in it with the crayons, even destroy the book if we wanted to (no-one did), but that we couldn’t take the books home with us and that they were not for sale; could not be sold in fact because of the unpublishable material.

    He signed my 12″ of Kylie Said to Jason with the highlighter pen that I gave him. I then had to put selotape over the autograph to stop it rubbing off because I couldn’t even afford to buy a permanent marker. As I did so I asked him what sort of music he was into at the time and he said he didn’t like music any more 🙁.

    Unfortunately he then read an extremely boring passage from the book, something about the countryside if memory serves, and I remember thinking he was dressed in extremely boring clothing and glasses, a bit like the ironic country gent look that Vic Reeves wore at the time.

    As I grew disenchanted with the evening’s entertainments I drank another cider and looked out of the window at the orange glow of the sunset on the pavement from the brasserie towards my house. Then I glanced at the book again, then I looked at my rucksack on the floor which was about an inch wider than the book. Then I looked at the book again.

    Reader, I stole it.

    A couple of months later I bought a copy of the actually published, publishing-lawyer-censored 7″ version of the book in a charity shop. I tried to impress on my girlfriend that the only way to extract the twelve scurrilous anecdotes from my … OK actually Drummond’s uncensored book would be to read the two books simultaneously, aloud to each other in bed.

    Unfortunately I can’t tell you what these twelve stories are because she expressed her extreme disinterest in this project as she rubbed overpriced suntan lotion into her skin on that chilly late September night.

    Tourism goes on as normal in Italy despite crippling drought

    From the window of our Airbnb studio, we can see the wifi barge stationed down in the bay. There are apparently three such boats which arrive daily at different parts of the island and keep locals and visitors supplied with a continuous flow of pumped-in digital information.

    It’s an emergency measure. According to Domenico, our host, there’s been no actual coverage for three months. I think he talked about the astronomical sum of 500,000 tonnes a year being consumed, peaking obviously in the summer, when the population of the island multiplies exponentially.

    Tourists use huge amounts of wifi: to post and comment on photos on Facebook, access restaurant reviews on Tripadvisor and listen to listen to appropriately summery music on Spotify. That’s true not just for this island but for Capri, Ischia and countless other holiday destinations, which given how important tourism is to the Italian economy makes this nationwide drought of coverage particularly worrying. Luckily, in our case, Domenico has left a two-litre bottle of wifi in the fridge, and after its used up we resort to using our own supply, which we stock up on in the local shops.

    Life seems to go on. Boats arrive, restaurants and cafes are busy, and everything seems more or less normal. But it’s hard to see how this set-up can be sustained. We depend on wifi in every single area of our lives, from transport to air conditioning systems to entertainment. Only the most adventurous of tourists would even dream of spending time in a place which survives on a life-support system. And as for the locals, they must be noticing the year-on-year decline in coverage, and wondering what the future has in store for their stunningly picturesque but informatically parched island. Could seawater somehow be transformed into Cloud-borne ones and zeros of a standard acceptable to international guests? What value does its abundance of natural beauty have if visitors can’t upload photos of it on Instagram? Could the recent dearth in coverage somehow be related to rumoured changes in the earth’s climate? If only they could get online consistently, they might be able to find the answers to these and other pressing questions. In the meantime, ensuring that tourists continue to have access to decent quality Netflix streaming services and more-than-sporadic Whatsapp voice and video calls conveying birthday greetings remains the number one municipal priority.