Every year in the lead up to Armistice Day, the right-wing press works itself into an utter frenzy about the fact that insert-public-figure-here isn’t wearing a red poppy on their lapel. Apparently, it’s akin to treason not to wear one. Well, excuse me, but I really don’t want to ruin my Acne leather jacket by trying to clumsily attach a tacky, plastic poppy to it. (That and the fact that I can’t stand the political associations that have grown up around red poppies, and can’t see the red poppy as a tribute that befits the millions who died in war.) I want to steer well clear of the ‘others died so that I might choose not to wear a poppy’ argument; it has its merits, but actually, I’d rather explore what the red poppy has become, and how the way that the poppy is now defined means that I shan’t wear one.
It seems to me that the red poppy has lost its meaning – it’s no longer ‘lest we should forget’ all those who died in war, or the horror of war, but lest we forget the British personnel who die fighting for us – as if we somehow had a choice in the matter. I think what’s rather happened over time is that the red poppy has stopped being any kind reminder of the brutality and horror of war, and has instead become a glorification of service personnel, which I fervently disagree with. Further to that, instead of commemorating the horror, futility and wanton waste of war, the red poppy now seems to be the symbol of those who would perpetuate the cycle of conflict and death. For me, the red poppy has become a militaristic symbol, almost to the point of jingoism – surely the irony isn’t lost on anyone?
The poppy now represents little more than a selective remembrance of those ‘brave boys’ or whatever other euphemism we might employ to describe military personnel, and only British personnel at that. I always grew up in a rather internationalist world in which the Francois Fenelon quote rang true – “all wars are civil wars, for all men are brothers”. It seems to me that to reduce the red poppy, and by extension our remembrance of war’s casualties, to the military personnel of our own country is to fail to address the question that should surely be in everyone’s thoughts today: How do we stem the tide of blood, and end these wretched wars?
I suppose beneath the mourning, we might perhaps be led to the terrible conclusion that no-one really cares about ending the wars, and that Remembrance day now serves as little more than a sticking plaster on a leaking nuclear bomb – by dedicating one day to the dead, we might forget them for the rest of the year, and therefore tolerate the continuation of so many wars. The twentieth century was the first in which more human lives were lost in war than in natural disasters, that’s what we ought to think of today – rather than berating those who choose, for legitimate reasons, not to wear a red poppy.
Sad to say, the fury addressed to those who refuse to wear poppies reminds me rather of the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade in Heller’s Catch-22, and I can’t help but feel that the sheer absurdity of the spectacle undermines the decorum that the same right-wing rags would have us conduct ourselves with on ‘Remembrance Sunday’. Marina Hyde put it rather well in a Guardian column: “the media campaigns to bring to the foreground the poppies that are not being worn, as opposed to the ones that are, serve not as a memorial to the sacrifices made on our behalf, but as a reminder of our hard-wired one-upmanship and infinite capacity to find ways to divide ourselves.”
(For a personal look at my family’s pacifism, click here)
Scum in cheap suits. I mean, that’s the Apprentice anyway, but these ones are young. I always think that the Apprentice is a show that scrapes the bottom of the capitalist barrel and exposes the worst egomaniacs and self regarding pricks in Britain, but surely it’s worse to think that people are actually born like that, and grow up like that. If any of them went to the same college as me, I’d almost certainly punch them in the mouth.
That Maxwell kid is pretty much the epitome of Rugby School as far as I’m concerned. Oh he is possibly the worst of them.You’d think that a £20,000 (why am I pretending I know the fees at Rugby?) a year education might have actually taught him not to humiliate himself on television for £2500. However, that said, watching him will almost certainly amuse me. What a cunt. Pardon my language.
They always pick the same names as well. Almost invariably, naming one’s Apprentice team means appropriating concepts and terms from physics. Which I do hate, and it also just reinforces how awful and unimaginative the contestants are. Like the people who aimlessly commission series 100 of the show.
When I am swept to power in a revolution, the first thing I shall do is hold an audition for Young Apprentice, and then arrest any fuckwit who showed up. This has been a properly lame rant, but my brain has been saturated by Lenin and JA Hobson.
[As a side, is Mohamed’s not the ugliest watch ever?]
So in history we’re currently studying the British Empire in Africa, and possibly the most harrowing part of the course has been watching Niall Ferguson’s morally repugnant television series. I really hate him. Actually, I just hate 20th century British political history; which our course essentially still is. Oh how I long to get as far from 20th century history as I can at university.
I’m not really sure how to explain what he does, but basically - his main subject these days is a very right-wing view of the British Empire, arguing that for too long the brutality of the Empire has been overstated, and the benefits that it bought the world underplayed. He wrote Empire, in which he argues (fairly poorly) that the British Empire was great. He mostly achieves this by totally ignoring the negative parts of the Empire. (And talking up the negative aspects of other Empires, admittedly) I have his book in front of me:
There’s a short paragraph on the Amritsar Massacre (and a few pages on how the British soldiers were treated by the Japanese - in the TV version he’s on the verge of tears during this bit - it’s rather cute)
A small paragraph excusing the use of concentration camps in South Africa
Less than three pages on Kenya, and no meaningful reference to the Mau Mau rebellion.
I really can’t bring myself to make more points, but essentially that gives you a good idea - Ferguson has no regard for the brutality of Empire. And no interest in it either. Essentially he argues that the French, Belgians, Dutch, Portuguese, Germans and Japanese were all worse.
In the end, he concludes that Britain left a great legacy.
Parliamentary Democracy.I can only think of two countries that survived for any length of time as democracies (leaving aside Canada and Australia), and that’d be India (which has been ruled exclusively by one party, and almost exclusively by one family since 1947), and the other is Pakistan, which isn’t that much of a democracy now. But aside from that, Africa is packed full of dictators.
Free-market Capitalism.Well, in a few countries. But are we seriously saying that Zimbabwe is a free-market capitalist society? And anyway, I don’t strictly accept that free-market capitalism is a desirable.
World Peace.I mean seriously? Has Niall missed two world wars, both at least party the result of imperial ambitions and tensions. And even then, there’s the conflict over Kashmir, and countless African civil wars left behind by the West.
Football.Okay, so there’s a grain of truth - but football is hardly the crowning glory of Western civilization.
Cricket.Yep, undeniably we did spread that across the Empire like syphilis. But really, it’s hardly a sport that we would want to have spread. No other European country plays cricket, because it is shit.
The expression “fuck off”.Alright, well fair enough on that one. What a glowing legacy…
Either Niall Ferguson is an imbecile who actually believes all the badly written, cliche laden, racist and patently untrue things in his television series, or he’s a genius who has worked out exactly the optimum formula to annoy me. Whatever the case may be, he’s among the richest historians around, is the public intellectual of choice for the U.S Right (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), and apparently going to be consulting on a new history curriculum for England.
Not only did I not realise that the British Communist Party was still active, but I didn’t realise that they had begun commissioning TV programs for Channel 4. There are plenty of arguments for a socialist revolution, and plenty of compelling reasons to join a left-wing political organisation. But none as compelling as 42 minutes of Channel 4 television in which the most privileged, stupid and laughable members of society ponce around in their little bubble, spending three figures on champagne and five figures on clothes.
Watching an episode of Made in Chelsea has been the final nail in the coffin of the upper class as far as I’m concerned. It’s the final piece that, for me, surely speeds the destruction of the British class system in its entirety, and the creation of a society based on the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity. But it doesn’t seem to. People just watch it.
So that makes me genuinely curious. Avid followers of this blog will know that I spent some time in a tent with Britain’s young elite. And that I hated everything they stood for, and that it almost certainly made me more left-wing as a result.
But what I want to know is how people feel watching Made in Chelsea?
Are the viewers angry at the inequality of a society where the poorest are suffering, and the richest just laugh and buy another bottle of champagne? Is Made in Chelsea not the modern, televised equivalent of ‘Let them eat brioche!’?
I’ve constantly argued that possibly the worst legacy of the Thatcher years is to have destroyed the pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake. Thatcher never introduced fees, but I’m pretty confident she would have done, and when Blair did, it was clear that Thatcher had won, from beyond the political grave. I think what has happened is that for the most part, degrees have now become a way into something else - people get degrees because they think it’ll get them a job. This has really permeated the academic environment, and it’s really starting to wind me up. Now all universities tart their statistics about how many of their alumni have found a job, and even build in training about “employability” into their degrees.
To be honest, it just makes me really pissed off, it’s the total admission of defeat to a the Tories; it admits that knowledge has no intrinsic value, and that a degree is simply a financial investment in your future. I don’t oppose the tuition fees because I think I won’t make the money back, but because I object to the ideology that says education is purely for financial reward. These subjects are inherently worthwhile - knowledge about the past clearly enriches our culture in the present and shines a light into the future, and to try and justify them because they ‘provide skills valued by employers’ is just gutless crap.
I don’t want to do History at university because I want a job that demands I have a degree. Obviously there’s not a massive financial future in knowledge about the University of Paris in the 14th Century, and nor does that knowledge make me employable. I want a job that means I get to use the parts of my subject that I loved. I don’t know what that job might be, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t involve an office in the City of London.
The truth is that the fees exist at least in part to alter the kind of people who go to university; to instill into the students the toxic idea that the individual and the society are diametrically opposed, and to rid society of those pesky people who become thinkers and artists - it’s simply no longer financially justifiable. And ultimately that will be to the detriment of society as a whole.
A few days ago I was in Oxford for the History Faculty Open Day, and at some point, I found myself reminiscing experiences of visiting the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, something which me and this guy had in common. (Except a desire to study History at Oxford).
Anyway, we started by talking about the experience of visiting Auschwitz, and broadly concluded that despite being the most harrowing thing either of us had either seen, it was something that everyone should experience at some point in their lives. I really can’t describe what it was like there, but I know that, on that bitter December day, I was freezing in my skiing jacket, and that I was terrified and changed by what I saw. Auschwitz continues to exist as a memorial to those who died, and also as a warning from history, a warning of what humans are capable of, and of how far we have to fall.
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN, MOSTLY JEWS. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1940
(The Plaque in Auschwitz II)
So I was drawn to a more interesting question - what will we make of Auschwitz in 100 years time, or in 500 years time, or indeed ? To my mind, Auschwitz stands as a monument today for a number of reasons, but primarily because the Nazis are still on the edge of living memory. There are still, I believe, a few Holocaust survivors, who give interviews, as well as a wealth of literature from writers like Primo Levi. All this serves to keep the Holocaust in our minds. But I think there’s a far more obvious reason than that - there have been genocides since, there have been European genocides since, Srebrenica being the largest, but the sheer scale and industrialised monstrosity of the Holocaust means that it stands alone.
So I suppose, what I had wondered was what Auschwitz would be like in 500 years time. Obviously it will no longer be living memory. But much as it saddens me to even think this; it probably won’t be the biggest, most industrialised genocide of all history hitherto. But perhaps the camp will still exist; perhaps that most haunting gas chamber will still exist; perhaps the railway tracks will still be there, decaying; and perhaps, beneath a layer of moss and dust, that plaque will still be legible. But the whole camp could have become something else - stripped of its comparative scale, stripped of the memories of survivors, stripped of the families torn apart, stripped of the literature and film that surrounds the Holocaust, the camp will have become something like the Tower of London. (There is already a gift shop and a cafeteria)
These days, Traitors gate, in the Tower of London is little more than a historical curio, something that we can collectively stare at, and think ‘Oh, weren’t they so uncivilised, putting heads on spikes there.’ We look at Tower Green, where countless people were executed by the state, and to be honest it’s just good fun - children play with swords, tourists lick ice-creams. The same is true all over the place; every castle, every romanticised battlefield. They’re good fun.
And perhaps, Auschwitz too, will become good fun.
Maybe that sounds like a fantasy, as we emptily echo ‘Lest we should ever forget’. But how many among us know when Holocaust Memorial Day is? And even then, why does that matter? To quote the History Boys [Irwin says this about WW1, but I think it applies for the Holocaust too], all the mourning veils the truth, it’s not lest we forget, it’s lest we remember. There have been too many genocides since for us to claim that we have remembered. Bosnia. Serbia. Rwanda. Cambodia. Argentina. China. Manila. Guatemala. Iraq. Countless more.
Millions more have died. Auschwitz may still be revered by those who go there, but it’s wider significance never truly existed, we can’t forget Auschwitz; most of humanity seems not to have learnt from it at all.
So Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in my opinion, is one of the most culturally significant works of the past 50 years. Not only is it a fantastic film on its own merits, side splittingly funny, painfully sharp and also a great depiction of Christian belief. But that alone doesn’t make it significant. In 1979, it was also the most daring satire of religion to date; in Britain it blew apart taboos about mocking Christianity. And that was essential in securing our freedom of speech - satire is one of the most effective ways of dealing with belief, and an essential part of freedom of speech - and The Life of Brian really opened the floodgates in this country.
Even with Christianity, there’s still a way to go. A few years ago, Jerry Springer the Opera collapsed after its producers were threatened with prosecution for blasphemy. So clearly, there’s still some distance to be covered, but encouragingly, the Opera got positive reviews in the official newspapers of both the Church of England (Church Times) and the Catholic Church (Catholic Herald). So now, it seems that Christian desire for censorship, in Britain at least, has been become broadly the preserve of the fringes.
So I guess in a way that provides a good prelude to another film; Chris Morris’s Four Lions. Firstly, I highly recommend you all watch it, and don’t be put off by what I’m about to say, it’s a very well written film. But I guess my problem with it is really that I had hoped it would take a similar cultural role to the Life of Brian; I hoped that it would break some of the taboo that exists around satirising Islam, but I guess in a lot of ways it’s not really about Islam, it’s purely about suicide bombing. And that though the religion of the bombers is Islam, it could easily be any other religion.
I feel a bit awkward about Four Lions. I think I’ve seen it twice now, once on the opening night with my then boyfriend, and a second time with my current boyfriend, on DVD. And the second time I watched it, I wondered whether I’d just forgotten how much I enjoyed it. My memory of the first time is that it was very funny, but that wasn’t my experience watching the DVD. And I think in part that’s due to the environment - in a packed cinema, there’s enough other people laughing that you feel like you’re laughing at the right bits. Normally, I don’t really care too much, but I think with the topic of suicide bombers, there are bits where you don’t really know how to react, and without a kind of collective verdict to work with, it can just become a profoundly awkward film.
But Four Lions is significant, it’s is a far better moral indictment of suicide bombers than any thundering newspaper editorial. There’s always a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Four Lions is a brilliant indictment of suicide bombers purely for the fact that it does the opposite of what we constantly see on the news. The papers and TV news treat suicide bombers with fear, like they’re some kind of elite unit, the S.A.S of terrorists. And that creates the fear that the terrorists desire, and clearly, here, Four Lions does the opposite; the bombers are constantly bungling it. They’re crap terrorists, in short. It pokes fun at all the flaws; they ‘hate’ western civilisation, but they like Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight, they’re meant to be devout, but none of them speak Arabic, they’re meant to be deadly warriors, but they’re useless. In short, they’re portrayed as egomaniacs rather than religious warriors, and that is a far better way to deal with terrorism than fearing it and tearing up our rights.
So perhaps, though Four Lions never took on the same taboo that The Life of Brian did, it took on one that was equally as important and topical. Before now, every movie about terrorism, like Paradise Now or United 93, had treated suicide bombing with a sort of reverence and respect. Four Lions blows that apart (pardon the pun), and that’s a really brave achievement from a very brave Chris Morris.
So this first paragraph is where almost every other student has written a contrived, manifestly untrue account of how they came to deeply love their subject from an unreasonably young age. No one falls in love with History in primary school, how can you? All you learn is the a rhyme detailing the fates of the wives of a serial killing misogynist king.You don’t write essays, you don’t have debates, you just swallow what someone tells you, and that’s not history. And if any tutor reading this first paragraph is in any way drawn in by one of those cute, contrived tales, then just consider the cynicism with which some minor public school tosser with no imagination composed it.
So here it is, my really straightforward deal: you won’t accept me because I pretend to have loved history since the age of five. You’ll accept me because I’m about to starkly detail the real reason I want to read history: I’m a misanthrope who wants to dedicate three years of his life to studying three thousand years of human folly. If anyone, in any university reading this, has any kind of intellectual integrity left then I’ll get five offers, because history isn’t about lying, it’s not about making up fanciful stories about how something happened. Some minor public school prick’s cynical, invented version of how they came to history is a telling representation of their attitude toward history - it can be shifted as it pleases them, for their own convenience. There is no point in a historian who tells people what they want to hear, but the blame also lies with intellectually dishonest admissions tutors (Hi, by the way) who swallow these stories up.
I haven’t invented a reason for doing history. I want to study history for it’s own sake; but of course in this Thatcherite era of students as consumers, and degrees as an investment, intellectual pleasure simply isn’t justification. I have to have a career in mind. I have to justify my love of history on someone else’s terms. Surely in calling it a love, I’ve negated the need to justify it? History is inherently worthwhile, like all pursuit of knowledge. Isn’t that enough reason?
And no, before you ask, I can’t pay in cash.
Thankfully I haven’t really written this on my personal statement, but god knows I’ve felt pretty tempted.
Okay, so there’s been a certain degree of controversy about Tyler, The Creator winning a VMA award - especially among the feminists here. I know why, the lyrics really are disgusting. But I’ve seen a few people who’ve outright rejected the idea that he could be satirising rap. Now, I don’t really think he is, but I think this throws up a point that we have to be careful about: duality of meaning.
Let me use any example that I’m pretty familiar with. I’m obsessed with a left-wing comic called Stewart Lee, who does a lot of material that can seem very problematic. Here’s an example from a routine about Top Gear:
I wish he [Richard Hammond] had died in that crash and that he had been decapitated and that his head had rolled off in front of his wife and that a jagged piece of metal debris from the car had got stuck in his eye and blinded him.
And then his head had rolled on a few more yards into a pool of boiling oil and that his head had retained just enough neural capacity for him to be able to think “ooh, this is bit hot” before the whole thing exploded into tiny pieces.
Now, that all seems a bit much, and out of context, it seems right to condemn it, but I think that we must at least consider the possibility of a duality of meaning - the routine progresses, and as a payoff (and a warning to the Mail), Lee explains that he has used an exaggerated version of the rhetoric of Top Gear to satirise Top Gear. And I think that most of us would accept that. This isn’t really meant to be a defense of Tyler, The Creator, but a warning that in general we have to consider the multiple meanings of something before condemning it. (And a plug for Stewart Lee, who deserves more recognition)
It often seems that ‘family values’ is a euphemism for a whole host of things - it’s a term deployed in a damn Orwellian way by anti-gay campaigners, by anti-abortion campaigners, by those who seek to perpetuate a patriarchal society, and by those who demonise the working classes. (And yes, it is remarkable how often those groups coincide.) And it also seems to belong to foaming letters in the Mail, but I think it can also mean something important to those of us on the liberal side of things.
But I think that family values should be reclaimed by the left, and indeed redefined by the left. Family values should not mean a married man and woman with 2.2 children, a family where the man is the principle earner, and the woman stays at home to keep house. A family should be any unit, of any form, that can nuture and love children. So if that means two men, or two women, or a single parent, or any other unit you can imagine, then so be it. But more importantly, supporting family values should involve ensuring that those who do give love and support to children are themselves supported.
There’s an often perpetuated idea that the reason for young male violence is the fact that when these people grow up, they lack a father figure. But I’d suggest that by and large, that’s not the truth. The reality may be that many of those offenders are from single parent households - but that’s not the reason for their actions. Like the riots, this must be set in socio-economic terms. Single parent households tend to be poorer - there’s only one person to earn money. I don’t feel that the sole solution is to throw money at those living in poorer families, I think there’s a wider solution, that’s really inconvenient, especially for the coalition.
One of Tony Blair’s best policies was SureStart. In so doing, he created somewhere that could provide affordable childcare. It seems to me far better to free up single parents to be earners, than to demonise them and suggest that they should be dependent on someone else to earn for them. (Generally this would translate as a single mother being dependent on a male earner - see the patriarchal theme?) So, the long term solution is not to cut SureStart, but instead to extend the coverage of day nurseries, of SureStart centres, and to ensure that single parents aren’t demonised by the state, but instead nurtured.