Monday, August 14, 2006

A Moron Speaks

"I know 80 pairs of shoes sounds a lot. But when you sit back and look at them all sitting there in your wardrobe, you do often wonder: "Do I really have any shoes to match this outfit?"

Buying shoes can be tricky. It's very difficult to choose between ones that match and others which are pure works of art. Some people go for comfort, others for practicality. I often choose ridiculously high heels - but walking in heels makes you feel taller, more confident and sexy.

Oh, hello, I'm a stupid fucking idiot.

There are so many different types of shoe to buy, its no wonder some women have vast collections. I have around 10 pairs each of boots, flats and flip-flops, a couple of pairs of wedges and the rest are all heels."

[half-wit continues to yap along similar lines for a further 500 words].

Sometimes I despair - I really do.

The State Bureaucracy

As a part time student I am eligible for 'Jobseekers' Allowance' (JSA). I am a self-financing student (meaning that I pay my own fees and pay my own way and so on). For the first time in my life I decided to apply for JSA over summer since, obviously, university teaching and school supply teaching dries up at this time. I have work lined up to start in September and October, and I have applied for jobs over the summer - only there seem to be few suitable employers about who want to employ me for two months only. I applied for JSA about 9 or 10 weeks ago now, and I am still flipping well waiting for a decision. The application has bounced back several times - I have been asked to fill in sections I was told not to fill in initially, have had to go backwards and forwards with various proofs and documents, and had to fill in extra forms which have been sent to me weeks and weeks after the first application was handed in. It is getting extremely annoying. Every time I go in to the Job Centre and ask what is happening, nobody seems to know - or they tell me to 'phone this number'.

Of course, I still have to turn up to sign on every two weeks - as part of the 'contractual agreement' between me and the state. Every time I go in, I have pointed out that the state has been failing to keep to its part of the contract, since it hasn't been providing me with JSA - even though I have to keep my side of the bargain.

I made the mistake, today, in my signing on meeting, of letting it slip that I was going away for a few days. To my immense annoyance (I nearly flipped), I was immediately handed a 'going away form', in which I had to account for my whereabouts and my availability for work and so on. I don't know why they don't just put an electronic tag on my ankle - it would save everyone an awful lot of paperwork.

The reason I was so annoyed is that I'm going away because I have completely run out of money - I cannot afford to live at the moment. I am going to stay with my parents so that I can get free food, essentially. The reason I have to go away, in other words, is because I don't have a job and because I am still bloody well waiting for JSA to come through. This makes no difference to the form-filling-in procedure. My absence is officially classed as 'a holiday' - this is about the most annoying thing that has happened to me in a long time. I am having to go away, in part, because the JSA application procedure has taken so long, and now I am having to account for my going away in terms that imply that I'm going away because I am a bad and irresponsible person. To cap it all I have to have a meeting scheduled for when I return to York, so that 'I can account for my absence'.

The other annoying thing about this is that my application for council tax benefit cannot be completed until I hear back about whether or not I get JSA. So one council department will not process their paperwork until another department finally gets around to deciding whether or not I am eligible for the 'safety net' of the JSA - a fucking 'shit safety' net if it takes over two months and counting for the buggers to unfurl it.

I didn't used to believe those stories I heard about 'state inefficiency' and the alienating, humiliating nature of the benefit claims process. Sadly, a lot of it seems to be true. I should say that, without exception, the council staff (who by all accounts are not well paid) have been friendly and sympathetic - it's the form filling, grindingly slow, impersonal bureacratic process which is at fault.

Of course, hostility to state bureaucracy is most often associated with the Thatcherite Right - those who want/wanted to 'roll back the state' and 'liberate the individual'. It's worth remembering, by the way, that the state actually grew vastly under the Thatcher regime - so much for their 'crusade' against 'red tape'. They weren't interested so much in humanising the state as much as they were in reducing benefits, humiliating claimants still further, beating down organised labour as brutally as possible, subsidising the rich and expanding the police and military sector (oddly, never classed as an 'inefficient' state bureaucracy - never chided for 'draining the public purse' or wasting 'tax-payers' money'). Hilary Wainwright often points out that the New Right's anti-bureaucracy rhetoric - its (false and cynical) championing of liberation and freedom from the stultifying coils of the state (what they wanted was 'freedom' for the rich and for business not to pay their share back into the 'public purse') was stolen from the New Left of the 60s and 70s. It was the socialist, student and feminist movements of the New Left which pioneered criticism of the top-down, centralist, unresponsive, alienating state. It was the New Left who first tried to create a new relationship between state and citizen - who first tried to devolve power to the citizenry, to front line state employees and to dissolve bureaucratic hierarchies in the state apparatus. It was the Left - like the Left administration in Livingstone's GLC in the 1980s and in the municipal government of 'Red Bologne' for example - who wanted to democratise the state, devolve decision making and adminsitrative power to the ordinary staff and to the communities which those administrations were supposed to serve. In the case of the GLC, of course, all of this good work was smashed by Thatcher, who couldn't afford to let the good idea of municipal socialism spread. Local government across the country in fact, was more or less smashed by the Thatcher regime - power was ruthlessly centralised.

I can't think there are many people on the Left now - apart from a few scary old Stalinists perhaps, or a few ultra-Fabian Social Democrats - who think that everything is hunky dory with top down, centralised state bureaucracy. It's the centre-left, the centre and the centre-right, now, who champion the faceless, centralised, unresponsive state - who run a mile from any real plans to democratise power. There' s no shortage of rhetoric of course - the ritual daily attacks on 'red tape' from New Labour and the Tories continue (whether in the form of thuggish threats from the sinister Dr Reid, or the more 'touchy feely', overly sincere ham-acting of Cameron) - but none of the major parties really want to devolve power. The drive to 'modernise the state' for all of these parties, is a drive, not to break down the barriers and the hierarchies, but the drive to cut costs and the drive to offload responsibility for state processes away from parliament and elected officials. The fanatical consensus at the moment - the political zeal for the (part) privatisation and 'marketisation' of sections of the state, for the bringing in of managers from private industry and carpet bagging 'consultants' and so on, has very little to do with democratic accountability or 'responsiveness'. The neo-liberal state is perhaps one of the most unaccountable, centralised and 'unresponsive' state orders that the modern West has experienced. The introduction of 'market discipline' has done more to remove the state from democratic accountability than anything else - is doing more to centralise power at the apex of (public/private) hierarchies than any Fabian central planner ever dared to dream possible.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Critical Realism. It's Critical and it's Real.

I've been meaning to read up on Critical Realism - in particular Roy Bhaskar's A Realist Theory of Science, for some time. I tried to read a bit of it in the library a few weeks ago and failed miserably - it's clearly not the kind of thing that you can just dip in and out of. Besides it's got horrid sciencey words in it. I hope to find some time to teach myself critical realism once I finish that goddamarsewank thesis thingy. All I know at the moment is that I like what I know about critical realism - at least it seems to advance a broad philosophical outlook that I'd be comfortable with - which is to say, in other words, that it appears to confirm/bolster my prior held philosophical prejudices/comfort blankets.

In basic terms, a Critical Realist perspective allows you to curl your lip at both positivists and empiricists (lab-coated, 'cost benefit analysis' touting philistines) on the one hand and Nietzscheans (evil scary people) on the other.

There's a really good and reasonably accessible debate here between Bhaskar and Callinicos.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

An Epic Poem

Fresh from my encounter the other day, I have produced a poem about hedgehogs. It is a harrowing poem - at once tender and ferocious. I don't mind telling you that it took a lot out of me. I should point out that the metre of the poem is deliberately erratic - it is written in controlled-semi-free-form style. This style is meant to evoke the emotional turmoil of the poem's narrator - the intensity of his experiences of love, physical transformation and righteous fury. If I'd wanted to write it in a more conventional metrical pattern I could have done that easily.

The Man Who Loved Hedgehogs

O lovely hedgehog!
I think you are so sweet,
With your pointed snuffly nose,
And your scamp'ring tiny feet.

O brave hedgehog!
Hunting worm and toad,
Come to my garden by all means,
But please don't cross the road.

O clever hedgehog!
Foxes you outwit,
When you curl into a ball,
And spread your spines a bit.

O noble hedgehog!
Would that I were you,
I'd hurry through the undergrowth,
And munch on my own poo.

O dearest hedgehog!
Look! I'm growing claws,
Now sprouting spines from out my back,
I drop onto all fours.

O fellow hedgehog!
From men's* comp'ny I'll take flight,
And we'll hunt for bugs together,
And scurry through the night.

O lover hedgehog!
They say that I'm 'unwell',
They're calling me a 'monster',
And locked me in a cell.

Come brother hedgehogs!
Rescue me tonight,
Bust me from these prison walls,
With your hedgehog might.

Now warrior hedgehogs!
Now it is our time!
Avenge our fallen brethren,
And all flattened hedgehog crime!

Yes deadly hedgehogs!
sharpen fang and claws,
And with furious squeaks,
We'll fall on them,
And drive them from these shores!

* Note - I would have preferred the non sex specific term 'humans' but it wouldn't fit neatly.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Quite Scary Story

I meant to blog on this for the past two Halloweens. I forgot both times. I was just thinking of the story last night, and I'm bound to forget it next October, so I'll post it now while I'm thinking about it. It is a true tale - a tale of horror and fright and terror and horror. Prepare to be FLIPPING TERRIFIED!

My Horrid Night of Horror in the Horrible Haunted House of Hell
(by Ed)
It was late September 2003 and I was in the process of moving house (I've moved house since, actually and - interesting now I come to think about it - had an unpleasant experience, though of a different sort, in the house I moved out of last, too). I had moved most of my stuff by way of my friend's car over a couple of days, but had left a few odd things in my room, which I couldn't squeeze into his boot, to pick up later. I walked past my old house more or less every evening on my way from university to my new home - so it made sense to leave this stuff and to plan to pick it up some evening on my way home.

A few evenings later, I stopped off at the house - now empty and uninhabited - to collect my remaining possessions.

It was dark. I'd planned to visit the house before nightfall, but for some reason I didn't manage to get to the house before 9 O'clockish. One of the distinguishing features of a student house is that hall and landing light fittings don't usually have working light bulbs in them - and this one was no different. In addition, I seem to remember that as poverty stricken but canny students we'd made sure to take most of the functioning light bulbs with us when we moved. This is the sort of thinking that marks us out as intellectuals. I'd left a bulb in my old room - at the very top of the house, on the third floor - but I had to make my way up 4 flights of stairs in almost complete darkness. I've written before about that strange quality of ghostliness and melancholy which pervades an empty, unhabited house and, at the risk of annoying my readers with a self-referential... er... reference, let me quote the following passage from that previous post (since it saves me the bother of having to re-write it, using different words and stuff):

"It's a very strange feeling, when you are alone in a more or less empty house where you have lived for a while and which you are about to leave. The house feels both familiar and terribly strange. You recognise it, of course - you know the layout of the rooms, you know the carpets and the windows and so on - but it doesn't feel quite like your home anymore. It's a rather disconcerting experience. The place feels haunted too. You remember it as an inhabited and homely place full of familiar possessions and comforts, and so to see it empty feels very wrong somehow. An empty, familiar house is also a desperately lonely place. I didn't like being there any longer than I had to be"

That's what it felt like this time, too. Which is convenient. Anyway, by the time I'd made my way upstairs, keeping one hand to the wall to guide my progress in the dark, I was feeling a little jumpy. I switched on the light in my room and set about packing my things - two or three plates, a mug, a saucepan, an alarm clock, a desk-tidy full of pens and paperclips, a couple of work folders - into the hold-all bag I'd brought with me for the purpose. You know that feeling when you fear - quite irrationally, but fear it nonetheless - that there's someone standing behind you, or watching you from a dark corner, or through a window? That's what I had. I had that sense that something bad was going to happen and that I ought to get out of the house asap.

I turned to leave the room. But as I started towards the doorway I saw something out in the hallway just a few feet away from the door, which made me freeze in horror. That's a bit of a cliche isn't it - 'freeze with horror' - but it's the best description of my experience. It was physical real terror - that strange combination of jolting shock and complete paralysis. I've no idea for how long the shock lasted - probably no longer than a couple of seconds, but at the time it felt like a very long time. Time seemed to stand still (to wheel out another cliched, but accurate expression). My heart was in my mouth (sorry), blood pounded in my ears like the sound of galloping moose (better).

Outside the door, in the half-light thrown from the bulb in my room into the hallway, I could see the outline of a pair of human legs. They were just standing there in the gloom. Don't ask me how I knew they were human legs (and not table legs or elephants or something) - you can just tell these things from the outline. Besides, as I stared at them I could make out the folds and ripples of the trousers and could see, quite clearly that the feet had shoes on them. But the initial horror of the realisation that there was someone outside in the hallway looking at me - someone I didn't know and who should not have been there, was soon amplified to an extreme degree. The thing is, that as I stared and stared it soon became apparent that the legs were not attached to anything - the intruder, or whatever it was, didn't have an upper torso.

Now that's actually very scary. Take it from me - you don't want to be stuck on the third floor of an empty, dark house with a disembodied pair of human legs standing between you and the way out. It is not an experience I would recommend.

The strange thing about being terrified is that, although your body suffers a kind of paralysis, your brain goes into full power. Though you may be rooted to the spot, you find that your mind, beneath the surface terror, becomes quite lucid, calculating and rational. You are petrified, but calm at the same time - if that makes sense. I wonder, by the way, if the physical paralysis that accompanies a bad fright is the necessary corollary of quick thinking in a dangerous situation - you freeze because your mind needs to work out what to do. I remember thinking in a split second about the options I had - I could try to get out of the window, I could make a run for it, I could attack the legs with a saucepan, I could try shouting 'fuck off' very loudly, I could whistle nonchalantly and stroll towards the apparition to see what it would do.

In the end, I didn't have to do any of these things. I remembered something. I remembered that one of my housemates had left a half length mirror in the hall way, propped up against the wall. I felt like a right twit.

The end.


I'm a big fan of hedgehogs. I saw one last night, close up. I was walking home at around 9pm down a wooded lane type thing and suddenly there it was, running along side me, sticking close to the kerb, snuffling through leaves, twigs and grit. It must have been a juvenile, I think, because it was fairly small and seemed to have that slightly reckless indifference about the close presence of a human which young mammals, too young to know better, often seem to possess. I was able to go right up to it, and stoop over to examine it without the animal becoming very much alarmed - it made a half hearted attempt to curl up into a ball as I got close, then seemed to think better of it, and continued to snuffle. They're funny things. They don't run so much as paddle wildly and frantically across the ground. They flap their feet around in a barely coordinated waddle - like a human toddler making its first attempt at a desperate run from mummy to toybox - but still move at quite a speed. It seemed, to me, to move with a kind of comic, exaggerated enthusiasm.

I can see why the creatures need spines. If it wasn't for this measure of defense, hedgehogs would almost certainly find themselves picked up and abducted by sentimental humans -then petted to death.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Good Doggie

Don't know if you saw this yesterday. A dog named Barney 'went on the rampage', mauling a collection of teddy bears on display at Wookey Hole Caves - a collection he was supposed to be guarding. Apparently Barney mercilessly ripped his way through hundreds of cuddly toys, including a bear worth £40,000, which used to belong to Elvis Presley. The owner of the bear, Sir Benjamin Slade - an avid collector of Elvis related tat - was apparently 'not best pleased'.


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