all that life can afford

The other day I got an email from the great Rob Thompson, containing this link. It’s my old house, 10 Vincent Terrace, an address mentioned on my old London-nostalgia post. From practically anyone else, that would have been creepy bordering on stalkerish. From one habitual archive-molester to another, it’s about the coolest thing possible.

And that was the first port of call when Beth and I went on a day-trip to the big city as a wind-down from Group Research. Off at Angel, after a superbly cheap train from Moor Street to Marylebone and a tangled switchback of tube changes, rounding the City Road and strolling through the grid of quiet white-faced Georgian terraces. The old playground down by the water hadn’t changed even slightly since I was last there; Anderson’s warehouse had been torn down and replaced by expensive apartments back in 2001, the Diespeker building was the same half-brick-half-plate-glass yuppie-haven as it had been when I last saw it converted. We looked across the water at Hanover Primary and heard the sound of kids playing on the roof over the ripples of City Basin; Beth ruminated on what different childhoods she and I must have had. I don’t know how much inner-city life has really shaped who I am, but while I was a wretched, bullied kid who fucking hated that school and never want to see its insides again, I’m not sure I want to be anyone else.

Then down to Camden Lock to eat the great big picnic I always make and drain my thermos in a haze of hipster-exhaled marijuana smoke, and explore the various mad, wacky, over-the-top markets that infest the place. Camden, for all its myriad fascinations, doesn’t really impress me the way it ought to: I was far more interested in the history of the old stable-blocks and warehouses and the lock than all the weird gimmicky bong shops, nom shops and places trying to be somewhere out of Tron. There’s a weird sort of desperation to it, all these creative types trying their very hardest to outdo each other in off-the-wall weirdness and overcoiffed “counterculture”, but I’m glad places like it exist. As premeditated, Tom showed up, fresh and elated from having just scored an internship at Tussaud’s (waxwork eyelashes: squirrel fur. The more you know!) and we two highly connected children of the digital age eventually managed to locate each other in a hundred square metres of Camden (“We’re under the weeping willow by the lock.” “There are four weeping willows by the lock!” “AND WE’RE UNDER THIS ONE.”)

Then we pootled off to Canary Wharf, mainly because Beth wanted to, and sat by the fountain judging the various businessmen and tourists around us, making bad Wire references and wondering how to salvage dropped change from the pontoon bridge over West India Quay. I saw them building that bridge; I remember frogmen in the water around the pontoons as they inflated them and the bridge gradually rose from the water like an overburdened sea serpent. I wonder if this makes me Old. We made an interesting discovery: the Canary Wharf Tesco, which we expected to be a massively overpriced bijou nomshop for people with cufflinks worth more than my father makes in a stereotype stereotype blather blather, turned out to be hellishly cheap. (Maybe this is how the rich stay rich: unlike students, they don’t get messed around with on groceries.)

“Tom, you’re carrying like fifteen different knives.”)

Thus fortified with 10p donuts, 60p cornish pasties and 75p cartons of soup (all of which would have cost at least twice that in Selly Oak, let alone most London shops), we wandered back to the station, nabbing along the way a copy of Canary Wharf Magazine, all glossy, poncy adverts for thousand-pound wristwatches and bizjets and polo, reeking of the insecure nouveau riche trying to assert themselves. This – this city, maybe even this particular plate-glass-and-rebar money machine – is where my ambitions are aimed at the moment, if I’m good enough – and I hope when I get there it’s not as pathetically superficial and image-conscious as it seems to believe.

The DLR extension goes down to Lewisham now, and there’s a station nestled in Greenwich near the now-tragically-reduced Cutty Sark, but the way we always went when I were a lad was the old under-river foot tunnel back when the railway stopped at Island Gardens. There’s nowhere else quite like it. Once we were done gawking at the Old Royal Naval College the maritime museum was long closed, so we climbed up the hill to the Royal Observatory and watched the sunlit city and all the tourists messing about with meridian lines.

On the way back, we stopped in a little off-alley tea shop in Greenwich Village, and wondered about cities over far too many cuppas. My answer was “something that’s too big to really personally connect to, too complex for anyone to properly comprehend it in a lifetime.” I can’t for the life of me remember what the question was, but the answer was satisfying enough in its own right. Then the DLR to Tower Gateway, and we wandered onto the great bridge and stood for a while at the base of one of the bascules, looking over the Tower, HMS Belfast and the lapping Thames under a newly overcast sky. Tower Hill station, one last comparison of maps to planned outages, one last beep of Oyster cards and slam of barriers, and the train from Marylebone whisked us back in gathering darkness and gently streaking rain.

This is London, the place I grew up in, a place I know well enough that all the good parts are tinted by distant memories. I belong there, and I’ll be back there one day.

By the by, we got 62 for the GR presentation. Having looked at the rest of it (and published the marks online myself for fellow students, because the university is as ever criminally incompetent at getting our marks to us through the giant, confused, overengineered tangle that’s WebCT) I can see very little correlation between the good presentations and the actual marks they get, which has led to a few people being very pleasantly surprised and a lot of people being bitterly disappointed, myself counted. But we always knew Group Research was a bullshit module; better roll with it. I’ve done some spreadsheety number-crunching and concluded that in order to get my First this year I need to average 66+ in the Group Research essay and the two forthcoming exams. Which I think – I hope – I can do handily.

Speaking of which, I’d probably best revise…


pillars of fire

Group Research. Oh, Group Research, if I had a penny for every time I complained about it I could afford to put myself through law school without a TC. Well. Alright, maybe if I had a tenner each time.

Group Research is a bad idea. Leave aside that the organisation and communication are, as usual from the history department, a bit* disjointed and shambolic. Leave aside that we had limited guidance because our highly competent and willing tutor wasn’t allowed to see us regularly. The module is worth 20 credits (ie, 1/6th of the year, the year itself being worth 25% of the degree.) 50% of the marks are from a 2500 word essay (which we’ll come to), 50% are from the group presentation. This means that, fundamentally, 10 credits of my degree are relying on other people. And not to lapse into lame misanthropic wank which so disrupts the standard lame self-deprecating wank, but I don’t trust other people to do my degree for me.

Last week was the culmination; essays were due in on Tuesday (except, as we most of us learned after handing in slightly rushed essays on Tuesday, they were actually due in on Wednesday. Oh, History office. Oh, you.) I did my essay, which was (like dissprep before it) marred by nobody being perfectly sure what the hell to do having been told fifteen things going in different directions. In the end I just worked to Stuart’s pretty-good-actually email spec, more or less finished the day before, and reworked it in the bog standard all-nighter that’s become basically habit. Then presentations, in morning/evening sessions, with each group required to go to one session presenting, one session assessing and one session as “audience” (for which read: meat in the room.) We were assessing on Wednesday morning, presenting first thing on Thursday.

Seeing other teams’ work was, surprisingly, a confidence booster. There was one featuring a friend from Practising History last year, which was very competently done despite the subject being the sort of tedious parish history nobody could really give a damn about, a couple middle of the road things, and one which had a rather clever presentation on the screen but was let down by a group who said so little of substance in such a mumble (and did such a terrible job of answering questions afterwards) I was convinced they were reading wiki printouts after a night of heavy drinking. It became swiftly obvious that nobody on either side of it cared much about the actual content. But some of the stuff we saw was basically media studies; not to be a history snob (HEAVEN FORFEND) but it felt good to have a presentation based on actual facts which we’d discovered from actual archives and primary sources, rather than watching a couple of movies and issuing sweeping statements of questionable integrity.

Sam Lear tells me that his default question after a presentation was “tell me why this is important/historically relevant”, which is the best damn question you can ask, really, though it also got him a rep as a total dick.**

Despite excusing myself from an amusing Northern Soc karaoke night (which I attended with some trepidation, worrying that as a southerner they might only want me as a blood sacrifice and/or ingredient for pies; totally wrongly, Northern Soc are lovely folks) in order to get pre-presentation sleep this, too, ended up as an all-nighter. For no actual reason: I designed and printed a couple of handouts (one map with the Messines-Wytschaetes Ridge as placed against, one with a 9000hoursinMSPaint diagram of the British Army chain of command (for non-war plebs), rewrote my script and fiddled a bit with the presentation. None of this took much time at all. But it seems I can’t live without fatigue, insomnia and a good hard tea/adrenaline kick before a piece of work. The actual day of the presentation came up, sunny and bright, and I was buzzing like a hummingbird.

We started presenting at 10. Thirty minutes later, we sat outside, grinning stupidly in the comedown, and one of the professors assessing came and shook our hands to congratulate us on what he reckoned was good work well done. The first presentation of the day, I’m convinced, gets marked most leniently (such was certainly the way when we were marking). Afterwards, we all went to Joe’s for a hideously early pint and discussed music and methods of execution.

I’m convinced that there’s no way that could have gone better, and that we probably deserve whatever mark we get from it; mostly I’m just glad it’s over with. But I can’t deny it’s been pretty interesting as a module, and some real CV-boosting nonsense along the way. Challenges! Teamwork! Productivity!

Group Research: it sucked hard until twenty hours before crunch, but when I’m all withered and ancient, looking back on uni through the rosy tint of distant hindsight, I think I’ll remember it kindly.

* Where “a bit” = “completely.”
** He tried it on us; another member of the team said something nice and common-sense-y while I was still mouthing “how fucking dare you”, then I recovered and said something disjointed about challenging popular perceptions.

a storm in a broken teacup

So tomorrow (or, well, today now, hoorah for pathetic sleep schedules) Britain goes to the polls for a referendum on the Alternative Vote system. For Yanks and other foreign creatures, this is on whether we want to make the voting system by which each small constituency across the country votes for their Member of Parliament slightly more sophisticated and slightly more fair.

AV is better, however marginally, than FPTP. FPTP is the primitive product of far less egalitarian years, an undemocratic, shitty system which results in undemocratic, shitty governments, and anything which can make it less so is an improvement, up to proper proportional representation. Disagree that representation should be proportionally based? Then you are disagreeing with the fundamental “votes should matter” principle of democracy, and you’ve probably got a good right to, but that’s another debate entirely. AV is objectively more democratic, and PR more so than that.

There’s no real argument against AV, not that people haven’t tried to fabricate one. Comically, a poster up in Selly Oak showed a sad soldier and claimed – probably mendaciously – that it would cost A WHOLE £250M to implement AV; defence spending probably has me rather jaded as to what a billion pounds can buy, but for context, we spent more than £250m on jet fuel, maintenance and cruise missiles in Libya in a matter of days, and that same sum would get us two Eurofighters without any weapons. It’s just not a lot of money; it is utterly insignificant in government spending terms. And it’s not exactly “too complicated” to rank preferences, you condescending pricks.

The biggest reason not to vote for reform (apart from party loyalties, but those are for stupid people) is that AV is a really pathetic improvement. It makes the matter that bit more democratic, it will shift slightly from the two-party system we have in all but name, but it won’t save the world, and it won’t really make British politics less crap. Both sides have been making some hilariously outlandish claims in an attempt not to address how basically boring this referendum is.

It feels like a catch-22 for people like me, who (ideologically at least; but I am the very model of a basically-apathetic, limp-dicked-optimism champagne humanist, and the reason I never blog about politics is partly because I don’t think my arguments are substantial or educated but mainly because I don’t care) support serious electoral reform, something that may start with AV but won’t be done until we’ve got PR. Which is that in this binary referendum, whoever wins, we lose. If it goes through, then the argument by the anti-reform crowd will be “you’ve got your reform, stop causing a fuss.” If it doesn’t, then the wholly reasonable argument will be “nobody wants this, shut up and sit down.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day, though. Every step in the old battles to extend suffrage to women(/the young/the poor/the landless/Catholics/people who aren’t really our kind of people) probably felt like this. Regardless of how crap AV is, it’s still an improvement, a step.

I’ll be voting AV, but I’ll be doing so with a heavy heart and a lingering feeling that it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter because our elections don’t really matter. It changes nothing except very slightly altering the manner in which we elect the same crowd of assorted idealists-turned-to-scum-by-the-system, and as long as British politics remains the lame, dickless, self-absorbed comedy of errors it’s been for my whole life (and, to be fair, probably forever) it still won’t matter. We’re not polishing the brass on the Titanic with this referendum, nothing so dramatic; we’re polishing the brass on a beached dead ship on Alang waiting to be blowtorched apart and turned into rebar.

But it’s still a step – a faltering, feeble, baby step! – in the right direction.

lucky dragon #5

Take a fission bomb. (This is, fortunately, the hardest part.) Salt it – bolting cobalt jackets to the casing is one of the simplest and best ways – and, for preference, blow it somewhere nice and high up.* No matter where you set it up, though, you will kill a lot of people, due partly to the jackets producing years of massively radioactive fallout, and partly due to the fact you’ve just set off a goddamn fission bomb.

This is a scary device.

Take a briefcase full of TNT or some other conventional explosive. Pack some isotopes around it, the meanest, most radioactive shit you can obtain. (This is even more difficult than it sounds.) Leave it in the middle of a busy city; blow it when it’s surrounded by people, if you can, because blast aside, you will kill nobody.

This is a device capable of causing scares.

To be precise, this is a crappy, worthless weapon, capable of causing scares when gossip-mongering rags know what sells to gullible tech-illiterates who assume that anything involving “nuclear material” will cause a mushroom cloud and a sea of glass, rather than an expensive cleanup and a very mildly elevated cancer risk.

A “dirty bomb” is not a nuclear weapon. It is barely even a conventional weapon. It is a car bomb with media-supplemented delusions of grandeur. Even the most ferocious radioactive material you can put in one is incapable of doing serious damage to anyone or anything in the short time between detonation and mass evacuation, and it is not capable of causing any kind of nuclear reaction. It’s a spectacularly stupid, expensive and ineffectual way of poisoning people, worse than just dumping a wheelbarrow of caesium into the reservoir and watching it fizz. If you really seriously want to kill people, probably the cheapest, easiest and most effective way is a crate of AKs and a few men who can fire from the shoulder and aren’t afraid to die.

The world had pretty much forgotten about Osama bin Laden until today. His death changes precisely nothing; he could have died ten years ago and it would have made no difference whatsoever. This time around, can we have our bomb scares with a little less bullshit?

* Hell, if you can get it up a decent way in the sky you can get an EMP out of it and cause the ever-more-cliched, ever-more-potentially-crippling internetpocalypse in addition to your straight fission bomb and cobalt-salted storm of ions – though if you have both nuclear weapons and that sort of delivery system, why is this even a question, and why are you reading my blog?