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Maria

UK elections open thread

by Maria on May 6, 2016

After last year’s horror I can barely turn on the computer, let alone the radio or TV. Oh, we don’t have a telly. Anyway. Some titbits of info are still filtering through.

Scotland. Seriously? You lot are dead to me. OK, I can see that you are now just voting pro or anti Union, but it’s a rum day to see the Conservatives in second place. And yes, Blair and post-Blair Labour gave you the middle finger way back when, but let’s pin it on the guy who got the job last summer.

Wales. You do know UKIP is for English people? They don’t like you, either.

Norn. Irn. I don’t blame you. Not one bit. If I had to choose between SF and the DUP, I’d emigrate.

London. I get that Sadiq – the man the Conservatives changed from a dull, machine politician into a racy radical – is winning. But who-TAF are all those people voting for Goldsmith? Do they live on my street? Did I smile at them in the polling station? Or is it just the combined forces of Kensington, Wandsworth and Richmond who think it’s a good idea to vote for the shouting-like-a-mofo-at-your-dog-Linton-in-a-public-place-and-then-kicking-the-bejaysus-out-of-him-when-he-comes guy?

Dudley. I don’t know what to say to you.

The rest of England. Whatever. Carry on.

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National Hero

by Maria on March 25, 2016

This weekend we celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising, the rebellion that gave the Republic of Ireland its foundation myth. As an origin story, Easter 1916 can be hard to live with. Its egalitarian and revolutionary ideals were quickly brushed aside by a deeply conservative political class intent on pushing anyone feminist or left-wing out of Irish politics. And the bumps and inconsistencies in how the leaders of the rising behaved were ironed out till the whole thing looks like one of those over-embroidered altar cloths with starched creases in all the wrong places. The whole enterprise fell victim, for many decades, to a pietistic impulse to canonise the leaders of armed rebellion, making them seem weirdly inhuman. But they were never distantly inhuman to me, despite what I learnt in school. When I first came across Benjamin’s now over-used expression, ‘rubbing history against the grain’, I knew exactly what he meant.

In 1916, my great-grand father, Eoin MacNeill, was the head of a dissident army, the Irish Volunteers. At its height, before many left and volunteered to fight in World War I, the Irish Volunteers numbered about eighty thousand men. (To put it in context, that’s within a few thousand of the British Army’s post-austerity total, today.) Eoin MacNeill was one of the most unlikely rebel leaders you can imagine. He was a scholarship boy from a small town in Antrim. He devoured Latin, history and Ancient Greek, and as a scholar opened up new areas of research in Irish language and laws. With Douglas Hyde, he co-founded the Gaelic League, a countrywide movement that was part of Europe’s late nineteenth century surge in cultural nationalism and also a great way to meet young people of the opposite sex. In pictures, MacNeill looks pale and fine-boned. He wears the fastidious little glasses everyone did who spent most nights reading in poor light. He is as far from a soldier as anyone can be. [click to continue…]

Pretty much every woman who’s ever called out sexism and sexual harassment has met the same kind of response; ‘he didn’t really mean it’, ‘it’s just a misunderstanding’, ‘you must have misinterpreted it’, ‘I don’t mean this the wrong way, but are you sure you’re not exaggerating just a little?’.

It goes deeper than just a bit of mansplaining suggesting to women that what just happened to them actually didn’t. Many people simply don’t see sexual harassment, even when it’s happening right under their noses. It seems normal that young and often not so young women* should spend part of their professional efforts graciously fending off unwanted sexual attention in a way that doesn’t damage anyone’s ego or their own reputations.
Here is a definition of sexual harassment:

“Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.”

(Note to readers: if sexual behaviour is something you are trying to make happen in the workplace, it is almost certainly unwanted. Do you want to risk your colleague’s sense of wellbeing on the sub-1% chance that she really ‘wants it’?)

Another kind of response to complaints about sexual harassment at work is to flip it back onto the person who is calling the behaviour out and try to undermine them or make them seem less credible.

Another response – one that goes irrationally alongside saying something didn’t happen or isn’t happening – is to say it’s not such a big deal anyway.

Another response is to say that all women it happens to have a responsibility to report it, putting the onus on individual women to solve a widespread social and political problem.

Yet another response is to tell them to stay quiet as saying something will ruin their reputation because they will forever be ‘that woman’. [click to continue…]

D&D for Me and for Thee

by Maria on February 19, 2016

I went to a conversation the other night. It was between David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro and the approximately two thousand people watching them.

David Mitchell said he always asks other writers whether they played Dungeons and Dragons as teenagers. He keeps a mental list of writers who did and who didn’t. He played D&D himself (surprise!) and feels a certain bond with other writers who did.

Kazuo Ishiguro had never even heard of D&D. Not a surprise. He is the wrong generation. Too old. And also, he is that kind of very straight writer who conjures a pinch of the clothes peg when dabbling in ‘genre’. (That said, he came across as a lovely man, and one who has come carefully to terms with his necessary public persona.)

But, guess what, according to David Mitchell, Michael Chabon not only played D&D but was a dungeon master to boot. I wonder what other contemporary writers played D&D or who must have done? It would make me like them a little more, too.

That Apple FBI back door thing

by Maria on February 19, 2016

Here at CT we’re not big on posting about topics just because they’re happening. (Unless it’s the 6 Nations, obviously.) But this Apple FBI back door saga is making me feel I should post something, not because it’s topical, not because I know a lot more about it than anyone who reads a decent newspaper / tech journal etc. (because I don’t), but because it’s becoming clear that this event is morphing into something of a turning point in how governments interact with tech firms in the US and, at more of a distance, the UK.

(For a comprehensive and thought-provoking piece on governments and tech intermediaries, read Emily Taylor’s recent piece, The Privatization of Human Rights: Illusions of Consent, Automation and Neutrality, for Chatham House.)

I’m going to assume you know most of the facts and the larger repercussions, and just jot down a few observations of my own and that I’ve come across in various digital rights back channels. [click to continue…]

Original Sin

by Maria on February 3, 2016

The Just City story is triggered by an attempted rape. The god Apollo chases and tries to ‘mate with’, as he puts it, a nymph called Daphne. Nymph-chasing is one of his favourite hobbies. Daphne flees and prays to Artemis who turns her into a tree. Apollo cannot understand why Daphne would do this rather than be mated with by a god. As Apollo later points out, “Father’s big on rape”, swooping down on girls and carrying them off. Apollo likes the seduction and the chase; they’re on a continuum for him, and not binary states with consent as the switch that turns the light of passion on or off.

He goes to his sister, Athene, who explains the idea of consent. What Apollo terms ‘equal significance’ – of the volition of gods and mortals, and implicitly of men and women – is so novel and strange to him, that he decides to become mortal to try to understand. He joins Athene’s Just City as one of its founding children.

Plato’s thought experiment in the Republic becomes a real-life experiment on the conditions needed to live an excellent life. Hundreds of children are dropped on an island out of time and raised as the philosophers who will perfect the Just City when they grow up. Meanwhile, they are educated and subtly manipulated by a group of committed Platonists plucked from throughout human history. [click to continue…]

Shackleton Solo; Journey’s End

by Maria on January 25, 2016

This isn’t how the story is supposed to end. Podcast by podcast, day by day, step by freezing, wind-blown step, Henry Worsley has been documenting his solo trek at the South Pole. He was no under-prepared amateur. It was his third trip to the pole and his first time doing it alone. He was following the route of Anglo-Irish merchant navy officer Ernest Shackleton’s race to the pole a century ago. Although Scott’s journey is better known, Shackleton is respected for having run a tighter expedition and, crucially, for making the necessary sacrifices in glory-seeking and his own food rations to bring all his men home. He famously said of his second expedition ‘a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?’ and it is.

Stuck in his tent for two days, too ill to move, Worsley finally called for rescue late last week. He died yesterday of peritonitis that caused multiple organ failure.

Every day for the past couple of months, Worsley has been doing a daily update on his progress and talking about what it is like to be alone and pressing on through some of the worst conditions on earth. E, who served under Worsley, had been following the podcasts. (Most nights he would get into bed and put it on, and I would grumpily roll over and tell him to use his headphones.) At the end of each recording, Worsley would answer questions, many of them from the children who listened in each day. There was something sweetly old-fashioned about that. He would satisfy questions like ‘what is it like to celebrate Christmas on Antartica?’ with a condensed but not unrealistic description of life in the white darkness.

I will never understand why people want to climb Everest or walk to the Pole. The human drive to ‘conquer’ landscape and survive in hostile environments is wholly alien to me, and probably to most of us. It just seems to be one of those quirks that the human race throws up from time to time, and without which we probably wouldn’t have survived. It’s not an instinct that finds much outlet in late capitalist life. Most of us are not very brave. Most of us avoid physical discomfort and unnecessary exertion whenever we can. But in ways epigenetic and day-to-day practical, most of us depend on people who do not.

Worsley wasn’t a thrill-seeker or a for the hell of it risk-taker, or one of those people who only feels truly alive when he is fighting for his life. He was doing this trek for a reason, and he was doing it because he could. It can sometimes be easier for officers to slot back into civilian life, and he felt a deep obligation to support military charities that help wounded and other soldiers in transition. Worsley had already met his fundraising goal. He was just thirty miles from journey’s end. He was almost there. He was almost home. The story wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Happy Almost New Year, Timberteers

by Maria on December 30, 2015

Nothing welcomes you back to London after a soggy spell in the west of Ireland like a gold-plated (surely not real?) Lambourghini, vanity plate; F1 IRAK, whizzing past you on the Chelsea Embankment. Ah, world’s super-wealthy, with your love of obscene and ill-gotten goods and your disdain for pettifogging traffic rules, I have missed you.

Fear not. Plenty of riches are to be had here on CT. Having failed to post a timely Christmas picture of the Crooked Timber dog, and having also failed to post any recommended reads from 2015, I still have it in mind to share some wealth in the form of our own middle class intellectual status indicators. Here are some non-book gems I enjoyed this year. Maybe you have some of your own?

Milo and Fury, Christmas Day 2015

Podcasts
Philosophy Bites, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, comprises well over 300 20-minute interviews with philosophers on everything from Stoicisim to inequality to Foucault and power. CT’s own Chris Bertram does a particularly good session on Rousseau, ranging over the life and works and making me wish – not for the first time – that I’d paid more attention in college. Philosophy Bites makes philosophers sound surprisingly chatty, collegial and willing to tackle questions we all puzzle over and never get very far with.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ with Melvyn Bragg is fantastic, if you are in the UK or have a VPN to vouch for you. The format is that the slightly irritable and impossibly well-read host asks questions of three experts on a topic from history, literature, philosophy or science. Bragg is a national treasure on a level with Alan Bennett but has a more pleasing sympathy for the under-dog. The podcasts that include a few bonus minutes ‘with the cameras off’ are terrific, and show how much more interesting radio is when it can be less didactic and improving.

Entitled Opinions from Stanford Radio’s Robert Harrison can be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes the cultural theory gets a bit circular and obtuse – but that’s mostly when there are guest presenters. Each programme lasts an hour and the pace is expansive rather than quick. It’s what I love most about a good podcast – instead of me going ‘yeah yeah, I get it’ and skipping ahead to the end of the paragraph or the chapter, I have to stick with it and take in the ideas at the pace the presenter is willing to give them out. The bliss of being entirely in someone else’s power. Harrison’s interview with Colm Tóibín about The Master is wonderful, (also, I never knew James’ house in Rye was later lived in by the man who wrote Mapp and Lucia and used it as their respective fictional homes) though Harrison joins the rest of the anglo-sphere in being unable to pronounce Tóibín’s name.

The Royal Literary Fund’s ‘Writers Aloud’ series can be uneven but is often utterly brilliant, especially when Carole Angier is doing the interviewing. (Yes, the same Carole Angier who wrote the magnificent Primo Levi biography.) The stand-out interviews from the last year or so are with the poet Julia Copus and CT’s own favourite, Francis Spufford, who gives an inside track on the writing of Red Plenty.

Videos
OK, fair cop, my 2015 Youtube consumption has been driven by watching repeats of Graham Norton’s chat show (the one where Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Hugh Bonneville corpse laughing and go to pelt pineapples at the audience is a classic, though it actually happened in 2014) and also interviews with My Boyfriend Tom Hiddleston. The ideal is an interview of Tom Hiddleston by Graham Norton, which actually happened a couple of months ago. Hiddleston did an above average impression of Robert de Niro who was sitting nearby (celebrities’ lives are weird). For several minutes afterwards you can see Hiddleston going pinker and pinker and clearly regretting it, and I had an urge to jump into the screen and tell him what was obvious to anyone watching; ‘Don’t worry about it. You were great and are lovely. De Niro is clearly an arse.’

So, obviously I’m not proud of my Hiddleston crush, but it really is completely chaste. A few weeks ago, Ed and I were walking to a cafe for a weekend treat and, apparently, I was going along just smiling vacantly to myself. Ed asked what I was thinking about – at this stage he didn’t know about my little pash – and I said ‘I was just explaining the Tuisil Ginideach to Tom and saying how funny it is that it is both universal and nearly always irregular.’ Not everyone knows, I said to Ed, that the Irish language has a genitive case for nouns. It’s the Latin influence. (I personally hadn’t a clue that’s what it was until fifth year when a teacher mentioned it in passing.) And so then Ed had to ask who Tom was etc. etc. and why would he be interested in the grammatical structure of the Irish language. To which the answer could only be ‘Oh, Tom? He’s interested in everything I’m interested in.’ And then we ran into a neighbour in the cafe so that was the end of the (external) conversation. Tom. He’s dreamy.

Onward!

Crooked Timber people, and I’m especially looking at you, Kieran, you MUST watch Martin’s Life. (if you don’t know it already, which you probably do as it’s based in a small town near Cork city) Martin’s Life is a series of 2-3 minute animations about a young hipster and returned immigrant living with his parents in rural Ireland. It completely takes the piss out of the cultural cluelessness of the parents, but it’s really affectionate about them, too. One of my younger sisters played it for the extended family over the summer, and we were falling about in tears of laughter, parents included. If you do one thing today, watch Martin’s Life. Especially, for the season that’s in it, the one about Skype. Or the Christmas one. Or the old ESB ad one. This is literally every Irish expat’s life. Aithbhlian faoi mhaise duit, a Mháirtín.

OK, last orders. Have you no homes to go to?

The winner of Christmas was a Youtube video Henry put on on Stephen’s Day when we were all full of blueberry pancakes and sausages from Kilcullen (best in the world), and perhaps a little regret. The intro was unremarkable but when the singer began, the whole room changed. It was one of those moments when conversation fades away (rare in our house) and people drifted from the table towards the screen to listen and see. When this song finished, and amongst atheists, believers and fence-sitters alike, there was surreptitious nose-blowing, studied non-eye-catching and sudden impulses to be alone, outside, looking out over the bog and out to sea. Here, amongst all the seasonal oddities is the strangest wonder of all; Patti Smith singing Oh Holy Night to Pope Francis.

Poppy Love

by Maria on November 9, 2015

E and I give money to the Royal British Legion every year. We sit down towards the end of the year and talk about who to support, which direct debits to keep and which to swap out. The Legion is the one item in our charity basket that stays in with no need for discussion. It supports serving and former members of the armed forces, and isn’t choosy about which wars the veterans fought in. Its appeal is based on the need to keep faith with a life-long social covenant, rather than the dangerous conceit that all soldiers are heroes.

But most of the Legion’s funding seems to come not from regular donors but the annual November – now shading into mid-October – frenzy of poppy-selling. In its drive to sell as many poppies as it can for Remembrance Day, the Legion has allowed itself to become part of an increasingly nasty annual tradition of bullying of people who choose not to wear a poppy or are somehow ‘caught’ without one.

Today, the Legion announced an astonishingly tone-deaf campaign for celebrities to film themselves silenced by a poppy held across their lips, ahead of the official two-minute silence on Wednesday. The dark irony of using the poppy to literally silence people in public life seems to be beyond the ken of the Legion’s hyperactive communications team.
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Learning by Doing

by Maria on August 8, 2015

‘I don’t have much time to read. When I do, I want to learn something. So I don’t read novels.’

The only unusual thing about this sentiment, printed in a recent issue of the FT’s odious How to Spend It, is that it was expressed by a woman. It’s usually male readers whose time is too precious to waste on made-up stories, and who can only learn about the world by ingesting facts. But facts can be neither here nor there, and so can experience.

When I went to Lagos, I couldn’t cope with its aggressive heat and humidity, the throat-sticking catch of mould in every air-conditioned breath, the sick thrill of traveling at speed in Nairobi-like traffic cohorts, the money-led evangelism and TV histrionics, the wildly coloured dresses fighting back and winning against the pitiless, equatorial sun.

I was working for the World Bank so I knew a lot of facts about Nigeria’s economy. I was familiar with its resource wealth and corruption, its north-south divide, its hyperactive diaspora. But those facts could only make the place real in the same attenuated way an encyclopaedia entry approximates a city or a gene sequence conjures a human child.

It was a mostly solo work trip that had taken in the eerie lawfulness of Kigali the week before – the only African city I’ve been in where moped taxis insist on helmets – and ended in a five-day battle of wits with a fixer / sexual opportunist I depended on to get me around Ethiopia’s Oromia province and back to Addis for a Friday night flight. My task was to gather photos and success stories to populate a year or two’s worth of brochures, presentations and assorted donor fodder.

Everywhere else on that trip, people talked about Nigeria. In Kenya, it was grudging admiration for Nigerians’ energy and sharp business practice. In Rwanda, people said Nigerian soap operas were the only ones worth watching. Even in far away Ethiopia, some women wore, or just talked about daring to wear the typically bright Nigerian fabrics.

But Lagos was the only city I have ever disliked on sight, the only airport/taxi interface I’ve crossed over feeling viscerally uneasy. It was too bright, too hot, too loud, too quick. It rattles the nerve-endings, razzing the brain like a migraine just before it bursts. As hard as I tried to just go with it, I couldn’t get out of my white, female body, my rational and irrational fears.

My loss.
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Hiding in Plain Sight (I)

by Maria on June 8, 2015

Daniel wrote recently about prima facie scandalous behaviours in academics, drawing a parallel with banking cultures pre-Crash. Pointing out that while activities like taking credit for grad students’ work or blatantly gaming independent review mechanisms may in some cases seem rational and even acceptable behaviour within certain academic circles, once these things are exposed to the light of day as, say LIBOR rate-fixing was, they appear rightly scandalous. Heads roll. It’s only a matter of time, therefore, before UK academics join the police, journalists and politicians and find the ‘but everybody does it’ excuse does not wash when you’re on the front page of a newspaper.

One commenter in that long, long thread asked how something can become a scandal when everyone already knows about it. Something everybody already knows about is the very definition of a scandal.

Let me draw your attention to some things that everybody knows or knew about. [click to continue…]

But what does it mean for Ireland?

by Maria on May 15, 2015

In 1898, the Skibbereen Eagle, the weekly paper of the landed and merchant classes of West Cork, published a thundering editorial against Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia. The Eagle had taken note of the Tsar’s tendency to trample the self-determinative rights of various Central Asian nations and took it upon itself to say to the world; ‘down with that sort of thing’. And so it was that the last of the Romanovs’ hand surely trembled as he clutched his own copy of the Eagle and timidly read its promise to “keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression and man’s natural rights which undoubtedly include a nation’s right to self-government. ‘Truth’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Justice’ and the ‘Land for the People’ are the solid foundations on which the Eagle’s policy is based.”

And so it is, that a week after the Conservatives took power in Westminster and announced their insistence on ramming through their first round coalition negotiation document manifesto, the question of what it means for Ireland must be asked, and fulminating admonitions bellowed from across the Irish Sea. Or, in my case, south London. [click to continue…]

The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, made a speech this morning at RUSI, the main military-focused think tank in the UK. That’s the same Foreign Secretary who when at the Ministry of Defense decided to can one fifth of the army, speaking at the same think tank that put out a report yesterday saying Hammond’s government will cut about 43,000 more soldiers – from an army of less than 100,000 – if it’s re-elected. That’s the Foreign Secretary presiding over an FCO whose Russia experts have been let go and scattered to the four winds of oil companies, think tanks and academia, because God knows the UK doesn’t need that kind of expertise. That’s the same Foreign Secretary who can barely spell Brussels, let alone bear to go there, and who is quite satisfied leading the foreign service of a country that increasingly distrusts and fears all things foreign. That one.

Hammond’s speech is easy to summarise: Russia is very mean and bad; ok fair enough, we didn’t foresee ISIS; but if only people would stop all this pointless bleating about the security services’ oversight and transparency, we could get on with our job of protecting the people of Britain. How strong. How plausible. How brave.

It’s only at the level of detail, or rather its self-serving and specious claims, that Hammond’s speech breaks down.

What Hammond says: ‘We said we would legislate to ensure that cases involving national security information could be heard fairly, fully and safely in our courts. And we did.’

What the government did: further entrenched secret courts and a parallel justice system where evidence against individuals cannot be seen by them or their lawyers, destroying the principle and practice of fair trial.

What Hammond says: ‘We said we would strengthen independent and parliamentary scrutiny of the agencies. And we have by making the Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee of Parliament.’

What the government did: Make Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee. Whoopee. Anyone who thinks the ISC provides effective oversight should watch some video of its fawning audiences security service leaders or examine the politicised timeline and gutless redactions of its report on the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby. Failing that, examine the record of career securocrat Malcolm Rifkind, its Chair who just resigned for peddling access to the Chinese. [click to continue…]

Untimorous Beastie

by Maria on January 3, 2015

People are always asking me where my hugely fluffy and dolphin-smiling Samoyed dog, Milo, is from. ‘Northamptonshire’ always gets a laugh. He’s been a great little traveler from the first, which is probably pure luck, but I put it partly down to his general ebullience. Last April, Ed and I drove a few hours north of London to get the little beastie. We stopped off first at Ed’s old prep school, where he’d been sent from Ireland at the age of eight. It was a Sunday and they now just do weekly boarding, so we walked around the school’s silent rose garden, playing field and pond. I can’t say seeing the place helped me understand its place in his psyche any better, but he was surprised and moved to remember places and things he’d forgotten, and find the new-old memories were happier than he’d thought. Then we went and plucked our white little furball from his own litter and drove three hours home with him on my lap. He didn’t wee or howl or soil himself, or even try to escape, poor little thing. Having no obvious traumas on that journey seemed to set him up to be a good car dog; well, so far so good, anyway.

Milo’s habits are simple and revolting. He is a proper South London dog. For the first couple of months there was nothing on the street he wouldn’t eat; spilt curry, vomited curry, styrofoam, plastic bags, used condoms and cigarette butts. He has absolutely no concept of gastrointestinal cause and effect. The first time he stayed overnight with Henry and his family in Ireland this summer, Milo crept out and gobbled half a gallon of gone-off shellfish that had been thrown away into a ditch down the road. When Ed is old and takes – finally – to warming up old stories for me, he’ll probably not count as a high point in our marriage the three a.m. pool of crustacean-laced dog-sick at the bottom of the bed and me under a pillow saying; ‘It’s too disgusting; you deal with it’.
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Happy Christmas, Timberteers!

by Maria on December 25, 2014

milo christmas 2014CT
And a very happy holiday to non-Christmas celebrators, and a good and healthy and fruitful and happy 2015 to all our readers and commenters.

Yours, Milo (the dog Crooked Timber commenters named…)