What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

July 29, 2007

If only they could talk

When I became Deputy Lord Mayor, my principal motivation was the privileged opportunity I knew it would give me to glimpse aspects of community life in Oxford and the rest of the county of which otherwise I’d be ignorant.

One such event took place this afternoon, when I attended the annual blessing service at the Oxfordshire animal sanctuary in Stadhampton.

I’m scarcely a zoophile, but it would take a
heart of stone not to be moved by the work that is done there.

In the past year, the sanctuary has taken in almost 500 dogs, cats, rabbits and
guinea pigs, and re-homed over 400 of them. Impressive stuff.

Here’s me displaying my oh-so-natural affinity for furry pets with one of the friendliest I met today. After a bit of a mutual suspicion stand-off we got on just fine.

July 27, 2007

Sunflowering Infernal

I don’t pretend to be much of a gardener - bit difficult, really, if you don’t have a garden. But never let it be said I don’t try.

Last year, rather bizarrely, Oxford City Council gave all councillors (and I assume quite a few residents) packets of sunflower seeds to promote The Oxford Solar Initiative - “working with you for lower energy bills and warmer, healthier homes”.

As a result of which I am now the pleased as punch owner and grower of four thriving sunflowers. My pride and joy, now over four feet high, and just in bloom this week, is pictured here.

Behind me you can see the glamorous Cowley Road backdrop to the balcony of my flat - the County Council’s social services offices.

And not a flood in sight.

July 26, 2007

The Harry Potter subtext debate

There’s a fascinating debate raging among Lib Dem bloggers (where else?) regarding the seeming absence of gay characters in the Harry Potter books; and whether it matters a damn.

It was prompted by the Clowns to the Left of Me blog posting, ‘Why aren’t there any gay characters in Harry Potter?’ (I assume the question refers to the book, rather than to the character, or else I missed a scandalous passage.) This question was then somewhat unfairly scorned by the Norfolk Blogger, before being further analysed at Hunting for Witches.

Alex Wilcock has pointed out in a comment, correctly, that there is a gay character in the Harry Potter series: Remus Lupin is clearly portrayed as gay in the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban - which is why, at the end, he has to leave Hogwarts, when the school’s parents discover his secret.

The trait was picked up by the film adaptation in which David Thewlis’s Lupin is shown indulging his love of musicals. And if you think I’m over-exaggerating the homoerotic overtones, watch this, and you’ll see I’m not the only one:

So, why didn’t JK follow through this line of characterisation? Two possibilities occur:

(i) she was totally oblivious, and I (and others) have read way too much subtext; or

(ii) she (or her publisher) decided it was too risque for such a popular kids' book.

There's also another possibility. That Lupin is differentis clearly part of the book. However, there’s an uncomfortable analogy which JK may have decided, on reflection, she was better not pursuing: Lupin is ‘different’ because, against his wishes, he is turned into a werewolf having been preyed on by a predator. He then finds himself unable to control his own actions when he becomes a werewolf, and is a threat to others, even his closest friends. Indeed, he has to be confined when the moon is full. JK may have felt that drawing comparisons between Lupin’s latent homosexuality and his werewolf status would simply have re-inforced negative stereotypes. As it is, JK's heart doesn't really seem to be in it when she marries off Lupin and Tonks, a union which always appeared mis-matched.

This is even more reason if you consider the evil Fenric Greyback, another werewolf, who makes it his life’s mission deliberately to go round infecting healthy wizards to turn them into werewolves. (Greyback/Bareback, anyone?)

By the way, any female reader of Harry Potter would be far more likely to dwell on the lack of positive powerful female role models. There’s Hermione, but she’s a swot. Other than that, the major characters - Harry, Voldemort, Dumbledore and Snape - are all male. An argument can be made for McGonagall, but she is always Dumbledore’s deputy, his support, who defers to him. Mrs Weasley is the archetypal Mother Earth figure. And the two great wizard houses of Hogwarts founders are Gryffindor and Slytherin, again both male. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, the two female founders’ houses, are also-rans. The wizarding world, it seems, is just as male-dominated as the real world.

Who said these books were fantasy?

July 24, 2007

HP Source


Phew, it’s finished! I devoured the final Harry Potter book over the weekend, having deliberately avoided much of the pre-launch hype for fear of tripping over an accidental spoiler.

(There was a worrying moment when, eating lunch on Sunday at a local café, while only two-thirds of the way through, a near-by couple started discussing the book a bit too loudly. I almost had to cast aside my natural English reserve, and ask them to desist. Fortunately, a louder French couple came and sat ‘twixt them and me, drowning out their gossip, and the crisis was averted.)

For a long time - in fact until I was dragged along to see the first film - I adopted the simple cynicism of those joyless muggles critics who dismiss JK Rowling’s creation (without having read it) as just so much marketing hype, before noting, with well-practised hauteur, that there are much better written children’s books.

Of course, they are right: the books are over-hyped, and JK’s style is often cumbersome. The thing is, I don’t care: I love 'em.

There were times when I lost the faith, I admit - around about the same time JK lost the plot. I refer to the The Volume Which Must Not Be Named, The Order of the Phoenix (book five of the septet). Though it contains moments of genius - the viciously girly-sweet character of Dolores Umbridge; Harry’s punishment of writing lines which become gouged in his own blood on the back of his hands; the Weasley twins’ escape from Hogwarts - overall it’s a lazy, morose, confusing, repetitive, sloppily-edited mess.

But its successor, The Half-Blood Prince, marked a return to form; and the latest book, The Deathly Hallows, is perhaps her best yet. (Which is enough to make me yearn for JK to re-write Order of the Phoenix, and get it right this time.)

It is breathless stuff right from the off, with no let-up in the pace - a stark contrast to the pleasantly meanderingly earlier volumes which saunter, episodically, through the traditional school year. By the half-way stage, readers could be forgiven for being absolutely knackered.

But what elevates this book above its predecessors is JK’s interleaving of action-packed, death-defying escapades with thinly-veiled allegorical and historical parallels. ‘Grindelwald’s mark’ or ‘the sign of the Deathly Hallows’ is - like the swastika - either a symbol of evil adopted by an evil dictator, or a harmless, faintly mystical, cipher. In the middle, deliberately dark, section, JK becomes almost Biblical, casting Harry into the wilderness to test his faith, while Ron’s faithfulness is sorely tested by Voldemort’s devilish temptation to act on his worst impulses.

Fortunately JK’s dialogue retains, indeed improves on, its customary lightness of touch, coaxing laughter out of the reader at the most tense moments. “Always the tone of surprise” remark both Hermione and Ron at different times, each gently rebuking the other in touching symmetry.

We must also genuflect in the direction of JK’s deft, tight, spot-on plotting. Doubtless there are nerdy Potter-heads all over the country currently dissecting the plot, scrutinising it for flaws or inconsistencies. But The Deathly Hallows is a triumph of forward planning.

All kinds of loose ends are neatly tied-up: what Dumbledore saw when he looked into the Mirror of Erised; the purpose of the two-way mirror left to Harry by Sirius; why Dumbledore never became Minister of Magic; how Wormtail would redeem his debt of honour to Harry; how come Harry was so wealthy; what Dumbledore saw when he drained the fatal potion in the cave; and why Snape hated Harry and killed Dumbledore.

Personally, I could have done without the four-page epilogue which fast-forwards 19 years to wrap up the protagonists’ lives. And ‘All was well’ is not a final sentence which will achieve immortality. But, then, I’m a grown man reading a children’s book, so - really - I should just get over it.

And, anyway, what I probably dislike about it most is the sinking realisation there definitely won’t be an eight book. Unless JK suddenly finds she needs the money…

July 20, 2007

What do I make of yesterday’s by-elections?

Well, you’re spoiled for choice, as you can read one assessment over at Lib Dem Voice, and a second assessment over at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog (under a title not of my choosing).

I might also point you to the predictions I made last Wednesday. Looking at what I wrote, I think it’s fair to conclude:
  • Labour will be relieved, but not ecstatic;
  • The Lib Dems will be satisfied, but not ecstatic; and
  • The Tories will be dejected, and with good reason.

July 19, 2007

Identity drift

An interesting post by Phil Hendren at his Dizzy Thinks blog, arguing ‘No one should be obligated to expose their identity’. It’s well worth reading, no matter that I am going to take it to task.

Let’s demolish immediately the ‘aunt sally’ Phil implies: there are no proposals of which I know to force either bloggers, or those who comment on their blogs, to expose their identities. Tim OReilly’s doubtless well-intentioned, but seriously flawed suggestion that there should be a voluntary code of conduct observed by bloggers disappeared as swiftly as it was dreamt up. The internet is, and I’ve no doubt shall remain, an anarchic haven for free expression - which is what makes it such a twistedly genius invention.

The substantial point Phil makes is more interesting, even philosophical:
the Internet [sic] biggest strength is its cathartic nature for people to explore parts of themselves that would otherwise go uncharted. For example, the strength and belief I have in my own political views came as a result of arguing online from positions that I fundamentally did not agree with. If the Internet is to be a free network it's fundamental that people - if they choose - be able to run websites, post comments, or whatever in a totally anonymous manner.
Let me state once again to avoid any risk of being misinterpreted: it is of course right that anybody can write what they want on the Internet using as many different identities as they wish.

The real question is this: why would they want to?

Clearly there are those who blog anonymously owing to the nature of their sites: if their identities were revealed it might cause them either personal or professional embarrassment. I think we can all understand that clearly defined rationale.

But Phil suggests more psychological factors are at play with those who indulge in schizoid identities:
Being anonymous online, or posting under a pseudonym allows users to explore parts of their personality and character that might otherwise leave hidden. They may be someone who has internal rage and seeks outlet in WRITING IN CAPITAL LETTERS. They could be a male who wants to be a female and wants to role play that life out. Second Life is the alter-ego born into graphics, it is a window into the psyche of the masses in some respect, because the avatar presented to you is what that person wants to be, and rarely what they actually are.
I’ve no doubt he’s right, at least to an extent. Though I suspect the vast majority of those who switch between different alter-egos do so not to live out their alternate universes, but because they’re feeling bored, silly or vindictive and want to distance themselves from such juvenilia. To fake your identity in such circumstances is not, as Phil claims, “cathartic” - it is an abdication of responsibility for your own actions.

Now if an anonymous posting is simply a rude joke you’d rather your boss or mum didn’t happen upon - well, fair enough, I guess. But if it’s unpleasantly maligning people you don’t know and are unlikely ever to meet - see the comments threads passim on Guido Fawkes’ blog - it no longer strikes me as the healthy catharsis in which Phil believes.

And, no, I don’t want to ban it. I just don’t like it. It is, quite simply, bad manners.

Why, anyway, do folk feel that the only way they can express different emotions is to adopt different personas? I don’t dispute Phil that some undoubtedly do - but is it really such a good thing that the only way someone feels able to express anger in a public forum is to fake a persona and SHOUT WITH CAPS LOCK ON? Is it not possible - even healthier - for an individual to be comfortable expressing a range of emotions in their own voice?

Finally, let’s remember the other half of the equation - a group Phil doesn’t consider: the readers. Any writer who posts their thoughts on the internet is, presumably, wanting others to read their utterings (otherwise they might as well just keep a diary). And they are of course entirely within their rights, as Phil points out, to adopt whatever persona they choose. The reader does not, in any sense, have any rights.

But the interpretation that Phil places upon writing as an alter ego appears depressingly reductive - its only point seems to be a selfish one: to make the writer feel better. My definition of writing is broader. Yes, I write it because I enjoy it - but I also write because I want to communicate to other people in an honest way.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

July 18, 2007

What to make of the by-elections?

I’m not the greatest fan of Parliamentary by-elections. They provide, almost invariably, an unedifying political spectacle in which fairness, objectivity and the public become by-standers to the main event. That turnout is usually low - despite the avalanche of leaflets, and babble of mob-handed canvassers - highlights the gulf between the amped-up interest of we politicos, and the damped-down disinterest of the voters.

However, they remain significant events - serious tests not only of the popularity of political parties, but also of their campaigning effectiveness. To disregard them would be even more foolish than to over-egg their wider significance. What, then, is at stake for the three main parties at Ealing Southall and Sedgefield?


In a perverse way, Labour can afford to be most relaxed about these by-elections. Why? Because they have a ready-made excuse - all governments suffer mid-term setbacks. It’s a tired, clichéd, and not wholly accurate excuse. But there is enough of a grain of truth in it to get Labour off-the-hook. Unless, that is, their doomsday scenario occurs, and they were to lose both by-elections… in which case it’s a disaster which will flatten the ‘Brown bounce’. More likely, Labour will hold one or perhaps both, albeit with slashed majorities. They can live with that - though that they feel able to should give them serious pause for thought.

Lib Dem

As the acknowledged by-election specialists, the Lib Dems are probably most tense for two reasons. First, because expectations of our performance are commensurately higher. In one sense this is healthy - it shows party activists are still enthused enough to mount a vigorous campaign, and that the media must acknowledge (however much it pains them) that the Lib Dems are not going to disappear simply so that lazy hacks can indulge their love of old-school two-party politics.

And, secondly, because our performance is being viewed through the prism of Ming Campbell’s leadership. Anything that falls short of expectations - however high and unreasonable those expectations might be - may be portrayed as a disappointment, and increase still further the media speculation which has plagued Ming’s 18-month tenure.

A victory in either/both Ealing Southall and/or Sedgefield should be more than sufficient to calm any party nerves, and to shore up Ming’s position. (Though given the commentariat appears to have made up their mind about Ming it’s doubtful that they would accept any evidence to the contrary.) A good result would be the Lib Dems running Labour close in Ealing Southall, and getting a substantial swing in Sedgefield to leap-frog the Tories into second. A poor result would be if the Lib Dems slip back into third in Ealing Southall, and cannot progress in Sedgefield.

The Tories

They, too, will be tense - they have thrown a hell of a lot of resources at Ealing Southall in particular, and anything less than a good second place will be a disappointment. David Cameron’s position is, of course, secure for the moment - he is, after all, more popular than his party. However, a failure to make real progress in this seat will trigger a few concerns, even among loyal Cameroons, that the party is still in no fit state for a general election campaign. And among the not-so-loyal-Cameroons, we might expect to hear some mutterings that Mr Cameron’s personal choice of candidate - famously photographed beaming alongside Tony Blair only last month, and a Tory member for only a few weeks - exemplifies the style-over-substance trait which risks becoming his defining characteristic in the public mind.

Clearly if the Tories win Ealing Southall it shows they’re back in business, at least in the south of England. They could be satisfied with a second place, leap-frogging the Lib Dems. If they remain in third place, it will be a poor investment on their effort.

Their expectations for Sedgefield appear much lower - they would, I suspect, be ecstatic if they held onto second place. If they slip to third, behind the Lib Dems, they will shrug it off. That in itself says much about the national ambitions of the Tory party today.

July 13, 2007

Look at the calendar

If you have a strong constitution, and seven minutes to spare, then you too can watch all 160 killings from the Friday the 13th films, one after the other. Cheery viewing, and fun for all the family.

For the superstitious among you, rest reassured there's another 11 months til the next Friday 13th.

July 11, 2007

Haven't they got anything useful to do?

Sometimes I despair of MPs.

Today, the Culture, Media and Sport select committee published a highly
self-serving report accusing the Press Complaints Commission of failing to protect Kate Middleton (Prince William’s current/former girl-friend, M’Lud) from harassment by paparazzi photographers:
The Press Complaints Commission took too long to act to protect Kate Middleton from clear and persistent harassment.
Let me make it clear from the start - I have a lot of sympathy with Ms Middleton. Living your life in the public eye simply because you rather fancy the heir-to-the-throne-but-one cannot be much fun, and has doubtless put a huge strain on their relationship. The tabloid press - which clearly includes snide, gossipy titles like the Mail and Times - deliberately makes the lives of many of those in the public eye a needless misery. Their muck-spreading soils us all.

But the PCC is underpinned by an important principle - that it acts solely on the basis of a complaint made by the individual or their representative. It does not accept third party complaints, nor does it intervene of its own volition. This has to be the right and proper way. It is certainly the only practical way.

However, this is not enough for the select committee’s band of something-must-be-done worthies, who assert:
The PCC appears to have waited for a complaint to materialise: it could and should have intervened sooner.
Are our MPs seriously suggesting the PCC should have made an exception to their published code of practice for Ms Middleton? (Whose interests, it should be added, have been well-represented by a firm of solicitors, Harbottle and Lewis.)

Do our MPs seriously expect the PCC to intervene each time they somehow divine an individual is feeling harassed, even though they haven’t yet made a complaint? If they do, perhaps they could draw up the criteria by which the PCC can objectively decide in which cases to intervene, and in which to wait for a complaint.

Of course, the MPs who wrote the report understand only too well that what they are demanding is utterly unworkable. Their concluding two sentences are the most pusillanimous on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other cop-out imaginable:
The Commission should be readier to depart from its usual practice of issuing a desist notice only in response to a request. However, we recognise the force of the argument that an individual who seeks the protection of the PCC should make a formal complaint.
But that doesn’t matter to those MPs responsible. They got a cheap headline, which is what they wanted - their job is done, their work complete.

I’m sure they won’t fully appreciate the irony that the only point of their report into press intrusion has been to quench their own lust for media aggrandisement.

July 10, 2007

A little less tribalism, a lot more conversation, please

First days back at work are always a little bewildering - endless e-mails, voice-mails and post to sift through, while trying to maintain the after-effects of the energy boost gained. I’ve also plunged headlong back into the political ‘blogosphere’ after a week hermetically sealed away (a little damply) in Devon. And it is clear the imminent by-elections in Ealing & Southall and Sedgefield are exercising fellow bloggers quite considerably.

And, I will add - hastily - exercising them quite understandably. By-elections: you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. Lib Dems are camped well and truly in the former field - it is a real test of our faith in activist-based pavement politics, and a rare chance for media exposure as the press is suddenly forced to remember that the age of two-party politics is dying. I certainly plan to do my bit to help the party in the next fortnight.

But let’s admit - if only to ourselves in the privacy of our blogs - that by-elections rarely show party politics in a good light. In fact, they show us, all of us, at our tribal worst.

Let’s take today’s exclusive story on Lib Dem Voice - that Tory campaign guru, Grant Shapps MP, has been seemingly caught impersonating a Lib Dem activist ‘admitting’ that the party can’t win in Ealing in a comment posted to YouTube.

First up, full credit to regular LDV contributor Mark Pack for spotting Mr Shapps’ clanger, a story which has now been picked up by both Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads and Paul Staines at Guido Fawkes. They both dismiss Mr Shapps’ defence - that his YouTube account was hacked, perhaps by nefarious political opponents - as chronically weak. (And who’d have thought they’d agree about something?) Mr Shapps’ honour is defended by Iain Dale, who breezily ascribes it to cock-up not conspiracy.

To me, it looks like a pretty clear case of caught-red-handed-bang-to-rights-guv for Mr Shapps. But then, that’s my point. Mandy Rice-Davies's singular catechism applies: I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to Mr Shapps than I would if the shoe were on the other foot. Just as Iain is much happier believing Mr Shapps - whether he’s inventing an over-contrived excuse for pretending to be a demoralised Lib Dem member on the internet, or spreading unsubstantiated rumours of supposed Lib Dem campaigning skulduggery - than accepting what we in the Lib Dems might have to say.

This latest episode - Shappstick comedy, anyone? - won’t even achieve the status of Westminster village hothouse gossip. Today’s phosphorescent blog-wars will soon flame out, unnoticed by almost any members of the public.

But it is simply an exemplum of the distraction personality politics which rages during full-tilt by-election campaigns. Any issues that are discussed in the Ealing or Sedgefield campaigns will be painted in stark, clichéd, black-and-white, right-or-wrong terms. Real political debate (or any thought of more high-minded civic discourse) can go hang until the close of polls. ‘Get out the vote’ is what matters to all parties.

And it’s not just what the voters make of all this which bothers me - it’s why we, 'the politicos', continue to damage ourselves and the political process with our rampant tribalism.

July 02, 2007

Joining me on the beach this year...

My alter ego over at Lib Dem Voice has compiled a list of some Lib Dem MPs’ summer reading suggestions. Feeling rather left out, I’m publishing mine here:

Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin - we’re told this is most assuredly not the seventh instalment of his superb Tales of the City series. Whatever, Maupin has perhaps the most acutely empathetic ear for dialogue of any living writer.

The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor - I don’t generally ‘do’ military history, but I’ll make an exception for this work, especially as I’m returning again to Spain in August.

The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown - I idly picked this up in Borders bookshop the other week. As a non-Royalist, I was surprisingly gripped by Tina’s friskily witty and judicious account.

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzellman - as is traditional in such lists, I’m including one by a friend. But, seriously folks, the reviews are fantastic, and Alex is a scarily talented writer. Plus it’s only a tenner from Amazon.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling - I’m more excited than is seemly for a mature adult about the publication of the final Potter book. 21st July is blocked out in my diary as a reading day.

Dalziel & Pascoe - I’ve bulk-ordered the six novels I’ve not yet read in this fantastic detective series. Please don’t judge them by the appallingly hoky TV series (which not even Warren Clarke’s and Colin Buchanan’s fantastic performances can redeem) - these are intelligent, witty, deeply literary novels. I love ‘em.

Oh, and I guess I’ll give in and buy The Blair Years by Alastair Campbell, too.