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A Very Arduous Form of Masturbation

January 1st:  I have decided to keep a journal of my thoughts and deeds over the coming year.  A daily chart of my progress through the echelons of command, so that perhaps one day other aspiring officers may seek enlightenment through these pages.  It is my fond hope that, one day, this journal will take its place alongside Napoleon’s War Diaries and The Memoirs of Julius Caesar.”

Next entry… “July 17th: Auntie Maggie’s Birthday.”’

From the diary of Arnold Judas Rimmer BSC SSC.

I find something sinister and suspicious about veracious and voracious journal-keepers. We’ve all been there, I’m sure, as the calendar year wanes, in the aisles of WH Smith, weighing up the red faux-leather volume in our hands, leafing through its blank, neatly lined pages, wondering if we’ll have the willpower to count off the days, one by one, and fill them with our thoughts, deeds and confessions. Yes, we tell ourselves.

Who are we fooling? The same person we are writing for: ourselves.

That’s where I think the idea of diary writing falls down. Who, exactly, are we trying to impress. Diaries written entirely for the self are no more than a very arduous form of masturbation, and diarists, in my experience, are consequently very tedious wankers. They’re introverted, pseudo-intellectuals, with more self-reflection than a hall of mirrors, sharing their innermost with a few ounces of tree pulp because no one in the real world would understand them.

Unless we’re writing with the aim of eventual publication in the form of a memoir – which I find self defeating, as we can never be truly honest when we know someone will read our scribblings – what exactly is the point? We might as well keep those thoughts in our heads, and, if you’ve gone to the extent of buying a diary, imagining you’re going to keep at it for the whole year, your head is probably big enough to keep them all in anyway.

But the twenty-first century has provided the perfect platform for the would-be diarist who usually stumbles at the first hurdle when committing to regular writing: The Blog.

The Blog fills a gap – one of those gaps you didn’t know existed until someone filled it, like a piece of physics-defying parallel parking – somewhere between the lonely pursuit of a diary and the published opinions of columnists. You can guarantee, no matter how obscure or vague your subject, interests, opinions or even your grasp of spelling and grammar, there will be someone, somewhere in the world who will be willing to read your offerings.

Maybe this all seems very obvious to you, the veteran blogger, but what you’re reading right now is my first ever blog. Yes, even I, who has never got beyond the first week in a diary, have now been dragged kicking and screaming (why are people always dragged kicking and screaming? Why can they not be coerced with a kind word and a biscuit?) towards the idea of putting my thoughts into pleasing, well punctuated sentences, and pasting them into the text field of a public blog on a regular basis. This is January the first: the first blank page in a faux-leather bound life, metaphorically speaking. My new year’s resolution: to be honest – to a point – irreverent, intelligent, interesting (hopefully), informative, and, most importantly, to fill those metaphorical pages.

So, why did I decided to take to my typewriter – well, start up a word processing program, but the idea of a writer with a solid, old fashioned black typewriter is so much more romantic –  and share my thoughts with you? Well, a number of reasons. Firstly, because a friend asked me to. Why she thought me qualified, I couldn’t tell you. Ask her. Secondly, because there is something in all of us that believes they are a writer – it’s said that everybody has a book in them, and, some would observe, it should stay there. Thirdly, because the opinions, political leanings, social standing and general outlook on life of my fellow bloggers, are compatible with my own. Fourthly, and finally, because there is always the possibility of positive feedback – something any creative type craves. I desire validation, as, I suspect, do most writers. That is why I have never succeeded in maintaining a diary, because I need that person reading over my shoulder.

Will I keep it up? Who knows? Wish me luck, and keep looking over my shoulder, and maybe I’ll write out of the sheer embarrassment of having you there, breathing down my neck.

Prisoners, Suckers and Rioters

At the heart of modern political, economic and social thinking there is a belief in the purity of numbers. This notion has, in times of economic stability, been presented as an example of the triumph of rational thought over the chaos bubbling beneath the surface of our society. However, this presumption has been the driving force behind some of the worst decisions made since the end of the 1970s, and has provided justification for a selfish, dispassionate attitude which has eroded the moral heart of government, business and society.

The popularity of this ideology has its origins in the Cold War. John Williams, founder of the RAND Corporation, began using game theory in order to predict what the Russians would do during a nuclear conflict. It wasn’t long, though, before they began applying game theory to every facet of society. Soon, the RAND Corporation began to hire mathematicians and game theorists such as John von Neumann and John Nash to work for their policy think tank.

Our approach to think tanks is especially important to understanding how this ideology became popular. Generally speaking, it is assumed that think tanks are bodies created to perform research that will inform policy decisions. Although this may be the case in some instances, a typical think tank will often be a lobbying group set up to promote special interests. They start with an answer, and then find people to tell them that answer, thus lending it greater validity. Mechanical Calculator with numbers showing

The RAND Corporation had a serious problem. They were using game theory to reduce individuals to a numerical value. People were expected to behave in a dispassionate, rational way because the numbers said that it was the only logical way to reach a beneficial outcome. In reality, people did not behave the way that the numbers dictated.

For example, in one of Nash’s experiments, “So Long Sucker” (also known as, “Fuck You, Buddy”), the only way to win is to betray your partner. In another, two criminals are being interviewed by the police about where they stashed their loot. If they confess, they will get a reduced sentence. However, if they don’t confess, there isn’t enough evidence to convict them. The only way to win is for neither to confess.

The mindset that these experiments promote has more in common with Factor 1 of Hare’s psychopath checklist than with the way that most people behave. This includes, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning or manipulative behaviour, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, and a failure to accept responsibility for your own actions.

In fact, when Nash ran his experiment, they found that people did not behave in the way that the numbers said that they would. This should be a relief as it suggests that most people are not psychopaths. Yet, what was cause for celebration then, may now be cause for concern.

As mentioned earlier, think tanks tend to promote their ideas, rather than researching a concept and then publishing the findings. This meant that those who bought into the RAND Corporation’s intoxicating beliefs saw flaws not in the pure mathematics or game theory, but in the imperfect world around them, and sought to change it.

It is no coincidence that most people refer to the decade that followed as the era of “greed is good.” Like the theoretical people in the games mentioned above, normal people were led to believe that the social conscience of post-war Britain should be relegated to the past in favour of rampant, grab-what-you-can individualism.

The media popularised these attitudes through television shows like ‘Dallas’, and catchphrases like, “This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.” The obsession with numbers and being the alpha male of the pack had found its natural play-mate at this point in the world of finance. After all, if you become obsessed with numbers, the numbers most people deal with every day are the numbers on coins and paper-money. It wasn’t much of an extension for game theory to find its way into the world of business.

We’ll jump ahead, now, to recent history, and the story of David Li. David Li was a mathematician hired to come up with an equation that would reduce the risk for investment bankers. The formula he came up with, the Gaussian copula function, essentially allowed you to make a profit on every investment. As a result, everyone started using it.

As anyone with a bit of sense would be able to tell you, you cannot have everyone profiting every time. Eventually, someone is going to realise that there is a finite amount of wealth in the world, and it is going to be revealed that the equation doesn’t work.

Which is what happened when they put their money into the American housing market, and then they found out that people couldn’t afford to pay back the loans which would have guaranteed them massive profits.

Japanese Stock Market display with man looking unhappy However, so limiting is the ideological belief in the purity of numbers that those in power, seduced to this way of thinking, have next to no idea how to rectify the situation aside from doing the exact same thing all over again.

The best way in which this can be highlighted is by the term, “jobless recovery.” In terms of the ideology we are looking at here, a recovery is when the numbers are balanced. The numbers being balanced does not mean that anyone will have a job, just that the numbers say what they need to say. In the real world, however, a jobless recovery would be devastating because it wouldn’t solve any of the multitude of social problems that have been caused by the recession.

The most worrying trend, though, lies with the effect that this ideology has had on society. The recent riots caused by the shooting of an unarmed man have been written off as the opportunistic looting by a criminal underclass in a staggering example of connective bias carried out by a government that coined the term, “broken Britain.”

Indeed, this political narrative makes sense when you consider that politicians have reduced the rioters to crude numbers of youths behaving in much the way that the RAND Corporation claimed that rational people should behave if given the opportunity.

There were two other worrying trends at work during the riots which really show the problems with this dominant ideology. Firstly, the coverage was quick to acquiesce to the official political line that this was an inevitable bubbling over of the darker forces of our nature, given expression by those in our society who cannot control themselves because they lack a proper upbringing. Meanwhile, in order to put this across, those people rioting and looting were reduced to a “number of masked youths”, and given no real voice to actually explain the reason for what they were doing. There was, of course, no need for an explanation. The ideology explained it for us: people should be expected to behave in this way.

Secondly, amongst this dehumanised number of youths there was enough behaviour to justify reporting the story in this way. But what is most interesting is not that they were stealing, but that the same ideology that damned them is also what seems to have motivated them. After all, what was this but rampant, grab-what-you-can individualism?

When we reduce people, groups or institutions to numbers we do so by removing everything that makes them who they are and turning them into a parody of themselves. The only thing worse than this is when we reduce them to numbers so often they begin to think of themselves as being nothing more than a parody of the person they are. In dealing with this ideology, we need to learn to treat it with the contempt it deserves. We should not look to the politicians and businessmen for an answer, but instead we should start with Patrick McGoohan: “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

Xenophobia in the British press

Xenophobia is rampant in the British press, and particularly in the Daily Mail.

I have always refrained from writing about Richard Littlejohn basically because I don’t know where to start. I tend to try and avoid his awful column because for one thing, I like to look after my blood pressure, and for another thing I am never quite sure if he is real. I mean, is he not some sick parody the Daily Mail have concocted for us to make us froth at the mouth?


But there comes a point when even sticking both fingers in my ears and shouting “la la la” isn’t enough to help me switch off from something he has written.

Will just go back a step.

The Daily Mail is well known for being phobic about most things:Richard Littlejohn writes for the Daily Mail about how frustrated he is.  Y'know, with women and lefties and that.

-pretty much anything that a woman does;


-socialists and communists and anything else that can be construed as being slightly left wing;

-people who make use of the welfare state and claim benefits of almost any kind;


…should I go on?

The Express is similar – I smiled to see that they believe themselves to be leading a “crusade” against the EU.   I wonder if they would be so willing to use this word so lightly if they revised their history.

The Daily Mail hates France, unless they are talking about the parts the middle class expats enjoy.  Its columnists like to refer to Sarkozy as a dwarf like Napoleon and they like to go on, and on, about how the French surrendered during the war.   No, not the recent wars.   We’re talking about the one which finished well over 60 years ago.   They have recently taken up German bashing too.

Stupid rant, song or poem by Richard Littlejohn from the Daily Mail

But on the 18th November Richard Littlejohn surpassed himself, writing a very bad rhyme about both the French and Germans, but mainly the Germans.   Here it is if you can stomach it.   It is accompanied by a shocking cartoon, depicting Merkel among others goose-stepping.   Basically inferring, under a veil of humour, that the Germans and EU are akin to the Nazis.

I have had to re-read it several times, which has been so painful on very many levels.   I don’t understand how people can agree with him, and I don’t understand how he got paid to write such inflammatory crap.  Although it’s supposed to be humour there is a very nasty undertone.   Glee at economic worries?   Veiled references to the war?   Incitement of hatred, and fear of our neighbours?   Tick tick tick.

I am actually full of admiration for Germany.   Not at all for what happened during the war, of course, but how they have rebuilt themselves since.   I was in Frankfurt recently – stayed overnight, had dinner at a restaurant and used the airport.   I was so impressed, once again, with the people and the efficiency.   They are so welcoming, so kind.   One bloke on the bus appointed himself our tourist guide,  although he didn’t speak brilliant English – he just wanted to point out the things he was proud of.   Isn’t that great?

Another guy struck up conversation in the restaurant – he was stuck overnight with his tour group as his flight was cancelled.   Did he complain?   No, he just took it in his stride.   No-one else in the group was heard to complain either.   They just raised their eyebrows and laughed it off.   It was refreshing.   Can you imagine the grumps in a British airport hotel if a large group of people were stuck there when they wanted to be in Cuba?

So why is the press so anxious to stir up not so recent history and encourage its readers to hate, or be fearful, of our nearest neighbours?   What is the point?   Who does it help?   And why oh why are they allowed to print such inflammatory stuff?   Free press yes.   Racist press, no thanks.   The same article adapted to be about a minority group would be quite rightly slammed across the board.

So why is it still acceptable to be racist against the Germans and French?   Covering up racism with a light sheen of humour (though if anyone really finds it funny then I will despair of my mother country) is wrong.
Living in France as I do, it is when articles like this come out that I am ashamed to be British, because thanks to the world wide web these types of articles are picked up on and translated, and even in France when journalists mention the Daily Mail they do so with a sneer.   The fact that it is such a popular website does nothing for our already pretty tarnished reputation abroad – they are starting to believe that we are all like that, but last time I looked Britain and its people are tolerant and welcoming.

The Daily Mail likes to huff and puff about ‘political correctness gone mad’.   Their recent articles on Europe show that they believe that vile rants about our allies are acceptable and to be encouraged.   I hope the rest of the country isn’t listening to them,  because articles such as this one by Richard Littlejohn aren’t politically incorrect (said with a smile and a wink).   They are inflammatory, racist and bigoted.

We have a lot to learn from our European neighbours.   It appears that tolerance is one thing.   And, if this is considered humour, I would say that Richard Littlejohn could learn something about sense of humour from the Germans.

Work Capability Box Ticking

I was recently required to attend a work capability assessment (WCA), administered by the controversial ATOS healthcare.  The assessment is meant to decide if somebody is eligible for employment and support allowance – the main benefit for people unable to work due to illness or disability – and, if so, whether they should have to undertake “work related activity” such as training and careers advice.

WCAs have been causing worry to many people, especially as stories spread of unfair decisions, inexpert assessments and simple bad treatment from ATOS employees.  Disability message boards and support groups are full of people terrified of losing their benefits due to what is literally a box-ticking exercise – the medical professional simply selects the option on a computer screen that best meets the answer given, with no room for flexibility.  Some of the most worried are people with severe mental illness.
Mental illness is hard to see, and especially hard to judge in a meeting of less than an hour.  Most sufferers from severe illness – usually defined as including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other conditions where psychosis can be present – have spent years in the system, taking strong medication, being treated by specialist teams and often with periods of inpatient care.  Despite this, they are still being called in for the WCA, often itself leading to deterioration in their conditions.  When I had my assessment, I was only a few weeks out of hospital after a relapse.
My case highlights many of the contradictions in the WCA system.  My husband works, so our income is too high for me to receive ESA payments; the only benefit I get from claiming is that basic national insurance contributions are made on my behalf.  The total value of these contributions are around £13 a year. Even if I had managed to fool all the doctors, nurses and other professionals all these years, and the WCA exposed me as that modern folk-devil, the benefit fraudster, it would save the taxpayer very little.  ATOS and the DWP have repeatedly refused to reveal how much each assessment costs, but it seems passing unlikely that it is less than £13.
The nurse who performed my assessment was not trained in mental health – ATOS does not employ any mental health nurses, despite “mental and behavioral disorders” being far and away the most claimed for group of illnesses, at around 35% of all claims.  This has implications both for the amount of people wrongly deemed able to work, and the amount of people able to fool an untrained assessor into declaring them incapable.
.Work Capability Assessments are based on a computer tick list
As I also claim other benefits, I have faced many long and often irrelevant questions about my condition, repeatedly provided the same evidence and contact details for my specialist team who confirm details of my illness, and spent many hours researching the correct forms, claims and procedures.  Not only is this upsetting and bad for my mental state,I am also constantly worried that I have made a mistake and that my income will be taken away or reclaimed, or that I could face criminal proceedings through an administrative mistake.  I am lucky enough to be relatively educated, and to have a variable condition, meaning some days I am able to coherently put my case across.  Many sufferers of severe mental illness are not so lucky.
Benefit claimants are routinely portrayed as “scroungers” and those of us reliant on the state for much of our income find ourselves stigmatised and afraid.  Often these are some of the most vulnerable in society, and unable to stand up for themselves when faced with discrimination.  Sufferers of severe mental illness often have to deal with the double jeopardy of being told on one side that they are malingering and should snap out of it and get back to work, and on the other that they are dangerous and need locking up.  If they try to object to negative treatment, they can find their opinions and testimony discounted on the grounds of their mental illness, especially if they suffer from psychosis or other such severe symptoms.
Sufferers of severe mental illness are much more likely to be vulnerable and need extra support, and although there are many excellent services and charities working with and for them, the benefits system is not currently set up for their needs.   It sometimes feels as if the government are working towards the ultimate Catch-22; if you can qualify for benefits by handling the hundreds of pages of form-filling, negotiating the maze of departments, offices and units, and convincing the GPs, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, civil servants and ATOS box-tickers, you’re not just fit for work.  You’re good enough to be Minister for Social Security.

Caveman Cooking

A mate back in Blighty was after recommendations on alternatives to milk and this led into a discussion on my Paleo diet which I’ve been on for 2 months or so. Feeling suitably inspired, I’ve decided to write about the how, why and wherefore of going Caveman.

You might not want to read the next 2 paragraphs whilst eating.

I’m currently on a working holiday in Australia and eating within a budget. As part of this I was having Couscous with veg (Bell peppers/Capsicum, Celery and Courgette/Zucchini) every day on my lunch break at 1pm. An hour later, like clockwork, I started having bad stomach aches and breaking wind. It was foul smelling and very embarrassing. Going to the toilet was not comfortable. The only cause could be the Couscous. I did some reading and found that Couscous contains gluten, a protein that some people can’t stomach.

I started to think about other times I was having digestive trouble. When I was back home, my family would have to leave the room shortly after I’d start drinking Ale. When I was working night shifts back in the UK, I’d only eat soup and a few slices of wholemeal bread throughout the night but again my colleagues were suffering in my presence.Brown Rice

I tried going gluten free for a week. I swapped wheat based muesli for oat based muesli, couscous for brown rice, wheat pasta for rice pasta. And I felt incredible. Imagine, if you will, that you’d felt lethargic for years and not even known it. Suddenly, I had loads of energy and could sleep for a full uninterrupted 8 hours (even despite the snores of fellow backpackers sharing the hostel dorm).

I started paying attention to food labelling for the first time. It’s surprising the amount of stuff that has wheat flour added to it. OK, so I have to pass on biscuits and cakes when they’re being offered out but I’d rather spare myself the discomfort and embarrassment.

The Ultimate Old Fashioned Diet

It was whilst searching for  gluten free recipes that I learnt about the Paleo diet. Paleo= Palaeolithic. The principle is basically- if we didn’t eat it whilst evolving then don’t eat it.

This means no grains, no dairy (milk), no legumes (they contain a lot of chemicals that play havoc with the bowels unless soaked and cooked to death), no processed sugars and no oils containing a lot of trans-fats (canola oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil).

Back to food labelling again and sugar and salt seem to be added to nearly everything out there.

Some people are a lot stricter than others. Paleo 2.0 is by and large built on the same principles but allows more cooking, for instance white potatoes are not Paleo but are ok under 2.0 (so long as you peel the skins).

I eat Paleo 2.0 food in combination with the Bodytrim eating plan, this means eating at least every 3 hours to stop the body going into energy storing mode.

I do most of my cooking on a Sunday evening to free up time in the week, and freeze/ defrost as needed. I’ll cook a batch of 75 gram meatballs for my snacks in the week.

A typical day looks like this-

Breakfast: 3 eggs scrambled with a mushroom and 50g of pre-soaked and cooked Quinoa (pronounced ‘keen-wa’). A handful of Blueberries. Green Tea.

Mid morning protein snack

Dinner: 150g Tuna or Chicken with peppers, celery and courgette. Possibly with 50g carrot or sweet potato every other day. Piece of fruit.

Afternoon protein snack

Tea: 150g Beef, Lamb or Kangaroo with non-starchy veg.

Pre-bed protein snack.

Quinoa and Blueberries

I cook with Extra Virgin Olive Oil but there are other Paleo friendly oils such as Cocon

ut, Almond and Clarified butter (Ghee). I’m liberal with black pepper and Balsamic vinegar.

I give myself a free day every week but even then I try and stay Paleo. On my free day I’ll drink Cider, Perry, Mead or Wine (There is a woeful lack of gluten free beers), I’ll snack on Brazil or (soaked) Walnuts instead of meat. I’ll put honey in my tea and have dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa, normally 85%).

This is followed with a protein only day.

Just as prior to the diet, I take a multivitamin and cod liver oil pill and even though there’s a fair amount of fibre in the diet, I also take a tablespoon of psyllium husk in a pint a hot water before bed.

More than just food

Reading around other aspects of the Paleo lifestyle, there are those who shun modern cosmetics and use only water to clean themselves. I’ve stopped using anti-perspirant but I am far too vain and conscious of body odour to go wholesale Swampy.

I found out about Castile soap (saponified olive oil) and as luck would have it, found some for sale in a shop the next day. I use it only on my pits and bits and use a Castile based shampoo once a week (normally after my free day), but rinse my hair in the shower every day. I’ve found that I no longer need to use hair product as my hair is a lot less frizzy now, though I’ve read that 100% Aloe gel makes a good natural hair gel (and after sun balm).

Being in Oz, sun care is important so I wear a rash vest and use a zinc cream as a sun block. I’ve started electric shaving until I can get round to finding (or making) a natural shaving cream. I’ll still put on a bit of aftershave when I go out, but aim it for my shirt collar rather than skin. My only other concession to modern cosmetics is toothpaste but I am on the lookout for a decent replacement for my Colgate.Aloe Vera Cut Leaf

Being on the road, I have a few concerns over being able to get Quinoa in remote places. I might have to make a concession and eat Brown rice for a while, and with soaking for a day, this still seems a better plan than other choices (Corn, Oats) as a short term thing.

This is a personalised account based on my own reading and what feels right for my own body, I don’t go about telling people how to live their lives (and expect the same courtesy in return), but if you’re interested, try going gluten free (no wheat, rye or barley) for 2 weeks or so. See if you feel more energetic. After that, try gradually cutting back other non-Paleo parts of your diet. Do what feels right for you.

Bastards of Shop 2

By JohnnyYen (Undercover Shop Assistant)

2. Resentful Polish Dude

Before we start, let me make it clear I hold no animus against Polish people. I am strongly pro-EU (well, anything that pisses off the Daily Mail and my ex-mother-in-law has to be good, right?), I have in my time been beaten, shunned and arrested for anti-racist rants and activities…I ain’t a Nazi. I welcome our Polish brothers and sisters, their charming kids, their inexpensive plumbers, and their delicious Sklep (which I believe to be some kind of stew, but I’m not altogether sure).

But this bloke…here it is. Word for word.

RESENTFUL POLISH DUDE: Why is no Tyskie in fridge?
L-S-O-L-D: Uh…dunno. We just put what they tell us to in there. People at head office decide, probably after lengthy negotiations with their equally revolting counterparts from the beer companies, you know, the sort of high-powered, small-dicked twats who afterwards go for expense-account dinner at Frankie and Fucking Benny’s and behave like they know what good food is, then one of them offers to show the other lot “the sights” of Runcorn or Ashby-de-la-Zouch or Radlett or whichever pointless, futile little shithole their HQ is in, which turns out to be a branch of Revolution and The Most Depressing Lapdancing Club In The World. And then they send us a diagram showing exactly where the Stella goes. And Tyskie wasn’t on it, so it doesn’t get in the fridge.
L-S-O-L-D: Uh….we have Okocim in the fridge.
RPD: I UNDERSTAND. [Pause and stare at me like he’s going to hit me]. 20 Pall Mall Red KING SIZE!
L-S-O-L-D: Here you go. £4.10 please sir.
RPD: [Throws right money down] I tell my friends. RACIST.
L-S-O-L-D: Thank you, come again.

OK so it wasn’t exactly word-for-word. I did say the last bit in the Apu voice though. Maybe I am a racist. Would The Simpsons ever have got away with making Apu a comedy Indian if they’d been British?

Anyways. BASTARD.

Why I’m a Feminist

I was a student in 1980s Manchester, hotbed of student activism. And at West Berlin’s Free University, incubator of student radicalism. Feminism was a cool lifestyle choice, though of course there was far more behind it. A rapist terrorised female students in my first year at Manchester. Women refugees spoke of their persecution in their home countries. But we marched together to reclaim the night, I volunteered on student helplines, and there was a palpable shared sense of injustice and of community acting to redress wrongs.

Noughties life as a new Mum in small town Hertfordshire was a Big Shock. And yes, feminism still mattered, and yes the issues were just as present as a first timFeminism is the radical notion that women are people Mum, but it fossilised to a private belief, without the community – or probably my volition – to move to action.

And now 2010 in Nairobi, and I weep at the stories that Kenyan women in my life share with me. The mother who interrupted the rape of her eleven year old daughter by a family member. How the police wouldn’t get involved. How the family had to move districts for security. Of the lack of any support services. The woman who tells of her rape by a family member who was paying her school fees. How she ran away just before A levels, but still hasn’t told her mother. The girls who tell of gatekeepers demanding sex to introduce you to a possible employer. My friend, a single mum, who works as a prostitute when she can’t raise the school fees for her children. The young girl who tells of the night time cries of her sister, being raped by her father.

These aren’t well worn stories which have been wrung dry in the telling and retelling. These are painful explanations of why something didn’t happen as it might have. In my friends’ minds they aren’t the point of the story, but a contributing factor to be endured, a thread in the pattern of their lives. They are the stories of the powerlessness of poverty. Of the impotence of the vulnerable when a justice system doesn’t do justice. The stories of why feminism matters, why we women need to listen and to advocate, and why feminism can’t be allowed to be a dirty word, even in the cocoon of Small Town UK. Take time today to pray for the women of Kenya.

Shooting Stitchthread

My best friend Lex says I’m the most pretentious person she knows. Let that be a warning if you’re not yet aware of just how pretentious an artist writing about their work can appear.

I once read a defence of Béla Tarr’s work that went something along the lines of ‘either all art is pretentious or none of it is’. I think the trouble comes from the fact that what the artist says about their work might not match how we’ve experienced it. However, if we’re to treat art work as texts and are struggling to ‘read’ the piece then the artist’s view of their work can at least offer us away in.

So here’s me, offering you a way in to the music video ‘Last Days’ which I directed (produced, shot and edited) for Preston Doom Metallers ‘Stitchthread’.

There’s a repeating trick throughout the video, so if you’ve not yet watched it, here it is. Otherwise, *SPOILERS (& PRETENTIOUSNESS) AHEAD*

Prior to an art exhibition I did in January 2011, Ian (Stitchthread’s mandibly hirsute drum beast) had created the branding for my production company. During the process we got into discussions on Béla Tarr and this led to Ian asking me whether I’d ever considered shooting a music video.

It’s not something I’d spent too much time considering given that a large amount of them are the video equivalent of fast food and an horrendous waste of talent. Added to this is that I repeatedly see videos for Metal songs with the same lazy horror film tropes- Band performing in a cellar/ woods/ wasteland intercut with some form of chase/ torture/ murder sequence, a lot of lens flare and shaky-cam during the solos. Often a vanity project and masturbatory aid for bands who know just how cool they are.

Ian assured me that this wasn’t the sort of thing they were after, and while I can’t vouch that the video has been safe from Jim the bassist’s onanism, I asked which songs they were considering having a video for. They forwarded an 8 minute song and the 18 minute ‘Last Days’. I was veering towards Last Days, not only because most people don’t make 18 minute music videos, but also because I felt closer to the apocalyptic themes of Last Days given the reading I was doing at the time just after the 2nd Black Metal Theory Symposium.

I’d wanted to start doing long camera takes since discovering Béla Tarr and the look I’ve gone for is lifted straight from ‘Sátántangó’ (the most intense 7 hours you’ll ever spend in front of a screen). SPOLIER- Because of the non-linear story in Sátántangó, there’s a certain scene where for a moment I thought I watching a ghost and this was the most prominent scene in my mind in addition to the overall look of Tarr’s films.

With having the band disappear from the screen, my intention was to have the viewer think about the space the camera is moving through and realising how the band must be moving about out of shot, opening the 2D screen into a 3D perception. This echoes Fontana’s Spatial Concept pieces (currently at Liverpool*spit* Tate)-

and also a sequence from Solyaris by Tarkovsky (who Tarr can be seen as a disciple of).

The video for Velouria by The Pixies was another big influence in terms of intent. At the time of it’s making, bands couldn’t get on Top Of The Pops without having a music video. In order to appear the Pixies shot a 23 second clip of themselves running down a quarry and then slowed the footage to the length of the song. This sort of playing with time strikes me as something quite Deleuzian (see Cinema 2) but was also the playful kind of subversion of form I was aiming for- The Last Days video isn’t a typical representation of a metal band, they keep disappearing from view but are always present, not only in the music, but in the space of the screen world.

As for the repeated disappearing, I’ve been fascinated with illusions and magic tricks since I was very young. The bloke who used to clean our windows showed me that trick where it looks like you’re pulling your thumb off once and I used to ask him to show me it over and over every week. I was totally baffled and it took years for me to work out but led me into learning magic tricks (I only know one decent card trick though). That kind of childhood experience of appearances and absences is covered by Paul Virilio in ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’, a book which has become important to my understanding of media.

We shot in early March and green shoots were beginning to show on the trees, a week later they would have been in blossom, so it was really the last possible weekend for a few months to get the video to look bleak. Although it certainly doesn’t come across, it was a glorious spring day and while we started early to minimise the amount of public about, by the last take I was nearly tripping over strangers to keep them out of the shot. Ian and I had rehearsed a few times the week before and on the day I rehearsed once with the band, who’d brought their running shoes.

There are no camera tricks or cuts in the video. The black and white, high contrast image is due to the camera used- a Fisher Price PXL 2000. This was a child’s toy in the 1980s and used to record to audio cassette tape (7 minutes of video on a C90 tape). Mine is circuit bent to allow recording to a digital device.

The use of this camera is another subversion in a world of glossy HD, not attempting to perfectly reflect reality but creating its own image world.

Gerry Fialka, champion of the PXL 2000 and organiser and LA’s annual PXL THIS film festival said this of the camera minimalism- “Giving the viewer less information might mean more involvement by the viewer…” This is something I go along with, not trying to spoon feed the meaning of the image (that’s what ‘making of’ blogs are for) but asking to viewer to bring themselves to the piece and opening up tmie and space in the piece to allow this. I was delighted when a viewer said they’d had an apophenic experience of it, seeing faces in the trees, their mind trying to create meaning from chaos.

Enough from me, what do you think?

Last Days by Stitchthread screened at Sync 4, Preston, March 2011 and will screen at PXL THIS 21, California, December 12th 2011

Philosophy for the Masses

Today is World Philosophy Day, yet most people in the UK have never studied the subject in any way. A movement to change this is gathering speed, with top philosophers and educators campaigning for philosophy and wider reasoning skills to become a central part of the curriculum.

Philosophy is a respected subject in many European schools, with all children in France, Portugal, Spain and Italy studying the subject for at least one year.  Philosophy is also popular in private schools and with home educators in the UK, with many independent schools offering afterschool clubs based on the subject for children as young as seven.   So why is it so absent from most of our education system?

The Philosophy Foundation, an organisation created to promote the teaching and study of philosophy in the UK, has released a set of resources aimed at schools, to help them to introduce the subject into lessons.  Peter Worley, co-founder of the foundation,set out his beliefs in a statement earlier today;

“We need to make Philosophy a regular feature of school life. It’s a shame that young people don’t get the opportunity to engage with some of the great ideas of the past. They still have relevance today and children have their minds stretched by exposure to big ideas, and pick up invaluable thinking skills that can be used in any context.

“The stimulation and intellectual excitement schoolchildren get from Philosophy only underlines the critical gap in our education system we continue to suffer from.”

The joy and satisfaction of considering the “big questions” is something that is being lost, which schools focusing too hard on subjects that can produce measurable results, yet it is notable that you have much better chances of seeing philosophy being taught at a private school, where statistically, the pupils are much more likely to end up in positions of power.  Should it not be a priority for those of us committed to increasing working class representation and social mobility to make sure that our children are given the tools of reasoning and debate that the rich kids get?

I am not advocating an abandonment of the creative and effective parts of the current curriculum – I’m no Gove.  I am however adding my voice to the many that are asking for our children to be given the chance to access the world of skills and knowledge that is currently being kept only for the elite.

We need to teach our children to question and to think about the way our society is structured, and what better way than through philosophy?

R2 Photography

Born in Arklow, Co Wicklow, Ireland in 1975, Roweena Russell has lived in the North East of England since 2004. She is involved in the “hi” project, helping those who have been affected by drugs, and is a committed political activist, who  addresses the issues she sees through photography that immerses the viewer in the image, often creating an almost eerie atmosphere.  Somehow luxurious whilst being everyday, her work brings a film like sheen to the subject. Here she shares some of her work.

Roweena Russell Photograph

Comfort by Roweena Russell

Wistful by Water by Roweena RussellAmsterdam Reflections by Roweena RussellAmsterdam thawing by Roween Russell

Slut Walk Newcastle Activist by Roweena Russell

Skye Image, Roweena Russell


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