Category Archives: Culture

All things relating to books, sport, TV, radio, film, etc, etc.

Ranty McRanterson

The election is making me ranty. Today, the Tories announced their manifesto, the most newsworthy bit of which is about extending Right to Buy – from tenants in council-owned properties, to those in Housing Association-owned properties.

Now, the ways in which is this is stupid, badly thought through, unworkable, and probably illegal, are many and varied. Allow me to summarize:

  1. I’m not sure the Tories have a very clear idea of just what a Housing Association is. They are independent businesses. Social businesses, sure, not-for-profit organisations, but that doesn’t mean they’re allowed to make a loss, and since they are not owned or controlled by either the local councils, nor central government, it seems very odd to make an announcement like this which will essentially put them in a position of being legally obliged to sell their assets at a loss. Because,
  2. Right to Buy, as I understand it, entitles tenants who have lived in one property for five years or more to choose to purchase that property at 2/3 of its market value. Now, if a housing association happened to receive that property for nothing, or as near to nothing as makes no odds, in an asset handover from the local council, one could argue that they have made a significant profit, even if they’ve spent some money on maintenance or renovation in between times. But if they built that house themselves, having borrowed money to do so, on the assumption that it would represent an income-generating asset for the foreseeable future, then they run the risk of making a significant loss. Whether that loss is enough to send them bust is entirely dependent on the balance of their property portfolio – whether the tenants who want to buy happen to be living in properties that won’t make a loss if sold, in enough numbers. No-one saw this announcement coming, so no housing association is going to have a contingency for it. There are no reserves funds sitting in the bank, to insulate against this eventuality. They will just go under.
  3. The idiocy of declaring that the shortfall will be made up by councils selling their “more expensive” council houses and passing the money to housing associations, rather beggars belief. My council owns no houses. None. They passed them ALL to a housing association, years ago, and therefore have nothing to sell, expensive or otherwise. Even if they did have some, the chances of them being anything other than the cheapest properties, in the worst states of repair, in the dodgiest neighbourhood, are slim in the extreme. Unless your council happens to be Westminster, I suppose.
  4. Since this sets a precedent for central government placing a legal obligation on private organisations to sell their property assets at a loss, if I were a private landlord, of any scale, I would be looking distinctly anxiously at this development. Because, what is to stop them subsequently applying the same rules to me? My tenants have the right to buy my house, and at a price I wouldn’t normally accept, but I have no choice. That sounds ludicrously unlikely, on the one hand, but on the other, what’s the difference? My desire to make profit? Isn’t a tenant just a tenant, irrespective of the landlord’s business model?
  5. And finally, what is to become of social housing in the UK? There is already a massive shortage of decent, affordable rental properties in many parts of the country, which is largely attributed to the policy decision NOT to spend any money brought in through Right to Buy on replacement housing stock. Which is the obvious thing to do. By consistently diminishing the available stock of social housing, we have made a general housing shortage, which has brought private landlords in a lucratively desperate marketplace, where rents can soar to meet insatiable demand. When rent is high, property value also goes up – since even expensive property stands a good chance of being profitable – which then means that even owner-occupiers are affected by the sale of council houses they may never have used. But since Thatcher’s government was essentially driven by an ideological desire to get the state out of housing altogether, one can only assume that the extraordinary housing bubble that has characterised most of the last 30 years, was the point. If you own property, you win. If you want to buy property (and that includes up-shifting for the extra bedroom/big garden/better school catchment area, which is proportionally more expensive, and therefore out of reach of your fairly ordinary salary), you lose. It’s the Haves pulling the ladder up behind them, against the Have Nots. Unless you’re one of the lucky few Have Nots who are in social housing, because you can get a house for 35% off, for no apparent reason.

The thing is, I’m not necessarily against Right to Buy, as a principle. I believe in wealth equality, and the idea of putting a system in place that could, within a generation or so, give almost everyone the option of owning their own home, seems, as even David Cameron said today, an ultimately democratic redistribution of wealth. But only if you treat it as a policy for a generation – not a one-off sale of the family silver (and how overused that phrase was of Thatcher’s government), but an on-going philosophy of investing in new, affordable homes, for people to rent, or rent with a view to later buying. If you take the money you make, and use it to build new houses. If you are prepared to invest some actual government money into making up the shortfall, so you can continue to maintain social housing stock at a certain level. If you regard the job of government to make the world fairer, more even, to spend a little in order to reduce the inequality, and actually lift people out of poverty. Imagine a world where everyone who wants a house can have one. Imagine a world where no-one lives in low-quality rented housing because it’s the best they can manage, but where only people who have actively chosen the convenience of renting (of calling the landlord when things break, or of being able to move around frequently) are doing so. Not everyone wants to own their own home, but the basic security of doing so should be available to anyone, surely?

If you replace the sold social housing, then the private rental market doesn’t explode. The former council houses don’t end up in the hands of private landlords, because the market is so much less buoyant. No-one pays over the odds to live in a house, if they can still get the identical one next door for a reasonable rent. Private landlords have to up their game in terms of housing quality and customer service, if social landlords are in the marketplace, offering more for less. The housing market is ripe, nay, desperate, for disruption, and social housing is the way to do it. Offer the right to buy, by all means, but invest in making the scheme sustainable – don’t just sell all the houses until they’re gone.

Writing Writers

They say you should write about what you know, which always makes me wonder how writers of historical fiction ever so much as get started. With the best research in the world, understanding what it was truly like to live in, say, Roman Britain, or 5th century China, is, at best, an exercise in convincing guess-work. Maybe historical fiction attracts those authors largely because no-one alive can refute their interpretation – their best guess as to what it was truly like, is as good as anyone else’s.

Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books
Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books

Today, I was struck by the frequency with which protagonists of certain types of fiction – particularly fiction aimed at girls, I suppose, that being what I’ve been reading – are carefully guided by the author into becoming writers of fiction aimed at girls. It is true in Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, where the lead character, Joey, goes from being an unpolished but clearly innately talented writer of fairy tales, to being a producer of schoolgirl fiction almost as prolific as Brent-Dyer herself (but not quite – I imagine it took her all of her time to come up with a title and plot summary for 58 real Chalet School books, without producing a similar number of pretend ones). In Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series, it is the similarly-named Jo who validates the author’s life choices with her writing. Indeed, there is a clear and barely disguised influence of Alcott’s lead character over Brent-Dyer’s, right down to the choice of name. Over the last few weeks, I have been reading L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, and I find a similar pattern. Anne is a flighty and overly imaginative child, likeable, but widely considered to be in need of containment by the other characters. As she ages, she becomes a girl who writes rather than play-acts, and into adulthood she becomes a published author in various small-scale magazines, gaining increasing acclaim for her (short) stories. So far, I am half-way through Anne’s House of Dreams, and she has yet to produce anything in the way of a full-length novel, and has just rejected a potentially interesting writing project as being unsuitable to her talents, offering it up instead to a male writer who wanders her way, and who is seeking to produce “a great Canadian novel”.

Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.
Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.

Now, I’m not here to pick holes in the gender stereotyping that is rife in a book written over a hundred years ago, and seeking to depict the slightly old-fashioned life of a rural, colonial community, even then. Obviously, the expectations held in those books are going to jar somewhat with my modern, sophisticated(!) 21st century reading. Mostly, I am fascinated by the apparent need for women authors to validate their own choices through the similar choices of their lead, and generally clearly favourite, characters.

Is it simply an act of self-reassurance? Are they shouting, “Look! Anne is a lovely girl, and she writes stories! And I write stories, so I can surely be lovely, too?” Are they seeking to declare that their writing is a valid activity, a reasonable choice, not an act of selfish conceit in the face of real, more womanly responsibilities? Joey Bettany continues, rather implausibly, to rattle out book after book, whilst apparently producing and adequately caring for no less than eleven children. Anne Shirley, on the other hand, spends much of her life thus far being too busy to write – too busy studying, too busy teaching, too busy keeping house for her new husband. She fits it in to summer vacations, and winter evenings, and doesn’t seem to fit it in at all once she is married, although her husband seems broadly encouraging. The only time that Joey is censured by the author for her writing, it is because she has become consumed by it. Clearly, Brent-Dyer saw this a serious risk. When Joey locks herself away for weeks on end, trying to produce her first full-length novel, she is described as risking her health by her inattention to the basics of food, sleep, exercise, and social interaction, and the book she produces is dismissed as being unspeakably, unsalvageably bad, to the point that she realises her mistake, and burns the manuscript.

Anne, insofar as I can say, having only read half of the series, avoids this mistake, by always allowing her domestic responsibilities to override her desire to write. So she teaches, she helps Marilla with the twins, she cooks, cleans, sews, gardens, and has no time left over for the self-indulgence of writing.

These are the protagonists of fiction for girls. They are role models. What are they trying to say to me? That all the best people write novels, as long as they are careful not to court criticism, by failing to be all the things that nice girls should be, as well? First, even? That my role as a woman is to be there for everyone else, just as women have always been expected to be, but to somehow prove myself to the the world by also doing this extra thing?

Writing is a pretty self-indulgent activity. It involves sitting quietly, preferably, as pointed out by Virginia Woolf, in a room of one’s own, with a door that doesn’t get people banging on it for one’s attention. It requires taking oneself away from the places where one can be called upon to support everyone else. It is an absenting of oneself. And that’s really, really hard. It’s hard to justify, in a 19th century culture that views women as the oil that greases the household. If you are brought up to see your job as being to facilitate, to support, to meet everyone else’s needs before your own, the act of locking yourself away from all those needs and demands might appear like the ultimate selfishness. It might seem morally bankrupt, to actually choose to make yourself unavailable.

The thing is, even now, when we all believe that women are equal to men (in theory, at least, if not always entirely in practice), look around the women you know, the ones with children, or other caring responsibilities, or jobs, and ask yourself how many of them carve out regular time to do something that makes them unavailable to those people. It’s terribly, terribly hard. All that the alleged liberation of feminism has brought many modern women, is an even longer list of things to do. Now we work AND take on most of the childcare. Change is slow in coming, and for as long as stay-at-home-dads remain the exception, and ultimate responsibility for housework remains, in most houses, the woman’s, there is no hope of what amounts to additional leisure time. Women’s lib has only liberated us to do more than ever. There are no areas in which we are free to give roles up.

Of course, what is statistically true is not universally true. I am one of the lucky ones, in some ways. I have a thoughtful, considerate husband, who works from home, and is therefore both willing and able to take on a larger domestic role. His sheer presence has increased his parenting role with the children, and he watches me flounder with the housework, and is perfectly willing to take on jobs that will, hopefully, take the pressure off me. He wants me to have time and space to write, if writing is what I want the time and space to do. That I consider it a self-indulgent triviality, that should be fitted in after I have adequately cleaned, and cooked, and educated, or not at all, is not really his fault.
The thing is, I strongly suspect that in order to do anything really well, in this world, it has to be your priority. If writing doesn’t come first, then I will never be a first rate writer. If music doesn’t come first, I will never be a first-rate musician. If I don’t practice, refine, hone my craft, if I don’t put in my 10,000 hours, as per Malcolm Gladwell, how will I ever get good enough to succeed, by whatever terms we choose to define success (a discussion for another day, I suspect, since this is becoming untenably long already – see how much I could benefit from refining my craft?!).

I would like to write more. I would like to develop the subtle talent for creating whole worlds, people, situations that chime with the reader, that seem magical and fantastic, but no less plausible for that. I would like to somehow recapture the creativity of a childhood that never struggled to pretend, to create alternative realities, but be back in time for tea. Nothing makes me want to write more than the act of reading what others have written. If only I could do that. If only I could put you inside a special, secret world that was just ours. If only I had that power. I would love that.

But the only way to get good at writing is to write. So I intend to write. More often. More regularly. More thoughtfully.

We’ll see whether it lasts.

MPs pay: get the facts right, please

If you like it would appear most MPs don’t have the time / inclination to read the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) report into MPs pay, you should at least get an idea of what it (not the press) says.

It’s not 11% pay rise it’s 9.26% yes it’s high but lets get the number right – the pay rise happens in 2015 – and between now and then MPs are getting a 1% pay rise a year anyway – so in 2015 values they go from £67,731 to £74,000

The recommendations are cost neutral to the taxpayer (so overall they are not getting more money) – while the headline pay is going up, MPs will lose out on the payments they get when they leave parliament, what they can claim (they won’t be able to claim evening meals for example) and their pensions is being downgraded significantly to be more normal.

Once it’s implemented MPs pay will be linked to average earnings – So this shouldn’t happen again.

IPSA were asked to fix a problem and they have – they have looked at where MPs wages should sit in relation to other jobs, removed some of the rouge payments around the edge and have set out a way for this to remain fixed into the future.

You can agree or disagree with the levels and how but you should probably understand how they reached the numbers they did.

The biggest argument I can see for not paying MPs this money – most of them blatantly haven’t read or understood these reports and that in my opinion raises competency issues.

You disappointed me, Jane. Don’t do it again.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, than a modern woman who fancies herself as intelligent, with a love of history, and a hint of sympathy for romance, must love Pride and Prejudice. I am not here to talk to you about Pride and Prejudice.

I, as the attentive reader might have gleaned, am in possession of two degrees, both focussed wholly or in part on the study of Literature. For a person with an MA in Literature, I am horribly ill-read. I do not love Shakespeare. Actually, I rather love Hamlet, but was put off Antony and Cleopatra as a teenager by the distinctly unattractive portrayal of middle-aged, uncontrolled sexual urges, which rather too closely resembled a situation that was exploding in my own family for comfort. As a student, I read the first half a dozen chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations, and threw it aside in disgust. I bumbled through the essay by trying not to refer directly to much that happened beyond chapter 7, which I seemed to get away with, somehow. If you are reading this from a faculty post at LJMU’s Literature department, think carefully about what is actually possible for students to get away with on your courses, I implore you.

I first met Austen in the form of Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene in the BBC’s never-to-be-bettered adaptation of P&P, in 1996. I still love it. My 8 year old loves it, too, though hopefully not for the wet shirt. 8 seems a little young for that sort of thing. But even then, I never bothered to read the book. I know. Having come to Austen through the medium of TV, why on earth would any self-respecting student of literature not go and look up the original? But I didn’t. I was grateful for the varied (well, a bit) and interesting books that I was required to read for my course, but I read very little for pleasure, at that time, and even less for extra-curricular personal improvement. Also, I read very slowly, in those days. I was 28 before an employer put me on a Speed Reading course, which revolutionised my ability to consume long texts without dying of old age before the end. I remember asking the course leaders why no-one had taught me these skills when I was ten or twelve – it would have made an enormous difference to my academic life in the intervening period.

So, in my mid-thirties, I revisited Dickens, and discovered that he was much more palatable now I had grown up sufficiently to appreciate him. A Christmas Carol is a wonderful, and mercifully short, piece of writing, most of the direct speech of which is perfectly reproduced by Michael Caine in The Muppets’ Christmas Carol – I had no idea that the Muppets were so faithful to literature. Having mastered Dickens (though I started Bleak House, and enjoyed it, but it’s been kind of paused for about three years), I turned to Austen for the first time.

Pride and Prejudice is a very readable book. Much more of the nuance of the social mores of the time are revealed by the book, and Elizabeth remains a very likeable character, whom I am genuinely delighted to see living happily ever after with Mr Darcy at the end (SPOILERS! Oops. Ah well. It’s been out for 200 years, it’s not my fault if you hadn’t got to it yet).

When I recently finished a re-read of P&P, I decided to start another Austen novel. Knowing nothing about any of them, I selected Mansfield Park, downloaded it to my phone (free books for the win!), and read.

The first thing I learned was this: Argus Filch’s cat, in the Harry Potter books, is named after an Austen character – a busybodying, interfering woman whom nobody likes, and who thinks she’s much more important than she is. Always satisfying to discover a connection of that sort – so far, so good.

Fanny is rather annoying. She’s quite pathetic, for most of the book, vividly conscious as she is that she is less than the dust beneath the feet of, well, everyone, frankly. She’s a doormat. She garners very little respect from most of the other characters, largely, as far as I can see, because she demands none. She is plucked from home, where she was presumably more of a Somebody, as older sister to string of youngsters, she cries for weeks, it occurs to no-one that she might ever like to see her mother again, and then she settles into a role of trying not to threaten the position of her older cousins by appearing more attractive, intelligent, wise or scintillating than they. In short, she is a mouse, perpetually trying to shrink herself into invisibility in a corner somewhere. Oh, and hoping that Edmund will marry her. Which he won’t, because he likes her well enough, but only sees a mouse who sits quietly enough to let him unload the contents of his own mind, tidy them into neat piles, and put them back with a decision made.

I read it. It bumbled along. Fanny grew up, there was a long and slightly tedious episode concerning an attempt to put on an amateur play, in which I was led to believe that only Fanny and Edwin were taking the correct line, that such a thing was morally reprehensible, and should not be allowed. Anyway, Fanny’s uncle returned from Antigua, and put a stop to all that, clearly being of the same mind. I’m afraid I found it difficult to place myself in the moral and ethical belief structures of these people. I was clearly supposed to side with them, and obviously, such things had a very different hue 200 years ago than they might now, but I don’t think I quite cared enough to try – or at least, to try hard enough for the effort it would take to see things from Fanny’s insipid and rather prudish point of view.

Jane Austen on a £10 note
Jane Austen on a £10 note

Anyway, it’s not great, but I’m into it, now, so I’m still reading. I don’t so much care what happens to Fanny, than wonder how on earth Austen proposed to wrap up the story suitably, when Fanny was clearly destined for Edmund (the inclinations of a heroine, even a pathetic one, generally being honoured in these situations), but Edmund was determined to be in love with some trollop from the vicarage (and who knew that Recency vicarages were largely populated with trollops? Charlotte was no such thing!).

So, Fanny is suddenly permitted to visit her family in Portsmouth, yada yada, the guy she doesn’t want to marry follows her there for the purposes of wooing, yada yada, her family barely remember her, and don’t care much either way, she misses Mansfield Park desperately, since she unsurprisingly considers the place she’s lived since she was 9 to be her actual home. Yada yada. It’s all trundling along, and I can see that I’m only about fifty pages from the end, now, so I’m getting quite involved in just how these loose ends are going to be wound up.

And then – dramatic climax, people! Tom is suddenly dangerously ill, and everyone is worried he’ll die. He doesn’t, and it doesn’t make any material difference to Fanny, so it’s almost a wasted plot device. All it does is convince Edmund that the trollop from the vicarage is too materialistic for him – she’s a little too excited by the idea of Edmund losing his older brother, and becoming next in line for the baronetcy and associated stately home.

Then, more dramatic climax! Maria, the older of the girl-cousins, who spent the play incident flirting with the wrong man, before settling down to marry the staid and boring one she was engaged to, has run away with said Wrong Man! The same man who was, incidentally, failing to make Fanny agree to marry him. Shock and horror! Her reputation is ruined, the family is reduced to pieces. Gasp, etc. Oh, and Julia has eloped, but no-one seems that bothered about that.

This crisis, rather than that of the dying older son, brings Fanny back to Mansfield Park to offer what help and comfort she can in such difficult times. Though dying older son seems to be recovering nicely now, but they were all quite sure he had been dying.

So here we are. Fanny is back at Mansfield, Edmund is no longer in love with a trollop, so now… wait, what?

The last chapter has no dialogue. At all. In one chapter, Austen tells me that Maria and the unscrupulous young man annoyed each other, that she was divorced by her husband, and that her father, being basically a nice bloke, if a bit dull, has set her up in a cottage somewhere where she can’t embarrass them all, with the annoying aunt Norris to keep her company. Oh, and Edmund decided to marry Fanny, and she let him. And that’s it.

It’s the oddest, most anticlimactic end to a book I have EVER come across, and I sometimes read fan fiction. It feels precisely as if Austen wrote herself into a corner, and became so interminably bored with them all, that she just gave up, wrote her plot notes up in proper sentences, and called it done. It was incredibly disappointing. It’s not the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I’d invested quite a lot of energy into it by that point, and I wanted her to return my commitment, damn it.

You disappoint me, Jane. We don’t have to discuss this again, but know this – I have just downloaded Northanger Abbey, and Chapter 1 is pretty readable. I do not wish to see a repeat of this debacle.