Cutting the silent names

Tonight, I’ve been going through the “blogs” menu on my bookmarks list and noting that some of them have been on there for 8 or 9 years. Most are links I haven’t clicked on in 3 or 4 years, or else I bookmarked recently but never revisited despite intentions to do so. I decided to go through and delete any that were no longer relevant. Those I had allowed to drift but should resume reading, I’d put more prominently in the list. The rest would have to go.

I wrote last year about loss, “lost time”, losing touch. This isn’t the sharp pain I discussed back then, but still a poignant reminder of old memories, people I used to write to, would read regularly.

Some blogs have disappeared entirely: the addresses up for sale, or just “not found”. Others simply don’t post any more: one, the last post was over seven years ago. Others post, but only very rarely, or the subject matter has changed, or my interest in it has changed. Usually all three.

Some are reminders of a world, though so recent, that seems unfamiliar. A world pre-50SoG. A world pre-ConDem coalition. A world before I became serious about my writing, about my appearance.

Some are familiar, “Oh, yeah, I used to enjoy their posts”. Others are more poignant: people who for one reason or another (for instance, a real-life connection, or some shared conversation online that delved into what felt like deep parts of the soul) meant something more than just witty or wise words on a screen. But there are many sources of such thoughts in my life, and most of the time it turns out that I feel safer, or cannot see how a continued friendship would have sustained itself, once whatever circumstances threw us together had passed. I feel the same is likely to be true in the digital world and, in letting go now, I make it easier to hold onto the newer connections.

Sex as the most intimate performance

Is sex a performance?

In last week’s post exploring whether performance is always artifice, I tried to find a definition of performance that worked at least for the purposes of that discussion.

I derived from experience and perception, the idea that, “Performance is not simply about having an audience. It’s about presenting something to an audience.” And I used the example of a voyeur and an exhibitionist or victim to illustrate the distinction. This perhaps reveals that my thoughts were naturally turning towards whether sex is necessarily a performance, at least by the terms I had just outlined.

Is sex performance? If sex is performance, and all performance is artifice, is sex necessarily artifice?

It’s a challenging proposition to make, even recalling that I concluded:

Is all performance artifice? Yes, in that it all must be contrived and constructed for the benefit of the audience. But that doesn’t mean performance is false.

Gemima @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar added a perspective on the blogging discussion by discussing whether writing about sex is performance (and deciding, yes, it is – for a similar interpretation of “performance”). In it, she discussed that:

However in this most intimate of performances the words of Valery rang true, Carter had with his instructions for dress constructed something containing artifice, but it was not fake or contrived.

(Yes, I get namechecked in that quote. I like when people say I’m clever…)

Sex is often portrayed as being a deeply-rooted instinctive behaviour, driven by the biological need to procreate and propagate our genes to the next generation of our species. People talk about it as human beings at our most animal, least guarded, least controlled state. Raw desire, pure and honest emotion. The idea that this, of all things, could be inescapably linked to performance and artifice seems anathema to the common conception of sexuality, lust, passion.

And yet, sexual behaviour is far from a fixed absolute. Fashions change, courtship changes, even the sexual positions that are in vogue change, or have their significance shift from age to age. How we have sex is a decision we make, not something preordained by God or genetics or what-have-you. Nowhere is it written that the basic fuck is “missionary position with the lights off”. Or “Doggy-style in the back garden”. Or “Up against the wall in the hallway”. These are all choices. The clothes we use, the language we use, the touching we use, to communicate sexuality and sexual desire are all to some extent socially determined, or are decisions that we make. To refer back to the definitions of artifice I chose in my previous post, they are “ingenious stratagems”, they are “skilfully contrived devices”.

My reader may wish to argue that I am discussing here courtship – the object of which is to result in the unguarded, guileless act of copulation – rather than the act itself. However, I believe that it is a rare sexual act in which there is no intended emotional or physical effect on the partner. Although there is the stereotype of the man who is uninterested in his partner’s pleasure, I believe there is always something being presented (even if it is contempt rather than interest).

Most people, I believe, want to have an effect on their partner, want to be seen in a certain way by their partner, want their partner to understand how they feel, and so on.

I said that artifice is not necessarily false. I noted that the connotations of deception are not intrinsic to the meaning. One can use great skill in order to convey what one truly feels inside, and the artists best able to bare their souls through their art tend to be the ones who have the greatest skill with which to do so. Even if sex truly is our most honest, emotional, unguarded selves, there is an art in being able to reach those states. There is no less art or performance in showing feelings that we do have, than in hiding them.

Sex as a performance is not a selfish or self-focussed performance: the larger part is to be a reflection of what one hopes to see; which is to say, that the art, the performance, is guided by the audience, and their performance is guided in turn. As musicians, we have a term for this: it’s called a jam session, or improvisation, and the performance is for each other’s benefit in a collaborative event. Gemima writes, “what makes [performance] not false is … whether we can let go enough of the idea of performing and simply do.” This is the essence of the jam, too. Everyone knows that it is a performance on some level but in the moment it is just music.

Sex is performance, but it can be the most honest and intimate performance, where the audience and performer share not just a stage but bodies and minds, too.

How would other companions do in Flatline? [SPOILERS]

SPOILERS for Doctor Who season 8 episode 9 “Flatline”

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With the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS due to something weird happening in Bristol, he hands over his psychic paper and sonic screwdriver to Clara and thrusts her into the role of Doctor in his stead.

My sister and I have a game called “Other Detectives in Hound of the Baskervilles” in which we imagine how the iconic adventure of Sherlock Holmes would look if, instead of Holmes, we put in someone else: how would Agatha Christie’s icons of Poirot or Miss Marple handle it? What about Inspector Barnaby of Midsomer? Inspector Morse? And so on.

With Flatline’s plot we’re given a new opportunity for a similar game. “Other Companions As The Doctor”. Clara certainly did well in the role, but this game comes out of the obvious example of Sarah Jane Smith as a much better Doctor, as shown by The Sarah Jane Adventures. Sarah Jane in Flatline would have been much stronger as an authority figure to counter the overseer’s attitude towards the youths on community service and probably not have relied on the psychic paper at all, but just used front to proclaim herself to be authorising the preservation of the mural. She also, regardless of whether it’s the younger Sarah who travelled with the 3rd and 4th Doctors, or the older Sarah who met the 10th, and investigated on her own, would have understood more readily than Clara the burden and challenges of being The Doctor. The lesson at the end would be redundant.

My other favourite companion is Ace. Where Sarah Jane (and Clara) claim authority and interact with the authorities as equals, Ace is the sort of teenager who would be on community service herself (she has a criminal record for arson, don’t forget!) Her approach to the situation is likely to be different. She’s likely to appeal directly to the other teenagers, rather than address the authority figures. As strong as she is in some stories, when faced with being the Doctor I think she struggles. The ending lesson in Ace’s Flatline is, perhaps, one for the Doctor: a reflection of how hard what he does really is.

Another teenager companion who springs to mind is Adric. If we’re allowed to have the full crew of Adric, Tegan and Nyssa then Flatline becomes a more intriguing story, with various combinations possible. My favourite would probably be to have Tegan trapped with the Doctor, while Nyssa and Adric deal with filling the Doctor’s role in the outside. This provides the combination of Adric’s superpower (mathematical ability) with Nyssa’s authority, to get things moving. Adric probably realises the nature of the threat more quickly because a few 5th Doctor storylines tende dto have these kinds of concepts, and the idea of 2-dimensional creatures would suggest itself naturally to his mathematical mind, I suspect. Nyssa provides the adult gravitas to motivate people as necessary.

In 5th Doctor storylines there are a few episodes where the companions have to take the lead: Castrovalva has a largely incapacitated Doctor early on, leaving Tegan and Nyssa to solve the challenges by themselves, for instance. A version of Flatline with Peter Davison’s Doctor and the rest of the crew could be an excellent story.

Adric on his own, as the premise of the game implies, still solves the puzzle more quickly but lacks the authority with either adults or peers to address the issue: the horror of the death in the tunnel is all that gets his warnings heeded. When the overseer challenges his authority in the warehouse, he probably lacks the aplomb of Clara. He’s bright enough to keep up with her performance, but he makes it look a lot harder.

The lesson relates to the complaint at the start of Earthshock, where he is unhappy at being sidelined by the others. After being thrust into centre stage to “be” the Doctor, the lesson is that being important is often a lot harder than it’s worth. Equally, though, he discovers that he can rise to the challenge. It could be a major “rite of passage” or “growing up” episode for him.

Rose Tyler is also likely to be more on a level with the teenagers than the authorities. She’s likely to pull off the MI5 impersonation better than Ace or Adric through sheer front. She’s more of an action companion, so relies on the Doctor to give her the answer to the disappearances. In many ways, I feel she is the one who would handle it similarly to Clara at each point, but with a much more open attitude and probably deeper faith in the Doctor’s advice and plans.

Her ending depends on which Doctor she’s with. If it’s 9th Doctor (Ecclestone) or 12th (Capaldi) I think it’s a similar version to Clara’s, but she handles it differently and it probably feels harsher because she’s a more open and trusting companion, in general. If it’s 10th (Tennant), it’s probably a more mutually supportive exchange: “You did well, I’m proud of you”, “But how do you do it, so often?” “I have people like you.”

Of the other New Era Who companions, the one I would most like to see thrown into the role of Doctor would be Rory. In Flatline, I find it hard to see how he would be the one heading out into Bristol to investigate rather than Amy. The best storyline would have Amy trapped with the Doctor, giving Rory a much stronger motivation to solving the shrinking TARDIS aspect. But I can’t see how to set it up that way. But, Rory in the TARDIS and Amy as the Doctor, that feels like the same episode but with more angst.

Martha Jones I think would be impressive as the Doctor. In Human Nature/Family of Blood she’s already had to cope with a Doctor who wasn’t the Doctor, and to some extent take on his role in the story. In Flatline, being a medical Doctor, she recognises the nervous system layout immediately. Maybe the Doctor figures out the significance of that, but she’s more involved in solving the puzzle. With the authority of her professional status, she probably manages the people better.

As noted, Martha had to face Doctor-like challenges during her season. In context with this, her lesson is likely to be more of a mutual recognition of the harshness of being the Doctor. “Is it always like this?” she asks. The Doctor nods sadly.

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The conclusion I draw is that most or all of the Doctor’s companions could have been the Doctor in Clara’s place. As the 11th Doctor explains in Amy’s Choice, he’s very careful about who he chooses to travel with him. Some might struggle more than others but all could find a way (that is, the scriptwriter could make it work in a way consistent with the character) to cope with the challenges.

The lessons they learn from it, or bring back for the Doctor, would be different. The ways that they manage would also be different.

I would love to hear what ideas others have about how different companions would cope with being thrust into the role of the Doctor, either in general or in the specific storyline of Flatline. Make suggestions in comments!

Is performance always artifice?

Yesterday I wrote a post examining the roles of “tradition”, asking what they mean and how “tradition” or “folk song/story/art” is an active process as well as a preservation or reenactment of historical tradition.

That post came off the back of Carter’s post @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar about invented representations of the traditional. I left a comment there that was the seed for my post. It was also the seed for this question via twitter:

“Is performance always artifice?”

From my last post:

While there is some educational and experiential value in “experimental archaeology”, and even something to be gained from renaissance fayres, war reenactments and the like: they are just reenactments, and “authentic” folk performance without the underlying causes is no more relevant than that.

[T]he concerns and issues of communities have always appeared in some form or other of entertainment and communication, by which they express and share the reality that they face.

But what is performance, and do both fit into it?

I recall reading in Doctor Who Magazine that Russell T Davies would not allow any press, cameras or other recording devices into the first read-through of a new season’s scripts because if there was anyone other than the cast and directing crew there, it would be a performance rather than an assessment of the material (a policy to which Steven Moffat seems not to ascribe, since clips of footage of first read-throughs from the current series have been included in the Doctor Who Extra behind-the-scenes programme). There is a thing in the world of work of having a “performance review”, where a person’s working standards, achievements and goals are assessed. When I play guitar in my bedroom, it feels wrong to call that a performance, whether I’m rehearsing, “noodling”, writing or just playing a favourite song that suits my mood at the time.

The impression these examples give is that a “performance” is something that relates to an “other”. I can immediately think of examples where that “other” might be assumed (for instance, a ritual conducted only in the sight of “God” or “the Gods” would still be understood as performed, I think) rather than physically present.

I recall reading a novel called Mythago Wood (wikipedia tells me the author is Robert Holdstock) which posited the idea that a storyteller must not see the reactions of the listener, lest the reactions induce the teller to change the story and break its truth – changing the telling from transmission to performance. Again, “performance” is about the relationship between the performer and the audience.

Performance is not simply about having an audience. It’s about presenting something to an audience. A voyeur does not make a woman undressing into a performer (though he might imagine that it’s a performance for his benefit) but if she’s an exhibitionist and knows (or suspects) someone’s watching, then she relates to that and, consciously or otherwise, performs a striptease.

So the question is, does knowledge of, or presenting to, an audience produce artifice?

Looking to the dictionary (Collins, in this case) I find that artifice has several meanings: “clever expedient; ingenious stratagem”, “a skilfully contrived device”, “crafty or subtle deception”. I think in the context of the question, we aren’t talking about deception as such: inasmuch as the notions of “the English tradition” (as discussed in Carter’s post) are a deception then perhaps it is relevant, but the performers themselves are not, I think, engaged in such a deception. Perhaps they deceive themselves that they are a continuation of a previous tradition (see both posts, Carter’s and mine). But in general the performers of war reenactments, renaissance fayres and the “authentic” folk music are not deceiving anyone. A New Scientist piece about a month ago discussed researchers who talked to children about imaginary friends. The children, watching the adults taking serious notes about the stories, in the majority of cases would at some point assure the researchers, “It is just pretend, you know.” Similarly, there is no intent to deceive with most performance. It is “just pretend, you know”. So we are left with concepts such as “skilful, ingenious” and “stratagem, contrived device” to think about whether performance is artifice.

An intriguing inversion of the question, “Is performance always artifice?” is the familiar literary analysis of, “Is fiction on some level true?” and the answer is generally that, by positing a possible, but imagined, scenario, fiction can nevertheless draw out truths about “the human condition”, about relationships, politics, philosophy and the like.

With the posts cited at the top of this post, and the quotes from my post in particular, we posit that there may be some form of “genuine” as opposed to “authentic” modes of performance. The performances that are a direct expression of something felt or experienced by the performer, and that perhaps speak directly to the experiences of the audience, we might accept to be “true” in the same sense.

But in setting out to express a truth through performance, I must plan how I will do that. When I present this expression to someone else, whether I have rehearsed or it’s a spur-of-the-moment thing, I must decide how I will produce the desired effect. The performance, from the choice of song and accompaniment to the way I phrase it, dynamics, emphasis, tempo, and so on: it may be “instinctive” but it is certainly a device, a stratagem, to affect the audience in some way. Whether that is to produce laughter or tears, euphoria or anger, or something else, a performance is there to produce emotion or thought. It’s there to have an intended effect, and however heartfelt and genuine the feeling or meaning performer wishes to communicate, the means are contrived and constructed to make a performance.

There are undoubtedly open and honest performances, but when we talk about such things we talk about the performer’s intention, not the means of achieving it. When a performer sets out to bare hir soul, zie does so using all the skill and art to expose what they choose to, as effectively and clearly as possible. When I want you to know I’m really angry, I can pour my rage into a performance and it is utterly honest and unrestrained, but it is also crafted; I don’t just thrash at my guitar, I make harsh chords and I strum a rhythm. The emotion is genuine, the music as true as if I put it into words, but I would have to choose the words, so I have to choose the notes to play.

Is all performance artifice? Yes, in that it all must be contrived and constructed for the benefit of the audience. But that doesn’t mean performance is false.

Traditions invented, preserved or living

So Carter @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar wrote about the invented “English tradition”, with particular reference to a picture (which I haven’t seen) of David Cameron with blackface Morris dancers. I don’t want to go into the social justice impact and social relevance/history of what that means (Carter nods in that direction sufficiently for now, and it could be a whole post on its own). I was interested in a few of the other themes in Carter’s post.

The overall theme was discussing the relationship that the “folk revival” movement has to the traditional material that they perform; and how much of what we call “traditional English” culture is a much later construction, something imposed upon the sources to create a narrative that suits the needs of the modern nation-state. As Carter puts it:

So any time you hear a politician, or a journalist, talking about English traditions run away quickly dear reader, because they’re making it up as they go along. There is no English tradition that encompasses Cornwall and Northumberland, Shropshire and Norfolk. There is no tradition that explains the beautiful Celtic churches of the coastal north and the Romanized towns of the south. There is no single tradition that can explain all that has happened between the Tweed and the Thames, or the Severn and the Ouse. Any wise historian will write of the English peoples, not the English, and hedge their remarks about with as many caveats as the reader can bear.

Now, I’m someone who grew up surrounded by the culture of the folk revival movement. There are photos of me as a baby being washed in a plastic tub on a Folk Camp holiday; most of my teen years involved at least one weekend break at a folk camp, and many of my friendships were developed in such surroundings. The common cultural language around me was pretty much forged by the folk revival of the 60s and 70s.

I am not sufficiently well-versed in the history of folk, and folk revival, to know whether all the folk music that was around in the 60s and 70s was “revival”, or whether there were parallel streams of traditionally-transmitted forms; and I don’t know how to tell the difference. Were the Yetties folk, or folk revival, for instance? (I pick them because of family friendships, they were another part of my growing-up.)

There is a lot of value in knowing and understanding where you have come from. There is also a danger in attaching too much significance to it. My current experience and culture has nothing to do with the experiences of my ancestors whose children worked down the West Yorkshire coal mines, or who slaved in the cotton mills. The non-English aspects of my genome (those same ancestors) have little relevance to my current identity, however romantic the notion might be. Similarly, as Carter describes, the modern folk movement dating from the revival in the 60s and 70s is something distinct from the traditions that produced the original music.

The Folk Camp Holidays community and culture may have a common cultural language gleaned from the past, but it also has its own cultural and “traditional” ways of doing things: some things become customs associated with specific camps, but many of them are widely known and widely expected. A folk camper from one region will be able to fit in okay elsewhere. Some of the traditions are generated by the organised structures: it’s a business, with a business model, and a way of running things, after all. Some are generated by the people themselves, and in many ways if the organisers tried to change too much, there would be resistance to that change because of the traditions around it.

The point being, that a “tradition” can be invented, indeed, perhaps must be invented, and can be young, without being “fake”. The fake element of modern folk is that it is now removed from the communities and causes that originally produced it. Which is the thrust of Carter’s piece, of course.

Carter wrote:

[M]ost of the English folk dancing tradition is fake, an artificial synthesis of badly remembered traditions appropriated by performers and enthusiasts for their own purposes.

[T]he same ignorant re-enactment of a forgotten past that gives us the Banbury Morris men posing for a selfie with the Prime Minister, utterly unaware of the irony of re-enacting a tradition of poor people undermining authority and resisting poverty by posing with an authoritarian politician who’s determined to use poverty as a way of making people like him wealthier.

There is a question of “authenticity” versus “genuineness”. Some revival folk musicians strive for “authentic” performances, stressing that English folk song would be sung by a capella groups, reproducing the sorts of modal harmonies or whatever that would have been traditional. But it’s no more genuine, for all its veracity and attention to detail. While there is some educational and experiential value in “experimental archaeology”, and even something to be gained from renaissance fayres, war reenactments and the like: they are just reenactments, and “authentic” folk performance without the underlying causes is no more relevant than that.

But that brings me to the point, and question, towards which the post has been building. I touched on it in my comment on Carter’s post, and the question or point is, where is today’s folk tradition being forged? Rapper and longsword Morris dances were forged in the mining communities of the North East, using the tools of their trade as a means of entertainment. Protest songs have resonated throughout the centuries (I recall listening to a CD by Chumbawamba of “English Rebel Songs 1381 – 1984″ for example), the concerns and issues of communities have always appeared in some form or other of entertainment and communication, by which they express and share the reality that they face.

To understand folk music in this way, we have to understand it not as a genre but as a mode or means. From what little I know of the history of dance music, house played a role that shared at least some points in common with this conception of folk music, when it first developed. What interests me is not so much the folk revival, but the other music, the original music, that the same types of people scooped up, and that certainly had become a part of overlapping traditions by the time I was exposed to it: The Pete Seeger (and Peggy Seeger), Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, singer-songwriters whose music spoke to social and political concerns of the day. It’s the point behind the differing analyses that Carter and I made of “Britpop” (though we came to conflicting conclusions about it).

Up to a point, social media has changed the landscape for the modern folk-equivalent art forms. If we take oral tradition to be not (as the academics would seem to have it) a thing generated in the past and now static, but as something that is active and generating material in the here and now, then we claim concepts of “folk”, and “genuine”, and “authentic”, back from the hands of privilege and academia and place it back in the hands of the people who have something to say about their own lives, in the here and now. Oral tradition just means, “I heard a song from my mate, let me sing it to you.” When the third person sings the song again without reference to the first person, you have oral tradition**. And I’ve seen this on youtube! Youtube videos produce grandchildren that reference as the source not the original video but a cover version of it (Jerryl C’s Canon Rock is one example; the cups-and-clapping video is another).

What this reveals is just how threatening a living, active oral tradition is to capitalist modes of communication. The interesting thing about social media as a site for folk-generation is that we plunder the art that surrounds us, produced and packaged by Capital, and repurpose it. We produce our own, and transmit it further. We copy things to say, “this has meaning”. We share what we produce, and what we consume. We don’t need to pay to talk and commune. And social media makes that even more widely possible.

I am not sociable enough, in my little introvert shell, to know what and how and by whom is being shared as folk-generation, creating the traditions of our time that will one day a hundred or more years from now be reenacted by the equivalents of those Morris dancers hugging the PM. I am sure it’s out there, though.

** I have a fond dream that one day someone I’ve never met will say, “I learned this song off my mate, what do you think?” and play one of my own songs to me, unaware that I wrote it: it will be the moment I know my music lives.

Hats, opera, and congruence

Somewhere over the period while I was on Mandatory Work Activity I lost my hat. I think I must have been too tired on the journey home, left it on the bus, and it didn’t get handed in to their lost property: someone must have nabbed it.

On the plus side, this weekend saw me treated by elder members of the “B’ Clan” to a visit to the Glyndebourne Touring Opera. When I say that others are worse off than me, I mean it: I have the support of some reasonably well-off family to help me out when times are tough, even if my own circumstances are less than lucrative.

Glyndebourne is an experience. When my grandfather treated me a decade or more ago, it was the summer season and that is without a doubt an occasion for pageantry and finery. The touring season is less so, but it is still an event for which people (for the most part) put on a good front when it comes to clothing. I saw a few in jeans and checked shirt style clothing, but even they looked like they had made some effort. Most were in some version of “Sunday best”, for a wide range of interpretations.

Chose the blurry pic because shy

Family & friends said I looked “dapper”


For me, it is a chance to throw myself into that spirit of pageantry, of showing off my very best, fanciest, poshest outfit. It is a day to do dressing up. I once saw on some leftie blog a guest post by a person who went to Glyndebourne without dressing up for it and complained about others’ attitudes (I suspect it must have been a summer season show); but to me that is a bit like going to a Renaissance Fayre in your jeans and t-shirt and complaining that (a) everyone else was dressed in Renaissance costume and (b) that people were disgruntled that you weren’t. (It’s worth noting nobody seemed to be bothered by the less dress-y outfits worn this time around)

In order to be ready, I decided to buy a replacement hat. And I decided I wanted a proper, broader-brimmed fedora. Try as I might, I cannot get past the effortless style of Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings in the ITV “Poirot” adaptations. Of course, it’s not really effortless: he had a costume department of a TV company to design it. I’m not religious about it (I will wear jeans that he wouldn’t have, for example) but it’s a look that works for me, although sometimes I borrow from (David Suchet’s) Poirot’s look, or even from Philip Jackson’s Inspector Japp. (Poirot wears a homburg, and Japp wears a loose brim fedora more like Indiana Jones – I have a hat very like his from my dad)

I slipped up in my fashion senses, and ordered a black fedora to replace my brown one, because I had never been entirely convinced by the advice of the seller who sold me the brown one that brown would go with more things. Turns out, that seller was absolutely right. And when I went back to my reference photos (found on the internet) of Cpt. Hastings I discovered that he hardly ever wears a black hat; his snapped brim fedoras are all brown, or grey; and when in casual wear, always brown. So I need another hat (maybe I’ll get one for Christmas).

On the other hand, I was able to experiment with my new black hat. And I learned something: yes, in a black fedora, I am capable of looking like the USAian archetype fedora-wearer (or “knobhead”). However, when I wore an everyday suit (I don’t wear a suit every day, what I mean is, the sort of suit you’d wear to work in a customer-facing role) or my best suit, I did not look like the knobhead archetype, I looked – appropriate (for want of a better word).

This led to a deeper interpretation of the earlier findings.

Why does Capt. Hastings look so cool, but US fedora-wearer look so naff? Why does my hat look great with a dark suit but naff with anything else?

The answer is congruence.

In earlier times, when the fedora was a regular thing that people wore, hats were something of a social leveller (I found this while researching hats for a story I’m writing): people wore them as a matter of course, and similar styles were available to working class as well as middle and upper class folks. You see footage or photos of the interwar years and you’ll see what I mean: the main social marker of superiority, the top hat, still exists but other hats are remarkably even. I’ve also learned, as a byproduct of this research, what the distinction is between trilby and fedora: a trilby is a fedora with a narrower brim and almost always a snapped brim; it’s also more often what the “naff” fedora-wearer is depicted as wearing. So there’s a class thing in the variations of hat style, but hats helped level the playing field, so to speak.

The hat wearers aren’t bothered about wearing a hat, because everyone else is too, and it’s no kind of thing. Similarly, in the Poirot TV series, Capt Hastings wears a hat like it’s the most normal thing in the world, Inspector Japp wears his in the same way but rather more careless. Poirot is of course fastidious about his appearance so his homburg is a thing in that sense, but it’s coordinated and congruent with everything else. In each case, the hat is both normal attire and an appropriate part of the look. (And, in each case they have a costume department working on it…)

When I wear my black fedora with my dark suit, whether super-showy like for the opera (I even used my proper tie-it-yourself bow tie), or everyday “work” suit, and treat the hat as being just a head covering, it works.

But when I tried it with anything remotely casual it screamed naffness and arseholery. I saw in the mirror the type of knobhead the archetypes describe. The hat was incongruent with the rest of the presentation.

In my earlier post, I wrote, “The key thing is that I act like me, I dress like me, I wear hats like me, and I try to be the best me I can be.” This is the same kind of idea.

What I see when I see people, or photos of people, who fit the stereotype (and in real life I have seen one or two knocking about Cambridge since my earlier post) is an incongruence either of style (the hat is wrong for the rest of the look) or of manner, or both. What I mean by incongruence of manner, is that the hat is there to draw attention to itself, and thereby the wearer. The manner is one of ostentation, and the hat is an extension of that. A hat that says “look at me, I’m wearing a HAT, how STYLISH and DIFFERENT” is a problem (especially when coupled with other “statement” clothes/accessories/affectations/facial hair, and manner). That’s how come it doesn’t matter what sort of hat (bowler, trilby, fedora, porkpie, etc) the knobhead is wearing. A hat that simply sits on the head and provides covering, protection, comfort, and is treated as such by its wearer, is generally not going to create the same alarm bells and red flags. Even though I have that attitude with the black fedora and casual clothes, it is a problem because the clothing combination looks dishonest: the hat, by being incongruent, draws attention to itself and thereby becomes an issue.

Hats are social indicators in various ways: to be “wearing two hats” or “put on my other hat” is to fulfil two roles, or adopt a different role, in a conversation or situation. They also look good or naff depending on context. So naturally, you have to choose the right one. But at the same time, it is just an appropriate head-covering, offering shade, or protection, or both. Having chosen a hat to wear, it is just a hat.

So, I still do not have the right hat to replace the one I lost, but at least now I understand better about how hats work, and how they can very much not. I also know to pay much more attention to my style icons before I make my decisions on what to buy.

Tightropes, safety nets and benefits

Cassetteboy’s “Cameron’s Conference Rap” video has been doing the rounds on social media, and even made it onto mainstream media: Have I Got News For You played a snippet, and referenced the BBC’s interview with its creator.

Here it is (it does have some swearing):

The thing is, I am living the consequences of these policies right now. It turns out that, while the British economy is supposedly the fastest-growing in the West at the moment, the experiences of the people at the sharp end are that it’s getting worse. One might be tempted to suggest that there is no point in a growing economy if it doesn’t make us better off.

I was recently put on Mandatory Work Activity. You know, “You will be working for your benefits, forever.” This proved to be an extremely stressful experience, such that eventually I failed: despite doing my best to be cooperative, it turns out that through being willing to do more I ended up in a situation where my good intentions led to my being dismissed from the placement. This despite being given a glowing appraisal by the person I worked directly under. (It may also have been to do with my insisting on being treated as a person, with dignity and rights, rather than a chattel to be traded from store to store.)

And I reflected that the purpose these days of the agencies, particularly the Jobcentre, is not to help people get into work. It is to get people off benefits. The easiest way to do that is to trip them up and sanction them.

You know that phrase, “Working for your benefits”? What I heard was whenever I explained that my palcement was not like work because I get paid for work, I would be told “You are getting paid, it’s your benefits.” This is false. If it’s paid work, I should be being paid £6.50 an hour (after the recent rise in the minimum wage). Alternatively, I’m being paid at a pro rata rate of around £45k p.a. so I should be given duties commensurate with that rate! (This is calculated by taking the amount of JSA I would receive in 12 months, and then saying that’s the amount I’m paid to work a 4 week Mandatory Work Activity placement; which means if I worked the same job at the same rate for a whole year I should get…)

It’s also false because I have paid income tax, I’ve paid National Insurance contributions, I pay VAT every time I go to the shop… you get the idea? JSA is taxable income (I discover this from my annual tax code statement from Inland Revenue) so if I get a paid job halfway through the year, I have to take that into account when working out how much tax I will be paying (or, more likely, my employer has to – unless I go self-employed).

We pay taxes in order that, when we are no longer able, we should find ourselves with a minimum standard of living. That was the gift of the Attlee government. The modern Welfare State was created in the aftermath of World War 2. Churchill may or may not have been the leader we needed to win the war (, but in order to win the peace – to make it a peace for all those who fought and all those who worked on the home front and all those yet to come – we needed a different kind of government, a different kind of thinking. That’s what the Welfare State was: it was winning the peace. It was a safety net, security for all. Social security.

And this is the mental image I had when I realised that I had finally failed at the demands of the Jobcentre and the MWA. It felt like I had finally slipped, and stepped off a tightrope.

It used to be a safety net, but the benefits system is now a tightrope walk. And there is no safety net because so much has been cut away by successive governments since the IMF’s imposed policies on the Callaghan government. For me, the big step happened while I was still at secondary school: John Major abolished Unemployment Benefit and replaced it with Jobseeker’s Allowance: changing a safety net into a task that can be failed or succeeded at. Successive governments added more and more requirements to be met, cutting away more and more of the “security” part. Turning the safety net into a tightrope.

When I hear the Tories talk as they actually did in their conference, I realise there is now someone at the end of the tightrope sawing through it. That’s the awful, appalling truth that Cassetteboy’s satire illuminates and that people much worse off than me will have to deal with, and I find it hard enough.

It used to be understood that we might all fall upon hard times and need something to tide us over until we get back on our feet. The idea that we all support those who are down because one day it might be our turn was commonplace. So we created a safety net. Now, somehow, despite greater job insecurity it is as though the assumption is that there is a distinct boundary between “jobless” and “working”, between “deserving” and “undeserving”. Nobody “deserves” anything in life, and even those who work for a living depend on others to be able to do so. while there are undoubtedly people who are comfortable to take what they can, the myth of the “benefits scrounger” is largely just that: a myth. Most people find worth – and, yes, a self-respect, in being able to work and do something that’s valued. Even routine, repetitive, unskilled labour is proof that we exist and have an effect on something in this world.

It used to be that we had a safety net, a foundation to help us climb back up. Now we have a tightrope and the fear of what happens if we can’t cross it and find a vertical rope to climb.

The Clara Oswald Show, fanfic TV, and get an editor. Dr Who S8

(SPOILERS for Doctor Who Season 8 and a few earlier episodes too, if you haven’t seen them yet)

I am extremely disappointed with season 8 of revamped Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has, it seems, allowed the fanboy to overrule the writer in a way that Russell T Davies managed to avoid (at least for the most part). Season 8 also shows the signs of a writer who is not receiving adequate support from a script editor and producer.

“Don’t You Think he Looks Tired?”

Even more worryingly, Moffat has had a hand in writing almost all the episodes so far this season. In seven episodes so far, only two do not have a writing credit for Moffat, and in one of those (Robot of Sherwood) it turns out (from information published in Doctor Who magazine) that he was a part of creating the concept for the episode.

I’ve lost the link for it but I believe it was Doctor Who Rants on Twitter posted “Don’t You Think He Looks Tired?” (a play on the six words with which the 10th Doctor brought down Harriet Jones, Prime Minister). And frankly, yes. He does.

I said he lacks adequate support from his script editor. Another Doctor Who Magazine piece was a series of articles talking with Terrance Dicks about his long-running involvement in the show. Dicks talked about the importance of a strong script editor who can say, “Actually, this idea is crap. Go away and work on it.” Moffat, in writing or co-writing so many episodes, is necessarily scraping the barrel for ideas and stories, which means in turn that he’s using the bad ideas as well as the good ideas. On the one hand, there seems to be nobody to step in and say, “No, look, this isn’t as clever as you think.” On the other hand, there’s pressure to produce so many stories that the crap ideas get thrown in with the good ones. A case in point is the ending of “Listen”: The point, and poignant twist, took about 30 seconds to show. Moffat hammered it home for another five minutes. A good and effective editor would have cut that.

Part of it seems to be Moffat having an obsession with a season story arc, which in a short season (as is common with British television) means a much more hands-on approach to crafting the scripts. Perhaps, with greater trust of other writers (“here’s what we need the story to do for the arc, go away and come up with something!”) he could come up with that overall story and leave the rest to everyone else. Perhaps, if he let go of the whole story arc thing and allowed the season to develop naturally, it wouldn’t matter at all.

So my first complaint is simply that Moffat is clearly overworked.

“Year of the fanfic”

The obvious marker for this is that Moffat found an opening titles on YouTube and decided to use it for the actual show. The arrangement of the theme tune is “naff synthesiser in your bedroom” stuff: it already feels like watching someone’s homemade story posted on youtube instead of a proper episode.

But the writing feels that way, too. Moffat as showrunner has acted like an internet fanboy, “Here’s what I’d like to see!” Moffat writes Doctor Who as though the driving principle is, “What does this fan find fun?” rather than, “What makes a good story?” His “key moment” stories (most notably Day of the Doctor and Time of the Doctor) too often answer the questions that Moffat loves thinking about, instead of the questions that drive the story – and the series – for the viewer. He writes like a fanboy, not like a writer. For all that RTD was a fanboy and it showed, when I watched his episodes they felt like the writer had been in charge of proceedings. Moffat doesn’t achieve this nearly often enough.

Then there’s the “compilation album” feel of Season 8. With the exceptions of “Robot of Sherwood” and “Time Heist” (which have their own problems), every episode has seemed to make reference back to some previous episode of Doctor Who either by imitating it or choosing key iconographic elements from it. I wouldn’t mind if it was “Doctor Who’s Greatest Hits”, but Moffat seems to have gone for the rather more dubious “Now That’s What I Call Doctor Who 51″

So far (‘M’ indicates a Moffat writing credit):

  • Deep Breath (M): revisit Girl In The Fireplace & let’s hear it for the Paternoster Gang recurring characters!
  • Into The Dalek (M): Redo “Dalek” but with “Fantastic Journey”
  • Listen (M): Time for a “spooky” thing like Blink
  • The Caretaker (M): Redo “The Lodger” but this time the companion is the freaked-out human!
  • Kill The Moon: Aim for Tom Baker era darkness with Genesis of the Daleks-type dilemma and a version of the “here’s 1980″ scene from Pyramids of Mars.
  • Of course, those Tom Baker scenes are “Greatest Hits” material, but the cover versions in Kill The Moon are well short of the quality of the originals.

    “I’m sorry, you can’t travel with me any more”

    By far the worst part of season 8 is Clara and her relationship with the Doctor. The defining characteristic of Clara’s personality seems to be the absolute conviction that nobody in her life could ever cope without her constant presence to watch over them and make decisions for them. Admittedly, her background is “constant carer for others” (and, let’s face it, as the Impossible Girl, that was her entire purpose in the Doctor’s timeline), but the idea of someone strong enough to make their own decisions is anathema to her. When someone does (particularly the Doctor) she basically yells at them until they do what she wants, because clearly in her vaunted opinion, they can’t possibly be responsible enough.

    She also handles the TARDIS console without permission and decided to sneak her boyfriend on board (because she wants both men in her life to like each other, or something). Everything belongs to her, no one is allowed to have boundaries or secrets from Clara, because Clara is the sole bastion of truth and morality in the universe. It was a throwaway joke line in “Deep Breath”, but increasingly Clara’s statement, “Nothing is more important than my egomania” is starting to look like the most honest she’s ever been.

    These constant boundary violations by Clara have led to at least three incidents in season 8 where with any other Doctor (and certainly with Ecclestone’s or Tennant’s versions) Clara would be invited to leave the TARDIS and never come back. We know Ecclestone’s Doctor was willing to eject bad passengers because he did it; Tennant always seemed to have that backbone, though not the need. The disrespect shown for the Doctor’s sanctuary and home; the disrespect shown for his experience and perspective; the disrespect shown for the TARDIS not just as a home but as highly advanced technology that she can’t possibly understand: it all adds up to a sense of immature entitlement, and activities that no one would regard as acceptable in real life.

    Even if it weren’t for Clara’s clear problems with boundaries, her relationship with the Doctor is significantly different from the basic premise that governed much of the show’s history. Previously, whether by choice or accident, the Doctor’s companions have been “along for the ride”, the Doctor wandering the space-time cosmos (again, whether his wandering is purposeful or directionless) and his companion(s) wandering with him. With the 2005 relaunch, there has been much less “accident” and the Doctor has typically set out early on to impress his new companion with some wondrous tourist destination; there’s typically been much more of a “ties to Earth” element: family and romantic interests who crop up on the TARDIS’s frequent visits to Earth. However, the basic theme has been somewhat haphazard travels that could last for ages of subjective time for the travellers.

    Clara, rather than being a travelling companion, is a package tour customer: they go somewhere, they go back home again. She wants to have the glamorous, exciting, adventure of “travel”, but she wants it to be on her schedule and with a comfortable place back home that she always returns to.

    Contrast this to the end of “Survival”, in which the Doctor asks Ace “Where to now?” She replies, “Home.” “Home?” says the Doctor. “The TARDIS” says Ace. Even as the new version of Doctor Who made the ties-to-Earth element stronger, the TARDIS remained “home” for those who travelled on her. But now “home” is a flat and a job at Coal Hill school; the TARDIS is just a plaything to Clara – a camper van at most.

    Clara appears to want the romance of the travel, without any of the commitment of actually leaving home. While her Season 7 adventures seem to have been “wandering”, in season 8 she’s clinging to the memory: no longer “gap year” backpacking round the globe, but twice a year on a cruise liner to see the usual monuments. I get what’s in it for her to overstretch herself by trying to live both lives. I just don’t see why the Doctor – particularly this Doctor, who supposedly has so much less patience for humanity – would put up with it and keep coming back for her. Why doesn’t he find someone else, someone who will give themselves wholeheartedly to the mystery and adventure of roaming the galaxies? Why is he so “clingy” still, when it’s obvious she’s no longer a full-time crew member on the TARDIS? When his own granddaughter moved on, the Doctor was able to cut the ties and let her get on with a new life: why bother Clara at all?

    The emphasis has become not “ties to Earth” but “tied to Earth”. We don’t know what happens when the Doctor isn’t with Clara. The best hint is in Listen, when we see him pondering the question of “the perfect hiders” and popping around various places. But it’s starting to feel like those stories of what he does in between showing off to Clara, are more interesting than the ones where she is involved. Does he, perhaps, go off with an alien girl and have adventures with her instead? (Or, for that matter, with an alien boy, or alien of a gender unrelated to human genders.) He tells Clara that, “I’ve lived 2,000 years. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s time I did something about that.” Maybe when he doesn’t have to worry about her poking her nose where it’s not helpful or wanted, he’s actually doing it. Lord knows that teaser line hasn’t led to anything in the season so far (despite the whole “Now That’s what I Call Doctor Who” effect). I want to see the Doctor as a traveller again!

    Conclusion

    There have been several jarring moments in Season 8 that I could pick at as well (for instance, the whole thing with the Doctor suddenly forgetting how human ageing works; and why he would ever tell any person that they were’t special or significant, given his general drive to save everyone he can). At times I wondered if people were trying to either write for the War Doctor, or else trying to revisit the irascible side of William Hartnell’s portrayal. But it’s these overarching themes that have shown through that really bother me about Season 8 so far.

    I would like to see Moffat give up the reins to someone else, maybe contributing one or two episodes at most per season (so he only uses his good ideas) and someone taking on the job of script editing properly. Get away from the fanfic version and avoid redoing favourite moments from previous shows.

    I want to see Clara leave. The literary logic of her character (given the “Impossible Girl” explanation) would have her die to save someone else; the IG part would make it the Doctor, but I think a more satisfying way to close that circle would be to have someone else, probably Danny Pink, or “the school”. Alternatively, the Doctor could just leave her to get on with the life she’s chosen for herself.

    And I really really want the old theme tune arrangement back, or else something properly innovative as a new arrangement, invent a whole new instrument to play it on, anything!

Fabulous Finds For Fetish-y Fun

There are some perks to working in a charity shop, even if it is forced on me and driving me to distraction. I get to raid the rejects pile (books, clothes, etc that didn’t sell). I also get to see the nice stuff first and buy what I like best. Occasionally, that includes kinky (or kinky-looking) items. Here’s a couple of things that I managed to obtain this time around:

First up, what appears to be a double-ended leash. Was on display as a belt, didn’t sell. It’s mine now and so many potential kink uses for a thing like this…

Linking love?

Linking love?

Most intriguing, though, was a piece of jewellery that essentially was a malleable rather than flexible metal hoop, that can be twisted into all kinds of shapes and just LOOKS like a fantasy slave jewellery/collar/marker of some kind:

Metal collar-style

Metal collar-style

Double twisted

Double twisted

Doubled & twisted to fit a wrist

Doubled & twisted to fit a wrist

Now I just need to find a partner to enjoy them with. That project will have to wait until I have spoons again.

The Mundane Brutality of Gifts

Charity shops are brutal places.

They don’t set out to be, I don’t think. And I am sure from the outside, they seem much less so. After all, it’s about selling second hand stuff cheaply, which helps customers, to get money to help other disadvantaged people or cure horrible diseases or save animals from bad stuff happening to them and so on. What a kind, positive place that must be!

But the bottom line is crucial. The operative part is not “help people”, it’s “get money”. That’s what charity shops are about, just like any other business. That is what they are there to do.

I have been more out of work than in work for the past 15 years, which means that from time to time the government has decreed that I should be forced to work in a “voluntary sector” role for a few weeks or months, and as a result I have had several opportunities to see first-hand what they are like. Some of them have nice people working there, others are nasty or downright disturbing. But even the nice people still have to operate a brutal system. It is not a place I can function well.

A charity shop is two distinct entities: there is the customer-facing “shop” part, and then there is the backroom, where your donated clothes, toys and whatnots end up after you hand them to the assistant, who smiles and asks, “donations?”, you nod, maybe say a few words about what they are, and the assistant says, “Thank you! That’s Lovely!” and takes them off you. As I wrote last time, the “shop” part is the easy part. This is where happy things happen, this is where the good stuff comes, this is where people find stuff they like.

The backroom is pure, savage, brutal, target-focussed business.

You may or may not have seen Ade Adepitan’s excellent documentary “The Secret Life of Your Clothes”, in which he explores how the cast-offs from Western European and US end up in markets across Ghana and its neighbours in Africa (and consequently erode the market base for indigenous cultural clothing). It all starts in the backroom of a charity shop. Adepitan starts as the stuff you didn’t want emerges from the back doors of charity shops in a “rag bag”, sold by the shop for a pittance per kg and transported off to those African markets.

Inside the shop is where the story starts. Here, everything is assessed by the cruel, harsh criterion: “can we sell this?” If the answer’s no, it goes in the rag bag or the trash. A stain? A slight tear? Even the wrong make? “Rag it” – it won’t sell, it won’t make money. Even if something ends up in the shop, it will stay out there only a couple of weeks to a month at most before: “Didn’t sell. Rag it.” A few high-quality things, or things for the wrong season, go into storage. The rest – if it doesn’t sell, it’s gone, to make way for the latest batch of donated stock.

The same with books. These days, there are businesses that specialise in pricing and selling valuable books on Amazon for charity shops. I have been surprised this past week to see which things are valued by their system (scan the ISBN and see if it makes a “ping” or a rude klaxon); the rest are sorted by appearance: books with tatty or torn pages are sold for a penny each to the recycling depot to be pulped; and if a book doesn’t sell in its two weeks or so on the shop floor, the same thing happens to it. I love books, I love reading. It burns my soul every time this happens. I have limited space (and, let’s be fair, limited interest in some of the books) but still try to save a few.

It is, necessarily, a streamlined process. There are rules for everything: what can be accepted, what has to be junked, what prices go on what sort of items, what you check, how you hang clothes, how you treat them to be ready to go out on the shop floor (the steamer is much simpler than ironing, but also doing 100 garments will make your right shoulder ache). The objective is simply to get as much donated stock processed as possible, and get it sold. A volunteer (or someone coerced through the MWA scheme) is a means to that end, and currently still cheaper than a robot programmed with the instructions and fitted with scanning systems to check quality. It may feel different if you’re a volunteer and choose to do this. I only know that my experience is of a brutal, mechanical process of donations in, assess, reject, prepare, price, sell.

Seeing the collections brought in, as mentioned, I sometimes let my mind spin stories of what the person was like who owned them. That’s the human element I crave. A book with a dedication or autograph in the cover is always fascinating to me (especially if it’s a unique occasion dedication, e.g. “To my daughter on your graduation: may you save many lives.” on a book of doctor jokes – to make up a possible example). That’s what I meant about it being a nexus of human stories in my previous post. But the actual experience of charity shop work, for all there may be perfectly nice humans, and even human interactions, involved: that experience is primarily one of desperately dreary, soulless labour. It is a mill that takes in raw material (donations) and transforms them into profitable materials (things you can sell in the shop, or things you can sell to Ghanaians, or things you can sell to recyclers…).

It is a brutal place, driven by profit and efficiency.

BUT…

Also, the reason for the profit. The reasons why people would give their time freely. A charity shop is still there to provide the funding that isn’t currently forthcoming from other sources for people who are in need.

It may be a brutal place, but PLEASE do carry on supporting your local charity shops. And let me tell you, they always have good shit, and if it’s not what you want or need, try again a week later and you’ll find new stuff.