Aug 202009

Yes, that is how the universe is divided up these days; or if not the universe, at least the immigration queues at Gatwick South Terminal.

When the Devil and I arrived back in the UK this morning–three hours late because Thomas Cook Airlines make the Titanic seem like a pleasant transport option–from our lovely trip to Cyprus, we were greeted by the sight of two separate corridors at the border. Not just two separate queues, you understand: the Rest of the World now are now directed by a sign (helpfully footnoted with the legend ‘This includes US citizens’, in case we’re too stupid to realise we’re not part of the EU) down a cattle chute of their very own, beneath exposed piping, drop cloths, and alongside bare sheetrock walls, twice the length of the EU corridor, to meet with surly border agents next to another sign that proclaims, reassuringly, ‘Tougher checks mean longer waits’ and ‘We catch 2,100 immigration criminals a year.’

After some further surly misdirection, I was made to join the EU queue anyway, as one of the only three representatives of the Rest of the World in the terminal at that time. And was duly questioned, although fortunately not detained again, probably because I had associate firepower standing next to me.

Quite apart from being pigeon-holed into Sneeches-with-Stars-Upon-Thars and Sneeches-Without-Stars by Angus McFergus McTavish Dundee Border Agent, what also peeved me was being questioned about the Refused Tier 1 Application (see here and here). The Border Agents can see on their little passport-reading computer that I was refused that visa but they can’t, apparently, see why. Evidently, this innocent piece of data makes me out to be quite the shady customer. So even though the refusal was entirely document-related, and due entirely to the Border Agency’s own misinformation, its presence on the database paints me with the brush of Immigration Criminal–they might as well slap a sticker on my forehead that says ‘Undesirable! Treat with suspicion!’ Because that’s exactly how the Border Agency are now treating me.

Somebody ought to relay to them that (a) living in Britain has now become so repulsive to some of its own citizens that they feel no shame in asking me ‘Why in the name of all that is holy and pure do you want to stay here?’ and (b) the United States is not yet such a shithole that its productive class are now fleeing in droves to the sunnier shores of the UK. It’s not as if I’m here to start a new life in a better land where all are free to pursue prosperity and happiness. All I wanted was to carry on enjoying my nice job and my nice home with my nice now-husband, fulfilling all the responsibilities of living in Britain without having access to any of the privileges. I don’t see why that’s so much to ask, or why it means I must not only put up with being shepherded about, marginalised, and interrogated like the sneakiest crim in history, but also be expected to feel safer and grateful for it at the same time.

That said, Cyprus was wonderful, and interestingly enough, provided a tremendous contrast: we went to the American Embassy in Nicosia to have a document notarised by the consul, and from start to finish, I was treated like royalty. Admittedly, royalty that has to be metal-detectored and patted down three times before being allowed into the Inner Sanctum, but royalty nonetheless. Everybody was polite, nay, downright friendly; they ushered me to the front of all the queues, no appointment necessary; the consul himself congratulated me in paternal fashion on the impending nuptials; and the guards were kind enough to arrange transport back to Larnaka for us–all because of my shiny blue American passport. Sometimes being part of the Rest of the World is quite pleasant.

Jul 222009

Blogging has been light these past couple of weeks due to my travelling places (Edinburgh, mainly, which was lovely), and will continue to be light as I return to the US for ten days to attend a friend’s nuptial festivities.

Everyone who has commented here about my immigration problems has been enormously sympathetic, and I’m very grateful. Having this blog, and the input of its commenters, has really been an unexpected blessing, without which I don’t think I would have coped as well. So this post is also sort of a giant THANK YOU! for the support, including the unknown but brave gentleman who has offered to make an honest woman of me so I can stay here.

You will be perhaps pleased to know that I have not yet quit fighting; I have some plans in hand to continue the struggle. The British government has not seen the last of me. Nor has this blog, which I will update as and when I can from the US, although given the bride-and-groomly demands on my time and the parlous connection options available in the impenetrable swampy wastes of North Carolina, I do not expect it to happen often.

So au revoir until August, probably, when I will resume the reasoned yet flighty political discourse to which you have all become accustomed.

Jul 012009

Warning: this post contains self-indulgent moping.

In the last 24 hours, I seem to have dropped into a deep, bleak trough of depression, brought on by leaving my job and all the lovely people I work with, the fact that my immigration problems are still not sorted out, and the realisation that for all intents and purposes, life as I know it ends on 23 July, as I cannot see or plan what I will be doing or where I will be doing it or how I shall be making my living or whom I will be associating with beyond that date.

Tiny, petty things that normally do not affect me are being extrapolated in my brain into huge, paranoid dooms, from silly little incidents in my personal life all the way through to why today’s lunch plans have gone awry.

I was going to post today about Ed Balls’s announcement of licensing teachers, complete with ominous suggestion that said licences will be granted on how well a teacher complies with the prevailing educational ethos – Tim Worstall points out something I thought of immediately, which is that this plan is probably going to sneak in a PGCE requirement through the back door since the independent schools made such an outcry last year when compulsory PGCEs for all teachers were mooted – but I honestly couldn’t be arsed.

I’ve also been working up a gigantic treatise on another, rather broader, metaphysical political sort of thing, but I can’t be arsed to do that either.

Instead, I’ve been fantasising about how nice it would be if we could take holidays from our own brains the way we can from our jobs.

Jun 212009

From wh00ps again, by way of some other people, etc: ‘Where were you when…?’

OJ, June 17th, 1994

MSN: As such, the chase became a textbook ‘where-were-you?’ moment.

Bella: I was at home, more entertained by the sight of my father laughing himself sick than by the actual car chase. My memory of the OJ verdict, sometime that October, is rather more clear: I was in a biology lesson, and we pestered the incredibly strict teacher to let us watch the announcement on the classroom television. He agreed, but gave us all detention afterward for wasting his time.

Death of Diana, August 31st, 1997

MSN: It being a Sunday, virtually the entire nation was having a lie-in.

Bella: Except for me – in the US at the time. I was attending a toga party. Our host’s mother shouted the news down to the lawn from the upstairs window. We carried on partying. Callous, I know.

Challenger disaster, January 28th, 1986

MSN: It being a Tuesday, this meant that the first report of it on British television occurred at 5pm in an edition of the BBC weekday children’s programme Newsround.

Bella: We were all rather more concerned at my grandfather’s slow dying of cancer that winter, and anyway I was quite young. My father said a crazy friend of his in the Army had predicted the disaster by measuring ley lines which, he claimed, passed right through the hometown of Christa McAuliffe. Creepy. The same crazy friend also claimed the Holy Grail, having been brought to the New World by the Lost Colony, was buried somewhere in the tiny crossroads known as Terra Ceia, NC. On a whim I drove up there once; there were four houses, a church, and a churchyard, all built after 1880. I didn’t find the Grail, alas, although considering the furore, chases, and assassination attempts it seems to cause in Dan-Brown-esque pulp fiction, perhaps that’s all to the good…

Resignation of Thatcher, November 22nd, 1990

MSN: Even so, for those at work or school during the day, word of mouth had to make do until a television set could be found.

Bella: Amazingly, this went unnoticed by most of primary-school-age America. Including me.

England v West Germany, July 4th, 1990

MSN: It was said even Princess Diana, attending a social function in London, was being kept in touch of the score by telephone.

Bella: I remember the party distinctly, at the family vacation home, all of the cousins present; this was the day I taught myself to juggle using crab apples. Because it was Independence Day. Football? Meh.

Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation, June 2nd, 1953

MSN: The coronation was the first event in British history to be seen by a mass audience on the small screen.

Bella: My own mother wasn’t born yet in 1953.

Iranian Embassy siege, May 5th, 1980

MSN: Their dramatic rescue attempt took place in full view of the ITN cameras. Footage, however, was not broadcast live.

Bella: Was not born yet.

September 11th, 2001

MSN: It was a weekday afternoon, so most people didn’t see pictures of the attacks until they got home from school or work.

Bella: [in impatient singsong voice, having told the story often] I was in a lengthy meeting with my professor/boss about some route markings (‘Is that one stretch or two? Does that count as a chicane? What in the world is that toponym supposed to be?’) from half eight that morning. About an hour in, a grad student burst into the office and asked to use the telephone. ‘Of course, as long as you’re not ringing Turkey,’ my professor/boss said in his good-humoured John-Cleese way. ‘Just New York,’ she answered; ‘we’ve been bombed.’

I distinctly remember sharing a glance with my professor, mutual shrugging in mystification, and getting back to our discussion. When we finally emerged from the office at noon, it was to a university campus busy with uproar, panic, and confusion. We wandered into the student union for the traditional after-meeting bagel and were watched open-mouthed as we saw, on the numerous television screens, the footage of the tower falling, ad infinitum. Foregoing the bagels, he went off to the history office and I walked back to the dormitory; ‘The End of the World As We Know It’ was blaring out of one of the windows, which at the time I thought rather tasteless, but which turns out to have been a pretty fair approximation of things. My best friends, all rather committed Christians, were gathered around the common television, predicting Apocalypse.

Assassination of JFK, November 22nd, 1963

MSN: It wasn’t until 11pm that the BBC was sufficiently organised to broadcast a proper tribute programme.

Bella: Again, not born, but my mother said it was announced over the tannoy in her primary school, and my father, who was in his first year of university, told me that the entire student body was watching the events unfold in group shifts around the university’s single black-and-white television.


Pavlovian training

 fabulae  Comments Off on Pavlovian training
Apr 292009

Sitting in my bedroom with the window open, enjoying the cool of the evening and the smells of spring, I half-heard what sounded almost like church bells ringing.

Instantly, my entire being tensed up like an aerobics instructor – heart pounding, eyes widening, chills ebbing and flowing along the spine – which is exactly how I used to feel all the time when I was living in Oxford where the bell-ringers, like maddened over-zealous robots, practise their craft day and night. For a moment, I was back in that hell-hole: miserable, poor, stressed, and foreign; bleak bleak bleak, despite all the dreaming spires and golden sandstone.

Then a child darted past the window and I realised it wasn’t church bells at all. It was an ice-cream van.

Mar 172009

Over on the Devil’s gold post, commenter Revolution Harry questions fellow commenter Ian B’s assertion that ‘getting more stuff is a Good Thing':

Economic growth on its own is fine, though I take issue with your idea that ‘getting more stuff is a good thing’. Depends on the ‘stuff’.

Ian B’s riposte is a thing of sheerest beauty:

No it doesn’t. People getting more of what they want is a Good Thing, period. If you have more stuff than you want, fine, get rid of it or even better give it to me. If you think there is some kind objective method of deciding what stuff people should have, and that they shouldn’t be allowed to have stuff that others decide they shouldn’t have, then I think that’s reprehensible.

Getting more stuff is what the western world and free markets are all about. Stuff is great.

I concur wholeheartedly: Stuff is great.

I must say also that the discussion taking place over that particular post is possibly one of the most interesting I’ve read in a good long while. I highly recommend it.

My own view of ‘money’ has always been extraordinarily simplistic. As I understand it (and please, no flaming: I admit in advance to ignorance and silliness), this is sort of where money comes from:

I make baskets. You make shoes. We decide, mutually, that two of my baskets are worth one pair of your shoes. When I need shoes, I give you baskets according to this formula, and the same holds true when you need baskets – you give me shoes.

Mordred breeds cows. You need Mordred’s cows to make your shoes; Mordred needs my baskets for feed. I give Mordred ten baskets; he gives you one cowskin; you give me five pairs of shoes. So far, so good.

But I don’t need all of these shoes, or at least not at the moment, and you need more cowskins than Mordred needs baskets from me. Not to mention that there’s also Lancelot the chicken-farmer, Guinevere the prostitute, and Gawain the lumberjack to add into the equation, which makes it all hopelessly complicated.

So together we agree upon a unit of substitution for all of this stuff, and call it a squeed. Every item we produce is worth so many squeeds – perhaps my basket is now worth 10sq. Now, however, I decide I’d quite like not only a pair of shoes, but also a half-hour with Guinevere. So I sell my baskets for 11sq – after all, I’m the only basket weaver in town – pocket my 1sq profit, and save it up to pay Guinevere 5sq for my half-hour on Thursday. Then Guinevere spends 3sq on a handful of eggs from Lancelot, and saves the remaining 2sq toward a nice pair of shoes.

The situation becomes even more complex, however. Supposing Mordred puts his prices up too, because he also fancies Guinevere and wants to purchase some of her time. Realising that she’s now in demand, she too can charge more. What if another basket-weaver arrives and sets up shop? Not everybody can weave baskets, true, but lots of people can be prostitutes – so Guinevere’s prices might come down again when Elaine comes onto the scene. All of these things change the value of my baskets, as well as how much my squeeds will buy me.

Finally, and most importantly, what is a squeed, and how many are there? If the supply is finite, it will recirculate stalely amongst the community and quickly accumulate in certain spots like scum on a pond; if it is possible to increase the supply, that too will affect squeedal value and the price of goods. Ideally, squeeds should be an item we can’t really use (why waste something useful?), and relatively rare, although not too rare; also, a squeed should be something we can get more of, but not easily. Gold is, therefore, a good substance from which to make squeeds.

On the other hand, gold is heavy, and the village over the hill uses it for roofing tiles. They might come and forcibly relieve us of the contents of our over-burdened pockets! Better to agree on an amount of gold to represent 1sq, create a worthless (to the other village) paper 1sq note, and keep all of the gold squeeds in a safe place, like under the mattress. As long as we always have enough gold to back up most of our paper squeeds, we should be fine.

And there, my friends, we must cease Bella’s Theory of Money, because we enter the world of fractional reserve banking, which is where my limited and child-like understanding of the monetary system ends. I hope you have enjoyed today’s episode of Arthurian Village Economics.

UPDATE: Ian B continues froody:

And thirdly, it is common to glibly say we’ve had enough growth now and we bally well ought to stop. Well, you might think you’ve got enough stuff, but I haven’t got enough stuff and the average subsistence farmer in Africa hasn’t got any fucking stuff at all, and it is reprehensible to tell him he can’t have any because of an imaginary infinitude on a misunderstood graph. We have vast potential for improving our productivity, absolutely vast. We’ve only been in the industrial revolution for about three centuries, not even that. There is shitloads left to discover and invent. How dare you tell people on the breadline they’re rich enough?

Mar 122009

The other night, after finishing my umpteenth reading of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the creative urge struck. Just as the anti-hero is a non-traditional, pragmatic protagonist, I thought it might be fun to write something about an anti-Faust: a non-traditional, pragmatic protagonist who sells his soul to the devil. I produced a couple of introductory paragraphs, which I reread earlier this evening, before (a) I ran out of steam, and (b) thinking about Led Zeppelin distracted me.

One marathon job-application-session and three glasses of wine later, I’m fascinated by the idea again. So I’ve given the burblings their own page on ye olde blog. Hurrah!

Mar 102009

Because I cannot be arsed to read the news while there is work to be done, I find that a lot of what alerts my ‘blog-post dammit’ sensors comes from other blogs, and today is no exception. By David Davis (no, not that one) at the Libertarian Alliance, I was entirely brought up short by a singular piece of commentary:

And, to round off, what a load of feminazi crap from Rowenna Davis at the Grauniad, about the “bloke-o-sphere.” Thanks to “And there was me thinking” for hat-tipping me off to this fem***z* august woman journalist. Perhaps it’s that males are just more intellectually and literarily creative? We can’t fabricate babies, you lot have to do that for us (and yourselves, don’t forget that, ever): so we write more, and harder, and faster, and with more exquisitely crafted anger feeling instead. The pen is mightier than the p**** I guess.

Many eons ago (a couple of years in reality), I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the wonders of University Challenge, that exquisitely British quiz programme hosted by the even-more-exquisite Jeremy Paxman. During the course of several rounds of filming and, later, numerous Monday evenings spent shouting trivia at the television set in tandem with some of the brightest young minds in the country (‘Wadham-Harris!’), it became apparent to me that females made up rather less than 50% of the contestant pool. On our own team (of which I was not a member, lest you accuse me of delusions of grandeur), there was one female, who answered precisely two starters-for-ten in the entire course of the team’s progress. I remember asking my then-boyfriend, the captain of our team, why women were so under-represented in the competition.

To give him his due, he considered the question carefully rather than, a la David Davis, leaping to the defence with accusations of feminazism. Eventually, he said something along the lines of: ‘To be successful on University Challenge, one has to be aggressive and take risks. If you don’t know the answer, you have to come up with a plausible guess and run with it. Those tend to be male traits, I suppose.’

Much later, or perhaps it was around the same time, I asked him why it is that females, on average, perform much better in school, but males perform better at university. His response was similar: ‘When you think about the university examination system, you know that most of it consists of writing rather long essays in answer to rather vague questions. What achieves good marks doesn’t seem to be simple repetition of facts. Instead, errors of fact are overlooked if an answer is bold enough or has enough flair. Men, I suppose, tend to be rather bolder and more given to flashes of insight.’

My own experience as a teacher would seem to support his conclusions. When I taught history in the US (in a mixed school), my best students were male. Even when they misreported the circumstances of historical events, their essays often displayed a deeper understanding of the material and a more rigorous level of analysis than those of the females.

What does this mean for women in the blogosphere, then?

A quick survey of my own blogroll (which is rather more extensive than what you will find in the right-hand sidebar), reveals that there are two women on it: one, Megan McArdle, is an MBA who writes for the Atlantic, and the other is a feminist. This is not to say that I’m not aware of other female bloggers: David Davis tips his hat to one, Dennis often features another, and who hasn’t heard of the lovely Trixy? And yet those five women represent the sum total of my conversance with the female side of the interweb-commentariat. Of the two on my blogroll, I read Megan McArdle to keep up with the American libertarian world, and I read the feminist because she is angry and sweary and uses neologisms like ’empornulate.’

Rowenna Davis (no relation to David) says:

Second, it’s worrying because – like any forum – virtual spaces develop institutional cultures over time. The House of Commons building might be gender neutral, but fill its chambers with mainly men for hundreds of years and sexism begins to looks like part of the furniture. So too with cyberspace. Unlike parliament, the internet was not made exclusively for men, but mainstream political blogs are starting to become defined as such.

In such a context, it’s hard to stay true to yourself online. When editing LabourList, I felt the need to turn up the aggression, to be more cutting than I would like to be and less willing to compromise. Online, I felt a similar pressure that Thatcher may have felt in the Commons – the need to compensate for my femininity in a world dominated by aggressive masculinity.

Her choice of the words ‘aggression’ and ‘aggressive’ certainly hearkens back to my ex’s remarks and suggests that the blogosphere, like University Challenge and university exams, is a realm in which success is achieved by having the loudest, most insistent, most incisive voice.

Rowenna Davis goes on:

But facing that world alongside other female bloggers gave me hope. I was lucky enough to have commentators like Sadie Smith tweeting alongside me, and blog-readers like Grace Fletcher-Hackwood questioning the male-dominated blogroll. While editing, I saw first-hand that – given a critical mass – the internet can work for women as well as against them.

But changing the content for one day is not enough. If women don’t keep up a lively presence online, the “blokeosphere” will rule. Ultimately, the internet is what we make it. This poses a challenge to mainstream political blogs – who have a responsibility to make space for female voices – and to women, who have a duty to fill them.

It’s rather heartening to know that ‘mainstream’ political blogs, of which I read precisely none according to what this woman’s definition probably is, suffer the same dearth of oestrogen as the libertarian blogs I frequent. Whilst I don’t support the idea that any internet community has ‘a responsibility to make space for female voices,’ I do agree that women, if they want their voices heard, need to enter the space and start making waves.

The delightful Tim Worstall mentioned a related problem recently when he ridiculed Mary Honeyball MEP for contradicting her own argument about gender quotas, and let’s be fair, the woman is a stupid ass:

It took all-women shortlists to raise the number of Labour women MPs to 27% of the parliamentary Labour party. Compare this with the Tories – who, incidentally, oppose quotas – of whom only 9% are female. Quotas do work, and I do not believe we will get significantly more women elected representatives without them.

Only 26% of MPs are female, meaning that Westminster does not have enough women for them to form a critical mass – estimated to be around 30% – where they can bring about changes.

Only by getting more women into parliament will some of the structural barriers that prevent more women from being elected be removed. Female MPs are role models who raise women’s and girls’ aspirations. Quotas are a short-term measure that will ensure long lasting democracy and equal representation.

Although women comprise, as is often cited, half of the population, women do not comprise half the population’s representatives. I don’t want to get into the issue of quotas, which are a silly idea in any situation (vide Tim, supra) and already discredited more than ably over at Musings on Liberty, but it’s interesting to see how Honeyball attacks democracy in the name of…democracy. Democracy is not only choosing for whom one wishes to vote, but choosing whether or not one wishes to stand for office. When more men than women wish to stand, and more people prefer to vote for men over women, that is democracy, however much it might offend the sensibilities of equality-seekers.

And why do we have this confluence of more men running and more people voting for men? Perhaps it is because politics, like University Challenge, university exams, and the blogosphere, is a realm in which success is achieved by having the loudest, most insistent, most incisive voice. If a majority of men and women believe that women possess those traits in insufficient quantities, then women will neither stand for office nor receive votes.

The question, is seems to me, is: why are aggression and flair considered primarily masculine, rather than feminine, traits? We all know women who possess them, and we all know men who don’t. Are women employing these characteristics in other spheres of their lives? Is David Davis right in suggesting that women divert their strenuous efforts into the creation of babies?

I don’t know the answer. I know that I am not a person who is much given to flair. I am rarely loud. I do not craft my anger into exquisite, invective-filled blog posts, and other people’s pens are indeed mightier, as David Davis says, than my pussy. I am not aggressive. So maybe this blog is doomed to fail, I will never have a career in politics, and Gail Trimble truly is the man.

What I do know, however, is that whinging on about what women are entitled to, whether it be space in the great political debate, seats in Parliament, or exams tailored to fit their character traits, is a counter-productive waste of time. Women are entitled to be treated as human beings, with all attendant rights and liberties. No more, no less. And the more we focus on dragging down men to pull ourselves up, the more harm we do to our primary, legitimate, and above all imperative goal.

Mar 022009

Teaching a lesson on bias today, I gave my pupils a copy of Philip Pullman’s article in Friday’s Times. I’d link to it, but…

They read it carefully, some with dawning expressions of horror, and afterward we discussed his point of view and what influence he might be trying to exert.

At the end of the lesson, I said, ‘And do you know what? I read that article on the Times website at lunchtime on Friday. By Friday evening, it had disappeared.’



‘Dude,’ said one of them, with a kind of appalled admiration; ‘Pullman’s right!’

[Another money-quote from the lesson today: ‘You’d think, if someone were going to be in government, they’d at least bother to have some brains.]

How is it that children barely out of nappies can understand the implications of this stuff, but the British people by and large cannot? What the hell?