Why I Left Ravenclaw

Having worked super hard at boarding school (and I mean making extra revision notes from text books sort of super hard) I got a place at Oxford University to study Philosophy and Psychology. Hurrah! Off I went to the city of dreaming spires to spend way too long in libraries reading up on the likes of Descartes, Spinoza and Derrida. It was a world of books and my philosophically inclined chums and I enjoyed spending many an hour weaving up elaborate arguments about why Mill’s Utilitarianism was better than Aristotle’s virtue ethics. If we sound like super-nerds, well, no, we just loved books, like, really loved them. We were living out our Ravenclaw fantasies and that was absolutely fine…until we graduated.

It was a little bit of a shock to discover that being able to cite Aristotle wasn’t useful for navigating office politics and/or working the photocopier. But worse than my lack of practical skills was a severe lack of humility. Spending lots of time with ancient Greek philosophers may have led me to believe I was the sh*t (at least in my own warped world where essays on Plato were the benchmark for worthiness), especially when surrounded by plenty of other Type A personalities who believed the same thing. And Oxford University itself has a brand of ‘being the sh*t’ to maintain, so it’s kind of a collective delusion based on pro-plus, overwork, low self-esteem, self-loathing and plenty of mental health problems (ok, there’s a bit of world-class research that goes on there too, apparently). So it came as a nasty surprise to learn that lots of people didn’t actually give two hoots (of a screech owl) about Aristotle, Plato or any other random man with a beard that I’d spent far too long studying. Sure, those guys get their heads put on pedestals in museums but if there’s one thing us overly heady Ravenclaws need to do, it’s climb down off our self-styled pedestals before we’re knocked off.

So I graduated, made the mistake of going back for a Masters, finally learned my lesson, and left the shadow of the dreaming spires to do other things like write blogs and stories. Yes, my time at Ravenclaw was both brilliant and bonkers, filled with insight, fun, depression and various identity crises, but I think the trick to a happier life is to try and take the wisdom acquired from learning and turn it into something practical and accessible that can change the world we’re living in. Knowledge is for everyone and it’s not for the academy to hoard it and look snobbishly down on everyone who didn’t get a place at high table. Witty, wise and clever sounds like an ace personality combo but it’s what you do that counts not how many books you’ve read. Now, can you solve the riddle?

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The Men Behind It All

It’s been about a year since I started this blog so I thought what better way to celebrate than to reveal the truth behind the lies, to reveal who really is pulling the strings of the global system. Who manipulates politics, economics and business at such a high level that even presidents and prime ministers will do what they ask. Who tips the balances of the capitalist military industrial complex in their favour and reaps the rewards. Who has the odd billion stored in one of many offshore tax havens. Who somehow remain hidden in the shadows.

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Perhaps, like me, you turned to The X-Files to learn the truth – that there is a cabal of wealthy, white men in grey suits who function above the law and collude with aliens to plan world domination. These men are known as the Syndicate – they’re in the picture above – just a bunch of guys in suits hanging out in shadowy rooms smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, the stuff of global conspiracy (fyi, a few X-Files spoilers on the way). The men of the Syndicate work with a bunch of aliens who want to take over the world. The men do all they can to ensure the public never knows about this: they plan and enact elaborate conspiracies to ensure abductees, alien sightings and even alien attacks are all covered up and explained away; they have the military at their disposal; they bribe and threaten government officials; they kill anyone who knows too much and often try to kill FBI agent Fox Mulder (who is always one step away from revealing their dastardly plans). In short, they pull an awful lot of the strings of power. But, the thing is, they do it very badly.

Over and over again these silly, old men make mistakes and let things slip. So many of their secret experiments using alien DNA and alien tech go awry and result in many people needlessly dying. Then they have to clean up the mess and kill anyone who spotted the mess, usually Fox Mulder. To conceal their mistakes they have to spend an awful lot on bribes and concoct exceptionally elaborate cover-up stories (often more ludicrous than the actual alient-based truth). Then they have to kill a few more people, including JFK and Martin Luther King, who threaten the balance of power. They also make a very bad team – they don’t trust each other and frequently lie to one another when they fail to successfully ‘manage’ a ‘situation’. So yeah, they’re the ones behind it all, but they’re also a bunch of idiots.

And there are times when I can’t help but think this is quite a good analogy for the real people behind the real system (unless there is actually an alien-government conspiracy and The X-Files was a documentary, not sci-fi). There’s a certain comfort in believing that a group of super-ruthless intellectuals are playing puppet master to the world’s problems and tipping the capitalist military industrial complex in their favour. And yes, there are certainly people doing this – creating/using multiple tax havens, subsidising environmentally destructive industries whilst undermining sustainable energy, investing/trading in weapons. They often do this because they’re greedy and/or it makes “business sense” (i.e. maximise short-term profit at any expense). But is it a joined-up, super smooth system of conspiracy and collusion, I doubt it, I often just think it’s greedy, insecure, selfish people with far too much power doing what greedy, insecure, selfish people do, namely look out for number one. I can’t imagine it’s actually fun being one of these people (“Hey, darling, how was your day?” “Oh, you know, the usual – I hid lots of our money in an offshore account to avoid taxes and I sold a load of weapons that will be used to kill innocent people.”). Certainly, the Syndicate don’t seem to have much fun as they’re constantly paranoid their nefarious ways will be revealed and they spend a lot of time planning how to kill one another. So, maybe those shady characters in that shady room aren’t quite so clever as the conspiracies would have us believe and, in a way, that makes it worse – such a shame that it’s a bunch of idiots bringing about doomsday far too far in advance.

The Night Manager: A Slower James Bond

The Night Manager, it’s the new John Le Carré adaptation on BBC1, a typical story of intrigue, spying and nefarious businessmen screwing the rest of the world over. If you’ve ever seen a James Bond film then it’s like that (sorry, spoiler alert) – big baddy selling weapons, objectified women who get killed by baddies and some dull, semi-sociopath spy caught in the middle of it. Except this time M is played by Olivia Coleman and she’s got a northern accent and a baby on the way. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever read one of my blog posts you’ll be able to predict my complaints: it fails the Latif and Bechdel tests so far (I’m on episode 3 and still asking myself why I didn’t stop at 1), there’s plenty of sexualised, female nudity and zilch sexualised male nudity (not even some side penis to compensate for all the side boob we get) and the protagonist has no charisma, genuinely zero, he doesn’t even register on the personality scale. To summarise, this is a boring yet glamorous waste of time. If you really want your fill of slightly-more-intelligent-than-James-Bond spy thriller (but still disappointingly chauvinistic) watch The Constant Gardener.

So, need this blog go on? Well, one thing I do find quite interesting about this series is it’s depiction of rich people. And we’re not just talking millionaires we’re talking the billionaire businessmen who sell arms and pull strings in national governments to get away with it. Yup, it’s the elite of the elite, those at the top of the capitalist military industrial complex. And the one in The Night Manager is called Richard Roper and is played by Hugh Laurie. And, curiously, he’s not very scary. He tells crass jokes, he flops around his villa eating brioche, he quaffs champagne, he does the odd deal, he dances with his much younger girlfriend (who is often to be seen naked unlike Hugh Laurie of course). Meanwhile, his rich friends have drinking problems, are insecure about how they look, cheat on their wives with their French au pairs, have complexes about their masculinity (and penis size no doubt), and genuinely do what insecure, entitled men do. Meanwhile, the wives look on as they try to ignore their husbands dodgy dealings whilst packing off bratty Tamara and Tim to boarding school.

And these so-called elites, the 1%, are the ones we’re encouraged to aspire to be like!? The only difference between these people and any other group of malfunctioning humans (which is most groups) is that when they negotiate over a contract that contract tends to be about weapons that may well be used in a war. When I fall out with my friends it’s usually over a round and the repercussions might be a split pint or two. For the 1% it’s whether British arms will be used to trash the next Middle Eastern country. So The Night Manger, whilst being a well-worn cliché of exotic locales and exoticised women has done me the favour of putting me off my dream to become a billionaire. The rich come across as pretty boring and Hugh Laurie’s attempt at justifying his lifestyle is also quite boring. After having said how great it is to be able to eat brioche whenever he likes and go skiing a lot he then says: “Children grow up thinking the adult world is ordered, rational, fit for purpose. It’s crap. Becoming a man is realising that it’s all rotten. Realising how to celebrate that rottenness, that’s freedom.” I mean, seriously, what a half-hearted attempt at justifying egoistic nihilism. The whole point of nihilism is that you don’t need to justify it, it’s just an excuse to be a complete wanker and not care about anyone else. Sure, Roper fits the bill but is a villa in Mallorca really the best he can do? Personally, I’d prefer some nice friends and not facilitating World War 3.

Sorry, That Job Went To A Robot

Back in the 1810s a group of skilled self-employed weavers bandied together to take a stand against the new wave of weaving technologies that was being introduced. These included the power-loom and the spinning frame and all would require less-skilled labour to be used. The self-employed weavers were worried they would be out of a job. So they got to breaking these technologies in calculated acts of protest and called themselves the Luddites – arguably a reference to Ned Ludd who smashed some stocking frames back in 1779. And now, hundreds of years later, it’s not a power-loom that will force many people into unemployment, it’s robots.

Drones will deliver post, robots will run warehouses, automated check-outs will bleat at you to ‘insert your card’, Excel will do your accounting, a new piece of software might even paint a picture for you and cars will drive themselves. And what for the people who used to do these blue and white-collar jobs – they’ll have nothing to do. Some call them ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ people, which is a glib way of acknowledging that history appears to be an endless case of efficiency taking precedence over people. But there’s nothing efficient about a society full of unemployed and unhappy people, the sort of people who might take arms against robots and start smashing.

Meanwhile, those with vested interests will laud the oncoming industrial revolution saying it’s the greatest opportunity humankind has ever had for advancement. I imagine similar things were said about nuclear energy. The zealots of this movement will barely be able to contain themselves knowing that their latest Amazon package will be flown to them via drone or they’ll be able to upload their memories into a robot (yup, Ray Kurzweil would love this). It’s worth remembering that these people will probably be rich and very far removed from the worries and realities of poverty and unemployment. They might also have not have asked if there are actually enough resources on earth to robotise everything.

So, what to do? Firstly, don’t take any of these stories at face values whatever the predictions – nothing goes as planned. Secondly, if the elites get what they want and society becomes increasingly automated (as it already has done) we must ask what it means to have a world without labour (or, at least, human labour) – what does this mean for feelings of self-worth considering they are so often tied to the work we do and what does this mean for the Labour party itself, founded on the rise of the working classes? Thirdly, this isn’t really about machines and robots, this is about power, people and how we treat each other. A Universal Basic Income is just one way of ensuring everyone gets paid even if they don’t work. Although the right wing, if they were to implement something like this, would probably use it as yet another excuse to strip back the state and weaken public services but what’s the point of a UBI if you can’t afford medical care and other necessities?

So the future is still there to be fought for. It’s not a foregone conclusion and the stories the vested interests weave don’t have to become self-fulfilling prophecies. We can challenge power, as hard as it is, and create a fairer world for all, with or without robots. Basically, it doesn’t have to end up becoming like this…

Why Life Is Like Monopoly (And Not A Box Of Chocolates)

So, you’ve got £200 in your pocket and you’re ready to Go. London unfolds before you – its Victorian terraces, towering skyscrapers, penthouse apartments, silver dogs and prisons. All that saving and you might finally be able to get a foot on the property ladder, it’s what you’ve always dreamed of. Yup, just a typical game of Monopoly, except this time I’m going to bend the rules a little to show the parallels between the board game and the game of life.

https://i2.wp.com/pic.lifetmt.com/2014/07/logo-monopoly2.jpgLet’s say there are 6 players and everyone is ready to get going. You, player 1, full of hope and aspirations start the game with £200. Next to go is Archibald, player 2, who already has £2,000,000. Why does he have such a high amount? He inherited it from a previous player. Whereas you’ll have to work hard to earn your cash Archibald will barely have to lift a finger. Unfair? Yup. That’s life. So, you keep trundling round the board just waiting to be able to buy your first little piece of land. However, it turns out Hugo, player number 3, is a member of one of the few land owning families in the country and it just so happens that his family already own a whole load of London. This means you won’t actually be able to buy the land you’ll just be able to rent it off Hugo’s family. Furthermore, because Hugo’s family have been hoarding land for so long it has become an increasingly scarce resource, meaning it’s very, very expensive because so many people want it. Better get moving round that board.

Fortunately, Hector, player number 4, is the banker and he’s there for you. He gives you £200 every time you pass Go to help you get your first foot on the property ladder. Of course, it’s not free money, it’s actually a loan and because the system isn’t that well-regulated Hector’s happy to keep loaning you money, he’ll even give you a mortgage, even though it’s unlikely you’ll be able to repay it. He also turns people’s dodgy mortgages into investment opportunities for rich people who want to get richer. Multiply this process by millions of people and when they start failing to pay off their mortgages the whole system comes crumbling down and lots of people get in debt, including you player number 1. Fortunately, Hector knows Bertie, player number 5, who is a politician, and rather than get Hector fired or even put in jail for corrupt behaviour he actually bails the bank out with public money – that’s right, he takes some cash from your hard-earned stash and gives it to Hector.

So, strapped for cash, in debt and struggling to get by you decide to make a stand. You wave a placard, you shout a slogan or two, you appeal to the better angels of people’s nature in the hope to make the system fairer. Enter Bobby, player number 6, he’s a policeman and he’s got no time for the likes of you. In fact, Bobby likes to uphold the rules of the game and he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t. So it’s off to prison with you for being a troublemaker. That’s what you get if you challenge the establishment and try to change the system. And let’s not forget some of the other players who haven’t been mentioned including Eric, the accountant and consultant who advises Archibald and his rich friends on how to avoid paying taxes; Rupert, who runs the newspapers and happily prints articles on how terrible and greedy poor people are whilst lavishing praise on the rich; and even quiet and unassuming Peter who actually works at MI5 and enjoys spying on groups of ‘subversives’ who think climate change and capitalism are somewhat problematic. He’ll happily team up with Rupert, Bobby, Bertie and the rest in order to keep the establishment in place and the masses at bay.

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Life, like a game of monopoly, seems to begin and end with money. People endlessly trudge around the board of life trying to make a decent living but there’s nothing decent about money, the system is rigged from the outset. It could take someone many lifetimes to earn what some people inherit at birth. Money is not fair – it is a scarce resource that is unevenly distributed and yet it’s the item we use to access key resources including houses, land and food. Thus, objects that could be in abundance (there’s enough food on the planet to feed everyone for instance) are forced into a system of imposed scarcity making it doubly hard to get by – first you’ve got to work to get a living just so you can get the money to buy the actual things you need. Perhaps you’re thinking what I’m thinking? That it’s time to change the rules of the game…

Was Agatha Christie An Anarchist?

A toffish cad. A louche adventurer. A religious spinster. A pompous war general. A Harley Street doctor. A private investigator. A self-important judge. A teacher at a private girls’ school. A supercilious butler. A jittery maid. Yup, it’s the characters of And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s most successful murder mystery novel. Now, many of us will know Agatha Christie not only for her ingenious twists but also her racism, homophobia and sexism. She might have been ahead of her time in terms of plot devices but she certainly wasn’t when it came to values. However, it’s always the ones we least suspect and I think that behind all the casual bigotry lay an undercover anarchist. Here’s why (with big spoilers but I certainly won’t reveal whodunnit).

It starts with that cast of ten characters – between them they represent the British establishment: there’s inherited wealth, colonialism, imperialism, religion, the military, the justice system, private school, wilful/enforced servitude, the class divide and the law (perhaps there should be an MP there too but inherited wealth and private school pretty much cover that one). They are also predominantly male and all are white. So they’re everyone wrong with elitism and all are incredibly nasty people – not least in personality but also because each one of them is guilty of murder. Yup, as if being bigoted snobs weren’t enough they’re also killers and many of them show no remorse for it – turns out there’s such a thing as daylight murder as well as daylight robbery.

So this just basically sounds like yet another homage to posh, British people a la Downton Abbey, Brideshead Revisited and any Tom Stoppard/Noel Coward play. But because it’s Christie and because she really couldn’t let ten terrible people get away with murder she does something your typical English-aristocracy-tribute doesn’t do – she kills them all. That’s right, one by one they get picked off, in increasingly brutal fashion, by an unknown killer on some sort of deranged vendetta. So that’s how Christie treats her posh people and for me nothing could scream undercover anarchist more loudly. Of course, anarchists don’t condone murder but they do condone a complete overhaul of the establishment and what better way to do that than metaphorically bump off all the usual, elitist suspects – the ones with the vested interests that keep society unfairly rigged in the favour of the 1%.

Convinced? Probably not. But post-colonial, feminist revisions are always fun, next time I’ll apply the queer gaze. Although before I do that I should probably lay my cards on the table and confess to being a huge Christie fan – whilst I can’t help but feel she had similar views to her characters (but perhaps not, Hercule Poirot was a refugee after all and made a habit out of standing over the dead bodies of rich Brits) she was the mistress of the red herring and surprise ending. The trick now is to take those plot devices and place them firmly in the 21st century, to ensure curtains for bigotry as well as all those nasty, murderous elites. Oh, and the BBC are showing this Christie classic at the moment, it even stars Poldark!

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When Brits go abroad they don’t come back…