heathen, infidel, scab

I broke a strike on Wednesday. I’ve never done that before.

I’m breaking a lot of habits at the moment (for example, the habit of ‘not blogging’ that I’d fallen into). Even writing on this blog about Wednesday’s strike means breaking another habit: I usually make it a rule never to write about my day job.

But on this occasion I want to. It’s worth explaining, I think, why I’m a member of the National Union of Teachers but didn’t take part in the London-based strike on Wednesday.

For a start, it wasn’t for the money. I don’t feel good about breaking the strike and so I decided in advance – at the excellent suggestion of one of my students – that whatever money I earned that day will go to something worthwhile. Probably the strike fund (if only to keep on decent terms with some Union members).

It also wasn’t because I think the government’s current offer on pensions reform is any good. It is a big stinking heap of horseshit. Admittedly there’s a whopping great generation of homeowning baby-boomers about to enter the longest and most luxurious retirement any generation has ever, or ever will, be lucky enough to enjoy; but I’m not persuaded that this has to be paid for by the next generation of teachers, many of whom (certainly those in London) can’t even afford to get a mortgage and so will be doubly screwed with accommodation costs when we retire, half-dead, at 68. There’s a million other ways to pay for that generation’s retirement over the next 100 years and we have to find a fairer one.

Plus, even despite the economics there’s a question of contracts at stake. Nobody is saying that the baby boomers should have their obscenely generous pensions cut, because they are thought to have worked through their careers for those pensions and to remove them now would be to short-change them. But the government acts as if, since it would be a travesty to short-change that blessed generation, it’s the next generation that must be short-changed instead. (There’s been a lot of fuss made about the ‘Granny Tax’ since the budget, but actually the removal of income tax breaks for people over 65 is one of the few really fair things this government have done).

Either way, the fact that teachers in the UK get (or used to get) brilliant pensions was a pretty major factor in my decision to become one, and the same is true of many of my colleagues. It doesn’t matter how old you are – to employ people and commit them to a job based on certain terms of service, and then change those terms later on, is a dickish thing to do. So to change the rules on teachers’ pensions once many people of my generation have dedicated ourselves to that profession is outright nasty.

So why didn’t I strike on Wednesday?

Because striking wouldn’t have helped any of this situation, even if every school in London had been shut completely.

What the Unions seem to have missed is that Tory ‘modernisers’ like Gove and Maude actually want the unions to strike so that they can be discredited in some kind of moral battle in the minds of Middle Englanders. They want strikes so that they can face them with aggression – and probably violence, like Thatcher did – while making Ed Miliband look even weaker than he already is.

The government have deliberately put an insulting offer on the table, made token tactical concessions after last year’s strike in order to look like they’ve been reasonable, and then been pretty clear that what’s on the table now, crappy as it still is, is the best offer we’ll get, in the hope that the NUT and other unions will take the bait.

So, while it’s possible that some of the industrial action last year had some small effect on the negotiations (though probably not as much as the union leaders would have us believe), Wednesday’s strike was just playing into Michael Gove’s hands, and as a result would have achieved nothing good.

Whereas for my students on the other hand, a day of teaching lost with so little time to go before their exams in May could very easily have made the tiny difference between getting the grades they need for college/university and not getting them – with whatever future consequences that might bring. For me, it certainly would have been too big a potential loss to have risked it just so I could stand behind the NUT’s leader while she threw her toys out of the pram (having failed to get us a better deal in the pension negotiations).

So. I weighed up what would be gained from striking against what would be lost, and didn’t let religious dogma get in the way.

That’s right. Religious dogma.

When I told my colleagues I wasn’t striking, and explained my reasons, pretty much every single one of them said the same thing: “but what about the principle of solidarity?”

So I should make my position on this clear: ‘solidarity’ amongst groups who are doing the wrong thing is bullshit. Doing the wrong thing – ‘but doing it together’ – is not admirable. It’s foolish. It’s that kind of uncritical herd-like behaviour which drives lemmings off cliffs, countries into wars, and humans into death camps. The principle of solidarity for its own sake is not to be admired.

I have a lot of respect for Trade Unionism as an ideology; that’s why I’m a member of one. I think it’s a necessary and important counterbalance to the tendency of employers to exploit their workers, and the conditions that workers would have to suffer if they had no possibility of grouping together to improve those conditions does not bear thinking about.

Trade Unionism – like any human political ideology – can be useful when it is guided by what James and Dewey would have called a melioristic motive: that is, when its values are genuinely guided by an empirically-informed attempt to improve the world, to make our experience of life better and more satisfying. In other words, the principle of union solidarity has value when following that principle will make a real improvement to our lives.

But in my view, the point at which ideology becomes religious dogma is when it loses that meliorism and starts to consider its values as having some intrinsic value – not as a means to some end, but as ends in themselves. When the principles, for example the principle of ‘solidarity’, become more important than whatever end they were originally meant to achieve.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to know when that has happened, because people find it hard to recognise when the original melioristic end has become unattainable. But when the original melioristic end does become unattainable, it vanishes from view; the principles alone take on the appearance of ends which can apparently justify any means. At this point a religion is born, and sane individuals start behaving in ridiculous ways in order to follow the principle without really understanding why.

Nevertheless, they still hold these principles to be the most morally necessary thing possible, and are proud to express disgust at those who don’t. They even create new names for them: ‘heathen’, ‘infidel’, ‘scab’. And they follow this principle and this logic to the end.

Like lemmings.

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the things art does

Yesterday my mum came down to London. I like it when that happens – we get to go to galleries and exhibitions all day and then eat nice food. I’ve got Tate membership and she’s got Royal Academy membership and an Art Card, so between us we get to see pretty much everything.

Yesterday we started at the National Portrait Gallery for the Glamour of the Gods exhibition. It’s essentially three or four rooms of black and white pictures of movie stars of the 20s-60s. The trouble for me was that, whereas these were film actors that my mum grew up knowing (many of them weren’t quite her generation, but they were icons all the same), I didn’t recognise half the people there.

I mean, there is always some fun in looking at a good picture of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. And Buster Keaton’s extraordinary face, of course. And there is no doubt that Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe were beautiful.*

But generally, looking at black and white pictures of a bunch of faces not doing very much had limited appeal for someone who hadn’t seen the films. In fact, I think this is ultimately why I don’t go to the National Portrait Gallery very much; portraits of people I don’t know, without action, can’t refer to very much for me. They don’t do much apart from exist as images that refer only to themselves. As a result they are little more than pure form; and there is limited interest in that to non-Kantians.

And as for making me do anything – well, it takes a really really exceptional portrait of a really really exceptional face to have any kind of perlocutionary force (I’m talking Mona Lisa/Pope Innocent X exceptional), and without that, what’s the point of an artwork? Heresy perhaps, and I’m deliberately overstating the point. But even so, I don’t think portraits generally tend to do a lot. Which is why the best use of photography is not portraits, but reportage and invention.

The next thing we went to, the exhibition of Hungarian photography at the Royal Academy, is packed with both.

In particular, I stared for ages at Capa’s photograph of the Falling Solder. This is it:

Obviously there’s some debate about whether it’s staged or not, whether the soldier died at all, whether it was actually Capa that got him killed, etc. The Mail, perhaps unsurprisingly, ran this ridiculous piece not long ago.

But what that debate misses is that none of that matters. Capa knew that literal truth isn’t as important as what the photograph does; he knew it was art, and it was art that represented the fact that anarchists and republicans were getting killed – killed nobly – in the Catalan foothills. It worked to recruit support for the Republican cause and to make the rest of the world aware that something was kicking off in Spain that would spread throughout Europe, ultimately throughout the world.

That picture isn’t a good portrait. It’s blurred and you can’t see the soldier’s face clearly. But the point is that as well as provoking admiration, that picture terrified and it warned. Good art is not just there to be pretty or to be an accurate depiction – good art does something. That picture – there is no denying it – did something.

We finished the day at the Courtauld Gallery, which I have, unbelievably, never been to but if you have never been YOU HAVE TO STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND GO THERE. Why had nobody ever told me before that it is pretty much the world’s most perfect little art collection?

I mean, the exhibition we were ostensibly there to see – the Toulouse-Lautrec pictures of Jane Avril – was not very interesting (maybe because the intended perlocutionary force of those pictures were just a little too crude: “go and see this woman do the cancan,” they say, and that may have worked at the time but for obvious reasons doesn’t work now). But it was worth it just to see the rest of the gallery.

At risk of getting the intentional fallacy chucked in my face, I do wonder, when I see a lot of art, how much intention (conscious or otherwise) there was from the artist that the work does things. And I wonder how subtle those intentions need to be before the work becomes really good.

With stand-up, there’s such a delicate balance – the work is intended to get laughs. But what other things must it do – while still getting laughs – in order to be the really great artform some of us aspire for it to become?

—-

*OH MY GOODNESS CLARA BOW WAS BEAUTIFUL LOOK AT HER FACE!

back in edinburgh

So I’m in Edinburgh again. And it would be weird not to blog while I’m here.

Plus it’s 8am, and most of the comedians will have only just gone to bed. There is not a single flyerer in sight. So, blogging it is.

I just got off a night megabus, and I’ve got that woozy, early morning slightly surreal just-tried-to-get-a-night’s-sleep-on-a-bus-and-failed feeling that I usually reserve for arrivals in Paris. It’s not that dissimilar from standard Edinburgh sleep deprivation, but it’s annoying because, as a veteran of night coaches, I had a sleeping strategy this time.

I didn’t even try to get my own double seat – I’ve tried that before and it just means that any massive snoring bad-smelling weirdo can come and sit next to you and take up all the space with their massive snoring bad-smelling body. But this time I knew all the seats would be fully booked, so I chose to try and get in the middle of the queue. That way, I could get on when about half the seats were taken. That way I could quite legitimately pick my weirdo.

I picked well: not far from the front there was a small woman, about forty-ish, who did not obviously smell and was having a quiet telephone conversation in a sane-sounding US accent. I sat next to her, and she gave me a polite, not-mental smile. When the bus pulled out, she settled over to the far side of her seat, put a blanket over her head and went into a calm, snoreless sleep, leaving me to celebrate the success of operation pick-your-own-weirdo, and feel just a little bit smug at not feeling too cramped.

At which point, the dark-haired man in the seat in front of me violently jammed his seat so far back into the reclining position that it almost crushed my legs. Then he couldn’t get it to go forward again – he’d forced the seat way further back than it was designed to go, and now it wouldn’t budge. He shrugged, lay back and closed his eyes, and I spent the rest of the journey unable to move my legs, and with nothing but a headrest separating the dark-haired man’s head from my crotch.

So I didn’t get much sleep. Whenever I’ve taken night coaches to Paris before, I’ve got over this feeling by sitting in the nicest café I can find and getting a café au lait. But this time I’m in Edinburgh.

So I’m sitting in Starbucks on the Royal Mile, looking over the crossroads where I’ve flyered for shows I’ve done every year for the last few years. It’s the place where I always notice how it’s suddenly getting dark early in the evenings towards the end of the festival. And no other square in the world has rained on me quite so much.

In fact now I come to think of it, this is the Starbucks where I come to get out of the rain. I’ve sat in this Starbucks before (many times), and it occurs to me that I’ve never actually been happy in here. In fact, I’ve only ever sat in here and felt depressed.

Come to think of it, I don’t really have very many memories of sitting anywhere in Edinburgh in the daytime and really being happy. I’ve always been miserable and worried and tired, and usually either hungover or still drunk. The few occasions I can remember being in Edinburgh and being really happy have almost always been followed by sudden, crushing downs that were usually a direct result of whatever it was that made me happy in the first place.

Still. I’m here now. And I’m only here for three days, and I’m not doing a show.

So perhaps this year will be different.

And the first step towards that is to get out of this fucking Starbucks.

what, too soon?

I knew this would happen. You try and give up blogging, and then you realise that you still feel compelled to shout things into that endless opinion-hole we call the internet, and that those things will take more than forty characters.

So, here’s the thing. There were two very unhappy events in the news yesterday (for those reading this far into the future, I mean the terrorist bombing and shooting in Norway, and the death of the singer Amy Winehouse). And to comedians and comedy writers, unhappy news events mean jokes.

I’m in two minds about whether this makes us sick or healthy: sick because we think that making jokes will help somehow; or healthy because we understand that making jokes will help somehow.

Anyway, it’s a compulsion. You should have seen the comedians on facebook yesterday: everybody seemed to have something to say, and the people who didn’t say anything were conspicuous by their absence.

But there are two big pitfalls with this. The first is that you risk joking about something too soon. There’s a standard cliché of bad topical stand-up that involves doing a distasteful joke about a sad news event and then if it bombs, follow it with, “…What, too soon?” It says to the audience, ‘Look, wasn’t I being brave there? But I recognise it hasn’t worked – yet.’

In fact, it’s such a cliché that I’ve seen some very good stand-ups (I think I remember Ian Stone doing it best) make a joke about something that is really ancient history, like the extinction of the dinosaurs or the decline of the Roman Empire, and then follow it with, “…What, too soon?” And of course, that gets a very big laugh from comedy-literate audiences.

And then you also have the second pitfall, that if you are going to say something at all, it’s got to be well-judged. You have to be very acutely careful about who the butt of the joke is, the tone you’re taking, what people will interpret about you when they hear or read the joke.

Now, in this context, and bearing in mind that I didn’t have a gig last night, I posted two comments on facebook yesterday.

The first was not a joke. If anything, it was the retraction of a joke: an RIP to Amy Winehouse, with a somewhat belated apology for a bit I used to do about her. In fact it was a joke about the global economy being supported by her spending money on alcohol and drugs. I must have done it hundreds of times, because it used to get a really good laugh. It once got a twenty-second applause break at the Comedy Store gong show. It got such consistent laughs that it kind of became my favourite joke I’d written.

But in retrospect – and you don’t have to believe me, but it’s true – I would have given up every single one of those laughs for her not to have been tortured like she was. I just don’t think the papers or the public, or I, ever really got our heads around how big her problems were; not until it killed her. In fact I think it was only funny because I, and the audiences who laughed, thought that somehow she’d be okay really.

But now we know that’s not true. And so it doesn’t seem funny any more. It just seems frivolous and mean and I feel terrible about it. She had an incredible voice and the whole thing is, in its most literal Greek sense, a tragedy.

The second comment I posted was this:

i hope that the oslo terror suspect being a christian fundamentalist isn’t used by civilised countries like saudi arabia as a warrant to start invading innocent, if backward, christian nations like the usa

It’s not a great joke. It’s not really even a joke – it’s the use of a standard primary-colour joke-writing tool (commonly known as ‘the old switcheroo’) to make what I hoped was quite a serious point in a relatively subtle way. Also, without wanting to sound precious, I spent about twenty minutes writing and re-writing it before I posted it, to make sure that the butt of the joke was very clearly not the victims of that event. I’ve had jokes misunderstood before, and it’s no fun. But I always recognised afterwards why those jokes were misunderstood, and I accepted that it was my fault; I’d been lazy with my writing.

And then, in the continuing facebook opinion melee, the following conversation happened. Before you read it, I should add that I’m not quite sure who this Alan Sellars fellow is; he is somebody whose friend request I accepted because he and I had about 200 mutual friends, which gave me the impression he is probably a comedian. But whether he is funny or not is, as always, for you to judge (sorry if you have to blow this up to read it):

You’ll notice that I am the person who liked Mr. Tinman’s trademark sarcasm at the end there, because I was happy that it had stopped as well. So, anyway, maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so keen to have a go at Alan. But the broader point is that joking about terrible things that happens runs the risk of trivialising them – unless the joke has some carefully targetted weight behind it. And the more I think about it, the more I agree with the theory (Tony Allen’s theory, I think) that every joke does have a target, a victim, a butt of the joke. And if it isn’t clear who that target is – say, in the case or wordplay gags, etc – then you can assume that whatever subject is being joked about is the butt of the joke.

In the absence of a clear butt to Alan’s joke, we have to assume that he was making fun of both Amy Winehouse’s death and the victims of the Oslo killing. And that’s why Rob Collins is quite right to call him a fucking idiot.

Although Rob is wrong to say you can make a joke too soon. Because joking helps. I’ve laughed a lot at funerals. Sometimes it’s the only thing that works. What counts is how you do it, and what you mean by it.

I’m not saying that my joke was particularly brilliant; in a comedy club it wouldn’t get a big laugh, because to be honest it’s more political than it is funny. But I think it’s quite clear, in a subtle kind of way, that the butt of the joke is not the victims of the killing. The butt of my joke was the kind of politician who uses clashes of religious ideology as a means to go to war. In fact you couldn’t possibly say it’s too soon, because it’s really no more than a straightforward anti-Bush jibe – ten years too late. Oh – plus a small, equally dated swipe at Americans, which I’d quite like to take out now.

But once you’ve made a joke, you can’t take it back.

Sometimes – today especially – I wish I could.

hiatus

This blog is currently on hiatus.

That’s not to say it won’t be back soon. I know me, and as soon as I try to commit to a hiatus I’ll only start bloody writing again.

Still. There we are.

the new problem of what i will read at 2am

There are three reasons why I started writing a blog. The first was because (as anyone who has read this thing since the start will know) I am a pretty average comedian; but, it turns out, not too bad at writing about it.

The second reason was because I wanted to chart my comedic progress (particularly during Edinburgh). You probably already know how that went.

And the third was because of reading Andrew Watts’ blog. Which he has apparently now decided to pack in.

So I could be writing about anything this evening. I could write about the first ever Sussex University comedy night, which I basically had to organise from scratch and which finally went ahead on Monday to an audience of over a hundred; or about the Beckett project I’m working on; or about the ridiculous fact that some MPs are, without a hint of irony, claiming that it’s a bad thing for museums to exploit interns.

But I’d rather write about how sad I will be if Andrew never blogs again.

For a start, it’s the only way anyone ever seems to get any new material out of him. As a performer he’s quite unashamedly been doing the same first five minutes of stand-up for five years now, which is as long as both as us have been performing. I can’t even remember my first five.

In fairness, it’s a brilliant opening five and it’s got him into the kinds of paid work and competition finals that I’ve never got. (I mean, that might be because I have never really tried competitive stand-up – I loathe competitions on principle and never even bothered to enter So You Think You’re Funny or the Hackney Empire New Act Competition or most of the others, and even when I have entered competitions, I’ve always sabotaged my chances by using them to do totally new material about stupid things like Picasso and the BNP. Not good, solid stuff about women and cricket. But that’s not the point – the point is that one great joy of reading Andrew’s blog has been watching an act that I regard as relatively successful, harping on endlessly about Jack W****hall’s instant fame. I think I just liked knowing that even if I’d entered and been a multiple competition finalist and rising star like Andrew, it still wouldn’t actually make me happy…)

Also, I should say that I have disagreed with Andrew on almost every point of religious, cultural and party political principle that he’s written about. He doesn’t like Beckett and adores Julian Fellowes; he somehow thinks the Liberal Democrats are inherently racist and that if the slave trade were still happening now it would be the Tories leading the campaign against it; and he holds pretty much exactly the same High Anglican church values that I was brought up with, and found impossible to justify under even the tiny weight of my own teenage philosophical questioning, let alone the kind of properly empirical demands I’d try to make now.

And yet…he’s really funny. And smart. And I like the way he writes an awful lot. And his blog has conclusively proved the George Orwell thing about how you shouldn’t spend too much time around conservatives because you’ll only end up getting to like them.

Often, agreeing with the conclusions is kind of irrelevant. As always, the real content is in the style. And if nothing else, Andrew’s blog has taught me (of all people) that public-school-educated Christian Tories can be okay really – perhaps even decent, honest, intelligent people. And because of this, that blog has shifted my distain away from them, and onto the kind of small-minded party tribalists who still think that all Tories/Labour/LibDems/whatevers are stupid and evil.

So if it is true that Andrew is not going to blog any more, then I will miss Andrew’s blog. I will miss regularly learning new things about abolitionism. I will miss being woken up at 2am by email alerts from MySpace – MySpace, of all fucking things! – saying “Andrew Watts has posted a new blog!” And then reading it anyway. I will miss hearing about his successive glorious failures at pulling girls at gigs. I will miss getting day-by-day updates on the long-running narrative arc of how his mother is gradually becoming convinced that stand-up really is the right thing for him to be doing (and if this is true and not merely a literary device, she would be the only person still unconvinced in the country). I will even miss his little rants about how everyone shouldn’t hate Tories, especially now that, however much I hated their last budget or what they’ve done to the Lib Dems, I don’t hate them either…

So. Andrew. If you should read this (which I’m sure you will, because like all good stand-ups you are a terrible narcissist), then I want you to know that if you stop keeping a blog then it will be like The Archers just stopped. Certainly for me, and I have no doubt for a few others besides. And even when it’s boring, nobody wants that.

But if you’re definitely going to stop altogether, then, well…thank you.

And, um…can you like to come and do my Sussex University gig if it runs after Easter?

the things people call love

So it’s Valentine’s day and I’ve been thinking recently about the philosophy of love and friendship.

Soppy, huh? Not necessarily. Here’s what Nietzsche says:

The things people call love.— Greed and love: what different feelings these two terms evoke!—nevertheless it could be the same instinct that has two names… Our love of our neighbor—is it not a desire for new possessions? And likewise our love of knowledge, truth, and altogether any desire for what is new? Gradually we become tired of the old, of what we safely possess, and we stretch out our hands again; even the most beautiful scenery is no longer assured of our love after we have lived in it for three months, and some distant coast attracts our avarice: possessions are generally diminished by possession. Our pleasure in ourselves tries to maintain itself by again and again changing something new into ourselves,—that is what possession means. To become tired of some possession means: tiring of ourselves…Sexual love betrays itself most clearly as a desire for possession: the lover wants unconditional and sole possession of the person for whom he longs, he wants equally unconditional power over the soul and over the body of the beloved; he alone wants to be loved and desires to live and rule in the other soul as supreme and supremely desirable. If one considers that this means nothing less than excluding the whole world from a precious good, from happiness and enjoyment…then one comes to feel genuine amazement that this wild avarice and injustice of sexual love has been glorified and deified so much in all ages—indeed, that this love has furnished the concept of love as the opposite of egoism while it actually may be the most ingenuous expression of egoism.

At this point linguistic usage has evidently been formed by those who did not possess but desired,—probably, there have always been too many of these. Those to whom much possession and satiety were granted in this area have occasionally made some casual remark about “the raging demon,” as that most gracious and beloved of all Athenians, Sophocles, did: but Eros has always laughed at such blasphemers,—they were invariably his greatest favorites.

Here and there on earth we may encounter a kind of continuation of love in which this possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for possession, a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them: but who knows such love? Who has experienced it? Its right name is friendship.

Gay Science Aph.14

Good, huh?

Happy Valentines day, everybody! And extra-special love if I consider you my friend…