Dublin

10 things I think about Europe

Politics again. Sorry.

The debate on Europe is driving me mad, characterised as it is by myths and subjectivity and opportunism masquerading as facts and imperatives. I'm sitting on my hands watching each side characterise the other as hateful scare-mongerers while appearing blind to the excesses of their own camp.

So to get it out of my system, here are some things I believe about Europe. Like everyone else, some of these are evidence-based, and some just are:

1) The principle of being in Europe is more important than the problems with Europe. Joining with others in principles and endeavours that transcend individual nations is positive, and acts as a check on individual nations.

2) Europe is not something which is 'done to us', it's a collaboration we participate in, and help shape. We won't always get our own way - neither will anyone else - but we have a strong voice. We shape the laws. We win exemptions.

3) It is nonsense to say that World War Three looms imminently if we leave the EU (aka "Stay Off My Side, David Cameron"). It is not nonsense to say that the history of Europe prior to the creation of the EU was one of near-constant conflict and war, and that participating in the EU has been one of a number of key reasons why we have seen an era of much greater peace and stability. Unchecked separatism and nationalism can easily and rapidly sow the seeds of conflict. Even now the EU is straining against an upsurge in extreme right wing political parties and anti-immigrant sentiment.

4) Our locally elected MPs go to the central parliament where they have a local voice but where local interests are balanced against wider ones, and the elected democratic parliament is supported by a vast bureaucracy of unelected officials. But enough about the UK. Ahem.

5) Europe is almost certainly rife with compromise and inefficiency, but it is not actually Evil (like, say, FIFA) and is capable of being reformed. If we do rightly focus on European inefficiency we shouldn't cherry pick examples while ignoring the inefficiency inherent in our own political machinery.

6) EU membership is a net cost to the UK in terms of monies directly paid and directly received. On that level it's a drain on our resources. But membership of the EU only has to make the most marginal percentage improvement in the UK economic growth for the gain, year by year, to vastly outweigh the cost. Does it do that? It seems highly likely, but I can't say for certain. At the very least it's a low risk investment with the potential for an extremely high return.

7) Putting aside the fact that European migrants provably contribute more to our economy than they take out, leaving the EU might (unless we retain free movement) reduce a chunk of net migration. On that level, leaving the EU would help us "regain control" of our borders. But it would by no means be a magic bullet that would bring net migration down to zero.

8) There are clear and to some extent understandable worries about how immigration is changing our culture, a fear of cultural miscegenation in which national distinctiveness is perceived to be lost, or changed unrecognisably. But we easily forget that our perception of 'Britishness' has changed over time. Second and third generation immigrants aren't generally perceived as immigrants at all. They're just British. If they're white (like that extremely suspicious foreign influence Rick Stein) mainstream opinion doesn't give them a second glance. Our sense of Britishness has always accommodated and been enriched by infusions from other places.

9) The 'Out' campaign is not intrinsically racist, and many who are in favour of leaving the EU are not driven by immigration. But I think one consequence of a 'Brexit' will be to increase the UK's isolationism and feed racist views. I'd love to say that slightly curbing immigration would rob racism of oxygen, but in my view the tougher we talk and act on immigration the more strident and polarised our anti-immigration rhetoric becomes. Support for UKIP is often highest in the areas of lowest immigration, and right-wing debate on immigration is not notable for its relationship to facts. If we board up the windows, we'll only become obsessed with what's under the floorboards.

10) Whether we stay or leave, we'll never know for sure whether that decision had a causal effect on our future prosperity, or lack of it. But politicians will cheerfully blame everything on that decision. And it will be So. Damn. Aggravating.

(Follow-up blog)
selfie

Oh god he's talking about politics

I'm not really a Nick Robinson fan, but this slightly smug, waffly article summarises the obvious difficulty in talking knowledgeably about our future in or out of Europe. There are probably many reasons to leave the EU. There are many reasons to stay. Probably neither will be a disaster (though what do I know?) but amid the patent fear-mongering on all sides there's genuine inability to know what will happen until it happens. The many leaflets that have thumped onto my doormat are equally aggravating whether they are for or against EU membership; although on the plus side they're all pleasingly shiny and ideal for lining the cat litter tray.

I also don't like Mr Cameron or his tax affairs, but as with his support for gay marriage I do occasionally find that he deigns to agree with me. It's nice of him, I only wish he'd do it more often. I do worry that the meta-narrative about political machinations within the Conservative party - Boris and IDS making tactical moves, Cameron's future, whether tax payers should pay for Government leaflets - is a sly and effective distraction from the real issues. Journalists don't do it on purpose, but they just can't resist shop talk. A story about a story is so much more gossipy than a story about an actual thing. It's fine when there's nothing much at stake but right now there are bigger fish to fry. (There would be smaller fish to fry, but they're subject to a strict EU fishing quota). If this becomes a story about politics then people will treat it as a political issue. They'll vote 'Out' to punish Cameron, rather than because they have a view on the EU.

Personally I'm for staying in. You're amazed, I can tell. It's not because I feel 'European', really. Intellectually I know I'm European, but it's not my primary national identity. 'Europe' still intuitively means "that big bit of continent over there" and not "this little collection of islands that the BBC weather map persists in tipping at an alarming angle so that Scotland looks tiny".

But neither do I feel any animosity towards Europe. I like the idea of being part of something greater. I guess I don't know any different. I've pretty much always *been* part of it, and Europe hasn't blighted my life with its evil foreign ways. Mais non. I think it's quite telling that you can watch an episode of 'Yes, Minister' from 1981 and hear the exact same stereotypical worries about the EU and its alleged wacky laws. But here we are 35 years later and the sky hasn't fallen and Britain hasn't lost its Britishness. Far from it. If we really must define Britishness as a test of cultural purity then we're more pugnaciously xenophobia than we have been in years. Well done, British people.

But really, what do we mean by Britishness? Boris is no less Boris for 40 years spent in the EU. It hasn't made Iain Duncan Smith any less strident. I reject the seductive notion that Europe erodes our "sovereignty" - whatever that really means - as if any country can govern in perfect isolation from its neighbours and treaties and trade alliances and human migration and equality and rights for workers and basic human rights. Of course not. We have sovereignty over our own laws in every way that counts; we don't seem to have any difficulty in passing laws that tax the homeless for their spare pavement. We simply subscribe to international common principles - both within the EU and in parallel with it - because it makes sense.

It's very easy to talk about isolationism in terms that make it sound noble and patriotic. You can picture Jim Hacker drifting into his Churchill impression. But Churchill was an architect of a United Europe, and I think it's a very grown-up, civilised thing to be part of a wider society of nations. We can be ourselves and still accept that there are limits on the way you can behave and still get to participate in the world. There's no reason I can see to feel that being part of Europe diminishes us. It might even make us greater.
Dublin

Random musings on gender

Last week I entered the communal kitchen at work to find two female colleagues discussing how useless men are at keeping the house tidy. One said that despite being at home all day her partner never lifted a finger to clean the place and argued that he didn't know how to use the vacuum cleaner. She in riposte had written him a guide to using the vacuum cleaner, with instructions coded in the colours of his favourite footbal teams.

Last month I went to the local sports centre to sign our 6 year old daughter Anna up for swimming lessons. The lady behind the counter was genuinely surprised that, as a man, I knew my own daughter's birth date and felt the need to congratulate me on this amazing feat.

I don't know if I'm just a very unusual man who doesn't conform to gender stereotypes. Maybe so. I don't think my wife would mind me saying that I do the majority of the tidying, cleaning and cooking in our household. She does plenty of other things, we strike a balance, and everything gets done. We just don't divide our labours down the traditional gender lines. (Also I don't like football, but that's a separate matter.)

I wonder if this 'lad' culture still exists, where masculinity is somehow defined by a lack of interest in your own children or household (or, indeed, anything but football). Are other blokes really like this? Do they just play up to this stereotype because it's a free pass to be lazy? Is it that domestic chores are still seen as women's work, so men distance themselves from it for fear of looking less masculine? This is surely what's behind the child's birth date example: that the need to know your child's birthday is primarily domestic, with the mother expected to arrange and the father expected to... show up. (Unless it clashes with football.)

Do some women even play up to this stereotype because as toxic as gender roles can be they're also reassuring, a source of shared identity and camaraderie? Because otherwise I can't see why any woman would put up with a partner who acted in such a fundamentally selfish way. Are these men secretly contributing to household chores in other, un-grumbled-about ways that I don't hear about?

I'm probably overthinking something that's partly just harmless banter. Maybe we fall into these shorthand ways of griping about the opposite sex without really buying into them. We know it's not the whole story, but we say it anyway, slotting our relationship grievances into neatly gendered boxes. If so it's fascinating the extent to which people play their expected roles in polite conversation, adopting banal positions, marking time with small talk.

I just don't recognise this cultural portrait of a husband and father. It perplexes me that I'm so far out of step from, what? The norm? The perceived norm? Does everyone else feel the same way? I know many women chafe at traditional gender roles and with far more cause than my vague sense of peevish alienation. As adults we're all affected by the social norms we absorb through our upbringing and the degree to which we identify, conform or rebel. There's also the degree to which we're even aware of gender roles as culturally imposed rather than genetically hardwired, and there I'm sure education plays a part.

I suspect I'm traditionally blokey in other ways (like being useless at remembering things my wife has asked me to do - sorry wife!) I guess all I'm getting at is that, no matter how much I think I'm learning about gender, sometimes I still get forcibly reminded that our society is profoundly gendered. The roles we expect men to play are inextricably bound up with (or in opposition to) the roles we expect women to play. And, day to day, we all collaborate in keeping it that way. I didn't even argue with the woman at the sports centre. I sort of grunted non-committally. I chipped in on the example of the partner not cleaning, but what can I really say? Hey, I do the cleaning in our house. I can't tell that woman her experience is false. I'm just interested in how true it is more generally.

(Disclaimer: Obviously the above implicitly assumes heterosexual relationships, since that's the context in which the issues came up. This may all differ with sexual orientation. Or class. Or country. Or degree of geekiness, for all I know.)
Dublin

Dublin 2019

It's all Emma's fault. She was the one who asked me last year if I'd like to contribute some artwork to help promote Dublin's bid to host WorldCon in 2019. So I did.

I've continued to produce more promotional artwork for them , which they've been very kind about. I'm really enjoying making some art where there's a defined audience beyond just entertaining myself and my family. God knows how they'll end up using it!

I'd put myself firmly in the 'amateur' camp when it comes to producing pieces like these but I feel like I'm learning and developing just through the process of trying to make them varied and more... professional in style.  In particular, colouring my own pen-and-ink drawings is not something I've done before, but I've been experimenting with photoshop and figuring out how to apply digital colours and layer my own painted textures.

The Dublin bid team have just done a lovely feature about me on their website, which features an interview and lots of my artwork to boot:

http://dublin2019.com/an-comhra-the-chat-with-iain-clarke/

Thanks Emma!

Sandman

Tom McRae - Did I Sleep And Miss The Border

This is not just a return to a full band sound from Tom McRae but a real sit-up-and-shake-the-cobwebs attempt at reinvention.

McRae's previous release, From The Lowlands, distilled his introspection down to 48% proof; both lyrically and musically pared to the bone and at times painfully raw. It also felt like part of a slow spiral away from the mainstream that seemed in danger of ending in an album of the singer busking in an underpass.

Refreshingly this new release is a big, percussive, even - dare I say it? - commercial album. Certainly the raft of 4 star reviews from the mainstream music press might stir some hope. There's plenty of angst here, and darkness, but it's largely directed outwards rather than inwards, into fables of soaring despair, futile hope, and richly crashing instruments. There's a sense of McRae (and band) experimenting musically and vocally. The opening track, "The High Life", is almost off-puttingly delivered in an Old West leer that sets a mood of ominous americana. The rest of the album wisely sees McRae's pure voice used more traditionally, but there remains a ragged quality at times that suits the emotion. These are tales of people driven to the edge of existence; when he wails "I am lost now" over and over in "The Dogs Never Sleep" it's hard to disbelieve him.

That's not to say the album doesn't deliver variety. From the ballad of "Christmas Eve, 1943" to the spare "Let Me Grow Old With You" to the propulsive pop protest of "We Are The Mark" it's a diverse and rewarding set of songs.

It's also far from a complete departure for McRae, with seeds of americana and musical experimentation evident in 'The Alphabet of Hurricanes' and 'Just Like Blood', but there's an energy and purpose here that belies the apocalyptic themes.

At only nine tracks the album could perhaps use one more killer tune. A tune, perhaps, like the thundering single "What A Way To Win A War" or the joyous "The Breeze Blows Cold", both relegated to the companion disk 'The Buzzard Tree Sessions'. Artistically they might be at odds with the feel of the album, but in terms of quality they're every bit its equal.
Sandman

Tomorrow's Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction

So part 1 of the BBC2 Tomorrow's Worlds documentary on SF basically ticked all the most obvious boxes (but in a more or less random order - quite bewilderingly so at times). It barely touched on written SF except as source material for movies. Which is fair enough if it's aiming to be a history of visual SF, but it doesn't confine itself to TV and movies, which leaves it feeling scattershot. Kudos for mentioning and at least partly discussing Left Hand of Darknesss and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, though.

It was entertaining enough, and with some prestigious talking heads, but for the most part it felt like an extremely well-trodden way to make some fairly unambitious observations about SF. It was also prone to sweeping generalisations such as how no novel prior to the Mars trilogy had ever been so meticulously detailed, no film prior to 2001 had ever been so conceptually ambitious, nothing prior to Avatar had ever realised an alien ecosystem, which seemed prone to counter-argument.

Also on a more trivial note I'd have preferred it if, when talking about the NASA images of Mars that inspired KSR, we saw those NASA images - or at least ones from that era - not a random slideshow of images of Mars from all eras of exploration. Similarly, why stick a picture from Star Trek IV into a discussion of Star Trek II? Why use the remastered CGI version of the original Star Trek opening credits?

I'll stick with the rest of the series, but my expectations are suitably lowered.
Sandman

Doctor Who - Listen

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I wasn't meaning to write reviews of Doctor Who this year, but bits of these spiky, slightly experimental episodes keep sticking in my head. After the romp to end all romps that was 'Robot of Sherwood' (huge fun but yes, please could that end all romps now?) 'Listen' is a very different affair, and it's got me pondering again. On Capaldi's Doctor. On whether Clara is well-written. And on whether Steven Moffat can write.

You know, stuff.

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Sandman

My LonCon, Part Deux

imageI shared my immediate emotional reaction to LonCon3 a few weeks ago. I think the moment has now passed for blogs about LonCon, but since I seem to shed neurons like other people shed skin cells, if I don't write down some specifics I know it'll get lost forever. For my own reference, then, if no-one else's, here's My LonCon, Part Deux.

We couldn't get a cheap hotel near the venue so stayed in Travelodge London Bank in the middle of London. We originally wanted to stay in a Japanese Coffin Hotel but fancied a smaller room. BOOM. It was bijou, is all I'm saying. Also about as hot as midday on Mercury.

Me and TardisLonCon was about 20 minutes on the Docklands Light Railway, with a change of trains halfway, so that was fine. When we got there the registration queue of which we had heard Terrible Things had vanished. That's the nice thing about arriving after lunch. Pausing only for vital business like chatting to Alison, Nic, Abigail and Emma and standing in front of a Tardis, we jumped straight into our first panel.

imageOver the next three days we didn't get into everything we wanted, but we did pretty well, and a good half of the panels I saw were very stimulating. The other half ranged from pleasant-but-unsurprising to frustratingly stalled discussions. Fortunately the panel I participated in was one of the enjoyable ones. (At least from our perspective. Who knows what the audience made of it.)

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An amazing experience.