Archive for March, 2011

Hidden tragedies, hidden truths (because, in literary criticism, the truth is *always* where you put it)


This is more than usually not-completely serious. At least, for such a dark topic, it comes in from an overly sunny backwards angle, with a cheek full of tongue. It gets more serious later, but it doesn’t qualify for the role of a “useful resource” so be warned. By way of all the apology you’re getting, I’ve scattered the latter half of the post with semi-random helpful links, just in case it sets you thinking. Stick with them for the genuine advice; stay here if you’re well-enough off that you can afford the luxury of me amusing myself with a sort-of thought experiment in misusing critical thinking.

Benefits of listening to Jack? It’s better than a poke in the eye. And we don’t repeat a single song in the workday– Jack FM.

Disadvantages: sometimes they play things that suck (they just do it a lot less than some what I could mention). So it was that today I got stuck listening to Kate Nash’s Foundations again. Which has always struck me as a soulless, naïve sort of a song. In the event you’ve happily skipped it, you can catch up with it here:

See? I’m pretty sure I ain’t copping any blame for thinking that was staggeringly shallow. Holding onto the cracks? What good is that meant to do, you inflectionless moron?

…Or so I thought. But then I realised I wasn’t listening closely enough: it’s not just holding onto cracks, but specifically, the cracks in our [relationship’s] foundations. Which begs the question, ‘what good is that meant to do, you inflectionless moron?’

Answer: none at all. On account of this isn’t the shallow pap initially suggested by the surface tone of the song, but is actually quite a clever piece about someone trapped in an abusive relationship.

If this comes as no surprise at all, I apologise, but you need to understand that my reaction to Remains of the Day was something like ‘Yay Stevens! Nuts to Miss Kenton, she’s a disloyal flake, and you’re better off without the feckless cow. Better to go back home and see if you can’t train that slacker Faraday to behave in a manner more befitting! “Banter” indeed…’ Which, they tell me, slightly misses the point somehow… .

Anyway, I offer that by way of demonstrating that I generally show too much faith to notice an unreliable narrator on the first couple of passes, and it took me several encounters with the song to realise that the narrator is not the wronged woman she claims, but is a manipulative and vicious sociopath. It’s very well done, I’ve got to say. The hints are there, but you have to separate them from the backdrop of imagined injuries the narrator thrusts to the fore of her narrative.

At this point it’s also worth noting the delivery of the song, which remains static throughout the tale: short, broken sentences, delivered in an almost always level, consistent voice. This is a narrator working hard to control the story they’re telling, carefully regulating the words they offer us, even at the expense of their fluidity of expression. In itself, this is disturbing; it’s not the watchfulness of someone struggling to frame their words through their emotions, but of someone carefully taking notes of how she covers each event. More alarming, though, is the subtext to that coverage, which is what I’d like to focus on, because the surface deceit speaks well enough for itself.

Let’s examine the first stanza for a moment:

Thursday night, everything’s fine, except you’ve got that look in your eye /
when I’m tellin’ a story and you find it boring /
you’re thinking of something to say. /
You’ll go along with it then drop it and humiliate me /
in front of our friends. /
Then I’ll use that voice that you find annoyin’ and say something like /
“yeah, intelligent input, darlin’, why don’t you just have another beer then?” /
Then you’ll call me a bitch and everyone we’re with will be embarrassed, /
and I wont give a shit.

Not quite an average night out. Our narrator and her nameless partner are somewhere – most likely in a pub, although the reconstructed vision in the music video confines us to a significantly domestic setting – with some friends, and she is telling an anecdote. He listens along, thinking of ways he can add to the conversation. When she has finished speaking (after he has “gone along with it”) he “drops in” his contribution. Note that we do not know what this contribution is, only that the narrator feels “humiliated”.

I suggest that, in the absence of any indicators to the contrary, the narrator is humiliated because the focus of conversation has moved away from her. She told this story, the focus should be on her! Not on her partner, but on her, always her. (The video, you’ll note, continues this theme, barely showing us the partner at all: the focus is always on the narrator, or on inanimate objects stop-motioned into puppetry to support her narrative). Self-centred as our narrator is, the only way she can retrieve the focus in this specific instance is to belittle her partner, and so she mocks him, not only his immediate conversational input, but also his aspirations to further participation in her social activities.

He retaliates, attempting to put her down in a reflexive response to the genuine humiliation and hurt she has dealt him: he calls her a bitch. Like any normal people, the friends are embarrassed. We can take it as read that the narrator’s partner is embarrassed – humiliated again – as an immediate consequence of his misguided attempt to assert himself but “she won’t give a shit”. It isn’t that she is oblivious to the awkwardness, but that she does not care about the welfare and comfort of her friends.

The syntax is significant, here: we move from a narrative account of what will happen (“You are thinking”, “You will go along,” I will use that voice”) to a sudden negation (“I will not give a shit”). The change is unexpected and jarring, just as her (lack of) reaction is unexpected and jarring. Subtly, the narrator has placed herself outside of both the cultural and narrative norms. Beyond that, the assertion “won’t” has its own significance, since it implies not a lack of ability (can/cannot) but a lack of capacity (will/will not): the payoff isn’t there, and so her friend’s comfort is not worth her time or effort.

I want to skip over the chorus at this point, because I think it deserves separate examination of its own. Instead, let’s take a look at the second stanza:

You said I must eat so many lemons ’cause I am so bitter. /
I said “I’d rather be with your friends mate ’cause they are much fitter.” /
Yes, it was childish and you got aggressive, and I must admit that I was a bit scared
but it gives me thrills to wind you up.

This is a significant break from the rhythm of the main narrative: the accusation of bitterness has genuinely got to the narrator, and she unconsciously emphasises her riposte “fitter” and also lets slip a key clue to her motives: “it gives [her] thrills” to treat her partner in this way.

Again, there’s a tension between the surface presentation of events and what’s actually happening – a constant theme of the song, continually re-enforced in the accompanying video, with it’s ongoing undertones of physical violence; acts of hand-slapping, arm-wrestling, shadow-boxing and foot-kicking that are never referenced through the narrator’s voice,  but which we see her initiate from the corner of her mind’s eye as she reconstructs reality around our listening ear.

Notice that whilst the lyrics claim the partner got aggressive, “scaring” our narrator, actual detail on the aggression is scant. In such a litany of woe, is this not surprising? The narrator is more than happy to list every other fault her partner has, so why shy away so quickly from details of his aggression? More than that, why is she “a bit scared” by this aggression? One would expect mid-argument aggression to be genuinely scary, not merely “a bit” scary, otherwise it would not be particularly memorable (especially in such a dysfunctional, hostility-prone relationship as the narrator happily admits this to be).

I suggest the only reason is not that the aggression did not happen, but that it was not ‘aggression’ in the way the word is normally used. Rather it is assertion: ‘Why don’t you, then?’ he may have said, or ‘I don’t care – if you don’t love me, I should leave you anyway.’ Once we have realised her barbs have caused him to become assertive, her fear makes sense: she does not become ‘a bit scared’ because of aggression, but because she can see her control of her partner momentarily – and only temporarily – slip. Again, our narrator cannot abide the loss of control, and so her ongoing need for control is at one and the same time the reason for her fear, and also for the minimal nature of it. She is scared, but only a bit: the loss of control frightens her ego, but she remains confident that her control of her partner is stronger than the little will to fight she has left him, and that confidence mutes not only her fear,  but  also her partner, whom she carefully deprives of speech from hereon.

Indeed, as her partner’s voice is carefully edited out of the narrative, so does the narrator become more aggressive; the slight glimpses of her violent nature we have seen so far begin to give way to actual neglect, as in the third and final verse:

Your face is pasty ’cause you’ve gone and got so wasted, what a surprise. /
Don’t want to look at your face ’cause it’s makin’ me sick. /
You’ve gone and got sick on my trainers, I only got these yesterday. /

Oh, my gosh, I cannot be bothered with this. /

Well, I’ll leave you there ’till the mornin’, and I purposely wont turn the heating on /
and dear God, I hope I’m not stuck with this one.

Here we see the narrator shift responsibility away from herself. I do not object to accepting that he “has gone” and got drunk (the nature of the narrator’s sociopathic tendancy seems to be towards the embellishment of facts in her favour, rather than towards their complete fabrication), but notice how his desire to drink excessively is presented in a vacuum, divorced from their relationship. Indeed, it only becomesrelevant to the narrator when he is sick on her trainers (although whether as a genuine accident or as his last subconscious act of defiance we will never know).

Her reaction (predictably) is both disproportionate and chilling. Since her partner has been sick she cannot pretend that his drunkenness is not serious, but rather than seeking to make him as comfortable as she can (whether by helping him to the bathroom, or by offering him a glass of water) she instead seeks to make him uncomfortable, leaving him where he is and “purposely” not turning on the heating – implying both the deliberation put into the weighing-up of her actions, and the purpose (of punishing him) with which she neglects his wellbeing.

Far, far, darker is the closing line of the verse, “Dear God, I hope I’m not stuck with this one”. On the surface, perhaps we could yet be persuaded that this is a cry for help, from a woman who wants out of her relationship, but somehow can’t effect an exit. But that doesn’t fit with the rest of her attitude, which even on the surface level paints her as an assertive person (for example, the deliberate antagonism of “that voice” and the childish taunting about his “fitter” friends, which fail to support the theory she is the cowed member of the relationship).

That leaves us with three basic options: that she hopes to drive him away (again, shunning responsibility for her actions), that she’s hoping to snare another man behind his back, and then throw him out (but in the meantime, she is willing to risk getting “stuck” for the security and control of an ongoing relationship, in contrast to the uncertain, uncontrolled chaos of being ‘single and looking’) or – in an interpretation far more fantastic, but still not particularly out of character – that he will quietly die in the night, choking to death unheeded, in a freezing mire of his own sick.

Disturbing indeed. About the only thing remaining is the chorus, and that’s where things get really interesting, and the narrator allows a faint chink of humanity to glimmer through her workaday sadism:

My fingertips are holding onto /
The cracks in our foundation /
And I know that I should let go, but I can’t /
And every time we fight, I know it’s not right /
Every time that you’re upset and I smile /
I know I should forget, but I can’t.

The first two lines of the chorus are what clued me into the real meaning of this song, because nobodywould hold onto a crack in a foundation. A foundation, as any fule kno, is the underlying structure which exists to hold up something much bigger than itself. A well-built foundation will spread the load of the building above, ensuring that all of the weight is distributed downwards, and helpfully provide stability to the whole structure, even if part of the foundations cover a patch of bad or unstable ground. Foundations might crack, and this is a cause for concern, but the solution to cracking foundations is to patch them up again, not break out your finest Dutchboy impression.

Thus the only reason to stick your fingernails into the cracks would be to agitate the bears pry the cracks open wider. That, and the hidden-in-plain-sight viciousness of smiling at her partner’s misery, is what helped me to realise what a horrible bitch the narrator is. Once you revisit the song on that understanding, it’s pretty obvious that the narrator is lying through her teeth the whole time.

Brilliantly, Nash casts us, the unknown listener, in the role of the narrator’s boyfriend, forcing the casual listener to dole out sympathy when the actions she ascribes to us trigger unease: we are so busy thinking how awful it would be if we treated our partners as her boyfriend ‘does’ that we do not stop to make a closer investigation of the facts.

And yet, Nash wants us to find the narrator out, and invests her with just the faintest glimmer of self-awareness: “I know that I should let go, but I can’t“. She knows this is wrong, that normal people do not treat their partners in this way, but she literally can’t help herself. Even though she knows herself to be at fault, she still inflicts misery on her boyfriend, because she is incapable of anything else. Abusers do not change, even when they express awareness and contrition.

(Usually. What I mean is ‘abusers rarely change,’ but that reduces the impact of the preceding line. Since this is actually important, however, I’m sacrificing narrative pace for the dissemination of more accurate information).

The whole song is brilliant, because it works on so many levels, with a different message to each level.

  • On the surface, it appears to tell of a woman trapped in a loveless partnership, which may even be abusive. (See all the little ways in which abuse grinds her down)
  • On closer viewing, we realise that she is the abuser (If you suspect someone is in an abusive relationship, do not let their partner speak for them).
  • Which means her boyfriend is the victim (Men can also be victims of domestic violence at the hands of male or female partners. When this happens, it is harder for them to be heard – qv the assumption we made in the first bullet point)

The video is even cleverer: the narrator packs her suitcase, takes a last look around the flat, and leaves. As the door closes, the camera remains static and we see the poster on the back of the door: “Don’t Fall For This” – suggesting, on the first level, that the poster is what the narrator thinks (ie, do not fall into the trap of a loveless or abusive relationship), but actually possessing three other meanings: firstly, do not fall for the lies this abuser has told you, secondly, do not fall for someone like this, and thirdly, do not fall for the perception that domestic abuse only affects women.

Originally a health & safety poster, the message "Don't fall for this" becomes brilliantly dual-edged in the closing frames of the music video

As a guerrilla awareness campaign, I’ve got to say Foundations is genius. From showcasing the subtle digs that together form a pattern of emotional abuse, to the pattern of escalation and the parallel silencing of the abused boyfriend and the sudden jolt you get when you realise that all you’ve heard so far is a lie designed to protect the narrator from her lack of control (and the subsequent questions that might raise about other couples you know) the whole song forms a brilliantly subtle protest against domestic abuse.

Even sweeter, is the way it is disguised as a mirror of itself: it sounds like a song about an abusive relationship – and it is – but you were looking in the wrong place. That, above all, elevates Foundations to the level of genuine Art, with the screamingly hidden message we should all be aware of, and willing to speak out against, domestic abuse, in all of its forms.

So, there you go, the true meaning of Foundations. You’d have thought people would have clocked it already, except I expect most people have better things to do than sit around stubbornly over-interpreting a fleeting scrap of quasi-popular culture until it breaks. Which is a shame, because it’s actually quite fun. (Plus, if the profiling doesn’t pan out, I won’t need more than another couple of posts like this to get myself a snazzy book deal with Cambridge Scholars some publisher of unconsidered trifles…)

Hm. A post that ended up feeling heavier than it should have been, probably. But, genuinely, I think it’s a good song for the above reasons (because even thought it’s probably not what Nash thought it was saying, it’s what it could be saying, and that works pretty well. ‘s the magic of –Criticism and Interpretation, that is).

Still, by way of some light relief, here is a funny comic about domestic abuse, which Dan shared a week or so back…

An excellent pun, based on Boromir's line in the film version of LoTR

Oh, and on a barely related note, can I just say how very impressed I was by the Boss Button over at both the Scottish Women’s Aid and the ManKindwebsites? Someone’s put genuine thought into the possibility a viewer might seriously need to GTFO of those in a hurry, and I really like the way they took the trouble to make it as easy and obvious as they could, rather than relying on their having a high enough agility stat to Alt-Tab before the door’s fully open. Nice work.

Generic Racism

An interesting argument appears to have sprung up over the lack of black people in Midsommer Murders, which as far as I can tell is an excellent object lesson in not waving complicated concepts around without the technical skill to get the words right.

Producer Brian True-May told Radio Times ‘We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved, because it wouldn’t be the English village with them,’ trusted everyone to take careful note of the wording, and described his show as the ‘last bastion of Englishness’ on television. Evidently, people didn’t look at the words as much as they might have, because his comments are now generating all manner of entertaining huffiness, particularly from Omar Khan, and this guy who slightly undermines his comments by getting the name of the series’ lead character wrong. (In the interests of fairness, however, here is a much better reasoned examination of the interview from Hannah Pool).

Indeed, there was a rather stupid man on Today this morning – who disappointingly turned out to be Ash Atalla, the man who produced IT Crowd and Man Stroke Woman, and of whom I previously had a relatively high opinion – who was under the impression that 1) True-May was being horribly offensive to everyone, but that 2) it didn’t matter, because only old people like that show anyway, and that doesn’t matter because 3) they hate change, but soon they’ll all die.

Which misses the point so spectacularly that I suspected he must have been trolling, before I realised he was just being a patronising buffoon: “It’s aimed at a much older audience than me” was one of the gems in there. (Since this is coming from a man in his late thirties, I choose to retaliate by invoking the right of the twenty-something and describe him as a silly old fart who doesn’t understand what young people like.)

The point isn’t that ‘old people like Midsommer, and of course they don’t like to see black people, because they’re all racists who will die soon,’ but that the people in Midsommer don’t live (or die horribly) in a world with minorities in it. Personally, I would have thought that Midsommer’s unerring talent to rack up three dead bodies in the first half hour was a pretty good clue that it’s all made up, but apparently it isn’t quite good enough.

This bugs me because it implies there are a large number of people who seem happier to complain about the racism in a TV show than to understand the context in which the TV show is working. This is not a helpful way to argue anything; go down that road and you end up calling Saint Augustine an evil mysoginistic bastard because he claimed that a female foetus got its soul later than a male one, and also he never said that all women should have unfettered access to family planning provision. (Certainly he did claim the former, and it’s true he never said the latter, but we’re talking about a man from more than 1,600 years ago, and we’re determined to use that against him rather than taking the time to judge him in his own context).

I do think it should be noted then, that as far as I know True-May is not a loathesome racist scumbag, but a simple harmless chump who fails to treat words like the loaded weapons they are. He doesn’t mean – and did not say – an English village, but the English Village.

An English village = A village in England.

The English Village = The Rough Outline of a Village You Can See In Your Head When Told Someone You’ve Never Met Lives in An English Village.

And, more importantly,

The English Village ≠ An English village.

In a similar way, the term ‘Chinese Medicine’ is not used to conjure up the image of An Zhen Hospital. Instead it is used to conjures up the image of a friendly man sticking needles into your back so that your headache will go away. You could refer to one of the world’s leading lung transplant centres when you talk about wanting some ‘Chinese Medicine’, and you could use the phrase ‘the English Village’ to discuss the price of beer in the pub in Biddenden, but it’s not the first thing to which the signifier directs you. (Note that it is not a racist act to hear the term “Chinese Medicine” and think of the meaning ‘Old man with needles,’ although if you deliberately thought him into a Limehouse Opium Den, wearing a nehru silk jacket, and grinning wickedly as he stroked his Fu Manchu mustache, then it would probably become a racist act.)

We’re not talking of a given village, but of the idea of a village, the hazy concept that started to form a little after someone built one hut opposite another hut, but before Tesco arrived to buldoze all the cows and open a new store to compliment their out-of-town hypermarket.

That being the case, it’s not surprising that The English Village is exclusively white. For one thing, many actual villages are exclusively white, (because metropolitan areas naturally change their makeup faster than the sticks, and have more housing and more opportunities that encourage migrants to gravitate towards them), and for another The English Village is already a solidly established mental image.

It’ll vary from person to person, based on what villages they’ve spent their time near, but imagine an English Village. I need you to imagine it, because I want you to play a minor role in my upcoming stage adaptation of A Murder Is Announced, and I want you to get a feel for the role of the shocked householder discussing the advertisment with your neighbour as you stand in the garden.

(Not a big role, sure, but you come on right after the curtain rises, and it’s how we learn that an anonymous person rang the local paper and placed a classified ad to announce that a murder will happen later today, so it’s important we set the tone for the audience).

I believe that the majority of people, will find themselves imagining The English Village at this point. It might be very close to their village, if they live in one, but there’ll be elements drafted in from elsewhere to fill the gaps.

It’s probably got one bank, in solid yellow stone. Similar stone, albeit more roughly-hewn, makes up the drystone walls that hold back the blooming lilac trees in the perfectly tended gardens of the thatch cottages down Old Mill Road. A postman has leant his bicycle against a tree, down that way, and in the opposite direction are the two pubs, one of which fronts directly onto the Village Green, and lies directly opposite the stout square walls of the churchyard. The small local school will have been built around 1870, but it’s once garish red-tile roof has aged well, and almost compliments the new row of houses thrown up when the village expanded in the late 80s. There’s a 50% chance there will be a small river, with a narrow stone bridge over it, opposite the phone box, and there’s probably one greengrocer, a small independent newsagents, and a post office. These days there is unlikely to be a railway station, but before it was converted to a private dwelling under the Beeching Axe (which the older inhabitants still resent) it was the one you’ll recognise from Christmas cards, with a big green steam engine puffing away behind the red-faced carol singers on platform 2. And you don’t imagine more than three cars as your brain walks around it, because there isn’t a place for them in the picture, except perhaps outside the pub, and a small delivery van by the grocer’s.

That’s The English Village. It isn’t any one English village (although when I fill in all the pictures in description I can identify sources from at least five different villages I’ve known.) It’s a hybrid, pieced together to fit the genre of an Agatha Christie country-house murder, and for that reason, it’s bound by the limitations of its genre. In that sense, True-May’s right: about the only place for an ethnic face in the conceptual makeup of The English Village is during the 1920s and 30s, and she is the plump cook who works for the Ffinches up at the Big House.

Fiction just works like that. People write stories and we morph the framework to fit the words before us, until the picture looks right in our head. Brian True-May has a harder job than that, because he’s trying to put the picture into everyone’s head. And, because our brains automatically hide the joins from us, nobody really noticed everyone was white until he said so (although it probably helps that Midsommer is quite South Oxfordshire-y, which by 2001 data is 98% White British).

The English Village doesn’t have a monopoly here: I think Philip Marlowe encountered the occasional black man (never in a major role, of course) but 1920s California was a different setting (and even then, I don’t think he ever saw any Latinos or Orientals, though strictly speaking the mean streets should have been bursting with ’em). In the same way, Midsommer is not a fictional county where you will see Asians running shops, because all of the shops are built out of the same fabric as they used in the backdrop for St. Mary Mead, and that means Master Green the Grocer’s Son is getting ready to be the seventh generation of his family to keep his thumb on the scales.

The flip side of this is that whilst Midsommer Murders could just about be transported to Newport, it could never be transported to Hadley, or anywhere based on it. But, then, it couldn’t be transported to Miami, either, or to the ruins of Berlin in 1945. Stories are set somewhere, and you can’t just pull them out of their context and hope they’ll make sense. So Hard Times is never going to work if you decided to set it in Machynlleth, because it requires a grinding industrial hell, not an airy hippy town. Life on Mars wouldn’t work in a Midsommer setting, either, because whilst they’re both detective shows, they’re different kinds of detective shows. Swap Morse and Rebus’ beats, and they’d be left picking their teeth out of the gutter on the Royal Mile. Or copping off with the woman who did it before going home to listen to classic 70s rock albums over a takeaway from the Cowley Road. It wouldn’t work, and it’s not meant to.

It’s not wrong to present a story in it’s own setting, nor to be honest about what that setting is in the event that people haven’t noticed. What that means is that whilst there’s no reason that a character in Midsommer shouldn’t be from an ethinic minority, it isn’t necessary for the story to sit right. It can be done, and people wouldn’t notice if there were a black or asian character in their contemporary village murder-fest, but their presence or absence doesn’t affect the nature of the story or the setting (unless someone decides to do an episode centred on a racist killing, which would be far too gritty for the general ethos of the show), and in fiction it’s the story and the setting that are important. In that situation, it’s entirely reasonable that there hasn’t been such a character, because one doesn’t expect to see people from the ethnic minorities in The English Village. In an actual English village, sure, but not in the ethereal concept of one. One doesn’t expect to see jobless and impoverished Algerian nationals scraping by on the streets of Paris The City of Light, either, but there are plenty of them living in the suburbs of the real Paris, the one they keep in France, out of sight of the Hollywood cameramen.

The thing about genre concepts is we all carry them with us. It bugs me when people forget that, because it seems to be such an essential part of storytelling that it isn’t fair to ignore it when it suits you. And people are ignoring it when it suits them: if they’d really been bothered that the fictional death-raddled villages of Midsommer were unrepresentative of Britain as a whole, they’d have pointed out that there weren’t any black characters at some point in the past fourteen years, instead of waiting for the producer to tell them so, and then loudly condemning him for being out of touch with what Britain really looks like.

It’s OK that we didn’t notice, guys. We’re people, and we pattern match, and we see what we expect to see. ‘s the magic of fiction (and, as it happens, the magic of magic, too). It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, and it doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should take your guilt out on him so that we can all see how very not racist you are.

Anyway, he’s the closest we’ve got to a celebrity round here, and he’s offered to give a speech to open the Jumble Sale in the Village Hall this Thursday, so leave him alone and help me put up this bunting, will you?

Counting for Something

Hooray, the Census is here! This is dead exciting, I love the Census. Mainly for its secondary purpose of “getting released to the public in a hundred years” rather than for the mass co-ordination of data the Government needs in order to best plan which public services are next on the tumbril, I’ll admit, but it’s still dead exciting.

Speaking as only the third or fourth generation of my family that’s actually been able to write their own answers to the census, as opposed to getting the recorder to stand in the doorway marking things down on their behalf, I love this stuff. I get to say that I’ve got a job, and a car, and a seven-room house, and everything. This is a massive step up on the 2001 census, when I was a waster student providing naff all in the way of exciting data for future generations to work things out from. I always find it very reassuring to be leaving a trail of handy pebbles for future generations to work from. No need to go making their lives difficult, at least.

On which note, speaking as future generation of my family, now seems like a reasonable time to point to the 1911 census. In 1911, my great-grandmother appears as Jessie Elizabeth Talbot, a resident of Aqualate Hall:

Aqualate Hall, taken some time in the 1900s

At 31 rooms, I’ve got to say it’s a bit of a step up on Earth, but odds are pretty good they didn’t have a car, so I guess it might balance out.  It’s actually only a little way out of Newport, where the bulk of my family ended up, but I’ve never been there, so I’ve no idea what it was actually like a hundred years back.

Actually, that’s not true, I know a little about what it was like in 1911. I suspect it wasn’t truly a 31-room house for a start; the above photo was taken some time prior to 1910, at which point the place burned down, and ended up looking quite… tired.

The ruined shell of the main building

I believe the stables and a few outbuildings survived, but the rest of it was left to decay for a while, before getting knocked down and eventually rebuilt in around 1927.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about that is that even with the building in the state it was in 1911, my great-grandmother was still living there, along with a handful of other staff, including a butler and gardener. This begs the question of where the Bougheys, who actually owned the place were staying. All very well shoving my great-granny in the stable block, but I can’t imagine actual rich people living like that.

That said, I imagine Jessie will have been relatively made up about whatever accommodation she was in, because it can’t possibly have been as cramped as her parents’ house, which apparently housed eight people in six rooms, which is not anything like enough rooms per person. (But then I’m entirely capable of feeling crowded when I’m one of two people in a warehouse, so I might be projecting a bit there.)

Meanwhile, over in Bedwellty, my maternal great-grandfather had thirteen people in six rooms, which is even worse. Although to be fair one of those was the three-month old Ida Margaret, so it wasn’t always that bad.

Even so, I have increased gratitude for the forthcoming size of New Earth, which gives us three floors to spread ourselves over, and thus greatly increases the chances that we’ll all make it to the 2021 Census in a fit state to declare that we have no serious disabilities, eg, having our legs chopped off.

(On a side note, I find myself mildly amused by the gentle schism that seems to have opened up between those Atheists that want to say they’re Atheist on the Census, because It’s Important To Be Accurate, and those who want to put themselves down as Jedi because It’s A Silly Game Anyway. I didn’t like the latter bunch ten years ago – not least because they showed a screaming misunderstanding of how the Census works – and it turns out I still don’t like them now. Apart from anything else, they seem to have swapped a screaming misunderstanding in favour of a slightly pointless public bickering contest, but then I say that as someone who doesn’t see the value in protesting a question anyway, let alone one that offers up all the ususal options and a box for “Other” in case you don’t have one of the major [a]religious outlooks. But, at any rate, it’s more amusing than the quasi-gentle schism that has Anglicans scurrying away to the Roman Catholics because they don’t like female clerics, which would be a far more dignified move if they didn’t keep stopping to shout “Look! See! I’m leaving! And I’m never coming back! Don’t try to stop me! I mean it! Look! You forced me into this! Look! I’m going! Over here!” every couple of months. ‘s a schism, dude. Damn things happen all the time. You ain’t special, you’re just trying to find a theology that fits for you. Like, y’know, everyone.)

In other news, I am looking forward to the next Murder Mystery. I have spent today distressing a pair of once vibrantly-blue jeans, which cost me £7 in Primark. They’ve actually come out quite well, given that I didn’t have any sandpaper, and had to make do with a knife and some bleach. (I don’t own any blue jeans, was the problem here, and I don’t especially like blue jeans, since there’s no way you can pretend they’re perfectly respectable trousers which happen to have a weird cut and tiny pockets, so I didn’t want to spend good money for someone else to bleach them). Was actually quite fun, and I’m fairly happy with my costume for this one, so ‘s something to look forward to…

And tomorrow I am going back to work, but the aforementioned work to level out the floor in my office has actually gone really well, so with a bit of luck I’ll be off the surprisingly noisy warehouse floor before Friday, even if it does take the IT people most of the week to come and move the computers for us*. So that’s nice.

*Yeah, for us. I am not sure why we can’t move them ourselves. Possibly there was a disaster where someone managed to move their computer and plug things in so as to connect the mains cable to their PS2 mouse and they exploded themselves and the company had to shell out three pounds sixty for a new mouse, or something. Something’s made the IT guys protective of the computers, anyway. Although I guess it could just be one of those quirks of attachment people develop after they spend ten years working with the exact same tools…

Out of kilter

So, the floor in my office is being flattened. Or it will be; I rather thought work was due to start on Friday, but apparently it hasn’t. But it does need to be flattened, because it’s got a very pronounced slope, dropping about two inches over the course of ten feet. That’s because it used to be the bit of the warehouse where the most dangerous chemicals were stored, and so it was built to ensure any spillages got themselves into the public drainage system fast enough to maintain plausible deniability. At least, I assume that’s why; as far as I can tell, the people who rented the warehouse before we did never actually stayed to tell anyone about the slope until we’d moved in and got the desks set up.

The actual leveling of the floor is probably a Good Thing, since it’ll hopefully make me feel less lopsided, but in the meantime, we’ve all been moved out to the main warehouse floor, which is proving to be really quite disconcerting. For one thing, it’s actually much brighter (thanks to the magic of grime-encrusted perspex panels in the ceiling) and I’m no longer used to seeing sunlight during working hours; I kept thinking it was home-time most of Friday morning. And, of course, it’s an awful lot bigger, and there’s much more background noise.

I’m not very used to background noise in a working environment, since Libraries are generally pretty quiet (students permitting, leastways), but at work there’s actually quite a lot going on in the way of packing and unpacking shipments, and wrapping things in squeaky clingfilm, and whatnot, which I’m not sure I’ll get used to. At least, I sort of hope I won’t get used to it; the floor adjustment is only supposed to last ten days, so in theory I won’t get a chance.

I’m blotting the noise out, however, with the help of a small radio, some headphones and Jack FM. I tried Radio 4, of course, but that was too interesting, and I kept getting distracted by what people were saying, so I had to pick something more musical, and less talkative.

I actually quite like Jack. I realise that’s a bit weird, what with it being commercial radio an’ everything, but I’ve discovered that whilst it markets like bad commercial radio, it actually sounds like good commercial radio. And whilst I generally stick to the talkier bits of the Beeb, I know whereof I speak. I never once worked a shift at the Union without Dido continuing to bemoan her tragic failure to buy in effective laundry detergent ahead of running up a bedsheet every hour on the hour, and when I was on night shifts at Tywyn James Bloody Blunt used to tell everyone how Beautiful they were once every twenty bastard minutes.

These people, in contrast, avoid repeats, and play things that genuinely good rather more than half the time. Actually quite good to work to. And as a bonus they mock Heart FM for having a six and a half song playlist, which I can definitely appreciate, since Heart is what the people on the other side of the warehouse play, and even a good song gets tedious when you hear it for the tenth time as you return from lunch.

The weirdest thing about it, actually, is still the adverts. Currently the MoD are running a chain of adverts which they have evidently decided are very catchy. I can’t find a version online, but it basically goes after this fashion:

We hear a general hubbub, and background noises suggest something heavy and metallic is moving about behind the microphone. Voices chatter. One voice rises out:

Gruff Man / Stern Woman: ‘Right, Charlie section, you’re guiding the convoy. Bravo, I need you guys to scout ahead and check the route’s clear. And you’re driving the lead carrier.

Dramatic pause

GM/SW: Yes, you. You listening to the radio. I need you here, now, guiding my boys.

Voiceover: Want a challenge? Find out more at

The first time I heard it, it confused the bejesus out of me, because the AS400 is not a very exciting computer screen, and doesn’t have a mini map, or an objective compass or anything*.

The second time I heard it, it made me wish they’d got the chap who voices Captain Price to do it (‘on your feet, Soldier! We. Are. Leaving!’), and the third time I concluded that my previous reactions, and the fact I like crisps, and have flat feet, and wouldn’t like killing people or being shot at, probably meant I’m not in the target audience.

Also, of course, being at the front of a convoy sounds like a bloody dangerous place to be. Closest I want to be to that sort of mess is the closing down of the access roads to the JR, thanks all the same. And that’s bleedin’ miserable enough, so I don’t quite see how the adverts are meant to divorce you from the memory of what passes by at the end of your streets every few weeks…

Still, it makes a change from the traditional “Look at all the things you can learn in the Military, it is exciting and you are unlikely to have to go and get blown up” line taken by adverts of yesteryear, so I suppose it might give people a nudge they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Not sure that’s a good thing, y’ken, but it’s interesting from a marketing perspective.

* And on the computer work supply me with, switching to a second window is never faster than reloading.