June 7th 2019
When I was a student at Warwick University, we had a vote on whether or not to ban smoking at the Union (this being a year or two before the national smoking ban came into effect). We voted in favour of the ban, as you can read in this Warwick Boar article from the time, "despite a massive campaign by senior Union officials claiming that a smoking ban would force huge budget cuts." Andy Dyer, the Finance Officer, apparently "said it was 'unlikely' that the Union Executive Committee would veto the new policy on financial grounds."
A few months down the line, and the Boar published a follow-up article noting that "the Union has decided not to implement the smoking ban passed in a student vote". Andy Dyer had something to say in that one as well: "Maintaining the Union's commercial surplus is more important to me than implementing a policy just because it's passed in a referendum."
I was never much interested with student politics (although I did have a letter published in the Boar around this time, noting the smoking ban volte face as well as the underhand reversal of the Union's "no stance" on abortion - the original vote getting a mention in the first article linked above), but this obvious affront to democracy clearly had a more profound effect on me than I'd realised at the time. It has stayed with me, and I'm apparently not the only one: the two articles I've linked to above are the only ones on the Boar website from the three years I was at Warwick. My point is, if I didn't already believe that it's important to follow through on democratic votes, I certainly did after that.
Which brings me on to Brexit. I voted Remain in 2016, after hemming and hawing for a while, but my belief that we'd be better off (all else being equal) in the EU is vastly outweighed by my belief that Parliament needs to honour the rest of a democratic referendum. And, since I'm sure no one is tired of hearing about Brexit and I've not yet troubled the blogosphere with my thoughts on the topic, I thought I'd do so today, addressing the different arguments I've heard and explaining why I hold the views I do. To be clear, this is not intended to be a way of persuading people to my point of view, still less to belittle the arguments of others. It's just what I think.
Leaving the EU would be bad for the UK, so surely we should stay?
There is strong evidence that leaving the EU would be financially detrimental, yes. When I made my vote in the referendum, I weighed that up against the benefits of leaving, including no longer being subject to the sillier rulings of the ECJ, and having more sovereignty in setting our own laws. In the end I decided that the benefits of staying outweighed the benefits of leaving. I had my vote. It counted one. Even if I believed now with all my heart that the EU was an earthly paradise, my vote would still only count one. I lost; I got over it. Whatever the drawbacks of leaving the EU, I think they pale into insignificance against the drawbacks of denying our own democracy.
But the Leave campaign lied
They did. So, in fact, did the Remain campaign. Remember George Osborne saying that we'd need an emergency budget immediately after the referendum if we voted to leave? (If you read the Boar articles linked above, you might enjoy the uncanny parallels of the Union insisting that swingeing cuts would be needed to their own budget in the light of a smoking ban.) Or how about Nick Clegg insisting that there was never any possibility of a European army, only to have Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel enthusing about the idea this year?
Perhaps the Leave campaign lied more than the other side, even if you discount the supposed "lies" that are really nothing more than different interpretations or beliefs. Unfortunately I don't think you can negate a vote because the winners weren't wholly truthful: if you could, then I'm not sure any political party would be able to claim power. For example, should Jeremy Corbyn's claims that rising fees have dissuaded lower income students from university - factually and demonstrably untrue - prevent the Labour party from taking power?
More people want to Remain now. Isn't that the "will of the people"?
Firstly, if the last few years of politics have taught us anything, it's that polls cannot be trusted. Even if recent polls have put Remain above Leave - and there seems little evidence of a huge swing in that direction - that doesn't mean that they'd win a referendum. And, to be honest, even if the majority of people did want Remain now, I don't think that should make a difference: political opinions swing back and forth all the time, and you can't just do whatever the last poll said. Recently there was a poll indicating that the Brexit Party would get the most votes in a general election - should they become the ruling party? Of course not.
If there genuinely was evidence of a huge swing to Remain - and, given the inaccuracy of polls, it would have to be huge - I could concede that a different course of action should be taken. But there really isn't, and given the rise of the Brexit party (notwithstanding the Lib Dem and Green votes) it doesn't look like there will be any time soon.
We know a lot more now than we did in the referendum
Well, yes and no. I agree that we voted in the referendum without any real idea of what "Brexit" might be, or how difficult it would be to achieve it, or even how big an issue the Irish border (for example) would be. Frankly, I don't think we should ever have had the referendum - that's a longer blog post - but the fact is that we did, and if we had another one tomorrow I'm not sure there's masses more clarity than we had the first time. I've heard plenty of claims that it's now clear just what a bad idea Brexit is, but a lot of these are just restatements of arguments that were made by the Remain campaign in 2016 and were unsuccessful then.
Even leaving that to one side, it is naturally true that we know at least a little more as time passes: that's true after all votes. If Labour won the next general election, but it was then decided a bit later, with more information, that a Labour government was actually a bad idea, this would not be a reasonable argument for overturning the election result.
Besides, when we voted to join the EEC in 1975 - well, I wasn't born, but you know what I mean - we didn't have anything close to the full information on what would morph into the EU. This in itself wasn't enough to overturn the result; there was just a 41 year wait before the question was asked again. I wouldn't argue against a referendum to re-join in 2057.
Would you have opposed the (initially) democratic rise of Hitler?
This is a genuinely testing one. There comes a point where even democratic outcomes have to be challenged - not just the obvious case of Hitler, but also any example of oppression and injustice that is officially sanctioned throughout history. Do I think that leaving the EU is an example of this kind of thing? No, of course not. It's an administrative arrangement between nations. Switzerland isn't in it. Norway isn't in it. Not being in the EU is a perfectly reasonable position for any nation to find itself in, and is not a harbinger of fascism.
Yes, I don't like the Brexit party or the pollution of racism and xenophobia that surrounds many of their most vociferous adherents. I don't like the idea that they are happy about the Brexit result. But democracy doesn't allow us to negate the votes of people we don't like, even if dislike them with very good cause. And, besides, 52% voted for it. They're not all Faragey.
More importantly, denying the outcomes of democratic votes is utterly the style of dictators. If, having voted to leave the EU, we didn't do it, we would have no leg to stand on when telling other nations - Turkey, Afghanistan, wherever - to respect their people's votes. I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance of this.
The referendum was only advisory
This is a late edit, because I forgot about this argument when I first wrote the post. It is weaker than the others, in my view, which is perhaps why I forgot it. Yes, technically the referendum was only advisory, but it was made very clear - indeed, it was explicitly confirmed - that the government would carry out whatever we decided. It is in extremely bad faith to suggest otherwise.
The Leave campaign cheated, though
I've left this one till last because I think it's the strongest argument. The Leave campaign did cheat - they've been found guilty of it - and I find it difficult that this doesn't have significant repercussions. Should it lead to a cancellation of the result? On balance I think not, because of the size of the expected impact of the aforementioned cheating, but it is one I struggle with. You can't be allowed to win by breaking the rules; it appears that the rule-breaking was not fundamental to the victory, so I guess it's not monumental enough for a re-run.
To be honest, I'd go along with this argument for annulling the vote a lot more readily if it hadn't only been leapt at once all the other arguments had been tried. There are many Remain voters who made clear that they wanted to overturn the result from the minute the outcome was announced, and they didn't much care which argument they used. They have cried wolf too often, and if this is really wolf - and, on balance, I think it's not quite lupine enough - I'm afraid it's too late.
A lot of thoughts, but they all really boil down to the same thing. If we vote to ban smoking in the Union then there should be a ban, even if the financial impact is significant and the powers that be think it's a bad idea. If we vote to leave the EU, the same applies. Once you start deciding which votes to honour and which ones to ignore, you lose the trust of the people forever.
June 12th 2019
I recently rediscovered by Exam Diary, a part of this page where I documented the process of taking exams in each of my three years at Warwick University. I read it in its entirety yesterday, and while some of it seems a trifle obscure - I rattle on a bit about limsups for a while; these days I couldn't tell you what those are, although they sound like something Co-op might sell to stave off a cold - and some of my bold predictions turned out to be way off (including one made in the same sentence that I suggest I won't be making predictions any more), there's plenty that still chimes today.
Today, in case you were wondering, was the day of my first Masters exam, on Analytic Number Theory. My first proper exam for eight years and my first maths exams for 12 years, but some things don't change: in each of the three years of Warwick exams I noted that the first exam didn't seem to go as well as hoped, and that's the case again today. Unlike those other times, though, I don't have any other exams coming up - not, at least until next year - since I'm studying through the Open University at a slow one-module-a-year pace at the moment.
Before you get too worried about me, I would say that I set the bar pretty high for myself. In terms of maths exams, anyhow. When it comes to other things - dress sense, say, or how I often I push a hoover around - the bar is resolutely low, but exams-wise I like to go into the test knowing that I can handle more or less anything they throw at me. The thing that rankles today is that, actually, I could have handled more of it than I actually did.
To begin my woes, such as they are: there were six questions, of which I had to do four. In the two practice papers I'd done all six, so hadn't really honed my skills at choosing which ones to tackle, and that was my first mistake - in the end I only left out one question (I'll explain later why 6 - 2 = 5) and, glancing through it after the time had run down, I realised that it was probably the second easiest on the paper and I should have been able to get pretty close to full marks on it without too much difficulty. Bah.
Anyways, I got stuck on the final part of one of the questions, and decided that (having plenty of time) I might as well start another one fresh rather than spend more time trying to figure out the one I was stuck on - hence why I ended up trying 5 questions rather than 4 - and, having done that, I then got stuck on the final part of the next question I chose. As above, this could have been avoided if I'd chosen the easy question rather than the hard ones - although, in my defence, it's generally not easy with a lot of these to tell if they're going to be easy or hard before you're already mired in them. Having got stuck twice, and with about 40 minutes left of the 3 hours, I decided not to start the sixth question and instead to keep working on the two I was stuck on; in the end I got somewhere towards an answer on one of them, which may or may not pick up a reasonable number of marks but I'm pretty sure wasn't what the exam-setter had in mind.
With time ticking down, I decided to check my answers. Smart, right? Well, not so much, given that I changed an answer that was probably correct to one that (as I realised as I walked back to the railway station afterwards) very much wasn't, as I'd made an entirely facile error, probably panicking a bit under time pressure.
All in all, the exam has probably gone reasonably well. I have no idea what Open Uni do with their curves, but ignoring any grade manipulation I imagine I've got somewhere in the 70s (this prediction may, like others before it, come back to bite me). But it's frustrating, because I know I should really have got about 10 marks more than I did, and I won't have another chance to demonstrate what I've learned (the assignments, for which I got an average 85, don't count towards the grade). All those evenings and weekends of study, and days of revision, and it all comes down to a couple of silly mistakes on a Wednesday morning in a Mercure hotel.
On the bright side, I did better than the other two people who were due to sit this exam in Bristol, because they didn't actually show up. Anyways. One down, five to go. I'll see you next year.
June 25th 2019
One of the things on my "40 by 40" list is to read 75% of the BBC's top 100 Big Read books, although since I'd already read 35 of them I just had to read 40 of the remaining 65. So far I've ticked off 18, so I thought I'd give some brief thoughts on each of the additional ones I've read so far. Y'know, like a book report, but shorter. Numbers shown are their ranking in the Big Read.
The Princess Diaries (Meg Cabot) - 99
There are quite a lot of children's books on the list, but few that are so clearly not targeted at me as this one. Having seen the film adaptation a few years ago, my biggest surprise is that the princess of the title spends her entire time in the USA - I'm pretty sure Anne Hathaway went off to see Julie Andrews in some made-up European country in the film - but, leaving that aside, the travails of a teenage girl are mostly lost on me. For example, I had always rather thought - inasmuch as I ever thought about it - that young girls like the idea of being a princess. Apparently not this one. She rails against it, in diary form, in a way that was reasonably entertaining but very much not enlightening for a 30-something man.
Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) - 97
I struggled with this one. It's one of the few books I've read in translation, and perhaps that had something to do with it as it always felt a little unnatural. It is the story of unrequited love over the decades between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, plus the marriage of the latter to Dr. Juvenal Urbino (who at first appears to be the main character, until Gabriel gives us the old bait 'n' switch). Pages pass without a word of dialogue; every character we meet gets an extensive and meandering back-story, Florentino Ariza sleeps with more or less every woman he meets, and I was already not a fan when I got to the bit where he, as a septuagenarian, has an affair with a 14 year old. This is not presented as being bad.
The Alchemist (Paul Coelho) - 94
The mystical journey of a young sherpherd boy who dreams of finding treasure and goes off seeking it, with the surprisingly minimal involvement of a friendly alchemist he meets along the way. It took me a while to realise that this was magical realism (or possibly not. I can never quite work out what that is): I rattled through it when it was telling the story of the boy's naivety and earnestness, but by the time he turned himself into wind I had become less engrossed. A life-changing book, the blurb claims, but I suspect mostly for people who believe horoscopes.
Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons) - 88
I'm reliably informed that this is a satire of romanticised rural novels, but since I've not read any it's a satire that was sometimes lost on me - in particular, the lengthy descriptions of rural landscapes. The bit at the start where she says that she'll asterisk the particularly good passages was funny, though. I enjoyed the characters and set-up in this one, as Flora Poste makes her presence felt in a family of grotesques, but I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I was more familiar with the ideas satirised (unlike Northanger Abbey, a sometime satire of gothic novels, that I love despite not having read any of those either). Oh, and it's basically sci-fi, set in an imagined future sometime in the middle 20th-century, but I'm not sure it needed to be.
Holes (Louis Sachar) - 83
I rattled through this one in a few hours, and enjoyed it a lot. It is, admittedly, a YA novel, and like a lot of those it is pacy and gripping - and thoughtful, if without the depths of novels pitched at actual adults. Stanley Yelnats (I don't recall the palindrome being explained) is sent to a juvenile detention centre, where he and his fellow detainees have to spend all day every day digging holes; alongside this we get a historical narrative that ties up to the main story in a way that is not entirely unpredictable but is still excellent. Being able to remember everyone's surnames would have helped me to see one of the twists coming.
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) - 82
Cassandra lives with her sister Rose, their father and their stepmother in a ramshackle castle and near-poverty, and we follow the sisters' efforts to make money, find love, and persuade their father to write a second novel. I loved this book: the characters, relationships and imaginative setting make it captivating and emotionally fulfilling. In particular, the denouement (which I won't spoil) didn't take the obvious route that I thought it might, and - particularly at the time I read it - I thought it was a superbly fitting ending. Most impressively, it is not twee, which it very easily could have been.
Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett) - 69
Terry Pratchett's books are always enjoyable, with a unique sense of humour and a blending of the fantastical and the ridiculous. This one was no different, but I must admit that they all blend into one after a while - I struggled to remember the particulars of this introduction to the Night Watch, especially as I've read at least one of the many others that have the same cast of characters. Fun, but deservedly not as high on the list as some of his others.
Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman) - 68
Speaking of which... this collaboration between two of the finest authors of comical fantasy started life as a Just William parody, which was great fun for someone like me who grew up on a diet of William, Ginger, Douglas, Henry etc. - although the book evolved so much in the writing that the Just William parody doesn't start until about two thirds of the way through, and comes as something as a surprise. The main characters are an angel and a demon who, over the years, have formed an unlikely bond akin to friendship, and several other key characters are introduced as the story progresses. It jumps around a bit, but is great fun (and not as blasphemous as I'd been anticipating) and it feels like each author may have reined in the excesses of the other. It also might be the only joint-written novel I've read.
A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) - 63
My third Dickens novel, after wading through Hard Times at school and reading A Christmas Carol (if that counts as a novel) shortly after Uni. I'm not particularly a devotee of Dickens' sense of humour, but I was drawn to (most of) these characters, and the emotional plotlines were affecting, particularly the novel's famous culmination. There were times when I struggled to remember who was who in various plotlines, and Dickens doesn't half like to go on, but all in all I was pleasantly surprised. Still, Bleak House & Great Expectations look a bit ominous on the shelf.
Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman) - 61
Another YA novel, this imagines a world where the history of whites (noughts) and blacks (Crosses) is effectively reversed - e.g. noughts used to be slaves to Crosses; noughts are only now being allowed into Cross schools; children are taught about notable Cross figures but not their nought equivalents. It is only after a few chapters that skin colour is brought into it; cleverly, Blackman uses only the terms nought and Cross up to that point. The story alternates short first person narratives between Sephy (Cross) and Callum (nought), who are star-crossed... teenage friends. The story gets pretty dark, in a YA sort of way, and doesn't go in the direction I thought it might, and is all the better for it. It's a very good book, and helps the reader think about racial prejudice in ways they might not have before - the point where Sephy realises for the first time that plasters are all brown, so they blend in with Cross skin but stand out for noughts, will stay with me.
Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) - 52
My only previous experience of Steinbeck was giving up on East of Eden when it got into the bloodier aspects of prostitution. What a revelation Of Mice and Men was! I loved this book, which I devoured in a couple of days, and it leapt into the list of my all-time favourites. It is a beautiful story of two migrant workers, one of whom has severe learning difficulties, and their dreams of a better life. I was in tears for much of the ending, which is perhaps predictable but nonetheless perfect, and I have to say that I'm now glad that our English literature class had to read Wuthering Heights while the other class was doing this one: I would not have wanted to ruin this book by studying it.
The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) - 51
The first film I ever saw at the cinema was The Secret Garden, so the story was already well known to me, and to be honest the film adaptation left much more of a mark on me than the book itself did. In fact, I'm struggling to remember what was in the book and what was in the film, although I think it was a fairly faithful adaptation (albeit with an earthquake rather than illness killing Mary's parents at the start of the story). Mary is very unlikeable at the start, but is won over to the joys of Yorkshire and nature, in particular the title's secret garden, alongside her new friends Dickon and Colin. The story is perhaps strongest when dealing with the parallel awakening of Colin's father; weakest when we're supposed to believe that children are head-over-heels ecstatic at finding some flowers behind a wall. Pass the iPad, eh?
Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy) - 48
The biggest surprise of all for me so far: Thomas Hardy is funny. Like, properly hilarious. I'd never read any Hardy before but I knew his work by reputation as being depressing and unforgiving; far from it, this was full of observational humour that was reminiscent of Jane Austen's best work (although significant tragedies do befall most characters). I'd seen the most recent film adaptation, so the story of Bathsheba, Gabriel, Troy et al was not unknown to me, but the screen adaptation (though good) couldn't do justice to the source material. It doesn't necessarily stand up to rationale analysis - the plotline in which Bathsheba sends her neighbour a valentine as a joke doesn't make any sense at all - but I don't think it's meant to, and despite that the characters are strongly drawn. I look forward to reading more Hardy, although I hear that Tess is less sunny.
Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh) - 45
One of several books on the list that I suspect got there more because people enjoyed the TV adaptation than because of the book itself. And, given that all allusions to the story that I've heard have tended to revolve around Sebastian and his teddy bear Aloysius, my suspicion is that plenty of people didn't see the whole TV series through. The earlier chapters on Charles's time at Oxford are indeed the strongest, in my view, but as the book moves on through his later life and interactions with Flyte family, I found myself losing interest. At the end of the book I just set it aside and said out loud: "Well, what was the point of that, then?". There are themes of Catholicism, friendship, love, aristocracy, alcohol... but, for me, they never coalesced into anything worthwhile.
Persuasion (Jane Austen) - 38
Pride & Prejudice is possibly my favourite ever book; Northanger Abbey (criminally, not in the Big Read top 100) is also right up there in my top ten; I've also greatly enjoyed Sense & Sensibility and, to a slightly lesser extent, Emma. Mansfield Park I found barely readable, and gave up halfway through. Persuasion, for me, sits above only Mansfield Park in the list of Austen novels: the characters often seemed like less well-defined versions of those from her other works, and I felt minimal affection for Anne Elliot. To be honest, the plot was forgettable to the extent that I only remembered late on that I'd previously seen the film, and I don't think I'll be rushing to re-read this one. A shame.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl) - 35
I was a little surprised to discover that I'd not read this one before - I'd seen the film growing up, and while it wasn't one of my childhood favourites, it left a strong impression. It was difficult not to picture it while reading the book, in fact, although I was slightly shocked to realise that the depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was pretty racist (and much less so than in the original version, apparently). The morality tale isn't exactly subtle, but it's lasted as a classic for a reason. It would probably have had more impact if I'd read it as a child and not already known the entire story before I started.
Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks) - 13
The most surprising thing about this book was how long it took to get to the trenches - I'd known it by reputation as a World War I epic - with the early chapters devoted to Stephen Wraysford's time in the French textile industry, and the tempestuous affair he has with his host's wife. This was very involving (and surprisingly, er, detailed), so that by the time the horrors and trauma of the war are described, the impact is that much greater. This is certainly not a novel that glamourises war; the randomness with which friends can be killed, and the ways that Stephen and others try to deal with this, are explored excellently. The parallel storyline in which Stephen's granddaughter tries to find out about his life seems undercooked and largely pointless, though. Still, this definitely comes recommended.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) - 4
Confession time: I have spent many years bad-mouthing this book, based on reading the first few chapters when I was a teenager and giving up in confused contempt. As it turned out, I'd actually been reading one of the others in the series - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, I think - and, now that I read this one... it's fine. Pretty good, in places. So, I apologise for all the nasty things I said about Douglas Adams over the years, but I still didn't particularly warm to the adventures of Arthur Dent and his ragtag band of inter-galactic chums. Some of it is very funny; much of it seems to be trying too hard, and all in all I prefer the work of Terry Pratchett, which follows a similar line but more successfully, for my taste. Still, if you like cult humour and don't mind too much if storylines appear to have been made up on the spot, you could do a lot worse than this.
That's the lot, so far: with another 22 books to go, maybe I'll come back and give my thoughts a bit later. I must admit that I've not yet touched a lot of the longer ones - War and Peace, anyone? - so I may have set myself up for a lengthy finish. Having said that, next on my list is Vicky Angel (Jacqueline Wilson), which I don't expect to be too laborious.
The big hits so far, as you'll have deduced from the above, are Of Mice and Men, I Capture the Castle, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Birdsong. The one I've enjoyed least is not actually in the list above, because I'm still working my way through it: Little Women, which I'm reading on my phone whenever I have some spare time and have exhausted literally everything else my phone can do. It is truly awful.
I don't want to end on such a sour note, so I'll finish by asking if you have any recommendations from the Big Read list (ignoring, for the moment, that I've not told you which 35 I'd already read) - let me know, and I'll take a look.
|what was I listening to?
A New Day At Midnight - David Gray
|what was I reading?
Brown at 10 - Anthony Seldon
|what was I watching?