A blog rethink–but it’s far from all over!

Me getting cosy with the Silurian known as Mette

Regular readers of this blog (I know there’s one or two of you out there) may have noticed something of a drop off in the rate of posts of late. If you’re waiting for my thoughts on True Blood, perhaps, you might be wondering why I’ve not said anything about the last two weeks’ episodes.

There’s a reason for this. I’ve got a full time job now, and in the exciting world of education, this is the busiest time of year – not even counting the continual ‘reform’ demands of the masterminds at the Department for Education. As a result, I’m spending more and more time at the office making sure the summer exams get marked, and finding less and less time to write. Something has to give. And – for a while, anyway – it’s going to be the writing.

Stress takes its toll on your dress sense…

Not all of it, mind. But it’s getting impossible to keep up with doing weekly episode reviews of all my favourite shows – particularly given that virtually all of them are broadcast on Sunday evenings. It takes an hour or so to watch the show, half an hour maybe to do some screencaps, perhaps a bit of time for background research on shows like Mad Men or The Newsroom, and maybe two hours to write the lengthy essays that I laughingly term ‘reviews’.

Factor in working late and commuting, and each post effectively takes up one entire evening. Sometimes I’m so knackered from work that I guiltily procrastinate, and before you know it, I’ve missed several weeks’ worth of things. Longtime readers (yes, I’m egotistically hoping I have some) may have already noticed the abrupt disappearance of my weekly Dallas reviews following a couple of weeks out of the country.

Here I am, in another country.

So I’m going to take a break. At the mo, the only show I had started to review weekly was True Blood, and to be honest, that’s been stuck for the last couple of seasons in a “not great but not terrible” kind of state. There’s nothing more boring than reviewing something you can neither praise nor snidely mock, so I’m going to knock those on the head. I may come back to weekly reviews for the return of The Newsroom in a couple of weeks – it depends on my workload at that job thing I do.

Reviewing so many shows on a weekly basis was never my intention. I actually started this blog primarily because my brief forum comments on each week’s Doctor Who were turning into epic essays. I used to do brief snippets on lots of things, including my other interests of politics and cars.

I also like cars…

But when I was unemployed, I found a lot of writing time, so the weekly TV reviews ballooned at the expense of everything else. I’d like to think a lot of you enjoyed them; but I miss writing other things, too.

So here’s what – I’m stopping weekly episode reviews at least for a little while. I may come back to them for The Newsroom; I definitely will for Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, Mad Men and Game of Thrones. For now, though, I’m going to try writing other things, like I used to. Things that aren’t all about what was broadcast the same night of the week. Have a try – hopefully  you’ll enjoy them.

It’s only words….

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ – Lewis Carroll

In recent weeks, we’ve been blessed with the political excitement of both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the US, and a much-derided Cabinet reshuffle here in the UK. As party conference season looms for us and politicians start flying unfeasible policy kites in preparation to appease their more insane members, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how the politics of class is currently shaping – and being shaped by – its use of language.

The English language, with all of its ambiguities, multiple meanings, synonyms, antonyms and homonyms, has always been a bit of a gift for political rhetoric. There’s nothing so telling of the political climate of the times as seeing the prevalence of particular words and phrases, cunningly employed to drive home a political message in speeches, press releases and party-affiliated news stories.

Scenes from the class struggle with the English language


One of the most noticeable things at both the Democratic and Republican conventions was a relentless focus on the middle class. At a time of economic hardship, when hard-right policies seem designed specifically to funnel money even further towards an already massively wealthy clique, this is fairly understandable. “Ours is a fight to restore the values of the middle class,” declaimed Barack Obama, as his supporters waved banners proclaiming “middle class first”. Over in the homogenous dream world of the Republicans, ultra-reactionary VP candidate Paul Ryan set out his stall: “We have a plan for a stronger middle class, with the goal of generating 12 million new jobs over the next four years”.

So what’s missing, you might ask? Well, both parties were taken to task for neglecting to cover the “poor”. But what’s interesting is that the term “poor” seems to have supplanted the term “working class”. If you’ve a “middle class”, then you must have one above and below it, by definition. The one above it is fairly clear, both here and in the US – they’re the ones with all the money, bankrolling each country’s more rightwing party to run the government for their own advantage.

But where’s the one below it? Why is “working class” now the more pejorative “poor”? “Poor” seems to carry connotations of helplessness, dependence, and inferiority. “Working class”, by contrast has overtones of decent, hardworking nobility.

It now seems quaint and old-fashioned. In part, this is because of the aspirational culture of the last few decades. “We are all middle class now,” said John Prescott in 1997. That’s John Prescott of the Labour Party, the one that was founded by and for the working class. The same party whose current leader, nerdish school prefect lookalike Ed Miliband says he wants to appeal to the “squeezed middle”. Being a “poor but honest” worker isn’t trendy any more. If you don’t have the mortgage, the two-year-old car, and the annual foreign holiday, you probably aren’t “working” anyway.

So the lowest class is not now “working”. Instead they are “poor” or even more pejoratively, with an overtone of menace, the “underclass”. Sorry to get all Godwin’s, but it’s always worrying when politicians or political journalists use terms reminiscent of “untermenschen”.

With the rightwing holding sway politically in the UK, after the riots of last summer, another word found itself attached to that – “feral”. That’s even more disturbing. Now not only are the former “working class” the “underclass”, but they’re actually animalistic and unhuman. You can see why this makes for a worrying narrative progression.

As if to emphasise that the “underclass” are no longer the “working class”, they’re now routinely conflated with the unemployed – conveniently ignoring all those full time workers here in the UK whose wages are so low they have to rely on government benefits anyway. So the “poor” are demonised as “scroungers”, part of an “entitlement culture” whose “dependency” is on money taken unwilling from virtuous, hardworking taxpayers. For added venom, the adjectives “idle” and “feckless” tend to be used in varying combinations, in government speeches, press releases and the news stories that cover them. The result is an unhealthy climate where if you’re not “middle class”, it’s your own fault for being “idle” and “dependent”. Never mind that the minimum wage is so low and the cost of living so high that often full time employment won’t pay enough to live on.


Rebrand the rich


“For the last time, I am a job creator! You must, you will OBEY ME!!”

In tandem with the linguistic subjugation of the lower class from “working” to subhuman “scroungers” who steal from the virtuous middle class, the “upper class” have tried to twist the language describing them into more glowing, fulsome praise. The word “rich” has for many years (possibly since the French Revolution) had snobbish, uncaring and materialistic overtones. How then should the rich present themselves as altruistic and beneficial to the society whose money they’re gradually accumulating all of?

The result, initially, was the insidious term “wealth creators”. I first heard this emanating from the Republican Party in the US, and I’ve wondered ever since if somebody was actually paid to think up this asinine term. It does sound like just the sort of thing that might be focus grouped and moulded by the sort of consultants who briefly tried to rename the Post Office “Consignia”.

“Wealth creators” implied that the rich’s accumulation of material assets was good for the wealth of the country as a whole. But people cottoned on to the fact that any wealth they “created” went straight to them and stayed there, often moored in offshore tax havens so it wasn’t subject to that inconvenient burden of taxation for the good of society – “wealth hoarders” would be a more accurate description. Plus, the phrase still contained the word “wealth”, as in “wealthy”, ie “rich”. And if the wealth you’re creating is your own, you’re hardly going to be seen as contributing to the society you’re funnelling it from.

So “wealth creators”, even though it’s still in common currency, morphed into “job creators”. You can imagine some smarmy image consultant somewhere sitting back and folding his arms in satisfaction at that one. Well, if the business you’re running has made you rich, you must have “created jobs”, right? And that can only make it look like your contribution to society is more important than your employees, who pay a far greater proportion of their meagre incomes in tax than you do. Mitt Romney stated that he didn’t need to release any more tax returns; he’d definitely paid enough tax, it was a whole 13% of his $20.9 million income (2011).

But Mitt’s a “job creator”, so that’s OK .Even though most of the jobs he “created” while running Bain Capital were in India and China. Governments will find it far less acceptable to impose heavy taxes on “job creators” than they would on “the rich”. If “job creators” leave the country because tax rules aren’t favourable enough to them, who will “create the jobs”? You can see why that’s worse than “the rich” leaving the country, which by and large people don’t really care about. Ask Phil Collins.


Race to the bottom


With the upper class elevated to sainthood and the lower class reduced to the level of animals, you can see why, linguistically, “middle class” is the only uncontroversial one left. Particularly in the US. It’s been said that in the UK, the political struggle is always about class, whereas in the US, it’s always about race. That’s only half true; class does exist in the US, it’s based on money, and it often seems determined by race. Its prisons bulge at the seams with young African-Americans, many of whom turned to crime as the only refuge from a desperately poor background. Visit Southern California, and you’ll see the class divide even more starkly in racial terms. Whites have the good jobs and the nice cars; Latinos have the service jobs and the beatup but respectable older vehicles; and blacks, if they have jobs at all, may well have to travel on the bus because they can’t afford cars.

Yes, it’s a sweeping generalisation, and far from true universally. But it’s true often enough, and here in the UK too, non-white ethnicities tend to be poorer and/or jobless at a level disproportionately higher than Caucasians. In the US, where Republican state governments are passing voter ID laws that explicitly target the poor, class and race overlap. The “poor” in a state like Florida is disproportionately made up of non-Caucasians. Perhaps coincidentally, a recent poll registered African-American support for the Mitt Romney at a modest total of 0%. OK, Herman Cain and Marco Rubio will probably be voting Republican, but there’s always a margin of error. Nevertheless, that’s a poll figure that might make even the Lib Dems here in the UK feel slightly better.


Turn Left


Trying to reclaim the word “rich” from the “wealth creators”

Still, the right haven’t had the monopoly on shaping the political and class debate by distorting the English language. Since austerity (another political buzzword) bit, and income inequality (and there’s another one) became hot political topics, the left have found their own way to load words with unintended meaning. In the wake of the Occupy movement, the word “elite”, which always carried faintly nasty overtones of exclusion, took on a far more damning meaning when used to describe the tiny clique of hyper-rich people who seemed simultaneously responsible for and immune to the financial crisis engulfing the world.

In the UK, left-leaning politicos and journalists got their own back on the right by taking their pejorative adjective “feral” and applying it to that “elite”. For a while, the phrases “feral underclass” and “feral elite” were flung at each other with such frequency they ceased to have much meaning; as a result, after a brief period in the linguistic limelight, they seem to have faded somewhat into obscurity. Significantly, the terms coined by the left to describe the unfairness of the situation which stuck are not linguistic but numerical – the “elite” are “the 1%”, and the rest of us who pay a greater proportion of our income as tax are “the 99%”. Put in those terms, the injustice is hard to argue with even with any amount of “job creators” in that “1%”.


Language in a post-truth world


Politics and truth have always had a rather abusive relationship, as US journalists are finding as they struggle to adjust to the “post-truth” world in the wake of Paul Ryan’s epically inaccurate speech. The astute use of language can make an untruth seem less like an actual lie. It’s nothing new. When arch-Republican Chuck Norris claims that re-electing Barack Obama will usher in “a thousand years of darkness”, that’s hyperbole at its most extreme. Of course, Winston Churchill said something similar about Adolf Hitler, but it’s hard to equate Obama with Hitler (unless you’re Glenn Beck). Meanwhile, Fox News and other histrionic right wing news outlets pander to their sponsors by treating the words “liberal” and “progressive” as descriptions of something beneath contempt, which in turn passes into mainstream Republican discourse.

Taking poor, innocent English words and twisting them into political weapons is, of course, a longstanding practice in both the US and the UK. But in the modern era of spin doctors, image consultants , key demographics and focus groups, it’s hit an all time high that’s often ridiculous – as Nick Clegg, with his repeated meaningless blather about “alarm clock Britain” seems not to have noticed. The flexibility of the English language is both a blessing and a curse for political discourse, but it’s never less than interesting to watch. To help you out, here’s a little chart of phrases to look out for in the coming US Presidential election and UK party conference season. Have fun playing political bingo, or alternatively, use it for a drinking game. It should get you so drunk that you might stop despairing…



Middle class

Feckless scroungers

Public sector waste

Illegal immigrant

Entitlement culture

Job creators

Gold-plated pensions

Socialist healthcare

Private healthcare


Benefit fraud

Hardworking taxpayer

Big society (getting rare now, this one)

Alarm clock Britain (not rare enough)

Plan B


Liberal media

Conservative media

Bureaucratic excess



Small business

Big business


Family values



“..and I’m not making this up.”

“…well here’s the truth.”

What science fiction said would happen

Clive James once said, when reviewing the 1930s Flash Gordon, that nothing dates a society quite so much as its vision of the future. But when it comes to science fiction, nothing dates it quite so much as, well, a date.

Many books, movies and TV shows striving for a sense of gritty realism in their near future worlds make the fatal mistake of assigning an actual date to them that’s not too far in the future. As a result, they’re left looking slightly foolish when that actual date comes and goes without the projected future actually happening. Never mind flying cars, I’m still waiting for the black market brain recorders we were promised by 1999 in 1995’s Strange Days.

As a bit of fun, I thought it might be interesting to go through some dates in recent history that were once projected as fantastic futures in science fiction, and compare what the visionaries thought would happen with what actually did. So here goes!

What science fiction said would happen:
A genetically engineered plague would sweep the world, causing the extinction of humanity. Only Charlton Heston would remain, to do battle with the mutated vampirelike survivors. (The Omega Man)

What actually happened: Abba swept the world, causing the extinction of good taste in music.


Reality vs Fantasy: Which is more terrifying?



What science fiction said would happen:
A monolithic, all-controlling Party called Ingsoc would subjugate humanity in its quest for ultimate control and power. (1984)

What actually happened: A monolithic, all-controlling Party called the Conservatives subjugated the UK in its quest for the ultimate free market and profit.


Spot the difference?


What science fiction said would happen:
Shrivelled space vampires from Halley’s Comet would terrorise London, sucking the “life force” from their unfortunate victims (Lifeforce)

What actually happened: Yuppies from the Home Counties terrorised London, sucking the character from formerly working class neighbourhoods by filling them with wine bars.


Which would you rather moved in next door?


What science fiction said would happen:
Intelligent slave apes would rise up against humanity and conquer the planet at the behest of their leader, Caesar. (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes)

What actually happened: Apathetic slackers from the American Northwest rose up against major music labels and got too stoned to achieve anything, at the behest of their leader, Kurt Cobain.

Caesar Kurt

Which one used more hair products, I wonder?


What science fiction said would happen:
The world would become engulfed in an ideological war between normal humans and genetically engineered supermen led by the tyrant Khan Noonien Singh (Star Trek: Space Seed)

What actually happened: The UK became engulfed in an ideological war between the increasingly corrupt Conservative Party and the spin-engineered creation that was New Labour, led by the tyrant Tony Blair.

Khan! Blair!

I know which one I’m voting for.


What science fiction said would happen:
LA would be a violent dystopian wasteland where police struggled to maintain control against heavily armed drug gangs while an alien creature stalked the rooftops on a hunt for humans. (Predator 2)

What actually happened: Actually, pretty much the above. Just without the alien creature. Unless you count Michael Jackson.

predator Jackson

“You are one UGLY mo-“

What science fiction said would happen:
The Moon would be blasted out of Earth’s orbit by a nuclear explosion, and the crew of the Moonbase established there would have unconvincing adventures as the satellite travelled improbably fast to a different planet every week. (Space 1999)

What actually happened: The Greenwich Peninsula was blasted out of recognition by an architectural monstrosity known as the Millennium Dome, and the owners came up with unconvincing excuses as it haemorrhaged more taxpayers’ money every week.

Alpha Dome

Moonbase Alpha was later leased to Tottenham Hotspur


What science fiction said would happen:
Man would travel to Jupiter to investigate a mysterious black slab that had something to do with our evolution. (2001: A Space Odyssey)

What actually happened: The West travelled to Afghanistan to investigate a mysterious terrorist who was never there in the first place.

Slab taliban

Cradle of civilisation?


What science fiction said would happen:
We would go back to Jupiter to reactivate the murderous computer HAL 9000 in the hope he could tell us what had happened to the first mission. (2010: The Year We Make Contact)

What actually happened: We went back to Afghanistan to plead with Prime Minister Hamid Karzai in the hope he could stop the Taliban from blowing things up.

HAL PD*27814796

“I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that.”

April 21, 2011
What science fiction said would happen:
The third iteration of “Judgement Day”, as Skynet becomes self-aware and launches nuclear weapons to destroy humanity. (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

What actually happened: TV news outlets the world over devoted an excessive amount of screen time to the fact that this is the date of “Judgement Day” in The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Terminator Cooper

“And I understand you have a book coming out…”


That’s just a few, and I’m sure there are many others. Why not try and list some yourselves? And with 2012 just round the corner, we could think what else is due to happen soon…