27 Feb

Done and Done

A brief update since I’m exhausted. After about 36 hours of frantic work and not enough sleep, I’ve got all my websites up and running. The Digital Nib is also back, which is a small relief. Hopefully, I’m now at the stage where I only have small housekeeping tasks to finish before I can consider that I’ve fully recovered from my own stupidity.

I took a break last night to draw a cartoon which I’ve donated to The What and the Why. I have to say that I think it’s one of my favourite cartoons and written with the aid of my invaluable Gag Machine. It’s a bit tiny in the sidebar and I might have posted a copy here to congratulate me for the quality crosshatching. However, my upload still isn’t working. It’s next on my list of problems to fix.


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26 Feb

Taking a break from Linux hell

First of all: if you’ve written to me in the past few months and I’ve not replied, then I’m really sorry. I discovered yesterday that my email server was plain not working. It was a lottery if emails were getting through.

Things should now be better or they will be better if I can conquer Linux (again).

It’s not that I hate Linux. If I had the time, I’d probably love learning its intricacies. However, I don’t have the time and my method of working is often to search the internet for solutions and then try them out. I guess it’s my approach to most things. I think it’s the best way of learning. Work in small steps. Things sink in but in a way that’s organic and natural. It’s not like reading a 1000 page manual and thinking you understand it. Figure things out from the inside. Best way to learn.

Anyway, so far I have this blog back, but with a few things ‘under the hood’ to fix. The archive will be next (i.e. the old Spine website) and then I’ll work on the other websites I’ve hosted here in the past. The FTP server is proving a pain to configure but, hopefully, once that’s done, then the rest should be less ‘brain work’ and simple typing, clicking and dragging.

This new server is a bit different to the last. Firstly, I’ve upgraded it, doubling the memory since it’s now doing more. I realised yesterday that things hadn’t been working right for weeks. I was using a simple email service which forwarded all emails to various addresses to a single account. However, this meant that Yahoo and Google thought it was a server spamming their email servers. They have a *very* low tolerance, it seems, for small servers running email. I needed a proper email server installed on the machine, so that’s what I’ve done along with a few other things including, for the first time, a proper control panel. I’ve also enabled backups just in case all of this goes horribly wrong again in the future.

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26 Feb

My Mistake

You might have noticed that the site disappeared for a few hours. I did something really really stupid. It meant that my Linux server was completely messed up and I’ve had to start again. If you’re reading this, I’ve made a start. Please bear with me.

Lessons learnt:

1. Never take the cheap option when buying server space. Don’t opt out of regular backups just to save a pound a month. I’m an idiot.

2. Don’t play around with Linux commands that you don’t really understand.


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25 Feb

A Brief Descent Into Semi-Colon Hell

A visit from news royalty this morning: a comment from the sorely missed Tim Marshall. My sister (a real news junkie) gasped when I told her, however, his visit also puts a slight shot across my bow given what I’d already written for today.

I was going to point you in the direction of a couple of interesting reads over at his new website, The What and The Why, but I was also going to drop a warning about the second piece by a guest writer talking about Saudi Arabia. I was going to warn you to push on past the opening paragraph. It’s a fascinating article but begins in semi-colon hell:

While pressure was building around the situation with Putin and Ukraine; the possibility of Grexit was on the cards – creating a possible pincer on Turkey between IS and Russian influence; world leaders and country representatives headed to Riyadh to pay their respects to the new King Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

The reason I noted this was last night I was asked to proof-read a letter a friend had written for a job promotion. They’d used a semi-colon where they should have used a colon. I pointed this out and they questioned if I was right. I was naturally a bit affronted. A published writer, blogging for ten years, millions of words under my belt and with a PhD in English Literature and I was being asked if I knew how to use a colon! What was worse: I immediately started to panic. Did I really know how to use a colon? I had to go on the internet to check.

As it happened, I did know how to use a colon but the whole drama reaffirmed my own writing paranoia, which was brought into focus when I started to read the Saudi Arabia article last night. I just couldn’t get past that opening.

Now, despite how this sounds, I’m not a pedant about the rules of writing. I don’t really know the rules that well. I’ve always been more of a gut instinct writer. I’ve always encourage people to write from their gut and to ignore the rules they were taught at school. Our schooldays make bad writers of us all. They introduce things we never need such as the semi-colon. My mantra is: write how you speak but then edit how you read.

I have a love-hate relationship with the semi-colon and realise that admitting this is an odd thing to confess. Whatever next? A slight entanglement with an asterisk? A romantic weekend with flirty ampersand? The fact is: I adore a well-placed semi-colon but I tend not to use them myself. They’re the harbinger of worse things. They’re a form of gateway punctuation. You begin by occasionally dropping a semi-colon at a middle-class dinner party but then you find yourself using them every weekend just to cheer yourself up. Before you know it, you’re a punctuation junkie scoring apostrophes and em dashes from dealers in some rat infested hovel in the backstreets of Manchester.

Semi-colons are the most pretentious form of punctuation. They’re the most elegant when used correctly but abject expressions of self-importance when flaunted where they don’t belong. You’d rarely (if ever) find a writer such as Hemingway use a semi-colon. They are not the stuff of his brusque prose. In fact, I’d offer a my hunch that ‘better’ writers rarely use them at all or those that do have a style which is distinguished by its sheer refinement. Whenever I’ve taught English to students, my first advice was always to learn to use the comma correctly. Commas can rarely be overused (though, of course, there are, exceptions). It can take years to learn to correctly use the comma and, even then, there’s rarely a need to go further and adopt the semi-colon. Writers with a real ear for the flow of language can sense where pauses naturally occur in a line. The comma is really all they need and even then used sparingly. A master of writing, Kurt Vonnegut, once gave this wise piece of advice:

‘Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’

Not using the semi-colon is really the best advice since it is often misused simply because people don’t quite know how to use it. There are pedants who will give you the strict definition of when and how to use one, though I don’t take the pedant’s line. The way I think about semi-colons is that they simply introduce a pause to your flow; a break in the narrative slightly longer than a comma but not as absolute as a full stop. Perhaps I’ve just misused one there and this too would reveal something significant about my character. I don’t consciously use semi-colons myself and when I do I always get into a knot of self-loathing.

But back to the offending paragraph. It wasn’t written by Tim Marshall but by a reader who also happens to be a solicitor. I began to wonder if that’s significant. Solicitors live in a world of language yet they’re not trained in language. Solicitors are often the abusers of language. They treat words like station masters racking up train carriages in a yard; locking clauses together with the iron link of the semi-colon. The offending prose is overwritten, destroyed by the misuse of the semi-colon. It’s not a trivial misuse. What the writer only really needed was the simple comma. So why didn’t he do that? Because semi-colons convey a message. It’s like wearing an old school tie or a pin stripe suit. The semi-colon is saying much more than simply ‘take a breath’. You can read a lot about a person’s character by their use of the semi-colon. It’s telling us that the writer is educated and believes in their education. They believes in their status. It is all posture. Horrible. Brutal. Plain bad writing. It’s also a real shame. The article is an interesting insight into something you rarely read about. Just skip the opening paragraph and bite you lip whenever you see a semi-colon.

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24 Feb

Why I’ll Miss Malcolm Rifkind

Most political careers end, in the words of the poet, ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. Malcolm Rifkind’s has ended with a deafening thud and, like so many deafening thuds before it, this has been followed by a moment of stunned silence before our senses clear and we begin to see what kind of new world we’re emerging into.

I suspect it is a world unchanged except for the loss of one respected voice inside the Commons and the anticipated gain of another cuff-heavy champagne-snorting Cameron-lite, in the form of Olympic celebrity rower, James Cracknell. At the moment, I fail to see how parliament has emerged victorious.

Having said that: Rifkind was probably right to go. I watched Despatches last night and he struck me as a man bored with politics; his spirit possibly having drifted out of the game a long time ago but his body not really quite ready to let go of the reigns. He was charming, funny, and personable but, according to the people who count these things, the votes he’s attended recently is well below average despite his constituency being one of the closest to Westminster. Watching the programme, I felt a pang of disappointment because Rifkind had always struck me as one of the better Tories and probably even my favourite on the government benches. When Rifkind spoke, I’d always listen, not always in agreement but with serious intent to catch his nuanced words. He seemed like a man at home inside his own brain, which is a rare quality in politicos these days, too many of whom seem divorced from the practicalities of thinking and over-practised in the practicalities of repeating party mantra or dogmatic nonsense.

The speed of Rifkind’s departure is perhaps indicative of his heart being no longer in the fight. He claims to have wanted one more term but people who want just one more term are probably already too far gone to be part of the game. It’s a shame. Despatches didn’t, even to my jaded eyes, present a case that shamed him any more than many other politicians should be shamed. That’s not to say that Rifkind’s behaviour wasn’t turdish but, in the context of the Westminster sewer, even he might have emerged smelling relatively sweet. Jack Straw (another politician for whom I’ve always had a great deal of time) seemed more immersed in the grime because he was more boastful of the influence he’d had. Yet none of that seemed surprising. It was just the greasy things politicians do when they’ve played around the greasy pole long enough.

Michel Cockerell’s excellent series ‘Inside the Commons’ concludes tonight so perhaps I’m still suffering from a mild dose of having some renewed faith in the political system when I say that not all politicians are in it for money. However, I know politics can be one of the few get rich quick schemes that actually work. The Independent this morning charts the MPs earning the most from second jobs. Gordon Brown tops the poll which is unsurprisingly given he’s the only ex-Prime Minister who is still a sitting MP. Rifkind doesn’t even make the top 10, whilst the most surprising and telling entry is that man of the people, George Galloway, who allegedly earned an additional £303,350 in 2014.

Not that other people’s excesses should excuse Rifkind. The evidence is still pretty damning if profit is the crime. I see from his Wikipedia page that although Rifkind is/was a sitting MP, he also earned £85,992 from Unilever as a Non-executive Director. He took another £35,000 as Non-executive Director of Adam Smith International and a mere £25,000 from L.E.K. Consulting where he was a member of the Advisory Board. So, on top of earning more money than most as an MP, each of his additional jobs was also earning him more than most. For the record, I’d happily join the Advisory Board of L.E.K. Consulting and I’d do his job for half the salary and twice the hours.

Not as if that is likely to happen. They would rightly argue that I couldn’t do his job, whatever that job was. I lack his experience inside Westminster and government. He’d bring to the table the shrewd brain that made him a QC and Foreign Minister whilst I’d bring the shrewd brain that makes me a second rate blogger and third rate cartoonist. So, I’m not going to deny that sometimes businesses are right to pay huge money to people with very specific and unique skills. Nor am I deny the right of those people to make money. Yet what does gall me is how this way of running business goes against everything the current government seems to represent.

A failure of the Thatcherite model of conservatism is that it introduces competition into every avenue of our lives. As soon as you introduce competition, the whole thing quickly untangles and you’re in a race to undercut your rival. In business, that often means undercutting your rival simply to stop them getting business and (eventually) forcing them out of business, even if undercutting your rival damages your own business. It’s a ethos that insists that the cheapest option is always the best option. Companies move departments to India or China to exploit cheap labour markets, often resulting in a drop in quality. The government wants teachers, doctors, and consultants to qualify more quickly. They want roles usually given to ‘professionals’ taken up by cheaper assistants or even volunteers.

Yet the only people who seem immune to these competitive pressures are the very people who champion those pressures the most. The Tories champion zero hour contracts and talk about a ‘booming economy’ despite it booming because our government care nothing about worker’s rights. The coming election is being defined by which party is ‘business friendly’ and not which party cares for the poor sod on minimum wage or worse. At the same time, the Tories are also playing dog whistle politics, using that deeply odorous phrase ‘For Hardworking People’ to stir the passions of their traditional voters who persist in the misguided notion that the nation is full of workshy layabouts. All this in a climate in which a politician with three extra ‘jobs’ can claim to have a surprising amount of free time.

Has Britain ever been more divided?

There is no competition at the top where ‘safe seats’ are exchanged as pawns in a political game and favours turn into name-on-the-letterhead directorships. How much real competition in their in that world where Rifkind is the father of The Times columnist Hugo and, according to Wikipedia, related to Leon Brittan as well as being second cousin once removed of DJ Mark Ronson. What are the chances of that? Nobody I know (or I’m guessing you know) is once, twice, or even thrice removed from DJ Mark Ronson or, for that matter, MP Malcolm Rifkind.

And that is the sad reality that belies the talk of cleaning out the Commons and making politics honest. If there’s a stink, it’s not the stink of Rifkind’s perceived greed. It’s not even the stink of a system in which men like George Galloway claim to be there for the people but the evidence suggests he’s really in it for himself. Frankly, I don’t blame him. The stink is of a system in which an establishment treats the rest of the nation as minimum wage fodder. It’s a nation where the highest office in the land is occupied by  the 5th cousin, twice removed of the monarch. It’s where life has so much potential but only to a potential few. Malcolm Rifkind was the very least of our problems.

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22 Feb

Cartoon: The Porn Tories

Click to ENLARGE

Click to ENLARGE

I’m both ashamed and pleased with today’s cartoon. I don’t really care if people like it or find it disgusting. Last night, I think I finally accepted that blogging is a game for celebrities. Unless you’re one of the very lucky people to strike gold, hard work amounts to nothing. I might as well give up. Today I feel more dejected than ever. If four blog posts from a TV news editor (albeit the best one there is) can get 3,500 page views after two days of blogging, then what chance do I have? Even if I work another 10 years, blogging every single day, I’ll never hit those figures. So, sod it. Perhaps this is my swan song and it’s a fitting one if that’s what it is.

For what it’s worth: the genesis of the idea was an interview given by the ‘Honourable’ Jacob Rees Mogg to Conservativehome. In his words:

“We talk about being progressive. We’re not progressive. We’re conservative. We don’t believe in changing things that don’t need to be changed. And so I think language is very, very important, and that we have thought the language of the Left is cuddly, and that therefore people will like it. Actually what’s happened is it’s made it very difficult to explain why we’ve done the good things we’ve done. Which are actually much more cuddly than what the Left does, because they actually improve people’s lives.

The first part is true. Conservatives are reactionary and, in that sense, I guess I’m a conservative at heart. I don’t like change. I don’t like radical governments. However, that’s precisely why I dislike the current government. They’re radical and delight in being radical. They take such a masochistic delight in austerity that it sounds almost pornographic. It is, of course, that same old ‘New Toryism’ which has never been called ‘New Toryism’ and is usually called Thatcherism. Had her governments been called the ‘New Tories’, the newness might have died by now. As it is, it was called Thatcherism  and Thatcherism was as ideological and radical as anything that’s has come from the political left in the past half a century. Mogg’s words could have easily been spat out by the High Priest of Thatcherism, Lord Tebbit. It’s constantly about ‘improving people’s lives’ and yet the society it has created (and would like to further create) is one in which we pay through the nose for everything or we do without. Competition in everything means a rush for cheapness with the greatest profit at the end. I think it’s been to the ruination of our country. We’ve exchanged a nation of great libraries for a nation of Premiership footballers.

It got me thinking about the Tories and the personalities involved. A criticism that can be levelled at Tony Blair and (for that matter) David Cameron is that they are both bandwagon politicians. They respond to headlines and seek to be liked. In that sense, I don’t see Cameron as a traditional Tory or even a Thatcherite. I don’t believe he’s really much of conviction politician. It’s why he’s not in this cartoon. Few in the Tory Party share his need to be liked. He is the personable figurehead of a party that seems to take a perverse delight in being perceived as the ‘bastards in blue’. Some ham it up for the cameras or for their electorate who seem to take pride in electing hardliners who’ll personally spend their mornings hammering matchsticks up prisoner’s toenails. Other appear to believe in their self-created monster. It’s a strange kind of machismo; a warped version of Margaret Thatcher’s already twisted personality. She tried to out-man the men and now, I think, politicians that have been inspired by her, share a strange compulsion to a hyper-masculinity. Drawing this cartoon, I was inspired by a particularly grotesque image of Thatcher by Gerald Scarfe. He gave her a raging erection. I think most modern Tories are desperate to have the same. It’s up to you to decide how they measure up.




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