Cherchez la femme

“Their only crime was being young, arrogant, and beautiful.”

Patti Smith

Pussy Riot are the most perfect rock band in history. Even the Sex Pistols in their 77′ prime never looked this fucking good. Formed last year in response to Vladmir Putin’s third (and ultimately successful) presidential run, Pussy Riot are creating a pop experience that goes far beyond mere aural sensation.

Back in February 2012, the Russian feminist punk collective performed a ‘punk prayer’ against Putin inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour wearing multi-coloured balaclavas. Rallying against “evil crooks of the Putinist junta”, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, now face seven year jail terms for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is extraordinarily pretty and I want to sleep with her for all the wrong reasons. With Pussy Riot facing up to seven years in jail for singing in a church, having a crush on one of the accused seems completely inappropriate. It feels glib and trivial to fancy someone so unbelievably brave and intelligent.

Fortunately lust and intellectual admiration have never been mutually exclusive and sapiosexuals will appreciate that Pussy Riot have created a parallel universe that goes way beyond sonic thrills.

On being locked up like princesses in a cage, the Pussy Riot collective inevitably stoke up references to the Situationist International 68’. But unlike the liberal havens of Western Europe, modern Russia is a frighteningly oppressive regime and this Stalinist show trial only serves to remind people how many journalists in Russia have gone missing in the last twelve years.

And for all the talk of revolutionary politics and feminism, I find myself deeply conflicted by the case. As while I genuinely admire their intellect and courage, they are utterly, utterly brilliant, I feel ashamed that I have become infatuated by Nadia’s physical beauty.

However, I have to consider that many of the world’s greatest political movements were served by having a striking and iconic figurehead. Pussy Riot are all about symbolism in many respects – the glamour quotient of the Anonymous  hacker movement.

Pussy Riot have achieved their goals of becoming famous and their profile in Britain exploded after this brilliant article by Carole Cadwalladr, which is journalism worth paying for but you can read it here for free.

Pussy Riot are not individuals, they’re an idea. And that’s the thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world, too: that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven’t before seen.

The Russian feminists really are a wonderful reminder that if you want to inspire change then you have to capture the imagination of the soul. Listening to their punk demo records, it becomes pretty apparently that you don’t want Pussy Riot to serenade you. They can’t play to save themselves. But glamour on this level is not necessarily a superficial thing. Pussy Riot are an idea and you can’t arrest an idea – not one that has been transmitted across the globe.

In stark contrast to what is going on in Putin’s Russia, political protest has been largely tolerated in Britain during the last sixty years. The Pussy Riot girls would be ironic clothes horses in this wet green island, casually appearing on faux-rebellious street art in Shoreditch High Street. In Russia they have become the only band that matters. Pussy Riot live dangerously so you don’t have to.

A Stateless Nation

On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

Dreams of a Life

In 2003, the skeleton of 38-year-old Joyce Carol Vincent was discovered in a North London bedsit with the television still on. She had been dead for three years. Her remains were found alongside half-wrapped Christmas presents and the haunting flicker of BBC One. Joyce’s body was so badly decomposed she could only be identified by comparing dental records with an old holiday photograph of her smiling. How she died doesn’t actually matter.

What is truly shocking is how someone could remain dead for three years without anybody noticing. In a ghoulish tale of neglect and social dislocation, Dreams of a Life is a story about youth, friendship and missed opportunities. With no family and her four sisters refusing to take part, the docudrama pieces together Joyce Vincent’s anonymous life.

Directed by Carol Morley, the film interviews a handful of former-work colleagues, who reminisce about the water cooler moments and office parties they shared with Joyce in the 1980s. Now in their forties, there was unnerving sense of how our loves and opportunities narrow with each passing year. How meaningful their friendship with Joyce stretched beyond the superficialities of office small talk is questionable. Likewise her ex-flatmates appeared genuine but again unaware of her true character. Nobody it seemed knew Joyce Vincent.

A vivacious and charismatic girl in her prime, the former City girl had never been shy of male attention. However, like so many troubled women, men were a shady reference in her life. With her emotional rock coming in the shape of a bird-faced colleague, she drifted in and out of a series of broken relationships and spent her final years in a women’s refuge.

With the gaps in the narrative proving frustratingly esoteric towards the end, the story of Joyce Vincent’s life remains incomplete. Set in the early 2000s and in the absence of the social networking websites that dominate our lives today, Joyce left this world without even a missed call. It is bad enough turning forty let alone living on your own.

As the years slowly become decades, friends will inevitably come and go and a once beautiful, popular woman ended up spending her final moments utterly alone. Like a modern tale from Edgar Allen Poe the bank continued to pay her bills but nobody wrote or called. Invisible transactions kept on flowing all the while a scrambled television poured life into Joyce Vincent’s unvisited tomb.

Rules of Engagement

Until quite recently the number of friends you had on Facebook really mattered. Friendship was a numbers game and anything less than a hundred confirmed you were of a lowly social status and resoundingly unpopular. In order to seem normal then tagged pictures of you drinking Mojitos with friends were vitally important.

Going to a house warming party must be a public event or otherwise people will think you’re loser that never goes out. Friends are social points and likewise so are the stock greetings you receive on your birthday, which are especially poignant coming from the friends you unsubscribed from three years ago.

In bars and clubs people exchange Facebook details as a user friendly alternative to calling someone. With a new media landscape comes a new set of rules and social etiquette now involves protecting your internet history. Adding a date on Facebook is a potentially ruinous move. Sexy pictures of former partners, neurotic status updates and flirty comments will be revealed to a virgin pair of eyes.

Becoming friends online will inevitably ensure you go too far, too fast and if things do go awry you will be a humiliating click away from the recycle bin. A six month probation period is essential before you can even consider adding a new partner on Facebook.

Since people are growing sick of sharing their most intimate thoughts with idiots they never liked in the first place. Private circles are now becoming increasingly attractive. On realising that you don’t want Jakers, Spanner and the pregnant girl from school following you anymore – social media is gradually becoming more nuanced and exclusive. Rules are therefore required.

With Facebook becoming increasingly unpopular, alternative forms of social networking are slowly taking its place. Agenda setting and forming part of the national conversation, Twitter first began as a smug past time for media savvy professionals in London but has now opened up to the public at large.

Dangerously addictive social media has rewired our brains to such an extent that nearly everyone is now prone to shocking displays of mental promiscuity. Books lie unfinished and articles remain half-read, as the mind diverts towards refreshing a laptop instead. However, as our brains are being rewired to suit the net, the rules of engagement are still being defined.

Self -publicists on Twitter ‘retweet’ praise about themselves and this involves resending a comment to your own band of followers. This a massive faux pax in the social media world. Already such behaviour is frowned upon in dinner parties and gastro pubs as incredibly annoying. Therefore let others retweet praise about you rather than be defined by your own slovenly antics.

It is also important to remember that no one outside of your social circle has any interest in what you have to say. Like the gold rush of the Wild West, the people who made the real money were those selling the spades, not the poor souls digging in the wilderness. Twitter has thus become a narcissistic ponzi scheme full of link exchanges and diversions that people rarely (if ever) pay any attention too.

Social networking remains an illusionary stage and while it may lack authenticity it certainly has transformed almost every aspect of our daily lives. With old media rendered obsolete, breaking news is no longer announced on the BBC or Sky News but on Twitter instead. Falling behind the curve is particularly embarrassing online – like when people tweeted about the death of Amy Winehouse three hours after it went viral in Uzbekistan.

Again like retweeting praise about yourself, announcing old news as an OMG exclusive is not good practice and with over 300 million users worldwide there are plenty of news channels to choose from. If failing to keep up with a modern news cycle is understandable then tweeting #RIP tributes to dead celebrities is certainly avoidable. Empty tributes to movie stars, actresses, sportsmen you had previously shown no interest in won’t reflect well on your brand.

A new social contract is slowly being formed and shedding a few dimwits from the friends list and refining your manners will benefit everyone in the future. Our generation ability to shape and control the rules of engagement is an essential learning process for mankind, as social media will have a huge impact on our future relationships, friendships and personal integrity too. Something that will prove essential when brand building narcissists discover they are nothing but mere noodles on a graph.

Up a Gumtree

Gumtree has played a part in most people’s lives since its conception in 2000. Providing the great British public with many of its essential needs for well over a decade – whether it’s a new shed, one night stand or an unhinged flatmate, the online classified website has it all. On forming part of our digital furniture like television adverts and BBC weathermen did in the 1980s, the website provides a universal portal for people to share, trade and form new relationships. Embraced by the illiterate and super educated alike, Gumtree has cut through social and racial differences and provides a welcoming home for everyone in society.

Modern flatshares are almost entirely reliant on the success of a classified ad. What I have noticed is the clear discrimination working-class men face in trying to find a place to stay on Gumtree. The majority of the London flatshare adverts state they are after ‘female professionals’ or if gender is not an issue then professionals or students may only apply. Where is the guy who works in the crisp factory going to live? Is a ‘professional girl’ in a call centre working as a customer service representative a more desirable member of society than a hard working plumber on 35k a year?

Sticking to our own kind is entirely natural and women in particular have to be careful. Gumtree is a feral website and provides an anonymous forum for the dispossessed, lonely and members of society that nobody else cares about. Usually they are male but not exclusively. Gumtree has also exposed a shocking increase in illiteracy levels in this country. This poor guy certainly didn’t use a spell checker before replying to my flat advert in 2008.

hi there

i just wants to know if ur room is still avilbell,so i can halla at ya and c if u avbel to rent me one of those room witch going to be free by 12th of march.well i am studint n i allredy have my acommodation booked till 10th of march so i tink if ur room is going 2 be free n if u dunt have any problem with having 21 years old studint around,Every ting going 2 be allright.if u dunt mind ill going 2 leave u my number so u can get back 2 me.

Sean

Suffice to say my room was not ‘avilbell’ to Sean but after meeting a series of freaks, misfits and miscreants from across Europe and being rejected by all of them. Desperation takes hold and you have to take leave of your prejudices in order to pay the rent. As a result I have shared a living space with a motley crew of bizarre characters courtesy of Gumtree. For while the silent majority have been lovely, friendly and thoroughly decent people; like the American House of Representatives, the lunatic fringe always seems to have a disproportionate influence on any flatshare experience.

Some of my flatshare highlights have included a homophobic cleaning Nazi, a manically depressed doctor and one insanely hairy Georgian. All of these characters proved to be insufferable over time. It usually takes about a month before the hidden nuances of these professionals are fully exposed. For like George Orwell in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, I too have met “eccentric people – people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent”. Alas there is now a familiar place for the eccentric and ill-balanced to find a communal home, but I can’t help wish they would stick to buying a garden shed.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Adam Curtis’s three-part BBC documentary series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace‘ explores the notion that humans have been colonised by computers. He argues that humans have lost faith in their ability to change the world for the better. Politics is dead. As the global economic crisis of 2008 has already shown, ordinary people are nothing more than helpless components in a computerised market system, which we are seemingly powerless to challenge or change.

Hope is a false prophet and secular idealism is no more of a superstition than religion itself. Cyberspace is a black hole, where our thoughts, feelings and emotions are distributed on Facebook and Twitter, and sold on and repackaged to make money.

Carmen Hermosillo, an early adopter of online chatrooms, argued in 1994 that our emotions will become commoditised.

It is fashionable to suggest that cyber-space is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality, this is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.

Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money value. In the 19th Century, commodities were made in factories, by workers who were mostly exploited. But I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board I was posting to – like Compuserve or AOL – and that commodity was sold onto other consumer entities as entertainment.

Although what is most disturbing is not the commodification of our inner thoughts but the suggestion that humans are merely biological machines programmed by genetic instructions. One of Britain’s most famous and controversial scientists Bill Hamilton argued that human behaviour is controlled by our genetic codes.

Famously popularised as the ‘Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist explained that ‘DNA is a coded description of the worlds in which our ancestors survived. We are walking archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas, walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days’.

According to gene theorists, human altruism is a paradox that can be explained as a survival strategy by our genes. Murder, violence, genocide and suicide can also be logically explained as pre-coded behaviour to allow the stronger gene to replicate in an unforgiving survival of the fittest.

Although while Dawkins has never been an advocate of social Darwinism, his late counterpart Bill Hamilton believed nothing should be allowed to interfere with the destiny of the gene. He believed modern medicine affected the stronger gene’s survival and that to keep unfit genes (sickly people) alive would lead to the degeneration of the human race.

In this respect gene theories bear a striking resemblance to the radical Presbyterian belief of pre-destination. Calvinist extremists believe that God knows everything from the beginning of time to the end of time. So it doesn’t matter what you do in your current life as your destiny has already been pre-written by God himself.

Pre-destination was popularised in the James Hogg’s 1824 masterpiece ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, where a Scottish religious fanatic becomes convinced by the Devil that he is grace incapable of sin, even the sin of murder, and therefore is immune from physical and spiritual punishment.

The religious protagonist in Hogg’s 19th century novel subsequently takes the pre-destination theory to its extreme conclusion. God has since died but Dawkins selfish gene offers a near identical masterplan. He believes we are all controlled by DNA codes, which are buried deep within us and humans are simply machines playing tiny roles in a vast strategic game of survival.

It doesn’t matter what we do with our current lives because our genetic destinies have already been pre-written. Our genes may live forever but according to computationalism there is no spiritual or ethical dimension to our human existence. God, love and family are merely an HTML code.

Arrested Development

WestEndWalk

After the Guardian revealed Lord Wei of Shoreditch is unable to fulfil his Big Society duties because working for free is incompatible with ‘having a life’. Lord Wei not only exposed the sham of a government expecting people to work for nothing in an era of massive spending cuts. Moreover it shone a torch on the murky world of corporate exploitation in the modern workplace. Earlier this week Richard Bilton’s excellent BBC documentary showed how class continues to restrict access to professions and well-paid careers to all but an exclusive pool of well-connected individuals.

Anyone looking for work in the publishing, fashion or media industry will already be familiar with internships. The vast majority of media jobs in Britain are based in London and anyone lucky enough to receive an offer can be expected to work for 3 months unpaid and still have no guarantee of employment. With 1 in 10 graduates now out of work, I can recall my struggle to make a break through after graduating from the University of Glasgow in 2004.

After the privilege of studying at a world-class 15th Century institution, the harsh reality of finding stimulating employment became all too apparent when I temped for the financial services industry. While I wanted to use my creative writing skills for a living, I sorely lacked confidence and with no connections, I found myself trapped in a vicious circle of dead end temping jobs to pay the rent. Glasgow is the call-centre capital of Europe and after graduating, I would turn up every day for £6.04 an hour wearing a Britney Spears headset on behalf of the Scottish Co-Operative Group.

With my dignity in tatters, I quickly realised that in order to improve myself, I had to go down the Scottish voluntary route. By doing so I religiously scoured the internet and worked for free on behalf of tourist boards, local restaurant guides and a global university website. Eventually I quit my administrative day job to focus entirely on voluntary writing positions I had initially agreed to fulfil in my spare time.

On not wanting to let my future references down, I eventually gave them my full working week for nearly 5 months and used credit cards to pay the rent. Clearly unsustainable I fortunately managed to get a salaried media job in London as a result of my volunteering and agreed to move down south.

While I have clearly benefited from volunteering and believe it is often a necessary passage for young people to get ahead. Anyone doing a voluntary internship in London will have astronomical overheads compared to what I had to pay in Glasgow where the cost of living is far cheaper.

If young graduates want a media job in London then they will be expected to serve not one but several unpaid internships before getting a salaried position. Expecting people to work for nothing inevitably favours upper-middle class children from the South East, who have financial support or live within commuting distance of their parent’s home. This new aristocracy of coming from a home owning family is increasingly divisive and helps to form an unfair and disproportionate workplace in some of the most desirable sectors.

Once you’re inside the door then depending on your employer it is increasingly down to the dark arts of networking and internal friendships to progress. While it would be desirable to think you can progress through ability and hard work alone, I often find social intelligence and the ability to ‘work a room’ is all too prominent in making that elusive connection to get ahead. From a personal perspective I have always found the charm offensive very difficult because I don’t have a silver tongue to seduce random strangers at launch parties, meetings or screening invites. We are all made differently and the path ahead is not always going to be a fair or equal one.

When Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke of the British promise being under threat by cuts to public spending. He tapped into a deeper trend of how the current generation cannot expect to exceed the wealth and standard of living of their parents. There is nothing clever about making the best jobs only for the rich and by narrowing the best opportunities to rich home owning families it only serves to create an increasingly divided and unequal society.

Clearly there are social, moral and long-term economic benefits from having a well educated workforce and to frighten off potential students from poorer or lower-middle class backgrounds is foolhardy in the extreme. It makes me extremely angry that higher education is perceived solely as a means for people to make money.

Surely in the current economic climate our future values have to change. We should be looking to create a fairer, balanced and more equal society instead of this myopic chase of prosperity. Even by writing inside a rented box in the sky for nothing, I am still enormously proud of my university education and feel it should be open and accessible to anyone. Something even Lord Wei would agree about as he reduces his voluntary hours in order to pay the bills.