On Stewart Lee

I want to find Stewart Lee funny. He’s clever, he’s meta, and he’s not popular enough to count as mainstream so liking him still has a certain cache.

I read his book a while ago when he talked about zooming out from the comedy so you can see the writing in the margins. I can see where he was going with that. I listened to his bit about how he could be a librarian but you’d have to understand how traditional librarians operated in order to really ‘get’ how his brand of librarianism worked. That was pretty funny. I enjoy the quasi-confessional, quasi-therapeutic moments with Lee discussing his method with Armando Iannucci on Comedy Vehicle (although latterly some bloke in glasses because Iannucci appears to be busy with Veep these days.) I appreciated that.

The problem is that I kind of don’t find Lee funny. I cast no aspersions on his artistic integrity or intelligence. He clearly has both in abundance. But I can’t really get over the fact that for every 7 minutes of performance there’s approximately 45 seconds worth of actual material.

The past 25 minutes have cemented this for me. Because I’ve had a tough day at work, & I decided to have a few drinks this evening. I am, as a matter of fact, slightly tipsy. And I’ve realised that I have laughed more in the past 25 minutes at Stewart Lee than I ever have before. Stewart Lee is funnier when I’m pissed. Which is usually the mark of a substandard comedian. Lee got funnier the drunker I got. I *want* to like him, but the evidence suggests that in order to do so I have to engage with him on the same terms as I would with, say, Russell Howard.

I don’t get that with Richard Herring. He tells better jokes about exponential mathematics. And the drunker I get when watching Herring, the less I realise I’m understanding. I find that funny.

Kissing Grandparents

I just read a brilliant article on the Guardian. Last year I might have just shared on Facebook with an exuberantly punctuated ‘This!’ But a) saying ‘This!’ is a bit passée now or so I am given to understand, and b) I’m starting to get a bit of time back to do some blogging and this is as good a topic as any to kick off the New Year.

So, tl;dr the article contends it is contradictory to teach children about consent and maintaining control over their own bodies whilst ‘forcing’ them to bestow physical affection on Grandparents (or for that matter any other relative.) This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Furthermore I was impressed at the clarity of Barbieri’s argument, and the inclusion of the disclaimer at the start, presumably designed to mitigate against the criticisms which sadly would come anyway. I was disappointed by the comments expressed horror that the author dare condemn such innocent activity, branding her opinion ‘perverse’ and ‘troubling’.

Once I stopped spluttering with indignation and exasperation on the writer’s behalf I started to unpack why I was having such a strong reaction. Firstly it’s because I feel she is quite definitely, uncontroversially, correct. It is inherently contradictory to teach children that they should have autonomy over who touches them and how, whilst at the same time placing social pressure on them to kiss & cuddle family members against their will. Whether or not that is a contradiction which society chooses to accept is perhaps a matter for debate but nevertheless it is surely undeniable that to do this is teach children a certain behaviour is bad unless an adult chooses to override that for their own spurious reasons.

Secondly, contact with another person doesn’t have to be sexual to be unwanted. Despite the interpretation of this article by many of the commenters, Barbieri does not say anywhere that hugging between family members has a sexual component. Insisting that if a child does not want to kiss granny then he shouldn’t have to, does not imply in any way that granny has paedophillic designs on her grandson. What it is doing however is teaching the child that their feelings about whether or not they want a particular form physical contact is, if not irrelevant, then at least secondary to the feelings that an adult has on the matter, whether that’s hurting Uncle’s feelings or embarrassing Mummy because little Timmy suddenly shies away from a whiskery peck like a spooked horse.

Thirdly, what kind of well-adjusted adult is incapable of forgoing their own whimsical preferences if it’s upsetting to a young member of their own family? I suppose I can understand that an adult might feel a momentary sense of rejection if their well intentioned display of affection is met with a less than enthusiastic response. But if a child says “No, I don’t want to” then, seriously, what kind of responsible adult responds with anything other than “Ok, you don’t have to”. Said, I might add, in a manner which clearly respects the child’s wishes as opposed to a pleading, emotionally blackmailing display of disappointment designed to guilt the child into doing it anyway!

Children can be capricious, hurtful, mean and self-centred, and part of responsible parenting involves teaching them about how other people’s feelings matter, and the importance of being polite. But surely learning that autonomy over one’s own body is important is the foundation for learning that on must respect the autonomy of other people as well.

2013 – the year I got a new job.

In a rare moment of wakefulness past my usual bedtime, I saw in 2013 with some good friends in Woking. It was a lovely evening at home, made all the more festive for the bottle of Lanson Black Label champagne. I was fairly relaxed after my customary Christmas break stretching from Christmas Eve through to 2nd January (one of the perks of working in the Higher Education sector – Universities tend to shut down completely over the festive period.) But I also felt nervy about returning to work.

Since about September 2012 my colleagues and I had been trying to do our work, but substantial change was in the air and it’s hard to stay focussed when you don’t know what your job will consist of a few months down the line. We had been faithfully promised that we would know our fate by the time we broke up for Yuletide. Whether the news was good or bad, decisions concerning the new operation would have been made, and planning would start in earnest. To no-one’s tremendous surprise the deadline came and went and nothing actually happened. So we all sloped off for the break none the wiser.

Come the end of January Terry & I headed off on a proper holiday. Still we knew nothing, and by now we were getting pretty bored of being jerked around by the DfE. I returned to work in early February, established that we still had no idea what our jobs would be, if we would want to do them or even if they would actually exist. And that’s when I started thinking.

At this point I had worked at the Institute of Education for four and half years, administering a programme of Continuing Professional Development to teachers and technicians working in Science education. It had been a varied role, I had learned a lot, made some very good friends and generally enjoyed it. But returning to work that February for the first time I realised I really didn’t want to go back into that building. Not just the normal end of holidays blues, but a deeper malaise signifying that I was no longer happy in my job.

But there’s a recession on. I was bloody lucky to have a job at all, and it felt childish to indulge in existential angst about whether every waking moment spent within those solemn grey concrete walls was any fun. Plus whatever lay ahead it was likely to involve a lot of work, and I was riddled with guilt at the prospect of leaving friends and colleagues in the lurch. So I spent an unhappy 6 weeks miserable, bored, anxious but in a state of semi-denial that anything was wrong. My ever-patient, ever-supportive husband gently suggested that I polished up my CV and started seeing what jobs.ac.uk had available. In the meantime work was getting worse; everyone was tense and short-tempered and now in March we were still in the dark about what would happen in the Brave New World as we not-very-cheerfully had taken to calling it. Eventually I saw sense and agreed the time had come to Start Looking.

In a break with tradition, Terry was staying still, career wise, and getting on pretty damn well at O2 in Slough. So we figured out where I might be able to work which wouldn’t drag him away. Analytical types that we are, we overlaid the UCAS map showing all HE institutions in the UK with the Mapumental tool which draws circles according to commuting times via public transport and another which shows distance by driving time. With our parameters set, 3 areas seemed likely candidates: staying in London, moving to Reading or moving to Oxford.

I wasn’t crazy about sticking with London. South West Trains’ quality of service had been steadily declining, in direct opposition to the cost of the tickets, and I was aware that the daily grind of the commute was not helping my mood. I submitted my first job application to Reading on the 1st April 2013. I didn’t hear anything back, (correctly) assumed I hadn’t been shortlisted, asked for feedback (was told I had been a decent candidate but it was a very strong field blah blah blah) and resolved to Carry On Looking.

A few scant weeks later I put myself forward for a job running one of the largest and most prestigious scholarships at the University of Oxford. I was stunned to be shortlisted, which consisted of a substantial pre-interview task, a pre-interview computer test, a presentation and then the interview itself. It was hands down the most gruelling job application process I had ever gone through, but it seemed to go well. Really well actually! I left feeling cautiously optimistic, and then, because it happened to be my birthday, I went to the pub and got drunk.

I received the rejection letter at 16.15 the following day and had a beautifully restrained little cry in the corridor at work (think Emma Thompson in Love Actually!) There was the normal gubbins about the panel having a really tough decision to make and would I please consider other posts. Blah blah blah.

Ever my guiding star – Terry had a different interpretation of this missive. Where I had assumed polite smoke-blowing, Terry was sure there was real intent behind the invitation to apply for another position which had been advertised at the same time. And so I re-jigged the stuff I had submitted before, hit the Send button, and waited.

Whatever they had liked about the previous application was clearly still there, as I got shortlisted again, and went through the whole pre-interview rigmarole once more. I was a little better prepared, a little less nervous and felt like I had given the best account of myself possible in the interview. I felt optimistic, but was determined not to get my hopes up too high. A friend was celebrating her birthday in Soho that evening, so I resolved to make my way back to London and get drunk.

Which is in fact what transpired, except that during the intervening 2 hours The University of Oxford rang up and offered me the job and my life changed.

I handed in my notice, hunted for, found and bought a house in the 3 months it took me to leave my job and moved to Oxford 11 days prior to starting in the Graduated Admissions and Funding team. I’ve barely stopped since, what with learning the ropes of my new role, settling into the house, and getting to know a brand new city. As such, many other things such as blogging and going to the gym have fallen entirely by the wayside, so I hope to start easing my way back into normality in 2014. It’s been a turbulent year, but I can honestly say that while I am exhausted, I am finishing 2013 much happier than when I started.


#Techmums was featured in the Guardian today, which is great news for Dr Sue Black who is its founder. I confess I tend to avoid anything overtly referring to Motherhood as I generally feel it’s not going to be of much interest to me. But having read a bit more into the kinds of issues Sue set out to address when #techmums was created I think I have a better grasp of what she’s trying to do and why it’s important. So I unreservedly applaud her efforts and wish her the best for her venture.

Having said that I was conscious of a prickling of discomfort as I read the Guardian article on the bus this morning. Not because of the content of the piece, but the because of the section of the paper (well, website) where it appeared. It was in Life and Style. Not technology. And for a moment I felt rather indignant on Sue’s behalf. How dare they relegate such an important issue to the ranks of recipes and sex tips?

Then it occurred to me that perhaps it was under Life and Style because those are the sections that its target audience read. I can be a little slow sometimes. And no sooner than this thought crossed my mind I wondered why I had it in my head that appearing in a different section to the one I expected was in any way a relegation. Why would I have it in my head that recipes and sex tips are somehow intrinsically less important than technology? In fact I actually think quite the opposite – I think that eating well and having fulfilling relationships is actually rather more important than the features on the latest version of the iPad.

I sincerely hope that #techmums is a success. I hope that it doesn’t suffer from the easy inclination to dismiss tech as ‘not counting’ because it appeals to Mums (or school kids, or old people, or any other demographic). In fact I really hope this ushers in a new age of inclusivity in the tech world. And I hope that at this amazing project helps other women on the road to finding an interesting and life changing new skill.

Was going to university worth it?

Around this time of year I feel pretty smug. I remember getting my A-Level results, 13 years ago, and the prospect of never having to go through that again is wonderful. (And the prospect of not having to through it again by proxy is even better. “Not having to deal with exam results” is one of my many, many reasons for not wanting to have kids.)

13 years ago I was already in possession of a rather dismal D grade AS level in Psychology (back when they were proper AS levels that were the same difficulty as an A Level, just half the syllabus.) I was properly nervous about getting my results, thanks to a combination of making some rather questionable decisions about which A-levels I would do, having a later-than-normal teenage rebellion phase, and realising far too late that maybe I wasn’t quite as clever as I thought I was. I was over the moon to get an A in English Literature, slightly disappointed to get a C in German and absolutely stunned to get an E in Maths – given that I had assumed I had failed that entirely. As per the standard instructions I immediately phoned the University of East Anglia to see if these were good enough to confirm my place on the Philosophy degree course I wanted to do. I think my offer was BBC, which by my calculation I had met in terms of UCAS points, but not in terms of the configurations of results so I was extremely relieved to find out that I had the place I wanted.

At the time, my relief was mostly to do with the fact that my then-boyfriend, a rather older gentleman (well, 27 to my 18) , was living in Norwich, and I was quite exited at the prospect of living in the same town as him. Unsurprisingly this relationship lasted just a few scant weeks into my university career and we mutually called it a day. Fortunately Norwich is large enough that we didn’t keep running in to one another! A mere couple of months after that, I started seeing the man who I would later marry. So much as I despise Boris Johnson for saying it, if I’m honest with myself, I kind of did go to University to find a husband.

There’s a lot of advice swirling about for prospective undergraduates, some of which seems sage, and some of which is utter gubbins. There’s usually some newspaper columnist waxing lyrical on how he/she didn’t go to University, and they did ok. According to some pre-emptive strikes on Twitter, this is usually written by reasonably privileged individuals whose experience of the ‘University of Life’ is probably, to put it kindly, atypical. At the other end of the spectrum there are the college cheerleaders who bang on about how nothing gives you a better start in life than spending 3 years drinking beer, occasionally turning up to class, joining footlights and then getting discovered by Granada television studios. Or how writing a 10,000 word thesis on the legacy of the Great American Novel whilst accumulating a debt which is larger than a small mortgage is a really good idea!

The truth is that most people love talking about their own experience, and most people like to think that this can be extrapolated out to a world view which will be valuable to everyone else.

So, I am speaking purely from my own experience, and don’t expect this to help anyone else out of a dilemma. Was going to University worth it?

I’m a bit embarrassed now to think that at 18 I was more excited about hooking up with my older boyfriend than I was about actually going to university. (In the short period between us breaking up and meeting Terry, I wised up a lot about how relationships, and how stupid it is to utterly define yourself and your future by another person.)

On the other hand, my (current) relationship is one of the best things to come out of my university years. So for that reason alone, yes it was worth it.

University meant getting to mix with a wide range of people. A diverse social circle might not sound like the most important aspect of higher education, but I really think that learning to get on with different kinds of people is one of the most important ‘life skills’ a person can develop. At the ripe old age of 31 I pride myself on being a pretty open-minded kind of women, and I credit that in no small quantity to the fact that I’ve met a wide variety of people. I find intolerance hard to deal with, whether that’s misogyny, homophobia, racism, classism or some other arbitrary dislike of a section of the population. But I often find that the ‘root’ of said intolerance comes from a person who has very little experience of people with whatever characteristic it is they despise, be that people of a different ethnicity, sexual orientation, attitude to drug taking or hair colour.

I learnt how to look after myself. I went to a boarding school, and I really couldn’t understand my fellow boarders heading off to catered halls of residence. In fact one of the very few absolute stipulations for me was going to a University which had self-catered halls. I already knew how to cook, and had been doing my own laundry for a good few years, so the notion of going somewhere that expected me to relinquish these trappings of independence felt like it would be a huge step back. I know lots of people describe the minutiae of adult life as boring, but I was overjoyed at the prospect that I was getting close to the point where I would pay bills, fill in forms, get a proper (non student) bank account etc. This, I felt, was Growing Up, and I loved it!

I got to spending 3 years learning for its own sake. Although Philosophy is pretty good for transferable skills, it’s not exactly a fast track to a career, like, for instance, computer science. I got to study something I loved, without feeling overly-burdened as to what I would ‘do’ with it when I finished. I feel immensely privileged to have had that opportunity. But having enjoyed this privilege I now feel slightly like I need to justify such wild academic extravagance. At the point that I was getting my A-levels, the concept of a Gap Year was starting to become an object of derision – rich kids bombing around Asia for a few months getting stoned whilst living off their trust funds. (I’m sure that wasn’t the reality for lots of people, but that was the caricature!) In my first proper part time job I had at University, I was surrounded by people who treated my indulgence of doing a non-vocational degree with exactly the same level of contempt as I would exhibit towards those who thought 6 weeks doing shrooms in Bangkok constituted ‘seeing the world.’
And afterwards, when I started searching for full time work I felt that my degree did give me a bit of an edge. I got temp work easily enough, and nailed my job interview at a bank. Having a degree demonstrated I had brains and commitment. Of course perhaps I would have been better off if I hadn’t got that job after all.

So what are the downsides? With more and more graduates entering the jobs market, having a degree is no way guarantees getting a job. I’m inclined to think it probably helps, but I have no evidence for that.

I was in one of the first cohorts to pay tuition fees, but 13 years ago they were a fraction of what they are now. Additionally the grants of yesteryear had gone, and we just had student loans. Which, as it turns out, I am still paying off. University felt like the right choice for me, although I was aware that it was a substantial investment. Of course, compared to now, it was an easy decision. Now, there is so much more to consider.

I can saw with confidence that university was definitely worth it for me, but 13 years later, the landscape has changed. At this time of year there’s no shortage of commentary suggesting that the University experience is not all it’s cracked up to be. That may or may not be the case. The point is that it’s different for everyone. You might go to University and spend 3 years following a course which doesn’t interest you, because you felt it was what was expected of you. You might skip higher education and get an apprenticeship which leads you to the career of your dreams. Or you might not. But part of growing up means making that decision for yourself.

Is the new Marmite advert really the most important thing happening right now?

I don’t want to be the kind of person who thinks that other people are stupid. That would be arrogant, elitist and wrong. But sometimes, it’s really hard not to! There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed a lot in the past few months, which I keep meaning to blog about but never got around to it.

At this moment in time, lots of really important things are going on in the world. The below is a selection of things I’m aware are happening now, based entirely on my own biased preferences as to what news items will grab my attention, and what the equally biased ‘meeja’ will have chosen to tell me about in the first place:

1) Edward Snowdon has been granted political asylum in Russia, prompting the cancellation of a planned meeting between Obama and Putin.

2) Nairobi airport was on fire, which could have a potentially catastrophic effect on trade and tourism for vast swathes of East Africa.

3) As conditions for the LGBT community in Russia worsen, the debate heats up about the best form of political protest against the upcoming sporting events to be hosted there.

4) A 3rd person has been arrested in connection with increasingly violent threats made on twitter, while there are reports that Jo Smith (the sister of the teenager Hannah Smith who tragically committed suicide, apparently as a result of online bullying) is now facing similar ‘trolling’.

5) Seven people, alleged to be members of al-Qaida, have been killed in Yemen by a US drone, following reports from US intelligence claiming ‘chatter’ had reached pre 9/11 levels.

6) The shady practice of ‘zero-hours’ contracts is facing further scrutiny as research indicates the true number of people employed under these contracts could be much higher than the official government figure.

7) Someone in UKIP said something racist.

However in spite of the availability of reasonably up to date coverage of each of the above stories, at 15.23 this afternoon, the ‘most read’ article on the BBC website was regarding the number of complaints about the latest Marmite advert.


I cannot speak to the veracity of the data which indicates what is ‘most read’ at any given time, but if true this is both rather depressing, but somehow also not that surprising. Perhaps it’s because these daft little ‘human interest’ stories are easier to understand than news items which involve complex geo-politics. Perhaps it’s because ‘proper’ news is generally so depressing. Perhaps I have massively underestimated the cultural significance of Marmite. But when people talk about a lack of political engagement, I can’t help but feel that this is relevant.

So, if anyone has the time to conduct some proper research in this area, that would be swell!

Diversity and the Last of the Time Lords

I’m over the moon that Peter Capaldi is going to play the next Doctor. I think he’s a terrific actor, he is clearly as dedicated a Whovian as one could hope to meet, and I bet no one can possibly be putting him under more pressure to do a good job than himself right now.

The announcement last night, in a rather hastily put together live show, demonstrated how big of a deal the casting of this particular role has become. The hype surrounding the show has steadily increased since Russell T Davies breathed new life into the TARDIS back in 2005. And with such hype comes commentary. And with commentary comes meta-commentary, which is my area of expertise.

At the fore of the discussion on the identity of the actor who will next play this most iconic of TV characters is the plea that the part should go to a non-white male. I’ve heard this a lot recently. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, a host of different names were mooted as possibilities, among them Idris Elba, Chitowel Eijofer, David Harewood, Billie Piper, Olivia Coleman and Helen Mirren. This morning, a friend of mine tweeted that she heard someone say the following:

“I wish it had been a woman or a black guy.”

I have so many feelings swirling around my head about this it’s hard to pin them all down. But some things did immediately spring to mind. Of the actors listed above, some are women and some are black guys. None are both. Surely if ever there was a time to employ the term ‘and/or’ it would be now. If we also factor in the precedent for casting previous supporting players, how come there wasn’t a big call for Sophie Okonedo (Liz 10 in The Beast Below), Christine Adams (Cathica in The Long Game) or Yasmin Bannerman (Jabe in The End of the World) to play The Doctor? (Or was there a campaign which I missed?) And what about non-white, non-black actors? I’m not sure how much of this is a historic hangover, but those of African-Caribbean descent often seem to be the poster-children for issues of diversity at the expense of the Asian and Hispanic communities. I know she’s busy on The Good Wife right now but I reckon Archie Panjabi would do a stonking job as The Doctor. (With Omid Djalili as her companion. They would make a cracking ‘odd couple.’)

One the one hand, diversity is usually regarded as a Good Thing. It connotes inclusivity, a variety of perspectives, a sense that ‘normal’ is not defined by any one sex or ethnicity or religion or orientation. On the other hand tokenism is usually regarded as a Bad Thing. It connotes misrepresentation and a patronising attitude to a particular group. Treading the line between these two can be very difficult indeed, particularly when combined with issues of creativity and artistic license.

Compare and contrast: the lack of diversity in ‘Friends’ (set in New York City) with the lack of diversity in ‘Midsomer Murders’ (set in rural Oxfordshire.) New York City is a very diverse geographical area, and towards the end of its 10 year run, Friends was starting to come under fire for its overwhelmingly ‘Whitebread’ depiction of NYC. On the other hand, rural Oxfordshire is, as a matter of fact, predominantly Caucasian, and so would the inclusion of characters from ethnic minorities be a crass attempt to shoehorn in an unrealistic sense of diversity? (This is of course setting aside the boneheaded remarks made by the writer about the last bastion of Englishness.) It seems to me that the crucial difference between these two examples is representation. Artistically depicting somewhere real but omitting its ethnic variation seems, well, not to put too fine a point on it, like whitewashing.

As a matter of opinion, I think that Doctor Who creates ethnically diverse landscapes very well. Which makes sense, given that it’s a show about the past, present & future of this and many other planets. So it’s right that characters should be depicted who are white and black and brown. And green and blue and red. And it’s not as if this kaleidoscope is restricted to the extras either. Looking back over the 7 series of the main show (plus specials), 4 series of the spin off Torchwood, and 5 series of the spin off The Sarah Jane adventures, the supporting characters show a terrific range of sexes, ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations in each show. In fact I’d be hard pressed to come up with another TV universe which has embraced the range of humanity experience so fully. Although I’m sure that there are groups that might feel differently. (Off the top of my head, I’m not sure of the extent to which non-able bodied people are depicted.)

So, for the 12th time in a row, a white male has been cast as the main protagonist. Is this a missed opportunity? Perhaps. Moffat made it clear that he is open to the idea of a non-white male doctor. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse from the point of view of those who think this is a missed opportunity. If the Doctor could have been female, does that mean that she should have been? Do the arts have a responsibility to push an inclusive agenda, or is that agenda served better by maintaining the ‘integrity’ (whatever that means) of casting whoever the producer’s feel will do the best job, irrespective of their sex, age or ethnicity?

I think my feeling is that while I can understand the disappointment of those who feel Capaldi’s casting is a missed opportunity, I can’t share in it. I think that given the show’s (in my opinion) generally good history of casting a range of actors, it’s more important for them to focus on what they do with those characters. For instance if Hispanic actors were only ever cast as villains I think I would see that as more offensive than simply not casting them in the first place.

In fact there was just one comment in the Guardian which actually made me feel quite upset on this subject:
“Given the rules of regeneration theoretically permit the Doctor to become anyone, many may regret there has been no change of race or gender – although, following recent concern over misogynist attacks online, female actors may be relieved to have avoided becoming a test case for the limits of Twitter tolerance by feminising a famously boy-centred franchise.”

The notion that marginalised female actors might feel relief that now at least they won’t have to put up with rape and bomb threats is offensive and abhorrent. Although for the avoidance of doubt I am absolutely not lambasting Mark Lawson for raising this as he is making a subtle point about a difficult subject, and kudos to him for that. For although I hate the idea, there is a possibility that he may be right, which I hate far more. As a feminist I find that idea far more damaging than Peter Capaldi getting the role of a lifetime.

What is an ‘ethical’ investment?

Poor Justin Welby eh? One day he’s railing against pay-day loan companies (as any sensible person intent on currying favour with the collective Guardian readership would do) and the next day he’s found out that the Church of England has been ‘indirectly’ funding Wonga the whole time. Whoops! Welby has professed himself to be ’embarrassed’ and ‘irritated’ by these revelations. Perhaps being the Archbishop of Canterbury prohibits him from expressing any stronger emotions, like how a Jedi shall not know anger, nor hatred, nor love. (Yes, I know that this interpretation of the Jedi code is hotly contested by everyone except those responsible for the Attack of the Clones poster. I’m not getting into that here ok?) Anyway, it’s clear that Welby is pretty pissed off by this turn of events.

I’ll admit to a certain degree of schadenfreude at the prospect of Welby feeling embarrassed about anything. If you are in the habit of going around moralising on any given topic you’d do well to make sure you aren’t guilty of the same thing yourself. Now Welby looks like just another clueless investor, pathetically clinging to a plea of ignorance to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. He is vowing to scrutinise where his money actually goes more carefully in future, in a bid to maintain some credibility. Actually this is mildly reminiscent of one Rupert Murdoch, claiming to be unaware of the practice of Voicemail hacking and trying to persuade us how humble he felt. Watching powerful men squirming when they get caught out is always pretty funny!

Or so I was feeling up until about an hour ago, when a pension update came through my letterbox advising that the investment options are changing. And I thought to myself, do I know where all of my money is invested? Absolutely not! Between us, Terry and I have several pension funds, plus bank accounts & savings accounts. I have no earthly idea where that money is invested. I might be funding pay day loans, munitions, tobacco, fossil fuels or any number of other industries I find morally repugnant.

So, I am going to stop pointing and laughing at Justin Welby, and focus instead on the fact that his current high-profile humiliation is raising some awareness about the shadowy world of the investment portfolio.

I’ve always taken pride in my fiscal prudence, and I regard myself as pretty savvy when it comes to personal finance. For nearly a decade I have been paying into a pension, which, supposedly, will furnish me with a retirement income that will keep the wolf from the door in my twilight years. I’m fortunate in having a defined-benefit-final-salary pension, so the amount I get in retirement should, theoretically at least, not be dependent on how well the fund performs over coming years. And as as result of this, I realise I am myself just another clueless investor, pleading ignorance as to where and how my money is invested.

For those with defined contribution schemes, which are now the preferred type of pension in the private sector, the investor is periodically asked if they want to change their investment options. Amongst the type of funds available, there is usually an ‘ethical fund’ option. These funds purport to avoid stashing money with companies and industries which do not meet a certain ethical standard.

In the 6 years I spent studying moral philosophy academically I developed a healthy scepticism for anything claiming to be ‘ethical’. Mostly because whether or not something is ethical is a) highly subjective, and b) utterly dependent on context. Earlier I listed a few industries I claimed to find morally repugnant. But if I’m honest with myself, are my moral judgements here really so cut and dried? Scummy advertising campaigns and 4 figure APRs aside, pay day loans can serve a purpose if used carefully. I find the notion of war and violence abhorent, but what if weapons are used to arm rebels trying to overthrow a corrupt and dangerous government? I might yearn for the day when all energy comes from renewable sources, but in the meantime I want big oil and gas to be able to keep their costs down so that people can afford to keep warm in winter. And tobacco companies might, er, well they might contribute to research to improve treatment for lung cancer…OK, that’s stretching it a bit. But the point stands, that I actually struggle to make an absolute moral determination on the ethics of a particular company or industry.

But even if I’m not convinced whether my money is invested ethically or not I think I’d still prefer to know. I’d rather face up to the truth of who and what I am funding, and then take responsibility for that investment, than refuse to peer under the rock for fear of what I might learn. Wilful ignorance is not bliss, it is a refusal to engage in the truth. And that is something that I know is immoral.

5 years

After 5 years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer lay dead and buried, having made the ultimate sacrifice to save her sister, her friends and the world.

After 5 years, Harry Potter was devastated by the death of his godfather Sirius Black, and burdened with the knowledge of the prophecy concerning his and Voldermort’s fates.

After 5 years, Sheridan and Delenn boarded the White Star to fly to the newly completed offices of the Interstellar Alliance, leaving Babylon 5 and its Next Generation crew behind.

In each of the above cases, the fictional world would continue past this half-decade point, with varying levels of success. With great longevity comes great responsibility, especially in the world of cult fiction. Die-hard fans will cry bloody murder if a beloved character is slain, and yet without that sense that the stakes are getting higher and that all bets are off, your audience winds up crying tears of boredom instead of grief.

If you are finishing your series after 5 years/seasons, you need to convey a sense of absolute finality. Even if you are going to attempt a spinoff series. Or a couple of lame TV movies. Or after your ‘final’ episode you then air the end to the previous season because the network execs wouldn’t stop screwing around with your show. (Although Sleeping in Light packs more of an emotional wallop anyway – so that worked out ok!)

If you’re planning on carrying on Post-5, then you better have something pretty spectacular up your sleeve for your End of Year Arc. Which invariably means death. And not a red-shirt death either. You need a meaningful sacrifice, someone your audience loves, someone whose loss will dramatically alter the relationship dynamics between your other characters. You need to convey a sense that despite your show continuing, everything has changed. That it won’t just be more of the same.

You also need to be accept that however you plan things, there will always be those who will reckon you should have thrown in the towel then and there. Season 6 of BtVS is widely regarded as where it started to go off the rails. Harry Potter always had its detractors, and many of them honed in on the rather excruciating Ron/Lavender/Hermione love triangle in Half-blood Prince. Crusade only got a single series before being unceremoniously cancelled.

Nothing lasts forever. Sometimes things need to change. More often, things need to end.

All of which is a massively self-important analogy to the fact that after 5 years as an administrator at Science Learning Centre London I’m leaving to start a new job and a new life in Oxford.

At the tender age of 31, 5 years represents half my working life since graduating from UEA in September 2003. I’ve had some great experiences at SLCL, made some great friends, and learned a huge amount, but it’s time to move on.

A brief history of my life in computer games

As mentioned in a previous post, I decided to run a Barcamp Berkshire session on the computer games I had enjoyed throughout various times in my life. The below is a blog-version of my talk.

A short history of my life in computer games

As an only child I spent a fair amount of time at weekends and during school holidays playing on my Dad’s computer. The above game, Sleuth, was a text-based rip off of Cluedo, but with the addition of some incredibly basic graphics. As a detective you had to navigate your ‘avatar’ (if you can possibly call the small cluster of pixels an avatar) around the floorplan of a large mansion, interrogating murder suspects.

slightly later

As time went by, my Dad got a better computer with a better graphics card, which allowed me to play more sophisticated games like Commander Keen. (N.B. Dad – if you’re reading this and remember it differently, just go with it ok? No one ever expects accuracy to get in the way of the narrative.)

It was playing this game, frantically hammering on the keyboard to avoid the green, googly-eyed monsters, that I realised my motor skills left something to be desired. I needed a computer game that didn’t rely quite so heavily on precision key-strokes.


Enter my primary school friend Emma, her Dad’s rather better computer, and a wannabe pirate by the name of Guybrush Threepwood. The Secret of Monkey Island marked the start of a long and happy relationship with Scumm games. The point and click puzzle solving was fun, cerebrally challenging but required little in the way of hand eye coordination.


A couple of years later I went to boarding school and took the prudent measure of befriending a chap named Alex who had the Scumm game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis installed on his machine.


As I grew older I learned that the best way to make friends with teenage geeks was to talk to them about gaming. There are those who swear mid 90s FPS games hit their apex with Duke Nukem or Wolfenstein, but for me and my mates it was all about Doom 2. Killing a Cacodemon with a chainsaw in God Mode was one of life’s purest pleasures.


Learning the art of conversing with geeks was a skill which would stand me in good stead for going to university, where I would meet the love of my life, Terry.


Terry moved in with me and my student housemates in 2002, and one of our first decisions as a cohabiting couple was to set up 2 computers in our respective rooms, with an ethernet cable running between them, taped to the ceiling. It was here that I discovered the world of the PC-based strategy game series Command and Conquer. We spent hours playing together, sometimes against each other, but more commonly in collaboration against a computer generated enemy. We started off with Tiberian Sun.

red alert 2

Graduated onto Red Alert 2


And really hit our stride with Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds.


I was a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and was wildly excited when Terry got me the Xbox game. This was my first proper introduction to console gaming. Since my days of button-mashing on a PC my manual dexterity had improved a bit, but not vastly. Jumping puzzles and boss fights would sometimes get the better of me, and Terry would on occasion have to help me out with the trickier bits.


The sequel Buffy game: Chaos Bleeds was more my speed, incorporating more puzzle solving than its predecessor. Additionally I loved that you got to play as different characters, in particular the welcome return of Sid the Dummy.


In 2005 I decided to do a 3 year part-time MA in Philosophy through the Open University. Although it’s still one of the best things I ever did, it was incredibly hard going. One unexpected challenge I faced was what to do with my diminished leisure time. Reading no longer held any pleasure for me and watching TV & films felt too passive. To this day I am convinced that playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess kept me (just about) sane. The game looked gorgeous, the puzzles were challenging enough to keep me interested but not so tough I gave up. Best of all, the new, intuitive, style of gaming introduced by the Wii meant that rather than having to press lots of fiddly buttons, fighting with a sword entailed swinging a Wiimote. Suddenly I had a console game where I wasn’t unduly punished for having poor motor skills.


So absorbing was this new world of Hyrule that I happily played a couple of older Zelda games from the Game Cube days, although button mashing on a Wavebird was definitely a step down from the Wiimote swinging. I was delighted by Windwaker, even though the bright primary colours and youth of its protagonist made it felt a little babyish compared to the sombre tones of Twilight Princess. When it came out, Skyward Sword became my favourite Zelda experience to date. Delving further in the Nintendo back catalogue, Ocarina of Time felt pretty blocky and clunky next to the later games, but I still enjoyed playing through it. Mostly…


That bloody jumping puzzle!


This dude is trying to kill me with six swords. Six!


Oh the tears! Oh the swearing!


Last summer I mentioned I rage quit Ocarina of Time for 3 and a half years. This was due to my failure to execute the above jumping puzzle (or if not that exact one, a very similar one.) On occasions my frustration at my own ineptitude can get the better of me. It’s generally not pretty.


Although I loved Zelda, I needed a new kind of game which punished user error less severely. The Lego franchise hits this nail on the head. Aimed squarely at the family market, the game brilliantly realises the Star Wars universe in Lego bricks. The other main draw was the drop-in, drop-out collaborative play which carried through to similar TT games.


Such as Batman


And Indiana Jones. The games weren’t flawless, but losing a few points each time you ‘died’ as opposed to getting the dreaded Game Over screen was a welcome change of pace.


Several years ago Terry wrote a post about our quest for games which supported collaborative play. Friends suggested we tried the House of the Dead series. As one commented “Beating off a swarm of zombies together is a great experience!” How right he was! Additionally, House of the Dead: Overkill had (in 2009) the dubious honour of having the most swear words of any computer game to date.


While I’m not adverse to adult content by any stretch, I do seem to have more affinity for the more child-friendly games. Although quite how the title ‘Boom Blox: Bash Party’ made it past the censors I don’t know.


As the first decade of the 21st Century drew to a close I faced up to the fact that years of a rather sedentary lifestyle had left me significantly, if not severely, overweight. Having had less than successful encounters with gyms in the past I decided to see what gaming could do for my BMI. The Wii Fit pack proved a sound investment and over the course of about 6 months I lost a stone in weight, predominantly doing the cycling courses.


At last year’s Barcamp several people mentioned how awesome Portal was, so much so that we bought the game and I duly blogged about it last year.


The past few months have been a bit rubbish. Work hasn’t been going so well, and I’ve been feeling pretty strung out. I decided to replay Skyward Sword, and in so doing managed to finally win the Hylian Sheild on the Boss Fight Rush Challenge, a feat I failed to accomplish the last time I played. For every game I play there is usually a part where I eventually give up because it’s too hard. But then there are the occasions that I get over my rage quit, I try again and I succeed! And that feels pretty damn good!


My original talk finished with this slide, designed to prompt a bit of discussion for the rest of the slot. However as I mentioned in my previous post, part way through my delivery I realised that I was using an old version of this presentation. I ended up not discussing these types of games I have never properly tried. Instead at the end of my talk I went back into drop box, found the right version and went over the parts I’d missed out. So I never got to hear from anyone as to whether I should try out a handheld console like the Nintendo 3DS.


As mentioned above work hasn’t been going too well recently, and so when I wasn’t replaying Skyward Sword I was spending my time looking for new employment. As of the weekend when I went to Barcamp I’d already had one unsuccessful job interview, and had another scheduled for the following Thursday. Knowing how I struggle to occupy myself when waiting to hear the result, Terry bought me a shiny new Nintendo 3DS, so I could distract myself from the waiting and the possibility of rejection. He presented me with this toy on the Thursday evening after the interview, which was an incredibly sweet gesture. Except that by Thursday evening, I’d already been rung up and offered the new job! So it seems I’m not going to have much opportunity to play my new game, as I now have to move house, which is likely to take up a fair amount of time. But that is a post for another day!