Question Time: The BBC’s Obsession with Nigel Farage

I’ve begun down that slippery path of complaining to the BBC.  Don’t worry, it won’t become a habit, but yesterday’s Question Time was rather irritating.  The three topics discussed were state surveillance, Scottish independence and intervention in Syria.  However the Scottish independence issue was clearly at the forefront, the debate being held in Edinburgh with an audience of 16 and 17 year olds (due to the voting age for the referendum being reduced to 16).  If we accept this, can we agree that a panel consisting of four unionists, one advocate and one middle-ground is pretty uneven?  Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson pointed this out but was dismissed by David Dimbleby, who argued that the audience was split 50-50 on the issue.  But if that’s the case then surely it should apply to the panel as well?

Yesterday, Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie tweeted his irritation at the composition of the panel, which included no representatives from the Green Party nor the Liberal Democrats.  Despite the Greens being among the loudest voices in favour of independence, this wouldn’t need to be an issue if the other panelists represented a range of views relevant to the debate.  Instead, we get Nigel Farage and George Galloway.  I don’t wish to add my voice to the chorus of cries at “BBC Bias”, as I don’t think there’s anything malicious in their decisions of panelists.  What I do think is a problem is that entertainment seems to have become a greater priority than providing a good debate.  Farage was clearly chosen because of his recent misadventures in Scotland and Galloway because, well, he’s loud.  No doubt it was hoped that Galloway and Farage, sitting on opposing ends of the political spectrum, would go head-to-head in a ‘highly amusing’ shouting match.  What actually happened was something of an unholy alliance where they agreed on most issues.

This isn’t the first time Farage has been on Question Time.  In fact, according to this article  he has appeared more frequently than any other individual since the last general election -closely tailed by George Galloway.  Why is this?  Both UKIP and Respect do have representation (well, in England) so I don’t object to their inclusion from time to time, but I don’t think either figure is popular or relevant enough to warrant this sort of exposure.  I’m convinced that they only get invited on because they’re controversial enough to be entertaining but not so extreme as to draw immediate criticism and complaint.  But if they’re giving minor parties this level of exposure then it’s only fair it be divided equally to other parties with similar popularity – to the Greens also and, indeed, the BNP.

I guess the ultimate question is: What do we want from the BBC’s main show for political debate?  Entertaining pantomime or reasoned arguments?  It scares me that the answer isn’t clear.

(As an aside, I’m astonished at the level of condescension and scorn towards young people I saw on Twitter last night.  With a couple of exceptions, I thought the audience had very good points and expressed them well.  Should we not be allowed opinions?)

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Tuition Fees (And Why I Love the Scottish Government)

I just want to make a brief post in which I gush at how grateful I am towards the policies of the current Scottish National Party administration within the Scottish government which allow students studying for their first degree to be excempt from paying tuition fees.  Yesterday I received a letter from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland in which they promised to pay the roughly £1,800 yearly fee to study at Edinburgh University.  I have to apply again each year, but over the course of four years this will have saved me £7,200.  And the fee of £1,800 is incredibly modest! (I can’t help wondering how much a student from south would have to pay).

Compare this to the system in England and Wales: yearly tuition fees which can be up to £9,000 a year, after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition as Westminster introduced them a couple of years ago.  Over a standard three-year course (it’s generally four years in Scotland) this would leave many students up to £27,000 in debt.  It’s abhorrent, and I deeply pity everyone subject to this hopefully temporary measure.  I can understand why the Scottish government has decided to make tuition fees apply to students from England and Wales – otherwise Scottish students would likely lose out as our universities would become understandably swamped – but I certainly wish there were another way.  It’s as if the young people of England and Wales are being punished for having the misfortune to have simply been born where they were. 

University is expensive.  As I’ll be moving to Edinburgh I will also have to worry about the costs of accommodation and also just the costs of living independently without a stable income.  I’m in the fortunate position of having some money available to me for university and I will never take this for granted, but I know so many other students will find it a financial struggle.  Abolishing tuition fees for a first degree massively reduces this struggle, therefore working to break down the class barrier and, within a generation, improving the skills of the population as a whole.

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The Bridge (Review)

Contains spoilers.

It was this tragic announcement which inspired me to read an Iain Banks book.  I knew very little about him beforehand, but recognised his position as one of Scotland’s, if not the UK’s, best general and science-fiction novelists.  I scoured the local library for a good book to start with – his only one I was aware of at the time, The Wasp Factory, scared me – and came across The Bridge.

My first impression was admiration towards his incredibly talented writing style.  The novel begins with a strange, contorted section from the perspective of the protagonist (I’ll call him John Orr for convenience after his Bridge persona, though we are also introduced to The Barbarian and it’s suggested, though never made clear, that his real-world name is Alexander Lennox) within his crushed car.  It glides through broken up sentences, curses, confusion and philosophy with great skill.  The rest of the novel continues this way.  Sections on The Bridge, John’s coma world, are written in a surreal and vaguely disembodied manner, as are the dreams; The Barbarian’s sections are written in broad Scots dialect and follow his exploits in a fantasy world of Greek mythology, but are nevertheless highly readable; his real-world history is heavily nostalgic, switching to third-person past tense for a biographical account of his life, interspersed with historical events to adds layers of realism.  In literary terms, this novel is a masterpiece.

The world of the Bridge is an incredible creation.  John, am amnesiac, finds himself on the world of the Bridge where an entire civilisation live suspended above the railway track in corridors and streets and buildings.  He spends his time undergoing dream therapy with Dr Joyce, before being moved – ingeniously coinciding with his real-world shift in hospitals – socialising, and searching for the labelled library.  It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and nor is it supposed to.  I have a hard time sifting through what’s intentional symbolism and the random fragments included to show the state of his brain.  The hospital-TV screen and beeping on the telephone are obvious; the warplanes leaving braille messages in the sky and his obscure dreams are less so.  Some of the dreams focus on an attempt to overcome warped laws of Physics – my favourite was his trying to pass through a narrow path when a stranger traveling in the opposite direction mirrored his every move – which symbolise how trapped John is within his own head.  Building up the mythology of the Bridge makes me really eager to discover what lies beyond, and Banks doesn’t disappoint; the prisons, the warzones, the sadistic generals… Beautiful writing, though again, difficult to determine their meaning.  I thought it might have been his mind fracturing as it splintered apart, but this is near the point where he finally awakens, so I’m not sure.  This is not a flaw.

John’s, or rather Alex’s biography is fascinating to read.  It was actually quite unnerving for me at moments: here we have a teenager with an interest in history and English who moves away from home to study at the University of Edinburgh, having fallen in love with the city; he later develops an intense dislike of right-wing politics and joins Amnesty International.  Uh – I hope this is where our similarities end!  I particularly enjoyed following his unusual relationship with Andrea.  She spent a large portion of her life in Paris and each had romantic partners within that time, yet they continued to be a ‘couple’ of sorts.  The definition of an ‘open relationship’, I guess.  Couldn’t comment on whether it’s healthy but it’s certainly refreshing from most of the gooey loved-up couples you find in fiction and reality.  These sections are not written in a particular narrative style; they flow up and down as any life would.  I really, really liked the bits of historical flavour Banks added.  He would begin a section by mentioning, for example, the election of Margaret Thatcher, or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and go on to describe things like John’s donation to the African National Congress as an ‘apology’ for his company’s operations within Apartheid South Africa.  Reading John and Andrea staying up to watch Thatcher elected once, twice – and their resultant anger – felt so real.  These are deviations, but they add so much.

The characters are another strength of this fantastic novel.  The trinity of the protagonist’s psyche: despondent, political Alex; laid-back, casual John; and primal Barbarian, together feel like a whole, realistic person.  Andrea is a likeable yet flawed love interest, whose relationship with John I became totally invested in.  The characters in the Bridge world were also fascinatingly developed: from enigmatic Abberlaine Arrol (who vanishes from the novel 2/3s in, perhaps symbolising Andrea’s irregular presence in his life) to Dr Joyce (again vanishing), and even the characters who only appear once; each feels properly crafted and real, even when they’re not.

One curious response I had to The Bridge was a resurgence in my normally dormant sense of Scottish nationalism.  Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s greatest advocates for Scottish independence, and it shows.  Typically, my idea of Scots literature is either idolised figures like Robert Burns and Walter Scott – who I always presumed were raised on such a pedestal because we had no one else – or highly interesting but also repetitive ‘rural, Highland, Jacobite’ culture.  For the first time, I have fallen in love with ‘Scottish literature’ as a genre.  It stills feels a little wrong to separate it from ‘British literature’ – I would very much like to continue claiming Shakespeare and Orwell were writers from ‘my’ country, despite their English identities – but less wrong now than it once did.  Not that reading this has swayed my opinions on independence or anything – which I am hesitantly opposed to, though technically still ‘undecided’ – but I feel more proud of being Scottish having made this discovery.  Also, it was very exciting to discover that the Bridge is supposed to be the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, a bridge I have travelled across many times in my life.  Perhaps this pride is born out of actually having settings and situations I can relate to on a personal level?

All in all, I was hugely impressed by Iain Banks’ The Bridge.  I think I must dive into more of his work as soon as I can – I’m very tempted by his ‘Culture’ series of science fiction books.  His imagination thrills me, and I can’t wait to find out what else it includes.  My only criticism is that the book was slightly difficult to understand at times, but perhaps that is a limitation on my part rather than his.  The tragic news of his cancer will hit the literary world very hard indeed, and he will be loved and missed by many.  But that’s a negative way to finish off; he has a final novel, The Quarry, still to be released and adored by his countless fans.

Final rating: 9/10

Homelessness

Bit of a belated post here, but it’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.

Every time I travel into a large city, which for most of my life has been once or twice a year, I never fail to be shocked by the homelessness pandemic I always find.  Having been brought up in a society where even oficially homeless people have some sort of roof over their heads, it’s incredibly shocking to imagine a life of ‘sleeping rough’.

For years, I’ve never been able to decide on the morality of giving money to those who beg.  If they’re selling The Big Issue, or doing some other means of getting money, then fine, it’s more clear cut.  But I guess I feel it should be the state’s responsibility to ensure everyone, at the very least, has a house to live in (and ideally a job, too, though that clearly has not been a priority for any government in decades – the cynical side of me would say most modern governments actually want some unemployment, but that’s digressing).  However, I have quickly come to the conclusion that, although creating a system in which many people need the charity of others to survive is wrong, to simply ignore someone in such need is also wrong.

However, there has to be balance.  It is unreasonable to suggest giving money to every single homelessness person you meet, else you’ll soon be going a similar way (so widespread the problem is).  So, I guess, to ease my conscience, perhaps just giving money to one or two homeless people a day would suffice.  A quota, if you like.  I don’t know.  If everyone did this, rather than the majority who are desensitised and do walk past every day, surely their plight would improve? 

One issue is that, quite often, homeless people do spend the money they receive on alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.  When I was last in Edinburgh I gave one man a small amount of money, and later passed him smoking a cigarette.  I don’t judge him for this by any means – in such an empty, purposeless life, you would grasp anything which could provide even the slightest escape.  So I don’t see this as a good reason to ignore beggars.  There is also the issue of people faking being homeless – although I’m inclined to want to give someone money simply for the mental endurance to sit for so long in the cold, ignored and detested by society for all of that time.  I was told the other day that you can supposedly identify a true homeless person by whether they make eye contact or not; someone with experience of the streets will not, because theyre so used to being spat at or otherwise abused.

Indeed, I am increasingly noticing simply how demonized homeless people are in society.  “Oh, he’s just a stupid hobo,” is something which would not surprise or even shock me if I heard it casually said.  “That coat makes you look like a homeless person LOL!”  Because it is a situation so few people can relate to, and don’t expect to ever experience (I do not see myself being homeless in the future, for instance, even though I know it’s possible), it becomes easy to brush off their woes as self-inflicted.  I could be wrong, but I believe very few people truly understand the issue of homelessness, or care to try.  I certainly don’t.

I think, if I ever see the opportunity, I may at some point volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, or something along those lines which would allow me to actually meet and speak to homeless people, and to better understand them.  Or, I suppose, even speak to the ones on the street – show them that not everyone in society despises them, and perhaps help ease even a tiny fraction of the loneliness.  We must all do what we can.

Brief University Update: St. Andrews

Today, my tour of Scottish universities, having previously covered Glasgow and Edinburgh, was rounded off with a look at the University of St. Andrews.  Having fallen in love with Edinburgh and its university, I almost felt like a fraud being shown around St. Andrews, and then having a personal discussion with a representative from the university over aspects of studying there.  St. Andrews has a reputation of snobbery, of privilege – Prince William, for instance – and of existing in a state of Splendid Isolation, so I was curious how far these perceptions would be challenged by reality, and whether I could be tempted away from Edinburgh.

On the whole, the visit failed in its intentions.  Upon first arriving at the town of St. Andrews, despite the picturesque scenery of green fields and massive rivers – which are mostly alien to me – it became clear that this is not somewhere I would thrive in.  The streets, quiet and plain (possibly due to students, a third of the town’s population, being on Easter break) are eerily similar to those you might find in the town of Lerwick in Shetland, where I live – the sort of streets I would really like a change from.  By no means is St. Andrews dislikeable town with its coastal and historic beauty, but having just arrived from Edinburgh it really does lack in areas such as research opportunities, literary and political activity, the diversity you could only find in a city, etc.  And I would imagine the view of endless golf courses might become tiring and claustrophobic after four years.

The university itself seems alright, though the tour had a large focus on its frankly bizarre traditions, which includes parading across the pier in red cloaks, being adopted into student ‘families’, and having massive shaving foam fights in the centre of the university.  These crazy traditions may be endearing to some, but I personally would probably sit in my dormitory and read until it’s over.  St. Andrews seems to exemplify your typical rural but vibrant town, your ancient settlement with queer traditions.  I suspect me real reason of disliking it is the large similarities it holds with Shetland; the break is simply not clean enough between the quiet life of my childhood and the life of what I hope will become a prolific future.

This trip has been highly interested.  Glasgow proved better than expected and St. Andrews worse but Edinburgh, as expected, looks set to be my second home for the next four years.

Brief University Post: Edinburgh (and the Scottish Parliament!)

Yesterday, my university trip continued with the visitation of the University of Edinburgh. I have long considered Edinburgh to be my favourite UK city (alongside Brighton, which gets ‘honourary mention’).  I feel instantly at home whenever I step along the cobbles and gaze at the skyline dotted with spires, unlike the sense of foreboding and oppressiveness I feel in most cities.  So I dearly hoped the university would thrill me in a similar way.

And, on the most part, it did.  It isn’t quite as visually pretty as the other Scottish universities I have visited, like Glasgow, Stirling or Heriot-Watt, though it has its charms.  I can imagine George Square becoming a splendour of reds, yellows and oranges in the Autumn, and there’s something lovely about Bristo Square (pictured to the left).

Several particular features of the university excited me.  From a literary perspective, there’s such a charged atmosphere: the Literature Society has regular activities, including meetings with a range of figures, from Owen Jones to J. K. Rowling.  Edinburgh was UNESCO’s first ‘City of Literature’, and there’s a wide variety of festivals in which to engage in both reading and writing.  The city contains the National Library of Scotland, and a pretty hefty lending library.  The university library’s pretty nice, too.  These activites make Edinburgh seem an especially good destination for someone not at all interested in the drinking scene.

I was also fascinated by a talk for the History degree (I’ve applied for a joint English Literature and History degree at Edinburgh).  We were treated to an example lecture on the economic history of the UK, which turned out to be far more fascinating than it sounded.  Edinburgh is a city with a rich history, dating its large-scale growth far back before the Industrial Revolution – unlike Glasgow.  Along one street you’ll see Gothic style buildings, along another they’re almost Medieval, and then you’ll come across a classical display of pillars and gold.

There is also a lively political atmosphere in Edinburgh, which appeals to me highly.  Walk along any street, particularly near the university itself, and you’re likely to see a variety of posters advertising protests: to scrap the Trident nuclear missiles, to oppose the ‘Israeli Apartheid’, to oppose the totalitarian regime of North Korea, etc.  We even stumbled upon a petition-signing event protesting against the ‘Bedroom Tax’, organised by the Scottish Socialist Party, though it was wrapping up just as we arrived and so we unfortunately never had chance to put our names down.  There’s a variety of fundraising movements we witnessed, ranging from collections for children’s hospitals to firefighters marching for the National Union of Firefighters (or something along those lines).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the the 2011 Occupy Movement in Scotland survived longest in Edinburgh.  Having grown up in a small island where the height of political activity is spars over whether or not to build a cinema, bridge, wind turbines, and so on, this was an amazing environment to find myself in.

This brings me on to the more exciting aspect of the trip.  I fancied a quick glance at the Scottish Parliament, located in Edinburgh, so we took a walk down the ‘Royal Mile’ and ventured in.  After a security check, we took a cautious walk into the public gallery of the debating chamber.  To our extreme fortune, it turned out that a session of the First Minister’s Questions were about to start.  My geek-credentials were proven with the fact that this excited me more than anything has in a long time.  One by one, high-profile figures in Scottish politics began to file in.  Johann Lamont (Scottish Labour leader), Nicola Sturgeon (Deputy First Minister), Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative Leader), and, finally, Alex Salmond (First Minister, and the Scottish National Party leader).  We watched him spar with figures such as Lamont and Davidson, and also debate with my own MSP, Tavish Scott.  I noticed Patrick Harvie, one of the few Scottish Green Party MSPs, in the chamber but unfortunately he never spoke.  It was strange, being so close to objects and people of intense interest to me.  I suppose, as I never personally interacted with any of it, the experience was not a lot different from watching the proceedings on TV, except the former never leaves me buzzing in excitement for the rest of the day.

Overall, I truly love Edinburgh.  I liked Glasgow more than I expected, but it would take a lot for me not to choose here as my place of study for four years.  From what I’ve seen of St. Andrews thus far, I don’t think my opinion will be changing.

Brief University Post: Glasgow

I might be quiet on the blog this week, because I’m spending a week touring the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St. Andrews to help me in the final decision of choosing a place.

Today we went to look at the University of Glasgow.  This was my first proper look at the city of Glasgow, let alone the university.  Glasgow suffers from a reputation of experiencing high crime, high poverty and low standards of living.  Although we only passed through the town center and the university, and didn’t go near some of the more deprived areas I believe to exist in the east end, I saw nothing to back up this reputation.  Glasgow is a beautiful, simply laid out (so square-shaped!), vibrant city which I enjoyed visiting.  We only breezed through, but I’d certainly like to make another visit one day.  Or, who knows, possibly even live there.

The university itself was wonderful.  Such an academic, lively hub.  The architecture is awe-inspiring, with grand staircases climbing the walls, entire halls of pillars and exquisite ‘quadrangle’ courtyards.  Every inch is steeped in deep history.  I was enthused by talks I received on the English Literature course, and on the Arts faculty in general.  However, I wasn’t largely impressed with the university library.  Oh well.

I’m in Edinburgh now.  Tomorrow I shall visit the University of Edinburgh, and on Friday it’s St. Andrews.  Still completely undecided… I guess I shouldn’t complain at the choice!