Remarks at the open microphone, Westminster Security Studies Group Coronation Dinner, 5 May 2023. Numbers indicate location of material removed for delivery, 
but restored as endnotes.

[1]  In many countries in the world, there is a nation-as-person metaphor that appears in the discourse of national holidays such as independence days. It goes like this:

The country was undeveloped, immature, a sort of caterpillar raised and nurtured by a parent, a colonizer nation who released it when it had learned enough from the parent to stand on its own two feet as an adult among nations. (You can see whose point of view this narrative represents.)

A day is chosen to commemorate the separation, standing at once for the nation’s birthday and its day of emancipation. This is a narrative that grew up in the 19th and 20th centuries, the age of imperialism and emergence from imperialism.

In Britain there is no such narrative of the nation achieving independence and establishing the present regime. What moment could we possibly choose to represent separation from a past regime and/or establishment of the present regime? Would it be when the last Roman checked out of Britain? Or how about the Restoration? But the idea of the Restoration was that there was never a break–Charles II was king all along. Perhaps the union with Scotland represents the origin of the current national arrangement, but that’s now a bit awkward with independence referenda going round. Britain seems to be stuck in an eternal maturity–a late maturity, even post-maturity.

Britain does have a mapping of life cycle x nation, but it takes a different form. The nationally significant life cycle that has been naturalized is the life cycle of the monarch and his family. We observe their rites of passage; indeed, we are invited guests. We compare ourselves to the members who are closest in age to us. [2]

Relatability to the Royal Family gives us a key to the nation and its history. This too is a nineteenth-century relic; the Royal Family started to become a public serial (*by which I meant soap opera) with Queen Victoria.

Incidentally, although the life cycle metaphor works differently in Britain to other countries, national days and Royal Family events are marked in much the same ways: with flags and parades and fire and food and drink and concerts. [3] [4]

So what can we relate to about the Coronation? It is not a rite of passage that the rest of us go through. You might even say that’s the point: to mark off the monarch from all commoners and pretenders as God’s chosen monarch.

However: the day after the Queen’s funeral I started a new job. My starting date was pushed back because of the funeral, in fact. A few weeks ago, I passed my six-month probation.

Charles too has survived half a year in his new job. He is lucky that he did not have a six-month appraisal, not did he have to prepare a portfolio or engage in any contests of strength or skill.* He is the inevitable monarch. Nevertheless, congratulations, sir, on passing your six-month probation!

[1] Removed: section asserting that the most important transfer of power this week is the local elections.

[2] Removed: observation that the Royal Family has recently given many siblings cause to reflect again on accidents of birth order.

[3] Removed: TED talk based on my thesis about how media evaluate public celebrations of nationalism on dimensions of impressiveness, appropriateness, and enthusiasm.

[4] Removed: section about how there are two views of nationalistic practice in sociology: the functionalist view, which proposes that institutions like royal families and practices like parades have some functions in binding the community together–‘civic religion’ is one term used–and a more Marxist view that says these institutions and practices are just forced on us through the threat of violence, because the ruling elites *can* make themselves the center of attention. And certainly the British monarchy was established and periodically re-established through violence.

* To be fair, neither do we in my workplace, but I wanted to keep at least one point about inequality.

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watergate 50 years

On June 17, 1972 (I was finishing second grade) Frank Wills, a 22 year-old night security guard in a Washington office building, ripped off some tape that was holding a door latch open. On his next round he noticed it had been replaced and he ripped it off again. Then he made a call. Frank Wills made history just doing his job. He trapped a group of burglars in the offices of the Democratic Party’s campaign to elect George McGovern president. They were being paid by the Republican campaign to re-elect Richard Nixon, and their task that night was to tap the Democrats’ phones. The taps were interrupted, the burglars were taken to court and convicted. Nixon won the election anyway.

Time Magazine August 1974 with headline The Vote to Impeach

Magazine found in the house clearout, 2018.

Act II of Watergate consisted of investigations and legal proceedings at ascending levels of courts and Congress. These triggered cover-ups and destruction of evidence by top Republicans. As questions were raised about who was responsible for the operation – had Nixon known? – several layers of officials in his administration resigned or were fired. (There was no “stepping aside” or other prepositional pussyfooting in those days.)

The last act was the resignation of Nixon himself in August 1974, after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him. Unlike Bill Clinton and several others, Nixon never had to stand in Congress listening to a reading of his sins. Before that could happen, he stepped up into a helicopter and escaped to California and retirement.

Even as children we knew this story was important. It was our formative example of the disorderly yet orderly transfer of power – like the Kennedy assassination for the last generation, but in slow motion and with an uncertain outcome. (When I called down the cellar stairs to my mother that the TV said President Nixon would resign that night, she didn’t believe me. Still pleased to be right about that one.)

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plague novels: a scent of new-mown hay

While Andromeda Strain is the most bloodless science fiction – the microorganism is a solid hexagonal crystal, no messy fluids here – A Scent of New Mown Hay (John Blackburn, 1959) is a work of horror. Every other chapter ends with people people running screaming, or averting their eyes from the plague-stricken bodies, which are never fully described. As in John Wyndham, cosy domestic scenes and orderly meetings leaven the grisliness.

The scientific premise is reasonable: a fast-spreading fungus that forms a symbiosis with humans, arising from madura mushrooms. There is an actual condition of this type called “Madura foot” that produces bulbous execrescences and was, before medical advances controlled by amputation. The fictional strain has been juiced with radiation to spread more aggressively, merging inevitably with women’s bodies in particular (!) to form an elephantiasic lumpy mass, just jointed and sentient enough to show it began as human, otherwise as layered and vegetal as something you’d find in the back of the fridge.

Similar to Wyndham’s books, the protagonist is a decent, uxorious young scientist testing his skills against the clock, and unlike in Crichton’s, his wife is an important player as well. She earns her team status by remembering a fact nobody could have forgotten, and cements it with independent detective work.

As a child I found the book acute and frightening because the spores, originating in Russia, spread on the wind – akin to the nuclear bombs and fallout described in civil defense manuals from the local Air Force base. But the novel’s solution depends not on science, diplomacy or defense but on small-group psychology: on psyching out the scientist who doctored and released the spores. And that scientist had local help; in the end, horror also lives in the presence of moles and traitors at home.

CW: classism, homophobia, ageism and reverse ageism, ableism, racist talk, WW II never ended.

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plague novels: the andromeda strain

In Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, a microorganism of apparently extraterrestrial origin manifests as a cloud that saturates the air like nerve gas and seems to kill on contact.
The best part of the book, the only part I remember from an earlier reading, is the descent through the five circles of decontamination to an underground laboratory, with a nuclear detonation device at the level below that in case the precautions fail – a magnificent piece of worldbuilding.

The protocol includes showers in disinfectants, baths in antimicrobials, saunas, extreme-wavelength light, disposable garments incinerated after use – everything short of DDT and radiation is used to produce “clean” bodies in a “clean” environment. The procedures are described first in a planning document, part of an extensive set of realia distributed through the book: dossiers stamped Top Secret, transcripts, maps, computer printouts, and even a list of references to invented scientific literature.

The underground laboratory for investigating microbes from space operates on a wartime model: it was designed top down by a group of “wise men” and is staffed by a group of hero scientists who subordinate their bodies to the mission. Science also routinely consumes the bodies of animals and penitentiary “volunteers.” The four heroes are exemplars of the usual demographic suspects, competence pornstars whose acclaimed brains bring them the expected disproportionate rewards. The men lack distinct personalities: all we get is that one is the alpha, one can be a cowboy if needed, one is “sloppy,” and one is a bachelor surgeon. According to editor Robert Gottlieb, in a Paris Review interview, in early drafts there was even less difference: “The only thing that distinguished some of [the charaacters] from others was that some died and some didn’t … It occurred to me that instead of trying to help [Crichton] strengthen the human element, we could make a virtue of necessity by stripping it away entirely; by turning The Andromeda Strain from a documentary novel into a fictionalized documentary. Michael was all for it–I think he felt relieved.”

In mid-century military tradition (Catch-22), women are possessions and rewards; the alpha is already on his fourth wife. The bachelor surgeon, Mark Hall, is assigned the task of controlling the nuke, because the “odd man hypothesis,” supported by computer printout of test results, says a single man will make more “correct” decisions, according a computer simulation. If a broken seal triggers a nuclear countdown, Hall has just three minutes to get to one of the few key stations and stop it. (But what if he’s asleep when it starts?) Editor Gottlieb’s other contribution to the book was changing the odd man’s job from turning the nuke on to turning it off.

Although Hall is unpaired, his readiness for normative pairing is made clear that he responds to a sensuous female intercom voice – which belongs to an older spinster named Gladys. This is Crichton’s idea of a joke. A bit later Hall meets a “girl who was to be his assistant,” but she disappears after a scene or two of animal experiments conducted in space suits. Most support for these man-gods comes from computers, which can even replace doctors.

The minimal use of humans helps keep everything top secret: even in the sparsely populated area downwind of the first town wiped out by the microorganism, the public cannot be told because there is nothing they can do to check the spread and they may panic. The region is inspected with satellite cameras while the scientists race against the wind’s inevitable turn. Their experiments gradually prove that the cloud can disperse and corpses are not infectious. But the final solution is deus ex machina: the bug is found to have mutated into a harmless state taken as its final form – to the point where its ability to “convert matter to energy given only carbon, oxygen and sunlight” suggests a future energy source. Apparently the only thing wiser than a scientist is an alien.

CW: Grammatical sexism, which comes out in expository phrasings like “in fact, man lived in a sea of bacteria,” “a job that would take a man days to work out,” “both man and organism have adapted,” “public health was a young man’s game,” etc.

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freeze the bern

(Written for the Language and New Media class blog network)

Excited to say – people on the Internet are always excited, aren’t they – that I have contributed to a meme for the first time in my life – that is, I’ve made a new image that is an instance of a meme. I am no longer a passive consumer of memes! I am a producer!

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The kernel image of course is Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate, at the inauguration with coat, mittens and envelope, which is going to be by far the longest-lived image from this historic event. (Sorry, President Biden, Madam Veep, Poet Laureate Junior, Gaga from District 10022, and the rest.) The memes began exploding on my Facebook yesterday – someone had already assembled a thread of 40+ images – and rolled throughout the day there and on Twitter. Related materials as well – a news piece on the crafter who makes the mittens from recycled plastic bottles, a pattern for the mittens, an embroidered version of the image – but mainly this meme.

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what journalism is

One day on the subway to Boston, a well-meaning friend of mine asked, “How can you waste your fine mind on a trivial pursuit like journalism?”

At that moment, I realized why I loved journalism and always would. “It is a challenge, even to my fine mind. You witness disordered reality, and impose order on it. You are presented with a mélange of facts too large merely to record and regurgitate. So, you impose order on disordered reality, and do so in the correct written form within the time allotted. I believe that is a challenge I will wish to accept, the accomplishment of which will satisfy me, for a lifetime.”

Paul E. Schindler, Jr. (permalink)

I have things to say about this, but they do not fit in this space. Or this moment. News is happening.

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la lucha continúa

In the ninth month of March, the vaccines arrived, but of course could not be broadly and evenly distributed, just as testing was not broadly and evenly distributed before.

This week, new cases in the UK rose from 40,000 a day to 50,000 a day, between Monday and Tuesday, the biggest one-day jump so far. Hospitals are maxed out.

Nobody had a happy Christmas, because either they were missing the people they would normally see, or they were guiltily breaking what they knew was best practice (if not the actual government restrictions) to be with them. Or they were on duty coping with the flood of sick and dying. Not to mention processing the turnabouts in government messaging and continuing inadequate support for those who have lost their livelihoods.

One in 1000 Americans has died of Covid. Slightly more than one in 1000 Britons has died of Covid. The virus has now claimed someone I knew personally, one of the wonderful Bedford Free Public Library librarians from my childhood. (Are there two sweeter words in the language than free and public, especially together?) Dorothy Carter Ahearn was 102, which meant she survived the 1918 pandemic. But not this one.

Still downtowns are full of unmasked people, and still some people feel free to travel for fun, as if all these limits and cautions were meant for someone else. Most conspicuously, hundreds of British ski tourists went to Verbier, and then fled in the dark of night as quarantine regulations came down. Classy.

The most salient memorial currently is the ordinary-person obituaries in the Guardian (Lost to the Virus). Every one of these people sounds great and so do their families.

In the last month since the November lockdown lifted, I completed the term’s teaching, returned to Friday breakfast radio (distanced, gloved, wetwiped), did a little more shopping than in November, posted some Christmas cards, and met one person for the monthly Bookcrossing meeting.

Some of these might still be at Coffeelink if you want them
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faraway lights

Ipswich by night

“The Nutcracker serves up an idealized Christmas on a platter full of treats that everyone has been promised at one time or another – by our parents or by books and movies and TV specials. Christmas can be a joyful and problematic holiday for nearly everyone; it’s not religious enough for some, it’s too religious for others; it’s lonely for those without family, and it’s too full of relatives for those who have had enough of being known by a childhood nickname. There’s pressure to spend money, to commune, to be festive, and ‘the holidays’ can be a time of heightened expectations and recurring disappointments. The Nutcracker, however, is simpler. Like Christmas, it always comes around in December, but no one expects so much from a ballet, so its gifts can be discovered in a more relaxed manner.”

— Jennifer Fisher, Nutcracker Nation

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due diligence

Zoom-style logo by Sue Jones

November Bookcrossing was a Zoom with just a few people. I volunteered to arrange it, then decided I’d rather be at Punctuation, then E arranged it and I joined anyway. It was nice to see BCX people. Obviously no takeaway coffee was drunk and no books were exchanged.

At Punctuation, we had an excellent session on books we thought deserved to be better known. I presented Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Here is an excellent podcast about it, if you’re curious. The convenor presented Kirsten Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs, which I also love (and once used a text from in making up an entrance exam for the University of Helsinki). In other book group news, I plan to host a readalong of Dan Abnett’s Embedded for Eastercon, or rather pre-Eastercon, since he is a GoH there.

Not a banner con for ribbon collection, but we did have special punctuation “houses.” The others were quasiquote, interrobang, and hemidemisemicolon.

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a little older, a little more confused

It’s October and we still don’t have a vaccine. We still don’t have a clear and easy testing regime. We still don’t have contact tracing in the UK, just tattered signs with square barcodes posted up in food places for phone scanning. I have yet to scan one successfully. We still don’t have a proper description of the virus and all its variants, pathways and prognoses. We still don’t have a workable plan.

The Ipswich Bookcrossing meeting was held again in person, split up into groups of regulation pod size. You can see I’m still trying to give away Mary Ann in Autumn, whose beautiful cover does not make up for the Dune-like decline of the Tales of the City gang across the series. Other than monthly Bookcrossing, and weekly radio when I’m home, and trips to the shops for necessities, I have not been going out in town.

I have however begun weekly trips across the UK for teaching, via much depopulated London. The number I pay attention to now is the cases reported by the university. Today it is 68. The rate of doubling is a bit slower than weekly. At least one student in my classes has had to quarantine because of a housemate’s contact and another has gone home, and those are just the ones who wrote to me. We’ve gotten off very lightly so far compared to other universities. Every time I come home I have a migraine or stomach upset, but it’s quite likely this is due to eating garbage on the road, whereas in my flat with a stove twenty feet away I can eat like a Buddhist nun.

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a distant mirror

I, too, could not believe that they would railroad Nixon through until I read a [Walter] Lippmann column a few days before they did, who explained to my satisfaction how it had all been planned for weeks and months ahead; and all the power boys like Dewey were rallying around behind him, and jockeying for their eventual position when he takes over. I wonder how much any of this affects the true believers; or those who might have doubts. One of the phenomena we find incredible and disturbing, having now met 4 Republicans from the US who are visiting around here, is their flat-out refusal to think about anything happening to their symbol of safety. “I am willing to take the chance, if there is one. I am his. He is mine.” Etc. I don’t remember having run into this before, but imagine there was a great deal of it during the Roosevelt days … and he and his certainly did a great deal of railroading through conventions. I keep feeling, as you do, that there is a fighting chance for Adlai and Kefauver … but can they break through that idolatry onto solid ground?

— Julia Child to Avis DeVoto, Oslo, 27 August 1956

A recent joy has been Joan Reardon’s edited collection of the Child-DeVoto letters. Julia Child, of course, was The French Chef on the black-and-white television of my childhood, “a tall loopy Smithie who dropped steaks on the floor and swigged red wine while she cooked,” in the words of the early online journaler known as Edith Pilaf (the approximate words, recalled from memory).

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fame, notes on

One reason the 1980 film Fame is going to live forever is that it beautifully captures 1970s New York: the energy, the aggressiveness, the expressiveness, the untamed voices, the graffiti, even the vacant-lot squalor that followed FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. (After the federal government refused to bail the city out of its financial hole, the bankers stepped in. One of their conditions was the ending of free tuition at City College of New York–something I learned this week from social media’s deluge of micro history lessons.)

Fame is the work of a working-class British director, Alan Parker (previously: kiddie gangster flick Bugsy Malone, drug-running thriller Midnight Express), playwright Christopher Gore, whose career was cut short by the AIDS epidemic, and composer Michael Gore (no relation to Christopher, but a sibling to Lesley).

In his 2003 DVD commentary, Parker says he wanted to make a musical because he liked doing things he hadn’t done before. He certainly brings a fresh, almost documentary eye to the project, if not as documentary as he wanted. Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Performing Arts, “the real Fame school,” refused to let him film there because they thought he was going to make another downer like Midnight Express. Working in the former buildings of other schools, he instead made the best publicity movie that has ever been made for a high school.

The script of Fame is a chronological sequence of episodes, disjointed like memories, performed by an ensemble cast of high school pupils, college students, and pros, as well as some older actors and at least one actual teacher. The rotation between music students, drama students, and dance students keeps things lively. Irene Cara’s character, Coco, is all three, and if there is a star bursting out of the ensemble she’s the one. Coco sings the title song and the two next best songs, and shows a cynical, steely drive in counterpoint to everyone else’s adolescent confusion. You could say Coco’s/Cara’s biggest obstacles were thrust upon her by the director: an unbecoming fringe haircut, and a cruelly voyeuristic seminude scene near the end. Without her, the film would be a B-movie–and in return it exploits her, in the guise of making a point about exploitation.

The 133-minute story starts with a half-hour montage of auditions before the class even gets to homeroom and accelerates as graduation approaches. Christopher Gore’s proficient scriptwriting is repeatedly thrown off balance by Michael Gore’s songs just when it’s about to get interesting. In the second half, two drama students make a field trip to the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the Village, featuring Sal Piro’s floor show. This was a phenomenon Parker found interesting and he made it relevant to one student finding herself as a performer, but it wasn’t part of the school. After a few scenes where the students realize it won’t be easy breaking into professional performance, the story finishes abruptly with one last song at the diploma ceremony. There’s no easter egg epilogue telling us Where Are They Now and drawing a line under moral lessons.

The film hangs together enough to make some sort of universal campus-drama sense, but some aspects can be more widely recognized as disappointing 40 years on. All and only the minority ethnic characters are poor. We don’t get to see enough story and performance from the Black students, who are used as diversity wallpaper or as jokes. Mrs. Sherwood/Anne Meara’s outbursts at Leroy/Gene Anthony Ray are terrible teaching; why isn’t she taking him aside and getting him some tutoring? A scene where the boys spy on the girls’ changing room could have come from a National Lampoon production. And Coco–why would a director humiliate such a strong character? JUSTICE FOR COCO.

The arc of Lisa the dancer also looks different from here. Lisa’s flunking out of the dance programme isn’t, as I used to think, a parable about the harshness and cruelty of show business. After 10 years of adult ballet, I can see she is a lazy dancer. She isn’t even trying to keep her place. The contrast between her lassitude and her stated devotion to dance is not explored: Does she like watching and thinking about dance more than doing it? Was she was the best in her class where she came from and now she cannot stand being almost-good, so would rather fail outright? Has she has invested so much time in dance she cannot imagine what she would replace it with? A viewer could learn something from any of these lines if they were followed even halfway through.

Parker makes it clear in his commentary that he was not fond of the actors–indeed, New York spikiness can be tiring–and had not stayed in touch with any except Hilary/Antonia Franceschi, the posh dancer. The dislike may have been mutual. A “class reunion” for the DVD extras recording was attended by neither Irene Cara nor Paul McCrane, who was memorable as empathetic acting student Montgomery and also sang some good songs for the project (check out “Dogs in the Yard” on the soundtrack album). McCrane later became known for his performance as angry surgeon Robert Romano on ER.

I visited La Guardia High School in 1992, when I was reporting on music programs for kids in New York City. Teachers there told me they were having difficulty recruiting musicians from public schools, because instruments just weren’t taught anymore. They couldn’t field a full orchestra. By the DVD release in 2003, the situation had turned around, at least officially: the accompanying documentary boasts testimonies (though perhaps not from instrumental music teachers) that the school was overwhelmed with worthy applicants and choosing the right ones was a lottery level process. In the end, the star who got the most mileage from Fame was the City. Isn’t it always the way?

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