Threshold events: The British press and the Paris attacks

As part of their rolling coverage of the horrific atrocities in Paris, the Guardian has published on its website a collection of newspaper front page responses from both the UK and France. This is, of course, a standard enough practice for many news organisations in the wake of significant world events—whether they be positive or, in this case, staggeringly negative—but there’s something about seeing these responses side-by-side that I find peculiarly troubling. And that’s that not one of the British newspapers has decided to forgo the inclusion of either product advertisements or ‘sneak peek’ hints at other (lighter) stories contained elsewhere in their publications.

From the French newspapers we’re soberly and emphatically informed of yesterday’s events: there’s nowhere to hide from the grim reality of it all, from the unutterable sadness and anger that such incidents inevitably produce. Indeed, what we see on the front pages of L’Équipe, Libération and Aujourd’hui en France today is a depressing reminder of that which we saw, previously, on the front pages of the British newspapers in the wake of 7/7: full-page images, unadorned headlines, a single, baleful story.


This would seem to me to be an appropriate strategy, a responsible (enough) way of responding to a traumatic event that exceeds immediate response. Yet what we find on the front pages of the British newspapers on the morning of November 14 is something altogether different: a jarring hotchpotch of the barbaric and the banal, the hideous and the downright fucking fatuous.

Here, for example, is an early edition of this morning’s Daily Mirror front page, which combines the Paris massacre with I’m a Celebrity … Get me Out of Here and Jeremy Clarkson’s racist ‘steak row’.


Impressively, the ‘Newspaper of Year’ also manages to make it seem as if the Paris attacks are a direct response to the death of ‘Jihadi John’, a causal impossibility made real through an adroit use of imagery and narrativising language (‘Shooting & bombs after …’, ‘Wave of revenge terror.’). Simplicity sells: Clarkson’s a racist, and—’Nurse! The screens!’—I think I’ve come down with jungle fever.

In fact, I must have done, since the Sun helpfully diagnoses me with the selfsame malady.


The Sun’s ‘new-look’ TV mag also features a ‘new-look’ Ant and Dec, the pair having lost their Crusoe-fros somewhere in transit. But at least they still sit atop the same pared-down narrative and image of atrocity. At least there’s still that.

Bizarrely, Ant and Dec don’t feature on the front page of the Times (which, incidentally, is another ‘Newspaper of the Year’), but we do instead get the happy news that The Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain has written some recipes in a 124-page food magazine.


The winner of Bake Off, some dessert recipes and an unspeakable massacre in Paris: the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. It’s just so entirely bewildering.

Still, at least no one’s advertising luxury Cartier watches.



Really, though, it’s the Guardian itself that wins the postmodern collage bullshit award, with a front page of genuinely impressive scope and ambition.


This is a concatenation of sentences that wouldn’t be out of place on The Day Today, and the distressing thing is that each of these sentences must have come about through a series of conscious editorial decisions. Someone somewhere in the Guardian head office decided to run the story of the Paris massacre alongside glimpses of an interview with Captain Mainwaring actor Toby Jones, a cookery article featuring (another) Bake Off star, Ruby Tandoh, and a lifestyle piece about living with big breasts. And the effect of this miscellany is just unspeakably strange.

Now, none of this is to say that newspaper front pages should simply and sombrely state the biggest news story of each day, and nor is it even to suggest that the Paris massacre is necessarily more ‘important’ that other mindless atrocities from around the world (many of which, of course, we never even hear of). But it is to note that somewhere in the journalistic ether there must be a critical tipping point of sorts, an impact-factor threshold where a story becomes bigger than the publication that delivers it, where an event trumps even formatting and the lure of advertising cash.

Inevitably, this threshold is culturally, politically and linguistically situated, and will change from country to country, newspaper to newspaper. The point at which a story sells newspapers regardless of associated content is never static. 9/11 crossed this threshold in the British press, as did 7/7. But for one reason or another, the Paris massacre failed to do so, and what we’re left with is an event of unimaginable horror presented cheek by jowl with bubblegum nonsense, and this feels like a deep cultural failing, a flattening of both atrocity and inanity into cut-and-paste, switchable images.

Or as Ivan Vladislavic phrases it better than I ever could do in his 1994 novel The Folly:

The box brought nothing but unrest and disorder, faction fights and massacres, even blood-baths, high pressure systems and cold fronts, situation comedies and real-life dramas, hijackings, coups, interviews with VIPs, royal weddings, exposés, scandals, scoops, conspicuous consumptions, white-collar crimes, blue-collar detergents, epidemics, economic indicators, peace talks, heart-warming instances of bravery and kindness to strangers, advertisements for dogfoods and requests for donations. Each new atrocity struck Mrs like a blow, and she thrashed about in the La-Z-Boy like a political prisoner.

And don’t forget: the new series of IACGMOOH starts Sunday November 15 at 9 pm.

from taikoo (Um fall am #5)

Following an afternoon of photography at Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen in Wong Tai Sin and the iconic Yick Cheong Building(s) around Taikoo Place (more on this later), we took the tram back to Causeway Bay, filming with the GoPro along the way. That then became this, a music video for the extratalented Um fall am:

What next?


Walking around some of the more peculiar bits of Shek Kip Mei the other day, a friend and I found ourselves trapped at the base of a 100-foot, hillside ladder. In front of us was an imposing, prison-issue concrete wall with two rusted-shut iron doors; behind us was a sodding great ladder covered in stinging leaves and bird shit. We’d braved the ladder in the mistaken belief that it was a shortcut to the Pak Tin Estate, a soon-to-be-condemned public housing development not far from City University. A fair enough hypothesis, perhaps, but one that failed to reckon with an ACME™-style concrete palisade left behind by some huckster, 1950s wall-merchant with beady eyes. Faced with such an impediment, our choices were limited. Starting a new life by the wall didn’t seem practical, scaling it seemed improbable, and smashing it down with our bare hands and brute strength would have legal implications. So we laddered it out of there.


I completed my Ph.D. at the back end of last year, and was forced to confront a long-suppressed decision regarding what I wanted to do thereafter. For some, this isn’t even a decision, of course. But then I’d never really seen doctoral research as a vocational endeavour; I just thought it’d be good fun. And aside from the odd stress-meltdown, that’s exactly what it was.

Much less fun, though, was the decision as to whether or not to leave academia and try something else. There’s a great deal written about the potential (dis)merits of having a Ph.D. when it comes to choosing a “career path”. Inside academia, competition for jobs is such that even with the best will in the world, some folks just won’t make it (or will make it in such a way that food stamps are required); and outside academia, Ph.D. graduates are regarded by most HR managers as jumped-up layabouts who’ll eff off at the first whiff of a mortar-board. And more pressing still is the sense in which these paths appear more or less mutually exclusive: follow the academic line, and you become less employable elsewhere over time; seek a job outside academia, and you’ve got 12 months or so to get back in (a fact that always brings to mind Homer Simpson crawling through a hatch labelled “supplicants” when reapplying for his old job at the power plant).

This is not to say that the situation should necessarily be otherwise than it is—aside, perhaps, from the food stamps. With so many (terrifyingly) driven Ph.D. students out there, what reason is there for the system to reward prevarication? And why wouldn’t an HR manager look to favour someone with ten years’ corporate experience over an expert on, say, portmanteau words? But it is to say that it’s precisely these issues that make the post-Ph.D. decision-making process quite so thorny.

And this is without taking into account a rather more psychological facet: namely, the sense in which leaving academia feels to a certain extent like a failing. Thomas H. Benton’s only half-serious Chronicle article, “Is Graduate School a Cult?”, makes the point that academia exhibits cultish traits, and that to leave, to seek gainful employment elsewhere, is to commit academic apostasy. Benton is, of course, writing (with a fair amount of whimsy) from a markedly different academic climate than at HKU (where, for the record, I was only audited a handful of times, and was assured each time that the videocamera had been switched off). But I can certainly attest to the fact that even in the most supportive of environments (and HKU was most certainly that), the idea of leaving academia behind aroused—spoiler alert—a curious emotional hotchpotch of guilt and anxiety. But p’raps that’s just me.

Whether I made the correct decision to ladder it out of academia remains, perhaps, to be seen. I loved my time in the School of English, and I miss my 11 a.m. starts enormously. But then in many ways I’m glad to be left with this emotional residue. It’d be far sadder, after all, to not care either way, to remain indifferent to the intellectual and spiritual effects of Ph.D. study. If I was any kind of literary scholar, of course, I’d end here with some pithy, encapsulating quote, like the obvious Tennyson one, only better, more obscure. Sadly, though, I’m too busy sucking on the corporate teat to remember anything other than The Bottom Line, and you’re all too brainwashed to care anyway …

Hong Kong civil disobedience


Student Boycott

When news of the week-long student boycott broke in early September, my initial reaction was one of guarded optimism. I was encouraged by the idea that this form of activism was finding (or forging) a platform in Hong Kong, but like many other people I spoke to during the time, I remained unconvinced that uptake would be sufficient enough to really make a noticeable difference. And as the boycott drew closer, and talk of “catch-up classes,” emailed readings and non-participation began to circulate, it seemed as if this reticence was pretty well founded. The peculiar intensity and results-driven environment of Hong Kong’s higher education system, I reasoned, would help to undercut the movement just as it was beginning to find its feet.

And this is without taking account of the core message (or aim?) of the boycott itself: greater democracy for Hong Kong; a 2017 electoral system without loaded dice; an agentive rather than Hobson’s choice. That such aims appear lofty within the broader context of Hong Kong-China relations is undoubted, and a common (if myopic) critique of the movement focussed precisely on this question of outcomes. What did the students hope to achieve through boycotting class? Where was it going to end? And if it wasn’t going to achieve all that much, then why bother in the first place? The problem with this criticism, of course, is that it drastically undervalues the consciousness-raising work that even the most abortive of resistance movements can—maybe—help to produce (as has been played out to such staggering effect these past few days). But this does not mean to say that it did not (and does not still) have its adherents (as well as its partial truths), and it certainly helped to contribute to what I saw a few weeks ago as the faint air of negativity and/or cynicism surrounding the proposed strike.

It was not a great surprise to me, then, that as the boycott began on September 22nd, the University of Hong Kong’s campus seemed relatively normal—which means, in the context of this semester at least, that is was teeming with students, a fraction of whom were wearing the yellow ribbon now so strongly associated with recent events. Whilst I occasionally read of students in other universities across Hong Kong taking a more active and en masse approach to the boycott, I learned from colleagues in HKU that class attendance figures were more or less stable, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that as the week went on, the boycott almost completely fell from my thoughts.


Student protest at Government HQ

The extent of the protests at LegCo on the final day of the boycott (Saturday 27th September) was therefore unexpected. Whilst nothing compared to the crowds seen across Hong Kong in the past few days, it was already possible to see in the assembled hundreds evidence of the cooperation, efficacy and determination that have characterised the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” as a whole. Each time the police line retreated, the barriers (initially deployed by the authorities to contain the crowd) were put to work as networked barricades; once the order was given, the whole process took no longer than five minutes, and gradually the demonstration space expanded to accommodate new arrivals.

When I arrived on the site, the “storming” (as I’ve sometimes seen it phrased) of the government HQ courtyard had already taken place, and the high-profile arrests already made. People were by and large settling in for a long night, and not without a good deal of trepidation. Already the iconic umbrellas were being deployed as possible shields for pepper-spray; protesters often spoke warily of police advances; a legal-aid text number was written on people’s arms in case of arrest; there were reminders also to conserve battery so as to avoid being out of contact.

After I left the demonstration site, I heard from protesters still on location that Benny Tai, one of the key figures in the Occupy Central movement, had decided to launch the civil disobedience campaign initially intended for National Day on October 1st. And although this call was not received too favourably by many of the students, who accused Occupy of bandwagon opportunism, it was (partly) through this “hitching together” that the consciousness-raising student boycott became what is now headline news around the world.


Occupy Central (Day 1)

The real catalyst, though, came on the Sunday evening, with the police’s use of pepper-spray, baton charges and tear gas (and if some sources are to be believed, rubber bullets). The question of provocation is of course particularly vexed here, especially given that police representatives have recently stated that the wearing of protective devices against such weaponry (and by “devices” I mean something as simple as cling-film) can be cited as evidence for the wish to engage, provocatively, with the police (“cause, allow me to introduce you to effect …”). But Lewis Carroll nonsense-logic notwithstanding, it is safe to say that one can lay the charge of provocation rather squarely with the (overworked, exhausted, sometimes frantic) police force.

After the first few volleys of tear gas were fired into the crowd, I did see a handful of protesters pick up objects to throw at the police, but this retaliation was quickly suppressed by fellow protesters. Since then, the only time I’ve seen objects picked up from the ground, they’ve either been placed into rubbish bags or sorted for recycling. This is conscientious stuff.

In some part because of the police’s disproportionate and violent response—which lasted well into the early hours of Sunday morning—the demonstration began to split into discrete areas across the territory. Before long, new (and frequently attacked) occupied spaces had been established in Central, Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Chinese University. At the increasingly besieged epicentre of the protests on Gloucester Road, gas-masked, shotgun-wielding police tried their level best to remove an intransigent, cooperative and ever-resolute mass of protesters. It was never going to be a fair fight … the police eventually retreated, and the occupied spaces were secured.


Occupy Central/Umbrella Revolution (Day 2)

If, though, the previous day’s violence was marked by a determined and organised solidarity under pressure, then the following day was more a question of consolidating the occupied positions in the face of a curiously absent police force, who, it seems, in a move mirroring the recent Ferguson riots, decided on a softly softly approach following their attempts at removal by force. By the time dusk rolled around, the crowds had swelled to astonishing numbers, and without a police presence, the mood had turned from fear to one of (almost) celebration (who was it that was provocative again?).

Walking from LegCo to Causeway Bay, I was able to witness what a peculiar, uncanny city Hong Kong has now become. From the teeming crowds on Gloucester Road—which now features a mocked up grave for C.Y. Leung, adorned with dead flowers and cigarette ends—the city becomes “itself” again by the time you reach Wan Chai Arts Centre. Another 15 minutes down the road, however, and you hear that now familiar hum of congregated folk, and encounter yet another city junction pedestrianised through force, a space made to speak the political will of its new inhabitants.

On our return home from Causeway Bay, my friends and I were (un)fortunate enough to be interrupted by two tourists looking for a place to drink (or, rather, to continue to drink). We told them that it might be difficult to find transport because of the protests (“I know,” said the girl. “It’s getting really annoying”—I’m fairly sure my eyes audibly rolled), and told them their best bet would be to walk 10 minutes down to Wan Chai. “Oh, I don’t walk,” said the girl … *roll* …

“Oh, I don’t walk.”

“Oh, I don’t walk.” It was a throwaway sentence, really, perhaps even a very poorly constructed joke (it definitely wasn’t—she was a prize diltoid). But it led me to reflect on what it is that I see as so important about the protests currently spreading through Hong Kong. In the past, the majority of Hong Kong residents expressed their own “Oh, I don’t walk-ness” through political apathy, through a blind retention of the status quo. But this has now changed, and changed for good. There is no “depoliticising” these students now. I know of middle-aged Hong Kong residents who’ve never protested before (nor even really thought about it), who have decided to take part in these acts of civil disobedience. I’ve seen old and young alike, facing down lines of police.

“Oh, I don’t walk” has become a determination to be active, to see Hong Kong differently, to engage space politically, through footfall, through critical mass.

Whether the “Umbrella Revolution” (or as I’d prefer, the “Umbrella Movement”) is a success or not is still more than a little uncertain—and if we’re being totally honest, very unlikely. China is a fiery beast that takes none too kindly to jabs and scratches. I’m fearful for the protesters as much as I am heartened by their resolve, by their enthusiasm to take part, to organise, antagonise. This is certainly no time for blunt sanguinity, but there is a communitarian energy and urgent vitality about Hong Kong at the moment that I’ve never seen present before … and long may that energy continue.

All photos courtesy of Aaron Anfinson.

‘merikey, again

The blurredup, pseudoreality of the SCT is now reaching endtimes. The grand banquet approaches; final trumpets blare.

It’s been a wondrous few weeks, I reckon—although pretty Hogarthian. I’d arrived imagining some sort of academic Damascene conversion, but have instead spent a good deal of my time languishing down Gin Lane, vomiting in passing buckets, or pizzeria toilets. This isn’t to say that a lot of learning hasn’t gone on (it certainly has—don’t get me started on the primacy of poetic language; I’ll bend the ears right off your face), but more that there has been a pleasing ratio of work to notwork, reading to notreading, sobriety to notquitesobriety. They should probably put this on the posters. But I bet they don’t.

In my time left I still anxiously await two things: 1) feedback on my thesis project from that most eminent of brainboxes, Professor John Brenkman; and 2) my as-yet-undetermined fine from the Ithaca court judge for the terrible crime of illegal swimming. A potential double-whammy of “your project is dross; give up” and “we’ve considered your fine, and have decided to give you The Chair” would certainly be hard to stomach. I’m hoping instead for a shiny red rosette for “Best Boy” and a slap on my Twink (thanks, Tony) wrist from the authorities. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between these imagined outcomes.

A shortsharp spell in GITMO notwithstanding, though, it’s been a thoroughly de-concealing (ahem) experience in many ways. I have learned, for example, of my moochful attitude towards new acquaintances, who have, given my residence in the arse-end-of-nowhere-town-of-Lansing, been persuaded over time to lend beds, belts, trousers, shoes and even underwear (thanks, Dan) in a continued effort to keep me both clothed and off the streets. I’m essentially living as a parasitoid wasp armed only with an English accent and a voracious appetite for grace and hospitality. In this regard, it’s probably a good thing that we’re winding down the course. I’m no entomologist, but I seem to remember that in the lifecycle of the parasite it doesn’t end too great for the unwitting host.

What I’ve offered in return is open to question. I would like to think, of course, that dazzling conversation, wit and joie de vivre serve adequately as currency. But I think it’s far more likely that my role here has been one of accent punchbag (in the nicest possible sense). So if—and this is a real if—I’ve brought anything to the table here at all, it’s probably a heightened appreciation of the humble glottal stop. To my credit (and surprise), I’ve so far resisted the temptation to up the ante and Bill Sikes my way round town like some cock-er-ney chimneysweep. Perhaps in the coming days this will change.

Other than all this, my time here has been spent lurching, bathed in coffee and cyclesweat, from seminar to lecture and from miniseminar to colloquium—all of which, the seminar excluded, have been slightly hit-and-miss affairs, but certainly worthwhile, and often (unexpectedly) entertaining. Reading in the inbetween has been a bit of a challenge what with the everpresent possibility of groupbased distractions, but I’m glad to say that my, selfprepared reading packs have been (almost) totally devoured, brainwise. Just a couple of Heidegger essays and some Eliot poetry to plough through, and then I can (figuratively, probably) throw the things into a burning lake of hellfire.

It’s going to be a sad occasion on Thursday when we all have to say goodbye. Sad and very probably socially awkward, given that it’s a vague “banquet”-style event for which we’re supposed to make ourselves look presentable. We had a Garden Party a few weeks ago which came with similarly equivocal instructions on attire, meaning that whilst some people rolled up dressed for the beach, I looked like a fucking waiter. I was pretty overdressed, too, for the awful, fratboy-gunshow, topless-wrestling tourney I was unfortunate enough to witness, but perhaps more on that another day …

‘merikey, so far

Within just a few hours of landing in New York I was sitting in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, eating an overpriced ‘eggplant’ (read: aubergine) burger, and enjoying some low-priced festival music as part of the ‘Celebrate Brooklyn’ summer series. Willy Mason was first up, Masoning his way about the place, followed then by some British guy called Michael Kiwanuka, a singer with a truly remarkable voice but slightly less remarkable songs. Unfortunately for me this hipsterglow was tarnished slightly through spending most of my time sitting in isolation as gangs of happyfolk caroused about me like smiling helium balloons tethered to fashionable paint cans. And as the sun set I began to feel increasingly like a tourist in a dominion of knowingfolk chatting their knowingtalk of knownboroughs and knownpeople. Still, not a bad introduction to a city of which I had unreasonably high hopes …

The rest of my shortlived Brooklyn-life was spent largely under the influence of good booze and better company, punctuated by a seatofthe’pants’ (read: trousers) ‘soccer’ (read: football) game in which England managed, daringly, to beat a pretty mediocre Sweden team and get a nation’s hopes up for no reason. Most pleasing, though, in this regard, was the Hasidic Jew sat opposite me in the pub during the match—that really was some high-five.

Then it was off to Ithaca on the Greyhound Bus, amidst mild passenger fury, but, alas, no beheadings.

Ithaca is deadlyquiet. I’d never realised quite how much noise my own ears make. The whole place is lakes and trees and hills and waterfalls, with some land in between, holding everything up. That’s about the best I can do so far. I’ve only really been to the supermarket and the university, both of which are vast and a bit scary, and more expensive than I thought they would be. 1 x bag of onions: $3.99! I’ll let you decide which that relates to.

Otherwise, my seminar proper starts tomorrow morning at 9.30 a.m., and having now met the majority of my fellow SCT goers, all my fears and apprehensions appear well-founded. These guys both know and, possibly, pretend to know, a great deal of effing stuff about stuff. And they talk very quickly about it all. One girl in particular spoke as if she was disappearing over an event horizon. I caught about every four words. I think she was talking about gays.

I fully expect to be outgunned on the academic front anyway, so I’ll maybe try to develop a series of endearing and ostentatious gimmicks by way of distraction and feint. It’s all about hiding in plain sight. Now where are my bowling shoes and L.E.D. cravatte?

Wake(y) Wake(y)

It’s been far too long since I wrote anything on here. But now that my brain has started producing such high-grade academic horseshit I think it might be time to opt for some words with fewer syllables—even if these shorter words are used up mostly in describing the horror of the longer ones.

I’m writing a chapter on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake at the moment, and writing about ‘the’ Wake when you’re not a fulltime Joyce scholar is a frightening experience. The book is astonishingly good, of course, and worthy of the praise it receives, but I can quite understand the opprobrium too. A critic called Ruben Borg says somewhere that ‘the’ Wake teaches you that there are books you still need to learn to read, and that’s exactly what it feels like. I spend much of my time just stumbling about from word to word, like a drunk looking for his keys, and every time I think I’m getting somewhere close to unlocking a phrase, a sentence, a passage, I discover it’s just the change in my pockets, jingling about and confusing things.

The real absurdity, though, is that it can only be a single chapter. People spend their entire lives reading this bloody book, and I somehow need to say something interesting (perhaps even original) about it over the course of what really amounts to just 7 or 8 months. And having recently screeded several thousand words about the meaning of just one, it seems that this is a task with an unlikely and unknowable end, a bit like Finnegans Wake itself.

I do already have a contingency plan though. Should I be fortunate enough to make it to my viva exam and be unfortunate enough to be asked a question on this chapter, I’m just going to filibuster my way through and then knock up a homemade degree certificate on a passing Etch A Sketch. Ta da!