Degrees; or, The Shitfuck Of a Generation

August 21, 2010 by

So, everyone who passed their final year of an undergraduate degree this year has graduated, the A-level results have been and gone, and the conclusion from the media and business sectors that run this country this year is:

  1. Having a degree is shit
  2. Some students aren’t allowed to do them!!!1!! (but don’t worry because they’re crap)

As it turns out (who knew?!?!), no one who has ever been successful in the world of business, the arts, government or academia has even so much as stepped accidentally onto a part of the pavement technically part of a university campus in a major city centre. The last Labour government fooled us: degrees are in fact massive success sponges that will leave an entire generation unable to ever find a job. And what with all their benefits being cut, they’d better find one soon! But they can’t because there aren’t any anymore and probably never were.

So, what can you do to counteract the negative effects of having a degree on your future career prospects? So far top government think tanks have come up with the following:

  1. Get an internship during your degree
  2. Get a summer placement during your degree (no one is sure whether or not this is distinct from an internship or not)
  3. Take a gap year, and use it to volunteer in your chosen field or do some travelling to expand your horizons, but only if you do this BEFORE your degree

The crucial thing to remember with all three of these is that if you’ve already finished your degree and not done any of them, you ARE fucked and may as well give up on applying for any graduate jobs and instead go for those ones giving hand jobs for pennies that you see right in the back of the Classified Ads.

Well, my new idea won’t help you if you’ve already finished your degree either, but it does have an advantage over the government’s ‘Big Three’ as it is less focused around stockpiling opportunities and networking and instead makes the link between beefing up one’s CV and intense physical pain explicit.


What we do is, in every student union across the country, is set up a room with a large wall covered in huge, deadly whips that are controlled with a pedal. The aspiring graduate job-attainer goes along to this wall, pays their money, takes off their shirt, and stands there whipping themselves by pressing down on the pedal. The facility can take up to 20 students at a time, although it will still probably be over-subscribed, so only the most impressive candidates will get any time on the whipping-wall at all. 15 hours of self-flagellation is deemed to be equivalent to one internship/summer placement/gap year. Photos must, however, be provided of the student’s back immediately after each flogging to check that it went deep enough into the flesh.

Alternatively, we rig up a lot of hoops and–



No money? No problem!

July 19, 2010 by

Of all the problems associated with the Global Financial Crisis, perhaps the most troubling is only just now coming to light: people have forgotten how to make money. Back in the late 90s through mid 00s, everyone had lots of money, but as the banks begun to collapse, a wave of collective amnesia has apparently descended on the population and everyone seems to have forgotten exactly what they were doing with it in the first place.

This is borne out, for example, in the lack of jobs being created even back when the government still bothered to claim the recession was over on various technicalities: the simple reason for this is that there is no real reason to pay anyone for anything, as people will do whatever you want them to for free. The pioneers in this new field of volunteer exploitation has ironically been a sector that many financial analysts have declared moribund: print media. When you next read a paper, particular a local paper, reflect if you will on the fact that nothing you have read has been written by someone who has been paid. Instead, it is all written by a team of travelling interns, mostly recent English Literature graduates, who move from paper-to-paper writing for each of them in turn for a few months for no pay on the off-chance they might one day be given some money for doing so, but of course they never are because these days even many senior staffers are paid in free CDs and foreign trips rather than being given a conventional wage, plunging them to the brink of poverty: The Guardian‘s Marina Hyde, for example, has been claiming housing benefit since March 2009, whilst her colleague Simon Jenkins has been forced to move back in with his parents in their former council house in Bromsgrove. And yet the model works beautifully, because despite the clear lack of proportionate remuneration, this has not deterred the stricken writers from continuing to write.

It is therefore no surprise that David Cameron wishes to roll out this model of employment on a country-wide scale. We all know that the government needs to make budget cuts: we know this because we are constantly told this, and then somebody mentions Greece. I think the whole of Greece is on fire because they didn’t cut the budget, or something. Hence: the Big Society programme. No longer will schools, post offices, libraries, public transport providers, housing projects, public houses, and so on, need to be run by people on expensive salaries. Instead, they will be taken over by charities and run by volunteers. It might be objected: “who will actually bother to do these deeply necessary jobs without any prospect of financial gain? Surely they’ll take up all of someone’s labour time and they won’t be given any money, so they won’t do it.” But that is, of course, deeply naïve thinking inspired by a pre-Credit Crunch mentality. No: there are tens of thousands of enthusiastic young people, recent graduates, out there who have no job, no real prospect of finding a half-decent job, who will do anything to beef up their CV and make it look like they are someone who deserves to be paid for doing a proper job like the one they might have imagined themselves getting when they started university. These people are young, bright, and eager to please. So, they will make perfect unpaid volunteers to run our essential services forever and ever.

And what’s more, this is a measure brilliantly in tune with the current discourse surrounding the salaries of public sector employees. In the wake of the incomprehensibly borish and still raging MPs’ expenses scandalgate, it is gradually becoming evident that the general public do not respond generously to ‘their’ money being spent on the wages of other people, even if they are doing essential jobs really well: just take the example of headteacher Mark Elms and his £240,000 a year salary, or this other one here in this Daily Mail article, who isn’t paid quite as much because obviously that would lead to a completely incomprehensible figure of money.  Now, once one would have thought the sensible argument would have gone: “but they’re doing really good jobs in very difficult schools and the public sector needs to attract the best people and what’s more they deserve to be rewarded.” But no longer. Obviously people who still think this way need to be sent into camps to be re-educated because actually how DARE headteachers claim more than classroom assistants? So you see if you think critically around the issue you will find that no one should ever be paid anything at all until they retire and receive generous pensions.

Is America the new China?

July 18, 2010 by

Well, what with the ‘rise of China’ being all over the financial news at the moment, the grand old lady of world politics, the United States of America, might perhaps take heart at being labelled “the new China” by this publication. But don’t celebrate just yet, Lady States, for you might be the new China, but this particular China is late-Qing imperial China.

Here are some key points of comparison:

Was once a great empire: Our cultural memories of the Qing dynasty are mostly those of chronic backwardness and decline, but it is important to remember that imperial China in fact reached its height in terms of territory during the Qing, incorporating Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Taiwan into the empire during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, whose golden reign might be compared to Franklin Roosevelt or maybe Bill Clinton.

Isolationism: Old China was notoriously suspicious of foreigners, the place largely isolating itself from the world outside its field of influence from the Ming dynasty onwards and hence being outpaced in development by Europe (comparatively backwards at the outset of Ming). Likewise, the USA has always had a streak of isolationism about it, which has reared its head recently for example in the expressed wish of prominent Tea Partier Michelle Bachman for the United States to not “be part of the international global economy”.

Treaty ports: The USA doesn’t actually have any treaty ports, but on the other hand, it does have NAFTA, which is a bit like a massive treaty port stretched over three nations.

Over-centralised political system that is gradually losing control of the country as a whole: This is a more complex point of comparison because due to the extreme differences between the political systems of imperial China and the USA, any endemic problems that are dooming the country to long and drawn-out failure culminating in half a century of destructive revolution are bound to be very different also. Nevertheless, it is fairly obvious that democracy in America is broken and that it is only a matter of time before everyone notices and the country collapses. The political culture in America is so toxic that the mere hint that a Republican representative or senator might want to engage in bi-partisan co-operation can lead to serious questions being asked about their sexuality. The system of checks and balances is too complex and prevents urgent, country-propelling-into-future action being taken properly over issues such as healthcare. Debate over gun control and capital punishment reduces to what is written in a centuries-old document as interpreted by a panel of legal scholars appointed so as to reflect the unhealthily vitriolic (but not even politically that wide) left-right split in the country as a whole. It is only a matter of time before everything in the American political system completely breaks down and they all have to sell their police forces like in California.

Foreign encroachment: This is another inexact comparison because foreign encroachment in China came from merchants from the more developed west rather than illegal immigrant labourers from comparatively underdeveloped Mexico. The other reason the comparison is inexact is that in China it didn’t result in everyone speaking Spanish by 2050.

Dowager empress Cixi: Cixi was without doubt one of the top 10 most belligerent, right-wing, vain, ignorant and self-serving awful women of all time and during her long de facto rule all hope of peaceful reform in China was lost. Thus far, the USA can’t quite muster any horrible old cows to truly match her, but this is not through lack of trying: both Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman have something of the Cixi about them, although if they ever do obtain power they are admittedly unlikely to last 47 years. You could easily imagine them imprisoning their nephews for ten years for attempting political reform, though.

Bizarre pseudo-Christian nationalist movements: From 1850 to 1864, as Qing power faltered, the Taiping Rebellion raged across southern China, the rebels occupying Nanjing as their capital. One the most fascinatingly odd things ever to have happened in history, it accounted for the deaths of some 20 million people, mostly through plague and famine (scorched earth tactics were practised on both sides), but more importantly for the discussion at hand, it was led by Hong Xiuquan, a failed student of the imperial examinations who had a nervous breakdown in which he received a vision of himself as the second son of God (only later made sense of by a Christian pamphlet lent him by his cousin), sent to rid China of Manchu rule. He preached an idiosyncratic, heavily Sinosised version of Christianity, and one of his most important generals was an illiterate firewood merchant named Yang who claimed to be able to speak with the voice of God. Such a movement can be compared to contemporary US Protestant evangelicals, who in super-churches preach what is essentially a uniquely American Christianity, based around self-satisfaction and the free market. Of course, it has yet to prove quite so directly destructive as the Christianity preached by the Taipings, but perhaps it is only a matter of time, and certainly born-again Christianity in the states, with its home-schooling, chastity rings and so forth, is fundamentally outside the mainstream political system and cultural discourse, even if Republican politicians may have tried to co-opt evangelicals as voters.

The Boxer Rebellion: Another noted popular movement in late-Qing China was the Boxer Rebellion, a conservative, pro-Qing uprising led by the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” (or Boxers), whose members went into spiritual frenzies inspired by their practice of martial arts. Their aim was to rid China of foreign influences (ie: merchants, opium, missionaries), and they were co-opted by Cixi and other reactionary Qing forces in the wake of the Guangxu Emperor’s attempt at political reform. Mostly the result was the political situation in China got out of hand and a lot of foreigners got killed, before an alliance of foreign powers actually did intervene militarily in China (though stopped short of actively colonising it). Such a movement could easily be compared to the obviously mystically-inspired (for how else could it be seen as remotely viable?) libertarianism of isolationist nationalism of the Tea Party movement, which has been co-opted by the reactionaries (Republican Party) in the wake of political reform (Obama, esp. healthcare) and also seems likely to get completely out of hand and may yet result in people getting killed. Let’s hope an alliance of China, India and Brazil invades.

Widespread opium use: This one doesn’t hold up so much, but lots of celebrities are on prescription pain medication and suchlike.

Guangxu Emperor: This hapless would-be reformer, imprisoned by his aunt Cixi who was the one who thrust him in to power in the first place in order to prop up her own rule, could easily be compared to the luckless President Obama, whose obvious good intentions and European-esque good sense seem doom to see him imprisoned (politically speaking) inside a Republic house of representatives come November.

Puyi: Who, then, would be Puyi, doomed child-emperor of a moribund empire, forever walking, rumoured homosexual ghost of a bygone age of romantic glory: for the Chinese Puyi, imperial splendour; for his forthcoming American equivalent, a viable non-state capitalism and sparkling images of suburban prosperity. When America elects a toddler (possibly from an established political family? Is Chelsea Clinton pregnant?), we’re sure to find out.

Rough-Housed in the Razor Pit

July 16, 2010 by

This next entry begins an irregular series of posts in which I will be publishing for you the readers some of my favourite obscure pulp horror stories from the dark days of the first half of the 20th century. Today’s story, ‘Rough- Housed In the Razor-Pit’ is one of just two published stories by Edward St John Limbo, a financial clerk from Manchester, New Hampshire. Both stories – ‘Rough-Housed’ and its brother, ‘The Gray Door’, were published in 1939 through Cosmos’s brilliant (and prolific) ‘Adventures Into Mystery’ series of collections (‘Rough-Housed’ was the first one, in collection 12; ‘Gray Door’ followed three months later in collection 14). Furthermore, both feature some strikingly disturbed vaginal imagery. Here, the protagonist is kidnapped by two giant goons on the verge of consummating his marriage, only to be thrown into a heaving, pink, elliptical and somehow organic pit, complete with deadly teeth. Meanwhile, in ‘Gray Door’, behind the titular door in the protagonist’s house lurks an ancient crone so old that whenever she moves parts of her flesh fall off and turn to dust: in order to revive herself she proceeds to devour the protagonist and have him re-born through the house’s fireplace. ‘The Gray Door’ is well worth reading too and I will publish it eventually but first, enjoy ‘Rough-Housed in the Razor Pit’, here:

Rough-Housed In the RAZOR-PIT

by Edward St John Limbo

(Originally published 1939, Adventures Into Mystery 12)

I had been five years living in UNMOUTH when I took a wife from the village. Unmouth was a quiet, out-of-the-way place, and I had always thought the locals merely typically unfriendly. The small shop I had set up selling periodicals was never frequented by people from the village, and I had always had to rely on the sadly hardly regular traffic of those passing through just to stay afloat. In truth I should have known better, for back in my home town, the small port of ALLITYVILLE, Unmouth was always somewhere that there had been dark whisperings about. But in truth I had never believed them… if only I had given heed!

Her name was Catherine, a dark-eyed wench of 18, the daughter of one of the longest-established families in the village, the Trasks. Cedric Trask was indeed the current Mayor of Unmouth, a position which rotated bi-annually, usually between the patriarchs of three families, the Trasks, the Taylors, and the Coppingers. Unmouth being a small village, and hardly welcoming to new arrivals, this meant that almost everyone living there was (through their families, at least), accorded their share of representation. And, it was within these families that the children were expected to marry. My advances as a suitor were hardly to be welcomed.

And yet from the first moment I saw beautiful Catherine I was transfixed, and she with me. I caught her eye as we walked in opposite directions as I went to buy my weekly groceries (sold to me at a premium rate, of course, as my presence as an outsider was unwelcome). I did not have much to do with the village and she had never seen me before, nor I her. She looked at me with those shimmering black eyes and they seemed to blaze inside me. My heart raced, and I felt like I was going to collapse, but I managed to steady myself, and went on my way.

I was distracted all night thinking about her. The next day, half-asleep at the counter of my shop (where, it should be noted, I also lived), I heard a soft tapping at the window round the back. Her perfect young face was smiling through it. I went round to the back door to let her in.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “I couldn’t be seen going into your shop through the front entrance. It’s not allowed you see, because you’re an Outsider.” She pronounced that last word with a profound force.

“I understand,” I said. “I’m surprised to see you. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since yesterday when we passed each other in the street.”

“Nor I you,” she said. And then I couldn’t stop myself any longer. I grabbed her and pulled her full, plump lips up to mine for a kiss.

“No,” she said, though softly, drawing away from me. “Not now. I am of marrying age. My father wants to marry me off to Stanley Coppinger, as he has always planned, but I would much rather marry you. Would you like this?” she asked.

O, one thousand times my heart, beautiful Catherine! (although, at that point, I did not even know her name)

Either way, she informed me all about the matter, and the next day I marched over to the Trask house, where I was shown in to see Mayor Cedric, and he received my request for his daughter’s hand with grave countenance. Nevertheless, when Catherine, who was stood in the room with us, took it upon herself to express her wishes in this situation, he seemed swayed, and granted me her hand, though he was not happy at giving it away to an Outsider such as I.

The wedding was hastily arranged, and sparsely attended. Even though about to be married to one of their own, my status as having moved to the village from outside remained apparently too great a taint for any of them to deign deal with me.

“Don’t worry about it,” said dear Catherine. “Its just the way its always been here.”

O dear, darling Kitty! Sadly the way it had always been was all too terrible indeed.

Despite the general boycott of the wedding, myself and my darling bride returned to my shop in a giddy mood of passion for each other. No sooner were we home than our lips were locked in deep battle. We fought our way across to the bedroom, alternately embracing each other and tearing off bits of formal clothing, and when we were there I threw Catherine with full force onto the bed. She landed, giggling, on her stomach, as I climbed behind and hitched up her skirts to feel in my hands two soft, plump buttocks, and between them–

Suddenly, in the midst of our revels, a crash from the shop room, as the front door was kicked down, and now into the bedroom crashed two giant thugs, topping 7ft the both of them. One was wielding a wooden bat, which he proceeded to swing with a mighty wallop into the side of my head.

I don’t know what happened immediately after that, but the next thing I remember was coming to in a dark room, chained up-armed by the wrists to the wall, and my beautiful bride nowhere to be seen about me. My arms had a horrible numbness to them, and my hands in particular, the blood cut off by the cuffs round my wrists. There was a strange sound coming from the centre of the room, that sounded like air rushing fast into a deep hole, then being blown out slowly. After a time, one of the giant thugs entered the room through a distant door, from which blazed a crack of seemingly brilliant light (or, at least it seemed in the gloom), and paraded towards me.

I wanted to ask what was going on, but when I tried to speak my mouth felt like it was full of raw meat and all I could manage was a strained murmur.

“The girl is safe, if that’s what you were asking,” said the thug. “Don’t worry. It wasn’t a real marriage.”

I spluttered some more.

“You’re from outside the village,” said the thug. “You wouldn’t understand our ways. We’re just doing what we have to do.”

He unchained me. My arms flopped to my sides, the blood rushing back into my hands. I gasped for breath. He grabbed me by my forearms, from behind.

“Wha- what are you doing?” I choked out.

“We are taking you to be executed as all Outsiders have been who have attempted to have their way with women from our village. You will by taken to death… by RAZOR-PIT!”

The mere words, spoken by this huge man, caused a spark of terror to run through me. I struggled somewhat in his grip, though completely vainly- even in the fullest flush of health, I would never have been strong enough to fight away from this giant. I realized that he was rough-handling me in the direction of the horrible sound coming from the middle of the room. As we approached, it got louder, and more terrifying. There seemed to be something mechanical to it, like a chain being pulled slowly round a cog. But as I came nearer to it, I could see even in the faint light that it was something pink, even in parts hairy, and organic, at least ten yards across and elliptical. It was raised around the sides, but in the middle – which was where the noises were coming from – was a dreadful, panting row of huge, vicious teeth that seemed sharp and eager for the devouring.

“Die, stranger!” shouted the giant, as he threw me into the Razor-Pit. From above me in my final moments of something that might be called clarity I could see far above me a great gallery of people from the village, clutching candles and peering into the pit. Their faces stood stone-still and satisfied. My final, dying thought, as those horrible teeth tore into me, was that my beautiful Catherine might be amongst them.

Professor Maximus in… Planet of the Teenagers

July 15, 2010 by

So, Professor Maximus and the crew of the Excelsior land on a mysterious planet where the technology is far in advance of our own. However, wandering through a terrifyingly hi-tech metropolis, all the adults he and the crew come across are a gaggle of weeping, babbling, shell-shocked, gibbering fools. Suddenly zoom-screech, a brutalist, cyberpunk jeep blazes up and Prof M and the gang are captured by a vicious, roaming band of teenage thugs!

From this it quickly emerges that this planet has a terrible systemic problem much like our own: it has been taken over by rowdy, disrespectful teenagers who completely control the vestigial population of adults!

The teenagers are deeply confused by the presence of Gail amongst the crew (as she is only 16), particularly when it emerges that contrary to initial assumptions the rest of the crew are not her slaves. They cannot understand why she does not simply intimidate them with her youth into obeying her. As it would so have happened, Gail was having quite a bad time shortly before the Excelsior landed on this planet, feeling that the rest of the crew didn’t respect her as much because of her age, so suddenly wow! Here there is an alternative system for her. She seems rather tempted by the life that these parentless thugs lead, as well as not a little bit thinking that the leader of the teenagers is really quite dishy. Shortly she is freed by the teenagers on the offer of joining them while her friends in the crew remain in bondage.

She seems rather happy as she joins the gang on their patrols round the area of the metropolis they control, randomly roughing-up adults who seem to be stepping out of line, and shaking them down for cash. Her and the leader even share a fleeting kiss, and a passionate if chaste embrace. However, when the next day it is decided that the adult members of the crew must be put to death, Gail objects in the strongest possible turns. Suddenly she seems in line for the “Razor Pit” (the teenagers’ preferred mode of execution) too. But then, she comes up with an ingenious idea: too introduce the teenagers to the gospels of our lord Jesus Christ, and to the Ten Commandments that tell us to honour thy father and thy mother. So, the teenagers quickly realize the errors of their ways, and at once release both the crew and all the adults on the planet.

Back on the Excelsior, pacing through the stars, the crew cease to tease Gail for her youth, as she has gotten them out of this mess and realise she is very mature for her age, unlike the little monsters on the planet of the teenagers pre-Christian revelation.

Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: On Cyclists’ Psychology & Stage 4 Cambrai – Reims

July 8, 2010 by

With a workaday route for stage four, and no major upsets, it seems now is a good idea to offer some brief, and scientific reflections on cyclists’ psychology before the mountain stages, which I presume will offer a whole new avenue of inquiry on the crazy ways which the pros think. Broadly speaking, cyclists are crazy. Or at least, they have a mindset that leaves them utterly outside of normality. Other endurance sports just don’t compare to a Grand Tour. Up and down mountains, over one hundred miles a day, every day, for weeks. This doesn’t exist anywhere in sport; it doesn’t exist anywhere outside of sport. And it must hurt. It must have you want to cry. Why do it then?

I won’t even try to offer an answer for this question because nothing definitive presents itself. Of course, the sense of achievement at simply finishing must be a motivating factor for some, especially since so many cyclists are not racing to win. But for every amicable trier, you get a character like Mark Cavendish. Bent on winning the green jersey, the sense of achievement at finishing the whole Tour doesn’t seem such a major attraction for him; there was suggestion yesterday that he may drop out if his abysmal points score doesn’t improve; yet he enters endurance races like le Tour rather than just track cycling or shorter events. If the achievement of endurance isn’t a motivating factor for him, why bother?

Mark Cavendish attacking Petacchi after losing the Stage 4 sprint (artist's impression)

What seems to remain true of all these cyclists though is a disconnect with the real world which allows them to finish stages. They seem practically impervious to pain, finishing stages with fractures, looking like they might be entering shock and then jumping on teammates bikes, bleeding and cycling, never stopping. I would even speculate that this comes with a hallucinatory separation from the real world, as is manifested by the seemingly genuine belief in conspiracy theories that exists amongst the field: that bikes are being fitted with miniature engines, that the race organisers are out to hurt them as much as possible and so on. Witness too the complete lack of social skills that most of these guys seem to have. Yes this can be attributed to their exhaustion, but does not this hallucinatory nature come from exhaustion too? Does the multitude of locales in such a short time make everything seem less real, more real, neither? Does the presentation of huge fluffy teddy bears by two beautiful women and a group of men in ill-fitting tie-less suits make riders feel like they have any more a realistic grip on reality? Do cyclists even notice the surroundings that I have waxed lyrical about? Do they ever go insane?

These questions will perhaps play themselves out in the mountains, for Stage Four was a little dull. No big crashes, no terror of the cobbles, and a deeply unsatisfying sprint finish. I missed the highlights so I only saw the action of about the last 70km. Even the countryside, though pretty, was a little boring; the most interesting thing I learnt today was that people in the north-east of France just can’t get enough of carp fishing, though Reims Cathedral was, of course, majestic.

Reims Cathedral

The main interest for me then, lay in the breakaway group that led for the most of the stage. There seems to have been no real mention of them in the press coverage of the stage, and so I’m afraid I’m unable to give their names. The amount of time the peloton took to reel them in defied all the commentators expectations and as they hit the series of roundabouts in the last 5km, I wondered whether they wouldn’t just manage to retain their lead, especially if there had been a crash amongst the lead pursuers.
The relatively prosaic nature of this stage also afforded an excellent view of team tactics in the run-up to the sprint, with elbows out, teams jostling for position and this balletic movement across the road as groups separated and converged organically. The movement of cyclists in le Tour can probably be calculated with the golden ratio. Then Alessandro Petacchi  won. Sometimes the run-up to the sprint is more interesting than the sprint itself.

Would you have tried to console Cavendish after he failed?
Will Cavendish’s anger improve his performance?
Should the wearer of le maillot jaune be crowned like French royalty in Rheims cathedral?
What’s more boring – facts about the Dutch countryside or facts about carp fishing?

The Guardian’s write-up of Stage Four

Next time: Stage Five Epernay – Montargis. By the looks of things, a tiring stage, though there should be plenty of fascinating Francophile information as le Tour hits Champagne country.

Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Watching Live & Stage 3 Wanze – Arenberg-Porte du Hainaut

July 7, 2010 by

Sinner that I am, I expected live cycling to be boring, like motor racing only slower. Sure, the highlights would be good, capturing those moments of drama that derive from the human failings of mind and muscle, rather than the dull mechanical tinkering for the prize of split seconds that Formula 1 consists of. But live? Endless pedaling, gritted teeth, inclines so interminable it feels more like trying to bike to the next village in the Yorkshire Dales than watching the pros glide effortlessly uphill like the world’s been turned on its head. Of course I was wrong.

You still need a good book, or a magazine, or a laptop to fiddle with. There are boring bits, endless advertisement breaks, dodgy shots of nothing in particular (just how do men on the back of motorbikes manage to wield cameras so effectively?). But watching live allows you to experience more directly everything that is weird, but somehow strangely obvious, about an endurance event like Le Tour, and often these flashes of the surreal are the sort of things that get edited out of the highlights in favour of the high excitement of a sprint finish or a huge pile-up. The race doctor leaning out of a car window cleaning up the face of a bleeding cyclist, the inexplicable absurdity of the motorcade weaving in and out of the race, the shifting of the peloton as tactics change. No doubt this is all run of the mill to the seasoned viewer but to the newcomer it is charming.

And more: the French graphics on screen, proudly imposing francophone pictures onto the rest of the world in one of the few chances France has to insist on its cultural superiority on the global stage. The French words used being simple enough to provide no real problems, but still amusing in its insistence of calling the lead rider ‘Tete de la cours” rather than providing his name, giving the trailing time of the “groupe poursuivant”, seeming to conduct any press business in French and leaving the English commentators to provide rudimentary translations.

Watching live allows the extra fascination of seeing what goes on outside the race too. Odd glimpses of little villages, aerial views into peoples back gardens, tracksides lined with whole settlements and tourists who would never have thought of visiting except for le Tour and now immersed in some backwater, sharing what exactly with who? Just cycling?

Best of all, the shots of chateaux and little villages, churches and 19th century boulevards, canal locks and lazy rivers, their names in French on the bottom of the screen, the commentators giving facts about them which they awkwardly try to link to the action: “Fine Louis XV woodwork – not exactly what Lance Armstrong needs right now”, “The hometown of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot but the field is not nearly as complex as one of her mysteries”, or even (I imagine though le Tour does not hit Normandie this year), “I’m not sure Schleck camembert it any longer”. I said that the francophone pictures are all about France asserting its cultural superiority, but the whole nature of le Tour is not simply about cycling; it’s about being shown a carnival and pageant of French life which is impossibly more picturesque and fascinating that anything else on summer television, and all as a backdrop to the truly glamorous sport of cycling (which will itself be the subject of a later column).

Chest beating like the Norse God he is.

It is the cycling that remains to be spoken of, however, and Stage Three certainly didn’t disappoint. From Wanze to Arenberg-Porte du Hainault, the chief attraction was, of course, the cobbles. The rain didn’t materialise but they still looked truly fearsome to ride over. Often the view was entirely obscured by dust and most riders finished the day looking like they’d been working down a mine. On top of this, the roads were often barely five feet wide, surrounded by baying crowds, and with huge gaps down the middle, waiting to swallow a front wheel like a hungry road monster.

Frank Schleck became the first major casualty of the race, flying off the cobbles into a ditch before being surrounded by fussy Belgians. I wouldn’t like to speculate what part of his ordeal was the worst. My sympathy lay mostly though with Chavanel who, despite his significant lead, lost le maillot jaune as he entered his home country after a series of punctures. He just didn’t seem to have it in him after yesterday’s effort to catch up with the pursuing group, unlike Armstong’s frankly superhuman effort to catch back up with the field.

Thor Husovd’s chest beating provided one of the best TV moments of the day, pulling a face like the god from which he takes his name. But the real drama came not on the cobbles themselves, but in the run-up to the cobbles, where the sense of panic amongst the peloton is truly palpable. The jockeying for positions seemed nothing short of terrified, such is the fear that the cobblestones seem to instil in even hardened professional cyclists. I couldn’t understand why this fear manifested itself in needing to be at the front of the field. Surely, thought I, if you’re likely to fall off, you want to be nearer the back where everybody hurtling along behind you won’t squash you. No doubt I would have continued to be confused if I’d only watched the highlights, but I realised that going along the cobbles means no overtaking, and it’s so slow and unpredictable that the peloton breaks up into a string. If you’re at the back, you just end up further and further back. And then it all clicked why the cobbles might decide le Tour. Still, Geraint Thomas might even catch Cancellara’s lead of 23 seconds today if he gets going along what should be a short and very fast stage.

What is your favourite pun involving an aspect of cycling and French culture?

Have you ever seen something you shouldn’t in an aerial view of a Belgian’s back garden?

Can Geraint Thomas wear le maillot jaune before the mountain stages?

Have you ever cycled over cobbles?

The Guardian rounds up the day’s action

Next time:

An interested layman psychoanalyses professional cyclists and Stage Four, the first stage run exclusively in REAL FRANCE, Cambrai – Reims.

And a quick recommendation of The armchair sports fan who is providing far more articulate and informed opinion on le Tour than me, as well as offering some interesting comments on these very pages.

I can be followed on Twitter @Svejky

Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Recognising Cyclists & Stage 2 Brussels – Spa

July 6, 2010 by

All cyclists look the same. Yet, to enjoy le Tour more than I am already, I feel I need to start learning who the big names are, who is going to be good when, who has made a surprise move, who causes upsets, who is likely to win. Sure, I’ve heard of Lance Armstrong, apparently he had cancer or something and made an amazing comeback?! But as for the rest of them, well they’re just a heterogeneous mass.

There’s two basic camera views on ITV4’s coverage of le Tour: straight on at a groupe from the back of a motorbike, or the peloton from above. Neither of them makes for easy identification of individuals. From the front, we see nothing but white men with ripped hamstrings, skinny arms, sunglasses, unshaven faces and impressive bulges augmented with padding, that shan’t be dwelt on any longer but cannot be ignored. And from the sky, backs down like a shoal of fish, a multitude of faceless colours and out of focus brand names, shifting as though psychically linked to the contours of the road and expectations of good cyclemanship. Like fish, their individuality doesn’t touch the impact of the totality.

Still, after Stage Two, certain characters begin to emerge. How could Chavanel be ignored, riding three minutes from the peloton, a grin spread all over his face even as he races up the final ascent, buck toothed, plucky and from the excitement of the commentators, truly remarkable? Cavendish, Britain’s great hope from the Isle of Man, terrifyingly taciturn, constantly looking shell shocked into the middle distance as he’s interviewed in his strange accent, blamed for crashes, potentially violent. Cancellara, exacting a princely control over the rest of the field in le maillot jaune as he prevents them sprinting over the line as the peloton glides steadily down a Spa boulevard. Schleck, jumping on a team mate’s bicycle despite seeming to be in shock after a nasty crash on a slick corner.

I began to realise though that individuals aren’t particularly important at this stage of the competition. Instead it seems to be about the team’s ability to support each other and not lose too many members too early. This sense of it being an endurance event rather than a competition really came to a head at the finish in Spa when the peloton crossed the line together rather than take advantage of crashes to sprint to the finish. I can’t say I fully understood Cancellara’s decision and the commentators were suggesting that there would be some dissent about it, but it help me to recognise that le Tour is something far more than a competitive race. It’s a spectacle of endurance that just needs to be sat back and enjoyed for that: the personalities will emerge as events unfold.

The scenery of the stage was, in itself, worth tuning in for. Roads winding through little villages with tumbledown farm buildings, the elegant streets of Spa, rolling hills and wooded valleys. I can understand why people follow le Tour just to drive through this same countryside, regardless of the split seconds in which the cyclists whiz past. It was not without its human drama though. The big crash of the stage occurred as a damp corner where both of the Schleck brothers were felled. Andy Schleck seemed in considerable pain and shock, though was off again with remarkable rapidity, his face a mask of suffering for the rest of the stage, the sort of suffering a Renaissance artist would pay good money to paint.

Chavanel’s breakout showed real verve but despite the treacherous conditions and assents, he seemed the picture of enjoyment as he cruised over the finish.  It was difficult to tell whether he was high on adrenaline at his first achievement of the yellow jersey or whether he’s just as fresh as a daisy. I’ll be keeping an eye on him to see if he continues to show that sort of stamina, though a lead of a minute and a half will apparently keep him at the head of the generale classement for a few days yet.

It was the peloton’s finish that most interested this novice, with a seemingly pointless protest lead by a headteacherly Cancellara even though the peloton had slowed earlier to allow stragglers to catch up. Apparently this was in reaction to the danger of the roads. The South African Robbie Hunter has been reported as saying, “no Grand Tour has any business in these northern countries and fuck anybody who says different. See how much you guys like hitting the deck at 60kph.” Exactly what is wrong with the Netherlands and Belgium is something of a mystery to me, since last time I checked, dangerous roads and the occasional wet day exist pretty much anywhere during the summer. I hope the organisers continue to plot the course outside of France, because it makes me smile, the idea that for three weeks of the summer France lays some sort of territorial claim to swathes of western Europe.

Would you have protested if you’d been in the peloton?

Will the protest have lasting ramifications?

Do you agree with Robbie Hunter?

Why are there so few ethnic minority cyclists?

Is your cyclist’s bulge as impressive as these guys?

The Guardian’s round-up of Stage Two’s action

Next time:

Stage Three Wanze – Arenberg-Porte de Hainaut, the cyclists ride of the cobbles and I have a go at watching the coverage live.

Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Introduction & Stage 1 Rotterdam – Brussels

July 4, 2010 by

I never thought I’d find myself watching ITV4. Hell, I try to avoid normal ITV as much as I can. Just the other day we were sat in the pub and I said to Kunlun, “You know, even though ITV4 is having that really excellent looking Clint Eastwood season soon, I’ll never watch it.”

“But Ingram,” outraged, “Le Tour is being shown exclusively on ITV4.”

“Le Tour?” I’m always a sucker for a come-on in French, even if it is from my hulking partner in crime.

“Le tour de france. It’s what all the cool kids are watching. To the French, it eclipses le foot like a dragon swallowing a primordial sun god. And it’s on ITV4 for the next three weeks.”

“All the kool kids,” I exclaimed, inserting the K myself, “I’d better start getting interested in it then. It always seemed like a slower, and therefore more boring version of motor racing to me. Does it have a witch house soundtrack?”

“I’m not sure. But if you’re lucky you might manage to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in between all that cycling action.”

Mr & Mrs Lance Armstrong

And here I am. One day of hard watching and hooked already. I’ve spent the last 24 hours getting my bearings in the weird and wonderful world of cycling. And it certainly is weird. Here are some ways in which it is weird:

-You don’t seem to win by winning.

-There seems to be several ways of winning.

-Most of the competitors don’t have any intention of trying to win.

-All the competitors seem to have vaguely psychotic tendencies.

And most fascinatingly of all, in a world where sport is big business but people remain obsessed with ‘keeping it real’.

-Nobody pretends it’s about anything other than money.

This I find particularly fascinating. I’ve read various ‘guides for beginners’ for us Tour de France virgins, and all of them are quite, quite clear that a common tactic is for a cyclist who has no chance of making a real impact on the outcome of the race, to go on some crazy sprint or something, just to get camera time for his sponsors. I feel like this should disgust me, but it is a key part of what has got me hooked so quickly. After all, the World Cup is the biggest business event on the planet, and yet FIFA pretends it’s exists for no other reason than to bring joy and long-term prosperity to the whole African continent, a fiction which ranges between deluded and sinister depending on how generous you’re feeling.

Dog incidents are numerous in the illustrious history of le Tour. This should bring a tear of nostalgia to the committed fan's eye.

Le Tour de France on the other hand seems to be nothing but an unabashed money making exercise with a little bit of glory for one or two elite cyclists, who wouldn’t be able to compete without big business anyway. Of course, it’s not that I’m a fan of big corporations, but there is something slightly charming and quintessentially Gallic about a bunch of telecommunication firms and tyre companies trying to get exposure through an expensive sport that hardly anybody outside of France watches. If anybody can explain to me why I think of tyres and telecommunications as being particularly appealing to the French, by the way, please get in touch.

As well as learning a little on the economics of the sport, I also learned some useful terms to help me make sense of what’s going on. Apologies for the lists, there will be fewer of them in coming weeks.

-The peloton is the pack of cyclists. They arrange themselves in various charming formations depending on headwinds, number of testosterone and anabolic steroid injections making them feel all alpha male, whose sponsor is giving them most grief etc.

-Les domestiques are the members of the team who ain’t trying to win. They ferry tasty snacks and drinks to the lead riders, and are probably their bitches on and off the course.

-Classement generale is the standings in the main competition. Who is doing best in the race as a whole.

-Maillot a pois/maillot vert/maillot jaune are the (polka dot, green and yellow) jerseys given to the leaders in the king of the mountains, time trial and classement generale competitions respectively. Le maillot vert looks the best, whilst a pois is faintly ridiculous and jaune is a horrible colour.

Armed with this useful knowledge I settled down to watch the highlights. Today’s stage was from Rotterdam and Brussels, which seemed a pretty long way but it didn’t seem to faze any of these guys too much. I hope to expand on cyclists cracked mental states later in the week so look out for that one!

I was expecting to become hooked because of the crashes, and these certainly didn’t disappoint. There was a dog on the track! There was someone dragging someone else’s bike along! There was a dam-like pile up made by velo-beavers somewhere near the end which meant that everybody’s time was the same as the winner because they were all prevented from finishing near the finish properly. Which begs the question – why doesn’t some sore loser deliberately crash near the end everyday?

But crashes weren’t all there was to it! A feeling of electricity, or at least a vague sense of smug recognition oozed through me as a I identified some of the tactics I’d seen on the Guardian’s little animated guide. I still can’t tell the teams apart and I have no idea who is going to win, but I felt the pleasing sense of superiority possessed by somebody who thinks that they understand a sport.

And as for the landscapes! Giant atoms, giant dykes, giant roads. I could watch it all just for the landscapes. And the dogs on the tracks. And the feeling cool. Kunlun was right, this sport is awesome.

Do are you watching le tour?

Do you understand cycling?

Who is going to win?

Is there any aspect of cycling I should be writing about?


-An attempt at a Stage 2 (Brussels – Spa) report, though I will link to a proper report each day and mostly keep all this for discussion on getting your head around the awesome sport of cycling.

-How to recognise different cyclists, and who are the competitors?

Useful links:

The Guardian’s interactive guide for the Tour de France where anything remotely factual that appears here will be stole from

All the action from stage one. In articulate word form

Christian sci-fi allegory

July 1, 2010 by

So, Professor Maximus and the crew land on a planet where they encounter a human-like (biologically), though (intellectually) unutterably primitive culture that have no concept of God or gods. Now, here really are your pack of bloodthirsty savages, raping and killing one another on the slightest of urges or for the merest of reasons (if any form of rationality whatever can really be accorded to this pack of latter-day Calibans). Maximus and co. are all of them both disgusted and fascinated by this unusual culture, which rather seems to refute Descartes at least who would have said that an idea of the divine was innate, so such a situation as they find themselves in would be impossible (or, at least, would be impossible if these be human minds indeed, though can that really be true when these proto-men are in such a base state?)

Anyhow, it isn’t long before their leader (such as he CAN lead this motley bunch, that is) tries to kill the Professor, so our hero Prof. Max is forced to turn his laser pistol on him. Suddenly, the savages are turned around. They are so stunned by the power of this new weapon that they begin to worship Professor Maximus as an immortal god, who in the name of anthropological research of course begins to lord it over them.

And now the savages have something approximating to a civilization. They stop killing each other willy-nilly and build a great ziggurat for the Professor to sit atop. Eventually though the son of the old leader, seeing all this, gets jealous (oh petty savage mind! Thou must indeed be human, for thou art nothing but!) and sets out to off the Professor, reasoning he is mortal after all, and at a great public festival cracks the Professor’s head open with a big stone. The Prof. appears to be dead but of course as Bosley is carrying a Healing Pack from the Excelsior with him he quickly isn’t. Thus, the resurrection! Fascinated natives, and then of course Max. must depart, for further medical care on the ship, so he goes round blessing them all and then leaves. Several begin speaking in tongues and praising his name to the heavens. All have a profound sense of the holy infused into them.

Cut to 200 years later and the natives now have a great civilization, through the myth of God-Maximus and his divine resurrection, and thus message of eternal love and peace. Neat.

Next week: On the way to deliver an important message to the planet of Ninevos-6, the Excelsior is  swallowed up by a space-whale. Can Professor Maximus and the crew escape?