tfc#67 Bing-bong!

The general election reminds me of the one and only time I have been door-stepped by a political representative. I have touched on this briefly before (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), but here it is again in all its glorious detail. The candidate was from the British National Party, and looked every inch of it: sweaty, middle-aged, red-faced. He had been squeezed into a cheap suit and then partially lynched with an offensive tie, before staggering into my front garden where I was pruning a hedge, and demanding I listen to his views on immigration. Predictably, and while casually holding a nice sharp pair of shears, I told him to fuck off back to where he came from. Nearly ten years later, this still fills me with a lovely warm feeling of a job well done. I also I find myself wondering why this heart-warming experience has been an isolated one. Unlike our (awful, recently departed)[1] neighbour, I always answer the doorbell when it rings. Bing-bong! It’s a parcel! Bing-bong! It’s the LRB! Bing-bong! It’s our horrible neighbour collecting a parcel I’ve taken for her because she doesn’t answer the fucking doorbell! She takes it from me without thanks and the Hound growls at her deep in his throat. Usually I tell him off for growling at people and warn them that he’s snappy at the moment because his teeth are hurting, but frankly she can take her chances. She doesn’t answer the doorbell because she’s disconnected it, on the grounds that ‘it makes the dogs bark.’ After three years of listening to the damn things bark at literally anything at all times of the day and night, I wonder if she’s considered making the barking stop by simply hitting them with a frying pan for a bit? Another option would be to leave them alone with our Tiny Hound in a locked room for an hour: they’re twice his size and there are two of them, but a. he would have the element of surprise, and b. he knows how much I hate those dogs. He also knows that if he were to kill them, he’d be allowed to shit on the carpet twice a day for the rest of his life, and I’d clear it up cheerfully, saying, ‘yeah, but you killed those dogs that lived next door! Remember when you borked them to death, ripped their ears off and then partially buried them? Who’s a good dog? Who’s a good dog?’ This may explain, then, why the woman next door doesn’t get door-stepped (‘wait. Why doesn’t this doorbell go bing-bong?’ <silence>), but what about me? I’ve been eligible to vote for twenty years, work from home almost every day and have never voted for either of the two main parties. Why haven’t I been door-stepped more often?

The first and most obvious theory is that I have spent the majority of my life living in safe seats. At the time of my encounter with the Person from Get The Fuck Out of my Garden, I lived in a safe Conservative seat. Indeed, I have lived in several safe Conservative seats, including those represented by Michael Heseltine, John Major and disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP.[2] Currently, we live in yet another safe Conservative seat: at the 2015 election, the sitting MP won by a margin of over 14,000 votes, and the candidate in second place represented UKIP (and got over 10,000 votes).[3] Brilliantly, the website of my MP still reads ‘the next general election will be in May 2020’; he’s spelt his own name wrong on another page; and the page on which one is encouraged to contact him to raise issues (‘Your listening MP’) includes an enormous picture of his own ear. And, really, why the hell not? He now has a majority of 16,000 votes! He can do exactly what he likes, including not bothering to doorstep anyone at all; and the other parties know they would do better to concentrate their efforts in other, more closely-fought seats.

My second theory is that it may be genetic in some way. My mother loathed being door-stepped by anyone, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular. She once tipped a bucket of water over some people who knocked on the door to ask her if she’d thought about the fate of her immortal soul at all. I was nine or ten years old, off school with a tummy bug, and she had just finished clearing up a load of vomit (i.e. it wasn’t very clean water). Perhaps her reputation has somehow attached itself to me and I am on some kind of list of People Who Should Not Be Bothered?

My third theory relates to the Hound. Even for a Jack Russel, he is very small (around eighteen inches from nose to tail), but now that he’s recovered from recent surgery on his teeth[4] his bark is really quite something. He sounds really very much larger than he actually is. He also sounds considerably more aggressive: his bark says ‘I’LL BITE YER FACE ORF!’, but last night while we watched the election coverage, he fell asleep contentedly on my chest and only woke up when Giant Bear and I high-fived each other over the first few results from the north-east. Perhaps potential door-steppers (here comes the door-stepper!) hear him barking his Big Boy Bark and go to ring the bell of the horrible woman next door instead. Good luck with that, Potential Door-Stepper. She probably won’t answer the door, and if she does, you’ll have to actually talk to her.

I found it fascinating how little Brexit was discussed meaningfully during this campaign. Fox-hunting was suddenly a live issue again for no reason whatever, but it seems that Brexit is just an embarrassing thing that we’re all sick to death of, eyeing it doubtfully much as one might consider a painful, distasteful but necessary operation that one had foolishly brought upon oneself: the removal of an enormous but ill-considered tattoo, for example, or the amputation of a gangrenous limb, although of course it is Britain that will be chopped off and discarded. I’m still furious that the referendum went the way it did, and on reflection I think it’s perfectly OK to be furious with people who voted Leave: some of them at least were, objectively, stupid.[5] Some of them at least were taken in by the lies that were told, and there is no way of telling who was and wasn’t persuaded by that misinformation; as I’ve written before (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), it’s very hard to know why we think what we think or why we vote the way we do, but this nonsense must have had some kind of effect. The slim margin of victory is also bonkers: we recently asked the members of our choir is they wanted to tweak the concert dress, and *all* the things we considered to be binding in the Sub-Committee Of Telling Grown-Up Women How to Dress (I was the mole on the inside) had to have at least a two-thirds majority. In other words, we’re going to leave the EU based on a margin that wouldn’t be sufficient to enact change in your average golf club. More mortifying to me (and more relevant to my argument here) is the cynical way the Leave campaign was run. Clearly they didn’t expect to win; clearly they didn’t expect people (or at least, not enough people to change the result) to believe the nonsense they were spouting, which then allowed them to go on spouting it with clear consciences; and clearly they have no idea whatever how to handle the absurd situation we find ourselves in.

Most astonishing of all is that, of all people, Theresa May failed to learn from David Cameron’s fatal mistake, which is that you should never take the electorate for granted. You don’t know how they’re going to vote, but if you think you do, why are you asking them? What do you think voting is? She also failed to learn the following from the Leave campaign’s mistakes (and there were plenty, even if we leave aside the whole winning-when-we-didn’t-really-want-to thing): make a fucking plan. It might not go the way you think it will. We know that she seems to have spontaneously lost her judgement because a. here we are, after all; and b. let us not forget that one of her first acts as Prime Minister was to make Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary, a role he is so breathtakingly unqualified for that it almost defies belief. It’s in the same category as Tony Blair becoming a peace envoy to the Middle East, which I still think must be satire.[6] What next? George W. Bush writing a book[7] received by critics as a cogent and thoughtful comment on our times? Putin releasing a range of vegan ready-meals?

These, and other such mad things, have left me tired and cynical. Therefore, my fourth and final theory for my lack of door-stepping is this: everyone over the age of thirty is tired. What I mean by that is that we’re tired of talking about politics (and hearing about it on the radio, in the pub, at work and on the TV), but also that we’re just tired. We’re too tired to ring doorbells (bing-bong! ‘Fuck off!’), and we’re too tired to answer them (bing-bong! ‘Fuck off!’). Yes, people could throw themselves into campaigning in my constituency in the hope of removing Ear Photography Guy, but it’s just too much effort, not very well spent. I teach at a university and so am well aware how brilliant young people are, but it’s worth saying that young people are particularly brilliant in three specific ways: (i) they don’t like being talked down to; (ii) they don’t read tabloids; and (iii) they aren’t knackered yet. They still have the energy to get excited about the possibility of change; to ring and answer doorbells; to have someone tell them to fuck off and not mind too much (the BNP guy really minded). I listened to an interview with someone from the University of Kent yesterday, in which she explained how student volunteers had knocked on doors in the run-up to the election asking students if they were registered to vote (and helping them to register if they weren’t), along with a hundred other things that helped get the vote out. That seat (Canterbury) is now a Labour seat, for the first time in a hundred years, with a winning margin of 187 votes. Young people did that.

In the last few days of the election campaign, I wondered if any of the opposition parties might consider posting huge pictures of Theresa May looking disappointed and chastened (possibly standing forlornly in a field of wheat, possibly not), with the simple caption ‘imagine her face’. Gentle reader, she’s making that face right now. She’s dreading the sound of her doorbell (I doubt the doorbell at 10 Downing Street goes bing-bong, but indulge me). Young people did that, too. Bravo.


[1] Departed from the house, I mean, rather than departed this mortal plane, which I guess will have to do.

[2] I refer to him this way as per this brilliant article by Jonn Eledge in The New Statesman, and as per my own rules about never, ever letting powerful people off the hook (see Punch drunk).

[3] This time around, the UKIP guy finished a poor third with about 2,000 or so, and the candidate in second place represented Labour, who received around 16,000 votes. Silver linings?

[4] Sedating our tiny Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog) for his operation took twenty minutes. He’s so scared of vets that he climbed onto my shoulder, jumped off the bench four times, hid behind me, up my skirt and under the chair and even tried to get into my handbag, wailing piteously the whole time. Getting the needle into him required three people, two towels and two syringes (he bent the first one). Anyone that says they can subdue an animal larger than a domestic cat gently and single-handed is a liar. WTF, Born Free?

[5] It is also OK to be furious with people who voted Trump because WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING? There was, however, a lot of anger directed at various sub-categories of Trump voters (e.g. white women), and while that’s entirely reasonable (because WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING?), the people I am most angry with are people who didn’t vote at all. Have you seen this chart? It shows how ‘did not vote’ would have played as a third party and, honestly, it blows my mind.

[6] Speaking of Boris Johnson, I am reminded that President Trump has, for much of his time in office, worn much the same expression as Boris Johnson the day after the Brexit vote. Clearly, Trump didn’t actually expect to win, doesn’t want to do the job (unless he can make a fuckton of money from it and carry on going to rallies where people cheer his every mangled sentence) and literally doesn’t understand politics, the presidency or basic English. Well, I never expected to fall in love with a creature that licks its own arsehole when he thinks no-one is looking, but here we both are. Suck it up.

[7] George W. Bush reading a book (or using the word ‘cogent’ correctly in a sentence) would be almost as astonishing.Hangzhou is a charming place, but the highlights of the trip are always the students. For example, there was a student called Peter, with such a strong perfectionist streak that I had to physically remove his laptop from him to stop him continuing to tinker with his (excellent, finished PS). A quiet, perpetually worried-looking student named Hannah used The Power of Maths to demonstrate that Professor Sir Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists being ‘distractingly sexy’ were nonsense. She also argued (successfully, in my view) that male scientists who found their attention wandering needed to pull themselves together, in the following deathless sentence: ‘I can concentrate all the way to the end of an experiment, even if there is a boy in the room.’ Another student (rejoicing in the name Jordan at the beginning of the summer school and renamed Bernard by the end)[2] expressed concern about the character count in his PS:

Bernard: You told me to use ‘she’ in all my hypothetical examples, but I need to cut the characters. Can I say ‘he’?

Me: If you want to, Bernard, but it’s becoming common practice in academia to use ‘she’.

Bernard: Why?

Me: Centuries of oppression.

Bernard: I have no further questions.

This year I also threw together a pub quiz on the subject of the United Kingdom in a few hours, learning a great deal about my students in the process. The incredulity in the room on being told that our Commander-in-Chief is a little old lady, for example, was highly educational. I asked them to name their teams after something British, which generated the predictable Big Ben, British Boys and Spice Girls, as well as the frankly baffling Spicy Chicken (I’m told this is a terribly funny pun in Mandarin). I grouped the questions into rounds, of course, including one on food that required them to draw a traditional tiered wedding cake (everyone got this one right), asked which food is served sunny side up (‘sunflower seeds?’), and how fish and chips is made. The answer ‘boiled and then set on fire’ received no marks, whereas ‘plunged into boiling oil’ got an extra mark for making it sound like an answer from the previous round on medieval history. Unsurprisingly, their knowledge of British history was scanty at best; the question ‘Name the two sides in the Wars of the Roses’ was answered correctly by one team only (the only team with a PPE student in it), although I also gave a mark to Spicy Chicken who happened to guess ‘red and white’. ‘When was the Civil War?’ drew answers from across the centuries, including one team who thought it was in the 1980s; and the question ‘How did Charles I die?’ was answered tersely by the team that went on to win with the grim little sentence ‘he have no head’.

The round on international politics asked the students to name the countries with which Britain enjoys the Special Relationship (every team answered ‘China’)[3] and the entente cordiale; here, incorrect answers (nobody got it right) included Sweden (‘cordiale sound a bit Swedish’), Germany (‘because I think entente sounds bad and I know Germany is bad’), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Another round cherry-picked ten striking pieces of vocabulary from their PS drafts (i.e. at least one student in the room ought to know what at least one of the words meant) and asked them to tell me whether the word was an adjective, verb, noun or preposition and what it meant. This turned out to be a bit like the Uxbridge English Dictionary. The words were as follows: conurbation (‘when someone build a town without ask’), orca (‘orc that is lady orc’), zooming (‘making a zoo’), feudal (‘place where eat food’), Anglophile (‘place to file things’), nevertheless (‘definitely never happen’), kidnap (‘when child is sleepy’), compliment (‘you look nice’), complement (‘you look nice but no-one notice’) and collate (‘you are late because your friend is also late’). Bearing in mind that the only sports that capture the interest in China are badminton and basketball, I also put together a round on sports popular in Britain, including the question that offered them a point for every team they could name from the Six Nations. I was pleased to see everyone score at least three for naming England, Scotland and Wales (two teams, with a certain amount of inevitability, also suggested ‘Northern Ireland’, for which they got half a point: the answer was wrong, but the thinking was good), but the remaining suggestions ranged wildly around the world and included many nations that have no rugby culture whatever (my favourite was ‘Madagascar’). The only question from this round that everyone got completely wrong was ‘What is the profession of Mervyn ‘The King’ King?’ Brilliantly, they all answered that he was the Governor of the Bank of England, forgetting of course that this was a round of questions on sport.[4]

At the end of the (raucous, laughter-filled) quiz, after the points had been totted up and the prizes awarded, with what little voice I had left, I asked some of the students how they had learnt so much about the United Kingdom, given that they don’t study history and receive very little unfiltered news from the outside world. It seems that almost everything starts as a rumour that they might or might not bother (or be able) to verify, remarkably (and depressingly) like Chinese Whispers. The real joy, of course, always comes from letting the students ask questions rather than answering them, and thus the following day we braved the Embarrassing Questions Box.

Eight months later, I still have no idea why this student felt the need to cut their question into the shape of a bus.

In a previous post, I declared my favourite question from the Embarrassing Questions Box to be from a student named Kim (‘Can you tell us everything you know about sex?’; see Open the Box). Chinese Whispers is a game without a winner, and it’s fortunate that I don’t have to pick a favourite here as 2016 was a vintage harvest of Embarrassing Questions, including the following gems: ‘Which area in the UK has the greatest number of handsome boys?’; ‘How do you dry your underwear every day? Because you can’t possibly use dryer every single day, right?’ and ‘How to find a boyfriend in the university?’ I love this last one because it suggests exactly the fruitless wandering I did so much of in my first few weeks at university (I wasn’t in search of a partner, but rather various rooms and noticeboards).

‘How do I date a foreigner? Is it by making my face really sneaky? Is it?’

My favourite question this year, however, was this: ‘What do you think of real love? What is it?’ As I read the question out, I must admit that I wondered how on earth I came to this: standing in an air-conditioned room in Hangzhou, wondering if I was going to be able to make the projector work well enough later on to show them The Man in the White Suit, clutching a cardboard box in one hand, looking forward to my evening bowl of noodles and trying to answer philosophical questions about love. I actually didn’t find the question difficult to answer, but the fact that it was asked at all should give us pause. Two weeks of asking and answering questions all day (including mock Oxbridge interviews; see also No means no) causes both question and answer to feel rather slippery after a while, just as repeating a phrase over and over can both reveal and strip away layers of meaning. I said, ‘real love makes you feel that, even at your worst, you deserve to be loved.’ I’m quite proud of that as a spontaneous explanation; I jotted it down in my notebook immediately afterwards, which is why I’m able to quote it with such confidence. This was the last question and as we broke for dinner, my student Zoe told me that it was her question, and that she liked my answer very much. One shouldn’t have favourites, of course, but Zoe was my favourite this year, partly because she was such a thoughtful young lady: both in the sense of being considerate to other people, and also in the sense of turning things over in her mind constantly. In each interview I did the following day, I finished by asking them Zoe’s question. One of the best answers was, ‘If you don’t know the difference between real love and not-real love, it is not real love.’ (‘That’s a good answer’, I said. The student replied, ‘Yes. I think about that question all day. It stick in my mind’). In the face of huge, Trump-based global-scale nonsense, it’s hard to feel able to exert any kind of influence over events, but it seems to me that anyone who teaches, asks or answers questions has more influence than they realise. The whispers of a good question go on forever.

[1] I took both Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (his finest work, second only to Thud!) and Night Watch by Sarah Waters (her finest work by a mile), for no reason other than it pleased me to do so.

[2] Bernard was concerned that his name might be a little old-fashioned, and when I asked him what other names he liked he said, ‘Jim, or Humphrey.’ Thus did we uncover his love of Yes, Minister.

[3] Enjoys! What was a cosy flirtation is about to becoming a savage buggering.

[4] Mervyn ‘The King’ King is a darts player. Even had the question been ‘Who is the Governor of the Bank of England?’, Mervyn King is still not the correct answer, as Mervyn King the Baron of Lothbury was replaced as Governor of the Bank of England in 2013 by Mark Carney.

DJS adds: I found several likely candidates as described, but decided none were appropriate for J’s description - I might have found the right guy. So I looked for something a bit different. Pic from Geneva.

© David Scoins 2017