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>Guns ‘n Ponies: Christmas shopping sees sun set on liberal values

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Newly minted Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg may think we’re a nation of untapped liberal and progressive sentiment, but when Christmas shopping in Brighton I mugged by reality. It’s not unpleasant and is less hellish than I imagined and all the toyshops are conveniently clustered in the mall that is slowly swallowing up the town centre. But, alas instead of looking for Pinkie Pie pony, I find myself drawn to the array of toy weaponry in Gamleys, which includes not only swords and ray guns, but also a life-sized orange-and-yellow plastic double barrelled shotgun for the aspirant bank robber. Most other toyshops, it’s true, are far too politically correct to have such things – or perhaps it doesn’t sell well in Brighton, where a Green councillor has just romped home with a huge vote in a by-election .

Coming from redneck (or should that be blue-neck?) mid-Sussex, however I feel an involuntary twinge of envy for whichever gun toting eight year old is going to lay his hands on this mini-arsenal. My own parents in the 1970s ,very responsibly, made Santa leave all firearms hanging in his grotto, but as George Orwell says ‘toy pacifists just won’t do’. My job in Gamleys, however, is buy up a selection of princesses and ponies – what have we done to encourage such gender stereotyping? – and I efficiently do before heading out onto the freezing seafront just in time to catch the sun going down.

Julian Baggini speaking on Radio 4’s Start the Week – and in a forthcoming article in Prospect – claims to detect less the liberal England Nick Clegg hopes to tap into, than robustly (if reasonably) communitarian society with a tinge of moderate nationalism. Czech-style national liberalism, if you will. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the conservative communitarianism Prospect seems to push – especially when (as very often) it is incongruously packaged as part of some a progressive, modernizing agenda, rather than just the extended political holding operation that British politics seems to consist of these days, but Baggini’s argument seems reasonable. Certainly, there are a few shotgun wielding lecturers, who may need watching…

>Berry nice

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Updating online course detail and ploughing through emails, including bizarrely one from someone who seemed to think he could do a PhD in optics at SSEES, is a time consuming business. Still even on a Sunday afternoon you can’t keep lecturers away from their blackberries. Fed up of all pre-term preparation galore I took the kids to the bramble patch at the back of the house and, although the season is nearly over, picked about 400g grammes worth.

>Just one more thing…

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I often tell my students that analytical academic writing has a good deal in common with decent crime fiction. So as, I sat updating course outlines, I was pleased to tune in to BC Radio 4’s excellent documentary on my favourite TV ‘tec Columbo presented by stand-up-comedian turned crime writer Mark Billington. The Lieutenant offers especially useful parallels as, as often with comparative politics, the question is not whodunnit, but howdunnit and how-can-find-out-and-prove-it. There’s also an interesting East European angle with Columbo I didn’t know about. Apparently the motif of the detective-as-commonplace-underestimated little man came from Crime and Punishment and (more predictably) G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Columbo’s conventional and settled domestic arrangements – happily married to the ever off screen Mrs C. are also unusual, although they do have has echoes of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

>Lofty reform ambitions won’t insulate Czech right, says Respekt

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Council contractors are due to put in 30cm of subsidized insulation in our roof space later this week and father-in-law has come over from the Czech Republic. His idea of a family visit and a bit of help clearing the loft is it turns out is buying a job lot of timber and immediately setting to work raising the joists. “You’ll need a team of chippies for that, guv, don’t bother” the guy from the insulation firm had told me, but what’s that to an active pensioner from a country famed for its ‘golden hands’. And, as my wife points out, as I can hardly hammer a nail in straight who am I to object?

Between listening to a story about a Moravian relative who bought a pub in the 1990s and discovered valuable porcelain hidden under the floorboard – unclear, apparently, if it was secreted there by ‘transferred’ Sudeten Germans in 1945-6 or by some member of the soon to be expropriated Czech bourgeoise in the late 1940s, but valuable anyway – and some thoughts about minorities (“And just why do we have to call Gypsies Roma?”), emptying the dishwasher and keeping the kids away from dangerous carpentry equipment, I get briefly to drink some coffee and peruse the Czech news magazine Respekt.

Here Marek Švehla comments that the recent reform package passed by the minority centre-right government is less about lower or flatter taxation – not really necessary in the Czech Republic anyway even according the liberal Švehla, as investment is still rolling in with highest, uneven taxes and tax collection is efficient. He is, however, critical of the centre-right Civic Democrats for their outrageous populism claiming (pre-election and, more foolishly, with a watered down package post-election) that their planned tax and fiscal reforms would benefit everyone and produce bulging wallets all round.

Instead, says Švehla they should have focused their appeal on a nascent Czech middle class, the natural social constituency of any party of the reformist centre-right, as a group of voters able to understand that their would be a longer term payoff and weather short-term losses. Alas, the rather anaemic version of their flat tax revolution, rather clobbered the middle class and the trade-off and compromises triggered factional infighting motivated by personal animosity and vested interests in the party disguised as an ideological and policy argument. Civic Democrat leader Miroslav Topolánek has reckons Švehla, probably blown the next election. Meanwhile, sidelined ODS Finance Spokesman and political rival Vlastimil Tloustý declares himself to be a loyal, but frustrated flat tax purist in an interview with right-wing monthly Politika. Lofty ambitions.

>East coast intellectual?

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Like a lot of SSEES people, during the summer, I always head East. This year though the Wild East meant Suffolk and a nicely modernized cottage complete with doll’s house, cafetiere and a selection of books and DVDs to suit all tastes. We spent most days on Lowestoft‘s long and sandy beach, with me keeping one eye on the kids and the other (very occasionally) on Frances Fukuyama’s After the Neocons – an attempt to put forward a sensible version of neo-conservatism, whose most interest argument for me was the overgeneralization of the experience of 1989 (and subsequent Coloured Revolutionss) as a template for transitional politics. Even allowing for his writing for wide audience as a public intellectual, Fukuyama conveys an uncomfortable feeling of breadth without depth. In the end I was happy I had to stop at chapter 2 and make sand castles.

Lowestoft is an interesting kind of place – more down-to-earth and with sandier beaches than posher, more cultured places such down the Suffolk coast.like Aldeburgh and Southwold and with an odd juxtaposition of rundown B and Bs, fish and chips and fairground attractions; rundown docks and a half empty industrial and redevelopment zone; and the beginning of the Broads. Packed with daytrippers from Merseyside and the Midland during the sunny weekend, it was half deserted during the cloudier cooler weekdays.

I had reason to grateful if tfor his bucket-and-spade and meets light industrial landscape though as when a vigilent policewoman noticed, much to my horror, that our MOT had expired KwikFit was only a short walk from the beach ( and they were polite and affordable toboot).

Looking the place over, I tried to suss out the local political landscape. Exhorbitant parking charges, cheap municipal swimming pool, complex recycling system, and giant wind turbine overlooking the beach suggested to me that politically speaking we must be in Lib Dem territory. But in fact the local council is run by the Tories who – backed by heftly representation from posher hinterland around the town where the Broads begin – have a large majority and Labour is the main opposition party with councillors mainly from the more run down bits of Lowestoft. The Liberals barely get a look – with three seats they barely matched the one Green and two independents. Clearly, this jarring social mix of seaside, run down industrial and poor social housing is not electorally their cup of tea, or perhaps there are historic reasons, who knows.

>Mend your car? You didn’t ask me.

> The Victoria Garage in Burgess Hill really is a place to be avoided, having gone from from pricey but predictable, to surly, exorbitant and indifferent in the course of 12 months.

When servicing the car leaves you little change from £300 and you end up having conversations like this:

“…I’m sorry but the ventilator’s still not working, did you test it?

“No, you only asked us to unblock it”

Then you can’t help feeling you’ve been had.

Presumably, the VG mechanic thought we just wanted it cleared for aesthetic reasons…

Actually, perhaps he didn’t even think this and thought we just wanted to make a charitable donation, as when we have a look the ventilator is still blocked up with broken glass from a windscreen smash a while back.

>BBC documentary archive: Thank pod for that…

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BBC radio has an excellent online listen again feature, but is distinctly stingy with downloadable podcasts. Happily, there is however an archive of has some terrific documentary pods to listen to as the train wobbles and snakes it way to Kingscross Thameslink, including a series covering the fringes of the EU and the prospects for further enlargement: Turkey and Ukraine emerge as the big areas of strategic and political interest with Serbia and Montenegro merely a tough but digestible morcel.

>I think therefore I spam?

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Logging in, I was surprised to discover that Blogger’s automated robocops had blocked me from posting further entries as Dr Sean’s Diary was (shock, horror!) suspected of being a spam blog. “Spam blogs” (aka ‘splogs’ ) are apparently the a threat to civilization as we know, clog up search engines and Blogger’s helplink brutally informed me “can be recognised by their irrelevant, repetitive or nonsensical text”. So, there you have it…
Notwithstanding all this, Blogger Support responded fairly snappily and unblocked it the next day

>Unsunny afternoon

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It’s a typical English July summer day. Weird weather – this time rainy and cool in mid-summer– and an unravelling terror plot feverishly covered in the media. I get the train to London to give a student some feedback on her MA performance and tie up various other administrative loose ends of printing, signing and tidying the afternoon away. There;s no visible security clampdown and, fortunately, I am the bearer of good news as far as the student is concerned. None of the rest is very onerous and end up tracking down and reading French language study of Luxembourg politics to find out something more about the Alternative Democratic Reforms (ADR) party, which superficially seemed to West Europe’s only example of a sustained success by a pensioners’ party – the ADR which has pulled in up to 10% of the vote in the Grand Duchy since it emerged in the early 1990s having began as a Commitee for Pensions Justice seeking to bring (state-supervised?) private sector pensions up to the generous level of those paid to public sector employees. In fact, as the pensions issue receded it seems to have as has made the transition to being a right-wing populist/anti-establishment party and was perhaps always more about poujadisme as ‘grey power’.
When I leave SSEES the odd summer times make themselves felt a bit more forcefully: 30 seconds into my five minute walk to the Undergound monsoon like downpour begins and as I run into the tube station I almost bump into two machine gun wielding cops, also presumably taking shelter from the weird weather.

>Slugging it out in the garden: a rum deal

> The cold damp summer weather has seen a huge incursion of slugs into our back garden keen to eat what passes for a flowerbed. They say that you can deal with slugs by leaving out saucers of beer as distraction-cum-death trap, but we didn’t have any and it seemed a shame to waste even a drop of good Czech lager on the little blighters, so I thought I’d try a drop of the hard stuff and another Czech specialty on them: a tot of the country’s (in)famous ‘domestic rum’ (tuzemský rum), now known as tuzemák as under EU regulations it cannot be called ‘rum’ as it is distilledfrom beet- not cane sugar. The slugs clearly must have got wind of this as they ignored it, making their usual beeline for the (remaining) flowers.