Friday, 19 August 2011

The Book of the blog, and why I'm not going on Big Brother.

I don't normally like to do this sort of thing, but the good people at Pluto Press have reminded me that unless I get off my tiny backside and actually tell people about this book of columns we've got coming out, nobody will buy it, and then they won't get any money. Which would be sad, because they're wonderful people, and they made me two separate cups of tea when I went to see them at the office.

So, here it is: The Book of This Blog. Titled, after some wrangling and a great deal of imaginative endeavor, Penny Red. It has a stonking cover design by This is Star, a New York artist and model whose inkwork makes me moist and excited. Warren Ellis has written a lovely foreword, which makes my inner fangirl vibrate with glee. Some of the actual words inside don't make me cringe too much on re-reading, either, although they undoubtedly will in five years' time. You can pre-order it here, and if you do, as the good people at Pluto Press remind me, not only do you get it much cheaper, you get free stuff, like extra books.

From the website, it appears that I'm going to be signing some copies as well. That sort of thing makes me nervous; it's been very flattering when people have asked me to sign Meat Market in recent weeks, but it all feels rather ridiculous. I may swan around like some kind of proper writer, but my signature still looks like an eleven year old girl's - it has TWO stars in it, and it used to be a heart and a star until two years ago when I got laughed at by a bank clerk. Similarly, I may act all casual about being asked to go on the telly and give my opinion on things, but I can't watch the clips back afterwards without doing that thing where you half-close your eyes and bite down hard on the side of your fist. Despite what a miniature army of trolls seems to think, all I ever wanted was to write useful words for a living.

It is this that lay behind my decision not to go on Big Brother.

Yes, I was asked to audition for Celebrity Big Brother. It was a few months ago, now. It took me a whole twelve hours to decide no, partly because - coming clean for a moment - I've always loved that mad bloody show, and I've wondered for at least ten years what it would be like to be on it. Hell, of course, but then I'm the sort of person who'd wander around hell with recording equipment asking people how they felt about the whole thing. There's even a chance that weeks of constant public surveillance might not leave me curled weeping in the middle of a day-glo floor, muttering about the Society of the Spectacle and trying to peel myself like a satsuma.

After turning over in my mind every possible way in which going on Big Brother might not be the worst idea in the entire world, I finally hit on the insurmountable counter-argument: the one where this isn't all a fucking joke, and I'm not a fucking cartoon character, and I actually have some serious things to say. I don't like playing the media game. I don't like doing the self-publicising that every freelancer has, to some extent, to engage in. I actually believe in something bigger than myself, and I like to think that the people who read this blog do, too.

There is a banality at play in the British press - and I mean the entire glorious sweep of it, from the Observer Review to Big Brother - that makes me more uncomfortable the more of it I discover. It's a banality that's inimical to the sort of reasoned, sensible debate we desperately need in these nervous times. It's not about celebrity culture, and it's not about 24-hour news cycles, though it has something to do with both, and it infects everything. It's about speed of turnover, a dull hunger for comment, the privileging of celebrity above content when it comes to argument, a culture that would rather watch people unravel than listen to their ideas, a culture that would rather bitch and carp spitefully amongst itself than actually try to change the world. Millions of words have been expended on the riots that swept our cities two weeks ago, and almost none of that analysis has been measured or persuasive enough to prevent the enormous, frightening right-wing backlash that's been permitted to happen on this angsty little island. The best overviews so far have come from outside Britain, like yesterday's explosive New York Times editorial.

There's a fight going on for the soul of decency in this country, and it's a fight that's obscured by gossip and bogged down by banality, and when you're just a person sitting in her bedroom, letting cups of tea go cold whilst you try to write useful things, that banality can feel insurmountable. Fortunately, I have some complete bastards for friends who do things like yell "LOOK, it's TV's own Laurie Penny!" when I come back from the loo. One of the most dangerous things a person can ever do is take themselves seriously. As long as I have those reprobates around, it's not a danger over which I'm losing much sleep.


  1. I think you're doing the right thing not going on Celebrity Big Brother. Imagine being cooped up with Jedward and Kerry Katona for weeks.

    Also, I'd hate to take part in the Big Brother tasks, from what little I've seen of the programme.

  2. Good decision. There is simply no way to merge from that show with your dignity intact.

    It would be equally impossible to have your every word and action taped for weeks without saying or doing something stupid that'll end up on youtube, linked to by every idiot you ever try to debate with.

  3. Penny: you are a total and utter legend. It really is such a great thing to have such a strong voice coming from someone who is both young and female! More power to you! :D

  4. With all due respect, the majority of the audience that's tuning in in a non pomo/ironic way for Dirty Des's sleb crapfest will never have heard of you. They'll be unlikely to have heard of Sally Bercow either if that's any consolation.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Good idea, no one comes out of Big Brother looking good. Remember how seriously people took George Galloway after his stint? It would take months to put such indignity behind you, and while you're in the house you wouldn't be able to do any good writing. The world would be passing you by.

  7. I think Big Brother is a great show too because despite the gutter celebrity, bumblegum surface image, as the show progresses, slowly but surely the real characters and personalities of the housemates reveal themselves. As social beings we can all relate and identify with other people and the show tends to bring the audience into the confined and temporary world on a nation wide scale, just as when we get to know someone in real life, we are brought into their existence. I think it will always remain the king of reality television for this reason despite the bullshit.

    Going into Big Brother could have given your radical insights a huge platform which I believe would be worthwhile, given the state of the global political economy today. Then again it could have been manipulated by our faithful capitalist mainstream media to have the opposite effect.

    A tough decision.

  8. While not as familiar with the British press as I am with the American press, this line -> "the privileging of celebrity above content when it comes to argument" in particular stuck out to me as one of the best ways I've heard it described in quite some time. Depressingly true. So I think you're definitely making the right choice to not go on the show.

    I'm sad that I'm next to broke, or I would most definitely be preordering the book. If I stumble upon some unknown wealth in the next 13 days, maybe I still will.

  9. One day you'll be A Proper Journalist - in the eyes of the media moguls - and all the lovely perks that go with it, from free plugs on the BBC for your next book, to paid-for lunches with starving artists, all the way down to heated floors in the loos so your feet are warm when you wee - none of it will make up for being told to find the celebrity angle on another riot or the next mass murder.

    Which is to say: don't get sucked into the festering bog of trivialisation!

    Big Brother leads straight into the swamp, and you do well to avoid it. You would, at best, be propelled into the meritless celebrity that Big Brother exists to celebrate, and trivialised as a political commentator; at worst, you would 'lose' and be voted out, rejected and reviled in a welter of trivial criticisms of your dress, your voice, your mannerisms, your hair and your figure - criticisms that will never go away, criticisms and sneers that will always be trotted out - with the video footage! - every time you have something serious to say that threatens to be a politically effective statement.

  10. Shame - would have been great to see plod arrest you inside the Big Brother house for inciting riots all year.

    Still - wonder what sort of house mate you'd make with a 4 year stretch?

  11. Ooooh, better than Germaine, are we?

    Seriously (you could tell I was joking, right?), that show is a long way from the heady days of Sue Perkins, Jack Dee (was Bez on it, once?)...

    We are the future, Lauren, not them...

  12. I'd have loved you in Big Brother. But would I have respected you in the morning? Good call.

  13. any idea how someone in the US could get your book(s)? i was unsuccessful so far.

    good call not to let reality show eat you. it would have.

  14. Laurie Darling, I'm also from the US & first want to say bigger things will present themself for you other then gigs like Big brother...I'm from Philadelphia & first saw you on Grit tv on an interview "Debt is not the answer to dept"...I loved everything about this little fire cracker from London, with your sexy Brit accent.) Along with a determination to speak your mind & get your point across... It just felt good to know there are others out there that feel the same way! You are blessed to be in the situation that you are in...It's going to take our generation to stick together and speak our minds on all truths & knowledge that we fell will make this life better for all of us...Keep up the good work and try and come visit us in the US asap!...

  15. Laurie, you're a legend. Thanks for always raising the debate. You're doing great.

  16. Good post. I might have actually watched the show if you'd been on it, but I'm 100% certain they'd have edited any feminist/political stuff, as I believe they did with George.

    Carry on doing what you're doing, chica. You do it very well.


    "With all due respect, the majority of the audience ... will never have heard of you."

    It's true, Laurie would stand out like a sore thumb among the Hollywood heavyweights and internationally-recognised faces that the public expects of Celebrity Big Brother. Lucky for her you pointed that out.

  17. Good luck on getting your book out there. If I wasn't quite so penniless I'd get a copy just to say "thanks!" and "keep it up!" but . . . yeah.

    And good choice on letting Big Brother slide. I'm sure you would have managed admirably, gotten across some good points, not risen to the taunts of the other contestants whose careers are over rather than just beginning and generally come out the other side as a decent person. But that's not what the producers are after and none of that would get shown. More likely just a few clips of tangential parts of some discussion picked to portray you as some far out feminist caricature of yourself. Anything you actually believe in would have been made out to be a joke.

    Looking forward to your next article, take care.

  18. I can't make my mind up if it would have been good for you or not to have participated in BB. For that which you are claiming a committment to - useful words and the redemption of reality - I think for sure, turning it down was the right thing to do. It is indeed a sacrifice that favours 'the real' over the glamorous commodification of ideology and identity. I reckon it a real possibility that you could come out of BB lookin' pretty good and maybe even, in the process, convey to others some of the energy of conviction on which you yourself seem to thrive.

    However, had you conveyed that energy, it would have remained a commodified energy wherein the energy points, not to the real or political change, but only into hopeless self-glamour - it becomes a radicality of the screen, not a radicality of the street or of the community.

    But that said, to what extent are blogs or TV appearances or even political rallies different?

    To say the media is banal, I think, is pretty accurate, but I wonder if this isn't just part of the make-up of the TV medium - that its role is to produce confused yet ineffectual patterns of discourse for the sake of entertainment and a means of simulating/validating your own importance. The TV medium projects back onto the blog and the political rally etc., turning actions there into a means of becoming glamorous and living on-screen.

    No amount of media commentators saying 'feral youth, feral bankers' will make the slightest difference to the current political context. This is precisely because making this comparison and pointing out this hypocrisy is not politically motivated, but instead serves only to simulate importance and simulate political discourse and balanced analysis. Essentially, it is too hard to be real and indeed, it's downright alien. The political stake of The Right is in the preservation and expansion of their capital assets; The political stakes of The Left is in the simulation of its political significance by talking about inequality and injustice. Which stake serves the greater force for change?

    I think this is what you are wrestling with and I think it's very hard to tell between one and the other, bastard friends or no bastard friends.

  19. And as an afterthought - the danger probably isn't taking onself too seriously; it's probably not taking everyone else seriously enough.

  20. I wonder if the producers would make you sign something to limit what you can or can't say afterwards. And, if being stuck might lead to foolish behaviour just for fun and to avoid the tedium.

    I guess the upsides are the money, and the platform for expression. But the producers decide what goes public, and they would be likely to use whatever made the best tv, one way or another.

    It seems to me, who only watched BB for one series 12 years ago, that it would come down to trust, of the public and the media and so I'd probably say no...

    I expect the time spent on the tv show could be better spent, money aside.

  21. Hi, I'm a girl from Belgium and I'm really glad I discovered your blog. You are a real inspiration. As you say, sometimes the banality can feel insurmountable, but then I read things like this and I feel my energy building up again. Thanks for doing what you do, the way you do.. We need more conscient women like you.

  22. A good call to not do Big Brother - I still have visions of a certain "cat" politician (shudder).

    As for a banal press, yes I'd agree. I'd also suggest a lot of hypocrisy too.

    The Mail sneers at the tabloids for Page 3 and then shows images not a million miles away in their online version.

    The Mirror attacks News International for phone hacking yet, according to reports I've seen, appear to be even worse.

    Guardian journos attack "tax dodgers" whilst their own paper has a rather dodgy background itself. Polly Toynbee should maybe organising a sit in at her own office first before attacking Philip Green.

    The right wing blame the poor whilst the left wing blame the rich. Both banal but also dangerous because in the end nothing gets done.

    Socialists demand free speech and the right to march whilst wanting to stop the facists having theirs. Meanwhile the facists want to shout the socialsts down. Banal, predictable...and dangerous.

    I might be wrong but I think there may have been a change in Ms Penny since the London riots. Maybe she's not as predicatable as she was before ;-)

  23. It's very refreshing to confirm my hope that people who value their professional and personal integrity over the glimmer of fame offered by reality TV *do* exist. I respect that you like BB but I cannot stand reality shows (or most TV, for that matter) and it would indeed have probably watered down your messages.

  24. Don't give in to the mockery of bank clerks! Well, I suspected that your top secret project might well be a book, and I was right. I might get a copy, but only if you're prepared for the fact I might point out every single thing that I disagree with ... don't get me started on your attack on craft ...

  25. One more from the states...

    You're getting a lot of attention over here, perhaps in large part due to the London Riots post. I found that via Gawker media. And after that, I read a lot of your other work. I wish the states didn't have the awful parallels with social cuts and predatory business-sponsored government. And I wish we had more active protesters who wanted more than just to vent some aggression on TV.

    It's a bitch, no doubt, to have your day to day personality shackled to your public image. But I thank you for choosing not to willingly throw yourself as a log onto the media personality bonfire. You have too many good things to say, that pertain to both of our countries. The line running through my head is from V for Vendetta... Something about the last inch of our integrity being frail and precious and oh so necessary.

    Maybe TV isn't the same as the state police pulling a black bag over your head. But whether by force, or through their portrayal of you as a person, they'd probably help you to disappear just the same. No wonder Spider Jerusalem hated being made into the news...

    So, thanks for watching out for yourself.

  26. Some good points made, particularly by innegative. Maybe it's because I recently watched the end of that film based on Zimbardo's Stanford experiment (and I see it being re-enacted all the time by people given power over others online, particularly at the BBC), but the idea of being kept in a restricted environment, subject to the vagaries of unseen powers, doesn't appeal.

    Perhaps the question should be, what could you do in that house, lp, that you can't you do right now?

  27. Thank ye Joker. Boiling my point down, I think it depends whether you are committed to reality or virtual reality. Critical discourse and 'opposition' increasingly look like vehicles towards creating a virtual screen-self. Though it's obvious 'reality' still exists somewhere and its problems are certainly present, I'm not convinced anyone can authentically relate to those problems anymore. The critique becomes little more than a means of projecting an image of self onto a global screen (which incidentally is where the new citizen is). The responsible citizen and member of the community is on-screen, the dispossessed are off-screen vying to get on. Political exchange is one way on.

    The question of whether or not she should have gone on BB is a question of what she believes politics is - is it a vehicle for a virtual self, or should it be looking to engage with and redeem 'the real'. I'm personally not convinced the latter is possible, at least at the level of screens.

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  29. Laurie, thank you for writing! It is a real pleasure to read your articles- please keep at it, we need you in the UK!

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