James McKean

The Malcontent’s Message to Freshers

The Malcontent’s Message to Freshers

Dear Freshers,

You are nothing to me. I don’t care what you’re called, I don’t care where you’re from, I don’t care what you’re studying, and most of all, I don’t care that getting into Oxford is ‘like the best thing’ that’s ever happened to you. Oh, you thought you had messed up your interview? Wow, that’s a unique reaction to being grilled by world experts. But even if your interview for medicine culminated with the tutor tearing out his own ribcage and asking you to save him, I still don’t care.

Maybe, back home, going to Oxford’s a big deal. Perhaps, when people ask you where you will be studying, you shrug nervously and giggle ‘Oxford’ in some specious display of modesty. Well, guess what? The fact you’re studying at Oxford means nothing… in Oxford. You are now the lowest of the low. The earthworm in our food-chain. The Liberal Democrat in our coalition. The Australian in our medal tally.

I know what you expect from your Oxford career. You think you’ll become Prime Minister, invent a cure for ginger hair and translate War and Peace into Sumerian, all while downing thirty jäger-bombs a night and indulging in bedroom conquests that make Hugh Hefner look like Ann Widdecombe. You picture Freshers’ Week to be seven days of sexual blitzkrieg, given an air of class by the grandiose surroundings, as if Berlusconi had hired Julian Fellowes to organise one of his bungabunga parties.

Dream on. In reality, you’re going to make awkward and repetitive conversation with a group of awkward and repetitive strangers. Then you’re going to do some shots of something that tastes like boot polish mixed with putrefied sea cucumber. In your mind, this will turn you into a social divinity; the perfect lovechild of James Bond and Michael McIntyre (whose conception would really make Skyfall an incredible piece of cinema). But, in reality, those tequilas will transform an already nerdy and largely unpleasant individual into a sweating, swearing, staggering, molesting, vomiting implosion of a human being. You’re going to appal everyone you meet, hit on your eighty-two-year-old tutor, then wake up the next morning with Old Man Bridge wrapped around you, and the shocking realisation that you’ve been at Oxford one night, and they’ve already set you work.

So, enjoy Freshers’ Day. Enjoy the grinding years of work that follow. Enjoy the unemployment after that. And, most of all, enjoy the fact that you are a boring and irrelevant Fresher and I will feed you to a college tortoise if you so much as look at me.

Welcome to Oxford.

The Malcontent on: Snow

Now, I’ve never met God, and I’m sure he’s a nice enough bloke, but what on earth made Him think it was a good idea to invent snow? He must have sat down in His meteorological planning committee, with the Angel Gabriel and Michael Fish, looked at some rain, and thought, ‘You know what? It just doesn’t make enough people slip over and break their ankles. Let’s make it colder, more irritating and more lethal to the elderly.’ At which point, the Angel Gabriel (whom I imagine as a heavenly version of Agony Lad) probably remarked: ‘Banter!’ But, I digress.

Snow lures us into a false sense of security. Like the baby Charlie in the YouTube video, it seems friendly, harmless. So, we rush outside, abandoning the warmth and comfort of our rooms. And then it bites our finger. Or, more properly, soaks us to the skin, destroys our possessions, hurls us to the floor, breaks our bones and gives us pneumonia. Why does snow exercise this control over us? No other atmospheric condition does. We don’t run out into rainstorms, or try to get struck by lightning. If it were raining meteors, you wouldn’t think, ‘I know, let’s sprint blindly outside and try to catch one in my mouth!’

So why snow? ‘Oh, it looks pretty,’ I hear you say. Poison dart frogs look pretty, but I wouldn’t want them falling from the sky. And what about the snow hangover; a city caked in filthy slush, dotted with eviscerated snowmen – is that picturesque?

The point is that snow is a bit like a mad axe murderer with a lisp, in that it’s dangerous, but also quite annoying. Snowballs, for instance. Somehow, the act of compacting snow produces a chemical reaction that turns a ball of fluff into a lump of concrete. Being hit by a snowball is like being hit by a depleted uranium anti-tank round.

Even the act of walking becomes a Herculean feat. No footwear is appropriate. Normal shoes just dissolve, whilst proper boots make you like a train-spotting child-abductor. And have you ever tried combining snow with alcohol? Frankly, you’d be safer combining a steak knife with your femoral artery. A night out clubbing in this weather will end in one of three ways. 1) You will freeze to death in the queue. 2) You will freeze to death on the way home. 3) You will be eaten by a wolf. Yes, that’s right. Snow equals wolves, as proved by the documentaries Frozen Planet and The Day After Tomorrow.

I was tempted to conclude with a niveous pun, such as ‘Snow: it’s snow joke.’ But something more direct is necessary. Snow: it will annoy you. And then it will kill you. And then your body will be eaten by wolves.

-James McKean

PHOTO/ Toby Ord

Can Britain Win the Second Falklands War?

The Royal Navy’s most powerful warship deployed to the Falklands. Prince William dispatched ahead of schedule. Accusations of colonialism, of blockade. As the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War approaches, tensions over the far-flung isles are running menacingly high. Whether or not this feud will escalate to full-blown warfare remains to be seen; dramatic gestures and sabre-rattling are one thing, military action is quite another. Nevertheless, we must accept that there is a potential, however negligible, for armed conflict, and this begs the question; could the British win the Second Falklands War?

In an interview with The Telegraph, retired professional head of the British Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, claimed it would be “impossible” for the UK to recapture the Falklands, should the Argentines succeed in establishing a foothold and taking Mount Pleasant Airport. Although the Royal Navy has undergone numerous changes since 1982, the main reason for General Jackson’s fear is undoubtedly the loss of the infamous Harrier ‘jump-jet’, which recently fell victim to defence cuts, leaving Britain without a carrier-borne fighter until perhaps as late as 2020.

It is hard to overestimate the role of the Harrier in the 1982 war, and its loss would certainly be felt keenly. Lord West, retired First Sea Lord, told the Daily Mail “it would be totally impossible for this country, even if it has an Army of ten million, to do anything about (an invasion).” Although it must be remembered that the 1982 victory was felt by many contemporary observers to be an impossible one, it does seem far-fetched that the Navy could launch a successful amphibious assault, not just without air superiority, but without any covering fighters at all. Of course, the new Type 45 air-defence destroyers remain an unknown quantity; could they clear the skies, whilst helicopter and missile elements engage Argentine vessels and ground targets? We can also add into the equation the submarine arm of the Royal Navy. It is widely-believed that a Trafalgar-class nuclear submarine has been deployed to the region in response to the crisis, but of more potency is the new Astute-class hunter-killer; thought to be among the least detectable boats in the world, it has the potential to annihilate the Argentine fleet, as well as tackle land targets with cruise missiles. If David Cameron is prepared to endure General Belgrano-style headlines, he has the means to cause tremendous damage to the Argentinian navy at relatively little risk to his own forces, which might translate into political pressure and force an occupation force to withdraw. Granted, a recovery would be risky and unconventional, but perhaps not as unlikely as Lord West and General Jackson have concluded.

However, this scenario presupposes a successful Argentine invasion, which UK policy hinges upon being able to prevent. Here, the situation looks favourable. The Eurofighter Typhoon fighters, recently-dispatched HMS Dauntless Type 45 destroyer, and likely submarine presence stand a good chance of being able to shred any Argentine force. Furthermore, it would be a particularly reckless move, even by Hugo Chávez’s standards, for a Mercosur nation to join Argentina in attacking such an entrenched defensive position.

In conclusion, should war break out, some of the pessimism of senior military figures can reasonably be blunted. Whilst a 1982-style recapture would need rethinking, the Royal Navy remains a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, it is very difficult to see the Argentinians overcoming some of the British military’s most effective units to make a successful landing without undergoing horrendous casualties. President Cristina de Kirchner can gesticulate to her heart’s content; to actually invade would be a catastrophic decision, which is why it will almost certainly not happen at all.

-James McKean



The Malcontent on: Pigeons

Why do pigeons think they’re better than us? They have nests, feathers, and droppings. We have satellites, nuclear submarines, and Sherlock. In every conceivable sense, a human is better than a pigeon. Now, I confess I’m hardly the manifestation of physical perfection – indeed, I often get out of breath brushing my teeth – but I reckon I could best even the most athletic pigeon in any challenge. Intelligence, strength, endurance… we are superior. So why is it that, whenever you walk down a street, there’s always some smug ball of feathery pretentiousness glaring at you with an air of natural superiority?

They seem to delight in terrorising humanity. They strut in front of advancing people, only to fly away at the last possible second, screeching in glee at their own brilliance. Great swarms of them group on buildings, heckling passers-by, glorying in their pathetic pigeon-banter, before descending like feathered Stuka dive-bombers to rain excrement on their unfortunate victims. These flying rats are the avian equivalent of a bunch of yobs crouching on the roof of a bus-stop and yelling “Tosser!” at old ladies.

But do not be fooled into thinking that these jumped-up, anti-social sky-louts are a harmless nuisance. Because, beneath the plump exteriors, pigeons are merciless killers. I can name literally two examples of slaughter inflicted by genocidal pigeons. In 2007, Craig Taylor was crushed to death by an awning which collapsed under the weight of pigeon faeces, whilst 35 people died when kamikaze pigeons brought down an airliner in 1988. Combine that with the deadly diseases spread by pigeon droppings, which may or may not include the bubonic plague, typhoid, leprosy and AIDs, and we have a creature, on balance, more dangerous than telling a Scotsman you like his dress.

More worrying still is the close relationship pigeons have traditionally enjoyed with the military. Who knows what nefarious experiments pigeons have undergone in top-secret army laboratories? We’ve all seen X-Men, but what about an X-Pigeon? Super strength, no fear, massive size; a creature genetically-engineered to seek out the Taliban and steal their pack lunches. What if one of these monsters escaped? I have an eye-witness report of a pigeon “the size of a swan” roaming Oxford at night.

So, remember, next time you see a pigeon, don’t sink to its level. You’re better than it. Just take the moral high ground and walk away. Unless it’s a muscle-bound super-pigeon, in which case you’d better run. Fast.

-James McKean


Could the English be the ones to topple the United Kingdom?

There is a myth that there is something cosy about the United Kingdom; that it’s just one big group of friends; England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, hanging out for mutual benefit. This is shown, if nothing else, by the reaction of many English when Scotland’s referendum plans mutated from radical dream, to political reality. ‘How dare they?’ they exclaimed, ‘How ungrateful!’ They felt betrayed.

Historically, though, it’s hard to see the UK as anything other than England’s most effective piece of imperialism. Wales and Ireland were brought into the fold, not by pledges of mutual benefit, but by the swords of Norman knights, and subsequent invaders, whom the Scottish only narrowly managed to fend off. Then, we have the venerated Act of Union of 1707. It is not really in Alex Salmond’s interests as panda-loving, kilt-wearing, Braveheart-watching avatar of Scottish patriotism to admit this, but Scotland was largely forced into union with England by London financiers. England needed Scottish troops to help fight the French, and it needed its northern border secure. If Scotland did not comply, England could have slapped on trade tariffs to bankrupt the indebted state with ease. There were riots by outraged Scots, but to no avail; the Act was driven through, and England’s Parliament and England’s currency suddenly became British.

But how is this relevant? Surely, what started as a piece of national blackmail could still develop into a prosperous agreement for all parties? Unfortunately, no. The point is that the UK existed because England wanted it to. When James VI of Scotland became King of England in 1603, and tried to unite his two realms on Scottish terms, the English would have none of it. And, just as the UK was England’s plaything, so it remains. The UK might just fall when England, not Scotland, wants it to.

Yes, there remains a hard-line of Mel Gibsons in Scottish society who are determined to leave. But there is a difference between voting SNP, and wanting independence. It is fair to say that most Scots are fairly patriotic people, who will happily wring concessions from the Auld Enemy. However, the SNP’s economic plans, in the eyes of most, simply do not add up. An environmentally-friendly state surviving off North Sea oil? An ‘independent’ power, shackled by a foreign currency? For most Scots, this is not a viable option, and this would explain why Mr Salmond is so keen, and Mr Cameron is not, on ‘independence lite’; a second question, which would see the Union survive, but the Scots with even more devolved powers.

And herein lies the greatest threat to the Union. Whether or not Salmond gets his second clause, the English are becoming increasingly fed up with Scottish demands for special treatment. There is BBC Scotland, there is no BBC England. Where is the English Parliament, the English First Minister, the English Nationalist Party? Not only do Scottish students get free university education, but the fact is that, under the Barnett Formula, the mechanism which divides expenditure between the home nations, Scotland is given preferential treatment, receiving £1,600 more per head, according to Treasury figures. Moreover, the West Lothian question means that Scottish MPs in the House of Commons can vote on issues that affect England, but the English have no reciprocal power. It is also worth noting that such benefits apply similarly to Wales and Northern Ireland, who also have political faculties that the English help fund, but lack themselves. This goes some way to explaining why recent surveys have shown support for full Scottish independence is often higher in England than in Scotland.

At the moment, then, it would seem unlikely that, unless he resolves concerns about his economic policy, Mr Salmond will mobilise enough support for full independence. However, presuming it is not vetoed by Westminster, an option for ‘independence lite’ would probably stand a good chance of success. Yet, the English who fashioned the UK for their benefit are unlikely to watch idly as the conglomeration increasingly victimises them. If that should happen, the spark for popular English nationalism would be lit, and it might only be a matter of time before, after a three-hundred year hiatus, the Kingdom of England returned.

-James McKean


The Malcontent on: The End of the World

Personally, I reckon the apocalypse would be a real inconvenience. There are lots of things I plan to do in the year 2012, and being dragged screaming from existence is not one of them. In fact, the end of the world and extirpation of all mankind would really mess up my schedule. Even simple tasks, such as going to buy some milk, watching Downton Abbey, or laughing at a man shouting at a dog on YouTube, would almost certainly be disrupted by global Armageddon.

Moreover, it’s frankly rather irritating to have devoted hour after hour of hard work to a degree, only for you, the degree, and indeed the very concept of tertiary education, to be incinerated. Even non-students will be angered by their impending extinction. Take Jodie Marsh, for instance, who must be jolly cheesed off to discover that all her effort becoming a human bicep will be wasted when she is incinerated.

Except, there’s one small problem. 2012 has dawned, and there have been no plagues, volcanoes, earthquakes, meteorites, or swarms of walking piranhas. I dare say quite a few people probably felt a little worse for wear on New Years’ Day, but, all in all, mankind seems to have survived. Humanity one, Armageddon nil.

Of course, it’s not one-nil, really. It’s more ten thousand-nil. It seems that not a week goes by without some bearded lunatic predicting the end of days and slobbering up an international hysteria. The latest offender: the Ancient Mayans, who may or may not have given 2012 as the date of our doom. To be honest, this seems to me to be rather pretentious. Who are the Maya to tell us when we must all be vaporised? Apart from being anarchic, cannibalistic and generally quite unpleasant, they constructed their weaponry out of glass. This makes the Mayans the historical equivalent of a drunk starting on you with a broken bottle.

Let us be honest. The end of the world is probably going to ruin the day of a great many people. But, equally infuriating is having to endure a game of eschatological cry wolf, started by an extinct race of South Americans whose idea of a good night out was to strap someone to a pyramid and disembowel them. Granted, we mustn’t get our hopes up; with its economic crises, political instability, and continued existence of Jedward, 2012 looks set to be an annus horribilis. But, chances are, we are not all going to die. Happy New Year.

-James McKean