Friday, 14 October 2016

A stab in the dark

I've read a couple of detective novels recently, part of my effort to familiarise myself with popular 1930s-40s culture as well as the Literature. Crime and detective fiction isn't really my thing: I'm not interested in them per se, I don't like gore and I distrust the glamorisation of crime. I am interested in how popular fiction reflects social and cultural concerns though, and crime novels do that in spades. I've read a boatload of Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Wimsey character gets more interesting with every novel, I'm a good way in to Allingham's Campion novels which start as parodies of Wimsey but rapidly become strange, disturbing and often dependent on social mores and infractions that at this distance are hard to comprehend even when they're not upsetting (in Police at the Funeral, the family shame that occasions murder is mixed-race ancestry).

The ones I read this week are Cameron McCabe's The Face on the Cutting Room Floor and Nicholas Blake's 1949 The Head of a Traveller. McCabe's novel features a first person narrative by the central protagonist, a film-editor called Cameron McCabe. He and the investigating policeman have grown up in North America and speak in a clipped, slangy Hollywood argot despite living and working in London. Atmospherically, it's very good: life in a film studio, jazz, nightclubs, sports cars, assignations and the famous London fog. It's recently been republished as a lost classic, largely because of the confluence of author and narrator, and because the mystery is cleared up two-thirds into the book. The rest is an analysis by another minor character of the literary qualities of McCabe's account, situated within the parameters of the crime genre. McCabe himself was actually Ernst Bornemann, a refugee from Germany who learned English in double-quick time, was a film editor, a jazz critic, later a TV director, author and eventually academic sexologist back in Germany and Austria.

An interesting history, certainly, and the book is a serious achievement for someone who didn't speak English two years before he published it, but I'm not sure it's a 'classic': the plot is confused and the dialogue is way too pleased with itself without really working. The faux-scholarly apparatus is little more than showing-off and there's very little to connect the crimes with their society other than the claim that urban life leads to alienated behaviour, which you know if you've read Henry James, Patrick Hamilton, TS Eliot, James Hanley and an awful lot of other authors. I'm glad I read it but don't think it bears the weight of praise heaped upon it.

The Head of a Traveller is interesting too. Nicholas Blake is actually the poet C Day Lewis, who claimed to have started writing his Nigel Strangeways novels to pay for a new roof: there's a distinct air of genre snobbery hanging about this and it's hard to tell whether he was double-bluffing to avoid losing face in his poetic circles or if he really did look down on a sizeable chunk of his life's work: judging by his facility with the 'rules' of golden age fiction I think he probably did enjoy crime fiction. Certainly Head of a Traveller attempts to dignify the crime genre by being infused with intertextual references – mostly to poetry – and through the key characters: a wonderful poet whose decade-long writer's block is cured by a murder on his country estate, a failed artist and his damaged but more talented sculptor daughter Mara, and the detective himself, torn between solving the crime and aiding the production of  Robert Seaton's great work. Being a poet himself, using a poet and other creative artists as characters are bound to make us reflect on the relationship between society and the production of art (and the thin line between crafting literature and criminal schemes). The novel poses the question of whether the law and morality are outweighed by artistic merit and production, though the ending rather fudges the answer but seems to imply that a little light murder shouldn't be held against

There's also a strong Gothic streak running through it which distinguishes it from mainstream crime fiction: the titular head turns up everywhere, dark deeds are done at midnight and the household includes a speechless dwarf of uncertain origin who may be demonic or innocent.

I enjoyed it enormously until about 150 pages in, when the detective hero casually cures the damaged sculptor of her traumas by explaining that her problems (which include talking about her sexuality openly) stem from failing to admit that she'd enjoyed being raped by the dead man when she was fifteen. Having cleared this up he leaves her happier, but worried that he has ended a promising artistic career because, it is implied, suffering is the sacrifice artists make to produce great work.

I finished the novel and appreciated it on a structural level, but enjoyment had disappeared entirely: either Lewis really held this shallow and warped understanding of psychology and sexuality, he was simply a misogynist, or he didn't feel it was worth developing a more intelligent plot device.

Still, it could be worse: I've got to read a Jeffrey Archer novel for research purposes next…

Monday, 10 October 2016

These New Puritans.

And how many sources confirmed your story?

Last week I read this piece in the New Statesman, by professional journalist Andrew Gimson, who also wrote a biography of Boris Johnson.
Long ago, when he went to Brussels as a correspondent, his rivals accused him of embroidering his news stories for the Daily Telegraph in a way that was not strictly true. This was intensely annoying for them, especially when they were hauled out of bed to follow up reports that turned out to be inaccurate. They were not prepared to accept the defence that Johnson had made these imaginative embellishments in order to dramatise a deeper truth – namely, that Jacques Delors, the then president of the European Commission, was grabbing power at the expense of the nation states.
Gimson's wider thesis is that the Conservative party and wider society are now riven not on left-right lines, but between fun-loving types like Boris Johnson and Puritans, amongst whom he counts Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.

The quotation above is designed to make the point that while the Puritans insist on mere facts, there is a deeper level of truth which can be accessed by buccaneering free-wheelers like Mr Johnson.

I agree with Mr Gimson. There is certainly a place for those who generate imaginative narratives about the way the world works in order to dramatise their philosophical, cultural and political perspectives. It's called fiction, and it's what I make my living teaching and researching.

Mr Johnson wasn't publishing fiction at this point (though I have read his comic novel about suicide bombers, Seventy-Two Virgins and his book of cautionary verse). He was writing for the news pages about specific events and decision made by actual people in a real organisation for credible newspapers whose readers had an expectation of accuracy. And yet he cheerfully concocted stories from soup to nuts, or as Gimson has it, 'imaginative embellishments'.

This marks me out as a Puritan, clearly. But the story isn't really about Boris Johnson. Yes, his blatant lies contributed to the public's trust in the EU decaying to the point of Brexit. The wider story however is that Andrew Gimson and the New Statesman have succumbed to the disease of 'truthiness'. An early example was the exchange between journalist Ron Suskind and George W. Bush's spokesman back in 2004.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Sadly we expect our politicians to lie to us these days. What's really poisoned the public sphere is the total collapse of the dividing wall between 'news' and 'opinion': if Boris's tall tales were on the opinion pages we'd all have giggled at his exaggerations. Instead they were on the supposedly factual news pages and therefore gained illegitimate credibility.

The New Statesman knows that Johnson's claims about straight bananas, standardised condom sizes and banned sausages were lies, because it recently printed a piece dedicated to linking these lies with the referendum result. Now, however, they're happy to print without comment a defence of such behaviour which entirely rejects the notion of basic factual truth, on the grounds that it's boring or short-sighted.

Why should I ever believe anything Mr Gimson or the New Statesman (I'm a subscriber) prints in future? I have to assume that any claims they make are informed by a desire to access a 'deeper truth' which – crucially for this discussion of media ethics – must remain untestable and even invisible to the reader. We all know that journalism is necessarily incomplete and can never be impartial, but this is a new low: a journalist and a news magazine proclaiming that it's OK to lie, and uncool to object.

(I sent the NS a short letter on this subject: it went unprinted).

Friday, 7 October 2016


The end of the academic year is always bittersweet. There's always the violence-inducing and inaccurate comments from friends and family: 'looking forward to a three month holiday then?', but there is the sweet release of marking your last essay. I love teaching and find 99% of the students I teach to be delightful people with whom I am happy to socialise outside class when we bump into each other. Then marking comes along and the pressure to get through 150 essays on a limited range of topics within a very short space of time turns me into a misanthropic git of the worst sort. The usual safety valve – gleefully circulating the most outrageous howlers – is no longer the done thing, so you trudge through it, gradually losing your own humanity and running the risk of forgetting theirs.

Then summer comes and your attention turns to rewriting last years bad lectures, designing new courses and now and then reading a new book. I graduated 20 years ago so it's probably time I stopped reading out lectures delivered to me back then.* Before you know it, term starts again and all is forgiven: I find that I've actually missed the classroom and the company of the returning students, as well as looking forward to the new starters who will laugh at my jokes for at least one week. The next load of marking is far beyond the horizon and all's well with the world.

It's a bit different this semester. I'm technically on sabbatical, though I'm still course leader which makes things a bit tricky. It means that as I'm still around in the offices I see all the students I'd like to teach without actually doing any teaching, and I feel bereft. Other people are having those odd conversations, pointing them in interesting directions that I may not know about, and giving great lectures. It's all gravy for the students but I've a bad case of FOMO.**

Meanwhile in the outside world, things are getting very nasty indeed. The government wants to get rid of all their overseas-trained doctors: so that's goodbye to my post-retirement age da who still works 7 days a week in the NHS because there aren't enough doctors. Then Amber Rudd, who has a very shady record in business including – and this makes my head spin – directorships of dubious companies located for taxable purposes in the Bahamas, has decided that she wants to exclude foreign students from the country unless they're attending 'quality' courses at 'quality' universities, whatever 'quality' means and ignoring the fact that overseas students' fees keep an awful lot of universities afloat, never mind the manifest cultural benefits of international education. She also wants British Jobs For British Workers, despite her party employing an Australian tax evader to run its anti-immigration election campaign, and a Canadian to be Governor of the Bank of England. Her colleagues meanwhile have decided that universities are going to be ranked 'gold', 'silver' and 'bronze', like the egg and spoon race at your local school. And then, to add xenophobic insult to moronic injury, the government has decided to sack EU academics working in British universities – the ones who actually understand trade law, diplomacy, international relations etc. etc. – from giving them advice on the Brexit process because they might be spies. Never mind: no doubt she's met a cab driver who reckons he knows how to sort it out.

How long before Jo Johnson and Mrs May tell me that I can only teach literature from England by English people which celebrates how wonderful England is? The Collected Works of Melanie Phillips, Richard Littlejohn and Boris Johnson (poetry collection and comic novel about suicide bombers, both of which I have unfortunately read).

What am I trying to say? That the experience of teaching lots of young and not so young people from all over the world is a joyous one. Hopefully they benefit from my work and their encounters with their classmates, and I know I certainly do. But all the pleasures and gains feel like nothing compared to the murk of xenophobic, paranoiac, philistine nastiness emanating from our elected representatives. I want to contribute to making the world a better place but they're making it smaller, meaner and more hostile.

Enjoy your weekend.

*To avoid a tedious exchange of letters with my local paper, head of department and the QAA, this is a joke. Nobody would claim ownership of the puns which constitute 80% of my lectures.
**The young people inform me that this stands for Fear Of Missing Out. Given that my life thus far resembles that of an agoraphobic Trappist, there's a lot of Out to Fear Missing.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Death by a thousand sequels

I'm drowning in work this week: mostly induction talks and trying to find out where the students who missed induction talks might be and working out how many students we actually have and whether that's an astonishingly good number all things considered or an astonishingly bad one and where we're going to teach them and whether there's an ethical or moral problem with teaching (e.g) the Holocaust while lounging on the bean bags furnishing our new teaching space and so on and so forth. In a word: your normal Freshers' Week. The bright spot is meeting new students – my admittedly limited contact with them leads me to be hopeful.

In the midst of all this, I've managed to do some reading and listen to some music. Thanks to a friend's performance from memory of Sonic Youth's grossly offensive yet seductive 'Tunic (Song for Karen)' (Carpenter, that is) and the discovery that I don't actually own any of their LPs – possibly part of the vinyl haul I sobbingly sold during the Great Teaching Hours Drought of 2003) I've acquired several in one go:

So far the one I'm enjoying most is Goo, followed by Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Which reminds me: Dinosaur Jr. released a new album last month that I still haven't bought. The other album I've just acquired is an NMC release of Emily Howard's compositions. I remember a few years ago looking through my classical section and realising that I didn't own a single piece of music by a female composer other than a collection of Hildegard of Bingen sacred settings. Having read Joanna Russ's wonderful How To Suppress Women's Writing I knew that there must be oceans of good music out there, lost, silenced, unperformed or unpublished and that I'd missed out badly, so I've started seeking it out. I haven't yet been disappointed, though some is less to my taste than others. Howard's great: she has a background in maths and science, and her music tackles the forces that drive the universe.

Amongst the recent discoveries, I've really got into Pauline Oliveros. An accordionist into drone electronica: what's not to like?

I'm also very partial to a bit of Sally Beamish, particularly her Viola Concerto: much more classical modernist than experimental, but moving and thought-provoking.

Others I've listened to recently: Deirdre Gribbin, Imogen Holst, Kaija Saariaho, Roxana Panufnik (her father Andrzej is underrated too) and Julia Wolfe.

And now to books: this week I've read one good one and one terrible, shameful waste of ink. The good one is Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford, a beautifully written – speculative – romp through the short life and untimely death of Christopher Marlowe who in this novel loves boys, poetry and pub brawling, but is less keen on spying and the violent deaths that ensue from his espionage activity. There are walk-on parts for Shakespeare, Greene and various other contemporaries, and it's written with a nod to the speech, vocabulary and orthography of the day. I wouldn't rely on it to write an essay on Marlowe but it's diverting and thoughtful.

The terrible book I read saddens me. I loved Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, her fictional, imaginary biography of Laura Bush: it had so much to say about American, sexual relations and power. It led me to read her other novels too, including Prep, a fascinating look at the chilly schooldays of the WASPs. And so, liking Sittenfeld and being an Austen nut, there's no way I wasn't going to read her retelling of Pride and Prejudice, entitled Eligible

Not that I was entirely starry-eyed: I have already read several Austen retellings that did no good for my blood pressure. I'm happy to admit that Clueless is by far the best adaptation I've ever seen: a perfect example of how the spirit of Austen's social structures and plots can be reproduced without slavishly photocopying the original. The worst one – by far – is PD James's 'sequel' to P and P: Death Comes to Pemberley, in which the characters assemble while the killer of Mr Wickham is sought. Reader: I cannot remember reading so dreadful a novel, especially one by a long-established, acclaimed author. It's like PD James had a personal grudge against both Jane Austen and the English language and sought to do to them what she does to Mr Wickham. The original Austen mash-up, Pride and Prejudice With Zombies is far, far more faithful to the spirit and style of Jane's work, while Bridget Jones's Diary (Bridget, like me, is unfairly mocked for being a graduate of Bangor University's very fine English and Linguistics department) wears its debt to Austen both visibly and lightly. The other one I rather like is The Price of Butcher's Meat, Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural retelling of Austen's fragment Sanditon.

 I thought that Death Comes was the worst anyone could do to Austen until I started reading Eligible. I thought that given Sittenfeld's excellent track record in anatomising upper-class American life she might to a decent job. It's set in Cincinnati, which must be the equivalent of Netherfield – self-regarding, provincial, smug but rich. Mr Bingley is now 'Chip' Bingley, a wonderful doctor who appeared on a series called Eligible (modelled on Love Island) but not entirely willingly: his 'manager' is his sister Caroline. Darcy is a pompous surgeon, and the Bennet girls are older than in Austen's original, and their social situation is rather different. Lizzy is a style journalist, Jane is a yoga instructor, Mary's a permanent student probable lesbian and perhaps even a feminist (outrageous!), while the younger two are foul-mouthed gym bunnies. Mr Bennet has recently had a heart attack and Mrs Bennet is a shallow shrew. Essentially it's like buying a posh car to discover that someone's ripped out the good bits and added go-faster stripes, bucket seats and a Trump bumper sticker. It manages to maintain Austen's attack on snobbery while being supremely snobbish.

Worst of all, however, is the writing. I cannot adequately convey the awfulness of the dialogue, from the abysmally-failing attempts to make Mr Bennet and others sound dryly witty, to the obsessive addition of 'she said' or 'he said' to every utterance as though the implied reader cannot follow a conversation even if it lasts no more than two sentences.
“That wasn’t bad,” Liz said. “Especially for someone who scored as low as you did on the verbal part of the SATs.”
“Stop quarrelling, girls,” Mrs Bennet said. “It’s unbecoming.”
“They’d never speak to one another otherwise,” Mr Bennet said.
It's not a satirical reproduction of degraded Cincinnati posh parasites' slang: it's just cloth-eared, crude, leaden, lumpen and patronising. Austen may be conservative and didactic but her wit and intelligence shine through in ways that Sittenfeld – in this novel anyway – can't manage.

I own Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid's Austen's retellings in the same series: I'm now dreading reading them. There's a long tradition of appropriating characters, texts and plots to do something new with them – in the 18th century people didn't even wait for authors to die before rushing out cheap and unauthorised sequels to best-sellers – and many of them are successful on their own terms. Eligible may just have cured me of the habit of reading them. Though I have just bought the Manga Emma.

Friday, 23 September 2016


The week has had two or three main themes: toothache, work and culture. The toothache is self-explanatory. My wonderful dentist, who had an MA in English and (I hope) dentistry qualifications retired due to ill-health three years ago and I haven't dared go back. The resulting misery is therefore self-inflicted and therefore deserves no sympathy. And the piercing nature of the pain is a useful counterpoint to the dull throbbing gloom of the more objectionable aspects of being at work – basically anything involving Powerpoint, acronyms graphs and spreadsheets. I'm a literature specialist, not an actuary! (There's also the self-harm pain of being a member of the Labour Party but my thoughts are too incoherent even for this medium and I don't like being abused on Twitter so I'll keep my opinions on that one to myself.

The culture bit is the bright spot. Last night I went to a cinema for a live-stream of the National Theatre's production of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht and Weill's exploration of the effects of poverty and exploitation on those at the bottom of society.

It was an English-language production, with plenty of editing and alteration to suit a contemporary audience, though still set in a stylised version of 1928. It is an opera but it verges on being a dark musical – I'd have coped happily with fewer songs, but the music is astonishing: rough jazzy classical matching the text's determination to confront the classic opera audience with a cold, sharp slice of reality. It's a morality tale which denies morality: the message is that morality is a disguise worn by the bourgeoisie. The poor don't have that luxury and the rich don't care for it. People do dreadful things in dreadful circumstances, and there's no reward for doing good and moo punishment for doing evil: it's a nihilistic, amoral universe in which survival is all that matters…a timely revival.

If I get all my induction speeches written in time (can you tell I'm on sabbatical?), I'm off to see The Gloaming on Sunday: they're an Irish-language experimental, often melancholy folk group, currently on their second album.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The wanderer returns

It's been a strange couple of weeks. New office (still being built). Job interview (failed again, but at least they met me before deciding they'd rather not, unlike most institutions). Working out what it means to have a semester's sabbatical while also being an acting course leader. Going to presentations for my boss's job. And I did the School Games for the Northern Ireland fencing team. Much of what went on is the subject of investigation by no less than three governing bodies so I can't go into it in any detail, but suffice to say that spending several days with other people's children is a highly persuasive form of contraception.

One of my favourite moments was turning up and asking who the Northern Ireland coach was this year. The answer? 'You'. Shame nobody mentioned it in advance, or I'd have brought some kit. Oh well: my colleagues were lovely and highly professional, as were the vast majority of the kids. I'd also like to thank Sainsbury's for pulling out of their sponsorship deal: an unbranded Games was very pleasant.

I took some photos: click here for almost the full set or click on those below to enlarge.

The label is not related to Northern Irish politics at all. 

This is how you give a medal to a 6'10" 15-yr old.

A coaching session


Towers Hall, Loughborough University

And I made this to mark the departure of David Cameron from public life (and the arrival of £5 with the image of that murderous imperialist Winston Churchill). The guy who said he wouldn't resign the prime ministership if he lost the referendum, then did, and who said he'd serve a full term as MP, then quit.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

In The Psychiatrist's Chair

I've been seeing a lot of memos about 'resilience' recently, the latest buzzword in corporate personnel management. Firstly organisations were meant to be 'resilient', and now employees have to be too. There's even a piece about it in the Guardian today, countering the argument that staff and students should become 'resilient', which seems to be a politer version of that awful phrase 'man up'. We've all become pathetic weak flowers unable to cope with reality, it appears to imply. We demand 'safe spaces' and can't take a bit of banter (an example: the first time I spoke to the Dean of my school back in 2004, his opening gambit was 'oh, that's who you are: I've just sacked you'. He had, too: he'd cancelled all the hourly-paid lecturer contracts).

Where does all this come from? Well sadly, I can say that I was at the forefront of resilience training, involuntarily and unpleasantly. A few years ago the successor to the Sacking Dean was a quite nervy individual who preferred not to engage in direct conversation. She wrote respectable sociology books and went on to greater things at another institution. One day I received an email from her secretary, announcing that I had been selected to take part in a training course, which consisted of a series of meetings with an 'educational consultant', designed to enhance my career prospects.

Having never had a conversation with the Dean, I was pretty suspicious: she knew nothing of me, my past or my future desires, and long experience had taught me that managers taking an interest rarely if ever led to the sunlit uplands of peace and contentment. But being eager to please as always, I agreed and presented myself at the appointed place and time. After a few minutes' conversation with the 'educational consultant', it turned out that my Dean had been rather economical with the facts. She was no educational consultant: she was a psychiatrist specialising in workplace development, and she was rather shocked to discover that management hadn't made this clear to her clients (patients? victims?). I rather liked her, and she told me about impostor syndrome, which is when genuinely successful academics experience being me. Asking around the school, I tracked down the other beneficiaries of this scheme: we all turned out to be those whom management felt were underperforming, according to the kinds of metrics they like (the reductive ones, obviously). The purpose of these sessions, which occurred every two weeks for several months, and the exercises and questionnaires which filled my waking hours between consultations, were to establish why I was such a useless, resentful layabout, and to encourage a better and more productive mindset that would culminate in that elusive Fields Medal or Nobel Prize (you think I'm joking, but a friend's university has a checkbox for Nobel Prize on the promotion application form).

Now it should be acknowledged that I'm a lazy, damaged wastrel with very little to show for all these qualifications, but even back then as a naïve and innocent youngster I knew something was wrong here. I'd heard of the Russian habit of sending political dissidents to psychiatric hospitals, and this seemed to be a related tactic. On a  more fundamental level, I knew that sending me to see a psychiatrist – under false pretences too – was not just highly unethical, but evidence of a radical shift in management thinking. Having looked at my paper existence, they decided that the slow start to my research career must be evidence of psychological weakness: a lack of resilience, if you will. This meant that the responsibility was entirely mine. I had failed to act like a good Protestant by engaging in a process of self-surveillance and striving: I had let my inherited Catholicism lead me in to the error of thinking that our collective efforts and support lead us into the path of righteousness. It let the organisation off the hook: they had no responsibility for my situation, despite me teaching across six departments on a part-time contract, receiving no research support or time. In short, there were no structural problems which placed me and my colleagues in this situation: it was all a matter of individual shortcomings.

And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and thereare families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.
The failure is mine. I understood a university to be a community of scholars engaged in a common, higher purpose. They now see it as a workplace in which employees are to be sweated for a product: those who fail to meet arbitrary targets are simply fired or demoted, as has happened to a number of professors in this institution. The psychiatrists, thankfully, disappeared with the departure of that particular Dean, and I don't think anything quite so crass will reappear, but the individualisation of collective conditions is very much the order of the day. Only now, they call it resilience. It's a trap and serves only their interests.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

PV's Culture News

Happy Tuesday to you all. I'm officially on holiday so obviously I'm in the office, avoiding unpacking crates. It's been rather lovely actually: met colleagues to get help launching a literature festival, met an Associate Dean for lunch and talked about books and ideas (he's giving me Ian Jack's collection of essays, I've persuaded him to read Thoreau's Walden, which I can honestly say changed my life). It's been good to see my colleagues as we all gradually move into this shared office, and I've already held a really enjoyable (for me anyway) undergrad dissertation tutorial on the literary history of pirates. I'm really going to enjoy supervising this student, though whether she'll forgive me for making her sit through The Pirates of Penzance remains to be seen.

The other thing I'm doing is going through all the dog-eared bits of newspaper I've torn out over the summer, trying to work out why I kept them and why I wanted to buy those books and that record. At least being away from the web for a few week means that this kind of filtering process is going on, rather than me buying things on a whim immediately. So far this morning I've bought contemporary music: Henri Dutilleux's Cello Concerto, Charlotte Bray's At The Speed of Stillness, Emily Howard's Magnetite and Cloud Chamber, and Upheld By Stillness, a collection of Byrd's choral music with contemporary settings on the same disc. This is what happens when you listen to Radio 3 for too long.

Obviously I've been reading too, and not just Edwina Currie novels, though I have three of them on the go at the moment and I'll be discussing those in more depth at some later date (you have been warned). I've whipped through Dan Vyleta's alternative-victoriana novel Smoke fairly quickly: it's compellingly written and has some intriguing ideas but is rather confused by the end.The idea is that for a couple of hundred years people in a deeply authoritarian Britain have literally smoked whenever they sin, broadly defined, and that the ruling classes are those who either develop the self-discipline to minimise their errors, suppress the symptoms, or cheat. Several subversive groups interact, all after different things, until in the end our adolescent heroes decide to allow some terrorists to complete their plan of overdosing the entire country with Smoke to purge the nation through a temporary orgy of violent sin, rather than allow continued moral and political repression. Lots of ideas, large chunks of Victorian literary pastiche, but something felt oddly lacking.

The other book I'm reading at the moment is Christopher Hill's God's Englishman, his 1970 sort-of biography of Oliver Cromwell. It's only a sort-of biography because Hill, as a Marxist, is (rightly) suspicious of the Great Man theory of history and so works hard to contextualise Cromwell as a symptom of prevailing economic and social forces as well as a key figure whose personal characteristics and decisions shaped great events. Hill's very clear on Cromwell's hatred of and brutality towards the Irish, and his increasingly conservative authoritarianism, while admiring his many good instincts and impulses. I don't think it matters too much that it's 46 years old: no doubt new facts about Cromwell and the period have emerged, and obviously there are new theoretical approaches available, but Hill's book is a classic of its time and context.

I've another day in the office, then I'm off to Loughborough for my annual Week in Polyester, working at the School Games. This time I'm on the staff for the Northern Ireland fencing team. Normally I know most of the fencers but I haven't done much refereeing and managing this year so I don't know any of the NI kids. Drawing from a much smaller pool than the other nations means that they usually get a kicking but we'll see what we can do. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Super summer round-up

Hello everyone. I'm back from my holiday and settling in to my new life in a 14-person call-centre style shared office in which we'll be able to work collaboratively without disturbing anyone, do cutting-edge research, see students and have confidential conversations. At least that's what management says from the comfort of their individual offices, though another section of the same institution has a very different view. A veal-fattening crate (as Douglas Coupland called it) is our reward for last year's 100% NSS satisfaction stats (yes, I know they don't stand up to a moment's scrutiny). Still, I've gained an insight into my colleagues' lives:

I've been in Ireland for a couple of weeks, enjoying the world-famous (in Kerry) Puck Fair and watching a lot of Olympics. I shifted off the sofa for a couple of swims in the Atlantic but not very often. The RTE  coverage of the Games was rather good: nowhere near as nationalistic as the BBC, wildly excited about the few medals and near-misses and hosted by a thoughtful and expert team, including Jerry Kiernan as The Grinch, a role you don't get on the Beeb:

It helped that the head of the Irish Olympic Committee, Pat Hickey, was arrested halfway through in a version of the FIFA hotel-raids with elements of French farce: nakedness and ridiculous lies from his wife. It added both gaiety and a degree of hard journalism to the coverage, and everyone I talked to enjoyed it enormously as this global equivalent of the gombeen man finally got what was coming to him.

You probably don't want to see my holiday snaps, but they're all here. Some of my favourites (click to enlarge):


I'm ready for my close-up…

The cattle fair was cruelly re-branded.

R2D2 in the Fancy Dress competition

A fortune-teller

I took a big pile of books with me to supplement my three-newspapers-a-day habit (Guardian, Irish Times, Irish Examiner): two Edwina Currie novels for research which I didn't get round to reading, and some others which I did. The first one was Sean Latham's Am I A Snob? Modernism and the Novel. I've had it on my shelves for a few years now and regret not reading it the moment I bought it. IT traces the changing definitions of snobbery from its early days (popularised by Thackeray in his Punch column 'Mr Snob', then analyses the tensions between aesthetic difficulty and democracy in the lives of three modernist novelists and their works: Virginia Woolf (particularly To the Lighthouse), James Joyce and Dorothy L. Sayers. Woolf in particular felt torn between fear and disdain for the lower orders and her cerebral socialism, hated being popular but liked the income. Latham traces the change in Sayers' Lord Peter from deliberate posh stereotype to subtle portrait of a damaged, complex character within a low-brow genre, and examines Ulysses in particular as a case-study of what's produced in the fusion of demotic and difficult. All three chapters are revelatory readings of these texts and suggest that the snob is an ideal character for examinations of the characteristics of modernism. I'm not sure Latham entirely grasped the erudition routinely expressed by ordinary Dubliners in conversation then and now, but it's a minor cavil. It's a wonderful book.

After that I read Christina Henry's Alice, an interesting horror-fantasy retelling of Carroll's novel. I don't habitually read horror or fantasy (though I read hundreds of the latter as a teen) but I'm interested in retellings in general, so I thought I'd give it a go. I liked it: it was disturbing but not gratuitous, and highly imaginative. On the down side, the plotting became a bit too intrusive and detracted from interesting character-driven explorations of madness and how women are written off: it was clear from fairly early on that a sequel and perhaps a series was being lined up. It would make an excellent film or even computer game, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm not sure I'll get Red Queen.

I then read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: I've read a lot of other Faulkner but never this one for some reason. It's the story of the decline of a formerly upper-class slave-owning white family in the American South and their black servants and neighbours, told in the first person by three family members and their principal servant. Astonishing: formally experimental, moving, sickening and compelling. Also brutally frank for 1929. Having read Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing and seen it as a response to Irish modernism, I'm wondering if it's also influenced by this novel.

Finally, I read William Gibson's Spook Country. I've been reading his work for a long time now but I'm getting less and less out of the experience. By this point I could pretty much write my own. All you have to do is name an awful lot of expensive-but-obscure brands then imply that they're worn/driven/fired by mysterious intellectual terrorists/spies/capitalists/illuminati with damned good taste and large budgets. For instance, the Cuban-Chinese Communist-santeria devotee all-purpose criminal facilitator wears an APC jacket, while Hubertus Bigend the Belgian taste-maker/corruption hunter doesn't just drive the plutocrat's vehicle of choice – a Maybach – but a version customised to be even more exclusive: a Brabus-Maybach. Somewhere amongst the thicket of signifiers I found myself wondering if Gibson any longer has anything meaningful to say. Unless his point is that there's no longer anything meaningful to say about the state of the world other than to urge us to dress well while we're promoting or fighting international conspiracies.  I was quite hooked by one thing though: one character spends his downtime reading an unnamed book about medieval European millenarians. It's clearly Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium, which I read recently and found fascinating. Gibson's obvious parallel is that there's a global Elect in the post-Iraq settlement which is impervious to ordinary rules, laws and morality. It's certainly stylish and there's a political anger there, but it doesn't quite work on a literary level.

And now it's back to reading politicians' novels. Come on Edwina, show me what you've got…

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Beam Me Up, I'm Done

(I gather that there's a desperate shortage of online commentary about popular science fiction franchises: here's my contribution to remedy that shortfall).

When I was young, I watched repeats of the original Star Trek series, usually on BBC2 at 6 o'clock. This was just about tolerated by the rest of the family: my grandmother quite liked it and it filled a gap between Australian and European soaps for the rest. I liked it because it was utopian, troubled and thoughtful. Though there was a certain amount of bug-eyed-monster zapping, and Kirk's rampant heterosexuality gradually dawned on me, it was clear even to an undiscriminating viewer like me that here was a series that used encounters with the Other to examine the dominant culture's values as well as to reinforce them.

Vietnam (originally for, eventually against), colonialism, nuclear weapons, racial hatred, the role of the individual in maintaining or ending oppression, the tensions between emotion and logic, principle and pragmatism – all these dilemmas were played out in bright colours amidst a beautiful late-60s version of the future, written by serious SF writers who often felt they were rather slumming it by doing TV work.

I took a pass for The Next Generation, which felt too weedy for me: part of the 1990s' fashion for a particularly egotistical version of spiritualism and self-help (a ship's counsellor? Really?) though it does have some strong elements. Deep Space Nine was a poor rip-off of Babylon 5, though Sajid Javid's philosophical and physical resemblance to the Ferengi is striking. I loved Voyager, which seemed to be a return to the stripped-down dynamic of the original: a small crew lost and struggling to comprehend and survive encounters with each other as well as with profoundly different peoples.

Then there was Enterprise. Oh dear. A show with such promise: back to the early days of humanity emerging into the community of civilisations, but which in fact became the TV analogue to Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, gleefully endorsing torture.

As for the feature films: I have a much softer spot for them than many people. The Motion Picture got by on wide-eyed mystical fun. The Wrath of Khan had a top-quality bad guy and a line in Shakespeareanism that several of the movies retained

plus of course the death of Spock and the start of a space-bromance story arc that just about kept Star Trek III: The Search for Spock alive (along with some Jewish-derived ritualism and the pleasure of seeing Shatner et al. trussed up in corsets under their generously-cut uniforms). Number 4, The Voyage Home was well-meaning eco-criticism with some fine moments of comedy. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was rather poor and the sixth one, The Undiscovered Country (that's a Hamlet line kids) was a confused but again well-meaning attempt to examine the messy consequences of the end of the Cold War. The First Next Generation movie Generations, was appropriately about a failing and ageing franchise tried to come to terms with irrelevance through a plot line about an alien race keeping itself young by rather unpleasant methods, then accepting that time marches on. Star Trek VIII: First Contact was what inspired the Enterprise series: an enjoyable tale of myth-busting as the Enterprise's crew go back in time to meet the unlikely and largely unpleasant selfish drunk who got humanity into space back in the day. Good knockabout fun.

And then, having discarded most of the original actors from TOS and TNG, we got the JJ Abrams reboot. The first two were kind of fun: glossy high-octane stuff with more than an added touch of 90210 or Dawson's Creek. In Space. Bearable, but not particularly Star Trek beyond the signifiers.

Beyond this, I've even incorporated Trek into my professional life: stardate 2017 sees the publication of my seminal, earth-shattering paper on Star Trek, Doctor Who and Governmentally. I even bought the Beard of Evil towel to drape over the lectern for the conference presentation version.

Last night, I went to see Star Trek: Beyond. 

Beyond Parody.
Beyond Belief. 

Beyond me, certainly. How bad was it? Warp 10 bad. Phasers-on-stunningly terrible. So execrable that I cannae take any more. Worse than any pun I could come up with. I went with, amongst others, an astrophysicist: we didn't even get on to the film's scientific delusions, so engrossed were we in enumerating its dramatic flaws. Visually, of course, it was amazing. The design of the space station Yorktown was clearly derived from 1960s science fiction illustrations. The rest though, was dreadful. Preening post-teen Californians? Oh yes. Appalling, leaden bromance? Present and correct. Faux-profound exposition of the moral and philosophical underpinnings of the Federation that could have been written by a teary-eyed 4 year-old? You got it. Apparently we should all be nice to each other.
Spock: Fear of death is illogical.
Bones: Fear of death is what keeps us alive.
Captain James T. Kirk: We got no ship, no crew, how're going to get out of this one?
Commander Spock: We will find hope in the impossible.
Captain James T. Kirk: My dad joined Starfleet because he believed in it. I joined on a dare.
Doctor 'Bones' McCoy: You joined to see if you could live up to him.
Doctor 'Bones' McCoy: You spent all this time trying to be your father, and now you're wondering just what it means to be you. 
Krall: Unity is not your strength. It is a weakness.
Captain James T. Kirk: I think you're underestimating humanity.

Every time an actor assumed the expression usually associated with severe constipation, you knew one of these 'deep' statements was coming. By about an hour in to this overlong film I was sighing. Another 15 minutes in I was balling my fists. By two hours I was curled up in a ball, sobbing and begging for the pain to stop. But at least I understood the ennui expressed by James T. Kirk a couple of years into his five-year mission.

An ancient weapon taken apart and disposed of in deep space so that it can't be used again, suddenly reacquired? It's there, apparently borrowed from any old episode of Stargate and indeed the later Hitchhiker's Guide novels. There's some awful, soul-sapping attempts at humour, an ancient motorbike found in the bowels of an ancient ship on an alien planet that still works and is integral to what passes for a plot, and the universe is saved by a Beastie Boys track played on a galactic stereo system. The women are still largely objects of fantasy, and rather dependent despite superficial attempts to make them heroic. The weakness of one woman's emotion is the means by which the bad guys acquire the fearsome weapon too. Feminists: in space, nobody can hear you scream.

The whole thing felt like one of the Transformers movies, or The Fast and the Furious. Some of the characters appeared to be directly derived from their Galaxy Quest parodiesRelentless, shouty, loud, plot holes deeper than the biggest black hole imaginable and a deliberate insult to the intelligence and moral core of the original series (and even the movies). It felt like the dialogue was simply filler between overlong music videos. No reflection, no moral doubt, no nuance. Just some uniformed teenagers getting bored and angsty and fighty.

It felt like someone had dug up the corpse of Star Trek, smeared it with their own faeces, then worn its skin as a suit in some kind of enormously profitable act of necrophilia. Except without the 'philia'. Yes, the old Treks were often cheesy, morally flawed, overly-sentimental and subject to the whims of lazy scriptwriters and hack directors, let alone the vicissitudes of its cultural context. But they were never, ever, cynical. They reached for the stars and sometimes – often – failed to reach escape velocity. Star Trek: Beyond lacks ambition, soul, brain cells and purpose. It's dead, but it doesn't even deserve a decent burial in space.

I have been Star Trek's friend. I can no longer claim that I always shall be. Its assimilation into the mindless collective has been completed. This is what Justin Lin, Paramount and the whole damned crew have done:

In the words of this film's Kirk, 'let's never do that again'.

PS: It was nice that Sulu is shown to be in a same-sex marriage. That bit was fine. The other 119 minutes though…

Friday, 22 July 2016

Every Loser Wins, Or How I Became An Academic

When did I first realise that I was destined for a career in academia? Obviously as teacher of sorts I should add some qualifiers: 'career' is a hollow joke and I'm not entirely convinced I'm really an academic, so perhaps the question is 'when did I realise that I was unsuited to what people habitually refer to as normality?.

A few clues appeared early on. I recall being invited to a meeting with the head teacher and my parents on the subject of reading. Aged 8, I'd exhausted the school's entire stock. I'm not sure I understood it all, but I'd read it. I gather that a donation was secured and more boring books about children learning practical and moral lessons were procured. A similar thing happened at the local library a few years later. I moved on to the adults' books and – perhaps slightly weirdly – decided I may as well tackle them alphabetically. The advantage of this was that I became very widely read, though not very discerning. Additionally, some extremely heated discussions ensued when my parents – hugely intellectual but entirely uninterested in fiction – took offence at some content. They objected to science fiction in its entirety, as well as anything with bad language in. Imagine their displeasure when they found me tucking into an SF novel whose protagonist was called Porno! (If anyone can tell me what that title was, I'd be very grateful). Having 4 sisters and a brother, I also worked my way through the complete works of Enid Blyton and similar authors, and now have an unparalleled though perhaps slightly misleading understanding of a) boarding schools and b) horses.

I don't have any regrets about finding science fiction early. After reading some pulp stuff about rockets, I got to B in the adult section and found Douglas Adams and JG Ballard, which made me realise that science fiction wasn't really about technical details and dematerialisation, but about the possibilities and horrors of what we're already doing to each other: utopians and dystopians using future frameworks to hold up a mirror to capitalism, imperialism and all sorts of other -isms. And being entirely indiscriminate, I read all the sub-genres and strands going. I also read Catherine Cookson and Jilly Cooper and Miss Read and all sorts of other things you wouldn't expect a schooled to be reading, which is why I'm not a total snob.

I know that beyond your socially-constructed definitions of quality (and I do think there are differences in quality between say Gawain and Goldfinger), there are socially-constructed contexts and uses for all sorts of text that are all worth taking seriously (one of my friends told me all about Stalag Fiction: Hebrew-language Nazi concentration camp erotica, so nothing about human behaviour gives me the vapours any more.

Playtime at school was rather binary: I was either reading a book or being beaten up, usually for reading a book, which apparently was an outward sign of being 'bent' (teenagers then weren't known for their liberal qualities) or a coping strategy for being bad at sport. After a while the thugs got bored and it was accepted that as long as I kicked the ball back when it came near me, my presence would be tolerated. It also led to another distinct occasion on which I realised that I wasn't Normal. Not having a VCR at home (the devil's work) I headed off to a mate's house to spend an entire day watching Vietnam movies. After taking four hours to watch Full Metal Jacket because they kept rewinding it to view heads being blown off in spectacular fashion, I noticed that I wasn't watching it for the same reasons. My friends liked a) gory deaths and b) spotting continuity errors. I didn't care for the explosions but was thrilled by the idea of an anti-war war movie, even one which didn't care about the Vietnamese in the slightest (as Caroline Magennis says, this is why academics can't have nice things – they can't help picking holes in them). I remember sitting there wondering why it felt like my friends and I were watching two different movies: even now I run sessions on reader-response with students in which we talk about where their interpretations come from and why extreme boredom is a perfectly acceptable response to a text as long as you're prepared to analyse its origins.

After a while (a very, very long while: 3 high schools and a university entrance via the Clearing system later), the advantages of doing nothing but read became apparent academically. OK, I lacked any social skills whatsoever and couldn't keep up with a bronchitic slug and was constantly disappointed by the real world's lack of style, manners and car chases, but I had acquired some critical faculties independent of the philistinism of the educational system and national curriculum. I'd read all of Jane Austen because she was near the start of the alphabet, not because I'd been told her work was Classic and Important. Rather than being turned off by veiled comments delivered over tea, I found a sarcastic, worried and witty voice which had plenty to say to me despite me being very far removed from stately homes and muddy petticoats.

Getting to university after this kind of self-education meant that I was in the right frame of mind to work independently, to resist regurgitating the opinions of others, and to dive heading into any text I was asked to read, then read even more off-piste. It didn't feel like work: Clarissa led to Pamela led to Shamela; Shakespeare led to Gammer Gurton's Needle, The Chester Noah Play and all the other Mystery Plays, but also to Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Harlem Renaissance, and Anne Lister; the Brontes led to Radcliffe and Beckford and Edgeworth, Kate Roberts and Rose Macaulay… It also helped that Bangor University's English department, while being fairly conservative in many ways, was packed with interesting tutors who encouraged people to head off into the unknown, and to take chances: I acquired an education in philosophy, performed (terribly) on stage, got some rudimentary Welsh and ended up doing an MA and PhD. The result is that I still spot odd things and patterns in texts and how people relate to them, but now I get paid to point them out to other people rather than beaten up. Take that, former classmates!

Which is all a long-winded way of saying: if any of this sounds like you, you have a bright future as an academic ahead of you. Well, a future anyway. Wait 'til I tell you about the admin. You'll love that bit.

PS: recent reading recommendations: I've just read Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The former seems like a slightly dotty period piece, with one of the most famous first lines ever:
“Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.”
It's on oddity which mixes Brits-abroad comedy, a tinge of Cold War fear, an obsessive interest in the minutiae of relations between Anglo-Catholics, ordinary Anglicans, Catholics and Muslims, which suddenly and belatedly takes a very dark turn. Funny and very moving. Jackson's novel isn't funny at all. I picked it up on a whim and was hooked immediately. It manages to combine light, conversational style with the darkest of psychologies: the 'secret' can be guessed within the opening pages but it's a horrifying, Gothic novel like distilled Faulkner.

I'm going back to random reading over the summer: I've a shelf or two of old orange Penguins. I've put them in order of publication and I've started at the beginning. Next up is Rex Warner's The Aerodrome

Thursday, 14 July 2016

It's not fair

Today is my birthday and the cosmos has bought me The Apocalypse, at least politically. I've been chairing panels at the British Comparative Literature Association's annual conference. It goes like this:

Beep: Happy Birthday
Beep: Another Lizard Creature has been put in charge
(20 minutes of erudite high-minded discussion of literary matters by clever people)
I say something dumb
Beep: Beelzebub is now Minister for Baby-Eating
I clumsily introduce the next genius to talk about things I haven't read.
(Another 20 minutes of intellectual exploration).
I hope fervently that someone else has better questions than the ones I've written down in case of embarrassing silence
Beep: New Environment Minister says 'I'm against it. The deforestation starts tomorrow'.

And so on, ad infinitum. 

Yesterday I watched the Cabinet Appointments and wondered if Theresa May is trolling us. It's the auto-satirising government. For instance, not long ago she posed in this t-shirt (sorry to start by discussing a female PM's clothing but this time it is relevant.

This occasioned the Telegraph to ask:

Well, maybe. But one of her first appointments was David Davis, who ran his election campaign based on a Page Three-style pun. So I doubt it. 

As to the rest: let's just remember that the Foreign Secretary once referred in a speech to 'picanninnies' with 'watermelon smiles' and claimed that black people had lower IQs than whites, campaigned against immigration while omitting to mention his American birth and citizenship, was fired from one newspaper for faking quotes and was recorded helping a friend organise a beating over a business dispute.

Oh yes, he also published a comic novel about suicide bombers. It's called Seventy Two Virgins and it is quite, quite racist. All the Arabic characters have hooked noses, which gives you a rough idea of Boris's literary abilities.

 He also thinks that the ban on fox-hunting puts the Labour party at the moral level of Nazi Germany and Saddam hussein's Iraq.

What a day to be alive.