Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Embarrassment is not the worst thing to happen to a public institution

For a few years, I was one of my sport's child protection officers – advising on good practice and helping to investigate complaints. It was harrowing occasionally, and led to some fairly uncomfortable conversations and situations, but it was important work.

One of the cultural barriers to being effective was the tiny size of the field: pretty much everybody knew everybody else, while livelihoods – and sporting careers – depended on the outcome of complaints. The governing body was largely made up of big fish: influential people closely tied to a lot of those about whom complaints were made, invested in the appearance of harmony and continuity. There was a lot of resistance to setting up open structures which encouraged referrals: more than once a senior person said that a newspaper report about a coach being suspended or arrested would damage the sport as a whole. Our argument was that denial would lead to the death of the sport: what parent would entrust their children to an organisation which claimed there wasn't a problem when every sport manifestly did have a problem? We watched some sports' governing bodies confront their inner demons and thrive because new entrants respected their honesty and determination to do better; others hushed everything up and lost the confidence of their participants.

Eventually the culture changed: go to any fencing event now and you'll find a welfare officer and discreetly circulated details about how to talk to somebody, and most people now think the structures are impartial and trustworthy. The bureaucracy can be daunting and – to the generation which talks about snowflakes – paranoid, but it clearly works.

All this came to mind while observing the latest academic merry-go-round, in which senior managers disappear mysteriously take months of leave, 'resign' to seek 'new opportunities' with the best wishes of senior management, then pop up somewhere else, sometimes in more senior positions. As the months go by, the personal, structural and economic damage they've wreaked will emerge but no blame will ever be attached to them, to those who appointed them, or to those who put in place manifestly inappropriate structures that enabled incompetent, corrupt and sometimes criminal behaviour. In a system which privileges institutional power and leadership prestige, there's no benefit to transparency or honesty: the institution doesn't want regulators poking their noses in, and it wants the departing individual to go quietly, so it's non-disclosure agreements all round, a bland-to-positive reference that doesn't even hint at any disquiet, and everybody's free to 'go forward' without recriminations or reflection. Some credit cards are withdrawn, there might be a short period of enhanced auditing, but there's no serious critique of the social or cultural context which led to a series of poor decisions. Restructures and job losses (not of those responsible, obvs) will follow to solve the immediate challenge and references might quietly be made to bad apples. The barrel will remain unchanged. Horses will remain unscared and the niceties will be observed at agreeable conference dinners. The departing individual will wreak further havoc in his or her next institution and nothing will change. Some union representatives might be rude enough to refer to unfortunate events but confidentiality will be invoked as a reason not to respond.

This is, of course, entirely hypothetical.

Anyway, it's otherwise been a ridiculously busy week - more progression and results boards, resit meetings with students, a bit of research planning (not any actual research of course) and preparing for my own external examining visit elsewhere. I did manage to fit in some relaxation: caught up with some friends I hadn't seen in 20 years at a wedding reception, and saw Stereolab on Sunday, fulfilling a long-held dream. They didn't disappoint.

I finished Manon Steffan Ros's Blasu, which took a while to grab me. The structure is very obvious: interlinked characters across several generations in a village whose secrets and traumas are expressed by their relationships with food. Each chapter moves between characters' perspectives, and each is prefaced by a recipe. I got the point but it felt a little programmatic, and the central secret wasn't hard to work out. However, where the novel really earned all the prizes and acclaim was the slow unfolding of character and subtle enmeshing of these often complex, damaged people as the plot unfurled – from being a bit distracted by the self-conscious structure I ended up being deeply moved.

In total contrast, I also read Shada, Gareth Roberts' novelisation of Douglas Adams's abortive Doctor Who scripts from the late-70s. Hilarious, witty and the perfect mash-up of Dirk Gently with the Whoniverse. Not sure what book's next: something lightweight, that's for sure. I also finally got round to listening to the new Clinic album, Wheeltappers and Shunters, and an interesting collection of choral music called Supersize Polyphony: it is as unsubtle as the name suggests. If you've already got some von Bingen or anyone else's recording of Tallis's 'Spem in Alium', you really don't need this release.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

A few book non-recommendations

It's been a hectic week or so since my last substantial post. Two unexpected days in Ireland for a wake/funeral, and all the admin associated with the end of term: sample scripts, moderation, moderation forms, module statistics, module statistics pre-board response forms, organising resits, the formal boards, appraisal planning, workload planning: it all mounts up and much of it is necessary, if not efficient.

Next year promises to be efficient without necessarily being progressive: the move to compulsory online marking means I won't be chasing people for scripts, photocopying them, filling padded envelopes and posting them to external examiners to puzzle over gnomic crabbed comments: everything will be instantly visible in some low-rent typeface on a computer screen. I know there are a lot of arguments (starting with the environmental) for online marking, but I think my department's current compromise (handwritten marginal comments, typed substantial feedback on a coversheet) strike a happy medium between organic artisanal response and ease of comprehension. It bodes ill for me too: having decided not to have an internet connection at home so that I don't live on my favourite sites 24 hours a day (Moulton Bikes, Librarything, – and The Guardian, obviously, because I'm a stereotypical bleeding-heart liberal) and because I wanted a complete separation between work and home, I'll now have to stare at a screen, in the office, for even longer. I think this means I'm old.

Anyway, it wasn't all work last week: I managed to read a couple of books at least. One of them was Zadie Smith's Swing Time. Having left it on the shelf for a couple of years, I took my second-hand copy on the flight to Ireland with me. Thoroughly engrossed, I read it there and back, finishing it in the air on the return leg. Or rather, not finishing it. Some absolute rotter had removed the last page! It's not exactly a murder mystery, and there's no whodunnit to be revealed in the closing lines, but it left me utterly bereft and helpless. Thank heavens for Twitter and the numerous kind people who sent me photos of the missing paragraphs while I was on the train home: closure was achieved. Though not for the central protagonist. I heartily recommend it. Can't believe Madonna didn't sue though.

I also read and enjoyed Alison Plowden's zippy In A Free Republic: Life in Cromwell's England - lots of good detail and useful quotations from letters and diaries (mostly Royalist) but weirdly unedited: chapter titles had little to do with the content, and pages could swing between examinations of the Rump Parliament to details of common dietary or skin complaints. After that I read Gary Shteyngart's  Lake Success, which I thought was much less successful than his Super Sad Love Story: it tried to be a Travels With Charley/Tom Sawyer/On The Road encountering-the-real-America, plus The Big Short and Bonfire of the Vanities and American Psycho all at once, while simultaneously signalling its author's and protagonist's hyper-awareness of this literary tradition (the central character, an awful hedge-fund trader who has a mid-life crisis and travels across the US seeking his lost love, his spiritual progress measured in the number of women prepared to give him a redemptive shag, recalls his university creative writing class assignment, which featured a banker seeking redemption through rediscovering his lost love). It pulls its punches: you can't critique the damage caused by and inner emptiness of the 0.1% and make sure that your hero lives happily ever after without changing his fundamental views or behaviours at all, despite having gone on a literal and metaphorical journey. He ends up with $100 million in the bank and a strong relationship with his ex-wife and autistic son. The son - convincingly on the extreme end of the spectrum for most of the novel – miraculously turns out to be highly-functioning, loving and intellectually-gifted by the end. It's almost as if Shteyngart is deliberately parodying bad writing. But he isn't, unless I've completely missed the point, which is always possible.

(As a side-note, I automatically don't read anything described as The Great American Novel: size and significance don't correlate, and any attempt to represent a large and complex polity is pretty much bound to be a form of cultural imperialism, usually of the macho variety. I'd far rather read a lot of short novels covering less ground with less confidence written by people who aren't rich white men who went to Harvard and think that gives them a panoramic view of the country).

I'm obviously alone in this view though: my paperback copy is stuffed with august reviewers' declarations that Lake Success is a work of satirical and comic genius. I thought it was fatally wounded by sentiment and smugness. Not sure what I'll read next. Probably a Course Specification Template or two.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Jeremy Cut-Me-Own-Throat Hunt, Entrepreneur

I’d be the first prime minister who has been an entrepreneur – creating hundreds of jobs in a way that goes to the heart of what we as a party stand for.

So said Jeremy Hunt, many times in the past weeks as he runs for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

Oh yeah? My image of an entrepreneur is someone who comes from nowhere and makes their fortune with a good idea, struggling against the entrenched interests of the establishment.

Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt emerged neither from a slum nor a ghetto. He did not scrabble. Rather, he is the product of entirely of aristocratic breeding and state-funded privilege. Little Jeremy was not found in a box: he is the son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, who went on to share several major companies once he got off his boat, and Lady Meriel Hunt. Young Jeremy attended Charterhouse, which currently costs £40,000 per year and brings with it an enormous amount of social capital: not the typical background of an entrepreneur. Who paid the fees? Well, we did. Some indirectly through Daddy's Navy salary, and, I suspect, directly via the Continuity of Education Allowance that pays for services' kids to go to private schools.

Either way, Jeremy's head start in life was entirely funded by those of us who do not have access to an elite school, nor to the social and cultural networks that are the unspoken side-benefits of attending such places.

Where did Jeremy go next? Well, despite coming across as slightly limited in the cerebral region, his hothouse education landed him a place at Magdalen College Oxford. Luckily for the country, pater didn't have to scrape his pennies together to fund this: Jezza is another of those Tories who benefited from a free university education and subsequently kicked away the ladder. Active in the Conservative association, Jeremy rubbed shoulders with a wider set of rich kids, and went into management consultancy. All this, therefore, is underpinned not by the free market, but by the efforts of the state, paid for by us.

Wait: the entrepreneurial stuff must be coming, right?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. He did set up a couple of companies that went bust, and a PR company, and then hit gold with Hotcourses: a website which aggregates university course details for potential students. Sounds perfectly legit, until you wonder where the raw material comes from? The reality is that state-funded institutions make their data available for free - and then pay to advertise on the site. One of its major customers is the British Council, i.e. another arm of the British Government. He sold it for £15m and went in to some very fishy-looking property deals. Oh, and the 'hundreds of jobs'? 300. In four countries.

Enterprising, yes. Not exactly entrepreneurial though: a career built on scraping other people's work, paid for many times over by the taxpayer, and arrived at after the rest of us generously funded the kind of education and access we could never dream of. Not exactly a model for the masses.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Me neither.

What to write about this week? So much has happened, but most of it I either don't understand or haven't had the time to process, as my life is entirely taken up by marking and marking-related administration.

Amongst the things I'm glad I can't concentrate on are:
– The European elections. An utter disaster made worse by the British electoral system. At least Northern Ireland uses a proper system of proportional representation. The last 20 years has been an object lesson in how the British constitution – and its political class – are about as useful as the proverbial confectionery tea-receptacle whenever anything complicated happens. They deserve everything that's coming to them: it's just a shame that the suffering will be shared far and wide. My suggestion is that everyone who voted for Brexit be moved to the Isle of Man and given whatever political and trading arrangements they want. If after 10 years life there is paradise, we'll all adopt it. If not, we'll airlift out any survivors and carve Nigel Farage's, May's and Corbyn's faces on the cliffs of Dover as a stark warning to anyone who entertains passingly sympathetic thoughts about Britain or thinks it might be a nice place to live.

The Augar review of HE and FE funding and provision. Currently being hailed by journalists with short attention spans as a bold plan to reduce tuition fees while boosting university incomes. Actually a plan to make them pay a lot more over a longer period while reducing funding to universities, closing courses that don't suit Oxbridge arts' graduate ministers' idea of what the proles should be doing, and leading to the closure of the kind of universities that their kids won't be going to. Like mine. Not many countries have ever decided that future prosperity and happiness requires less education, but Britain's proudly joining 1970s Cambodia and the US, which is seeing its 8th year of university-entrant decline.

– Of interest only to my fellow academics, and something of a repeat, I'm also not understanding the way senior HEI executives define 'leadership'. My faculty is being abolished and my Dean has chosen to start a 'fresh chapter' in his life, after being subject to a vote of no confidence and a mysterious departure on 'extended leave'. No doubt the non-disclosure agreements are watertight and fully compliant with the Nolan principles of public standards, so I won't speculate on the reasons for all this, but I will just point out that the people who set up the structures now being abolished, and who chose their senior management, are conspicuously silent. 'Leadership' seems to be about taking credit when there's a press release to be sent out, not taking responsibility when things go wrong.

I'm well aware that university managements think of their staff as sanctimonious armchair revolutionaries who in fact operate solely to protect their vested interests, while university staff tend to picture vice-chancellors as people who occasionally pop in between first-class jaunts to dictatorships solely to negotiate their own pay rises and move everyone onto zero-hours contracts – and I'm not saying either position is entirely untrue – but the pernicious notion of 'leadership' has become a sick joke: HEI executives have absolved themselves of almost all responsibility while reaping huge rewards. No doubt I shall return to this subject like a dog to its own vomit, until the day I retire.

– The Conservative Party leadership election. It takes a special kind of solipsism to decide that a national crisis is the perfect time to overthrow an individual for failing to solve the Kobayashi Maru test.

Theresa May's awful personal and political characteristics aren't what has caused the Brexit negotiations' failures: it's an unwindable situation. Watching the denizens of various disgusting think tanks slither from under their rocks to announce that they alone can cut the Gordian knot is a sickening experience. If there's one thing I tell my students, it's that everything is more complicated than it looks, and that's what makes thinking fun. It's frankly unhelpful for the political class to wander round pretending that there's a simple solution to everything: 'Brexit means Brexit', 'Just leave', 'WTO terms', 'delivering what the people voted for' and so on. The referendum proved that you only get stupid answers if you get stupid questions. Now we're faced with a tiny, unrepresentative group of party members electing whichever slick bullshitter most closely aligns with their prejudices: 'Boris' with his hair and his lies, 'The Saj' with his fourth-hand Ayn Randisms, Dominic Raab with his Reddit-acquired distillation of Friedrich Hayek's wet dreams, Kit Malthouse (which I previously thought was PG Wodehouse's euphemism for a gentleman of hefty stature), Andrea Leadsom's manifesto for hedge-fund bros, Jeremy Hunt's millionaire, private-school interpretation of Samuel Smiles and even Rory Stewart's Toynbee Hall do-gooder Etonian gap-year Victorian muscular Christianity shtick. He reminds me of the furrowed-brow centurion in The Life of Brian who hands out the crucifixes but finds it all a bit awkward.

I know there are other candidates but they've blurred into one Oxford Junior Common Room 1985 election hustings and frankly I'd rather write another module specification template than think about them any more.

Anyway, it's not all work. I can't concentrate on anything particularly challenging when I'm marking, but I've managed to read a few books this week. I enjoyed Chris Beckett's Dark Eden, which uses the framework of an inbred community descended from marooned astronauts to examine the conditions from which war, toxic patriarchy and religion emerge – it's a very satisfying novel of ideas and written in the style of Hoban's Riddley Walker and Self's The Book of Dave. I've ordered the sequels. After a very entertaining presentation by Daryl Leeworthy at AWWE19, I bought Kingsley Amis's That Uncertain Feeling - another comic novel about male inadequacy in the face of female sexuality, with added barbed comments about Welsh culture. Some funny lines, but too programmatic and incapable of empathy for entire swathes of society. Rachael Kelly's big robotics/environmental collapse/noir-SF novel Edge of Heaven was very enjoyable: basically Bladerunner from the replicant's perspective. Finally I read a collection of SF short stories interspersed with commentary from scientists who'd hosted the writers, When It Changed (named after a Joanna Russ short story): some of the stories are good, some aren't, and I enjoyed detecting which scientists thought their authors understood the field.

This weekend's reading is Zadie Smith's Swing Time and Alison Plowden's In A Free Republic: Life in Cromwell's England. Both of them have been on my shelves for ages and I can't remember why I haven't already finished them. Plowden's take on the Commonwealth is more conservative than most of the histories I've enjoyed (such as Christopher Hill's work) but taking in other perspectives is certainly no bad thing. For the record, my view is: Revolution: much needed; Charles I's execution: fine; Cromwell: rapidly became a reactionary defender of the landed interest; murder of Catholics and Irish: psychopathic; suppression of the Diggers and Levellers: unacceptable; Protectorate: last gasp of an exhausted regime with no ideas beyond holding on to power; Restoration: defeat. Overall: a missed opportunity and reminiscent of Ireland 1916,  Iran in the 1970s and Egypt recently: progressive forces harnessed to overthrow illegitimate regimes, then murderously suppressed to ensure the domination of elites.

Finally, on the subject of books, I've just paid £84.99 for the CUP A History of 1930s British Literature. Each individual chapter is informative and interesting. I just can't help thinking, though, that if you're going to use the word 'British', you should probably mention that a) British literature of the 1930s included work in Welsh and Scots Gaelic and b) featured quite a lot of work in English from Wales and Scotland. (Northern Ireland isn't in Britain, so we'll have that argument another day). Ironically enough, there are more references in the index to 'xenophobia' than there are to Wales or Scotland. Lewis Jones and Lewis Grassic Gibbon are mentioned briefly by Nick Hubble; a chapter on 'Beyond Englishness: the Regional and Rural Novel' talks about some interesting texts but rather relegates two cultures to 'Other', while even Dylan Thomas gets one mention. Neither Gwyn Thomas; no Richard Llewellyn despite the enormous success of his neo-nazi romance How Green Was My Valley, no room at all for whole swathes of prominent and/or popular authors from 'the regions' outside England. It's not the fault of the chapter authors: it's an editorial failure. By contrast, I've just spent a similar amount of doubloons on Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill's Writing the General Strike: Literature, Culture, Politics, a much slimmer volume which managed to include chapters on Scottish modernism and working-class Welsh modernisms.

Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 24 May 2019

A tale of two resignations

Another year, another Conservative Prime Ministerial resignation. How different from the last. In 2016, Chancer Cameron, appalled that the rabble had disobeyed the prefects, put on his best 'I'm very disappointed in you' face, abandoned his promise to clear up the mess he'd made in the vain pursuit of internal party dominance, and strolled back into No. 10 whistling – clearly the cares of office weighed very lightly upon his shoulders.

Today we saw a very different performance: Theresa May's speech (here, from 25.00) largely blamed her party's members and Parliament (not unreasonably) for her inability to pass Britain's EU Withdrawal legislation. She ended by rushing back into the house in tears, overcome by emotion.

It would take someone with a heart of stone not to experience even a second's empathy and sorrow for the suffering she's clearly undergone in recent months.

Luckily, I am that person. My boundless reserves of human kindness were exhausted a few minutes into her speech when she dared to invoke the name of Sir Nicholas Winton (whom I knew passingly through fencing circles) in defence of her actions.

For many years the great humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton – who saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport – was my constituent in Maidenhead. At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice. He said, ‘Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’ He was right.

Theresa May sent vans round the streets bearing the message 'Go Home', split up British-Caribbean families seemingly on a whim and made sure that Lord Dubs amendment designed to rescue unaccompanied refugee children from squalid abandonment in the Calais camps was abolished after a pathetic 350 kids were saved.

I dread to think who will replace her, but she shouldn't be allowed to slip away with dignity: this was a vicious, self-serving and hypocritical attempt to gild a rotten lily.

Monday, 13 May 2019

A Weekend In Wales and Other Stories

Good Monday to you all.

I"m not thinking swiftly or deeply today - I've just come back from the annual conference of Cymdeithas Llên Saesneg Cymru/Association for Welsh Writing in English. It's always held in the University of Wales's shabby-chic stately home, Plas Gregynog near Newtown in Powys – all rolling hills, sheep and wildlife. This year's theme was 'Hearts and Minds: The Mental and Emotional Lives of Welsh Writing in English', though we actually covered plenty of material in Welsh too, as is becoming increasingly standard.

Given the theme, it's unsurprising that the material was emotionally challenging – by inviting people like Ian Rowland (author of the harrowing Blink, Jasmine Donahaye (in conversation with Cath Beard, whose reading and discussion of Donahaye's poem 'Motherlove' from 2006's Misappropriations led to a revelatory exploration of maternal OCD) and Jo Edge (who intends to post a recording of her keynote) to talk about personal and literary experiences of child abuse, OCD, postpartum depression and other conditions, the organisers ensured that the field fully engaged with the themes that are at the forefront of public consciousness at the moment (except for Brexit-induced depression: maybe next year). There were some thought-provoking tensions too: while the neurologist Andrew Larner discussed the patient as narrative-text in his medical and literary practice and suggested that medical training in discursive pattern-recognition allowed him to ascribe aspects of literary style to media conditions, historian Jo Edge's keynote the next day warned against the ahistorical and philosophically unreliable nature of retrospectively diagnosing historical or literary figures with specific medical diseases.

I found myself thinking about this a lot, not just in relation to mental health, but also to gender and sexuality. While the archaeology of identities leads to the temptation to claim authors, historical personages and fictional characters for contemporary identity positions to combat hegemonic silencing of marginal or subaltern subjects, there's also something unattractive about imposing our own cultural perspectives on societies that may not have conceived of human relations and identities in any way like our own. When it comes to actual people too, there's a danger of reducing their work to clues or symptoms. Cath – whose professional life merges literary criticism with women's mental health advocacy – noted that medical case histories emerged during the same late-Victorian period that produced the detective novel. Siriol McAvoy's discussion of Lynette Roberts' poetry and the way her work has been ascribed to her schizophrenia reminded me of my PhD student's attempt to force critics to consider Zelda Fitzgerald's work on its own merits, rather than as medical evidence. There were too many fascinating papers to list individually (follow #awwe19 to get a flavour): all I can say is that you know it's a good conference when you're faced with the dilemma of not being physically capable of going to all the sessions you want to. My usual method is to go to the postgrads' presentations, not solely to suck out all their clever new ideas, but because I always appreciated people coming to my terrible papers and bothering to ask a question. This year I didn't have too: everyone attracted a decent audience and the questions flowed like the seaweed gin (yes, that's a thing) that made the post-seminar evenings such a cheerful blur.

I was proud of my colleagues' sensitive, probing and informed engagement with these ideas, in papers, creatively and in conversation outside the formal bounds of the sessions. There were also a lot more gags than I'd have expected too. The whole thing will sink in gradually I suspect: I always come away from AWWE with more ideas than I know how to deal with, but this year's event was more challenging and striking than ever – plenty of delegates needed a bit of time out to during the weekend to process what was being said.

Away from the central themes, I loved seeing the parade of talented new scholars taking their place alongside the founders of the field, many of whom are starting to retire – many of them like my erstwhile co-author Lisa Sheppard, or Siriol McAvoy, publishing in Welsh and English with equal brilliance. Siriol launched her edited collection of essays on Lynette Roberts, hopefully starting a revival of interest, while Lisa took her place alongside the greats in the massive new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, also launched this weekend. It's £100 but it's also a once-in-a-generation book, and one which takes the bold step of covering Welsh-language and English-language work together in thematic chapters, establishing Welsh as a globally-significant medium. I gather that CUP had to be cajoled into commissioning the book, so I hope the news that the first print run sold out immediately – in part due to the Celtic solidarity of Irish scholars – has encouraged it to do more.

As always when returning from AWWE, I'm buzzing with ideas, physically exhausted and envious of the energy my friends and colleagues have. They seem to churn out good books whereas I'm struggling to get one going. Must try harder… I am contributing though: I'm organising next year's conference, with the help of a couple of very good people. It's on the broad themes of Childhood, Education and Learning in Welsh literature and culture. I'm hoping to attract some of the political decision-makers in Cardiff, teachers and educationalists, and to include some expertise from linguistically-similar places, such as Ireland. There will be strands on children's literature, language-learning, while adult learners won't be forgotten. In a country and literary culture packed with autodidacts, and one in which education has been a source of bitter struggle for centuries, a narrow focus would be inexcusable. The CfP won't be out for a while but if you're interested in contributing, do get in touch.

I bought the Cambridge History while there: the Welsh Books Council employ a young lady whose powers of menacing persuasion ensure that many of us leave with empty pockets. I also bought Stevie Davies's The Element of Water in the new Library of Wales edition, and was also given the two massive LoW short story volumes as part of the very generous society membership deal - ramming it all into my suitcase was tricky. As I already happen to have bought them, I'll donate them to the university library.

It didn't help that I also arrived with two novels to tide me over the three-day conference, both of which I did actually read. I suppose it's a testament either to my unsociability or the quality of the book that I sneaked away from one evening's revelry at midnight to read Barbara ComynsThe Vet's Daughter in one sitting, a wonderfully odd 1959 fable which coincidentally has a Welsh background. It reminded me of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes: both are stories of downtrodden, apparently-superfluous women who quietly discover supernatural alternatives to fading into the background, and both novels introduce the magical elements gently and calmly. I'm definitely going to read all of Comyn's work now. The other book I read was James Lovegrove's Redlaw, a violent urban fantasy thriller that had some strong elements but just wasn't written well enough to justify the gore. However, AWWE saw the launch of a far superior Gothic chiller, the Honno Classics edition of Hilda Vaughan's Harvest Home, edited by the excellent Diana Wallace.

Lots of books in the post today too. Two more Left Book Club editions, vol. 1 of Robin Page Arnot's Russian Revolution (1937) and Paul Frölich's Rosa Luxemburg biography. Both in good condition but sadly lacking owner's names inscribed, or any of the fliers and bookmarks I like finding – one of my friends once found a Senate guest ticket signed by the notorious Huey Long. I don't have anything that historic but you can build a cultural history from inscriptions and insertions: Cath Feely did exactly that by tracing the circulation of Das Kapital by identifying all the people who'd written their names on the flyleaves of their copies.

Apart from those two, I also acquired Irish SF novelist Rachael Kelly's Edge of Heaven, Simon Ings' The Smoke on Adam Roberts' recommendation, and Marina Lewycka's Two Caravans, her tragi-comedy about immigrant fruit-pickers. Maybe I'll put it on my literature of migration module ('"They Come Over Here"') if it ever runs again.

All of these will have to wait, however: I have a massive stack of dissertations to mark, an overdue book and several other pressing matters – there are tutorials to run and lots of union casework to attend to this week, sadly. It's good and bad news here too. In the good news, David Crystal is here this week – he was just retiring from Bangor and joining the star-lecturer circuit when I went there as an undergrad, so it will be great to meet him again (get your free ticket here). In the bad news (or perhaps it isn't), my Faculty is undergoing its second restructure in a year, or third in 4 years if you count its foundation. While the niceties of 'leadership' mean that nobody senior is publicly acknowledging that it's been a continuous bin-fire of mismanagement, bullying and incompetence, overseen by people who are now conspicuous by their absence (and hand-picked by the current bosses), I don't have any qualms in saying that the faculty's dismemberment is welcome and overdue. The only fear is that we'll be dumped into the wrong alternative. During the most recent review I suggested Humanities be reunited with our cognate disciplines in History and Social Sciences, a proposal singled out for rejection in the final announcement, but perhaps our chance will come again. If so, I promise not to follow the VC round campus wearing my Told You So t-shirt. What I dread is English being returned to our origins as an arm of the Education department: the people who told my HoD that his insistence on promoting basic literacy was 'pedantic'.

I almost forgot: check out Heno on S4C, 7.00 on May 14th to find the AWWE delegates doubling as a crowd scene for the Welsh Literature book launch. I'm the impossibly glamorous one the camera can't resist.

Friday, 3 May 2019

The weekly blah

There's almost been too much news to cope with this week, at least for a nerd like me. Attorney-General Barr's Congressional hearings (one evasive, one absented) were a treat, the local elections have given everyone something to be unhappy about bar the Greens and the Lib Dems, environmental apocalypse is upon us and it's the week before the dissertations are due in, which means I've seen students in every spiritual state from serene to shellshocked.

I would like to take a moment to thank a small group of students for their almost suicidal honesty: the third year who didn't realise there would be an assessment for his modules, the one who apologised for not being able to attend due to being on holiday, and the one who needed advice about which essay title to choose because he 'hadn't read the books'. The vast majority of my students are mature and responsible people who get all the help we can give. A small majority aren't, but pretend to be, and they get help too. What do with those who can't even fake engagement is the topic of my next pedagogical research article* but in the meantime I think I've earned the right to be amused even while I administer the necessary advice and support.

It's actually been a good week in the academic sphere: I've had really good consultations with students and I'm actually looking forward to reading their dissertations. My colleagues are back from the holidays and none of them have been hit by a car for almost 3 weeks, and we had our union AGM, during which someone volunteered to share my secretarial duties at last. Next week isn't going to be so enjoyable: despite the prospect of marking, we've been told to expect 'an announcement'. I don't imagine it will involve massages, research grants, candy-floss or brown paper parcels tied up with string. However, despite my institution's many faults, it isn't as bad as the British Library (which has temporarily withdrawn the 'post-doctoral studentship' I mentioned last week, or Edinburgh University, which advertised an 11 month part-time job featuring a two-month unpaid bit in the middle. How they imagine anyone can live in one of the world's most expensive cities for two months with no salary is beyond me. Neither can they have ever encountered the British unemployment benefit system, nor a landlord. They will, I strongly suspect, have reacted badly if the poor chump in post declined to answer emails, attend meetings or prepare classes during the two-month layoff. After some social media pressure yesterday the post was altered so that the salary was spread over the 11 months, but I still consider £13,000 very poor reward for teaching students at a prestigious, rich and selective university (or for doing any other kind of job in any field).

I watched Newsnight the other day (too paralytic to change channel) and a Daniel Hannan MP expostulated (from about 28 minutes) that the world had changed. 'I don't think [our kids] are ever going to have "a job" as we understood that word in the twentieth century. I think they're going to be constantly retraining, constantly reskilling, constantly freelancing'. The question I desperately wanted to hear asked in response is a simple one: why is that a good idea, either for society or for individuals? I don't really want my nuclear power plant staffed by people who drove trains or milked cows last year. Come to think of it, I don't want my cows milked by last year's nuclear physicists. I don't want students taught by people who've never had the chance to develop their teaching or research abilities because every contract has been a six-month, minimum wage one. I can see who it benefits: shareholders in industries which have automated skills out of the door and have no intention of investing in their workforces. For everybody else, it just helps the quality of life get that little bit worse. The model depends on the assumption that no jobs (other than CEO and perhaps hedge fund trader) really require any deep, evolving skill or security - they're just gigs, performed by walking fungible assets, as a friend was described by his boss at a very big investment bank, hastening his departure to a better employer, who have to fake competence for a brief period before moving on (this is known as the Cabinet Minister model).

Anyway, enough of this - you've heard it all from me before. In book news, I read Milkman and found it every bit as good as everyone said, and not nearly as 'difficult' as the chair of the Booker panel claimed. Burns removes proper nouns to defamiliarise the Northern Irish political/cultural landscape and stress the communal experience, but other than that it's a fairly straightforward anti-Bildungsroman about the psychological and social damage inflicted by generations of conflict. With some jokes, I should add. I also enjoyed Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure - it felt Ballardian in its isolated setting and clinical narration of horror. My bank holiday reading is The Seasoning, the English translation (presumably by her) of Manon Steffan Ros's novel Blasu. On a side note: various newspapers and magazine do round-ups of translated books, and they never, ever, look to Wales or Ireland despite the wealth of novels either being translated or crying out for an international audience. They'll pick up Irish novels in English, but anything in Welsh or Irish may as well not exist, whereas books in continental European languages automatically attract a degree of cool. Grrr…

The other books I got this week were:

  • Matthew Taunton, Red Britain: The Russian Revolution in Mid-Century Culture which seems highly highly persuasive but is fixated on England, even when discussing proletarian novels of the 1930s, many of which emerged from the mining and steel communities of Scotland and Wales - even the postwar critic and novelist Raymond Williams is treated as an honorary Englishman. 
  • Francis Barker, ed, 1936: The Sociology of Literature. Two thick volumes of conference proceedings from Essex University, 1978, packed with excellent material on literature and politics in the mid-1930s. 
  • Mark Schmitt, British White Trash: Figurations of Tainted Whiteness in the novels of Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths and John King. I've never heard of King, but I'm friendly with Niall and rate his books highly. I've taught some of them and it's high time more was written about them. 
  • Nigel West, The Blue List and Cuban Bluff: two more politician's novels. West (real name: Rupert Allason) was a particularly reactionary MP in the 80s and 90s who imagined himself as a spymaster and historian. His novels aren't very convincing, but then again a judge described him in court as 'profoundly and cynically dishonest…one of the most dishonest witnesses I have ever seen', a quote that doesn't make it into his Wikipedia page.. He's now flogging DVDs of his speeches as 'The Nigel West Lectures' at $24.95 a pop. Caveat emptor

So that's my bank holiday sorted…

*I'm never going to write a pedagogical research article.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Medieval studies, medieval attitudes

This week has mostly been consumed with rage about this advert, shamefully retweeted by University English on behalf of the British Library. 

Post-doctoral Internship - Medieval Manuscripts
Salary is £10.55 per hour (The London Living Wage)
Full Time
Contract Type:
The British Library is pleased to offer an Internship in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department for a post-doctoral student in History, Art History, Medieval Language or Literature or another relevant subject. 
The intern will utilise specialist knowledge of medieval manuscripts to support the curatorial team on a wide range of curatorial activities, including cataloguing medieval manuscripts, supporting delivery of seminars and visits, publicising the work of the Section and the collections on the Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and social media channels, responding to visitor enquiries, preparing labels and other interpretative material and supporting the digitisation of medieval manuscripts. 
The successful candidate will enjoy privileged access to the British Library’s world-class collections of medieval manuscripts. The post holder will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.  This internship will provide an opportunity to develop writing and presentation skills, to engage with a variety of audiences, and to gain experience of curatorial duties.
This position is open only to those who have recently completed or are about to submit a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.
How does this enrage me? Let me count the ways.
Firstly, the rate of pay. £10.55 may be the London Living Wage but it seems very low, whatever the qualifications and duties may be. An egg mayonnaise sandwich in the British Library costs £7, so the hourly rate is almost a sandwich and a half. The lucky winner of this post will presumably spend about the same again getting to and from work, and will have to find the price of a room in London, food, clothing, bills and so on out of his or her £13,000 pounds. 

The candidate must have a PhD: this means that s/he will have taken a BA, possibly and MA and then a PhD: 6-8 years of low or no earnings, no savings, no pension contributions, no NI. S/he will be roughly 25 years old at a minimum, and therefore several years behind friends who might have left school and immediately started working on the minimum wage or more. The unexceptionable dreams – a secure home, a family, spare pants – are deferred even further. To the British Library, however, none of this matters: it has no intention of sharing the costs of acquiring the high level skills needed for this job. 

It is a job: the work is mostly skilled and requires prior qualifications: the idea that someone with a modern PhD won't already have 'writing and presentation skills' already is a joke. There's no meaningful definition of 'post-doctoral student': PhDs require you to demonstrate to your peers that you have made an original contribution to the field. There's no higher qualification available – the use of the term here is simply a means to justify a low salary. 

The benefits are laughable: while the candidate may 'enjoy privileged access' to the British Library, I can't imagine s/he will have the energy to utilise this at weekends - it's a full-time job, so there won't be much time for browsing after work. 

Underlying all this is a simple refusal to acknowledge class privilege. The only people who will be able to take up this post (which looks like a great job) are those who have private means: my own students, virtually all first-generation HE entrants with no family money or funded PhDs are loaded with debt after their degrees and would never have the resources required to uproot themselves for a few months to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. No doubt the scheme's progenitors will speak of other forms of enrichment, and the networking opportunities available, but the whole structure depends on entrenched unfairness which will simply restrict (in this case) medieval studies to the same old small group of people. I simply note that the BL's director – a man unencumbered by a PhD*, but an alumnus of a very expensive private school and Oxford University (obviously) – scrapes by on £160,000. The canteen checkout holds no fears for him, especially as he has a second job as a non-exec director of Channel 4.  Perhaps there's a shortage of privileged white men, but it does seem that it's a buyer's market for desperate, fully-fledged medievalists, whereas the Roly Keatings of this world can name their prices.  

The sad thing is that there will be a queue of people applying for this post: we have an HE and public sector model which refuses to recognise the hidden costs of higher education, and wants to buy expertise on the cheap - this is why over 50% of university teachers are hourly-paid, temporary workers. Some will be able to coast through on private means; some will scrimp and save; others will remain invisible because they lack the means to subsidise one of the world's greatest institutions, thus depriving it of new perspectives and ideas. 

Of course, I can say this: I've lucked into a proper salaried job (though student application numbers suggest I shouldn't get too comfortable), surfing all the privileges that accrue to someone like me: the people who should be wielding the flaming torches are precisely those to insecure to speak up. Also, I may frequently clash with my own institution's management, but they have never stooped so low as this – while teaching opportunities are diminishing, PhD students are paid the standard rate here: c. £45 per hour, while the Graduate Teaching Assistants get 2-year contracts, take a PGC and a salary of about £24,000 per year. 

*OK, he has some honorary degrees but they require slightly less effort. 

Side note - as this is my weekly post, here's what I read this week:
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood. Disorientating, almost prose-poem of a modernist novel about pre-war Paris's queer society. Moments of stunning clarity and insight amongst dense, challenging, flights of fantasy. I'll definitely have to re-read it several times, but it's a short, astonishing text. 

James Bradley, Clade. I wasn't initially sure about this melding of the family saga with a story of eco-destruction, and I still think it threw in too many sub-plots (autistic scion discovers alien communication) but it's well written and the clear-eyed analysis of the way we're denying our way to a sterile, hostile world is utterly convincing. 

Susan Price, The Sterkarm Handshake. Shades of the later Outlander in this, but (despite Ian McEwan's stupid and snobbish comments about the genre), Price uses an SF trope – time travel in this case – to explore corporate colonialist attitudes towards agency and exploitation. It's also funny. 

Anna Burns, Milkman. Another one that's justified quick re-reading: there's a minimal plot and maximal first-person narration and it's wonderful to stand under this shower of thoughts, critiques and feelings and let them soak in. With the misery of Lyra McKee's murder providing space for previously-suppressed voices in the self-policed communities of Northern Ireland, Milkman is so timely. If you want more Northern Ireland/North of Ireland/Six Counties fiction recommendations, ask @DrMagennis, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field). If you get the taste for contemporary Irish experimental fiction, try Eimear McBride next. 

I've also just started Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure, a feminist, Welsh novel in English which shares something with the good McEwan of The Cement Garden-era, with Lloyd Jones's Y Dŵr and yet is highly distinctive: a claustrophobic setting with its own unexplained rules, a fabular tone and multiple (sometimes choric, overlapping) narrative voices. 

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Reading round-up.

Just a quick one about this week's reading.

1. Finished Richard Adams's Maia. Dreadful in almost every way, and for 1000+ pages. I finished it because I paid £1.99 for it. There were a few interesting disquisitions on the economics of slave empires but not enough to justify the other 997 pages of sexist – and ultimately deeply conservative – junk. The kind of book written one-handed, to be crude about it. However, if you're looking for something to read one-handed, this isn't it because Adams hasn't the courage to write straight-up porn. Weirdly, the narrative works hard to build a non-technological world that could be on another planet, or in the near-East at any point between Alexander and the fall of Byzantium, apart from a single reference to the Victorians.

2. Nick Hubble's The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question. Hubble suggests that the Modernist Question is essentially 'Who Am I', particularly in the context of twentieth-century masses:  the Proletarian response, he says, is 'who are we?' and what is the relationship between I and we. High modernist texts, to reduce Hubble's argument appallingly, is to worry about the fuzziness of the I amidst the encroachment of the we, and to retreat into style. The proletarian authors (and he redefines the term interestingly) take modernist techniques and use them to promote new ways of living based on intersubjective experience, i.e. encountering others and being changed by these understandings. He writes about Lewis Grassic Gibbons' complex A Scots Quair series and John Sommerfield's May Day at length, plus a good number of the classics of the proletarian genre, including Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live in passing. The close readings are superb, and not a jot of published critical material has escaped him. I did feel that some authors are missing however: Gwyn Thomas's early work just squeezes into the period in question and is strongly modernist and proletarian, but he seems to have escaped Hubble's otherwise panoramic gaze. There's also a lot of very interesting discussion of Empson's characterisation of proletarian literature as pastoral, in which middle class characters or readers learn about themselves through reading about industrial versions of the rude mechanicals – I wondered whether some consideration of proletarian literature about communities that just didn't have a middle-class perspective available – such as Lewis Jones's and Gwyn Thomas's Rhondda might have been a useful comparison. Anyway, it's a seriously impressive book that shines a new light on the field and unlike many good critical books, there's a paperback at £20.

3. Sarah Maria Griffin's Spare and Found Parts. A very interesting Irish feminist post-apocalypse homage to Frankenstein. There isn't enough attention paid to Irish SF, but perhaps this and Sarah Davis-Goff's forthcoming Last Ones Left Alive will help. I liked Spare and Found Parts a lot. Using Frankenstein as the basis of a teenage Bildungsroman isn't exactly subtle but it really works well. Ruined Dublin is evoked very well: anyone who knows the city will enjoy spotting what the plot does to their favourite bits.

4. Chris Mullin, The Friends of Harry Perkins. Less a novel, more an opportunity to make some fair points about Brexit and the Labour Party by a veteran ex-MP. The plot is perfunctory, the sub-plot (the death of a child) mawkish and lazy and the narrative expository. I read it as part of my politicians' fictions project. It's not the worst, but anyone hoping for a worthy sequel to his A Very British Coup will be disappointed.

I'm off for a few days' holiday ('from what?') I hear you cry. I'm taking the manuscript of a collection of essays on a Welsh author that I'm reviewing for UWP. Apart from that, I'm taking Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, James Bradley's eco-apocalypse Clade and Anna Burns's now-famous Milkman.

Finally, a quick thank-you to author and academic Donna Freitas: I put her teen techno-fear novel Unplugged on a course alongside Dave Eggers' interesting-but-dreadful The Circle and two of my students contacted her to ask some questions. She was generous enough to record a short video of her thoughts, which I thought was above-and-beyond. Restores one's faith in human nature.

Happy Easter to you all.

Hands Up For Wayne Hennessey

'Pob lwc, Wayne'
'Diolch yn fawr iawn…scheisse!'

Why am I mistranslating a famous scene from The Great Escape? In honour of Wayne Hennessey, the Wales and Crystal Palace goalkeeper who was recently found not guilty by the football authorities of deliberately making a Roman salute during a dinner. After initially claiming he was signalling the photographer, he later claimed total ignorance of the gesture's historic symbolism.

Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey in the background of a team photo.

'…stressing from the outset that he was unaware of what a Nazi salute actually was.
“Improbable as that may seem to those of us of an older generation, we do not reject that assertion as untrue,” noted the panel. “In fact, when cross-examined about this, Mr Hennessey displayed a very considerable – one might even say lamentable – degree of ignorance about anything to do with Hitler, fascism and the Nazi regime.
“Regrettable though it may be that anyone should be unaware of so important a part of our own and world history, we do not feel we should therefore find he was not telling the truth about this. All we would say (at the risk of sounding patronising) is that Mr Hennessey would be well advised to familiarise himself with events which continue to have great significance to those who live in a free country'. 
Rather than cynically doubt such a claim, let's applaud Mr Hennessey. Alone of all British people, he has managed to avoid every single history lesson (the curriculum has long been derided for being Tudors'n'Nazis), every single war film, entire TV channels dedicated to Nazi Murder Mysteries, Nazi Collaborators, Nazis: A Warning From History, Nazi Exiles, The Last Nazis, Nazi UFO, Nazi Hunters, Shot Down: Escaping Nazi Territory, Weird Nazi Obsessions (ironic, that one), The Nazi Hunt for Atlantis and Nazi Underpants (I only made up one of these) and much more besides. Perhaps Hennessey has been a member of the first team for so many years that he's never seen a television on a Saturday afternoon, traditionally the spot reserved for The Guns of Navarone or some naval adventure. Clearly he only ever played football in the playground, and never noticed his schoolmates' games, unless of course, growing up in North Wales, the enemy was always the Saes. Though if he wants to read novels about Nazi-occupied Wales, he can choose between Jan Morris's slyly ironic Our First Leader and Owen Sheers's Resistance.

Well done, Wayne. In a culture saturated with the single war Britain was on the right side of, one which fuels the bigotry of armchair generals like Nigel Farage, Mark François, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, he's managed to escape the entire cultural weight of this malignant obsession with a period which only ever gets presented more simplistically as time moves on, particularly with regard to British motivations and achievements. If only we'd all been so lucky.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Put not your trust in princes. Even those who make jam.

I met my reader the other day, and he asked me why, as someone with a full spectrum of facile opinions and a Labour Party card, I haven't joined the fray re: Jeremy Corbyn.*

The answer, of course, is cowardice. Well, cowardice plus a certain degree of exhaustion with the whole tired, tedious argument, plus some socialist history.

On the whole, I like Corbyn's ideological positions: anti-colonialism, international solidarity, Irish reunification, a strong welfare state and the viscera of running-dog capitalists spilling from their suspended corpses a degree of redistribution. The big disagreement I have with him is on Europe: for all its faults, it seems to me that the EU has provided more worker protection, cleaner air and calmer international politics than any British administration ever has or ever will.

I also tend to think that someone seeking power needs to develop an ideological perspective that can adapt to changing contexts, and that is capable of being communicated vibrantly and persuasively in the teeth of a hostile media environment. Spending time outside your echo chamber is also a good idea, something Corbyn and Tony Blair failed to do: Alastair Campbell's diary records an instance in which Blair flatly refused to believe the shockingly low UK average earnings statistics because he personally didn't know anyone earning less than £50,000 ('cognitive dissonance'). People are the products of their environments – neither you nor I nor Corbyn are sufficiently aware of our own shortcomings because we are rarely exposed to alternative perspectives on our ingrained belief systems, mostly because it's emotionally painful to do so. That said, I do think that those seeking power should constantly interrogate their beliefs and seek alternative views more than the rest of us. However seductive rigid faith is, being a True Believer leads to mental inflexibility and an eventual tendency to see disembowelling as the solution to every argument.

Most importantly of all though, my lodestar – as far as I have one – is Lewis Jones, the communist councillor, activist and author who was deported from the USSR (it could have been a lot worse: this was 1936 and plenty of British Communists in Russia were executed) for refusing to join in a standing ovation for Stalin, on the basis that real communists don't have individual heroes, they build progressive mass movements. Jones himself wouldn't survive a day in modern politics: his enthusiastic sex life would feed constant Daily Mail headlines to the exclusion of all his work on behalf of Spain and the unemployed, while his political doubts (which to me make him more admirable) would be seen as weakness. The Communist Party of the time was certainly torn: he inspired thousands of people, but kept going 'off message' when the Party line and the need for discipline conflicted with the empathy that fuelled his activism.

'Put not your faith in princes' (Psalms 146 3-5) is a good maxim: they, like all human beings, have feet of clay and the world is complicated. One of the most pernicious aspects of contemporary society is the lynch-mob mentality that ruthlessly punishes personal flaws, mistakes or even inconsistency. Nobody can be expected to live up to perfection, and idolising a politician, a sports star or a pop singer will only lead to disappointment and anger.

So there are aspects of Corbyn's politics I like and others I don't. As to his personality: I largely don't care either way. Dreadful people (hello, Lyndon Johnson, Eric Gill, Morrissey) have done great things, apparently lovely people have done terrible things (yes, Mother Teresa, I mean you). Sometimes the people with the right ideas have no clear path to enacting them, sometimes people with the wrong ideas have all the skills to put them in place (I'm terrified of Mike Pence: evil and serious). As far as the Labour Party is concerned, I see Corbyn's wing as a group of people who have old – and mostly still relevant – solutions to structural problems but little idea of how to communicate, nor of how to cope with a ridiculous electoral system, and the right of the party as a group of people with some good communications skills but who were left high and dry by the failure of Third Way politics because technocracy isn't a viable political position when the machinery breaks down. It's not 1973 any more, but nor is it 1997. Pragmatism without purpose is managerialism; purpose without pragmatism is the impotence of those sects which have spent decades honing their ideology (with many purges) ready for the revolution without ever once trying to actually, you know, do something.

In the end, I just don't think that socialists should have messiahs, even if they do have the right initials. Socialists believe that structures generate subjects, not vice versa.

Nor do I want to spend my time on social media being abused for being either a fascist CIA agent centrist-dad or an anti-semitic Marxist terrorism-loving traitor, which seem to be the only two positions available in any debate about Mr Corbyn. I don't think it's healthy or constructive to either be or to accuse others of being Corbynites or Corbynistas, particularly as those people insecure enough to insist on rigid definitions must surely end up accusing Corbyn of not being sufficiently Corbynite. At some point, he'll have to change his mind about something (I'm hoping it's EU membership): being able to do so without being called a traitor would be good for him, us and at the moment, this country. Identify a point on the continuum that is socialism as you see it, sure, but don't over-invest in any individual or announce that everyone else is a betrayer. If you can't support or critique someone calmly, you're not doing politics, you're doing religion, and not the nice bits either. And you're outsourcing your moral and ideological responsibilities.

Doxxing to the usual address, please.

*While on the subject, I notice some shock that the Paratroop Regiment used Corbyn's image for target practice. It makes a change from unarmed teenagers and aged Irish priests waving white handkerchiefs, I suppose. But surprise? Only if you haven't been paying attention.

PS. All these arguments about leadership apply to universities as well. My heart sank when someone from the Leadership Foundation for HE enthusiastically said to me 'your VC is a visionary'. Lord, save us from visionaries…

Monday, 1 April 2019

Guess who's back

Apologies for the break in transmission. The beginning of the year included massive amounts of teaching, marking and admin, helping with the very successful city literature festival (highlights: Liz Berry, Elvis McGonagall, Tracy Thorn) plus preparation for a job interview (this never happens) in the EU (which felt like planning a prison break). I didn't get it, but I didn't expect to. In any case, the suspense was somewhat lifted by another distraction - getting hit by a car on my cycle ride to work. Ironically, given my near-incessant moaning about selfish, aggressive and careless drivers, the guy who hit me wasn't any of these things: I came down a slight incline with low sun behind me and he couldn't see me as he pulled out of a junction. An unfortunate accident rather than anything more malicious. I broke my collarbone but my lovely, irreplaceable Moulton bike was largely OK, and my assailant paid for the repairs.

Since then I've been hanging around the house, sporadically reading in between extended bouts of self-pity. My friends have been wonderful - visitors most days, almost always bearing flowers or fine comestibles. I've read a lot of books (and only bought 2!) and largely avoided daytime TV. I won't be fencing or cycling for another 3-6 months but I'm hoping that I'll be able to wield an iron earlier than that. The first two weeks were terrible: shapeless sports gear made from artificial fibres – ugh.

Apart from 4 months doing a night-shift data-entry job with British Gas in 1996, this is the longest I've been out of education since 1980. I didn't miss the admin or the marking, but I did miss my students and colleagues a lot. I'm quite happy in my own company but staring at the same four walls for six weeks is quite long enough.

So here I am: picking up supervisions and union case work again, but otherwise meant to be writing a major grant bid and at long last turning my PhD dissertation into a book. Wish me luck.

(Look: managed to get through a whole blog post without mentioning the B word…).

Books read during my convalescence in no particular order:

Cynan Jones, The Dig: short, occasionally shocking naturalism. Definitely contains scenes of harm to animals.
Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: astonishingly good - KIberd clearly read Imagined Communities and ran with it.
Kate Atkinson, Transcription: cracking good story, decent twist, but not as formally inventive as her work usually is.
Gardner/Carroll, The Annotated Alice: you'll feel like you fell down a rabbit hole but it's very much worth reading as a companion to the raw text.
Adam Thorpe, Still: not sure why I hadn't read this one before. It's seriously long, but totally justified. A Joycean tour of the twentieth-century through a bitter failed film-maker's 60th-birthday monologue.
Bill Newton Dunn, The Devil Knew Not: bad novel, interesting in other ways – Dunn was a Tory MEP who was largely pro-Europe, unlike his son, the political editor of the Sun.
Mike Berners-Lee, How Bad Are Bananas - a decade old, but a useful guide to the carbon footprint of everyday life. Bananas: not very bad. Cheese: terrible. Which is a shame for me because I far prefer the latter.
Pratchett/Baxter, The Long Mars: the best of this collaborative SF series so far.
Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds: I really like Trollope's novels, but this was 800+ pages of mansplaining. A Trollope too far, I fear.
Henderson, Rotten Reviews Redux: an amusing round-up of scathing reviews of books that came to be seen as classics. Dip into it before appraisals and job interviews.
Elvis McGonagall, Viva Loch Lomond: I saw EG at the Literature Festival and laughed long and loud. Funny, political, witty poetry. Best experienced live, but the collection is good.
Michael Marshall Smith, Only Forward: decent SF thriller with a better concept than plot.
Keith Roberts, Anita: the cover design and blurb makes it look like exploitative sexy fantasy. It's actually a 1960s youth echo of Lolly Willowes.
Paul McAuley, Mind's Eye: a decent mix of SF and detective adventure plus a healthily cynical take on British attitudes towards the middle East.
Omar El Akkad, American War: post-invasion Iraq translated to a torn, post-oil US: not a novel idea but well done.
Tiffany Murray, Diamond Star Halo: an interesting tale of first love and fame which can't decide whether it's popular romance or literary fiction, to the detriment of both. Some wonderful characterisation.
Adam Roberts, By The Pricking Of Her Thumbs: an excellent future-detective whodunnit by Roberts set in a Britain largely abandoned for virtual existence, and his first sequel.
Paul McAuley, Into Everywhere: a big, clever space opera with a philosophical core.
Nancy Mitford, Pigeon Pie: short, snappy, witty 1930s roman à clef by one of the Mitford Sisters. A delight.
Nicholas Blake, The Deadly Joker. Possibly the worst novel Blake (C Day Lewis) wrote.
Robert Dickinson, The Tourist: a funny crime thriller set in a seedy and insular early 21st-century Britain visited by tourists on package holidays from the future. Any echoes of Brexit are entirely incidental.
Muriel Spark, Territorial Rights: I thought this was a very damp squib. Short, with some witty observations and witty lampoons of dreadful bourgeois middle-class types, but utterly sexless and occasionally in very poor taste, unredeemed by having much to say.
Paul McAuley, Whole Wide World: a very early attempt to novelise the then-new implications of the Web. Stands up rather well.
Christopher Brookmyre, Pandaemonium. A mash-up of 70s horror, Alan Warner's The Sopranos, Derry Girls and The Exorcist. A glorious romp.
Ken McLeod, The Corporation Wars: Syndicalist Robots (and uploaded racists) in Virtual Space. What's not to like?
Samantha Shannon, The Priory of the Orange Tree: semi-progressive politics, sexually-progressive and feminist, but still 850 pages of high fantasy, with a lot of early-modern Japanese international relations thrown in. Lots of nice touches but needed an editor.
Wodehouse, The World of Blandings: also 800 pages set in a fantasy world, with lots of plot devices familiar from his Jeeves and Wooster stories. Paper thin but beautifully-constructed and written with the lightest of touches. Contains the immortal 'it is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine'.
Richard Adams, Maia: not a rabbit to be seen. Mostly badly-written soft-porn fantasy with occasional serious and interesting discourses on the social and economic effects of privatisation and what came to be known 30 years later as neoliberalism. No, really!

Friday, 18 January 2019

Gary: a cautionary tale of higher education policy funding, or Know Your Place

I have a friend whom we'll call Gary, because that's his name. When I got to know him, he was the university's copyright officer, and a good one. Then he quit to devote his life to music, disillusioned by the higher education sector's craven and incompetent attempts to mimic what it thought was cool in the corporate field.

Gary wasn't always a copyright officer. He left school without much in the way of qualifications and worked in various steel foundries across the Black Country until he pitched up at university (before my time: he became legendary), explained that he was sick of being made redundant, and took a degree in English before fees became a thing, never looking back.

I mention Gary because there won't be many more of him coming along. The government's assessment mechanisms for university quality in fact do little more than measure the relative privilege of their intakes. Gary and most of my students come from an unusually deprived area (unusual now: wait until Brexit really hits) with the associated dreadful outcomes in secondary education and low mobility. Multiple structural causes contribute to poor exam grades and limited opportunities to leave the area, let alone to pick up the soft skills and cultural capital that constitutes the unspoken elements of posh unis' selection procedures. Additionally, the government is planning to restrict student finance so that nobody with less than 3 D's at A-level will qualify. A low bar, you might think, but for someone from a disrupted background, a failing school, or who simply hasn't got it together by the age of 18 (a category I would surely have filled nicely) it's not as easy as you might think. 20% of my university's intake falls short of this minimum: excluding them would consign thousands of students to unemployment or underemployment, deny them social and cultural opportunities taken for granted by luckier people, and most likely close this entire university, having a massive impact on the area in every way.

This policy will save a short-termist government a fair amount of money, but it's a long-term plan for national decline. Every country that has successfully pulled itself out of poverty has done so by educating its people to the highest standard possible. A country which leaves its poorest to rot while reserving the pleasures and private advantages of higher education to the already-advantaged deserves to fail. I don't know what A-levels my colleagues got, but plenty of them came to HE in their own time and all achieved excellent PhDs and have inspired further generations of the people our rulers want to condemn to the ranks of the unskilled, zero-hours exploited that entrench poverty while enabling fat shareholder dividends. If universities are engines for social justice (and mine is) you couldn't think of a better way to end any hope of progression. There won't be any more Garys, that's for sure. What a stupid country.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Break out the green paint?

Well it has been an interesting couple of weeks since last I posted. Christmas came and went (siblings' children, saw friends, ate calorific food, read a PhD thesis and some books) and then came back to work ready to get stuck into marking (ahem).

Over the course of the first couple of days it became apparent that some very senior people in the institution are involuntarily enjoying an extended break… entirely coincidentally, these are the individuals we in the union branch have long found to be hostile, untrustworthy and incompetent. The usual polite fictions have been proffered by the management who appointed and encouraged these people and the rumours are (unhelpfully) flying around. Much has been made of 'leadership' in this place as in the HE sector generally in recent years, and it's time to make sure that blame for redundancies, shortfalls and – if true – malfeasance isn't apportioned solely to individuals but to a managerial culture that tends to allow credit to rise to the top while ensuring blame sinks down the hierarchy or dissipates entirely.

Culture is on my mind because aside from the turmoil, we had a very interesting mass meeting with the VC on the subject of environmental sustainability. It's long been a key concern for me and clearly for a lot of colleagues because the turnout was huge. After drifting badly for years, it looks like the university is planning to take these things seriously. One of the frustrations of my period as a governor was the general lack of interest in the matter: we'd cut our CO2 emissions impressively some years back and apparently decided not to do anything else. Senior management and many governors rolled up in their SUVs and tended to see green issues as a fad not worth pursuing, or as the first luxury to be cut when the finances got tight. However, aside from the random suggestions the VC had on his powerpoint, the key message was 'it's about culture: I'm not going to do anything: you are'. It sounds nice, but actually it feels rather evasive. Cultures, as any neomarxist critic will tell you, depend on structures and power. While it feels warm and cuddly to say that you're empowering everyone by developing a culture of sustainability for which we'll all be responsible, only a very small number of people actually have the ear of management and even fewer have the authority to authorise payments and sign contracts. If everybody is responsible, I can't help thinking, then nobody is accountable.

There's little point being generally in favour of environmentally sustainable if your first concern is short-term savings or quick wins. There's always the danger that the Finance Director whispers in your ear that money's tight, or that your International Director really does need to take that business-class flight to Australia.

Management wants to introduce charges for parking, and there's a suspicion aboard that all this sustainability talk is greenwash designed to conceal a straightforward revenue-raising plan, and it's hard to not accept that. I think I'm going to be quite unpopular amongst even my union colleagues (more unpopular, should I say) because I'm in favour of reducing the car-parking space available. It's not just the waste of land involved, it's the anti-social nature of drawing in huge numbers of vehicles into one of the most congested and polluted area of the country. If we expand parking spaces, research shows that more car journeys are taken; if we reduce them, we run the risk of dispersing cars around the local community unless we find a way to persuade people out of their cars. I'd like to see us support the reopening of the railway line between two of our campuses so that we can retire the inter-campus shuttles; seriously invest in cycling facilities (currently consisting of a random scattering of frames hidden in dark corners); reduce parking spaces; subsidise public transport season tickets and return to the idea I proposed a while ago of designing a ride-sharing app for students, 90% of whom come from a 25 mile radius.

There's an awful lot we can do, but as a group we'll have to be persuaded that this is meaningful rather than greenwash, and that takes more than slogans about cultural change. But it's a start.

Aside from this, what else have I been consuming. Well, my GTAs gave me Michael Cox's neoVictorian posh thriller novel The Meaning of Night for Christmas and I found that I couldn't get going on the PhD thesis until I'd read it - it's a big book that you can really wallow enjoyably in. I also read Lucy Boston's children's classic The Children of Green Knowe in one sitting: if you like John Masefield, Susan Cooper and CS Lewis, this series is for you. It was recommended to me by a colleague and I wish I'd come across it as a child. I've also inhaled the second of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City - I accidentally read the third one out of sequence during the summer, but it didn't make much difference. They're compulsively readable, though Maupin's attempt to make them more like standalone novels rather than serial/picaresque texts means that while the social comedy and tragedy of gay life in San Francisco elements work beautifully, the plots he imposes are pretty dreadful. This one involved Episcopalian cannibals; the next one introduces a Jim Jones subplot. That's the end of the reading for fun for a while though: I've got a massive pile of marking and two brand new modules to teach starting in a week, so it's back to re-reading course texts and writing lots of lectures. Not much new music since before Christmas, other than Euros Childs's latest eccentric work of genius, Olion (download it for free here or preferably give him some cash) and Sharon Van Etten's Are We There, both of which are repaying multiple listens.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Vole's Occasionally Festive nearly Fifty

Well here I am in the office alone, because the student who asked for a tutorial has stood me up, and all of my colleagues are curled up in their nests or out digging up acorns.

It's been an odd week. On Tuesday I had to represent someone at a disciplinary hearing, which turned into a version of one of the cheaper courtroom dramas on ITV3. Within 5 minutes of walking in I found myself reading out sections of the procedure to the chair and the HR lackey, neither of whom had apparently familiarised themselves with their own regulations. Two minutes after that I was heard to say 'don't answer that' and we walked out in the most corduroy version of a mic drop ever seen. Yesterday was a slightly happier encounter: finishing the year by examining a Creative Writing PhD thesis. These consist of a lengthy original work, a critical section on the literary context and a theorised self-evaluation. While we gave the candidate a good grilling over his theoretical contextualisation, the external and I were deeply moved by the novella, a polyphonic, destabilised retelling told entirely in Black Country dialect of the locally infamous and unexplained murder of 'Bella', an anonymous woman whose skeleton was found stuffed into a wych-elm in 1943. The cliché of PhD vivas is that they should be enjoyable conversations between the only three or four people who'll ever read your work with such close attention, but I genuinely think that was the case yesterday. The external examiner was Luke Kennard, a really talented poet and novelist in his own right, and it was a privilege to listen to two authors discuss the creative process with a keen critical eye. My contribution was largely centred on punctuation, but every little helps.

So rather than tackle any of the mountains of work I still have to do, I thought I'd look back on the various records I've bought and in most cases enjoyed this year. Despite my young GTA dividing my musical tastes into 'boring background music' (the classical stuff) and 'not as good as Ariana Grande' (inc. Kate Bush, Portishead and Massive Attack) I think it's been quite a good year. So in reverse order of purchase:

1. Suede, The Blue Hour. I bought this on vinyl, so marks are knocked off for not providing a download version for mobile/office listening. It's beautiful, and reflective: Suede have aged gracefully and thoughtfully, rather than trying to reclaim their youth.
2. Audiobooks, Now (In a Minute): I've always loved David Wrench's work, from Nid Madagascar to the bilingual (Welsh) folk-goth of Blow Winds Blow to the horny pop of The Atomic World of Tomorrow and all the collaborations he's been involved in.

Audiobooks is the result of his move to London and a chance meeting with a young art student called Evangeline Ling. It's another late flowering - having made a career mostly from producing other people's records, Wrench records albums at odd intervals seemingly for fun rather than profit, but this one really deserves to be a hit. It's funny - as the Welsh in-joke of the title promises - but it's also catchy and funky dance music.
3. Per Norgard, Symphonies 3 and 7. I'd missed Norgard's existence until this year, when a review in the Guardian mentioned the 3rd symphony as a good choral piece. They were right - it's contemporary classical that uses interesting rhythmic patterns to produce something that's uncanny without being unbearably abstract.
4. Julian Anderson, Book of Hours - Choral Music: some of this is beautiful without being memorable, but I really fell for the 'Four American Choruses', which push choral music beyond the familiar sounds and structures you get on Classic FM or daytime Radio 3.

5. Andrew Kirkman and the Binchois Consort, The Lily and the Rose. I much prefer medieval music to the Baroque and Classical period - early music can be a bit rougher and earthier, until it was captured by the church and princes and prettified. This CD is mostly of religious music, but it's full of life, and doesn't sound like the aural equivalent of the Sealed Knot society.
6. Philip Glass, Hydrogen Jukebox. I'm still not entirely convinced that minimalist/post-minimalist opera can or should be a thing, but 'Wichita Vortex Sutra' has never been far from my turntable, so I bought this patchy but intriguing opera to hear what happens when Ginsberg and Glass get together. It's still growing on me, but I am starting to love it. I played 'Wichita…' to my students this year. I can't say they were immediately converted to Beat poetry and minimalism but neither did they race for the exit.

7. The Breath, Let The Cards Fall. Not as rough as the folk I really love (think Unthanks) but this is a superb example of modern Anglo-Irish sort-of folk music with not a hint of nostalgia.
8. Chris Isaak, 'Wicked Game'. It was stuck in my head and I've never owned a copy. It's good!
9. Tori Amos, Boys for Pele. I'm literally two decades late, as this is the 20th Anniversary re-release. I'd only heard the club remix of 'Professional Widow', so not bothered with her stuff. Turns out she's like Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Joanna Newsome and PJ Harvey, i.e a musical polymath, a poetic turn of phrase and a singular vision. A bit of a revelation to me.
10. The Master Musicians of Dyffryn Moor, Cerddoriaeth Ddefodol Gogledd Sir Benfro (Ritual Music of North Pembrokeshire). Tipped off by a friend who heard Huw Stephens play some of this on 6Music, I bought it, attracted by its witty song titles, to discover that it's an album of beautiful twisted folk-pop instrumentals. Even more pleasing was the discovery that one of the musicians is Owen Martell, the brilliant Welsh-language novelist, critic and translator I invited to the university a year or two ago.

11. Alison Statton and Spike, Bimini Twist. Statton was the singer in Young Marble Giants, who recorded one amazing album in the 80s then split up: this is a lovely though inessential record.
12. Pulp, It, Separations and Freaks. I'd forgotten how much I loved pre-fame Pulp until I bought electronic copies of these albums to horrify my office colleagues. 'My Legendary Girlfriend' and 'This House is Condemned' will astonish you.

13. The Nightingales, Perish the Thought. Disclosure: I'm friends with most of the band and quite a few of their ex-members too. That aside, they get better and better. This one's a compulsive rush of social commentary over the top of their most grumpily catchy tunes ever.
14. Norma Waterson and Liza Carthy, Anchor: the best folk musicians of their generations get together and wipe the floor with everyone.
15. Susanna, Go Dig My Grave: Scandinavian, hushed goth-ish chamber pop. Like being told a particularly good ghost story during a power cut - and it's a covers album of very unexpected songs.
16. Dubh Chapter, Silence, Cunning and Exile. For years I've had a solitary battered 7" of their single 'Happy is the Bride'. On a whim I got hold of the LP and it's lovely - pre-Britpop goth-tinged guitar pop. They should have made it big.
17. Low, Double Negative. A Mormon married couple plus a bassist who turn out albums featuring close-harmony rock about spiritual torment every couple of years: what's not to love? Seriously, I've loved Low since the mid-90s and while they build on their sound every time in surprising ways, they just get better and better. See them whenever you get a chance: they're mesmeric live. Another album of the year.
18. Daniel Bachman, The Morning Star. Not sure how to categorise this, but it's got guitars and folk tunings and found sounds. Like a particularly unstructured dream. Wonderful.
19. Chvrches, Love is Dead. I thought I was hip when I bought their last album, but the kids laughed at me. This follow-up is less immediate but it's cool and compulsive Scottish synth-pop.
20. Gruff Rhys, Babelsberg. Like Euros Childs's records, I'll get everything Rhys does. Not everything is a success, but all his records are interesting. I'm filing this one under fascinating: orchestral pop with a scathing view of contemporary America.
21. Stuart Staples, Arrhythmia. Staples is the lead singer of another of my enduring favourites, Tindersticks. This is a more personal record, but it hasn't made such an impression on me yet.
22. Mazzy Star, Still. An unexpected comeback in EP form. I expected hushed beauty and ethereality. I got it.
23. Joan as Police Woman, Damned Devotion. I always think of her and Regina Spektor as working in similar ways: classically-influenced, mistresses of the distorted torch song, should be more well-known.
24. The Nightingales with Vic Godard, 'Commercial Suicide Man'. A fun one-off collaboration.
25. Adwaith, 'Femme' (hilariously sarcastic attack on how teenage girls are kept down), 'Pwysau', 'Fel i Fod', 'Haul' - four singles from the future of Welsh-language indie.
26. Steve Reich, Pulse/Quartet. I'm trying to collect everything Reich has written. Pulse is new, and actually doesn't add much to his canon, but the Colin Currie Group do a great job.
27. Cavern of Anti-Matter, Hormone Lemonade: post-Stereolab warm electro dance genius. I may be alone on this one.
28. Joni Mitchell, For The Roses and Song to a Seagull: obviously everything JM did before about 1983 is amazing. I already knew this because I have these on vinyl, but I wanted download versions for those times when I'm dragged away from my record player. 
29. Kate Whitley, I Am, I Say. I bought this because I love viola concertos. Very glad I did: clearly a rising star in the classical world.
30. Paul Giger, Ignis - another contemporary-ish classical composer bought on the strength of 'Organum' popping up on Radio 3. Immersive.
31. Winchester College Quiristers, Three Wings. This is great: Perry is a contemporary composer who took a load of 14th-century plainchant and added washes of electronica. It could have been Enigma. It isn't.
32. Yo La Tengo, There's a Riot Going On. Only a polite one though. I love YLT very much: slacker harmonies and the occasional wig-out. This time with pop hooks! Saw them live in the spring and had a great time.
33. Breeders, All Nerve. Yes they're still going, and yes they're still providing good time guitar pop.
34. Various, Trans Limen ad Lumen. Lovely choral album, mostly bought for Giger's Tenebrae.
35. Levellers, Levellers and Levelling the Land. Saw them live once. Hated them. Listened to them as an undergrad: loved them. Didn't pay them any attention for another 20 years (or so) until I started teaching texts loosely based around the 1988 Summer of Love and the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield and decided the kids should hear the soundtrack to the last time their predecessors really freaked out the grownups. How I wish those days would return. With fewer didgeridoos this time.
36. Pauline Oliveros, The Roots of the Moment. I've been looking for the overlooked women in the minimalist/post-minimalist movement. Oliveros represents the best of 60s idealism, and her music is a magical blend of minimalism, drone and harmonica. Absolutely hypnotic.

37. John Adams, The Gospel According to the Other Mary. See previous comments about minimalist opera. Must keep trying with this one.
38. Grace Williams, Sea Sketches and Symphony No. 2: overlooked mid 20th-century Welsh composer. Lovely, but a bit conservative compared with what was going on in France and elsewhere. Just as good as her male British contemporaries. 2nd Symphony is really, really good though.
39. Simon Holt, A Table of Noises. Does what it says on the tin: quietly challenging contemporary classical percussion. A real discovery for me.
40. Powerplant, Electric Counterpoint and other pieces. Powerplant is Joby Burgess, a guy who does electronically-enhanced percussion music, sometimes on instruments he's invented: this CD includes some Steve Reich, Kraftwerk and other pieces. We saw him live at the start of the year and loved the way he made their music do something else entirely. He also did a live tape-looping piece using members of the audience that was thrilling to be part of (not that he asked me to contribute). Bah.

I've listened to a lot more music than this: these are just this year's purchases. Taken together, they show me how my tastes and interests are changing. A bit less folk than previous years, but more interesting ones. A lot more female artists and composers - partly because I've been deliberately seeking them out. Virtually all British, European or American, which isn't good. Also, almost completely white, which reflects badly on me, my ingrained cultural preferences and my sources of new music but also on the industry, particularly the classical world. I'm not going to list all the music by black people I own because it's the equivalent of 'Some of my best friends…' but I am struck by quite how exclusive this year's purchases have been. Something to think about next year, definitely.

Happy Christmas.