Friday, 18 October 2019

Sounds simple…

I seem to have been thinking about race and empire a lot recently, thanks to the way my teaching and reading have worked out. Earlier in the week I taught Treasure Island alongside an esteemed colleague, and later today it's James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.

Treasure Island is a curious beast - a tale of shenanigans and greed on the high seas, yet featuring not a single native: the Island is uninhabited. What you get instead is the story of white men's degradation: they're all British (or are they?: King George and Christianity are repeatedly invoked anyway) and their moral failings are bred at home – the story starts and finishes in England. The Squire talks too much, Dr Livesey is a bit judgmental, the Captain isn't decisive enough, Jim Hawkins is impulsive, Silver is an opportunist, Israel Hands is a murderer and O'Brien is 'a rank Irelander'. Blind Pew is simply an errand-boy for evil. The absence of any natives distinguishes TI from Robinson Crusoe and many of the other desert island stories, but I think it also critiques the Imperial narrative. These are not the brightest and best muscular Christians out to 'civilise' the globe: they're greedy adventurers out for ill-gotten gain, including our hero: one side is more willing to use violence than the other, but there's not a lot between them. As an advert for the British mission to the world, it's not great.

However, I do wonder whether there's a national hierarchy at play too. The Squire – representative of the decayed aristocracy so neatly skewered by Matthew Arnold as Barbarians – is Cornish. The doctor is (like McCoy of the Enterprise) probably Scottish, Silver and Israel Hands might be Jewish, O'Brien is, as Silver points out, foul because he is Irish, while Pew is surely an anglicisation of ap Huw> Puw and therefore Welsh. Treasure Island therefore can be read as an attack on the post-hoc myths of Empire, or a reinforcement of the need for English leadership of the nations of these islands: without Jim's pluck and good sense, the lesser types feckless, lazy, sneakiness will bring about ruin and decay.

Stay tuned for my similar lecture on Anne of Green Gables as Celtic Disciplinary Narrative, later in the same module. Seriously: fiery over-emotional red-head learns to behave under the tutelage of sombre Presbyterian folk, while softening their harder edges? She's Irish. Oh, and the French farm-worker is always referred to as a boy. Anglo-supremacism all the way. Before that though, I get to look at this all over again in next week's class on The Just-So Stories, Kipling's proto-Forsterian children's stories.

This afternoon's class is on The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's short letter and essay on the state of African-American conditions - it's angry, elegiac, passionate, uncompromising and clear-headed. Baldwin assesses the multiple routes to liberation: Christianity, Islam, integration into white cultural values, violent revolution and more, and concludes that militant resistance may be necessary as long it comes from a position of love: 'It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate'. I'm really hoping the students take to it.

Funnily enough, the SF novel I'm just coming to the end of is also partly about slavery, oppression and the spiritual damage wreaked on slaves, owners and their descendants: Paul McAuley's In The Mouth of the Whale has all the furniture of space opera - huge distances, generation ships, posthumans, simulated universes and AI, but comes down to an examination of the distorted societies and mentalities spawned by brutal oppression. Intriguingly, it's partly set in provincial south America, just like Macdonald's Brasyl: magical realism and some SF have a lot in common.

It's not all been grim musing on the evils we do each other: I've also been to a regional fencing committee meeting, done some actual fencing, and went to a concert last night called The Thrill of the New - the Schoenberg Five Pieces was as recent as 1909! Since the CBSO had its funding slashed its programmes have been extremely conservative, so I go along to anything that's even vaguely contemporary. I liked the Schoenberg, but the programme as a whole felt rather conservative: nothing electric or electronic, and nothing truly abstract or atonal. John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine is always a pleasure to hear, but it's not exactly a challenge. Widmann's Con Brio (not as good as his 180 beats per minute) and Kats-Chernin's Big Rhap were fun but resembled film scores, while Daniel Kidane's Woke paid tribute to Copland, Adams and Reich attractively but I couldn't detect much consonance between the subject matter and the music.

I liked the extract from Ades's Powder Her Face but couldn't see anything in Higdon's String Lake beyond pretty textures. The real missed opportunity was Steve Reich's Clapping Music. 

The audience got to clap the non-changing line while the musicians clapped the changing one. It was a great insight into the challenges of such a technical piece, but a crowd of 600 obviously can't keep up and the whole thing dissolved into mush. That would have been fine if the musicians had then performed the piece themselves – it's only 3 minutes long – but that didn't happen: we just moved on. What filled the time instead was a series of mini-lectures with Powerpoint slides on each piece.

As 'new' goes, this was disappointing: virtually all tonal pieces with nothing to scare the horses, scaffolded by a presentation (complete with lame gags) to make sure that the implied audience of nervous conservatives weren't put off by the occasional dissonance or odd time signature. It didn't imply much faith in the Great British Public's appetite for innovation, nor much confidence in contemporary music to have much to say to them. The playing was of course beautiful, because it's the CBSO, but it still strikes me as very odd that 'the new' can encompass a piece written 110 years ago. I find it hard to believe that Mozart and Beethoven's potential audiences were as nervous, or that they refused to listen to anything written within living memory. If this was pop, it would be the equivalent of crowds demanding that Ariana Grande only sing music hall numbers.

What would I put on? Well, I'm not sure my tastes are particularly interesting, up-to-date or adventurous, but I'd certainly include some Reich, but also some Meredith Monk, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Kate Whitley, Saariaho and Pauline Oliveros.

Don't have nightmares…

Friday, 11 October 2019

Peter Rabbit to the Frankfurt School

In haste today, as I'm teaching all afternoon (the Frankfurt School applied to Black Panther); got the Open Day talk (shout-out to the External Relations team for sending all staff last year's arrangements) to overhaul for tomorrow (BS Johnson v Jilly Cooper head to head) and an introduction to write for tomorrow's Birmingham Literature Festival gig - I'm chairing a discussion about new canons, connected to the BBC 100 Novels That Shaped Our World project – something that should produce at least a year's worth of arguments rich insights into the reading public's relationship to the novel after what's been a fairly complicated century or so's literary and cultural development.

I can't decide whether this week has been ridiculously busy or pretty ordinary: I've done a lot, but much of it was familiar and predictable (other than playing Where And When Have They Moved Today's Class Without Telling Anyone? a few times). Can it only be 4 days ago that I was ranting about Thoreau, Emerson, the Over-Soul and Whitman? Have I successfully promoted Team Potter (Beatrix) and persuaded the kids that Thomas is the servile jester for an oppressive, reactionary society that's coming back? If not, this is all you need:

I've been fencing, which was fun except that my friends active on the European circuit have had to adopt a new interpretation of what constitutes an attack which basically means I'm never allowed to score again. At least, that's my explanation. But at least my injured arm hasn't dropped off. I've also managed to read a couple of books. The first one was Ken MacLeod's Intrusion, which showcases the libertarian aspects of his left-libertarianism, and was clearly written in the aftermath of New Labour's authoritarian outrages. The plot is easy: a pregnant woman declines to take the miracle pill that tidies up her embryo's DNA while refusing to employ any of the theological get-out clauses. There's some really subtle exploration of Scottish islanders' Free Presbyterian values and the surveillance state stuff works well, but the Wellsian glimpses of a de-evolved future, while well done of themselves, detract from the moral force of the central ethical dilemma. I'm a fan of MacLeod's work, and the role SF has in pulling apart hegemonic claims, but this one just felt a tiny bit disjointed compared with his others. I also read Catherine O'Flynn's first children's novel, Lori and Max: short, snappy, very moving and a compelling narrative voice - Emil and the Detectives meets Tracy Beaker. It's published by a small Welsh independent press, Firefly Press - give them your money. Then I consumed bite-size chunks of the Daily Telegraph's collection of obituaries: Vol 4 - Rogues. To the Telegraph, anyone who voted Labour or disliked golf was a rogue, but it's like a potted guide to the mad, the bad and the unmannerly. Anton LaVey of the Church of Satan rubs shoulders with the Reverend Peter Gamble, whose paedophilia is excused in passing with the phrase "the physical element was limited"; the rest of the book consists of eccentrics, charlatans, dissipated aristocrats, con-men and foreigners (all rogues by fault of not being Englishmen). Hugely enjoyable. And now I'm half-way through The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman's latest in the Lyra Bellacqua series. He's pulled off the trick of moving his story-world from children's literature into adult fiction rather well, though I'm not entirely comfortable with the passing references to Lyra's body and sexuality - perhaps because an old man writing about a 20 year old's body feels a bit Philip Roth, perhaps because the character is somewhat fixed in my imagination as a teenager and therefore someone whose sexuality is none of our business. Serial fiction is tricky…

Apart from that, I think it works well - Pullman is still annoyed with anyone who'd make a convict of the soul and the imagination, and he seems pretty pissed off at Richard Dawkins and his Gradgrindian crew for their humourless rejection of metaphor and the numinous.

See you on the other side.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Beware of the Leopard

Another Friday rolls by and I feel both aged and exhilarated. Aged by the relentless series of organisational failures that have enraged students and thus their academic supporters, and exhilarated because you never feel more alive than when you're trying to guess where Timetabling have hidden your class today, whether it clashes with other compulsory classes and whether there will be enough tables and chairs (answers: in the cellar with no light and broken stairs, in a disused lavatory behind a door marked 'beware of the leopard'; yes it does, and no there aren't). How we've managed shrinking student numbers with inadequate rooms is a question for the Metaphysics department, if we still have one.

Well, we'll see who rusts first.

The actual teaching has been a delight: introductory lectures for American Literatures (room for 30 people, 39 students present); Children's Literature (room changed without notification), learning labs (campus, building, room and time changed within two hours of class starting, no notification) and later today (I assume), Populist Texts where we're taking a Cultural Studies approach to Black Panther because it's interesting and we're what the kids call 'woke', though I confess the grammatical horror makes me blanch. Which is ironic when we're talking about blackness.

The other delight of the week was the two-day marathon that is writing Academic Enhancement Plans: an 18 page document that involves navigating the world's worst database to cut and paste statistics into a Word document so that we can then add a short commentary and RAG rate them (i.e. use traffic light colours to denote bliss, indifference and horror), then send said statistics back to the people who already had them, and who show little actual interest in any of the prose-form things we say to them except when someone snitches to senior management about what I write here.*

Why we lack a system that can send the relevant person the relevant figures, already RAG rated so that we can do the important bit of saying how we'll fix the bad bits is clearly a question for my superiors but I will note that I missed two days of writing lectures and research (sorry, 'generating outputs') for which failure my colleagues and I will no doubt be roundly criticised by some other aspect of the Terror. Added to the general sense of pointlessness is the unavoidable fact that with recruitment at rock bottom, all the stats for my course are statistically insignificant.

That said, the major issue for my courses is BME attainment and turning from general awareness to cold hard facts is salutary: worse progression through the years and a lower chance of achieving a First or a 2.1. The reasons, of course, are complex and the classes are so small that individual situations make a huge difference to how they're doing, but the plain fact is that these students have been failed at school level, are more likely to be economically deprived, and we're failing to make up for this at university. My course is culturally open - analysis of texts and theoretical approaches reveals that we teach more books/poems/plays by and about people from ethnic minorities than pretty much anywhere else, and we've always highlighted postcolonial theory and related ideas even when we're looking at texts generated by the hegemony (I dream of offering a modules called The Brits Are At It Again which could cover pretty much every subject), but it's not the complete answer. I keep thinking about offering a discrete module on BME Literature and Theory (we have one called Women's Writing), which has some attractions in that it would highlight some amazing work, but I fear that unless it was compulsory, it would attract BME students while most others would avoid it. Also, the staff is all-white and while it's horrendous to think only BME students and staff could study or teach this material, white authority explaining black cultures is not a good look.

We offer enormous amounts of academic support, but I'm damned if I'll put on classes specifically for BME students as if they were a problem, which is how the Office for Students metric obsession wants us to think. Some years ago when I was a governor someone proposed monitoring black students' usage of the library so that we could contact them to encourage them to do more. Imagine the headlines if that got out: 'University Stalks Black Students'.

No doubt there are sensible and progressive ways to close the gap, and universities should be at the forefront of correcting social injustices, but it's a tricky one. Luckily we do have experts on hand, and a lot of bell hooks' work in the library so we'll get there. At least, I sometimes tell myself, we haven't avoided the issue entirely by simply not admitting more than the occasional token BME student, as certain other institutions seem to do. In my deepest fantasies, I get a reply from the head of learning and teaching to whom I appealed for help with this, back in the halcyon hours of March 6th 2018.

In other news, I've managed to read a couple of books in between the form-filling and the fever dreams of form-filling. I read Margaret Atwood's The Testaments in two sittings. The cover design is rather lovely, but more significantly, the green Handmaid seems like a deliberate assertion of difference from the TV series' now iconic design, as though Atwood is determined that the reader understand from the start that they're separate cultural projects. I have to say that I didn't find the sequel as richly rewarding as The Handmaid's Tale though most of the writing is as stylish as ever. For a realist novel, the resolution felt rather wishful: without wishing to give away spoilers, I'm not sure that media exposure of a regime's evils is enough now we're in an era where our rulers label everything inconvenient 'fake news', while generating actual fake news seemingly with every breath. What did convince me, at least in my current despondent frame of mind, is Atwood's refusal to imagine a popular uprising for justice and equality. Little sign of that happening anywhere. What I liked most was the return of Professor Peixoto and the other historians at the conference. It's the oft-overlooked framework to the central narrative in the original text, and one which locates Gilead's origins in forms of male arrogance and superiority that pop up everywhere. The professor's exegesis of Offred's and Lydia's testimonies are colonial and confident: he makes little jokes and establishes a gap between what women write (personal, unstable, untrustworthy, limited) and what men write (history, fact, judgement). In the end though, I think The Testaments is a bit too comforting, a bit too keen to help us believe that justice will be done in the end. I don't believe in the inevitability of progress, in divine purpose, or in the Marxist march of history. Things happen for reasons but there's no linear movement towards the right answers.

I have also acquired a second-hand Kindle to play with. I'm deeply conflicted about this because other than loading it with PDFs, it means I'm tied to Amazon to some extent. However, my house is literally stuffed with thousands of books and I'm struggling to carry enough volumes when I go on holiday, so I decided to try an e-reader for books I know I'll only ever read once, and for travelling. The physical experience is OK, but I am detecting a weird change in the way I read. Everything on the screen seems less substantial in a way, and I find myself more aware of a pressure to read more quickly rather than carefully. I don't quite understand why yet, but it's definitely real. It feels more like consuming something than engaging with it as I do with paper books. Perhaps it's the thrill of the new, perhaps something else. For the record, I read Katherine Arden's interesting Russian folk story-influenced bildungsroman The Bear and the Nightingale (enjoyable and evocative but could have done with a little more editing), Catherine O'Flynn's Lori and Max (her first children's novel, and one which worked really, really well) and Becky Chambers' The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet which I mentioned previously.

It's not the only device that's been on my mind this week: I somehow lost my mobile phone at work which is obviously an enormously expensive and bureaucratically tedious mistake to make, but one which made me realise quite how dependent I am on it psychologically. Losing access to email away from the office, instant news from a variety of sources and the power to comment instantaneously was both stressful to an embarrassing degree, but also liberating to some extent. I may have mentioned that I don't have an internet connection at home, partly through lethargy but partly because I know myself well enough to predict that I'd never be able to switch off either from work or idle, aimless browsing. Having a smartphone meant I could access the good and the bad whenever I wanted, without the temptation of spending my life staring at a large screen promising all human life all the time, inviting me to point out everyone else's mistakes too. Or as Randall Munroe puts it:

And now I must away to write the two lectures for Monday that I should have written if I hadn't spent  two whole days wrestling with stats that your average Raspberry Pi could have provided before it was even switched on. Enjoy your weekend.

* Hi Snitchy!

Friday, 27 September 2019

Freshers' Week Placeholder Post

It has been - even by Induction Week standards - a humdinger. We have students, though an amputee could count them on her finger. They are interesting, lively, funny, eccentric, nervous, sharp, wary and – as in every single year – fans of The Shawshank Redemption and the music of Queen. We glean this information from our initial ice-breaker session, during which we ask them which cultural artefacts they'd present to invading alien overlords to protect us from galactic cancellation. Apart from these two appalling, evergreen choices, they picked the novel, film and soundtrack of The Perks of Being A Wallflower (which I now own, thanks to my GTA, appalled that I've never seen it), Bladerunner, 'Moonlight Sonata', the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings. This year nobody picked Shakespeare, the Brontës or any other 'Classics': they clearly had the confidence not to recycle ideas of what's good for them derived from school curricula. I do my best to ruin this by mentioning Queen's decision to play in apartheid South Africa, but it never works. Between bouts of dyspeptic sarcasm, we use the list to embark on a Cultural Studies-influenced discussions of canonisation, cultural taste, power, hierarchies, the mirage of 'universal' art and gatekeepers. It's always really interesting and gets people talking.

Away from the classroom it's been even more farcical than usual. Our 2-year (!!!) process for altering courses and modules failed spectacularly and the electronic timetable resembles a game of Russian roulette played with those clown guns that put out a flag with a slightly flatulent note. Every time I persuade them to give me a lecture room fire regulations say is big enough for the class, they punish me by removing one of the seminar rooms, then change them all without telling me or the students. We've also specialised in holding orientation events without actually informing those meant to be oriented. Josef K may not have known the specific charges, nor the room number of time of his arraignment, but at least he was told where the court met. The usual horrors of modern academia haven't slowed down either – yesterday I received a parcel of 150 non-urgent letters to sign and return within 24 hours, in Induction Week, have a week to produce our Academic Enhancement Plans, because obviously my colleagues and I have nothing on in the first week or two of the new academic year (how I'm going to memorise the new acronyms is the least of the challenges). Colleagues have joined and left us within 2 weeks, and the near future is an endless vista of redundancy farewells.

Still, there are compensations. I'm teaching Children's Lit, American Lit, Populist Texts and academic skills this semester: far from my research but all interesting and giving me ways back to things I enjoyed as an undergrad. I'm currently knee-deep in Paul Dunbar, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay for American Lit. I've always wanted to teach Dickinson in particular and now I've got to decide what the hell to say about her work beyond 'wow'. A day later I'm doing Tank Engine Thomas Again, so you know, have opinions, will travel…

Reading and leisure have fallen by the wayside a little in the manic run-up to teaching starting, but I've managed a few things. I refereed a fencing competition very badly; went fencing myself for the first time since my collarbone was broken and only embarrassed myself as much as usual, and read a couple of books. They included the second and third of Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy, which I enjoyed a lot - they use an SF trope to take a sociological look at the power of narrative and story to define a society. Highly recommended. Ian McDonald's Brasyl was also thrilling - set in three times (18th C, 2006 and 2033) in Brazil, the novel mashes colonial history, religion and quantum physics up very satisfyingly indeed, though there is a touch of the 'breasted boobily to the stairs' man-writes-female-characters in there. I'm also on the last few pages of Sydney Owen's 1805 novel The Wild Irish Girl, an epistolary novel in the high romantic style which appeals to the English to treat the Irish as actual human beings with culture and feelings and is a very early example of the kind of nation-building exercise Benedict Anderson identifies in Imagined Communities. The dialogue is astonishingly highly-flown, the plot is thin: (dissolute young man is exiled to his father's Irish estate, falls in love with Glorvina the Irish princess, meets some Catholics without descending straight to hell, achieves spiritual and sexual synthesis between the two nations on an equal basis. All concerned are fluent in French, Latin, Italian and Irish poetry, there are in-story footnotes that last for pages and I'm enjoying it hugely. Perhaps the Brexit negotiators should get a copy each.

Time to go - a retirement party to attend and then a PhD to read. Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Vroom vroom

Good morning. It's late September and the temperature here is 22 Celsius. That's not right. Today is also the date of the short Climate Strike, which I will be joining even though I'm cynical about the whole thing.

I'm 44, with no children, no car and I fly only in unavoidable situations (certainly no more than once every few years and never for leisure). I cycle most places and get the train everywhere else, so my carbon footprint isn't as high as the average porky white European – but it's still enormous compared with the vast mass of humanity which is brown, poor, non-European and dying right now thanks to people like me demanding more stuff right now. I used to console myself that I'd be dead before things got really bad - all the new research suggests that that's a forlorn hope as well as a selfish one.

I work in a university which installed a CHP plant on one campus some time ago then seemed to give up - not one of our new buildings has the highest BREEAM rating, not even the brand new School of Architecture and the Built Environment. Not a ground-source heat pump or solar panel to be seen, though we are in bed with two particularly damaging car makers. But still, the VC asked for volunteers for a committee to think about these things (it's never met) and encouraged us to re-use the cardboard sleeves on our non-recyclable coffee cups. Bicycle parking spaces have been reduced, there's no covered or secure storage, and no changing facilities. I should say that I'm at odds with a lot of my trades union comrades too - the lack of and potential loss of parking spaces is a huge issue here, because it's hard to think of a society that isn't designed around individual metal boxes transporting individuals long distances.

That's why I'm cynical about work-approved strikes: it lets employers look benevolent and woke while doing absolutely nothing - the appropriation and enfeebling of youthful energy that should be applied much more uncompromisingly. Well over 90% of my students commute from within 30km of the university: my suggestion of a ride-sharing app went nowhere. There are train lines between our campuses, but there's no sign we'll negotiate free or cheap travel and lay on an electric bus for the last mile; the VC and his team have a shiny Jaguar limo and driver which runs on liquefied animals. Business travel is still seen as a perk rather than a shame. When I was on the Board of Governors, several people turned up late to one meeting, all citing traffic. I asked if they'd driven, and they seemed a bit insulted by my observation that they too constituted the aforesaid traffic.

My cycle to work takes about 20 minutes, along flat, smooth roads, past a private school, an FE college, a primary school and a state grammar school. This morning I counted SUVs instead of swearing at them: 90 off-road vehicles, all pumping out poison for the purpose of making parents feel protective and/or powerful. I'd like my employer, schools and other employers to start banning particularly poisonous vehicles from their grounds - we need to start treating these things like weapons. There's a place for 4x4s: on farms, just as knives belong in kitchens rather than on the streets. More whimsically, I'd promote visible shame by adding coloured, foul-smelling dye to exhaust systems so that we can all see just what each vehicle is doing to us all. Even better, we could do this and route the exhaust through the passenger cabin before it makes its way outside. A few years ago I read Keith Brasher's book on the evolution of the SUV into a popular choice for the non-farming/mountain ranger market (several American carmakers are getting rid of their saloon ranges because drivers only want SUVs). It wasn't an accident: they identified a group of paranoid, selfish and inadequate people and designed a vehicle that would specifically appeal to them: the oversized, over-powered, physically dominant 4x4, marketed to appeal to parents keen on safety (not that of the people they run over, of course) and sociopath who wanted to literally look down on everyone. Who knew that would encompass 50% of Americans?

I know this sounds nasty but we've tried nudging people. Governments and polluters have worked really hard to make sure we do nothing. The Australian, American and Brazilian governments are the most obvious liars and cheats, but the British government did nothing, for example, when Volkswagen was caught deliberately cheating on emissions tests. VW, by the way, says it's sorry, but I can't help noticing that it had a major push to sell more SUVs this summer, with its 'SUV event'. Check out this ad, which uses 'confidence' where one might otherwise use the word 'aggression'.

There's also the added wrinkle of class justice: one astute working-class student observed that I was trying to stop them having all the luxuries that people of my class and age took for granted, and although it's not true of me personally (all my childhood holidays consisted of us sitting in a broken-down 4th-hand car in the Irish rain on the way to another meal of cabbage and boiled potatoes) it's hard to deny, especially when my retired colleagues leave at a decent age on the kind of pensions I can only envy.

That nasty genius Philip Larkin had something to say about intergenerational justice:

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Talking of which, I spent yesterday with (most of) my colleagues taking a course on suicide and self-harm prevention. With the near-abolition of dedicated, in-house, easily accessible mental health support (for staff, too), we're all being encouraged to know the signs and how to address emergencies - something I'm entirely supportive of, despite knowing that the structural and social causes of anxiety in the  institution and outside it will not be addressed in any meaningful way. I've done my years of youth sport volunteering, including spotting self-harm and eating disorders, hearing disclosures of abuse and neglect, and it's profoundly depressing that I get to use all that training every week as part of my working life too. We've built a society that functions as a gigantic anxiety engine, then handed over the soap-boxes to people who call the kids and anyone else with a better idea 'snowflakes'. Maybe Douglas Adams was right, we shouldn't have come down from the trees.

So I'll be outside later, but not with any high hopes at all. The narcissistic wing of my generation will be laughing at us from behind the tinted windows of the gigantic bourgemobiles they think they somehow 'deserve', and lots of the kids will later be picked up from school and taken home in SUVs - later they'll probably do the recycling and think they're doing their bit.

And on that bitter note, I'll leave you to it. All the students are back next week, so I'm off to practice my optimistic smile.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Duffed up - Carol Ann Duffy and more

OK, so I'm back from my Carol Ann Duffy and the Laureateship conference. With a cold and lots to think about. I was pretty shocked to discover that there hasn't been one before: whatever you think about her poetry (and it's fair to say there's a wide range of views), she's been prominent for forty years and has been Poet Laureate for a decade. Also: the London Review Of Books has ignored her: one review in 1995, a collective review of 3 women poets a few years later, and a blog post. That's really poor. As poets go, she's big. And yet so little critical attention paid to her writing and advocacy. Luckily Mari Hughes-Edwards, the energetic organiser, has a book out soon, and others are also producing criticism.

Last week was exhausting and challenging. Writing about such a sensitive thing as a Laureate - royally-appointed, freighted with expectations - at a time when the country she's meant to represent is falling (deservedly) apart, coloured my own paper considerably. Endlessly refreshing various live blogs tracking the collapse of Britain's ramshackle constitutional arrangements in real time made me look at her recent and older work in a new light. What is this 'country', this 'nation' she talks about? Who are the 'we' that crops up in her poetry and in My Country (Caradoc Evans used My People with savage irony - I'm not sure Duffy does the same), the 'verbatim' play she produced with Rufus Norris. How are the Scots, the English, the Welsh, the Irish and rural people represented in her work? Given she's produced so much poetry over the decades, in so many styles and addressing so many topics, it would be a fool's errand to suggest there's a singular or coherent Duffy: it's a label attached to an evolving set of interests and practices.

That said, I traced a consistent pro-unionist, anglocentric thread, suggesting that Duffy's invocations of Scottishness (Wales and NI rarely appear) are somewhat touristic, and that her frequent recourse to the provincial, the pastoral or bucolic to denote authenticity or real-ness inadvertently chimes with Nigel Farage's infamous claim to represent the 'real' people - My Country is a prime example. Not for the first time, the countryside is presented as a reservoir of realness, while the city is a place of unstable change, in which people reinvent themselves or lose touch with reality. In Duffy's case, this manifests itself too in a total distrust of politicians, who are seen as manipulators of language and of people. This worries me: defining anyone as 'real' means others are 'unreal'; if you root your 'authentic' people in the countryside you're excluding an awful lot of people; if you assume that people are easily manipulated you're assuming that they're passive recipients of power and discourse rather than participants; if you claim that those on the periphery are somehow immune to media discourse (how?) then you're endorsing ideas that perhaps should be challenged. I also thought that it was a bit unfair for a poet, of all people, to criticise others for using language manipulatively! Demarcation, I suppose…

I don't think that Carol Ann Duffy caused Brexit, despite my somewhat provocative phrasing during the conference (the first comment in response to my paper was 'you've crossed a line') and I accept that subtler readings of her work are available, but I do think that whereas writers and critics in Welsh, Gaelic and Irish, or writers of English from Wales, Ireland/NI and Scotland think about identity all the time, English writers have rarely had to consider the assumptions underlying their constructions of nation, country and state. Duffy has had to do this in public to some extent: the Scottish Referendum and the EU Referendum required poetic responses, and her 'Shore to Shore' tour showed us a poetry community shocked to a core by a 'people' whose liberal-leftish convictions turned out to be wishful projections on the part of the poet. 'Shore to Shore' became a kind of therapy for an small imagined nation of nice pro-European people distributed across the landmass, while My Country staged – in troubling ways – a confrontation between Britannia and 'the regions', silently judged by a metropolitan audience unrepresented on stage.

To be talking about all this in the British Academy last week was thrilling and scary – as I spoke, a demonstration passed by outside the window, on the way up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Will there be many more poets laureate? I don't know: it's a complicated appointment – royal, political, British but also (which I didn't know) meant to cover the Commonwealth. Wales and Scotland have their own national poets; the island of Ireland has something equivalent in all but name. Is the poet laureate essentially England's national poet? I think Duffy has done a good job in some ways, especially symbolically. Tony Blair apparently, apocryphally, declined to appoint her because her bisexual socialist ways might scare the Daily Mail horses. This biography (including her Irish, Scottish and Midlands connections) is important, but also I think misleading: we see modernity in her origins and beliefs, and therefore read it into her poetry when – as I've suggested above – there are other interpretations available, particularly from a Four Nations perspective and especially when looking at the work produced in response to public events (I think 'The Crown' is metonymic to the point of evasiveness). Certainly Katie Ailes's tour of Duffy's somewhat touristic representations of Scotland demonstrate this: too much heather and shortbread. At one point on the 'Shore To Shore' tour Duffy exclaimed 'Je Suis Haggis': funny, but also rather reductive of a complex and changing culture. It's the kind of thing you can say if you live in Scotland, engaging daily in its conversations. To crack this kind of gag from outside is questionable, at least.

Anyway, that was my view, and it sparked considerable debate (and an argument with a man from the BBC who objected to me describing it as the bourgeois voice of the imperial centre). Scary, but also fun. Thankfully however, everyone else's papers were much better. Mari's examinations of Duffy's use of spiritual and religious language was superb, though I would add that Duffy's representation of Catholicism is actually of Irish Catholicism in England, which is distinct from Catholicism in general, from Irish Catholicism, and from English Catholicism, in form, tone, cultural and content. You can thank several violent Irish nuns and monks in my past for that insight. Angelica Michelis's gave a stunning reading of Duffy's concept of 'foreigners' (and added some really important observations on the gaps in my own approach), while Katie's Scotland material was almost effortlessly innovative. The other speakers on my panel were Niamh Downing (Sheffield Hallam but not on the website) and Özlem Özturk and even through my nervous terror I learned an enormous amount and came away realising that I needed to re-read Duffy's work again, more slowly and more carefully. Emma Deeks talked the next day about teaching Duffy's work and again, I realised that beyond the obvious topics around 'Mrs Schofield's GCSE' (the poet's witty response to an external examiner denouncing her work as promoting knife crime), it speaks to adolescents in profound ways, whatever snobbery is attached to 'GCSE poets'. David Alderton's painstaking elucidation of Duffy's poetic practice as it relates to sexualities was a master-class in applied Raymond Williams/cultural materialism, while Alice Entwistle's examination of Rapture: sex, text and inter text was simply a virtuoso performance. I've literally never heard such a wide-ranging, precise, detailed close reading of anything. Simply amazing. Apart from anything else, her description of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (they aren't) as the filthiest verses ever written has really made me evaluate that poet (though I reckon Gwerful Mechain still edges it).

I went into this conference exhausted, worried and slightly ill. I came out of it even more ill and exhausted, better-informed, full of questions and having had my understanding of Duffy's poetry and practice radically altered. All this, and a number of creative events too, including the Art Does Not Get You A Job network launch - something I'd encourage you all to get involved with. It was scary and also exciting to be off my usual territory of Welsh/Celtic literatures and I'm sure my clodhopping brutality wasn't entirely welcome, but I loved the exposure to new ideas and approaches and found myself still thinking about things days later.

Apart from the conference, 'tis all go. Numerous university systems have failed to function, so I'm trying to pacify rightly annoyed students; preparations for next term are advancing (a bit); graduation is looming; we've had a staff conference on the OfS's next set of metrics and on improving outcomes for underperforming students; I've a PhD to read ready to examine in a few weeks' time, and all sorts of bits and pieces.

Other highlights of last week include going to an Irish centre to watch Kerry v Dublin in the All-Ireland (Gaelic) Football final. I confess to preferring hurling, but the match was a thriller throughout – I'm just sorry that, as I'm refereeing the Shropshire Open fencing on Saturday, I'm going to miss the replay in which Kerry will definitely win. The very next day, it was off to Stratford for a performance of the rarely-performed Venice Preserved, by Thomas Otway. While it had a few uneven qualities, it was a rip-roaring production (though a bit derivative, especially the V for Vendetta masks that are now a terrible cliché) and the script certainly doesn't explain why it's on so seldom – it's a mix of comedy, tragedy and revenge tragedy, although all the unhappiness could have been avoided if the dad (played, I realised the next day, by Les Dennis!) had accepted that children, including daughters, grow up and out. I assume that it was put on as a result of Brexit - it's another story of corrupt old men and younger populists manipulating the people with little thought for the public good. The ominous ending reminds me of the onrushing war at the end of Hamlet and the transmission of the blood feud to the next generation in Malfi.

I've also managed to do some reading apart from multiple volumes of Duffy's work. Curiously, after a few months of reading books mostly by women, I've hit a patch of apocalyptic books by men, exploring the social and cultural effects of isolation and disaster. Perhaps Brexit is weighing down on my unconscious. The only one by a woman I've read this week is Becky Chambers' The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet which won a lot of awards. I'm fully on board with the praise for its Sad Puppy-annoying evocation of a plurisexual, plurispecies universe in which humans are simply slightly annoying latecomers, but found the actual writing a tad leaden. Having been a bit disappointed by Robert McCrum's In The Secret State, I picked up his The Fabulous Englishman with low expectations, but found myself moved by this story of a conflicted, inadequate, failed author and his entanglement with some Cold War Czechs with real problems. The territory (curdled masculinity, creative failure) was more familiar perhaps than Chambers's work but the structure, narrative and sentence construction betrayed a lot of care and thought. Then I read M John Harrison's Empty Space, the sequel to Light and Nova Swing. I'm a huge fan of Harrison, thanks years ago to my friend Adam. His work emerges from the 'inner space' carved out by Ballard and Moorcock, redefining science fiction away from 'outer space' to the realms of the psyche – Harrison's work is as much literary fiction in the best sense as it is science fiction (also in the best sense), and Empty Space is a triumph with a great cat and like great literature of any genre, it makes you work. After that, I read the second of Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy, which explores the results of social and cultural isolation amongst a small group of in-bred colonists – it's programmatic but driven by intellectual curiosity and sociological complexity, plus interesting linguistic quirkiness. Funnily enough, I'm halfway through Robert Harris's The Second Sleep, a reliable middle-brow author's move back on to speculative fiction terrain after Fatherland all those years ago. This time what appears to be a medievalist The Name of the Rose story (naive young priest uncovers horrors while tidying up after a parish priest's death) turns out to be a mix of Riddley Walker and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Harris has clearly been reading these and discussions of how fragile contemporary infrastructures are and projected his findings into a post-apocalypse England. Whether it's Brexit, environmental collapse or antibiotic resistance that collapsed our society is left unstated, but the fall of Rome is also added to the mix.

Next up: Emma Dabiri's Don't Touch My Hair.

PS. Almost forgot: I read The Warehouse by Rob Hart: a good novel about the soul-sapping, anti-democratic, economy-crushing behaviour of a company that definitely isn't Amazon (it definitely is). I bought my copy from Waterstone's. In person.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

For Britain, See England

I am trying to write my conference paper on Carol Ann Duffy and the Four Nations, honestly, but this Cambridge University summer course caught my eye.

What did authors in Britain write about in the decade immediately following the First World War? How did they reflect upon those complex, often troubled years, 1919-1930? What did they think about sexuality and censorship; about relations between women and men; about the decline of empire; about the hopes for peace? What can we learn from them now?
• After the First World War: T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922); Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928); Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet (1930)
• Nation vs. Nature: D. H. Lawrence, The Captain's Doll (1923); D. H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers (poems, 1923)
• The Social System: Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)
• Sexuality and Censorship: Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)
• Ends of Empire: E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)

Thinking of myself as – in part – a 1930s and Welsh literature specialist, I was intrigued by a 1920s Britain course. So much happened: the aftermath of WW1 (there's always a lag between events and literary responses); the Irish War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War and Free State; the Depression; mass unemployment in the coal-belts of Scotland, Wales and England; the impact of suffrage; the first Labour government and the Zinoviev letter. In Wales, we see the foundation of the Urdd, Eric Gill moving from Ditchling to Capel-y-ffin, the Arthur Machen craze, Kate Roberts gets going; the foundation of Plaid Cymru, Hunger Marches, Dorothy Edwards's Rhapsody and Winter Sonata, Aneurin Bevan is first elected… you get the idea. I'm pretty sure that things happened in Scotland and Ireland, and people wrote about them too. Welsh, Scottish and Irish/Northern Irish authors might even have written about things that happened elsewhere.

What's my point? This Cambridge course incorporates an anglicised American (TS Eliot) and Helen Zinna Smith, an Australian living in England. It pops out of south-east England for a quick look at DH Lawrence (though not his Nottinghamshire mining novels), but manages not to include a single Welsh, Scottish, Irish or Northern Irish author. This syllabus includes more authors from 52 Tavistock Square, London, than there are from the other nations of the British Isles. My gripe is partly about nomenclature: don't say Britain if you really mean England, and partly conceptual. These islands have long, complex intertwined histories and cultures - the complications are what makes the literature of the time so enthralling. It just seems so terribly old-fashioned to assume that the view from Bloomsbury is definitive. A Welsh-speaking miner-poet or Scottish baroness or a Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington is simply not going to have the same view as afforded the inhabitants of fashionable, moneyed North London or indeed from East Coker. Promoting the continued cultural exclusion of everything unfamiliar to white privileged south-easterners is the intellectual version of treating Downton Abbey as representative of British society.

No doubt these lectures will be fascinating and intellectually coherent in isolation, but as a whole they promote a deeply reactionary image of Britain, England and of literary studies as the valorisation of highly partial perspectives without reflecting on their partiality at all. The unspoken implication is that the study of authors from or living in one corner of England is universal, whereas the literatures produced in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, whether in English or not, are parochial. At a time when the UK is once again faced with dismemberment (not something I have a problem with), it behoves those with cultural capital to wonder whether exclusionary practices like these might have something to do with the Scots and the Welsh feeling unwanted.

What's the answer? Come to a deeply unfashionable university like mine which makes the effort to encompass a range of voices, not just those already sanctioned by dubious authority.

*Title of this post echoes the 1888 Britannica entry for Wales which infamously read 'For Wales, see England'.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Back, not necessarily by public demand

You find me much refreshed by my sojourn on the west coast of Ireland - goats were crowned on towers, the Black Atlantic was swum, sun burned, rain fell, photographs were taken and many books were read.

Duelling birds

At the horse fair


Mandatory annual shot of a horse queuing for a burger

King Puck himself

A reveller in the rain

Darkness falls over Puck Fair

The banner is accurate, but cruelly unnecessary

Theresa and Boris, winners of the Fancy Dress

One of the more elaborate roadside shrines - Dingle

An fear marbh - the dead man (Blaskets)

Old and new ways - cross glimpsed through an ogham stone
 As for books, I read two Carol Ann Duffy collections (Sincerity and The Bees) which I found moving in some places and bland in others. Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? was a funny read: the writing is wonderful but the underlying premise (one woman has too much sensibility to marry wisely, one is too crudely sexual; they both have to learn to love the right men, who have few virtues beyond patience and Being Right) really hasn't aged well. I read at least one Trollope every year and will carry on, but some of them really try one's patience. Tom Hillenbrand's Drone State is a German near-future surveillance thriller set in the darker corners of the EU. Good fun and some sharp commentary on any state's tendency to do whatever technology allows without moral qualms, but doesn't really bear up to close scrutiny. David Nicholls' Sweet Sorrow was a bit of a disappointment. I know that his books are always sensitive, funny stories of people learning to find their roles in life and love as they grow up, but this one felt even more formulaic than usual. The Romeo and Juliet-performance setting was mechanical but he does have some good insights into the play, and the teenage lads' dialogue is spot on. Worth reading, but I think the formula is played-out rather. I struggled a bit with A L Kennedy's Serious Sweet. Interesting structure (two troubled, traumatised people find their way towards each other through the course of an awful day, during which their pasts are excavated via flashbacks) but I clearly lack the imagined reader's sympathy for the characters required to fully appreciate it. Gavin Corbett's Green Glowing Skull was a blast. Its protagonist is also rather unsympathetic (a 40-something, aimless Irish emigré to New York) but the absurdist plot, picaresque adventures and Milligan/O'Brien-style events just worked brilliantly.

Finally, I read two big novels: Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and AS Byatt's The Whistling Woman. Reading them consecutively was an interesting experience. Sort-of consecutively, I should say: I read the first 250 pages of A Whistling Woman before my holiday, and decided there wasn't enough left to justify packing it. I finished the Atkinson on the way back, then dived back into the Byatt. Both novels are lengthy examinations of social and cultural change throughout the 20th century, focussed on individuals and their families who had a ringside seat. In Atkinson's novel, it's Teddy, an upper-middle class man for whom WW2 provided meaning and existential enrichment otherwise denied him. HIs experiences as a bomber pilot make him a node in a series of philosophical and moral questions which shape his life (or not, without wishing to ruin the twist): the ripples of his experiences are traced through the generations that follow him. The structure is ingenious without being particularly experimental, and the underlying assumption that ordinary people's behaviours are informed by moral depth and even the worst people's behaviour should be understood as the product of complex pressures is a good one even if it isn't innovative. It's a long book which entirely justifies its length, even for someone like me who has very little interest in the seemingly endless British fascination with WW2 (you managed to be on the right side once in a couple of millennia. Well done). So then I went back to A Whistling Woman. I like Byatt, and say that having read several books of hers that aren't the wonderful Possession. AWW is another family-saga-over-the-20th-century, the latest in a series of novels following the Potter family. They're harder to empathise with than Atkinson's characters: they're even posher, they're always at the forefront of whatever Byatt thinks is historically significant, and they all seem to excel at whatever they do. They're basically the family who always asks to see the manager.

AWW meets the 60s: Frederica is becoming a media star despite her suspicion that both she and TV are bright but superficial. Her mathematician boyfriend is losing his faith (something I thought the intellectual wing of the British middle classes did in the 1880s); an idealistic northern university is being wracked by hopelessly confused student unrest, while a nearby hippy commune is becoming a cult. Essentially, it's a novel about clashing grand narratives, with examinations of patriarchs and fatherless figures thrown in. I enjoyed it, but despite being on similar territory to the Atkinson (whose title is a bit of a give-away), it felt a little indulgent. The Atkinson was about fairly ordinary people in a society being remodelled by war and the horrors (and opportunities) offered by upheaval; the Byatt is much more self-consciously intellectual, but also much more interested in the individual than it is in social structures. Both authors are also very self-consciously literary: writers abound in both (a very funny Richmal Crompton parody and lots of Milton and Oxford English curriculum references in A God in Ruins, while writing is a recurrent theme in AWW: Lewis Carroll, Milton again and Shakespeare loom large).

It's fun spotting the literary parallels and references, and both novels are satisfying reads in that old-fashioned sense, but I found the Byatt a bit too like Iris Murdoch's most self-absorbed novels: posh people in intellectual and moral quandaries while the rude mechanicals follow their brutish instincts. It's very funny though - Byatt's suspicion of the counterculture manifests in wicked parodies of Tolkien, Tolkien fans, teenage Maoists and opportunistic Swinging Sixties types. Where it gets much more serious is its examination of the gap between the possibilities opened up for and by women in the 60s and the underlying misogyny of even supportive men. Motherhood – and its refusal – is a key issue, though ASB plumps for motherhood on the whole. The other compelling aspect is Byatt's constant battle for meaning: the Church mirrors the self-help group that becomes a cult; the University (troubled by the -ologies and by the dubious histories of its most rigorous thinkers) has an anti-University which specialises in woolly nonsense; humanities people pair up with scientists; learning and TV dance around each other. Byatt draws clear lines between Reality and Nonsense, without quite adopting entirely reactionary positions: Atkinson sees the dissolution of rules as an opportunity for both selfishness and altruism, in which kindness is the principal virtue. Byatt needs her world to make sense; Atkinson is much more open to the random stuff that constitutes life.

I suppose the power of these two novels is that I'm still thinking about them, despite Green Glowing Skull for instance being more formally experimental. Byatt and Atkinson use interesting structures and pour everything they know into these texts, sometimes too much, but this leads to a partial abandonment of realism - deliberate or not I'm not sure.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Au revoir, mes enfants

I am going on holiday. To Ireland of course, packing Factor 50 and a thick pair of gloves for use on the same day, if experience teaches anything. I hope to defy Judge Dredd by swimming in the Black Atlantic, take some photographs, read a lot of books, admire the goat on the tower and write my upcoming conference paper on Carol Ann Duffy's period as poet laureate (why yes, holidays are for doing the work you don't get time for otherwise). This evening is set aside for the pleasurable task of deciding which 20 novels make it into the suitcase – every year I intend to buy an e-reader and every year my pointless scruples about Amazon get in the way.

The last day at work finished on a slightly sour note: I went to a presentation on employee engagement, which featured a lot of warm words, some rather misleading graphs, the proud announcement that we now have an employee engagement 'branding and logo', and the astonishing assertion that a university can be ethical, caring, empowering and engaging while – as is being discussed – 'outsourcing' entire sections of the staff. Apparently you can fire the lowest-paid employees, contract a company to employ them and make a profit for itself, save money and adhere to your 'values'. I wondered out loud whether any senior management posts were being 'outsourced', which was deemed an unhelpful contribution.

Other universities, such as Birmingham and some London colleges have gone down this route. It means that you have a two-tier workforce: managers and academics on semi-secure contracts and decent salaries, and an army of the lowest paid, doing the worst jobs, stripped of any legal, moral or communal ties with their workplace. What always happens is that the former employer declares that working and contractual conditions won't be affected. They always are, at which point the university/hospital/school declares that its hands are tied because it doesn't employ these people.

My university has Fair Trade status: I don't see how this is commensurate with washing one's hands of the most insecure group of colleagues. Why should the people who cook our meals, patrol the grounds, keep the computers running and empty the bins be deemed external to the ancient ideal of the community of learning? This move has gone down very badly at other institutions and I hope that if it happens here, everyone from Professors and Executive Directors down will be on strike in solidarity. I can dream I suppose: the cause of this nasty little plan is that, like every university, we're struggling financially and like those in the vanguard of the sector, it's those given least who will be expected to give most.

Sorry, that's a gloomy way to end the academic year, but it profoundly depresses me. Universities should have the confidence of a millennia's existence and aim for the moral and social heights, rather than take on the most discredited, vicious and short-termist aspects of more recent organisational models just because the sea has become choppier. Idealism is only meaningful when there's a cost - there's nothing more nauseating than a highly-paid 'leader' explaining to those on the minimum wage that sacrifices have to be made, and oh look, it's them. Again. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Back in a couple of weeks.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Welcome to Birmingham.

A friend asked me to take some pictures of the rebuilt Birmingham New Street station for a book project. I have Views about the place: as far as I can see they just stuck a new shopping centre on top of the same constricted, dark, confusing and un-expanded 1960s station. It's as if Screwtape or Crowley (who designed the M25 as a satanic sigil) got his hands on the blueprint and decided to have some fun.

Anyway, I went along and took some shots of the exterior and its surroundings. Here are some of my favourites – the rest are here.

The shiny new facade next to a 70s concrete building

One of the nods towards softening the surfaces around NS

Not all of the New Street area has been gentrified.

The famous Electric Cinema, continuously operating since 1909

waiting for the bus home from graduation

The signal box - one of my favourite brutalist buildings - now listed

Colourising - a cheap bit of kitsch I couldn't resist

Sauron's Eye is watching you

Side and top view of a tram

The light at the end of this tunnel is thankfully not a train

One of my favourite car parks. 

Detail from same

Packing up at the market

New Street façade