Thursday, 7 December 2017

Just another week in Paradise

I know I'm getting old, bitter and tired when I try to remember what I've done in the increasing periods between blog posts. Sometimes the witness statements fill in the blanks in my memory, and CCTV is a great help, but for the most part, life is a series of fleeting impressions: the hard edge of the desk meeting the relentless spread of my flabberguts; a never-ending series of tweets, likes and replies to emails; cycling shoes by the bed because I get home and realise there's little point getting changed before slipping into the waters of Lethe. Marking - endless marking.

Reviewing my diary though, I realise that good things are happening all the time. I've seen old friends, been to gigs, held a conference and had some fantastic times in class recently. Twice this week I've lectured on texts and then had students make observations that have made me re-think my understanding of them (the students and the texts!): on Paradise Lost and on Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I don't teach the first-years until next semester but the 2nd, 3rd and MA students are all a delight to teach and I'm learning a lot from them, which is how it should be. Next week is the last one  - the MA students are getting Ballard's late works (Millennium People and Kingdom Come) while the 2nd years are having Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and Pahlaniuk's Fight Club. I will confess now that late Ballard is intriguing without feeling as formally adventurous as mid-period Ballard, Little Brother is politically radically while being a very bad novel indeed – download it for free here: Doctorow is a staunch foe of copyright – and I thought Fight Club was interesting until the twist, which I worked out very early and decided was a cop-out. I should further confess that Fight Club is on my list of Very Popular Films People Bored On About That I've Resisted Seeing. The same goes for Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction. I'm exactly the right age for every one of my fellow students to have had the poster on their walls as though it made them edgy and radical. Having endured one wide-eyed, evangelical, stoned exposition of their genius too many, I vowed never to see them even if they're every bit as good as my bohemian friends insist. I doubt they're as good as South American George anyway.

So anyway, the other thing that happened this week was a conference on the theme of Unshared Futures: Four Nations Literary Studies in a post-Brexit age. My view is that the English academy picks the occasional Scottish, Welsh and Irish author and treats them honorary English authors rather than as products of specific cultural moments and spaces. Despite the rapidly growing cultural and political splits between the nations of these islands, England has had no interest in the interior lives of its neighbours and victims – or in the subaltern lives of its own citizens. Perhaps if it had paid attention, events would have been very different. The Four Nations approach tries to address the cultural consonances and dissonances across the archipelago, identifying commonalities and disagreements in the way their literatures address events, experiences and philosophies, in English and in the Celtic languages. It's partly a matter of promoting the study of each others' literatures in the literary canon, partly a matter of examining the English canon for its overt and covert references to Celtic cultures and peoples, and finally a question of asking whether the nation is a useful category for the current moment. What will Brexit literature look like? Will we see the rise of Remainer and Leaver cultural texts? How will the English view the Irish, or how will leaver Wales represent European Scotland?

These questions being on my mind, and the university having some cash left over from the cakes-and-limos fund for senior management, I put together a day long event. It's actually a really easy thing to do: my colleagues in the Association for Welsh Writing in English provided the names of good speakers and travel bursaries for PG students and unwaged scholars, our excellent administrators did the tricky work, and one of my excellent PhD students kept the day – and me – going.

Before I tell you all about the excellent discussions we had, I'll just say that my perception that hegemonic literary gatekeepers and scholars aren't interested in their neighbours was entirely borne out by the attendance. Despite efforts to widely promote the event via mailing lists and direct invitations to personal contacts, the only delegates from English universities were Welsh literature scholars. No Scots or Gaelic specialists attended, nor any UK-based Irish literature experts.

It was, quite frankly, their loss. Our keynote speakers were wonderful. Prof Katie Gramich from Cardiff University talked about the changing status and meaning of 'British' in mid-twentieth century literature, and encouraged us all to read Ulster Protestant author Janet McNeill – her lecture really set the tone for a searching discussion of literary representations of identity.

J Staniforth, Western Mail, 1915

We then had a round table discussion chaired by Swansea's Prof Kirsti Bohata about Four Nations Literature and the curriculum, featuring Dr Hywel Dix from Bournemouth University who wrote Postmodern Fiction and the Break-Up of Britain (e-book now reduced in price), and Romanticist Dr Elizabeth Edwards who traced the development of a Four Nations consciousness in the work of worker-poet Richard Llwyd - from there the discussion turned to how Four Nations approaches (familiar in the history world) could be used to widen and reassess the Canon, and how it intersected with the general awareness of the need to diversify the traditional canon. Finally we talked about the importance of representing students' own cultures in the classroom, and the difficulties of persuading Celtic, working-class, queer and minority ethnic students brought up within the English 'universalist' Hegemony that literatures of their own exist and deserve serious attention.

Our second keynote speaker, Prof Eve Patten from Trinity College Dublin, traced the covert presence of Ireland as a sign of impending degeneration in key modernist authors such as Woolf and Ford Madox Ford, starting with a really striking quotation from Wyndham Lewis on watching the body of Terence MacSwiney being removed from Southwark Cathedral after his Brixton prison hunger strike. From there she built a network of associations and references from which emerged a picture of Ireland as a persistently troublesome and troubling harbinger: many of the English Modernists had little sympathy for Irish nationalism, being too bound up in prevalent ethnic and cultural hierarchies to consider Ireland on its own terms. Marriage plots, she said, often stood in for the relationship between English-Britain and Ireland, such as in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Just like now, she said, Celtic nationalism was reflected by a 'virulent English nationalism', disguised as normalcy.

After Eve's tour d'horizon, we had a postgraduate panel with a difference chaired by Dr Sarah Morse of the Learned Society of Wales. The three presenters – Catriona Coutts and Amber-Rose Hancock from Bangor and Syd Morgan from Swansea – circulated their papers a couple of weeks in advance so instead of having them read them out then take questions, the chair and the audience could get involved in discussing the ideas arising from the work, contributing new knowledge and making links between their research: Catriona looked at the construction of borders in novels by Raymond Williams (the revival is ON!) and Margiad Evans, Amber-Rose compared Welsh literature to Catalan literary culture, while Syd examined the fascinating – and forgotten – life and work of Ascendancy Irish intellectual, poet, educationalist and Welsh nationalist policy adviser Noelle Ffrench-Davies. The session worked because the delegates had read the papers: if they hadn't, an embarrassing silence might have ensued. I'd definitely try this again, and not just on postgrad guinea pigs.

Finally, we had a creative keynote speaker, to make the point that Four Nations literature isn't retrospective, historic label. Thomas Morris came over from Dublin to read from his award-winning short story collection We Don't Know What We're Doing, and conversed with Matt Jarvis, the perceptive and very skilled critic. Tom read from a couple of stories including one about a Welsh stag do in Temple Bar, which veered from scabrous to moving and back again very quickly. In conversation all his mother issues came pouring out, and he spoke seriously and generously about his methods and experiences of being a Welsh-speaking young writer and editor in Ireland – he has a long involvement with hip magazine/publisher The Stinging Fly. I just wish even a single Creative Writing student had come to a free reading at the university by an acclaimed young writer. I do wonder whether if they achieved success themselves, they'd resent similar absences…

By the end I was elated and exhausted. Having an iPad meant I could buy an awful lot of books while people were talking about them, so I also ended the day considerably poorer. I owe the success of the day to the generous support of my Faculty, my research centre, to the Association for Welsh Writing in English; to the presence and generosity of so many great minds in the room, to the enthusiasm of the speakers, chairs and delegates and my departmental colleagues and to Jaime, my PhD student, who appears to be somewhat clairvoyant when it comes to finding things that need doing.

Friday, 24 November 2017

A counsel of qualified despair

Roaming around the country, I keep seeing the same message scrawled on urinal walls and bus shelters. 'Where's Vole?' they say. 'More Hot Takes Now' read others, beneath a scratchy line-drawing of an indistinct creature. A shrew? A vole? Perhaps. It's clear that my public exists from post to post, twitching impatiently as they wait for enlightenment on the burning topics of the day, reduced to trolling their children on Facebook as they endure yet another lengthy opinion desert.

I jest, of course. My views on all subjects are largely meaningless and irrelevant even in the areas for which I'm qualified. Additionally, I find it harder and harder to differentiate between subjects about which I should have an opinion and those which are merely prominent in the public discourse. It seems pointless having a hot or even salient take on global affairs given the disconnection between we citizens and the political-financial elites. My brother is a lawyer specialising in helping very rich people avoid paying any taxes (this is not, you understand, how he phrases it). His employers and their clients won't be concerned in the slightest by the Paradise Papers, just as they weren't touched by any of the previous links. A few IT security contractors will be fired and a fresh bunch of lawyers will be hired to find more obscure states and loopholes, while the corporate lobbyists will up their rates in return for some friendly breakfasts with legislators who have no intention of making life any tougher for their friends. You and I are less than sea-lice on a blue whale. I recently read of a Tory MP who explained that the art of government is to give out just enough to those with just enough to ensure the continuation of plutocracy. The man was honest, at least.

As to the rest of the news…well, I'm enjoying the well-deserved defenestration of a few sexists in a small number of fields (media, film, politics) but it's hard to rejoice when the structures of power that enable those people remain untouched. A few particularly egregious offenders will be publicly humiliated but politicians will continue to be largely white and male, Oxford will carry on letting in one black student per decade or whatever the embarrassing number was, and Britain's rich will still be Normans (yes, really). I'm enjoying Marina Hyde's excoriation of Hollywood's worst offenders as much as anybody, but we're not addressing the fact that we run a society in which we reward and encourage ruthlessly exploitative behaviour, and which relies on the bravery of a few isolated individuals to occasionally provide a corrective. Every Hollywood star who speaks up should be congratulated because they're resisting a century-old machine for the consumption of young women and anyone else without capital: financial, cultural or social, but you can bet that every factory, office and shop is staffed with people with similar stories to tell. A friend of mine matter-of-factly told me that she accepted a job offer from a very prominent academic which came with a hand on her knee in an enclosed space, and the words 'I can be very good for your career'. That, she said, was how it worked in her field.

Ah well. Between exhaustion and disempowerment I'm reduced to observing the wider world with increasing cynicism. I remember encouraging the Labour Party to return to a programme of Morris/Crane optimism to counter the relentless pessimism that pervades the body politic, but I must confess that my colleague Jim's strategy of staying happy by never watching the news is becoming increasingly – though irresponsibly – attractive. I am, perhaps, the country mouse despite seemingly dwelling in a great wen.

Many of my current woes are the kind of things I can't discuss publicly for professional reasons, but most of the pleasures are also personal rather than collective. For instance, last Friday I went to Cardiff University to be the external examiner on a PhD (hence no blogging). While universities are like Tolstoyan families ('Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'), it was just a sheer pleasure to spend a couple of hours talking intensely about someone's life's work, in a department that really feels like a community. John's PhD covered some of the texts I did my PhD on – particularly Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live, and also discussed Menna Gallie's Strike for a Kingdom, Gwyn Jones's Times Like These, Ron Berry's So Long, Hector Bebb, Roger Granelli's Dark Edge and Kit Habaniec's Until Our Blood Is Dry, the latter two being set in South Wales during the 1984 miner's strike. You'll have to wait until publication to see just how good John's readings of the texts are, but I'd recommend most of the primary texts. I'd forgotten how brilliant Menna Gallie is, and I'd never read Dark Edge or Until Our Blood Is Dry. I don't think the Granelli is a particularly well-written book but there are lots of interesting features, while the Habaniec novel is well worth your time.

I've seen a good film (The Party: like a Woody Allen film from when he was good and nobody had to think about his sexual creepiness) and went to Oxide Ghosts, a film and Q+A by Michael Cumming, the director of Brass Eye and one of our graduates. Here's a clip that represents what they satirised: the neediness and pomposity of public figures:

Above all, the last couple of weeks have been made special by students - the PhD candidate of course, but also my undergraduates and MA students. The latter are three-quarters of the way through the Ballard module and have weathered the relentless misanthropy (and, I would argue, misogyny) with considerable grace. This week was Crash, a challenging read for most people, though given last week was The Atrocity Exhibition, they may well have thought it quite mild. The UGs this week have been through the joys of a lecture on gender theory, a session on Ellison's Invisible Man (thankfully nobody brought along a copy of HG Wells's similarly titled novel, and the first session of many on Paradise Lost. My boss handled the syntax game while I doled out apples or applied the Golden Scythe (really) to those brave volunteers who dared compete. Every year I teach Milton I enjoy his work more, despite being a) an atheist and b) formerly a Papist and therefore not likely to have been entirely welcome on Team Milton back in the day. I do feel a bit like God though: I keep telling them that there's no 'right' answer to essays, then failing some of them for getting it wrong. A bit like setting up a Tree of Knowledge and saying 'you're perfectly free to stuff your faces but I will wreak vengeance upon you and your descendants unto the nth generation if you do'. Other pleasures this week were doing an observation for this year's Graduate Teaching Assistant, who will be a better teacher than me by roughly next Tuesday, and diving back into Ginsberg and Maupin for a special Gay San Francisco session next week. I'm not teaching this particular poem, but here's a treat: Ginsberg reading 'A Supermarket in California' and one of my favourite pieces of music: Philip Glass's setting of Ginsberg's poem 'Wichita Vortex Sutra'. I keep trying to get my students into minimalism and 20thC classical music but to no avail. Even Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima fell flat.

Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 10 November 2017

This indigested vomit

You might be getting bored by my now-weekly blog starting with the familiar words 'it's been a busy week', but there's no end in sight. Life is hectic but it's very far from dull. Academically, every class has been a joy: the students have really exceeded my expectations - from the Sonnets class to Ballard (Hello America and The Unlimited Dream Company), the lecture/seminar on The Handmaid's Tale and the class on Brick Lane. I've also trained the new module and course representatives ahead of our regular review meetings, and we ran a mini-conference which ranged from Being an Editor to Why The Dutch Students Hate Cheddar and British Tap Water. They really, really hate them. In return, I promised to show them Andrew Marvell's rather Ukippy poem – and rather bitterly extended –  about their country. Here's an extract from 'The Character of Holland':

Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land,
As but th’ off-scouring of the British sand;
And so much earth as was contributed
By English pilots when they heav’d the lead;
Or what by th’ ocean’s slow alluvion fell,
Of shipwrack’d cockle and the mussel-shell;
This indigested vomit of the sea
Fell to the Dutch by just propriety.

To give a bit of context, the Commonwealth and the United Provinces had fallen out: despite both being Republics and Protestants, the Dutch had carried on trading with Royalist British colonies and were a bit shocked by the regicide. In a stunning echo of the British triumphalism currently in vogue, Cromwell's advisors even popped over to Holland to propose a merger of their countries – not overwhelmingly embraced by the Dutch – and then suggested joining up to biff the Spanish before dividing up the globe between the two countries. The Dutch suggested a free trade agreement and the English carried on capturing Dutch ships. It all ended with a short and rather mutually exhausting war and then they had a break before having another go in 1667, when the Dutch rather daringly sailed a fleet up the Thames, captured Sheerness, trashed Gravesend, sunk a lot of British ships and helped themselves to some of the good ones. 

But I digress (it's a blog: they're meant to digress). I must get back to writing next week's lectures on Niall Griffith's Sheepshagger (I told him some colleagues and students were horrified by it and he just said 'my work here is done'), on The Duchess of Malfi, Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth and Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and something else which temporarily escapes me. The Gil Scott-Heron class will be interesting. We're going to have the discussion about whether the word should be used at all, and if so, by whom: the class is, unlike certain universities you may have read about, very diverse. After that, it'll be interesting to see what they make of the novel, which I really rate. I'll have to play some of Heron's music too. Definitely 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' but probably not 'Gashman'. Let's just say that revolutionaries are not all-round progressives.

It hasn't all been work: I've been to two gigs recently. I've reached the age where I'm only seeing bands from the past, in the company of 99% balding blokes. Recently, they've been seminal post-punk Wire and Ride. In my defence, they either didn't tour or had split up by the time I was going to gigs as a youth, so I'm just filling in gaps. I was a bit disappointed by Wire: every record is a joy but the live sound was so sludgy that the spare quality of their recent albums didn't really come across. Like Ride though, they really excelled when they wigged-out and went on an extended Krautrock-style improvisation. Utterly thrilling. Here's a recent one and one from their debut album, which you might recognise because REM covered it on Document.

Here's some Ride - one of the wonderful shoegaze bands swept away by the Britpop degradation. 

And just because I was singing it on the way to work the other day, Sisters of Mercy's 'This Corrosion'. 

See you next week.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Deep breath and start again

As usual this semester, I'm almost to exhausted to have opinions about anything. Not just physically exhausted, but mentally. The teaching schedule is punishing, I'm still recovering from ripping a calf muscle, and on non-teaching evenings I come home, stare at the ironing pile and retire to my bed. Currently my only retirement fantasy is to do precisely that: there's a long cultural tradition of people who 'take to the bed', surviving on a diet of red wine and chocolates. Admittedly on my pension taking to the bed will be more like Charlie Bucket's grandparents than the Queen Mother, but it's a seductive dream nonetheless.

But as I said, it's not just physical exhaustion. Writing a large number of lectures in short order week after week is tiring, while research just isn't happening: course administration is as relentless as it is often pointless. The highlight of my job is the opportunity to sit and talk to students about ideas and books, but I'm finding too often that the bureaucratic demands of the post are reducing the scope for teaching and learning well, and I find that profoundly depressing. It's also a period of high stress for students and colleagues – much of it avoidable if senior management cared to treat us as anything more than fungible assets or profit centres – and as a course leader and union representative I often see people at their most distressed. Being able to help is a wonderful thing but I also have to remind myself sometimes that happiness and collegiate working conditions are possible!

Beyond the immediate world of my working life, I'm also suffering from a severe case of Advanced Liberalism. The main symptoms are a kind of debilitating miasma, and the primary cause is paying attention to the news media. This week has seen the ongoing corruption of America's neo-monarchist regime; Trump's decision to increase nuclear weapons stocks; a tidal wave of sexual assaults by men in every sector from film to politics; the environmental degradation that's becoming little more than an ignorable background hum; constant economic bad news; Brexit and all the nastiness seeping out from under its leaders' rocks; the demonisation of the poor and the concurrent valorisation of corporations looting every country they touch, leading to the destruction of public services from libraries to mental health provision; the Catalunyan situation (particularly depressing to see Ireland, which unilaterally declared independence from the UK in the absence of any meaningful mechanism for legal secession, refusing to recognise the bind the new republic is in).

Of course there are diverting pleasures: I saw Wire play a small venue the other night, and teaching is sheer pleasure at the moment, between engaging texts (yesterday: Three Guineas and The SCUM Manifesto, and next week includes The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello America, The Handmaid's Tale, a selection of sonnets and Brick Lane)  and really excellent students, but  – and maybe this is because I'm teaching 15 weeks of JG Ballard – the cultural, political and physical landscape seems to be pretty apocalyptic. I bet Leicester tonk Stoke City tomorrow too.

Enjoy your weekend. Here's some Ballard to cheer you up.

Friday, 27 October 2017

All The Noose That's Fit To Print

One of the disputed joys of being an academic is the constant self-criticism. Whatever the field, academics hold that claims are contingent: we get attached to our current interpretations while hoping for new ones. We live in a state of professional doubt in the best possible sense, knowing that there's always more we could be reading, teaching and thinking about. The down side of this, perhaps more pointedly for those of an Eeyorish disposition, is the concomitant feeling of inadequacy. 75 years is not enough time to get through all the primary texts, let alone understand the critical theory sufficiently. And that's not counting all that time spent sitting on Review of Reviews committees (I kid you not).

My point is that this week's furores (furora? furori?) over Oxford and Cambridge's white posh intake and white literature curriculum are both welcome and vile. The obvious temptation from my end of the see-saw is a smug feeling of superiority: my institution's BME intake is roughly 40%, whereas some Oxford and Cambridge colleges haven't accepted more than one or two black students in 15 years. My curriculum, too, is diverse: we're teaching works by Equiano, Bernardine Evaristo, Monica Ali, Ralph Ellison, Gil Scott-Heron, Armistead Maupin and Jackie Kay just in the next few weeks, while postcolonial and queer readings inform our discussions of canonical texts as a matter of course.

But on the principle that academics are never allowed nice things, there's no reason for this smugness. One could quite easily see our diverse student intake as a property of structural racism: educational and employment outcomes are poor for BME groups, as is access to 'élite' higher education institutions, which means that we benefit from society's dysfunction because we have a mission to widen participation and they clearly don't. There's also the issue of the white curriculum: I have friends and acquaintances in Cambridge and Oxford faculties who are horrified at the accusation that they are individually or collectively racist, and who lead the field in theoretical diversity: Priyamvada Gopal, who has been monitored by the Telegraph and the Mail is a shining light of our discipline. It's also true, though, that blaming social failure (such as the secondary school system) feels like a cop-out. If my colleagues and I work hard to develop our curriculum despite being well ahead of these so-called elite institutions, we need more recognition from them that there really is a problem. In my more mean-spirited moments I wonder if Cambridge and Oxford will soon reach a point of equilibrium at which the number of BME students will equal the number of BME-authored texts on the curriculum.

What brings us together, however, is the lynch mob mentality of the Telegraph and the Mail. Hearing of a request from students for faculty to widen the English canon, they used it as the opportunity to indulge in a bit of Black Panic: while the online version of the story has been hurriedly altered, the Telegraph used the term 'forced' and pointedly used a portrait of Cambridge University Students' Union Women's Officer Lola Olufemi to evoke Confederate-era fears of a slave rebellion.

I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of links to an article outraged at the idea of asking students to read texts by black people with one robustly defending academic freedom:

The Mail, meanwhile, having spent recent years mocking students' perceived opposition to free speech, decided to add university lecturers to the list of Enemies of the People, aided by an epistoholic Tory MP who apparently dropped out of my very own university and devoted the rest of his career to persecuting anyone using polysyllabic words.

Funny how cultural position changes your perception: I look at that list of 'Lefties' and see some rich white liberals who have sold out by accepting jobs looking after most rich white kids: not many socialists think that taking a mansion and lots of cash from a massively rich training ground for the social and political elite (50% of whom come from the 7% of privately-educated children) is an act of insurrection. Although their students will be suffering some of the same individual hardships mine face, I very much doubt that many of them will submit work late due to homelessness, deportation, hunger or poverty, as happens here fairly regularly. Much as I admire Rowan Williams's literary criticism, for instance, or Will Hutton's economic analysis, I see their jobs as the Establishment's gold watch for good and faithful servants who haven't said or done anything to scare the hedgies or hunters. But perhaps that's the politics of envy talking…

Not being in the direct firing line means that I've had a lot of fun teasing Heaton-Harris, the Mail and the Telegraph but it isn't really a laughing matter. These unaccountable organs, owned and run by offshore shell companies for the benefit of tax-avoiding barons, are spending an awful lot of time hunting down people who think of themselves as public servants, and they're going for women and ethnic minorities first. The differences between me in my ex-poly and them in their medieval quads are nothing compared with moneyed racist élite and the ordinary people whom they're attempting to whip up into a xenophobic, mean-minded fury.

Universities and the people who constitute them are meant to be critical: of social structures, of cultural instruments, and of themselves. Sometimes we fail to be self-critical enough (out teaching body and management cadre looks nothing like the student body, for instance) and sometimes our obsessions with critique seem esoteric or frivolous, but far from being negative, critique speaks of a belief in progress and improvement, as John Stuart Mill knew:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
The Mail and the Telegraph are pigs. They believe that they've achieved the right answers to pretty much every question, and are satisfied. Once such an attitude is adopted, its proponents start to draw up lists. Earlier this year it was judges. This week it's black intellectual
women and Remain-supporting academics. Who knows who will be next? It certainly won't be rich white newspaper-owners.

Friday, 20 October 2017


Good Friday! 

Its been another exhausting, if intermittently exhilarating week here at Vole Towers. We have quite literally had laughs, tears and leaking windows, plus the occasional bout of teaching and learning (this week: Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee which went down very well indeed, The Tempest, a selection of JG Ballard's short stories, and Jilly Cooper's Riders for the last time ever). I've enjoyed it enormously, particularly the privilege of hearing a new colleague lecture quite brilliantly for the first time ever. Next week sees me teaching more Ballard short stories, Dave Eggers's The Circle, Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and Hamlet. Never let it be said that my teaching load is monotonous. 

The other issue of the week has been the latest reappearance of cynical government ministers demanding universities defend 'free speech' and threatening fines. This is a cyclical event: in a few weeks a story will appear in which the same government minister will condemn a university for hosting a 'radical' or 'extremist' speaker. Being the organiser of a public lecture and research seminar series, I can attest to the simultaneous paranoia and liberalism at play in university hierarchies. They genuinely want to be open to a range of ideas, but they've also been trained by Prevent and their local security service representatives into seeing terrorists under every shalwar kameez. It's all dressed up as 'mental health concern' and equally applicable to 'extremists' of any type, but it doesn't hold water: we know very well that the definition of 'extremism' is covertly linked to ethnicity. The Overton window is getting smaller every day, and the modern university discourse of employability, vocational skills and so in makes it shrinkingly unlikely for any student to be exposed to anything other than capitalist discipline. 

However, the other evergreen education story of the week is my old favourite, Trigger Warnings. Personally, I hate the phrase, almost as much as I hate the terms 'Political Correctness' and 'Check Your Privilege'. Perversely, perhaps, I like and endorse the sentiments and purposes – 'privilege checking' is what we literary critics have been doing ever since someone pointed out that the Leavisite Great Tradition was just a tad narrow. It's just the awful language that implies a deadening managerial rationality to concepts that are and should be expressed emotionally. I'm with Stewart Lee on 'PC': it's about being polite enough to recognise that words have effects and should be used thoughtfully – or as he puts it, 'you can't even scrawl racial abuse in excrement on cars without the political correctness brigade getting involved'. 

As for Trigger Warnings, I've been teaching (and alive amongst humans) for long enough to know that a significant number of people in my class have experienced deeply traumatic things: a depressing amount of my time recently has been spent trying to help my admirable students cope with things that nobody should have to deal with. I happen to think that literature is how we collectively process our experiences, and that it's entirely appropriate to study texts which examine awful events. There's a difference between doing that and deliberately picking texts because you think 'snowflake' students should 'toughen up'. I don't give anything that might be construed as a 'Trigger Warning' (it sounds like the kind of thing a lawyer would advise an institution to put in place) but I do carefully introduce texts and make sure that graphic texts are contextualised sensitively and chosen for their literary merit or social significance rather than just because it might be a laugh. One of my very clever and inquiring students told me today that she'd given up on a book because it used self-harm as the basis of a cheap gag. I'm with her: there's a qualitative difference between a text that takes serious experiences as its subject and one that unthinkingly throws such things in. 

Exposing people to something horrifying without context or warning then telling the newspapers that they're snowflakes is pretty much my definition of Being A Dick. And, let's note, the Telegraph understands this too: here are some lines from their Style Handbook:

 we do not make gratutitous reference to a person's ethnicity or sexual orientation.
obscenity: always seek guidance in reporting foul language. It may be necessary to use dashes (not asterisks) to indicate the deletion of obscenity from direct quotes. Gratuitous use of obscenities is forbidden. The presumption must always be that profanities are forbidden. 
Clearly the readership of the Telegraph must be protected from hearing the kind of words they used freely in the colonial wars, but students don't deserve enough respect to introduce things carefully. I can't find the Mail's style guide ('All foreigners are Bloody') but commenters are – and this may surprise you if you've ever seen its message boards – asked to be nice:

Please be polite. Do not use swear words or crude or sexual language.

Rule 5: No libel or other abuse
You must not make or encourage comments which are:
defamatory, false or misleading; 
insulting, threatening or abusive;
obscene or of a sexual nature;

offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic or discriminatory against any religions or other groups.

We have entire modules about taboo and banned texts – Cannibal Holocaust is on the menu soon – but students haven't objected because we demonstrate that there's a justifiable reason for analysing these texts: I have some controversial texts coming up which I won't name because I don't want to make yet another unwilling appearance in the local rag, but I've had to think long and hard about whether the offence is academically justified. I think students are quite right to expect academics to a) ask them to read disturbing texts; b) to have a justification for doing so and c) be happy to have the debate in class. 

The latest furore is about Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's nasty revenge tragedy. I don't think I'd spend too much time on trigger warnings if we were simply reading the play, but I'd certainly warn people what to expect if we showed them one of the recent film adaptations – just as the RSC did when it toured a production in the 1980s. Even horror films have certificates and explanations of what's in them, and I don't think the Mail is calling for abolition of the BBFC. Julie Taymor's astonishing film Titus (1999) got an 18 certificate for its 'strong sex and violence and sexual violence theme'. 

Finally, just to tie the week's education news together, we discover today that Oxford and Cambridge (from whence the Trigger Warning story emanates) have recruited almost no black students, and very few from poor or provincial communities. Perhaps it's because so  much of the political and media classes were educated there, but there seems to be a special level of outrage applied, as though the journalists' and politicians' successors at such places are specially degenerate, whereas the oiks who attend ex-polys like mine are so brutish that they're incapable of feeling much at all. 

The temptation therefore is to write off these Cambridge students as pampered posh whingers, but that requires us to treat them monolithically rather than as individuals with agency and unique identities. Perhaps the Telegraph (which quite often moans about the loss of civility and politeness) disagrees, but being rich does not exempt one from abuse and assault, as a review of historical boarding school abuse scandals should indicate. (The wicked thought crosses my mind that perhaps Oxford and Cambridge are so aware that their posh intake are such reactionary pigs that it would be abusive and unsafe to expose ethnic minority students to their behaviour: the former BNP fuhrer Nick Griffin went to Cambridge after all…).

Academics should always be self-critical and open to re-evaluating their professional practises and how they relate to students because those relationships are complex, driven by sometimes unexamined or unconscious dynamics. I really don't think that simplistic headlines generated by privileged people in furtherance of a generational warn against their own children is particularly productive, and we shouldn't be feeding the beast. 

Friday, 13 October 2017

I think I can feel the skull beneath the skin

Too busy working to have opinions this week, which I'm sure is devastating news to you all. Come to think of it, between exhaustion and a hefty dose of the traditional Freshers' Flu, I can barely think what I've been doing all week.

I did see Bladerunner 2049: a visual and sonic feast, wonderful performances and a decent storyline, though not as philosophically groundbreaking as the original film. There were even a couple of jokes. I did wonder about the nipple count: in this dystopian future only women get naked, and the core of the plot is maternity. Still, about a thousand times more intelligent than everything else on at the moment.

Teaching: this week we've done The Tempest, Gerrard Winstanley's Digger Manifesto The True Levellers Standard Advanced, and Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem.

They're all on different modules but they all seem to have shared interests if I think about them long enough. Away from work a Renaissance theme emerged too: I just read Nicholas Blake's 30s detective thriller Thou Shell of Death (Blake was the pen-name of poet laureate C. Day-Lewis: he claimed to churn out the detective novels for cash but he's very good at it). If you know where the title's from, you know who the murderer was and how it was achieved. I also read, on a Twitter friend's recommendation, Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning, a title (and chapter epigrams) lifted from Francis Bacon's Renaissance work of the same name. It's a campus murder mystery: efficient, witty, well-plotted and with a real sense of HE in 1971, but astonishingly and authorially sexist (women are always and only characterised by the size and shape of their breasts - in one case, 'hive-shaped', which beats me). A shame: I enjoyed his Austen pastiche, The Price of Butcher's Meat. Next week's classes aren't quite so coordinated: Ballard's short stories, Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee, Jilly Cooper's Riders and another session on The Tempest. 

I'm also reading a PhD on masculinity in Welsh twentieth-century fiction, MA dissertations on drugs in dystopian SF and on reason in Winstanley and Milton's works, and racing through a collection of essays on working-class fiction for the event I'm chairing tomorrow at Birmingham Literature Festival. An ironic cheer to the publisher for getting the book to me…today. I did manage to get along to the Cheltenham Literature Festival for an hour, for research purposes: Vince Cable and Stanley Johnson were plugging their books. It was very low-calorie entertainment and mostly covered Brexit in various depressing ways, but I got some useful material by listening to the audience and observing the authors' throwaway comments on being a politician novelist. Johnson went for the full sprezzatura effect, claiming never to have been a serious politician or writer, while Cable saw his novel as a way of exploring the effect of political life on the soul – closer to the didactic tradition. Johnson's latest is a cut-and-paste job ramming together the Trump and Brexit stories as products of a Russian plot. At the event he announced that he thinks Angela Merkel is a Russian spy (echoing one of the mouth-breathers who shouted out the same theory on Question Time recently), and that having been a Remainer, he now thinks Britain will leave the EU with no problems at all ('I wake up every morning and wonder why you're all so worried: what's the problem?'). Sigh.

I also staffed an Open Day on Saturday. Having sent a snottogram to our highly-paid, bonus-culture directors about the mean-spiritedness of withdrawing the limp cheese sandwich traditionally provided to staff and students who gave up their Saturday, I was cynically fascinated by the queue of managers lining up to claim that it was nothing to do with them, out of their hands and something they disagreed with. Sustenance apart, there was an uptick in visitor numbers, though I confess to being shocked that families are checking universities out while their children are still doing GCSEs. Given that my taster class contrasted Jilly Cooper's sex-and-showjumping novels with BS Johnson's book-in-a-box I was a  touch worried about innocent youngsters' being debauched, but it seemed to work OK.

But all this is mere hackwork compared to the Magnum Opus of the week: writing the Course Academic Enhancement Report, the annual masterplan that will transform NSS lead into TEF gold, or something. And on that note, I'd better get back to it.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Random Ramblings at the end of a long week

I'm not sure I have any coherent thoughts this week. It's the end of our first week of proper lectures. I've met a largish number of enthusiastic new students (though not as many as previous weeks), welcomed back the existing ones, and plunged headlong into a dizzying array of modules. This week I've discussed Hall and Althusser with the third-years, John Ball, Froissart's Chronicles and Piers Plowman with the second years, talked with an overlapping group of second-years about whether the Renaissance is a meaningful term and what happens to those cultures and texts which are either included or excluded, and got an entire MA module on JG Ballard going (mmm…alienated). Enormously enjoyable of course, but I'm preparing an awful lot of new material in one go. I don't let modules or text drag on, preferring to refresh everything after about three years, but this year is feeling daunting. Next week's menu is The Tempest, Gerrard Winstanley's writings, some Ballard short stories and Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem and the contested nature of Englishness.

I'm also nipping off to the Cheltenham Literature Festival for an evening of Vince Cable and Stanley Johnson promoting their novels- Cable's is a debut novel, while Stanley-Father-Of-Boris has produced quite a number over the years: I've bought them both but not yet read them. A few years ago my research colleague and I had our own slot at the CLF discussing politicians' novels, with Michael Dobbs on the panel. Our research is going slowly (see the first paragraph of this post) but I try to attend events like this to keep an eye on the way politicians frame their creative work and what audiences think. I also had a letter on the subject in the TLS last week, and someone sent in a follow-up too.

My collection of politicians' writings also gained some new entrants this week. The first was Sir Stuart Bell's Paris Sixty-Nine, long fabled as a suppressed self-published pornographic novel by the MP for Middlesbrough. In his later years he became a Commissioner of the Church of England, basically the CofE's ambassador to Parliament, and was rather reluctant to acknowledge this saucy little number. It's not actually pornographic in the sense that there are entire chapters without sex scenes, but those scenes are revolting conceptually and in literary terms. Obviously this is a family blog and I won't scar your eyeballs with quotation, but I will say that they read like the work of someone who had never met a woman, or at least not one for whom he'd ever had any respect.

Bell was accused of being Britain's laziest MP – no constituency surgeries in 14 years – but he devoted quite a lot of time to writing autobiographical short stories, some of which made into print, and the rest made available on his website for years after his death (sadly, no more). As the New Statesman implied, he had quite a high opinion of himself:
Stuart Bell MP has written another novel, Binkie's Revolution (the first in a trilogy), which chronicles the lives and loves of several families, beginning in Durham mining villages around 1900 and ending (two novels hence) in the election of the first president of the United States of Europe. The style is so fluent and racy it carries the reader along. We know this to be true, because the author says so in a five-page handout that also explains how to order the book from his publishing arm, Spen View Publications. It's being a Church Estates Commissioner that 'as made 'im so 'umble.
I haven't read Binkie's Revolution yet, but it vaguely echoes Edwina Currie's The Ambassador, which is set in a future united Europe in which the transcontinental ruling class has genetically engineered itself to retain power forever, despite the sterling efforts of a lovely English woman, a brash US ambassador and a supporting cast of outrageously stereotyped ethnic minorities.  Sadly, while there is a sequel to Binkie's Revolution on Kindle only, Bell appears never to have finished the trilogy.

The other politician's work that turned up this week is one of the very rarest and most beautiful (and expensive) books I've ever got my paws on. Lord Lymington's Spring Song of Iscariot was published in 1929 in an edition of 125 by the fabled Parisian artisan Black Sun Press, which also put out work by Sterne, Poe, Lawrence and Joyce in similarly tiny numbers. It comes in a complicated slipcase, is printed on beautiful paper with an exquisite typeface. Sadly the poetry is pretty woeful: bursting with the kind of imagery you'd get if a Vogon had eaten Freud and developed an obsession with Ezra Pound.

In a way I'm not too saddened by this, because after Lord L stopped being an MP for Basingstoke, he devoted his time to being a full-time Nazi, starting in the mystically-inclined blood-and-soil ruralist group English Mistery, then the English Array, the British People's Party and ultimately Kinship in Husbandry, several of whose members contributed their viciously racist and mystical ideas of purity to what became the now-respectable Soil Association. He ended up emigrating to Kenya with the rest of the despicable crew of toffs who made up the remains of the Happy Valley set.

Lymington's interesting though. Not many professional politicians wrote poetry at all (though some of the Welsh-speaking Liberal and Labour MPs did), and none associated with hardcore modernists. While the poetry isn't much good, it's ambitious and far removed generically and intellectually from the usual concerns of politician-authors. I'm not expecting Stanley Johnson or Vince Cable to start going on about the Pillars of the Womb, for instance.

Anyway, that's your lot: I've got tomorrow's Open Day talk to prepare. I think I'll leave readings from Bell's and Lymington's works until they've signed up…

Friday, 29 September 2017

Friday in the Garden of Good and Evil

This week has been way to busy to consider blogging. I've met all the new students several times, so they've seen all my decent clothes and heard all my decent jokes. Or the jokes that I think are decent anyway. This year's intake are very engaged and chatty, which was lovely: it didn't take much effort to get them talking about interesting things, and they even indulged me when I quoted Plato and Michael Oakeshott while encouraging them to care more about ideas than grades. We also had a party: loads turned up, nobody stood on the edges looking lonely, and we had to go out for more wine and not just because my colleagues drank it all.

The more frustrating element of the week has been trying to get the new VLE and the online course management software working: despite getting all the details right several months ago, students are still struggling to sign up for the right classes, and obviously they complain to us. My desk bears a slight dimple where my forehead keeps meeting it a speed. The upshot is that I'm teaching mostly brand new material at several levels from next week, lecture-writing has very much taken a back seat. Ah well, I'll get there. Next week I'm teaching everything from The Address of John Ball and Gerard Winstanley's manifestos to Ballard's short stories. Exciting.

The other thing that happened this week was Question Time at the university. I didn't get a ticket, but I returned to watching it in the hope that my esteemed students, colleagues and townsfolk would break the cycle of answering moronic panellists with reactionary attitudes. Sadly, I was mistaken. Dimbleby – seemingly suffering from a vision problem that means he can only see men – picked a succession of people I would characterise as disturbing, actual, fascists. One shouted that Angela Merkel was an East German Communist, another defended the AfD against allegations that praising the actions of the Wehrmacht in WW2 makes them pro-Nazis, and another contributed the bullshit cri de coeur de nos jours of 'Europe needs us more than we need Europe'. Unless there's suddenly a need for Alan Sugar's warehouses of unsold Amstrad @mailers for some unimaginable reason, I remain unconvinced. As a fillip for the university, getting a show like Question Time in was a coup. As an advert for the city, it did not give off the impression that it's a progressive, welcoming, intellectual powerhouse. Still, if you're thinking of holding a cross-burning, or want to open a golliwog shop, there's probably a chance of making a go of it here.

I'm off to lock myself in and draw the curtains. Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Feeling sic…

I wrote to the London Review of Books with a correction but it wasn't printed, so you can have the doubtful benefit. I'm still unsure whether I'm being pedantic, paranoid, or postcolonial. Also: the author is Marina Warner, one of the greatest minds of her generation, so I feel a little conflicted about that too. Hey ho…

In the midst of a very interesting review of Thomas Laqueur's The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, I found these three words:
Jesu Grist (sic)
The subject was Dr William Price, the doctor, Druid, political activist and all-round Romantic polymath powerhouse who illegally cremated his son and spurred on the legalisation of the practice. An accomplished wind-up merchant and anticlericalism, he named his son Iesu Grist.

So what is the 'sic' all about? If it refers to 'Jesu', it's wrong. Price was a Welsh-speaker, and Welsh only uses 'j' in loanwords. The boy was called Iesu: not a misspelling of Jesus. If 'sic' refers to 'Grist', that's wrong too: Grist is standard Welsh for Christ.

The mistake, and the compounding addition of 'sic' suggests either Warner or the LRB (I'm hoping it's the LRB) has a rather anglocentric notion of culture in which a prominent intellectual's correct – if provocative – use of his native language can only be understood as an English mistake by an eccentric from the wild Celtic fringes.

Say it ain't so…

Friday, 15 September 2017

Lesbian Bastard Heroes and Other Stories.

I have had an eventful week, to put it mildly. A week ago I was decorating a village hall, carrying chairs and checking camera angles for my friends' wedding in an idyllic English village in the heart of Brexit country. My main job was photographer, but I'm now an expert at bunting hanging, guest corralling and taxi-marshalling. The happy couple were beautiful, the rector was organised and thoughtful (even this atheist appreciated her sermon) and the draught porter was Murphy's. Oh, and I came home with a sack of cheese left over from the reception, which was a bit of a result.

I could have done with a couple of days' rest after that, but the pre-term panic is well and truly ON! Rather than write lectures (including the MA module on Ballard I've suddenly inherited), I've been wrestling with a new VLE and trying – after six months of work, to get the powers that be to give students the correct course guides so that they actually know what they're meant to be studying in two weeks' time. We've had a day-conference on 'widening excellence', a 'roadshow' from the VC which consists of buttered words and sharp steel, and before we even start inducting the new students there's a staff conference and graduation to look forward to. On the plus side, the department has a new Graduate Teaching Assistant. Having taken a First Class degree this year, she's getting used to seeing what her former teachers are like behind the curtain. Only one keyboard has been punched to death in her presence this week (not by me, I hasten to add).

The other highlight of the week was tearing a calf muscle while fencing. My first injury in almost 25 years: it's painful, and I can only hobble about. Given I commute by bicycle, it's making life rather difficult. Age is a terrible leveller, my children.

It's not all drudgery. I'm enjoying catching up on all the texts I'm teaching this year (including lots of Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe, Doctorow, Eggers, Atwood, Valerie Solanas, Winterson – in the course of which I found Esther Saxey's journal article with the superb title 'Lesbian Bastard Heroes' – Gerard Winstanley, Ballard, Monica Ali, Jackie Kay, Jilly Cooper, Gil Scott-Heron) and I have an interesting PhD to examine in early November. Oh, and I'm compering an interesting event at the Birmingham Literature Festival on working-class writing, including Catherine O'Flynn, one of my favourite novelists. I'm just not sure when my research is going to get done. I'm still working on my politicians' novels project, but the discovery that Robert Kilroy-Silk has produced three of them has rather taken the pleasure out of it. It just struck me that he's exactly the kind of politico who thinks he has talents in every field, so I looked him up on WorldCat and there he is: a mid-eighties novel called The Ceremony of Innocence which doesn't sound entirely savoury, and three more recent e-books which sounded even worse than Peter Hain's, Norman Tebbit's and Boris Johnson's output (and having read all of them, I promise that's very, very bad indeed).

One's a Condition-of-England one that attacks 'political correctness' and another one makes the case for father-daughter incest. If you don't know who RKS is, or what he's like, this Guardian article tells you far, far more than you might ever need to know.
Eye-poppingly unsavoury novels…Kilroy-Silk is beholden to no one as he writes novels that he self-publishes on Amazon's Kindle. He's published three since the spring and each seethes with rage at political correctness in modern British society – with their unsavoury racism, glum sexist stereotypes, borderline homophobic jibes and digs against Islam, they reek of an outsider judging a world he doesn't want to understand… 
Closure ends (spoiler alert!) with the wretched stereotype of an obese lesbian social worker being murdered by a vengeful father who leaves her strangled corpse tied up amid dildos to make it look like a perverted autoerotic asphyxiation. After, of course, having arranged that the children have been kidnapped from their adoptive parents and whisked away to Cyprus.
Which rather takes us back to 'Lesbian bastard heroes' I suppose. Anyway, welcome to my world. Enjoy your weekend.

Monday, 4 September 2017

This post was brought to you by…

Last night I texted someone to say 'even Portishead have licensed a track for advertising now'. My friends are used to such retro naïveté and some of them even summon up the energy either to take me to task ('bands can't rely on sales income any more') or to tease me ('another band off your list').

I am a stuffy puritan about these things though. I never download illegally despite reservations about copyright law and music labels because I want artists to make a living directly from their art. When they licence their music for adverts my feeling is that they've subordinated their own art to a product. I therefore stop buying their music. If they don't value it enough, and have another income stream, they don't need me, and I can't be sure that their music isn't produced with an eye to attracting further revenue streams. Funnily enough, there's a cultural hierarchy of these things. Most people don't care if pop bands sell their music; some people mind that BP and cigarette companies sponsored classical concerts and art exhibitions, while there was an outcry when Fay Weldon wrote a book sponsored by – and heavily featuring – tasteless jeweller to the oligarchs Bulgari.

Why yes, people have accused me being a pompous revanchist git before. Thanks for asking.

Why am I going on about this now? Because I spotted a tweet from WonkHE announcing a 'partnership' with Hotcourses, one of those businesses which repackages public information, adds what it considers 'value' and makes a lot of money. I don't like it much, and liked it even less when it was owned by Jeremy Hunt MP. I do like WonkHE though. Despite its overwhelming maleness, Englishness and preoccupation with the Russell Group, it's a lively and interesting arena for Higher Education policy discussions. It's particularly useful to me because it often features views I might otherwise miss in my neomarxist bubble.

I hadn't thought about WonkHE's funding model at all previously. I tended to treat it as a service rather than a business. I didn't notice that it had any 'sponsors' at all, which means either I'm dumb or they're very discreet.

Perhaps the fact that I like the site lulled me into a state of acceptance, because I'm normally very wary of such things. Having spent years teaching students about the social media model, I know that if a service is free, you are the product. This is why I don't have Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp or anything other than this blog and Twitter. I pay for a Flickr account, and I keep all identifiable details off Twitter. Obviously all the data is still very profitable to them, and it takes about 30 seconds to deduce my identity but I don't make it easy, and I'm gradually adopting ad-blockers and the like to my electronic presence to reduce my exposure even further. Next step: TOR or EpicBrowser (both blocked on my university network).

My problem with WonkHE is the same one I now have with Portishead. Now I know they have a lot of funders, I have to start assuming that everything they produce is shaped – however remotely – by their commercial instincts: just look at what happened when Google didn't like the conclusions reached by some academics it funded. WonkHE will gain access to data from their sponsors, but that data will have been collected and shaped to further particular ends. Likewise, while WonkHE won't be selling reader data to their sponsors, it will be helping those sponsors understand me, my colleagues and my context for their own purposes. It won't feel like a community any more. I'd have been happy to pay a subscription – as I do for The Guardian, LibraryThing and Flickr – to keep a valuable arena open, but now I feel a bit used.

This is of course a function of my privileged position as an academic. Universities are complex things, behaving in multiple – often contradictory – ways at the same time. They're charities, businesses, liberation movements, social justice vehicles and corporate service providers all at once. It's frustrating and wonderful at the same time. One of the key advantages though is that almost everyone in HE understands that we have multiple responsibilities. There's this magical notion that intellectual purity and honesty outweighs immediate, local or commercial concerns: while 'truth' is accepted as a social construct these days, commitment to open and fearless enquiry is at the heart of what we do, and my particular employers have sometimes stood up for these principles even when they've been deeply frustrated with the consequences.

The result is that when my students attend a lecture, or someone reads a journal article I've written, they know that there are no hidden motives or justifications for what I've asked them to consider and what I've said, nor are my thoughts consciously shaped by the interests and perspectives of my employers or anyone else: I'm beholden only to my students and my sense of professional duty. No publishers have sponsored my reading list. I can't any longer assume that this is the case for WonkHE: while individual articles will no doubt be rigorous and honest, each additional sponsor will have some effect on what is presented and how it's framed.

I should apologise to WonkHE: they aren't doing anything worse than thousands of household names (in fact they're a lot better than most) and they wandered into my field of view just as I was getting on the highest of horses. Objecting to one organisation's adoption of tactics refined by much nastier companies (and Portishead) with barely a squeak of resistance from the public is totally pompous, quixotic and certainly ineffectual, but here I am. I can do no other. Other than fall off this horse and do myself a nasty injury.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

"You can't beat the West Coast, Mrs"

Well, I'm back. I was in Co. Kerry, Ireland for the famous Killorglin Mid-Kerry Puck Fair.• It rained a lot and I read some books (Three Guineas, The Nigger Factory, Tales of the City, Sheila Wingfield's Collected Works (thanks, Canon!), The Just City, Brick Lane, Fight Club, The Wretched of the Earth and Little Brother, ate far too well, saw a play about Jimmy Gralton, went to the Vermeer and Co. exhibition, and took some photos. In other words: perfect. Below – a few of my favourite shots. The rest are here.


At the fireworks

Also at the fireworks

Despite being called 'Chilled Cans' and being held up by scaffolding inside, this place insists on pouring Guinness properly even with 10,000 people waiting. Unlike every single pub in the UK. 

Tork Waterfall, Killarney

The Skelligs from near Waterville

I return to the cheery news that our faculty management, which has never been less than profligate when it comes to its own pursuits, has decided to cut costs by withdrawing the sweaty but free cheese sandwich it gave staff who came in on Saturdays to run Open Days. As a symbol of mean-spirited and misdirected economy in HE, said sandwich really takes the biscuit.

•It's only a Mid-Kerry festival according to a man from Castlemaine. He also told us his mother's house rules for Puck. 1. Don't vomit on the sofa. 2. Don't bring back any Beaufort girls. We didn't get to learn what she had against them.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Bye for now

Right, it's time to put my feet up.

I'm off on my holidays, by which I mean going somewhere else to prepare next semester's lectures and read a PhD thesis. But at least there will be a goat up a tower for symbolism. And rain.

See you all in a couple of weeks. Unless Donald and Jong-un manage to spark an all-out nuclear onslaught.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Back to reality

I don't spend all my time agonising over the state of academia. I also punch printers.

University of Darkplace
Network Printer Instructions

1.     Press Print
2.  Choose ‘Follow-You Printer’
3.     Walk to printer
4.     Touch ID card to sensor
5.     Read ‘No Jobs Received’
6.     Curse the day the printer salesman sold machine to gullible IT services rubes. Curse his/her parents, children, pets and pot-plants
7.     Walk back to office
8.     Email documents to Head of Department
9.     HoD walks to printer.
10.  HoD returns with documents. Apologise profusely and pretend that this will never happen again. You both know this is a damned lie. 
11.  Phone IT Services more out of habit than hope.
12.  Repeat thrice daily.

For more information, please re-read.