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 

Friday, 26 July 2019

Welcome to Hell

Well, last week's post insisted that nothing happened. This week everything has happened, though not necessarily to me. The Tour de France and Ireland's corking start to the Test match against some no-hope newcomers called Ingerland or something has anaesthetised me to some extent from the pain of a heatwave and the installation of the Johnson administration.

Maybe I'm getting old (44 last week) but I look at this shower and don't see statesmen and women: I see a bunch of overwhelmingly male, white, privately-educated Oxbridge graduates who've honed their one-liners at the Oxford Union debating society, done a couple of years in the cellars of a think-tank, strolled into parliament where they've deployed precisely the same kind of I-speak-your-weight Hayekian nonsense that got the young gentlemen rolling in the aisles back in the day. I really mean this: perusing the various books, speeches and tweets of this crowd, you get the sense that they have never met anyone outside their own circle worth considering, and there isn't a reflective bone in their collective bodies. What you get instead is the self-regard of a group that thinks – like the various Spiked magazine alumni infesting the body politic – that a good policy is the one that sounds most out of step with public opinion or good sense, one that, to use a phrase currently in vogue in the colonies, 'owns the libs'.

Priti Patel (one of several ministers returned indecently quickly after being justly sacked for disgraceful behaviour) with her obsessional regard for capital punishment; Sajid Javid and his proud boast that he's only read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (the film of the book is his favourite movie too); ministers for the environment, housing, welfare, Europe and so on distinguished only by their hostility towards their charges. Actually, that's not fair: Robert Jenrick, the Housing minister, owns two multi-million pound London homes and lives on an estate. A country estate, but still, it gives him an insight into the lives of others I'm sure. I'm not one to sentimentalise the past, but I'm already mentally rehabilitating Gauke, Hammond and Co: while their policies were vile, they at least didn't behave like governing a major country is a student prank. Douglas Adams nailed them spectacularly in Max Quordlepleen's monologue in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980):
“And thirdly,” he said, “thirdly a party of Young Conservatives from Sirius B, are they here?”
A party of smartly dressed young dogs stopped throwing rolls at each other and started throwing rolls at the stage. They yapped and barked unintelligibly.
“Yes,” said Max, “well this is all your fault, you realize that?”
While we're on the Hitchhikers' analogies, they also remind me of the advertising-executive contingent on the Golgafrincham B-ark, the useless section of a species sent off to found a colony on earth where they can't bother anyone, and from whom we're all descended. Gavin Williamson isn't an ad executive though: he's the Number 2 who declares war on some trees, just in case.



As you can probably tell, I'm not taking this at all well. The installation of a bunch of ultra-rightwing liars and cheats (including Grant Shapps, whom I personally thought I'd dispensed with last time, as the Guardian reported and euphemism his lies as 'overly-firm denial') is not a good background to resit marking, course admin and dealing with student complaints. I'm old now. The thought of saddling up once more and hounding these crooks and shysters just exhausts me, and there are so many of them.

I haven't even had much time for reading this week, only struggling through John Barth's proto-postmodern The End of the Road. I'm fine with the style, but the protagonist is so unpleasant that even while admiring the way he's put together, he's hard to spend any time with. The sexual politics have really, really not aged well either. I'm not sure what's next - I had planned to read or re-read some texts I've put on next year's syllabus, but rearrangement of the teaching duties mean I won't be teaching them. I've got some Carol Ann Duffy to catch up on ready for a conference I'm contributing to in September, but I might resort to closing my eyes and picking at random from the Room of Unread Books. This isn't an exaggeration for comic effect either: I literally have a room full of unread books, plus more in several locations. I haven't bought any books this week though, so I'm winning through. I just have to live to 109 to get through the ones I already own.

Enjoy your weekend. I was going to savour Ireland's defeat of England but they've just collapsed to 38 all out and lost the match. Just the last stages of the Tour de France to keep me going.

Friday, 19 July 2019

In which absolutely nothing happens

Pretty much nothing to say this week. I've just marked re-submitted essays and attempted to wrestle with the fresh new tortures added to our virtual learning environments and electronic course management tools. The students, many of whom need to confirm their timetables to plan work commitments, keep contacting me to ask when classes will run. I have no idea, and no idea when either party will know. All I hear is that one faculty identified 12,000 timetable clashes thanks to the whizzy new system that promised personalised timetables for all staff and students, with no clashes. God alone knows what happens when staff with caring responsibilities and flexible working requirements start asking for their legal rights to be recognised. So as far as next year goes, I mostly know what I'll be teaching, just not when or with whom. Situation normal, AFU.

Outside, of course, the world still burns and the New Idiocracy is about to take over, but we're all just passengers on this flaming jetliner of doom, so there's not much point rehearsing the usual anxieties. I've distracted myself by refereeing the Much Wenlock Olympian Games fencing competition last weekend (it went very well: no complaints about my decisions and no technical failures) and by turning 44. My bikes came back from repair with mixed results: the Moulton is running like a dream but the boring Forme road bike is still playing up. I've read a book or two, but not as much as I'd like: Wodehouse's Uncle Fred In The Springtime was like a greatest hits of his top-dimwits-in-trouble plots, and I'm currently halfway through Sam Byers' Perfidious Albion, which is a funny satire about Brexit with quite a lot of thinly-disguised contemporary figures prominently featured. It's a bit like JG Ballard's later novels with more gags. I particularly liked the Theory Dudes, a bunch of bros who prefer to uncover the hidden fascism in iced buns etc. than address violence on the streets.

I do seem to have acquired a lot more books than I've read this week - all the pent-up orders from my week away. They include Geraint Goodwin's The White Farm and Other Stories; Andrew Tolson's slim The Limits of Masculinity; Kath Filmer-Davies's Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth; Crawling Through Thorns, Welsh Boys Too and Fishboys of Vernazza by John Sam Jones (in all my years attending Welsh Lit conferences, I don't recall anyone discussing these intriguing novels and short stories about gay Welsh life, and he seems to have no online presence); Lucie McKnight Hardie's disturbing Welsh coming-of-age novel Water Shall Refuse Them; Red Love and Love of Worker Bees by Soviet commissar and ambassador Alexandra Kollontai; the new collection of Malory Towers stories by Lucy Mangan, Narinder Dhami, Patrice Lawrence and Rebecca Westcott; some excellent old Penguin editions from a colleague, including James Thurber's Is Sex Necessary?, and Armistead Maupin's Babycakes, the fourth of the Tales of the City series. I've taught earlier ones, but wanted to teach the volume that covers the early years of the AIDS crisis. Turns out I'm not teaching American Lit after all, so I'll just read it for fun.

In the absence of any opinions with which to detain you, enjoy your weekend and tune in for another exciting episode of Lists of Books and Minor Complaints.

Friday, 12 July 2019

A Week in the Stacks

This is the end of a week at Gladstone's Library in Penarlâg/Hawarden - one of the few (only?) prime ministerial equivalents of a Presidential library of which there are many in the US. One can only imagine what will be in the Trump Library: tweets and subpoenas plus – one can only hope – illiterate letters to Fox News anchors written on toilet paper and smuggled out from his cell.

Gladstone's Library is rather magnificent. The core collections are his own theology, history and literature holdings, held in a lovely Edwardian-neoMedieval complex which looks like it was plucked from the banks of the River Isis and dropped in this border village. Gladstone himself was clearly a character: one of his books bears the comment 'this generally worthless volume', while the church ceiling has a patch where he impatiently decided that he could repair it better than anyone else, before giving up in the face of the scale of the task. There's a slightly feudal - and border - air to the village too: the Gladstones still occupy the local mansion and estate (which you can't even glimpse) and have endowed anything that isn't moving.

It's been a wonderful week. I've just sat here in beautiful surroundings, working away on turning my PhD into a book, and spoken to virtually nobody. Those I have spoken to have been interesting and lovely. It's going to be hard to leave, but the resit marking waits for no man. I'll be back, and next time I'll book well enough in advance to get a room here rather than in the b-and-b, good as that was.

Focussed on work as I have been, I've really only read critical texts: John Jenkins's PhD on masculinity in Valleys novels (which I examined and like a lot); Emma Smith's Masculinity in Welsh Writing in English, Harri Garrod Roberts's Embodying Identity: Representations of the Body in Welsh Literature, and William Germano's From Dissertation to Book - all highly recommended. I did zip through a battered old Penguin copy of Wodehouse's Uncle Fred in the Springtime at the weekend, and I've almost finished Stevie Davies's Awakening: a superb neoVictorian evocation of the impact of Darwinism on nonconformist belief, taking in sisterly relations, female desire and Anglo-Welsh relations along the way. It's subtle, unflashy and rather wonderful.

Some random pictures from the last few days:









Friday, 5 July 2019

This week's whinge

Thanks to the gods of the research budget (they play with us for their sport), I'm away all next week – sitting in the Gladstone Library trying to get on with turning my ancient and pedestrian PhD dissertation into a book. This should be a little more advanced, but my six-week sabbatical this semester was almost as badly impacted as my collar-bone was when I got hit by a car: this week away should help me catch up a little.

Sadly the Gladstone's accommodation is fully booked so I'm in a b-and-b across the road and won't be able to stay in the library in the evening, but it will still be good. I'm hoping to take a bike for those balmy evenings, but they're both in for repair at the moment and I'm not sure they'll be ready in time. One of the difficulties about having a rare one is that the bike shop lacks the specialist tools. What you gain in geek-points, you lose in practicality. And money.

This week has mostly been about course admin - trying to set up next year's modules without knowing what the timetable is or who's available to teach - and counselling students ahead of the resubmission day next week. Students fail for a wide variety of reasons and I have an awful lot of sympathy for most of them (and most seize the opportunity to have another go with good grace and effort), but some do try one's patience. Sending me a draft for comment that is clearly and crudely plagiarised seems rather cheeky, as does airily admitting that one hasn't read the text being written about. This is now Slide 1 of my Hamlet lecture.


Anyway, enough of that. On with the apologies. A week or two I expressed my frustration that certain very senior and entirely imaginary colleagues had wreaked havoc, behaved unethically, and failed upwards to other institutions under cover of NDAs, pay-offs and good references. I am assured by one who certainly knows that this is not the case - a relief, and evidence that perhaps I am sometimes too cynical. There's still the issue of what happened to effective oversight and accounting, but I'm happy to correct the record. And to my readers in the posh seats: just rattle your jewellery. (And while you're here, ask yourselves this: despite posters all over the place referring to the 'digital campus', why can't a course leader contact every student on a course, or in a particular year on a course, in one go?). 

I've found a bit of time for other things. Sunday saw me doing refreshing my welfare officer and child protection qualifications for fencing - mostly quite repetitive, but there's a new emphasis – or panic around – social media. Perhaps understandably, governing bodies, like the law, struggle to keep up with the scary new possibilities raised by the plethora of platforms especially in the hands of the young and enthusiastic, and those with sinister intent. Thankfully the current training doesn't try to be exhaustive: keeping it simple and thinking ethically are the key aspects. 

Books: only a couple this week. Stephen Baxter's H-Bomb Girl was entertaining, witty and convincingly situation in early-60s Liverpool, and well worth the 99p I paid for it in The Works. The new Kevin Barry novel Night Boat to Tangier is great - a very consciously Beckettian piece about two witty, charming, dapper, washed-up Irish psychopaths. Full-on Corkonian Hiberno-English dialogue, absolutely minimal narration, struggles to generate female characters with the same rich interiority – the women are wives, mothers, daughters, copers and escapees, but lack agency (though as the Beckett influence is strong, almost nobody has much agency). I'm currently most of the way through Peter Ackroyd's The Death of King Arthur. It's a long time since I read Malory, but I think he's managed to reproduce the structural jumpiness, Arthur's savagery (his Herod-style massacre of the infants, for instance) and the uninterest in character development rather well, despite – or perhaps because – cutting two-thirds of the story out. I'd forgotten too how close to the surface the Celtic-style ritualism is in Malory's very Anglo-Norman text. 

Friday, 28 June 2019

Summer: not yet icumen in.

Normally at this point of the year it feels ass if things are slowing down a little. Not this time - between the second Faculty re-structure in 18 months with its concomitant organisational and union casework challenges, the slowly-dwindling repercussions of being off sick, the magic new timetabling system (much vaunted, not yet spotted in the wild), terrifying recruitment figures – non-recruitment would be more apt, workload challenges, external examining duties and research deadlines approaching, I'm exhausted and more than a little worried about the future.

Also, and on an astonishingly mundane level, my beloved Bridgestone Moulton bike is starting to show signs of age: it shouldn't be preying on my mind nearly as much as it is! At the moment I can't use the highest gear – the new chain (made up of two shorter ones) just won't engage with it, which is infuriating as I virtually never use any of the others. My local bike shop does its best but they haven't seen most of its odd-sized components before, and some of them are no longer made. Ideally I'd trade up to a Moulton NS Speed but I don't happen to have £16,000 plus change lying around and work's Cyclescheme doesn't quite stretch to it… I do have a boring normal road bike but that's playing up too. I don't know what I manage to do to them.

As for the rest of the week, it's been hectic but fun. My dramaturge friend Emi Garside popped up, so it was good to see her. I had two days at Swansea University, fitting in a little light external examining on their English and Welsh MA courses between walks along the beach, fine ice-creams and good company; I talked to students about resits and continuing projects, and I read some books. I enjoyed MT Hill's post-Brexit dystopian novel The Zero Bomb especially the vision of an illegal underground version of the NHS post-privatisation. Ben Aaronovitch's latest in the Rivers of London series, The October Man is set in Germany's wine country and was good fun - it's a novella that didn't add anything special to the overall series, but was very enjoyable nonetheless. After that I read Stevie Smith's 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper. It's been on my shelves for at least a decade, picked up for £1.99 from The Works. How I wish I'd read it as soon as I bought it. I didn't realise how much fun it was, nor how compelling the narrative voice is. The narrator is a businessman's secretary, Pompey, and the story is her jumbled thoughts on everything from the Jews for whom she feels some affection while also believing herself naturally superior (rather uncomfortable at this distance, though I suspect a fair representation of her class and time, and Pompey learns the error of her ways once she visits her German friends), the Nazis (against), suicide (for, in principle, and thinks it should be presented to children as a reasonable option), art, sex (very much for), marriage (rather undecided) and aunts (ambiguous). I moves between witty chat and genuinely profound. She performs constantly – as a family member, a friend, an employee – while knowing exactly how large is the gulf between how 'normal' people behave and how she wants to behave. The style is somewhere between Woolf, Flann O'Brien, Wodehouse and Daisy Ashford of The Young Visiters fame, and it's hard to tell how knowing or naive it really is. There are counter-Betjemanesque touches – like the image of the young woman lingering by the tennis courts in the hope that some young chap will propose to her – and Mansfieldesque ones when the Pompey takes a moment to examine her condition. I liked the line 'I do not like this riot of emotion. I do not like it at all'. Anyway - highly recommended.

Finally, I'm most of the way through Kate Atkinson's latest Jackson Brodie crime novel, Big Sky. Like all of the series, its power derives from knowingly flitting between literary fiction and detective fiction mode. I'm not sure the balance is quite right this time: the repeated reminders that the author and the characters are aware of what happens in crime thrillers are a bit laboured, especially when the plot – paedophilia and people trafficking on the Yorkshire coast – is so dark, contemporary and compelling. The bad men are nicely made, but the real triumph is Crystal, a damaged child who single-mindedly self-fashions herself into a trophy wife and becomes the moral core of the novel. Jackson himself, a great creation originally, seems to be a bit-part player to some extent, the vehicle for many self-deprecating jokes about his inability to connect with the younger generation (they all have mobile phones and don't talk to adults much, and you can't make them climb chimneys for a living) which sometimes shade into a sense that Atkinson herself is finding generational change a bit hard to take. That probably sounds harsher than I feel, but there is a problem here. The darker side of the novel is operating on the territory of David Peace's horrifying, political representation of South Yorkshire as a failed state, Red Riding Quartet and the best bits of it are equal to that series, but the jokes and cosier aspects keep detracting from the grimness.

Next up – if I finish the manuscript I'm reviewing – is Kevin Barry's new one, Night Boat To Tangier. Amongst the new books acquired this week are Levy and Mendlesohn's Children's Fantasy Literature, David Runciman's How Democracy Ends and philandering MP Alan Clark's 1960 Bargains At Special Prices in a beautiful 1967 Arrow cheap paperback edition. The BBC showed a version of it in 1964 but I doubt any tapes survive.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

This is, of course, entirely hypothetical.

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





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

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




Tuesday, 11 June 2019

A few book non-recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 June 2019

Jeremy Cut-Me-Own-Throat Hunt, Entrepreneur

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait: the entrepreneurial stuff must be coming, right?

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

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

Friday, 31 May 2019

Me neither.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 24 May 2019

A tale of two resignations

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 May 2019

A Weekend In Wales and Other Stories

Good Monday to you all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 May 2019

The weekly blah

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

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

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

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

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

The other books I got this week were:

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

So that's my bank holiday sorted…


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

Friday, 26 April 2019

Medieval studies, medieval attitudes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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