Friday, 16 November 2018

'Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes'


Another strange week. All the usual duties need doing: teaching, admin, washing and cooking, but pushing from the background to the foreground are the signs of a state and an establishment falling apart under the weight of its denial and self-contradictions. Yesterday I found myself checking in seminar coffee breaks whether the UK still had a government, whether Trump had exploded as inconvenient election results trickled in, whether California (where I have relatives) was still an inferno.

So it was with a considerable degree of irony that yesterday's class was on Allen Ginsberg's Howl, a poem that starts with 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness / starving hysterical naked…'. As the students pointed out, the madness isn't necessarily that of the best minds (who are his Beat friends but also his mother, repeatedly confined to mental hospitals): it could be the collective madness of a polity and culture at war with itself. This reading really works: in part II we meet Moloch, the god to whom babies are sacrificed and who represents American industrial-military society. We had a really good discussion of the Jewish roots of the anaphoric form Ginberg uses (the repeated clauses starting with 'who'), which led us discussing RD Laing's anti-psychiatry and Basaglia's work to close down all Italian residential psychiatric hospitals (see John Foot's excellent book) and to me playing Leonard Cohen's 'Who By Fire', based on the Day of Atonement prayer, and the influence of Zen Buddhism on the proto-hippies in San Francisco and New York.

We talked about yoga (which at least one student practises) and how Howl eschews teleological meaning and progress in favour of revelation through repetition and revelation, echoing Blake and Dickinson, and ended up talking about the relationship of meaning to form, and the twin poles of what Nietszche's Appollonian and Dionysian attitudes towards personal engagement with society – Apollo represents logical, thoughtful engagement, whereas Dionysius favours emotion and irrationality. In Howl, Moloch is the perverted end-state of Appollonian culture in which the madhouse awaits all dissenters, reminiscent of the argument that the Enlightenment led to the gates of Auschwitz, whereas the bath-houses, sex in the bushes and the pursuit of pleasure are the ecstatic rejection of the system and any attempts to reform it.

Obviously we couldn't just talk about this stuff: a lecture about underlying theories would be the Molochian approach to the poem. Instead, I treated the students to a range of musical and artistic experiences that explored the same ground to make the point that form is culturally loaded. We looked at Jackson Pollock's abstract expressionism in comparison to the Soviet realism from earlier weeks, while not forgetting that the CIA fostered abstraction and avant-garde art forms as part of the Cold War rivalry (see Hugh Wilford's The Mighty Wurlitzer and Frances Stonor Saunders's Who Paid The Piper: the CIA and the Cultural Cold War for more details). In musical terms, I started off gently with Ginsberg reading Howl:

 'Wichita Vortex Sutra' over Philip Glass's piece of the same name:

Then we dodged back to pre-modernism by playing a little of Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending as a (beautiful) example of art that provided solace rather than confrontation.

After that we went straight to the avant-garde and classical music's attempt to reflect and examine modernity: in particular, minimalism's affinity for Eastern Buddhist forms merged with the Jewish inheritance of composers like Steve Reich:

I was really interested in the students' reactions to Come Out: they're immersed in a culture of samples and loops, but Come Out is an early and particularly uncompromising version of it. The initial reaction was horror: it's so relentless. A couple of students who looked it up on their phones got the point of it, but there wasn't the time to get fully immersed in the piece. Incidentally, I have wondered whether the starkest minimalism is a male thing: a friend of mine cried when I played another Reich piece a few years ago. For her the repetition produced a form of claustrophobia. I find it soothing and hypnotic: I'm drawn to the same kind of rock/pop music: kosmische or Krautrock, and the music of bands like Stereolab. Curiously, I don't get much out of techno, which came from similar roots: the inanity of the vocals stop me from falling into the groove (and no, I'm way too old to pop a couple of yokes to get there chemically). I did play them The Orb's famous 'Little Fluffy Clouds', which sampled Reich's Electric Counterpoint, apparently to the composer's bemused delight. 

However, the point of minimalism is that while it's partly about rejecting the European avant-garde's atonalism (I happen to like that stuff too), it's about meaning through the absence of teleological (goal-oriented structures), hence the composers' fascination with Jewish and Buddhist religious practises. I played them Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as an example of the classical world engaging with the horrors of the twentieth-century rather than providing comfort:

That wasn't their favourite piece, but that's the point: it's horrific. By this point in the class I was getting cocky, so threw in unannounced a performance of John Cage's 4'33".

This was fun: the video helped because it set up the expectation of something happening: man at a piano wearing full classical rig. At first there was silence. Then some giggling. A few people spoke, to me and to others, and there were plenty of noises off: phones buzzing, passing traffic, coughing and twitching. I ran it for the whole 4 minutes and 33 seconds, and then we talked about form: that Cage had reduced it to a performer and a space of time, redefining what music is by playing on audience expectations. There was some thrifty economic humour ('you paid to see that? How much was the ticket'?) but they really got the point. Finally, we went back to the Ginsberg poem to discuss sex as an anti-political act, pausing to consider the misogyny inherent in the stanza about the 'three shrews'.

After last week's heated, and very necessary, discussion of structural and personal racism, the class was almost relaxing. There were no deep divides on matters of sexuality to be seen, so the poem's targets and structure were sufficiently distant from the students' immediate lives to be safe topics, which is a mark of progress I guess, considering that Howl was once banned for obscenity. I hope the students got more out of it other than marvelling at my musical tastes, but time will tell. We had our course committee the day before and several people said how sad they were that this module was coming to an end. I am too, but economic austerity has sadly led to educational and intellectual austerity.

As to the rest of the week: I had the pleasure of going up to Keele University to see the Women of Keele Educate (WOKE, geddit?) host Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, who was very impressive personally, politically and intellectually. There was another of my regular punishment beatings from the dentist, and a little bit of reading: I finished TC Boyle's environmental bildungsroman A Friend of the Earth which though a bit lumpy seemed all too sad and prophetic after twenty years since publication: while the central protagonist comes to term with failure, his fury at environmentalist leaders' slow corruption from activists to gradualists really chimed with recent history. It was a pleasure to whip through the latest collection of Steve Bell's scabrous Guardian cartoons, The Corbyn Resurrection, and I read the final volume of Dave Hutchinson's Europe quartet, Europe at Dawn. The series is semi-fantasy examinations of the nature of states and nations: there's a semi-fantasy premise in which a slightly-future Europe has dissolved into ever-more fissiparous city-states, ethnically-exclusive enclaves and various other polities, requiring a clandestine organisation called Les Coureurs des Bois to negotiate borders and laws in constant flux. Meanwhile, a posh South-western family has in the nineteenth-century learned to make pocket universes, and founded a Community which preserves a kind of 1930s white English rural society in all its poorly-nourished, paranoid glory and develops the ability to hold Europe to ransom. If you're thinking there's a hint of Brexitty satire in there, you'd be right. Anyway, I like them very much: the series has all the qualities of the best SF or fantasy, being both politically thought-provoking and page-turning. I've now started Declan Kiberd's magisterial Inventing Ireland and Andrew Tate's Apocalyptic Fiction, which should keep me going for a while.

Enjoy your weekend. I'll be mournfully watching Ireland almost-but-not-quite beat New Zealand.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Should I Be Talking to BME People About Race?

I've just come out of one of the most intense classes I've ever been involved with and thought it might be worth mentioning, even though I'll have to skirt around some aspects to preserve students' confidences and identities.

I run a module which looks at literary and cultural responses to a number of liberation movements: mostly literature but occasionally other media. It has flaws: like all modules, there's too little time to do too much and I made the decision – perhaps erroneously – to cover several movements rather than devote the module to, for example, African-American civil rights, or gay liberation. It feels, therefore, a touch if-it's-Thursday-it-must-be-feminism about it, really just skimming the surface and it obviously reflects my interests. Not ideal, but I wanted students to get their hands on as many texts as possible that they might never otherwise see. We look at two proletarian/socialist novels, Gwyn Thomas's The Alone to the Alone and Lewis Jones's Cwmardy, Virginia Woolf's 'Three Guineas' and Valerie Solanas's Manifesto of the Society for Cutting Up Men, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Ginsberg's Howl, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Tony Harrison's poem 'V', Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club.

It's a small second-year class - 19 when everyone turns up, and I know all the regular attenders well from first-year, except for the Erasmus students. Only one student is male, virtually everyone is the first person in their family to attend university, there's a fair age range, and the students' ethnic origins are very diverse – much more so than you'd get in an Oxford college for instance. Basically, they reflect the local community and this institution's stated intention of making HE available to all.

Each week, I expect the students to have read the week's text(s) and we start with a sub-group presenting their perspectives. They're asked to build in opportunities for discussion, and part of the overall grade depends on participation in other groups' presentations. That means everyone has to read all the books and contribute in the way they'd expect others to contribute to their own week. Nobody can hide at the back or ride freely.

Some weeks the texts seem impossibly distanced from the students' lives. Cwmardy and The Alone to the Alone aroused considerable debate, but the days of autonomous, organised mass working-class politics sounded fantastic to them, depending as it does on mass employment, industrial economies and less atomised communities. All of the students have jobs, but unionisation is either a mystery to them or a privilege of middle-class, securely-employed people like me. A lot of students liked 'Three Guineas' but found Woolf's (self-admitted) concern for upper bourgeois women limiting: Manifesto led to a huge discussion about men and sexism in their own lives, but the rhetorical aspects of Solanas's work, especially the humour, was missed. Last week we looked at Invisible Man, the 1950s classic of one man's attempt to be himself when neither his black community, the Communist Party nor white society would ever see him as anything other than a type or a representative. All the discussions were lively, sometimes going on for 90 minutes without me having to say much at all, and the students' engagement was serious, passionate and thoughtful (even though at least one person initially read The Invisible Man before realising her mistake!). It's also an education for me, intellectually and emotionally. I'm essentially Privilege personified: every week I teach people who don't look, act or sound like me about texts in which the people who do look, sound and behave like me are justifiably the enemy. All the things I'm reading about in the abstract are being experienced by my students in their daily lives.

This week was Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and Reni Eddo-Lodge's book, starting with a presentation by three white continental European students from different countries about the latter text. All the terms that have swirled around in current debates came to a head, particularly 'white privilege'. Even requiring students to read a book with this title, and talk about the word in class, is an act of white, gendered, class privilege: while I've been the target of local media ire in the past, I can't help thinking that a black colleague – if we had any – would face accusations of indoctrination by the forces of reaction.We talked about discourse and representation, about media coverage and about 'black racism'. Students discussed their personal lives, the murders of close friends, their experiences in schools and relationships and tried to fit them into the racialised structures identified by Eddo-Lodge and Scott-Heron. We talked about why I and my colleagues don't look like the student body in terms of sex, gender, class and race, and we looked at the notorious White Saviour advert the university deployed in the summer (which I ridiculed in an earlier blog post). The discussion quite often became an argument and I tried hard, not completely successfully, to encourage students to express themselves honestly while thinking about the impact of their language choices and assumptions.

One of the things that came out is the huge amount of emotional and intellectual labour needed to discuss these things. When we discussed representations of BME characters in fiction, we talked about the way their plots always relate to their ethnic identity, or they're always bad guys: the BME students made it very clear how utterly exhausting it is to live – like the nameless protagonist of Invisible Man – as a type or an issue rather than a person. Conversely, my white students had to work hard too: Lodge's book in particular demands that white people examine their lives and fortunes as the product of structural racism rather than individual good or bad luck or effort. One student needed a break to calm down after some ill-chosen words struck home, while we all struggled to relate anecdote to systemic issues. Voices were raised and I frequently had to consider the tensions between free speech, full exchanges of views and the nature of offence. 'Safe space' is a much-abused concept these days, but we all had to think about it, and I had to consider the ways in which the power I wielded in that classroom is a product of my own multiple privileges, and whether I was wielding it responsibly (I did encourage revolt though). One of my slides simply asked 'should I be in the room?'.

I've never left a three hour class before so sure that we could have carried on literally all day, but I'm also left with doubts and concerns, particularly about my duty of care towards them. I'm thrilled that my students felt able to say what they think to each other; I'm not sure that all the wounds will heal, and the hard labour involved falls disproportionately on those from subaltern positions. There are wounds, and many of the students were clearly reassessing their own perspectives and others' as the class went on. I genuinely don't know whether the pain involved justified requiring them to read and consider these texts. One student very much felt that the opportunity to talk about these things in the open was exactly what a university should be doing, but I'm sure that others felt that either their own lives were post-racial, or that they might be expected to speak as representatives of their own ethnicities. All lives are texts, I suggested, but a classroom shouldn't become a psychologist's couch with the students and teachers as the psychologist. I'm not from a culture that shares much (ugh), but that means that if I weren't a perpetually-worried academic, I probably wouldn't interrogate my behaviours and their contexts much either: while my students have a very full range of personal and political perspectives, they're much happier to discuss them without filter as the kids say.

It comes down to power. I have it, they largely don't. I used it to make them confront themselves and others through the medium of these texts. If I hadn't, would they have had the opportunity to consider these issues? Is it OK to invite BME students to publicly address their experience in the interest of educating those from the dominant group, or is it empowering to given them and the others the opportunity to locate their personal experiences within structures and systems? At the very least, we can't just 'do' this subject in one class and move on: it's got to be part of a long, serious conversation.

Any thoughts?

Friday, 2 November 2018

In haste…

Way too busy for a substantial blog post this week! Some good news though: not a single near-death experience on the roads: it's half-term!

It's not all been work though. After seeing my friends in an am-dram Poirot play, a bunch of us went to see The Comedy of Errors (hilarious misunderstandings involving two pairs of long-lost twins) at the RSC in Stratford at the ungodly hour of 10.15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Even more barbaric, it was a children's version! I had visions of it being a modern-language attempt to be down with the kids, with all the filthy bits stripped out, but it turned out to be rather a triumph. All the saucy lines were kept in at high speed so the kids didn't get a chance to ponder what they'd just heard, the actors were hugely energetic and the audience interaction was beautifully done, especially the recruitment of a random little boy to play the arresting officer, complete with cape and a script. The cast also made sure he was called back for the final bow too. With no interval and a few judicious cuts, it worked beautifully - lots of high speed slapstick, some adult jokes for the parents and all wrapped up satisfyingly (except for Luciana, whom you'd normally expect to be married off to a spare twin) before lunchtime, which meant I got on the outside of an espresso martini or two several hours in advance of my normal drinking habits.

The other cultural highlight of the week was a visit by the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley. I'm an NS subscriber quite often despite my better judgement: I like Laurie Penny, Helen Lewis, Tracey Thorn and the arts coverage in general, but I find the political coverage increasingly tedious. As Cowley said, he's covered what he called 'jihadism' in depth, leading him to some very dubious conclusions in my view, and the magazine also seems to be obsessed with Englishness, unionism (state, not trade) and the virtues of Christianity to an unhealthily muscular degree. Cowley had an interesting route to the editorship and he's fostered some excellent and forward-thinking writers, but his talk reflected his general approach: well-meaning liberalism almost incapable of considering the world from any view other than that of the decent cosmopolitan London chap: his political horizon is white and male and his Britain is actually middle-class southern England. The rest of us feature largely as puzzling ingrates.

Anyway, it was an interesting and thoughtful talk apart from the blokey football banter  Like the NS, there's a slight sense that Cowley's political perspective is like that of a man who can't understand why his wife has left him but knows it isn't his fault because he's a decent chap. Well-meaning, but shocked that the right isn't interested in common sense and decency any more, and faintly appalled by the brusqueness and energy of the left. To his enormous credit, Cowley acknowledged that NS took a long time to understand Corbyn's Labour Party, explaining that they never expected such energy, enthusiasm and fresh ideas from a group of people who'd been fixtures on the back-benches for decades, and that he made an effort to recruit writers and thinkers with whom he disagrees. I still haven't forgiven him for the magazine's disgraceful attempts to get Ed Miliband overthrown though - a clear case of stepping over the line between commentator and player.

As to the rest of the week, teaching has been fun (for me, anyway: the students may have a different view). Hamlet (apparently renaming Ophelia Opheliaarrggghhh in honour of Hallowe'en isn't funny), which somehow led me towards an ill-advised comparison with Team America: World Police (NSFW), and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The student leading the discussion was both honest and hilarious when she confessed to having bought and read The Invisible Man before realising her mistake – the HG Wells novel is kind of fun but very far removed from Ellison's civil rights classic!

It's on a module I lead on literary responses to protest and resistance movements – socialism, feminism, civil rights and so on. One of the great things about it is that it's an all-women group with a minority of white people: introducing such a group to works of literature about them by people like them and hearing how they relate to them (highly unpredictably, I should say) is a privilege, and a frequent reminder of my own social and cultural privilege, but also really enjoyable. Some weeks the student-led discussion takes over the whole slot, which is when I know it's been a success. Next week should be very interesting: Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Obviously we're starting with a conversation about that word, who gets to say and define it, and how to deal with it in the context of a literary discussion, which should prove instructive. It's a great novel too - examining the cultural and political divide between the gradualist civil rights leaders who led historically-black universities and the angry 1960s students fed up with playing nice (a divide which also appears in Invisible Man twenty years earlier). Scott-Heron was on a leave of absence from university when he wrote it - long before he became a jazz/rap/poetry star.

Here's Gil Scott-Heron's famous song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: I love his work and that of his group, The Last Poets, but quite a lot of it reveals the gaping holes in their liberationist philosophy - women and homosexual men come off particularly badly in songs like 'Gashman', for instance.

Other than that, I haven't had much time for reading. I finished Jonathan Coe's Middle England and enjoyed it very much while wondering whether its Condition-of-England theme really suited the concurrent conclusion of the Trotters' family saga. As always with Coe, I couldn't point at a paragraph or two of really stylish narrative, but the dialogue is absolutely spot on, as is the comic timing. Even when you can spot the punchline coming a mile off, the jokes are beautifully wrought, as are some of the set-pieces, like the feuding clowns. A moment of appreciation for the dust jacket designer too, who came up with a 1930s-50s style bucolic scene in watercolour like something from a Shell Guide, crudely ripped away to reveal a blankness where Englishness (that word again) was once thought to reside.

Special Editions | Waterstones

I also forced myself to finish John Buchan's astonishingly racist and imperialist African adventure novel Prester John, which might find its way on to my upcoming module on migration and emigration, and I've started T. C. Boyle's 2001 environmental comedy-tragedy A Friend of the Earth starring Tyrone Tierwater, 'half-Irish, half-Jewish' and therefore comically grumpy. It's less funny in 2018 than Boyle may have expected, given the speed with which his predictions have come true. I'v seen Boyle's work around for years but never got round to reading any and so far I'm enjoying it.

See you next week.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Two Wheels Bad?

Having posted in successive weeks with 'Moan Moan Moan' and 'A Moaning Free Zone', the votes are in.

You lot prefer moaning by a massive margin. Well, you can't say you didn't ask for it.

I'm typing this with even shakier hands than usual this morning, and not because I haven't had my usual breakfast Chartreuse. I may have mentioned in passing that I'm a cyclist, just now and then. I cycle for pleasure and leisure, but I also cycle to work and back every day for convenience and because I take environmental issues really seriously. I've gradually extended my commute to make it a decent work out, and I'm scrupulous when it comes to the rules of the road: no cycling on pavements, no slipping through red lights or jumping pedestrian crossings, I have full lights and I stick to speed limits. My current route takes me past a private school, a grammar school, two primary schools, and FE college and several multi-lane junctions and roundabouts.

This week alone, an SUV driver fully blocked the pavement as I walked along and motioned me to move onto a busy road to get round him, while on the bike two vehicles have pulled out of junctions when I'm actually crossing it, another overtook me as I signalled to change lanes, two more have deliberately run fully-red lights, and one of my own colleagues made me skid to an emergency stop this morning when he turned right into my path to get into the staff car park. I actually pursued this one to have a word and all he could say was that he 'didn't see' me: it's a bright sunny day, I'm wearing bright colours and the road was otherwise empty.

The school run drivers are worse, and there's obviously an economic/class element to it: the private school and grammar school drivers are the least attentive, and they drive the biggest cars: most of the worst behaviour is by 4x4 owners. They're also the ones most likely in my experience to indulge in a little recreational cyclist abuse: apparently buying a 3-ton 7ft-wide 5.0 litre vehicle to transport one or two people is 'normal' while owning a 12kg one-wheel drive vehicle that emits nothing more than CO2, sweat and – under pressure – fruity language is freakish and selfish.

I'm no saint. I'm bitter, sarcastic, far too angry about too many things and generally misanthropic, but I do see cycling as my contribution to the common good. I could have spent my money or got into debt to buy myself a Range Rover. Instead, I've removed virtually all the metal and fossil fuels that go into producing a car in favour of something that runs on lard and pork scratchings. I've helped cut down on congestion and my reward is a twice daily faceful of poison, terrible road conditions, no serious cycle lanes, a near-daily encounter with mortality, abuse from motorists and a completely indifferent response from my employer, which provides no facilities for cyclists and has long since given up on even maintaining a facade of environmental concern.

My immediate colleagues get a lot of thoroughly justified amusement from the sight of me in lycra and helmet: it's very far from being a pretty sight. That's fine, but what really worries me is that when this city and places like it need a break from cars – every single school round here is bathed in illegal levels of NOx and the city is being throttled by congestion – the only cyclists out are angry road warriors armoured and paranoid. If I'm out there wondering whether today will be my last because that school run parent is too busy texting to look while he or she pulls out, what hope is there of getting children, commuters, the elderly and leisure cyclists out there? What hope of ending the slow suicide of combustion engines when a massive proportion of the motor industry depends on persuading people that having a massive vehicle is a sign of success and power (SUVs, or 4x4s, were developed after the American motor industry discovered that their potential purchasers were paranoid sociopaths, and decided it was a good dollar, as Keith Bradsher's excellent book High and Mighty explained years ago). One would have thought that having been caught deliberately poisoning the planet, Volkswagen might have learned a little humility, but no: here we find them advertising their latest SUV to aggressive, selfish people.

I'll say this. The majority of drivers I encounter are careful and courteous, especially lorry and bus drivers who have clearly been well-educated for the most part. I'm also aware that there's a small minority of cyclists who take stupid risks or ride dangerously to others. However, on a social level we have organised working life and our living and working spaces to make them as immediately and longitudinally dangerous as possible to the most harmless people pedestrians, cyclists, children and the elderly.

OK, and breathe. Off the bike it's been a fine week. Friends have succeeded at things, others have had babies and teaching has been a delight (Hamlet in one class, The Handmaid's Tale in another). I'm halfway though Jonathan Coe's Middle England and mostly enjoying it, and I'm re-reading Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race in preparation for next week's classes. It's bracingly blunt. Most enjoyably of all, I went to an amateur dramatic production of Agatha Christie's Black Coffee last night, featuring several of my colleagues. Obviously being a ironic cynic (or cynical ironist) steeped in literary satire, my expectations of Am-Dram were snobbish and mean: The Play That Goes Wrong, Noises Off (OK, not about Am-Dram but theatre nonetheless) and many more had led me to think this would be amusing rather than absorbing. Plus the opportunity to tease my friends couldn't be passed up. I was so wrong. The play itself was terrible: almost a parody of its own genre, the country-house murder with added McGuffins, but every time I thought it was irredeemable, a really sharp line popped up, particularly about Italians and their supposed penchant for poisoning. Not many of the audience laughed at these: I hope because casual Europhobia isn't funny any more, but maybe because the Brexit-age crowd may not have seen them as satirical. But anyway, it didn't matter that the script was dreadful and occasionally an actor forgot a line: it was just lovely to see my friends and their colleagues having so much fun and putting themselves out there for the entertainment of the crowd. I certainly couldn't do it. It ended up being one of the most enjoyable nights out I've had in ages - bravo!

Friday, 19 October 2018

A moaning-free zone

No moaning this week. Even though moaning is clickbait: last week's post, entitled 'Moan Moan Moan' attracted 2500 readers - the previous one managed a paltry 140. Clearly you're all monsters delighting in the spectacle of misery.

So anyway, no moaning, despite having plenty to moan about. Instead: happiness. Not solely because the new Doctor Who is very good – friends have had great successes this week, other friends are about to have a baby, another one delivered (see what I did there) an inspiring professorial lecture yesterday and my students made teaching this week a joy. The stars aligned for once, fate failed to vomit on my eiderdown, and the dew did not fall with a particularly sickening thud (bonus points for spotting the origins of those references).

The teaching highlights were this week's Shakespeare and We Are Many modules. Having shown the students the Helen Mirren/Russell Brand film version of The Tempest last week (I'm allergic to RB but he was very good as Trinculo), my lecture looked at race, power and colonialism in fairly standard ways, but the two-hour seminar concentrated solely on the opening scene aboard the foundering ship and required the students to puzzle out the dramatic and interpretive difficulties by acting it out. If that wasn't difficult enough, we gave them Renaissance-style scripts: only their own lines plus the last word of the previous speaker's line.

It worked really well. This scene is easily passed over as a device for getting the cast on to the island but actually it's packed with the themes that get taken up in the rest of the play. The sinking ship is an island of its own. It has multiple rulers claiming authority from different sources: the Master who knows how to actually sail the thing and the aristo passengers who think (like Cnut didn't earlier and Charles I later did argue) that rank outweighs competence (oddly enough, we're having the same argument here at work – so far the rankers are winning). Amidst impending death, they all stop for an argument during which the Boatswain puts forward the basically treasonous argument that unless the courtiers do what they're told rather than interfere, they're all going to die. Once on the island, of course, you have Caliban, Prospero and Trinculo vying for authority on various grounds, while the real work is done by Caliban and Ariel, and Gonzalo adds his vision of a utopian state.

It was really good fun taking the words off the page and making them do more work than advancing the plot: talking through the Master's and Boatswain's works and social responsibilities, how to handle their changes of mood, how to distinguish the various toffs in the space of only a few lines, and hardest of all, how to act when you don't have any lines at all. It helped that these students had taken my Making a Scene module last year so were used to climbing on stage, but they put in two solid hours of really good work. Going over the same forty lines multiple times could have been deathly dull, but they pulled apart the different potential meanings and tried different deliveries and had some good-natured disagreements about what was going on until suddenly our time was up. I was exhausted and no doubt they were too, but it really felt like new vistas had opened up.

The other class looked at Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas and Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto. One is carefully constructed 1938 epistolary  in response to a gentleman who asks how the daughters of educated men can contribute to the elimination of war. The other is a late-60s onslaught on society as a whole, the diseased product of male culture with only one solution. Its opening lines, with declarative cadences reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice's beginning, are
Life in this society being at best an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex. 
Woolf's essay is patient, witty, exhaustive, detailed and complex. Having explained that the uneducated daughters of the affluent have subsidised the private-school-and-Oxbridge trajectories of their brothers ('Arthur'), however dim, she poses the question of whether allowing middle-class women access to the professions (law, medicine, politics, the armed services, the clergy and academia) will reform them to the point that war becomes impossible, or whether women will have to conform to the expectations and cultural norms of this Establishment, thereby doing nothing to avert war. She has a couple of answers. Firstly, economic independence leads to intellectual and political freedom: women should join the professions. Secondly, women should simply withdraw from warlike activities: not protest or oppose, but ignore those who do engage, and not work in the industries which serve the prosecution of war. Compelling, but a difficult case to put as WW2 loomed large and a conundrum which may have contributed to Woolf's decision to end her life in 1941. Women's roles in militarism also contributed to LM Montgomery's death too: the later novels in the Anne of Green Gables series promote participation in WW1 as a way to establish manhood and a true Canadian identity – Montgomery later agonised over the possibility that her work may have led to enormous numbers of Canadian men's deaths, and that WW2 was going to repeat the same mistakes. Certainly the final novel in the sequel, The Blythes Are Quoted sees Anne reverse her support for imperialist warmongering: this is probably why publication was declined in 1942. 

The class was meant to start with a 20 minute presentation by a small group: the discussion provoked last 90 minutes, despite some of them not having read either text (grrrr, but that's another matter). Solanas went on to shoot Andy Warhol and died young after a miserable decline, but the Manifesto isn't, as some of my students suggested, a howl of anguish produced by someone with mental health issues. It's a provocation along similar lines to Swift's A Modest Proposal (tl;dr version: nobody likes the Irish, they're starving and having too many babies: their parents can breed them for food and profit) – in that it follows scientific and political concepts to (and perhaps beyond) their logical conclusion. It's scathingly satirical, funny, serious, rooted in Freudian psychology, reacting against 50s McCarthyites and 60s hippy cults alike, and fascinatingly, comes out as anti-sex. Where Woolf believes that social reform is possible, Solanas insists that the whole edifice, from men to money to the nuclear family, has to be ripped down and replaced by an all-female society of fully-automated luxury communism. While many of the students (all but one female) insisted that their experience of men wasn't anything like what they were seeing on the page, I couldn't help seeing Donald Trump's face as the selfish, oppressive, exploitative Daddy of whom Solanas writes:
If SCUM ever marches, it will be over the President's stupid, sickening face; if SCUM every strikes, it will be with a six-inch blade'. What makes you a member of SCUM? '…you've got to go through a lot of sex to get to anti-sex, and SCUM's been through it all, and they're now ready for a new show…these females are cool and relatively cerebral and skirting asexuality…the least nice…too uncivilised to give a shit for anyone's opinion of them, too arrogant to respect Daddy, the "Greats"…given to disgusting, nasty upsetting scenes, hateful violent bitches given to slamming those who unduly irritate them in the teeth.

Thrilling stuff, but underneath the confrontational style not dissimilar to Woolf: both are adopting a literary style previously the preserve of male writers and turning it against its former owners. I hope it would get a good argument going and it did - occasionally drifting away from the cultural and political points being made, and slightly undercut by some students' unfamiliarity with the texts, but a little provocation goes a long way. It really was exhilarating. Handmaid's Tale next week (and yes, I did put it on the syllabus before the TV adaptation came along, so score one for me on the zeitgeist board).

Have I read anything this week, other than the texts for class? Not a lot actually. Jasper Fforde's Early Riser was disappointing: a neat idea for a comic sf-ish novel (humanity evolved in cold conditions by hibernating every year; our hero is one of the cops who stays awake to keep things going) but all the effort has gone into developing the concept rather than the novel. I've started Jonathan Coe's latest novel in his Rotter's Club series, Middle England, having gone to see him in (entertaining, thoughtful) conversation with Sathnam Sanghera at Birmingham Literature Festival – I'm only a couple of chapters in but it's promising. The rest of the week's entertainment was watching Michael Otsuka (@mikeotsuka) and Sam Marsh (@Sam_Marsh101) publicly rip apart the posh university pension scheme managers' dodgy maths, used to pretend that the fund should become meaner and more expensive. My own pension was downgraded to general public uninterest some years ago, but I've a feeling the USS pension debacle may lead to total victory. After all, there's already a Downfall parody on the subject.

Teaching Hamlet next week. A good excuse to show you my favourite version of 'that' soliloquy.

(And hey: almost no moaning).

Friday, 12 October 2018

Moan moan moan.

No doubt you all turn to me as the still small voice of calm in a culture increasingly given over to intemperate, oppositional exchanges. Not today, I'm afraid. While this week has included many pleasures – friends, teaching The Tempest and Cwmardy to delightful students, my employers have excelled themselves in their ongoing pursuit of casual insult and deprofessionalisation. Some of it is so petty – especially given the sickening portrait of working life that I've just had from a student – that I quail at the thought of presenting it to you, but I do so because the very pettiness gives one an insight into the thoughtless nature of our managerial class.

OK. As you probably know, universities run open days at weekends to give potential students a chance to see what we do. I do my fair share of them and generally enjoy doing so. People usually laugh, and I like to think it's at my jokes rather than my face, clothes or commitment to literary study as a means of liberation. That, and I think our degree is really very good and student numbers have plummeted, so we need to try our best. So anyway, academics, administrators and students take a day away from our families, beds and bottles on a voluntary basis for the good of the institution. In some institutions it's a two-day event, so colleagues might be in work without a break for twelve days in a row.

Are we, therefore, received with gratitude and solicitude by our senior management (one of whom manages to appear for the first half hour before disappearing in an SUV)? We are not. Our briefing this year started with a dire warning that any informational errors made will result in disciplinary hearings because fo the Consumer Marketing Act. This is followed by an announcement about refreshments, which I reproduce here in full with the original emphases.

·      There is free tea and coffee for visitors in Campus Life. 

·      Catering for staff There will be no packed lunches or lunch vouchers provided by External Relations for Open Days. Feel free to bring in your own lunch or purchase food from MC Courtyard Kitchen and Starbucks. Please feel free to use the water fountains around the Campus.

Don't know about you, but the bit about water fountains reminds me of the dog bowls provided at railway stations for people's pets, while the bold and underlined bits seem calculated to rub it in. My management has imposed permanent austerity on (non-manager) salaries, staff recruitment and student welfare, so it makes sense that the extra £500 needed to give staff a sandwich for working on weekends might be what tips us into bankruptcy, but it feels that little bit more insulting when I recall that the numbers and renumeration for senior staff go ever upwards, the VC has a chauffeur-driven limo and we sponsor – for no justifiable reason, alongside a Chinese restaurant and a dental surgery – a cricket club in Sheffield – while nobody else has had a real-terms pay increase since 2008. I guess someone's got to pay for that, and the £11m ploughed into a short-lived University Technical College and the derelict brewery we as yet haven't managed to organise a piss-up in, but economising on a cup of tea won't pull us out of those holes.

I'm also insulted by the idea that having given up a day of our weekend (because the alleged day off in lieu never actually happens and besides, you can't take your kids, partner or friends out on a working day), we're invited to donate our own cash to the tax-evading multinational coffee outlet we've invited onto campus. Marketisation in action. I've emailed senior management a fairly sarcastic letter but don't expect any response other than a howler inviting me to a disciplinary hearing for unauthorised use of irony.

The other kicker this week is the news that supervising PhD students no longer counts as teaching for workload purposes. This may appear arcane, but it makes a difference. Teaching hours attract preparation hours at a one-to-one ratio, so that our teaching is pedagogically and critically cutting-edge. PhD supervision is intense and very time-consuming: whether you're analysing experiment methodology or critiquing a 20,000 word chapter, it takes time. Moving it to another category means that either we use up hours already earmarked for other duties or we short-change the students when it comes to giving the attention they deserve for working so hard. I totally admit that the kind of stuff I'm talking about today seems minor compared with other peoples' lives, and that I can cope without tea or a couple of hours' thinking time, but there's still a tiny part of me that clings to the idea of professionalism: that I'm responsible to society for how I conduct my teaching, research and behaviour to students and colleagues. That part of me is flickering towards extinction as the structural and experiential conditions of my working life militate against doing my best for others, or even being able to operate in a civil fashion. Will I find myself turning down bright new thinkers for supervision, or explaining that maybe a chapter will change the way we understand literature in some way, but I don't have time to read it? What a depressing thought.

Sometimes I wonder how a group of people (especially the few who were once teachers and researchers) come to spend their lives actively making their so-called colleagues' working conditions and professional experience that little bit nastier (or as they no doubt see it, efficient)every day. Nature or nurture? Are they thoughtless, selfish or cynical? Is it self-preservation? Do promotions flow from their ability to evidence the ways in which they've made life tougher for us bottom-feeders? Is it simply the case that management see degrading working conditions as a tool for getting people to resign? Whatever the answer, it gets harder to hoist the grin and tell our potential students what a great place this is to study.

Anyway, have I done anything to take my mind of this rubbish? Teaching has been a joy, and I've marked an excellent MA by one of our students and an M.Res by one from a different university, ready for examination shortly. That one quotes me in ways that made me reconsider what I think of the novels in question, which I take as being a very good thing. I saw my mother for her birthday (present: a quince tree) and I went fencing on Wednesday only to face an international sabreur nobody else was foolish enough to take on, so everything hurts now. I saw BlackkKlansman for the second time and it really stood up to re-watching, and I read a couple of books: The Alone to the Alone and Cwmardy for work (both wonderful), Masefield's The Midnight Folk which reminded me how subtle Masefield can be, and VE Schwab's Vicious on the urging of a student. It's kind of a millennial's mash-up of Frankenstein and X-Men with some angst on the side. A fun read with some neat twists. The highlight was Chris Reynold's The New World, an elegiac, beautiful, uncanny and spare graphic novel that I bought solely on the strength of a good review in a newspaper. Next up is the reissued How To Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, a Chilean manifesto published in 1971 and publicly burned by the military regime that murdered Allende in 1973 for annoying the money.

Ignore me. Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 5 October 2018

A rag-bag of passing thoughts

This week has been the first on win which we teach: new students and returners get to experience the full horror (or, potentially, delight) of my colleagues and I getting stuck in to new texts or familiar ones creatively defamiliarised. This semester I'm only teaching the second years, on the core Shakespeare and the English Renaissance module and my solo We Are Many: Literature and Protest module. The first Shakespeare lecture involved me introducing the concept of the Renaissance and then us pulling it apart as we discussed the multiple ways in the concept can be constructed and the political and social implications of marking off the past as somehow barbaric and culturally unimportant. It's an old argument but one that still works well. We'll still run a module with Renaissance in the title though! After this week we do The Tempest, Hamlet, Malfi, a collection of sonnets and flytings, then Paradise Lost. It's one of my favourite modules, though I wish it were a year long. Or perhaps two.

The other one is meant to examine literary responses to various social and political movements: not just what gets written about and when, but the cultural tensions inherent in turning events into forms which have their own structural implications – how to fit mass unemployment or hunger marches into the classic bourgeois novel form which privileges individual consciousness and success, for instance. We looked at Gwyn Thomas's 1947 novella The Alone to the Alone this week: GT was a spiky character who used a form of loquacious absurdism ('Chekhov with chips', he called it) to depict the stasis of Welsh valleys unemployment in the 1930s. His central characters, the 'dark philosophers' sit on a wall and observe the trap into which their community has fallen with moral and social sophistication and wit. They know exactly what has happened to them and they respond with the only weapons at their disposal: laughter and scorn.

Next week we'll compare GT's work to Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live: ostensibly orthodox communist socialist realist novels set in a neighbouring community at roughly the same time. These novels struggle with the tension between mass and individual: they have a central protagonist whose experiences are the focal point, despite appearing to be chronicles of the eponymous township. Most critical views see them as interesting failures: too dominated by the novel form (especially the melodrama) to be sufficiently revolutionary for some, too communist for others. I think they're much more sophisticated: that the damaged hero stands as a critique of authoritarianism as much as capitalism. They end in his foreshadowed death in the Spanish Civil War: not heroically, but as the only respite poor harassed Len can get from the contradictions of his existence.

As you can probably tell, teaching is uppermost in my mind at the moment. It's genuinely lovely to see the students, who seem eager and willing to join in. Everything else is terrible: morale, timetabling, rooming, the VLE, but just talking to interesting people about books is wonderful. Other than that, I feel like I've mostly slept and ironed things. I had my second weekend fencing coaches' course – exhaustion set in on the second day and I'm not sure I performed to the best of my abilities when observed, but hopefully I've passed. I discovered a Cory Doctorow novel that actually worked as a piece of fiction, which was quite a turn-up. I taught Little Brother last year but despite their excellent politics, it and several of his others are too authoritarian (to use Susan Suleiman's term) to be bearable. However, For The Win, a YA novel promoting online anarcho-syndicalism for the dispersed proletariat of the tech economy genuinely worked well as a piece of realist fiction (I'm not a big fan of realism, but if you choose that mode, you've got to do it well). You can read it and all his other novels for free on his website, though I've bought paper copies for the same reason I buy music: I want people to make a living from their art, and I like to scribble notes on books. The only other novel I managed to get through this week was John Masefield's The Midnight Folk. I know its sequel, The Box of Delights, inside out but for some reason never got round to this one. (The dated but still wondrous BBC adaptation of The Box of Delights is on YouTube in its entirety. Whether or not you can get through it depends on how much you can stand privately-educated child actors).

As children's literature, they're both top-notch: rollicking adventure, a real sense of wonder, some of the mysticism so often found in Edwardian children's fiction, cracking baddies (in Delights, Miss Pouncer and Abner Brown have a Scrounger, which turns impudent children into dog biscuits) but also – as befits a prominent poet – some really sophisticated narrative techniques and turns of phrases. The narrator's use of free indirect discourse to convey his governess's opinion of young Kay is really beautifully done. Next up is Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, which again I've meant to read many times and never got round to.

Other than that, the cultural highlight of the week was going to see Okkervil River*, as my belated birthday present from my colleagues. A fine night was had by all. I was a bit surprised by how sparsely attended it was, but the band gained my admiration for giving it everything as though it were a packed out stadium gig. I saw the Charlatans do the same once on a wet weekday in Stoke when they weren't at all fashionable, and admired them very much for it. The other things I liked about OR were the tumbling, lyrics spilling out over the tunes, and the way songs started off pretty musically orthodox and then went to very odd places – interesting chord progressions or key changes that were very unexpected. One song was about the lead singer having a tracheotomy and listing all the other actors, singers and public figures who'd had them too. Some challenging rhymes in that one…

* I seem to have a liking for aquatic bands. Also in my collection off the top of my head: Lanterns on the Lake, East River Pipe, State River Widening, Silver Seas and Novak's 'Silver Seas', Hydroplane (a John Peel discovery), John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, Tindersticks' The Something Rain, Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony, Bonnie Prince Billy's Pond Scum, Sally Beamish's River, Madder Rose's Swim, Aqua's 'Barbie Girl', Neil Young's 'Down By The River', PJ Harvey's 'Down By The Water', and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Bill Callahan's Dream River, The Pond's album The Pond (they had a song called 'The River')Hannah Peel's The Broken Wave, Songs: Ohia's Didn't It Rain, Morphine's sublime 'Sharks Patrol These Waters', The Stone Roses' 'Waterfall', Eric Whitacre's 'Cloudburst', the chorus to Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's 'Patio Song' ('Mae'n bwrw glaw…'), REM's 'Nightswimming' and 'So. Central Rain', Eliza Carthy's Neptune of course, many many Kate Bush songs like this one, the Broken Family Band's Cold Water Songs, Joni Mitchell's Clouds, Timothy Andres's Fast Flows The River, Backwash by Talulah Gosh, Sea Shanties for Spacemen by Snowpony, Vaughan Williams's 'Full Fathom Five', Jon Boden's Songs From The Floodplain, 'Melt Away' by Galaxie 500, Beth Gibbons and Rustin' Man's 'Sand River' (what a lost classic that album is), 'Oily Water' by Blur, Trembling Blue Stars' 'The Rainbow', 'Draining the Pool for You' and 'Spring Rain' by The Go-Betweens of course, Tystion's 'Tryweryn', Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, Sugartown's Slow Flows The River, 'Teardrop' by Massive Attack, Paradise Motel's 'Derwent River Star', Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement, Enya's 'Orinoco Flow', Last Splash by the Breeders obviously and Sparklehorse's 'Rainmaker',  There's only Stornoway's Tales From Terra Firma and PJ's Dry making a stand against liquidity. It must all mean something.

Friday, 28 September 2018

A course is a half-formed thing

The phoney war is over, not that I think of the new term as any sort of war unless management is the enemy and we're the side that set off armed with sharpened fruit. Forget about the metaphors – it's Freshers' Week, Welcome Week, Induction Week or whatever you call the period in which you meet the human beings so badly represented by the inaccurate statistics I get sent. A tentative and unreliable list of student numbers becomes a smiling, slightly apprehensive (and shockingly small) number of faces in a bland room betraying pleasure, fear, excitement and trepidation. Especially those who received my welcoming gift: a free copy of Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.

Some of my colleagues think that this is a terrifying idea: sending new entrants a full-on modernist stream of consciousness novel about an Irish girl who copes with familial and sexual exploitation through self-harm, but most of them aren't Irish and miss the top-quality gags sprinkled amongst the explicit scenes of rape and self-abasement. More seriously, I do it because it's one of the best novels I've read in decades, and because I want our incoming students to realise that literary study is an emotional, often disorienting experience. Too many of them come to us exhausted after the mechanical trudge to which the A-level system has reduced English. It's not the fault of the teachers, it's the rigidity of the examination. One of the key questions I pose to my first-years is 'how did this text make you feel?', and I follow it up with 'why?', so that they can start to examine their own cultural and social context and how it shapes their relationship with any particular work. As I keep saying to them, 'Bored' or 'I hated it' is as productive a response as 'Loved it', providing that there's a thoughtful answer to the follow-up question which can take in structure, plot, characterisation, individual experience, linguistic recognition and myriad other things.

Some of the incoming students have started reading it, others haven't, or haven't had a chance yet: we recruit right up to the first week of teaching and even further, but 'weird' is a word I've heard more than once, which pleases me mightily. I think of it as a process of creative defamiliarisation. Sadly though, I'm not teaching the first-years much this time: while I designed two of the core modules and taught them for years, what one might euphemistically call 'personnel changes' mean that I've had to hand over my beloved modules, including Making A Scene, to much better scholars than I. I have got my hands on Writing for Children though, which under my control will become a ruthless exercise in spoiling treasured memories. The process starts in Freshers' Week actually: we take the cultural temperature of our new intake by asking them to propose the book, song and film they'd use to justify humanity's continued existence in the face of an alien invasion. The music of Queen comes up with depressing monotony, and I do my best to discourage it with shameless subjectivity (and pointing out that they played apartheid South Africa).

Other than that, the highlight of the week has been the Timetabling department's decision to turn next week's lectures into an exciting form of scavenger hunt – due to a series of unfortunate events involving faculty laxness, personnel turnover and a magnificent new piece of software, I have no idea where my classes might be occurring. I like it. It adds a frisson of unknowability to an already stressful week which keeps the cardio-vascular system going. At my age, it all helps.

What else has happened this week? Well, between the efforts of my immediate boss and my UCU colleagues who patiently taught our managers to count, the threat of redundancy has been lifted for a lot of people in my department - not quite all, so the battle continues, but things are looking a little better. I went to a research seminar which covered a Bulgarian modernist poet and then female terrorists in Victorian novels (all beautiful and Jewish, basically), and have attended a lot of meetings, livened by the retirement do for a colleague who started teaching here when I was six weeks old. A leading feminist and communist who founded our Women's Studies degree (RIP) and terrified successive generations of the men in suits, she'll be much missed. People are about to find out that the secret to my union casework success was actually just asking her what to do, every single time.

Like a lot of people, I've also been keeping an eye on the Senate bin-fire that is the confirmation (or not) of Brett Kavanaugh to the American Supreme Court. I resent the fact that the US impinges so heavily on my consciousness but that's capitalist imperialism I guess. What I've seen of it is a combination of the purest bigotry, misogyny, the angry face of patriarchal power responding to the merest hint of token resistance, and a brave woman marooned in a political and cultural morass. I don't suppose other countries' judicial appointments are any better (in the UK it's a matter of going to the right school and university, making the right friends and never having to face any scrutiny - a polite exercise in privilege-continuance) but the naked exercise of power in the US is fascinating and horrible at the same time.

I've only had the chance to read one book this week: Gillian Darley's Villages of Vision. It's the recent edition of a 1970s history of model villages, estate settlements, communes, utopian settlements and the like, covering England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Darley's strength is a keen and critical eye for bad architecture and a keen social understanding of the cultural, economic and social conditions which generated these schemes, most of which failed.

Fairfield Moravian Settlement, Droylsden, Manchester

They range from rich men treating their tenants as decorations – moving entire villages out of sight of the big house, and requiring the inhabitants to wear stupid hats – industrial schemes designed to make sure the factory hands behaved themselves such as the one which included holes in the shutters so management could make sure everyone went to bed early – to racist endeavours such as the multiple Irish schemes (including New Geneva) which imported Protestant English and Scottish workers to displace the ignorant, Irish-speaking, truculent and Catholic natives with 'civilised' people. Some schemes seemed rather benevolent and fruitful, such as the Moravian settlements in Manchester, Gracehill in Ireland and elsewhere: despite being incomers, Gracehill was never burned down in the rebellions because its inhabitants didn't insist on converting everybody for miles around.

Plaque at Snig's End, disastrous attempt at a Chartist commune. 

Schoolhouse at Snig's end. 

I particularly enjoyed learning that the modern Tullamore has its origins in a hot air balloon crash in 1785 that burned the town down – the first aviation disaster in history. Anyway, I highly recommend it: it's a fascinating story of the mixed motivations fuelling these schemes, and I now know what to look out for when wandering about.

And now I'm off for the second weekend spent in polyester and a sports hall as I (hopefully) succeed win renewing my fencing coaching qualifications. I won't go into detail about it: I'm a bit touché on the subject (sorry*).

*Not sorry.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Lots and lots of stuff

Apologies for leaving you uninformed and alone for almost two weeks in this disorientating, howling cultural and social maelstrom. It has been, for variously sad, depressing and interesting ways, quite a fortnight and coming up with a semi-coherent thought about anything has been slightly beyond my capabilities.

Firstly though, a word about clothing shop H+M. That word is 'bastards'. I speak, as you've probably guessed, of their new William Morris line of clothing. Morris and Co. was famed in its time for selling enormously expensive, beautiful products ethically produced by well-trained, well-paid workers. Morris was a political revolutionary who believed that beauty, quality and fairness were inextricably linked.

H+M, to put it gently, are not famed for any such beliefs. Their badly-made disposable items – despite their vague claims – are environmental and social poison. Their manufacture takes place in the usual Asian sweatshops in which no more than a quarter of the workers are paid a living wage.

Actually, it's not H+M who are the bastards. They're just standard issue capitalist scum of whom we should expect no better. The absolute rotters in this situation are the owners of Morris and Co., Walker Greenbank, for trading on a heritage based on care and mutuality, and have sold out every principle their founders and original employees stood for. I'd rather wear clothes that proclaimed their social damage in giant letters than hide behind a proud history.

Anyway, rant over. What else has been going on? Well, the parade of leaving parties have started, which is deeply saddening, and we're living in a state of permanent insecurity leavened only by spasms of sheer fury. A terrifyingly small cohort of new students start next week and perhaps we'll know what rooms we'll have to teach them in before the big day. But don't rely on that. I've done some cultural stuff (BlackkKlansman was utterly brilliant: see it) and I've been down to London for my very last gig as external examiner at Newham University Centre. I've seen it develop from a tiny place to one that employs excellent academics doing wonderful teaching and now getting the chance to do some research. If you can't reach my place, go there. I'll miss the East End and my trips along the Thames. My new EE gig is at Swansea/Abertawe – a mile's walk along the beach is small consolation for being deprived of the famous Cafe Lympic (sic): threatened by the IOC's lawyers, its owners simply painted out the first letter. I'll also never see sister no. 3 and her kids/husband again: I only visited while on duty at NUC and they're unlikely to leave Greenwich for the delights of The Dark Place.

We've had graduation this week: one of the highlights of my year. I love seeing my students depart in a blaze of glory (though some stay on for PG courses), and it's sometimes a nice surprise to meet one or two of them who have spotty attendance records, let's say. We gave honorary degrees to our ex-colleague Howard Jacobson and to author Kit de Waal. I had dinner with HJ the night before and was surprised by how warm and charming he was. His roman à clef about the place was not exactly kind, though it is funny.

I've been to meetings about the 2019 literature festival I help run, and there have been staff conferences about all the extra things we've got to do with fewer colleagues. I attended a long and painful disciplinary meeting to support a trades union colleague (the details of management misbehaviour in this case are jaw-dropping but I can't share them. Suffice it to say that heads must roll), and I went on the first of a couple of fencing training weekends to renew my coaching certificates. There's an exam and observation at the end so it's fairly daunting. I'd forgotten so much, and slightly regret choosing a second-intention prise-de-fer when asked to teach someone the principles of counter-time. A touch too complicated for a beginner. Come to think of it, a touch too complicated for me. I also wrote a short version of the Pixellated Celt conference paper I mentioned a few weeks ago: it's going to appear in Planet magazine, which is a huge honour as it's cool, radical and clever. Writing it was a very salutary lesson: cutting 4500 academic-audience oriented words down to 1500 more journalistic ones is hard. I asked a friend to help get rid of the last 1000 extra ones. She did, then I put almost all of them back in. I'll write it up as an extended journal article too when I have time, but I'm quite pleased that something I dreamed up might be of some interest outside my own head.

I think I've read some books too, and I've certainly bought quite a lot. I read Sally Rooney's much-lauded Normal People, which I liked a lot but didn't think was quite as amazing as the reviews. The characters were interesting but the plot (damaged boy and girl from Sligo have an on-off relationship at school and at TCD university surrounded by South County types in gilets) was slight and not wholly different from Nicholls' romantic page-turner One Day. The writing makes gestures in the direction of Eimear McBride and the other contemporary Irish modernists (no speech marks, for instance) but the Hiberno-English was distinctly muted. I do think it's well worth reading though, and I've bought her first novel, Conversations With Friends. Hugh Howey's Sand was a bit better than his Silo trilogy (I also read the last of those, Dust) but finished weakly, which is a problem for a realist novel. I'm half-way through John Buchan's Prester John, which is without doubt the most racist piece of trash I've ever encountered.

Even when you take account of its time and his background, it goes the extra mile to be as racist as possible. I'm not even going to quote it. All black people, whoever they are and whatever the context, are misshapen evil scum, is its message so far. I'm reading it because he was an MP and so part of my research, but I don't think I'll be adding it to my 'They Come Over Here…: Literature and Migration' module. I'm also most of the way through Chris Beckett's climate change spec. fic. novel America City. I have to say that I was expecting better prose after reading some of his earlier stuff. It's not uninteresting: he's pretty tough on liberal handwringers who lack the honesty of brutal uncaring right-wingers (they seem to get off pretty easy) and there are some interesting analogies between tough leaders and Anglo-Saxon kings, but it all feels a bit slack compared with his epic other work. I'm going over some of the Children's Literature texts for next semester (a couple of Awdry's Railway Series texts, Farmer Duck, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Peter Rabbit, the Just-So Stories, Comet in Moominland, Northern Lights, Anne of Green Gables, the first Tracy Beaker novel, The Owl Service and Treasure Island), and I've piled up some excellent looking other books: David Jones's essays, Thomas Docherty's Literature and Capital, Lisa Lewis's Performing Wales, Jasper Fforde's Early Riser and Kate Atkinson's Transcription, but I have lots of lectures to write for next week before I indulge myself, plus an M. Res and an MA to mark, a PhD chapter to read and 2 PhDs theses which should arrive very shortly.

To relax, I filled in another job application. I do these purely for my own amusement: I've had precisely one interview in ten years (I cocked up the first question, 'how would you organise multiple redundancies?' by giving a socialist answer) so long since gave up any real expectation of being considered. It's more like the old Puritan practice of self-examination, an opportunity to contemplate the gap between me and what others consider a decent minimum of intellectual, academic and merely human achievement. I'm quite proud of some of the commas though.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Out of tune, as always.

Here we are again – another Friday rolls around and I try to make my sense of too much week.

Last week I read this article about Berlin underground managers trying to get rid of homeless people by playing classical music around their stations. Its headline is 'Art Shouldn't Be Weaponised'. Wrong. Art is, always has been, and always will be weaponised, if we accept that 'weaponise' is now an acceptable word.

In the narrow sense of course, the piece's horror at what was happening is entirely correct. Homeless people shouldn't be treated as inconveniences to be moved on out of sight, though you can understand the S-Bahn's sense that they can't deal with a wider social problem on their own. Nor should classical music be treated as kryptonite. It's happened in this country: every so often a news story appears explaining that a shopping centre or transit hub has started playing classical music to drive away the kids. In a variant example, high-pitched noises were played, audible only to children whose hearing hasn't yet deteriorated. Some of my students adopted these noises as their ring-tones so they could use their phones in class, which seemed fair.

So I'm annoyed in two ways: annoyed that children and the homeless are seen as a problem to be solved rather than as citizens who deserve fair treatment. But I'm also annoyed that classical music is assumed to be either so unpleasant or so bland that people will flee rather than endure it. I'm fully aware that classical music is seen as irrelevant to most people: I quite often try to introduce some when relevant to my classes, and it rarely evokes any interest at all. I mostly blame advertising and Classic FM, who between them have conspired to define 'classical' as 'nice bits to underscore a car ad'. It's spread to Radio 3 too, which is stuffed with very self-satisfied Tristrams, though at least Late Junction still exists.

I listen to a lot of music – indie, folk, bits of hiphop, the occasional metal album, some laptronica, a lot of twee and mathrock, and loads of music from the spectrum of 'classical' music – I like very early stuff, Bach, not a lot of baroque, some Classical, virtually no Romantics, modernism, serialism, minimalism and all the interesting stuff that's emerged in the twentieth century. There's a fair amount of music that's nice to have in the background after a tough day, but on the whole I'm thoroughly sick of the assumption that music of any sort, and classical in particular, is meant to be relaxing. Anything that relaxes us is conservative, lulling us into inaction. No wonder the worst regimes like the most hummable tunes. Or as Yes Prime Minister put it in 'The Ministerial Broadcast', 'Bach for new ideas', Stravinsky for 'no change' (around 19 minutes in). At least A Clockwork Orange paired horrendous antisocial violence – not just Alex's – with 'Ludwig van': ('he did no harm to anyone', says Alex as the state use his hero's music in a course of intensive aversion therapy):

Classical music addresses the tensions, excitements, horrors and social changes of existence, and therefore a lot of it isn't nice, relaxing or soothing for the savage breast etc.. At least the S-Bahn's goons understood that (atonal) music still has some emotional and intellectual power. One of the things I used to do in class was play whatever my students said was innovative, socially-challenging, heavy or rebellious music, and then introduce them to some of the more challenging pieces from the classical canon. Amongst them:

and of course these two notorious examples

(Yes, Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet involves a quartet playing in separate helicopters. What of it?).

I don't hold any brief for the classical world and frequently find myself infuriated by its sexism, insularity and conservatism, but I do think that it includes a lot of thrilling, edgy work that attempts in a serious way to process or reflect the world we live in rather than provide muzak (the Penderecki above attempts to translate the moment of the Hiroshima bombing into music, for example), and I'm pretty sure that shorn of all its social paradigms, classical music by recent and living composers can reach new audiences. There is of course a counter-argument: that the more abstruse and deliberately jarring experimental music is, the more it becomes a closed shop for elite aesthetes who look down on the common herd as incapable of appreciating 'difficult' work. It's the same argument found in discussions of TS Eliot's poetry, and there's something in it – certainly Reich, Glass and some of the other minimalists reacted against serialism by returning to tonality, rock and jazz. However: if the lids are capable of listening to death metal, gabba, and the enormous range of EDM, they're more than capable of genuinely appreciating and enjoying Milton Babbitt, Stockhausen and George Crumb. But using the stuff to drive away young or poor people is no way to go about it, unless – and I may be grasping at straws here – the victims start to associate classical music with resistance and develop an underground anarchism-and-violas revolutionary movement.

Anyway, enough of this nonsense. This week's books: not many because I've been struggling with module guides and timetables (I lost). I finished Muriel Spark's Territorial Rights and wondered why I bothered. Some neat characterisation and witty observations but a hopelessly confused and pointless plot which went nowhere and didn't do justice to any of the weightier ideas thrown into the mixer. I also read another of the new slew of rural eve-of-fascism novels, following on from All Among The Barley. This one was Cressida Connolly's After The Party. Once again, the writing is very fine, the mode is simple realism and the structure is a retrospective narration designed to gradually reveal to the reader what the protagonist has got herself into. If you know much about posh British dabbling with fascism in the 1930s, you get the hang of it within the opening pages; if you don't, it takes a few chapters. After The Party concentrates on an upper-middle-class woman newly returned to Britain with her family, all of whom get sucked into the British Union of Fascism because 'something needs to be done' and it offers them a sense of community and purpose. You get a really good sense of the social milieu of genteel fascism as rural Tories' children abandon their social responsibilities and look (mystifyingly) for millenarian ways to prop up their ever-more-impossible way of life.

What doesn't work about it is Connolly's strategy of gradual revelation. The narrator tells us a lot about all the fun to be had at New Party/British Union of Fascists camps, so we assume that this is what hooks her. However, she also tells us that she's attending discussion groups, training sessions and all sorts of other events which would have been full of Mosley's specific, hard-edged attitudes and policies, such as anti-semitism and the abolition of democracy. The narrator doesn't try to downplay all this as a form of denial, it's just not present in any substantial way, which means that the problem is with the author, not the character. I'm not quite sure what I think about this but it feels like there's a degree of evasion, as though British fascists could be excused for their naivety within a febrile atmosphere, whereas an awful lot of them (see Richard Griffiths's Fellow Travellers of the Right) were under no illusions about what fascism meant at all. Yes, they probably did think that they'd still have drawing rooms and staff, but they also enthusiastically embraced Jew-hatred, feudalism and dictatorship on their own terms, not as by-products of putting themselves into the hands of the right chaps.

I also went to a fencing competition last week. Despite being old, fat and cack-handed, I came 5th and still bear the bruises to prove it. Only a couple of mistakes here and there stopped me getting even further too - annoying but better than being thoroughly trounced.

Enjoy your weekend.