Friday, 18 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 January 2019

Break out the green paint?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 21 December 2018

Vole's Occasionally Festive nearly Fifty

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

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

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

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





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



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



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



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





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



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

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

Happy Christmas.

Friday, 14 December 2018

'…secret and self-contained as an oyster'.

You find me relatively full of festive cheer today. Despite spending an hour in the ring with my vindictive dentist – someone clearly prey to fits of irrrational violence – on Wednesday, the week has mostly been rather pleasant. The last class before Christmas is always an opportunity for reflection, and all the awkwardness of previous weeks (chiefly the chilly moment of silence after making grades available) is forgotten. We're a bit beyond the school-level technique of sticking on an inappropriate video, but there is something lovely about receiving the occasional card, enormous quantities of all the things the dentist has forbidden me to touch,  and wishing students well.

It's properly goodbye to most of the Erasmus students: with only a week of tutorials left after Christmas, they're taking their chances and saving their Euro by submitting work early and not returning. One of my French students yesterday told me that she'd enjoyed my module so much that she was going to recommend it to her successors. Sadly, the module is being abolished (we're struggling with staffing levels) but I appreciated the sentiment. The same student announced during the seminar that her home university had been shut down by student protests: the cause of the protest was unknown. Admirable. I very much subscribe to the view that universities have become slick, controlled consumer experiences that need a hefty dose of rebellion to keep them honest. There's something sickening about obedience in young people. Obviously that view is hopelessly middle class: most student resistance is led by people with economic and cultural capital rather than – as my students mostly are – those who are first in their families to reach HE and struggling economically. That said, some of them are political and principled (in various directions) so there's hope for the occasional occupation yet. The response to my attempts to decolonise the curriculum was fairly passionate, so perhaps that will kick something off.

Mind you, it's not just me being middle-class, it's age too: I remember my own tutors teasing us for not having half the arrest records and scars they'd acquired as students, and now here I am bemoaning subsequent generations' apathy. Age is on my mind not only because my teeth have voted for Mexit, but because we looked at Fight Club (the novel: I've never seen the film) yesterday, and the students repeatedly ascribed its attitude to its ancient historical context ('in those days', 'back then' and so on): it was published in 1997. We weren't quite communicating by drum and dragging each other round by the hair: I had a mobile phone and had sent several emails by then. In one of my more cynical moments a few years ago I constructed the Student Historical Timeline: it goes Dinosaurs-Tudors-Nazis-Grandparents-Now. In slight mitigation, one of the things my students often say is that the more the do at university, the more they realise was missed out at school in the pursuit of exam passes and league table rankings. I do rather enjoy introducing them to all the fun/subversive/unexpected things the British did and wrote when their masters weren't paying sufficient attention.

Other than work, I"m hard-pressed to decide whether the ongoing Brexit saga and Donald Trump's legal counts as tragedy or farce. On the one hand, two major nations are deliberately consigning themselves to the trashcan of history by self-immolation: on the other, there's something delicious about discovering how fragile hegemony really is. The Early Modernists (like Tracey Hill) will tell you that the exercise of power depended on performance rather more than action: Brexit and America's neo-monarchist presidency demonstrate that the two states only function if you don't look under the hood. The least stress and the mechanisms fail and some deeply unpleasant attitudes – such as Tory views of the Irish – come slithering out. For the British, it's the culmination of the establishment resistance to philosophy and conscious political organisation: making a virtue of pragmatism is all very well when you're making the weather, but without a clear set of principles based on higher beliefs than a general distrust of the unwashed and the foreign, the ramshackle set of institutions that make up the British state are revealed to be incapable of either resisting the more atavistic leanings of the gammons, or of responding to the complexities of interdependent international politics (known in Whitehall as Bloody Foreigners). If I wasn't living here and facing imminent economic and social collapse I'd probably enjoy watching all my suspicions about our overlords proved correct, but here I am, and despite being an Irish citizen, the combined efforts of various Irish university recruitment officers and my own failings mean that here I will remain for some time yet, sharing the wintry blessings of Going It Alone. However, having  been condemned to watch it all play out, I'm determined to get as much amusement from government shenanigans as possible. When I find some, I'll let you know. Until then: cold fury.

There have been compensations recently. Lego Masters has been a delight, and I've been reading escapist nonsense. I finished one 500 page volume of EF Benson's Edwardian Mapp and Lucia stories the other day. They're like a delicious, over-rich box of cheap chocoates: too many in one go will make you sick, but it's hard not to keep dipping in and reading another in the interminable merry-go-round of of small-town rivalries between genteel monsters. I also realised that my book-buying and reading has become slightly problematic when I found myself at a loose end in town the other day with – horror of horrors – nothing to read. I might have strolled around admiring architecture or making conversation with fellow citizens, but all I could think of to do, bearing in mind that I own nearly 6000 books including two rooms of unread ones, was to buy another book to fill that 40 minutes. It turned out to be Christopher Brookmyre's Places in the Darkness – I'd read one of his crime comedies years ago and not thought much of it, but this novel filled the gap nicely: it's essentially a 1930s Chandler-esque noir thriller crossed with Bladerunner…in space. If, like me, you think that any text or title can be improved by the addition of in space*, it's a winner: efficiently constructed, decent pace, intelligent: I know it sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but I did enjoy it as an excellent example of genre fiction (I also enjoyed Jeff Noon's pomo-SF-noir thriller The Body in the Library and Adam Robert's loving pastiches The Real-Town Murders and By The Pricking Of Her Thumb). Well worth £2. The other novel I read was Patricia Duncker's Sophie and the Sibyl - I'd seen my GTA enjoy reading it for her MA module on Neovictorianism and thought it sounded good: it's a very conscious postmodern pastiche of the Victorian romance form, using George Eliot and GH Lewes as protagonists, frequently interrupted by a narrator who has it in for John Fowles, who of course wrote his own postmodern pastiche of the Victorian novel (and its impossibility) in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Obviously it could be improved by becoming Sophie and the Sibyl… In Space, but it's a rattling good read which makes mediocre literary theorists like me feel very sophisticated by playing with form wittily. I won't have much time for non-work reading over the next few weeks thanks to a PhD viva on Thursday, another one at the end of January,  and a book review to write (leaving aside all the lectures I need to write and marking I need to do) but I'll fit in a few more. I'm about to start Richard Williams's Mostyn Thomas and the Big Rave, on the recommendation of an extremely eminent Welsh-language cultural theorist with zero interest in disco biscuits and gabba, and it looks fun. It's about time someone wrote a cultural history of the rave movement but it won't be me: I always hated the music and don't like drugs that make you feel like you love everyone because I'm a crabby, bitter old git. After that, I'm going to read Ernest Bramah's 1907 What Might Have Been, a deeply reactionary fantasy of a Conservative guerrilla resistance movement against the jackbooted Labour government. It's basically an Edwardian Red Dawn. I'm also going to dip into EBB's Aurora Leigh: it's got a reputation for being didactic and boring, but there are flashes of weirdness (often in the syntax) that remind me just a little of Emily Dickinson. How am I going to find time for all this? Well, I'm relying on my annual Christmas present from my darling nephews and nieces. In return for an array of outrageous gifts from me, they habitually present me the very latest bacterial infections. Last week's Stephen Collins cartoon felt horribly familiar.


So anyway, merry Christmas to one and all.

*Go on, try it: Martin Chuzzlewit… In Space. The Mill on the Floss… In Space. The Anti-Federalist Papers… In Space. A Brief History of Time… In Space. The Joy of Sex… In Space. Delia's Meals for One… In Space. And if you don't believe me, it's a tried and tested pop culture manoeuvre. What is Battlestar Galactica but the Aeneid (plus some Mormon elements) In Space, while Gene Roddenbury called Star Trek 'Wagon Train in space'.


Friday, 7 December 2018

Welcome to the Land of Do-As-You-Please

Well, it took me until Tuesday night to submit 17 amended Course Specification Templates (see last weeks's despairing rant), laboriously typed out because the Quality Control Unit could only send me locked PDF documents. You can probably imagine my joy when I discovered that said locked PDFs were actually so out of date that quite a lot of the work I did turned out to be all for naught. Reader, my stress dreams were replaced that night with delightful visions of certain bureaucrats being roasted to a crisp by a grinning demon.

Thankfully, there have been compensations for the relentless grinding misery of such duties, though sadly cold hard cash is not amongst them: subject leadership does not attract an increment despite it being the exact opposite of what anybody gets into academia for. However, the compensations include spending time with actual students. There are stresses and strains within and between groups of the little darlings: hard-working v. slackers, mature v. young, local v incomers and various others divisions, and the pressure of heading towards the finishing line is showing amongst the final-year ones, but after a couple of weeks of tension during which my tissues box needed replenishing more than once, peace appears to have broken out and my own classes have been a delight. This week I taught Book 9 of Paradise Lost to the second years, who once again amazed and impressed me with their willingness to engage with tough material without the benefit of any secondary-level literary or cultural context. A-level English and History seem to ignore what was once called the English Civil War and its causes and effects almost entirely. That said, this week's class showed me what acute and subtle critics reside in the ranks, aided by a barnstorming lecture from one of my esteemed colleagues. I have to say that despite everything Milton's friends did to Ireland and my residual Catholicism, I fall harder for Paradise Lost's literary qualities and philosophical underpinning's with every passing year.

File:Paradise Lost 1.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The other text I taught this year was Moore and Lloyd's V for Vendetta, the graphic novel of a dystopian, fascist Britain which appeared fitfully throughout the 80s and was badly filmed a few years ago, spawning the fashion for Guy Fawkes masks amongst junior demonstrators indifferent to the irony of doing something plastic made by Chinese near-slaves for the profit of Warner Brothers (there's a whole module available on the legal complexities of comic book rights and Moore's ongoing war with Marvel and/or DC at any given time.

Graphic Novel Review: V for Vendetta – Snuggly Oranges

It's not a total leap from Milton to Moore: the older text informs V for Vendetta on several levels, from a protagonist's name to Moore's anti-patriarchal politics: where Milton's text mourns the Expulsion while guiltily celebrating the knowledge acquired by original sin, the graphic novel is a militant celebration of intellectual rebellion (and actual violent rebellion too, just like Milton). It's a superb text partly because it's seriously revolutionary: while the woke fanboys have picked up on the text's aesthetics, it's an intelligent argument for anarchy – the ideology, not just chaos. Part of Moore's continuous attempt to knock the hero off his pedestal, V behaves unspeakably cruelly towards his protegée Evey in order, he says, to release her from 'happiness…the most insidious prison'. His view is essentially a mix of Morris, Kropotkin and Gramsci. The book details his disillusionment with the contiguity of Law and Justice, and with the instruments of hegemony: the Church, sit-coms and soaps, the news, political institutions and the 'justice' system. The novel starts with V killing a group of rapist police officers; he then gleefully blows up the Houses of Parliament and the Old Bailey, but the core of the novel is his treatment of Evey, the teenage girl he rescues from the police. Gently rejecting her sexual advances, he breaks her Freudian conditioning, educates her in film, books, music and art (all banned under the new regime), before expelling her then subjecting her to physical and psychological torture until she is 'free' of all illusions about the nature of society. V violently brings down the tyranny, deliberately allowing himself to die in the process, insisting that while violence is necessary to bring about change, the perpetrators should have no place in the post-revolutionary society to come: people like Evey should take their places. It's also a lot of fun: Moore has a rich, dark sense of humour and is astonishingly well-read: you could spend hours tracking down every reference, from Enid Blyton (The Land of Do-As-You-Please comes from The Faraway Tree), Thomas Pynchon to The Road to Morocco, and he even got one of Bauhaus to write a cabaret song for it, incorporating the notation into the text. I've put together clips of all the music and songs reference in the novel: there are also loads of books and plays quoted or referred to).



Amongst all the militant, provocative texts I've taught recently, it's the most shocking to many of my students, more so every year. While many of them hail from societies which have had revolutions or civil wars within living memory, most (including me) have had no direct experience of such things, and have never had to address the philosophical justifications for violence – we've educated a generation to assume both that bombing wedding parties from a cubicle somewhere in Oxfordshire doesn't matter (or doesn't happen), and that affluent white societies are the primary victims of violence. Where I differ from most of my students though is that I remember a time when 'terrorism' wasn't a word applied by bureaucrats to any radical impulse (though extreme capitalism and state violence are still exempt), that got int he way of realpolitik, especially those espoused by brown people. I can remember decent English people recognising that there were indeed two (or more!) sides to the Troubles, and Western governments proudly supporting Islamist jihadis in Afghanistan…when convenient. My students are subject to so much silent surveillance, from the CCTV cameras that infest the university campus to the 'Prevent' training all academics undergo to equip them to Spot A Bad'Un And Dob Them In (they phrase it differently but it doesn't take a Foucauldian to spot what they're up to).

V for Vendetta works really well for getting this kind of discussion going because it's accessible without being simplistic or morally evasive. Moore and Lloyd are interested in the role of culture in hegemonic systems, and they care about emotion and the unquantifiable qualities of life: love, joy, autonomy: underneath the cold-eyed espousal of violent methods is a utopian impulse that I've long felt has been lacking on the left in particular. The Labour Party's infamous Controls On Immigration mug sounded the death knell for faith in a confident, altruistic socialism.

Immigration policy needs to be more than a campaign mug ...

Where Morris and a range of other 19th-century socialists believed that The People were capable of cultural, artistic and communal fulfilment (though the Perfectibility of Man is what conservatives say led communism to build gulags), New Labour and its acolytes adopted the classic conservative perspective which held that people were brutes, having rarely actually met any. Conservatives believe in Big Government to restrain our brutish impulses: the true cynicism of New Labour was to go one step further by harnessing those impulses by directing their imagined people's ire at immigrants, the fabled benefits cheats and the like. For Moore, Lloyd and other inheritors of Victorian anarchism, the moral was that all governments, even the well-meaning socialist ones, are based on distrust of the people's empathetic and organisational capabilities. Socialist governments justified their existence by claiming to be the practical expression of the people's determination to distribute goods and services equally, a view I generally adhere to, but the anarchist view holds that governments at best outsource our moral duty to each other and at worst end up arrogating all power and authority to themselves in the name of unjustified self-perpetuation. The difference between anarchism and libertarianism is that anarchists think we're innately good and will care for and respect each other once the initial shock of freedom has worn off and the bonds of surly obedience have been loosed; libertarians reject the idea of mutuality in toto and believe in every man or woman for his or herself.

I don't know. I'm hugely attracted to the principle of humanity's innate goodness, but the daily news suggests that we are selfish brutes: the way we're polluting ourselves and multiple other species to death suggests that we're incapable of behaving responsibly at all even when doom is staring us in the face. Then again, no current form of political organisation has found a way to address it either. I still believe in humanity's general altruism, though perhaps it's only manifested under particular and rare conditions, but I also think that an effective collective decision-making structure with the ability to get things done is necessary, and we may as well call that a government.

Well, this has taken a gloomier turn than I expected when I started mashing the keyboard. Good things have been happening. We hosted a talk by Jessica George on Weird Fiction the other night – she's an expert on Lovecraft and Machen, whose understanding of humanity's cosmic insignificance is, depending on how you look at it, even more depressing than my musings, or paradoxically liberating. It doesn't matter what we do to ourselves and our planet, HPL would feel: the universe is entirely indifferent. Which certainly puts my wrestling with Course Specification Templates in perspective.

I've done 12-hour days at work every day this week, so little time for relaxation - I've been cycling home, eating bad food out of the pan then going straight to bed, so the only leisure has been the Lego Masters final (good creations, bad judges) and a total literary anecdote to the struggle: E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia stories. Inconsequential, lightweight, snide and deliciously witty, they were just what I needed. A real contrast to next week's text: Fight Club.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Computer Says Again

This afternoon, I am filling in a Course Specification Template to delete a couple of modules and add a couple of new ones. It's 23 pages long. Some of it requires you to write a list of learning outcomes. Then a few pages later it asks you to reproduce that exact list again, in a different format. By Tuesday, I have to do all this again. Twenty times, to cover the joint degrees, the part-time versions, and the versions that come with a foundation or sandwich year.

I have 150 hours in my workload to cover course administration. Each of these forms takes 3 hours to do. So more than a third of my annual allocation will be taken up reproducing the same information on multiple versions of the same form.

150 hours, by the way, is the same allocation I get to produce 3* and 4* REF research outputs - the expectations are the same as at a Russell Group university, but the allocations are, shall we say, rather different.

I am not, you may have detected, in a particularly good mood. The desk opposite me has been empty all week because my excellent boss is off sick – broken by the unceasing demands of a management which has no contact with the worlds of teaching and research, and no interest at all in the health, sanity or lives of their academic colleagues. To them, reproducing the same information twenty times is a perfectly reasonable request, and not at all a waste of anyone's time, let alone someone who is trained (in my case) in the literary qualities of twentieth-century Wales (and fictional cat sex, I should confess). This isn't about administrators versus snobby academics: the work seems, in a very real sense, pointless: the kind of thing a decent piece of software should be able to process, distributing the essential information across the relevant documents. Instead, I need to find 60 hours – between writing next week's lectures, including the sickness cover ones – before Tuesday to devote to cutting and pasting until my eyes bleed.

So there you are: an insight into the modern academic's life. It's not all bad: this week I went to a history seminar on British Army discipline in 1970s Northern Ireland (amongst the many eye-popping facts: the UVF bombed an American navy base because they felt the Yanks were getting too cosy with the local Catholics), taught Flyting and Broadsidess (the Reddit of their day), Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Popular Culture from Matthew Arnold to Fan Fiction, and the students have been absolutely wonderful. I popped down to Swansea to examine an M.Res, which meant a detailed, fascinating conversation with a new academic and a walk along the beach from Mumbles to the university, and I read the first two novels in the Aftermath series: a bit of a stunt by which the publisher gets various authors to write novels within a serial set in the same world. The first one was Dave Hutchinson's: a bit too military and standard post-apocalypse for me, but the second one is by Adam Roberts, who plays with genre very wittily and knowingly. The only thing that spoiled it for me is the apocalyptic device: to choose a meteor storm is very Wyndhamesque/Silver Age, but it feels like irresponsibility when the real environmental apocalypse is staring us all in the face. I've also carried on with Kiberd's Inventing Ireland and a few other bits and pieces.

Having moaned about being too busy, it's a bit cheeky to blithely list a load of books I've read, but the fact is that I can't sleep unless I've read a substantial amount. I'll happily eat into sleeping time and function on three or four hours rather than cut out the reading.

Must go - forms to fill in.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Of Snidge Scrumpin' and more

No time for coherent thought this week, beyond the minimum necessary required to get through classes (Paradise Lost and Tales of the City - both appreciated by the students as far as I can tell).

There have been meetings. And demands from management that I furnish them with statistics that they already have, plus magic solutions for things like why my working-class students in one of the most deprived areas of the country don't have higher incomes when they graduate. Such is the Teaching Excellence Framework: universities and from next year courses are judged on things like post-graduation salaries because as we all know, if I'd been a little bit sharper on the definition of a trochee in year 2, average wages in the area would have gone up. Forget about the state of the local economy, or the decade-long wage freeze hitting the kind of jobs a lot of my students want to do for the good of society, or the prestige that undoubtedly helps graduates of certain institutions not including mine. No, it's just bad teaching. Trochee clarification. That's the answer.


There has been some pleasure this week: my colleagues' research into memory and the senses culminated in a very enjoyable evening of 'Snidge Scrumping', during which we had to identify various fragrances painstakingly collected from the area and consider their personal significance. I failed to identify at least half of them (including burnt tyre and canal water), and not being from round here, didn't have any Proustian epiphany, but maybe that's because I am – as an old friend once told me – 'dead inside'. It was very enjoyable and thought-provoking though, even if I do feel sick from the burning tyre one. You can see some pictures here – mostly of people reacting with disgust!



Other than that, I've been doing a little reading. Slowly, in the case of Declan Kiberd's meaty Inventing Ireland, and more rapidly with the entertaining things. I read the latest Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London series – police procedurals with a magica, folkloric twist – straight through: they're good page turners, very evocative of mood and slyly witty. Highly recommended. I've also started Jessica Townsend's Nevermoor, on the recommendation of a student's daughter, with a view to perhaps adding it to the Children's Literature module next year. It's very good so far: a reversal of the Chosen One trope in that the central protagonist is a Cursed Child who acts as a social scapegoat for anything that goes wrong (very expensive for the parents) and is scheduled to die on her eleventh birthday, having spent the previous years as a pariah. Other than that, my reading this week consists solely of the M.Res I'm examining in Swansea on Monday, and the two PhD dissertations I'm examining in December and January. 

What else? Well, I assume from the silence that I didn't get shortlisted for the job at NUI Galway, but a one line note to say 'thanks but no thanks' would be nice. To demonstrate that I never learn, I applied for another job, this time at UC Cork. I see applications as spiritual reminders of one's true place in the grander scale of things. Feel unappreciated at work? Apply elsewhere and discover that the universe is similarly indifferent. There's also a literary aspect to the quest for the perfect covering letter and CV too: constantly striving for the perfect way to make mediocrity appear desirable. Sisyphus meets the Wizard of Oz. 

Oh well. Applications are more of a hobby these days, though if cutbacks and student numbers slump any further they may become a full-time occupation – it's happened to enough friends recently to be a clear and present danger. A couple of weeks ago a newspaper suggested that one northern university and two on the south coast were on the brink of going bust: within days teenagers and their parents were asking me if I knew which ones they might be, as they decide on their final choices. The sad fact is that the government actively wants a couple of ex-polytechnics to go bust. They think it would be good for market discipline, and it wouldn't affect their children, or those of their voters. The same logic applies to the much-promoted 2 year degrees: their children will continue to take three-year less vocational courses (plus medicine) amidst medieval splendour, safe in the knowledge that institutional prestige, nice manners and intellectual fluency will land them a nice job. They don't see why the great unwashed should do anything other than wield spanners and deliver pizzas, and suspect that any subject not taught at a Russell Group university is a doss. They also wonder why highly-skilled technical jobs are being shipped out to India and China. Putting these two thoughts together is apparently beyond them. 

Anyway, that's enough from me. Paralysed by the competing demands on my time, I've decide to ignore them all and lie face down on the floor for the weekend. If sufficiently moved – by the news, perhaps – I shall occasionally thrash around in despair, a tactic adopted by a senior official at the Bank of England during the 1976 IMF bailout, I once read, and no doubt experiencing a Brexit-related revival in the corridors of Whitehall. 



Friday, 16 November 2018

'Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes'


Moloch

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!