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.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Dead Cats and Good Books

Good afternoon all. I'm sitting in the office wondering if anything's happened this week and realising that actually, quite a lot has been going on.

The best bit was a trip to London: two days in Gilbert Scott's resurrected, excessive and amazing St. Pancras Hotel where the Victorian Gothic splendour comes with cocktails containing croissants (yes, really and by the way the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe' video was filmed there too, pop-pickers).

This was to go to the ornate, plush Edwardian Noel Coward theatre to see, incongruously, Martin McDonagh's scabrous Irish terrorism comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore starring one Aidan Turner, whose pectorals you may recall from Poldark (or indeed the dreadful Hobbit films). Never having seen Poldark I wasn't that bothered about his thorax but the play was wonderful – really tightly scripted, packed with the darkest of jokes and ending with a feline and human bloodbath.

One or two of the specific historical references weren't quite as offensive as they would have been when the play was first performed 20 years ago, but there was still plenty to make the audience gasp. There was also a distinct difference between the English and Irish audience members' reactions to some of the darker gags, which reminded me of seeing Hunger a few years ago.

Otherwise this week I've been seeing students as they prepare for the next academic year, trying and failing to get the right access to our VLE so I can set up the courses I'm teaching, catching up with some colleagues and saying goodbye to those being shelled out of the place by the vicious know-nothings who run it, reviewing a book proposal for a university press, writing up my video games conference paper for a magazine, failing to find out how many – if any – students we've recruited this year and generally just getting into the swing of things once more. I've found yet another politician novelist and poet: the 3rd Baron Gorell. Is is stuff any good? No idea…yet. Talking of which, I got hold of the new British Library Crime Classic edition of Ellen Wilkinson's The Division Bell Mystery: she was the crusading Labour MP famous for her part in the Jarrow Hunger March, and who died in sad and mysterious circumstances. She wrote two novels, Clash and this one: Clash is seriously good, while The Division Bell Mystery is hugely interesting for its even-handed politics and its use of the detective genre to explore the political social structure. The British Library have done a lovely job with the reprint, and the introductions by Rachel Reeves MP and Martin Edwards are very good indeed. I'm just annoyed I paid £90 for my slightly tatty first edition because I didn't know a new one was coming!

I've been reading a few things for pleasure too - I whipped through Hugh Howey's feted but actually quite hackneyed Shift the other day. It's the second in his post-apocalyptic Silo trilogy (the City of Ember kids' series does a similar concept more entertainingly). Decent idea, written in a very pedestrian style: mildly diverting, and hampered by an inability to write women at all. I enjoyed Melissa Harrison's All Among The Barley an awful lot more – it's a novel about the social and political condition of the English countryside in the interwar period, narrated retrospectively by a teenage girl undergoing a psychotic episode. I did wonder whether interweaving the adolescent mental health and puberty issues with ominous political developments and a family saga, plus a huge amount of farming and nature material was a bit too much to do justice to each aspect. There's a considerable amount of purple prose and a profusion of strands meant that the ending felt a bit facile, but it's a meaty, intelligent and thoughtful book that will definitely withstand re-reading. Now I'm back to Muriel Spark's slight but entertaining Territorial Rights which I temporarily mislaid when I started it last month, and Gillian Darley's Villages of Vision. A couple of years ago we sponsored her relaunch of this overlooked classic at Birmingham Literature Festival, and I bought it then. It's essentially a gazetteer of the 400+ model, utopian, company, communal and experimental villages scattered across the UK, some of which maintain some vestiges of their founders' purposes. I'm really keen on fostering some awareness of Britain's radical and contested history, partly because my students have been so badly failed by an education system that teaches only English aristocratic triumphalism. Two who came to see me this morning were stunned to discover that Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own languages, and were shocked by my revelation that they were suppressed by the British state. Peterloo, Toldpuddle, the General Strike, Suffrage, Invergordon, the Civil Wars, 1916… if mentioned at all, they're presented as uncouth ingratitude on the part of the oiks. I'd like to persuade them that the peoples of Britain have a proud history of resistance, independence and progressiveness that can be unearthed without too much effort, and Villages of Vision is a dream for that purpose.

And with that, I'm off. Setting up the Shropshire Open fencing competition tonight, and offering myself up as easy pickings to the youngsters who've entered the foil event tomorrow. I know I'm going to regret this…

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Omnibus return-to-work blog

Hello all. I've been back from my holidays for a week now, and I would like to tell you that it's great to be back. But that would be a big fat lie because I'm back to a stream of mealy-mouthed emails from management announcing the redundancies of good colleagues and the continued takeover of academic leadership by people who have literally never taught a student or done any research.

I have had a good holiday. I went to a conference on the way: the North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History in Bangor. It covered philosophy, language, music, literature, art, economics and human geography and much else besides. I tried to go to sessions outside my immediate field, and to postgrads' papers on the basis that a) the young are there to be intellectually preyed upon by fading has-beens like me) and b) they might like the support and appreciation of a decent turnout. I went to a lot of presentations, missed lots I wanted to hear I especially enjoyed Jessica George on Mary-Ann Constantine's wonderful novel Star-Shot, David Lloyd on New Directions (the American periodical which supported lots of Welsh poets), Catriona Coutts on Germans in post-war Welsh literature (essentially viewed as nicer than the English), Emyr Glyn Williams's freewheeling exploration of Y Naid, a philosophical perspective informed by the primacy of the Welsh language in Welsh culture (Emyr also founded and owns Ankst records, which received all of my pocket money in the 1990s and beyond), Katie Gramich's keynote on camouflage, Dorothy Edwards and Rhys Davies – I can't laud Edward's novel and short story collection enough – Daryl Perrins' analysis of Welsh TV comedy, which started the usual arguments around language and included the claim that there aren't any urban working-class Welsh-speakers, Andy Webb and Seth Twigg's superb analyses of RS Thomas's poetry (the early days for Seth, the influence of Edward Thomas for Andy), Diana Wallace's discussion of how Chris Meredith writes about work, Poznan University's Marta Listewnik doing an amazing analysis of phrasal verbs in Welsh literature and speech, and a virtuoso reading by Ceri James-Evans (an MA student) of Gwyn Thomas's slippery use of deixis - particularly 'that' in Oscar.

My own paper was on Celts and Celticism in video games - something that hasn't been looked at in detail before. I think it went quite well - there was a lively discussion, some people had played the games I talked about, and a magazine has invited me to write a piece based on it, which is very nice.

After that I dashed over to Ireland for a family gathering: a ferry journey, five hours in a hotel then the 7 a.m. train to Co. Kerry for mass and a glorious 50th wedding anniversary celebration (no, not mine) which lasted long and loud. There followed a couple of weeks of reading, crosswords, the occasional day trip (including to the Burren, an otherworldly geography I'd always wanted to see, culminating in the famous Puck Fair and an encounter with some very relaxed hares. I did almost run out of books but eked them out sparingly. If you're interested, I read Nick Harkaway's Gnomon (bold, some lyrical passages, thought-provoking at a sixth-form philosophy level but unjustifiably overlong), Emma Donoghue's Frog Music (enjoyable and very moving Sarah Waters-esque neoVictorianism with a couple of superb characters), Antonia White's The Sugar House (beautifully written and heart-breaking, but perhaps too retro-Catholic for contemporary, secular readers), Nancy Mitford's Highland Fling (Wodehousian giggles plus some sharper observation of human psychology than PGW assayed, highly-recommended), Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City which I had to buy again and have delivered mid-holiday because I lost it somewhere along the way (always like the characters particularly Mrs Madrigal, and the advent of the 1980s is done beautifully, but the Jack Jones plot didn't work) and finally Schlink and Popp's Self's Punishment which I didn't like very much. Decent plot, and the aged detective's frank admission of his Nazi past was good, but he felt like an old man's fantasy: cocktail-drinking lecher keeps attracting younger women to his bed. Since I got back I read Tracey Matthias's Night of the Party which wears its good politics on its sleeve but doesn't do much else, and Paul McAuley's eco-SF Austral, which worked very well and neatly incorporates a retelling of Tristan and Isolde. Next up is Melissa Harrison's All Among The Barley, of which I've heard good things.

Anyway - here are some of my favourite snaps from my holidays. You can see more here.

Inch from Cromane

I do like taking pictures of selfie-snappers

The Sceiligs
My lovely horse
Like father, like son
At the fireworks
Poll na Brón, the Burren

Hot-dog seller, Puck Fair

Roof, Kenilworth Castle

I'm not a dog person but these two caught my eye.

Stairs, Kenilworth Castle

Grafitti, Kenilworth Castle

More stairs, Kenilworth Castle

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Long Goodbye

OK, it's not as long as its author envisaged, but I am going away – first to a conference and then for a holiday on the ould sod. The conference is Naaswch - the North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History. It moves between Wales and the US or Canada each year. I didn't manage anything for the Harvard gig last time, but I have the pleasure of going back to Bangor this time, the institution that took a chance on an unknown kid during the Clearing process and gave me two of my degrees.

My last Welsh-related paper looked at the signifying role of food in a selection of literary texts (which I must write up and publish). This one draws on the long history of colonial and postcolonial literary theory and applies it to something new in the field: the ways in which the Welsh, Scots and Irish have been represented in video games. The TL;DR version is that there's basically a mashed up version of all 'Celts' (the concept is a 19th-century confection) dragged out when modern, technologically advanced societies feel the need for a bit of spiritually-informed violence. Arthur, tartan and blue face-paint feature a lot. There's quite a bit of smiting, plenty of castles, grottoes and caves, and some impractical and frankly a-historical ladies' clothing. Not the kind of thing that will keep the midges off as you plod across the bog. For a little light relief, there's also Welsh-as-comic-sidekick, as seen in some Japanese games.

Brennos - a Celtic Barbarian. All you have to do is wipe out his villages

Castles (1992): you play the oppressive Saxon invader

A typical Arthurian MMORPG

Dún Darach (1985)

A still from Grand Theft Auto V

Korean MMORPG Mabinogi. Not a scene I recognise from the Four Branches

Basically, the Celts are usually The Past: too wild or effeminate to cope with modernity, with the possible exception of DJ Dai (who plays sheep noises and has a terminal illness. I'm suggesting that the Romantic and Victorian struggles over how to define Celtic identities have been carried over wholesale into video art.

Here are a few of the games I'll talk about.

Comic relief: Ni-no-kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Hot Warrior Maiden (though she does speak a formal approximation of modern Welsh): Civilization V:

Celtic spirituality as close to mental ill-health and self-help: Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

and finally an interesting comparison: the Shropshire-set Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, which looks forward rather than to the mythical past while addressing key questions about life, consciousness, progress, science and the future in a way that even the best Celtic-based games just won't do.

So that's my paper. After that it's over to Ireland for (hopefully) some rain, reading and relaxation before returning to find out how many and which of my excellent colleagues have been fired in pursuit – according to my VC in the local paper – a 'Renaissance' of artistic activity in the area. No, really. He actually said that closing courses (he didn't have the space to mention the redundancies) and diverting the cash to STEM and nursing courses would magically stimulate the arts. Mind you, I'm doodling some pretty graphic images of him right now while a friend has sent me a bespoke tie which beautifully encapsulates my feelings towards management, so perhaps he's right.

Try not to miss me too much.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Spot the Difference, or, a Teachable Moment

All staff got this message this morning.

Excellent. I'm all for it. We have a large proportion of BME students and manual staff especially cleaners and cooks, and a very low proportion of BME academics and managers. Basically, seniority looks white here. 

Simultaneously, we ran this billboard and web campaign:

Oh dear: the old 'white saviour' trope in which kindly white individuals solve the problems of an undifferentiated mass of dependent and grateful black people.

Plus the extra touch of describing Africa as an unexplored new world. This will be news to its inhabitants, one suspects. I feel too for my students, 40%+ of whom are of BME extraction: rendered in this ad not as potential teachers/health workers but as the recipients of white bounty.

Having been alerted to this the university has been quick to pull the campaign off the web and the billboards are coming down today. It still suggests that there's a problem though. My colleagues in English, Media and Cultural Studies have been teaching this stuff for years - I used to do a whole lecture on media coverage of the 1984 Ethiopian famine - but this campaign was written, designed, cleared, printed and published without anyone noticing the implications. I have absolutely no doubt that there's not a shred of conscious racism in what happened, but despite every member of staff having to take online courses in 'unconscious bias', this still appeared. 

While I applaud the university's efforts to put in place structures and plans to create an inclusive culture, I can't help thinking that strategies and publicity campaigns are looking like marketing devices rather than searching self-examination. Academic departments' courses have been revitalised by the decolonisation of curricula: now it's time for the managers who harangue us about such things to systematically reconsider their own practises. 

Friday, 13 July 2018

'Curse your English education'!

What a week…what a week in public life. A Chequers away-day for the government that sounded as awful as anyone else's away day, and culminated in Johnson, Davis and Gove talking big to their mates, grovelling to the PM to her face, then resigning once they'd got home and out of her sight. Well, not Gove, obviously, but Davis, Johnson and several Tories whose existence was previously unsuspected.

The week ended back in the same place, with the same PM (somehow) having talks and dinner yet again with a collection of rude blowhard men who think that bluster is an acceptable substitute for brains. The accents may have been different, but it's hard to tell one portly, amoral, sexually-promiscuous racist half-American New York-born blond (Boris Johnson) from another (Donald Trump). I know a lot of people were rooting for May – despite everything – to grow a spine and re-stage a scene from the world's worst film (Love Actually followed closely by Drop Dead Fred and Jack Frost) but it was never going to happen.

Having walked out on some fairly decent allies, May is left clinging to a country which doesn't need Britain, led by a man who has no concern for his own country, let alone its allies. Given Trump's obvious hatred of democratically-elected women, I'm actually feeling sorry for the PM: she's being gaslighted by Trump. I watched his press conference this afternoon, which consisted of him describing the interview he gave to a friend's newspaper only yesterday as 'fake news', mealy-mouthed attempts to smooth over the insults he sent her way in that interview, and the repetition of the lie he keeps telling about being in Scotland the day before the EU referendum and predicting the result. He wasn't: he turned up a day after the result was announced.

What a shambles: thirty years of shameless lying has led to a supposedly serious country being thrown into the arms of a rogue state which will strip what's left of Britain bare then leave it for dead, while enriching a few oligarchs along the way.

Oh yes, and there was a game of football that I missed. At least Thierry Henry's Belgium lost – a modicum of recompense for cheating Ireland out of European qualification. Yes I know it was in 2010 but it feels like only yesterday. I gather England played too, but I was fencing and missed it. To be honest, my sporting focus has been on the Tour de France: compromised as it is by drugs, Sky and repressive regimes sportwashing their reputations by sponsoring teams, I find it utterly compelling: the effort involved, the tactics, the distances, the landscape, the bikes I can neither afford nor deserve (if anyone's got a spare £18,000, this is the one I want), the spectators dressing up as giant syringes to greet Chris Froome…magic.

My week is ending in sport too – this weekend is the Much Wenlock Olympian Games, acknowledged by the Olympic movement as one of its inspirations. It's a great mix of events: some serious events on the calendar (fencing, triathlon, archery) and some properly silly things, like wonky bicycle races. I tend to alternate refereeing and competing, depending on whether my waistline is waxing or waning, but this year I'm refereeing/organising as we're unavoidably short of staff. We run adult competitions plus a mixed-sex children's team competition, perfectly scheduled for the hottest weekend of the summer.

The rest of the week has been spent successfully not writing the conference paper I have to deliver in not many days. Marking re-sit essays and dissertations has filled quite a lot of it, plus seeing students to sort out their programmes and suchlike. The redundancy situation rumbles on with no sign of management managing to extract their braincases from their rectal passages. All we've heard this week is that a) research by people being fired won't be accepted by REF, which is both fair and a disaster for the faculty and b) graduation attire is even more prescriptive because management doesn't want to see the Save The Arts logo anywhere. Which is just a challenge, as far as I can see. There's even a line about 'formal business attire' and 'formal shoes'. They will of course be wearing their traditional academic-manager costume:

and shoes…

Ah well, it depresses me to even think about these vandals. 

I have managed to read a little this week. Two very contrasting texts: The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth, and Nick Harkaway's Gnomon. I've read almost all of Edgeworth's novels now – she's a fascinating slightly older contemporary of Jane Austen, and her work is a more uproarious version of the social comedy form, with lots of added Irish elements: she was part of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, though one with considerably more social concern than many of her peers or indeed characters. The Absentee is a short, funny but also uncomfortable comedy about her own class: minor Irish aristocracy torn between where the cash comes from (grinding Irish peasants into the dust of the land stolen from them) and the giddy social whirl of the London establishment that sees them as figures of fun. Edgeworth attempts a defence of the 1801 Union (English manners and Irish spirit will benefit each other) but it's not pursued far, and the more parasitical absentees are lambasted roundly, all within a spirited marriage plot and lots of family in-jokes. As an early examination of the tricky colonist's social perch, it's unmissable. 

Harkaway's book is unmissable in another sense: it's 684 pages long and far, far too pleased with itself. A near-future rendition of Britain under total surveillance, its politics are hard to disagree with but god it's hard to love (and that's even without going in to a novel whose dead dissident is called Diana Hunter: not subtle, Nick). There's something odd about surveillance novels: Dave Eggers's The Circle (another bad book attacking bad ideas) also falls into the trap of using the omniscient-narrator novel form to attack omniscience, though I must admit that it does caution against the possibility of objective perspectives throughout. Most readers want total awareness of everything that's going on - as I know when I give my students texts which obscure, complicate or refuse 'truths'. While Harkaway's book is a little more adventurous stylistically (The Circle is sort-of cleverer in that it keeps subtly referring to Wordsworth's Prelude), I don't think either author is deliberately playing with the irony – I don't think it's occurred to them. 

I suppose, in Harkaway's defence, a 684 page novel is a kind of warning against state Total Information Awareness: overload is a real danger. I'm not sure what a decent surveillance novel would look like, but I don't think its either of these. Gnomon is a fun read but its exhaustiveness defeats its own point and starts to look like a rather Victorian-patriarchal attempt to dominate its readers' every thought… which rather defeats its own point. 

See you next week. 

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Prince of Wales Bridge Naming Ceremony Transcript

A grateful nation woke this morning to the news that the new Severn Bridge had been secretly ceremonially renamed as the Prince of Wales Bridge, without any public consultation or invitation to the momentous event, nor even a photographer. Luckily a concealed bridge-spotter was on hand to record the glorious pageant, which took place in the basket of a hot-air balloon floating high above the structure deep in the middle of the night.

Alun Cairns: 'Welcome, everybody to the Great British Bridge Renaming Ceremony. Please don't lean too far over the side'.
Carwyn Jones: 'Sssshhh. The proles might hear us'.
Prince Charles: 'Who's there? I can't see a damn thing. Are you quite sure the grateful masses are gathered on the bridge? 2 a.m. seems a bit late even for the jobless. I can't hear any forelocks being tugged.'
Alun Cairns: 'Absolutely sire. They're only keeping quiet to avoid disturbing the barnacles. Have you rolled up your left trouser-leg as prescribed by ancient rite?'
Carwyn Jones: 'Dw i eisiau…'
Prince Charles: 'None of that Welshie stuff. Can't understand a bloody word. Bloody ugly bridge too. Monstrous carbuncle. Concrete isn't even organic. Get on with it before those damned gulls snatch my chips. Should have brought my Holland and Hollands.'
Camilla: 'Yes, get on with it. I can't hold onto him much longer anyway. Swing the bloody bottle Charles and get back in pronto. I need a gasper'.
Alun Cairns: 'OK, OK. By popular demand, er, anyway for some reasonInamethisbridgeafteryoursereneandgracioushighnessgetoffgetoffGETOFF…'

Monday, 2 July 2018

Poetry corner.

A Poem Listing All The Things Thrown At Me From His Apartment Window By A Stranger As I Walked By One Sunny Afternoon

One earthenware teapot, yellow;
One plain pint glass, empty;
One can of Heinz Baked Beans, full.
Abuse, largely incomprehensible.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Midsummer madness

Bit of an odd week.
Firstly, let's talk about the weather.
I hate it. I evolved, as far as the genealogy suggests, a waterproof skin perfectly adapted to digging peat from a bog in the rain. I have worked hard to avoid adding to climate change: no car, no children, almost no flights ever (currently averaging one every 6 years, solely for work) and yet people with SUVs, air conditioners, holidays and commuting are burning me to a crisp. As I cycle to and from work I sometimes wonder why even that altruistic act qualifies me for a faceful of poisonous exhaust and abuse simply to make more room for flatulent drivers of flatulent cars.

On the up side of this week, I spent two days in Swansea acting as external examiner for their MA in Welsh Writing in English. It's a good course taught by inspirational people at a university in a park opposite the beach. If there's a league table of Universities With Beaches, Swansea must be near the top, alongside Bangor, Aberystwyth, Bournemouth and (in a few years' time) Cambridge.

On the down side, my colleagues and I all got letters telling us whether or not our jobs are in danger. It's not the declining applications that get to us. Nor do we think that any course has a god-given right to exist. It's being sent inaccurate letters by incompetent people based on untrue calculations by people with no understanding of our subjects, little or (in some cases) no experience of teaching and who have no concern for teaching quality, workload, sustainability, student experience or research. Having failed on a spectacular level to keep the ship afloat, they're throwing us off the side while clinging to the topmost mast, still collecting the bonuses and bellowing orders down at those of us in the water.

Despite my letter congratulating me on moving from a job I haven't had in four years to the job I've been doing for four years (not a surprise: they're also telling me that they haven't lost my pension, only the records relating to my pension), I'm as angry and despondent as my targeted colleagues – what does one say to those in the firing line that's at all meaningful? All the ideologically loaded, statistically-meaningless things we've been bullied into doing – TEF ratings NSS satisfaction, REF outputs that distort actual research – have suddenly and conveniently been dumped in pursuit of short-term gains to protect those in private offices who won't pay any kind of price for their failure. I run a big course and a couple of associated ones. We're down to the bare bones: a small group of utterly brilliant colleagues with no duplication of specialism. Lose some, and we lose not just bodies in classrooms but swathes of expertise needed to meet the subject benchmarks.

Needless to say, when my colleagues are fired, the survivors' workloads will (as usual) be way above the contractual maximum. There is a culture of overwork in all universities, but this time it's serious. Redundancy is a legal term used by employers when specific work no longer exists. If my employers fire people and still overload others' workloads and/or employ teaching cover, it's tacit recognition that the work does still need doing, and that the redundancies are bogus. So this time I'm declining anything that breaches my contract because to do otherwise is to connive with managers to get rid of my colleagues.

There's plenty more where that came from, but I'll save it for the next instalment. Instead: books. I seem to be on an accidental Manchester kick at the moment, which is fine because it's one of my favourite cities. Having re-read Jeff Noon's Pollen, I'm most of the way through Stevie Davies's Impassioned Clay, an intriguing mix of academic, historical and sexual identities set in the previously under-appreciated south-of-Manchester towns and villages (the title is from Keats and also the title of a Llewelyn Cowper Powys long essay). Very highly recommended. After that, it's on to Hugh Lupton's loose and interesting-looking new Mabinogi translation, The Assembly of the Severed Head, Nicholas Daly's Literature, Technology and Modernity 1860-2000 and Huw Osborne's much-lauded Queer Wales.

But tonight, as my reward for writing the programme notes (successfully avoiding being sacked for glossing last year's The Tempest as a piece of Brexit madness), I'm off to see Macbeth performed in the shadow of Stafford Castle, prefaced by a Gala glass of warm white wine!

Friday, 22 June 2018

A short ride in a fast week.

Funny week this week - lots and lots of the more formal end-of-year administration to do, much of it important but also quite tedious, alongside some more enjoyable things, all conducted amidst an atmosphere of mutinous fury.

The week's main activities were Boards: mark entry deadlines, internal results board, external results board, meeting our external examiner and arranging for him to spend some time with our students. It's not all wearing tweed and wowing people with our fabulous knowledge: marking is soul destroying because there's a lot of it to do in a short space of time. Then we moderate it. Then I get to check that all four forms have been completed for each module, after which I send them off to an underpaid External Examiner from another university who checks that the courses are intellectually appropriate, assessments are fair and challenging, support is sufficient and so on. He meets our students who give him their perspective and then we all get together to go through every module's results, theoretically identifying strengths and weaknesses as we go along. We do it all over again in a few weeks for Results Boards and Resit Boards. Most of the time it is amazingly boring, but it does mean each class and each student gets careful consideration at every level. This year, our externals very politely pointed out that getting rid of excellent colleagues and courses is a ridiculous course of action.

All this is conducted, naturally, during the annual round of newspaper stories claiming that university grades are being massively inflated. In actual fact, the posh universities hand out far more top-class degrees than places like mine, and we all spend a lot more time explaining to students exactly what constitutes good academic practice. I did a degree in the 90s: 'learning outcomes', 'marking criteria', 'academic skills' classes, draft review tutorials, mixed-mode assessments and the like didn't exist. We hand-wrote what we thought might be an acceptable essay and got a grade. No wonder students are doing better now: we support them a lot better. I was one of two people who got a First in my cohort: I expected a 2.2 and still couldn't explain what was expected of me beyond 'good writing' and 'ideas': but I was armed with the middle-class cultural and social capital that let me guess what constitutes these things. I spend time explaining to intelligent students with no HE cultural capital what I'm looking for, and it works. I also think that my students are over-assessed, but that's a whole other post.

I'm an external examiner too - at an Open University centre in East London and a Welsh university. The small fee isn't the point: it's a contribution to the health of the whole sector, and it's a chance to see how other courses run. And to steal their ideas, obviously (or share your own). It gives you a sense of how your field is developing and a chance to be a good citizen - it's one of the things that I do which feels important, however invisible it is. Quite a lot of this week has been spent reading work by students at these universities – while I'm massively proud of my own degree, I'd happily recommend anyone take their courses (if mine are oversubscribed, that is).

Other highlights of this week: my colleague Daisy Black gave a performance of her feminist Chaucer re-tellings, Unruly Woman, interspersed with #MeToo renditions of familiar and new folk songs; I went to a PhD progress presentation on digital poetry that was rather thrilling, I gatecrashed the Science faculty's conference to hear about the Big Read project my Faculty says it's too poor to join, and I interviewed a mid-PhD stage student to see how he's getting on. Having worked as an employment office adviser for years, he's doing a philosophy/ethnography project on wordlessness as a concept and his only problem is too many ideas – not a challenge I've ever faced, sadly. It was just excellent to meet people doing such exciting things in so many areas.

Not, however, as exciting as the delivery of my new, massively over-engineered steam generator. You may all think of me as a risk-taking, devil-may-care cultural, political and pedagogical provocateur, but those who meet me in meatspace are always struck by the crisp perfection of my natty outfits.* I iron everything, less as a hobby and more as a calling: where some people pray, meditate or paint trompe-l'oeil scenes on their chapel ceilings, I find fulfilment and calm in ironing. The death of my most recent one a week or so left a gaping void in my soul and indeed schedule, healed a few days ago by the delivery of a bigger, more powerful, state-of-the art that promises crease perfection.

Quite frankly, I feel like breaking a bottle of bubbly on its prow or saluting it with Also Sprach Zarathstra or Fanfare every time I switch it on. Mentioning this on Twitter attracted a flood of ironing-sceptics including some good friends for whom I previously had some respect. You people are animals. 

Obviously the advent of The Beast has considerably cut down on my reading time, but I did get through a couple of old favourites: Iain Sinclair's book-dealing-and-antiquarian-serial-killer psychogeographical novel White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings and Jeff Noon's wonderful Pollen. Both highly-recommended. 

*Not entirely accurate. Even the one tailored suit I own looks like I robbed it from some rough-living person of a totally different build then buried it for a while.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Definitely not another allegory of the week

High up in my Faculty's main building perches a nest of vicious, self-interested killers. Motivated solely by their own survival, they swoop down to pick off the weak and defenceless without regard for their victims, the future, the wider ecosystem or the needs of others. They have no predators, appear to be a protected species and float freely high above the busy, insecure and short lives of lesser creatures – like voles – scurrying about in the undergrowth. Their own short-term needs are satisfied without delay and that is all they need to know.

I speak, of course, of the peregrines which roost on the deep concrete ledges of the 7th floor, and not about Faculty management at all. You must all have either deeply cynical mindsets or a keen eye for analogy. Or perhaps both.

In completely unrelated news, our Faculty's restructuring plan has been circulated to everyone except the students and the students' union and it manages to pull off the twin achievements of being more hostile to the values of HE than expected and even more factually incorrect than the previous drafts. It's too much to expect a Dean of Arts to care about the Arts and Humanities, but these failings aren't even compensated by an ability to count. The faculty staff has passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence in our 'leaders': the governors have ignored it and the VC has rejected it, so they now own the situation.

I am used to students crying in my office because we've produced a society and a scholarly atmosphere which imposes unconscionable pressures on them without justification: I am now getting used to my colleagues being reduced to tears and fury not just by management hostility but sheer incompetence and refusal to engage on factual matters. Still, it could be worse: Cardiff University ignored the pleas of one lecturer that he was overworked – including being required to mark 418 exam scripts in 20 days –  and he killed himself. My own employer is finding creative ways to reduce the appearance of overwork by removing time allocations for things like committee membership: colleagues will still be expected to serve, they just won't appear on documents. I was allocated time to write a book this year: 30 hours. I will be judged for not having written said book, but nobody will justify their insistence that 30 hours is enough. Meanwhile my own workload allocation was something like 300 hours over the contractual limit: we do the work because we care about students but my colleagues are being fired because there isn't, apparently, enough work to do. But it's OK: we'll be offered 'resilience training' to stop us feeling bad about a sick and sickening structure.

By the way, in addition to firing dozens of academic colleagues, the university is firing 36 of the 37 student support workers, who are to be outsourced. As you know, outsourcing always leads to secure, supportive employees doing a bang-up job for their clients with all the support they need…

Anyway, enough of this moaning. I've done nice things recently: took the boss for his first trip to Dublin where he thrilled at the graves of Jonathan Swift and Hester, paid homage to the dead of the Rising, and generally appreciated not being in Brexit Britain for a few days. I've read a couple of books (Lethem's Dissident Gardens, Blake's A Penknife in my Heart, Reeve's Station Zero) been fencing and watered the wisteria. I also popped down to London for a meeting of some of the Justice League of Academia, where we had our brains picked in return for a slap-up meal. Picking my brains lasted as long as it took to serve the amuses-bouche but I stuck it out for a couple more courses. Beforehand I strolled through Camden Lock market which was a vision of hell: my bedroom circa 1993 with added banal nationalism. Never again.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

You Play The Child Extremely

This week seems to have passed in a blur of marking and marking-related administration, but the weekend saw one of the highlights of the year: the English and Friends trip to the Globe Theatre. Students, staff, graduates and assorted others buy their own tickets and the Faculty pays for a bus. We go for lunch together, then take our chances with whatever's on at this time of year. We've seen some wonderful and some dreadful productions, in all sorts of weather: The Taming of the Shrew set in a Dublin tenement in 1916 was memorable for leaving us all completely baffled; Antony and Cleopatra took place in a thunderstorm so bad that the next day's newspapers all featured photos of lightning hitting the Shard building next door, while the poor actor who stepped in to play Antony that very morning tried to read a disintegrating script as he and the others slipped and fell every time they tried to move.

This year we saw Two Noble Kinsmen. It's hardly ever performed: I've never seen it, though I vaguely remember reading it as an undergrad. On paper it sounds quite dull: a version of Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale', a love triangle featuring Palamon and Arcite, two cousins who fall for the same woman – Emilia –  from their prison cell. The Arden Shakespeare describes it as 'a Jacobean dramatisation of a medieval English tale based on an Italian romance version of a Latin epic about one of the oldest and most tragic Greek legends'.

In the Shakespeare-Fletcher version, there's an unnamed Jailer's Daughter who goes mad with unrequited (unnoticed) love for one of the cousins, and a lot of morris dancing. Structurally, it's all over the place: the widowed Queens who feature so much in Act I are never seen again, while the Jailer's Daughter is bundled off and probably married well before the end.  The end isn't much cop either - a highly contrived settlement for the two young men, so equally matched.

On stage, it all worked gloriously: between Northern Broadsides' comedy chops, some astoundingly filthy gags appreciated most fully by the medieval drama specialist who sat next to me, Eliza Carthy's music and some hugely charismatic acting, particularly from Francesca Mills as the Jailer's over-sexed Daughter, it was two hours of excellent entertainment which made me wonder why it's not performed more often.

And now…back to the marking. Other than that, I'm halfway through Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens, which I'm mostly enjoying even though it feels a bit Great American Novel By Numbers.

Friday, 1 June 2018

A Play for All Seasons

I watched the BBC adaptation of King Lear the other night. I don't know if you are familiar with the plot, but a man incapable of running his fiefdom and more interested in status and baubles than hard work decides to hold a restructuring exercise based on incoherent whims, demonstrating along the way that he doesn't understand his vassals' duties or personalities, eventually finding out that bad management shares some qualities with the boomerang.

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death.

Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,--
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Only Cordelia, who points out that instigating a round of currying favour is no way to achieve success or to run a complex organisation, fails to join in the greedy, desperate grovelling and in-fighting that ensues:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Despite the sensible interjections of Kent:

Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least;
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverbs no hollowness.

Cordelia's intransigence is felt not to fit with the kingdom's new mission statement or values and she and Kent are made redundant without even a notice period or compensation.

…take thy reward.
Five days we do allot thee, for provision
To shield thee from diseases of the world;
And on the sixth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom: if, on the tenth day following,
Thy banish'd trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death.

Cordelia reluctantly heads off to a neighbouring institution which recognises her qualities, while Lear
sets off for a tour of his kingdom's new subsidiary units and finds himself neither welcomed nor treated in the manner to which he believes he is entitled. His new executives have their own priorities, and feeding a load of superfluous layabouts isn't amongst them:

your disorder'd rabble
Make servants of their betters.

despite Lear's claim that his management team are pushing the envelope of entrepreneurial skill:

My train are men of choice and rarest parts,
That all particulars of duty know,
And in the most exact regard support
The worships of their name.

And as for those trying to do their best, but for a few who flee to France, their only solution is to speak in riddles and lay low:

No port is free; no place,
That guard, and most unusual vigilance,
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may 'scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I'll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.

Or else stand witness to folly, and bear the cost, as the Fool suggests:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm,
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,

It does not, need I say, end well for Lear or anybody else.

He eventually realises the error of his ways, having relied on the flattery of his closest confidantes

They flattered
me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my
beard ere the black ones were there. To say 'ay'
and 'no' to every thing that I said!--'Ay' and 'no'
too was no good divinity. When the rain came to
wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when
the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I
found 'em, there I smelt 'em out. Go to, they are
not men o' their words: they told me I was every
thing; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.

but culpable or innocent, most of the senior protagonists are soon departed, leaving behind a shattered wasteland and a shell-shocked population with - no doubt - a somewhat jaundiced view of top-down strategy, given that there's not much chance of this occurring:

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.

There's a vague hint of happier times ahead under new management, but it seems distinctly unlikely. Lear, though he saw the error of his ways, is not much missed:

 O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

The wonder is, he hath endured so long:
He but usurp'd his life.

and we bid farewell to this wretched place sadder, wiser, yet not empowered. 

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

And if you're wondering why I've treated you to this whistle-stop tour of high-handed ignorance and selfishness, why yes, it is an allegory. Have a good weekend. Tom's a-cold. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

For sale: one university. Very, very cheap.

The annals of junk science are long and storied: one only has to look at the work of Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun and Edzard Ernst amongst many others to realise that there's a lot of it about, and a surprisingly large amount of it is generated by universities, i.e. institutions that should know better. 

There's bad science, junk science and straight-up, built-to-order findings-for-cash, and I have a doozy of an example for you. Imagine, if you will, a university that issues an official press release ending with this line:
For Takeaway Trauma support, please visit 
What, you may ask, leads an institution which promises that it is 
Maximising opportunity through generating knowledge, innovation and enterprise.
and develops
Skills and Knowledge for Economic and Social Transformation

informed by 'values':
We will behave respectfully and ethically, in all that we do. We will be inclusive and fair in our interaction with each other and with our wider community. We will act professionally, transparently, confidently, collaboratively and challengingly when engaging with our communities locally and globally.
to encourage the public to get 'support' for 'trauma' from a manufacturer of supermarket pizzas.

The answer, of course, is money.

The headline to this offence is
By whom? We are not told. 
THE stress of ordering and waiting for a takeaway can bring out the worst in all of us, but today it’s been identified as an actual condition, Takeaway Trauma, following scientific research.
Can it? How do we quantify 'the worst'? Should we really be saying 'all'? How many gun massacres have there been following a delayed pizza delivery. Who determines what's an 'actual condition'? My guess would be NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which incorporates the British National Formulary, the prescribers' bible. Sadly, 'Takeaway Trauma' is not listed amongst the many medical and social ills.

So, let's look at the underlying scientific research:
A University of Wolverhampton study, in partnership with Chicago Town, found that the average heart rate increased from a baseline or relaxed 70 BPM to 87 BPM in the period following ordering a pizza, while tense arousal scores - or stress levels - saw an increase with the length of time that participants waited for an order from a baseline 17.25 to 18.38 BPM.
In partnership, we can assume, means that Chicago Town looked around for an institution that would put the stamp of institutional credibility on a public relations stunt designed to get press coverage encouraging people to buy pizzas in supermarkets. Did it work? Their PR company certainly thinks so:

I can't help thinking that if I worked at a university and got a call from an organisation called 'Brazen PR', I might be a little suspicious. Mind you, if I were the Biosciences department and I got a call from a PR company I might think it an odd route for a scientific project to be born. 

Sorry, I said we were going to look at the science. But we can't, because there isn't any. Some students were put on a hospital trolley, wired up, then a pizza was ordered, and they answered a questionnaire. 
The experiment by the University’s biomedical sciences department involved participants ordering and waiting for a takeaway pizza while wearing heart rate monitors to measure pulse fluctuations, as well as monitoring stress levels using the psychometric questionnaire and the UMACL - UNWIST Mood Adjective Checklist - which measures tense arousal scores.
How many subjects? We don't know. How long did they wait? No idea. Would being wired up to a heart monitor and asked questions in a university laboratory affect their heart rates? Nothing is said about this. How was the test group selected? Are there age, gender, ethnicity, educational and class differences between their 'responses'? Who knows? What was the control group doing? We don't know that there was one. Might there be other causes for a slightly increased heart rate? What toppings were ordered? 

Let's look at the peer-reviewed research findings that came out of this project. 

Sorry. There isn't any. Instead, they hired
Behavioural Expert Darren Stanton, who analysed the results of the experiment, classified the condition in four stages: fidgety, anxious, irate and lost.
Curiously enough, and no doubt entirely coincidentally, the first letters of each 'stage' make up an acronym: FAIL, used to describe 'symptoms' on the pizza company's website. Should you be relying on a pizza company to diagnose heart conditions? I suspect not. But we should all relax. Darren Stanton is on the case. Professor Stanton – as he isn't known by anyone – describes himself as 'TV's Human Lie Detector' and was a police officer, but I'm sure that he does a lot of peer-reviewed, serious science on the side. Google Scholar says not, but he has done a TED talk. His Wikipedia entry, which doesn't sound like he wrote it at all, lists no qualifications or research (though Nottingham Trent University proudly describes him as an alumnus in another guessing press release), but does give details of his book:
Stanton has published one book to date. Project Jam Jar is a psychological self-help success book. It aims to empower its audience by introducing them to tried and tested techniques that allow readers to make changes that last a lifetime.
Peer-reviewed? It's print-on-demand! Certainly there's no indication that Stanton belongs to any of the professional bodies which regulate scientific research and analysis. Why was he needed? Surely the university has psychologists and biomedical scientists capable of analysing findings? How did Wolverhampton University find him? Well, the deeply cynical side of me wonders if he was introduced by Brazen PR (for money) to add a tinge of media stardust to this farrago of nonsense.

Anyway, on with the science. 
As stress levels increase further, circa 40 minutes after ordering, a lack of clear communication, the tardiness of deliveries, curtain twitching and the driver going the wrong way heightens emotions and results in a state of being visibly irate, with loved ones often bearing the brunt of this.
The final stage is one of absolute despondency. Frequently after waiting for a long time – around 50 minutes - the wrong order arriving or the food being of a disappointing quality makes people feel lost. During the experiment, participants had a lower heart rate than when they initially ordered, contradicting expectations that they would feel joy upon receiving the pizza they had waited for.
Eh? Can someone lying on a gurney or waiting in a house know that a driver has gone the wrong way? How did the experiment find that 'loved ones' bore the brunt of ire? Were they also in the room? Was ethical clearance received for all this cruelty? What does 'lost' mean? Or 'joy' for that matter?

Said the UoW scientist involved:
the experience has a real impact on stress levels and our heart rate
The experience of being wired up in a lab surrounded by loved ones, maybe. And even then, only slightly. The experience of food being delivered tardily: not so much. But let's see what the Principal Investigator made of all this:
Darren Stanton said: “People order a takeaway as a treat – a way to reward themselves after a long week at work and to enjoy a relaxing night in with loved ones. This study shows that it can be the opposite of this. However, with the four stages we’ve identified as fidgety, anxious, irate and lost, it’s easy to recognise the symptoms of Takeaway Trauma, so we can help others suffering from the condition.”
Sentence 1: 3 imaginative conjectures. Sentence 2: cannot be proven through this experiment. Sentence 3: equates mild cheese-related anxiety with AIDS, Ebola, depression and cancer as a 'condition'.

But don't worry: a cure is at hand thanks to 'boffins' at Chicago Town:
Rachel Bradshaw, Senior Brand Manager at Chicago Town said: “It was really interesting to work with the University of Wolverhampton and Darren on this experiment. Both the physiological and psychological effects clearly demonstrate that Takeaway Trauma is real, and we’ll all identify with the various stages having gone through them ourselves.
“A much more satisfying alternative would be to pop a Chicago Town The Takeaway pizza in the oven at home. With its unique dough rising before your eyes, the freshly-baked pizza delivers a real, takeaway taste straight from your freezer in just 20 minutes – which never disappoints.”
Note the subtle 'work with', which again means: we hired these people to record a video supporting a nasty-minded little sales technique. And then it's back to my opening line:
For Takeaway Trauma support, please visit
Now you might think that I'm breaking a butterfly on a wheel here, and not being very supportive of my colleagues. Fair enough, but any university has a higher duty to the social good, and to the principles of science. This shady little endeavour has rented out scientific and institutional credibility to an advertising campaign. I don't know if the researcher in this case was forced to do this – my university's annual budget for 23,000 students and 4000 staff is c. £140m, only £10m more than smaller Cambridge University's annual endowment loot ,and money talks – but places like mine, with a pretty poor reputation (unjustified, I might add) should be working harder to claim our place amongst the ranks of the serious. In accepting this money, staging this stunt and then using medical terms in a press release, the university has forfeited any right to be considered trustworthy. It has left all its research staff high and dry and rendered its ethics procedures null and void. I know that I will be accused of being holier-than-thou, and have my rather limited external funding record raised, but these things really matter. We can't develop a reputation of being for hire. It's not fair on the students, their eventual employers or the staff who work here.

Still, it's all a bit of a giggle isn't it? And it did get a lot of press coverage. Impact matters people!

Update: we're so delighted that there's another university story plugging this (not sure if it's viewable) but the video is well worth watching though my one-person experiment demonstrates 'quite profound effects' on my heart rate on the back of a BBC interview (and yes, the BBC should be ashamed too). It's a curious mix of boosterism and self-defence.
“There were some effects but we are not saying, ‘don’t order a takeaway as something really serious might happen’!
“It is just worth remembering that everyday things can sometimes lead to profound effects over time.
People might ask why we carried out this study but a part of my job at the University is trying to create conversations about science.
“If people are out there in the community thinking about health, thinking about their body, thinking about any aspect of science, then I think we are doing our jobs right!”
They might be thinking 'why are my taxes paying for this rather than a cure for malaria, for instance?'.