Friday, 16 March 2018

A Tedious Theatre?

My friends in the refined universities are all on strike and having a great time - they're losing a lot of money but they're reconnecting with each other and with their students - kind of funny how you never see your colleagues until you all decide not to do any work – and the rather pathetic machinations of their employers and the pension scheme are being exposed faster than a flasher's undercarriage.

But I've gone on about the USS pension strike enough recently, though I'll doubtlessly return to it before long. Instead, a bit of culture for you. And a moan, obviously. I can't leave you without your weekly fix.

Last semester we taught The Duchess of Malfi as part of our Shakespeare and the English Renaissance module. Volpone was received very badly indeed one year, so I've tried to include a revenge tragedy each year to widen the students' sense of what was available on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage. We did Webster's The White Devil for a couple of years, and now it's his Duchess. I'm not sure I did it full justice in my lecture, but despite absolutely hating horror and murder films, TV and books, I have a soft spot for the revenge plays for their dramatisation of a violent, paranoiac culture and society, and while we have Hamlet on the course it helps to have its cousins there for comparison.

This week, the RSC put Malfi on at Stratford, and arranged heavily discounted travel-and-ticket packages supported by the Arts Council, with coaches going from certain economically-deprived towns and cities (and Oxford and Warwick). One coach, open to university and school students, went from our other campus where the drama students live, so I duly signed up and advertised it to the English Lit group. Cometh the hour, cometh the coach. Cometh, however, me, our departmental Graduate Teaching Assistant and her partner. No English students. No drama students. No school kids, teachers, or dogs.

How did this happen? Certainly all my students have jobs and a large number have children or other caring responsibilities. Money is also tight. The scheme wasn't widely publicised – nobody from the RSC contacted my department and we'd have moved heaven and earth to make it a success – and there isn't a culture of theatre-going in this area. That said, I work really hard to make cultural opportunities available and even harder to make them attractive, varied and exciting. Eimear McBride is on the first-year syllabus and she came to talk to the students.

The Making A Scene module includes theatre trips, brings in professional actors for students to direct, includes various sorts of drama training and studies a really interesting, non-standard range of plays. Basically, we work really hard to make literary studies enjoyable, challenging, exciting and vital, particularly as those who come straight from A-levels seem so exhausted and disillusioned. And yet we can't get a critical mass of people who want to try new things. Excluding those who just couldn't attend, a large group of people who studied this play with us, or who will do so next year, decided that they didn't need to experience it live on stage. Clearly that's a failure on my part and I don't really know what is to be done.

The three of us had a great time at the RSC. This production used an ultra-modern, stark setting. The live music was particularly affecting, and Joan Iyiola and Nicholas Tennant were particularly mesmerising as The Duchess and Bosola.

The early acts really brought out the Duchess's emotional and sexual needs in ways I didn't focus on in my teaching, and cut the material that encourages you to understand events as products of a corrupted society (as does Hamlet), while the second half concentrated on the horror. A cow's carcass was stabbed straight after the interval and the enormous quantities of blood slowly filled the stage over the course of the remaining hour – so much that the front rows were given blankets to protect their clothes. The actors then proceeded to dial down the acting and up the hamming, rolling around in the pool until everybody was soaked in the claret. It was certainly viscerally horrific, but I wasn't sure how dramatically successful this element was. It brings up the play's problem: how do you convincingly play someone who gets strangled or stabbed and then keeps waking up do deliver final lines? The RSC production decided to amp up the symbolism and the horror rather than attempt realism, which I think was probably a good idea, but something still didn't quite work in the last acts. Respect for having live dead children in the cast though.

As I keep telling my students, even seeing a bad production gives you things to think about. This wasn't a bad production, but a mixed one and it's made me rethink how I'll approach teaching Malfi next year.

Not a lot else has happened this week. I lectured on Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem again, which gave me a chance to wax lyrical about travellers, free festivals, the Criminal Justice Bill, the Battle of the Beanfield, the Green Man and the constructed nature of national identity, and I deleted 6000+ emails, which felt like a real achievement. A little light union casework, some peer observation, writing a PhD examiners' report and a bit of dissertation supervision. Other than that, I've gone to work, got home late, fallen asleep in my cycling gear then hauled my stinking carcass off to bed. Oh - and met an academic publisher foolish enough to take my politicians' novels idea seriously. I might actually have to write the damn thing now.

This afternoon has ended the week well though. I read this Guardian appreciation of Joni Mitchell and have played album after album of her work today. I actually cannot remember who introduced me to her stuff – I now have a (very few) friends who like her but I started listening to her work in the 90s and I'm sure my usual sources of new music at that point (Radio 3, John Peel, NME and the Evening Session) didn't rate her much and I distinctly remember the Cob Records staff mocking me roundly for buying The Hissing of Summer Lawns alongside some Anhrefn and Broadcast singles. Whoever it was: thanks. I like the weird tunings, the huge range of musical styles across her albums, the refusal to become comfortable or predictable (like Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Joanna Newsom and Scott Walker), the narrative songs and the grown-up attitudes.

Here are some of my favourite Joni tracks:

And while I'm in a 60s/70s mood, and reminded of the Malfi line 'like diamonds we are cut with our own dust', here's Joan Baez's 'Diamonds and Rust', about the aftermath of her relationship with Bob Dylan. Coming from the folk tradition she doesn't often write her own music, but in my opinion this song is easily as good as anything he ever did. It's packed with subtle, beautiful literary and artistic references, with the rueful affection of a valued, broken relationship and a couplet that just can't be topped for expressing the tension between being fully part of a couple while realising intellectually (and with rueful hindsight) that even in the most romantic moment you can't fully know your other.

Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there

I managed to see her play about ten years ago: now she's retiring and I'll miss her.

Friday, 9 March 2018

How I Learned to Love the Academy, or, Grounds for Optimism

One of the things that I find difficult is focus, particularly around work. I am, as you may have noticed, intensely interested in politics, structures, power and cultures: these things inform some of my research and provide the framework through which I view macro- and micro events.

I'm from a largely middle-class family with some history of higher education: as far as I can tell, my paternal grandfather was the first to attend university, taking a medical degree from University College Dublin in the 1930s. Both my parents took medical degrees, and all my five siblings have degrees (from much more prestigious institutions than the ones I went to and work at, they unfailingly remind me). Despite being the one with the worst school record of all (4% in a maths exam was a particular highlight), I'm the only one to pursue an academic life. Finding out at 18 that reading books and talking about them could be a way of life rather than an invitation to another playground beating was quite a revelation. The point being that encountering the idea of the academy has been enormously influential on me. I went to Coleg Prifysgol Gogledd Cymru/University College of North Wales in 1993 - by the time I graduated it was Coleg Prifysgol Cymru/University of Wales, Bangor and now it's Prifysgol Bangor University. It was small, buzzing with intellectual and social life, and quietly proud of its democratic origins, funded by subscriptions from slate quarriers.

Behind the scenes, no doubt, it was torn by all the tensions inherent in higher education: financial worries, political pressures, recruitment concerns, the balance between intellectual and skills development and all the other things that come with being a polymorphous institution. None of this was visible to students: I went to lectures and tutorials, read books, edited the student newspaper, stood for election (mostly unsuccessfully), went on demonstrations, partied, played sports, ran out of money, lived in terrible houses, met people from all over the world and from every background and generally had a great time. My tutors varied widely in personality and approach, but they were intellectually ambitious and caring at the same time. I came out of it, in short, a better person than I'd gone in. Did I know what I wanted to do next? Not at all. Going to university wasn't really a conscious choice, more an expectation, and leaving it seemed like being expelled from paradise. The problem was, I'd been turned into an idealist. I'd experienced the ideal of the university in what seemed to be its purest form: a community that fought its internal battles passionately and no doubt viciously, but always in the service of a higher purpose: the creation of a better world for everyone through intellectual labour.

I did an MA at Bangor and then a PhD at my current workplace, an post-92 HEI whose adherence to the polytechnic ideal of widening participation to the working class and the excluded proved equally attractive to me. I'm not only still here because I'm unemployable, I'm also still here because I believe that fine minds aren't solely the product of the comfortable suburbs.

The point is, and I'm sorry it's taken me several paragraphs to get this far, is that universities in all their variety are special places. They're full of people – students and staff – who engage in the common pursuit of knowledge and ways of thinking that transcend their immediate context. I have a contract (much-abused) with one chartered institution to teach a specific set of students and engage in particular research, managed by a group of people with medieval titles. They can hire and fire, and they can – and do – practice particular styles of management and discipline within a local culture. All of us, however, explicitly and with varying degrees of commitment, acknowledge that there are deeper connections and responsibilities which go beyond the immediate. I work for my students, for the wider intellectual community, for my colleagues within and without this and other HEIs, and for society. It's an enormous privilege not to have to serve burgers or hoe turnips, a privilege I'm conscious of. I think I understood some of this as a student because it was made clear by my tutors, and I hope that my students get some of this from me.

While my experiences have placed me firmly on the political left, none of these principles are inherently left wing : some of the doughtiest supporters of the university as a space protected from the chill winds of reductive atheism, capitalism or state interference have been conservatives, such as Cardinal Newman and Michael Oakeshott (and for a very interesting and different take, which rejects Newman as outdated, see this piece by Mark Leach). Last night I went to a launch for a very expensive book, Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. Written, edited and supported by some of my friends, it traces the poisoning of the Higher Education ideal by marketisation and the idea that the sole purpose (expect for the children of the 1%) of HE is to fit young people for soul-destroying, insecure and badly-paid work, while telling them that they're 'investing' in themselves. Within the wider neoliberal social framework imposed by a government with no majority (building on the work of a Labour government which capitulated to the Invisible Hand), Hall and Winn's contributors consider whether universities as an autonomous sector of society can be rescued, and if so, by whom.

One of the problems, they say, is a leadership module of Big White Usually-Male Saviours, and several chapters look at alternative structures such as Co-operative Universities. In the case of the Birmingham Autonomous University, they say it's time to burn down the tainted institutions and start again. I can attest to this saviour mentality, having been a university governor for some years and an employee for longer. I went to a training course for HE leaders, and on arriving the programme director said 'Oh, you're from XXX: your VC is a visionary'. My heart sank. Visionaries run a gamut from Jim Jones to Joanna Southcott, with only the occasional Rosa Luxemburg and they're never good at challenging structural issues. They can bring energy and new ideas, but cultures and economic conditions rarely change in response to a single person's direction. In Weberian terms, I'd far rather live in a bureaucratic system than a charismatic one.

My view and always has been that universities should be vehicles for social justice and enlightenment, and that a university is a collection of groups united hopefully by an intention to understand and improve our lot. Although Liz Morrish has a wittier formulation:
Clark Kerr … said a university is a series of fiefdoms united by a common heating system
In that case, my HEI is united by bafflement at the (non)functioning of the heating system.

The contemporary university, however, is the sometimes-willing captive of its management. Our students and colleagues sometimes forget that they are the university and that managers should be implementing the carefully-considered policies set by academics, students and service department staff. Certainly my faculty and institution managers often behave as though students and staff are their minions, serving their visions. I have a lot of sympathy for them in many ways: it's almost impossible to work out where the money is coming from with no economic and political stability, but I do feel that we're becoming like the banks before they crashed: captured by their highly-enumerated senior executives, few of whom have ever published a paper or taught a class recently or at all, and captured by a mindset of metrics and income often through no fault of their own, in an atmosphere of doom and gloom. The neoliberal turn has produced universities run like businesses in which managers talk about 'business cases' and 'customers'; these universities produce students who think like customers and staff who are encouraged only to think of 'skills' and 'employability: a reactive institution and culture which has been described as the 'sub-prime university'.

At the launch last night my only contribution was to suggest that those of us who believe in universities as a public good need to recapture a sense of utopianism. There's no reason any subject shouldn't reach for the stars, whether it's astronomy, English or fashion design. Fashion is on my mind because on the other side of the glass wall from last night's launch, students were industriously designing lingerie: it felt rather like an episode of Father Ted. The joy of the current USS Strike is that students, academic staff and all the service department colleagues in the USS scheme are discovering the joys of being members of a community. Shorn of the disciplinary surveillance of the subprime-U, they've discovered that they're all on the same side. They've gone through the small print of the pensions assault, uncovered scandal, corruption, greed and plain bad maths, and communicated these things wittily and effectively to people who are discovering they aren't, in fact, customers but colleagues. It's been wonderful. Oxford University staff overcame the dirty tricks of their VC to reassert academic leadership of the institution, alumni everywhere are putting pressure on managers and Universities UK has been exposed as rotten to the core.

My view is that this provides an opportunity to end the discourse of decline. We have so much of which to be proud, and we are bursting with ideas. The public – apart from my brother, apparently – seems to understand that it's a good idea to teach critical thinking, to research things that aren't obviously and immediately profitable, that not everything should be run like a KFC and that the 'nice' bits of HE shouldn't just be reserved for the nice white children of the 1%. Last night Liz Morrish praised Birmingham City University for the bravery involved in setting up a BA in Black Studies (imagine the 'business case' for that, and the parents wondering how that will get you a job). We need to support and follow them. Every time a minister attacks degrees in Medieval Literature or whatever, we need to challenge them long and loud. We need to encourage our students to take the weird path, and we need to provide managers with the backbone required to buck the market. I can't remember who said it last night, but it was suggested that we should encourage the view that a Vice-Chancellorship isn't a reward: it's a burden. In the more civilised universities, course leaderships and department headships are rotated because it's understood that bureaucracy is a necessary evil that takes us away from students and research, and nobody should shoulder that load alone for too long. I've long thought it should work like that here, and now I'm very attracted to the idea that the VC should have her 5 years and then return to the ranks of researchers and teachers. A visiting senior scholar told me recently that at his institution, anyone in senior management with an academic profile has to do a minimum number of hours in a classroom per year, and make a REF return. It's a long time since most faculty and executive managers ran a seminar or submitted a journal article: they've long forgotten what it's like to do either, let alone both (while writing a TEF report…) and it's time they rediscovered those joys.

Above all, we need to take heart from the knowledge that we don't work for HEFCE, the OfS, the director of finance or the marketing department: we work for civilisation. That sounds massively pompous - because it is - but it's still true. The old slogan still applies: Another World Is Possible.

Because, in the spare time between tweeting GIFs about UniversitiesUK, I'm still a literature academic, I had a rummage through my memory for literary representations of universities. I'm not altogether in favour of campus novels: it's a bit too solipsistic, but I've accumulated a number of them across the years. I have to say: we're not universally adored out there. The posher, older universities are universally derided as the archaic playgrounds of bitter contemptuous snobs with no connection to the 'real world' (Porterhouse BlueLucky Jim); places like mine are laughed at for letting the (often over-sexed) proletariat rabble in (Sharpe's Wilt or Jacobson's Coming From Behind) or for aspiring to be like the old places (one aspect of John Wain's A Winter in the Hills which is actually a quietly wonderful novel). Spirits curdle, murders are committed, blood feuds emerge from petty differences and – almost universally – young women are sexual prey. Campuses provide authors with microcosmic cultures in which proximity exacerbates the worst aspects of wider society: Sayers' Gaudy Night is a classic of its claustrophobic kind: the academic Gormenghast. Alison Lurie's novels play it for laughs until you realise you're crying, while Donna Tartt's The Secret History reinforced all the suspicions about universities being carnivalesque spaces for a self-appointed élite (I hated it because I got the sense that Tartt secretly loved the monsters she'd created: I like Brideshead Revisited more as I get older because it feels less and less like Waugh wants us to celebrate rather than understand his cast). I loved May Sarton's The Small Room for its dated innocence and seriousness: an entire university is ripped apart over an accusation of undergraduate plagiarism, and John Williams's Stoner for its air of quiet dignity and simultaneous desperation. I hated Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning because it spoiled a good campus crime thriller with a pathological obsession with breasts: not a female character appeared on the page without the narrator giving you an update on the size, shape and movement of said glands. Oh, and it reproduced the same female-academics-as-hairy-predatory-lesbians trope which appears in Gaudy Night and Jilly Cooper's Riders.

Universities like mine don't usually get a look-in: campus novels tend to be about the kind of place that has cloisters, but I'll give an honourable mention to Frank Parkin's The Mind and Body Shop which, despite some knockabout xenophobia, uncannily predicted the modern university down to the high-street outlets and the VC clad in a tracksuit covered in sponsors' brands, doing workouts in the office he's converted to a gym.
The Vice-Chancellor of a large English college in Liverpool is remonstrating with the hapless Professor Douglas Hambro of the Philosophy Department: ""If you're still in the red at the end of Trinity term. . .you'll go the same way as Classics and Math and English."" In the modern university, all subjects have to earn their keep (there are coin-operated turnstiles in lecture rooms), and professors are supposed to act as hacks for foreign countries--one of Hambro's venal colleagues, Counselor Hedda Hagstrom, is doing research on a grant from OPEC to prove that children's IQ's are raised by leaded gas emissions.

Beyond the obvious novelistic attractions of the campus as a setting, the better ones are a good corrective: they remind us that we are privileged, and that we have responsibilities to the society that has given us – very reluctantly in the case of recent administrations – to use our time and power wisely, and to open the gates with pleasure rather than resentment. They also teach us not to take ourselves too seriously…

Friday, 2 March 2018

On being slightly, temporarily, Twitter-famous

OK, I need to define my terms first. Being Twitter-famous means, as far as I can see, having a spike in retweets of something you've said rather than being actually famous (which I wouldn't want), and being picked up by 'news' outlets that privilege cutting-and-pasting (also here and here) over doing their own journalism. The second and final phase of being temporarily popular is a wave of pornographic twitter-bots following you. The current giveaway is 'cosplay', and I feel sorry for the original cos-players, who seem like a harmless bunch. I industriously block any account that's either fake, commercial or insincere: currently about 16000. I think that if this was the Counter-Reformation I'd have consigned enormous numbers of people to eternal hellfire in the blink of an eye.

I seem to have accidentally and temporarily become Twitter-famous for doing two things: posting three satirical gifs to illustrate the posh universities' Vice-Chancellors' attitudes towards their staff, who spent the week taking noisy, exciting and witty industrial action against swingeing cuts in their pensions.

One used the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally to illustrate the VC's reaction to USS finding a new way to rip off even retired employees, another took The Hunt for Red October as a metaphor for academics' ability to parse small print (it seemed funny at the time), and the third likened VCs crying poverty to Scrooge McDuck's plutocratic ways, though I could have used this one:

I guess the Frankfurt School would consider such lazy and snide repurposing of commercial art to be degenerate mass culture, but I prefer to thing of it as postmodern remix culture. And definitely not 'goofing off'. What I have learned this week is that a modicum of wit gets a message a long way – whether it has any meaningful effect is another matter entirely.

The other bit of tweeting that nearly broke my phone was simple outrage. I read the Public Appointments Commissioner's report on the Office for Students recruitment process. It turns out that Toby Young got a phone call from the Minister for Universities telling him to apply; that is disgusting social media history wasn't examined; that the social media of all the candidates for the student post were examined; that 133 students applied and none of them got the job; that special advisers to the Prime Minister rejected all the qualified candidates because they had histories of being involved in student representation (I know…) and/or of disagreeing with Conservative Party policy; that the eventual student representative appointed didn't apply for the job: she was found (how? nobody knows) and had her social media deleted on her first day: we know literally nothing about her beyond her name; that the Department of Education deliberately tried to hide evidence from the inquiry.

As a thoroughgoing study in corruption, the Office for Students is a case study in what happens when cynicism meets incompetence. It's the kind of thing dropped in the edits of an episode of The Thick of It. The Office for Students, which launched this week with no apparent shame, is meant to be a kind of watchdog in the Higher Education sector. It is in fact a device to promote privatisation, to deprofessionalise academics, to turn students from scholars to customers, and to abolish the autonomy of universities as any kind of counterweight to the neoliberal model.

What links these two odd events in my week? Well, the public outrage at the Toby Young story and the widespread support from students, newspapers, the public and even some Vice-Chancellors for the striking lecturers. While many of us, inside and out, have reservations about HE in practice, people are supportive of education as a site of critique and resistance, and (except for my brother) view striking academics not as greedy individualists, but as representatives of a worldview that can't be reduced to profit and loss. While a number of very famous institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge have been caught trying to rip off their employees while hiding behind the skirts of Universities UK, it's been heartening to see other senior education leaders defending the principles of autonomous education and the financial structures required to keep them viable.

This was certainly not the case when my own university and sister institutions in the Teachers' Pension Scheme took industrial action. My institution's leaders – despite landing eye-watering pay rises themselves – have never spoken in favour of staff getting pay rises above inflation (now a full decade) or of protecting employee pensions. Some speak of keeping the institution viable; others crudely talk about us as fungible assets to be sweated. Our strike had no effect: ex-polys lack the cultural capital that gets us onto the front pages of broadsheet newspapers, and ministers' children are unlikely to be inconvenienced and the ministers themselves rarely angle for the post-retirement mastership of any institution that doesn't have a High Table. (One day I'll give you my full Why Do Even Good Progressive People In The Establishment Only Ever Take Sinecures At Oxbridge Colleges Yes I'm Looking At You Will Hutton And Rowan Williams rant. It's not pretty).

If that sounds sour, it's not meant to be: the majority of academics at pre-92 universities are progressive, caring people who fully uphold the values of egalitarian liberalism, and many of them in medieval sandstone buildings have worse terms and conditions than we denizens of the concrete academy. I've been massively impressed by their sacrifices, wit and ingenuity in the snow this week and I hope they succeed.

Of course, I have done plenty of actual work this week. As soon as I'd finished outlining the sorry tale of a man chosen on obscure grounds by a mysterious process run by unpleasant characters to do a job he was utterly unqualified for, leading to shame and dishonour, I taught Macbeth to those few first-years who find the idea of a drama module taught in a theatre with working actors and directors as well as academics at all interesting (OK, now I'm sounding sour, and rightly so). I enjoyed it, anyway. I've also had a meeting with my new research mentor, whose first question was 'what are you submitting to REF 2027?' Oh god oh god oh god. It turns out that I've agreed to rebuild the Great Library of Alexandria solely with my own outputs. I did also send off two conference paper proposals though: one on Celtic representation in video games (planning to use Billig's Banal Nationalism to explore that, alongside an argument that Celticism is used to represent an ineffable mush of spirituality that's viewed as cute but outdated, and that all Celts are basically used as interchangeable Others, other than Drippy) and another on food and kitchens in contemporary Welsh literature. If the audience is good I might bake them some Welsh cakes.

I've also been down to London to do my External Examining at an East London branch of the Open University. It's a tiny place attached to an FE college, catering to the most deprived and put-upon students in the country and it's brilliant: the course is superb and the students do astonishingly well. As I listen to the list of hardships the students face ('deported', 'homeless', 'sister recently murdered') and overcome, it's hard to feel any sympathy for the VCs, their pornstar martinis and business-class mind-sets.

The rest of the week has been spent reading a PhD on Tolkien, Pullman, eco-labyrinthicity and Christianity, still reading Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, and staring out at the snow. Despite a couple of slides yesterday, cycling in it was wonderful: still and silent, just the sound of my Kojak tyres crunching through fresh powder and the wind whistling around me. Despite the ice, it's been safe too: drivers are being ultra-cautious. The best news of the last week or so has been my colleague Daisy Black's elevation: she's been chosen as a BBC New Generation Thinker, and will be positively infesting the airwaves with her views on medieval culture for the next year or so.

And on that note, I think I'd better go: it's snowing heavily and the wind's getting up. The office supplies consist of 6 biscuits, a jar of olives, a bottle of Chartreuse, some wine and some tobacco: an interesting cocktail but not really a balanced diet. Instead, I'm going home with this PhD dissertation. I'll ignore the ironing and cleaning, light the fire and settle in. But not before feeding last night's baking to the birds. It turns out that if you buy one of those bread mix packets designed for bread machines, then leave it in a cupboard for almost three years, the yeast dies and you get an inedible rugby ball-shaped object capable of breaking a toe. If I judge the trajectory right, I can bounce it off my noisy neighbour's head on the way to feeding my feathery friends.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Strike for a Kingdom

Well, I let a whole ten days or so slide with out blogging. I'm not sure whether I'm lazy, overworked, or an emblem of a generation tiring of semi-long-form social media in the era of snarky one-liners (if you haven't seen my Twitter feed, it is indeed mostly snarky one-liners designed to bring about fully-automated luxury communism by lunchtime). It might be all three. Being the Voice of a Generation is tiring, especially when you're trying to fit it around marking and episodically head-butting the desk when some lanyard-wearing gimp emails you another set of time-wasting things to do that aren't going to help him, you or the students.

Anyway, now that's off my chest, let's talk about all my friends at posh universities. By posh, I mean those universities with a staff room and whose pension scheme has more syllables than mine: the Universities' Superannuation Scheme. I'm in the Teachers' Pension Scheme because I'm from Scumbag College and won't have a Volvo or a labrador to feed in my old age.

My own pension scheme was reduced to a serving of gruel and a boot up the arse some time ago (and despite being 42, I've only 8 years of contributions because university teaching has been casualised), but it's relatively safe, being government-backed rather than 'invested' on the stock market, overseen by some massively overpaid VCs who turned out to be taking home up to an extra £90,000 to help the USS decline. Will their own pensions be hit? Of course not: VCs and other executives hit the limit years before, and get massive payments in lieu of pension contributions.

Academics at pre-92 universities tend to be paid a little less, but they had a better pension scheme. Then the USS board (stuffed with the same VCs and their cronies whose pay has risen 56% in a decade while teachers' pay has been eroded by inflation) announced that the scheme is bust and pensions have to be cut by £10,000 per year. Small beer for the VCs of course: mine got a £27,000 pay rise in a single year not long ago and has never once expressed concern for the decade of earnings loss suffered by his employees, but a lot for someone who probably didn't get a permanent, pension-contributing job until they hit their thirties.

On top of that, it turns out that the fund isn't in deficit: USS has fiddled the statistics. Why would they do that? Because Oxford, Cambridge and UCL, being hugely rich, decided that they'd rather not lend their superior credit rating to the national pension scheme, thus throwing their own employees and those of all the pre-92 universities overboard in the process. They want to get out and what the élite universities want, élite universities get. Will a government stuffed with Oxbridge graduates refuse? Of course not? Will the regulator refuse? Given that the Office for Students is headed by Nicola Dandridge, formerly chief lobbyist for Universities UK, I think it's safe to say that they won't rest until teachers have all the perks and benefits of your average Amazon worker.  

Will they get away with it? There's a big strike starting this week, and a few VCs are protesting, but most of them are claiming that it's nothing to do with them guv: despite being members of the USS board and of Universities UK, they claim it's out of their hands. Having routed money away from investing in staff and students, they're cannibalising their employees' retirement fund to pay for their grace-and-favour mansions, chauffeurs and bonuses. Do they care that pensions aren't bonuses, but deferred pay? They do not. Do they care that a generation of bright young things will opt for some less useful job away from academia? Not a jot.

What does the strike mean for USS staff? On a very basic level, it means losing 14 days' pay, and the concomitant loss of pension contributions (and universities regularly take a day's pay when staff stage two-hour strikes, because they're deeply unpleasant people: Leeds and other universities are planning to fine staff who simply do the hours stipulated on their contracts - my own university is even more punitive when we strike: they take 1/260th from our annual salaries rather than 1/365th). Most people with a household budget would struggle with losing two weeks of salary, and given that 50% of the people who teach you or your children at university are on hourly-paid and/or precarious salaries, it's a big loss. Most branches have a hardship fund, and I'll be donating. More than the financial loss, academics are torn and saddened by the need to deny students the education, support and care that they provide every single day. If you've studied, or been an academic, you'll know that emails arrive at 2 a.m, that students come for help at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., that marking deadlines mean that friends and family get locked out at weekends, references get written at short notice and drafts read on Sunday nights. Decent academics put in way more work than their employers care to notice, and this labour is often emotional labour. None of my better-dressed colleagues want to withdraw any of this, but they need to demonstrate to their chauffeur-driven suits that they aren't fungible assets, and they need to show students that another world is possible.

Across the country, academics from 61 universities aren't simply putting their feet up: on those strike days they'll be holding alternative lectures and seminars, teach-outs and rallies to examine the mean-spirited, ideologically-driven ideology that led to them treating their former colleagues like assets to be sweated. To those parents protesting that their children are being deprived of the education they paid for,  experiencing a strike and finding out the causes are precisely the kinds of educational experiences that will stand them in good stead.

Academics are professionals, and part of being a professional is recognising that you have a duty to a set of principles rather than a local organisational manifestation of these principles. Lawyers have a duty to the law rather than a client or the state; doctors have an oath that outweighs the time clock or a manager's demands; academics have a duty to the pursuit of knowledge. The ideological sea in which we've swum for decades has been one of deprofessionalisation in all areas of human activity. because independent centres of resistance have to be crushed if Lord Ashcroft, Richard Branson, Tim Cook and the Carillion directors are to be guaranteed that extra olive in their martinis. The proletarianisation of all professions is a concerted effort by neoliberals to turn work into nothing more than the exchange of products for wages, with no voice and no principles. Working-class colleagues have a far harder time than me and my academic friends, but without the security of a decent pension, academics won't ever be able to challenge the juggernaut of the piecework labour model that's rolling over us all. This week it's university lecturers. Doctors and lawyers – through the withdrawal of legal aid – have already been through the mill. Who's next?

I'm not on strike next week, but I'll be supporting those who are, and I won't be crossing any picket lines. If you're thinking that academics have it easy and are lucky to be able to strike, think about this: it's because we clung to our right to unionise, despite repeated attacks on those rights. Try doing the same. Here's a guide to how to support your lecturers:

Now go away. It's 7.21 p.m., I'm still in the office and there's still work to do.

*The title of this blog refers to a seriously good novel written by Menna Gallie. Her husband was a professor of philosophy at several universities: another of her books, Man's Desiring, is a funny, moving campus novel based on Keele, where she lived while her husband taught there.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

I've got piles…

I for one definitely didn't spend four hours moving books around last night because several piles fell over in the middle of the previous night, covering themselves and most of my bedroom in Linen and Sandalwood oil from the bottle onto which they collapsed, and waking me up from a dream in which I was having to do a practical criticism exam on the works of Baroness Orczy, with the Baroness in the room. I've read the first of her Scarlet Pimpernel novels, and that was enough.

By shelving, I mean that the books I've read get moved onto shelves in alphabetical order while the piles of unread books next to the cases of unread books in the Room of Unread Books get higher and more unstable. Currently my vinyl and CD collections share the dining room with Ben Aaronovitch-Jilly Cooper (I'm very sad that with the death of my Positions module, Riders will no longer be taught here), Victoria Coren-EL James (before you say anything, I'm supervising a PhD on fan fiction) are in the drawing room with the Left Book Club collection (as yet incomplete), typography, art and architecture selections plus the bound set of London Review of Books.

Henry James-Philip Ziegler are in the spare bedroom alongside several piles of unread fiction and a case of biographies and autobiographies, the box room contains three double-shelved cases and piles of unread fiction and non-fiction, while the bedroom holds books I'm reading right now, a bookcase of poetry and various uniform edition rows, and there are a couple of random piles. Cookery books are in the kitchen, naturally, and for some reason Fire and Fury is on the washing machine. There are no books in the bathroom, though I'm reliably informed that cheaply-glued paperbacks hold together if exposed to the steam. Around the piles of books are a nest of rags to sleep on, a plastic bag for clothes and a bucket for ablutions. Oh, and a couple of bikes. Imagine 221b Baker Street but lacking the cocaine, the amanuensis, or the genius. I do have a violin though.

At work, we get one cupboard for books: in mine are my holdings of Welsh literature, triple-shelved, and a few things I'm teaching. Next to it, behind my Moulton bicycle is an enormous pile of Tory Novels (mostly Tory, mostly novels) which form one of my current research projects (thanks colleagues).

Mine is actually blue and has drop bars and various refinements

The desk is also rather piled high with either books I'm using at the moment or ones which have just come in. Only today I picked up Kit de Waal's My Name Is Leon: Kit is coming to the university on Monday, and Joe Dunthorne's The Adulterants. I've long been a fan: Submarine was funny and moving, Wild Abandon raised the bar considerably, and like Margaret Atwood, he's an even better poet than novelist (shame that neither of them will sell the movie rights of their poems to HBO). And finally, we have a Reading Room with some huge, beautiful glass-fronted bookcases. I've appropriated 4 of them for all my critical theory texts. In return, they are available to students, at least two of whom will shortly be hunted down like dogs for apparently sending them away on a long, long journey.

Other things I've picked up recently include Danny Morrison's story of same-sex love amidst the Troubles, On The Back of the Swallow, GR Mitchison's 1934 speculative fiction The First Workers' Government or New Times for Henry Dubb with an introduction by Stafford Cripps – both for the politicians' fictions project – Simon Morden's The Lost Art which had plenty of good ideas but a fairly thin plot, Jeff Noon's new one A Man of Shadows and Will Self's Phone. I've been teaching A View From the Bridge and Foucault this week, so I read them, finished Nicholas Blake's A Tangled Web (as usual with him, taut structure, literate, vampirically misogynist) and am still reading Religion and the Decline of Magic. Between manic bouts of marking, that is. We've all really felt under the cosh recently, and despite the official mantra of 'Students First', colleagues have been struggling to write Teaching Excellence Framework documents at the same time as teaching and meeting marking documents. As a reward, we all received a notice from the VC's office practically begging us to take a very little money and run, which is reassuring. Still, the Literature Festival turned out to have been a success: 6200 visitors to 98 events. I'm going to work on more successful children's events next year. I think I'll need a costume and a song.

Actually, this isn't far removed from the desperate, craven methods we're using to unsuccessfully persuade students to complete the NSS. I threatened to drown the department dog last week…

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Amongst the literati

I'm going home early tonight (it's 7 p.m., which is early for me) and I have the joy of a long Award Validation Meeting on another campus tomorrow, before dashing back to welcome a trio of Northern Irish loyalist friends for the weekend, in a reversal of last week's Derry Girls. When I stayed with them they hung a Union flag in my bedroom, informed me that I was the first Catholic to enter the house,  and took me to an RUC bar to sing karaoke. They made me sing 'The Sash', and declined to join in with my rendition of 'The Fields of Athenry'. It was a great weekend and I'm going to enjoy flying a tricolour and teasing them for their rather hypocritical acquisition of Irish passports since the Brexit vote…

So anyway, I'm still marking massive piles of essays, and recovering from the second Literature Festival we held in this city. 97 events across 26 venues, with loads of contributions from my colleagues. For me, the fun kicked off early when the university authorities got cold feet about hosting a debate on Rivers of Blood 50 Years On. They didn't much fancy attracting the Powellites, and the academic historian on the panel dropped out rather than share a stage with one of the more objectionable UKIP MEPs. Then the Labour MP and another anti-racist campaigner dropped out. Cue a flurry of calls and emails from management, the council, the local newspaper which organised the whole thing (and which the university doesn't like to upset), and meetings to recast the panel (now all-male and covering the political spectrum from rabid right to moderate), set the tone and arrange security. After all that, the SWP decided to stage a demonstration outside, which terrified people who don't know that when they're not covering up rape accusations, these red-blooded revolutionaries have all the fervour of a self-warming sock and couldn't fill a phone box with slavering militants. Once the West Mids Police had phoned me asking for the names of these revolutionary comrades, I started to enjoy the irony. Despite the SWP's many awful characteristics, their local members always turn out to support industrial action and social ills. So there I was, refusing to name people who were demonstrating an event I wasn't involved in, organised by a paper whose star columnist tried to get me sacked, all in the name of free speech.

Thankfully being detained at a different event, I didn't have to witness the clash of intellects, but I'm assured that the demonstration was very polite (how many dangerous subversives own a collapsible gazebo?) and the debate was actually rather dull, partly because the paper's editor refused to let the UKIP MEP try any grandstanding. Still it was quite a stressful few days.

Away from the Battle of Civilisations, LitFest II was enormously successful. We haven't quite cracked the kids' events yet, and a few events didn't attract many punters, but last year's collective audience of c. 2300 became one of 6200 or so. Loads of my colleagues and some students contributed, and lots more attended events. I went along and introduced Lynsey Hanley, who writes about council estates, housing policy, social class and mobility, in conversation with my colleague from a similar background.

Nicola Allen, Lynsey Hanley

Then it was off to Niall Griffiths, the scabrous novelist and intellectual who delights in teasing the prim: his new novel is partly set here, and examines what he sees as England's failure to define itself. The EU, he says, asked England to find an identity, and it couldn't, unlike Wales and Scotland. One of the things I like about Niall's work is that working-class and underclass people (thieves, drug-dealers, prostitutes) get the chance to talk about the big issues rather than being treated as a mute, brutish mob.

Niall Griffiths

Niall's right too: the star of the next thing I went to was Don Powell, drummer of Slade. The crowd was packed with fans who booed mentions of bent managers and cheered early songs' chart successes. They asked interesting questions and Powell reeled off anecdotes and observations with enormous charm. You'd never know that he's been a rock star for 50 years, with the cash from 'that song' as he called it providing him with luxury unimaginable round here. You wouldn't actually know that he'd ever left the area. He even organised a round of applause for his old roadie from the 60s, whom they used to pay £10 a week.
A Slade fan's lonely struggle

Don Powell, ex-Slade

After that, it was off to Cummings Up For Air, a semi-comedic Jonathan Meades-style monologue and series of films about the more deservedly obscure parts of the Black Country - one of the best things on.

Cummings Up For Air

Then a collective reading by my colleagues Kelly Hadley-Pryce and Rob Francis, alongside poet Luke Kennard and novelist Anthony Cartwright, whose novels I really rate. Day 2 started for me with How To Get Away With Murder, a panel discussion between three very different crime novelists and my colleague Gaby, who never lets anybody get away with anything. I don't read contemporary crime to any great extent, and I was fascinated more by the discussion of craft and planning than by the various vile deeds enunciated. The authors were very generous and reflective, which made for an enjoyable hour. Then it was off to Arts Foundry, run by Louise Palfreyman, and featuring creative writing contributions by several local authors, including two of my students, who revealed sides of their personalities hitherto unglimpsed in essays and seminars!

Kerry Hadley-Pryce
Not LitFest but nearby. I liked the idea of Enduring Memorials promised on the side of a building being demolished

An unappreciative LitFest audience
Lousie Palfreyman and Storm Mann
Dreadful light, but I liked the way her hair and the inner surfaces of the sculpture chimed.

Exhausted but not defeated, I headed off to Will Self in conversation with our new professor of English. I like Self's earlier work and am behind on the recent trilogy, but I'm quite an admirer of his, mostly for these two total destructions of morons on Radio 5 and Newsnight. You never quite know what you'll get, but Self was on tremendous form this time: witty, warm, hugely entertaining and almost flirting with the sold-out audience. The things he said fell into two categories: witty bollocks and obviously true. No, three categories: the observation that people with google maps see the world differently from Before felt like something from Grumpy Old Men, and I can't help remembering that we had maps then. Some of them, like Roman maps, were every bit as reductive as those on our phones, simply showing the roads between places. In the 'witty bollocks' category came Self's sterling defence of modernist fiction: 'postmodernism is an architectural style, it has nothing to do with literature. Only me and Eimear McBride are getting it right'. He also cheerfully accepted that 'literary fiction' is dead: 'it's a conservatoire form; even I've got Netflix'. He has a new series on Radio 4 in which he takes the bus to unfashionable places. It might sound like the product of eating too much cheese before bed, but it's very good.

A Selfie with Self
Good hair in Will's World. 

Finally, I went to Tim J Jarvis's experimental poetry/music experience. Cut-up poetry in the dark, accompanied by experimental drone music by his colleague. As you can probably imagine, just my kind of thing. Not everyone's though: a fan told Tim that 'I enjoyed it, but my wife left'.


Tim J Jarvis
Not a bad way to end a literature festival I guess. And now for home. You can see more photos here.

Friday, 26 January 2018

A week of debatable pleasures

It has been an…interesting week. I've been marking essays (some astonishingly brilliant, others 'requiring improvement'), teaching my first-year drama module hilariously entitled – in my view alone – 'Making a Scene', and we took all the students to see the National Theatre's touring production of Hedda Gabler. I'm finding it really hard not to pronounce Hedda with the 'th' sound of Welsh 'dd'. Some of the students had never been to the theatre before, so I'm looking forward to their views on it. Mine are certainly mixed: the contemporary setting rather obscured the play's examination of Scandinavian late-19th century social mores, but some of the acting was impressive, and the set was very striking.

I read Jeff Noon's Falling Out of Cars at the start of the week too: I'm already a huge admirer of his work, and this one was rather wonderful: like one of Ballard's mid-period surrealist novels with added character depth. It's about a Britain whose inhabitants are made ill by data and sensory overload: pictures, words, broadcasts, signs, colours and sounds become oppressive and unbearable. The narrative is bitty and contradictory, broken up to fit the scenario. I liked it a lot. Now I'm onto Keith Thomas's medieval-to-Renaissance cultural history Religion and the Decline of Magic: it's enormous but wonderful, and I'm learning in detail about a lot of things I knew in outline.

Against my better judgement, I went to see The Post last night. I'm a sucker for newspaper movies, from The Front Page to the Guardian bits in one of the Bourne films. Balanced against that: Hanks and Spielberg. In the end, I liked it a lot. Meryl Streep is wonderful, Spielberg basically reproduced the newsroom/printing press scenes from All The President's Men, and every line dripped with Trump resonance. And it has the awful Chad from In The Loop, playing another WASP git. Try not to dwell on the irony of a defence of press freedom in the face of dishonest, oppressive politicians being made by Twentieth Century Fox.

However, the absolute highlight of the week has been my surprisingly magnified role in the city's Literature Festival: a panel discussion examining Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech 50 years on has suffered some unfortunate panel changes, some considerably heightened language, attracted an SWP demonstration objecting to the presence of a local MEP (who is despicable) and some frenzied politicking. I've found myself in the Editor's office, on the receiving end of rather aggressive phone calls, and talking to the police. It's brought up familiar issues about freedom of speech, no-platforming, the boundaries of fair comment, and a not inconsiderable degree of disapproval from people who just want a quiet life and would like to blame me for an event I didn't propose, organise or want and won't be at. I think it's fair to say that promotions and teaching awards will not be forthcoming in the near future. Or the far future. Just like the past, now I come to think of it…

Enjoy your weekend. Next week, unless things go badly, I can get back to reading and talking about books.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Breaking the blog drought

I have had a refreshing break from blogging. No, let's rephrase that: I've had a break from blogging, so that I can fit in all the other things like marking, writing TEF reports, preparing for the start of next semester on Monday, doing stuff for next week's Literature Festival, helping our new professor settle in and all the myriad things that conspire to distract me from wasting time on here.

To be honest, I'm not sure there's a lot to blog about. Political events have deepened my general sense of gloom without providing anything fresh (you've heard Donald's a racist? Just recently? Really?). The Toby Young scandal provided some diversion but it mostly depressed me: his appointment simple confirmed my impression that there's nothing worse than a ruling class simultaneously intellectually and morally bankrupt that has no effective check on its behaviour. Despite a wafer-thin majority, they're quietly stacking advisory boards and powerful committees with a gruesome crew of privatisers, bigots, eugenicists and party donors because they can. I know it's fashionable to say that all sides do it, but they don't. Old Labour retains a public service ethos that includes a sense of fair play: New Labour, bereft of all ideas, simply sought credibility by appointing the same cronies who would have been given sinecures by the Tories anyway.

Culturally I've just carried on reading the same stuff I had on the go at Christmas. I've only got one Nigel Strangeways novel left, but they've really run out of steam, although The Morning After Death is quite fun: lots of humour at the expense of Americans, American academics, literature scholars, Business Studies, Yeats and thirsty ex-IRA poets trying to cope with the beginning of the 60s. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same appalling blind spot as 1938's The Beast Must Die: Nigel always thinks that women who've been sexually assaulted are psychologically damaged or blocked not by the assault, but by their failure to admit that they enjoyed it. Once he's pointed this out, they immediately recover to become good compliant heterosexuals. Once I hit this and similar points in his novels, it's hard to credit them for the things that they do get right, such as their decent leftish-politics. I think I'm going to propose an MA module in Golden Age detective novels: Strangeways will feature as an example of what you can – and can't – do when you try to adapt an essentially conservative form to a slightly progressive worldview.

What else have I bought recently? Simon Morden's The White City was OK, though it felt a bit like a decent Doctor Who episode rather than a full novel. I liked his Petrovitch series a lot, though I found it hard to forgive his publishers for changing the previously-uniform cover design for the fourth in the series. Why would you do that? Fire and Fury is sitting on my shelf waiting for me to summon up the energy to spend 300 pages in Trump's company. I've acquired, for the sake of completism, a beautiful East German translation of Lewis Jones's Cwmardy from 1969 (cheap paper, beautiful binding and dust jacket), Christopher Hill's primer The Century of Revolution 1603-1714, Jesuit Matthias Bodkin's 1940 Church-and-Dev Irish invasion novel Halt, Invader (rallying the people to fight off anyone who turns up, English or German), and Armistead Maupin's memoir, Logical Family. That, at least, will be a treat. I've also picked up Janet Montefiore's Men and Women Writers of the 1930s, John Smart's slender Modernism and After: English Literature 1910-1930Michael Young's satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy (I planned to taunt his eugenicist son Toby with it, and it's an addition to my politicians' novels pile), and crime novelist HRF Keating's curiosity A Long Walk to Wimbledon.

They'll all have to wait – teaching starts next week with Hedda Gabler (we're taking the students to the National Theatre's production) and at some point I'll have to get on with Angels in America: the stage production takes 6 hours so I'm sure the students will be delighted. It's worth it though - what a great play.

Musically it's a bit quiet at the moment - I've just been filling in gaps in my collection. Latest purchases are Pauline Oliveros's compelling The Roots of the Moment, two collections of Grace Williams's orchestral and choral works, John Adams's post-minimalist opera The Gospel According to the Other Mary and Scheherazade 2, and Simon Holt's A Table of Noises. I like NMC: it's always releasing interesting new music.

Despite its brilliant new conductor, I've gone off attending CBSO performances because austerity means they put on ever more familiar and conservative programmes, which means endless 19th-century stuff rather than new music. I intend to go to a lot more Birmingham Contemporary Music Group gigs this year.

Anyway, back to marking…

Friday, 22 December 2017

Season's greetings

Good afternoon all.
I'm about to leave the office for 11 days. I've emptied the bins of all the rotting confectionery, fed Toby the Sapient Pig and got through most, though not all, of the marking. I'm going home with a manuscript to review for the Welsh Books Council/Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru (thanks for the homework, Clare) and a pile of books. At least one of them will be Ballard's Cocaine Nights, the last text on my MA module, and Angels in America, which I'm adding to my first year drama module, Making a Scene. I had quite forgot what an enormously long play it is to be honest. No doubt I'll take some other books home, but what they'll be I don't yet know. If I get enough ironing and wrapping done tonight I'll take a wander through the Room-and-a-Half of Unread Books.

Then it's off to the ancient family seat for my annual bout of illness, occasioned by being in close proximity to six of my eight nephews and nieces, and several of my siblings, all of whom bring exotic new bacteria home just for me.

As interlude music, I'll leave you with some of my favourite discoveries of the year: work by Pauline Oliveros. Experimental drone accordion: pretty much my idea of heaven. And so festive.

Happy Christmas. See you in January.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Vole's Christmas Crackers

OK, seeing as all the posh newspapers do it, here's a semi-comprehensive list of all the books I've bought this year (in reverse order as that's how my Librarything page does it), with an opinion if I can remember them. I've read other things too: these are just the year's purchases. 

It's taken so long that I haven't time to add links, but I will on Monday. 

  1. After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun - Nigerian SF. Sounds good, haven't read it yet. 
  2. The Rift by Nina Allan - quirky-looking SF, as yet unread.
  3. The Arden Guide to Renaissance Drama by Brinda Charry – excellent introductory text for undergrad students. Engages with primary texts very well. 
  4. John Scaggs, Crime Fiction - short, snappy and thoughtful.
  5. Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I've taught Tales of the City, 'Howl' and Little Brother recently, so thought I should add some more San Fran/Beat/Hippy stuff. JD's essays are wonderful. Highly recommended. 
  6. Gill Plain, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. As you'll shortly see, I've been reading a lot of 1920s-1950s crime fiction and am contemplating writing an MA module. This will help. 
  7. Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: see above. Breezy, comprehensive overview despite being rather old now. 
  8. Acadie by Dave Hutchinson. I liked his Europe series but haven't read this yet. 
  9. Kit Habianic, Until Our Blood Is Dry. I bought this because it was the only Welsh mining novel covered in a PhD dissertation I was examining. On the first read I thought it was a little simplistic but the dissertation made me really reconsider it, and I'm now impressed by a lot of the subtle characterisation. 
  10. JG Ballard, Running Wild. I'm teaching an all-JG Ballard module at the moment and hadn't come across this one. It's in the 'Read Soon' room. 
  11. The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes. Bought it because I was shocked to discover I didn't own it. A real gem - wise and precise. 
  12. High-Rise, JG Ballard. Someone nicked my copy of this a few years ago: teaching it was a good reason to buy another. Rather misogynistic, stylistically compelling. I liked the recent film. 
  13. Chris Riddell, Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright and Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony. Got a slightly twisted, clever 8-year old in your life? These are perfect. 
  14. Concrete Island and Rushing to Paradise by JG Ballard: Concrete… is ur-Ballard, as Ballardian as you like. Haven't read Rushing to Paradise yet.
  15. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Herland Trilogy. Herland (the middle book) is famously a representation of a man-free Utopia. I only recently discovered it was part of a trilogy, but I haven't read the others yet. 
  16. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic – acquiring a medievalist colleague who teaches on the Shakespeare and the English Renaissance module with me reminded me that I really should read this classic work on late-medieval/early-modern spiritual landscapes. 
  17. Lisa See, Shanghai Girls: recommended by a student doing a dissertation on female immigration narratives. It sounded good: haven't read it yet. 
  18. Paris by Wiliam Owen Roberts: I liked Petrograd, the first one in this series (translated: my Welsh isn't up to literary fiction yet) but haven't had time to read this one so far. 
  19. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature – another book I'd read in years past. There's an entirely justifiable Williams revival going on and I want in!
  20. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. I'm fascinated by the Wars of the Four Kingdoms or whatever the English Civil War is now known as, and the cultures that led to and stemmed from it. This is a key work of philosophy informing the spirit of the age. I don't agree with his worldview but you know you're in the presence of enormous intellect. 
  21. Tony Really Loves Me: short stories by and based on the life of now-dead MP Stuart Bell. Occasionally funny, largely dreadful. Part of my politicians' fictions research. 
  22. The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman. Started off deceptively simple, became morally more complex as it went on. Good driving narrative too. 
  23. Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders: an SF locked-room whodunnit with a philosophical twist. I love AR's stuff very much, and this is up there with the best. 
  24. Softly in the Dusk by Stuart Bell MP. Dreadful. 
  25. Binkie's Revolution – Stuart Bell again. See above. 
  26. The Ice-Cream Man and Other Stories. Yes, it's Stuart Bell. Self-published, like all the others. The trees thirst for vengeance. 
  27. Days That Used To Be – Stuart Bell. How I wish they hadn't been. 
  28. Robert Knopf, Script Analysis for Theatre. I have a semi-practical theatre module trying to bridge the gap between literary analysis and performance. This will help. 
  29. Hywel Dix, Postmodern Fiction and the Break-up of Britain. I held a conference on Four Nations Literature recently, and liked Hywel's book so much that I invited him along to speak. It was a good move. 
  30. Bentley, Hubble, Wilson and Tew (Eds): The 2000s; The 1990s; The 1980s; The 1970s – 4 anthologies of critical work on British Fiction in these decades. I'd leafed through one at a conference and was impressed. When Routledge offered my cash or books to a greater value for peer-reviewing a book proposal, I went for these plus a couple of others. 
  31. Reginald Hill, An Advancement of Learning. I don't really go for contemporary crime, but I'd enjoyed his Austen pastiche The Price of Butcher's Meat, and a Twitter friend recommended this Dalziel and Pascoe police-procedural/campus novel. I liked the plot but hated the characterisation. The first thing you learn about every single female character is the shape of their breasts. I may return to this one in another blog-post. 
  32. Colleen McCullough, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. An Austen-loving student eggs me on to buy every homage/pastiche/sequel to Austen's novels. She tells me that this one, by the author of The Thorn Birds, is awful. I haven't read it yet, but I trust her judgement. You just shouldn't make Mary a Romantic heroine. It's just a stupid and disrespectful idea. Leave Mary alone!
  33. Nicholas Blake, A Penknife in My Heart. I'm working my way through C Day Lewis's alter ego detective thrillers. They're very inconsistent and occasionally offensive. This one was…OK.
  34. Lord Lymington, Spring Song of Iscariot. The most expensive book I've ever bought. Published by the Black Sun Press in an edition of 60. Lymington was a Tory MP before becoming one of the most committed fascists in Britain in the 30s-40s. This is a stunningly beautiful book of mediocre imagist poetry. 
  35. Ian Bell, Peripheral Visions: Images of Nationhood in Contemporary British Fiction. A collection of very good essays, including Tony Bianchi's classic 'Aztecs in Troedrhiwgair'. 
  36. James Birch and Barry Miles, The British Underground Press of the Sixties. Some of my colleagues are experts on this and persuaded me I need to know more. This is a sumptuous record of counterculture media, though I didn't learn a lot. 
  37. Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death (rather good); A Tangled Web (can't remember much about it); The Worm of Death (darkly psychological and compelling); The Widow's Cruise (made little impression); The Deadly Joker (haven't read it yet, came in different edition to all the others, which is annoying); The Whisper in the Gloom - very good. 
  38. Stuart Bell, Paris Sixty-Nine. It's that man again. This is the semi-pornographic novel Bell tried to suppress once he became a Church of England Commissioner. It's not just sexist, sad-old-man fantasy: it's unbelievable badly written. He doesn't just hate women: he hates English. 
  39. Guy N. Smith, The Druid Connection: silly horror by the author of Night of the Crabs and many, many more. Very interesting take on Wales (he's mostly against). 
  40. The Complete Stories of JG Ballard – easily hefty enough to commit murder with. Very comprehensive and lets you trace his development from SF pulp to author of misanthropic inner-space literature. 
  41. Nicholas Blake, The Case of the Abominable Snowman. Lovely cheap 1950s edition, and a chilly, wintery, WW2-set country house thriller. 
  42. Ken MacLeod, Emergence. Haven't read it yet but I like Ken's Trot-libertarian politics and beautifully-crafted way round a paragraph. Bound to be good. 
  43. Aramaki Yoshio, The Sacred Era. Apparently a classic of Japanese SF. I'll let you know. 
  44. Nicholas Blake, The Sad Variety. Can't remember much about this one. 
  45. Guy N Smith, The Knighton Vampires. I think this is the one in which Cardiff University's English department are murdered en masse. Lots of them are my friends, so I'm looking forward to that scene.
  46. Nicholas Blake, End of Chapter (not read it yet); Minute for Murder (very good indeed: set in the ministry for propaganda in the dull bit between VE and VJ day. Attempts a homosexual character but can't quite go through with it. The Dreadful Horror: I'm almost at the end of this one. Poison-pen plot is OK, and Blake's happier to get his hands socially dirty unlike some of his contemporaries. Malice in Wonderland: this one's really good: set in a holiday camp, ideal for enclosing people from different walks of life. 
  47. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City and More Tales of the City. I'm teaching the first one. I loved these: soapy, warm, sexy, deeply interested in the richness of everybody's life. 
  48. James Bradley, Clade. Much-lauded SF which I haven't read yet. 
  49. Isabela Fairclough, Political Discourse Analysis. I have reservations about PDA/CDA but this was useful for a journal article I contributed to. 
  50. Jo Walton, Necessity: I really like Jo Walton's subtly spiky, twisty novels. This closed a series considering Platonic philosophy's strengths and shortcomings. It wasn't as good as the others but still made me think and occasionally laugh. Great characterisation. 
  51. Mitchum Huehls (ed), Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture. I've just co-written a paper on neoliberalism and erotic fan fiction. This helped understand the cultural operation of a much-discussed concept. 
  52. John Le Carré, A Legacy of Spies. I like Le Carré and wasn't going to be too picky about his return to the world of Smiley et al. A good read but not his best. 
  53. Myfanwy Alexander, Bloody Eisteddfod. A police-procedural comedy drama set at the Eisteddfod: it appeals. Haven't read it yet though. 
  54. Ann Widdecombe, An Act of Treachery: yet to read this contribution to my politicians' novels project. Apparently so good I managed to buy it three times. 
  55. Darach O'Séaghdha, Motherfócloir - a highly entertaining account of one man's return to Irish despite the havoc wreaked by the educational methods of his youth. Gave this one as presents to a few people. 
  56. Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings - one of the above-mentioned trilogy. Clever idea, knows her Plato, movingly plotted. 
  57. Sheila Wingfield, Collected Poems. Recommended to me by an august Canon, for which I am grateful. She had a fascinating life of the kind that is no longer possible, and the poetry is quietly wondrous. 
  58. Tom Gauld, Baking With Kafka. I love Gauld's wit and drawing style, and his literary cartoons can often be found adorning my walls and my lecture slides. 
  59. Sandra Alland, Protest: Stories of Resistance. Patchy collection of historical events and creative responses to them. 
  60. Caryl Philips, A Distant Shore – wonderful, emotional post-colonial classic. 
  61. Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way To Burn. I keep an eye on the YA Dystopian sub-genre, which is fully into eco-dystopias at the moment. Haven't read this one so far. 
  62. Anna, by Niccolo Ammantini. Another YA dystopia: well-reviewed, but I haven't got round to it as yet. 
  63. Stanley Johnson, Kompromat. A quick and dirty Trump/Putin/Brexit novel from the former MEP and father of Boris. He's written a lot of novels. He needn't have, but he has. 
  64. Vince Cable, Open Arms. Another for the politicians' novels project. Not awful, but not needed either. 
  65. Cory Doctorow, Homeland. I taught his Little Brother only last week. It did not go down well. I like his techno-utopian politics though they're highly redolent of white male middle-class privilege, but at least he's trying and is genuinely radical. He can't write a sentence or a character to save his life though. Talk about over-determined…
  66. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Politically admirable, but you'll wish the Department for Homeland Security had tortured its hero to death before very long. Pages of advice on hacks to keep the government out of your email: fine. Teenage hero going on and on about how we're all making coffee wrong with exactly the same fervour and urgency: beyond irritating. 
  67. Brick Lane, Monica Ali. A return to teaching this. Rich, subtle, beautiful. 
  68. Red Ellen: the Life of Ellen Wilkinson by Laura Beers. Wilkinson was a radical, inspiring 1930s-50s Labour MP who also wrote a couple of very interesting novels. Beers' biography does a very good job on her life, less so on her literary output. 
  69. Gillian Cross, The Demon Headmaster: Total Control. The original books in this teen series were subversively anti-authoritarian. Cross returns to the school because she has things to say about contemporary society and politics. Good things. 
  70. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. Another text I taught this year. Fierce, intelligent, necessary. 
  71. Valerie Solanas, The SCUM Manifesto. I tied this together with Woolf's long essay Three Guineas which worked very well: Solanas as provocateur, Woolf as middle-class, privileged but devastatingly intelligent feminist. 
  72. Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems. I knew some of Ginsberg's work but somehow didn't own much. It reminded me how much I like his actual poetry, and not just his life. 
  73. Diana Henry, Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours: a birthday present. Visually seductive, but I haven't yet tried anything in it yet, being at work until 9.30 most nights. 
  74. The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on The Tempest – an extension of Auden's lectures on The Tempest. Occasionally obscure, but really changed my thinking on this play. As did Marina Warner's retelling of it, Indigo
  75. Guilty Thing: a life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson. I don't have any knowledge of De Quincey beyond a vague sense of where he fits in with the Romantics, so I'm looking forward to reading this birthday present - a gift from my boss, whose name curiously enough is Francis Wilson. No relation, he tells me. 
  76. Peter Cossin, Alpe d'Huez: the story of pro cycling's greatest climb. I'm a cyclist of sorts and love the Tour (despite everything): this was very enjoyable. 
  77. Alys Conran, Pijin and Pigeon. We asked Alice to read from and talk about this prize-winning novel in our bit of Shared Futures, which slipped and slid between Welsh and English in fascinating ways. One of the best novels of the year. 
  78. Anthony Buckeridge, Jennings At Large. I read some of the Jennings series as a kid and liked them well enough. I recently read that despite the boarding school setting, Buckeridge was a good socialist, and this particular novel reflects that. I'll let you know when I get round to it. 
  79. Sarah Caudwell, The Sybil In Her Grave. My wonderful colleague Gaby recommended Caudwell's four comic legal thrillers and I'm hugely grateful. Some clever stuff (you never find out whether the protagonist, Hilary, is male or female), a lot of very funny characterisation and dialogue, and satisfying legally-accurate plots. I gave a couple of these as presents to lawyer friends and family. Via their Cayman Islands brass-plate addresses, naturally. 
  80. Joan Aiken, Black Hearts in Battersea. I'm saving this one for Christmas, and look forward to my nephews and nieces being old enough to get these as birthday presents: this is a sequel to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
  81. Catherine Spooner, Post-Millennial Gothic: I'm supervising a very brilliant PhD on gothic urban romance (yes, it's a thing): Spooner's book is an excellent primer. 
  82. Andrew Tate, Apocalyptic Fiction. A very slim book about a very large genre. Highly readable but no defence against mutant cannibal werewolves.
  83. Ian Sansom, Westmorland Alone. Not sure about this one. Being almost a 1930s specialist I like his detective version of those populist, didactic, polymathic authors of the period, but I'm not sure joke can be sustained over several novels. 
  84. China Miéville, The Last Days of New Paris. One of my very favourite authors: formally radical, always thought-provoking. Haven't read it yet. 
  85. The Power, Naomi Alderman. I liked this a lot until the end, which didn't feel fully-formed. Morally complex, but perhaps too in thrall to Atwood. 
  86. Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis MurderedThe Sirens Sang of Murder, and The Shortest Way To Hades - the rest of Caudwell's series: I gobbled them up. 
  87. Realms of Memory vol. 3 by Pierre Nora: one of the multi-volume, seminal analyses of place, space and cultural meaning: about France but applicable to anywhere. I can't find affordable copies of the other volumes (this was £50 second-hand) so I haven't read them. 
  88. Lucy Boston, The Children of Green-Knowe: another recommendation from Gaby, our children's lit. expert. Somehow this classic had passed me by. I intend to read it this Christmas. 
  89. David Simon, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood. An angry, passionate, detailed, novelistic, human examination of the culture, economy and social structures of crack-ridden West Baltimore. It stayed with me for weeks afterwards, and I found myself Googling the central characters in the hope they'd survived. Mostly, they hadn't. A searing attack on the hypocrisies of governments, politicians and corporations. 
  90. Laurel Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures – horrific urban gothic recommended by my PhD student. Not my usual thing at all, but very well-written with plenty to think about. Great opening line I won't ruin. 
  91. John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan (eds): A History of British Working-Class Literature. I'm in it, but the rest of it is excellent. 
  92. Jeremy Gilbert, Neoliberal Culture. He gave the keynote at a conference I presented at. He was ill and had just had bad news. It was still better than most lectures I've ever been too. What a brain. 
  93. Letzler, The Cruft of Fiction. Haven't read this yet, but it sounded like a really interesting take on how we read great big novels. 
  94. Chana Kronfeld, On the Margins of Modernism: She's particularly interested in Jewish modernists, and finds some fascinating texts, but this will help my Zelda Fitzgerald PhD student (and me) as well think about modernists on the edge. 
  95. Mike Parker, Real Powys. Mike imported psychogeography to Wales, and gave an amazing lecture at AWWE a few years ago – an original, thought-provoking and combative re-evaluation of Welsh topography and space. 
  96. A.L. Kennedy, Serious Sweet. I've heard good things about this but haven't read it yet. 
  97. Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and On Reading. I love Thoreau and Walden changed my life at 17. This tiny book (a Penguin 60) is a joy. 
  98. Nicholas Blake, There's Trouble Brewing. One of his better detective novels. A Question of Proof – can't remember much of this one. 
  99. M Wynn Thomas – All That Is Wales: The Collected Essays of M Wynn Thomas. Wynn is one of the most learned and wide-ranging intellectuals in Europe at the moment. Absolutely nobody outside Welsh-language and Welsh Writing in English gives a damn. Shameful. 
  100. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. It's brief. I still haven't read it. 
  101. Laurent Binet, The 7th Function of Language. Haven't got round to this one yet but it sounds like a hoot with its cast of French literary theorists. 
  102. Leonora Brito, Dat's Love and Other Stories. Another in the Library of Wales series. Yet to be read. 
  103. Sally Roberts Jones, Painting in the Open Air: an Annotated Bibliography of the Anglo-Welsh Short Story to 2000. Sally is an unsung hero of Welsh writing in English, a publisher and a fine poet. She is also astonishingly generous scholar and colleague. 
  104. Bethan Jenkins, Between Wales and England: Anglophone Welsh Writing of the Eighteenth-Century. Bethan is almost comically modest about this major achievement. I'm no 18th-centuryist but I ripped through this one in double-quick time. 
  105. Baron Philip Noel-Baker, The Private Manufacture of Armaments. This, along with the following couple of books, are Left Book Club editions, which I collect. These came from Ystwyth Books, where I spent the fee paid for examining Jamie Harris's excellent PhD on Welsh psychogeography and devolution. 
  106. John Strachey, The Theory and Practice of Socialism. LBC. 
  107. Hewlett Johnson, The Socialist Sixth of the World. LBC.
  108. Bang! You're Dead by Henry Treece. Leftwing children's literature from decades ago. Very good stuff. 
  109. Gwyn Thomas, The Love Man. My PhD had a chapter on another GT novel. The Love Man is a little too comic for my taste but he's a wonderful writer. 
  110. Lewis Davies (ed.), Urban Welsh Fiction. Haven't read it yet, but a good addition to my Welsh collection. 
  111. The Trial of Mussolini by Cassius – one of Gollancz's urgently political WW2 rush jobs. 
  112. The Heyday in the Blood. Don't yet know whether it's any good but I can't resist a title lifted from Hamlet (cf. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). 
  113. Margery Allingham, Traitor's Purse – as you'll soon see, before Nicholas Blake I read my way through all of Allingham's eccentric, funny, dark detective novels. Most of them are wonderful – especially the post-war, London ones that deal with a changed society. The last couple are a bit weak but I'd heartily recommend her novels. 
  114. Jan Morris, A Machynlleth Triad – another book I read to examine a PhD. Very conflicted by this one: beautifully written but somewhat disturbing politically. 
  115. Cory Doctorow, Walkaway. Another novel of ideas: utopian but rather evasive around some questions. He still can't write. 
  116. C. Silvester Horne, Pulpit, Platform and Parliament: a memoir by cleric-MP and father-of-Kenneth Silvester Horne: interesting by-product of the politicians' novels project. 
  117. Down Station by Simon Morden. I like Morden's earlier SF novels. This felt like a scene-setter for a new series, with some intriguing twists on the fantasy-world genre. 
  118. John Rees, The Leveller Revolution: excellent history of one of my favourite Utopian sects. 
  119. Victoria Coren: Once More With Feeling: How We Tried To Make the Greatest Porn Film Ever. Very very funny. 
  120. Jem Roberts, The Fully Authorised History of 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue' – niche, obviously. 
  121. A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood. Sad, moving and lovely. 
  122. Jan Morris, Hav - beautiful writing occasionally taking you in directions you don't want to go 
  123. Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: master at work. 
  124. PG Wodehouse, The World of Blandings - not as good as Jeeves and Wooster but very charming. 
  125. Jeffrey Archer, Willy Visits The Square World. Perjuring ex-con and Tory Lord turns his hand to children's books. Any child would have done better. 
  126. Lady Caroline Lamb, Glenarvon: I like what I've read about Lamb, but haven't got round to this yet. 
  127. Dancers in Mourning, Margaret Allingham. One of her very best. 
  128. Emma Webster, Lost In Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure. Hilarious for the first few goes. I usually ended up marrying the vicar. 
  129. Sean Carney, The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy. Currently on the to-read pile. 
  130. Margery Allingham, Death of a Ghost. Can't remember much about this other than liking it. 
  131. Rob Latham, Science Fiction Criticism – another one I haven't started yet but Latham's other work is very useful. 
  132. Robert Dickinson, The Tourist. I actually can't remember whether I've read this one. 
  133. Allingham, The Fashion In Shrouds (brilliant, funny, scathing); Cargo of Eagles (awful); The Mind Readers (aging novelist hears about esoteric science with dreadful results); More Work for the Undertaker: really excellent. 
  134. Stanislavski, Creating A RoleBuilding A Character and An Actor Prepares. I now know what my motivation is – and can talk about it in my drama module.
  135. Margery Allingham, Look to the Lady. Good creepy country-house mystery. 
  136. Anthony Cartwright, Iron Towns: he's such a good writer about working-class lives. 
  137. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I slightly dread re-tellings (this one's of The Tempest) but she's really pulled it off. 
  138. Max Stafford-Clark, Letters to George. Fascinating way of communicating how a director thinks him or herself into making a play. He's since been revealed as a serious molester of women. 
  139. Alistair Reynolds, Chasm City – I've a soft spot for AR's superior space operas. He can do character. 
  140. Ann Widdecombe, Father Figure. Yet another politician's novel for the project. 
  141. Maria Fyfe, A Problem Like Maria: A Woman's-Eye View of Life as an MP. Not yet read, but apparently rather good. 
  142. The Attention Merchants: Timothy Wu's excellent exposé of the people mining your data as you read this very blog. 
  143. Arthur Miller, A View From The Bridge: replacing another stray book. Taught this for the first time, and got a lot more out of it this time. 
  144. Simon Shepherd, Drama, Theatre, Performance – a useful primer. 
  145. Robert Leach, Theatre Studies: The Basics. Again, very useful but slightly limited from a literary perspective. 
  146. Michael Mangan, The Drama, Theatre and Performance Companion. Really sharpened my approach to teaching the drama module.
  147. Helen Nicholson, Applied Drama. Scope fell outside my module but really thought-provoking. 
  148. Beckett, Three Novels: Molly, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. So good that everything else I read this year felt insubstantial. And he's so funny. 
  149. Genevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library. A romp. 
  150. Margaret Sullivan, Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Book Covers. I used to do a lecture on book covers: this is pretty but essentially a coffee-table book.