Friday, 1 July 2016

Bullshit and the End Times.

Back in the late 18th and 19th centuries, there was a minor craze for contemplating The End, through the medium of vast, thought-provoking canvases of familiar landscapes. Europe's ruling élites were familiar with the ruins of Rome, aware of the parallels between that empire and the various ones they were constructing, and a small proportion of these chaps wondered if sic transit gloria applied to them too. 

One of these was Sir John Soane, who not only commissioned the enormous, Classical, Bank of England complex, but also commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint his new gaff utterly destroyed in some unspecified future.

Joseph Gandy, A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin (1789)

Not that this taste for thrilling contemplation of destruction has gone: there's a rather distasteful aestheticisation of industrial decay known as 'ruin porn' in photographic circles, from Chernobyl to guided tours of Detroit. Then there's Ballard's Tales of the Near Future. 

Why am I thinking about this stuff now? Well, it's been a weird week. On Monday and Tuesday I went to Swansea to examine a PhD and ransack the bookshops of what Dylan Thomas called an 'ugly, lovely town'. Barely a new infrastructural development lacked an EU plaque, yet like all of Wales outside Y Fro Cymraeg voted to leave. I returned to lengthy emails and texts from colleagues and friends from all points on the political spectrum expressing feelings of devastation. One of my friends – a banker – has joined the Conservative Party to vote for the most ludicrous leadership candidate possibly to ensure that they become unelectable. Though looking back on this week, I'm not sure the Tories need the help. 

The Labour Party is ripping itself apart as the right and left wings, the MPs and the members, the pragmatists and the idealists, the capitalists and the socialists engage in a blood bath. Personally I'm stuck in the middle. I happen to agree with pretty much everything Corbyn believes, but I think it's true to say that he hasn't managed to engage in the day-to-day political trench warfare required in this appalling polity. His opponents, however, are awful: most of them are right-wingers whose own constituents defied them to vote Out, a lot of them have blood on their hands from Iraq, and they're precisely the kind of polished, remote, managerialists the public now hates utterly. 

Yesterday I went to London for a British Academy lecture on Writing Political Leaders, which turned out to be a chat with Michael Dobbs of House of Cards fame. I read the newspaper on the train. Stirling had plummeted. Investment had crashed. Farage had insulted his fellow MEPs to applause from Marine Le Pen, a halal butcher's shop was burned down in Walsall, a Polish cultural centre had been vandalised, and several people had been racially abused in the street. The Governor of the Bank of England had announced that billions would have to be magicked up to save the British economy following the vote. The Leavers were explaining that they never really promised to spend £350m a week extra on the NHS:

Actually, I agree: people are quite naturally reading the bus slogan as a continuous sentence rather than as separate sentences. Remember The Simpsons

Bart sees an advert for Itchy & Scratchy cells:
Commercial: Each one is absolutely, one hundred percent guaranteed to increase in value.
Voiceover: Not a guarantee.

As I entrained, Boris Johnson's rag doll Michael Gove announced he was standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party. As I detrained, I heard that Boris Johnson wasn't standing, the night after Mrs Gove the Daily Mail columnist accidentally sent a weird strategy email to a member of the public, which advised her husband on negotiating with Johnson. To her, the approval of Rupert Murdoch and the Mail's editor was of paramount importance: the actual citizens weren't mentioned. So we have a Tory lineup (this morning, anyway) of Sajid Javid, a Ferengi who believes only in the Rules of Acquisition and whose favourite book is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and whose favourite film is the adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Liam Fox who is essentially Major Corkoran from Le Carré's The Night Manager, Big Brother's keener protege Theresa May, Stephen Crabb the (he says former) homophobic bigot who is backed by his associates Malfoy and Goyle, Andrea Leadsom who is a wholly-owned subsidiary of various hedge funds and who likes to send her money away on holiday to some very discreet islands in the sun, and Michael Gove who looks like Pob, sold schools to his rapacious weirdo friends in business and assorted sects, and insisted to a Parliamentary committee that all schools could and should be 'above average':

Q98 Chair: One is: if "good" requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?
Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?
Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.
Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: I cannot remember.
The Remainers thought everything would be fine because chaps will do the decent thing. The Leavers never thought they'd win so didn't bother thinking about what might happen if they did. The financial sector is in meltdown (but will recover just fine even if it means stepping over heaps of our skulls). Labour is engaged in a protracted and cynical war and the government of the country is staggering from crisis to crisis like someone stuck in a wasp's nest who has forgotten where the entrance is. One of my friends pointed me to Harry Frankfurt's short book On Bullshit, in which he explains that there's a difference between liars, who at least know what truth is and orient themselves around it, and bullshitters, who speak according to the pressing demands of the moment without having even the regard for truth required to be a successful liar. As an analysis of our post-truth politics, it really works.

However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.  
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit. 
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires…It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art.
The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction… He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. 
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a personís obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. 

No wonder I'm thinking apocalyptic thoughts.

So yes, I went off to London for this Writing Politicians Event. Before that my cool and clever young cousin took me to a glamorous restaurant: we were the only customers who lacked a limo and chauffeur outside, and couldn't discuss our yachts. You could tell it was a great restaurant because despite being a decent cook myself I had absolutely no idea how the various dishes were made. Then we headed off to take in a matinee to cheer ourselves up. It was called The Truth, a French farce in which an incompetent adulterer discovers that his wife, lover and her husband (the protagonist's best friend, who is sleeping with his wife) are slightly more competent adulterers than him. Sparkling, well-constructed and feather light, it promised to be a grand distraction. Only it gradually dawned on me that it was a comical allegory of the British Ruling Classes. There's Boris, betraying his friend Dave. Here's Michael, betraying Boris… et cetera ad infinitum.

Then off I went to the British Academy, the only branch of academia outside Oxbridge that had hundreds of millions of pounds to spare, judging by its accommodation round the corner from Buckingham Palace. It was billed as 'Writing Political Leaders' and featured Dobbs talking to an Oxford Professor of Chinese History. I went because I'm researching politicians' writing at the moment and I had Dobbs on my panel at the Cheltenham Festival. I was hoping to meet other people researching the same thing, and also a tiny bit annoyed that I hadn't been asked to be part of the panel.

Turns out that it wasn't an analytical or academic event at all: it was a mutual love-in for old and young Tories, and my God the larval Tories were terrifying: 18-22 year-olds dressed as their great-grandfathers keen to learn how they too could be Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. Certainly a future Tory leader was in the crowd – probably one or two of them have joined the race this morning. It was also rather creepy that not a single female said a word throughout the 90 minutes. Margaret Thatcher was reverentially discussed (Dobbs candidly and admiringly said that she dispensed with his services ruthlessly a week before the 1987 election and Edwina Currie's books got a passing mention), but this was an event for, by and about the patriarchy. Still, on such a dramatic day it was interesting to be surrounded by Tories: they had nothing interesting to say on the subject (Dobbs: 'I don't know whether Boris and Michael are acting out of principle or for personal reason, it's usually the latter') but their very demeanour was instructive. Dobbs wheeled out the same anecdotes he had at Cheltenham and there were no interesting questions. Not exactly up to the level I expected from the British Academy but I suppose they're interested in maintaining links to power. And at least I learned that the field is still free for my amazing revelations…

Who knows what fresh horrors this afternoon will bring?

Friday, 24 June 2016

No, me neither

Unlike the very distinguished professor who said to me 'it's never crossed my mind that there could be a Leave vote. Do you really think there might be?', at least I have the freezing cold comfort of being right this time. I learned my lesson during the last election, the result of which confirmed that neither I nor anyone I know is of or understands the bulk of the British electorate. I have students of most political shades and we do occasionally speak of these things but on the whole they're firm supporters of the Weather Party: politics is like the weather in that it's uncontrollable and happens to them whether they like it or not. So I don't get much of an insight into the general public that way.

I'm also enmeshed in a web of political fantasies: I hang out with Communists, Irish and Welsh nationalists of the nice variety, trades union activists, historians and philosophers. The Britain I carry around in my head has two sides. There's the nuclear-armed Imperialist murderer/American lickspittle with all its freight of fears and prejudices, fuelled by the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Express, resenting human rights, foreigners, benefit scroungers and sniffing out paedos on every corner. Then there's the Britain of Paine, Wollstonecraft, William Morris and Walter Crane, Tolpuddle, William Price, Rowan Williams, Robert Owen and the Co-operators, the Lancashire mill-workers who starved rather than handle slave-produced American cotton, Edith Sitwell, Ivor Cutler, the International Brigadiers, the Commonwealth (despite the Irish unpleasantness), the Levellers, the Chartists, Suffragists, Peter Tatchell, George Formby, John Peel, satire, Cable Street, The Miners' Next Step, Kinder Scout, cricket, the Clarion Clubs, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg, Speakers' Corner the Left Book Club, the Guardian, the Kindertransport, Clement Atlee and the NHS, CND, The Field Mice, hunt saboteurs and the Ramblers' Association, trades unions and queuing politely and apologising to people who've walked into you. Basically the side of Britain that doesn't see Abroad as somewhere to be invaded, feared or patronised.

Today it's hard to see that second Britain, the eccentric, open-hearted, generous, funny, radical and welcoming group of nations. I always assumed that its spirit lived on, that the people of the South Wales valleys for instance would remember the hundreds of thousands who marched for their jobs and volunteered to die in Spain for democracy, or the Welsh who struck and wrote and lobbied and committed acts of civil disobedience for their language, their homes and for peace. I was wrong. I cannot see the Tolpuddle Martyrs in Dorset's vote to leave the EU, nor does the spirit of the Pankhursts live on in a country which has decisively decided that it doesn't want any human rights, thank you very much.

What do we have to look forward to? In my immediate surroundings, the loss of European colleagues and students, of access to that sophisticated network of thinkers, ideas and resources, let alone funding. Environmental protection will go, as will employment protection: it's all just 'red tape' after all. Our food will be further adulterated, the air will go foul, the poor and the black will find no refuge and our former colleagues in the EU will have no sympathy at all for this self-inflicted wound.

There's a tiny bit of me that thinks Britain had it coming: never having adjusted to being a second-rate power after losing its imperial possessions, it never tried acting in the collective interest, never tried to play a constructive role, couldn't act as anything other than a wrecking ball in the EU. What surprises me is that the other countries didn't have a referendum on throwing out the UK. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for Britain to learn a little humility, and with the loss of Scotland, perhaps the tiger will be tamed, having lost its embarrassing job as America's sergeant-major. However, these unworthy thoughts won't help the people of Britain, particularly those Out voters who will be the first to suffer when EU development grants and subsidies are withdrawn from the Valleys and the Northern English ex-industrial heartlands.

How did we get here? It's tempting to suggest that the Brexiteers are prejudiced Know-Nothings, but I'm a utopian socialist: I believe that the majority of the people have the capacity for greatness given the right conditions. I don't blame Nigel Farage and his little band of red-faced blazered petit-bourgeois golf-course revanchists. They're a symptom rather than a cause. The cause is the complete abandonment of political vision and trust by the British left. The right has always had two faces: backwards-looking social conservatism of the kind espoused by grassroots UKIPpers, and hardline free market neoliberalism. They've always been completely honest about what they want from the electorate. The conservatives want a society in which everyone knows their place and weirdos (women, foreigners, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, trades unionists) basically anyone who wouldn't be welcome to dinner with David Archer) do what they're told. The neoliberals don't care what colour, sex or gender you are as long you also don't interfere with the distribution of money from the poor to the rich through the financialisation of the economy.

So that's the Right: completely honest. Then there's the left. It had a good 1940s: the war demonstrated that collective effort could bring about good things: defeat of the Nazis, the NHS, widespread nationalisation of industries that had failed in the private sector. It occasionally spasmed back to life: Wilson's Open University, for instance. But on the whole, the Left utterly failed to develop any vision of the post-industrial society that the Right was busy making real. The Right occasionally made gestures in the direction of social conservatism, but it was essentially happy to trade mass employment and high wages for increased shareholder value. That's how we got a Chancellor who said that high unemployment was a 'small price to pay' for low inflation, a Labour Prime Minister proud that Britain had the worst worker protection in Europe, and a legislature made up of landlords and tax-evaders passing laws to make the UK a tax haven.

What did the Left do? Did it (like William Morris) imagine a bright future based on socialist values and kindness to all? It did not. The hard left deluded itself into thinking a revolution was just around the corner, the soft left imagined conspiracies around every corner and the Third Way Blairites and Clintonites gave up entirely and aimed to do nothing more noble than soften the edges while having no critique at all of neoliberalism and the new imperialism. Convinced that the working classes were all paranoid racists, they acted on those assumptions, until we got to the point of Labour – once the protector of the poor and huddled masses – selling mugs promoting crackdowns on immigrants.

How were the people so fooled? The neoliberals were quite happy to misdirect blame from capitalism to immigrants/Europe/whoever while they got on with seizing our water, phones, railways, health service and anything else not nailed down. The Old Right genuinely believed it, and the press – from the screeching Mail to the apparently balanced BBC – either promoted these discourses or allowed them to go unchallenged. Just look at the way welfare benefits and refugees were replaced by benefits cheats and illegal immigrants, scroungers, benefits tourists and the rest.

What I and my friends on the left entirely failed to do was set out both the scale of the economic problem and optimistic, realistic solutions. Labour got used to treating the working class as an embarrassing, lumpen bunch that would do what it was told, but that it avoided meeting as much as possible (not true, of course, of many dedicated individuals) rather than as a source of strength, ideas and inspiration. Such assumptions have a habit of coming true. Into the void came the peddlers of poison: the Tories who should know better and the UKIPpers and assorted fascists who probably don't. They promoted easy solutions and obvious causes and Britain fell for them. It's a commonplace in religious studies that the decline in organised religion doesn't lead directly to atheism: it leads to the mushrooming of 'alternative' spirituality, from Prosperity Churches to crystal healing. I think it's the same in politics: if you deprive people of agency, if you treat them with contempt, they will abandon you and they will listen to those peddling simple, relatable lies.

Before I voted, I asked myself some simple questions. Would my students be more free out of the EU? Could the same be said of my friends who work in call centres and Amazon warehouses? Would my friends under the care of the NHS get faster, better treatment? The answer to all these things was 'no'. Britain hasn't voted from freedom, it has voted for corporate sovereignty, governed by a group of people who see their job as delivering the people to the corporations.

There's a lovely country out there, full of wonderful people. I and my friends simply forgot that it needed water and sun and weeding to keep it alive. While we neglected the garden, the slugs and weeds quietly got on with their job.

Be nice to someone today. It's all we have left.*

*Well, I also have an Irish passport. It might come in handy.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Man hath no love greater than this: that he lay down his country for his frenemies

What can one possibly say about the murder of Jo Cox, an unassuming, hardworking Labour MP while she went about her job of listening and talking to her constituents, whether Labour voters or not? Her murderer is said to have had mental health problems and to have subscribed to fascist and racist publications and groups. The weight you give to both aspects of his life largely depends on a complex mix of preconceptions and biases. The hard-right newspapers such as the Sun and the Mail are keen to portray him as a 'mad loner' and downplay his politics; commentators on the left want to see it as an act of political terror.

My honest answer is that I don't and can't know the precise causes. Being a wet liberal I've always assumed that anyone who deliberately kills other than in self-defence, from a general to a drunk, is mentally ill in some way, but I'm also fully aware that of the enormous number of us who suffer from a range of mental illnesses only the tiniest fraction harm themselves, let alone others. I'm also very uncomfortable with the idea that because someone has an unspecified mental illness, we should deny them the agency of political views and the responsibility for their actions. If Thomas Mair was a racist bigot, we can't simply assume these are the products of his illness, however tempting and comforting that may be. It lets him off, but it also lets off those clamorous voices in the media which have grown ever more shrill and sinister: Donald Trump, the Daily Mail and the Express, Britain First and everyone who 'likes' their moronic Facebook posts, Nigel Farage and his friends, not forgetting those who cynically stoke up the fires of hatred out of opportunism rather than belief.

Only a few days ago we mourned the murder of fifty people for their sexuality in the United States, often accompanied here in Europe with a subtext of 'it couldn't happen here'. It probably couldn't, at least not on that scale thanks to the gun laws, but Jo Cox's murder should remind us that those instincts aren't exclusive to the USA. The managerial, technocratic politics of the End-of-History, which simply suppressed deep social fissures by proclaiming the triumph of the market has caused an atavistic resurgence of mostly hard-right, neofascist politics amongst those excluded from the magic political circle. I want a political system that's responsive, hard-fought, passionate and ready to have big arguments over the things that matter: it's not a gentlemen's game or the equivalent of management consulting, and when it seems like them, the people get angry. But nor do I want a politics that's played out on the street, a politics of shouting-down and beating-up or, as yesterday, of murdering our opponents.

What seems to have been lost is the notion of good faith: the idea that your opponents, however deluded, want the best for their chosen polity, whether that's a country or some other imagined community. Is anyone to blame for this? The easy answer of course is to say that we all are: that the corrosive cynicism of particular newspapers, commentators, culture and our own lazy assumptions have conspired to make politicians seem irreversibly cynical, lazy and corrupt. All of these things are true: Jo Cox, my own MP Rob Marris or any number of MPs from every party go to work every day dealing with things ranging from the horrors of the benefit system and what it does to their constituents, to painstaking, boring, line-by-line analysis of new legislation, to voting whether or not to bomb one country or hug another. It's hard, tedious and often lonely work.

However, politicians themselves must shoulder much of the blame. Those on the left and the right have worked hard to restrict politics as a practice to Westminster; they've abandoned much of their responsibilities to the market and ended up looking either like cheerleaders for the zero-hour, financialised economy and neoliberal, Clash of Civilisations hegemony, or as helpless onlookers of it. They've narrowed the boundaries of what can be reasonably discussed, from nuclear weapons to taxation to immigration (respectively my instincts are for abolition, raising and appreciating) and the type of people who are allowed to engage (it still very much helps if you're English, southern, white, male, privately-educated, went to Oxbridge, though women and homosexuals are gaining grudging acceptance). Nor does it help when credit is grabbed with both hands while blame is apportioned to others, currently the poor and the foreign.

The most breathtakingly cynical act of modern British politics recently was this European referendum. No major change in the UK's membership is proposed. A United States of Europe has not been declared, more's the pity. No earth-shaking constitutional changes are mooted. Rather the Prime Minister decided that the entire future of his country was a small price to pay for a temporary ceasefire within his own party and to fend off the advances of UKIP to his right. What's the old saying? 'There is no greater love, than that a man lay down his country for his frenemies'. The UK has for too long used the European Community/Union as a bogey-man or a scratching post: I'm frankly surprised that the rest of the EU isn't having a simultaneous referendum on throwing out the UK. As the debate has become less and less anchored in reality, xenophobic and atavistic tendencies have emerged. Whatever the contribution mental illness made to Thomas Mair's actions, the ruling classes bear an awful lot of responsibility for turning political engagement from a mass activity to a spectator sport, in which the teams are impossible to distinguish. It was inevitable that cynics would direct the unfocussed anger of the excluded into frightening channels, and that some tiny number of the dispossessed would emerge to do terrible things.

I will also say this: all politicians are guilty to some extent for behaving as though we shouldn't worry our little heads about politics. However, despite the public pressure not to 'politicise' the murder of a politician by a man shouting a political slogan, I believe that in particular, the Conservative Party's turn to neoliberalism has directly led to yesterday's murder. It turned away from 'One Nation' paternalistic conservatism and became the local branch of untrammelled, unregulated capitalism and financialisation. Anything the state does is now suspect. We have been trained to want the sale of our public services and to abandon our commitments to shelter the needy and those driven from their homes by war and terror. Our mental health services have been driven into the ground and those who – possibly including Thomas Mair – might benefit from therapy and care are left to fend for themselves, or offered mindfulness classes. Having encouraged us to see immigrants and refugees (or more accurately, poor, black immigrants and refugees) as freeloaders, bloodsuckers or diseases, often for electoral advantage, the Conservative Party cannot then disclaim responsibility for those even more extreme voices which simply follow their logic. The 'ratchet effect' of the 1980s claimed that a concerted effort to move political discourse to the right would force Labour to follow, and they were right: but the more space the Tories opened to the right, the more they had to occupy it themselves, however high-pitched the dog-whistle may be at times. If you want to see what a small-state, 'there is no such thing as society' polity looks like, you no longer have to move to Somalia. You can see it in microcosm when a man can become as ill and extreme as Thomas Mair without anyone noticing.

Who is more guilty than the politicians? We are. As a net-syndicalist I would say that as soon as we allowed politics to become a specialised activity practised by rich weirdos in hermetically-sealed spaces, we engineered our own disenfranchisement. They became the captives of their party whips, their donors and their increasingly unrepresentative parties. Look at the Conservatives now: a party essentially without a membership, and one which would far rather take millions from oligarchs to pay for Facebook campaigns than a party which actually wants to hear from millions of potential voters and members. Labour too has these tendencies: professional politicians in all parties think that the voters are basically selfish bigots to be appeased rather than the source of radical and progressive ideas who have a right to determine the nation's path. Donors are much more impressive, with their sharp suits, PPE degrees and private jets. But around the edges the extremist parties are peeling off the disillusioned with simple answers and easy solutions…

Politicians can't save us, but we can save the politicians. Nigel Farage and his friends aren't the cause: they're the symptom and the product of our age. If we encourage the best in our representatives and enforce a new mode of participatory political action – however uncouth and uncomfortable it may be at times – perhaps, just perhaps, we can reduce the chances of another Thomas Mair meeting another Jo Cox.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Meanwhile, back in Stuckeyville

Actually, Stuckeyville wasn't so bad. It had a bowling alley and warm quirky people with good teeth who helped you re-evaluate your priorities after the world kicked you in the face. But it has been an interesting, nay exhausting, week here in Stuckeyville's dentally-challenged twin city. 

Last Saturday we took a school trip to see The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theatre. It was definitely the biggest trip the English department has ever done - there were even several generations of ex-students as well as colleagues, ex-colleagues and a passel of our current undergraduates. Some had never been to London before, let alone the Globe.

This was a very odd staging of Taming. It's a difficult play anyway: a comedy (with lots of good gags and some technically-good-but-now-rather-uncomfortable ones) about how sarcastic/independent/disobedient women should be beaten into acquiescence by starvation, cruelty and the like. The usual way to get round the happy ending (Kate admits that she needs to do what she's told) rather than look like a bunch of misogynistic bigots is to play it like she's only kidding and she'll get her own back in some unspecified extra-textual future.

This production didn't really do that. It did something very odd indeed. It removed the Sly framing which makes the action a play-within-a-play, replacing it with an Ireland 1916 setting, complete with tuneless 'Irish' music and hammer-heavy didactic lyrics. The intention was to imagine that Shrew was being put on in Ireland on or around the time of the Rising to make us understand that just as the play is misogynistic, so was the Ireland that resulted from the Rising.

OK. But there are some historical and dramatic problems with this. Dramatically, it just didn't work: the only people who knew about this Irish framing were those who'd bought the programme like me – everybody else just liked the Irish music and thought it was nice to have an Irish cast. Historically: well, the Rising itself wasn't a misogynistic enterprise. There were radical feminists, socialists, communists, Catholic reactionaries and all sorts involved, and the Proclamation of the Republic, though expressed in the masculinist terms of the period and signed only by men, was pretty progressive, especially in comparison with the Constitution and state that eventually appeared:
The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past. 
Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.
British women didn't get the vote until 1928 of course. The problem with the Rising is that the British shot everyone they could find, including the progressive men. By the time Independence came round, previously minor and very reactionary types like Eamon de Valera had seized the reins (and handed them back to the Church): a Republic didn't exist until 1949 legally and one could easily argue that the ideals embodied in classical republicanism (let's leave Irish Republicanism to one side today) haven never been instituted. Ireland's women were betrayed, but not by the Rising.

Also: yes this is the centenary of the Rising, but I'm not sure why a British Shakespearean Theatre with a British and tourist audience felt the need to tell everyone that Ireland was a sexist hellhole. It's not as if the UK to date or colonial Ireland were ever paragons of liberation. I'm just not sure, in the end, what light the Rising throws upon Shrew, or what the Shrew throws upon Irish history. The acting was superb, the set design excellent, but it felt like such a half-baked idea, and I was actually quite glad that lots of people around me could enjoy the performance without sitting there fretting – as I did – about what it all meant. I believe this is what Caroline Magennis meant when she remarked 'this is why academics can't have nice things'. Still, at least lightning wasn't hitting the building next door this time, as it did when we saw Antony and Cleopatra.

The rest of the week descended into the banal hell of the post-teaching academic: endless piles of marking and moderation, putting together module packs for the external examiners, all interrupted at the most crucial moments by interminable meetings: negotiating committee, estates committee, board of governors and casework. Also – because I'm a complete idiot – I agreed to give a conference paper yesterday and was therefore trying to write that while juggling all the other things.

It was a lovely conference, on Communism and Commitment, basically talking about the emotional and quotidian lives of British communist members, activists, officers and apostates, and what happened at times of stress. Jane Bernal, daughter of Margot Heinemann and JD Bernal talked about her parents on a panel that looked at devoted activists who eventually left the Party, such as Douglas Hyde, who was converted from Methodism to Communism by his time as a preacher in North Wales and his experience in the South Wales valleys, particularly meeting Lewis Jones. After years as a journalist and energetic activist, reading the Catholic Weekly Review caused him to have Doubts, and he eventually became a deeply Catholic Cold Warrior: his confession I Believed was an enormous hit. I learned that the Daily Worker was basically like a Communist Tindr and that the Most Dangerous Man In Britain, Harry Pollitt, would give child visitors to CP HQ jars of his home-made fudge (hopefully called Moscow Gold).

I was on a panel talking about writers and the CP: the others were Glyn Salter-Cox whose paper was a tender, funny and revelatory examination of novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland's open, proud blend of Communist lesbianism at a time when the party was very conservative socially, and Matthew Taunton from UEA who used the recently available letters between Doris Lessing and her novels to explore the dialogic nature of her political beliefs and her literary work. My paper was on Lewis Jones, the communist hero and novels: I argued that far from being the propagandist his allies, publishers and enemies believed, he wrote Cwmardy and We Live as attacks on authoritarianism whether in the state or the party. It's all in there: even the hero's death in the Spanish Civil War is a form of suicide occasioned by his coldly ambitious wife, rather than the sacrifice of a true comrade. I think I got away with it: one Japanese scholar said he'd come specifically for my paper which was a bit scary, and another said that I'd 'set the tone for the conference'. At the time I took that as a compliment but now I'm wondering whether the subtext was 'you bastard' or if it was meant to be the equivalent of what actors say to friends in terrible productions ('well, you've done it again').

What I loved about this conference was that it wasn't just academics: a lot of people there were independent researchers, old comrades, trades' unionists and enthusiasts for Britain's radical past. While there were some recriminations about where it went wrong and how we should understand it (David Aaronovitch and Alexei Sayle got some stick for their accounts of growing up Communist) the wide spread of people and perspective meant that there was an awful lot to learn. Oh, and I met a Japanese PhD student who has translated CLR James's work, inventing an awful lot of Japanese cricket terms along the way. How do you translate 'googly' and 'chinaman'?

If you don't know the People's History Museum, it's a wonderful, welcoming place with an awful lot of material that British kids don't get told about in school. The first time I went there it was so interesting that I lost track of time and got locked in…

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Affiliate Professor Jeremy Baker Requires A Moment Of Your Time

Let's start way back at the beginning. My academic career started well and tailed off quite badly. By 'well', I mean that I began school at 5 and had burned through the school's entire stock of books by the age of 7. Come secondary school I bounced from institution to institution, memorably scoring a fine 4% in a maths exam and being on the receiving end of violence and scorn from the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Brothers and the Benedictines. Achieving largely undistinguished A-levels, the Clearing system came to my rescue and I took a degree in English with large chunks of Philosophy and various other subjects mixed in. I'd picked up a couple of languages and acquired a few more, mostly in the pub and through sharing houses. Next came an MA in Welsh Writing in English, and finally a PhD in Masculinity and Politics in 1930s Welsh Literature. Since then I've published occasionally on Welsh literature, Welsh literature in English, Foucault, jazz in contemporary fiction, Star Trek and Doctor Who, and I'm working on politicians' creative writing and Welsh Appalachia. 

The trend, as you can see, is specialisation. It's taken 11 GCSE's, three A-levels, three degrees and a teaching certificate to qualify me to mark the pile of first-year English essays currently on my desk, and I was 34 before I had a regular income and a full-time job. I'm just like any other academic, except less productive and more sarcastic. 

Amongst the academics I admire most are the AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers, an incubator scheme that nurtures some of the best new academics  and gets their work in the public domain. It's a brilliant scheme that doesn't take into account institutional prestige, and believes strongly in the value of communicating good research to the people who ultimately pay for it. 

Which brings me to the point of today's post: Affiliate Professor Jeremy Baker, the Today programme and News Values. 

Affiliate Professor Baker was interviewed on Today this morning about workers' rights, which he described as 'rewards' due to the 'middle-class' and awarded to everyone as a right only by those who are, or want to be, 'French'. In a world largely without workers' rights, he said, Britain can only stay competitive by withdrawing them. He notably declined to deny that he was advocating 'exploitation'. 

So far, so terrible. Awful views, but it's a free country. However, it got me thinking about the process of inviting this man onto the nation's most prestigious news broadcast. A few years back, Mitchell and Webb teased the media for its sudden and rather desperate attempt to catch up with social media.

Very funny, I thought. And I'm regularly to be found tweeting on the #bbcqt and #bbcr4today hashtags: howling into the void without any hope of a response from those in charge. Little did I think, however, that being a Man In Possession of a Reckon now qualifies you not simply to Send In Your Views but to be interviewed as an expert on the nation's most prestigious, agenda-setting news magazine. 

Appalled by the Affiliate Professor's views, I wondered where the BBC had found him. Being an researcher of sorts I decided to look him up. This wasn't easy, but eventually I found his institution: the private ESCP Europe Business School, which has campuses in London, Berlin, Paris and several other places. It has not, to my knowledge, troubled the league tables nor the Nobel Prize committees. Given the British Establishment's obsession with Oxford and Cambridge, I'm at the least surprised that they went so far off the beaten path for this guy. 

So ESCP Europe Business School isn't much cop. It's so removed from UK academic standards that it isn't even allowed the '' URL or email addresses (that's a tip, kids). But what of the distinguished Affiliate Professor? Well, I looked him up on ESCP Europe Business School's website. You can't do the same because within minutes of the interview, the relevant pages were removed as if by magic! Thankfully, I took a screenshot and also resorted to the Wayback Machine. 

Here are Affiliate Professor Jeremy Baker's publications and current research profile:

So the Today programme's expert in the field is a man with no publications and no current research. But he does have an MBA and a teaching qualification! To be fair to Affiliate Professor (not a standard title by the way) he does have one publication: a self-help book about the pre-fame careers of various well-known people. It's called Tolstoy's Bicycle and it came out in 1983. Here's what it covers:

Copies are available from 1p to £1751. But let's delve a little deeper into the good Affiliate Professor's career. Has he, like the BBC New Generation Thinkers, or even me, devoted his life to deepening his understanding of his chosen field, employment law and the philosophy and economy of human rights? 

Um, no. According to the Wayback Machine's archived page, this is his life.
He has Credentials and membership such as:
  • AA Dip: Architectural Association Diploma, RIBA part 2
  • MBA: Stanford Business School, California
  • MA: Anthropology, Stanford University, California
  • DipM: Chartered Institute of Marketing Diploma
  • CAM Dip: Communications Advertising Marketing Diploma
  • Cert Ed: Greenwich University PG Certificate in teaching Higher Education
  • CIPR: Member, Chartered Institute of Public Relations
  • CIPR: On Awards judging panel, 2006, 2007, 2009  
  • F.CAM: appointed Fellow of the CAM Foundation – Comms Advertising Marketing
  • Society of Authors: Member
  • Press Club of London: Member
  • University of Tennessee: Award   for help with their PR programme
  • Journal of Comm Mngmt: Member, editorial board
  • Southampton Solent Uni: External Examiner: BA New Media
He is, in fact, qualified in architecture, teaches Marketing and is very, very available for media work. Has he though had a distinguished career in academia, drawing on his wide range of experience? Again, no:
In the course of his career, he was a visiting lecturer in Marketing and international business analysis at London Metropolitan University and at Cambridge Marketing College. Jeremy Baker is also a commentator for TV and radio on marketing and consumer issues. He worked as a freelance PR on communication for Avon Cosmetics, New West End Co, Rain, Communications, Selfridges, and Oxford Street retailers NWEC.
Now London has many fine courses, but Cambridge Marketing College is not, as far as I'm aware, another bastion of critical enquiry, and being a visiting lecturer there (read: hourly-paid) is probably not the career profile of a nationally-important commentator. 

The major question isn't why Affiliate Professor Jeremy Baker thinks he's an expert in workers' rights: the question is why the BBC deems him sufficiently qualified to speak on the subject to the nation. The New Generation thinkers have struggled intellectually, economically and personally to become experts and their reward is to reach the tiny (but lovely) Radio 3 audience. Jeremy hasn't struggled in any way and yet gets to go on the Today problem. This is (finally) about news values. Rather than get someone from industry or academia to present their experience and research, the editors decided that their priority was controversy and extreme views: entertainment rather than information. In the process, an obscure and frankly less-than-credible source is given national credibility for himself and his Reckons without having to substantiate any of his claims via peer-reviewed research. 

How did they choose him? What are the criteria? Why should hard-working academics put effort into testing and refining ideas if snake-oil salesmen are considered more radio-friendly simply because their views are more pungent? We'll never know, because they don't respond to queries or complaints. It cheapens the Today programme and it cheapens the value of academia. Worse than that: it creates amongst the listeners an impression that these unsourced and unjustified views are somehow prevalent, backed-up by research (why else would you find even an 'Affiliate' Professor?) and institutional credibility, thus shifting the parameters of the debate well away from the mainstream without in any indicating this. This is highly misleading, not to say irresponsible. 

Friday, 3 June 2016

Not so grim up north

In between the strikes and the meetings madness I had a long weekend in Iceland - a slightly delayed birthday present. There are too many impressions for me to be coherent, and the surface of this weird, wonderful country was barely scratched. It's beautiful and bleak; American and European (culturally and literally: I stood in the tectonic plate rift, a foot on both continents); Nordic and Celtic, cute and terrifying, liberal and conservative and many other binaries. The food is wonderful, the architecture goes from sublime to traditional to banal, the weather is gloriously changeable and I must go back. There were bookshop cafés and geysers, waterfalls, lakes and wool shops, dried fish heads and cinnamon buns, sagas and whale-watching boats moored next to whaling ships.

My pictures are here but here's a taste - click to enlarge.

The Chuck Norris Grill

Selfie by a fish-drying house

A geyser about to blow



Gullfoss selfie

Hallgrimskirkja dominating the harbour


Hallgrimskirkja organ - the only decorative relief in the bare concrete Lutheran church 
Failed to visit this - bit of a cock-up really

Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja tower

Harpa: all Scandinavian capitals have big glass concert halls on the harbour edge. 

A mountain-top selfie

Thingvellir: the ancient parliament site and the rift between the continents

Waterfall at Thingvellir

Painted on the side of a shop

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Pre-strike portmanteau post

It's Tuesday. I wouldn't normally post this early in the week (it's quite a while since I was blogging 4 times per day!) but the rest of the week isn't going to be normal.

Today sees the first Staff Summer Party over at the other campus. There are rides and ice-cream stalls and a bucking bronco because that's what academics really want to do apparently. Truth be told, a summer tea party after a long year is rather a nice idea, but this one falls on the eve of our strike. We all got a letter from the Vice-Chancellor explaining that we should all be satisfied with a 1.1% pay rise after 8 years of below-inflation settlements, and that he's very very disappointed with our ingratitude (I paraphrase, but only slightly). I've suggested that the party be renamed the Let Them Eat Cake bash, but apparently that's not helpful.

I wouldn't mind, but that very day the Times Higher Education Supplement published a report which singled out our VC for his 19.6% pay rise: a very handy £44,000 which should see him through the summer. The Chair of the Governors told THES that the rise is due to the VC's excellent performance, while forgetting to mention – and this is in the publicly available records – that the VC's salary is being increased to the median for the sector as a matter of policy.

Now, I'm a governor of this institution (though I'm excluded from the Renumeration Committee) and am bound by a duty of confidentiality, so I can't give you all the details, but I can give you my view. Academic staff are not rewarded for 'results': we're assessed and appraised and criticised and occasionally praised, but not rewarded. Only senior executives – some of whom are demonstrably ignorant of what goes on in classrooms – are afforded bonus payments and a salary scheme which depends on an all-universities pay survey. What this essentially means is that the senior managements of all universities are on a one-way conveyor belt of pay uplifts. If senior pay is benchmarked to a sector average, all they have to do is tell each other that this year, they've deserved an increase. Hey presto, they all get one! As we say round here, credit and money rise to the top. Only blame trickles downwards.

To be honest, if it wasn't for the sight of people on 20% pay rises sending out threatening emails telling us we're greedy I wouldn't mind so much about the salary. What I do object to is the complete absence of analytical rigour. Universities' monies are loans from students, to be paid off (over decades). I want to see a Vice Chancellor or a Head of Finance of a university – which is a charity, let's not forget – stand in front of a student and explain why he or she deserves to soak up the £9000 fees of 30 students (45 for Birmingham University's VC) while they're being taught often by insecurely-employed, part-time teachers who are expected to produce world-class research, generate external funding and top-class National Student Survey reports while often being employed on zero-hours contracts.

Academics aren't fat-cats. We're like footballers in that our careers start very late: I did 4 degrees to become fully qualified and worked on an hourly-paid basis until I was 34, so I've missed out on at least a decade of savings, pension contributions and housing costs. My female colleagues have done the same, except that those who take time off to have children lose out even more. Our pensions have been slashed while the contributions have increased. And yet I'm expected to keep quiet while the VC gets a top-up equivalent to my annual salary. We're not like footballers in that football managers don't get all the money when the team plays well.

We all know what happened to the banking sector. They were captured by a group of employees who treated their institutions as personal piggy banks, and therefore thought it was OK to use shady and often illegal methods to achieve short-term gains for themselves while bringing about a global recession for which we all paid. Education is too important to be captured by uncollegiate, self-reinforcing circles of sharp-suited snake-oil salesmen and women, convinced by their MBA training that they and they alone have 'saved' their institutions and deserve corporate rewards, while the teachers, technicians and support staff are simply fungible assets to be sweated and discarded.

Universities need managers, and the skills required to keep a complex, enormous institution like a university going aren't necessarily the same as those required to propel an academic to the top of her field – I don't think we can manage without them. However, I do now feel like the public service ideals which underpinned the collective enterprise of the academy have been replaced by a Directors and Hands structure whereby our views are unwelcome and our labour to be sweated.

How can I say to my nephews and nieces – and my fresh-faced PhD students –  that they should consider a career in teaching and research when they could get a decent job at 21 with a BA or even no degree at all? My life is mostly brilliant: I spend all day talking about books and get paid for it. I spend my classroom time with students and colleagues who are a pleasure to be with – but I'm old. If I were 21 and burdened with £50,000 of debts I'm not sure that the simple pleasures of intellectual enlightenment would make up for another decade of unemployment, another £50,000 of debt, of scrabbling around for enough hours to make ends meet, followed by decades of bullying and pay cuts delivered by someone with a chauffeur-driven limo and an air of bemused contempt? That's a tough gig.

That's why tomorrow I'll be out on the picket line with my bags of peanuts (representing our pay offer) and some 'filled pockets' Whiskas treats for the fat cats as they sweep past us.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Poetry please

Last night I toddled along to a Dialect Night: readings by poets and novelists united by pride in their accents and divided by their origins, styles and interests. The work ranged from free verse to highly structured work, low-life novels to Northern Irish teen romance and on to the joys (and otherwise) of West Midlands motherhood. The Granta set came in for a kicking too. Hosted by Niall Griffiths, it featured prize-winning poet Liz Berry, Joao Morais from Cardiff, Sam Roden and Dave Pitt from the West Midlands, Russ Litten from Hull, Grahame Williams from Northern Ireland who managed to make a fine Troubles-related knob gag in the course of a rathe moving story and another person whose name I failed to hear.

Dave Pitt

Dave Pitt

Dave Pitt

Dave Pitt
Liz Berry 

Niall Griffiths, Liz Berry

Liz Berry 

Liz Berry
Niall Griffiths

Niall Griffiths

Liz Berry, Russ Litten, Sam Roden, Tom Pickard

Graham, ?, Joao Morris, Liz Berry, Russ Litten
Niall Griffiths, Russ Litten

Russ Litten

Sam Roden

Sam Roden
Tom Pickard

Tom Pickard