Thursday, 16 February 2017

Root 1 cricket

Popped over for lunch today in the school canteen with the new England captain, Joe Root. He seemed like a very nice chap as he signed shirts and shook hands - having been unveiled as captain only a couple of days ago, with a tour starting at the weekend, he'd have been forgiven for cancelling. He'd done a Q+A with students and local children which I missed but which was apparently very good. His reply to the question about giving Pietersen a place ('There's a Twenty20 tournament on at the same time so I think he's probably busy') was a well-pitched, witty response to a tricky issue.

I took a few photos.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Bitter Northern Scum ©All Newspapers

Well, perhaps not all newspapers. The liberal ones will send their Toynbeebots up to the dreadful slums once every five years to wring their hands about why the proles are bitter fat racists. The rightwing ones will pay some toff to churn out 800 words from a golf course bar about why the  proles are Speaking For Britain while still being Unwashed, fat, racist and northern.

What they won't do is spend any time there or ask whether the inhabitants of places like Stoke are reacting to a polity and economy that has absolutely no interest – whoever is in government – in managing the transfer from full, mass, employment (Stoke had potteries, coal and steel) to a post-industrial economy. The liberal ones send in the Tristrams now and then like ineffectual missionaries to explain why globalisation is brilliant and they have to get with the programme, and then wonder why the oiks fall for the constant stream of racist bile delivered in simple words by the right. And poor old Labour has to run an election campaign with the lotto voce slogan 'We know Tristram was a selfish prick who ran away at the first sniff of a canapé, but this time it'll be different'.

There's a distinct air of David Attenborough about the media and state's attitude towards places like Stoke, except that he loves his subjects while they are embarrassed by or cynical about those left-behinds. Poor old Stoke - hard to find a babycino or a hedge-fund trader there. What hope do they have? For the people of Stoke, politics is like the weather: it happens to them and there's nothing they can do about whatever is thrown their way.

Friday, 3 February 2017

And so we beat on…

So, many terrible things are happening and they're happening so fast that I can't keep up. I'm living in two time zones: my own, and Donald Trump's, waiting to hear of his latest assaults on reality and decency. The Black History Month speech in which he boasted about himself, listed a few black people he clearly knew nothing about, and relegated them to the status of forerunners to the true black heroes: Trump donors. The National Prayer Breakfast, at which he assembled lots of religious people before mocking their raison d'être by 'praying' for Arnold Schwarzenegger's ratings. The call to the Mexican President which included a threat to invade that country ('banter'). The angry call to the Australian PM, a natural ally in reactionary bigotry, which was terminated half-way through because Trump was 'tired' (according to the White House) or a boor (everybody else). The ceaseless stream of executive orders making life hard for the weak and very, very easy for the powerful. His spokesman's invention of the Bowling Green Massacre to defend the Muslim Ban was today's low point.

And that's to say nothing of the Brexit Lemming Dash. But I have nothing to add that cleverer people haven't already said. So instead, here are some pictures from the Literature Festival I helped organise last weekend. We had nearly 80 events over a long weekend, most of them free. Some were over-subscribed, some were quiet, but none were failures. We were spread over multiple venues: churches, galleries, a farm, theatres, the university and many more. The plan was an active festival: some headliners that people could sit and listen to, but most were participatory, and seemed to attract people who wouldn't go to Edinburgh or Cheltenham festivals. It was hard work but I was stunned by the enthusiasm of those who volunteered to put on events, and of those who came to them. The budget was tiny – about £2000 plus what came in from ticket sales – but we managed. We're definitely putting it on again, and we intend to be even more ambitious. I did the Q bit of a Q and A with novelists Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah, introduced Sathnam Sanghera, looked after wordl-famous-in-Tipton Doreen and generally floated around opening doors, pointing to places and providing coffees.

From 'The Quiet Compere'

Miles Hunt, ex-Wonder Stuff

Donald? Is it really you?

Could be a scene from any of my lectures


A Doreen fan

A presenter's view of the Sathnam Sanghera crowd…including his mum

Sathnam Sanghera and Paul McDonald

Sathnam Sanghera

MPs Paul McFadden and Emma Reynolds
Paul McDonald

My favourite sight of the weekend

Arts and Crafts lectern, Bantock House.

A special mention for the lady at Doreen who asked me what I was studying while I ushered her group in. I'm nearly 42 and course leader of English, but for a moment I almost believed I looked young, fresh and innocent enough to be a student.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A Poem for Donald

This Be The Verse
adapted with no apologies from Philip Larkin's original, in honour of the new regimes in the USA, Britain, India, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines and probably the Netherlands and France shortly

They fuck you up, your mum and dad the men in charge.   
    They may not mean to, but so they do.   
They fill you with the faults fears they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But were they fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style gold-trimmed hats flats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy Twitter-stern
    And half at one another’s throats?

Man hands on misery to man woman.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

But if you use ungodly ways
    To stave off an extra kid
They'll come for you and lock you up
   If it helps an election bid
You can donate to Planned Parenthood here and the Family Planning Association here.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Picking Cherries With James Harding

I'll keep this one brief. 

A lot of people active on social media think that BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg is biased, specifically against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. I don't know if she is or isn't because I haven't seen much of her work (and therefore my general view can't and shouldn't be applied to her): interviews between politicians and reporters, and political reporting, are now so sterile that I can't face watching any more of them. The politicians are so well-trained that they can effortlessly flannel through any really pressing question, while the savvy ones simply avoid appearing at press conferences or tough interviews: Cameron would only appear on sofas, while the Today show is reduced to sarcastically pronunciation of the words 'no minister was available'.* 

One particular report she filed on Corbyn's attitude to British shoot-to-kill policies was reported to the BBC trust and investigated for misrepresenting the Labour leader's views by misrepresenting the  question put to him (unseen on the particular show complained about), which altered how his response was framed. The findings were mixed: she was found to have been inaccurate:
…the report had not been duly accurate in how it framed the extract it used from Mr Corbyn’s interview
and that 
Trustees considered that the effect of the inaccuracy was compounded when the report went on to state that, consequent from Mr Corbyn’s answer:

“[the Prime Minister’s] message and the Labour leader’s couldn’t be more different.”
Finding: Upheld as breaches of accuracy and therefore as a breach of impartiality 
but not biased:
Trustees agreed that there was no evidence of bias or any intent by the BBC or any individual to misrepresent Mr Corbyn’s position
People may agree or disagree with this finding: that's their right. But what caught my eye was the subsequent behaviour of BBC executives. The Head of News, James Harding, was quoted saying this:
While we respect the Trust and the people who work there, we disagree with this finding…BBC News reported on the leader of the opposition in the same way it would any other politician…It is striking that the Trust itself said there was ‘no evidence of bias’. Indeed, it also said the news report was ‘compiled in good faith'.
The Trust is being abolished shortly, so no doubt Mr Harding felt that he could ignore it with impunity, but I worry that this attitude mimics the behaviour of governments and politicians. In the space of two sentences, Harding rejects the substantial findings of the report while cherry-picking it for the positives – like a film poster which bearing the quotation 'STUNNING' when the original review read 'the cash spent on this film is a stunning waste of time'. You can't say 'this was all rubbish except the bits I like': that way lies @realdonaldtrump. 

Harding's a public servant, not a PR operative or political hack: either he rejects the whole thing and explains why, or he accepts it, but to pick and choose like this is spin and we should expect better of the BBC. As a journalist or an executive responsible for journalists at one of the world's most respected broadcasters, he has an ethical duty not to editorialise or himself misrepresent despite the understandable pressure to defend one of his own. Doing so adds to the perception that all uncomfortable or inconvenient decisions and judgements should be dismembered and rebuilt in a different way for the convenience of one side. 

*I also groan whenever a political story is reported 'live from' Downing Street/the White House/wherever even if it's 3 a.m. and the story relates to Syria because they think the viewer is so stupid s/he needs to see some synecdochic or metonymic architecture. 

Friday, 13 January 2017

Farewell Tristram, we hardly knew you

The resignation of Jamie Reed MP to spend more time with his mildly radioactive money was hailed on the right as evidence that 'sensible' (i.e. besuited capitalist) Labour MPs were flinging themselves from the sinking SS Corbyn. Strikingly absent was the critique of this opportunist shill, just as not a word was said when Tony Blair appointed Paul Drayson to government: a man who never once deigned to face the judgement of the electorate. Drayson then promptly resigned to spend more time with his racing cars and nobody said a word about the public service ethos so signally lacking in these lightweight mates of the powerful. Drayson walked away with a free peerage and permanent seat in the British legislature.

Reed and Drayson were part of Blair's temporarily successful plan to make Labour electable once more by packing it with chaps with the right temperament and background. Out went horny-handed sons and daughters of toil. In came smooth types who'd been to Oxford or Cambridge and knew how to behave on an oligarch's yacht. To give them a little more credibility and to make it look like they were the people's choice, they were parachuted into deprived constituencies in the north, usually through the good offices of trades union headquarters with little connection to grass roots. Blair was MP for Sedgefield, while Peter Mandelson was MP for Hartlepool. These chaps would use their PPE degrees and ability to distinguish between a fish fork and a grapefruit spoon to ensure that ex-miners and textile workers would share in the bounties of the futures and sub-prime mortgage credit default swap markets that buoyed the economy in the late nineties. In return, they'd teach the proles not to be fat racists.* And we all know how well both of those projects worked out.

The poster boy of this was The Hon. Dr Tristram Julian William Hunt FRHistS, who has just resigned to become director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The son of a Labour life peer, Tristram was sent to a private school, after which he beats the odds and dragged himself up to Cambridge, where he spent a lot of time at Footlights working on hilarious sketches with people who became cookie-cutter Radio 4 comedians, followed by a PhD. He then dropped out of the Establishment to spend a number of years emptying bins, working on oil rigs and answering the phones in a call centre, living on dripping sandwiches. No he didn't, obviously. He wrote some books which at first glance seemed like history but were actually nice stories about the past. Like so many other leading socialists, his political big break came from getting a job at Labour HQ, which ensured pretty quickly that the people of Stoke on Trent – virtually all of them Labour voters at that point – woke up one day to find that through no fault of their own he was their new MP.

How's that worked out? Well, they aren't Labour voters any more: Stoke-on-Trent Central went from being one of the safest Labour seats in the country to being a very marginal constituency, with terribly low turnout, so inspired are they by politics as Tristram practiced it. 66% of Potters voted to leave the EU and UKIP is coming up fast. A city with a glorious past in manual work (coal and steel) and famously highly-skilled labour in the ceramics industry is now packed with unemployed and underemployed people. They're poor and unhealthy. The city is a mess: badly run, semi-derelict, fuelled by exploitative low-wage industries and abandoned by central government. Whatever the benefits of globalisation, they passed Stoke by. Its population isn't stupid: they watched their jobs disappearing overseas without the government lifting a finger to save or replace them, and they worked out that they were disposable: their votes for the BNP in the 90s and UKIP now should be seen as howls of fury from a people who couldn't get the attention of their rulers in any other way.

And then there's Tristram. In he came with his lantern jaw and boyish good looks. A man who'd written several zippy books which mentioned Stoke as an example of Victorian manufacturing prowess. Would he stand up for a proudly working-class city with a progressive history? He would not. He made some documentaries, he had some photo-shoots with like-minded soi-disant saviours, and then there came the day when he crossed a picket line of his own academic colleagues to deliver a lecture on…Marxism. To this sometime Stokie, he was a diffident nonentity: shamelessly profiting from the machinations of Labour HQ and the weakness of the local party, and yet incapable of justifying his existence by growing into the role in the way a better politician might have done. No doubt he adorned some social gatherings and had quiet words with his establishment contacts, but he was a political blank space, petrified by his inability to object, let alone develop alternatives, to the economic and political cyclones that destroyed his voters' existences. He behaved like a Victorian missionary come to civilise the natives (I always mentally dressed him in a safari suit and solar topee) when in fact the natives had a long history of artistic, political and moral sophistication (William Morris was a frequent visitor and admirer of Stoke's artistic skills) and they were baffled by this expert on Marxism who had absolutely nothing to say about the economic base being demolished before their very eyes. Whatever political instincts he possessed, they were not democratic. His seat was an unearned sinecure and he behaved as though politics should be the preserve of decent chaps who understood each other, practiced behind closed doors over cups of tea - well-meaning perhaps but patrician at best.

And now he's gone, off to V&A, where he can surround himself with the products of bygone Stoke-on-Trent without being inconvenienced by the cries of their abandoned and embarrassing descendents.

Now you might think that my shrill, bitter and resentful interpretation of the Gilded Life and Times of Tristram are motivated by class envy and jealousy. And you'd be right. But there's more to it than that. Some of the greatest Labour Party people were much posher than Tristram: Clement Attlee attended Haileybury, was an officer in the first world war and never picked up a hoe. And yet Attlee, having worked in the East End of London, devoted his entire life to transforming the lives of the poor, with whom he'd worked, fought and lived. He started out at a social mission founded by his school, a pure product of the patrician wing of Victorian radicalism. Tristram isn't like that. He has the looks, origins and training of that class of de haut en bas saviours, but his commitment to public service turns out to have been skin deep. John Profumo was publicly disgraced and atoned for his sins buy devoting himself to invisible public duties. Not so Tristram, whose stint in Stoke is akin to collecting enough tokens to qualify for Higher Things. He's done his time amongst the chip-eaters and his reward is a comfortable chair at the heart of the establishment, where he'll be able to turn over plates at the V&A and nod knowledgeably at the trademark, while his peers appreciatively murmur 'Stoke…he's been there, y'know'. He's earned his stripes. He's lived amongst the savages and now he's back to reap the reward. Soon a peerage will come along, perhaps the occasional government report, then the Mastership of one of the less flashy Oxford or Cambridge colleges to tide him over in semi-retirement. In the meantime, Stoke will decline further; its voters will hopelessly tick the box of some feistier bigot and its civic fabric will continue to decay, out of sight and out of mind.

I don't think that people who went to private schools are unqualified for public office, or that the haute-bourgeoisie can't serve the needs of the working-classes with verve and dedication – but I do think that this shameful phase of class tourism at the top of the Labour Party did nothing for them people at the sharp end of neoliberalism. They were used, and a better way must be found. For that reason, I won't miss Tris.

*You and I know that the proportion of working-class racists was pretty low, and that working people were always in the vanguard of anti-racist and internationalist movements, but New Labour decided to assume that they were all reactionary scum who needed placating. Add that attitude to the continued existence of the Daily Mail and the Sun and you get a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Well that escalated quickly…

Last year's end-of-term report seems so sweetly naive now. There I was in a deserted office (just like today, only it's a different building), reflecting on the excellent books and albums I'd bought, and the research I was thinking of doing. The only dark spots were the multiple funerals I'd attended and Labour's then-shocking defeat in the general election. And Syria…

This year? 2015 looked like a warm-up for 2016. And 2016 looks like a warm-up for 1938. Bigots and billionaires – usually the same people – running the UK, the US, Russia and lots of other places. Electorates the world over are looking to atavistic con-men to save them, despite these con-men largely being the causes of said misery. Generosity of spirit seems in short supply and the Cult of the Great Leader is recruiting, from the White House to Vice-Chancellors' offices across the world.

Trump reminded me of the late and very much unlamented Senator Bilbo, a man rather less endearing than the fictional character you first thought of. A few days ago Trump asked a rally to applaud the black voters who stayed at home on election day: Bilbo – a Senator and two-term Mississippi governor – appealed to
“every red-blooded Anglo-Saxon man in Mississippi to resort to any means to keep hundreds of Negroes from the polls in the July 2 primary. And if you don’t know what that means, you are just not up to your persuasive measures.”
Here's the Claibornes' song about Bilbo's campaign to prevent immigration. He particularly hated Catholics, black people and Jews) and tried to get 12 million black Americans deported to Liberia, taking advantage of Marcus Garvey's black separatism.

The main difference between Bilbo and Trump is that Bilbo had a long track record of (evil) service to his state and country: Trump's such a lazy autocrat that he has no such record. Like Trump, Bilbo was seen as dishonest and underhand: the Senate passed a resolution stating that he was:
unfit to sit with honest, upright men in a respectable legislative body
Bilbo was as thin-skinned as Trump too: on becoming Lieutenant-Governor he had the resolution stricken from the record.

So that's the USA. For a lot of complex – and not very complex – reasons they voted against the gradual and controlled triumph of financialised capitalism, drone warfare and rentier economics (don't forget that Hillary was 'proud' to serve on the board of Wal-Mart) and for demagoguery, racism, corruption and vicious self-interest. Over in the UK, the Great British Public voted against the aforesaid financialised capitalism, drone warfare and rentier economics and for demagoguery, racism, corruption and vicious, but deluded, self-interest. Only Brexit came without the laughs associated with the Trump campaign. Instead it was a grey and seedy return to the small-minded suspicion of the 1950s, wrapped up in an awful lot of sick-making hypocrisy about British values and now loyalty oaths, not seen since McCarthy or 1930s Germany. One assumes that Mr Javid will not be requiring his former colleagues to solemnly swear to pay corporate taxes.

In the plus column: I've been to Iceland, and met Liz Morrish, Richard Hall, Kate Bowles and her daughter Clem in the flesh. I read some good books and listened to some good music.

Hmm…the scales don't seem very balanced. It might be that the individualist pleasures of friends, books and music don't entirely outweigh the collective misery of a glob gripped by hatred and suspicion, but I get the sense that it's what most of us will do: retreat into a cosy cave in the hope that the storm passes rather than get out there to do something about it. When faced with climate denial, racism, economic hostage-taking, Syria and all the other evils abroad today it's much easier to treat power like the weather and behave as though there's nothing to be done other than wait it out. Sadly, I suspect that it doesn't work like this. If we don't get out there with our social/cultural/political sandbags, we're going to sink beneath the waves.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, 9 December 2016

At the revels

This week I have mostly been going to cultural stuff. And watching my friends and colleagues marking essays. As I'm on a sabbatical (cough cough) this is the first time since 2000 that I haven't had any. I miss the teaching, but marking? Not so much.

So last week it was a Beethoven and John Adams concert at Symphony Hall: the Leonore Overture was pretty enough (yes, I know this sounds terrible), the Violin Concerto was stunning – particularly good cadenza – and Adams's Harmonium was utterly wonderful - it draws on poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson to thrilling, gutsy effect. It's just a shame that the audience is reduced by a half whenever a living composer appears on the bill. The version below is from the 1980 CBSO performance under Simon Rattle. It was also lovely to see the James Ehnes, the Beethoven soloist sitting near us for the Adams half of the concert. That doesn't happen often.

I've also been to see a two-hander of Pride and Prejudice which worked wonderfully, went to the cinema for I, Daniel Blake which reduced me and everybody else there to tears (though we all enjoyed one character's devotion to Stoke City's Charlie Adam), and saw Pixies last night. Sometimes I worry about bands over the creative hill flogging the old favourites, but Pixies were utterly ferocious. The famous songs weren't reverently reproduced identically to the recorded versions, and new songs fitted well. The gig finished with their Krautrock b-side (considerably toughened up) 'Into the White' being delivered into a hall filled with blinding white smoke, which looked and sounded amazing, and also annoyed the ghastly folk who view gigs through their mobile phones. Which was a bonus.

Change of tone for the next couple of gigs: Oxford this weekend to hear my sister sing with the City of Oxford choir, including the modern masterpiece that is Lauridsen's 'O Magnum Mysterium', then on Tuesday it's back to Brum for the Tallis Scholars' Renaissance Christmas, which also features a contemporary piece, amazingly.

It's not all fun though - several Annual General Meetings and the like to get through first… Oh, and tonight's the very last All Hands On Decks, where failed or wannabe DJs get to torture the general public with 10 minutes of their musty vinyl. Not sure what I'll play tonight but it's bound to be something far removed from the soulful and groovy stuff everyone else likes. Why is it the last one? Perhaps because – like Mary Bennet – I have delighted them long enough.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

No laughing matter

I just got an email from the Birmingham branch of the Glee Club, a chain of comedy venues.

Something didn't look quite right. Can you work out what it is?

OK so far?

Starting to twig?

I think a theme is starting to emerge. But let's read on. 

Yes, there's definitely something that links these performers. Are there any more? There are!

It's on the tip of my tongue… What could it possibly be?

It's coming to me. I'm almost there. One last push.

By George! I've got it!

Male comedians listed by Birmingham Glee Club in the six months from December 2016 to May 2017: 25
Female comedians listed by Birmingham Glee Club in the six months from December 2016 to May 2017: 4.
Male headline or solo acts listed by Birmingham Glee Club in the six months from December 2016 to May 2017: 18
Female headline or solo acts listed by Birmingham Glee Club in the six months from December 2016 to May 2017: 0.
Pictures of male comedians: 19.
Pictures of female comedians: 0.

Now, what are the possible explanations for this?
1. Women aren't funny.
2. They were all busy for half a year.
3. All female comedians have collectively decided that Birmingham is shit and they're never coming back.
4. The inhabitants of Birmingham are so sexist that the Glee Club is actually protecting women by not booking them.
5. Female comics hibernate for six months of the year. Do NOT open their cardboard boxes too early.

I did ask the Glee Club about this. They got a tad defensive.

Firstly: I'm no comedy expert. They have a professional team which looks for talented comics to book and that team has managed not to book any women. They have managed to book six women this year: not, to my mind, an astonishing number. They also said that they'll be announcing more acts…which makes it sound like women have to fit in the gaps left once the men have been booked. Or perhaps it's that they have booked women but didn't think it worth mentioning.

Finally, here's what happens if you unsubscribe from their mailing list.

That's right. It's not them. It's you. Or your nasty, stupid friends. You can't really want to opt out of their list. That would be incomprehensible. You heartless brute!

PS. As @MrSimonWood points out, the excuses are similar to those made in academia:

Friday, 25 November 2016

Something to chew on (you smug gits).

This week has mostly been dominated – at the risk of sounding like the egregious Martin Amis – by my teeth. I'm part way through a dental restructuring exercise which feels more like the medical equivalent of slum clearance. Extractions here, fillings there, and lots of very equivocal promises of a bright future from my dentist (who has very kindly suspended the associated programme of Reproachful Shaming).

Until this week it was fine – even the extraction didn't call for any painkillers once the anaesthetic wore off. Until Tuesday, when a simple filling led to a night of uncontrolled shrieking and sobbing. The pain far outweighed that of the various broken bones and sporting injuries I've had. It still hurts. At one point during that eternal stretch of delirium I found myself recalling the Fredric Jameson I'd been reading earlier. In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act he talks about texts being apparently isolated units while actually functioning as examples of wider social struggles and contradictions, however subjective they appear to be ('a symbolic enactment of the social within the formal and the aesthetic'). Angela Carter makes a related point in the introduction to The Sadeian Woman, speaking specifically of sex:
We do not go to bed in simple pairs: even if we choose not to refer to them, we still drag there with us the cultural impedimenta of our social class, our parents’ lives, our bank balances, our sexual and emotional expectations, our unique biographies – all the bits and pieces of our unique existences.
(Next year I'll be adding the word 'discuss' and setting it as an essay question).

I think it's true to say that the violent encounter between me, my dentist and his assistant is also no simple triangle. We've exchanged details of our working lives, our neighbours, our relationships and on the relationship between the body and the self and whether repair or improvement is a meaningful concept. As I lie there my parents are around me: being medical doctors, I got the sense that they considered dentists to be mere mechanics, on a par with surgeons. I also curse them for never making me look after my teeth as a child, leading me to this humiliating, painful and incredibly expensive situation. My bank balance, therefore, is present: without a secure middle-class job I'd be in even more pain, and so the encounter is also a political one, going back to the abolition of universal free NHS dentistry so that the British could have the atom bomb. I can't say there are 'sexual…expectations' but the dentist and the nurse are now on a very short list of people allowed to stick things in my mouth. My presence at the dentist's and my previous long absence from it, and the way I behave while there are not simple facts but narratives of deluded self-sufficiency, denial, power relations, Catholic notions of suffering, sacrifice ('offer it up') and guilt, fear caused by previous encounters, sorrow and anger (I liked my previous dentist and he retired early through illness, and then the practice was taken over by some disgusting corporation). No doubt the nurse and the brute dentist have similar narratives which resulted in their presence in the room.

Then, finally, are all the cultural associations I've picked up around dentistry: the horror of Marathon Man, the appalling Oedipal-dental sub-plot of the insulting adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the gleaming perfection of Hollywood teeth in in the mouths of actors playing Dickensian urchins or destitute medieval peasants, a practice I've long considered represents a deliberate subversion of realist pretensions, and of course the Simpsons.

Do I, should I, aspire to Richard Briersesque levels of gnasher hyperreality? Should I make myself super-human via implants, veneers and bleach and embrace the full Kurzweil? Or should I accept pain, gaps, gumminess and the inability to eat hazelnuts as a corporeal reminder of impending mortality and my rapidly declining usefulness to the tribe? No teeth, bad eyes, failing legs: all signs it's time I was for the sabre-toothed tiger while the young and hale make their escapes.

Still, there's nothing like overthinking to take your mind of the agony. See you next week.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Spam, spam, egg and chips…

Who am I? According to my spam folder for Nov 10th-15th I am:
  • a heterosexual woman unsatisfied by her boyfriend's small penis
  • a lonely heterosexual man
  • Fat
  • the laziest of academics
  • unobservant when it comes to how major corporations' names are spelled
  • greedy
  • about to be a millionaire
  • cold
  • sick
  • American
  • bored
  • a Labour member
  • uneducated
  • a future Captain of Industry
  • hobbled by obsolete IT
  • a small business owner
  • low in confidence
  • missing some parcels
  • quite racist in a creepily sexualised way
  • bald
  • paranoid
but capitalism will save me.

Here's the found poem of the spam list. 

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Slumming it with the historians

This is my last comment on the US election for now. Though I'm sure I'll get sucked back in before long:

I liked the Joe Biden prank meme: Biden acquired a reputation as the proletarian tough-guy foil to intellectual Barack Obama, which I am sure is far-removed from the reality, but the double-act worked well. I chose this Gramsci quote partly to suggest that Biden's a clever guy, but partly because I think Gramsci is right: élites survive by appropriating the energy of challengers. Trump's not part of the political class but he's long been the court jester for the economic élite: either Washington will use him as a puppet as happened to Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, or he'll fall from grace spectacularly. My suspicion is that Trump will be the TV president who barks out orders then quickly forgets what he's said while his appointees will commit acts of great evil with dedication and determination.

Anyway, enough of that. What have I done in this week, given I'm on sabbatical? Well, the week started with the Digital Campus Research Focus Group, NSS briefings and various other committees. Then I saw students. There were union meetings, an interview panel to attend, a course committee meeting, a school meeting with the Dean and several unscheduled other duties. But one colleague gets a small reward for uttering the previously unheard words 'actually I'll ask X as you're on sabbatical'. In fairness, all my colleagues have been great but the structure and the pressures from above, especially in small departments just don't allow for things to be put off or passed on.

That said, I have been to a couple of very enjoyable events. The History department hosted Richard Evans one night, and Dominic Sandbrook in conversation with Keith Gildart the next. I remember reading Evans's counterblast against postmodern historiography – In Defence of History – many years ago and finding it highly enjoyable and thought-provoking but also very very wrong. His talk this week gets filed under the same category. It was very old-Oxbridge: it takes 6 weeks to write a book, you draw on the books in your office and on the famous experts along the corridor, and you never ever talk about historiography if you want to keep your readers. Evans is a wonderful speaker: no notes, very funny, tightly structured while appearing to be spontaneous, but essentially anti-intellectual in that classic English empiricist style.

One thing that linked the two guests was the nature of being a popular historian. Evans isn't a TV-and-tabloids historian in the way Sandbrook is, but his work is classic narrative history and he talked extensively on how he (and his notorious agent Andrew 'The Jackal' Wylie) made a fortune from the History Boom by writing clear, uncomplicated and emotionally-moving work: his history of Europe 1815-1914 starts each chapter with a biographical vignette of an ordinary person (serf, soldier) in recognition of the 'history-from-below' movement, and he abolished footnotes entirely. Sandbrook does a lot more TV and writes for the Daily Mail, largely producing work which stresses the continuities of British cultural history in a rather conservative and nationalistic way. I chaired the conversation between him and Keith Gildart, our prof of Labour History who wrote a history of English popular culture which takes the opposite tack. Sandbrook thinks popular culture is largely Victorian, that the 60s didn't make much difference to most people, and that the mythology of the Swinging Sixties and since works by excluding unfashionable or conservative popular culture, and that the cultural economy is and always has been controlled by the rich. For a Daily Mail writer, he's very close to what we used to call a 'vulgar Marxist' analysis: dependent on economic structures, sales figures and fixed definitions of class, without much analysis of content or context. There are also lots of snide comments about intellectuals and theorists which are rather unnecessary. 'Life's too short', reads one footnote.

There are things to agree with: the chapter on Catherine Cookson persuasively argues that the books little old ladies read in enormous quantities deserve serious consideration as popular culture: not a surprise to me as a Cultural Studies academic, but worth making. It was revealing, however, that Sandbrook admitted that he'd never read Cookson until the TV show producer proposed including her in the series: while Sandbrook is widely-read, keeps on top of historical debates and academic work, once his choices are made in this way, you become (in Heffer's words) 'a man who writes about the past' rather than an historian.

Gildart's work covers similar, though narrower ground, but from a different perspective. He writes the 60s/70s music scene as the site of working-class re-evaluation of the post-war condition of England, and rather than just looking at the content of songs, for instance, he's interested in what fans and subcultural groups did with them: where they congregated, how they responded with fan-art, fashion, fighting and identity formation. He draws on interesting sources, such as the letters page of Jackie magazine to get a sense not just of what people bought, but how they thought about where they went and what they did, and of who they were. Highly-influenced by Raymond Williams and the Birmingham School, it envisages a working-class that used popular culture both to understand the continuities of their contexts, but to explore new formations and structures of feeling.

We ran the event as a conversation between two historians with different approaches to the same ground. Dominic went from boarding school to Oxford, then to popular history and media work after a short stint as a lecturer; Keith was a miner in the North East Wales pits for several years before rejoining academia via Northern College. As they very neatly put it: Dominic's family watched the BBC, Keith's watched ITV. Both have strong reservations about each other's historical practice and interpretations, but they explored these ideas and conclusions in thoughtful, generous respectful and often very funny ways, with me occasionally putting the boot in by asking why England was the sole paradigm, and how discussions of 60s popular music and class could totally ignore Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey… The questions and observations from the audience added richness to the discussion and it all carried on in the pub afterwards.

And now it's back to the admin…

Friday, 11 November 2016

Not the best of weeks.

What can I say? Everyone else has weighed in on this week's landslide of misery: Kate prescribes kindness and listening. Others counsel resistance, others rage. Normally I'd be on the side of kindness but it's too early and raw. I thought Hillary was a highly qualified  expression of the machine, and that there are enough sensible Americans to prefer the hawkish but rational status quo to the juggernaut of driverless hatred that Trump represents. I was, clearly, wrong.

It's fine to say that Americans are sick of neoliberalism depressing their wages and hollowing out their towns but it falls apart when you remember that they voted for a man whose entire business encapsulates the practices of decayed neoliberalism: dishonesty, boastfulness, manufactured losses, tax avoidance, financialisation, exporting manufacturing jobs overseas, anti-trades unionism and wage depression…the lot. I recently read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? which is a few years old now but beautifully illustrates the way the Republican Party split between the upper-middle class economic republicans and the working-class ones who were diverted towards cultural politics – guns, abortion, race – by people like the Koch brothers who have no real commitment to such matters but are invested in keeping the workers from noticing that they're being impoverished by their own leaders. Kansas, like much of the mid-west, was militantly radical in the 30s and 40s, but has become a bastion of the paranoid, zero-sum right that sees oppressed groups' gains as their losses. Then there are the evangelicals and women who voted for a thrice-married sex pest without concern, and the Latinos who voted for a man who called Mexicans 'rapists'. At this point you have to abandon private concerns about Hillary and just accept that half of the American population would preferred a boorish bogeyman to any woman at all.

So yes, I have nothing to add and no heartening advice. Global warming will rocket, reproductive rights will once again be at the mercy of angry rich old white men. Trump's thin skin and short attention span will cause wars and he'll appoint a lot of people who share his bitter paranoia while having the work ethic and determination that will enable them to get bad things done: the Gingrich's and his ilk.

And Leonard Cohen's dead. He had something to say about this:

Thursday, 3 November 2016

5 minutes with the Mail

Sometimes only cut-up poetry can capture the tenor of our times.

Core access.
Crooked Donald.
The Hillary.
Older than they look.
Back where you came from.
Lock her up
Ample assets
Send them back
Check their teeth
With their soggy bottoms,
Flaunting their curves, all grown up
Immigrants (illegal)
Up against a beautiful wall.
Why don't they just all bake off?
Brexit brexit brexit.
Everything's rigged: poetry prizes and elections.
Unless I win.
Friends fear for her
Gig economy.
Our collateral damage
Poured into
Their war crimes.
Busty display
'Openly gay'
Stick to football
Wardrobe malfunction
Fury as
Exclusive betrayal
SECRET revealed
Braless in the dance-off twice
Cancer Diana cancer Diana cancer Diana
House prices.

Friday, 28 October 2016

In no particular order

This has been a whirlwind week of literal and intellectual travel, hence my relative absence. A week ago almost to the hour – a treat partly to mark the successful despatch of my extended paper on Doctor Who, Star Trek and Foucault – I was changing trains on the way to Dublin, rather impressively leaving my case far behind me. Once I reached that city I spent a grudging hour in Brown Thomas buying enough clothes for the weekend and wincing as the reality of the pound's slump hit home. Two hours later I was exposed to an entire Munster rugby match in a fine pub as a mark of respect to recently deceased Anthony 'Axel' Foley, after which I kindly donated my passport to Sheehan's stock of Stuff Dropped By Idiots. Other fine pubs visited included the Palace on Fleet Street, which was new to me. I particularly enjoyed drinking pints of Beamish so close to the Guinness brewery. I nip through Dublin several times a year but it felt different this time, between Foley's death and Brexit: Ireland is seemingly torn between worry and despair when considering the neighbours. Everyone has relatives in the UK and so much of the economy depends on it. Then of course there's the prospect of braying thieving British bankers moving en masse: Dublin can't accommodate them and the country has already been bankrupted by its own finance system, while the regulatory system swings between incompetence and corruption. The prospect of hordes more of these vampires descending on Ireland fills me with horror.

The other trip of the week was to Leicester (which was lovely) to meet the Justice League of Academia, a small group of internationally-acclaimed scholars – and me – who have developed cogent and moving critiques of the neoliberal academy from various standpoints, and suffered for it in the process (perhaps were the Academic-Team: sentenced for crimes against management we didn't, or did, commit). The afternoon was pitched somewhere between therapy and consciousness raising for me: being in the presence of such inspiring colleagues was wonderful, and it reminded me that the duty of the academic is loyalty to the principles of the academy: beyond the institutional frameworks there's a set of ethical principles to students, colleagues, intellectual integrity and society which are so easily occluded amongst the day-to-day practice of working in the machine. It was also enormous fun – they're a witty and warm bunch.

It wasn't all work: my super-power is to find a bookshop within seconds of arriving in a strange town. I was after more Nicholas Blake, and my usual Left Book Club volumes. No joy there, but I bought a pile of CP Snow novels for my politicians' writing research (he was a Leicester man), a couple of lovely Penguin editions and a pristine copy of Malcolm Muggeridge's grouchy The Thirties, complete with a huffy disclaimer by Stephen Spender:

The 'Services' edition is from 1945, part of the ultra-cheap, slim volumes Penguin produces for the Armed Forces Libraries and designed to slip into the pockets of battledress. This one was in a naval library: I like the idea of a sailor reading 'A Room of One's Own' in a hammock below-decks. 

Muggeridge doesn't suggest that Spender smelled of wee: he claims that Spender claimed that he'd spy on the Francoists during the Spanish Civil War. Spender's now considered second-rate compared with his 30s peers like Auden and Day Lewis. He lived too long, sat on too many committees and ended up working for the CIA, probably wittingly and was once described as 'a minor poet and a major luncher'. One of my colleagues shared an uncomfortably silent taxi ride with him towards the end of his life (this sparked an Awkward Celebrity Taxi Share competition in the office: the other winner was Leonard Bernstein). 

Other than these breakouts, I've spent the week doing admin (obviously), attending meetings and squeezing in some research where gaps appear. I read Adam Roberts' ambitious latest novel, The Thing Itself which turns Kant's concept of das Ding-an-Sich into a weird SF thriller, complete with pastiches of various literary texts, including Molly Bloom's soliloquy. It works as a literary novel, it works as a thriller and you wouldn't go too far wrong using it as a Kant primer. I also read Nicholas Blake's The Private Wound – set in Co. Clare, 1939 – which manages to avoid most of the usual rural Irish clichés (Blake/Lewis was Anglo-Irish) while using some key ones very knowingly as plot points. I've almost finished his The Beast Must Die which has an intriguing premise – grieving crime novelist father narrating how he tracks down and tries to murder the man who fatally ran over his son – but is a little uneven in tone (though everyone else seems to think it's his best one). 

My work reading is split into pain and pleasure at the moment. I've just finished Christopher Harvie's The Centre of Things, a 1991 history of political fiction: Harvie's a historian but his literary sensibility is well developed, particularly on structure. Amongst the central points is that the development of Parliamentary fiction mirrors and contributes to the centrifugal force of unionism in the long nineteenth-century: writing about politics and power automatically became writing about Westminster, just as the publishing industry became dominated by the metropolis. Harvie is admirably well-read across a range of genres and gives full attention to political fictions from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. He's also amusingly opinionated in ways that we journal article toilers can't be: Bragg, Drabble and Co. are 'liberal herbivores' incapable of responding adequately to the crises of the late 70s, while Archer's novels are 'hack-work' found 'in the supermarket dump-bucket. Women and political writing don't get much attention but he makes the unarguable point that 'the position of women in orthodox political fiction can only be summed up in one word: prone'. Having now read all the novels by female politicians, I can say with some authority that very little has changed since 1991. 

The reading pain is having to read Dominic Sandbrook's The Great British Dream Factory, his post-war cultural 'history'. I've read some of his other books and thought them rather too slick, metropolitan and male – and uninterested in historiography, which is unacceptable these days. Also, I'm allergic to the Banal Nationalism of 'Great British' anything and yes, that include Bake Off. However, I'm chairing a conversation between him and an actual cultural historian in a couple of weeks and need to familiarise myself with the new work.  Wish me luck…