Monday, 10 March 2014

A Curmudgeon's Weekend

Good morning everyone. What a weekend I had. First I staffed the Open Day, which involved giving a couple of talks about the subject (this time I was Media/Communications/Cultural Studies/Broadcasting and Journalism: I'm English next time) and talking to individual potential students. Some were pretty much sorted, others were just starting the process. Lots had parents with them.

I managed to persuade one mother to join us too – she left her grammar school thoroughly fed up with education and 25 years later is ready to do it on her own terms. It was a good chance to go on about one of my favourite subjects: the decline in mature student numbers. In a period of mass unemployment and economic upheaval, we should be hauling in mature students for retraining and education until we're stuffed to the rafters. Instead, successive governments have pretty much abandoned them at FE and HE level. What a waste of talent and experience. It's not just good for the individual students too: they're good for the classic 18-21 cohort as well. A few weeks ago we studied Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, a tale of a young chap who shoots himself dead because the woman he loves is perfectly happily engaged to stolid sensible Albert. It's pretty much a literary version of any My Chemical Romance song you care to name and the heightened sensibilities appeal to lots of my teenage students. But the mature students brought a colder eye to the discussion. Married, divorced or just a little more experienced, the mature students' take on Young Werther made a difference to the classroom discussion.

Mature students make a difference to the classroom dynamic too. Having given things up to get to university, they have little patience for the texting/Facebooking/short-cutting/chatting indulged in by some of the younger element. They can also be a bit scary for me too. I remember being observed for my PGC in HE. The class was on Sappho's erotic poetry (yes, ex-polytechnics cover the Classics too) and the entire class was female and older than me. Highly amused, they proceeded to discuss the experiences of being female, love and sex while occasionally pointing out that I couldn't yet (or ever) fully understand. Apart from learning a lot, I felt quite smug that my observer saw a confident, engaged class doing all things on the checklist (independent learning, student-centred discussion, lots of talking): other classes in those early days involved too many awkward silences as younger students took a while longer to pluck up the courage to speak in public.

So that was the open day. Lovely people, bright prospects for the future and hopefully not put off by my presentation/sense of humour/cardigans. After that, I caught the last few minutes of Bod's final match at Lansdowne Road and endured the miserable sight of Wales caving in to England. God knows the English rugby team is charmless enough, but the fans. Ugh. Terrible songs. Military uniforms as though that's normal, an anthem singer in a miniskirt like it's 1973. When UKIP take power, everything will be like this.

Thankfully, the evening was spent in the company of friends in convivial Birmingham hostelries catching up on the months of teasing and abuse we missed out on thanks to people moving away, being busy or taking sabbaticals. There was a moment's shock when one pint of indifferent beer turned out to cost £6.40 (avoid Dalston Craft Beer's Black IPA) but chips restored order. We all met up again the next day to see Jonathan Meades talking about Brutalism, Birmingham and architecture. Meades is one of my favourite public intellectuals: he isn't a TV presenter talking about ideas, or an intellectual slumming it on TV. Instead, he's an intellectual who understands, extends and subverts television as an art form, taking it seriously as a medium in a way that TV professionals rarely do.

Here's the start of Meades' 2007 piece on Birmingham, Heart By-Pass.

Meades' current BBC4 series is about Brutalist architecture, which he sees as the bastard child of Victorian monstrosities (which he adores) and Nazi defensive bunkers. He despises 'friendly', unobtrusive buildings, preferring monumental ugly constructions which assert – as he sees it – humanity's victory over indifferent or hostile nature. I guess this makes him a modernist rather than a postmodernist. Modernist music and poetry rejected the neatness and comfort of Romantic styles in favour of forms which echo the misery and fragmentation of life. Meades rejects comfort and ease as essentially dishonest attempts to deny mortality. Where I disagree with him is on environmentalism. He had a long and amusing rant about sustainability ('where does it end? Sustainable bestiality, sustainably masturbation etc. etc.?') and greenness, on the basis that the earth is incapable of gratitude or recognition of what we're doing for it. He also described environmentally-sound building as 'cosmetic'. I suspect he's right on that count: a few paltry solar panels and a water butt will do very little other than tick boxes, but I worry that his rejection of environmentalism per se is simply reactionary posturing. Surely the point of environmental building shouldn't be to expect gratitude from Gaia or please the planners, but to help deal with the catastrophic damage we're causing to the planet, other organisms and ourselves. Ignoring all that in pursuit of ever more aggressive just because we can is the spitefulness of an 8 year old with an ant's nest. Besides, I don't see any contradiction between building the kind of ugly beauties he likes and making them environmentally sound and efficient.

One of the joys of Meades is that he can say the most outrageous or contentious things with huge charm. He has certainly swallowed several dictionaries and encyclopaediae and isn't afraid to show it, which cheers me mightily. He has a shop-worn countenance on which his every feeling is displayed. When inane or immensely lengthy questions are posed from the floor, he cannot hide his weariness and exasperation. Instead he stands there silently, facial muscles rearranging his expression until either a coherent thought or a curt rejection issues forth. I like him because he doesn't patronise his audience with fawning politeness. Just because we've bought tickets doesn't mean we get 'customer service' of the kind we've started to expect in establishments from coffee shops to universities. I'm a big fan of rude baristas by the way. The minimum wage isn't enough to cover service, politeness and a display of matiness. I want to punch people who call me 'buddy' when I've just given them 45 minutes' wages for one cup of coffee, of which they'll see very little. Seriously: neither we nor your employers have earned the right to anything more than surly acquiescence.

Where was I? Oh yes: Meades - stimulating, cantankerous, curmudgeonly, unlikely to appear on Pointless or The One Show any time soon.

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