Good morning readers. It feels like a very long time since I put digits to keyboard, and so much has happened both in the world and personally.
I went off to the family home on Christmas Eve, conscious that I have a book chapter deadline looming but also exhausted. Three of my siblings were there, with partners and a child each, plus my dear old mum. I'm sure that we did lots of pleasant and restful things, but my overwhelming memory of the break is of crying children and long, painful trips to the bathroom as we all succumbed to some disgusting bug. I would like to thank the plumber who placed the sink and loo so close together in one bathroom. That saved me from unpleasant choices on more than one occasion. Apologies to those who did the cleaning up – I was in far too weak a condition to make more than a token effort.
Still, the time wasn't entirely wasted. I got to know some of my nephews and nieces (we don't all live in the same country), caught up with some of the siblings and read some good books. In particular, Rachel Trezise's short story collection Fresh Apples, Lewis Davies's Work, Sex and Rugby (though the protagonist has remarkably little enthusiasm for any of those activities), Ron Berry's Flame and Slag, Derrida's Spectres of Marx and Katie Gramich's Mapping the Territory: Critical Approaches to Welsh Fiction in English. Finally, Arthur Ransome's We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea. As you can probably tell, all except the latter were for both enjoyment and work: my chapter is a co-written reassessment of working-class Welsh fiction for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Fiction. My working plan is to suggest that contemporary post-indstrial Welsh anglophone fiction is haunted (hence Spectres of Marx) by Welsh-language culture, industrial collective culture, socialism, the dignity of labour and that it's marked by absurdist nihilism and Gothic tropes. However, I'm going to also claim that the 'classic' 1930s texts (Lewis Jones, Gwyn Thomas, Richard Llewellyn etc.) are also Gothic – that even the apparently orthodox texts can't be read straight because they use twisted sex, death and dark humour to subvert any sense of optimism. Anyway, it's work in progress. I'll think of something better along the way, or get my colleague to fix it.
It's been quite a good week on the academic front: very enjoyable classes in both my English and Media/Cultural Studies modules. I also had a bit of contact with the public: a documentary to which I contributed was broadcast on BBC Radio Wales about the centenary of Caradoc Evans's shocking My People, which sold very well in England and went down very badly in Wales for its dark and bitter assault on the hypocritical and repressive Nonconformist hegemony. The day after, the Times Higher published a piece I co-wrote about politicians' fictions. The plan is to write a paper or two each on specific aspects, then co-write a book if there's any interest from publishers. I'm quite pleased with the week's media - it's not just about being a media whore: academia is now obsessed with 'impact' and public engagement, partly for ignoble reasons and partly because (and this is the bit I agree with) research without dissemination and conversation is little more than a hobby. I'm under no illusions about where my interests rank on the Great Scale of Important Stuff, but I'd like to think that I can help people see things in a new and unexpected light occasionally.
Outside my little bubble, the world has taken one step closer to the abyss with the Charlie Hebdo murders. There just isn't any optimism or hope to be gained from any of this unless you're a) one of the murderers or b) a fascist. We shouldn't need to say it but apparently we do: being tasteless and deliberately offensive isn't a capital offence.
As far as I can see, the murderers have ensured that French people of colour and Muslims will suffer even more than they already do. Perhaps they are simply morons, or perhaps they've learned from some of the far-right and far-left micro-sects which tried to provoke repression from the state to radicalise the oppressed, which is a slightly more cynical way to be a moron. Even as a thorough-going atheist I know that France's official secularism has become a weapon in a programme of state and cultural oppression. Like the UK, France resents the products of its own Empire, and shovels its ethnic minorities into vile ghettos (les banlieues). Housing is poor, employment prospects dire, educational levels are low. Again like the UK, France insists that these people conform to a set of imposed values it fails to apply to itself, while making no concession to the deforming effects of colonialisation. No wonder resentment festers.
Enter Charlie Hebdo. I read it now and then when I was much more engaged in French culture. It always struck me as posturing as a liberated, leftwing publication, but too often – like Private Eye – its targets were the weak and voiceless: the secularist values which I completely endorse were used to promote childish attacks on the religion of a scorned and maltreated minority. It reminds me of the fuss over The Interview: yes North Korea is a vile state and free speech is important, but I'd have been more impressed if Hollywood made a comedy about assassinating the President of the US or another powerful state. North Korea deserves our scorn, certainly, but it's an isolated state which only harms its own people. In both the Charlie Hebdo and The Interview cases, we've seen a flood of new-found defenders of free speech who remained conspicuously silent when the UK police used anti-terrorism laws to seize journalists' records, who saw nothing offensive about policemen spying on law-abiding activists and went so far as to have children with their targets, who had nothing to say about the Snowden revelations and in the case of Nigel Farage, said that 'a line has been crossed' when some teenagers made a satirical game about him. In short, their definition of free speech has a whiff of racism, repressiveness and opportunism about it. They're stoutly defending the right to annoy their (largely undefended, peaceful, marginalised) perceived enemies while blithely cheering on states like ours and our allies who have achieved a system of total surveillance. Hearing various Tories, UKIPpers, and Front National types bloviate this week, it seems clear to me that they aren't seriously promoting the principle of free speech, they're cynically generating more enemies in pursuit of defending white male capitalist hegemony.
If free speech is so important to these rightwing defenders, let's see some serious action over Saudi Arabia, which seems to me to be the worst country in the world if you're a democrat, female, gay, socialist, non-Wahhabi, from an minority branch of Islam or indeed have any opinions at all. I'm rather tired of opportunists making principled speeches when there's no room for disagreement – such as these vile murders – but never applying said principles where it's diplomatically or financially tricky.
Let's treat these murderers as common criminals. Let's resist the temptation to treat them as representative of Islam and let's not give their supporters the chance to define them as heroes or martyrs. Let's defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to be as puerile as it likes, without dignifying it by joining in (this is why I supported the Guardian's decision not to reprint its anti-Islamic cartoons). Let's hold all these defenders of freedom to their words when Charlie or some other publication prints something rude about the things they care about.
But just for the avoidance of doubt: none of the above excuses or justifies the murder or journalists or anyone else. Any believer who can't shrug off a joke – however unfunny – has missed the point, as the furore around Evans's My People demonstrates. Efforts were made to ban it in Wales because it punctured the dominant narrative about a respectable God-fearing and virtuous people. Yet the chapels survive and Wales carries on. So will France and so will Islam. And so will this jaded atheist lefty. Happy new year!
PS. I know from watching Twitter over the last couple of days that the unfocussed and wishy-washy thoughts expressed above will infuriate many people, from hardline secularist left-wingers to those opportunist racists on the right, and lots of people in between. I don't apologise. The events are so recent and so complex that anyone who does have a comprehensive analysis, a plan of action and an absolutist position on freedom of speech, security measures and immigration/integration etc. should be feared and distrusted. I'm not especially coherent at the best of times, and particularly not when awful things happen, but I know enough to recognise when the forces of reaction (whether religiously-inspired murderers, tabloid newspapers, politicians or state agencies) spy an opportunity to further their own ends. So perhaps this is one of those times when a little cautious and wooly thinking might serve us all better than decisive action.