Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The year has closed with a particularly sickening thud.

Well, here I am, in the deserted building on December 23rd. I like it when there's nobody here (this also happens in the depths of summer). I can stock up on stationery, chocolates, whiteboard markers, pornography and alcohol by ransacking my colleagues' desks. The canteen's quiet and I can practice my different handwriting styles ready to fill in a whole load of Module Evaluation Questionnaires.•

Shakespeare finger puppet from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

How's the year been? For me, mixed (as ever). I've been to a record number of funerals, none of which were for people I actually wished dead (the list is available on application: if you suspect you're on it, you probably are), made some good new friends and caught up with old ones.

Culturally, it's been great. I've seen a lot of good plays, most of them at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, a couple at the RSC in Stratford and one at the Globe in London. I also saw Stephen Greenblatt launch his new Shakespeare, which was a little bit disappointing, and did some photography from the top of the Shard.

In music, I was surprisingly smitten by the new Joanna Newsome album, Sally Beamish's Viola Concerto, New Order's 'Music Complete', Bridget St. John, Euros Childs's 'Sweetheart', the Spectralate album 'The Students' Companion', Biber's Rosary Sonatas, Gwen's 'Y Dydd Olaf' (named after an interesting Welsh SF novel), John Lawrence's 'Songs from the Precipice', Meilir's 'Arabella' and was a little disappointed with the latest Low album, although I think they're one of the best bands in the world taking everything they've done into account.

The old album I bought and fell utterly in love with was Young Marble Giants' 'Colossal Youth'. Many thanks to David Byrne for playing that on 6Music one rainy Sunday afternoon. I bought Esenvalds's 'Northern Lights' and was simultaneously entranced by it while getting very suspicious of the easy-listening tendencies associated with 'mystic minimalism'. C Duncan's 'Architect' and Jocelyn Pook's 'Untold Things' also struck a chord with me.

Live, I loved seeing my old friends The Nightingales a few more times: their latest album is also wonderful.The other great gig of the year was Andris Nelsons' last concert as conductor of the CBSO: he's been wonderful and the last concert was just an outpouring of emotion from him, the orchestra and a crowd which knew how lucky it was to have had him for a few years. Another high point was a reading by Liz Berry, the poet.

In terms of books, having moved house 13 months ago I bought and moved around many, many more books than I've read. Shelving them took/is taking more thought than their contents. There a still several boxes taped up and plenty of piles on floors. It turns out that I should have bought a bigger house. Still, I made some shallow aesthetic choices, like shelving all the original Penguins together, which was mentally troubling. Yes, they're a series and a few shelves of orange and white spines looks lovely, but it means separating works by the same author. The same goes for the output of people who wrote poetry and prose. Argh! I've also been moving books around – carrying a backpack stuffed with them from home to work and work to home. Anything 'work' is going to the office, anything 'non-work' is going home, though the borders are porous as my main subject is English literature. Plus there are space issues in both places as my long-suffering office-mates will gladly tell you. I discovered along the way that I own at least six versions of Tristan despite having only done one year of Arthurian studies back in 1994. Paths not taken and all that…

I've read a funny lot of books this year. Going to the Association for Welsh Writing in English conference (which I co-organised this time) meant acquiring a whole new list of must-reads: Nicholas Royle's Veering was particularly interesting, and Andy Webb even persuaded me to go back to Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral. I also got caught up in the Caradoc Evans's centennial, contributing to a BBC Wales documentary in January and presenting a paper at a special conference in January. This meant reading that Irish cause celebre, Brinsley MacNamara's The Valley of the Squinting Windows – which reminds me that I need to write up the paper for publication. If you haven't read it or Evan's My People, you're in for an infuriating treat. Less controversial was Jon Day's Cyclogeography, his compelling memoir of being a bicycle courier. As a fat cyclist who has spent most of this year injured (RSI, Achilles' injury) and not being able to go fencing, cycling or swimming, at least reading his book let me be out on the road vicariously. I also absolutely loved James Hannah's The A to Z of You and Me. I hesitated to read it at first for the same reason I hesitate to say too much about it here: because James is a friend and I worried it wouldn't be up to the standard I expected of him. As it turns out, there was no need for alarm and I think I'd be recommending it to people even if I had no idea who the author was. It will make you laugh and it may well make you cry. The other book that made me roar with laughter – in public – was Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void, his tricksy melding of an Irish banking crash tale with the story of a blocked novelist. The satirical elements are so dark too that they put the non-fictional coverage of Ireland's recession in the shade. Literature seems to have become an Irish colony once again: Anne Enright's The Green Road is brilliant, Eimear McBride told me to read Spill Simmer Falter Wither and she was right. Kevin Barry's Beatlebone is waiting for me, while Thomas Morris's We Don't Know What We're Doing is a stunning collection by a Welsh writer based in Dublin who is also part of the Stinging Fly press, which is a leading light in the new Irish literary revival.

Sadly an awful lot of my reading this year has been rather less enthralling, though interesting in its own way. One of my research projects at the moment is about politicians' writing. I've built a database of (hopefully) all the politicians who've written fiction, poetry or drama – please let me know if you come across any I may have missed: I have only a few in Welsh and none in Irish – and the plan is a couple of journal articles and a book over the next few years. The Times Higher and the Times (the latter behind a paywall) both ran articles about it and my colleague and I won an AHRC-sponsored gig at the Cheltenham Literature Festival which seemed to go down well, but the hard work is only just beginning. Of the several hundred novels, most are parliamentary thrillers, with espionage and murder mysteries coming up behind. There's very little poetry since politics became professionalised, and almost no drama – and virtually no Liberals or Liberal Democrats write. Amongst the working hypotheses at the moment are a sense that thrillers act as the political subconscious of the legislators' class, and that they are bored and disillusioned by quotidian democracy. Norman Tebbit's novel was a particular low point, though Iain Duncan Smith's effort is certainly down there. Boris Johnson's Seventy Two Virgins is (predictably) more fluent but in a sense more disturbing: a comedy about suicide bombers might be expected to be tasteless, but there's a concurrent strand of unconscious racism throughout the text. Over the Christmas break I'll be taking Nadine Dorries, Roy Hattersley and Michael Spicer to bed with me. Now there's a coalition we can all get behind!  I've also been working on contemporary Welsh working-class fiction with my Coleg Cymraeg counterpart Lisa Sheppard - there are some amazing works in both languages appearing at the moment. I've also got plans to force an Alison Bielski revival somehow, and look at David Jones's time in Ireland, which never gets mentioned in the critical work. The other thing I really should do is write something on Jilly Cooper's Riders series: I teach it every year and it goes down consistently well, but there's no critical work on it.

I am looking forward to reading Mary-Anne Constantine's debut novel Star-Shot though. Trying to work my way through the unread orange-and-white Penguins I was pleasantly surprised by Chesterton's oddity The Napoleon of Notting Hill in which a man from that place is unexpectedly made ruler and promptly starts wars simply to manufacture civic pride. That certainly wouldn't happen now… I'm also loving Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, about a simple chap who simple accepts the cruelties and insanities a war-mongering world throws at him, his innocence throwing their megalomania into sharp relief. Wish I'd read it years ago. I've also started reading Margery Allingham's Campion novels - more for my 1930s interest than for the detective format, but they're fascinating, and slightly odd. Terry Pratchett's death was very sad: I've long loved him not just for the angry liberal humanism that shaped his novels, but for his deftness of touch and the love (of life, for people) that spilled from the page. I was pleased that his last novel was a Tiffany Aching one: she's the chalk-bred witch whose strength reminded me so much of PJ Harvey's bleak, wonderful album White Chalk.

In the SF world, I was addicted to Peter Higgins' Wolfhound Century series, set in a strangely altered version of the USSR (and before I forget, it's not SF but is Russia-set: Wiliam Owen Roberts's Petrograd was translated into English from Welsh and is just stunning - Paris is available in Welsh but there's no translation yet). Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake was also a magnificent re-situation of the dying Anglo-Saxon world as a linguistically-alienating dystopia.

Anyway, I'd better stop going on about books - I've read so many good ones this year, and bought so many, many more. It's time to talk about the major event of the year: Labour's defeat and the Tories' election victory. So many feelings, amongst them ones I'm not proud of, such as a flash of misanthropy. Despite having the most reactionary, vile and rightwing press in the world, I hoped the British electorate would see through a government promoting the policies which led to the recession, was openly planning to reward the businesses and classes which caused the crash, and was going to take the opportunity to strip the state of all the social protections and worthy activities a century of neo-democracy has achieved. They didn't. The result taught me several things, amongst them that social media does not reflect the state of the nation, and that I have absolutely no insight into how the Great British Public thinks. As a Labour member, I have no regrets about voting for Ed Miliband to become leader, and I wish he hadn't resigned. In the subsequent election I voted for Jeremy Corbyn because I believe many of the same things he believes. I expected him and his team to be more competent and much more aggressive so I'm disappointed on those aspects, but at least at the next election there can be no doubts or claims that all politicians are the same. It'll be a clear choice between serious socialism and the most vicious neoliberalism, conducted amongst the ruins of the post-1945 settlement. The cynicism and triumphalism we're now seeing reminds me of Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Reports of the Prime Minister partying with Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks once more shows you exactly what they think of us.

First up, of course, is another war. A couple of years ago the Tories were telling anyone who'd listen that Ed Miliband was supporting terrorism by refusing to vote in favour of bombing Bashar Al-Assad. Now Jeremy Corbyn's apparently supporting terrorism by refusing to bomb Assad's enemies. Nobody, apparently, thinks that the British in particular have done plenty of damage to these countries over the past century or so and might usefully engage in a period of quiet contemplation for a while. Instead, we're going to drop democracy from 35,000ft again and buy a whole new generation of holocaust missiles…in the name of peace, British values and Punching Above Our Weight. I'd just like us to stop thinking about the world's problems as reducible to punching people.

Finally: work. I'm enjoying my research. Teaching is absolutely brilliant at the moment: all the year groups are engaged, intelligent and composed of interesting and likeable students. It's a sheer pleasure to walk into a classroom at the moment. On the down side, I'm losing one of the best heads of school we've ever had and I'll miss him a lot. Other aspects aren't so great: Faculty leadership has been unremittingly hostile to the humanities this year and I've had to fight a series of losing – and depressingly personalised – battles over basic things for students and colleagues, and not only in my roles as governor and union representative. There have been times when the good things have been overwhelmed by the bad and going to work has been less than joyful. I could always go somewhere else of course…except that I can't: I can't even get an interview these days.

I'm sure that there's plenty more to mention, but I'm tired and I need to go home and do some ironing. Enjoy your Christmas wherever and whoever you are, and I'll be back in January. As always, thanks to friends, colleagues, loved ones, readers and Twitter interlocutors for a) knowing so much and b) knowing the right thing to say.

•Note to Jo Johnson: this is satire. It never happens. All Higher Education metrics are entirely legitimate and statistically sound – just like the claims you made about teaching standards. Nobody would dream of questioning them. In point of fact I once received an MEQ which read simply 'nice arse'. Which was (once) true but wasn't particularly salient. But it's still better than the one my friend got in LA: 'fuck off back to Britain you Limey bitch'.

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