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…