Friday, 24 November 2017

A counsel of qualified despair

Roaming around the country, I keep seeing the same message scrawled on urinal walls and bus shelters. 'Where's Vole?' they say. 'More Hot Takes Now' read others, beneath a scratchy line-drawing of an indistinct creature. A shrew? A vole? Perhaps. It's clear that my public exists from post to post, twitching impatiently as they wait for enlightenment on the burning topics of the day, reduced to trolling their children on Facebook as they endure yet another lengthy opinion desert.

I jest, of course. My views on all subjects are largely meaningless and irrelevant even in the areas for which I'm qualified. Additionally, I find it harder and harder to differentiate between subjects about which I should have an opinion and those which are merely prominent in the public discourse. It seems pointless having a hot or even salient take on global affairs given the disconnection between we citizens and the political-financial elites. My brother is a lawyer specialising in helping very rich people avoid paying any taxes (this is not, you understand, how he phrases it). His employers and their clients won't be concerned in the slightest by the Paradise Papers, just as they weren't touched by any of the previous links. A few IT security contractors will be fired and a fresh bunch of lawyers will be hired to find more obscure states and loopholes, while the corporate lobbyists will up their rates in return for some friendly breakfasts with legislators who have no intention of making life any tougher for their friends. You and I are less than sea-lice on a blue whale. I recently read of a Tory MP who explained that the art of government is to give out just enough to those with just enough to ensure the continuation of plutocracy. The man was honest, at least.

As to the rest of the news…well, I'm enjoying the well-deserved defenestration of a few sexists in a small number of fields (media, film, politics) but it's hard to rejoice when the structures of power that enable those people remain untouched. A few particularly egregious offenders will be publicly humiliated but politicians will continue to be largely white and male, Oxford will carry on letting in one black student per decade or whatever the embarrassing number was, and Britain's rich will still be Normans (yes, really). I'm enjoying Marina Hyde's excoriation of Hollywood's worst offenders as much as anybody, but we're not addressing the fact that we run a society in which we reward and encourage ruthlessly exploitative behaviour, and which relies on the bravery of a few isolated individuals to occasionally provide a corrective. Every Hollywood star who speaks up should be congratulated because they're resisting a century-old machine for the consumption of young women and anyone else without capital: financial, cultural or social, but you can bet that every factory, office and shop is staffed with people with similar stories to tell. A friend of mine matter-of-factly told me that she accepted a job offer from a very prominent academic which came with a hand on her knee in an enclosed space, and the words 'I can be very good for your career'. That, she said, was how it worked in her field.

Ah well. Between exhaustion and disempowerment I'm reduced to observing the wider world with increasing cynicism. I remember encouraging the Labour Party to return to a programme of Morris/Crane optimism to counter the relentless pessimism that pervades the body politic, but I must confess that my colleague Jim's strategy of staying happy by never watching the news is becoming increasingly – though irresponsibly – attractive. I am, perhaps, the country mouse despite seemingly dwelling in a great wen.

Many of my current woes are the kind of things I can't discuss publicly for professional reasons, but most of the pleasures are also personal rather than collective. For instance, last Friday I went to Cardiff University to be the external examiner on a PhD (hence no blogging). While universities are like Tolstoyan families ('Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'), it was just a sheer pleasure to spend a couple of hours talking intensely about someone's life's work, in a department that really feels like a community. John's PhD covered some of the texts I did my PhD on – particularly Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live, and also discussed Menna Gallie's Strike for a Kingdom, Gwyn Jones's Times Like These, Ron Berry's So Long, Hector Bebb, Roger Granelli's Dark Edge and Kit Habaniec's Until Our Blood Is Dry, the latter two being set in South Wales during the 1984 miner's strike. You'll have to wait until publication to see just how good John's readings of the texts are, but I'd recommend most of the primary texts. I'd forgotten how brilliant Menna Gallie is, and I'd never read Dark Edge or Until Our Blood Is Dry. I don't think the Granelli is a particularly well-written book but there are lots of interesting features, while the Habaniec novel is well worth your time.

I've seen a good film (The Party: like a Woody Allen film from when he was good and nobody had to think about his sexual creepiness) and went to Oxide Ghosts, a film and Q+A by Michael Cumming, the director of Brass Eye and one of our graduates. Here's a clip that represents what they satirised: the neediness and pomposity of public figures:

Above all, the last couple of weeks have been made special by students - the PhD candidate of course, but also my undergraduates and MA students. The latter are three-quarters of the way through the Ballard module and have weathered the relentless misanthropy (and, I would argue, misogyny) with considerable grace. This week was Crash, a challenging read for most people, though given last week was The Atrocity Exhibition, they may well have thought it quite mild. The UGs this week have been through the joys of a lecture on gender theory, a session on Ellison's Invisible Man (thankfully nobody brought along a copy of HG Wells's similarly titled novel, and the first session of many on Paradise Lost. My boss handled the syntax game while I doled out apples or applied the Golden Scythe (really) to those brave volunteers who dared compete. Every year I teach Milton I enjoy his work more, despite being a) an atheist and b) formerly a Papist and therefore not likely to have been entirely welcome on Team Milton back in the day. I do feel a bit like God though: I keep telling them that there's no 'right' answer to essays, then failing some of them for getting it wrong. A bit like setting up a Tree of Knowledge and saying 'you're perfectly free to stuff your faces but I will wreak vengeance upon you and your descendants unto the nth generation if you do'. Other pleasures this week were doing an observation for this year's Graduate Teaching Assistant, who will be a better teacher than me by roughly next Tuesday, and diving back into Ginsberg and Maupin for a special Gay San Francisco session next week. I'm not teaching this particular poem, but here's a treat: Ginsberg reading 'A Supermarket in California' and one of my favourite pieces of music: Philip Glass's setting of Ginsberg's poem 'Wichita Vortex Sutra'. I keep trying to get my students into minimalism and 20thC classical music but to no avail. Even Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima fell flat.

Enjoy your weekend.

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