Monday, 16 April 2018

When HR goes bad…plus some book talk.

Good afternoon from what is surely the only university that simultaneously threatens the entire teaching staff of c. 750 people with disciplinary action (for declining to sign something they say doesn't need our consent anyway).
we have a duty of care to ensure staff are aware that such actions may place them at risk of formal action under the University’s disciplinary procedure. We must stress that this is not an option which we wish to adopt and we would do so extremely reluctantly and as a last resort.
The tl;dr version of this: 'now look what you made me do'. 

'I'm from HR. I just want what's best for you'

The invocation of 'duty of care' is simply humbug or cant of the worst sort. As you can probably imagine, that combined with a frankly moronic program of redundancies and restructuring has resulted in a dull ache of resentment rather than my normal sense of dedicated service to academia this Monday. Which is a shame because I've seen a lot of students who needed care and attention today of the sort that I can't expect to receive from my employers. 

However, enough of that. There are exciting things happening this week that I've played a small part in making happen. Tomorrow I'm teaching The Nether, a tense, scary, morally complex play about online paedophile fantasy spaces. The best first-year English Literature student work last year was about this play: rather than presenting an analysis, two groups performed scenes so effectively that people in the audience cried. In the evening, Kate Lister, aka @WhoresofYore is coming to give a public lecture on 'A Nasty Word for a Nasty Thing: a brief history of C**t'. Kate's pretty much the model academic: socially-engaged, hugely learned and a brilliant communicator. Then a couple of days later we have acclaimed author and critical scholar Adam Roberts coming to give another public lecture on science fiction and current affairs - Thursday, in the Art Gallery, 6.00 p.m.

I've also been reading a fair amount. I've whipped through Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series which was OK, though almost entirely lacking in characterisation and I can't help reading Gurgi as a comic manifestation of the Magical Negro trope, the Jar-Jar Binks of children's mythological retellings. The three witches were good though and Alexander is very witty. 

I'm also part-way through Daniel Kalder's Dictator Literature, which I thought might be useful, or even a model for, my work on politicians' fiction. It isn't. It's actually dreadful. You know a book is bad when it tries to get the audience on side by making snide comments about academics, but Kalder's work is essentially 400 pages of him being snide. He traces - in detail, the research has certainly been done - the logocentricity of a range of twentieth-century dictators and demagogues, but instead of using all this to ask about the complicated cultural contexts of these figures, he uses it to ridicule them as individuals and to point out that virtually none of them could write very well. Which is OK, but you've got to be an excellent writer to criticise others, and he isn't. It's hardly ground-breaking or daring to point out that Lenin and co. were often dense writers, or thinkers rather than street revolutionaries, and Kalder's style is that of the Pub Bore. What could have been an interesting book about why these people were so wedded to the manifesto, the newspaper and the novel is instead a bloated tract that demonstrates how superior its author is to all these men. Kalder thinks their work should have warned people what dreadful rulers they would be. On that basis, I've learned that Daniel Kalder shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a lever of power. 

I also leafed through Salisbury's The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-70: a rather lovely coffee table book which reminded me how many great artists, such as Paul Nash, designed book covers, and I much I dislike the bucolic side of 1950s book designs. Give me the Dutch-influenced postwar graphic designers any day. I'm working my way through Tony Harrison's Collected Poems too, one a day though I did cheat by reading V first. The other book I recently finished is Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies which has been on my shelf collecting awards since it came out. My immediate reaction, after inhaling it pretty much over one weekend, is that it's brilliant. Taut plot, strong sense of location and culture, dialogue absolutely spot on – a triumph. A week later, all those things are still true but I'm struck by the feeling that there is now a formula identifiable for these novels: a Celtic location seen from the centre as bucolic/touristy/untroubled by modernity – dialogue and sometimes narrative rich in dialect and scattered with words from the native language – interconnected tales of the 'hidden', i.e. working or non-working population – some crime and grime – suffused in a Celtico-religious soup either for contrast or explanation – with a dark wit. McInerney's novel is set in the urban Cork underclass. The dialogue and some of the narration draws on Cork English with the occasional Irish word thrown in. The cast each have their own plot but they intersect to devastating effect, and the evil effects of twentieth-century Irish Catholicism form the superstructure for events. It's also very funny. 

I say this not as critique but as an observation. These novelists – James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths, Richard Evans, Rachel Tresize and Lisa McInerney to name just a few, and let's not forget Y Gwyll/Hinterland and the various Scottish murder serials – are far better and much more interesting authors than the multiple purveyors of sensitive tales of the north London bourgeoisie who tend to dominate the literary pages of the newspapers and periodicals I read. I also think that there's a market for the Celtic anti-pastoralia, perhaps because publishers and their idealised audiences holiday in West Cork or Pembrokeshire, while pretty much any novel about the Birmingham or Newcastle underclass gets little more than admiring reviews: just ask Anthony Cartwright or Lisa Blower. They just aren't 'other' enough for these supposed audiences and readers can't thrill at the idea of their Dudley holiday home being burned down by nationalist smackheads. 'Celts' are still suffused with mysticism in the English imagination for better or worse, and Celtic Dirty Realism gives them a good dose of the Celtic while adding a good dose of Insider Realism to give the readers a decent jolt. 

Anyway, that's enough for now. Maybe I'll be in a better mood next week.

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