Friday, 13 July 2018

'Curse your English education'!

What a week…what a week in public life. A Chequers away-day for the government that sounded as awful as anyone else's away day, and culminated in Johnson, Davis and Gove talking big to their mates, grovelling to the PM to her face, then resigning once they'd got home and out of her sight. Well, not Gove, obviously, but Davis, Johnson and several Tories whose existence was previously unsuspected.

The week ended back in the same place, with the same PM (somehow) having talks and dinner yet again with a collection of rude blowhard men who think that bluster is an acceptable substitute for brains. The accents may have been different, but it's hard to tell one portly, amoral, sexually-promiscuous racist half-American New York-born blond (Boris Johnson) from another (Donald Trump). I know a lot of people were rooting for May – despite everything – to grow a spine and re-stage a scene from the world's worst film (Love Actually followed closely by Drop Dead Fred and Jack Frost) but it was never going to happen.

Having walked out on some fairly decent allies, May is left clinging to a country which doesn't need Britain, led by a man who has no concern for his own country, let alone its allies. Given Trump's obvious hatred of democratically-elected women, I'm actually feeling sorry for the PM: she's being gaslighted by Trump. I watched his press conference this afternoon, which consisted of him describing the interview he gave to a friend's newspaper only yesterday as 'fake news', mealy-mouthed attempts to smooth over the insults he sent her way in that interview, and the repetition of the lie he keeps telling about being in Scotland the day before the EU referendum and predicting the result. He wasn't: he turned up a day after the result was announced.

What a shambles: thirty years of shameless lying has led to a supposedly serious country being thrown into the arms of a rogue state which will strip what's left of Britain bare then leave it for dead, while enriching a few oligarchs along the way.

Oh yes, and there was a game of football that I missed. At least Thierry Henry's Belgium lost – a modicum of recompense for cheating Ireland out of European qualification. Yes I know it was in 2010 but it feels like only yesterday. I gather England played too, but I was fencing and missed it. To be honest, my sporting focus has been on the Tour de France: compromised as it is by drugs, Sky and repressive regimes sportwashing their reputations by sponsoring teams, I find it utterly compelling: the effort involved, the tactics, the distances, the landscape, the bikes I can neither afford nor deserve (if anyone's got a spare £18,000, this is the one I want), the spectators dressing up as giant syringes to greet Chris Froome…magic.

My week is ending in sport too – this weekend is the Much Wenlock Olympian Games, acknowledged by the Olympic movement as one of its inspirations. It's a great mix of events: some serious events on the calendar (fencing, triathlon, archery) and some properly silly things, like wonky bicycle races. I tend to alternate refereeing and competing, depending on whether my waistline is waxing or waning, but this year I'm refereeing/organising as we're unavoidably short of staff. We run adult competitions plus a mixed-sex children's team competition, perfectly scheduled for the hottest weekend of the summer.

The rest of the week has been spent successfully not writing the conference paper I have to deliver in not many days. Marking re-sit essays and dissertations has filled quite a lot of it, plus seeing students to sort out their programmes and suchlike. The redundancy situation rumbles on with no sign of management managing to extract their braincases from their rectal passages. All we've heard this week is that a) research by people being fired won't be accepted by REF, which is both fair and a disaster for the faculty and b) graduation attire is even more prescriptive because management doesn't want to see the Save The Arts logo anywhere. Which is just a challenge, as far as I can see. There's even a line about 'formal business attire' and 'formal shoes'. They will of course be wearing their traditional academic-manager costume:

and shoes…

Ah well, it depresses me to even think about these vandals. 

I have managed to read a little this week. Two very contrasting texts: The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth, and Nick Harkaway's Gnomon. I've read almost all of Edgeworth's novels now – she's a fascinating slightly older contemporary of Jane Austen, and her work is a more uproarious version of the social comedy form, with lots of added Irish elements: she was part of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, though one with considerably more social concern than many of her peers or indeed characters. The Absentee is a short, funny but also uncomfortable comedy about her own class: minor Irish aristocracy torn between where the cash comes from (grinding Irish peasants into the dust of the land stolen from them) and the giddy social whirl of the London establishment that sees them as figures of fun. Edgeworth attempts a defence of the 1801 Union (English manners and Irish spirit will benefit each other) but it's not pursued far, and the more parasitical absentees are lambasted roundly, all within a spirited marriage plot and lots of family in-jokes. As an early examination of the tricky colonist's social perch, it's unmissable. 

Harkaway's book is unmissable in another sense: it's 684 pages long and far, far too pleased with itself. A near-future rendition of Britain under total surveillance, its politics are hard to disagree with but god it's hard to love (and that's even without going in to a novel whose dead dissident is called Diana Hunter: not subtle, Nick). There's something odd about surveillance novels: Dave Eggers's The Circle (another bad book attacking bad ideas) also falls into the trap of using the omniscient-narrator novel form to attack omniscience, though I must admit that it does caution against the possibility of objective perspectives throughout. Most readers want total awareness of everything that's going on - as I know when I give my students texts which obscure, complicate or refuse 'truths'. While Harkaway's book is a little more adventurous stylistically (The Circle is sort-of cleverer in that it keeps subtly referring to Wordsworth's Prelude), I don't think either author is deliberately playing with the irony – I don't think it's occurred to them. 

I suppose, in Harkaway's defence, a 684 page novel is a kind of warning against state Total Information Awareness: overload is a real danger. I'm not sure what a decent surveillance novel would look like, but I don't think its either of these. Gnomon is a fun read but its exhaustiveness defeats its own point and starts to look like a rather Victorian-patriarchal attempt to dominate its readers' every thought… which rather defeats its own point. 

See you next week. 

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