Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Lots and lots of stuff

Apologies for leaving you uninformed and alone for almost two weeks in this disorientating, howling cultural and social maelstrom. It has been, for variously sad, depressing and interesting ways, quite a fortnight and coming up with a semi-coherent thought about anything has been slightly beyond my capabilities.

Firstly though, a word about clothing shop H+M. That word is 'bastards'. I speak, as you've probably guessed, of their new William Morris line of clothing. Morris and Co. was famed in its time for selling enormously expensive, beautiful products ethically produced by well-trained, well-paid workers. Morris was a political revolutionary who believed that beauty, quality and fairness were inextricably linked.

H+M, to put it gently, are not famed for any such beliefs. Their badly-made disposable items – despite their vague claims – are environmental and social poison. Their manufacture takes place in the usual Asian sweatshops in which no more than a quarter of the workers are paid a living wage.

Actually, it's not H+M who are the bastards. They're just standard issue capitalist scum of whom we should expect no better. The absolute rotters in this situation are the owners of Morris and Co., Walker Greenbank, for trading on a heritage based on care and mutuality, and have sold out every principle their founders and original employees stood for. I'd rather wear clothes that proclaimed their social damage in giant letters than hide behind a proud history.

Anyway, rant over. What else has been going on? Well, the parade of leaving parties have started, which is deeply saddening, and we're living in a state of permanent insecurity leavened only by spasms of sheer fury. A terrifyingly small cohort of new students start next week and perhaps we'll know what rooms we'll have to teach them in before the big day. But don't rely on that. I've done some cultural stuff (BlackkKlansman was utterly brilliant: see it) and I've been down to London for my very last gig as external examiner at Newham University Centre. I've seen it develop from a tiny place to one that employs excellent academics doing wonderful teaching and now getting the chance to do some research. If you can't reach my place, go there. I'll miss the East End and my trips along the Thames. My new EE gig is at Swansea/Abertawe – a mile's walk along the beach is small consolation for being deprived of the famous Cafe Lympic (sic): threatened by the IOC's lawyers, its owners simply painted out the first letter. I'll also never see sister no. 3 and her kids/husband again: I only visited while on duty at NUC and they're unlikely to leave Greenwich for the delights of The Dark Place.

We've had graduation this week: one of the highlights of my year. I love seeing my students depart in a blaze of glory (though some stay on for PG courses), and it's sometimes a nice surprise to meet one or two of them who have spotty attendance records, let's say. We gave honorary degrees to our ex-colleague Howard Jacobson and to author Kit de Waal. I had dinner with HJ the night before and was surprised by how warm and charming he was. His roman à clef about the place was not exactly kind, though it is funny.

I've been to meetings about the 2019 literature festival I help run, and there have been staff conferences about all the extra things we've got to do with fewer colleagues. I attended a long and painful disciplinary meeting to support a trades union colleague (the details of management misbehaviour in this case are jaw-dropping but I can't share them. Suffice it to say that heads must roll), and I went on the first of a couple of fencing training weekends to renew my coaching certificates. There's an exam and observation at the end so it's fairly daunting. I'd forgotten so much, and slightly regret choosing a second-intention prise-de-fer when asked to teach someone the principles of counter-time. A touch too complicated for a beginner. Come to think of it, a touch too complicated for me. I also wrote a short version of the Pixellated Celt conference paper I mentioned a few weeks ago: it's going to appear in Planet magazine, which is a huge honour as it's cool, radical and clever. Writing it was a very salutary lesson: cutting 4500 academic-audience oriented words down to 1500 more journalistic ones is hard. I asked a friend to help get rid of the last 1000 extra ones. She did, then I put almost all of them back in. I'll write it up as an extended journal article too when I have time, but I'm quite pleased that something I dreamed up might be of some interest outside my own head.

I think I've read some books too, and I've certainly bought quite a lot. I read Sally Rooney's much-lauded Normal People, which I liked a lot but didn't think was quite as amazing as the reviews. The characters were interesting but the plot (damaged boy and girl from Sligo have an on-off relationship at school and at TCD university surrounded by South County types in gilets) was slight and not wholly different from Nicholls' romantic page-turner One Day. The writing makes gestures in the direction of Eimear McBride and the other contemporary Irish modernists (no speech marks, for instance) but the Hiberno-English was distinctly muted. I do think it's well worth reading though, and I've bought her first novel, Conversations With Friends. Hugh Howey's Sand was a bit better than his Silo trilogy (I also read the last of those, Dust) but finished weakly, which is a problem for a realist novel. I'm half-way through John Buchan's Prester John, which is without doubt the most racist piece of trash I've ever encountered.

Even when you take account of its time and his background, it goes the extra mile to be as racist as possible. I'm not even going to quote it. All black people, whoever they are and whatever the context, are misshapen evil scum, is its message so far. I'm reading it because he was an MP and so part of my research, but I don't think I'll be adding it to my 'They Come Over Here…: Literature and Migration' module. I'm also most of the way through Chris Beckett's climate change spec. fic. novel America City. I have to say that I was expecting better prose after reading some of his earlier stuff. It's not uninteresting: he's pretty tough on liberal handwringers who lack the honesty of brutal uncaring right-wingers (they seem to get off pretty easy) and there are some interesting analogies between tough leaders and Anglo-Saxon kings, but it all feels a bit slack compared with his epic other work. I'm going over some of the Children's Literature texts for next semester (a couple of Awdry's Railway Series texts, Farmer Duck, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Peter Rabbit, the Just-So Stories, Comet in Moominland, Northern Lights, Anne of Green Gables, the first Tracy Beaker novel, The Owl Service and Treasure Island), and I've piled up some excellent looking other books: David Jones's essays, Thomas Docherty's Literature and Capital, Lisa Lewis's Performing Wales, Jasper Fforde's Early Riser and Kate Atkinson's Transcription, but I have lots of lectures to write for next week before I indulge myself, plus an M. Res and an MA to mark, a PhD chapter to read and 2 PhDs theses which should arrive very shortly.

To relax, I filled in another job application. I do these purely for my own amusement: I've had precisely one interview in ten years (I cocked up the first question, 'how would you organise multiple redundancies?' by giving a socialist answer) so long since gave up any real expectation of being considered. It's more like the old Puritan practice of self-examination, an opportunity to contemplate the gap between me and what others consider a decent minimum of intellectual, academic and merely human achievement. I'm quite proud of some of the commas though.

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