Friday, 6 December 2019

Is Widening Participation REALLY the enemy of progress?

They're wearing hats and gloves in hell this morning, for Radio Four has provoked me to stand up for my Vice-Chancellor. This is worse than when I found myself nodding in agreement with Linda Snell one dark day.

It all goes back to 4.30 a.m. yesterday, when I got up to go to a recording at my university of BBC Radio 4's alleged flagship news show, Today. 24 hours later, having got the date wrong and endured a day's mockery from my dear colleagues, I tried again.

As part of the show, Mishal Husain (whose journalism and presenting style I rather admire) interviewed the boss. Rather than explore the HE landscape, the university's role in a hard-hit city or the decade of wage suppression that everyone in HE except its leaders have endured, Husain (private school, Cambridge) decided to ask whether places like mine were essentially running a pyramid scheme by accepting money from students with poor A-level qualifications who were bound to fail. The VC then had about a minute and a half to unpick the assumptions and errors implicit in the question, and did a great job. I've had a couple of hours more and don't feel constrained to be so polite about it.

There are many hot takes on the bin-fire that is British higher education, but this was a new one. Given the elite universities' notorious failure to admit poor, provincial, working-class and especially minority ethnic students (at all, in the case of certain colleges), it's a brave move to accuse an institution with a 40% BME, 90% working-class intake of being the enemy of progress.

A quarter of Oxford colleges didn’t admit a single black student in at least one year between 2015 and 2017
Eight of the 29 colleges at Oxford admitted two or fewer black students between 2015 and 2017 (less than 1% of all UK students admitted to the college). This means that in at least one year those colleges can’t have admitted any black students. We don’t know what happened in each of the individual years between 2015 and 2017, so it’s possible there were more colleges who didn’t admit any black students in any given year.

The interesting question would be why and how underfunded, unfashionable places like mine are expected to repair the damage caused by structural and systematic racism and economic injustice. Instead Husain's question implied a direct, uncomplicated link between individual effort and academic success. My students come from multiply-deprived families, communities and locations. They have been failed by an compulsory education system that has never done well with ethnic minorities and has been privatised to such an extent that pernicious activities like 'off-rolling' drive a league-table culture at the expense of students. A-levels are a snapshot of achievement with their own problems (in my subject, the direct result of Gove's move towards a mechanical, boring curriculum has been a collapse in English Literature applicants) which to a large extent reflect privilege rather than potential, something a rigid qualifications-based HE entrance system largely fails to acknowledge. My colleagues at selective universities largely aren't racists excluding anyone they think smells of chip-fat: that's not how structural inequality perpetuates itself. Unequal access to HE is the end-product of a rotten system, not an individual failing.

Presumably Mishal Husain believes that attending a fee-paying school had no bearing on her own academic success and entrance to Cambridge: if so, her parents should ask for their money back. In the meantime, I'll stick to spotting the talent other institutions overlook. Also: state-educated students tend to do better at university – they haven't been educated beyond their natural abilities as many private school kids have been, and they're more independent.

Teaching mostly first-generation HE students is both a joy and a challenge. There are issues of cultural capital and actual capital, but they have usually seen more of life than their peers, and can be more driven. That's why so many of us choose to teach in places like mine (not me: I lucked into this and lightning doesn't strike twice) – we don't have a white saviour/missionary mentality but we see the difference we make and we don't have to cope with the entitlement of those who take education for granted.

Someone on Twitter described Husain's question as the product of a 'stay in your lane' mentality, and I'm sorry to say that I agree. The ruling class clearly believes that higher education should be reserved for the affluent middle and upper classes. The Morlocks should accept their roles in the service economy and take enough vocational training to work in an Amazon warehouse. I hate this. I've seen too many brilliant students who should be running companies, publishing novels, lobotomising government ministers or presenting BBC current affairs shows get dumped by the wayside for being too black, provincial, common or badly-networked. If History of Art is or Medicine is open to a cabinet minister's offspring (acknowledged or not), it should be good enough for my neighbours' kids.  If teaching Anne of Green Gables, Welsh literature, politicians' novels (my current research project) Jilly Cooper's Riders, American Psycho, The Book of Mormon and Hamlet (to select a few of my recent classes) goes some little way to tipping the scales back in the right direction, I'm happy.*

Anyway, that's the rant you get when I'm forced out of bed at 4.30 a.m. I'll go back to book-blogging and random nonsense again next time.

*Happiysh: I still want paying properly.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Know your price

Yesterday saw the first day of the UCU strike: staff at 60+ universities walking out – against their instincts – to highlight the enormous drop in wages over time, the repeated reductions in pension provision, the virus of casualisation and the obscene gender pay gap at all levels in universities. HE institutions have never been richer, but staff haven't had an above-inflation rise since 2008, which cumulatively means an 18% pay cut.  At the same time, senior managements have expanded enormously and their pay packets have ballooned beyond all reason.

For me, casualisation is the worst bit: the generation behind me is being treated appallingly. Even the lowest-paid, fractional posts are attracting applicants with PhDs, publications and multiple books with reputable publishers who have never held a permanent or full-time post even by their 30s. They are expected to produce the work of a professor back in the day while being paid less than their peers who didn't contract the 6 years of extra debt required to take an MA and a PhD, the minimum requirements to get any hourly-paid teaching. Heaven forfend that they might want to have a family, live in a house or buy the occasional avocado. The result will be social shrinkage: only those with extensive family wealth will be able to take on even a bursaried PhD and casual teaching, and the skills and insights of those from poorer backgrounds will be lost.

My university union branch voted to strike, but the turnout was so low that we didn't meet the government's new 51% turnout minimum. I think my colleagues are exhausted, depressed and insecure - despite our leaderships' massive salaries for strategic thinking, student numbers have plummeted and the future is not looking rosy.

With their usual tin-ear for mood, our VC decided that the first day of the strike was the perfect moment to circulate this message:
FREE Thank You film screenings As a thank you for the hard work of our staff this academic year and their ongoing contributions to the University’s success, the Vice-Chancellor invites you to two special FREE film screenings at the xxxxx Theatre. There is a showing of the award-winning Bohemian Rhapsody on Thursday 28 November at 5.30pm, while you can get in the mood for Christmas with festive favourite Elf on Wednesday 4 December at 5.30 pm.
Now I'm struggling to imagine the Renumeration Committee offering the VC a free cinema ticket as a reward for his hard work, and I'm struggling even harder to imagine him accepting it in lieu of his habitual £10,000 extra every year. If this email had started with the second clause (Claus?), 'The VC invites you…', my vicious little brain wouldn't be filled with images of Marie Antoinette bearing cake* and mortar-boarded sans-culottes dragging a guillotine into the quad – I might even have been touched even though I don't particularly want to see a film about a band that knowingly broke the artistic boycott of apartheid South Africa (and anyway, I'm still teaching past 5.30: the academic schedule is 9-9). Seriously: that one clause demonstrates an entire world-view in which those who do the actual work (not just lecturers) are tiny ant-like creatures beneath consideration.

But no. This is a leadership which has colluded with its counterparts across the country to depress our wages while regularly rewarding themselves enormous pay rises funded by student debt, and they dare to insult us with this rubbish. Rather than treating us a fungible assets to be sweated then disposed of, why not reward us for our 'hard work' and 'ongoing contributions' with actual cash either now or in our pensions. I once worked night shifts at British Gas (don't worry readers: nowhere near any actual gas infrastructure but if your address isn't listed on any gas providers' databases, that's my fault). We were paid £1.98 per hour and when the proletariat flagged a little, the fastest workers were publicly 'rewarded' with a Mars Bar at around 4 a.m., while the slowest workers were publicly shamed and fired each week. Thank heavens those days are gone, eh?

It's not even a matter of one out-of-touch fat cat: this communication must have gone through several hands and nobody thought it patronising or provocative. My colleagues work hard. There's a massive culture of overwork: my boss is doing 14 hour days coping with increasing administration and demands that he find ways to save our subjects, while my PhD students and hourly-paid colleagues work way more hours than they're paid for. A chance for one of a limited number of free tickets to a second-run film doesn't cut it.

If this is going to be a regular thing though, I have some more appropriate suggestions:
It's A Wonderful Life (starring the VC as Mr Potter)



The Lego Movie

Merry Christmas, one and all!

*Forget the cake: staff who work unpaid at open days were invited to use the water fountains at no charge.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Escaping into popular fiction

This has been an exhausting but exhilarating week, and next week promises to be more of the same. Lots of my colleagues have been doing Black History Month and Being Human events - psychogeographic walks, story-telling performances, masterclasses and the like – all of which are good for us as much as wider society: it's great to get out and talk to strangers about the things we and hopefully they are enthusiastic about.

I've also hit a run of good classes - today was Jilly Cooper's Riders, a novel which pretty much single-handedly encapsulates 1980s conservative feminism and is the perfect vehicle for all the cultural studies-influenced things we do here with popular fiction. For instance: we talk about how and why one could or should make room for a 900 page novel in one's life; about popular fiction as a vehicle for serious ideological and social perspectives, and how pop fic can be used to track social change.

In some ways Riders is fairly progressive: it's very positive about sex toys and women's sexual pleasure as an end in itself, but it's also deeply reactionary (posh people shouldn't be expected to conform to conventional sexual morality but admired for breaching it) and has aged extremely badly: it's attitudes towards older men having sex with younger women are echoed these days by Prince Andrew and virtually nobody else. It also contains two rape scenes, neither of which are taken particularly seriously and one of which is concluded with the rapist-hero making a knob gag. None of this, you may be unsurprised to learn, is mentioned in the breathless, cheery interviews Jilly gives whenever she publishes a new bonkbuster. Only snowflakes and academics ('hairy-legged' if they're female, 'bearded' and 'goaty' if they're male) care about this stuff. Oh, and teaching a book which praises Franco and whose German characters 'goose-step' and make Nazi salutes for a laugh is a bit uncomfortable in a class with more Spanish and German students than British ones.

Next week I'm teaching Armistead Maupin's Babycakes in American Literature - it's the fourth in his Tales of the City series and I picked it partly as an example of serial fiction, partly because it has a transatlantic plot, party because it's the volume in which Aids signals the end of the party, but mostly because it's a brilliant example of the wrenching you have to do to traditional realist fiction to include homosexual lives – when you can't tie everything up neatly with a heterosexual marriage and children, you have to wholly reconsider how novels work. Babycakes (like some of the others in the series) is funny, witty, chatty and moving, but Maupin struggles every time to convert stylish newspaper columns into a novel because he clearly knows that plots and resolutions are corny and artificial. Wilde knew that too, and employed irony and pastiche to signal it, but Maupin adds on plots in an unconvincing way – which is a shame because pretty much everything else about the series is perfect.

I'm staying in North America for the next class: Anne of Green Gables in Children's Literature, which I read it as a mix of colonial and postcolonial attitudes. Influenced by the other two children's novels I just read (Pixie O'Shaughnessy and Nancy Finds Herself), I see Anne as another Irish or Celtic subaltern whose romantic, impractical nature can infuse the Presbyterian Anglo-Scottish Canadian dominant culture with heart, while requiring her to submit to Anglo rationality and stolidity - both the other novels value the other-worldly ethereality and happy-go-lucky nature of the Irish and Welsh while accepting that those nations are helpless without English leadership, a very Arnoldian construction of Celticity (see also my paper on Celts in video games).

Once the two are united, Canada becomes a real place, eventually taking its place in the world by shedding the blood of its sons. In the sequels, Anne's hair gradually darkens and one of her sons dies in WW1. In real life, Montgomery was a leading supporter of Canadian involvement and one of the reasons she committed suicide in 1942 was guilt at her responsibility. I know this reading is a long way from the romantic comedy of popular perception, but it makes a lot of cultural sense to me. I'm also lucky that I'll be teaching it alongside my flame-haired PhD student, who will no doubt be responding to it in a more personal sense!

At the end of the week I'm teaching Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve but it's a long time since I read it and I can't remember what I thought then other than 'wow'. I'm sure I'll scare up some more detailed reckons by the time the class rolls by. There's so much going on that I'm opting out of keeping up with the election campaign's trail of lies, and the Trump Ukraine enquiry - exhaustion is no excuse for disavowing a citizen's duties but I get the distinct impression that the knowing employment of fake news tactics and extreme posturing is political tactic designed to leave us passive and incapable of coherent resistance. If so, it's definitely working. I'll still be voting though…

Friday, 15 November 2019

On not meeting Boris Johnson, and other stories

I've had a great week in terms of teaching: two Margaret Atwood novels either side of last weekend (The Handmaid's Tale and The Edible Woman), Northern Lights (every time I schedule a text, the gods of TV programming air an adaptation), and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit today, a classic novel for discussing the intersection of alternative sexualities and alternatives to phallocentric narrative style. I'm not sure my mostly overseas students got the Lancashire humour elements, but I hope they enjoyed this class and the other texts as much as I did. It's so enjoyable to re-read old favourites, especially when they stand up so well. I bought my copies of the Atwood novels in 1994 on the proceeds of the Sir Henry Jones Philosophy Prize (alongside some Calvin and Hobbes, not Calvin and Hobbes), and the Pullman in 2000, immediately buying everything else he'd written and thus considerably delaying the process of my PhD.

I do have a tendency towards completism in books and music – once I decide I like an author or a band I'll read everything they've written or recorded whether they're any good or not. I've learned nothing from owning the complete works of every band and solo act associated with New Order, from Freebass (very much not the sum of its parts) to The Other Two (wonderful), nor from the endless ranks of Trollope, Hardy and Keith Roberts (tip: Pavane is essential, the rest less so).

There hasn't been much time for non-course reading, other than the massive list of REF outputs I have to attach a subjective number to, but I did get through Kate Charlesworth's A Girl's Guide to Sensible Footwear, which I can't recommend highly enough. I've always liked her cartoons, and this graphic novel combining post-war lesbian history and her autobiography is beautifully drawn (especially her affectionate pastiches of her favourite childhood comics) and just so enormously moving. Teaching Winterson's novel today meant I've been thinking about narrative and how to wrench traditional patriarchal/hegemonic forms to make room for non-heterosexual lives, and Charlesworth does it with apparent ease. It's funny, it's sad (especially her relationship with her mother, and the swathe Aids cut through her social circle), it's hugely knowledgeable and subtle. If it has a fault it's its self-deprecation: she's an important artist. Not sure what's next: perhaps Dan Simmons's Hyperion, through I really should refresh my memory of John Barth's short stories, Noughts and Crosses and Riders for next week's classes.

Apart from work, the high point of the week was a performance of Còsi Fan Tutte - not a full staging, just non-costumed singers doing a bit of acting, and an orchestra using period instruments. I'm not a huge fan of the baroque instrument thing - it can get a bit precious - but the singers were astonishing. Even though I prefer the rougher music of the medieval and contemporary periods, I was in awe of what the human voice can do. I could have done without the surtitles though: it turns out that this thing of beauty was essentially three hours of Italian Lads' Banter (plot: older man demonstrates to naive young men that like all women, their betrothed are slags, and that happiness lies in loving them anyway). The trickster maid, Despina, was the best part.

The Prime Minister was here on Monday. Assured of a slavish welcome from the local rag, he turned the remembrance day ceremony nearby into a stop on the campaign trail, doing his serious face for as long as he could manage before moving 20 metres into the nearest pub to do his man of the people act. If I were the organisers of the parade I'd feel used, but clearly others feel differently. At least I resisted the temptation to pop along and read out choice quotations from his comic novel about suicide bombers, some of which is set in this area, and not in a nice way. His father Stanley also wrote appalling thrillers - no doubt public-school confidence explains their slapdash, lazy style.

The one thing about being extra-busy at the moment is that I'm not glued to coverage of the cheapest, nastiest election campaign in living memory. I'll encourage my students to vote, turn up on polling day and pull the duvet back over my head. I'm thoroughly depressed by the diminishing space available for serious and informed debate - instead it's fake meet-and-greets for the cameras and lies in the studio and on the front page. There was once a political party in the US called the Know-Nothings. When did this become a collective national aspiration? I may have failed to get a job in Ireland this year, but my citizenship means there'll be a seat for me on the airlift when you lot turn to cannibalism in about 2021.

Anyway, that's enough doom and gloom - I intend to be out on my bike this weekend, blowing away the cobwebs. See you next week,

Friday, 8 November 2019

Mugged in Cheltenham

Week Six in the Big Academia house and the inmates are getting restless. Assignments are due. Attendance is down. Eyes are bleary.

My colleagues decided not to go on strike this time. A majority of those who voted opted for strike action on pay and conditions but the turnout was shamefully low - 29%. No doubt those in the first-class suites upstairs will assume that we're all delighted with the 0.1% pay rise that followed 10 years of below-inflation settlements, but that's far from the truth. The casualisation of HE is the major issue - whole generations of cutting-edge researchers and teachers have never had a permanent or full-time job, and yet are expected to produce the same volume and quality of research (in some ways more) as the tenured generation. Also, many of my colleagues feel that it doesn't matter whether institutions that cater for the poor and provincial go on strike anyway. It only makes the newspapers and politicians' radars when their or their kids' colleagues strike. There are – as recent discussion of election and term dates demonstrated – only two universities which qualify for attention.

As it happens I visited another non-university yesterday, in a delightful Georgian spa resort. Different intake from mine (pretty much all-white, all middle-class) but facing the same funding, staffing and entry challenges, but providing excellent, distinctive and enjoyable modules. I was there to examine a PhD – a scary but important thing to do. After that, I immediately went and blew the fee on old books. I was looking for RS Thomas poetry and Left Book Club volumes but bought one bilingual edition of Welsh mythology and some old children's books with Celtic elements - next year's Association for Welsh Writing conference is about childhood, learning and education (I'm co-organising it) so I'm thinking of doing colonial-Celtic constructions of children, including Anne of Green Gables: clearly a wild Irish girl who has to submit to WASP values while softening their edges.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy which left me bereft of cash 

Pixie is a 'wild Irish tornado' who needs taming by her English classmates in Mrs Vaizey's Religious Tract Society novel from 1902

A fine translation of Wales's oldest manuscript

Classic boarding school didacticism. For a history of such novels, read You're A Brick, Angela!

Not what you're thinking: in Olive Dougan's novel Nancy goes to boarding school and learns to dispense with the Welsh side of her Welsh-English heritage, to become a proper human being. 
Just a pretty sign on a now-converted old pub.

I'm off to teach Atwood's Handmaid's Tale now, and on Monday it's her Edible Woman, about which I'm very excited. I taught Comet in Moominland and The Owl Service earlier this week – Moomins weren't quite so popular but those who read The Owl Service seemed appropriately disturbed. I still think it's one of the most complex, dark and disturbing teen novels ever written. You can watch the whole terrifying 1970s ITV adaptation here

Thanks to all that, I haven't read much outside course texts. I'm most of the way through The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and appreciating its ingenuity more than I'm enjoying it.  Not sure what will be next. I also waved farewell to my Canadian astrophysicist friend. He bequeathed me about a decade's supply of fine whiskies and some bookcases, so I intend to get hammered and try to reshelve everything this weekend. The Dewey system won't know what's hit it.

More next week.

Monday, 4 November 2019

In weary haste

Apologies for the slight delay in transmission - no blog last week because I've been so busy. Lots of new lectures to write, a PhD examination to prepare and various other more tedious things getting in the way of me coming up with any new opinions on anything worth sharing with you all. The more heated public discussions become the less I want to participate. Oh well, at least my dentist's appointment was cancelled!

Still, however exhausting teaching was, it's been fun. A Streetcar Named DesireHaroun and the Sea of Stories (up there with The Phantom Tollbooth in my view) and Caitlín Moran's How To Be A Woman all generated interest and opinion from the students (young Marlon Brando still brings a good many of the students to the yard). It was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest today (not enough people had read it to get a good discussion going but we did introduce them to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters), Comet in Moominland and The Owl Service tomorrow, and The Handmaid's Tale on Friday. The problem with The Owl Service is that while it's one of the most complex and disturbing adolescent novels ever written, Garner got his structuring mythical interpretation of the core Welsh myth from Robert Graves, whose Triple Goddess theory is both bizarre and deeply misogynist.

I did manage to read a couple of things apart from course texts this week. Ken MacLeod's Descent has an awful lot of fun merging near-future Scottish post-crash economics, close encounters of the third kind, genetics, religious exploration and surveillance culture to make a clever, witty and thought-provoking novel. John Le Carré's new one, Agent Running in the Field was a bit disappointing. Some nice characterisation, some satisfying rants, but the central twist is unintentionally obvious from the first few pages – a bit problematic when the narrator is meant to be an elite spy. I liked Michael Frayn's The Russian Interpreter – a 1966 comic novel about an inept English graduate student in Moscow getting tangled up in espionage – very much. It hasn't really dated at all and is very funny. My next book will be Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle because it sounds clever and funny. Just what I need.

In the meantime, tomorrow sees the departure of my friend Dean for ever. Exhausted by the relentless hostility and incompetence of British HE (not my institution this time), he's heading back to Canada for the first time in 20 years, determined never to darken the doors of a university ever again. I'll miss his sense of the outrageous, his idea of what constitutes a well-balanced whiskey and ginger, his habit of hate-reading the Financial Times at weekends, his dry sense of humour and scathing disregard for any astrophysics on a smaller scale than galaxy interactions, which is his speciality. Having shared an office with a Nobel winner, he's allowed to describe most of his field as 'parochial' and 'planet-chasers'! He'll be much missed.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Treading carefully with words

Note: first paragraph uses the N-word in the context of classroom discussion.

Hello from the end of a long, draining, but also exhilarating week. I've been teaching a lot: The Great Gatsby (takeaway: rich people have something resembling feelings too), The Just-So Stories (fascinating, and more complex than I remembered them, and Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory. Even typing the word makes me uncomfortable, and we started the class with a discussion of when and by whom the word can be used. My classes are ethnically diverse and people have a wide range of views about race, so a lively discussion always ensues. The first question was a bit of a zinger: do people sing along when the word is used in a hiphop song? Answer: no, and that includes the black students who generally believed that they could use the word because they'd reclaimed ownership of it: there was a sense that it was OK to experience the word used in art but not to employ it oneself unless it's clearly marked off with quotation marks, such as in the book's title, and even then people were reluctant in case repetition took away the sting. In case you're interested, I relied on a couple of journal articles to guide the conversation: Randall Kennedy's 'Who Can Say "Nigger"? And Other Considerations and Emily Bernard's 'Teaching the N-Word' – Kennedy is against fetishising the word by making it taboo, while stressing the multiple signifieds it represents, while Bernard's piece is a more reflective piece about the lived experience. The word's history and power is terrifying, and an Emory University professor was recently fired for using the word within quotation marks in conversation with a student: he was quoting what some racists had said about his support of African-American causes.

Gil Scott Heron's title announces his novel's purpose: he uses the word to denote African-Americans who conform to white American cultural standards and therefore maintain an oppressive system in exchange for material comforts: the Factory is the black university which produces
 quasi white folks and semithinkers whose total response is trained rather than felt. Black students in the 1970s will not be satisfied with Bullshit Degrees or Nigger Educations. 

The book is on my module because we wanted something which raised the big questions about the relationship between art and activism, and the ideological positions that range from 'art is separate' to 'art is nothing unless it is activist'. In these days of the apparently apolitical student, it does no harm to remind them that universities and especially students' unions used to be something more than a marketing department with some deportment training attached. The novel extends the examination of historically black colleges found in Ellison's Invisible Man and less directly, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time from the previous generation, and explores the rise and fall of student militance in the late 1960s, ending on a very ambiguous note. We took in Scott-Heron's music too, always a pleasure. We discussed the Frankfurt School's approach to popular culture, the Black Arts Movement appropriation of revolutionary energy (hence the presence of the Bill Hicks routine), hegemony, didacticism and the role of art in political education, which is how I ended up playing them snatches of The Lark Ascending and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as examples of art responding in very different ways to trauma.

You can tell from the text's presence on the module where I stand on this: I would never use the word independently or gratuitously, but I'm prepared – though not comfortable – to introduce it when used by those who've reclaimed it. We always start with an informed discussion of the word's history and establish a serious, thoughtful atmosphere, making sure that nobody has to say it and that its use isn't lighthearted. This is the second time I've taught this novel, and both times the students have more than risen to the occasion. It's been uncomfortable of course, especially for the BAME students whose emotional labour is obviously greater than that of the white students, but I think that they appreciate the intention and the atmosphere established. Also: it's a powerful book that justifies its use of the word.

So the teaching has been exhausting but also thrilling because it feels like we've been wrestling with the big questions about literature, form and content all week. I also played a minor role in a session on public speaking for the first-years, and observed a new colleague's teaching practice, learning a lot along the way. The older I get, the more I approve of vampirism. I've also spent the week reading an interesting PhD for examination at another university. I can't say anything about it for professional reasons, but doing this kind of thing does really make me feel like a part of a wider unseen community that does matter. There hasn't been much time for reading beyond the curriculum though and I was too exhausted for the deep stuff - I read the fourth Green Knowe novel, Stranger at… which was troubling and compelling (up there with Susan Cooper), a minor Pratchett (Mrs Bradshaw's Handbook) and I'm most of the way through Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger which is every bit as good as everyone says: a mixture of historical fiction and gothic melodrama which re-energises both those genres. I normally read her stuff the moment it comes out, so I don't know why I waited for so long with this one. Anyway, highly recommended.

After all that, I need some diversion, so tomorrow I'm off to see friends and colleagues acting in an am-dram country house mystery. It's not – officially - The Play That Goes Wrong, but I have hopes. And there's a raffle.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Sounds simple…

I seem to have been thinking about race and empire a lot recently, thanks to the way my teaching and reading have worked out. Earlier in the week I taught Treasure Island alongside an esteemed colleague, and later today it's James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.

Treasure Island is a curious beast - a tale of shenanigans and greed on the high seas, yet featuring not a single native: the Island is uninhabited. What you get instead is the story of white men's degradation: they're all British (or are they?: King George and Christianity are repeatedly invoked anyway) and their moral failings are bred at home – the story starts and finishes in England. The Squire talks too much, Dr Livesey is a bit judgmental, the Captain isn't decisive enough, Jim Hawkins is impulsive, Silver is an opportunist, Israel Hands is a murderer and O'Brien is 'a rank Irelander'. Blind Pew is simply an errand-boy for evil. The absence of any natives distinguishes TI from Robinson Crusoe and many of the other desert island stories, but I think it also critiques the Imperial narrative. These are not the brightest and best muscular Christians out to 'civilise' the globe: they're greedy adventurers out for ill-gotten gain, including our hero: one side is more willing to use violence than the other, but there's not a lot between them. As an advert for the British mission to the world, it's not great.

However, I do wonder whether there's a national hierarchy at play too. The Squire – representative of the decayed aristocracy so neatly skewered by Matthew Arnold as Barbarians – is Cornish. The doctor is (like McCoy of the Enterprise) probably Scottish, Silver and Israel Hands might be Jewish, O'Brien is, as Silver points out, foul because he is Irish, while Pew is surely an anglicisation of ap Huw> Puw and therefore Welsh. Treasure Island therefore can be read as an attack on the post-hoc myths of Empire, or a reinforcement of the need for English leadership of the nations of these islands: without Jim's pluck and good sense, the lesser types feckless, lazy, sneakiness will bring about ruin and decay.

Stay tuned for my similar lecture on Anne of Green Gables as Celtic Disciplinary Narrative, later in the same module. Seriously: fiery over-emotional red-head learns to behave under the tutelage of sombre Presbyterian folk, while softening their harder edges? She's Irish. Oh, and the French farm-worker is always referred to as a boy. Anglo-supremacism all the way. Before that though, I get to look at this all over again in next week's class on The Just-So Stories, Kipling's proto-Forsterian children's stories.

This afternoon's class is on The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's short letter and essay on the state of African-American conditions - it's angry, elegiac, passionate, uncompromising and clear-headed. Baldwin assesses the multiple routes to liberation: Christianity, Islam, integration into white cultural values, violent revolution and more, and concludes that militant resistance may be necessary as long it comes from a position of love: 'It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate'. I'm really hoping the students take to it.

Funnily enough, the SF novel I'm just coming to the end of is also partly about slavery, oppression and the spiritual damage wreaked on slaves, owners and their descendants: Paul McAuley's In The Mouth of the Whale has all the furniture of space opera - huge distances, generation ships, posthumans, simulated universes and AI, but comes down to an examination of the distorted societies and mentalities spawned by brutal oppression. Intriguingly, it's partly set in provincial south America, just like Macdonald's Brasyl: magical realism and some SF have a lot in common.

It's not all been grim musing on the evils we do each other: I've also been to a regional fencing committee meeting, done some actual fencing, and went to a concert last night called The Thrill of the New - the Schoenberg Five Pieces was as recent as 1909! Since the CBSO had its funding slashed its programmes have been extremely conservative, so I go along to anything that's even vaguely contemporary. I liked the Schoenberg, but the programme as a whole felt rather conservative: nothing electric or electronic, and nothing truly abstract or atonal. John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine is always a pleasure to hear, but it's not exactly a challenge. Widmann's Con Brio (not as good as his 180 beats per minute) and Kats-Chernin's Big Rhap were fun but resembled film scores, while Daniel Kidane's Woke paid tribute to Copland, Adams and Reich attractively but I couldn't detect much consonance between the subject matter and the music.

I liked the extract from Ades's Powder Her Face but couldn't see anything in Higdon's String Lake beyond pretty textures. The real missed opportunity was Steve Reich's Clapping Music. 

The audience got to clap the non-changing line while the musicians clapped the changing one. It was a great insight into the challenges of such a technical piece, but a crowd of 600 obviously can't keep up and the whole thing dissolved into mush. That would have been fine if the musicians had then performed the piece themselves – it's only 3 minutes long – but that didn't happen: we just moved on. What filled the time instead was a series of mini-lectures with Powerpoint slides on each piece.

As 'new' goes, this was disappointing: virtually all tonal pieces with nothing to scare the horses, scaffolded by a presentation (complete with lame gags) to make sure that the implied audience of nervous conservatives weren't put off by the occasional dissonance or odd time signature. It didn't imply much faith in the Great British Public's appetite for innovation, nor much confidence in contemporary music to have much to say to them. The playing was of course beautiful, because it's the CBSO, but it still strikes me as very odd that 'the new' can encompass a piece written 110 years ago. I find it hard to believe that Mozart and Beethoven's potential audiences were as nervous, or that they refused to listen to anything written within living memory. If this was pop, it would be the equivalent of crowds demanding that Ariana Grande only sing music hall numbers.

What would I put on? Well, I'm not sure my tastes are particularly interesting, up-to-date or adventurous, but I'd certainly include some Reich, but also some Meredith Monk, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Kate Whitley, Saariaho and Pauline Oliveros.

Don't have nightmares…

Friday, 11 October 2019

Peter Rabbit to the Frankfurt School

In haste today, as I'm teaching all afternoon (the Frankfurt School applied to Black Panther); got the Open Day talk (shout-out to the External Relations team for sending all staff last year's arrangements) to overhaul for tomorrow (BS Johnson v Jilly Cooper head to head) and an introduction to write for tomorrow's Birmingham Literature Festival gig - I'm chairing a discussion about new canons, connected to the BBC 100 Novels That Shaped Our World project – something that should produce at least a year's worth of arguments rich insights into the reading public's relationship to the novel after what's been a fairly complicated century or so's literary and cultural development.

I can't decide whether this week has been ridiculously busy or pretty ordinary: I've done a lot, but much of it was familiar and predictable (other than playing Where And When Have They Moved Today's Class Without Telling Anyone? a few times). Can it only be 4 days ago that I was ranting about Thoreau, Emerson, the Over-Soul and Whitman? Have I successfully promoted Team Potter (Beatrix) and persuaded the kids that Thomas is the servile jester for an oppressive, reactionary society that's coming back? If not, this is all you need:

I've been fencing, which was fun except that my friends active on the European circuit have had to adopt a new interpretation of what constitutes an attack which basically means I'm never allowed to score again. At least, that's my explanation. But at least my injured arm hasn't dropped off. I've also managed to read a couple of books. The first one was Ken MacLeod's Intrusion, which showcases the libertarian aspects of his left-libertarianism, and was clearly written in the aftermath of New Labour's authoritarian outrages. The plot is easy: a pregnant woman declines to take the miracle pill that tidies up her embryo's DNA while refusing to employ any of the theological get-out clauses. There's some really subtle exploration of Scottish islanders' Free Presbyterian values and the surveillance state stuff works well, but the Wellsian glimpses of a de-evolved future, while well done of themselves, detract from the moral force of the central ethical dilemma. I'm a fan of MacLeod's work, and the role SF has in pulling apart hegemonic claims, but this one just felt a tiny bit disjointed compared with his others. I also read Catherine O'Flynn's first children's novel, Lori and Max: short, snappy, very moving and a compelling narrative voice - Emil and the Detectives meets Tracy Beaker. It's published by a small Welsh independent press, Firefly Press - give them your money. Then I consumed bite-size chunks of the Daily Telegraph's collection of obituaries: Vol 4 - Rogues. To the Telegraph, anyone who voted Labour or disliked golf was a rogue, but it's like a potted guide to the mad, the bad and the unmannerly. Anton LaVey of the Church of Satan rubs shoulders with the Reverend Peter Gamble, whose paedophilia is excused in passing with the phrase "the physical element was limited"; the rest of the book consists of eccentrics, charlatans, dissipated aristocrats, con-men and foreigners (all rogues by fault of not being Englishmen). Hugely enjoyable. And now I'm half-way through The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman's latest in the Lyra Bellacqua series. He's pulled off the trick of moving his story-world from children's literature into adult fiction rather well, though I'm not entirely comfortable with the passing references to Lyra's body and sexuality - perhaps because an old man writing about a 20 year old's body feels a bit Philip Roth, perhaps because the character is somewhat fixed in my imagination as a teenager and therefore someone whose sexuality is none of our business. Serial fiction is tricky…

Apart from that, I think it works well - Pullman is still annoyed with anyone who'd make a convict of the soul and the imagination, and he seems pretty pissed off at Richard Dawkins and his Gradgrindian crew for their humourless rejection of metaphor and the numinous.

See you on the other side.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Beware of the Leopard

Another Friday rolls by and I feel both aged and exhilarated. Aged by the relentless series of organisational failures that have enraged students and thus their academic supporters, and exhilarated because you never feel more alive than when you're trying to guess where Timetabling have hidden your class today, whether it clashes with other compulsory classes and whether there will be enough tables and chairs (answers: in the cellar with no light and broken stairs, in a disused lavatory behind a door marked 'beware of the leopard'; yes it does, and no there aren't). How we've managed shrinking student numbers with inadequate rooms is a question for the Metaphysics department, if we still have one.

Well, we'll see who rusts first.

The actual teaching has been a delight: introductory lectures for American Literatures (room for 30 people, 39 students present); Children's Literature (room changed without notification), learning labs (campus, building, room and time changed within two hours of class starting, no notification) and later today (I assume), Populist Texts where we're taking a Cultural Studies approach to Black Panther because it's interesting and we're what the kids call 'woke', though I confess the grammatical horror makes me blanch. Which is ironic when we're talking about blackness.

The other delight of the week was the two-day marathon that is writing Academic Enhancement Plans: an 18 page document that involves navigating the world's worst database to cut and paste statistics into a Word document so that we can then add a short commentary and RAG rate them (i.e. use traffic light colours to denote bliss, indifference and horror), then send said statistics back to the people who already had them, and who show little actual interest in any of the prose-form things we say to them except when someone snitches to senior management about what I write here.*

Why we lack a system that can send the relevant person the relevant figures, already RAG rated so that we can do the important bit of saying how we'll fix the bad bits is clearly a question for my superiors but I will note that I missed two days of writing lectures and research (sorry, 'generating outputs') for which failure my colleagues and I will no doubt be roundly criticised by some other aspect of the Terror. Added to the general sense of pointlessness is the unavoidable fact that with recruitment at rock bottom, all the stats for my course are statistically insignificant.

That said, the major issue for my courses is BME attainment and turning from general awareness to cold hard facts is salutary: worse progression through the years and a lower chance of achieving a First or a 2.1. The reasons, of course, are complex and the classes are so small that individual situations make a huge difference to how they're doing, but the plain fact is that these students have been failed at school level, are more likely to be economically deprived, and we're failing to make up for this at university. My course is culturally open - analysis of texts and theoretical approaches reveals that we teach more books/poems/plays by and about people from ethnic minorities than pretty much anywhere else, and we've always highlighted postcolonial theory and related ideas even when we're looking at texts generated by the hegemony (I dream of offering a modules called The Brits Are At It Again which could cover pretty much every subject), but it's not the complete answer. I keep thinking about offering a discrete module on BME Literature and Theory (we have one called Women's Writing), which has some attractions in that it would highlight some amazing work, but I fear that unless it was compulsory, it would attract BME students while most others would avoid it. Also, the staff is all-white and while it's horrendous to think only BME students and staff could study or teach this material, white authority explaining black cultures is not a good look.

We offer enormous amounts of academic support, but I'm damned if I'll put on classes specifically for BME students as if they were a problem, which is how the Office for Students metric obsession wants us to think. Some years ago when I was a governor someone proposed monitoring black students' usage of the library so that we could contact them to encourage them to do more. Imagine the headlines if that got out: 'University Stalks Black Students'.

No doubt there are sensible and progressive ways to close the gap, and universities should be at the forefront of correcting social injustices, but it's a tricky one. Luckily we do have experts on hand, and a lot of bell hooks' work in the library so we'll get there. At least, I sometimes tell myself, we haven't avoided the issue entirely by simply not admitting more than the occasional token BME student, as certain other institutions seem to do. In my deepest fantasies, I get a reply from the head of learning and teaching to whom I appealed for help with this, back in the halcyon hours of March 6th 2018.

In other news, I've managed to read a couple of books in between the form-filling and the fever dreams of form-filling. I read Margaret Atwood's The Testaments in two sittings. The cover design is rather lovely, but more significantly, the green Handmaid seems like a deliberate assertion of difference from the TV series' now iconic design, as though Atwood is determined that the reader understand from the start that they're separate cultural projects. I have to say that I didn't find the sequel as richly rewarding as The Handmaid's Tale though most of the writing is as stylish as ever. For a realist novel, the resolution felt rather wishful: without wishing to give away spoilers, I'm not sure that media exposure of a regime's evils is enough now we're in an era where our rulers label everything inconvenient 'fake news', while generating actual fake news seemingly with every breath. What did convince me, at least in my current despondent frame of mind, is Atwood's refusal to imagine a popular uprising for justice and equality. Little sign of that happening anywhere. What I liked most was the return of Professor Peixoto and the other historians at the conference. It's the oft-overlooked framework to the central narrative in the original text, and one which locates Gilead's origins in forms of male arrogance and superiority that pop up everywhere. The professor's exegesis of Offred's and Lydia's testimonies are colonial and confident: he makes little jokes and establishes a gap between what women write (personal, unstable, untrustworthy, limited) and what men write (history, fact, judgement). In the end though, I think The Testaments is a bit too comforting, a bit too keen to help us believe that justice will be done in the end. I don't believe in the inevitability of progress, in divine purpose, or in the Marxist march of history. Things happen for reasons but there's no linear movement towards the right answers.

I have also acquired a second-hand Kindle to play with. I'm deeply conflicted about this because other than loading it with PDFs, it means I'm tied to Amazon to some extent. However, my house is literally stuffed with thousands of books and I'm struggling to carry enough volumes when I go on holiday, so I decided to try an e-reader for books I know I'll only ever read once, and for travelling. The physical experience is OK, but I am detecting a weird change in the way I read. Everything on the screen seems less substantial in a way, and I find myself more aware of a pressure to read more quickly rather than carefully. I don't quite understand why yet, but it's definitely real. It feels more like consuming something than engaging with it as I do with paper books. Perhaps it's the thrill of the new, perhaps something else. For the record, I read Katherine Arden's interesting Russian folk story-influenced bildungsroman The Bear and the Nightingale (enjoyable and evocative but could have done with a little more editing), Catherine O'Flynn's Lori and Max (her first children's novel, and one which worked really, really well) and Becky Chambers' The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet which I mentioned previously.

It's not the only device that's been on my mind this week: I somehow lost my mobile phone at work which is obviously an enormously expensive and bureaucratically tedious mistake to make, but one which made me realise quite how dependent I am on it psychologically. Losing access to email away from the office, instant news from a variety of sources and the power to comment instantaneously was both stressful to an embarrassing degree, but also liberating to some extent. I may have mentioned that I don't have an internet connection at home, partly through lethargy but partly because I know myself well enough to predict that I'd never be able to switch off either from work or idle, aimless browsing. Having a smartphone meant I could access the good and the bad whenever I wanted, without the temptation of spending my life staring at a large screen promising all human life all the time, inviting me to point out everyone else's mistakes too. Or as Randall Munroe puts it:

And now I must away to write the two lectures for Monday that I should have written if I hadn't spent  two whole days wrestling with stats that your average Raspberry Pi could have provided before it was even switched on. Enjoy your weekend.

* Hi Snitchy!

Friday, 27 September 2019

Freshers' Week Placeholder Post

It has been - even by Induction Week standards - a humdinger. We have students, though an amputee could count them on her finger. They are interesting, lively, funny, eccentric, nervous, sharp, wary and – as in every single year – fans of The Shawshank Redemption and the music of Queen. We glean this information from our initial ice-breaker session, during which we ask them which cultural artefacts they'd present to invading alien overlords to protect us from galactic cancellation. Apart from these two appalling, evergreen choices, they picked the novel, film and soundtrack of The Perks of Being A Wallflower (which I now own, thanks to my GTA, appalled that I've never seen it), Bladerunner, 'Moonlight Sonata', the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings. This year nobody picked Shakespeare, the Brontës or any other 'Classics': they clearly had the confidence not to recycle ideas of what's good for them derived from school curricula. I do my best to ruin this by mentioning Queen's decision to play in apartheid South Africa, but it never works. Between bouts of dyspeptic sarcasm, we use the list to embark on a Cultural Studies-influenced discussions of canonisation, cultural taste, power, hierarchies, the mirage of 'universal' art and gatekeepers. It's always really interesting and gets people talking.

Away from the classroom it's been even more farcical than usual. Our 2-year (!!!) process for altering courses and modules failed spectacularly and the electronic timetable resembles a game of Russian roulette played with those clown guns that put out a flag with a slightly flatulent note. Every time I persuade them to give me a lecture room fire regulations say is big enough for the class, they punish me by removing one of the seminar rooms, then change them all without telling me or the students. We've also specialised in holding orientation events without actually informing those meant to be oriented. Josef K may not have known the specific charges, nor the room number of time of his arraignment, but at least he was told where the court met. The usual horrors of modern academia haven't slowed down either – yesterday I received a parcel of 150 non-urgent letters to sign and return within 24 hours, in Induction Week, have a week to produce our Academic Enhancement Plans, because obviously my colleagues and I have nothing on in the first week or two of the new academic year (how I'm going to memorise the new acronyms is the least of the challenges). Colleagues have joined and left us within 2 weeks, and the near future is an endless vista of redundancy farewells.

Still, there are compensations. I'm teaching Children's Lit, American Lit, Populist Texts and academic skills this semester: far from my research but all interesting and giving me ways back to things I enjoyed as an undergrad. I'm currently knee-deep in Paul Dunbar, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay for American Lit. I've always wanted to teach Dickinson in particular and now I've got to decide what the hell to say about her work beyond 'wow'. A day later I'm doing Tank Engine Thomas Again, so you know, have opinions, will travel…

Reading and leisure have fallen by the wayside a little in the manic run-up to teaching starting, but I've managed a few things. I refereed a fencing competition very badly; went fencing myself for the first time since my collarbone was broken and only embarrassed myself as much as usual, and read a couple of books. They included the second and third of Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy, which I enjoyed a lot - they use an SF trope to take a sociological look at the power of narrative and story to define a society. Highly recommended. Ian McDonald's Brasyl was also thrilling - set in three times (18th C, 2006 and 2033) in Brazil, the novel mashes colonial history, religion and quantum physics up very satisfyingly indeed, though there is a touch of the 'breasted boobily to the stairs' man-writes-female-characters in there. I'm also on the last few pages of Sydney Owen's 1805 novel The Wild Irish Girl, an epistolary novel in the high romantic style which appeals to the English to treat the Irish as actual human beings with culture and feelings and is a very early example of the kind of nation-building exercise Benedict Anderson identifies in Imagined Communities. The dialogue is astonishingly highly-flown, the plot is thin: (dissolute young man is exiled to his father's Irish estate, falls in love with Glorvina the Irish princess, meets some Catholics without descending straight to hell, achieves spiritual and sexual synthesis between the two nations on an equal basis. All concerned are fluent in French, Latin, Italian and Irish poetry, there are in-story footnotes that last for pages and I'm enjoying it hugely. Perhaps the Brexit negotiators should get a copy each.

Time to go - a retirement party to attend and then a PhD to read. Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Vroom vroom

Good morning. It's late September and the temperature here is 22 Celsius. That's not right. Today is also the date of the short Climate Strike, which I will be joining even though I'm cynical about the whole thing.

I'm 44, with no children, no car and I fly only in unavoidable situations (certainly no more than once every few years and never for leisure). I cycle most places and get the train everywhere else, so my carbon footprint isn't as high as the average porky white European – but it's still enormous compared with the vast mass of humanity which is brown, poor, non-European and dying right now thanks to people like me demanding more stuff right now. I used to console myself that I'd be dead before things got really bad - all the new research suggests that that's a forlorn hope as well as a selfish one.

I work in a university which installed a CHP plant on one campus some time ago then seemed to give up - not one of our new buildings has the highest BREEAM rating, not even the brand new School of Architecture and the Built Environment. Not a ground-source heat pump or solar panel to be seen, though we are in bed with two particularly damaging car makers. But still, the VC asked for volunteers for a committee to think about these things (it's never met) and encouraged us to re-use the cardboard sleeves on our non-recyclable coffee cups. Bicycle parking spaces have been reduced, there's no covered or secure storage, and no changing facilities. I should say that I'm at odds with a lot of my trades union comrades too - the lack of and potential loss of parking spaces is a huge issue here, because it's hard to think of a society that isn't designed around individual metal boxes transporting individuals long distances.

That's why I'm cynical about work-approved strikes: it lets employers look benevolent and woke while doing absolutely nothing - the appropriation and enfeebling of youthful energy that should be applied much more uncompromisingly. Well over 90% of my students commute from within 30km of the university: my suggestion of a ride-sharing app went nowhere. There are train lines between our campuses, but there's no sign we'll negotiate free or cheap travel and lay on an electric bus for the last mile; the VC and his team have a shiny Jaguar limo and driver which runs on liquefied animals. Business travel is still seen as a perk rather than a shame. When I was on the Board of Governors, several people turned up late to one meeting, all citing traffic. I asked if they'd driven, and they seemed a bit insulted by my observation that they too constituted the aforesaid traffic.

My cycle to work takes about 20 minutes, along flat, smooth roads, past a private school, an FE college, a primary school and a state grammar school. This morning I counted SUVs instead of swearing at them: 90 off-road vehicles, all pumping out poison for the purpose of making parents feel protective and/or powerful. I'd like my employer, schools and other employers to start banning particularly poisonous vehicles from their grounds - we need to start treating these things like weapons. There's a place for 4x4s: on farms, just as knives belong in kitchens rather than on the streets. More whimsically, I'd promote visible shame by adding coloured, foul-smelling dye to exhaust systems so that we can all see just what each vehicle is doing to us all. Even better, we could do this and route the exhaust through the passenger cabin before it makes its way outside. A few years ago I read Keith Brasher's book on the evolution of the SUV into a popular choice for the non-farming/mountain ranger market (several American carmakers are getting rid of their saloon ranges because drivers only want SUVs). It wasn't an accident: they identified a group of paranoid, selfish and inadequate people and designed a vehicle that would specifically appeal to them: the oversized, over-powered, physically dominant 4x4, marketed to appeal to parents keen on safety (not that of the people they run over, of course) and sociopath who wanted to literally look down on everyone. Who knew that would encompass 50% of Americans?

I know this sounds nasty but we've tried nudging people. Governments and polluters have worked really hard to make sure we do nothing. The Australian, American and Brazilian governments are the most obvious liars and cheats, but the British government did nothing, for example, when Volkswagen was caught deliberately cheating on emissions tests. VW, by the way, says it's sorry, but I can't help noticing that it had a major push to sell more SUVs this summer, with its 'SUV event'. Check out this ad, which uses 'confidence' where one might otherwise use the word 'aggression'.

There's also the added wrinkle of class justice: one astute working-class student observed that I was trying to stop them having all the luxuries that people of my class and age took for granted, and although it's not true of me personally (all my childhood holidays consisted of us sitting in a broken-down 4th-hand car in the Irish rain on the way to another meal of cabbage and boiled potatoes) it's hard to deny, especially when my retired colleagues leave at a decent age on the kind of pensions I can only envy.

That nasty genius Philip Larkin had something to say about intergenerational justice:

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Talking of which, I spent yesterday with (most of) my colleagues taking a course on suicide and self-harm prevention. With the near-abolition of dedicated, in-house, easily accessible mental health support (for staff, too), we're all being encouraged to know the signs and how to address emergencies - something I'm entirely supportive of, despite knowing that the structural and social causes of anxiety in the  institution and outside it will not be addressed in any meaningful way. I've done my years of youth sport volunteering, including spotting self-harm and eating disorders, hearing disclosures of abuse and neglect, and it's profoundly depressing that I get to use all that training every week as part of my working life too. We've built a society that functions as a gigantic anxiety engine, then handed over the soap-boxes to people who call the kids and anyone else with a better idea 'snowflakes'. Maybe Douglas Adams was right, we shouldn't have come down from the trees.

So I'll be outside later, but not with any high hopes at all. The narcissistic wing of my generation will be laughing at us from behind the tinted windows of the gigantic bourgemobiles they think they somehow 'deserve', and lots of the kids will later be picked up from school and taken home in SUVs - later they'll probably do the recycling and think they're doing their bit.

And on that bitter note, I'll leave you to it. All the students are back next week, so I'm off to practice my optimistic smile.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Duffed up - Carol Ann Duffy and more

OK, so I'm back from my Carol Ann Duffy and the Laureateship conference. With a cold and lots to think about. I was pretty shocked to discover that there hasn't been one before: whatever you think about her poetry (and it's fair to say there's a wide range of views), she's been prominent for forty years and has been Poet Laureate for a decade. Also: the London Review Of Books has ignored her: one review in 1995, a collective review of 3 women poets a few years later, and a blog post. That's really poor. As poets go, she's big. And yet so little critical attention paid to her writing and advocacy. Luckily Mari Hughes-Edwards, the energetic organiser, has a book out soon, and others are also producing criticism.

Last week was exhausting and challenging. Writing about such a sensitive thing as a Laureate - royally-appointed, freighted with expectations - at a time when the country she's meant to represent is falling (deservedly) apart, coloured my own paper considerably. Endlessly refreshing various live blogs tracking the collapse of Britain's ramshackle constitutional arrangements in real time made me look at her recent and older work in a new light. What is this 'country', this 'nation' she talks about? Who are the 'we' that crops up in her poetry and in My Country (Caradoc Evans used My People with savage irony - I'm not sure Duffy does the same), the 'verbatim' play she produced with Rufus Norris. How are the Scots, the English, the Welsh, the Irish and rural people represented in her work? Given she's produced so much poetry over the decades, in so many styles and addressing so many topics, it would be a fool's errand to suggest there's a singular or coherent Duffy: it's a label attached to an evolving set of interests and practices.

That said, I traced a consistent pro-unionist, anglocentric thread, suggesting that Duffy's invocations of Scottishness (Wales and NI rarely appear) are somewhat touristic, and that her frequent recourse to the provincial, the pastoral or bucolic to denote authenticity or real-ness inadvertently chimes with Nigel Farage's infamous claim to represent the 'real' people - My Country is a prime example. Not for the first time, the countryside is presented as a reservoir of realness, while the city is a place of unstable change, in which people reinvent themselves or lose touch with reality. In Duffy's case, this manifests itself too in a total distrust of politicians, who are seen as manipulators of language and of people. This worries me: defining anyone as 'real' means others are 'unreal'; if you root your 'authentic' people in the countryside you're excluding an awful lot of people; if you assume that people are easily manipulated you're assuming that they're passive recipients of power and discourse rather than participants; if you claim that those on the periphery are somehow immune to media discourse (how?) then you're endorsing ideas that perhaps should be challenged. I also thought that it was a bit unfair for a poet, of all people, to criticise others for using language manipulatively! Demarcation, I suppose…

I don't think that Carol Ann Duffy caused Brexit, despite my somewhat provocative phrasing during the conference (the first comment in response to my paper was 'you've crossed a line') and I accept that subtler readings of her work are available, but I do think that whereas writers and critics in Welsh, Gaelic and Irish, or writers of English from Wales, Ireland/NI and Scotland think about identity all the time, English writers have rarely had to consider the assumptions underlying their constructions of nation, country and state. Duffy has had to do this in public to some extent: the Scottish Referendum and the EU Referendum required poetic responses, and her 'Shore to Shore' tour showed us a poetry community shocked to a core by a 'people' whose liberal-leftish convictions turned out to be wishful projections on the part of the poet. 'Shore to Shore' became a kind of therapy for an small imagined nation of nice pro-European people distributed across the landmass, while My Country staged – in troubling ways – a confrontation between Britannia and 'the regions', silently judged by a metropolitan audience unrepresented on stage.

To be talking about all this in the British Academy last week was thrilling and scary – as I spoke, a demonstration passed by outside the window, on the way up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Will there be many more poets laureate? I don't know: it's a complicated appointment – royal, political, British but also (which I didn't know) meant to cover the Commonwealth. Wales and Scotland have their own national poets; the island of Ireland has something equivalent in all but name. Is the poet laureate essentially England's national poet? I think Duffy has done a good job in some ways, especially symbolically. Tony Blair apparently, apocryphally, declined to appoint her because her bisexual socialist ways might scare the Daily Mail horses. This biography (including her Irish, Scottish and Midlands connections) is important, but also I think misleading: we see modernity in her origins and beliefs, and therefore read it into her poetry when – as I've suggested above – there are other interpretations available, particularly from a Four Nations perspective and especially when looking at the work produced in response to public events (I think 'The Crown' is metonymic to the point of evasiveness). Certainly Katie Ailes's tour of Duffy's somewhat touristic representations of Scotland demonstrate this: too much heather and shortbread. At one point on the 'Shore To Shore' tour Duffy exclaimed 'Je Suis Haggis': funny, but also rather reductive of a complex and changing culture. It's the kind of thing you can say if you live in Scotland, engaging daily in its conversations. To crack this kind of gag from outside is questionable, at least.

Anyway, that was my view, and it sparked considerable debate (and an argument with a man from the BBC who objected to me describing it as the bourgeois voice of the imperial centre). Scary, but also fun. Thankfully however, everyone else's papers were much better. Mari's examinations of Duffy's use of spiritual and religious language was superb, though I would add that Duffy's representation of Catholicism is actually of Irish Catholicism in England, which is distinct from Catholicism in general, from Irish Catholicism, and from English Catholicism, in form, tone, cultural and content. You can thank several violent Irish nuns and monks in my past for that insight. Angelica Michelis's gave a stunning reading of Duffy's concept of 'foreigners' (and added some really important observations on the gaps in my own approach), while Katie's Scotland material was almost effortlessly innovative. The other speakers on my panel were Niamh Downing (Sheffield Hallam but not on the website) and Özlem Özturk and even through my nervous terror I learned an enormous amount and came away realising that I needed to re-read Duffy's work again, more slowly and more carefully. Emma Deeks talked the next day about teaching Duffy's work and again, I realised that beyond the obvious topics around 'Mrs Schofield's GCSE' (the poet's witty response to an external examiner denouncing her work as promoting knife crime), it speaks to adolescents in profound ways, whatever snobbery is attached to 'GCSE poets'. David Alderton's painstaking elucidation of Duffy's poetic practice as it relates to sexualities was a master-class in applied Raymond Williams/cultural materialism, while Alice Entwistle's examination of Rapture: sex, text and inter text was simply a virtuoso performance. I've literally never heard such a wide-ranging, precise, detailed close reading of anything. Simply amazing. Apart from anything else, her description of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (they aren't) as the filthiest verses ever written has really made me evaluate that poet (though I reckon Gwerful Mechain still edges it).

I went into this conference exhausted, worried and slightly ill. I came out of it even more ill and exhausted, better-informed, full of questions and having had my understanding of Duffy's poetry and practice radically altered. All this, and a number of creative events too, including the Art Does Not Get You A Job network launch - something I'd encourage you all to get involved with. It was scary and also exciting to be off my usual territory of Welsh/Celtic literatures and I'm sure my clodhopping brutality wasn't entirely welcome, but I loved the exposure to new ideas and approaches and found myself still thinking about things days later.

Apart from the conference, 'tis all go. Numerous university systems have failed to function, so I'm trying to pacify rightly annoyed students; preparations for next term are advancing (a bit); graduation is looming; we've had a staff conference on the OfS's next set of metrics and on improving outcomes for underperforming students; I've a PhD to read ready to examine in a few weeks' time, and all sorts of bits and pieces.

Other highlights of last week include going to an Irish centre to watch Kerry v Dublin in the All-Ireland (Gaelic) Football final. I confess to preferring hurling, but the match was a thriller throughout – I'm just sorry that, as I'm refereeing the Shropshire Open fencing on Saturday, I'm going to miss the replay in which Kerry will definitely win. The very next day, it was off to Stratford for a performance of the rarely-performed Venice Preserved, by Thomas Otway. While it had a few uneven qualities, it was a rip-roaring production (though a bit derivative, especially the V for Vendetta masks that are now a terrible cliché) and the script certainly doesn't explain why it's on so seldom – it's a mix of comedy, tragedy and revenge tragedy, although all the unhappiness could have been avoided if the dad (played, I realised the next day, by Les Dennis!) had accepted that children, including daughters, grow up and out. I assume that it was put on as a result of Brexit - it's another story of corrupt old men and younger populists manipulating the people with little thought for the public good. The ominous ending reminds me of the onrushing war at the end of Hamlet and the transmission of the blood feud to the next generation in Malfi.

I've also managed to do some reading apart from multiple volumes of Duffy's work. Curiously, after a few months of reading books mostly by women, I've hit a patch of apocalyptic books by men, exploring the social and cultural effects of isolation and disaster. Perhaps Brexit is weighing down on my unconscious. The only one by a woman I've read this week is Becky Chambers' The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet which won a lot of awards. I'm fully on board with the praise for its Sad Puppy-annoying evocation of a plurisexual, plurispecies universe in which humans are simply slightly annoying latecomers, but found the actual writing a tad leaden. Having been a bit disappointed by Robert McCrum's In The Secret State, I picked up his The Fabulous Englishman with low expectations, but found myself moved by this story of a conflicted, inadequate, failed author and his entanglement with some Cold War Czechs with real problems. The territory (curdled masculinity, creative failure) was more familiar perhaps than Chambers's work but the structure, narrative and sentence construction betrayed a lot of care and thought. Then I read M John Harrison's Empty Space, the sequel to Light and Nova Swing. I'm a huge fan of Harrison, thanks years ago to my friend Adam. His work emerges from the 'inner space' carved out by Ballard and Moorcock, redefining science fiction away from 'outer space' to the realms of the psyche – Harrison's work is as much literary fiction in the best sense as it is science fiction (also in the best sense), and Empty Space is a triumph with a great cat and like great literature of any genre, it makes you work. After that, I read the second of Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy, which explores the results of social and cultural isolation amongst a small group of in-bred colonists – it's programmatic but driven by intellectual curiosity and sociological complexity, plus interesting linguistic quirkiness. Funnily enough, I'm halfway through Robert Harris's The Second Sleep, a reliable middle-brow author's move back on to speculative fiction terrain after Fatherland all those years ago. This time what appears to be a medievalist The Name of the Rose story (naive young priest uncovers horrors while tidying up after a parish priest's death) turns out to be a mix of Riddley Walker and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Harris has clearly been reading these and discussions of how fragile contemporary infrastructures are and projected his findings into a post-apocalypse England. Whether it's Brexit, environmental collapse or antibiotic resistance that collapsed our society is left unstated, but the fall of Rome is also added to the mix.

Next up: Emma Dabiri's Don't Touch My Hair.

PS. Almost forgot: I read The Warehouse by Rob Hart: a good novel about the soul-sapping, anti-democratic, economy-crushing behaviour of a company that definitely isn't Amazon (it definitely is). I bought my copy from Waterstone's. In person.