Friday, 31 July 2009

All must have prizes

Every year, the university awards honorary degrees to people it thinks have contributed to the community. I was pretty angry when they gave one to the father of India's illegal and immoral nuclear weapons programme, but by and large, they're a good bit of publicity and a fine way to recognise sometimes unheralded work.

The full list for this year is out, and available here. Amongst them, Sathnam Sanghera wrote a fascinating account of his double life as a good Sikh boy and as a journalist playboy - though an honorary doctorate for one book and a lot of articles is a little premature. Nigel Slater fully deserves his, and most of the rest seem like fair choices.

Except, perhaps, for Esther Rantzen. Yes, she's done great things with Childline, but she's now a parliamentary candidate, and it looks like we're endorsing yet another celebrity who thinks fame is a passport to authority. (Then again, our Chancellor is a tax-avoider and leading New Labour shill).

Oddly, no mention on the uni's website of 250 redundancies.

And so farewell, everybody else

Thanks Vice-Chancellor. Your pay leaped from £145,000 five years ago to £212,000 the year before last (and we suspect you've had a decent raise last year too). You've called in expensive 'consultants' from McCann Erickson, and you've expanded the upper tier of management.

Meanwhile, down here where we do the, y'know, teaching, you've repeatedly told us that we're no good, and now you're sacking 250 staff. Or rather, not sacking but 'repositioning', 'achieving savings' and 'losing' staff, as though we're spare change down the back of the sofa.

Oddly, you don't find room to mention, in your list of financial pressures, management's failure to honestly and accurately record student numbers for the government - leading to having to give back several million pounds. Not a word of apology, no suggestion that you and your top table mates will take a pay cut, let alone a resignation.

Shame on you.

So farewell then, Lesley Tennick

Lesley has been the school secretary in my institution for 18 years and 11 months, and I've been there for almost ten years of that.

She's a canny Geordie who always managed to make phone calls, type letters and keep an eagle eye on the stationery cupboard at the same time, always wreathed in flowers. There were periods when I was months behind with my rent because management couldn't be bothered to sign contracts for teaching already done, and Lesley would put on her stern face, say 'leave it to me' and march into her boss's office - payment would be forthcoming within days. She also never quite conveyed the exasperation she must have felt when we lost keys, forms, forgot to give lectures etc. etc. - she would calmly sort it all out with minimum fuss.

Without Lesley, the place would be chaotic, as well as much less pleasant to work in. We'll miss her.

Lughnasadh Friday conundrum

Tomorrow's Lughnasadh, the Irish festival of harvest, horse-racing and handfasting (trial year-and-day marriages), so you have a choice of conundrums (conundra?) today. A little more light-hearted after the previous couple…

1. With whom, given the sweep of history, would you have contracted a handfasting? I'm torn between Lauren Bacall (stunning actor, fiercely intelligent, independent and strongly left-liberal), Katharine Hepburn (ditto), Rosa Luxemburg (martyr of the German left) and Madame de Staël, intellectual, radical and bon viveuse. Or Ingrid Bergman just because.

2. Who's the unsung hero/heroine you'd bring to public attention? I'd go for 'Freeborn' John Lilburne, the real lefty radical of the English Civil War period, or Lewis Jones - author, communist, councillor, lover, syndicalist, prisoner, a man who went to Moscow during the purges and alone refused to join in with the compulsory standing ovation when Stalin walked in - all this before dying at 41 years old. Part of my PhD was on Jones's novels.

3. What cheese are you? Obviously this will change by mood and day. I'm tending towards an organic unpasteurised Stilton - not flashy, an acquired taste, may kill you.

Here's a clip from Hepburn's Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Blog your way to unemployment

I'm fairly outspoken here on Plashing Vole, particularly on work matters, but I tend to 'play the ball, not the man', as the saying goes. It's a good job too: my sister in Dublin sent me this piece about a court case between a lecturer and his college president (vice-chancellor equivalent), part of which centres on the lecturer's blog, which turned rather nasty:
A ROW between a college lecturer and his university boss boiled over onto the internet when a web blog called on the president to reveal whether his father was a member of the Nazi party.

The Nazi reference appeared in a blog in September last year. It said it was time the professor revealed whether his father was a member of the Nazi party, if he fought in World War II and whether he was coerced or was a willing participant.

To boldly go(rgonzola)

Thanks to Christine, who sent me this article about space cheese! Somerset cheesemakers launched a cheddar cheese 30km up, to the edge of space, on a weather balloon. The idea was for the balloon to burst and the cheese to plummet to earth (surely it would melt on re-entry?) - but their GPS has failed so nobody knows where it is.

So, readers, look out for a massive block of cheese embedded with meteorites. Christine suggests this is a mission for the Map Twats, and I agree. Look to the skies, people, look to the skies!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Thick Edg(baston)

Bye everybody. After a cricketless day in the office, I'm off to sit in the sunshine with a book and TMS (Test Match Special) chuntering on in the background. It's no OBO, but there's something blissful about the sounds of cricket interspersed with nice-but-dim commentators, especially when they enthuse over the cakes sent in by fans, if that hasn't been stopped by the fear of poisoning.

Back crackers sacked!

Sorry for the pun. I am truly ashamed. It's the only humorous bit of this piece though.

I love blogging and bloggers because it allows the power of millions of bloody-minded nerds to be harnessed for troublemaking purposes.

Here's an example. As this article summarises, Simon Singh is a serious science writer who quite rightly described chiropractic as 'bogus' - i.e. pointing out that chiropractors' claims that their art can cure all sorts of ailments is untrue, a point supported by the Advertising Standards people, lots of proper scientists and so on.

The chiropractors' trade body quietly told all their members to remove any health claims from their websites to avoid prosecution. Then, instead of providing evidence for their assertions or conducting trials, they sued Singh, who has no money, for a six-figure sum, essentially using Britain's incredibly biased libel laws to silence a critic.

It didn't quite work. Thousands of informed bloggers reprinted the article as did Cosmos, an Antipodean popular science magazine), ripped apart the claims of the chiropractors and generally blew the story up. I'm proud to join in.

Shamefully, the Guardian withdrew the original article, though now it seems to have grown a little backbone in printing the account of proceedings. Almost there, Guardian! Although it's easier for annoyances like me to post stuff like this because I'm not worth suing.

So here it is, courtesy of 'gimpy', who added the comments in [].

Beware the spinal trap

This is Chiropractic Awareness Week. So let’s be aware. How about some awareness that may prevent harm and help you make truly informed choices? First, you might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that, “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

[This claim comes from D.D. Palmer The Science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic. Portland, Oregon: Portland Printing House Company, 1910.]

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

[This claim comes from D.D. Palmer The Science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic. Portland, Oregon: Portland Printing House Company, 1910.]

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

[These claims are found in the following documents from the BCA website, Happy Families and A Real Pain in the Back.]

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

[All details on Ernst's research on chiropractic can be found on PubMed here. Simon Singh has indeed co-authored a book with Professor Ernst.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

[This appears to be personal opinion based on research conducted by Ernst & others and is not libellous.]

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

[This paper can be found here]

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

[This is a personal opinion based on evidence]

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

[Some reports here.]

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.

[Details of this case and some conclusions here.]

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Professor Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

[Details in this paper.]

Bearing all of this in mind, I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week – if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Beware of Singh's Sense About Science supporters though. They do some good work in opposing nutters, and have a convincing set of representatives, but they're a front group for some extremist weirdos who gather around Living Marxism, the Insitute of Ideas and Spiked, organisations formed of ex-Trotskyists who now exist solely to push the ultra-libertarian ideals of doing whatever large corporations want and never questioning the behaviour or motives of global capitalism. Interestingly, they all use pseudonyms and don't seem to like dialogue. We're down the rabbithole here, children - they're a fascinating example of what happens to vanguardist leftists who lose sight of reality and become ultrarightwing - as happened to many of Bush's henchmen. Lobbywatch summarises their network here, here and more shockingly here.

A break in the grind

This life does have its compensations. After a full morning's work (ahem), I went for a long, lazy lunch at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (very fine indeed) with Christine - two hours of gossip and Very Important Topics flew by. Bliss.

Tricky moral point

I was lying in bed listening to Radio 4 this morning when I caught this fragment:

'Why wouldn't you want a disabled child? It adds to the richness of human diversity'.

It pissed me off a little. I've worked with disabled children and have seen the joy they bring, just as any child does. But the idea being mooted was that people should choose to inflict disability on a child to make an abstract point is horrifyingly selfish. Sure, accept that your child will be disabled - but that's different.

Try this:
'Mummy, why can't I walk, move, feed myself or control my bowels when all the other children can, and why am I in constant pain?'
'Well dear, that's what we wanted. You add to the richness of human diversity'.

I just think it's morally wrong to deliberately inflict disability on a human life. I wouldn't abort a child because he or she was going to be born with a disability, but to impose suffering on an abstract point is plain wrong. Does anyone want their child to have a disability? I know there's a subculture in the deaf community which chooses to have deaf children so that there's a common culture between parents and children, and I'm very uncomfortable with that - removing a faculty for social reasons seems like a deliberate denial of that child's right to a full life. I know that deaf culture is rich and diverse - but it seems perverse to suggest that many deaf people wouldn't like to hear.

This is da bomb!

Good morning (or evening or afternoon for my far-flung readers). How are you all today? Here the sun's breaking through the clouds, a Test match is being played 19 miles away (weather permitting), and I've received a pile of CDs in the post (I have a new card, but no PIN, so can only shop online for now).

What has Postman Pat brought me today? John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony and three CDs of Vaughan Williams: 'Sancta Civitas' and 'Dona nobis pacem' (VW was a cheerful agnostic or atheist and liberal to left - 'Sancta Civitas' is an interesting exploration of the fate of the soul while 'Dona Nobis Pacem' is a warning against war), Folksong Arrangements and Choral Folksong Arrangements (which also has some Holst). Normally my tastes are a little more modernist, but I've a soft spot for VW, and he's on the classical wing of the peace and socialism movement - folk songs were (like the 1960s) a way to demonstrated solidarity and to reconnect with culture unadulterated by bourgeois atomisation - though not always successfully. The Adams is a symphonic version of his latest opera, which follows Robert Oppenheimer as he builds the first nuclear weapon - I can't afford the actual opera recording yet, but it'll come.

Meanwhile, Steve Reich, when's Double Sextet being released? It won prizes ages ago and it still isn't commercially available. Boo!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Phone me up, Scotty!

Right, I'm going to the pub now, but thought I'd leave you with this.

William Shatner has left an answerphone message for every Hewlett-Packard employee reminding them that their computers still contain poisonous chemicals, breaking a promise. Go Captain Kirk!

It's environmentalism Jim, but not as we know it

Gilded youth and how to pass the time

Of what, you might ask, does my glamorous life consist? Long, lazy holidays, oak-panelled libraries and intellectual discussion? Dry sherry in the senior common room?

Not exactly. I've just returned from a three hour meeting with six other people on the ramifications of grading caretakers as C or B on Question 43. It was a fascinating insight into management techniques, and everything unfolded as my briefing predicted: decisions taken suddenly hadn't been taken, minutes were available only to the other side (despite my colleague being on the panel which had taken a decision), definitions were fudged, dubious alliances were mooted and voices were raised. The past was rewritten and everybody went home older, unhappier and none the wiser (except that my Marxist principles were once again reinforced - sorry Ewar!).

Hurry on down…

…not the excellent John Wain novel, but a reminder that The Culture Cheese and Pineapple launches in a few days: sign up now!

Workers of the World, Throw Off Your Labels

Let me tell you a story.

During the first half of the century, people looked at their schools, hospitals, transport systems, mail companies, prisons and a whole host of other services and realised that if they all got together and paid for them to be run by the state, they'd be more efficient and distributed/run fairly. So we gradually acquired state railways, a National Health Service, pensions and other benefits and government-run schools.

Then governments stopped investing in such services properly, because while taxpayers demanded top quality services, they didn't want to pay for them - except in genuinely civilised countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. These services declined - not terribly, but appreciably.

Then a new bunch of lying, smart-suited gits came along and said that 'efficiency' was the preserve of capitalism, because 'competition' would drive prices down. The Conservatives fell for this hook line and sinker, because they don't believe in all of us pulling together anyway - they want competition between citizens. So the rich can buy better services and the rest of us have to put up with whatever we can afford. If you think that's fine, look at the American health service, which takes up far more of the national income than the British one, yet leaves 46 MILLION people outside the healthcare system, on top of a decline in wages since the 1970s. So much for efficiency. The drive to make a profit contradicts the desire for quality - you only have to look at private prisons, 'outsourced' school meals and hospital cleaning or privatised railways to see that profits are derived by cutting corners.

The little things get to me on a daily basis - not being able to afford dental work, Coke machines in schools, 'sponsored' roundabouts, adverts on everything. Prisoners given no chance for rehabilitation because education, drug treatment and pyschiatric help are expensive - and now my institution never mentions the social and intellectual benefits of education: instead, we have a 'business' model in which 'efficiency' conquers all. How 'efficient' is opening a new world to a student through a good book or a fiery discussion? Not at all - so let's get rid of it. O Brave New World.

Think of this: imagine a world without the BBC. No licence fee, you might think. Brilliant. Then you notice that the news is a bit lightweight. Fewer overseas correspondents. Less politics - your advertisers don't want you upsetting the government. Then perhaps the consumer investigations will disappear - your advertisers certainly don't want you criticising them. Perhaps Top Gear, already a whore for the car industry, stops saying anything negative at all. Your soaps start featuring little plugs for products. The weather report tells you to get down to B and Q to buy a barbecue - and suddenly your world has no space not festooned with adverts.

You kick in the TV and lacerate your foot. You dial 118 999 and after a while, it's answered somewhere in Southeast Asia. After some negotiation, a private ambulance arrives, meter running. You look through the brochures, trying to decide which hospital you should go to - the ambulance driver's suggestions carry a hint of 'on commission'. They all look the same - reassuring doctors, smiling nurses, TV in every room, but there's no price list and you can't tell which one's best. You give up and pick the first one on the pile. Oh dear - 15 miles is expensive, and your insurance doesn't cover the ambulance trip. Nor, when you arrive in a state of considerable delirium, does it cover self-inflicted wounds, and treatment will max out your credit card, so you accept an expensive, branded aspirin from a tired doctor wearing a Boots the Chemist white coat and a bandage and hope you get better. Oops - the hospital cleaning has been outsourced to a company which provides inadequate numbers of ununionised, untrained cleaners who, unmotivated by the recently-reduced minimum wage and long hours, don't make the best job of it. So you pick up MRSA.

Time off to recover? No chance - benefits have been cut and privatised, and you're not 'deserving' - you hobble back to minimum wage work and never walk properly again, and lose your job as a postman for one of the private services. You turn to minor crime and end up in a privatised cell for 23 hours a day, losing your skills, getting ill on no exercise and the worst, cheapest food available and picking up a drug habit and some useful criminal skills. On your release you find that your kids, having departed Coke High with no qualifications but a conviction that fizzy drinks help the world to sing 'in perfect harmony', can't support you or even themselves.

All this is because you don't want to pay taxes. Of course, it will only happen to other people. Poor people. You and your kids can go to private schools, elite universities and professional jobs - unsullied by the predations of companies owned by your pension fund and encouraged by the governments you vote in because they talk about 'hard-working families' needing tax-breaks, about 'choice' and efficiency. Not your fault. When they steal from you, smash up your SUV, rob your mobile phone, it's because they're evil, feckless scum who don't want to work or better themselves. Isn't it?

(I gather the US isn't far from this dystopian vision already).

All this, actually, is just a plea for you to read John Harris's piece in today's Guardian, in which he warns us all of what to expect over the next few years. It's grim. Here's a little bit on hospital cleaning:
Not long ago, I met two hospital cleaners whose jobs in Bury St Edmunds had been outsourced to a company that blithely cut the workforce in half. "We were always on about infection in the hospital," one of them said. "Instead of four cleaners on the ward, they said, 'We're going to put it down to two people, but you won't have to hoover.' Effectively, they were saying, 'clean less'."

Don't vote Labour - they love this stuff because it's not socialism and they're all joining the boards of private service providers. Don't vote Tory. They love this stuff because it's not socialism and they own the private service providers. Oh dear.

Sorry. I seem to have become suddenly rather angry. The sooner I move to Norway, the better.

Halcyon days of summer

Morning everybody. It's a good day. I've done 56 lengths again, it's a little gloomy, and the rain's beating on the window like a locked-out girlfriend. I'm expecting Daniel for a day's work under my watchful eye, and I'm planning to settle down with a copy of Almanac, the yearbook of the Association for Welsh Writing in English. Other than that, I've a couple of meetings with management as I'm on duty for the union this week and an early manuscript of my colleague Steve's manuscript on Hinduism to look through. Today's soundtrack is Slint (to whom I introduced Neal yesterday) and perhaps some Thomas Tallis.

All in all, it's going to be a perfect day.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009


Oh dear. Britain's main consumer protection body, the Office of Fair Trading, has been ripped off to the tune of £250,000! Makes me feel a little better about my card being done over.

For solace, turn to the weird poet who connected his testicles to his liver

All the institutional rubbish is getting me down. Here's what it should all be about, thanks to Yeats (not a poet to whom I generally turn)

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

Mythologies (1977) p. 331.

On an unconnected note, I celebrated the return of my bank card by buying the DVD of In The Loop and another anthology of Very Bad Poetry.

(Yeats really did route his testes through his liver, by the way. It was an attempt to redirect 'masculine energy', and he wasn't the only one).

How modern education works

We're not a university, we have an 'academic business model'.
We're not sacking people, we're instituting 'impending efficiency savings'.

Of course, given the current economic climate, we could have made the decision to freeze an Executive post and make the savings. We did consider that but felt, and Governors agreed, that the new post was necessary to help us work more effectively in the new economic climate.

This last, of course, means that teachers, technicians, porters, academic support staff and the like who are going to be dumped overboard can just go fuck themselves, if the alternative is to reduce the troughers in sharp suits who 'manage' us. 'Manage', in this context, means 'sink us with a minimum debt of £5.5 million, possibly rising to £10-12 million'. Way to go, you selfish, greedy bastards.

This place is full of selfish dumbasses

There's a piece on Chinese power generation in today's Guardian: it says that China has very inefficient stations at the moment, but that they're massively altering their economy and industry to make it green.

Cue some idiot called Birdyboy in the comments section, who encapsulates the selfishness of (I suspect) quite a large proportion of the country. This is why we're going to hell.

Yes, and you guys want to stop us flying and eating meat, so we have miserable little lives while the rest of the world keeps on turning. people are not going to stop existing, so stop trying to ruin our fun with pointless new taxes and bans. if we are screwed, then we mat as well enjoy the time we have left. Any anyway, if any a country could do with being 2 degrees hotter it is surely us?

Of cheese and plagiarism

Anita presented me with two of the finest Irish cheeses available, in thanks for wandering around Stoke with her. One of them was a lovely unpasteurised soft cheese from Gubbeen, a West Cork dairy and meat producer.

However - I'd seen their logo somewhere before (I can't copy it from their website, but have a look). As you know, I recently read a biography of Eric Gill - typographer, sculptor, child abuser - and saw this engraving, done on commission for a bakery's bags (wood engraving 1915, published 1929):

Gubbeen - you thieving swine.

The Map Whats?

Lou asked in a comment why we're called the Map Twats and whether the second word has acquired a new meaning.

Er… it has for us, denoting four idiots in the countryside rather than a crude term for pudenda. I wasn't present for the inaugural meeting, but the name springs from a discussion between Neal, Cynical Ben and Dan about an imaginary TV show in which some thirty-something fools get lost in the country but always find a pub. The soundtrack was to be (and this is Neal's fault), Cliff Richard's Way Out In The Country, which apparently features the lines 'You're going to find me/way out in the country'.

My contribution to celebrity culture is a porn mag for monarchists, featuring cadet members of the royal family: Barely Regal.

Still available for weddings, barmitzvahs and children's parties…

Monday, 27 July 2009

The future of music

I know that many of you are, or will become, fans of Cruel Brother, Wolverhampton University's second best band (only joking Zoot - it's a Flight of the Concords reference). Fret no more: you can listen to them all day by clicking here.

Map Twats…

Only Cynical Ben was missing, which is a shame, but it was only a local jaunt and the cheese was limited. A few pictures (more in the previous two posts, and a lot more here)

…and other animals

I don't just like rabbits. I like the Map Twats and their friends, nature and well, other stuff. Here are a few more of the pictures I took the other day. I'm particularly proud of the dragonfly (taken with my 55-200 Nikkor lens), but couldn't quite get the light right for the thrush - it's smashing a snail against a stump.

Rabbit rabbit

I like rabbits. I always had pet ones, and also enjoy them wrapped in beer gravy and pastry. I met this very engaging and helpful animal at home the other day. So I shot it. With my camera, this time. More pictures here.

Morning! Er, afternoon!

Hello all. I've had a day off - hope your lives have been enriched by the opportunity to do something more interesting than read my meandering/whining/moaning.

Where have I been? I've been tramping the mean streets of Stoke-on-Trent and no, I wasn't lost. Anita, who lurks on here, is starting a lecturing job at Keele and needed someone to point out where not to live in Stoke - luckily, she found a great place after 30 minutes and we then drank tea and I tried to say something positive about the place that doesn't include Stoke City FC. Any suggestions?

Guess the workload at Keele University? Is it 13 modules per year, like me? Or 10? Or 3? Does my management think there's a link to teaching quality, student achievement, research output and workload? No, it doesn't.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Death and taxes - only one of these is inevitable for Lord Paul

I mentioned, a few days ago, that my institution's Chancellor, Lord Paul, is a tax-avoider: even though he sits in the House of Lords speaking and voting on current issues, he doesn't think this elevated position comes with a responsibility to pay taxes in this country - so he's declared himself 'non-domiciled' for tax purposes, essentially claiming that he doesn't live here.

These selfish bastards have now been prevented from donating to political parties, after a good deal of pressure on the government, so that's something at least, though I'm still not happy that someone who can propose, promote, speak for or against, vote for or against, is allowed to hide their money from a democratically-elected government.

Lord Paul, to say the least, is in a bit of a huff about this, and doesn't seem to understand the insulting nature of his position. He says he's a law-abiding citizen, and I have no reason to doubt this, but avoiding the taxes that we little people pay while wielding power is hardly in the spirit of the law:

Me, non-doms and the law

Your article "Tycoons pledge to stop bankrolling Labour if 'non-dom' tax bill passes" (News, last week) repeated the misconception that I once said that I am capable of bankrolling the Labour party. I never said that.

When I talked to your reporter, I made it plain that if the bill is passed which prohibits non-doms from giving money to political parties, there is no way I will be able to make a donation. That bill became law last Monday and as a law-abiding citizen I shall, of course, respect it. I will only do what the law allows. I think Labour is the best party for Britain. Gordon Brown's contribution to saving this country from economic collapse is recognised throughout the world.
Lord Paul
London W1

Trenchermen (and women): your ideas please

Oh yes, my youngest sister thinks that this blog needs feeding. More specifically, she'd like culinary inspiration, although the last time I was home she produced stunning home-made Greek lamb and bulgur wheat burgers and a cumin-flavoured salad to melt the heart of a vegetarian Turk!

Neal's been obsessing about cheese ice-cream all week (a taste he acquired in Mexico), he once produced an amazing gumbo, and Kate's an expert with the slow cooker. What about the rest of you? I love cooking, though long hours make it hard to summon up the energy. I do once recall doing a Belgian beer-and-butter soup which my guests didn't love but usually I stick to good old country food: rabbit, pheasant and so on.

Sorry Jo…

A bit of sport, but not too much and not the usual suspects.

This years Tour de France inspired my to get my bike out again, with a lot of help from Neal. Unfortunately, neither I nor my umpteenth-hand racer bear much similarity to what I've been reading about, but what a fantastic race it's been - despite a number (let's not be too specific) of the competitors being on drugs, there have been epic battles, surprises and romance - the return to Mont Ventoux, the mountain which killed Tom Simpson and regularly ends races and careers, Wiggins's results and Cavendish's battle with Thor Hushovd have produced a stunning spectacle. I particularly liked Cavendish/Hushovd's end to their rivalry: yesterday they conspired to put on a 50 metre sprint at the end of a stage and ended it dead-level, grinning madly.

There's just something about the Tour which transcends the grubbiness of the money-and-drugs circus surrounding it. The hugely unreasonable demands on bodies, the fans' obsession, the personal battles and the huge respect felt for those who drag themselves thousands of kilometres without any hope of even a stage win, particularly the Lanterne Rouge (the man at the back).

In other sports news, my brother's made his final (official/professional) appearance in the newspapers, which I thought was worth recording:


Owners attempting to slip amusing or risque names past the censor, can breathe a sigh of relief. Owen [Vole], communications officer at the British Horseracing Authority, who has taken pride in stopping potentially embarrassing monikers from making their way onto racecards, is to leave next month in order to pursue a legal career. His first stop will be a year back in the classroom at Keele University.

The ever-affable [Vole] has often been the first port of call for many a racing journalist when pursuing a story, but his portfolio of tasks has also included dealing with angry punters who regularly ring to vent their spleen about apparent non-triers. "It's not always been easy. I remember someone on the Betfair forum once called me 'The Comical Ali of the BHA' after I defended the ride given by a particular jockey," he told Tattenham Corner.

"I started working under John Maxse at the Jockey Club in 2001 and quickly learnt what the job entailed with the Panorama and Kenyon Confronts investigations. The worst name that I ever managed to let through was a horse called Skanky Biscuit, although I later went back and checked the date it was approved and it was the first day of a skiing holiday, so I obviously had my mind elsewhere. "Now I am returning to Stoke, the city of my birth, and home of the greatest team in the Premier League."

Saturday, 25 July 2009

One of those perfect days

Just a quick hello as I have a quiet five minutes. I've spent the day with Neal, Dan and Georgie, Dan's social worker. Well, girlfriend. We had a wander round my mother's lovely garden, pursued by hens, and then around the Dorothy Clive garden, nodding sagely while Dan and Georgie named various flowers and stuff. I took a few good pictures, including several of a very obliging rabbit, and ate wonderful ice-cream. I'll post some when I get back to the office. 

Then it was off to a antiques craft village (Dagfields Farm), where I managed to spend £30 on books in very little time, despite not having a working cash card yet… it's hard to resist two beautiful 1895/1896 pocket editions of Tennyson ('Locksley Hall' and Other Poems, 'The Spinster's Sweet-Arts' and Other Poems), another Left Book Club edition (Ruth Gruber's I Went to the Soviet Arctic, 1939), Susannah Radstone's Sweet Dreams, about sexuality and gender in popular fiction, a Moomins book I now realise I already have, a good Faber edition of Selected Poems of Louis MacNeice, John Christopher's The Year of the Comet and an M. John Harrison novel I hadn't previously seen, The Committed Men

Best of all, I hardly scraped the surface of the place and will have to return again, and again, and again…

Friday, 24 July 2009

Time to shake off the dust of this crummy burg (for two days)

Farewell for a couple of days. I'm off home to help my littlest sister granny-sit, and to show some of the Map Twats round the Dorothy Clive garden, next door. One of my many summer jobs was taking money from plant thieves. Sorry, I mean collecting entrance fees from plant lovers. It's a most tranquil place, as Bill and Ted would have put it. Have a good weekend.

Well done Norwich

The land of Alan Partridge voted in a 27 year old lobbyist and management consultant Tory, Chloe Smith, after their honest, learned, decent and independent Labour MP Ian Gibson was pushed out by a Labour HQ desperate to get rid of a thorn in their side.

Cameron's always on about the 'new politics' (despite a party in which 60% of its MPs went to fee-paying schools), yet his candidate is a LOBBYIST, a paid corporate liar with virtually no experience of real life - having mostly worked for Tory MPs or Central Office - like him. Still, having a young female MP will look progressive, and it's representation that matters in this postmodernist world.

She has a first-class degree in English - proof that however high your grades are, you can still manage to avoid learning anything.

A musical interlude

It's work, work, work today, following an extra-long swim and an extra-long breakfast. Neal's moved into my office to write his MSc, and everyone thinks he works here. To aid concentration, we're having a Minimalist Marathon, mostly Steve Reich stuff with some Andriessen, Glass, Adams, Feldman and Riley thrown in. Mmmmm… hypnotic. Make a difference from singing Devo's Mongoloid and Sir Mix-A-Lot's 'Baby Got Back' all the time.

Talking of Devo…

Coke is it

A couple of years ago, I had a letter in the Guardian applauding the Metropolitan Police's decision to go after middle-class cocaine users, on the basis that the trade was environmentally destructive and socially harmful in South America - I'm totally indifferent to the effects of cocaine in the UK.

Like most liberals, I used to think that legalisation was the only sane response to the 'drug war': it would bring taxes and enable drug use to be treated as normal (for dope smokers) and as an illness (for heroin users), and in many ways I still endorse these views. In years long gone, I accepted the occasional joint passed round, and very much enjoyed mushrooms collected from the Welsh hillsides - but there's no exploitation involved and the risks were all to me.

But, as George Monbiot points out today, far more eloquently than I ever could, heroin and coke production ruins the environment, enslaves peasants and fuels all sorts of other oppressive regimes and crimes. I don't mind if you get stoned, or snort some powder that makes you talk about yourself a lot, but there's no point buying Fairtrade bananas if your Friday entertainment is soaked in blood.

The cocaine business as currently constituted is the most immoral trade on Earth. By participating in it, you directly commission murder, torture, displacement and deforestation. According to the Colombian government (not, admittedly, the most trustworthy source on such matters) every gram of cocaine you take destroys four square metres of rainforest. The trade gives that government the excuse to wage an unending war against the peasantry, which is also caught between rightwing paramilitaries and leftwing guerillas, both of which make their money from powder. You might think it's daring and subversive to snort a line or two, but the real risk is run by people thousands of miles from here. You can choose whether or not to participate. They can't.
The biggest jump (29%) is among the group that professes to be most concerned about deforestation, slavery, war and all the other ills it is commissioning: 16 to 24-year-olds. Almost 7% of them are now taking cocaine. I don't know how they can afford it, but I know that the people of the Andes can't. Do as much damage to yourself as you please, but keep your nose out of other people's lives.

Once again, it's a Friday conundrum

Last week, I asked about the worst things said to you, and got some eye-poppingly cruel responses, mostly thrown by men at women.

But we're rarely pure victims and we're all capable of rudeness, insensitivity and cruelty. So it's time to 'fess up to the cruel things you've said.

To my shame, I once interrupted a philosophy student who'd been spouting inanely in the pub for hours with the words 'This isn't The Secret History, you aren't the intellectual elite, you scraped an E at A-level and we've heard enough'. It was cruel and pretty hypocritical given that I spent my undergraduate years in the pub, droning on about philosophy, politics and critical theory.

Obviously this isn't the only rude thing I've said to people - there've been too many to remember. If you've been on the receiving end, do remind me. I do recommend The Secret History though.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Warning - maudlin rambling

In his cups last night, young Daniel asked me what was my experience of being 17 years old, which piqued my interest.

In many ways, I'm the same. I read a lot then, I read a lot now. I didn't go out much, or have a girlfriend. I was, on the other hand, a lot thinner and had a good deal more hair.

That year was weird. I was in the sixth-form of my third - and worst - high school, a boarding establishment called Belmont Abbey in Hereford, a small and unpleasant city in beautiful countryside near the Welsh border. This particular establishment was attached to a Benedictine monastery, and several of the monks still 'taught' there, using the time-honoured methods of sarcasm, occasional violence and a determination never to engage in debate - I began to think that my forename was Shutup.

The architecture was proof that planning laws are wide open to corruption. The fairly decent church and monastery buildings (late Victorian) were surrounded by ugly, badly-built 1970s blocks, all leaking windows, varnished dark wood and concrete. Sound travelled, and decoration was kept to a minimum.

We were divided into houses named after various Catholic attention-seekers, each one ruled by the kind of man who thinks that dominating small boys is the pinnacle of success. Some of these monks were alcoholic, some bullies, some social climbers - a few were even contemplative, kind individuals, though these latter were usually kept well away from us (amongst the latter, the pottery teacher, Brother Peter and the former Abbot, Dom Alan, who was too kind to keep his job as headteacher, and who killed himself a few years later).

My housemaster, who had formerly had some kind of attachment to the SAS, had a spectacular alcohol-related public breakdown in the dining hall and was led away, not to be seen again for several years - the place attracted the frightened, lost and weak, such as the lovely RE teacher whom we regularly carried back to his lodgings, prising the empty whisky bottles from his hands. He was replaced by the headmaster, an unreasonable bigot who truly thought that outwitting teenagers proved that he was some kind of intellectual. One of the many problems with these people (most of whom should never have been teachers and could never have gained jobs in the state sector), was that they were so unpredictable: pleasant one day, violent or capricious the next. They played favourites, picked scapegoats, humiliated in public those who didn't fit in.

The house system was meant to instil respect for hierarchy and team spirit - half the sixth-form had minor authority, which in reality encouraged the boys to engage in the kind of bullying they saw from the staff. Badges, ties and accommodation became currency or marks of achievement. For no reason at all, other than my preference for reading over standing in the rain watching rugby and my conversion to vegetarianism, I was expelled from my study and sent to share a dormitory with the 12-year olds (dubious in child protection terms but that was never one of their concerns). Concomitant with that demotion came earlier rises, back to cleaning duties, eating with the kids, manual labour at the command of my classmates and a host of petty humiliations.

What other vignettes spring to mind? A boy biting another's penis when his shorts fell down during a rugby scrum. Rumours of homosexuality and constant, relentless baiting of the only person I knew who might actually be homosexual. Racialised hostility between the various groups. Petty theft. The awareness that we were different, alien to those on the streets. A school which sold its library books (a clerical ally 'dropped' the keys near me on the night before the buyers came and so I 'acquired' a couple of barrowloads of decent books). The constant boredom and discomfort. Suspicion of anybody who thought differently. I was attacked in a class by the headmaster for being a 'bloody Guardian reader'. I'd never heard of the Guardian, and promptly bought a copy: it changed my life to know that outside those walls were people who believed in humanity's essential goodness. Religious fervour, or the signs of it. I sang in the choir and served on the altar, simply, I think, to break the monotony. A forced haircut delivered by two prefects on the orders of the headmaster because I had an interview at a university the next day and he wanted me to look my worst (his 'reference' described me as a troublemaker who would fail his A-levels and didn't deserve a place at all, as the kind man at Derby University told me, having expressed his surprise).

The school bore an air of exhaustion and decay. Every year, it grew smaller and shabbier. With the exception of one fencer and a brilliant rowing team, Belmont excelled at nothing. It became a haven for the unwanted, or for the dimmer sons of dubious businessmen and politicians in the more unsafe countries - there were a lot of Colombians, and in the years before China reclaimed it, many boys from Hong Kong. We rattled around and busied ourselves with small rivalries and arguments magnified by isolation. Of the outside world we learned little other than the prejudices of our families and teachers.

And yet - there was salvation. Each Saturday, I would climb out of a window and walk into the city to play in a youth orchestra, much to the school's revulsion. I wasn't any good, but those Saturdays were liquid gold to me and I would eke them out as much as possible - talking to other players; wandering round the cathedral; even sometimes trying to get served in one of the pubs not frequented by my classmates. In school, I was the mute, sullen one. I did whatever I wanted, but furtively, and accepted justice and injustice with the same silence.

Most importantly, two teachers nurtured and protected me. Michael Caswell was a caricature of the intellectual English gentleman. Dressed in shabby tweeds and a bow tie topped with a nicotine-stained goatee, he lived in a semi-derelict house in which only his books were cared for. The door was literally always open, even when he was away, and the fridge was always stocked with lager. Only the vilest bullies weren't welcome, and so it became neutral ground - many boys would sneak down there for a smoke, a drink and a chat. A few of us, of which I became the permanent member, would wander in, open a can and talk about books, art, religion, anything. The joy of Caswell is that he took everybody seriously, and yet had an infectious, enormous laugh, which would be deployed whenever we took ourselves too seriously. Each laugh would be followed by a thunderstorm of coughing as the tar of 50+ daily cigarettes took their toll. Caswell's love was 19th-century fiction, and his classes were evangelical in the sense that he cared little about rote learning: what he sought was enthusiasm. If you displayed it, he would protect, challenge and inspire you. If not, he got you through. His approach to marking was idiosyncratic, to say the least - comments on my essays ranged from 'oh for God's sake' to 'bloody brilliant' or merely huge lines of asterisks.

The other teacher who inspired me was Mike Elkin, who taught French. I was a lost cause for most of high school, partly through laziness and partly through bad teaching and boredom. He predicted a D grade for my GCSE, and I laughingly threatened to choose French for A-level should I get an A - we all fell about holding our sides. Yet, so it came to pass, and thus I entered the world of riots, sex, cigarettes and style (in books and French films, of course). He'd had a cool, chaotic life with a deal of tragedy, and saw a minor, Catholic boarding school as some kind of oasis. He had a passel of beautiful, wild children and a fiercely kind wife, and they all lived on a series of derelict farms with a menagerie of odd pets (a Vietnamese pig which would batter doors down if it wanted a fuss, a cockatoo and all sorts of other beasts). Mike had spent a year in France in 68 and wistfully recalled his time on the barricades. In many ways he was the very opposite of Caswell. Where Cas read Dickens, Mike passed me all the alternative classics - novels in French, Mervyn Peake, John Cowper Powys, and before me opened up visions of other ways of life. I had few friends at that place - alliances were preferred - but these two gave me confidence to arrive at my own beliefs, the strength to resist the petty tyrannies of this washed-up piece of the 1950s, and space to go my own way. They didn't see education as the acquisition of facts: they wanted to inspire questioning, thought and independence.

My school was, inevitably, closed down. This was announced on Radio 4's Sunday morning religious programme sometime during my first year at university. My immediate reaction was joy, followed by relief, followed by disappointment that it hadn't been sooner. (What's more emblematic of the kind of people Belmont churned out than this: a site where nostalgic old boys can buy tatty old school ties and cufflinks in memory of a circumscribed world in which they were, for the only time in their lives, important?)

Caswell went off to London to do a law degree, which he enjoyed enormously. He fell in with a bunch of East London Muslims: they tried to convert him and he tried to convert them to cigarettes and beer - and they loved him. I would visit him for wildly stimulating weekends in which we'd plan to do cultural stuff in the big city but just end up arguing joyously for hours. He then began a PhD in international child protection, but didn't attend a meeting one Monday morning - he was found in his bathroom, having had a heart attack while shaving.

His funeral was a brief, joyless affair organised by his family and attended by a bunch of former pupils present only to compare business cards and mobile phones. The wake was a gothic monstrosity - held in the house of the campest Anglo-Catholic priest you could imagine - like something from a Waugh novel. Much more to my (and his) taste, was the quiet committal. Stealing over the fence at Birkbeck College, where he'd done his law degree, we stood in the rain and poured his ashes into a hole under a tree. We toasted him with champagne, poured some over him, I said a few useless, inadequate words, and we went off to get drunk and share his books. Of him, I possess a giant cartoon of a rhinoceros head, some books packed with his indecipherable notes and stained with his good cooking, and a couple of cards.

Mike left teaching and Britain, heading to New Zealand to be a social worker, but found the divide between his Maori charges and the institutions he worked for to be insuperable and returned to the UK. Where he is now, I can't say, though I wish I knew.

What were the lasting effects of this horrific place? Ignorance, bloody-mindedness, crippling shyness, determination, an idiosyncratic (because self-taught) socialism, a 7-stone frame, probably a slight otherness, a lot of books and a very few friends with whom I lost touch fairly quickly - none of us, I suspect, wished to be reminded of that place. I had no sense of what ordinary people wore, listened to, watched or talked about. I did, though, come out determined to live a completely different life - to try things, talk to people, to learn. The effects linger, however. I'm ashamed to say that I felt nothing other than pleasure when I learned of my former headmaster's death, and that kind of bitterness helps nobody.

I can still smell the place (sweat, urine, incense, cabbage and disinfectant), envisage the gleam of weak sunlight on cheap polished wood, still hear the clock chime, every fifteen minutes. Don't send your kids to boarding school.

Look who preys on porky lecturers

Our art department is housed in a 1970s block which was probably very fashionable, but is now a rotting heap of concrete. However, kestrels like to breed in the deep shelves between its exoskeleton and skin. I don't go past that block very often, but Dan and I wandered along the ring road today and heard the cry of the kestrel, and took a closer look. (Normally in Wolverhampton, Kestrel denotes an extra-strong lager favoured by those who prefer to quaff al fresco).

So anyway, I tried out my new zoom lens on these birds today. There are three fledglings, and their parents must have been off hunting. I took these photos from my building, about 250 feet away, through windows on each stairwell. The light wasn't brilliant, but it's not a bad first go.

Wolverhampton's a crock of something

This is the sight which greeted me as I returned to Wolverhampton on Sunday. The pictures are a bit rubbish because they were taken on my mobile. Still, I've just received my 55-200 zoom lens, and will play with it later.

Oh Daniel

Filmed on my mobile - can't work out how to use iMovie yet… it wasn't pretty.

Gits in Ermine

Talking of management, our Chancellor is Lord Paul. He's listed in Private Eye, the satirical/investigative magazine as 'non-domiciled' for tax reasons. Essentially, this means that he's got a place in the House of Lords (unelected), voting on affairs of state, and leading this august institution, while telling the authorities that he needn't pay tax in this country because he doesn't live here. I wonder how he manages to get any work done, and how he squares influencing the country without paying his way. What an example to us all.

He is for ID cards, opposes action to tackle climate change, doesn't mind hunting and appears not to like our homosexual friends. A fine example to our students.

They're circling…

Management aren't the only things preying on us: kestrels are breeding on the art department building. I'll take some photos sometime this week. Three chicks are completely visible. Not quite the 'Urban Ospreys' of which The Nightingales sang, but still pretty good.

Meanwhile, once I can get my head around iMovie, I'll treat you to footage of Dan shaking his booty most undecorously. I must confess that strong drink had been taken at this point.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Hello Poverty

Welcome to Hello Poverty: one woman's story of jacking in her job at the height of Ireland's recession, having had quite enough of menial work for lots of money.

Books will keep me warm

Dan, great-nephew of Radford Sallow, is the latest refugee in my office, seeking a quiet corner in which to complete his PhD on pigeons/urban seagulls, entitled 'Flying Rats: Can Man and Pigeons Co-Exist?'. No, it isn't really, and I'm traducing his fine work.

However, he's here and comes bearing books to take the edge off my fiscal isolation. He's given me Sebastian Haffner's Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, an eye-witness account of the 1930s in that country. I've also received in the post Tim Lebbon's Bar None, a post-apocalyptic novel set in Wales and mostly about beer ('a novel of chilling suspense, apocalyptic beauty, and fine ales' - sounds like a night in Wolverhampton). It's the last book I'll receive for a while. I've already had a stroppy automatic e-mail from Amazon pointing out that they can't take any payment for some fine Vaughan Williams choral works I've ordered. This is horrible. I'm as consumerist as Paris Hilton, just with books. Noooooooooooooooooo!

Be ashamed, Gretna Virginia

I get readers. Some of them arrive here via very strange searches.

pit viper juice erectile dysfunction

I can't tell whether his erectile dysfunction is caused by pit viper venom, or whether he wants to cure it with pit viper venom. Perhaps he's a member of a snake-handling church. I do know that advice of this kind is not available on The Plashing Vole.

Feel free to add your medical advice in case our American chum returns.

Olé olé olé olé - Irish style

Also on an Irish theme, I see that Real Madrid (Ronaldo - £150,000 per week) managed to scrape past Shamrock Rovers (highest paid player - £850 per week) by one goal to nil, which is pretty shameful. Ronaldo received a couple of knocks and got a few sly kicks in himself, which is very unlike his usual style of play.

He'd better toughen up if, as this picture shows, he's considering a change to hurling.

King Billy (Goat)

Puck Fair is one of Ireland's premier (and oldest) cultural events. Turns out that our friend Anita, who lurks on this blog, is Puck Royalty. The Fair's disastrous cross-border goat trading problems have reached the front page of the national press and her da's quoted. Looks like she'll be donning a goatskin if the passport doesn't appear.

She's moving to Stoke - hope she doesn't expect this (or any other) sort of cultural activity…

Rude management gits

I'd almost forgotten: some months ago, it was announced that the university, despite being several million pounds in deficit, had contracted McCann Erickson (a very expensive advertising/PR firm) to do some promotional work for us, even though we have all the resources to do it ourselves. I mailed the director of communications on April 9th to ask how much it cost - no reply so far.

So I've mailed him again, having heard that he mentioned my mail to his colleagues:

Dear A....., I mailed you several months ago asking you about the McCann Erickson arrangement.
Due, presumably, to an oversight, I appear not to have received any sort of reply from you. Do you think you could address my query?
Yours with thanks and in anticipation of a speedy response,

Ma dawg gone left me

I hate country music. Rhinestones, whining, reactionary lyrics. That's what I thought anyway. Turns out that loads of the music I like is country - bluegrass, Appalachian stuff, some Loretta Lynn, lots of Johnny Cash and today, the Diana Jones album I bought a few days ago, Better Times Will Come. I can't pretend it's folk or any other sub-genre, despite the presence of good violins. It's country, and it's great. There, I said it.

However, I will remove my ears with a grater rather than ever listen to Country'n'Irish.

My bike looks ace now: bright blue handlebar tape, bright blue tyres, gleaming chrome and almost working brakes. Perhaps tomorrow I'll go for a ride before work. I swam today - felt pretty good until Neal appeared, did his 40 lengths in 20 minutes and still looked fresher than me. The fencing season's over until September, which is a little frustrating, though really it's too hot to put on four layers of kit, some of them metal.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

'Artless git

Now that my debit card's gone, I keep seeing things I'd like to purchase. Oh well, it's good for what passes for my soul, and as one of you pointed out, I can catch up on the books I've bought. I've almost finished the Eric Gill, so perhaps something lighter and fictional next - though I really want to buy some (of the more demure) Gill prints now, despite having no wall space.

My collection of framed prints and posters are in the office. I have the Reds exhibition poster (a historical one on the Communist Party of Great Britain, staged at the People's History Museum in Manchester), a Tree of Literature in Danish, 6 CND reprints of their early posters, a brilliant dayglo 1970s poster of Angela Davies, a limited print of David Jones's Cara Wallia Derelicta (Gwalia Deserta) and a stunning batique of a yacht in the rain, done by Bev, my old fencing coach. I remember a patronising academic telling us penniless postgrads that we should be investing in prints and we all laughed at the idea of having money for art… I'm also really keen on Clifford Harper's work - emotion beautifully muted.


The Guardian has a piece today on how to arrange your book collection. They're very scornful of my chosen method: alphabetical. Actually, mine's alphabetical for anything bought more than two years ago. They go from floor to ceiling on all four walls, including the 20,000+ vinyl records, but not the CDs, which are stored here and there. Everything else is piled in any space on top of properly shelved books. Then there are vertical columns of books behind the wardrobe, a 1m x 1m x 1m cube of unread books on the floor, then some piled randomly, then a stuffed bookcase at work and a few piles on my desk.

One of the wittily contentious things this article proposes is how to arrange your library to attract people.

The "I'm desperate for a shag', female version

Doesn't really require books – it's the last thing a man will notice. But on the off-chance you bring someone home who can read, it might be an idea temporarily to lose anything too intimidating by Andrea Dworkin.

Unless you're a lesbian, in which case you might like to put it on the coffee table.

Ladies: do not listen to this at all. Should I ever enter your house (that isn't entendre, by the way), I'll go straight for your bookshelves. I may well read a book or two right then and there. Or I'll leave in high dudgeon having seen Dan Brown, Coelho, or others of that ilk. Critical theory particularly appreciated.

What systems do you use? One or two of you, I know, will say that one's piled on top of the other one, but this is for the rest of you. Size? Genre? Degree of affection? Mark uses the Dewey Decimal system, which I respect. I'll use it when I finally get a place with enough room. I'd like a poetry corner, though that smacks of ghettoisation a little. A proper library in dark wood with a rolltop escritoire, ladders on runners, a wood fire, squashy armchairs and a card index. Someone snoozing in one corner as rain beats on the windows, a marmoset nibbling on a Jeffrey Archer in the other (my version of a shredder). A clock ticks, Radio 4 mumbles warmly from concealed speakers, a violin case sits on a side table and on another Marmite on crumpets await. I of course will be wearing a dark, three-piece tweed suit and a tie knitted by Anne Shirley, who's finally dumped that awful Gilbert cad (he turned out to have been a devotee of 'Hunnish practices').

Or, an ultra-modern German/Scandinavian-style glass and steel building, zero-carbon, naturally-ventilated, Passivhaus machine for reading in, perched on a cliff overlooking one of Norway's fjords.

Well, it beats Whitmore Reans: my place look's like Bernard's back room in Black Books, which is funny because he's right about everything as much as David Mitchell