Monday, 30 November 2009

Europe: brave new democracy.

I like Europe, as a geographical entity and as an ideal. I'd love to be part of a democratic USE. More than that, I'd love to be a citizen of the USSE. I think that economic cooperation, environmental solidarity and the free exchange of ideas, citizens and fairly-traded goods are brilliant.

I don't think that distorting subsidies, imperialist expansion, hostility to Muslims and the world's poor, corruption, decades of qualified accounts, Buggins' Turn and secret deals are the way to achieve the Europe of which I dream.

Take the European Parliament. I am a political junkie. I can reel off candidates, failed candidates, interesting by-elections results and a host of other things without a moment's thought. I can't name my MEPs though (except for Michael Cashman - what an ironic name. He should be in the House of Commons).

I do know that the European Parliament has two parliaments (Brussels and Strasbourg, leading to convoys of lorries full of documents shuttling between the two, and MEPs guzzling carbon like it's crack) and no power to pass laws. What an utter waste of time and money: the only people we actually directly elect - and fund magnificently - have no authority at all. Lovely.

The other thing I know about the European Parliament is that its environmental committe delegation to the Copenhagen Climate talks includes one Nicholas Griffin. Yes, the British National Party (Nazi) leader, who has this to say about climate change (his qualification is a 2.2 law degree):

In a speech in the parliament last week, Griffin denounced those who warn of the consequences of climate change as "cranks". He said they had reached "an Orwellian consensus" that was "based not on scientific agreement, but on bullying, censorship and fraudulent statistics".
"The anti-western intellectual cranks of the left suffered a collective breakdown when communism collapsed. Climate change is their new theology… But the heretics will have a voice in Copenhagen and the truth will out. Climate change is being used to impose an anti-human utopia as deadly as anything conceived by Stalin or Mao."
I'd have thought he'd welcome climate change: an awful lot of poor black people are going to die horribly - which is the basis of his political creed. 

Delenda est Carthago

I hate the use of mobile phones, stereos and other noise-making gadgets in public. The judicious use of earphones seems perfectly acceptable to me, as a way of blocking out the world or adding a soundtrack to your observation of it - but using speakers to impose your tastes on other passengers is nothing short of bullying. I've always wanted to respond with a blast of the dullest material available - perhaps Radio 4's You and Yours or Money Box.

So imagine my utter horror on receiving promotional junk from a rail company this morning: offering a prize of portable speakers! Is there no protection? If violence ensues, they're responsible. Sod the mimsy mention of the 'quiet coach'. If you are so thoughtless and selfish as to broadcast your music to other passengers, you deserve to have the speaker recycled as a gobstopper.
Ten lucky Raileasy customers will be picked out of our Christmas draw and will receive an Orbitsound T3 portable speaker. This small personal speaker produces a great sound and is perfect for sharing music from your MP3 player, music phone or laptop which was recently rated best travel speaker for iPod and iPhone by iPod User - the ideal travel companion (unless you’re travelling in the quiet coach!)

Dreaming of Gerontius

I went to a performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius on Saturday, at Birmingham's stunningly-restored Town Hall. The performance was by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Ex Cathedra Choir. Jeffrey Skidmore conducted and the soloists were Anna Stéphany, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams ('welease Wodewick!').

Gerontius was premiered at the Town Hall in 1900 - disastrously. This massive oratorio - a weird but moving take on Christian spirituality - was delivered late to the choir, who didn't rehearse properly, and whose director died four months before the first night.

This performance, however, went more than smoothly. Despite not having the slightest trace of religious or spiritual sentiment in my mean and crabby body, I was profoundly affected both by the music and its performance. The choir and orchestra - a 'period instrument' outfit which is for a piece only a century old - played with a lightness of touch which brought out all the sublety thought not to exist in Elgar, whose crusty 'Victorianness' hides (like Tennyson before him and Vaughan Williams later) a more radical core.

Mark's already told me that classical music is dead, but he's an ignorant poseur on this matter. It was disappointing that I was basically the youngest person there by several decades, barring some unwilling or precocious kids. There's a terrible air of smugness in UK classical music which sees a lot of bow tie wearers resentful of all efforts to popularise the art form - unlike Italy, for instance, where it's cheaper and equally acceptable to see an opera as it is to watch Juventus.

Anyway: Saturday's performance was an absolute triumph.

Oh dear!

Those cynics in the media have a peculiar take on recent events. I remain, of course, entirely neutral.

"A loose sally of the mind"

I meant to post this essay on essays by Zadie Smith a couple of weeks ago, to give a sense of perspective to my students slaving over essays - particularly the first-years who may not quite see the point.

Essays are creative works: they draw your attention to, then trace the development of, interesting features of texts, ones which people may not have noticed. Meaning, we say, is created in the space between a text and its reader: the essay is your chance to transform understanding of that text.

Smith's essay is really a defence of fiction and an assessment of literary essays, but it's worth reading if you're struggling with Introduction to Poetry, Communications Studies or Shakespeare's Culture essays anyway.

A few choice quotations (the Johnson one fits blogging very well too):
For Samuel Johnson in 1755 it is: "A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regularly and orderly composition." And if this looks to us like one of Johnson's lexical eccentricities, we're chastened to find Joseph Addison, of all people, in agreement ("The wildness of these compositions that go by the name of essays") and behind them both three centuries of vaguely negative connotation. Beginning in the 1500s an essay is: the action or process of trying or testing; a sample, an example; a rehearsal; an attempt or endeavour; a trying to do something; a rough copy; a first draft. 
 In "The Modern Essay" Virginia Woolf is more astute on the subject, and far more frank. "There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay," she writes. "The essay must be pure – pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter." Well, yes, that's just it. An essay, she writes, "can be polished till every atom of its surface shines" – yes, that's it, again. There is a certain kind of writer – quite often male but by no means exclusively so – who has a fundamental hunger for purity, and for perfection, and this type will always hold the essay form in high esteem. Because essays hold out the possibility of something like perfection.
In the confined space of an essay you have the possibility of being wise, of making your case, of appearing to see deeply into things – although the thing you're generally looking into is the self. "Other people", that mainstay of what Shields calls the "moribund conventional novel", have a habit of receding to a point of non-existence in the "lyrical essay".
I call on Woolf again as witness for the defence. "Literal truth-telling," she writes, "is out of place in an essay." Yes, that's it again. The literal truth is something you expect, or hope for, in a news article. But an essay is an act of imagination, even if it is a piece of memoir. It is, or should be, "a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking", but it still takes quite as much art as fiction.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The final whistle

It's all over: at Croke Park and on the English Subject Centre Early Career course. Both have been immensely stimulating: Ireland won the rugby and I've learned tons on this course. I'm feeling pretty thick of course, surrounded by these high achievers buzzing with energy, but inspired to do all sorts of new things.

Normally I'd be seething after two days in a bland seminar room, but this time I think I've caught Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps it's because it's not the partisans from The Hegemony imposing things arbitrarily but experts in my own field discussing not just the what but also the why and how of our daily practice.

Shame there aren't and won't be any more Early Career academics at my institution for years to come…

I just need a late goal from Stoke and I'll be happy going into the concert tonight.

Trapped in a Ballardian wonderland

Quick break for a wander, a pee, a tea and a photo. The architecture here is modelled on the Airport ideal: glossy surfaces, bland artwork and a definite sense of First Class: the most stylishly bland space is For MBA Students ONLY! So much for the democratisation of ideas… wouldn't want the high-fee capitalists having their ears contaminated by destabilising notions of the kind we're dealing with. It's kind of fun subverting hegemony from within one of its bastions (a Business School in A Rival Institution - we wish).

Shocked to discover that Ireland are losing the rugby to South Africa 6-10, but it's early days. Stoke are drawing against Blackburn, but that's OK. We'll lead until the 85th minute, ship and equalizer, then the ref will find 8 minutes extra time, during which Rovers will bundle in an ugly goal.

Now that's what I call typography!

From Hyperotomachia Poliphili, a weird 1499 semi-erotic dream narrative which is notable not just for its content and unpronounceable name, but because it's the first perfected Roman type by Aldus Manutius, grandfather of typography. Mmm…

Click the link for much more of the text. Click the image for a larger version

Virtual learning environments

We use WOLF and PebblePad: WOLF is more of a course management system, but it's reliable, fairly rich and useful: PebblePad is embarrassingly clunky, unreliable and closed (to maintain your records after graduation, you have to pay for it…)

We're having a really good debate on the use of VLEs, and the leaders are insisting on the primacy of purpose, rather than fetishing technology or using to fulfil the vacuous demands of the hierarchy. All very stimulating.

Are you using VLEs as teachers or as students? What do you use them for? What are they good for and what are they bad for?

Reading for dummies

I saw this years ago, but you may not have, and seeing it on the course I'm on inspired me to post it for you:

Am yow alroight bab?*

Good morning from rainy, grey Birmingham. It's day two of the English Subject Centre's Early Career Lecturer's course. The words 'discourse' and 'structuralism' have already been invoked - rather too early for me, especially as last night involved several ales, a great Vietnamese meal and a reunion with Felix, here from Germany specifically to engage in shenanigans. He - and my gratitude is undying - provided several versions of wurst, which no doubt Neal will scoff before I get home tonight.

It's a big day - Ireland v. South Africa, Stoke v. Blackburn, and Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius tonight, at Birmingham's Town Hall. Then, no doubt, further debauch with the German.

*How are you, in Birmingham dialect.

Friday, 27 November 2009

More from the chalkface

Still enthusiastic! Intimidated by everybody's grasp of theory… I get by, but just don't seem to have the time to really get down to some Deleuze and Guattari, for example. 

Anyway, lots of good bloggy things are going to happen in my classes from now on! But not to keep ILE happy. Grrrr…

OMG! BLE rocks!

Blended learning, done at The Hegemon, is a means of cutting down on staff, rooms and resources - a purely mechanical simulation of education - read Ritzer's The McDonaldisation of Education for a readers' guide.

Turns out, however, that technology supported learning can be creative and add substantially to the intellectual work done by staff and students - it can constitute symbolic exchange, to use the Baudrillardian vocabulary.

I can't believe how much I'm enjoying this course… Feel quite cut-off from the world though. What's going on?

Greetings from the English Subject Centre

I'm at Aston University on a course for early career lecturers (yes, I know, the way I'm going I'm nearer the end than the beginning, but you know what I mean).

Those of you who know me will be well aware that my usual modus operandi at such things is to sit at the back being sarcastic.

Not this time. I'm having a blast. I've already learned loads more about being a decent teacher than on my PGCE, the approach is collegiate and my fellow students are utterly delightful. Obviously they're all taller, thinner, more stylish and more learned than I am, but they're well-mannered enough not to remark upon it.

Unfortunately, I'm going to miss the conference dinner - my German chum Felix is flying in for a weekend's debauch and, cool as he is, an evening with Literature teachers may not quite be his thing. In a coals to Newcastle scenario, I'm going to make him go to the German Market!

Must pay attention now…

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Heil Spode, and other 30s capers

Did anyone else watch Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain last night? I'm not a huge fan of Marr, and didn't intend to watch this episode because I'm a 30s expert (the only thing I can claim to know much about), but I was captivated by it, partly because he started with some of the Mitford sisters (no mention of unpleasant brother Tom), and I'm a sucker for Jessica/Decca.

Sure, the Spanish Civil War took 3 words to cover and the organised left in Britain didn't get much attention, but he was very good on the British flirtation with uniformed groups and their swift failure - his thesis that Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts didn't get far because most Brits found them laughable was interesting. I'm not too convinced - there wasn't much to laugh about at that point - but it was intriguing and is supported by P. G. Wodehouse (who was very rightwing to the point of broadcasting for the Nazis during the war) depicting Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists as a violent dimwit toff (very accurately) and Fuhrer of the Black Shorts (all the other distinctive clothing had been bagged by other groups) in The Code of the Woosters and other books:
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"
Watch Spode address the cadre (embedding annoyingly disabled).

Exit, pursued by a bear

This is my favourite stage direction in Shakespeare - perhaps the best ever because it doesn't give the producer any help at all. It's from The Winter's Tale, one of Bill's stranger, most dream-like and proverbial plays, written near the end of his career - packed with deeply subversive musings on justice, blood and love. It's drawn from a Robert Greene novella, which is a bit cheeky, given that Greene had this to say about our hero many years earlier:
There is an upstart Crow, beautiful in our feathers, that, with his tiger's heart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shakescene in the country. Oh, that I might entreat your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses, and let these apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions.

The animals looked from the pigs to the men…

How's this as a marker of how the party of the people has become merely part of the international élite, leaving behind all conscience?

Mandelson parties with Gadaffi's son

Peter Mandelson, Gadaffi's son and Cherie Blair all went on a shooting trip hosted by Lord Rothschild. Mandy and Blair didn't heft any guns themselves, just consorted with this aristo riff-raff. Rothschild's a Tory bastard, Gadaffi's a mad dictator (and their children never turn out to be lovely people), Mandelson's 'intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich' and Blair is a social-climber who never turned down a freebie.

Why I'm still angry after so many years of this government, I don't know. They jettisoned socialism 20 years ago (a conservative estimate), but it's the shamelessness of this particular junket that gets me. It's exactly like the party held by the pigs and men at the end of Animal Farm. The poor have no protection from the dictators and capitalists if the people's party simply wants to join in the feast.

By Toutatis, I'm actually steamingly furious about this. Really, really angry. It's just so symbolic.

Theremin crazy

I am temporarily the proud possessor of a small theremin. A few of us clubbed together to buy one for my friend Alan - guitarist in The Nightingales.

I've borrowed it back because some of the Map Twats, slightly financially embarrassed, are making a (very) alternative Christmas album, and a theremin is essential, I feel. The results so far are deeply, utterly disturbing. I'll stream it when the whole thing's finished.

I first saw the theremin played by Pram, a wonderful experimental pop-rock-electronic band, in the late 90s or early 2000s. Here's proof that it can be used for pop too - and then some Pram!

Hello Thursday people

Morning. You won't be hearing much from me today - I've got a load of teaching, marking and a union meeting to get to. I've also got to watch several hours of seminar teaching on video to prepare for the course I'm on tomorrow and Saturday ('How to be a good English teacher') and find intelligent things to say about 'Brokeback Mountain'. I'm a huge fan of Proulx's short stories and would love to teach them.

It's A Winter's Tale in Shakespeare today, to which I'm really looking forward. I hope the students are too…

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A jejune attempt at sophistication, Mr. Adams.

Before I disappear to another social occasion, I'll point you to John Adams's website. The great composer is also a witty and assured writer.

He doesn't think much of current classical music criticism. He seems to think it's all pre-ordained, cliché-ridden nonsense.

He's spot on.

What a weird week

I'm going to be nice about the boys in blue for the second time in a week!

Dennis O'Connor has published a report into the police's management of public protest, and it's a gem. He's called for a major reappraisal of the attitudes and behaviour of the police, and has called for them to return to the values of consensual policing, rather than seeing their job as opposing protest - less automatic surveillance, less violence, more care.

What's more, the police seem, so far, to have accepted it.

Life's suddenly becoming all serene.

What a very exciting evening too!

Last night, Emma and I met at the German Market. While she scowled at my carnivorous ways, I purchased lots of meat products and some lebkuchen. We drank delicious mulled wine (especially the blueberry one) and fine schwarzbier, chatted to a stunningly self-centred young lady who thought that a recession is the perfect time to set up a company offering personal shopping and concierge services to footballers' wives and yummy mummys. She didn't intend to do any of the work, you understand - apparently the profits will be so huge that she can move to New Zealand and spend her time skiing while employees actually run the business. I shouldn't mock though - she has a degree in Forensic Science and her friend has one in Business Studies so she's sorted and I'm a cynical old lefty.

Then back to The Dark Place, where we met colleagues for a drink. This turned into a bit of a disaster - we ended up looking after and escorting home a distressed young lady who was clearly having a terrible time generally, and who had been abandoned by her boyfriend and friends: they denied knowing her as they left, though the bar staff told me a different story. Aren't people bastards? I was so emotionally overcome that I required pints of something called 'beer' to calm down again.

What a very exciting day (3)

I spent the morning at the Council headquarters, at a meeting of the Licensing Committee. We were there (me in a suit again) to discuss the application to open a restaurant and takeaway right underneath my flat.

It was democracy in action: councillors, legal officers, the Fire Authority, my landlord, the applicants and a local journalist. It was actually pleasant - points were made politely, discussed seriously and consensus reached. The application was granted on the basis that residents' needs are catered for and the owners seemed very willing to accommodate us. I also got the chance to moan to Environmental Health about the two nightclubs across the road, and they're already on it.

Then, I got to moan to the journalist - a nice guy - about the horribly rightwing nature of his paper, to commiserate with him on the appallingly low pay of journalists (how can anyone do a decent professional job on £20,000, the salary for a senior reporter?) and we discussed the importance of local journalism as a watchdog (honoured more in the breach than the observance).

All this was conducted with a rather sore head, unfortunately

What a very exciting day (2)

The people rose up and protested against the obscene and excessive charges levied by the banks for things like slipping over your withdrawal limit, or a cheque not being cleared (often £30 or more).

The Office for Fair Trading supported them. So did the High Court. It seemed like the Establishment was going to side with us for a change. Until today: the banks' appeal to the Supreme Court has been upheld.

The judges say the banks can charge what they want for the fees - that they do not have to reflect the cost of the administration involved. They say the charges were not concealed and consumers knew what they were in for when they signed up for the accounts, which means the OFT could not test them under the regulations.

Apparently you can charge whatever you like for services without regard for the actual costs. The OFT has been told that 'fairness' doesn't apply to account charges. How weird.

If you don't have a mortgage, according to Moneyfacts at Abbey you will pay £25 a month for going overdrawn without permission, plus up to £35 for bounced cheques and payments. At Alliance & Leicester, the overdraft fee is £5 a day, subject to a maximum of £100, while bounced payments cost up to £25.
The costliest bank on the high street seems to be Clydesdale, where Moneyfacts says going overdrawn without asking will cost you £25 a month, plus £25 each time the overdraft increases, plus £35 for every bounced payment.
Lloyds TSB charges £15 a month, plus £20 for each bounced payment, subject to a maximum of three a day. Halifax is charging a flat £5 a day for unauthorised borrowing, with no additional fees for bounced items.

I'm not affected by this - I claimed £700 in bank charges three years ago and the Co-op paid up without demur, which I took as an admission of guilt, though it may have been the case that it was cheaper to pay than to fight it through the courts. I stayed with Co-op and am generally happy with it, especially as it has an ethical investment only policy.

I do feel for everybody else though. Our banks have hardly covered themselves in glory recently, and as taxpayers we now own most of them, and now this. Banking isn't free, but they make billions by paying us 0.01% on our current accounts and lending it at 8.5%: these charges are excessive.

What a very exciting day (1)

The struggle with The Hegemon has resulted in partial success. Many people are losing their jobs, and more may be 'approached' with a view to redundancy, but the threat of compulsory redundancy has been lifted. We still face massive problems of understaffing and unwelcome curriculum alterations, but at least nobody will be marched out of the building by security. Except for gobby bloggers.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Jim Corr! Earth Calling Jim Corr! Come in please!

Pop stars, as we all know, have a tenuous grip on reality. They expect the world to revolve around them, and most unfortunately of all, they assume that success in their field means that they are equally qualified to pronounce on the pressing issues of the day, despite overwhelming evidence that burying your face in a bowl of cocaine for a living doesn't enhance your scientific, medical, political or ethical skills.

Of course, if it's Bono or Madonna, you might think that their sheer dedication to self-aggrandisement means we should cut them a little slack. Not so for this gentleman.

Ladies and gentlemen: Mr Jim Corr, formerly of The Corrs. Who weren't very good. At all. He's chosen the Path of David Icke. Pray for him.

Hallelujah! Can't touch me now!

I'm now officially good at teaching. This may surprise you, but you'll have to accept that your perceptions are seriously warped. Buffet lunch was every bit as good as the course.

Support your local sheriff

I know, I know, you never thought you'd hear me bigging up the rozzers (though I did once have a letter in the Guardian supporting the Metropolitan Police Commissioner's decision to target bourgeois drug-users).

Today, I'm fully behind An Garda Siochana, the Irish police, in their call for off-duty officers to join picket lines today, for the General Strike. Police forces aren't allowed to strike in most places (though the putative effects can be seen in the Robocop films), and they're normally very rightwing people indeed (during the Miners' Strike, they pretty much came out as Thatcher's shock troops of capitalism.

A General Strike is a very big thing - the UK hasn't had one since 1926, and that was a failure. Ireland is on strike because the government's solution to the recession is to massively cut public sector pay and investment. The unions' point is that - like the UK, and as Cameron isn't saying - we're massively in debt because the banks destroyed the economy and the state has had to rescue them. Neither government has overspent on health, education, welfare etc - but hundreds of billions have had to be handed over to the banks to keep the economy from total, 1930s-Germany style collapse.

It's worse in Ireland for cultural reasons. After 60 years of being Britain's poor, Catholic, potato-farming neighbour, a small and greedy élite who controlled business AND politics decided that it was time to get seriously rich, and leave everybody else behind. In a country of 4 million people, almost half of which live in Dublin, the effects were horrendous. Regulation disappeared, banking became a secretive and corrupt free-for-all, suitcases of cash (literally) were shuttled between businessmen and politicians, including at least two prime ministers, property prices rocketed and interest rates plummeted. Businesses were tempted in with low-or-no tax rates, and everybody thought that the future was rosy.

Only - the banks had been trading recklessly, and on the side. Dodgy deals and stupid deals meant that the banks owed many, many times more than the entire economy was worth. If everybody believed that everything was fine, this charade could keep going - but as soon as the banks realised that all the other banks were lying too (over CDOs, sub-prime lending etc. etc. etc.), the party was over. They stopped lending to each other and devalued their holdings.

Why not let these banks go bust? Even in the big economies, many of these banks were 'too big to fail'. In Ireland and Iceland, the effect would have been utterly catastrophic. What's gone wrong is that public spending on the people's needs has suffered massively - while the banks continue on their merry way. 'Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor' is a cliché now, but it's what's happened. Bankers have taken our money and appear to feel that they've won, and bear no responsibility for us. They don't use state hospitals, libraries, buses and trains, so they won't suffer.

So I say again - congratulations, Garda Siochana. Welcome back to the proletariat.

So well suited

Here I am again, wearing a classic tailored suit once more - after some teaching this morning, it's lunch and my teaching qualification award - let's hope my Maximum Leader can forget that I've asked her to resign in front of a couple of hundred people long enough to shake hands and smile. I'll be on my best behaviour - as always.

Tasks for today: marking, teaching, re-reading 'Brokeback Mountain' in preparation for a course I'm doing at the end of the week (something about early career English lecturing). There's a Virtual Learning Environment (i.e. webpage) task to do before we turn up. I also need to read The Winter's Tale for Thursday, and prepare my case for the Licensing Committee tomorrow: the empty restaurant beneath my flat wants to open and have live music until 4 a.m. I'm less than impressed. Perhaps a darker, more severe suit is required for that one.

Finally, I'm off to the German Market with Emma tonight - Birmingham's huge, authentic and expensive version of the classic German Christmas experience. Glühwein, sausages, beautiful handmade gifts for people. Rain. Brummies. Hmm… maybe not so authentic.

Monday, 23 November 2009

This woman needs pies

This image has been circulating in fashion magazines recently - it was then picked up by bloggers interested in poor quality Photoshopping.

Don't worry: this woman doesn't have a head bigger than her pelvis, and hopefully isn't this thin. However, we should still worry: the image is used in global campaign to imply that this kind of shape and size constitutes beauty.

Not for me it doesn't. I'm not exactly picky (how could I be?), but physically fragile to this degree just doesn't do it for me. How could this young lady keep up with the Map Twats.

Ralph Lauren has been well and truly nicked for the terrible Photoshopping, but has responded to concern about the actual values encoded in this image by… sending legal letters to bloggers reproducing it, despite the legal standard of 'fair use' for comment. What happens when you threaten bloggers? Their friends reproduce it everywhere - I got it from here.

I'm not a Ralph Lauren-wearer and can't therefore boycott the company's products. But we could all mail them, and even ask them whether their 'philanthropy' is anything more than the usual corporate nonsense.

Now this is cool

A piano you can tune while you play - like pitch control on a synth. I bet my sister will want one.

Video here.

The weekend which kept on giving

Concerts and curries weren't the end of my weekend.

Most of Sunday was spent lounging in bed, wearing my very best smoking jacket, marking student essays - a harrowing experience this time, though recourse to this week's The Thick of It was a fine restorative: possible the finest episode so far. If I started quoting the rococo cursing and cynical politics, I'd never stop. It's a perfect exposé of the tired and self-serving final days of Labour, and of the Conservatives' spoiled, arrogant, vacuous policy-free triangulating - and we've a lot of that to look forward to after May's election.

Then Dan turned up with a bulging sack, alongside Neal, covered in mud. Three hours of swearing followed as Dan struggled to set up his magnificent musical equipment so we could start to record our magnum opus, a Christmas album. I didn't realise, until yesterday, that the creative process involved watching a man click keys and say 'fook' a lot. Still, without spoiling the surprise, we made a first track that wouldn't sound out of place on Psychoville's Christmas Special. Yes, that freakish and disturbing.

After that - off to a colleague's 50th birthday party, which was like an alcohol and curry-fuelled staff meeting. We danced to everything from Van Halen to Bollywood hits. Dan shouted himself hoarse discussing poststructuralism, and a good time was had by all.

Mmm… from food to food for thought

From the Independent:

University accused of £36m student scam
Governors urged to quit after college falsely claimed for thousands of undergraduates
The body which funds English universities has taken the unprecedented step of calling for the mass resignation of governors at a university accused of misusing public money.
A letter seen by The Independent from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to the chairman of governors at London Metropolitan University calls on members of the governing body and senior staff to "consider their position".
It follows two damning reports which revealed that the university falsely claimed funding for thousands of students. As a result it has been ordered to repay an unprecedented £36m in funding – which is expected to lead to hundreds of job losses among academic staff. The reports, one from Sir David Melville, former vice-chancellor of Kent and Middlesex universities, and the other from Deloitte, the accountancy firm, found that London Metropolitan failed to keep track of students at the university or ensure they sat exams at the end of the year.
As a result it continued claiming funding from the Government on the basis of an artificially low drop-out rate, getting funding for far more students than were attending the university. Its failure to keep track of the students meant that many would not get the kind of help they needed to stay on their courses.
The case highlights a lack of care towards students from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education. Inner-city universities such as London Metropolitan take far more youngsters whose families have no history of entering university than the average – just the kind of people the Government is trying to attract into staying on in education.
On Friday Sir Alan Langlands, the funding council's chief executive, wrote to the chairman of governors, Peter Anwyl, giving them six days to consider their positions.
"The reports make it very difficult for Hefce to have confidence in the governance of the university," says Sir Alan's letter. "Throughout the history of this case we have been concerned that the university is unable to safeguard public funds and the reports confirm our view. Given the criticism of the board and the senior management team, I do not believe that confidence can be restored until action is taken to consider the position of the board members and senior staff who are criticised in the report and new governance and management arrangements are put in place."
London Metropolitan has more than 34,000 students on two campuses, in Islington and the City. It offers nearly 500 courses and employs 2,400 academic and non-academic staff.
Latest figures show a first-year drop-out rate of 16.6 per cent, putting it eighth from bottom in a national league table. It has the second highest percentage of students from low-income groups, at 55.1 per cent of the student population, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. A recent study found that only 68 per cent of students leaving the university were satisfied with the education they received, against a national average of 82 per cent.
Sir David Melville's report laid much of the blame at the door of the former vice-chancellor, Professor Brian Roper, who resigned this year. But it suggested that the problems were endemic. Sir David wrote: "I received over 50 such submissions, from a wide range of staff, predominantly academics but also including some from support staff. They attest to problems of student data quality over many years and provide many detailed examples of the difficulty of removing students from the record whom they know to have left or who never ever appeared.
"[There was] a strongly held view amongst staff and students that student academic potential is not being realised by a laissez-faire attitude ... and a failure to provide much-needed extra support for the many students admitted with modest educational backgrounds."
Sir David also blamed a group of senior managers, including the university secretary, the finance director and the deputy vice-chancellor (academic). The governors should take responsibility because they could have followed up on the poor student completion rates and challenged the vice-chancellor, said his report. "[Staff] generally describe a highly centralised and dictatorial executive led by the vice-chancellor, which was incapable of listening to what was going on in the university, discouraged or ignored criticism and made decisions without consultation," Sir David said.
The other report, from Deloitte, shows that as early as 2003 senior staff were aware that the definition the university was using of students who had completed a year's study did not conform to Hefce's. An email from a senior manager in May 2004 said that if Hefce's definition were applied literally, it would be "disastrous for the university".
No one from London Metropolitan could be contacted for comment yesterday, but the university has previously admitted that it counted a student as having completed a year's studies if they moved into the next year regardless of whether they had sat all their exams. It said on Friday that it had learnt "important lessons" from the Melville report.
Professor Malcolm Gillies, a former head of nearby City University, has been made vice-chancellor. A spokesman said the appointment "will renew our focus on students and their education".

Kookery Korner

Before swanning off to glamorous Birmingham yesterday, Neal and I went for a fried breakfast, bought kitchenware, then spent the afternoon making lovely soups with the huge pile of veg which had built up over the weeks (I have a weekly deliver of locally grown organic veg, which will annoy Cynical Ben no end, I suspect, because it's so bourgeois).

The soups we made were Green and Orange. Green consisted of 8 leeks, cabbage, garlic, bay leaves and potato to thicken. Orange was carrots, smoked chilli, roasted peppers, garlic and various seasonings.

Both were sensational - wintery, complex, satisfying. Perfect consumed with brown buttered toast and spilled over several sections of a big Saturday newspaper, perused at leisure.

Bravo, maestro

Morning. Chained to your workstations again? I'm feeling rather sunnily-disposed today.

Saturday saw me, neatly attired in a decent suit, attend a very dull but useful fencing meeting (a whole region's AGM with 7 people present…) during which we picked the teams for the competition I'm managing. It dragged on so long that I missed the first few minutes of the concert I tootled off to - Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony and Delius's Sea Drift. Luckily, they started with the Delius and the man was right - it really did drift, interminably, so missing a few minutes wasn't too terrible.

The performance of A Sea Symphony was something else entirely. It's a dramatic piece, drawing on Walt Whitman's poetry and using a full choir as well as orchestra. At times the sea is a sparkling, friendly place, busy with trade and international encounters - at others, it's a dark, uncontrollable threat to lives. The piece swings between these views, with periods of prettiness, of sadness and of dread.

The performers were the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the CB Choir, Julie Cooper on Soprano, James Rutherford on Baritone and Adrian Lucas conducting. It was, I think, amongst the best couple of concerts I've ever attended, up there with Philip Glass in Lichfield Cathedral. The choir, after a slightly blurry start, showed how sensitive they could be, as did the orchestra and soloists. They wrung every drop of emotion from the piece - in parts of the second and third movements I was genuinely on the verge of tears.

Special mention too for the leader of the viola section. Vaughan Williams knew how to write for viola, which many composers don't - the solos were beautifully judged and the tone was exquisite.

I knew from the first ten minutes of this performance that a standing ovation was required. Unfortunately, the rest of the (sparse) crowd were either too cynical or too physically incapable to join me. I was certainly, apart from the children dragged along, the youngest in the crowd by several decades - and I'm 34. Sad, isn't it? They did engage in prolonged applause and multiple curtain calls, so justice was done.

Then home, for a solitary curry at the place by my flat. Actually, I wasn't lonely at all. I had most of the newspaper to get through and my head was still full of music.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Autumnal Friday Conundrum

Easy one.

Which leaves are best for piling up and running through? Maple's aesthetically good, beech leaves are dry and crinkly - depends on what you're looking for in a good autumn afternoon.

Comments are open…

Oh yes. My weekend starts here.

A goodly haul today:
Irene Gammel (ed.), Making Avonlea: L. M. Montgomery and Popular Culture (U of Toronto Press 2002)
Irene Gammel (ed.), The Intimate Life of L. M. Montgomery (U of Toronto Press 2005) - probably not as racy as you think it is
Siân James, A Small Country (Collins, 1979).

and finally

Star Trek (the new film). Man cannot live on Anne of Green Gables and Stephen Greenblatt alone.

The Rolling Stones - they haven't sold out

Or rather, they sold out very early indeed, as this Rice Krispies ad from the 1960s demonstrates:

Aren't children creepy?

They certainly were today, anyway.

I go swimming three times a week, and on Friday, a load of 9 year-olds (possibly, I can't tell anymore) are changing into their togs as I'm leaving. Usually, they're boisterous: loud, laughing and chaotic. Their teacher is a soi-disant cool guy, and he's normally quite chatty too.

Not today. It felt like The Midwich Cuckoos. They came in, changed and headed off to the pool in total silence. No shuffling, no whispering, no laughter, no instructions from their teacher or requests to him. They lined up and marched off as though they were all being controlled by some central intelligence. Very disconcerting.


Things guaranteed to make me happy:
Good photography.

So imagine my joy when Neal sent me a link which combines all three. Enjoy.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Sorry students!

I just talked for almost two hours on Why Iago Isn't The Bad Guy In Othello And Why God Is. Failed to build in much interaction. Still, it was a fun exercise in critical theory.

Only one session left this week… and an awful lot of marking.

Still hurting from the football. But some books have helped. On Kim and Ben's recommendation, Kathleen Jamie's Findings, and a very rare pamphlet, Decca Treuhaft's (aka Jessica Mitford's) 1956 Lifeitselfmanship, an affectionately humorous guide to Leftwing Linguistics, and a witty riposte to her sister Nancy's Noblesse Oblige, which listed U (Upper-class) and Non-U usages.

Non-U - serviette, dentures, lounge. U - Napkin, False teeth, Hall or dining room.

Non-L: Suggesting a bum plan. L: projecting an incorrect perspective.
Non-L: Time will tell whether that plan was OK. L: The correctness of that policy will be tested in the crucible of struggle.

Lifeitselfmanship is a typed brochure with line drawings. The very few copies were sold for 1 shilling. I've just paid £30 and think it's a bargain.

Cynical Ben - time on his hands

I've lost track of how many blogs Cynical Ben has now. He's just added another two, which are rather promising:
for which I believe I took the photographs.

Three Cheers for Stoke-on-Trent

I've detailed the joys of Stoke recently. I left out its history of far-right politics, the massive unemployment, its sheer, defiant ugliness and Port Vale.

Now it's lauded in the national press for being the first city in the UK to sign up to the 10:10 pledge - to reduce emissions by 10% during 2010 - a really tough challenge in city destroyed by obsessive and socially-destructive road building (take six towns federated into a city, then stick a ring-road round each of them!), and formerly dependent on heavy industry (now gone, so no easy wins there).

Politicians always come out with this rubbish about bright green futures regenerating cities marooned by history (shades of Harold Wilson), but it might, might happen this time.

Oh, and Cynical Ben's wrong. Oatcakes are great. They're like wholemeal chapatis.

Aarghhh. La France perfide.

Good morning! I'm feeling fantastic and sickened at one and the same time. I went fencing in Shrewsbury last night for the first time in an age, worked hard, lost some fights I shouldn't have and won some I also shouldn't have. Saw old friends and got a workout.

It also meant that I didn't have to watch the Ireland match which, as kind comments on the previous post and this report show, was a travesty: Ireland went out to a goal produced by two hand balls. Everyone's bending over to avoid calling Thierry Henry a cheat, but that's what he's done - and I've always admired him. Yes, the referee and linesmen should have seen it, but he should have had done the honourable thing: but perhaps that just shows how out of step I am with modern sport. Then again, acknowledging the other guy's hit in fencing if the ref hasn't seen it is still done at all levels in fencing.

Who to support now? England? Obviously I'm pleased for Lou's New Zealand. Now Ireland's out, they have a clear run to the final. Ahem.

Right, back to my Othello lecture - got to have it ready for the Braille translator by 11.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Back to the sharp end

Finally, for the first time in a couple of months, I'm getting the train to Shrewsbury to go fencing. I'll be embarrassingly bad, but it doesn't matter. I couldn't avoid it even if I wanted to: I've been dumped with organising the West Midlands entry to a big youth team event - 2/3 days around the 20th December. What brilliant timing, though I suppose it gives parents a few days' peace while they do some Christmas shopping.

Anyone with a CRB certificate want to do some chaperoning, refereeing, coaching etc. etc.? My favourite job is patrolling the corridors at 3 a.m.

 I'm thinking of you, Saxon.

Hope Ireland beat France tonight. Then we can crush Lou's beloved New Zealand in the first round of the World Cup.

Is this the most sexist advert ever made?

Depressingly, it probably isn't, but it must be close. Reducing women to component parts. Mmm… dehumanising.

Bloggers of the World: Unite!

Lady Butscombe (no, me neither), another member of the permanent political class who has found that the world does indeed owe her a living, thinks UK bloggers should be regulated by the Press Complaints Commission, that famously balanced, impartial and fearsome watchdog which does such a good job managing the printed media.

We're not impressed. This (overlong) letter is being sent to the PCC, and you can add your name to it here:

Dear Lady Buscombe,
Re: Extension of PCC regulation to UK Blogs/Blogging
We write in regard to your apparent proposal that the PCC should consider extending its remit to the 'blogosphere' as reported by Ian Burrell of the Independent on 16 November 2009.
While we are grateful for your interest in our activities we must regretfully decline your kind offer of future PCC regulation.
Frankly, we do not feel that the further development of blogging as an interactive medium that facilitates the free exchange of ideas and opinions will benefit from regulation by a body representing an industry with, in the main, substantially lower ethical standards and practices than those already practiced by the vast majority of established British bloggers.
Although we would not wish you believe that this criticism relates to all your members – The Guardian, in particular, has adopted a number of practices, not least the appointment of a Readers' Editor to deal with complaints, which we consider to be the current gold standard in ethical journalistic practice amongst national newspapers – it is nevertheless the case that the vast majority of national newspaper titles routinely fall well short of both those, and our own, standards and that our direct experience of dealing with the PCC shows the organisation to be, in the main, complicit in those failings.
To give but one recent example of bad practice, of the many that bloggers have documented in over the last few years, an article published by the Tabloid Watch blog in October, documented, in some considerable detail, the tortuous process that one of its readers had to go through in order to get the News of the World to retract a manifestly untrue and inflammatory statement by one of its regular columnists, Carole Malone.

In this particular column, published in July 2009, Malone made use of an all-too-common and utterly racist myth that 'immigrants' (meaning asylum seekers) receive free cars on arriving in the UK, a myth that is most closely associated with the propaganda output of the British National Party. Extract of Malone article:
"All you have to do to get everything Britain has to offer is to turn up illegally with some sob story of how your own country is too dangerous or that you're a lesbian who'll be shot if you stay there and Hey Presto, it's like you've won the lottery! And, in effect, they HAVE.
Free houses, free cars, free healthcare and free money. Hell, they don't even have to work or speak the language. Even the suggestion they should is seen as racist in Brown's Britain.
They can just live as they did before, only with a whole heap more money and zero responsibility to the country providing it."
What we find most striking about the process documented by Tabloid Watch is the extent to which the PCC actively sought to facilitate the News of the World's efforts to avoid undertaking practices that we, as bloggers, take for granted as being standard practice in our corner of the internet: i.e. the prominent publication of an honest and open correction of a factual error on the original article in which the error, itself, was made.
Instead, as we invariably find to be standard practice amongst, particularly, tabloid newspapers; the correction and cursory apologywhen it was grudgingly issued after what Tabloid Watch described as 'two months of wrangling' – appeared in a location other than that of Malone's column in the newspaper's print edition and on its website on a page utterly divorced from the article to which it relates, which was removed its entirety, and in such a way that only someone searching specifically for the retraction would ever be likely to find it.
To all intents and purposes, the retraction might as well not have been issued, for all that it would be apparent to visitors to the News of World's website that it had ever been made.
This is but one clear example of a practice that would be unacceptable amongst established bloggers and one of many that bloggers who specialise in monitoring the national press for accuracy have documented in recent years.
For a blogger to engage in such practices, which include 'stealth editing' of articles, after publication, to avoid owning up to factual errors and removing and/or refusing to publish critical comments from readers, especially those that highlight and correct factual errors.
For an established blogger to adopt such practices would do incalculable damage to their public reputation; this being, after all, all that we have to trade on.
To the vast majority of national newspapers such conduct is no more than standard operating practice.
Consequently we would suggest that before your even consider turning your attention to our activities, you should direct your energies towards putting your own house in proper order.
Should you succeed in raising the ethical standards and practices of the majority of the national press, particularly the tabloids, to our level then we may be inclined to reconsider our position.
Until that happens, any attempt by the Press Complaints Commission to regulate the activities of bloggers will be strenuously resisted at every possible turn.

Gather round, my co-religionist Catholics

The godless, heathens and heretics (I'm looking at you, Left Behind) have had the gaming world to themselves for too long. It's time for good Romans to fire up the Xbox!

Doomed, we're all doomed!

I'm not joking. The only levity to be gained from this very credible report (abstract only) is that by the time we hit 6C above norm (in 2100), I will be dead. It's sad that the best I can hope for in my life is that it will be over by the time that mass human, animal and vegetable extinction occurs. Still, it'll make life interesting for our children and grandchildren.

The media coverage suggests that it's possible to avert this utter disaster - but the scientist points out that emissions have risen over the past decade, by 29%. Every opportunity we're given to take climate change seriously, we've avoided. Our politicians pay lip service and we chuck the occasional newspaper in the recycling bin, but as a race, we don't really believe that what's going to happen will happen. It's too far off or too complicated.

My students think it's hilarious (or embarrassing) that I don't drive and that I'm genuinely terrified of the consequences. They just don't care enough to change their lives - and to be fair, we need to change society far more radically than swapping to recycled loo paper or unplugging iPod chargers.

The current plan is to try to limit temperature change to 2C above the norm - leading to aberrant weather, migration, some extinctions: bad, but not awful. Can we do it? Can we bollocks:

"This is very different to the trend we need to be on to limit global climate change to 2C [the level required to avoid dangerous climate change]." That would require CO2 emissions from all sources to peak between 2015 and 2020 and that the global per capita emissions be decreased to 1 tonne of CO2 by 2050. Currently the average US citizen emits 19.9 tonnes per year and UK citizens emit 9.3 tonnes.

Now back to an Othello lecture - it fills in the time before I gratefully shuffle off this mortal coil.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Well, well, well

despite being exhausting, today was fun and positive (see, serene me still trying). The last set of student presentations were thoughtful and even witty and I learned a few things. The meeting with Very Important People in The Hegemon wasn't brilliant, but there's a smaller and more focused one tomorrow which could be more productive.

Finally, it's time to find some food. I haven't even had a cup of tea since last night, let alone sustenance. Wonder if the canteen has any gruel left.

Boulot, métro, dodo…

So what's the news out there today? I've been teaching continuously since 9, apart from another meeting with senior management, and more teaching to come. I'm feeling left out! On the plus side, I've seen the best first-year presentations in years this morning, and some decent second-year ones. Third years are up next, covering 'how to be a spin doctor', which I find fascinating, so no doubt that will be fun.


Emma and I went for a drink last night to celebrate her seventh anniversary of immigrating to this great nation. I like to think she blended in well, fitted out in a lovely bowler hat and cricket whites, tucking into salt and vinegar Yorkshire scratchings and discussing the routes we took to the pub. That about sums up Britishness, doesn't it? Doesn't it?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Live book buying

Anita showed me this: you can see what people are buying from one web bookshop, in real time! Strangely addictive!

Students: has your loan come through yet?

I think the student loan system is despicable. I think selling the loan book off to corporations is utterly despicable, and I think that the massive delays in getting the cash to 150,000  students was reprehensible and despicable.

I've now run out of adjectives for the massive bonuses for Student Loan Company bosses announced today. Perhaps you should come up with a few, and put them on a postcard to:

Student Loans Company
100 Bothwell Street
G2 7JD

Dr. de Jour, I presume?

Anonymity is tricky to maintain, even on The Plashing Vole. It's harder still for successful bloggers, such as Belle de Jour, who even managed to produce books and a not-very-good ITV series based on her prostitution blog without being exposed (fnarr fnarr).

Turns out now that she's a serious research scientist, one who works at the appropriately-named (and important) BIRCH, and outed herself apparently from boredom, though I can't help thinking that the tabloids will have been on her tail (oo-er) for years now. She was a call girl to fund the closing stages of her PhD. Wish I'd thought of that. I was a (terrible) supply teacher and visiting lecturer at The Hegemon, which is prostitution of an entirely different kind.

Update: of course revelation was driven by the tabloids, in this case our friends at the Daily Goosestep:

"We went to the Times willingly, after the Mail had their reporters warned off my work premises by the police"

The new impartiality

Having been driven to restrict myself to uncontroversial nostrums by the fear of The Dole Queue, I have decided to strive for balance in all things, which will - allegedly - lead to serenity.

The effects are fearsome. I just read Charlie Brooker's latest missive, in which he condemns Christmas advertising ('Jamie Oliver tours Britain handing out free vol-au-vents to greedy members of the public, like a zookeeper throwing sprats to a load of barking seals'). Horrified to find my new self agreeing with him, my internal organs began to mutiny. They were placated only by extended exposure to the Anti-Brooker, despite my neurons pleading for sweet release.

Who could the Anti-Brooker be? Watch the video… if you dare. Poor Cynical will be sawing his ears from his head with whatever implement is nearest, and who could blame him? How long do you think this serene, calm me is going to last?

You shall be hanged from the neck until you are dead

… even if your judge and prosecutor are having an affair. Meanwhile in Texas (where else?), democracy rules - leading to judges being elected on a 'pro-prosecution' ticket. God knows the UK system is set up to maintain the dominance of white, male, privately-educated Oxbridge types, but it does mean that mob rule isn't the order of the day.

Stoke and Culture… in the same sentence

Last night's Radio 4 Pick of the Week was hosted by a Potter and featured a show about the potential revival of the pottery industry - and mentioned oatcakes. Added to this, I spent half an hour at Stoke station on Saturday, and I'm feeling nostalgic. Stoke-on-Trent has a bad reputation for being an ugly, unemployed, fascist-infested hope-sink. A largely deserved reputation, though I would balance those with: Primitive Methodism, formerly strong trades unionism, beautiful ceramics, Arnold Bennett, Mrs. Craik (another Stoke-Irish oddity), Slash, Lemmy, Nick Hancock, Stanley Matthews, Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton, embarrassing Tory DJ Bruno Brookes, embarrassing TV presenter (and Brookes ex) Anthea Turner and Stoke City.

Regeneration is largely on hold, but Anita, who has emigrated from Dublin to Stoke (no, me neither) has plunged into Stoke's cultural renaissance, and draws my attention to the British Ceramics Biennial. You've only until 29th November to see it though.

Hooray, back at work

Morning slackers! Here we are again, back in the belly of the Hegemon and I'm already panicking about the enormous amount of work piling up… lectures, marking, admin, resistance.

Though my weekend was one of those in which cares disappear. When I was a youngster, I despised the booted, hearty types who lit out for the trail whenever possible. A wood fire and a good book were all I ever wanted. So imagine my surprise to find myself bounding out of bed, noting the gale forecast and thinking 'brilliant'. There are few more exhilarating sensations than standing on top of a rocky outcrop in driving rain and rushing wind. If muddiness is an index of fun - we had it.

Where were we? The Cloud, outside Congleton (between Manchester and Stoke). It lived up to its name - the panoramic views available on a clear day were absent, though we could see the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. Lunch was a selection of fine cheeses (thanks Anita) and various other delicacies, taken hunched under a rhododendron.

The other notable spot was the fine neolithic burial chamber we visited, massive and proud. The sun gradually appeared, firstly over Wales, then Liverpool and eventually near us, low and gentle so that the fields glowed bright green as though we were in the glens of Antrim. Then home for a night in the pub not watching Ireland lose to France. At least the rugby draw against Australia the next day was some compensation.

No pictures, as I thought the weather would be too awful to take my camera out. Thanks, as always, to Dan for organising everything. He's now infantilised the Map Twats - we're incapable of buying so much as a bus ticket without him now!

Friday, 13 November 2009

A quality bit of Irish sporting humour

Emma sent me this today - Anita informs that it's been floating around, under various guises, for a good few years. Funny if you like sporting rivalries and find Sarkozy risible.

I had a patient in the back of my cab. Very rude man

I forgot to mention the highlight of my hospital trip. We took a taxi back. The driver opened the conversation with 'which one of you's been to the hospital then?', which I thought was a) obvious in one sense - both of us and b) nosy in the other sense. We curtly indicated which one of it was, in a 'that's very intrusive, this conversation is now over' tone, only for the cabby to follow it with 'what's wrong with you then? Is it a fever?' and shake the subject as a greedy dog might with a meaty bone.

As for his opinions on Indian partition… inaccurate, bigoted and gruesome.

Brutal Friday conundrum

Who needs an educational spade through the head?

Jeremy Clarkson springs to mind, because he thinks he leads a silent army of common-sense blokes beset by enviro-lesbians. I know people think he's just teasing people like me, but they're wrong.

Tom Cruise. I've seen Far and Away.

Whoever invented the footballers' knot.

It's not all doom and gloom though

As George Eliot wrote, 'the world outside books is not a happy place' (or something similar). It's great inside though, and I've just taken delivery of another consignment. A wall is rising around my desk…

Rubio and Waterston's Norton critical edition of Anne of Green Gables;
Lauter and Fitzgerald's anthology Literature, Class and Culture (rather too American for my plans, but fascinating anyway);
Kate Roberts's The Awakening, a new translation by Siân James (whose A Small Country is a wonderful, rich text) which looks excellent.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

It's also been an emotional week or so in many ways, outside the daily grind of institutional problems. My boss's father died, as did the mother of a close friend, and in such situations, empathy naturally leads to consideration of mortality and its effect on those left behind. With death in mind, it's odd noticing how often it appears in daily existence - in texts discussed in class, on TV or in games.

As a student, I had little experience of losing loved ones (my grandfathers are both dead, but that's it), and literary texts on the subject were little more than admirable exercises in style. I've not experienced much more myself, but as friends have suffered losses (Cynical Ben's father died not long ago, too young, and another friend's husband committed suicide recently), my responses to the attempts of creative writers to express emotion becomes more visceral and emotional, as my Poetry students may have noticed when we read Silkin's poem on the death of his young son.

There are no words for emotions, a poet once said - but we keep trying. The more we experience, the harder it is to find them: words are often completely inadequate to the situation.

More happily, I got round to writing to my only surviving school teacher (well, the only one I'd  swerve to avoid), via his last known workplace. This morning, I received a witty, erudite and friendly letter from him, full of a decade's upheaval which has ended in happiness and comfort - few things are better for the spirits than a relationship refounded, as I've found out a few times in the recent past.

What a long and strange week it's been

Happy Friday, cybermates. How I am looking forward to a foaming jug of ale after the day ends (one workshop on Greek love poetry and a 5 p.m. project tutorial), then tomorrow the Map Twats are walking the Cloud, near Congleton before an evening watching Ireland trounce les françaises at soccer.

After all my frenzied preparation this week, the Othello lecture went fine. I thought I had a mere 25 minutes of Olivier's overacting to struggle through before confronting the Big Issues, but actually the old ham strung out Act 5 for an hour. It didn't take long for students to actually and openly laugh at his terrible performance, and I can't say I blame them.

After that, it was off to New Cross with a student taken ill (I'm an effective lecturer, but the effects aren't always positive), which was less dramatic and more pleasant than you might think - we talked about music and books for a few hours while the madness of A+E went on around us.

Imagine my joy when I returned to find that Neal had prepared a delicious broccoli and Stilton soup for me. How I'll miss him when he leaves the West Midlands. Perhaps I'll have to hobble him, as in Misery.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Lovely, lovely books

Yes, the trucks are now rolling in. Lots of wonderful Welsh literature, and some hardcore Anne.

Today's haul:
Kate Roberts' One Bright Morning, translated by Gillian Clarke (a brilliant writer herself);
Kate Roberts' Y Lon Wen / The White Lane (also translated by Clarke);
Lynette Roberts' Collected Poems (inspired by the Lynette Roberts conference I didn't go to);
Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools, about the rape and pillage of the Irish economy by a clique of greedy, tightknit bankers, businessmen and politicians;
Cecily Devereux's edition of Anne of Green Gables;
Barry, Doody and Jones's Annotated Anne of Green Gables (which looks rather wet, actually).


How to be effortlessly cool

First, it helps to be a Welsh rock star.
Then, use a magic cape and helmet to transport yourself to Welsh Argentina for a madcap quest for your eccentric Welsh-Argentinian pop star relative.
Make sure to be attacked by penguins.

Easy. Read all about it here.

Forward to the Workers' Syndicalist State

The Tories have been muttering about instituting Easyjet-style local service provision (mm, what a vote-winner) and the Labour Party have had to find a localised model of service provision to avoid looking like centralist Soviets (not that I mind centralisation much - especially as I find myself living in an evil Tory/Lib Dem council).

The model they've gone for is one of workers' control: users and staff of anything from hospitals to leisure centres running places without too much control from the centre.

I'm all for it. Yes, things will end up being plotted by hyperactive busybodies, but the theory is sound, because the theory is Syndicalism, a splinter of communism which appealed to the Welsh miners and others in the 1930s (and got several of them in trouble with the CPGB Central Committee. Under syndicalism, the workforce of any particular industry, via their democratic union, controlled the means of production. Industries would be run co-operatively and would trade resources with other syndicalist industries. The profit motive and capitalist class would wither away. The theory suggests that government wouldn't be necessary because all workers would operate with the good of society in mind, and thus all would behave well. Personally, I think that a government of some sort would be required to adjudicate, distribute and set priorities (and conduct diplomacy, defence and public services), but it would be minimal compared with the Soviet and capitalist models.

Syndicalism rocks - and its time has come. Though I've probably just ruined its chances by identifying its origins in such as disreputable lefty idea.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

From the ridiculous to the sublime

Two pieces which always take me somewhere better: Tallis's Spem in Alium and Allegri's Miserere.

The clip of Spem in Alium isn't brilliant - you really need full stereo and massively high volume, but you can get the idea. Ignore the pictures and the religious content. Give it the full 10 minutes - you really need to let the multiple voices (8 choirs of soprano, tenor, alto and two basses) pile up with incredible power.

Allegri's piece was originally restricted solely to the Vatican, until naughty  14-yr old Mozart memorised it and wrote it down when he got outside. It's more tranquil, though it's a sinner begging for mercy. The repeating solo soprano (first heard around 1.40) is just stunning. Sublime is the word.

Could be worse…

Industrial relations aren't brilliant here, and we don't see much of management, but at least we aren't the Washington Times, which has closed the management floor to staff, and has armed guards in the pressroom! At what point should those employees wonder about their working conditions.

'Type faster, or I'll blow your brains out, punk'.

Blogging my way out of a job

I'm under considerable pressure - from friends - to remove posts related to my institution and job. The sharp-eyed amongst you may notice that specific references and adjectives have been removed or replaced. My friends are wrong in principle and right on pragmatic grounds.

There's a discussion of this in relation to Twitter here. Makes good, if slightly uncomfortable sense.

Beardy Weirdy

I've noticed (and mentioned to friends) the preponderance of beards on indie musicians recently. Beards are definitely signifiers of seriousness at the moment (even to Wayne Rooney and David Beckham) but also of authenticity - a riposte to the waxed, primped, heavily-prepared confection of people like, well, David Beckham in an earlier phase.

Thankfully, a better writer than I has mused on the subject of beards in music, taking a Barthian approach (Barthes analysed Roman hairstyles in films). Enjoy it here.

It's all doom and gloom down at t'Guardian

People are losing their jobs elsewhere, even in the heart of the chattering classes. Yes, my favourite newspaper is shedding people and sections. Hopefully they'll be treated well, though Fleet Street has a saying about liberal papers treating their staff worse than reactionary ones.

The Guardian has declines recently - the supplements, such as Environment, have been reduced to allow more journalists to spend time on important stories about Amy Winehouse, The Wire, celebrity sport columns and whatever Tanya Gold thinks we should know about her on any particular day. Now they're ceasing to publish the Technology supplement - an innovative and (you'd think) essential part of a forward-looking newspaper. I'd drop the TV listings personally and cut the 'essential clothes under £3000' dross.

Over at the Observer, the decent magazines are going: Sport Monthly, Woman and Music. All that will be left is the Department for Supporting Illegal Wars Based on Falsified Evidence and (hopefully), Rawnsley and Mitchell who, let's face it, needs the work. I certainly won't miss Escape (the travel section), lacking a cat in need of litter material.

Does it matter? Newspapers are migrating to the web - and losing millions of pounds in doing so. Murdoch plans to put his papers' sites behind a pay wall, while others, like the Guardian rely on advertising (which is why they're going bust). I love the accessibility of the web versions - but I also love the flow, convenience and portability of the newspaper, the ability to tear bits out, write on them, pass them over to your friends, fashion them into sunhats…

Witticisms aside though, it is a bit worrying - loads of US newspapers have closed, and UK ones are struggling, despite having a much better readership. We need spiky, independent journalism. Can't we ban the Daily Mail instead, and forcibly transfer their readers? It would be like being sent on an involuntary and unpleasant foreign exchange holiday. They don't like our clothes (sandals), our food (muesli), our relaxed attitudes to sex, drugs and politics… but they'd be transformed after a few months - into nice people.

The bookalanche rumbles

I've rather foolishly ordered loads of books recently. A certain large internet shop promises that they're on the way, but the only thing I've received this week is Gammel and Epperly's L. M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture - sent by a very trusting distributor prior to payment. Lucky I'm an honest fellow (as Iago repeatedly says).

Heeee's back!

Hello. Did you enjoy the peace and quiet while I was away? A torrent of bloggable things occurred to me - my thoughts are pretty much permanently accompanied by the sound of imaginary keys clacking these days. This is not a good thing.

However - what a waste of time yesterday was. For the second time, the case was cancelled because the accused changed his mind at the last moment. The offence occurred over a year ago. He was convicted of some charges at the Magistrate's Court some time ago, and has been in prison ever since. Six months ago I dragged myself, via three buses, to Brierley Hill Crown Court for the big event - cancelled after 6 hours in a waiting room because he sacked his lawyers. Fair enough, that's his right. The state paid for his translator to come up from London and stay overnight, and for the victims' translator to do the same. Plus the cost of the lawyers and court officials. He was then given time to instruct new representatives, but apparently decided to defend himself.

Until yesterday afternoon, when he decided that he needed lawyers after all. So another hearing will happen in a few weeks to decide that, then there'll be another hearing several months later, after the new lawyers familiarise themselves with the case. Meanwhile, the victims must be losing all faith in the system and I wouldn't be surprised to find that they give up and go back to their home country, especially with the recession biting. The accused will then go free.

I feel a bit weird sounding so angry about this. I'm utterly lefty-liberal about the justice system. Basically I think it's all wrong. Except now. This guy is genuinely and seriously mentally and physically dangerous, as I found out in the simplest way possible. I want him locked up - perhaps in a secure mental institution, perhaps in prison (I don't know what his state is) - until he isn't dangerous any more. I want him to receive the best treatment in court and afterwards, to have the benefit of all his rights, but at the same time, I know he's utterly guilty because I was involved, and there's been no benefit to anyone of all these delays, including him.

Anyway, off to write my Othello lecture. Or rewrite it.