Wednesday, 29 June 2011

What every radical subversive academic will be wearing tomorrow

I've just nipped out to do some shopping. As a fully paid-up member of what Margaret Thatcher called 'the enemy within', I came back loaded down with weaponry ready for tomorrow's strike.

Actually, I bought two new pillows and a breadbin. And this, 'designed' by me, which I'll be sporting on the picket lines and at the big rally in Birmingham tomorrow. Victoria Square, 12 noon. I couldn't think of anything catchier than 'millionaires mugged me for my pension', and didn't have time to get pictures of Clegg, Cameron, Gove, Willetts et al. Still, it will do, and I rather suspect I'll get to wear it rather too often.

I won't be blogging tomorrow, but I'll be taking a lot of pictures which I'll try to post on Friday, during out Staff Conference. Meanwhile, remember the old slogan: Educate, Agitate, Organise!

A temporary return to justice

After a shameful decision to exclude Ireland's cricket team (y'know, the one that beat England) and the other Associate nations from the World Cup, the ICC has accepted demands that 14 teams qualify, rather than 10, as they'd planned.

I listened to Ireland's triumph over England on the radio while at work, to the bemusement of my office colleagues. Just after it finished, I took a call from a local aspiring politician, anxious for my support in his quest to become a Labour council candidate.

Him: Listening to the cricket? I used to be a professional cricketer. Terrible about England losing.
Me: Actually, I support Ireland.
Him: Brilliant, isn't it? Great result.
Me: ???!

No doubt he'll go far, but without my support. Though you have to admire his chutzpah.

The Education White Paper Through The Medium Of Tory Cartooning

We're off on strike tomorrow in defence of our 'gold-plated' pensions, alongside such subversives as the ATL (first strike in 127 years) and their Eton College members.

I didn't get a full-time job until I was 32, thanks to the system of extra qualifications and university understaffing. I'm now 35 and still don't have a permanent post, so can't raise a mortgage etc. So my pension contributions won't furnish me with a gold-plated hearing aid, let alone a heli-pad.

I was looking for a cartoon by Matt of the Daily Telegraph (I have very reactionary parents) from the 1990s to illustrate the ways in which universities will now have to recruit. In it, two men walk past a doorway festooned with flashing lights and signs reading 'Girls Girls Girls' and 'Free Drinks'. One says to the other 'Careful: it could be a university'. If you've got it, PLEASE scan this in for me - it's not on the web anywhere.

Like America, there'll be sectors. Some will target the Swot Pound: oak panelling, libraries full of leather-bound books, cloisters. We'll call this Hermione Granger University. Others will market themselves on the en-suite jacuzzis in the accommodation and the hotness of the undergraduates. Giggs College. Yet more will advertise the lifestyle available in the bustling metropolis (in my institution's case, 'All The Grey Peas You Can Eat'. Our former use of a football stadium for teaching might yet be a selling point.

But there's a serious point. Ritzer's 'The McDonaldisation of the University' posited an HE sector in which everything becomes easier and more casual (our essay submission office is named - without irony - 'Here2Help'). No student will ever be made to feel like they've not worked hard enough. The glitz and luxury will take centre stage. Glossy brochures and peripheral attractions will replace the serious business of educating yourself.  Education is to become a consumer experience like a gap year with a few books sneaked in - not a process in which the adventure and the adversity is that of the intellect learning to make sense (or often not making sense) of oneself and the world.

This theme-park education will inevitably lead to exclusion. The poor and the black will come to places like mine to do business-friendly qualifications which gain them entry into the exciting world of data-entry and call centres. To these students, we won't be native guides in the forest of learning: we'll be the surly checkout assistants who impede their progress.

The mavericks will go to a small number of high-powered élite institutions before living meaningful lives in Silicon Valley or CERN. And the dim, over-privileged children of the Permanent Ruling Classes will carry on doing Fine Art in cloistered, honey-walled universities with a fleet of servants and punts for their leisured hours, secure in the knowledge that the House of Commons, Sothebys and the investment banks will welcome them with open arms.

Delightful, no?

In defence of English

One of the side effects of the Arab Spring is a move towards academic freedom (ironically, while the government here is subjugating us to the brutish whims of the market).

In Cairo, the academics have elected their Deans for the very first time, and a woman won the race for Dean of Arts. And then a state-owned newspaper weighed in with a belated complaint about a short story on the English curriculum, one with a lesbian scene - and the twin joys of academic self-rule and democracy are suddenly in doubt.

As an aside, I suggested to our Vice-Chancellor that an academic senate would do a fine job, rather than the politburo of apparatchiks on a minimum of £100,000, given our recent history of redundancies and fines. The suggestion went down like the proverbial bucket of cold sick.

But on the main point, I really shouldn't have to reiterate the values of a humanist education. I really don't know whether the short story with a lesbian scene is any good or not: but I'd rather trust an academic than a politician or a hack.

I've had frequent brushes with censoriousness. Friends of mine have been dragged through the tabloids for taking an academic interest in sexual texts, as though talking about what a society generates, watches or bans is the equivalent of actually attaching the student to the pig's genitals. It gets the complainant a few headlines of synthetic outrage in the less reflective newspapers, but over the long term, simply closes off more avenues of human enquiry. What Egypt needs now is a cohort of students who don't recognise taboos: they've had generations of rulers telling them what not to think about: women's rights, democracy, religion, human rights, freedom, sex. Now it's their turn to examine the pressing issues of the day.

I recently attended a seminar on the notion of 'teaching offence', and was surprised to learn that most other universities avoid teaching anything controversial. Bezhti, the play which annoyed some Sikhs was mentioned: the theatre cancelled the performances and one academic nervously cited it as the kind of thing to be avoided. Sorry - we've done that one already. We have to assume that students are ready to examine their personal limits, safe in the knowledge that we're not gratuitously provoking them. I've taught Beauty to a first year class recently - a book I consider borderline racist. Half the Asian students hated it, the other half thought it authentically echoed their own experiences.

I've also shown the Laurence Olivier Othello: hammy blackface and all. I got complaints and learned from it. I'd show it again too - as a demonstration of the fact that cultural values change. Olivier and crew clearly never considered a black audience was possible, and that white audiences would be perfectly happy with the kind of crude stereotyping presented in that production.

Morel closely linked to the Cairo situation, I've taught an entire class on historical interpretations of Sappho's poetry, covering the construction of Sappho as a lesbian (as Butler et al. demonstrate, it's more complicated than you'd think), the censorship implicit in various translations, and the titillation adopted by others. We did this in an all-female first-year class, with my PGCE mentor taking notes. I expected some complaints based on the material, and on the situation in which a male heterosexuality lecturer talks to female students about female sexuality. The complaints didn't come: instead, the students launched into a confident and sophisticated discussion.

If you feel that Egyptian students should have the right to read, then accept or reject texts for themselves, write to:
Professor Dr. Hossam Kamel, President of Cairo University
El Gamaa Street

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

More Tory hypocrisy - and close to home

Another fine moment for Paul Uppal MP.

He voted for a motion to ban strikes in the emergency and transport sectors unless a majority of those eligible to vote cast a ballot in favour (i.e. 50%+1). Now I could go on about the massive weight of biased Tory-inspired laws (retained by Tony Blair because he's a Tory wanker) which work to prevent this happening, but instead I'll remind you of Paul Uppal's electoral record and position on AV, the electoral system which proposed that MPs have to get 50%+1 just of those who bother voting, to be elected.

Did Paul support a system which would have required him to persuade 50% of those voting (not the electorate, unlike the law he tried to apply to strikes)? He did not.

Did he get voted in by 50%+1 of the electorate?
He did not.

Paul Uppal, Conservative16,34440.7%
Rob Marris, Labour15,65339.0%
Robin Lawrence, Liberal Democrat6,43016.0%
Amanda Mobberley, UK Independence Party1,4873.7%
Raymond Barry, Equal Parenting Alliance2460.6%
CandidateVotesShare %Conservative majority:


Conservative majority: 691.
Turnout: 67.9%.
So Uppal is MP thanks to 40.7% of the 67.9% who bothered voting.
So of the 60,000 or so eligible voters (and don't forget that Uppal counted non-voting trades union members in his spiteful little motion), he was 'elected' by 16,344 of them: that looks like 27% to me.
So by his own logic, he's illegitimate. Time to resign on principle.

Competition Time

I have inadvertently purchased two copies of Linden Peach's excellent The Fiction of Emyr Humphreys: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (University of Wales Press, 2011), at a cost of £20 a go. I can't express how brilliant Humphreys' work is: he and Kate Roberts deserve Nobel Prizes. Try Humphrey's A Toy Epic, Outside the House of Baal or Old People Are A Problem for starters amongst his English-language work.

One copy will be awarded to whoever completes this sentence most amusingly:

My favourite thing about Michael Gove is… 

My decision is final, employees of Michael Gove are welcome to enter the competition.

I don't think I have ever been so angry

Sorry for a long and boring post, but I am an academic (ahem) and it's a big day.

The government today launched its plan for universities. You might be thinking that a master-strategy should come before making universities charge massively higher fees and change everything they do at the whim of a barely-elected bunch of chancers, but that's because you're not a highly intelligent politician.

So, my quick guide to their 'ideas'.

1. David Willetts: 'We believe in the power of students'. 
Unless they disagree with me, in which case they're spoiled and stupid. Underlying the government's case is the idea that every student is a rational consumer with all the information required about the future job market at their fingertips, and with no constraints on their choices. In the real world, it's impossible to work out what will happen in 4 years' time - I imagine there are quite a lot of depressed graduates with Banking and Finance degrees around at the moment. Also, a lot of my students don't lead stable lives leading to selfish-rational choices. They choose an institution based on being able to keep their jobs, to live with their families, in cities they can afford, near to their kids' schools and a host of other factors come into play.

There's a reason why medicines aren't advertised (unlike America): it's because there's no earthly way that a patient can be informed enough to make a judgement between one brand and another. We trust our doctors about this. Now imagine sitting down an 18 year-old (perhaps one like this) and telling her that she has to make major decisions about her life right now, as a customer. It's not fair on either her or the institutions.

2. The 'reforms' will save the government money. 
No they won't. Or rather, they'll appear to on paper. The government will loan students £9000 per year plus their student maintenance grant, rather than giving some money directly to universities (hence the guff about the 'power' of students) and £1000 or so to the students to give to the university. But students won't pay anything back for several years, and most won't pay all of it back. So how do they hide the massive loss to the taxpayer? By taking it off the books: because it's theoretically meant to be paid back, it won't count as yearly expenditure.

3. Universities will compete on price, but quality will improve.
Eh? Do supermarkets get better at the bottom end? Is Aldi bread better than Waitrose? Much more importantly, how is any institution meant to get any better when it's forced to compete on price? Cutting libraries, reducing staff, enlarging classes, reducing academic work: these are how costs will be cut. So the very rich institutions (Oxford and Cambridge own massive amounts of land, art, property and attract huge donations) will continue to hire Nobel winners, build libraries and labs, while the rest of us cater for the state-educated masses in knackered buildings, huddled round the Departmental Book or Bunsen burner.

Opening the sector to fly-by-night Discount Degree providers is a dodge to take pressure off the Treasury, not an aid to students. Quality education costs a lot of money. This is the 5th largest economy in the world. I pay tax so that my binman's kids can be educated. Suck it up.

4. Private providers will improve quality.
Really? Where will they get their staff? Either they'll have to pay huge rates to people they poach from proper universities, or they'll try the usual tricks: underqualified, ununionised staff desperate for any job. They'll cater for the cheap degrees, rather than the rather expensive requirements of the sciences, for example. This is simply an extension of Ritzer's McDonaldisation process. You can be damn sure that not a single Cabinet Minister's child will be attending Blackburn College of FE, or BeJam University College, whatever the grades required.

Private providers have shareholders, and shareholders want profit (this is why I'm opposed to capitalism: profit is waste, money that should be distributed to the workers or reinvested in the company). Where will the profit come from, if the government's insisting that these places can deliver education at £6000 per year? Easy: you employ classroom assistants to turn on the DVD player to deliver pre-recorded material. That's not education: it's indoctrination. Those of my students who write down what I say and repeat it in essays are uneducated. Education consists of understanding lectures as a partial starting point, going to the library to read around the ideas, then working out what you think about the various perspectives available, often through the medium of heated debate in class.

With these private providers, your lecturers (should there be any) won't be qualified to offer an opinion. There won't be a debate because seminars are expensive: there won't be any, or there'll be 100 of you in each class. There won't be a library of critical work: you'll be expected to Google quotes to stick in the essays to be marked by unqualified drones.

5. Universities will be business-friendly and therefore provide graduates equipped for the demands of employment.
Employers will 'kitemark' degrees they respect. So you can presume that the Association of British Bankers won't be kitemarking degrees which blame bankers for the er, banking crash. The CBI won't be authorising modules which praise Fairtrade, trades unions, or the minimum wage.

Most of your government have humanities degrees, yet they're keen to deny that to you. Futhermore, businesses which demand slaves indoctrinated by the current orthodoxy tend to go spectacularly bust. Look at Alan Sugar's pisspoor products, or the banks: key business schools failed to offer any critique of their economic models, and should bear a large burden of the guilt. Universities shouldn't be sausage machines, turning out obedient drones: they should be generating innovative troublemakers - that's how you get progress.

Not all education should be about improving capitalism. It's worth knowing, y'know, stuff about Anglo-Saxon literature, or shingle beaches (a friend of mine was the world's only expert on shingle beaches). It doesn't make Branson any money, but surely there's room for things which don't profit Branson and friends.

6. Private providers will improve quality.
Not if they're cutting corners, they won't (and the Higher Education Funding Council for England says so). And the NSS suggests that students are happy with the quality of provision (except at the Hegemon, where moronic restructuring by a management cult has led to deep unhappiness).

Allowing dodgy companies to award degrees will just ruin the good reputation UK universities have. Look at BPP: their US parent group has paid millions in fines for deception. Its university (Phoenix) has a pass rate of 9%. It's a machine for channelling US taxpayers' money into shareholders pockets. Profit-making 'universities' in the US take 25% of the state loans but only teach 10% of the students: of which 90% don't achieve their qualification.

The same will happen here when Murdoch University opens. The government is reserving 20,000 places for cut-price colleges: that's playing with people's lives. It's not the private sector coming to the rescue of the public sector: it's the  taxpayer being forced to hand over money to the private sector (just like the banking bailout) with the students as collateral damage. (It's also a fix: for a bunch of supposed free-marketeers, why stop those 20,000 going to the college they choose?)

The government says that students will have rights to demand quality reviews and better teaching. It doesn't square with discount degree mills: quality means qualified people communicating well, students being pushed academically, and high-quality resources. All this costs money.

7. Removing high-achieving students from the quota will be good for universities.
At the moment, there's a limit on the number of students universities can recruit - to keep down costs. The government plans to tell universities that students with AAB and higher can be recruited without regard for the cap. What will that do? Well, the top 5 will soak up every single student with high grades. Will that be good for the students? Not if there's a really good course at an unfashionable or less-privileged institution. The student will be bribed by the élite, then find that the baubles disguise bigger classes and less contact time.

Who are these students? They're largely from fee-paying schools, coached to pass exams. When it comes to university, state school children actually do better in the final degree classifications. But if access to the elite institutions is limited to those with top A-levels, then only those kids will get the best resources, and only those kids will go on to do postgraduate degrees, further entrenching this country's disgusting class stratification.

What about the large number who don't have A-levels. Many now do quite good alternative qualifications. Others have returned to education later in life, never having had the chance to take A-levels. This government doesn't give a shit about them, but I'll tell you this: 'unqualified' mature students are absolutely fantastic in class. This is true too: Access courses are brilliant preparations for university, often giving people university skills which A-levels don't come close to.

While I'm on the subject of postgrads: how many will do MAs, PGCEs and PhDs if they're already £50,000 in debt? Just the rich, that's who. So the next generation of doctors, lawyers, academics etc - the professions - will only come from the ranks of the rich. That's bad for any society. God knows who'll become a social worker or a teacher.

8. Students should shop around on price. 
Every teenager knows that there's a difference between Primark and Savile Row. They're not so stupid that they think there's a bargain to be had. It will generate a race to the bottom, and students will find out as soon as they sign up at Cutprice College. They know that education is more than a product to be bought: it's a public good too. Each degree is special, as the 1994 group of universities knows:

High quality student experiences are not confined to a small group of institutions that are perceived to be the elite.  The Government also needs to avoid driving down standards by auctioning students to low cost institutions. Student places must be awarded where there is clear evidence of good value. We should not encourage higher education providers to short change students by cutting corners.

I work at a very unfashionable university, but before it suffered a run of malevolent incompetent management visionaries, it was amongst the very best institutions in the country for languages. Students need to know this kind of thing, rather than be encouraged to look only at the price tag.

9. Non-teaching universities should be able to award degrees.
I've got four degrees. I think a lot. I literally cannot understand what the point of this is at all.

Other highlights: rich students will be able to pay off their loans early, avoiding the interest, and therefore get a head start on everyone else. Private companies are to be allowed to sponsor students outside the quota cap - so banks and other unpleasant institutes can clog up the classrooms with extra bodies at the expense of students without sugar daddies.

The whole thing is a desperate set of ideological wet dreams hitched to a guilty realisation that they've massively arsed up their sums. If this doesn't reignite the Days of Rage, nothing will.

Still, we've found room to give Prince Charles a payrise funded by taxpayers, so it can't all be bad. Those closed charities, libraries, derelict schools and so forth must be chuffed for him.

I'm so angry that I can't type any more. I'm going to lie down somewhere dark and sob uncontrollably.


My friend Neal decided (rightly), that the Education minister, Michael Gove, has the face of a flounder. Steve Bell's decided that he's a duck. This is the Gove who's planning to take far more from my salary to pay for a much lower (and worse) pension to be paid out years later - without applying the same logic to members of parliament, to pick a random example. 

By the way, Gove has called on parents to scab by running classes on the strike day. Well, good luck to the schools in getting all the Enhanced Criminal Records checks done - as legally required - by Thursday: mine took a few weeks. If they can't show them, don't send your kids to school.

Oh, and for Nick de Bois MP, who suggested that the strike votes are illegitimate because fewer than 50% of the members voted in favour, let's look at his electoral history:
  • he campaigned against the Alternative Vote, which ensures that MPs have to gain 50%+1 vote to get elected: 'unfair, expensive, discredited and unpopular…a disaster for our much admired democratic system'.
  • he was elected with 42.3% of the vote: not even a majority of those who bothered to vote. With a 67.1% turnout, he managed to become the voice of Enfield North on the back of 18,804 votes out of 66,347 eligible voters, which looks like an underwhelming 30% to me. Clearly de Bois should resign forthwith, according to his own logic.
de Bois also claimed that other professions like doctors and lawyers weren't taking industrial action. Oh yeah? The lawyers are furious at attempts to slash Legal Aid, and the doctors' leader said this yesterday:
Let me make it absolutely clear: we will consider every possible, every legitimate action that can be taken to defend doctors' pensions," he said in a speech to 500 doctors' representatives in Cardiff.
"I have this message for ministers. Whilst we will be reasonable, whilst we will not rush to precipitate action, whilst we will not put patients' lives at risk, do not in any way or for one single moment mistake this responsible attitude as a reason to underestimate our strength of feeling and our determination to seek fairness for those we represent.
"The profession will act responsibly, but we will not accept an unwarranted and unfair assault on our pensions." Meldrum's remarks, which were greeted with loud applause, underline the strength of feeling among doctors over changes which he said should not be "just a poorly concealed tax on public sector workers".
He also criticised Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, for, he said, making the job of negotiating a settlement "impossible, if all we hear are public ultimatums and ridiculous threats such as those we heard just a few days ago". 

Gibbering with expectation.

Amongst the facts you may have gleaned about me are my love for science fiction and Marxism. So imagine my delight at the arrival in the post of Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville.

SF has many political variants, though my personal sense is that the rightwing version is fading away with the end of communism as a bogeyman. In the Cold War period, conservative SF projected Aliens as threatening Communists, and the application of massive military superiority was the solution to all situations. Early Star Trek tilted this way (Klingons were particularly Asiatic, for instance), though Vietnam brought about a decisive change of view. Robert Heinlein was a particularly unpleasant neofascist: the film version of Starship Troopers gleefully satirises his approach. Blasting everything out of the sky if it contradicted the small-town values of an imaginary America was rather commonplace: I'd even suggest that Back To The Future's construction of an idyllic 50s and the utopian and dystopian presents and futures betray a politicial consciousness which is at least liberal.

But there were plenty of lefty and hippy SF writers of the time: Spinrad extended the counterculture across the galaxy, for example. Ursula K LeGuin took the toys out of the boys' hands in her feminist fantasy and SF. Sheri S. Tepper produced serious and rather wonderful eco-feminist SF, while I think that Gwyneth Jones is one of the best writers in any genre, and she primarily writes liberal-left feminist novels about the near future of the UK. It goes back further of course: H. G. Wells was a radical and prominent Fabian socialist, and even Lionel Britton, the working-class modernist, wrote science fiction plays. Adam Roberts's novels tackle technology and society in a quietly leftish fashion, while Ken MacLeod's novels have covered everything from future economies to the War On Terror from an anarcho-Trotskyist Scottish perspective.

I haven't had a chance to peruse Red Planets yet, but I'm looking forward to it. Marxist and neomarxist theory should have a lot to say about the economic and social formations predicted by technological and political change. Class formations and permutations, the extension of hegemony online (despite the carnivalesque resistance offered by groups like LulzSec) and the economic injustices perpetuated by discredited but not defenestrated capitalist élites will all become more, not less, relevant as we move into an era of triumphant, guiltless and naked class warfare. If you don't think that moving jobs, pollution, (reduced) wages and environmental destruction to the browner continents is an act of class warfare in which you and I are on the wrong side, then you're a moron.

Sooo cute

Everyone's going on about how adorable that Star Wars VW advert is. So here's an even cuter one.

A public service announcement on behalf of Lawrence from Felt

There's been chatter on Plashing Vole recently on the subject of whether 80s Brummie indie-popsters Felt are, or are not, any cop.

I feel that this track, 'Hours of Darkness Have Changed My Mind', settles the argument. It's upbeat, poppy, catchy, and sounds uncannily like The G0-Betweens if that band had consumed happy pills by the bucketload. It's from the astonishingly excellent album Forever Breathes The Lonely Word.

And as I'm in a generous mood, here's 'Primitive Painters', the track Felt recorded with Liz Fraser on keening duties: she of Cocteau Twins fame.

Monday, 27 June 2011

For Dan: a gull

Final few from Lichfield. Click to enlarge, or see the rest here.

Lichfield Cathedral South Aisle

Shit gets dumped on me when I'm trying to read too.

This chap was performing for the tourists as far from the sea as it's possible to get in the UK - Lichfield. I had the wrong lens on but they came out OK. Is it a black-headed gull? More on the full set.

This is what we've done to our towns. I've desaturated it for effect too.

No tripod or warning, but still a useful shot of a high-speed train

We're liking Lichfield

A few more pictures from Lichfield. Click to enlarge, and see the rest here. These are internal shots of the Cathedral.

Sausage! SAUSAGE!

By which I refer, of course, to Blackadder the Third's depiction of 'the big batey fellow in the black', known to history as Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first Dictionary of the English language. The entire episode starts here, and the 'sausage' reference is explained by this sequence (from 12.48 minutes). It's true, too. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to check the dictionary for rude words when we visited his house, as is usually compulsory (11 minutes in).

But why am I dribbling on about Johnson? Because on Saturday, I mooched around in his home town, Lichfield, graced also by one of the most elegant cathedrals in the country.

I took some photographs, which you may view here: below are some samples: click to enlarge. If anyone can identify the various flowers here or on the Flickr site, that would be great. I recognise the roses, by the way.

The new gargoyles don't look entirely Christian even to my atheist eyes. In fact they're more Buffy or the 'Blink' episode of Doctor Who than devotional

I've desaturated this - I think it works quite well



More lavender

Things I learned at my Olympics volunteering interview

1. Cadbury chocolates are very good for you and the more you eat, the more athletic and community-minded you will be. Community is important to Cadbury/Kraft Foods. Though not paying taxes or employing people in the UK.
2. Eating MacDonald's food is a shortcut to sharing the 'Olympic Values'. As with Cadbury's, the food is merely a signifier for the love that both corporations
3. What you can do isn't important. Whether you can repeat the buzzwords enthusiastically is.
4. People who decline to record an inspirational thought on the 'thought wall' will be re-educated in some kind of camp for the glum.

That is all.

Out of their own mouths, they condemn themselves

What do the Tories think about themselves?

"Over the years we have come across as graceless, voracious, crass, always on the take"
"collectively we are not always an appealing proposition". 

 "Over the years we have come across as graceless, voracious, crass, always on the take."

He concluded that people don't join because they "think we'll beg and steal from them. And they're right". 
"When we are together we are not always a group of people to whom many of our potential members are going to be magnetically drawn." 
Their solution: snob appeal and corruption?

One idea was for "The PMQ DIY Lunch: Bring your own sandwiches to watch PMQs in a different fine country house in the constituency (by courtesy of a PPC member) every week; glass of wine, cup of coffee, informal discussion, yours for a fiver".

He also proposed party supporters are given access to politicians in the US in return for cash. "We might have 'Just Another Ordinary Day: We'll organise it but choose how you get there, stay where you like for as long as you like and on one of the days breakfast briefing with a senior staffer, tour of the White House, lunch with a senator … yours for cost plus a £1,000 donation to Woca."

Who is this guy? Well, until he was found dead in a toilet at Glastonbury Festival this weekend (and what an indictment of the so-called 'alternative culture' that Tories feel welcome there), he was in charge of West Oxfordshire Conservative Association. Its MP? One David Cameron.

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems…

I'm minted. My pockets are bursting with sovereigns. Kruggerand are spilling from my intestines. Yes, at a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor this afternoon, she (£246,000 pa) and her Executive Team (minimum salary: £100,000) announced that our pay rise - despite a surplus of £10m - will be 0.031%. That contrasts with an inflation rate of about 4.5%, meaning I'm actually getting a pay cut (again) of 4.469.

Trebles all round! I should have worn holier shorts. Whatever the £8500 fees (£8000 for business students, as if we should be encouraging them) is reserved for, it's not for teachers, secretaries or cleaners.

Trivia roundup

OK, I'm in considerable pain - I've actually pulled chest muscles from coughing so much. It may be the infection I've got, or it may be the sheer spleen-busting disbelief occasioned by watching U2 and Primal Scream performing at Glastonbury. It wasn't the musicians so much: U2 were reliably pompous, while Primal Scream yet again pulled off the trick of persuading the public that they're somehow interesting or relevant.

No: they do what they do and some people - unfathomably - like it. What made my intestines make a bid for freedom was the jaw-dropping idiocy of the BBC's presenters. U2 were discussed by Jo Whiley and someone called Zane Lowe. The pearls of wisdom spilling from their mouths would have shamed a toddler. Mostly, of course, just unconnected adjectives ('amazing', 'awesome' etc.). But then Mr. Lowe started claiming that U2's power was due to their set being 'raw', 'stripped down' and 'all about the music'. Really? Doing a live video link from the stage to the International Space Station so that an astronaut (the one whose Congresswoman wife was recently shot in the head) can mumble some platitudes to a drug-addled bunch of hipsters is somehow 'raw', rather than 'incredibly pretentious', 'arrogant' and 'pompous'? They then 'interviewed' U2 afterwards with the kind of journalistic incisiveness that inevitably leads to the interviewee having to wipe drool from the soles of their shoes.

This idiot - or it may have been some other idiot, all BBC yoof presenters are pretty much interchangeable - then proceeded to claim that Primal Scream's set proved that they'd 'always looked forward' in their music. For feck's sake: they're touring their Screamadelica album in some kind of retro cash-in. You know, the one that was released 20 years ago. The one that was a deliberate retro homage to the Rolling Stones' 60s work. The band which released and album with a bloody Confederate flag on it. How, in the name of all that's holy, is that 'always looking forward'?

Bloody charlatans, the lot of them. Time for a salad to calm me down.

Claws out for Paul Uppal

By now, many of you will have seen the fine sight of an independently-minded Tory MP, Mark Pritchard, exposing the Prime Minister's shenanigans as he first tried to bribe, then bully, Pritchard into cancelling a vote on banning wild animals in circuses.

Why a PM should be so politically obtuse as to put himself of the wrong side of animal cruelty is completely incomprehensible, and all the Tory MPs knew it, falling over themselves to support Pritchard. A lot of RSPCA-member old ladies vote Tory, and there's nothing more dangerous to a Tory MP than an avalanche of lavender-scented letters threatening to withdraw their votes. The Lib Dems, to their credit, were all in favour of the ban - for a reason which was all too clear to Labour's Nick Dakin:

I am particularly pleased to see a good turnout of Lib Dems for this debate. I suspect that they feel a certain empathy with circus animals, as an endangered species being kept against their will for the entertainment of others.

I say all the Tory MPs, but it's not quite true: the toadies and loonies were out in  force. Neofascist bruiser Andrew Rosindell blustered about animal rights' activist conspiracies, and our old friend Mr Paul Uppal loyally and slavishly did what he was told by the Prime Minister: and got royally slapped down by a Labour MP for his pains.
Those are fine words, but will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the Labour party did not do something about the issue when it was in power?
Gavin Shuker (Luton South, Labour)
I appreciate the opportunity to say what we did when in government. We banned animal testing for cosmetics. We banned the process of battery farm eggs. We created new powers to stop animal cruelty. We banned tail docking. We stopped the trade in seals. We ended fur farming, and we passed the hunt ban. I am proud to stand on that record as a Labour Member of Parliament. We introduced the 2006 Act that allows the Minister to ban the practice of wild animals performing in circuses, and that is exactly what we are calling for today. 

The horror, the horror

It's 30C here and I'm hating it. So much so that I have resorted to shorts for the first time since 1986. They aren't the same shorts: back then, it was compulsory grey flannel for school.

Because we were 'too menny', as another young chap with a large family put it, we travelled in a brown Peugeot 505 estate: it had three rows of seats and clearly sold well in Catholic countries.

It therefore had the glass acreage of a commercial greenhouse, and was always baking hot. The seats were upholstered in a particularly unpleasant brown tweed, which had two unfortunate properties: bare legs came out in a very nasty rash, and vomit became permanently enmeshed in the fabric, the odour becoming a permanent top-note to the sweaty anger of the passengers. We did try to chunder outside the car, but there were few opening windows available: where other cars had go-faster stripes, we had a linear splatter of lunch trailing from each rear window. It's memories like this which have ensured that I've never learned to drive, that I still get car-sick, and have never worn shorts until this day: scratchy tweed and fresh vomit on the back of ones thighs are the kind of childhood memory that rarely make it into autobiographies.

I'm not proud of today's resort to amputated trousers. In fact I'm hating this capitulation to weather-related casualness. My legs are not objects of beauty: stumpy, overly-muscled from fencing, and utterly pasty. I look, in photographs, like flash has been used when in fact I'm just a shade pinker than a boil-in-the-bag cod fillet: thousands of years of my Celtic ancestors trudging home in the rain, weighed down with peat for the fire, has militated against me ever resembling the lithe tanned images relentlessly pushed in our media. Imagine Wayne Rooney without the charm or good looks… though with more hair). I'd post a picture but you're my friends and I'd like you to come back.

To counteract the horror, I'm wearing what's essentially a Charles Ryder ensemble: simple brown shoes, the shorts, a silk-and-linen shirt and a fine white trilby. Though on second thoughts, it's more like something worn by a minor and despised character in Forster.

Thankfully, most of my colleagues are absent. The sidelong glances of citizens on the street were painful enough.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Guerilla typefaces

You all know that I'm an old-fashioned statist (though one with syndicalist leanings), and a fan of typography. So you won't be surprised that I'm impressed and touched by this magnificent synthesis.

The Russian currency (rouble) never had a symbol as the $, £ and € do. The government announced a design competition, but the designers couldn't be arsed with the kind of mimsy bureaucratic stuff, so they just got together and came up with a winner.

There's no law enforcing it, no official approval - but it's being used everywhere.

And that, my friends, is why syndicalism, workers' collectives and anarcho-communism is far better than Stalinist state capitalism any day. If you don't believe me, read Ken MacLeod's Scottish-Trotskyist-Libertarian science fiction novels.

Talking of novels, nothing in the post today except some strike leaflets and a Felt compilation, but I did read two yesterday: Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman (I've cancelled the surgery after reading this book) and Mary Poppins Opens The Door. Moran's book is a breezy bit of fun, with some local interest - she's from The Dark Place, and I'd recommend it to any bright but blinkered 18yr-old. She's not as funny and clever as she thinks she is, but she is quite funny and clever. Recommended.

The Mary Poppins is much more interesting. Cast aside your Disney glasses: the literary Mary is a capricious, often cold, forbidding and untrustworthy individual, and there are some very interesting mystical interludes which have very little to do with the rest of the work. Absolutely fascinating.

Well, that's me done for the week. I'm off to my Olympics interview tomorrow - which sadly means I'll miss Paul Uppal appearing at a Climate Change meeting in the Civic Centre at 2. Won't someone go and report back on his pearls of wisdom?

The new torture

Today is the highlight of any academic's calendar: appraisal.

Here's a visual guide to the process:

Cliché watch

When people's jobs are lost, it's always a 'JOBS BLOW' in journalistic language. As a punishment for reaching for the clichés, whizzy graphics have proved the BBC's undoing:

Chris Morris would be proud.

Uppal Cameron's Colon: the full horror

I remarked yesterday that Paul Uppal MP is inconsistent, at best, in claiming that nationality is more important than religious identity, then boasting about swanning off to schmooze with the Sikh Council.

Here's the full nonsense of his exchange at PMQs:

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister demonstrated his strength of character in talking about multiculturalism. In view of the fact that I have a Christian first name and a Sikh surname, I try to combine the best of my traditional Indian values with my core British values. Does he agree that we can learn a lot from our Indian partners in this respect, many of whom define themselves by their nationality first and foremost, regardless of their ethnic or religious background?
David Cameron:
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his work on this issue. It is vital that, as a country, we build a stronger national identity. Of course people can have all sorts of religious and cultural identities, but it is very important that we build a strong British identity. He is living proof of that.

What Cameron actually said was that Multiculturalism is dead, because he's only bright enough to know that lots of racists vote Tory (and what the hell does Cameron mean by Uppal's 'work'?.

Uppal's incredible though. Wow, he has a Christian first name? Not really. No. Apart from names having no bearing on the debate (did he choose his own name?), 'Paul' isn't Christian. There aren't any Christian names other than those brilliant Puritans who gave their kids entire Biblical quotations as first names. Even Jesus is a European corruption of a Jewish name.

Most amusingly, Paul is a derivative of the Latin familial name Paulus, and it means 'small' or 'humble' (which is why Saul chose it to mark his conversion to Christianity) - not terms generally associated with this Honourable Member!

I wonder what Uppal defines as his 'Indian' and 'British' values? They're completely meaningless. Hegemonic cultures always insist that they have some moral superiority, often while behaving appallingly: a quick canter through British imperial history should be enough to counter the 'fair play' claims. Given that both India and Britain are artificial states constructed from a patchwork of linguistic and cultural groups, the idea that these entities can have any shared 'values' is laughable. Though I can't help admiring Uppal for enlisting the unwitting support of more than a billion people in his endless quest for cheap publicity.

(And while we're on the subject of nominative determinism, my names translate from Irish as Fiery Raven. Make of that what you will…)

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Olympics: I'm a winner!

Sadly, only in the lottery to get tickets. I applied to tickets to all the final tableaux, including medal ceremonies. I got tickets to FE012 and FE018: the notification email isn't helpful enough to explain which events they are, but a quick Google reveals that I'll be attending the  women's team foil and the men's team foil - premium seats too.

I'd have liked tickets to the individual finals of any of the weapons, but I'm fairly happy with these: the atmosphere should be electric. I'm surprised that  I couldn't get any tickets for the individual events, but hopefully (interview tomorrow) I'll be there as a volunteer for some of them. How did you lot fare?

The Sad Decline of Britain's Educational Standards

Lots of politicians, especially Tories, are wandering around telling any newspaper and TV show they can find that British children are the least-educated in the world, and that only privatised, Victorian-style schools can arrest the decline.

Take the case of this product of British education:
“What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.”
“My daughter does toys through the ages, then she does the Vikings, then the Greeks; and she gets confused.”
Poor Michael. Newton, of course, didn't come up with a law of thermodynamics. Even with my arts education I know that. He was interested in gravity and motion (and alchemy). Kelvin came up with some of the laws of thermodynamics. Meanwhile, the Greeks definitely came before the Vikings, and they're not really comparable: the Greeks are a cultural/national group, whereas the Vikings were military units of various Scandinavian national groups.

So why have I highlighted young Michael's education shortcomings? Isn't it cruel? Well, it's because - despite the obvious blind spots in his schooling - Michael's risen to be the Secretary of State for Education, and really do better, especially when lecturing the rest of us. It must have all gone wrong for him when he left his state school for the posh Robert Gordon's College and then Oxford University. Stick with the State, Mikey!

Perhaps he's a perfect example of the situation he explained to Parliament thus:
"In effect, rich thick kids do better than poor clever children when they arrive at school [and] the situation as they go through gets worse"

So, the results of my escapade with Ben

A heavy cold, an extra stone in weight, and a lot more books.

Stratford on Avon - birthplace of Shakespeare apparently, though they're very reluctant to make a song and dance about it - is slightly odd: half ancient beauty beloved of coach tour brochures, half run-down trap. It has an awful lot of charity shops, and we visited all of them, plus one bona-fide secondhand book shop.

We bought Dan the 3-DVD John Lydon's Mega Bugs (yes, the Sex Pistols' John Lydon), and I bought a few books: Julian Barnes's England, England; Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur: The Seeing Stone, Emma Donoghue's Stir-Fry, Frederick Buechner's The Return of Ansel Gibbs (lovely 1950s Penguin), Thomas Disch's The Genocides, a classic Panther SF title with a stunning cover (Disch managed to write both the children's book The Brave Little Toaster and The Businessman, in which a man gets his murdered wife pregnant with a hideous foetus ghost), and Robertson Davies's philosophical/historical What's Bred in the Bone.

After that, we lunched at the revitalised Swan Theatre: deep-fried breaded strips of pig's ear for starter then a quality steak, washed down with a non-alcoholic mojito for me, a fine Riesling for Ben, who also found room for pudding. No wonder they treated us like a couple. Then it was off to Paxton and Whitfield, where we both purchased ridiculous quantities of fine cheeses, before meeting the Map Twats in Brum for even more food and a stupid pub quiz. The evening was rounded off with - yes - a cheese-eating marathon. At this stage, liposuction is the only thing that will save me.

Ben didn't arrive empty-handed: he brought me a huge stack of politics books (mostly Readers Union reprints from the 50s and 60s, and a Millennium Falcon, which Ewar claims is for his brother.

Bad News For Blossom

I've lost my voice, but I'll never lose my typing ability.

Today's topic for outrage is the Child Support Agency's plan to charge single parents for its services in tracking down parents who refuse to cough up their share. If you read Blossom's Blog, you'll see how easy it is for them - mostly fathers - to make shedloads of cash while evading their responsibilities.

Now the Tory government think that the deprived parent - struggling already - should surrender part of the child support as some form of commission. If this principle is accepted, then nothing we pay for as taxpayers will be sacrosanct. Our NHS doctor will have a tip jar on the desk. The military will demand cash at checkpoints before fighting off invaders. This is INSANE. Our taxes pay for the CSA, and the support payments are calculated to suit the child's needs: they can't just take 10% off for themselves. I'd certainly charge the recalcitrant parent for their meanness and irresponsibility, but not the kid. Jesus.

So the question is: how long before the Tories realise that several of their MPs are errant fathers, and change their minds on this one.

Another acute intervention from Mr. Uppal

The mediocre millionaire MP got his face on Prime Minister's Question Time today, the high point of any backbencher's career. Was it incisive and intellectual? It was not.

Paul Uppal, a Conservative, asks about multiculturalism. Does Cameron agree that Britons could learn from their Indian friends, who define themselves first by national identity, rather than religious identity.
Cameron says it is important to support national identity.
It wasn't even factual. This 'nationality-before-belief' India would be the same one which saw killed at Partition because Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs refused to share a country, would it? The one in which Hindus and Muslims regularly engage in orgies of violence against people and property? Amritsar, anyone? The India which clings on to Kashmir without regard to the tens of thousands of deaths required to keep it under control (Muslim state retained by India because the local Prince was Hindu)?

Yet again, it's the kind of meaningless pablum which goes down very well on local talk shows but doesn't bear any resemblance to the truth, which is that despite supposedly being all about peace, the main religions have been the cause of many millions of deaths. Uppal doesn't even mean it: he's very keen to use his Sikh background when it suits. For instance, an hour after he said this to Cameron, he was tweeting this:
Thrilled to be at the Sikh Council UK's launch in Parliament today.

Which doesn't look very consistent. Perhaps he's planning to tell the Sikh Council that it's time they shut up about their religion and concentrated on nationality. I wouldn't bet on it though!

Despite being opposed to religion, I can't see that proclaiming nationality as the foundation of identity is any better. Unless you're the victim of occupation and empire, then nationality is another way of excluding others and inculcating irrationality. You could just as easily dedicate yourself to your bridge club, street or colleagues without any loss of cohesion - indeed the basis of Marxism is that you have more in common with fellow members of your class across the world than you do with members of other classes in your country.

The Dark Place faces many problems: race and nationality thankfully aren't among them. Uppal could have alerted Cameron to the damage done by Tory economics, or raised some pressing issue. Instead, he chose to flap his gums with platitudes. That, my friends, is the measure of the man.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Yet more books…

It's getting out of hand. Today's post:
very rare copy of Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love (1931)
Ellen Wilkinson's crusading The Town That Was Murdered (Left Book Club: thanks David)
Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman (better get up to speed before the surgery)
Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital
and the new Bon Iver album.

Now I'm off round the bookshops with Cynical Ben.

Resisting the Cameronist-Cleggite Attacks

We're on strike again in a few days, objecting to our pension being reduced, our contributions increased and our working lives extended (I don't mind the latter, it's the combination that infuriates me).

So here's a little something from Test Dept. and the Striking South Wales Miners' Choir, a hurried collaboration between London punk/electronic troublemakers and the miners in 1984. Where has the political music gone?

The first one is classic Welsh Male Voice Choir

Then we have the Stalinist/Scottish 'Victory'

'"Long Live British Democracy Which Flourishes And Is Constantly Perfected Under The Immaculate Guidance Of The Great, Honourable, Generous And Correct Margaret Hilda Thatcher. She Is The Blue Sky In The Hearts Of All Nations. Our People Pay Homage And Bow In Deep Respect And Gratitude To Her. The Milk Of Human Kindness."

and finally the genuinely haunting 'Comrade Enver Hoxha'.