Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Where do they get their ideas?

It seems that lazy plutocrat and self-serving Tory MP Paul Uppal hasn't stirred his stumps much recently - after all, there's nothing politically pressing to deal with at the moment, is there?

So I moseyed on over to his website to see what he was up to, and discovered 'his' statement on the Chancellor's speech. It is, of course, written by a machine at Tory Central Office (and not one familiar with how humans speak: many of the individual phrases return thousands of hits because they're so tired, like this one, this one, this one and this one). Some phrases are lifted from those social Darwinist scum at the Taxpayers' Alliance (chaired by an offshore tax evader), such as 'hard working taxpayers, businesses. What about single people, the unemployed and those exempt from paying tax? They're citizens too!

This mealy-mouthed speech basically says: the recession's not our fault, you might find yourself starving in the gutters, but the bond traders are happy so yah boo sucks to you. (For your information, Paul, UK gilts returns aren't low because you're doing so well: it's because there's nowhere safe to invest any money: low demand leads to low rates. Even I know that, and my degrees are in Welsh literature).

Suspecting that this guff was centrally written and distributed to vacuous backbenchers (surely no-one actually writes this stuff?), I had a quick look round. Uppal's certainly quick off the mark - most of it's not up elsewhere yet. Except for the opening, which he's plagiarised from another speech Osborne made:
George Osborne today announced an Autumn Statement which is designed in tough times for tough times.
Or as Channel 4 has it:
The plan we have set out is designed in tough times for tough times. 
Tougher for us than for multimillionaire property parasite Paul, of course.

Other bits do appear elsewhere, like this economic masterstroke:
We will introduce a National Loan Guarantee Scheme
It promises to underwrite the bankers (SURPRISE!) if they deign to lend any cash to us oiks. But Gideon didn't think it up himself:
We will introduce a National Loan Guarantee Scheme… to underwrite bank lending to businesses. 
Who are these economic geniuses? Er… the British Empire Party. Who? Well, they're fantasy politicians too: it's part of a game called eRepublik, in which Atlantis has only recently sunk beneath the waves. Say what you like about these chaps, they understand the true values of the Conservative Party and where they come from.

Union Maid

A couple of tracks to remind us of our proud union culture.

Pete Seeger singing Woody Guthrie's 'Union Maid':

And here's the Dropkick Murphys' version of the classic 'Which Side Are You On?' ('Will you be a lousy scab or will you be a man?').

or if you prefer a less rocky version:

On the eve of battle

So, dear readers, you won't be hearing from me tomorrow, unless I manage to snatch a few minutes from our pickets and rally to document the workers' struggle. I've got a Moomins flask (mint tea) and a hip flask (raw meths).

Joking aside, striking's no fun, especially in the cold and rain, but it's got to be done. Today George Osborne yet again decided that passengers on private jets don't have to pay tax. Meanwhile, he and his millionaire friends have decided that cleaners, nurses, teachers and civil servants should work longer, pay more and get less. We're not being asked to contribute more in return for a decent retirement: we're being asked to contribute more to subsidise the tax-evasion and trickery of the financial sector.

I won't get many years' pension contributions: an MA, a PhD and years of casual labour saw to that. Nor will I get many years' pension: my retirement age will be 68 and men live to about 78-80. I'm not demanding a yacht with a Zimmer frame ramp, but I would like not to have to worry about how to heat my hovel.

Some of my friends in the private sector ask why I should cling on to 'gold-plated' pensions when they don't get much. They're looking at it wrongly: don't drag us down, organise and pull yourselves up. There's no lack of money. The Teachers' Pension Fund, the NHS pension pot: they're all fully funded. Likewise in the private sector: if there's enough money for CEOs to earn on average 140 times more than the employee, there's enough money for decent pensions too.

Don't forget, pensions aren't some kind of reward: they're deferred wages. Increasing our contributions while cutting our pensions is a thinly-disguised pay cut. Oh, and to correct a common misconception: we're docked 1/260th of our wages every time we strike. This time, we've finally managed to persuade the boss that the cash should go into the Student Hardship fund, rather than into the coffers.

It's good for the economy as well. Pensions are spent, often in the local economy, whereas share dividends, bonuses and high executive pay is hidden away offshore, where it can't pay the local baker, car mechanic or cleaner, let alone build schools and hospitals. Decent wages and pensions make the economy go round.

Come and say hello tomorrow. We're not wreckers or militants. We're workers, just like you, and we're doing this for everyone. Bring cake.

Storm clouds gather…

As is traditional on strike days, the weather is going to be awful: cold, wet and gloomy. Tonight, however, the sunset is spectacular. Even The Hegemon looks good:

News Bounty

Good morning, readerinos! After yesterday's mammoth editing session (I reduced a paper from 19000 to 8500 words - each one soaked in blood), I'm back with a vengeance. Sort of. I've to write a lecture on Literature in the West Midlands (all suggestions welcome) for Saturday's promotional event. So far, I have a massive list, and I'm attempting to construct a spine for it, probably along the lines of 'The West Midlands: Culturally Impenetrable (And That's Just The Accent)'.

The other excitement of the day is the Chancellor's speech on the state of the British economy. Normally, one word would do ('screwed'), but his job is to repeat the very tired mantra 'we inherited a mess from the last Labour government' - they'll be his dying words - and pretend that slashing services to the poor and subsidising his rich mates with new airports and motorways is a reasonable and workable solution. No doubt he'll also say 'greenest government ever', despite the Tories' despicable secret support for Canadian oil sands production and his get-out-of-jail-free bribe to the worst polluters.

And the Leveson inquiry is ongoing! It's a banquet of news! Now to persuade the media students to have a look… Talking of them, I'm spending my lunchtime leafleting the little darlings to explain tomorrow's strike action. Free stickers to anyone who doesn't spit at me.

Anyway, in tribute to the victims of Torynomics, here's a song about us:

Monday, 28 November 2011

At long last!

Finally, I've been abused by someone on the internet. Lord knows I've tried: I've discussed Israel and Palestine (yes, Americans, Palestine is a place and a nation), criticised Tolkien and even suggested that Paul Uppal MP is a lazy, selfish hound. To no avail.

Until today. Our management demanded to know who is planning to work on Wednesday, when all sane public sector employees are taking industrial action. One silly scabby sausage hit 'reply to all', so that everyone knows who doesn't care about solidarity (average pension of our support staff: £3500-4000).

So I posted this on Twitter:
Advice to scabs: if you're planning to work on #Nov30 it's best not to hit 'reply to all' when management asks who's going to scab.
and received this response from @MatofKilburnia, who claims to be leftwing:
scab is a hateful word of intimidation. Very disappointed to see it being used in 2011
you are a bully
Oooh! Scrap scrap scrap…

I'm not really a bully. I've resisted the temptation to publicly name and shame my 'colleague'. The bullies are the management who know perfectly well (because I've told them repeatedly) that members don't have to inform management about taking action in advance. It's an attempt to pick people off by intimidating them.

And if anyone thinks the word 'scab' is bullying, I'd direct them to Lewis Jones's Cwmardy, in which a miner who refuses to join the union is left to hold up a 3-ton coal cart himself: an excellent lesson in the shortcomings of individualism.

Anyway, must go. I've got some duffings-up to administer round the back by the bins. Give me your lunch money or you'll get some too.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Finger on the pulse

I'm a little worried about the calibre of journalist employed by the Daily Mail. Here we are on Mumsnet, appealing to the denizens of that site to cough up stories of their marital difficulties for money. All in pursuit of a story about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is apparently fed up with 'her philandering husband'.

Marital Tipping Points

 (25 Posts)
MEDIA: Katie Freelance Thu 17-Nov-11 10:51:26
I'm writing a feature for the Daily Mail about marital tipping points, for our Femail section. It comes in the wake of news that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is reported to be finally considering divorce from her philandering husband - she put up with years of affairs but then reports that he had been text messaging escort girls became the straw that broke the camel's back. We are looking for good stories where women have tolerated bad behaviour for a long time only for something to finally prompt then to say enough is enough and to look at why that was. Ideally we'd like you to be identified and provide a photo but we'd also consider strong anonymous stories. In the former instance we could pay a small fee. Please do get in touch if you think you can help or know anyone who might want to take part - we are looking to feature a number of different stories. You can contact me via mumsnet or via my personal email address www.kathrynknight.com. Many thanks, Katie

The only minor wrinkle is that Dominique is the philandering husband in question: he's married to Anne. Poor little Daily Mail journalist is a) too xenophobic to know that other nations have different naming conventions and b) too lazy to look up DSK's details.

The Mumsnetters have once again demonstrated their feeding-frenzy shark abilities in the comments section…

And if you're tempted to sell a story to the Mail, read this salutary and miserable tale.

The finest minds of a generation…

I particularly enjoyed this demolition: Louise Mensch MP, a particularly smug, hard-right Tory MP who apparently should be exempted from criticism because she's on Twitter and married to Metallica's manager, ripped apart from some cuddly, ageing comedians.

The word for Ms. Mensch is 'hubris'.

Happy Thanksgiving

Yes, I know it was yesterday, but I was busy (though maybe I shouldn't worry: the number of visitors increased in my absence. There's a lesson for someone - me - in that).

In honour of the other America, the one which didn't just vote in Congress that pizza is a vegetable, here's a cranky old cynic offering his alternative Thanksgiving message:


You may have noticed my general absence from the ether yesterday: I'm utterly swamped with marking, preparation, planning for next week's strike, writing the extra lecture on Literature and the West Midlands for the special University Day we're having in a weeks time, and all the other myriad things which all seem to need doing right now.

Coincidentally, this jolly piece popped up on my iPod this morning: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's 'Another Day Full of Dread' (though it's actually quietly defiant):

And it's so wonderful to hear John Peel's voice. I miss his show very much.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Academic democracy, California Style

Over in the US, the rumble over the casual assaults made on passive, peaceful students by the police - called in by the Vice-Chancellor for 'health and safety' reasons, continues.

After an English professor wrote an open letter to the VC calling for her to resign, the English Department has posted a similar demand on its website.

It couldn't happen here, I think. We tend not to use organisational subgroups as the basis for political action, though if something terrible happened, I'm pretty sure all my colleagues would collectively protest. More prosaically: we don't control our own websites. It takes months for material to appear, and it's never quite sure who has the magic passwords and software.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Borne aloft on dragons' wings

Sad to say, Anne McCaffrey died today. At least, it might be sad - everybody's got to go, and she was 85. But her passing is another reminder of my misspent teenage years. Misspent, that is, in reading everything I could get my hands on. Without any quality control, I just consumed everything I could. Fantasy infuriated my parents: their devotion to Catholicism was apparently a different matter entirely and not up for critical discussion. I guess a period of indiscriminate reading is a form of training: learning tastes, identifying elements to which we respond emotionally, learning what writing works and what doesn't.

Anne McCaffrey's novels were a staple of my teens. The Dragonrider series was set in a colonised planet on which de-technologised (it's a word now, OK?) humans existed in a kind of symbiosis with dragons: unlike our own cultural landscape, Pern's dragons are the good guys and the humans often weak, flawed and small-minded. There was also some kind of cyclical catastrophe involving a nearby planet, the details of which both escape me and evoke a familiar feeling of tedium. McCaffrey's death is a reminder of how much I've changed. At the time, everything she wrote meant a lot to me, and for that I'm grateful. Her work provided comfort, expanded my imaginative and emotional range, offered alternatives to my humdrum daily life. But like Tolkien's work, I find them unreadable now. I tried recently: the characterisation is paper-thin (ho ho), the dialogue unbearably stilted and the plots weak and repetitive. But I don't resent those years reading such work. I learned from them, and I used those books in ways that 'high' literature might not have suited. We have complex relationships with culture. What's supposedly 'good for you' might not be what you need or are ready for. We tell our students that meaning is created by the reader, not by the author: anyone can derive something good from something bad. Obviously Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown are glaring exception, but it's generally true.

More specifically related to McCaffrey, her work represented an interesting strand in contemporary literature. Like all science fiction and fantasy, it was only superficially about imaginary planets. In reality, what she explored was the pressures facing us in the here and now. By depicting the struggles of a complex, anti-exploitative but primitive society, one which retained a spirituality and environmental consciousness which some claim we've lost, she posited alternative, more harmonious ways to live, often with a vaguely Celtic tinge. I'm more of a fan of hard-left political speculative fiction of the Ken McLeods et al, or the eco-feminism of Tepper, but there's a space for the hippy utopianism of McCaffrey and Spinrad - and decent female authors are still too rare in SF and fantasy.

I've got reservations about McCaffrey's work, but without her, our imaginations would be poorer. At least, mine would be.

Support your student activists

While the SU of my institution is a craven and frail beast, other students are working hard to make sure that this government's attack on education as a public good isn't forgotten: Cambridge students forced David Willetts (who earlier this week encouraged discount institutions to start up in old office blocks, while admitting that he wouldn't want his kids to attend them) to abandon a speech, then occupied the building, and Birmingham University students have set up an alternative university in an occupied building (follow their exploits here).

You might question the tactics, especially given the UK's overwhelmingly rightwing media, but I think they should be encouraged. In the 1960s, students across the world, even the UK, occupied their centres of learning to demand that universities stopped being mouthpieces of hegemony, and started critiquing the status quo. I don't think our current crop of protesters are as engaged with theory: Marcuse, Laing and Gramsci aren't on anyone's lips now, sadly - but their aims are laudable. Take the banking crash: virtually no academic economists predicted it. Instead, influential academics operated as paid consultants and board members, producing the analytical work which promised everything would be all right. Only people outside the magic circle pointed out that the Emperor was dipping his dangly bits in our soup. It's time universities led opinion, not bowed to the fashionable orthodoxies.

Despite this afternoon's media students not knowing about the Leveson inquiry, or how the press operates, the vast majority are intellectually curious and idealistic. We shouldn't stamp on this, but encourage it. I'm on strike next week, because the space I use to examine cultural nostrums is being eroded. The students' struggle is just as valid. They aren't greedily demanding special privileges - they're demanding that we all recognise the liberatory potential of education and its benefits for all.

How Shakespeare Can Improve Your Sex Life

No, not a learned disquisition into the romantic and sexual themes in Shakespeare's plays: I've done a lot of that recently and in any case, you lot don't pay me.

Instead, a clip from - against my better judgement - a musical (Kiss Me Kate, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew), in which two gangsters persuade the leading man that a firm grasp of Shakespeare will make a chap irresistible to the ladies. Male students, take note:

The girls today in society
Go for classical poetry,
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides.
But the poet of them all
Who will start 'em simply ravin'
Is the poet people call
The bard of Stratford-on-Avon.

Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now.
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow.
Just declaim a few lines from "Othella"
And they think you're a heckuva fella.
If your blonde won't respond when you flatter 'er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
And if still, to be shocked, she pretends well,
Just remind her that "All's Well That Ends Well."
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they'll all kowtow.

And if your dramatic tastes are more classically-inclined, here's Christopher Reeve in Hamlet:

Public Service Announcement

Special lecture organised by the Royal Institute of Philosophy:
Are you wondering how the current transformations affecting the Higher Education system in the UK will be affecting you and your university in the long term? Are you puzzled by the cacophony of educational reforms, and struggling to flesh out the underlying ideas driving the current changes?
'The Politics of the University' by Professor Andrew Vincent. MC401, 4.30-6 December 7th.

Everything's perfectly under control

What a busy day. 9-11: write lecture and mark essays. 11-1: deliver lecture on The Tempest. 1-3: lecture/seminar on media regulation and freedom ('can you give us a clue?' said one). I really enjoyed today's teaching, despite horror that the media students didn't know about the phone-hacking story. Nobody fell asleep in my Shakespeare lecture and we touched on some interesting angles.

However, all isn't entirely plain sailing. I went out yesterday to buy posh truffles, a book and a card for a colleague's birthday. A birthday which turns out to be… in July. Ah well. Count the months and consider it a conception present. Or an early Christmas present.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The dew appears to have fallen with a particularly sickening thud this morning

A little snatch of Marvin the Paranoid Android before I go:

I was doing so well too…

Damn it, I've just fallen off the book wagon. I've bought relatively few recently - 2/3 per week instead of ten (currently reading Norman Davies's very interesting Vanished Kingdoms (though I'm not sure what to get out of it beyond fascination other than awareness that all states are temporary) and just finished Jonathan Coe's funny, emotional The House of Sleep), but having a bad day's teaching yesterday, combined with a trip to the bookshop to buy a birthday present, meant that temptation was too strong.

It's all comfort reading: volume 1 of Matthews and Sweeney's very faithful graphic adaptation of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (which might come in useful in several modules), P. D. James's Pride and Prejudice murder mystery Death Comes To Pemberley (despite not being too happy handing cash over to a Tory peer and despite this hilarious negative review), and on the recommendation of friends, Wodehouse's Leave it to Psmith, one of his Blandings novels.

I went for a swim today. It was enough to make me consider voting Tory, even for the Egregious Uppal. Thanks to the massive cuts in school sports budgets and free swimming for old people, I had an entire 25-metre municipal pool all to myself. In this case, we certainly weren't all in it together. I was in it, and they weren't. Though I wasn't in it in the altogether. Ugh.

The mob's got nothing on Lansley

The Health Secretary has cracked the problem of NHS funding: his face. 

The Conservative cabinet minister's face appears on bedside entertainment systems on a continuous loop saying that their care "really matters to me" and asking them to thank NHS staff.
If they want to turn him off, they have to register under a system which sees patients charged more than £5 a day to access TV, email and phone services.

he insisted he was delivering "a useful message" and pointed out that patients had the choice of watching something more interesting – if they registered
I can only applaud. £5 per day to avoid his smirking contempt is a bargain, despite it being extortionate. It comes to £1825 per year, a mere £1679.50 more expensive than the licence fee and £1393 cheaper than the basic Sky package. 

Still, when someone's weakened through illness, that's the best time to mug them. It horrifies me that hospitals are now seen as retail opportunities for a captive audience. I read recently that a hospital down south has a Marks and Spencer Food outlet. That really highlights the north/south divide: my local infirmary has a Greggs bakery, retailing bacon sandwiches, pasties and other assorted unhealthy products to the cardiac patients, morbidly obese and others. Local phone calls cost patients more than calling Australia from home: and it's old people on reduced incomes who spend most time in hospital. So much for joined-up health…

Sadly, the monitors don't play this Andrew Lansley song:

PS. I'm only joking about these charges making money for the NHS: it all goes to private companies like Hospedia.

How not to conduct a survey

One of the dreariest tasks I've undertaken in the past is teaching research methods for social sciences: not my forte at all. But clearly it's quite important.

I've just responded to an Apple survey about my latest purchase, an iPhone. Oh good, I thought. An opportunity to highlight the pros and cons of the device. But no: the questions were largely 'where have you sought support?' and 'are you satisfied?'. No boxes to provide detailed feedback (I like the phone, but the battery life is appalling), and one final kicker: despite this bit
We value and appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation!
(and no, I can't understand why there's an exclamation mark there other than to fake enthusiasm) the last line is:
For any issues with your iPhone please contact your carrier for support.
which sounds like 'run along and don't bother us' to me. Survey fail, customer relations fail.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Pep up with some Northern Soul

This is what I play to cheer myself up: Northern Soul. It grew up in Stoke, Wigan and Blackpool as DJs competed for the most obscure floor-fillers imported from the US. The drug of choice was speed (though another powder - talcum - was also necessary), the moves were spectacular, and the clothes, well, they were distinctive. You can still spot the occasional Northern Soul fanatic on the streets.

There's no angst about in Northern Soul: the songs were designed to facilitate primitive mating rituals by providing men and women with opportunities for displays of gymnastic prowess.

Dobie Gray's 'Out on the Floor' has everything you could ever want from a pop song:

If this one (Human Beinz's cover of the Isley Brothers' 'Nobody But Me') doesn't make you wanna dance, you must be clinically dead:

And finally Al Wilson's lust-fuelled 'The Snake':

"I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed…"*

I am actually feeling pretty low right now. Despite having a lovely weekend and a very successful run in the President's Cup fencing competition (won 5-1, 5-1, 5-0, 5-0, 5-2 and lost one 5-2), one bad class has left me very gloomy indeed. First up was my 2 hours on social class and literature: pretty one-sided, but I think it went OK. But it was followed by seminar on media and the political economy which was utterly disastrous. Even the regularly talkative bright ones didn't know how the BBC and Sky were funded, hadn't heard about the phone-hacking, didn't care about concepts like the 'public sphere'. They don't watch news or documentaries. They're consumers of entertainment, and have absolutely no interest in being citizens. These are media students who by and large (there are exceptions) don't watch, read or listen to news.

I often write here about my students in fairly idealistic terms, and I'm usually right, but this is one of the those times in which I feel old and weird. They're not individually responsible for this state of consumerist apathy: it's exactly what hegemonic elites want from the populace.

The political class has won: the majority of my students either think government is something distantly done to them, or - as several have said to me - are content to assume that governments basically do the right thing and should be left alone by us and by the media. The idea that there's an Occupy generation radicalised by student fees, environmental degradation or the depression is fantasy.

So I'm feeling gloomy. I try hard to be enthusiastic and non-judgemental in my seminars, but when you're faced with total silence and blankness every time you pose a question or raise an idea, you have to know when you're beaten. If I'd thought they hadn't understood the lecture, we'd have had something to work with. Impenetrable indifference can't be beaten. Any tips? I gave up and sent them away after 45 minutes instead of 2 hours. The department will be penalised for not using or releasing the room, some of the students will feel short-changed, and I feel defeated, but it's better than a 2-hour hostage (lack of) drama.

*quoting Marvin the Paranoid Android. Most of my personality is a melange of Marvin, Arthur Dent, Jim Hacker and Mole.

Solidarity: UC Davis Students and Staff

I occasionally have to exchange heated words with management in my role as union activist and freelance git, but we have it easy compared with our colleagues across the water. As the Occupy movement takes in university campuses throughout the US, the response from academic managers has been brutal: call in the cops and let them do what they want
Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.
A particular irony in this case is the cause: the University of California at Davis protest was against… police brutality. The quotation above comes from an angry, impassioned and admirable letter from a Professor of English at UC Davis to his Chancellor. I hope this isn't what we're heading for here.

PS: the pepper-spraying cop is now appearing in a number of famous paintings:

PPS: For a much more reasoned discussion of the pepper-spraying, head over, as usual, to Music for Deckchair's piece.

I for one welcome our new alien overlords

So: Greece has a technocratic government. So does Italy ('technocratic' in both cases meaning 'entirely unelected'). I hate being on the same side of an argument as Silvio Berlusconi, but he's right to object to the imposition of political leaders without the consent of the people. Over in Spain, they've had an election: the rather good Socialist Party has lost in a landslide to the conservative People's Party. There wasn't any battle of ideas: the Socialists were forced to promise massive austerity and the PP promised even more.

Both parties are subject to the whims of the market:
From a market standpoint, an absolute majority for the PP is just what the doctor ordered," Nicholas Spiro, of Sovereign Strategy told Reuters in London. "The risk, however, is that more retrenchment pushes the economy back into recession."
Thanks to Nick, who's one of the few money men prepared to speak the truth: the markets reject democracy. They don't need it, and sometimes it gets in the way. He also exposes the hypocrisy of the financial world: they're bankrupting countries which don't impose massive public service cuts, but when the cuts actually destroy any chance of economic recovery (I'm looking at you, Osborne), the bond markets punish governments again. It's win-win - if you're a banker.

We're used to the constant droning of the Tory phrase 'free-market democracy', the Thatcherite dream. Hopefully recent events have persuaded you that the emphasis is - and always has been - on the 'free-market' element: ever since the Chicago Boys imposed monetarism on Chile, at the invitation of its bloody dictator Pinochet, the rights of high finance to do what it wants has been paramount: the aspirations and values of mere citizens have come a very poor second. What you and I want is now immaterial.

Not, of course, that 'free market' means what you think it means. No, the term refers to the demands of Western financial institutions to operate without regulations even after taxpayers have to bail them out at the price of national bankruptcy, and the rights of Western nations to dump goods in developing countries without worrying about what happens to nascent local producers.

What we're seeing in Europe is simply what we've done to African, Asian and South American countries for 50 years. It looks a bit more civilised because the New Technocratic Elites turn up in sleek Mercedes limousines rather than tanks, but the effect is the same. The new boss is the market, which has no conscience, so long-term view, and no sense of hubris. We settled their losses and didn't reform them: why wouldn't they then embark on an orgy of profitable destruction? It's like giving an axe-murderer and Arts Council grant and sharpening his axe for him.

The Spanish, Greek and Italian governments no longer have any public duty to perform: they operate the levers at the direction of the bond markets. No doubt they tell themselves that appeasing the markets will lead to stability and the public good, but it doesn't wash. A serious system of inter-governmental lending, a fiscal structure which allows European nations to vary their interest rates to suit local conditions, and a severe curbing of bond trading will bring stability and realism to national finances. As it is, we're at the mercy of greedy young men whose idea of the future stretches as far as the annual bonus and their next line of coke.

Friday, 18 November 2011

RIP Jamie Ackerman

Jamie was a bright, funny popular kid, and an excellent fencer, the son of one of my team-mates. I met him a few times at competitions. He was killed in a traffic accident a few days ago - the driver of the car which hit his scooter has been arrested for dangerous driving.

He'd have been competing this weekend at his home club's Leon Paul Junior Series event - a minute's round of applause is planned to mark his passing. The other plan to mark his passing is to place a flotilla of rubber ducks at the end of his piste: he always put one down when he was fencing, which amused me hugely.

Occupy London: dead friends in high places

Talking of Burne-Jones, he hated St. Paul's, and his friends moved his memorial service to Westminster Abbey, because to the artist, St. Paul's was the symbol of capitalist and political triumphalism.
St. Paul's was a building that 'crushed and depressed' him both aesthetically and politically. He loathed its architectural pomp and emptiness and its status as the place of worship of the stock exchange, the bankers, the commercial world of London that Burne-Jones despised and loathed. It was nonsense, he decided, to put mosaics there, useless to try to do anything with so unpromising, corrupt and unsympathetic a building - 'but let it chill the should of man and gently prepare him for the next glacial cataclysm'. 
How times have changed. Quotation from MacCarthy's biography of Burne-Jones.

Occupy LSX has now taken possession of a USB building. More power to them.

A word from the wise

A three-hour meeting aside, I've got nothing done today. But I'm heartened by the words of Edward Burne-Jones, the Victorian painter whose magnificent biography by Fiona MacCarthy I've just finished:
I get to work with reluctance at 10, wish I was dead at eleven, get hungry at 12, and all the rest of the day wish I was a gentleman and hadn't to paint.

His thing was deeply symbolic Arthurian-related art, stylistically reminiscent of the early Italian Renaissance. Here's King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. He particularly liked painting kings surrounded by mystically fruity women…

Sadly, he wasn't all good. He once fired a maid for 'being ugly'.

Welcome to Gattaca

Hello everybody. I'm back where I belong: surrounded by marking, settled in my stained and knackered chair.

I had an interesting day in London: meeting the Olympic Organising Committee people in their glass fortress down at Canary Wharf.
One of the many stunning views from the Olympic Development Office on the 21st-23rd floor

As expected, the chaps and chapesses were identical to those depicted in the BBC comedy Twenty Twelve. I soon realised that the way to success was to abandon complete sentences toute suite: every time I saw a pair of designer glasses atop a modishly-shaved head, I removed a verb from my next sentence. God help me, I even deployed 'facilitate' and 'empower' like weapons, though my soul screamed within me.

Having given a lecture recently on non-space, the privatisation of public space and urban development, using Canary Wharf as an example, I was pleased to discover that it's as disturbingly dystopian as I expected. Everything is new. Nothing is rooted in the area's history. Materials are shiny, disposable, unreferential. It could have been Chicago, New York, Capetown or Sydney. Open space is designed for surveillance and security. Inside and out, paranoia is disguised as luxury and service: host of polite men in well-cut suits 'facilitate' your arrival, but it's clear that they're capable of extreme violence and hostility should you look in any way suspicious.

Such architecture breeds suitable people. The population of Canary Wharf is straight out of Gattaca or Logan's Run: bar the odd cleaner, it's the whitest population I've ever seen. They all dress the same: expensive but inconspicuous suits, open shirts, close-cropped hair. The women are permitted skirts and no jacket, but the look is the same. This is money, but serious money: no flamboyance, no individuality (I did toy with wandering in to Citibank or one of the many others and asking for a refund: despite the self-imposed isolation of this clannish place, the bailout means that we own virtually all these institutions).

The contrast with the rest of London was extreme: on my way home, I walked along Jermyn Street, through Burlington Arcade, along Bond Street, Harley Street and eventually back to Euston. These areas are moneyed in a different way: flashy cars (I watched a Bentley cut up an emergency ambulance at the lights and realised that we truly live in the Land of Clarkson, the mink cape worn by the Russian woman who elbowed me out of the way even though I'd stepped back as far as I could, loud tweeds on the men, shops full of diamonds and cashmere. Banking money is discreet - old money and buccaneers want to proclaim their loot in ostentatious and very public ways.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A total game-changer…

You won't be hearing much - if anything - from me tomorrow. I've a meeting at the Canary Wharf headquarters of the Olympics Organising Committee.

I'm imagining that it's something like this:

Mind you, this is my vision of what 'going to London' means. Lines and lines and lines and lines…

After that, it's a slap-up feed in a local hostelry to celebrate the expulsion from Paradise of our colleague Alison, who seems to think that salvation lies in not working here with the rest of us Morlocks. She may be right.

In search of media ethics

The difficult questions of truth, objectivity and ethics in news was our subject today. I inflicted a piece of Melanie Phillips at her most vicious and insinuating on the kids, but also these clips from Drop the Dead Donkey, leading into a discussion of fact, deeper truths, news' media's tendency towards news that lends itself to simple emotions and gripping stories - culminating in (hopefully) destroying any faith they may have in the notion of objective truth.

Lessons from history

While my students settle down to a task, I'll just point this out (thanks to Em):

Ireland beat the Soviet Union too. Singlehanded. That was the beginning of the end for them. Beating Estonia 5-1 on aggregate was child's play. Well done to England for beating Sweden for the first time in 43 years too. 

Graduating to the dole queue

Today's youth unemployment figures are out. The UK now has 1.016 million young people unable to find work. I look at the bright eager (sometimes) faces in my classes and wonder what's going to happen to them. Some are optimistic - and some watch the news.

It's so utterly depressing, and yet the political discourse seems so hostile. I watched Newsnight's discussion of this last night. A Tory minister sat there and told them all about temporary schemes, while the CEO of a profit-making 'training company' lectured them about polishing up CVs and making themselves employable.

She would, of course, suggest that the problem is something she's got rich fixing, but it's a lie. My students are employable. They're bright, thoughtful and desperate. The failing isn't some internal quality: it's structural. We've built an economy on low wages for jobs which tax-evading corporations can shift abroad at the drop of a subsidy. With 2.5m people unemployed, what chance will an inexperiences 21-year old have? The stories the studio guests told were so familiar from my own desultory attempts to find a job in the mid-90s. No experience, no job - but nobody is willing to give you experience. These kids were used to never receiving even an acknowledgement that an application has been received: news to the politicians, not to anybody else.

David Cameron's first job was in the Conservative Party's research department, secured after a phone call from someone in Buckingham Palace. After that, it was off to the PR department of Carlton Communications, a very poor TV company with a reputation for hiring well-connected Tories. Nice life for some…

One of the most pernicious schemes promoted by government is internships: working for free for a period to gain experience. Sounds nice, doesn't it? But internships are acquired through contacts, which gives an advantage to well-connected middle-class people, and working-class kids can't afford to do them, because months of unpaid labour means parental support for travel, food, accommodation, clothes and all the other things paid work usually provides - it's a scam to maintain inequality.

The other rip-off is the apprenticeship scheme: minimal wages while you learn a trade. Again, it's a great idea, and one of the backbones of vanished industrial life. But look closely, and we discover that supermarkets are rebranding shelf-stacking as 'apprenticeships', as a way to reduce the wages of the very poorest, while failing to pass on any meaningful skills. That strikes me as the very worst sort of cynicism.

I wish I could sound more optimistic. Yes, some people are doing degrees that may not add to the sum of human knowledge. Some don't work very hard. Some are unrealistic. But from what I see, most of my students are more aware of the challenges facing them than I was when I graduated. We need to find meaningful, lucrative work for everybody - not just the graduates but the millions who don't - or can't - go to university. Capitalism, based on the transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest, just won't do it.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Land of Lost Content

OK, a few more pictures from this bonkers, and disturbing, museum: some of the racist stuff really bothers me. See the full set here. Click these to enlarge.

Hugely popular free gifts from Robertson's Marmalade: golliwogs

Deeply racist postcard

Another terrifying doll: this Girl's World one's hair grows, I gather

Spacehopper box

Mansell's Gay Panties. 

Cushions of Wham! and Kylie and Jason

Hilda Ogden (Coronation Street) bust

9/11 rug. 

What I did on my field trip (1)

OK, we left The Dark Place and headed west through the beautiful, autumnal Shropshire countryside and arrived at the Land of Lost Content. It's a massive warehouse literally piled high with the things we throw away: toys, games, clothes, office equipment, kitchen gear, packaging, bottles, postcards, luggage, electrical items, magazines: almost everything except for (interestingly) much on politics, sex or religion.

It's mind-boggling. The cultural choices made in archiving are fascinating and often troubling. The proprietor framed the collection as an art installation. You might see it as junk. Some of it really bothers me: there's an awful lot of racist material, particularly golliwogs. The museum's stance isn't clear: is this a fair representation of a past culture which simply didn't care about minority races, or is this material collected for other reasons?

I think the students enjoyed themselves, and learned a lot about past and material culture.

Here's a selection (click to enlarge): full set here.

WW2 Jobs for the Girls poster

Plastic Sweat Yourself Thin clothes (ugh)

50s Horlicks sign

Well-Meaning Guardian Readers Against The Bomb (that's me!)

Actual Subbuteo streakers!

Terrifying, freakish crawling doll

Enid Blyton merchandising

A romantic cigarette from Craven "A"

Tretchikoff's 'Chinese Girl' - hugely popular in the 1950s/60s

Official Girl Scout Camera

Occupy again, occupy smarter

Overnight, the New York police smashed up Occupy Wall Street's main base in Zuccotti Park, fulfilling their traditional role as the armed wing of the hegemonic élite.

It's to be expected: the occupation is simply the latest in an American tradition of dignified subaltern camps: it's a more middle-class version of the Hoovervilles of the 1930s, in which thousands of people erected shanty towns in parks and waste grounds, for shelter and protection, but also to make visible the effects of the Depression. No doubt some of them were dystopian hell-holes, but many were vibrant, egalitarian, racially harmonious, leftwing communities which posed a challenge - perhaps a threat - to the status quo: which is why many were violently razed to the ground by the authorities.

This is always the way. OWS was in many ways a carnivalesque space, in Bakhtinian terms: tolerated by the authorities for a period as a safety valve, then shut down when it showed signs of offering a serious alternative to the current system. The challenge is to avoid being tamed, or silenced, while offering more than a brief breathing space for those excluded or revolted by the system.

Where now? I think the various occupations should start drawing on the lessons of the late 1980s-1990s roads protesters. In the UK, this was the strongest and most successful of the countercultures: travellers, crusts, ravers and eco-activists successfully led governments on a merry dance around the country. Draconian laws and tabloid thunderclaps demonstrated the real threat to the Establishment posed by a mobile, creative, strategically clever, fluid and above all disdainful group. I'm no fan of rave, New Age Bollocks, the Levellers (the band: I admire the Civil War group) or dreadlocks, but the sheer weight of heavy-handed legal and police action demonstrated government's failure to comprehend their opponents' tactics or beliefs. It's hard to evoke the public mood of the time: on one side scruffy E-necking ravers who managed to combine fierce idealism with dedicated pursuit of hedonism. On the other, the shrieking newspapers, hysterical tabloids and a police force which treated the travellers like plague-spreaders.

My favourite group was Critical Mass: radical cyclists who got together once a month or so in major cities to cycle really slowly to demonstrate that our urban planning was both dangerous and inhuman. I only managed to join them once or twice, in Birmingham, but it was a wonderful feeling. It's still alive, but the edge has gone. Perhaps I'll get back to them. Other favourites: the wonderful, crazy ways in which road-building was halted and sometimes even defeated, and the Guerrilla Gardening movement: turning concrete into jungle.

The travellers and ravers used to defeat police planning by only announcing locations at the last minute, passed on through temporary phone numbers picked up by eager participants cruising the M25 waiting of the word: Twitter is the ideal successor. It all ended when the rave side of things came to dominate - the individualism of these mobile parties, and the drug aspect, made it an ideal situation for the entrepreneurially-minded amongst them to commodify the scene by reducing it to commercial events, and the energy was inevitably lost.

But Occupy can still learn from them. They can harness the decentralised, fluid, fast-moving aspects of the Summer of Love: they can be one step ahead of the authorities, they can stress the theatrical aspects of protest. Pop up unexpectedly with a dramatic action, then melt away, only to coalesce somewhere else.

One of the things I regret about the British education system is its total silence on the country's brilliant history of rebellion and protest: the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the Civil War, the Diggers, the Levellers, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Monmouth Rebellion, the Luddites, Captain Swing, the Rebecca Rioters, the Chartists, the NUWM, the Jarrow March, the Suffragists, the Radical Clubs, CND and Pugwash…, the Miners' Strike and all their supporters… the list is endless. Let's recapture that irreverence, that refusal to blindly accept what we're given.

Blue remembered hills

Hurrah! My reward for being in the office for 11 and a half hours yesterday (and back in 10 hours later) is a day out: a field trip to Shropshire's Land of Lost Content, no less. It's a barkingly mad place, half museum, half junk shop. I can never tell whether it's hugely reactionary (there's a strong whiff of an idealised British past) or unsettlingly radical through its obsessive, seemingly unselective piling-up of the kind of things a more staid establ
ishment wouldn't collect: odd board games next to a vintage telephone exchange, uniforms and bed pans, the lot. Even the website is rather retro - perhaps accidentally so:

There's certainly an air of determined Tory individualism in the owners' bloody-minded individualism, and of the Daily Mail in their racial insensitivity: the Black History Cupboard is  simply disgraceful, but there's also something anarchic about an undiscriminating collection of disposable - and disposed - items. I also love the name: what an excellent pun. It will be fascinating to see what the students make of it all. Pictures later.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Troglodytic Vole

Finally this weekend, I visited Poole's Cavern in Buxton, a magical wonderland of stalagmites and stalactites (-mites grow up, -tites come down). It was a prehistoric, Roman and Saxon mining/factory area, religious site and resort of outlaws and scoundrels. Highly recommended.

The 'Flitch of Bacon' stalactite

Remains of the Victorian gas lamp

Not a single person giggled at these on the tour I took. The guides claim they're called 'poached egg' stalagmites. A likely story.

Stalactites reflected in a pool of water

Autumnal copper beech leaves

My first attempt at a 'zoom burst' shot. Should have used a tripod, but not bad. 

Talking of decay

One of the other things I did this weekend was visit the last day of the British Ceramics Biennial, held partly in the abandoned, decaying Spode Works in Stoke. The idea, I guess, is to prove that there's still life in the industry, but the effect was double-edged. Much of the art ceramic referenced postmodernism and deconstruction: 'impossible' angles and loops - beautiful in many ways, but somewhat mocking of a town which lost hundreds of thousands of jobs when mass British pottery died. Deconstruction's all very witty when you're an art student - not so funny when you're out of a job. Much of the show's effect was derived from setting new artisan work against the smashed remains of a mass industry.

But I shouldn't cavil: my photographic hobby of finding beauty in post-industrial wreckage is equally decadent, and as I said, much of the artistic work is simply lovely. Full set of photos here, click these samples to enlarge.

I do love a bit of typography - this from Staffordshire University's Flux studio

'Human Relations'

On the scrapheap…