Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Prepare to be staggered

There's an NHS risk report detailing what will happen if the Tories' NHS Reform Bill is passed. Rumour has it that the bottom line is 'apocalyptic' - because the bill has nothing to do with improving the health service and everything to do with selling it off to private providers of the sort who've done such a bang-up job in the United States.

Obviously the Tories don't want to publish the report, because it will expose the bill as a selfish, ideologically-driven bit of class warfare.

Nobody, I suspect, will be surprised to hear that Paul Uppal, my local MP, voted against making the report public. He certainly doesn't believe that an informed electorate is an empowered electorate. Or perhaps he does - and fears it!

What else has he been up to recently? Well according to his webpage, nothing since February 9th - there's certainly no mention of his disastrous appearance at the Students' Union debate. Which is odd because the neighbouring Labour MP, Emma Reynolds, seems quite proud to have attended. Perhaps Paul thinks no news is good news.

This huge convex of fire…

Our prison strong, this huge convex of Fire, 
Outrageous to devour, immures us round 
Ninefold, and gates of burning Adamant 
Barred over us prohibit all egress

It seems fitting to start with Milton. The day started badly enough: confused by the 5 (!) timetables the university uses, I was happily giving a tutorial to a very interesting Dutch student when I was called to take the Milton seminar I should actually have been running… shame doesn't cover the half of it.

It turned out to be one of the best seminars I've done in a long time: they're a really good bunch and they've all got something good to say. However, a lot of it was drowned out by helicopters, sirens and constantly buzzing text message alerts. I'm used to sirens and helicopters here - part of the joys of urban life - but this was getting extreme. When one student said her boyfriend had heard there had been a terrorist attack on the town, I had to laugh. Any self-respecting terrorist would take one look at The Dark Place and assume someone else had got there first.

The 'terrorist' outrage turned out to be a massive fire in Carver's, the lumber-yard/builders' merchants near the town centre (thankfully not too near my flat): one of the few good things about this place is that it's old-fashioned enough to have a central industrial quarter like towns used to have - not after this, I suspect. So today, The Dark Place truly lived up to its name: here we are, confined to the building ('immured') in hell.

Here are a few photographs: more, including several fire engines etc., here. Click the ones below for larger versions.

In praise of lynch mobs

I've expressed my glee at the Leveson Inquiry more than once. It's becoming a parade of shifty liars from all walks of life, from the police to politics to journalism, being exposed for behaviour they thought was 'normal'. If only Anthony Sampson, author of Who Runs This Place? was still alive, he'd have revelled in this stuff.

What we're seeing is the democratic deficit in action: élite interest groups' hegemony as its practised - the cosy worlds of deals and handshakes in which the reasonable expectations of citizens come a very distant second to the convenience of the Establishment. The revelation that the Metropolitan Police lent Rebekah Brooks a horse ('I'm going hacking'. 'OK, we'll lend you a horse'. 'Er… yes, that's the hacking I meant') is a hilariously symbolic example of the wider corruption which to them would never have appeared to be corrupt, because it was just 'business as usual'. Brian Paddick's testimony that the Met's PR department saw its job as suppressing bad news (in this case, the force's dire record on rape investigations) is a perfect example of the tribal, politicised taint indelibly associated with what should be a 'service'. The Met has become yet another centre of power playing a game with and against the government, the press and the people, in which convenience and influence often outweigh considerations of justice.

Simon Jenkins, the Guardian's tame upright Tory radical, wrote an interesting piece today about his decreasing cynicism about Leveson. Viewing it initially as a whitewash, he's become convinced that the Inquiry now serves a more profound purpose:
Where I was wrong was in underrating the cruel virtue, just occasionally, of subjecting all unaccountable power to a "show trial". As with Chilcotand Blair's Iraq war, the judgment matters little. The value lies in the public staging, in the pillory, the humiliation. It is still badly needed in the case of the banks.
British politics has frequently got its hands dirty by whipping up mob hysteria - the Gordon Riots spring to mind - but I think Jenkins is right: some symbolic blood-letting is long overdue. I actually don't think that the Leveson Inquiry impinges much on the popular consciousness beyond the Milly Dowler hacking: how can it when the Mail, Sun, Express, Star and other guilty papers have done their very best to avoid covering it? But occasionally society's need a period of taking stock, of moral outrage: the great liberations of the 60s and 70s were once such occasion, and Jenkins is right that we're due another. The press, the bankers, the way in which major corporations have defrauded taxpayers while depending on tax-funded activity (schools, transport, education etc), the cosy relationships between companies like A4E, health privatisation, the revolving door between politics, the civil service and client companies, obviously the banks, the toxic co-dependence of politicians and the press… these things are both so complex and so obviously morally wrong that we're beyond the stage of stern words from retired knighted judges. It's time for national humiliation: bankers and Murdochs should be jeered on the streets. The prisons should be filling up with white-collar fraudsters. Lamp-posts should be bearing 'strange fruit' with pinstriped skin.

Will it happen? Of course not. A few sacrificial victims will be offered, such as Fred Goodwin's knighthood, but there's no Establishment taste for a cleansing of the Augean stables - our political leaders are personally, ideologically and culturally incapable of offering any structural critique of this sclerotic society. They can't conceive of an alternative capitalism, and alternative to capitalism, a public sphere which behaves disinterestedly, a politics not in thrall to vested interests.

The question is, can we?

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Postgraduates: an endangered species?

In the midst of the furore over undergraduate tuition fees, one group of people has been forgotten: the postgraduate student, especially those not doing PGCEs and other vocational courses.

Most undergraduates will emerge with a degree and £50,000 in debt (£27k in tuition fees and £20k+ in living expenses, much of this in the form of bank overdrafts and other loans which aren't protected by the government's loans scheme.

Who then will do an MA, an MSc., a DipSW, a Ph.D? I graduated with debts, though very little compared with my own students - the maximum student loan was £850 and there were no tuition fees. I took a year off to work in bars and the 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. night shift at Centrica's data entry mill, then returned to take a Master's degree part-time: without some help from the university, I'd never have been able to do it. By the time I started my Ph.D, I was struggling, and the £6500 p.a. scholarship from The Hegemon barely serviced my debts: only huge amounts of teaching and school supply teaching got me through it, to the detriment of my studies.

So why on earth would any 21 year-old take on further debt and spend more time out of employment in the new regime, in pursuit of a qualification which will rarely increase their earning potential? The love of a subject won't keep you warm and fed. The chilling effect will be to reduce the number of postgraduate students, reduce the field largely to science (generous bursaries are usually available in those disciplines) and reduce the institutions offering postgraduate tuition to the magic circle of the Russell Group: Oxbridge and their wannabe circle: without a self-perpetuating postgraduate community, other institutions will cease to be universities.

Who'll be left on postgraduate courses? Well, we know absolutely nothing about postgraduate cohorts, so what follows is entirely anecdotal. In science, corporately funded individuals doing work for immediate application: the kind of blue-skies science which may or may not lead to world-changing discoveries will wither away or move abroad (bad news for quantum physics, astronomy etc.). In the humanities, research will consist of the posh, privileged people who colonise the Russell Group and have enormous family resources available to pay the huge fees and living expenses - an MA will soon become a kind of finishing school. PhDs will be restricted to the same well-heeled bunch and humanities teaching and research will fall into the hands of a conservative, elitist group with little interest in radical critique, with terrible consequences for undergraduates and the wider culture. This isn't to say that some Russell Group universities don't practice inclusion - but the tuition fees regime will weed out people without financial backing and leave them with little choice about whom to admit.

I meet them all the time at conferences and they're all nice, hugely intellectual and passionate about their subjects - but their grasp of the general reality is very limited. At one training course I attended, several moaned about their 'huge' classes: when pressed, they meant 15, and they gasped with disbelief when I explained that would be considered tiny at my place: we close down modules with fewer than 25 students.

Anyone without this kind of support will be excluded - such as the group of extremely talented English graduates I taught last year - now working at Café Rouge and similar places. Some will go abroad: my friend Jim, armed with an astoundingly good BA (including a published journal paper, almost unheard of), faced with £5000 fees for an MA at Birmingham, has opted for VU in Amsterdam: €1771. Will he come back? Why should he?

Still - no new postgraduates might mean that my 'temporary' contract lasts until I retire at 68! It's an ill wind…

Monday, 27 February 2012

CCTV from the Workfare Programme

Leaked footage from A4E's 'training':

Defending the university, defending Media Studies

As you may know, my job is split between the departments of English and Media, Cultural Studies and Communications. There's some natural crossover: Cultural Studies was informed by and revivified literary criticism, but Media Studies is a discrete academic field.

I should confess that I'm not garlanded with Media Studies qualifications: I started teaching in the department because a long-departed course leader spotted me reading the Guardian (another crucial role that paper has played in my life) in the post-graduate office and asked me if I read a newspaper often. When I replied in the affirmative, he offered me some teaching work. Twelve years later I'm still here - and still in temporary employment.

So I'm naturally disposed to defend both my subjects against the unthinking slights of the snobs. English has only been in existence since the 1920s, and had to fight hard to be taken seriously. I was therefore very cheered by Stefan Collini's piece in the Guardian defending the cultural role of higher education.

He first evoked a dystopian vision of universities reduced to churning out obedient worker bees for business:
Take one job centre. Add several apprenticeship programmes. Combine with an industrial lab (fold in a medical research centre for extra flavour). Throw in some subsidised gigs and a large dollop of cheap beer. Don't stir too much. Decorate with a forward-looking logo. And hey presto! – you've got a university.
In our case of course, there's no cheap beer and no gigs: the SU went bust many years ago and now functions largely as a wing of the university's PR department. But we are resisting the emplyability-discourse to some extent. (Not that I don't think students should be employable, but it's our job to produce the critical, creative thinkers who'll transform society, not manufacture drones according to the demands of economic drivers who've demonstrated their profound inability to understand either industry - cf business and new media) or the economy (banks, ratings agencies, politicians - all thought that everything was going swimmingly until, well, it wasn't).

Universities are failing to some extent, he says:
From anecdotal evidence (especially conversations among parents of university students), it may seem that the major systemic failing is the paucity of individual attention that students receive in many universities – seminar sizes are too big and tutorial hours too few.
I think he's right: my siblings who went to Cambridge got individual tutorials every week, as well as lectures and presumably seminars. They also had to write an essay for every tutorial. It's an expensive system, but a good one: my siblings also got money and resources thrown at them, which they felt was their right because they'd got to the top of the tree. I don't begrudge them that, but do feel that they got there by attending very famous private schools rather than solely by individual toil (I went to a mix of state and private schools and put almost no effort in to anything). I look at my students and feel that they're the ones who need all this academic and financial support: they've been to big state schools, they've overcome all sorts of hurdles, they've often beaten the racial disadvantages built into the system, they often have to work long hours and look after their families, they've not accessed family and cultural networks to enhance their formal educations, and yet they're the ones who have reduced contact hours, large classes and poor resources.

One of my private educational fantasies is importing the NFL (American Football) draft system, in which the 'poorest' teams get first pick of the best debutants. At the moment, the elite universities massively disproportionately favour the privately-educated: teaching them must be a doddle. But if the Russell Group universities are so great, they can surely cope with The Hegemon's disadvantaged students? So let's do a swap. We'll take the 5A* Etonians and they can take our inner-city kids and working parents. Their traditional intake should thrive despite our limitations, and our usual intake should blossom with the intensive attention afforded them at Oxbridge (actually, research shows that comprehensively-educated students do better at university: they've used to relying on their own resources without constant support). OK, a couple of Grade-I listed buildings might have to be turned into crèches rather than film-sets and the Bullingdon Club might have to turn from vintage claret to Carling, but I'm sure they'll cope.

Anyway, the Collini article has lots of good things to say, but amongst them is this:
It is worth emphasising, in the face of routine dismissals by snobbish commentators, that many of these courses may be intellectually fruitful as well as practical: media studies are often singled out as being the most egregiously valueless, yet there can be few forces in modern societies so obviously in need of more systematic and disinterested understanding than the media themselves.
I'm listening to the Leveson Inquiry this morning. It's exposing the extent to which certain sections of the media have coarsened, cheapened and corrupted public life in the pursuit of power and profit. Whenever I hear anyone attack media studies (family, friends, Daily Mail readers), I point out that we're all swimming in media now: the papers we read, the TV we watch, the search engines we use, the blogs on which we rant, the Tweets we dispatch, the censorship to which we assent and object: all these are media studies. The ways in which media are framed and the ways we use them, understand them and interpret them - they're all media studies (the same applies to English). We even run a module called Media Ethics - from the perspective of owners, politicians, journalists and - often overlooked - readers. 

Any parent worried about what their kids are up to on the net, from grooming to Anonymous, should sign up for a Media Studies course immediately. There's nothing more important or more complicated than our relationship with media, whether that's a sonnet or a soap opera.

Monday falls with a heavy wet splat

(Me talking about my fencing competition result: may contain tedium).

Actually, that's misleadingly negative. This Monday is balmy and packed with exciting things. It's just me who feels like a broken-down old man.

Why? I went to the Keele Open Fencing Competition on Saturday. I'm too old and busy to do many competitions these days, and I can't afford to do enough to chase rankings points - travel, hotel and entry fees most weeks of the year just became impossible while I was doing my PhD, and there's no going back. So I usually do the Shropshire Closed and Open events and the Much Wenlock Olympics when I can: it's usually held on my birthday, which is OK, but everybody seems to get married on July 14th or the nearest weekend these days: I've been to 3 weddings in five years on the same day, and there's another one this year.

Anyway, Keele's close and it's a smallish event, so I thought attendance would be fun, and I went for the foil competition - the days when I'd blithely sign up for all three weapons across two days are well behind me. I dressed up in all the England/GB kit I could muster, as a minor bit of psychological warfare. Nobody need know that I acquired it by going along as team manager rather than fencer. On arrival, it swiftly became clear that there were two competitions: balding fat blokes like me out for a bit of fun before a life spent in garden centres rather than sports halls on Saturdays, and lean tall fit thin young men displaying their properly-earned international stripes. No prizes for guessing in which category Plashing Vole was destined.

They say that if you can't see the rabbit in your poule, check your tail and ears: looking at the draw for mine, I suddenly had a desperate craving for carrots. In my poule was Sam Brougham, who took a Junior Commonwealth gold medal a week ago. However, I managed to get through the poule with 3 wins and 1 loss, to Mr. Brougham and much to my surprise came out with the 5th seeding. Obviously the humiliation was postponed to the second ranking poule. This time the poule was a lot harder, but my clumsy aggression (learned from my beloved Stoke City) befuddled the fencers who should have beaten me, and I only lost to Callum Gandolfi, a tricksy tall and very pleasant left-hander from an illustrious fencing family, who beat me 5-2 thanks to his astonishing athleticism. Amazingly, my seeding stayed at 5 and I got a bye through the first direct elimination round, when the fights go from 5-pointers to 15 points, rather than going home before lunchtime as is my wont.

My heart sank though when I found that my first DE fight was against Callum Gandolfi, though it did cross my mind that I'd be able to watch the Ireland-Italy rugby once he'd disposed of me. However, things didn't go quite according to plan: despite being fat and ageing, I somehow managed to turn my natural deviousness to good account and somehow beat him 15-11. The next DE was a lot harder: against the 4th seed, Mark Leech. Another left-hander, he dropped 7 points behind me thanks to my secret move reserved for our sinistral friends, but he's far too intelligent to lose like that, and he soon came back to level the scores. I pulled a few back, when the referee announced that I'd won 15-11. It felt a bit quick to me, but I had no idea what the score was. My opponent protested that the score was actually 14-11. If I was a proper competitive fencer I'd have insisted on taking the victory, but I'm weak, or nice, depending on how you see it and I offered to carry on. Oh dear… Leech took the next three points to level the score and I only won on a difficult decision when we'd hit each other simultaneously. I still don't know whether it was my point: we'd both run out of ideas and were just battering away at each other. Leech had also managed to gouge my knuckle - I didn't feel a thing and was quite surprised when the ref stopped the fight to point out that I was dripping blood everywhere. It was a tiny cut, but I guess the heart rate and adrenaline kept it pouring out.

Finally, I got to the semi-final, which was both shocking and a victory for sly fat blokes everywhere. Unfortunately, things came to a juddering halt in an unpleasant way. My opponent was Alex Schlindwein of the GB Cadet team, who turned out to be one of the rudest, surliest teens I've met in a while - I said hello before our fight and he couldn't bring himself to make eye contact or even speak, whereas his mother was very friendly. During our fight, he shouted in triumph every time he hit me, while finding something to complain about to the ref every time I hit him. I lost 15-9, which was a fair reflection of the quality gap between us, but even then he could hardly muster the required handshake, and certainly couldn't manage a couple of words. He beat Sam Brougham (who'd spent the week since winning his Commonwealth gold suffering vomiting sickness, it appeared) in the final while displaying a similar lack of grace. I took the bronze, alongside Gary Clark, another chap of increasing age and girth, so it's not entirely a sport for the gilded youth.

Ah well, he'll learn. Fencing's a very small world and active competitors meet each other almost weekly during the season - word soon gets round if you're a git. Everybody else was lovely - I met a couple of nice guys from neighbouring Wrekin Sword club, the Keele Uni fencers are talented and very friendly, and the Sussex Uni fencers were really friendly - even when they were knocked out they stayed kitted-up and gave me warm-up fights before my successive direct elimination fights. I also wandered over to the women's competitions and saw some really good, fast fencing.

So all in all, a great day's fencing: mostly lovely people, very well organised, a refreshments stall run for the Keele bone marrow charity and a freakish result. Obviously I've spent the days since in pain: apart from the multiple bruises and minor cuts, every muscle and joint is begging for anaesthesia or the sweet release of death. I'm definitely getting too old for this. The only thing that drove me to work this morning was the threat of Jonathan Safran Foer on Radio 4's Start the Week: I can't afford to smash another radio.

The other treat of the day is the Leveson Inquiry. I've really missed it over the past couple of weeks, though I should admit that I've got a lot more work done when it's not on. However, I suddenly realised today that as half my teaching load is in Media and Cultural Studies, obsessively watching the Inquiry isn't just an entertaining soap opera larded with schadenfreude: it's WORK! Farewell guilt. Farewell, also, all other work-related activity.

Happy days!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Welcome to the Literary New Boring

A few weeks ago, a Guardian journalist wrote a scathing attack on the tidal wave of boring, pedestrian pop music out there. According to Peter Robinson, Adele, Mumford and Sons (I saw them: very good musicians, deeply tedious album) and Ed Sheeran are guilty of making beige music acceptable. Dull ballads, no stagecraft and earnest craft had, he said, replaced excitement, adventure and really wild things in music.
 It may seem odd that Sheeran is so desperate to lay claim to his lyrics when they include clunky disasters like "Suffolk sadly seems to sort of suffocate me", "I'm up an' coming like I'm fucking in an elevator" and the epic "I've never owned a Blu-ray, true say" but one thing is certain: when borepop princess Birdycovered The A-Team for Fearne Cotton's Live Lounge that five minutes of music stirred up a vortex of boredom – a boretex, if you will – whose anniversary will be solemnly remembered by generations to come.
Now I'll put my hands up and say that the vast majority of my music collection is what people might claim is boring: minimalism, folk music, lads and lasses with guitars writing their own songs, but Robinson is on to something. Usually, depressions lead to interesting music - George Formby, punk, electro, but not this one: the kids are all working for free gaining valuable work experience stacking supermarket shelves rather than getting high and changing the face of music while living on £67 per week.

However, you can discuss the Aural New Boring in plenty of other places. The concept has also been extended to TV: it's wall to wall agonising aristocrats at the moment, fictional or not: that's what you get for voting Tory. But I'm going to extend the concept to literature. As you may know, I teach English literature for a living, and I also read widely, not just English. I have come to the conclusion that a lot of the stuff being published is very much part of The New Boring.

So here we go - I'm going to annoy quite a lot of my literate readers with this one by nominating a few quite well-known authors for the Boring Tank. In my defence: many of them are amongst my favourites.

John McGahern. He gets on the list solely for That They May Face The Rising Sun. All his other novels - stunning. TTMFTRS: beautifully crafted, sensitive, morally and emotionally complex, culturally profound. And boring. Like an Everything But The Girl album. You can admire it, but you sure as hell don't want to read it twice. McGahern knows this: 'the ordinary is the most precious thing in life', he said. Maybe it is. But I've read - at a rough estimate - 400 novels which deal with the cultural wounds of rural Ireland/Wales/insert country of your choice coming to terms with modernity. That's why Flann O'Brien exists.

Colm Tóibín: used to write novels about the Irish abroad joyously having lots of gay sex, mostly to annoy the Irish Times. Now writes novels as though he were Henry James which means, as you might guess, being a literate, perhaps even sophisticated and - naturally - psychologically ambiguous member of the trans-Atlantic bourgeoisie, very long sentences during which you make make yourself a cup of tea, check Twitter, disinherit your children and get through that final volume of Remembrance of Things Past before you reach the last disappointing word of the sentence.

I note that I've started with a couple of Irish authors - and could add lots more. I have to say that there's a certain school of Irish writing which has taken the postcolonial ball and run with it: throw in equal amounts of tall stories, twilight gloom, emigration, post-Catholic guilt, ambiguous feelings about the decline of Dev's Ireland and the rise of shallow Celtic Tiger Ireland, pepper it with subtle references to the distant Troubles (a source of much head-shaking but little passion in the Republic), put it all through the head of a mute Irish Mammy or marginalised gay younger son and bingo: The Great Irish Novel. Bubbling under: Banville, Barry, Boylan, Donoghue, Hamilton. As I say, all authors for whom I have some enthusiasm and regard but please: a UFO. A murder. A Flashman. Let the rain stop occasionally, for feck's sake. Fewer cillíns, more killings.

OK, away from Ireland, who are the New Bores?

Obviously the Most Boring Author award goes in perpetuity to Ian McEwan for his constant superiority. OK Ian, you've done a lot of research and you liked the Iraq War. Bully for you. But could you stop being so damn pompous about it? Just for me? Remember the old days, when every single word of everything you wrote was perfect - like A Child In Time? Can we get back to that? And Chesil Beach: even Philip Larkin would think that a step too far in the commemoration of sexual inadequacy. We get it: people then were innocent and trapped in cultural mores. A shame. I take the point, but it's a brief moment - read some Chaucer or any of the late medieval plays: not much sexual repression there.

Iris Murdoch. Again, someone whose work I admire, but she is definitely the Queen of the New Boring - or it's grandmother. Every novel: posh Oxbridge types get terribly distressed as they face minor philosophical conundrums. Mute suffering (again). Grey clothes. Rain. No car chases at all.

Jonathan Safran Foer. Every sentence like a bag of spanners on a roller coaster. Uses 9/11 for a bloody father/son gush-fest. Very very precious. Very very long books. Very very boring.

Essentially, I'm bored with what they call 'literary fiction'. I don't think much of it is very literary actually: very few of these books make me pay attention to the words they use, the references they make, the structures of their novels. Instead, they focus on the constricted social world of the élite university and the comfortable middle classes and their minor problems. Or they reproduce the same hackneyed, contrived situations, thinly disguised by - in McEwan's case, a medical condition (Enduring Love) or a self-consciously 'wacky' setting (hang your head Amis, you most tedious of men).

As with so much in the world, Amazon is here to solve our generic problems. Let's have a look at their Best Literary Fiction Sellers.

Julie Cantrell, Into The Free: A Novel.

Just a girl. The only one strong enough to break the cycle.
In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a "nothing mama," she struggles to find a place where she really belongs.
For answers, Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to break her family's longstanding cycle of madness and abuse.
Through it all, Millie experiences the thrill of first love while fighting to trust the God she believes has abandoned her. With the power of forgiveness, can Millie finally make her way into the free?

Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph. Bourgeois appropriation of excluded ethnic/class energies to comment on the moral failures of the bourgeoisie. With added God. The fact that she needed to append A Novel (and she's not the only one on the list) to the title implies that the text doesn't actually qualify on literary grounds.

Kathryn Stockett, The Help: white people end racism by saying 'please' to the African-American women who do all the work. Offensive, but still Boring.

Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants. Redemptive love between a man, a woman and their elephant (and no, it's not as interesting as what you're thinking about). Elephants never forget, they say, but neither do they seem compelled to rehash the same tedious bloody plots ad infinitum. No thumbs, no cynical publishers looking to flog the film rights to the bastards responsible for that hideous abortion Eat Pray Love (watch, beg, killing spree).

In at No. 4 of course, is Execrably Loud and Incredibly Contrived by the aforesaid Foer. A man who should be incarcerated with only looped recordings of his own teenage diaries for company - though I suspect that he'd enjoy that hugely.

Darcie Chan, The Mill River Recluse.
Disfigured by the blow of an abusive husband, and suffering her entire life with severe social anxiety disorder, the widow Mary McAllister spends almost sixty years secluded in a white marble mansion overlooking the town of Mill River, Vermont. Her links to the outside world are few: the mail, the media, an elderly priest with a guilty habit of pilfering spoons, and a bedroom window with a view of the town below.
Most longtime residents of Mill River consider the marble house and its occupant peculiar, though insignificant, fixtures. An arsonist, a covetous nurse, and the endearing village idiot are among the few who have ever seen Mary. Newcomers to Mill River--a police officer and his daughter and a new fourth grade teacher--are also curious about the reclusive old woman. But only Father Michael O'Brien knows Mary and the secret she keeps--one that, once revealed, will change all of their lives forever. 
The Mill River Recluse is a story of triumph over tragedy, one that reminds us of the value of friendship and the ability of love to come from the most unexpected of places.
Are there any phrases in that synopsis which you haven't read zillion times over? It's like some sadistic computational linguist has programmed an innocent Dell PC to condense the most over-used clichés in literary history into one Stratospherically Boring novel.

Stewie has some advice for you: try not to write like this:

I think I'll abandon the Amazon Literary Fiction chart. Clearly they mean by the term 'novels about adults who haven't told anyone that daddy touched them down there but will on page 200 if the author can't think of anything more, y'know, symbolic of our times'. As far as I can see, 'literary fiction' means 'fiction without spies, car chases, brand names or inheritances from distant cousins of whom you'd never heard'. Emotion. Secrets. Quiet suffering. Yada yada yada.

A few more New Boring authors for you: Jodi Picoult ('a family torn apart'), Jeffrey Eugenides ('thinly disguised other New Boring Authors used as sock-puppets to attack dimly-understood literary theories'), Lionel Shriver (can we please stop talking about Kevin, for the love of God?), Lorrie Moore ('nice structure… wanna admire it with me?'), late Julian Barnes ('literature about literature you say? Yes please!'), Sebastian Faulks (and anyone else who thinks using a genocidal war as a useful backdrop for a Mills and Boon romance counts as 'profound'). Any novel which even mentions 'the school run', 'our weekend get-away'. Anything hailed as a 'sensitive evocation' of anything.

Seriously, there's nothing wrong with Creative Writing courses, per se. Loads of them are brilliant. It's just that many of the New Boring writers did the same few courses. Dudes, if I can name the course and work out your reading list from the first paragraph of your novel, you're not a writer. 

What I'm trying to say is this: most of the authors I've mentioned above are very, very good. They know their readers, they have a polished literary style and sensitive ears. I read many of their books for pleasure. But there are just too damn many of them. They bleed into one another until I can't tell one author's exploration of a repressed family's dark secrets from another's sensitive revelation of transgressive love in a third-rate Oxford college. Taken individually, I've had a lot of pleasure from them. But don't you occasionally want to swap the literary equivalent of warm Chardonnay for a line of coke or some mushrooms?

If you haven't noticed, the world's falling down around our ears and these dull writers, all producing the same style of turgid prose, can't find anything to say about it. They are the Starbucks of literature when we need shots of literary gin: the people who can express the new dispensation. People who can do what Dos Passos and Steinbeck did in the last Depression, or writers who can wrench the world onto another track, like the wondrous Chris Adrian, Alan Moore, Angela Carter, Paul Murray, Kate Roberts, Fflur Dafydd,  Robert Coover, Margaret Atwood, Gwyneth Jones, Pynchon, David Peace, Jeff Noon, Magnus Mills, Ballard, Jackie Kay, or China Miéville.

I want weird books by people who've read lots and lots of books across all the genres there are, not Boring Books by Boring People who've listened to some Boring Publisher telling him/her to 'write about what you know'. If all you know is a nice school, Oxbridge and a job in publishing/journalism/cupcake making or PR, you'll write Boring Books and be hailed by Boring Reviewers in Boring Papers. Then you'll be taught to Creative Writing students as an example of How To Write Literary Fiction and you'll be responsible for a whole new generation of New Boring Writers!

OK - comments very welcome!

How to Be Irish

This is doing the rounds over the water at the moment. Click to enlarge. Shame there's no room for writing.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

That'll teach 'em

Most of my students are conscientious, engaged and thoughtful. Some aren't - to the extent that I wouldn't know them if they walked past me in the street. Those students on one module have just received a stern email from my estimable boss:

Dear students,
If you are receiving this email, it is to inform you that we are aware you've missed a substantial number of seminars on the module. Indeed, many of you have never attended a seminar at all.
It is certainly your right to choose to cut your educational experiences in half, and to risk severely limiting your ability to perform well on your assignments.
You should also be aware, however, that when it comes time to marking assignments, the benefit of the doubt on borderline cases balanced between two grades will be given to those students who have engaged with the whole module and demonstrated their commitment in trying to help themselves to succeed. These are also the students who will find us amenable to writing supportive letters of recommendation.

Attendance isn't formally compulsory here: there's a debate around whether people should be treated as adults capable of taking their own decisions. In my own first year, we were told that tutorials were compulsory but lectures weren't. We could attend everything, faithfully transcribe all that was said and come out with a 2.2. We could attend, listen, study independently and maybe get a 2.1. or a First, or we could not turn up at all. Some of those people might be studying independently: good luck to them was the message. Others would skive and do no work: up to you, my teachers said.

What did I do? I went to pretty much everything. I missed two or three lectures when I had a fencing competition a long way off, and one guy handed out transcripts of his lecture at the start, read it out word for word, then left. So I didn't feel too bad occasionally picking up the transcript and leaving. If he'd added anything to it, I'd have stayed. I have to say though that English students didn't have a particularly onerous timetable, even with a couple of extra subjects in the first two years. I spent most of my time reading or writing scurrilous articles for the student paper. Or demonstrating. Or attending SU meetings about astonishingly dull disagreements.

As a teacher, I don't personally mind people not turning up. They're paying for it: if they want to waste their time and money, it's their problem. It's better than the ones who turn up, text, listen to music, answer their phones and giggle away at the students putting the effort in (or as I saw at University College Dublin once, playing the trumpet!). As long as they don't subsequently turn up begging for help when the essays are due. Everyone gets a free pass once or twice - people make mistakes. But if there's a pattern of idleness - you're on your own. As my colleague says to them 'I've got my degrees already - do you want one or not?'.

Quick, very naive question on e-books

Our university library is adopting the policy of only buying electronic versions of books when it can. I can see the attractions: instant access to many people simultaneously, less wear and tear, less space used.

But does it alter the ways in which we own, relate to and use books, and do these questions have any relevance in an academic setting? I gather that an e-book on your Kindle is owned by the copyright holder: it can be wiped from your machine, and you can't give it or lend it to anyone. Is it the same for libraries and their users?

I worry that the e-book distances us from the text: it can't be underlined, scribbled on, held open with a mug while you consult one of the other ten books lying open on your desk, you can't stick bits of paper in to mark an important point that does/doesn't relate to the page you're currently reading. Perhaps there are solutions to these things: my students are bringing Kindles to class with no discernible loss, and in some ways its better: many texts which would never have been printed are now available electronically.

However, there is an identifiable academic failing. Many students are now using Google Books as a primary research tool: searching for a word or phrase, extracting it from the Google or e-book source and claiming to have read the text. So often I find the relevant passage and discover that the student's misunderstood because they haven't read beyond the sentence, page or paragraph from which the quote came. This isn't research: it's data-mining: they're not the same thing.

On a minor point: I hate reading on a screen - my eyes really hurt after a while, which is why I resist electronic marking. I can't face reading 400 essays on a computer, nor do I want to read 400 pages of a critical text on one.

But as I say - it's an area I've not investigated. What are the gains and losses from a bookless academic library?

Update: fascinating defence of e-books by Tim Pears in the NY Review of Books.

Paranoid much?

Google's changing its security policy - merging all the various systems it has. Given that Google and Amazon now own everything (seriously, I'm expecting to come home and find a coin-slot on my fridge with an option for Prime Express Delivery), we need to be careful about what we tell them about us. After all, they take all that information and sell it on - that's the business model.

First thing to do is pause your Google History (including Youtube). You can't wipe it, and they'll keep using it for internal purposes, but it's a step in the right direction. Log in to your Google Account, go to and press 'pause'. Job done.

My history is so boring:

All hail Professor Self

Will Self has taken up a Professorship of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. I don't know how much teaching he'll do, or whether the post is the humanities equivalent of the Professorships for the Public Understanding of Science which pop up here and there.

I've always admired Self: for (most of) his novels, but largely for his belligerent belief that intelligence and wit are more important that PR and political manoeuvring. In his explanation of why he's taking a post in education, he makes some excellent points - it's just a shame that none of the politicians tasked with running the education sector are anywhere near his intellect and commitment.

Having met more intellectually curious students than journalists, he makes the case for education as a cultural benefit to all:
academic environments are very often ones in which knowledge is pursued for its intrinsic value, while in the wider world the only value seen as accruing to almost anything is frequently financial.
and lambasts the narrow, reductive approach which masquerades as education policy these days:
That tertiary education is under a sustained assault by a political and – it often seems – social consensus that equates all education with training for increased productivity, only makes academe a still more promising environment for a contrarian
This is all true. Courses are either becoming 'vocational' or pretending to do so - all our course documents are full of 'transferable skills' claims. This might be changing, however: one member of our university executive pointed out that as our students will have multiple jobs in their working lives, using systems and techniques which change faster than every before, specific technical skills learned at university will be outdated within a very short period, whereas the analytical, communication and research skills learned on a good course will always be 'relevant'.

Self remains sceptical of the rather airy-fairy critiques coming from Occupy and friends (like Marx, I suspect their analysis is good but their alternatives are slightly amorphous):
While emotionally sympathetic to the protesters against increased tuition fees – and their siblings in the Occupy movement – what's struck me most in the last couple of years is the absence of theoretical rigour in their critique.
And so he sees his job to be asking the big question - the failure of neoliberalism. Finally, he expresses exactly what I feel my job is about (when it's going well, that is):
There is something mysteriously powerful that can happen when young, inchoate minds come into contact with older and more worldly ones in a spirit of intellectual and creative endeavour – if I believed in progress I suppose that's what I'd call it.
I don't necessarily think I'm 'more worldly' (though I am older than most of my students), but otherwise he sums it up. Now back to the administration… which I'm guessing he won't be expected to do. No 'maximum three learning outcomes' and 'blended learning entitlements' for Professor Self!

Here's the great man on Internet culture and anti humanism:

Other Self moments: his destruction of Richard Littlejohn and Nicky Campbell,

SELF: It is a 400 page... I've read 200 pages of it and that is a 200 page recruiting leaflet for the BNP.
LITTLEJOHN: Well, you can't comment until you have read the other 200.
SELF: Why? Does it suddenly turn into Tolstoy?

and his magnificent, sneering deconstruction of Olympics discourse on Newsnight:

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Crocodile tears for Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin was a brave (she lost an eye while covering the Sri Lankan civil war) and talented journalist for the Sunday Times who was killed in Syria today, with several other journalists and activists. Renowned for her dogged pursuit of stories other papers and journalists didn't bother with, her death is a loss to her profession. 

Cue, of course, the outpouring of 'tributes' from politicians:

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said American Ms Colvin's death was a "desperately sad reminder" of the risks journalists took reporting in Syria.

"Governments around the world have the responsibility to act upon that truth - and to redouble our efforts to stop [President Bashar] Assad regime's despicable campaign of terror in Syria." 

"Marie and Remi died bringing us the truth about what is happening to the people of Homs.
"an inspiration to women in her profession".
Humbug, the lot of it. Every politician who remarked on her death used it to make anti-Assad propaganda. I fully support the Syrian rebels - and unlike our political leaders, I've always wanted the Assad family's regime to fall. But what I object to here is the cant: UK politicians claiming an unswerving devotion to free and independent journalism. 

One of the things I've taught in recent years is the relationship between governments and the press. Vietnam is the government PR department's nightmare - many on the right accused journalists of 'losing' the war for the US, by bringing the horror into Americans' living rooms. Lyndon Johnson famously remarked
'If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the war'.  

After that, the military everywhere cracked down on independent journalism. The Falklands war literally became a text-book example of censorship: with no way to get there other than with the Navy, and no way to report back other than via Navy communications, the media pack was completely subservient to military command. 

After that, governments tried to be a bit clever: Clinton, Blair and co. (including Hague, Miliband and others) didn't want to look like Cold Warriors, and generated the Liberal Intervention credo, which held that all wars would now be for Democracy and Human Rights (why we haven't yet invaded Saudi Arabia, my MP couldn't tell me). When it came to the press, they were determined to look 'open', while tightly controlling the pictures. They hit upon 'embedded journalism', which was a stroke of genius (though Churchill in South Africa might be considered the first embedded journalist). They knew that TV demanded two things: action and the 'human angle'. By making access to the theatre of war dependent on close association with soldiers, the government got what they wanted. The embedded journalist depended on a small group of soldiers for food, water, transport, safety and good pictures. Travelling and living with them, the chance of critical commentary or images which broke the unspoken bond between them was minimised, as this fine piece explains. What we got were personalised stories - Wayne the Squaddie telling us about how he missed his wife and kids, while a politician posed with a Christmas turkey under the fierce sun. (Ironically, I found the perfect video but 'embedding is disabled on request'!). But here's another one:

There's a word for this: 'propaganda'. And even when the embedded journalist does his/her best (on the basis that one-sided access is better than none at all), it's impossible to gain a rounded view of events from the 'worm's eye' view in this manner. Certainly it caused plenty of media soul-searching: witness this piece by the BBC, and the BBC/Cardiff University report which eventually decided that embedded journalism was 'not a service to democracy'.  

What of the strategic analysis of the war? Easy. The US and UK set up CENTCOM, a massive steel shed in the middle of the desert outside Doha, Qatar. Into it were corralled all the media's most pompous armchair generals - hundreds of miles from the action, dependent on two sources for information on which they could comment: the military, and live streams of the news media. This led to the grotesque sight of London or Washington newsrooms asking their 'experts' in the field to comment on reports from… London or Washington, with no access to people on the ground for corroboration. 

Where does Marie Colvin come in? Well, there were people like her present in the Iraq War. She was there, and she had this to say:
When you go out with the American military, you make a decision you're not going to cover Iraq from the safety of a press conference… The lesson is that if you're a reporter, you're a target'.

There's more to this statement than meets the eye: the Allied press strategy was to make sure that any independent reporter was unsafe. They refused to rescue independent reporters, they ensured that the insurgents viewed reporters as pro-American, they explicitly considered independent reporters as 'collateral damage' - if a reporter was killed in the zone, it was their own fault. Consider the case of Terry Jones, shot dead ('unlawfully', according to the coroner) by American troops having already been injured in crossfire. Jones refused to be an embedded journalist because he wouldn't submit to censorship: in the eyes of many politicians and troops (remember that the Sun and the Tories made a huge fuss when the BBC referred to 'British forces' rather than 'our forces' in the Falkland), Jones was a subversive, as were any other journalists who wanted to find their own stories rather than swallow them whole. 

David Mannion, Jones's boss, had this to say:
"Independent, unilateral reporting, free from official strictures, is crucial; not simply to us as journalists but to the role we play in a free and democratic society."
And Colvin would agree. But Hague, Cameron, Miliband and Co have each, agreed to ever-increasing military restrictions on independent journalism when it suited them. When the Colvins of this world expose the evils - and they are evils - of our enemies, they're heroes. When they expose our own, they're meddlers and traitors. 

Truth, like democracy, is something we drop on our enemies.  

'In thy face I see the map of honour, truth and loyalty'

Shakespeare wrote that in Henry VI. Now a colleague has given me another Shakepearian Map, to adorn the office walls - click on it for a larger version.

Designed for the RSC by Hester Lees-Jeffries of Cambridge University. My favourite line is the red-and-white checked one 'Lovers Under Construction', which leads to Isabella and Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure: the Duke repeatedly resists marriage, though it appears by the end that he is only testing Isabella, who has to learn the quality of mercy before she can be trusted as a Duchess.

A belated Valentine

This song popped into my head this morning, and I've a soft spot for the cheerful cynicism of 70s pub rocker Nick Lowe. So here we are: 'I Trained Her To Love Me'.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Come back when you're grown up, son

I'm not going to get all willy-waving over competitive book-buying, but Gabe Habash, writing in the Publishers Weekly (no, I don't know why they haven't got an apostrophe either, hope the stuff they publish is more literate), really needs to get over himself. Here's his title:

The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books

Yes, it's in bold, because he's under the sway of a terrible spell which is eating him out of house and home. He's got a photo to illustrate the scale of the problem too:

Wow. The chaos. It's like the monastery library in The Name of the Rose, or the Unseen University's library. God, he must be broke and hungry.

As if… Single row of books on each shelf. An empty shelf! Space between some of the books. My heart bleeds for him. Listen to this:
(I did inventory for this article: I’ve read 85 out of the 371 books sitting on my shelves).
I gingerly proposed adding another shelf near the doorway of my roommate’s bedroom door, and I received a pretty impassioned response as a result.  “I think I have too many books,” I said once 
But don't worry, kids! He's staying strong. He's not going to 'purge' his library of books he'll never read. He sticking to his guns, because having a lot of books is a mark of ambition. On this, I tend to agree: I've written previously in defence of my own book-buying habits: I buy fun books for me, and serious Improving Books for Future Me, who is a nicer, kinder, more serious and more intellectual version of me. I'm sure he'll be grateful.

I'm not - contrary to appearances - in favour of hoarding books or anything else. Mine is a working library, though I should confess that the only capitalist joys in which I indulge are buying books and music (perhaps Doc Martens too). But Gabe needs a sense of perspective, and I'm here to give him one.

Here are the books in my office. Triple stacked, plus piles on top of the shelves (and more piles around my desk that you can't see). These are the books I'm either using for work, or haven't read yet. They come to the office because my flat is full. I thought I had a lot of books - until I saw that my friend Mark has 15000+ - putting my 3686 in the shade. Do I buy a lot? Well, Gabe boasts that he bought '2' last weekend. Here's my monthly buy (courtesy of Librarything's stats):

The very large bars are when I entered existing books on the system, but the rest are my monthly spend. I'm not proud - well, only a bit - but Gabe - don't talk the talk until you walk the walk (unless 300 or so books is a lot in America… what a dreadful thought!).

Feeling Wystful?

It's Wystan. H. Auden's birthday (1907-1973). He's not around to celebrate it, so would probably like you to 'stop all the clocks' but that poem's been ruined by Four Weddings' appropriation, so I won't inflict it on you. Click the link if you really must.

I have to say that although I'm a huge admirer of Auden's poetry, I've never quite liked him very much. He was so quick to pose as a heroic revolutionary in the 1930s - with all his talk of 'the necessary murder', but equally quick to dash off to the US when war threatened to involve him - and equally quick to recant his former views with little reflection and too much condemnation. Too keen to brag about 'we' and 'our' great deeds - until challenged to put himself on the line.

Auden's the poster boy for the 1930s as the 'low dishonest decade', as he later called it, and for those English bourgeois poets who withdrew into personal concerns when the world got a little too edgy for their comfort. Everybody took sides in the 1930s, pressed by the conflict between fascism and Stalinist communism, but not all could quite so easily slither away when circumstances required.

But for all that, I do return to his poems regularly - few others had the skill to fuse conversational language with a strong command of the poetic line. This applies to prose too: the Letters from Iceland are wonderful, while Night Mail beautifully exemplifies his determination to write poetry which is emotionally complex without alienating the ordinary reader.

The Love Feast
W.H. Auden

In an upper room at midnight
See us gathered on behalf
Of love according to the gospel
Of the radio-phonograph.

Lou is telling Anne what Molly
Said to Mark behind her back;
Jack likes Jill who worships George
Who has the hots for Jack.

Catechumens make their entrance;
Steep enthusiastic eyes
Flicker after tits and baskets;
Someone vomits; someone cries.

Willy cannot bear his father,
Lilian is afraid of kids;
The Love that rules the sun and stars
Permits what He forbids.

Adrian's pleasure-loving dachshund
In a sinner's lap lies curled;
Drunken absent-minded fingers
Pat a sinless world.

Who is Jenny lying to
In her call, Collect, to Rome?
The Love that made her out of nothing
Tells me to go home.

But that Miss Number in the corner
Playing hard to get. . . .
I am sorry I'm not sorry . . .
Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.

In total contrast: Chuck Palahniuk was also born today, and Malcolm X was murdered today too!

Film reviews from the FBI

I'm reading Hoberman's An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, which examines Hollywood's rush from liberal to reactionary in the 1940s and after. 1930s Hollywood was often properly leftwing: the rise of fascism and the destitution caused by Depression and the Dustbowl gave rise to sympathetic portrayals of the working-class which is now held not to exist.

During the war, the Soviet entry on the Allied cause produced propaganda films such as Mission to Moscow, but the moment didn't last. Casablanca appeared in 1942-3: by 1947 its authors had been fired for their 'premature anti-fascism'. Reagan was an FBI informer from 1941, and I Married A Communist (1949) was a plot to expose 'pinko' directors: Howard Hughes made sure that the 13 directors who turned down the job had their careers wrecked (part of the reason why British TV and film was so strong in the 1950s was the influx of blacklisted writers, actors and directors).

Individuals were driven to inform on spouses and friends - some killed themselves or were driven out of town. Richard Collins co-operated with the witch-hunts: his ex-wife Dorothy Comingore was accused of letting her children play in a Communist's swimming pool and lost custody, before being framed on a counterfeit money charge: she was later framed for 'soliciting' and also spent time in a mental hospital, before spending the rest of her live in poverty and obscurity. John Garfield, strong-armed into co-operating with the FBI, finally refused to testify against his own wife, and died of a heart attack at 39.

Dorothy Comingore

One thing the FBI was skilled at, was identifying good films as liberal (to me, the two go together). Mr Smith Goes To Washington was 'decidedly Socialist in nature', while It's A Wonderful Life was 'an obvious attempt to discredit bankers' (Jimmy Stewart's George runs a building society which stands up for the little people discarded by the vampiric bankers). Clearly for the Feds, any critique of actually existing capitalism - however sentimental - was Communist subversion. Certainly hardline Republican Stewart would have been surprised, to say the least, that these films' sentimental populism was disloyal.

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Rotten Romans

When the Ermine Street Guard aren't crucifying people or maintaining a slave economy, they like a nice cup of tea. Snapped on my phone - without flash - in a museum café, hence the rotten quality. I like the juxtaposition of the martial and the domestic though.

I do often wonder about re-enactors. I'm sure the vast majority are nice people keen on a more immediate recreation of historical events - but they quite often gloss over the nastier bits (in this case, slavery, invasion, vicious punishments etc). I'm reminded of the Peep Show episode in which Mark's taken to a WW2 re-enactment day, only to find that his Wehrmacht friend is a little too enthusiastic about certain elements of the German Army's actions.

Why I Love Teaching, part 94.

Last week, I walked out of this class because the vast majority hadn't read the novel. Today - though a few still didn't have a copy, the class was intellectually stimulating, virtually everyone had something to say, they took the theoretical ball and ran with it to interesting places - everything went swimmingly.

The core text was Geoffrey Trease's Bows Against The Barons, a 1930s Marxist take - for kids - on the Robin Hood story. It's quite a good adventure novel in its own right, but we talked about all sorts of aspects: whether the novel form itself cannot be leftwing, how much political commentary can a narrative bear before it generates reader resistance, potential audiences, whether all children's literature is propagandist, and how more modern texts communicate class anxiety. We ended up discussing TOWIE and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding as examples of disciplinary texts, i.e. work which mark out Others to make you aware of what you shouldn't be/do.

There's no adaptation of Bows Against The Barons, but here's a clip from the children's comedy Maid Marian and her Merry Men, spoofing amusing adventure game The Crystal Maze

A Day in the life of Andrew Lansley

I have to say, I massively enjoyed the health secretary getting a bollocking from the massed ranks of angry citizens this morning. Conveniently enough, there's dramatic reconstruction available, from the wonderful The Thick of It:

Academics: Satan's little helpers

Lovely Rick Santorum thinks that education itself is Satanic because it encourages people to think for themselves and not take things for granted. This man is now leading the Republican race for the presidential nomination. Academics: expect your midnight visit on Inauguration Day. There'll be plenty of room in the camps alongside the gays, atheists, liberals and women.

The 'pride of smart people' makes academics Satan's Little Helpers - because they 'deny the existence of truth'. 'Academia, a long time ago, Fell'. The root of America's failure is 'educating the elite… the first to fall'.

Amazingly, he feels that politicians were the last to 'Fall'!

Wish I could find the Doonesbury strips in which Zipper refuses to answer questions in class on the grounds that elite liberal 'filters' - like academics - play 'gotcha' with ordinary decent Americans by insisting on 'knowing stuff'.

Your handy guide to political consultation

This is the NHS Bill: the RCS likes it because they're all fat Tory rich men: the other RCP hasn't yet decided. All the other professional medical bodies are totally opposed.

Courtesy of @bengoldacre

The same exercise could certainly be carried out in the departments of Education, Defence, Treasury etc. etc.

What you do to me…

Students: before you send me any more essays, look at this and think of the consequences of your actions (though I don't mind 'me' rather than 'and I'):

Thanks to Adam.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The naive optimism of the past

Being a socialist with an eye for Soviet design - typography, art, architecture - you won't be surprised that I have this poster on my walls:

I must take a proper picture. It's Russian, and celebrates 20 years of Russian space exploration since Gagarin's flight. It's a beautiful example of the romanticism which imbued both Russian and American discourse about space, despite the fact that both programs were almost exclusively military in design and intention. 

Here are a few more Russian space posters, intended to persuade the Russian people that - despite archaic industrial infrastructure and barely being able to feed the population properly - Soviet Communism was capable of cutting-edge technology. 

Fatherland! You lighted the star of progress and peace. Glory to the science, glory to the labor! Glory to the Soviet regime!

Socialism is our launching pad

In the name of peace

We were born to make the fairy tale come true!

Sons of October - Pioneers of the Universe!

No doubt American space propaganda fulfils similar requirements, though it probably isn't so neo-romantic: capitalist hegemony was rarely ideologically explicit, perhaps because its Western population rarely starved or got sent to gulags. 

I'm no Soviet Communist: as far as I can see, the USSR failed in the early 1920s when a mix of Russian Nationalism, anti-semitism, other forms of racism and authoritarianism set in. I'm much more sympathetic to some variations of Trotskyism and syndicalism, in which the state withers away as workers collectives behave altruistically. However, I do believe in strong states as the only way a population can collectively determine policy and distribution of goods and services: not very romantic, but serviceable. 

For a syndicalist take on science fiction, I highly recommend techno-utopian Ken MacLeod's series of novels, many positing the colonisation of space by Scottish workers' co-operatives. What might have been…

Science literally rocks

How to publicise the good work you do at The Blast Lab, Imperial College London?
Simple. Use lab equipment to perform brutal blues pastiches:

An academic's work is never done

Open Day today - lots of (hopefully) eager young tykes keen to press their noses up against our institutional windows to see what their futures might be.

I really hope the university's viability doesn't rely on today's events: I'm giving the English talk. It's always a difficult one - balancing some inspirational and exciting stuff with the need to explain how the course works and the stuff the parents are here for, i.e. will little Johnny/Joanna be unemployed afterwards?

I've gone for a mix of the two: a brief tour d'horizon (not a phrase I'll be employing in the lecture) of how English can completely defamiliarise the world in a creative way - the world as narrative and the English graduate as interpreter, followed by a run through the exciting specialisms of my colleagues.

The other thing about Open Days is that they make us become marketing executives, which I don't particularly like. It's not like the old days when universities chose the students: they're choosing us. Consequently I feel under scrutiny - choosing today's clothes was a struggle. I tried to balance neatness with approachability - which means cherry-red DMs, black jeans, open-necked shirt and a black v-neck (pretty much my dress-up style since 1993, heavily influenced by Modern Life Is Rubbish-era Blur).

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Another night in the office…


I've just been to a colleague's lecture on Secular and Religious Forms of the Apocalypse in Popular Culture. Two hours really isn't enough on this stuff, but it was a thrilling ride. His major point was that religious Apocalypses have a purpose, whereas secular ones don't.

More specifically, 'apocalypse' literally means 'revelation': the point isn't necessarily the destruction, it's the epiphany the individual has which qualifies them to be Saved. Dispensationalism holds that a final destruction has to happen before the eternal Reign of Heaven can be instituted. It separates the sheep from the goats, in which the 'wrong' Christians, Jews who won't convert, atheists and adherents of all other religions get what's coming to them. All the suffering has a purpose. For example The Left Behind series of books, films, games and comics, for example, explains that only the best Christians go to heaven immediately (the first one opens with airline pilot Rayford Steele (a porn name if ever I saw one) realising that his missing passengers must be the True Believers who've been given a first class ticket to heaven, and that he and his allies must Shape Up Or Be Damned (continued over 12 volumes). The remaining weak Christians have to battle the Anti-Christ (he's the head of the United Nation, naturally) to demonstrate their righteousness.

The problem for popular representations is that people getting to heaven by being nice is very boring, and in any case, the dispensationalists (the theological term for Rapture-ready Christians) don't really believe in niceness as the route to heaven. They aren't Quakers or Oxfam: they actually want to bring on the Apocalypse because it's God's plan, and you get saved by converting and/or killing as many unbelievers as possible. You should want the Apocalypse - which is why American evangelicals are so heartily opposed to environmentalism: God gave the earth to be used, not conserved (this is the theme of that Protestant Ur-Text Robinson Crusoe and interfering with global warming is like mooning at Jesus. Anyway, killing infidels makes for more exciting viewing than Good Works, but runs the risk of attracting those who just enjoy the slaughter. And there are a lot more of them than you'd think: Left Behind has sold upwards of 60m copies.

You can check whether the Rapture is near on, which collates evidence on a minute-by-minute basis. Seriously. Baroness Warsi's there now, adding the wave of sarcasm I and others directed at her as evidence of Satan's rise. Currently - and I'm not kidding - they're claiming that the Satanic background to the Eagles' Hotel California, combined with the US government's increase in passport fees, signals that we are 'nearing midnight'. Personally I'd have thought that the continued toleration of the Eagles' soft rock is in itself a sign that we're living in hell already, but I'm no theologian. But they have a kind of consolation: God has a plan and will make it alright, at least for the chosen few.

Steve's converse point is that secular apocalypses don't have end-points or purposes. Up to a point, I think. There are plenty which use the end of the world as a background for explorations of familiar themes, such as masculinity or individualism: Mad Max is a thinly disguised Western for example. Others engage with politics, or the nature of human society, such as the unrelentingly grim, unsensationalist The War Game (made by the BBC and then banned - I saw it in an old nuclear bunker and it scared the bejasus out of me). Still more reflect popular anxiety about globalisation (Contagion), environmental collapse or technophobia (Terminator). They don't have an Ultimate Purpose, but they function as Jeremiads: warnings. They tell us that we are fully capable of destroying ourselves because we lack maturity as a species - like this:

There's also the erotic self-harming element: flogging ourselves with the thought that, having been stupid enough to destroy ourselves once, we'll recover just enough to do it all over again - such as in the curious Catholic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, in the knowledge that we probably won't:

In literature, non-vampire teen fiction (and also adult literature), once concerned with nuclear holocaust (Z for Zachariah, Brother in the Land), is obsessed with environmental collapse - my shelves are groaning with dead trees stamped with stories about, well, dead trees (and everything else). Science fiction, remember, is never about the future: it's about the fears of the society in which it was written. Bertagna's Exodus, Blood Red Road, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Ready Player One, The Wind-Up GirlShip Breaker, Momentum, The Hunger Games to some extent, Jensen's eco-thriller The Rapture, a lot of Philip Reeve's work, Baxter's Flood, Sedgwick's Floodland… and that's just a small selection. Kids who read must be terrified! I guess that, like all the nuclear fiction of earlier generations, children's apocalypse fiction (and fiction featuring kids, like The Road) is given extra weight by the implied readers' impotence: they're innocent, and adults are doing these horrendous things to us: it's a kind of pornographic fantasy.

So religious apocalyptic culture is in a way smugly optimistic: it's the cleansing before heaven (for some), whereas secular apocalypses function both as warnings about self-harm, and as weirdly comforting fantasy.

What's the answer? Well, Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos depicts a humanity which is finally safe and happy… because we evolved to be seal-like creatures incapable of doing too much damage. Someone throw me a fish.