Friday, 28 September 2012


Over the sea, where the hobbits grow, one of my sisters marries tomorrow. I won't be there - devotion to my students (they look at you with those big soft eyes and you'd swear they understand every word you say) and an air ticket price of £4000 keeps me here in the Midlands. Besides, what could I find to blog about down in New Zealand? Mountains? Clean air? Rugby? Bah!

I've been to the weddings of two sisters and a brother already, and there's one more held in reserve, so I know how these things work. And yet, I'm rather sad I'm not there, if only to warn the unfortunate chap. All my sisters are rather fiery, and all choose quiet likeable husbands. And in any case, I didn't find out she'd emigrated until she didn't turn up to Christmas lunch… six months later. 

Instead of the festivities, I'm off to a Bruch concert, which should be magnificent. See you all on Monday. 

Shapps Fell…

Update for new readers: further developments can be found here

(OK, that may be one of my weakest puns ever. And therefore one of my favourites).

You may recall that I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about Grant Shapps MP posing as 'Michael Green' and/or 'Sebastian Fox' to flog dubious and potentially illegal business guides, software and SEO scripts. After a bit of digging, I decided that the enthusiastic endorsements by happy customers of HowToCorp might be just as fictional as Grant's alter egos.

I have a reply from the ASA. They're going to conduct a proper investigation. This might be a little uncomfortable for Shapps and his wife Belinda. They will have to demonstrate the existence of Fox, Green and the endorsers… which might be a tad difficult. Here's the text (click to enlarge):

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Be A Dictator

I'm currently transcribing useful quotes from Alan Plater's Beiderbecke Trilogy for a paper on representations of jazz in popular fiction - including John Crace's All That Follows and Jackie Kay's Trumpet.

I'm trying to use the new dictation software built into Apple's Mountain Lion software. I don't know if it's my weird voice, nasal tones or mixed-up accent, but the results are, well, mixed. Take this sentence:

The sound of Beiderbecke’s plain comet Barnstable near understrapper was given iPhone a conducted tour of his record child
It's like having a computer designed by James Joyce. The actual sentence is:
The sound of Beiderbecke's plaintive cornet danced upon the air and Trevor was giving Ivan a conducted tour of his record shelves.
Bloody thing. It recognises 'Beiderbecke' but not 'Trevor'? Anyone else having problems with it?

Smilin' Sid has something to say

Morning everybody (well, it's morning here and how I wish it wasn't). You may have noticed that my blogging has declined from last year's high of about four posts a day to one or two. Is he losing his touch, commentators are asking? Perhaps I am. Or perhaps this course of compulsory psychiatric therapy has soothed my inner demons, resulting in less rage to go round. It might, of course, be that I have so much work to do and so little time. Or a combination of all three. But hopefully I'll find an equilibrium of fewer, higher quality posts (note the importance of that comma).

On today's agenda: actually do some research; see some new students; write some lectures; go to another high level meeting as part of my union casework to be told that The Hegemon's senior staff can behave as viciously as they like. Bullying isn't minuted. Anything un-minuted hasn't happened. Therefore bullying doesn't happen. At least, that's the result of the last investigation I instigated. Then my member gets frustrated at the union's impotence and another bit of hope dies. This kind of misery is what gets the Tories up in the morning, but it's no fun for me seeing grown men and women weep.

Anyway, what else is going on? Well, I read a rather wonderful book yesterday, Shogan's The Battle of Blair Mountain. It's the story of the West Virginia miners and their union in the 1919-1921 period. Many of them fought in the First World War and came back demanding union recognition and fair wages. What they got was state corruption, Federal hostility and martial law. Highlights include gun massacres by private detectives, assassinations, 10,000 shots exchanged between miners and mine guard in a single day, the US Army Air Corps bombing miners from the skies, armoured trains raking tent cities with machine gun fire, imprisonment without trial for reading particular newspapers, bribery of judges, the suspension of habeas corpus, treason trials, and in the end, a state civil war.

The miners lost, as did working-class politics and the left in general, making the United States a safe place for vicious exploitation, as it is now. West Virginia is still a mining state, and a poisonous one. The favoured technique is 'mountain top removal', which employs massive amounts of explosives to do exactly that. The environment is fouled by the mining and the coal-burning, but the companies still own the state and its politicians, while the miners have been persuaded that any mitigation is an attack on their jobs: from revolutionaries then are descended reactionaries now.

We tend to forget that the American Dream's individualism isn't eternal: there have been mass movements and class movements throughout that great country's history, from the Farm Labor parties to Chicago's socialists and anarchists - massacred on May Day, the General Motors rebellion, the Jewish socialists of New York, the Socialists and Communists of Minnesota, the Molly Maguires of Pennsylvania and Mother Jones (from Cork!) across the country, Chavez's United Farm Workers, to say nothing of the abolitionist and African-American movements and parties.

Smilin' Sid Hatfield

Here's a key scene from John Sayles's film of the Blair Mountain story, Matewan. The Sheriff is Smilin' Sid Hatfield, who defended the miners from the company goons - he was eventually assassinated on the steps of the courthouse by private detectives who then planted a gun on him and escaped conviction. The United Mine Workers also made a silent movie called Smilin' Sid, which was pretty advanced PR< but the only copy was apparently stolen from the National Archives.

I wouldn't claim that my union work is quite as heroic as these men and women - but it reminds me of what our political enemies would like to see: workers' solidarity smashed, workers' protection abolished, individualism reigning.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Know Thy Place

You may remember that I posted a piece deconstructing a job advert for A. C. Grayling's New College for the Humanities, the £18,000 per year institution staffed (now and then) by Celebrity Academics what you may have seen on TV, and by exploited, underpaid hourly staff.

Then I read this astonishingly good piece on NCH by Historian on the Edge, who is rather an academic star, unlike me.

Cue some rather unhinged abuse by Suzannah Lipscombe, who lists 'broadcaster' before 'academic' in her Twitter CV and rather sadly terms herself '@sixteenthcgirl', now one of the academic butlers to the 60 young lords and ladies who've entered the hallowed portals of NCH, and by @Happy_Glorious: not someone with a critical view of British imperialism, then. NCH will be teaching from The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson's triumphalist, reductive and error-strewn 'history' book and TV series. So you just know that it's going to be at the cutting edge of historiography. @Happy_Glorious describes her interests as 'history and trivia'. Though a glance at her output suggests that she has trouble telling them apart.

So I'm quite glad that they think Historian, my friend @Bad_Ambassador and I are 'bigoted', 'nasty' and 'moronic', 'ludicrously uninformed', 'stupid' and incapable of 'real research' for critiquing NCH (which @Happy_Glorious describes as 'something good').

So to be clear: The New College of the Humanities is a reactionary, outdated, private-equity funded bastion of snobbery and washed-up academic approaches with TV stars on the banners and underpaid toilers in the class rooms. It is a finishing school for rich people who want their world-views reinforced rather than challenged. It deliberately excludes the knowledge-hungry poor and its imminent failure is going to be very satisfying indeed.

I wasn't going to be so rude, but they started handing out the insults first!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Romneyshambles

So much of American politics depresses me. I see a Democratic President whose symbolism doesn't quite make up for the fact that his policies would be considered absurdly rightwing in Europe being pilloried as a 'socialist' by a Republican party that's far removed from its foundation by Abraham Lincoln and friends to assault slavery.

Willard Mitt Romney isn't just a cold, calculating plutocrat whose only aim is to capture the US Government for his class (as if it wasn't already in their hands: 80% of Representatives and Senators are millionaires), but an incompetent hypocrite. He receives tax breaks for a dressage horse which competed in the Olympics (like him, it lost). He's building a massive new 8th house (probably, I lost count) with a car elevator. While demanding 'American jobs', his business specialised in exporting jobs overseas and closing American factories, and he opposed government bail-outs for America's auto industry.

As this Democrat ad points out, while Romney was declaring that 'my job is not to care' about the 47% of Americans too poor to pay income tax - though they pay a lot of state, property and sales taxes - he has reduced his tax bill from the official 35% top rate to about 14%, and keeps his money in a surprising number of countries which aren't the United States of America. No wonder he won't show the American public his records.

Here's a chilling thought for you. When John McCain considered Romney as his vice-presidential running mate, he saw 23 years of Romney's tax returns. He then promptly chose Sarah Palin as his candidate instead. I really think Americans deserve to see what scared off John McCain

Ambush of the week

Dave Hartnett was until a few days ago the head of HRMC, the government's tax collectors. Creatively - thinking outside the box, one might say - he saw it as his job not to collect tax, but to allow major corporations such as Vodafone and Goldman Sachs to avoid paying tax. Illegally, as Private Eye's long-running investigation shows.

Dave's corporate mates wanted to thank him for his long years of service, with a slap-up feed at an Oxford college (they're for hire): bow ties, candles, champers. Cue UK Uncut with a lovely ambush and some delightful replies from the assorted tycoons ('we'll set the dogs on you', 'scum').


Monday, 24 September 2012

Talking of Plebs, here's the New College of the Humanities

You may have heard of the New College of the Humanities. It's the £18,000 per year private college which has hired a lot of very famous, greedy celebrity academics to fly in now and then and tend to the demands of those rich students who either won't or can't mix with the hoi polloi of more proletarian institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter and the like. If you think £18,000 is a lot, bear in mind that it's about half the cost of the kind of public school attended by these kids. It's a discount for them, and it keeps out the oiks. And anyway, airport academics cost a lot of money.

Also: the college doesn't award degrees. What you'll get is access to the University of London's degrees via external student status, which costs money. 

So the big question is: who's going to do the teaching? Will it be Richard Dawkins, David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Niall Ferguson, Steve Jones, Christopher Pinker and the other gruesome pseudo-liberals who've found that actually they would like to end their careers at a finishing school? Don't you believe it. NCH has fallen back on that tried and tested way to sweat their assets: exploitation and outsourcing. 

For instance, try this job ad for a teacher of English language. 
Salary: Hourly rate dependent on qualifications and experience  

So: no agreed rate for the job because NCH doesn't hold with any of that national pay bargaining, trades union nonsense. No, the employee must pit her/his individual labour against a private-equity company and come to some kind of agreement.
Security of tenure? Dear me, no: such old thinking:
Contract type: Fixed
Well, at least the employee will be paid handsomely to devote some of his or her time to  the research which keeps teaching relevant and outstanding?

Contract term: 7th January – 22nd March 2013

Well, not exactly. You're paid by the hour just for your teaching, and as soon as term finishes, you're out of the door. Maybe we'll hire you again in September and expect you to have new material prepared, but between March and September you can sign on. After all, Ferguson, Cannadine et al. cost a lot of money, and economies must be made somewhere. 

But Vole, hold your horses! What's this?
While this appointment is fixed term, there is a strong possibility that should the appointee prove satisfactory, she or he will be offered a permanent full-time position starting in the academic year 2013-14.
Ooh, a 'strong possibility'! With that kind of security, I'll put down the deposit on that second Bentley! Who needs collective agreements anyway? So, what does a hungry academic have to do to qualify for this three month hourly-paid position?
An established research record, publications record and evidence of potential for producing distinguished research within the field of English are essential. You will combine this with excellent communication, presentation, organisational and interpersonal skills as well as sympathy for the aims of the College and the ability and willingness to both assist in its collegiate life and undertake pastoral responsibilities.
During the Hilary Term you will give two lectures per week on the course ‘Introduction to English Language’, which is part of the University of London International Programme BA in English Literature. This course introduces students to basic concepts in the study of the English language, linguistics, phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. O 
So despite being paid only for 20 hours' teaching with no security, NCH is looking for someone with a great deal of experience, an enviable publications record, prominent standing in the academic community and ('presentation') a neat haircut. You'll have to be a cheerleader for the college's noble mission of reserving quality education for the ultra-privileged and accept that while they want research, they have no intention of paying you to produce any. Oh, and you have to wipe the poor darlings' bottoms and occasionally stand bail (I've read P. G. Wodehouse: I know what 'pastoral responsibilities' means in these circles). If you don't know what 'Hilary Term' is, you're an Oik and won't get the job. 

Worried that the teaching encompasses virtually every area of linguistics, and yet they want highly-distinguished researcher to cover all these very wide bases? There's more!
Preference may be given to those candidates able to teach sociolinguistics, and/or the literature of the later Middle Ages.
Riiiggggghhhhhtttttt. They don't just want a recognised expert in English linguistics. They want one who dabbles in Medieval Literature too! Because they always go together… unless they've a specific candidate in mind already. Surely not!

Mind you, they probably need an English generalist, if only to check their spelling:
Teaching expertise in medieaval literature 
I can tell you're all desperate to polish your CVs and get up that academic chimney. Plebs of the Academic World: Know Your Place!

The Pathetic Fallacy

'It was a dark and stormy night'. The wind-lashed heath (King Lear). 

This is the Pathetic Fallacy, according to John Ruskin:

 Of the cheating of the fancy we shall have to speak presently; but, in this chapter, I want to examine the nature of the other error, that which the mind admits when affected strongly by emotion. Thus, for instance, in Alton Locke—  
They rowed in across the rolling foam– 
The cruel, crawling foam.
The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the 'Pathetic Fallacy'.
In short, the Pathetic Fallacy is the use of external objects or systems, such as the weather, to reflect on the emotional conditions of protagonists. I mention it only because this is the first day of teaching here at the Hegemon, and the weather is atrocious. It's grey, wet, cold and windy. The joy of a full year of intellectual discovery is somewhat overshadowed by the odorous steam rising from the ranks of students and staff sitting in their chafing, sodden clothes. 

Personally I love this kind of weather, but only when I'm out tramping the moors. Instead, I'm inside, trying to avoid the next job: recording a video message for my sister's wedding in New Zealand next week. An enjoyable task, of course, were I not cursed with a face like a gibbous moon and the kind of voice which makes John Major sound mellifluous. 

How was your weekend? I went to the Shropshire Open fencing competition, mostly because it's local and I'm one of the organisers. Buoyed by a surprising 3rd place at the Keele Open a while back, I hoped for a decent result. Hope evaporated about 30 seconds after arriving, when the entry list was revealed to consist of a) bright young international fencers b) top fencers coming out of retirement and c) me. My first two fights were against internationals and I lost them 5-4. Then I beat somebody I'd taken a strong dislike to at the Olympics, as well as one other fencer which was heartening, before losing unexpectedly to another guy. That gave me a bad ranking for the second round and I came up against the 5th and 8th seeds… only 2 victories in that pool, leading to a 15-11 defeat against one of the top seeds in the direct elimination round. 

Disappointing, especially when the bruises and strains began to show the next day. Mostly I lost because the better fencers had a wider repertoire of moves and adapted to my style quicker than I did to theirs. A little bit of me wishes I had the gall to harangue referees whenever they get it wrong or simply disagree with me, ululate at every point and change my weapons whenever my opponent scores - but I'm just not that type, nor do I have the desperate need to win which drives them. Anyway, I had a good time and picked up lots of ideas about how to improve. Good samosas too!

Friday, 21 September 2012

Soldier on…

Another day you'll have to survive without me - meetings all day for no readily apparent reason. And after that, I'm heading off to a fencing competition. Or more specifically, I'm off to spend the evening setting up a fencing competition, as it's the Shropshire Open and therefore my home event. The foil event is tomorrow - looking at the entry list, it's clear that I'll be out by lunchtime…

If you haven't seen any of the Nick Clegg apology parodies, here's the best one, and you can see more here.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Book mining

Hi everybody. Radio silence again today - so much to do, so little time.

I met half of my first-year personal tutees today - 6 of the 13 new ones turned up which for us is quite good. We don't actually tutor them, and they can be assigned from any degree course in the school, so I wonder whether they don't really see the point of another contact when they have seminar leaders, module leaders, academic counsellors, course leaders and the like. Still, a few turned up and they seemed rather lovely. What the absentees are like is another question: usually the ones you can't track down are the ones who need the help. The eternal conundrum.

Shortly I'm off to an English department meeting, then an actual academic one: choosing which sonnets we want to inflict on the Renaissance students. I'm all for the rebel sonnets, but I guess we'll have to include some of the 'standard' ones that gentlemen learned to write as part of their courtly training.

I've mostly been too tired and busy for reading (let alone work) this week, which is very dispiriting, but I thought I'd mention the books which have detained me. Most interesting so far have been Claudia Johnson's slim and fascinating Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures (Chicago 2011). It's not really about Austen herself, though there's a lot of fascinating material about her: instead it's about the Austens created by fans, critics and other obsessives. One of the interesting points she makes is that the absence of Jane's body - there are no proven pictures of her, and only a few potential candidates - clears the field for fantasies of all sorts. Some of her family suppressed her sharper letters and created a saintly, soppy aunt (very imaginative, given the pungency of some of her comments) while others retained a more complex view. Later readers often saw her as some sort of shrinking violet or recluse, a bore or a miniaturist. All authors are creations of their critics and readers, but Austen and Shakespeare are particularly vulnerable because we have no diaries, few letters, no chat-show appearances, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or autobiographies.

I'm also reading a collection of articles on 18th and 19th century travel writing edited by my colleague Ben. I say reading, but actually I'm shamelessly plundering it for an article of my own comparing George Borrow's Wild Wales with O M Edwards's Cartrefi Cymru. So far I've learned a lot about the transition between antiquarian and associative writing, and that I really have some nerve trying to share intellectual space with these people.

I've finally caught up with the enormous pile of London Review of Books back issues over the summer - enjoyable reading but also slightly guilt-making too, having let them pile up. I'm about to trawl through three books I've read before: Alan Plater's Beiderbecke trilogy, Jackie Kay's Trumpet and Jim Crace's All That Follows for a paper I'm going to write with a colleague (again, shame will keep me at it) and loads of new books for fun have turned up: Moomins the comic strip book 7, Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me about American historiography, Sword's Stylish Academic Writing (maybe I should start with that one), Ann Pancake's Appalachian novel Strange As This Weather Has Been, Terry Pratchett's new Victorian novel for kids Dodger, Lyndall Gordon's biography of Emily Dickinson Lives Like Loaded Guns, a collection of Italo Calvino stories, Claire Kilroy's Dublin recession satire The Devil I Know, Borges' collection Labyrinths, A S Byatt's Ragnarok, and Martin Green's interwar social history Children of the Sun (how I missed it first time round I have no idea).

Oh dear. I did so well over the summer, reading more books than I bought. And now I'm surrounded by a new wall of them… and so much work to do.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Whither Universities?

Freshers' Week is bedlam: constant rounds of meetings and greetings. After that, the weight of teaching and the way it's distributed across the week, plus the administration, marketing and so on means it's hard to find time for sustained research without being utterly ruthless.

It's not a new problem:
…the mind of a person in the constant exercise of the retail trade has many claims upon his attentions, whereas the man of letters sits down in his study to meditate and revise his thoughts without the train of them being interrupted by the casual intrusion. 
(Charles Heath, Excursion, 1799).  

I worry that the university, not just its staff, is becoming a 'man of retail' rather than a 'man of letters': that the pressure to be cool and modern and entrepreneurial means that our energies are diverted into making the place superficially attractive: dubious post-graduaiton employment stats are de rigueur, shiny coffee bars replace libraries and PR takes the place of substantial activity.

Self-pity: never classy in a super-power

Anybody remember Red Dawn, the early 1980s propaganda flick in which some white-toothed American teenagers repelled a successful invasion? As well as being astonishingly dumb, it was casually, disdainfully racist. Rather than picking just one enemy (the predictable Russians), it threw in the Mexicans and Cubans too, on the basis that Hispanics are congenitally hostile to America (perhaps this is the origin of Mitt Romney's weltanschauung).

We all know that nations are 'imagined communities' in Anderson's phrase. It's not the buildings or the constitutions or the borders: it's the shared beliefs and values of its citizens - beliefs and values which are constantly shifting. Popular culture is where we go for a direct line into the state of a nation. If 10 million people see a film, they're responding to it in significant ways. This has always been true of American war movies. They never, ever, deal with politics because that's divisive and often boring. Instead, they serve up a constant diet of definitions of what it is to be and feel American. How many Vietnamese people get a speaking role in The Deerhunter or Apocalypse Now? Even the films deemed 'anti-war' are always about the effect of the war on Americans: not on the other side, or the country invaded.

Red Dawn is one of the worst films ever made, but it's interesting because it promotes the concept of America as always under existential threat from external forces. At the time it was made, both the US and Russia maintained internal political hegemony by ramping up this fear: it's long been known that the US military and intelligence knew that the USSR didn't have the equipment or fuel for a World War - but too much was at stake to allow mere facts to get in the way of a convenient political discourse. But invasion was never on the cards: instead, we'd have had a mutually destructive rain of nukes - but that's not as heroic as evoking Washington, Paul Revere et al to rally the American public.

Which is why the remake of Red Dawn is so fascinating. Leaving aside the question of whether there's any film Hollywood won't make (Howard the Duck II, anyone?), it's a significant cultural step. Is America under threat of invasion? No, of course not. Are there any examples of bands of determined patriots fighting off foreign invaders in recent history? Well, you could point to Afghanistan or Iraq and posit that Red Dawn is a subversive apologia for the Taliban disguised as hyper-patriotic American victim-hood. If you were that way inclined.

Or you could look at the slanting eyes of the unspecified invaders and conclude that a large section of Hollywood and its fans are deep-dyed racists using tired old tropes to justify further invasions and a bloated military in pursuit of imperialist designs. But that would be cynical.

Few things are less classy than an unchallenged, globally hegemonic superpower professing to be the victim. But what's the alternative? The British, Portuguese, Romans and various others were proud of being empires. OK, the British tried to claim they had some sort of civilising mission in the later years, but most empires haven't bothered with that sort of self-serving hypocrisy: they were more honestly acquisitive than that. What makes the US different is that its founding myth - once the slavery and native slaughter are overlooked - is anti-imperialism. So the one thing that mainstream American culture (political and artistic) can't address is American Hegemony. It's a culture in denial, hence the repeated presence of myths of American persecution: we're still the victims, it says, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Red Dawn 2012 is another attempt to refresh the wells of victimhood.

Update: to avoid losing money in the Chinese market, the film's been CGI'd at the last minute to make the enemy North Korea. Which is ironic on so many levels. In particular, I can't tell whether it means capitalism has capitulated to communism, or Chinese communism has capitulated to American capitalism, or to Chinese capitalism.

It's still racist though. Hollywood still got an enemy with 'funny eyes'. Just not the ones who might withhold a ticket-buying dollar. So that's OK then.

Outrages of the day

While I was transfixed yesterday by Cardigangate and Romneygate (addictively annoying, -gate suffixes), the Tories proposed two utterly terrible things, one vicious and important, one hugely symbolic.

The important one is that they want to disconnect benefits from inflation. Put simply: if you're unemployed, receiving child benefits or disabled, the money you receive won't be increased as the cost of living goes up. Wheelchairs more expensive? Tough. Bread prices (up 20% this year)? Sorry. Kids' clothes getting pricy - deal with it. It will save a lot of money for the state, but the cost is stark: the most vulnerable in society will get poorer, hungrier and more excluded.

Benefits are not luxurious. Unemployed people between 16-24 received £51.85, while those over 24 receive £65.45. An unemployed couple receives £102. Housing benefit is similarly stingy, and anyone under 35 will only receive enough to rent a single room - however much tax you've paid in the past, and whatever your circumstances (such as having a child who stays with you at weekends). Rents have increased massively over the past few years as potential property buyers have been frozen out of the mortgage market.

Now imagine what this inflation disconnection will do to you as you search for work. Public transport will become unaffordable, as will keeping a car. You'll be scruffier. You'll eat more of the cheap, filling and unhealthy food. Your housing will deteriorate as you get pushed into progressively worse places. You'll avoid social occasions because birthday drinks, presents and so on will expose you even more than at present. An underclass will develop, excluded from huge swathes of society. It's a deliberate attempt to beggar the poor - and let's not forget that the 2.5 million unemployed are not all lazy scroungers: they're citizens abandoned by successive governments' decision to abandon the economics of full employment in favour of risky financial services.

The other disgraceful idea to emerge yesterday is just laughable. The Tories want to institute no-delay immigration/passport controls at airports for… the rich. So taxpayers coming back from their hard-earned week in Magaluf will be able to watch George Osborne and Rupert Murdoch (whose company pays no corporation tax and spends a large amount of its time hacking, bugging and burgling us) stroll past the queue. Just because they're rich. It offends one of the fundamental things about Britain, the sense of fairness at its most basic: the democracy of the queue. We pay for the customs and immigration officers, because we pay our taxes. Murdoch and the Tories' rich friends don't pay their taxes even when they are UK-domiciled.

The Russians have something similar: official lanes for limousines, hated by the Lada-driving proletariat. Once it was for apparatchiks in the People's State: now it's for the oligarchs who've looted that country. Do we really think that's a model for Britain?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

'Pull over!' Cardigan actually, but thanks for noticing

I'm angry about a million things today, despite the good efforts of colleagues and new students to spread cheer and light about the place. How about the plan to abolish passport checks at UK airports for rich people? That's pretty symbolic of this government. Or Mitt Romney announcing that his 'job is not to care' about poor Americans who don't pay taxes (i.e. the unemployed, the old, the low-paid veterans and care-givers), despite refusing to release his own tax records, believed to reveal a concerted effort to hide his billions in mom-and-apple-pie American states like, er, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland?

But I'll leave all that for another day. The subject of this entry is… cardigans. My boss is a very funny and kind man. But he has a blind spot when it comes to cardigans. To him they are - for some unspecified reason - signifiers of all that's wrong with modern society. Or something. Today - and not for the first time - he introduced me to this year's student intake as 'the one with the dodgy cardigans. At least today's looks like it was bought in a shop'. Which is a bit odd coming from an (if you'll excuse the pun) dyed-in-the-wool socialist like him. Isn't hand-made a good thing? Especially when they're as beautifully made and personally tailored as mine.

As it happens, today's cardigan was bought off-the-peg. It's a lovely deep claret colour which goes well with my cherry-red DMs as part of my Smiths/Blur in the Modern Life is Rubbish era look. There are many reasons why cardigans are excellent. 

Firstly, there's this:

Morrissey was in the Smiths. Morrissey wore cardigans. Ergo, cardigans are cool. (We'll draw a discreet veil over Morrissey's statements on race and immigration because a judge agreed that they aren't at all racist. Not a bit). 

Secondly, there's this chap:

I fervently hope that Kurt Cobain didn't get gore on his cardigan during that whole unfortunate head/shotgun interface event. There's even a song about it. It's by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and it's called 'Kurt Cobain's Cardigan':

And then of course there's the groundswell of sartorial wisdom that says cardigans are cool. Hadley Freeman of the Guardian said so only today:
Male cardigans have been so popular in Fashion Land for so long that they are nigh on a basic at this point, so much so that they have been picked up by another similar kingdom, the Metrosexual World, and been donned by those masses accordingly.
Cardigans are about providing warmth without bulk (forbidden in Fashion Land); they give an element of quirk and Geek Chic. You are just indoctrinated with an anachronistic idea that cardigans don't suit men under the age of 70. Undoctrinate yourself, please. 

while the Independent also invokes Mr Cobain amidst a paean of praise to the cardigan. 

There's another reason why cardigans are cool. If like me you're a gentleman of a certain age (37), your physique is potentially becoming a little more plastic than it might be. My usual choice of attire is a v-neck jumper, but as my pectorals come to resemble the dreaded moobs and my once-taut stomach evokes images of an obese seal, a tight jumper becomes less flattering. A cardigan, however, releases us from the self-consciousness.

Finally, cardigans are cool because they enable further coolness. Being a fat indie bloke of 37, most of my T-shirts reference books, films and other cultural artefacts which are both too cool and too old for you. If I wore a jumper, I couldn't be recognised as cool by other cool blokes (of either sex) of the Indie Masonry. A cardigan affords the clued-in viewer a guide to the cultural perspective of the t-shirt flaunter. No cardigan, no appreciative grins at my 1994 Gorky's Zygotic Mynci shirt, my Green Lantern shirts, the Flash shirt, the Welsh-language one or the Braille one Ben gave me which looks like a New Order cover but actually reads 'Fuck The Tories'. 

Anyway, my boss is no style icon himself. Despite turning up to work on a series of stunning motorbikes, he had a lengthy mullet and drinks Carling… by choice

That David Cameron letter in full

Here it is, folks. Despite the greeting and signature being printed copies and the actual mailing address being a light industrial estate in Croydon, it's a 'personal' letter of thanks for the Prime Minister:

Obviously the letter will be framed and hung proudly on my wall next to the injunction from Paul Uppal, but I'm going to view this as the opener in an exchange of letters which will hopefully continue throughout David's (he used my first name, so he must want to be friends) administration and beyond.

Here's the text of the letter I'm posting him later today.

Dear David,
                    thanks very much for the 'personal' letter you sent me and tens of thousands of other Olympic and Paralympic volunteers. Like you, I found the Games inspiring and uplifting although unlike you, judging by the numerous references to 'the nation' and 'the United Kingdom', I didn't view the event through a nationalistic prism.  
Sadly, not everyone at the Games was a volunteer: I gather that Lord Coe, for instance, has made many millions of pounds through his role, has secured a lucrative further post, and of course continues to have a vote and a voice in an unelected legislature. Can I also take the opportunity to ask whether your friend Mr Murdoch paid for his tickets when he accompanied Mr Johnson and when he met Mr Hunt? I distinctly recall Mr Hunt making joking references to his News International shenanigans during an Olympic Park speech to School Games participants, many of whom had recently lost their EMA thanks to your preference for cutting millionaires' taxes over helping deprived children remain in education. The idea that the CEO of a company which avoids paying corporation taxes should receive free tickets while volunteers like myself bought our own tickets is a little hard to take.  
I regret also that many other potential volunteers were excluded from the games for financial reasons: taking training, travel and other expenses into account throughout the Games' cycle, I calculate that volunteering cost me about £1500: only three times as much as you charged the taxpayer to clear wisteria from your constituency mansion, but a lot of money nonetheless. I could afford it, because I'm middle-class and well-paid, at least by my standards if not yours. A further excluded group was the unemployed: although 2, 500,000 are chasing 500,000 jobs, any unemployed Games Maker would have been sanctioned for not 'actively seeking work' during summer. 
Rather unfortunately, the 'Big Society' of Olympic Volunteers was literally and figuratively fenced off from the rest of the East End. Within the barbed wire: shiny new architecture, bright colours and the logos of companies notorious for variously depressing wages, deskilling employees and sanctioning the disabled with little sense of natural justice. Without the wire: unrelieved poverty and decay despite your promises of physical and social regeneration. I fervently hope - without much expectation - that the promised post-Olympics transformation of East London will amount to more than importing Tory-voting aspirants into not-actually-affordable starter apartments while leaving the low-waged poor to fend for themselves or be exported to poorer cities far from their families and social networks. 
I will of course continue to volunteer, and not only through my own sport. Thanks to your economic policies, my city has several food banks and similar services to which I can lend my talents. Personally, I don't think that's something of which to be proud, but presumably you see this as the Big Society in action. Your education, social, health and environmental policies also look set fair to generate plenty of opportunities for voluntary action in future: caring for the unprofitable sick scorned by privatised healthcare, remedial education for those spat out by the 'free schools' liberated from the requirement to provide healthy food and qualified teachers, or restoring the natural heritage you are so keen to put into the hands of jerry-builders and fossil-fuel despoilers. 
As for you, John Profumo was rehabilitated through many years of quiet charitable labour. I suggest that you do the same, and the sooner the better. I don't know if you've ever seriously done any voluntary work other than the usual photo-opportunities and CV-polishing required of young politicos, but I suspect that I and many like me have already contributed and will continue to quietly contribute more than you ever will. I very much look forward to the day - in May 2015 or (perhaps!) earlier - after which you will have plenty of time to devote to voluntary activity.  
                     Yours with all the respect and sincerity you deserve,
                                                Plashing Vole. 

Pleased to meet you pleased to meet you pleased to meet you

Lots of goodies to pronounce on today - my 'personal' letter from the Prime Minister, Mitt Romney's attack on 47% of the American population and many other things, but you'll have to wait. I'm meeting students from 9-11. Then meeting more students from 11-1. Then meeting my boss from 1-2. Then meeting more students - or someone, the details escape me - from 2-4. After that, my diary has me curled up foetally in a cupboard repeating the phrase 'my name's Vole. Any problems, my office is 217' until my shrivelled husk is found some years hence.

Until then, enjoy your day.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Hot Grant Shapps News!

You may recall that I reported Tory Chairman Grant Shapps' family company to the Advertising Standards Authority, on the basis that the fictional figurehead claimed to be a successful businessman and an MP, and a range of other infringements: a bit difficult if you're not actually real. In real life, Shapps seems to spend most of his time removing incovnenient truths from his Wikipedia page, pretending to be a Lib Dem activist to intervene in their internal politics, and using one of his own products to follow and unfollow tens of thousands of Twitter users a week, to up his own stats. All this while working as an MP and government minister. Stakhanovite, I tell you!

The company has gone into hibernation, mostly because its business was webpage scraping: nicking other people's text and using it to drive traffic to website. Google doesn't like that kind of behaviour: it damages the global behemoth's profit margins, and so poor HowToCorp has been erased from its search algorithms. 

It's really easy to report people and companies to the ASA. I'm certainly going to do it more, and more often. I got this today:

Dear Dr Vole

Thank you for contacting us.  We have referred this matter to our Investigations Team, and an Executive will update you on the outcome of the Investigation in due course.  Thank you for your patience.

Yours sincerely

Lewis JonesComplaints Executive
 Advertising Standards AuthorityMid City Place, 71 High HolbornLondon WC1V 6QTTelephone 020 7492
As their logo is 'legal, decent, honest and truthful', I'm expecting a good result from their scrutiny of Mr Shapps!

The Unseen University and Us

Last week, you may recall, I attended a couple of graduation ceremonies. As I left work on Friday, I notice a row of large limousines - apparently the poorer the council, the bigger the mayor's limo -  depositing well-fed gents (and some ladies) for a slap-up feed with the Vice-Chancellor. It's the kind of thing a university has to do: we're always looking for attention, planning permission, funding, shared activities and ways to serve the community. Plus we want to tie in big businesses, so we hand out honorary degrees to lubricate the exchange.

It all reminded me of this section from Terry Pratchett's Jingo, in which the Patrician ruler of the city explains why cheesy ceremonies are part of the social ritual:
… officially he's here because the wizards have invited him to their big award ceremony. An honorary doctorate, that sort of thing. And one of their lunches afterwards. I do like negotiating with people after the faculty of Unseen University have entertained them for lunch. They tend not to move about much and they'll agree to practically anything if they think there's a chance of a stomach powder and a small glass of water. 

Then they agree to a procession through town in silly medieval costume, much like the one I joined last week:
It demonstrates the friendly alliance between the University and the civil government which, I may say, seems to consist of their promising not to do anything we ask provided we promise not to ask them to do anything. 

We're a bit more closely entwined these days, and the Russell Group universities decided that they'd do whatever the government wanted in return for more cash, especially in research priorities: a cynical deal which has backfired badly. Universities should be critical and independent of power - less Hegemonic, if you'll forgive me. A certain spikiness is to be welcomed, but governments over the years have decided that as they control the purse strings, they're in charge. Sadly, a large group of VCs has accepted this argument without demur.

Meanwhile, in Iain Duncan Smith's mind…

Idly watching the superior original adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yesterday, I realised that it pretty much described Secretary of State for Social Services Iain Duncan Smith's dreams. It's full of rancid poor people wasting their money on lottery tickets and sponging off the state. All it needs is a stimulus and they can be up and working in seconds. They're just too dependent on benefits to make the effort.

The magic happens at this point, when lazy Grandpa gets literally handed a Golden Ticket. ATOS will soon put an end to this kind of nonsense.

Sisyphus, reporting for duty

Greetings, minions.

Sorry. It's induction week, so my authoritarian tendencies are coming to the fore. I keep thinking of the driving instructor's assertion to Cher in Clueless (my favourite Jane Austen adaptation, sadly not available on Youtube): 'as far as you're concerned, I'm the Messiah'.

However, despite the myriad opportunities to terrify new students, the week is actually going to be one of semi-controlled panic, and very little blogging. We have multiple meetings with the freshers and with our colleagues (none of whom could possible be described as 'fresh') and a mind-numbing set of administrative duties. I'm not sure what the collective term for academics is, but 'a grumble' will do nicely. Just ask one about electronic module guide formatting and retire to a safe distance.

Anyway, I prepared for the onslaught by going to a mighty fine concert on Saturday: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus playing some Richard Strauss and Mahler's Symphony No. 2, The Resurrection. The Strauss was fairly unremarkable: glutinous late-Romantic stew despite being composed well into the 20th-century, but the Mahler was magnificent. Being a fan mainly of dissonant 20th-century classical music, I was surprised by the modernity of the symphony. It was 19th-century in the massive scale of musical forces: eight double basses, a contrabassoon, multiple percussionists, French horns, more instruments off-stage and ('at last') Tubular Bells, but there was a lot more light and shade than I expected. The soprano (Sarah Fox) and mezzo-soprano Mijoko Fujimura sung with total control, and the delicacy of the CBSO Chorus in the pianissimo section was breathtaking - about 1.13.25 in this version:

Some sections of the symphony meandered a little - not the orchestra's fault but the composer's - but the final movement is a monster, and I could understand why the ovation was one of the longest I've ever seen: so long, in fact, that many of the rather senior crowd might well lose their disability benefits if anyone from ATOS was there. I also enjoyed spotting the sections which have been lifted wholesale by Hollywood soundtrack composers. Too be expected, I suppose: most of the studio musicians were German refugees with similar training and an ear for the dramatic. In recent years, I'd wager Howard Shore was listening to a lot of Mahler and Dvorak's Requiem Mass when he wrote the Lord of the Rings music, and there's a Mahlerian air to some of Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme (the show's creator Gene Roddenbury ripped him off by writing lyrics which were deliberately never used, thus claiming 50% of the royalties).

Right. Time to do some more work. Laters!

Friday, 14 September 2012

Friday already!

Hi everyone! Did you enjoy having a little break from me yesterday?  I really should consider the amount of effort you lot put into reading my frequent, rambling narratives.

Yesterday was graduation day for my School. I went to two ceremonies because I work in two departments, and couldn't miss seeing all my students. As always, one of the games to play while sitting on the stage is to put names to faces: there are a surprising number who manage to get through a whole degree without ever speaking to their teachers! It's also great to match supporters with students, and admire the incredible lengths taken to dress up. Your teachers look like scruffy herberts in comparison! This year was all about the shoes: there seemed to be a height competition going on.

Graduation is one of those occasions which gives me an opportunity to see the university in the round: students from lots of different courses all together. The Hegemon's national and ethnic diversity is readily apparent, and the high quality of our awards. For instance, the English cohort managed five first-class degrees between them, an amazing achievement (about 8% of the intake). They're kosher too: every university course is scrutinised by academics from other institutions to make sure we're operating at the same level. Our current examiner is from Cardiff's brilliant English department, so our own graduates should know that they're up to the same standards.

The First-Class graduates this year are also special because they really representative of our intake: 3, possibly 4 of them are mature students who also look after children and have jobs. Similarly, I was particularly proud of Jana, who took the media prize for a dissertation which was not only of publishable quality in terms of research, but was written in beautiful, elegant English - her second language. Away from the top grades too were so many students whose degree was a triumph over circumstances, academic problems, health setbacks, a lack of confidence or traumatic experiences.

This year was also excellent because much more effort had been put into the day: a reception afterwards for everybody, shorter, sharper speeches (the two by SU officials were absolutely excellent: one personal and emotional, one political and pointed, and the same goes for the Vice-Chancellor's very deliberate praise for our international students) and a real sense of occasion. I also particularly appreciated the procession of staff: the embarrassment of parading through town in silly costumes was balanced by getting to the wine reception before the students and guests. We're a thirsty lot, so perhaps the authorities might rethink that element….

Talking of which, this year's graduation was a success in that I survived the post-match celebrations in a state no worse than exhaustion. Last year I was kidnapped by a determined bunch of graduates and rendered into a condition which can only be described as 'hog-whimpering', from which state I needed two full days to recover.

So that's all the fun over. I spent this morning at the Staff Wellbeing and Moral Task and Finish Group Workgroup 3 meeting, which was exactly as much fun as it sounds. Admin this afternoon, and maybe even a bit of academic work! The highlight of the weekend though is Mahler's Resurrection Symphony at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. Hopefully I won't end up sitting next to a Nazi this time - at Mahler's 8th, a pompous man informed me that if I liked it, I should listen to Bruckner: 'like the Fuhrer after dinner every day'.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Tory Barrel, Scraped.

Despite my two fundamental disagreements with the Conservative Party (everything it says, and everything it does), I've always had a lingering respect for it as a machine. It is ruthless, sinister, single-minded and vicious. As parties go, it's the Tasmanian Devil.

Until now. Despite having a wider pool of MPs from which to choose, it has awarded PAUL UPPAL a government post. Not only that, but one as Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.

I am baffled. Firstly, Paul Uppal is a serial loyalist. He literally has never disagreed with the party line on anything, in the two years he's been an MP. One might think he has no invididual consciousness. A cynic might say that his loyalty was a job-seeking strategy. But from the government's point of view, one would have thought that so slavish a toady does not require a PPS job: they're unpaid and often used to force rebels to behave. Many spiky Labour MPs were bought off by such a post: you have to resign if you want to vote against your government's line. There was no danger of Uppal rebelling, so there was no need to buy him off. He retails planted questions, I suspect he invents agreeable constituents who adopt perfectly nuanced Parliamentary discourse to elucidate his personal opinions and as I've documented in the past, is not above telling untruths to Parliament.

Is Uppal qualified to be an education expert? He won't tell anyone what degree classification he achieved (Warwick, Politics) and he's never worked in education or evinced any interest in higher education policy, based on his speeches. He's a property speculator, plain and simple.

What other explanations are there? There is a university in Uppal's constituency, but he seems to basically oppose it: he enthusiastically voted for fees and has not concerned himself with our well-being. The constituency is an ultra-marginal one though: he has a majority of 691. The Tory vote hardly increased: Labour voters stayed at home. So giving him a cheap job might be an attempt to bolster Uppal's profile in the hope that it might save him.

I'm determined to make sure it's exactly the opposite. Government policy is to beggar and humble less prestigious universities such as The Hegemon. It wants to concentrate research and high-achieving A-level students in Russell Group universities, and farm out the rest to dodgy corporate faux-universities. It has loaded students with debts of £60,000 each, which will wreck entry to socially-useful low-paid jobs (teaching, nursing, social work, research) and further study, especially amongst the working classes. I am going to make damn sure that every single student associates Uppal with the government's actions: 2015 is the date of the next election and sees the first £9000 fees students graduate - the perfect storm.

So I don't think that it's a particularly clever marginal constituency gambit. Which leaves one horrible, horrible reason:
The Conservative Party actually thinks that Paul Uppal is the best of the remaining unemployed Tory MPs
Even I find this hard to swallow. For all their blind ideological idiocy, there are highly-qualified, articulate and intelligent MPs on the government benches. And yet… this is the decision they've reached.

David Willetts' nickname is 'Two Brains'. I hope it's true because frankly, he'll have to lend one of them to his new PPS.


So here's how my meeting supporting my union colleague went this morning.

Them: We've looked at your complaint about being bullied and belittled by senior management. They say they love you very very much and wouldn't dream of being nasty to you. But you can always ask the VC to look at it again and we'll remind them to play nicely. Any questions?
Us: Er…

I'd better not say any more, but you can imagine my mood.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Academic Affairs

We had our school's staff conference today. Some of it was general briefing about the state of recruitment and so on (you suckas over in the School of Applied Science - we OWNED you this year, player-haters), and some of it explored issued like feedback, marking and so on.

Some general questions for you, following the brief chat we had on Twitter:

How do you persuade people to collect their marked work (let alone read it)? My shared office is stuffed with uncollected work. I spent an evening last week shredding essays written in first year by this year's graduates - and teasing them about it via Twitter. I've tried one-to-one sessions. Only the A students came. I've tried taking work to class - and carried a big pile back to the office. We could ask the Registry to return work - but that removes the opportunity to talk to the marker about the work. We could withhold grades until work is collected, or require the students to respond to our feedback as a requirement for the next assignment.

The major problems, as I see them, are that some students simply don't care about feedback: it's all about the grade, while others are scared of a potentially difficult encounter. Even if you've done well, judgement is a stressful event. Noting a bad grade might sting, but being forced to engage in a dialogue which requires instant and vocal self-reflection requires considerable emotional qualities.

We can enforce various systems to get work back to students, but to my mind, the systems should follow the culture. We need to persuade students that we're judging work, not the individual; that commentary and reflection are integral educational events; that grades aren't educational outcomes and that it's the conversation that matters.

I co-led a session on Tweeting for Academics. There seemed to be acceptance that participation could be useful for networking academics, but hostility to using Twitter for teaching ('tweaching'?). Partly for equity: not all students have the technology, but mostly because we're wary of pushing students in the direction of a proprietary, corporate product. It may not last, of course, and we shouldn't be encouraging students to surrender their personal information for sale to corporate interests. It was also felt that using Twitter for teaching opened colleagues up to continual demands on our time and attention, and blurred the boundaries between work and social life. I'm certainly sympathetic to these arguments. I wouldn't make Tweeting integral to any module, and I'm also wary of corporate incursions into academia and life. My weak solution is to give entirely false details to Twitter: I set up an otherwise unused email address for the purpose and don't give my real name. It's only a sticking plaster - what's your perspective on this?

Busy busy busy

Morning everybody. Busy day today - our pre-term staff conference. The morning is management telling us what's been going on (hopefully) and the afternoon is a series of training sessions, including one Plashing Vole's Guide to Academic Tweeting. Lots of linking to my erudite colleagues, I think.

I've also got a Negotiating Committee meeting during lunch time, and lots of other things too… Then tomorrow starts with a really serious meeting on behalf of a colleague I'm representing and another one to do with car parks (and stuff). When I'm going to work out my timetable, write some lectures and do some research is as yet unclear.

On the up side, my old friend Alan (of Ectogram and many other bands) has sent me this link to a previously unreleased set of Rheinallt H Rowlands songs, including three Joy Division tracks sung in Welsh. I've always loved Rheinnallt's music and I collect Joy Division and New Order covers.

Here's his 'Bukowski':

and 'Llanw'

Monday, 10 September 2012

Boo! Down with this sort of thing

Why did 80,000 people boo George Osborne at the Paralympics? Because the stadium couldn't hold any more. 

The Observer had a debate yesterday on whether Paralympic spectators should or should not have booed George Osborne, Theresa May and various other Tory ministers. Danny Kelly put the case for booing - fairly boringly - and Alastair Campbell, the man who helped fake the evidence for invading Iraq, previously wrote porn as The Riviera Gigolo and worked for tabloid newspapers, put the case against.

Why not, Alastair?
 I can't stand this anti-politics thing that is so prevalent. 
1. Why do you think people are anti-politics? Could it be because your sect's rhetoric was about empowerment while you worked to exclude all but the rich and powerful?

2. Are people 'anti-politics'? Or are they anti-Tory, anti-austerity?

Why else?
there are better ways to show it than rudeness. I thought it was just silly.
I didn't notice a new civility in New Labour's political discourse. There was, however, a New Language, as Norman Fairclough's book called it. It used the vocabulary of liberal-leftism to disguise neoliberal policies, and it - famously - removed verbs from political rhetoric as though to imply that the forces of history were beyond human power. Underneath the rhetoric of democracy, we were told that there was nothing we could do about terrorism and globalisation other than to submit.

As to The Riviera Gigolo's objection to rudeness: I fart in his general direction. Limiting political speech to politeness is a way to exclude radical ideas and radical expression of ideas. It turns political action into a parlour game played by gentlemen. One of my favourite examples of politics in action is when apartheid-era Malan phoned George Formby and his wife to protest against their insistence on playing mixed venues: 'Piss off, you horrible little man', she cried, and slammed down the phone. A more recent example is Desmond Tutu's polite refusal to share a stage with Tony Blair: the PR response was that he'd been rather ill-mannered and ungracious for bringing up these serious political disagreements (and dead people).

Banning rudeness is banning passion, and ordinary people.
The thing about politicians in Britain is that they are out there, you can lobby them, get close to them, there are loads of ways you can protest against them, and booing is a pretty weak way of doing it. Also in the examples you give, they at least had the chance to answer back because they had a microphone. They could make a point, argue back. George just had to grin and bear it.
The most objectionable bit of Campbell's argument was this bit:

This is just plain untrue. Politicians have never been so unreachable. My local MP, the awful Uppal, tightly controls his public appearances so that he never meets anyone with whom he disagrees. On the rare occasions his cordon is breached, he responds very badly indeed, as I've found out. Politicians don't make public speeches any more: 'security', they say, or 'we want to talk to stakeholders'. Mervyn King insisted on an invited audience. When Ed Miliband came to the Wolves ground, the meeting was for carefully-picked invitees, not local party members (I crashed it, and found him charming and convincing). Party conferences are now showcases for control, rather than internal meetings to thrash out ideas. Has anyone out there been invited to discuss the economy with George, or the NHS with Hunt?

The public's access to politicians is severely restricted. Yes, you can tease them on Twitter, but the determined ones can avoid contact with anyone with whom they disagree pretty much completely. Arguments look bad on TV and in the press - especially a press which is always trying to make them look bad.

'You' can't lobby politicians: Murdoch can, despite being an Australian-American living in New York. Party donors can. BAe can. Bankers can. Constituents can meet their local MP if they're lucky, but the whole point of modern political communications strategy is to maintain a one-way system in which they never receive feedback. You reckon Michael Gove has ever had a meeting with an anti-free schools group? Or Hunt with a nurses' association?

When did we get so wimpy anyway? The royals were booed when they toured the East End during the Blitz (more booing history here). Political satire was utterly vicious in the 18th and 19th centuries - far more than now. Campbell's objections simply try to reduce democracy to voting every five years: typical of a Westminster bubble technocrat.

Alastair Campbell thinks we should shed a tear because George Osborne was hurt. Boo hoo. He's hurt us and we get very few chances to express that. He, Alastair and their friends need to take their lumps. It's many years since - very sadly - I believed that the Tories were acting in the public interest, however misguidedly. If they were public-spirited, I'd agree with the Gigolo. But they aren't. As Warren Buffett says, there's a class war on and his class is winning. I think that's worth a moment's discomfort. Booing might seem a bit silly, a sign of political weakness, but it's better than nothing.


Sand in my camera

A few more shots from our trip to the Lancashire coast (some other favourites, including the red squirrel, are here). We were at Freshfield, on the edge of Formby looking towards Southport, where an air show was in progress. The whole set is here (mostly butterflies actually) and you can click these for massive versions.

Who knew butterflies were ginger?

A day at the beach

I don't often go to the beach, and I've never been to the Lancashire coast, bar an unpleasant stay in Blackpool for the NUS conference many years ago. For me, the beach means sand in the face, social mixing and sexual licence. Not personally, you understand - but in a lot of the fiction and travel writing I've been reading, such as Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live.

In Cwmardy, poor weird Len, who has underlying incestuous desires, happens upon his sister Doing It with a pit-manager's son - the class enemy. So he becomes a Communist (I paraphrase). In the sequel, his Party branch go to Blackpool. Len's at first horrified by the brassy women - drinking and flirting - until his girlfriend Mary tells him to grow up. He then tries to recreate what he saw his sister (who died in childbirth thanks to that day on the dunes) up to, with Mary, but she stops him: she too is dying - rather slowly - and they must dedicate themselves to The People instead.

I also just read an article about Mary Morgan's Tour To Milford Haven in the Year 1791 which says she was scared by the power, liminality and licence available at the beach. On the other hand, it also says that watching her husband go swimming re-enacts maternal separation anxiety, which just goes to show that having a theory doesn't justify anything.

So beaches are weird places, culturally and psychologically. But not this one. Obviously my reading coloured my experience, but there were no psychological or cultural shenanigans. Just natural beauty and good friends. Did I take pictures? I did take pictures. You can see them all here, and you can enlarge these samples by clicking on them. Red squirrels! Well, one red squirrel. But that's one more than I'd ever seen before. I read the other day that grey squirrels have been known to swim the treacherous Menai Straits to Ynys Môn / Anglesey. As Dan pointed out, they must be pretty dumb: there are two massive bridges they could use instead.

'You won't see any red squirrels', said Ben. 'Too late in the day and too close to the ice-cream van'. 3 minutes later… Didn't see any more, mind.

I'm convinced a calendar of Dan scowling at the environment would be a best-seller

What an insect. Anyone know what's it's called?

A rabbit lurked nervously in the mouth of a burrow until the kestrel got annoyed by us and flapped off

(A few more in the next blog entry)

Something cheery for Monday morning

Today is going to be a good day. I have a meeting to discuss a fun joint paper on masculinity, jazz and the modern novel. I have a presentation to write for my colleagues on Twitter for Academics, and Grant Shapps is in more trouble for being a small-time chiseller. And the Olympics have finished - sad in a way but also a reminder that I had a wonderful time as a volunteer at the fencing.

So here's one of the songs that's always made me happy: Shonen Knife covering 'On Top of the World'. Japanese female indie rock: what's not to love (see also: the frankly unhinged and wonderful Melt Banana)?

Friday, 7 September 2012

You can't touch me…

'cos I'm part of the union: a rather neat old Unison advert for the benefits of solidarity:

Scraping the bottom of the oil barrel?

I wonder if Newsnight will bother to reply…

Dear Newsnight,
after Peter Lilley's appearance on Newsnight to discuss the economics of climate change, could you answer a couple of questions so that I can decide whether to take this matter further?

1. Was anyone at Newsnight aware that Mr Lilley is non-executive chairman of Tethys Petroleum Ltd?
2. Does Newsnight have a policy of asking guests about potential conflicts of interest before booking them?
3. If Newsnight was aware of Mr Lilley's position, why was the discussion not foregrounded to inform the readers?

As it stands, Mr Lilley's violent attack on renewable energy appears to have been framed as an appearance simply by an expert who'd written 'a report' rather than as an individual with an economic interest in one particular energy industry.

Yours etc. 

My students eat dinner at noon

The Guardian has done a data exercise to analyse the social composition of Britain's universities. As you might expect, dripping is not on the menu at the Russell Group universities: Oxford manages a magnificent 11.5% of students from manual/occupational and few of its peers manage more than 30%. The Hegemon is near the top, with 53% of the intake drawn from what's traditionally known as the working class.

Obviously there are problems with classification here: there are several working classes and beneath them, a 'non-working' class which seems to have been abandoned. In a post-industrial society, it's always more complicated than the old days of a white male mas-industrial proletariat. And of course the posh universities aren't entirely to blame for having a socially-elevated intake: as they keep pointing out, getting working-class people to apply to Oxford is difficult. Though I think they protest too much: I read that Oxford's 'outreach' programme last year took a roadshow to such benighted, aspiration-free and deprived places as… Eton College, Manchester Grammar School (private) and other sink-holes of social exclusion.

I'm enormously proud of our 53%. As a socialist, I know that education is power. We open our doors to the majority of the population which has never been able to pull its economic, cultural and political weight, thanks to the entrenched privilege of the jealous middle and upper classes. But it's also complicated. I worry when I hear the law students and others talk about getting rich - encouraged by people like Constance Briscoe, who told them that being rich = victory. Yes, I want my students to have a greater share of the economic pie, but I'm not at all interested in encouraging individual greed. For me, the purpose of mass education is to enable what we'll call the working class to access the social, cultural, political and economic goodies previously reserved for their supposed superiors.

The debate around mass education has been around for a long time. Matthew Arnold felt that it was the only way to stop the swinish mob rising up and smashing art and culture to pieces. Nietszche and his followers felt that the mob was incapable of education, and that offering it to them only encouraged them to disobey their enlightened Masters. Some on the hard left suspect that a bourgeois education is simply a hegemonic tool for conveying anti-proletarian ideology. Not me: I know that getting access to culture doesn't mean forcing them to accept dominant interpretations - we're way past that kind of hypodermic needle model of transmission. My students are - or are potentially - independent, critical thinkers, despite eating dinner at noon and sending the port round the wrong way.

However, there is a down side to mass working-class education. Some of my siblings went to élite universities (Cambridge, Imperial, Durham). Visiting them, I realised what exactly everybody else is excluded from. Not just the networks which ensure a gilded and powerful life (social capital, it's called), but the sheer resources. Art on the walls. Any book you might ever want. Nobel prize-winners reading your work. Subsidised holidays (oh yes) and food. Tiny classes and one-to-one tuition. My siblings felt that they'd earned it through getting good A-levels. I felt that it illustrated the maxim 'to those that have, shall be given more'. I look at my students, juggling jobs, and child-care, and money worries, turning up to a university bursting at the seams, and wonder what they could do if we had one-to-one tuition, if we could send them off on cultural adventures, have seminars of fewer than thirty students, or a free creche, or star researchers on the books, and the globe's movers and shakers nurturing them. Perhaps they need it more than the kids who've gone from Eton to Oxford.

What I'm saying is this: there are two educational systems. The élite one is wonderful, but it's a bespoke model in a culture which really believes that there is an intellectual aristocracy which deserves all the treats. Then there's a warehouse or factory educational model in which as many kids are crammed into knackered buildings as possible. The élite take degrees in PPE, Art History, Medicine and the like. Many of mine do 'vocational' courses designed to fit them into the neoliberal economy, rather than train them for power. They are discriminated against, and excluded.

So it's a dilemma. I want mass, working-class education. I want it for social justice. I want working class students to do Medicine and Anglo-Saxon and PPE, but I want them to be independent of the cultural and ideological positions inherent in hegemonic educational structures. I don't want them tossed the crumbs of a 'good-enough' training scheme which fits them for lower-management. I also want people to choose non-academic training and be proud and respected.

How? Er… Now you're asking. Certainly pre-university education must push students to aspire, but the university system currently seems like a vehicle for retarding social mobility rather than enhancing it. Personally, I'd abolish them all. Seriously: I'd amalgamate them and distribute subjects and expertise nationally. If Russell Group teachers are so great, let's see them teach my students. I'd end the REF research funding structure, which only exists to make sure serious funding goes to Russell Group universities, and I'd end pre-results admissions and interviews. No cosy chats designed to establish whether a student is 'one of us'. I'd also abolish the private schools, of course, or at least remove their charitable status.

Curriculum is essential too: the major contribution of progressive humanities departments is widening the canon from texts approved by the cultural elite to the sum of human cultural activity. Thanks to Raymond Williams, Cultural Studies, Reader-Response, Post-Colonialist, Feminist and Queer Theory, we insist that all cultural artefacts and practices are inherently worthy of study. I put working-class writing, Welsh writing and all sorts of overlooked gems on the course lists without feeling tokenistic or patronising. This might seem obvious to you, but have a look at Palgrave's The Short Story in Britain by Maunder, Robbins and Liggins. One chapter is devoted to the short story in Scotland. One sentence of the chapter on Scotland mentions Wales. That is a perfect example of elitist, metropolitan exclusion-by-canon: the short story is central to Scottish and Welsh literary culture, for a wide variety of reasons - yet if you took this book, with it's exhaustive title, you'd never know.

And that's why we need to worry about class and education.