Friday, 21 December 2012

Hello? Helloooo?

It's like the Marie Celeste round here. Just me and some underemployed catering staff whiling away their time trying to chisel through the gravy crust. They really need safety goggles for that kind of work.  I just sent round our end of term Union newsletter and got several hundred out-of-office replies. Slackers! It's not even Friday evening!

Anyway, enough about them. Time to talk about me. I'm feeling uncharacteristically optimistic, which is weird considering a colleague was killed here yesterday. Perhaps it's the contemplation of mortality which makes me value even the mundanity of daily existence.

It's also because I've done a big chunk of  writing. I'm writing a piece about jazz in contemporary fiction with a colleague who has published loads of stuff. We're covering Jim Crace's All That Follows, Alan Plater's The Beiderbecke Trilogy and Jackie Kay's Trumpet, which is one of the best novels I've read all year. I'm meant to be doing the section on masculinity and jazz. Basically, I'm claiming that in Plater's novel, jazz creates an 'imagined community' of New Men freed by their secret hobby from the deforming oppression of established gender roles. Which is ironic because only men understand jazz in these novels. They like jazz and historical football facts, and the women look on with amused disdain. On the other hand, it's jazz which gives the men empathy and other supposedly 'feminine' traits. Oh, and it's all played for laughs. For the Crace and Kay novels, I'm arguing that jazz structures the texts and the readers' experiences because it washes away essentialist gender structures. The musicians and those they relate to have to improvise their lives and their understanding of identity under the influence of jazz. In All That Follows, Lennie is 'unmanned' because he can't play jazz any more, nor engage in political activism, or make love to his wife: once the jazz comes back, so do all the other things. Trumpet is different: it's structured like a jazz performance complete with central solo, and the plot is driven by everybody else's reaction to the discovery that dead Joss Moody, married with a son, was actually biologically female. Without jazz, Kay seems to be saying, we are trapped in pre-formed concepts of sex, gender and race, but jazz's natural antipathy to formality enables us to reassess our preconceptions.

1300 words. Unfortunately (for my colleague) it's currently 3500 words. Unfortunately, because as the experienced author, she gets to decide what stays in (if any) and what goes. Being a humble sort of chap, I shall accept the axe without demur. I'm just pleased I got something substantial written.

In the meantime, I have to write an entire 8000 word book chapter on Welsh travel writing by January 15th. So that's the Christmas break spoken for. But at least I have some nice music to soothe me: I've just received Freedom Is A Hammer: Conservative Folk Revolutionaries of the Sixties. I used to teach a course on 1960s US culture, and played the students a lot of rightwing music to demonstrate that much as we might wish it, the majority of Americans at the time were pretty rightwing. I haven't come across the stars of this new CD (Janet Greene, Tony Dolan and Vera Vanderlaan), but I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy  it in an infuriating sort of way. They are in many ways the grandparents of the Tea Party movement: stridently conservative yet using the tools of the leftwing 60s counterculture (folk music, protest) to argue their case.

Here's Janet Greene's truly appalling 'Commie Lies': sorry about the visuals - it's been posted by a true believer sadly.

I've also broken the book drought in a small way: Bent Flyvjerg's Megaprojects and Risk about the way construction and engineering companies lie and cheat self-deceiving politicians to get their hands on our cash; and Alasdair Gray's postmodernist Scottish classic 1982, Janine. His Lanark is one of the best books I've ever read, so it was about time I read this one.

Right, back to the writing.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Looking on the bright side…

In total contrast to the life-affirming dedication which made Nick Musgrove a pivot of my university's community until his untimely death (see previous blog entry), you could adopt the Philip Larkin Self-Help Mantra. It works for me!

The only good life 

is to live in some sodding seedy city 

and work 

and keep yr gob shut 
and be unhappy
I shall post it on my office door. Preferably in Comic Sans so that nobody ever knocks.

Nick Musgrove RIP

I got up this morning and trudged to work through the drizzle and barely noticed the sirens and police tape sealing off the ring road outside my office, and the Tweets from locals trying to find alternative routes round the blockage. I was tired, it was dark and my head was full of footnotes. We don't notice these things any more, do we? Not in any direct way. Sirens and accidents have become the wallpaper of urban life. Someone's always being hit or committing a crime or having a heart attack. You can't live in a mass society and feel deeply every time you hear a siren. We cope by alienating ourselves from the stranger in the back of the ambulance or the hearse. The closed-off street becomes a nuisance, an impediment or – for some – a second-order echo of low-rent TV dramas and documentaries.

Until it's someone you know. First the reports referred to a death in the crash, and I felt momentarily sad before returning to my notes (sorry for the 'I', but thinking about someone else's death is always refracted through the consciousness of one's own mortality). Later on, the university confirmed that the victim was one of our own beloved colleagues, Nick Musgrove. So I'd like to turn from the general to the particular, because Nick, though I didn't know him very well, was a very particular kind of guy.

Nick pretty much embodied the spirit of this university. He was a scrap man for years before he bullied his way on to an Access course at an FE college without having anything near the right qualifications – and he passed with Distinctions in almost everything, leaving everybody else behind. Then he came to us and took first a BSc before working here as a specialist in adaptive technologies for students with disabilities.

One of the great things about this institution is that it's open (despite government) for those who've missed, struggled with or been excluded from other educational opportunities. Nick benefited from our refusal to let people slip through the cracks, and he applied that to his job. Utterly devoted to the students he looked after, he would fight for their right to equal educational opportunities – but he expected them to grasp their chances in the same way he had. But what the students never saw of Nick was the ferocity with which he pursued their rights against anyone he saw as impediments to their progress. He was (as all good union members should be) remorseless when it came to holding management's feet to the fire. He had the confidence of a man who'd had a hard-won life outside the rarefied atmosphere of a university and must have been the terror of management from the associate dean who described him as 'calling a spade a fucking shovel' to the Vice-Chancellor who knew Nick well despite being a relative newcomer. He was that kind of guy: he stamped his personality on his surroundings and colleagues and you were always grateful he was on your side rather than coming for you.

This university – and most universities – is defined by its ability to find room for the quirky, the awkward and those for whom the ruthless corporate world has no use. Nick was one of them: principled, cussed and hugely intelligent, and a huge asset to students and colleagues alike. But he wasn't just a toiler: his sense of public duty was apparent in the research which led to his PhD. His passions were conservation and bird-watching and ringing: one of the swifts he ringed was recently discovered to have flown to Africa and back 21 times over the past couple of decades. His PhD on uplands management may have been severely delayed when the Long Mynd was closed during the Foot and Mouth epidemic, but it made a serious – and often very plain-spoken – contribution to National Trust policy. I certainly see an emotional and intellectual analogy between the terrain of the Long Mynd and his working life, and between the swifts and the students he shepherded through their time here with such infinite care.

I've just come back from a short gathering of colleagues to mark Nick's death. The strength of his personality came through so powerfully in colleagues' accounts of their interactions with him. There were tears, certainly, but also long, loud laughs despite his death being only a few hours ago. Is there a general lesson in Nick's life and death? I suppose there are several. That death is arbitrary and unpredictable. That immortality is achieved through the effect you have on others. For me, it came when I sat in the canteen afterwards looking out on the scene of his accident. The tape is gone, the traffic is flowing and nobody would know that 6 hours ago a vibrant, charismatic man breathed his last. But as an ambulance hurried through the lights, I thought to myself that on board was somebody else's Nick. Not a stranger from whom I was emotionally insulated but a weird, quirky, loved individual. No doubt this feeling will fade again under the relentless 'next-ness' of quotidian existence, but for now, the fragility, the temporariness and thus the value of life is brought to the forefront of my thoughts.

Nick Musgrove, ladies and gentlemen. A man who did nothing but good.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Local journalism at its finest.

One of my agents in Shropshire (I have agents everywhere) sent me a classic piece of local opinion journalism, by a chap called Peter Rhodes. He's like a toxic mix of Peter Hitchens and Jeremy Clarkson, only more embittered because he's never made it on the national reactionary stage. He has columns in the Express and Star (popularly known as the Express and Swastika for obvious reasons) and its sister paper The Shropshire Star.

That's right! Even though he calls you Blackshirts (that's the treasonous British Union of Fascists, by the way: Hitler's Jew-hating UK wing), you're the one who doesn't believe in 'reasoned debate' and uses the 'vilest terms' while trying to establish a 'tyranny' through the… er… fascist tactics of standing for office and expressing opinions in public.

I can't link you to Peter's article because his employers don't think it's worth wasting pixels and bandwidth on, but it's a classic of the Reactionary Paranoid White Man kind. Hence a short letter from yours truly to that paper. I'm guessing they won't print it.
Sir,Peter Rhodes' latest lazy effort ('scratch a liberal, find a fascist') omits to mention that liberals have not as yet resorted to gas chambers. They were built and operated by a group which did hate immigrants, ethnic and sexual minorities. Peter Hitchens and Mr Rhodes invent liberal bogeymen to hide the fact that what they fear is difference of any kind. If it's any consolation, the world still appears to be run by angry heterosexual white men like themselves. They aren't (sadly) a persecuted minority. 
Much as the Peters might like to think otherwise, angry white heterosexual conservatives are still quite powerful – from the press to politics to business. I'd been inclined to guess that they form the majority of reporting and editorial staff at the Shropshire Star. The 'freedom' they tend to espouse is usually the freedom to silence people who aren't like them. That's the difference between Peter and us liberals and lefties.

Much as I fantasise about putting Mr Rhodes in a prison camp and subjecting him to twenty four hours of Julian Clary, Malcolm X and Shami Chakrabarti's greatest hits, we tend to shake our heads and hope that reasoned argument will change their minds. Rhodes and his friends spend their time muttering darkly about 'them'. They promote Section 28 and dream of the days of Empire when black people contentedly cut sugar cane for white people's tea and didn't moan about having their countries invaded by the Bwana. Rhodes and his friends see every effort to treat subaltern groups equally as some kind of Stalinist plot to make them contract gay marriage and salute the North Korean flag every day. And they get paid very well to stoke these fears too. I wonder if he's descended from famous imperialist conqueror Cecil Rhodes?

It must be tiring to be so bitter and paranoid all the time.

As luck would have it, I'm reading some academic papers today which would make Peter's head explode. They're about Jackie Kay's wonderful novel Trumpet, which features a black! Scottish! trans-sexual! jazz! trumpeter and celebrates the claim that racial, national and sexual identities are unstable and all the richer for it!

I am available to give Peter and his friends remedial classes in Coping With Post-Medieval Life. Give me a call.

Update! Peter has indeed contacted me (via email rather than in the comments like the hoi polloi:

You are quite sure about this?
Regards, Peter Rhodes (former winner of the Commission for Racial Equality "Race in the Media" Awards)
So I'm happy to offer a clarification. Peter is definitely a reactionary who doesn't know his political arse from his historical elbow. And his newspaper is racist. But he is clearly not a racist. He just doesn't understand the irony of British people opposing immigration while celebrating an Empire built on over-running everybody else's countries. Nor does he see equating advocates for equal marriage with the Blackshirts who wanted Britain to put Jews, homosexuals, trades unionists, communists, Roma, Jehovah Witnesses and assorted others in gas chambers just like their Nazi masters as at all inaccurate or offensive.

Peter: 'liberals' are for things. Fascists are against things. You're against gay people marrying and people immigrating into Britain (except for the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Norwegians, Normans, Huguenots and Dutch, I presume). You may not be a racist but it's clear which side you're on.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

What time do you call this?

Hi everybody. I know it's almost time to go home, but I've been working really hard today and tried to stay off the computer for as long as possible, thus knowingly foregoing the kind of outrage that fuels my incessant blogging.

Specifically, I've been reading two fascinating books. The first, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is a classic of ethnography and history. It locates nationalism, especially linguistic nationalism, in the context of developed industrial capitalism rather than in some distant culturally 'pure' past. Without printing presses churning out material in your local language (rather than Latin, English, Dutch or whatever), he says, it's hard to 'imagine' that you're part of an invisible nation. Amongst other fascinating insights, he also suggests that it's the clerical class which generates nationalism: educated to serve the wider empire-state but banned from serving away from one's native community, the functionary starts to see himself as the natural leader of a discrete cultural unit, which becomes a nation. Once a concept has a material culture and a leadership, it starts to legitimise itself through an imagined continuity with the deep past, mostly through linguistic continuity.

This is all very helpful: I'm frantically working on a paper which suggests that O. M. Edwards, a Welsh journalist, Oxford historian and government education functionary essentially invented Wales as a nation in the 1880s-1890s by producing histories, magazines, newspapers and travel writing in Welsh on a massive scale. In particular, I'm looking at Cartrefi Cymru, in which he travels around (often by train - an infrastructure deeply implicated in the colonial construction of Wales) visiting significant houses occupied by famous Welsh people. You get the historical continuity by asserting their – and the readers' – proficiency in Welsh, in constructing a network of inhabited homes (these are not ruins) and by concentrating on certain types of person: mostly post-Reformation clerics, poets and hymn writers. Apart from St David, Edwards stays clear of pre-Reformation people, because they were a) Catholic and b) there never was a sovereign political entity of Wales: it was a series of fluid kingdoms not necessarily united by a common tongue.

So as far as I see it, OM invents a Wales which is only possible after or during colonialism. The Reformation was English. Welshness as a religious and linguistic identity is generated by English administrations' assumptions that the Welsh are a discrete culture, and Edwards uses the tools of capitalism – notably the train and the press – to (paradoxically?) call into being a Welsh nation defined by their language and their religious practice. This, of course, excludes the huge number of Anglophone monoglot Welsh.

For some reason, I proposed to make this chapter a joint analysis of Cartrefi Cymru with George Borrow's Wild Wales, something I now regret. I can juxtapose the titles of the books and get something out of that, and the structures are similar: both men travel from England via railway to discover some kind of 'essential' Wales which will salve their psychological wounds (Borrow always wanted to belong in some way to the groups he studied, while Morris was an exile) but that's as far as I've got. Any ideas?

The other book I read today was Ted Gioia's The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. It's a bracing read and very judgemental, though I do find it a tad reactionary. It's amazing how sex and gender seemingly don't deserve a mention. Female performers are mentioned twice, but there's no discussion of gender and performance or gender and culture. I'm reading it because there's another paper I need to have written by early January on jazz in three modern novels, Alan Plater's Beiderbecke Trilogy, Jim Crace's All That Follows and Jackie Kay's Trumpet. I'm thinking of incorporating some of Imagined Communities into this one too: Plater's novel uses jazz to build a non-threatening homosocial network of new man jazz fans again dependent on the exchange of capitalist goods (records) as an alternative to various other gender formations: political women, violent men, state-functionary men, bullies etc. Anyone who listens to jazz in these novels is likely to be sensitive or at least morally sound. Women might be decent, attractive, deferred to on any number of levels: but none of them understand jazz, which is partly depicted as the central experience of this 'imagined community' and partly as a male displacement activity: our hero switches easily between jazz facts and football statistics. It's just collecting.

The other two novels are about jazz players. In Crace's novel, Leonard Lessing (see the diminutive implied in the name) is physically, psychically, socially and phallically wounded by his damaged arm. He can't play, can't keep his marriage on the tracks, can't find his daughter and can't have any political effect on the world: when the jazz comes back, everything else recovers too. In Kay's Trumpet (one of the best novels I've read in a very long time) the dead jazz man is revealed to be an interloper: a woman masquerading as a man in jazz and in his marriage. The novel's structured as an improvised solo but also as the sections of a newspaper. The characters are all improvising their lives, musically, sexually, socially. Trumpet is also about race: Joss Moody is Scottish and mixed-race: origins are in the mix here too. So with these texts I'll use Anderson's ideas to some extent, but also Judith Butler's concepts of sex and gender as performative. Not sure how it'll go: the central section of the novel is the only one which really deals with the psychical experience of playing jazz and I'm not entirely clear whether it's esssentialist or anti-essentialist. Does jazz allow Joss to express his masculinity and blackness, or does it take him beyond such labels?

So that's what I've been doing today, and will be doing non-stop until January 15th when both papers are due. Gulp.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Dead children, great TV.

Hopefully like me, you'll have been sickened by the murder of 20 children and six adults in Newtown Connecticut. Sickened, but not remotely surprised: one more in a chain of 'isolated incidents' which will shortly fade away in the public consciousness thanks to inertia, arrogance and the concerted lobbying of the National Rifle Association and their friends, who clearly have an acceptable number of deaths in mind in exchange for the right to bear arms.

I've also been sickened by the media coverage. Over the last two days, I've seen excerpts from interviews with surviving children from the school. These are kids whose friends were killed in front of them, kids who narrowly escaped with their own lives. They'll be hurt emotionally and psychologically. Is it in their interests to put them on camera and make them recount their experiences? Shame on the TV networks, shame on the journalists, shame on the parents and local authorities.

The UK media coverage is equally reprehensible. Covering this stuff like it's an episode of Die Hard, the UK media (TV and press) revel in the kind of pictures and text you just don't get in the UK: architectural plans, sobbing parents, SWAT teams toting massive weapons, lingering shots of the murder weapons. It's pornographic in the most literal sense. These massacres are quite simply great TV, especially in a country which doesn't get the chance to clear the schedules for days of horror. The media love it. You can almost sense their regret that there isn't any of this stuff homegrown. Imagine the pictures and stories the Mail or BBC24 could get out of regular massacres in Coventry or Taunton or Llandrindod Wells. Though at least because it's in America, British journalists get to convey the smug undertones of cultural superiority ('look at these fat brutes: it's all "have a nice day" until a burger-chomping Goth kid has an argument with his mom and goes on the rampage').

This is why it's pornographic: we're all encouraged to share the horror but also revel in the knowledge that it's not going to happen here, or at least not to the same extent: it's just a media event from a place which we don't understand, though we do have strong opinions generated by the erroneous sense that we have a shared culture. The media coverage is a framing device to make ourselves feel better. We can decide that America's gun laws are at fault. Or we can blame the killer for being 'evil', or ill. We settle in to the familiar framing effects of our chosen channel: crying parents - check. Sombre President - check. Banal religious discourse - check. Photos of smiling children, now dead - check. Talking heads  - check. And now for the sport.

Here's Roger Ebert's eminently sane perspective after Columbine:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Here's Charlie Brooker's acerbic take on it from 2009, after another 'isolated incident':

It makes these events comprehensible and limited. We shouldn't accept it. Motive is a meaningless term beloved of those who cling to the belief that individuals and societies are rational. That's what America is for - especially if you read Baudrillard and Ballard. It's the anti-Europe, or the future-Europe, the brash, often admirable but also brutal and individualistic dystopia beloved of Tories and feared by liberals. We need it to feel good about ourselves. At least we're not America, we say. And I include myself in this, as I'm about to demonstrate.

The UK doesn't have a gun culture. They're available with some considerable effort, but they're not part of the culture. When I see Americans claiming that the real issue is mental health rather than gun ownership (and we'll leave the deconstruction of this offensively broad term for another day), I want to point out that the UK has the same proportion of mentally-ill people as the US: it's just that unarmed mentally-ill people will find it a lot harder to kill than heavily-armed mentally-ill people who acquired military assault weapons perfectly legally.

Which brings me to another point: the NRA and its friends are hugely rightwing. They hate government (their major argument for gun ownership is that government is automatically oppressive, like it's still 1791 and the British have only recently been sent packing). One of the things the right hates most is the Obama administration's pathetically weak version of a National Health Service. Of all the healthcare sectors, mental health is the least profitable and most urgent, even in the UK. Nobody wants it, no area gets it right. Perhaps if the US had a decent, tax-payer funded health service (and education system) which picked up people like Lanza, a massacre might have been averted. But no: healthcare is socialist-fascist Big Government. Better to accept that dead children are the price of liberty.

A day in the life of an academic

No, not me: a proper academic. My English department went out for a Christmas meal on Friday and my boss regaled us with his tales of life in the paper mines in the days before his waking hours were filled with Course Journals, SQEC meetings and MSTs.

As a young academic he fell under the spell of the institution's premier Old School Scholar, a man who decided that the students would prefer a lecture on 'Press Variants of the Novum Organum' rather than the scheduled Hamlet lecture… on the day the Education Department inspectors were in. So he found himself in the Bodleian Library, surrounded by multiple early of Delarivière Manley's 1709 The New Atalantis, which was banned and led to its author's arrest for scandal and political transgression.

What my poor boss had to do - at considerable expense - was to feed these extremely rare books into a Hinman Collator:

Surrounded by severe, serious literary scholars working away at the library desks, He had to crack open the spines of every copy, weighting them down with heavy glass bars, so that the Collator could superimpose images of pages from each copy using only optics (no computers or scanners), thus hopefully revealing textual variants. Every single page of every single copy available had to be compared. It took the poor man 9 days, a lot of money, a considerable amount of physical pain and the undying hatred of the book-loving witnesses who came to the library every day to see a man crushing ultra-rare volumes in a brutal (and apparently CIA-developed) machine.

Eventually, the Stakhanovite labour was done. Every page had been laboriously compared with its counterparts in every other edition. The textual variants unearthed would provide and insight into the changing cultural, political and intellectual climate of the early sixteenth-century. A career would be born.

The result? A single, solitary semi-colon's difference. He could have wept.

Which is why if I'm anything, I'm a literary critic rather than a textual scholar, but I admire the dedication of such individuals: in such tiny elements worlds are made and re-made. I recently read Claudia Johnson's wonderful Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, which starts with the author agonising over where a comma should go in one of Austen's sentences: the first and second editions of the novel varied, and it was Johnson's task to decide whether the re-sited comma was an error, an editorial decision or an authorial change, and which version was more 'authentically' Austenian. That's an admirable academic career, despite the mockery of the greedy and superficial people who moan to us about the 'real world'. The hunt for the stray semi-colon is literary criticism's equivalent of the Higgs Boson or the quark: apparently quixotic, elusive and abstruse, but also demanding, revealing and crucial for us all.

So to Johnson, my boss and all the others currently engaging in textual intercourse: happy Christmas. More power to you all.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Compare and contrast

Here's what loyalists did for 8 days following the democratically-elected Belfast City Council decision to fly the Union Flag only on certain days of the year rather than every day:

And here's what happened when the British Government admitted that its secret services, the Army and the police organised the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane by gunmen in their employ, then covered it up afterwards.

OK, this is an illustrative picture rather than reportage, because it's hard to find a picture of people not rioting but remaining dignified in response to state-sanctioned murder. But the difference between the two groups' actions is instructive. I don't think the individuals involved are any more or less civilised for coming from one or the other communities in the six counties: but clearly a subgroup of one is prepared to meet democratic change with violence whereas the other has committed to peace in the face of the most outrageous provocation.

What was really disappointing was the Progressive Unionist Party's approach. They're the political wing of a loyalist armed organisation but – like the Official IRA in the 1970s – seemed to be developing a socialist class analysis of the situation. But over the past few days they've been calling for 'Protestant unity': further entrenching the sectarian divide at the expense of proper progressive politics. 

Victory is Mine!

So I'm sure you're all lolly-gagging to know how I got on this morning, representing a colleague in a Stage 3 Final Written Warning disciplinary hearing.

Well, things didn't start well when I fell over very painfully on the wet slate entrance floor. Dignity: begone! Suit: not looking its best. Still, it could have been worse: one of the rooming administrators fell down the stairs while we were waiting for the verdict and ended up with a horribly gashed leg. Thankfully several nurse tutors were on hand to provide first aid. The victim turned out to be someone I exchange emails with frequently so although the circumstances were painful and unpleasant, it was nice to meet her. Not everyone I meet has to go home in an ambulance though, unless with split sides after paying attention to my jokes.

The hearing itself was of course uncomfortable. My client was being investigated/prosecuted by his associate dean, so making idle chit chat before the event was a bit uncomfortable. Inside the hearing the mood wavered between interrogatory and kind. They read a formal set of allegations, we challenged a lot of them and introduced information we thought they'd overlooked or ignored. I contributed by saying as little as possible, which is probably for the best.

The result was very surprising, and very fair. Instead of a final written warning which would lead to dismissal if anything else happened over the next two years, a 'stage one' written warning lasting six months was issued. My client was a model good citizen throughout a stressful event and everything ended well.

I celebrated by going to M+S to buy cheese between other meetings. And now I'm off for Christmas drinks and Thai food with the English department. We've had a two hour meeting to moan about things, so it's all sweetness and light for the rest of the evening. See you on Monday!

I was going to leave you with the Go-Betweens' 'Rare Victory'. But it's not on Youtube. So instead you can have Felt's lovely 'There's No Such Thing As Victory':

and Faith No More's less cute 'Small Victory':

Today's lesson

1. Christmas drinks on a Thursday are not a good idea. Especially when you have to represent someone in a disciplinary case the next morning.

2. Several pints of real ale are not good preparation for watching BBC's Question Time. When I watch it sober, I'm in a state of fury. Slightly tipsy and all the inhibitions are off, as anyone who follows @PlashingVole on Twitter will know by this morning.

Still, at least Will Self was on: the modernist ex-junkie who makes everybody else sound bonkers through the calm application of fact and thoughtfulness. Dumb-ass of the Week goes to government minister Justine Greening, whose excuse for not knowing a fairly prominent fact was 'I wasn't alive then' (i.e. the 1960s). Justine: I wasn't alive in 1945, but I still know who won WW2. Similarly, I know about Victorian sexuality, medieval literacy, and Renaissance architecture, despite being as yet unconceived. Personal experience is not required for the acquisition of knowledge.

Anyway, I'm off to this disciplinary hearing, wearing my most severe suit and all brushed up. I'll leave you with something amusing. You may know that I had a letter in the Guardian the other day, on the subject of Stoke and decentralising government. The problem with using your real name in the public press is that you attract… well… loons. Here's an email I got this morning (I've removed the gentleman's email and name):

I hope this is of interest to you ..........I enjoyed your letter in London's Guardian, the London elite  only allow us .... such freedoms because we cannot do anything with it?
From John Lacklands Magna Carta to Rooseveldt and Churchills Atlantic Charter - of 1941.

Could you read this conversation with Boris Johnsons personal drone I am sure its a very worthy pursuit....thankyou   THE ENGLISH EMBASSY. CENTRAL ENGLAND. YORK COUNTY. PONTEFRACT. ELMSALL SANDFORD RD.  WF9 2XL  Tel: ENGLAND 1977641791  You New Yorkers don't appear to sell out your own Country to makea living as The Thieving  Looneys do!

  The Looneys are thieves, it must be recognized that London is our Competitor - not our Representative!

  The Looneys are thieves, it must be recognized that London is our Competitor - not our Representative!
  1. THE ENGLISH SCOTS AND IRISH and WELSH were promised their freedom from LONDON'S rule when CHURCHILL and ROOSEVELDT signed THE ATLANTIC CHARTER of 1941. The ENGLISH are still waiting for their freedom from LONDONS kleptomanic dictatorship. Please read the enclosed
Why are we English invisible, why are we unrepresented,why are we overrun by others who refuse to recognise our own Country and our true Identity to enable them to manipulate us as they please. Why should we be british for thieves in London, why is our National Identity refused us… because  London is our competitor ... not our representative!
THE ANSWER IS … LONDON The KLEPTOCRATIC CITY-STATE THE RISE OF GHORMENGHAST … AS PREDICTED GREETINGS FROM THE (only) ENGLISH EMBASSY in the World – I wonder why? Why is there no English Government … who stole our Identity so as to make more of it’s own! Only City’s have Empire’s. Why should we English be told to be british by every pipsqueak and moribund public and private artificial construct in London’s arsenal of manifestations, why comply when it brings no relevent democratic or economic benefits to us of any kind.
Why are we subjected to a continual barrage of specious yet invasive media advertisements??? adversiding against us in programme film and paper form while the entirely selfish rogue Capital of …. britain exploits us systematically. Some magnificent scam, thieving away with our sensibilities: the whole edifice is a manufactured entity. I would have thought the Commonwealth Countries would get wise in time but even they remain silent … mysteriously servile and compliant without making any form of humanitarian representation about this blatant abuse of England and the English people. Scotland Wales and Ireland have their own governments why are we English absent from the realm of Nations – who made us invisible.
A Dictator doesn’t have to be a person, history proves conclusively that a dictator can be a City exploiting its position for its own advantage. All of China bankrolled the Olympic Games for Beijing’s cultural emancipation – imagine who bankrolls London year on year on year who’s invisible assets back up every event it manages … 365-24-7? Who pays for its almost countless public attractions it’s – Bloodsucking Intellectual Troposphere, London’s Royal Family, London’s Parliament, London’s Museums, London’s Art Galleries, London’s Orchestras. London’s Theatres and Opera’s – a mutual apprecion society with no visible means of support!
—–Original Message—–
From: Mayor of London
Sent: Thu, 16 Sep 2010 13:41
Subject: RE: MGLA310810-8353 LONDON – When are you going to declare UDI and allow us our freedom?
Dear Mr
Thank you for your email of 26 August and for your comments about London and the
economy in England. I have been asked to reply.
The Mayor would not agree with your analysis of the situation. London (with
about 12% of the UK’s population) contributes more to the Treasury than any
other region; its economy is greater than that of Scotland, Northern Ireland,
Wales and the East Midlands combined. He believes that to maintain its position,
the capital needs continued investment, but with greater freedom for the
boroughs to decide how money is spent. Then Mayor has said
“Londoners already do more than their fair share. We pay much more in tax than
we get back in public expenditure. We are driving the economy into recovery.
Londoners are, on average, 30% more productive than the rest of the UK, plus
those who leave take their skills and experiences with them, honed in the
world’s business capital.
“London has consistently replenished the Treasury coffers over the last twenty
years. What we want is a fair deal, only a fair deal, and will give a great deal
back to the nation.”
Dear Ms Phillips,
You represent a blatantly geofascist entity you have virtually all our Headquarters of Every Possible Branch of Business, our Embassies of The World – our Seaports, our Airports, our Television Companies, our Newspapers, our Civil Service … our Union Headquarters – what don’t you have – can you tell me how to make bricks without straw?
Value for money … no way – how could you be because you are not working for – us! We know just how far you -”we”- we means nothing to you … our Identity is bought and sold – we have been transported . How dare you manipulate us so blithely whilst committing daylight robbery upon our possessions – you are not OUR Capital.
When are you going to declare U.D.I. and give us our freedom, then we can have our own Headquarters and Embassies Television Radoi and Newspaper Media, Seaports and Airports our Civil Service etc … why continue with this charlatan’s charade We have absolutely nothing in common and are destined to become – sworn enemies if this grim ritual of habitual exploitation continues! I am certain Mayor Boris Johnson knows his Livy … it’s time for you to go! Don’t waste any time.
Just an Englishman.
If you are interested in reading more, please visit our website: I hope that this information is of interest and thank you for taking the time to write to the Mayor.
Ruth Phillips Public Liaison Officer Greater London Authority — Submitted on 2010-08-26 17:27 First Name: Email: Subject: When are you going to declare UDI? Message:
Only Citys have Empires – and Empires only recognise colonies
Dear Sir, According to The Atlantic Charter of 1941 signed by Winston Spencer Churchill and Franklin Delano Rooseveldt every Country in Europe would have the benefit of their own democratically elected government once the Second World War was over. What of England – how did we disappear….
Cicero…. Nunc te patria, quae communis est parens omnium nostrum, oditac metuit etiam dui nihil te indicat niside parricidio suo cogitare; huis tu neque auctoritatem vebere nec iudicium sequere nec vim pertimesces….

Back England�s bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup and London as a Candidate Host City .... again. Visit or Text �England� to 62018 GREATER LONDON 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A rag-bag of reckons

I know, it's ages since I last posted. 24 hours or so! But it's exhausting work maintaining the high standards you've come to expect from me. Take yesterday's post: sophisticated political analysis and a semiotic discussion of the significance of Clark Kent's beard and Superman's lack of beard. I'm exhausted, I tell you!

I'm also rather busy. On top of the massive teaching load, I've two book chapters due in January and I'm frankly struggling to get them written. Every time I sit down to do some substantial work, someone gives me something less important but more urgent to do. Then there are the students who deserve my undivided attention, even if they are calling in to ask for help with essays they haven't started two days before the due date, or to demand information which is and has been available for 3 months on the module guides we give them at the start of the semester.

The other thing I've been doing is preparing to represent a union colleague in a disciplinary hearing tomorrow. It seems frankly wrong that I'm considered responsible enough to entrust with this kind of duty, but beggars can't be choosers, I guess. So I'll be suited and booted tomorrow, ready to do battle. Some advice, however: please, please think about what you say to people. Having spent many years trying to make my students laugh while sneaking in a little educational material, I know that humour is very hard to communicate successfully. If in doubt, shut your mouth. I think tomorrow will be about presenting mitigation and challenging process rather than a Twelve Angry Men scenario, but we'll see.

And then there's Christmas… I have a huge family and circle of friends (I know, hard to believe). Most of them have managed to ensnare a partner of some kind, even one who'll mingle genes with them. So there's an ever-expanding circle of people requiring presents to maintain strong social capital, and so little time in which to find something individual and thoughtful.

Anyway, there are bright spots in my cultural sky. The ongoing project to reduce my book-buying to readable levels is proving astonishingly successful. The only book I've received this week is Benoit Peeters' Derrida: A Biography. Mmmmm… 600 pages of non-deconstructionist stories about the father of deconstruction. I'm a bit concerned by the Guardian review on the back, which praises the book's preference for Derrida's story rather than the theory. One of the best lines in Eugenides' recent (and rather poor) The Marriage Plot had a theory-junky telling someone that Derrida's books were about demolishing the idea that books were about anything. So a biography is an interesting move. I shall report back at some stage.

I have bought a fair amount of music recently, a mix of new and back catalogue stuff. After spending all last week humming a single quirkily-compelling Sparklehorse track, I bought their other three albums, all of which are rather wonderful. Then a chance snatch of music led to a nostalgic purchase of Mega City Four's Sebastopol Rd. It's… not as good as I remember it. Nice enough, I guess, and the band's spiky artwork will endure on the back of a thousand ageing post-punks' leather jackets.

And thus to the new stuff: new Welsh band Race Horses' debut CD Furniture and Martin Rossiter's The Defenestration of St. Martin. Rossiter was the lead singer of rather good 90s indie popsters Gene, so I'm intrigued. The title is a bit troublesome though: 'defenestration' is one of my favourite words (it means being chucked out of – or through – a window). But more than that, either Martin is being tone deaf in using his own name in the title or he's being terribly, terribly arch. Both albums, however, are very decent on first listen, with Race Horses edging it (see what I did there) in the originality stakes despite being massively 'influenced' (to put it kindly) by 1980s electro-pop. Bit of a shame that there isn't a single Welsh-language track on the CD, given their roots in the Welsh scene. Produced by top-quality Welsh musician and producer David Wrench, whom I know slightly.

More culture coming up this weekend: Beethoven's Eroica symphony at Birmingham Symphony Hall. It's the one that goes like this:

As you know, my taste generally lies in 20th-century experimental classical music with a sideline in Renaissance choral work, but some pieces are just inescapable: barely a composer who's lived since Beethoven's time hasn't referenced Eroica in some way. It's musically stunning and historically fascinating. Ludwig van originally named it after and dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte in tribute to his perceived extension of the French Revolution's ideals – quite a brave thing for a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor to do. But when Napoleon named himself Emperor too, Beethoven was furious and removed Napoleon's name from the score, renaming it the 'Heroic' symphony. Later on, he responded to Napoleon's death by pointing out that the symphony's Funeral March was written for just this event many years before: the Symphony is no longer hagiographic but does express admiration at least for Napoleon's energy and zeal, if not for his self-aggrandisement.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Too Big To Jail?

A couple of years ago when the banking collapsed made us angry rather than weary and depressed, we used to talk about the banks getting away with it because they were 'too big to fail': they'd come to dominate the global economy so much that governments had to save them rather than letting them shut down as a consequence of their criminal and reckless behaviour. This, of course, led to 'moral hazard': if the banks knew they'd be bailed out by taxpayers, there was no incentive to modify their behaviour. And so it came to pass.

We're now into a new phase of banking Yesterday Standard Chartered paid the American authorities £500m for helping finance various terrorists and crime gangs, while HSBC paid £1.2bn to settle American accusations that they'd happily turned themselves into the accounting arm of the Mexican drug cartels. In both cases, the banks pay a fine and escape without any criminal penalties corporately or personally. Which is lucky for Lord Stephen Green, the ordained minister and Government Trade minister (!) who was… er… head of HSBC while it worked for the cartels.

Breuer was pressed on why the US authorities had agreed to a deferred prosecution deal for the bank. He dismissed accusations that prosecutors had not been hard enough and said that the Justice Department had looked at the "collateral consequences" to prosecuting the HSBC or taking away its US banking licence. Such a move could have cost thousands of jobs, he said.

Why no criminal record or prosecutions? Because the American authorities have decided that as well as being 'too big to fail', HSBC and other banks are 'too big to jail'. Essentially, the authorities have decided that Justice should remove her blindfold and decide who gets punished depending on how important they are. No doubt the corner boys who sell the product which made HSBC and the cartels so much money will continue to get decades of jail time for pitifully small amounts of crack or whatever. But the bank which turned an underground industry into a multibillion global concern (and there's a strong argument that drug money helped keep the money markets liquid during the credit crunch, thus earning the gratitude of banks who decided not to be too sniffy about the money's origins) gets off free and easy. £2bn is nothing - epecially compared to the bonuses paid out.

I teach a class on ethics for students of media and religious studies. We give them two basic ethical frameworks, Kant's and the utilitarians' approach. To Kant, an action is immoral or moral regardless of purpose, motivation or outcome. To the utilitarians, the morality of an action is determined by its effects.

The US banking authorities have decided that the short-term consequences of prosecution – lost jobs and a depressed share price – outweigh the consequences of properly prosecuting HSBC. They've plumped for a utilitarian version of justice. I think they're wrong. We now know that justice is officially dependent on economic weight. We always knew that corporations don't suffer the same consequences of their actions as you and I might, but it's never been stated as a legal good. HSBC and its competitors now know that some loose change is as good as a get-out-of-jail free card. Why would they bother complying with any laws when they can simply pay the equivalent of a parking fine later?

More worryingly, the public may (should?) cease to comply with the legal and justice system in future. The point of both is that they're impartial, offering protection and punishment on an equal basis to all. This is no longer true. If corporations can escape the consequences of their actions, why should we invest in the concept of state justice any more? We already know that taxes are only paid by the little people: now it seems like criminal liability has gone the same way.


If you haven't read Roland Barthes on Roman hairstyles on film, you really should. He uses the changing presentation of Romans' barnets to argue that semiotics demonstrates the mutability and cultural specificity of signs.

I thought about it just now because I watched a trailer for the new Superman film, Man of Steel.

It is - like all the other mainstream superhero films - mostly about origins, patriarchy, the Law of the Father and conservatism (oh yes they are). But there are a few other touches which warrant attention. Primarily, Clark Kent's beardiness and Superman's clean-shaven face.

What do beards signify at the moment? In my cultural sphere, it signifies a tiny degree of cultural alterity. Look at all those new-folk and rock bands: Bon Iver and Co. They've all listened to The Band and decided that because manufactured pop singers are all clean-shaven, nothing says 'authenticity' like a bushy beard. It's a sign. Inevitably, the more popular adopting beards becomes, the less meaningful the beard is. Take Mumford and Sons:

Without needing to hear a single note of their folk-pop, your semiotic skills tell you that they're faking it. The ramshackle troubadour look is too artfully put together to be convincing. Especially the facial hair. Not enough to scare pop-pickers, just enough to persuade a more cynical crowd that they mean it, man

The other current meaning of beardedness of course is another group which definitely 'means it': Islamic men. In particular, media depictions of Islamic men with beards tend to imply that the bigger the beard, the more likely the man is to be a terrorist. Like this chap:

Before 11th September 2001, a man with a beard and a hook would be assumed to be a pirate, or an actor appearing in Peter Pan as a pirate. But beards are scary things now. They either indicate a taste for real ale, or for violently overthrowing Western capitalist hegemony. 

Which brings me back to Man of Steel, the latest in a series of 'reboots', which seem to be occurring ever more frequently. You don't even need to clock the redesigned costume (burgundy rather than red; no external undercrackers!) to realise that this Superman has even more 'issues'. Clark has a beard! It's not a Taliban beard, it's more like a Mumford beard: carefully designed to tell us that he's somewhat alienated from patriarchal society and American values. Not very alienated: it's not a proper beard like Mr al-Hamza or a member of ZZ Top. Instead it's a Mumford beard: a lame attempt which doesn't challenge society, but promises later harmony and acquiescence. But the facial hair definitely has a role to play here: as a sign of the values and psychological problems to be triumphantly defeated in the third act. Beards are bad. Even little ones. 

In conflict with his dad's advice, he's unsettled, and the psychological distress manifests itself in facial hair and a darker costume (not at all influenced by Batman, no way). But when Clark transforms into Superman: no beard! His angst vanishes as he becomes a Man of Steel or action. The beard is abjected: it crosses the border between the internal self and the external world - it's unsettling because it deconstructs the in/out binary opposition. But when Clark becomes the Man of Steel his physical and psychological borders stop being porous. He is a Man, and he is inviolable. Therefore no beard. His doubts are gone: he's no longer a Terrorist or even a potential Mumford (or Son). 

The lesson is that beards as a sign of counter-hegemony are done. Mumford and Sons appropriated them and Man of Steel has made damn sure that the sign is too transparent and appropriable to be of any further use to self-styled rebels. Time to shave, Gen X-ers!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Straight answers on gay marriage

I'm probably not the right person to hold forth on gay marriage, being neither gay nor married, but that hasn't stopped lots of rather unpleasant people (mostly Tory MPs) from weighing in (you'll get that joke if you follow the link), so why not me?

As far as I can see, the current legislation extends the right to a religious ceremony to same-sex couples if they want it. Another reason for me to keep my mouth shut - I'm not religious either. I'll ignore it. When it comes down to brass tacks, I don't see why superstitious homosexuals shouldn't be afforded the same privileges as superstitious heterosexuals. Jesus never mentioned sexuality in his bit of the Bible other than to make friends with prostitutes, while the Old Testament is quite happy to condone polygamy, something several Tory MPs have inexplicably failed to promote in today's debate. On the other hand, I don't think that law can make people believe differently, only behave differently. If you think God compels you to condemn gay people, knock yourself out – just don't expect to be taken seriously by the rest of us.  

However, I do view this entire event as a big political stunt. Gay people's rights are being toyed with by a Conservative leadership trying to look cool while actually ensuring that nothing radical happens. The proposed legislation legalises religious marriage for homosexual partners… except in churches which don't like it. Here are the magic words:

So if Catholics and Anglicans, the two biggest denominations in the country by far, ban gay marriage – even if the rabbi, priest or vicar of a particular parish wants to conduct the ceremony – then the marriage is illegal. That's perhaps worse than now. 
the legislation states that no religious organisation or individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises.
if a Church of England vicar wished to hold a same-sex marriage at a time when the church was opposed to such marriage, that ceremony would not be recognised in law. 
So the Tories get credibility for legalising gay marriage while sneakily making sure that virtually nobody can go through with it unless they're prepared to abandon their doctrines and communions for a different sect. About 0.5% of the population belongs to the Christian groups willing to conduct same-sex marriages (chiefly Unitarians), while 0.1% of the population belongs to the Jewish (Reform and Liberal) wings open to the idea. 

I think we've succumbed to the idea that religion should be a prominent component of the marriage contract. Contrary to what most people think, European marriages in the Christian era weren't primarily Christian: they were private contracts between individuals (and while we're at it, Catholic priests weren't absolutely required to be unmarried until the 11th century). Gradually, churches became places to register your marriage, understandable given the clerisy's near-monopoly on literacy, but registration wasn't a legal or religious requirement. Gradually the Catholic church began to exert more authority in the marital sphere and given the entwinement of Church and State, it came to dominate marriage arrangements. With the Reformation, the State took a greater interest, and the counter-Reformationary Catholic church only then defined a true marriage as one between a man and a woman in the presence of a priest. 

So what should we take from all this? Firstly, that you can't trust the Tories. Secondly, that religious authorities have way too much say in what's essentially a secular population. And thirdly, that you can't trust the Tories. 

Just in from the department of You Couldn't Make It Uppal

It is becoming increasingly apparent that we on the Government Benches are on the side of those who strive and work hard in society. In that vein, how can my constituents inWolverhampton South West who are saving for the future have access to enrolment to high-quality pension funds?
Says who?

Says Paul Uppal, MP.

2 minor quibbles, apart from the usual wave of tedium that crosses my cranium every time he assays one of those pointless little political jibes.

1. Paul is hardly qualified to speak for those who 'strive and work hard'. He acquired funding from somewhere mysterious (family?) to run a property speculation business. So he's never made anything, never built anything, never contributed to the economic and social life of a community. He's simply collected rents like a 19th-century absentee landlord. He's even successfully lobbied for tax breaks for himself, in the form of rebates for the holders of empty properties, insulating him from capitalism's vicissitudes at our expense. He is a tiny, local version of Goldman Sachs, memorably described as a 'a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity': parasitic, amoral and socially useless.

2. 'Those who strive and work hard' have had their benefits cut in real terms. They pay taxes and national insurance, but thanks to Paul, his party and his ideological allies across the political class, they aren't paid enough to survive without state benefits. In effect, we're subsidising Paul's corporate friends. Let's be clear: the vast majority of people in receipt of benefits are in work.

And of course despite George Osborne's disgusting sneering about people 'sleeping late on a life of benefits', most of the unemployed want desperately to work. There are 2,500,000 people unemployed. They aren't all lazy bastards. They're workers thrown out on their ears by a government which doesn't care about them and can't formulate an economic model which can get our stricken economy going. But this doesn't fit the ideological framework of Conservatism. It depends on an individualistic model of society in which structural and social conditions simply don't exist (except when you need to blame 'the European economy' to explain away bad figures). You're unemployed because you're lazy or greedy. Or you're rich because you're hard-working and thrifty. 'There is no such thing as society, there are only individual men and women, and families' said Margaret Thatcher, and she meant it.

I have so many recent graduates bursting with talent who can't find jobs, or are stuck in low-wage, low-hours jobs wasting their abilities. Take Bruno, for instance - a skilled writer, a keen intelligence, a man who takes every course available yet can't find work. Then there's Shaun, who has a first class degree and works behind the bar of my favourite pub. Many others are either unemployed or under-employed, yet to listen to the Tories, these wasted talents are the result of individual fecklessness.

One of the best things The Hegemon has done recently is start a programme of graduate employment: we've taken on recent graduates across the university in a range of roles from outreach to analysis. They may not be paid much and the contracts aren't permanent, but it gives them the experience unavailable elsewhere. My students don't have the social contacts or the family money to get unpaid internship experience of the kind open to other classes. I wish they weren't here, because I'd like them to have careers - but with people like Paul Uppal and George Osborne bad-mouthing them, they need all the help they can get.

Paul Uppal has a majority of 691. If we can just get some of his economic victims to vote, we can send him to join the ranks of the unemployed in 2015.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Edumacation edumacation edumacation

Here's a British Government educational film about education, from 1944 or so, the year when universal education was instituted following the Butler Act. I like to think that this child grew up to be Michael Gove, and eventually got hit by a car.

Obviously there are ideological and pedagogical elements I'd disagree with, but my favourite line (pay attention, Uppal), is '…and no fees either'.

While we're at it, here's one for Amazon, Apple, Google, Starbuck and my brother the tax lawyer:

Old McOsborne had a farm, EIEIO

There was once a Conservative MP called Gideon, though his friends called him George and his superiors called him 'Oik' because his school only charged £30,000 per year.

He was a very rich man, with a £4m trust fund and a big big salary. He lived in an agreeable Cheshire farmhouse which cost £450,000, and the yokels paid the interest on his mortgage.

Which was nice. But George didn't just want to be a politician. Lots of his friends had (or borrowed from the Metropolitan Police and Sun editors) ponies, and he wanted one too. 

So he bought a field for Dobbin, and the land was recorded with the Land Registry as separate from his very agreeable house. But one day, Farmer George realised that the field could be a big present to him from the villeins of the country. So he paid for the field by increasing the mortgage on his very agreeable house and 'flipping' his two houses to qualify lots of lovely taxpayer carrots - and the straw-chomping peasantry paid Mr Banker the interest on the mortgage, to the tune of 100,000 carrots. This was very pleasant for Farmer George. He spent all day riding round and round and round the field on his Shetland pony, which he called Clegg.

Until one day, poor Farmer George realised that all his friends weren't riding ponies any more. They all had toy boats with heli-pads and mini-submarines. So George sold the very agreeable farmhouse and the field for 1 million carrots. And even though we churls had paid all the interest on the mortgage to help him buy the house and the field (which was essential for his Very Important Parliamentary Duties), we didn't get any of the 500,000 extra carrots George got for his estate. He packed them all into his saddlebags and rode away into the sunset. 

And everyone lived happily ever after. At least, all the important people did. Everyone else got their benefits cut. 

'All Grown Up': the politics edition

A while back, I joked on Twitter that the Daily Mail's paedophilic tendencies (look out for 'all grown up', which means 'everybody look at this child's breasts') meant that its coverage of Obama's election victory would major on lubricious references to his underage daughters' appearances. LULZ all round from my Twitter massive (currently 1001 strong).

In an idle moment, I decided to test my thesis.
Mommy's girl grown up: How Malia Obama has blossomed from an awkward teen to America's next  icon as she follows in the First Lady's footsteps
Oh dear. I won't reproduce the images partly because that's how the Mail fills its pages, and because I know my readers aren't the type to leer over little girls.
Looking every bit as poised and elegant as her mother, the long-limbed first daughter has taken the awkward out of adolescence with ease.
That's right. Mommy's legal. And Malia looks just like her. So it's OK to lick your screen in a frenzy of lust. Get a load of those legs!
the 14-year-old blossoming from the President's wide-eyed 'baby' into a self-assured young woman
Oh yeah. You know what they're saying. 'Blossoming'. She's open for business, ladies and gentlemen.
'The torch has been passed,' said the designer Gregory Parkinson, who sent out a press release after a recent sighting of the White House's resident teenager
'I have every right to alert the nation to the sexual development of a 14 year-old girl' said paedophile-enabling attention-seeker Gregory Parkinson as though he had any connection to the total stranger at all, 'and rags like the Daily Mail will lap it up'.
Lucky magazine's executive fashion director, Alexis Bryan Morgan, told USA Today: 'I'm hard pressed to think of anyone, period, who had such great style potential at 14.
'It's any hack's right to comment on the physique of a teenage girl whose father is politically important' said Alexis Bryan Morgan. 'Mindless speculation and ludicrous statements about a child's 'style potential' is what modern journalism is all about. Come round to my house: I've a child even younger and you're welcome to write what you want. Oil up, gents!'

In case your excitement is waning, back to the body:
she embraces her lean figure
'She's smart in that she seems to be aware so many eyes are on her
Wonder how that came about?
Since turning 14 on Independence Day, she has slowly started to tick off some age-appropriate milestones - like her first mobile phone
Ah yes. The 'milestones' are coming. And we know there's one particular milestone the Mail has in mind. Like the Sun's countdown to Charlotte Church's age of consent. Though from the text, the legal niceties don't seem so important to the paper or its writers.
In fact, it seems the only person struggling with Malia's coming-of-age is the President himself
In another piece about how the Obamas try to keep their children out of the public eye (illustrated with dozens more photos), the old grump is quoted as saying:
'I'm very keen on protecting her privacy'.
What an old fuddy-duddy he must be, getting all huffy when popular newspapers invite readers to linger over the 'long-limbed' child. After all, we all know that any adolescent's psychological health is aided by being leched over in the press. 

I wonder how all this (and the dozens of accompanying photographs) fit the PCC code section 6 clause V:
Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child’s private life.
On other pages: 'Outrage as more celebrity paedos outed'.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Education Education Privatisation…

Good evening and welcome to tonight's live-blogging extravaganza. First up we have Chris Cook of the Financial Times (owned of course by Pearson, a big name in private educational services), then Lord Andrew Adonis on the joys of Academy schooling, a policy he masterminded under New Labour, before the Tories ran with it. As you know, I'm not a partisan chap, but I can't help thinking that anything the Tories like is likely to have a maggot nestling in its apparently firm, sweet flesh.

Academies, as you may know, take schools away from the democratic and strategic management of an elected council and give it to a 'sponsor' who may be anyone other than (perhaps) Jimmy Savile. The relaunched schools get a big chunk of cash. They're given a get out of jail free card exempting them from Freedom of Information, teacher qualifications and even things like minimum food standards. There are no more parent or staff governors. Headteachers are left to negotiate everything from toilet roll supplies to legal services. The result is dependency on consultants and profit-making suppliers. The end result is privatisation.

This is deregulation: the concept which has worked so very well in banking, health and pensioner care…

In essence, Academy Schools are the educational equivalent of New Labour and its Tory successors. Instead of the collective wisdom embodied in responsive democracy, schools are run by a Great Leader: you can see the attraction to Blair, who continually presented himself as a visionary held back by bureaucracy and the reactionary mob. Likewise Lord Adonis. He's never been elected to anything. Precisely the opposite: he has a voice and a vote in the legislature for the rest of his life without the electorate ever getting to pass judgement on whether his public presence is welcome. Without wanting to get too personal, it's tempting to diagnose a Messianic tendency in anyone named after a God… Their successors Cameron, Gove, Pickles et al. have a similarly Messianic ideology. They aren't democrats, they're meritocrats - by which they mean that those who shoulder their way through in any one field must per se be experts in whatever they turn their hands to.

So we get Academies: sealed off from parental, staff, student and social oversight or critique. They spend huge amounts of money on PR, on casting around for convenient qualifications and exam regimes. They exclude messy students, either officially or structurally. They offer 'choice': the magic word for consumerist parents with the time, money and mortgage credit to play the game – and the rest are left to fend for themselves. This is how private schools succeed: they ruthlessly pick and choose their intake and pour money into tiny classes and social cachet. Bingo!

So that's the scene set. I'll update as the evening unfurls. A moment of disclosure: my employer is the sponsor of three schools.

So here I am. About to challenge this discourse while surrounded by everyone who can sack me: Vice-Chancellor, Executive members, the lot. Oh, and Paul Uppal MP, who shot me a fairly contemptuous look. Perhaps he's read the previous entry on Vole!

Well well, Adonis got his break from a council grant to go to a boarding school. So I think we can discern his ideological landscape…

Praising investment - not something for which an undemocratic change in status is required. Now scaring us with talk of Chinese graduates. I miss the days when the left was internationalist.

What's the next stage? Picks up on the contribution 'business' can make. As though giving every school an Alan Sugar is the answer. Every school needs 'Strong Leaders'. BINGO! Sadly unlike Benito, head teacher-leaders don't end up swinging from lamp-posts. They get pay-offs.

'Strong school leadership is at the heart of every educational system… I mean headteachers, managers and governors'. Academies don't have elected governors: this seems to be his major innovation. It's a self-appointed oligarchy. Goes through school leadership training system - all quite impressive. 'The principle of academies is to invest in schools with weak governance to produce dramatic improvement'. Makes call for other universities to sponsor academies - but no mention of the usual type of sponsor: fundamentalist carpet salesmen like Lord Harris, or of democracy. Then he harps on about 'businesses' as though their abilities are unquestionable.

'Teachers: more of them and better trained': higher pay for teachers helps. Adonis says he supports variable pay for teachers, which I think is desperate. Shame the government has just announced it's going to end this. Praises SE Asian and Scandinavian queues for teaching jobs. Doesn't mention that you need an MA to be a kindergarten teacher in Finland: Adonis supports Teach First, which doesn't require any qualification. You don't need one to work at an Academy.

Curriculum: need to strengthen the technical route and make apprenticeships available en masse. I totally agree. In Germany, you're not considered dumb if you attend a Technical Hochschule. Here, you really are. He's making a good case for better curricula and more care for a wider range of students. But none at all about why academies are equipped for this at all.

Adonis criticises Gove's obsession with GCSEs and calls for new, better technical qualifications for 18-year olds. Then appeals to businesses to make apprenticeships available and attractive. Points out how few businesses do provide them, or employ people under 21. He's absolutely right. Also points out that the Dept for Business, Industry and Skills has only 11 apprentices, 1 under 21. He appeals for businesses to become more community-minded and interventionist… which is all very well, except that lots of businesses are parasitic vampire squid like Starbucks and Amazon rather than cuddly local co-operatives.

He's winding up. Some soap for the local big-wigs. The big surprise is that there isn't a single word about academies. And here's a nasty little sting in the tale. The compere has a list of pre-submitted questions, and lots of the audience wasn't invited to take part. Now that's what I call event management! It looks like a debate - but it's a love in.

First question: how do we get our kids 'work-ready'? (CEO of the city council)
Adonis: more work placements. Better key skills.
Cook (FT man): schools run in collaboration businesses teaching project-based curricula [UTCs - which this university already sponsors].
Lord Bilston (Dennis Turner, ex-Labour MP). How does Labour's 'one nation' theme equate with competitive schools freed from lots of legal requirements especially the National Curriculum?
Adonis: Competition should be competition to drive up standards through strong management, local collaboration and community engagement, partnership working. But formal oversight is denied to local authorities and parents. 'Going round the local Academy, the school is transformed and it's not just about money but about leadership and not passing the buck'. I want to see competition between schools.
Bilston: 'And the role of local government?'
Adonis: 'Yes. They have a central role to play in stimulating and encouraging apprenticeships'.
Some of us: 'But not in running schools.
?: How do you feel about Academies being free to employ unqualified teachers?
Adonis: I don't generally agree.
Ken Purchase (former Labour MP): The use of statistics is dubious. A deeper cultural and historical understanding is required to parse what you've been saying. I resent the underlying criticism that teachers shouldn't accept 'second-best'. I've not met a teacher in 40 years who accepts second-best. Continual attacks on teachers is demoralising and damaging. Don't use the German example - it lead to the Nazis [oh dear]. The Sutton Trust report highlights inequality between state schools. Do you agree that non-community schools (Academies, religious schools) accelerates inequality through competition and gaming the system?
Adonis: I agree with some of that. You must seek to 'move forward'. I accept that teachers don't want to do a bad job, but standards were very poor in places. Nobody wants to go back to that. We should be proud and believe we can improve things, and we can learn from abroad. If we look inwards and backwards, we have no future. 'Let's not have an arid debate about mechanisms'.

And that's the end! No time for questions from the floor. I found that quite enlightening, though Adonis's call to avoid talking about mechanisms was a deft bit of evasiveness: the mechanisms are ideological and have the greatest impact. We can all agree that we want schools to get better, but by talking about airy generalities, he escaped any scrutiny. For instance, the language of 'community engagement' is something that Norman Fairclough and the Critical Discourse Analysis folks would really get their teeth into. It sounds nice, but it's a polite way of saying that these SuperHeads can do what they want. Meaningful, i.e. statutory or legal representation and direction by councils, parents and students is exactly what the Academies are founded to escape. How do we question the sponsors, or replace them? Answer: you can't. Similarly, we couldn't talk about what actually happens in schools: the little dodges, the tricks, the consultancies, the covert selection and exclusion: instead we got nice idealistic phrases with which nobody can disagree.

I wish Ken Purchase had stayed sane. His question started off reasonably and I was nodding along. Then he broke Godwin's Law by mentioning the Nazis and the anti-academy case is once again associated with lunacy and xenophobia. It was like a fart at a funeral. Except not as funny.

And while we're on the subject, 'debate' means, or so I thought, free and open discussion: not a magic circle of special people invited to propose a question in advance.

Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Goodnight.