Monday, 23 December 2013

Reading this blog may warp your fragile little minds.

I feel like I should be wearing some kind of medallion, because I'm clearly a serious threat to public morality. That's right: Plashing Vole is BLOCKED under 02's 'Parental Control' settings.

Oh yeah. My stern critiques of Michael Gove, neoliberalism and bad books are TOO HOT for impressionable young minds. Still, I've got a way to go: 02 still thinks this is an 'Educational Site' and adults are still able to read the poisonous filth dripping from my keyboard. I'm not as dangerous as some other depraved sites which have been blocked under the default safety rules: Childline, Refuge and on BT:
 "sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy."
Oh, and 'esoteric material', which I would hope to qualify for one day. It's fascinating that the primary moral fear in the UK is sexuality, rather than say, violence. What's next though? Once sex has been banned from the internet, will politics and religion become verboten? I think of David Cameron as an even less intelligent version of Dolores Umbridge:

'For the greater good. I want to do what must be done. '
'Let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfected and prune practices that ought to be... prohibited!'
Dolores was as keen on stifling free speech as our current government which – I should point out – ran for office on platforms of increasing civil liberties after New Labour's absurdly authoritarian behaviour.

One of JK Rowling's greatest creations, Dolores hides a vicious hatred of dissent, enjoyment, citizen autonomy and freedom of speech and assembly under the guise of concern for morality and young minds. She's a mix of Michael Gove and Mary Whitehouse. In fact, I might start a campaign to rename ISP censorship Dolores' Law.

As an aside, I remember some pompous Tory MP demanding in Parliament that David Cameron stop his kids viewing porn. Given that the Tories are thoroughly against the Nanny State and Big Government, I wrote to him suggesting that rather than relying on laws and technical fixes, he could educate his children and/or keep an eye on their browsing choices himself. Sadly, he couldn't find time to reply.

If anyone would like to test the new Cameron Filters on their ISPs, do let me know if I've been declared a Public Enemy via other services. If you can still get in touch, that is.

They'll never take me alive!

One of Schweitzer's two means of escaping the miseries

If, like me, you lack both a roaring fire and a disarmingly cute mass killer of fauna, all you need is a big screen where your fireplace should be and some speakers. Then just play this on repeat:

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Desolation of Smug

I went to see the second episode of The Hobbit last night. A vast improvement on the first one, I thought, despite having more padding than a fat bloke on a bouncy castle. Good holiday fun.

But being an English and Cultural Studies Lecturer, my mind turned to metaphor and wordplay. The film's subtitle is The Desolation of Smaug (he's the dragon). Being of an entirely predictable political bent, and never being one to turn down the opportunity to overwork a metaphor to death, I decided to see the film as a political allegory.

We can call it The Desolation of Smug. In charge: sinister forces in draughty Gothic architecture. There are some other sinister but slightly more louche characters living in faded grandeur and dismissive of the concerns of the downtrodden masses. Their primary concern is to repel any hard-working immigrant arachnids and dwarfs crossing the borders of their territory in search of a better life. Everyone's in thrall to rather revolting notions of heredity and breeding.

They're like the Elvish version of Downton Abbey.

The main enemy is a rapacious hoarder, Smaug, who doesn't believe in investment, redistribution or taxation. He's got a lot of money and he's keeping the lot, despite the obvious damage this is doing to the economy.

The local town is a ramshackle dump in which its ragged inhabitants live in hovels. No spare rooms there (and shifting fantasy universes slightly, wait until Iain Duncan Smith finds out about Uncle Diggory's Spare Oom). No doubt the schools are 'free', the libraries closed and childcare nonexistent. The environment is thoroughly degraded:

There are references to 'shirkers' and more than one character remarks that greed is socially destructive. Racial disharmony abounds. Our hero is a 'burglar' and his character is not improving the longer he possesses the ring he stole/found. Middle-earth is not, I fear, a Big Society sort of place.

As I said, I rather enjoyed the film once I'd decided it was biting social satire. Before that, I was with Hugo Dyson, the academic who once interrupted Tolkien's reading of a fresh chapter of The Lord of the Rings with the immortal line 'not ANOTHER fucking elf!'.

Update: on second thoughts, there's another political line to take. While the head wood-elf is a selfish Little Mirkwooder, basically a pointy-eared UKIPer, Legolas and Tauriel are horrible Blairite Liberal Interventionists, arguing the case for Elvish interference in the legitimate aspirations of far-away peoples of which they know nothing. If it's ugly and speaks a guttural language, they'll stick an arrow in its head with little regard for political or cultural context. No negotiation, no peace talks, just arrows arrows arrows.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Higher Education Outrage of the Week

OK, you've had a couple of days off from my usual bile-filled, splenetic fury. Now it's time to get back on the Angry Bike. 

The first thing is the government's latest spiteful, mean-spirited punch in the face of the poor. I wasn't going to get in to this one: my Vice-Chancellor has aired it in the Guardian recently. But even though we eyeballed each other over my picket line the other day, I feel compelled to support him.

You may or may not know that The Hegemon is one of those unfashionable universities that has a mostly working-class, mostly local, mostly first-generation intake. These students are not candidates for the Bullingdon and rarely spend their weekends beagling. They spend their weekends doing shift work and/or looking after their children. They do not have money to spare. They have often come through considerable adversity to get to university and quite a lot of them need extra financial and academic support to succeed. That doesn't mean they're here out of charity, or that we're making things easier for them: my department's external examiner works at a Russell Group institution and tells us that our students would succeed at her place just as they do here.

George Osborne's Autumn Statement announced that the cap on university recruitment would be abandoned. Universities could recruit as many students as they wanted. Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Only students are funded by borrowing money from the government, so every loan puts the country in more debt. George needs a way round this. One wheeze he's proposed is to sell off the existing Student Loan book to financial institutions. He gets an instant hit of cash, but it's a lot less than what would come in if he just waited for the repayments to start rolling in: the sale has to allow for a large scale of default. So there's going to be a massive gap between the money needed to pay for expansion and the money available to pay for it.

So that's pretty short-sighted and cynical. Par for the course, you might say. But this is George Osborne (and David Willetts, Cable and Clegg) we're talking about. They're not just economically illiterate: they're vicious class warriors, and in the words of Warren Buffett, their class is winning. They've found another way of saving money, and it's a humdinger.
The Department for Business (BIS) is considering cutting £350m of grants to the UK's poorest students and slashing £215m from ringfenced science funding in order to plug a £1.4bn hole in its finances, the Guardian has learned. 
More than 500,000 students from lower income backgrounds would be affected by plans drawn up by the higher education minister, David Willetts, which are being discussed by the business secretary, Vince Cable, and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
That's right. They've looked at the Russell Group universities they went to, and decided to leave them alone. They've thought about tightening the budgets here and there, and rejected it. Instead, they've managed to pick on the students they secretly think shouldn't really be here at all: the poor.  My students.

Currently, students from households with a collective income of under £25,000 (just under the UK median wage for a single individual) get £3,250 as a grant each year, with smaller amounts available for those with slightly higher household incomes. The government wants to turn £1000 of this into a loan. So the poorest students will be loaded down with even more debt when they graduate than the richest ones, thus deepening inequality and making social mobility even more unlikely.

But that's not all. Just when you think you've reached the depths of their viciousness, Osborne and Co. pull another dead rabbit out of the hat. There's another fund for the very poorest students. It's called the National Scholarship Programme. It gives out £75m and was invented so that the Lib Dems had a handkerchief to cover their genitals having stripped themselves of their commitment not to increase student fees to £9000.
Separate to grants, the National Scholarship Programme, which is meant to aid the very poorest students fund their study, will be all but abolished a year early, saving the department £75m according to measures already agreed. 
However, the decision requires an "urgent" sign-off from Clegg, who announced the programme in February 2011. The programme was meant to offset the fallout from the Lib Dems breaking promises on tuition fees, which trebled in late 2010. 
My MP, Paul Uppal, is David Willetts' Parliamentary Private Secretary. Has he said a word about cuts that will directly hit a massive proportion of our students – his constituents – who wish merely to better themselves? Of course he hasn't.

And if that all pisses you off, you should read Steve Sarson's wonderful piece about being required to 'embed entrepreneurial thinking' into his curriculum. When I read something that good, I wonder how I ever dare put fingertips to keyboard.  

Monday, 16 December 2013

Grand Old York

Rather than my usual ranting and raving, have some photos from the weekend's wonderful trip to York. The whole set is here. Click on these ones for larger versions.

Yorkshire doesn't believe in fads like bottled water

Carousel lights reflected in puddles. 

The Shambles

Rather smug stained glass inscription

York Minster nave

York Minster central tower

York from the Minster tower roof

A jumble of architecture, taken from the Minster tower roof. 

Not a prison exercise yard, but the Minster tower roof

'I like big buttresses…'

The Choir and organ, York Minster

Self-portrait in the lectern eagle

Always blowing his own trumpet

The Rose Window

The Chapter House roof and windows

Pigeons on a bird sculpture

Thursday, 12 December 2013

How To Fail At Social Media The Tory Way

3 Easy Steps to mastery of social media.

1. Pick a hashtag. For example:

Just pluck it out of the air. Don't bother doing any preparation: conversations with people, that kind of thing. Once it's a #hashtag, it'll go viral of its own accord.

2. Watch the campaign take hold like wildfire:

Don't bother supporting it in any way, or engaging with other people on your social media network of choice. Just abandon it without making any effort.

3. Have a petition. Everybody loves petitions. Especially one that opposes 'cuts'.

This bit only works if you avoid mentioning that you're a government MP and minor functionary who voted for massive cuts to council funding. Genius: you impose cuts in Parliament where nobody can see you doing it, then oppose cuts in your constituency because the Council is run by a different party. Cue mucho coverage in your supportive local paper.

And the petition?

Wow! And who are these doughty campaigners for a larger state?

Gosh. So that's you, your 21-year old campaign manager who presumably did all this work, hopefully not this Aman Johal nor this Sam Paskin who tweets mostly about his collection of weaponry, and a local Tory student.

But don't worry if this campaign doesn't go viral. You can always have another poll demanding that local parking charges are reduced. That's a surefire winner:

38 Degrees, eat your heart out!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

I Got Off My Bike And Stopped Looking For Work

Down Under, one of the academics I respect most of all is having a very nasty encounter with cancer. Unlike I would in such a situation, she's not rocking backwards and forwards in a darkened room uttering incoherent moans of terror (I would also be looking at the room of unread books and thinking 'that was a waste of money and time then'). She's thinking about the academic life and how it fits into social and institutional structures, particularly the way we all overwork.  

I know why I overwork: to make up in quantity what I lack in quality; because so many of our activities aren't following orders but help colleagues who are usually our friends too; because a student in need isn't someone you can ignore because time's up. A dentist doesn't clock off half way through a root canal because it's 5 o'clock, and nor can we. Also, a lot of our work is also pleasure. After a day's admin, it's actually fun to read some Foucault or scribble down some ideas for a paper. I think I got through my degree because study didn't feel like work (unlike the student who told me that she hates my Ethics module because it makes her think).

Kate's insight into why academics overwork (yes, we do) is that it's more than a personal act. She uses the fascinating comparison of pro-cycling. Being a fat cyclist myself, I initially thought that was a good thing, but I was wrong. From Coyle and Hamilton's book, she learned that:

To ride within the limits of your own ability became naive, disloyal to the team, and uncompetitive. Young riders waited to be invited to join the inner circle who were doping, and accepted pills handed to them on the basis that it would make them healthier; team management understood and allowed this to happen, because results had become the currency for economic survival, not just for individual riders, but for vast whirling enterprises of sponsorship, employment and profit.
For pro cyclists, being good wasn't enough because professional sport very much isn't about the taking part. It's about winning, and not for the sake of winning. Pro-sport is simply a complicated form of advertising. Teams need sponsors and advertisers need eye-catching sites for their logos, whether that's an F1 car or a cyclist's arse. Enormous profits and losses depended on whether a cyclist performed. Capitalism made Lance Armstrong dope, not simply individual greed.

That's the important point about Coyle's and Kate's point. I have my perceived reasons for overworking, but that's far less important than the culture and structure within which I operate. In a Foucauldian sense, I've simply internalised the disciplinary and surveillance models which surround me. I feel bad when I don't overwork because I've been trained to see overwork as normal. Our employers – and every employer: this isn't simply about education – depend on overwork. Our classes are bigger than is educationally optimal. Marking is more rushed than it should be. Holidays, when taken, actually become opportunities to do the marking in exotic new places or the time when new books are read. We have less time to keep up with the field, less time with individual students or small groups, less time to think about each student's development, less time to talk about colleagues' ideas: I've been trying to find time to read a colleague's paper on the politics and culture of the Youth Hostel Association for weeks, despite knowing that it's going to be fascinating. I couldn't hang around after today's 2 hour sonnets class to chat to students about their work in general because I had another 3 hour class to go to elsewhere. Colleagues aren't going to each others' research seminars because less important but more immediate demands are being made on their time.

Kate puts it like this:
Imagine that the university offered to pay salary X, but in any given pay week, multipliers applied to X on the basis of worker need in the moment. Imagine that your employer could hike up your rate of pay on demand like this, without any need for forward planning or budgetary calculations. Oh, you need more cash this week? Sure. How much more?

Because this is exactly what university workers offer in return. It’s Thursday and you need this report by Monday but I’m already in meetings or teaching all day Friday and grading on Saturday? Sure, I can offer Sunday, would that do? And of course, I’ll spend most of Saturday night thinking about it because I’ll be at a Christmas concert for my kids so I’ll have some mental calculation time and could check an updated version if you email it to me, provided I’m sitting up the back. So yes, we can meet on Monday and you’ll have your report, because I ride for the team. Obviously, if I wasn’t doing your report I’d be trying to meet a publication deadline, so I’ve already more or less paid my weekend up front anyway, as a downpayment on something or other. Don’t worry about the publication though, I’ll make that up next weekend.
It's true. Our work seems important to us, and we obliged to fulfil a lot of it not because of the money, but because we exist in a social web we don't want to break. I'm currently meant to be working to contract as part of my union's industrial action, so I'm meant to be doing 37.5 hours per week and not taking on any extra duties. But research is fun; I like my students and don't want to inconvenience them; X is my friend as well as my boss so I don't want to say no to him/her; this thing's really important, what if everybody says no?. The result is that working-to-rule is painful and divisive, however right. The pressures are the same in any job, but the situation is special in a sense: because there's less division between work and non-work (we're less alienated, in Marxist terms), it's harder to resist. Someone making things can stop at the end of the shift and can't make more of them at home. Because academic work often doesn't involve machinery or infrastructure, it can be done anytime, anywhere - and so it is.

So we all internalise the pressure to overwork, and feel bad if we don't. This is ideal for our employers. They like the fact that there are thousands of desperate PhDs out there looking for whatever hours they can scrape together. They like the fact that our consciences ensure that the work is done, however intolerable the pressure. They like outsourcing their requirements to our sense of responsibility. It gets the work done without having to spend any money.

There are a couple of downsides. Firstly: who will be the academic who refuses to take the steroids? Who declines on quality of life or quality of work grounds? That person will be pilloried by management as 'not a team player' and envied by colleagues for their selfishness. But overwork isn't only personally destructive: it forces everyone else to compete. Nobody wants to let their students and colleagues down, so (with some exceptions) we all overwork just to keep the ship afloat.

And here's the kicker: the more we overwork, the less we get paid.

For 5 years, our pay has gone up by 1%, which is significantly less than inflation, so we're back to 2008 real-terms salaries. The university intends to keep doing this for the next few years too. I sit in Board of Governors meetings and listen to everyone acknowledge that we're doing more for less, but I never hear anyone admit that we're making things worse. If we stopped overworking, those hungry PhDs would get decent jobs. We'd know our students' names and how they're getting on. Our lectures would improve. We'd write fewer, better books and journal articles because quality would once again trump quantity. Our loved ones would talk to us again rather than enduring apoplectic rants about work followed by an immediate and unromantic collapse into catatonia.

Where does it stop? No one university can get off the bus because the government's trying to organise private-sector providers who'll dump the expensive stuff (research, libraries, qualified staff) in favour of cash-and-carry courses, which is like a country voluntarily putting on the dunce's cap. No, it's much easier for a university to pass the pressure downwards and let us deal with – and worry – about it individually. But here's the thing: because the pressure is intangible and entirely absent from directives, reports and reviews, it's also non-existent. I couldn't point to a single piece of paper telling me to mark harder or do more. It's so diffuse that it's completely deniable, and as Foucault points out about Bentham's Panopticon, it doesn't even need a hierarchy. We'll behave as if they're watching even when they aren't watching. That's the point of hegemony: it doesn't need force or even explicit enunciation.

Kate found this all out the hard way: she couldn't find time for a health check with the result that her cancer was detected later than it should have been. Her choice, you might say, but the point of being a poststructuralist scholar is that we know that nobody operates in a void: we do things within structures and cultures, whether we're aware of them or not.

Take the evening off. Not for your sakes, but for your students and your colleagues. And for Kate.

*The title of the post references Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, who in the depths of a terrible economic crash, claimed that mass unemployment was due to laziness. He said: 'I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it'. Which is so economically illiterate that he should have been beaten to death with a copy of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Santa's here

Two people have left me presents in parcels outside my office door. One parcel contained three teen films (Drag Me To Hell, Girl, Interrupted, Clueless special edition), presumably because I'm always going on about what a great adaptation of Emma that film is. I have no idea who this present is from: the note said 'a student who reads', which implies that there are some who don't. I'm shocked, shocked at the very notion!

The other parcel contained something equally wonderful:

I don't want to encourage a culture of students giving staff presents because they have little enough money as it is, but as I can't thank you personally, I'll do it here. You're both very kind and I'm grateful. And thanks to the magic of anonymous marking, there's no chance your grades will be influenced in any way!

Fancy Footwork With Paul Uppal

There's an old saying in Texas politics relating to that corrupt state's political fundraising, popularised by the great muck-raking journalist Molly Ivins, and it goes like this:
You got to dance with them what brung you

It means, basically, that you pursue your donors' interests in politics. If you don't, no more money. And in a hollowed-out democracy, it's the money which brings in the votes. With this principle in mind, let's have a look at who funds Mr Paul Uppal, my lazy local millionaire who was once described as 'our man in Parliament' by the British Property Federation.

First up: £8000 from the Government of India for a lovely all-expenses paid trip. Simple enough transaction and one MPs engage in all the time. Free holiday; quick photo op, warm feelings forever after. Then there's Ranees Ltd. They appear to be a clothes shop in London's East End: why they want to give a West Midlands MP £1500 baffles me, especially as they have a capital value of £2.00 (yes) but there must be some reason.

Up next: £1500 in cash and hotel rooms from LTC Investment Ltd. Who are these people? As is so often the case, they're very shy. No website, no public profile. A few scattered references to property and a lot of donations to Conservative MPs across the Midlands. It's almost as if they're buying friends - and as Paul made millions in property speculation, I'm sure they already had a lot in common.

Moving on, we find that Paul is in bed with the Big Beasts: £15,000 from the Midland Industrial Council. With a name like that, you're pretty much guaranteed that they're not cuddly chaps doing their bit for the nation. No: from the limited information about, they're hard-faced men with serious money ready to ensure that a government of crooks, con-men and cash keeps on screwing the poor and making life sweet for shareholders and directors. Who are they? Well, even the hard-right Telegraph calls them a 'mystery'. What is known is that this group has a shared fortune of £4 billion and puts large amounts of it at the disposal of the Conservative Party: and yet the Tories go on about Labour being run by 'union barons'. It was founded to fight the Atlee government (the one that introduced the NHS and the Welfare State) and has spent the past 70 years opposing every civilised measure introduced by government - all hidden behind a wall of anonymity. Are its activities legal? Hard to say, as no court has tested it yet, but it may be dubious if its acting as a channel for donations by unqualified donors. We can't tell who they are. That's democracy, baby!

Next: £5,000 from Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd., the personal piggybank of Lord Ashcroft. Yes, the Lord Ashcroft whose businesses seem to be dubious at very best and largely reliant on activity in agreeable offshore tax havens and of course Belize, which he appears to own. The Lord Ashcroft who thought that being given a seat in the House of Lords and a central role in British democracy shouldn't entail paying tax in the United Kingdom. Me? I say 'no representation without taxation', not a slogan likely to adorn Conservative posters in the near future.

Then there's Millway Shippers (£2,500), another London company with a serious attack of stage fright: not even a website. They apparently do 'import-export' which can only be above board and honourable, but there's nothing else to say about them other than to commend them for their public-spirited concern for the citizens of The Dark Place. I'm sure their interest in funding Paul Uppal is entirely altruistic.

After them comes some old favourites: the Conservative Friends of Israel, who handed Paul a shade under £6000. This is the classic lobbying operation. Paul got an expenses-paid 'fact-finding' trip to Israel courtesy of the Israeli government, which funds the CFoI. It included a ride in an armoured car or similar to the Golan Heights, which as far as the world is concerned, is Syrian and illegally occupied by Israel. CFoI is simply an exercise in buying Tory support for what is essentially an apartheid state, one in breach of multiple international laws and human rights treaties. Think of it as an investment: you can guarantee that whatever the Government of Israel does, Paul will never murmur a word of criticism. Money well spent! His constituents' views, you say? Talk to the hand.

Another big donor is Sun Mark, funding Uppal to the tune of £15,000. The company exports junk food across the world. It has no interests in this city, but its owner is a very active Tory donor and he's active in Sikh politics, working hard to make Conservatism attractive to British Sikhs.

After Sun Mark comes JCB Research Ltd. One of the JCB construction company's subsidiary, it seems to exist solely to channel the company's and its owners' money to the Conservative Party: Cameron has used its helicopter often. JCB has a reputation as a fearsomely rightwing company never scared to back up its vile ultra-capitalist views with cash directed to eager Tory mouths. What research does JCB Research undertake? Not mechanical experimentation, it seems: more like lobbying for tax breaks and state support, going by this presentation. With that level of generosity, you'd think that Anthony Bamford who owns JCB, should be in line for a peerage like most Tory-loving plutocrats. Sadly, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Fat Tony's tax affairs are so outrageous that even the spineless HMRC refused to play ball.

Finally, Paul's received £2500 from the United and Cecil Club. Now, I know the streets of this city pretty well. I've searched and searched for the United and Cecil Club, and can't find it anywhere. Is it an ex-Servicemen's association? Perhaps an old folks' organisation dedicated to tea dances? A group of aspiration young people looking for a way out? Sadly not. The United and Cecil club is yet another bunch of very rich people hiding behind a corporate shell because either they shouldn't legally be donating to political parties in this country, or they're simply ashamed (anyone who gives a political party more than £1500 has to be publicly identified). It works like this: they give the money to the United and Cecil Club and then – completely independently and spontaneously – the United and Cecil Club decides to give exactly the same amount of money to needy Conservative Members of Parliament. As long as it's less than £7500 per person per year, the real donor never has to be named.

So while the Tories bleat about – declared, legal, identifiable – Labour donations from the Conservative Party, every penny of Paul Uppal's declared funding comes from shadowy companies and front, not one of which is based in the constituency. It's almost as if nobody here wants him and his party as an MP, and all these shady bodies are piling in to support a marginal seat. You won't hear Paul mentioning these groups in public: he's cleverer than that. But you know that their calls and good wishes go a damn sight further than those of his constituents.

It's really simple. If Paul's proud of his funding by these groups, and they have the courage of their convictions, why don't they identify themselves? Why doesn't he tell us who these people are, why they're funding him and what they get out of it? Just so we're reassured that he hasn't been bought, lock, stock and barrel. Because as far as I can see, his current strategy is to accept large chunks of cash from very obscure sources with shady agendas.

And that, folks, is how democracy is bought. You got to dance with them what brung ya. The question is: who's calling the tune?

Monday, 9 December 2013

That tech and social media corporations' statement in full.

'The world's leading technology companies have united to demand sweeping changes to US surveillance laws, urging an international ban on bulk collection of data to help preserve the public's “trust in the internet”' 
Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter joined together in a concerted effort to resist US Government attempts to acquire users' data for free. 'We're deeply concerned that the state is using technical methods to snoop on our users' data for free when everybody else has to pay for it' said a spokesman for the group. 'When Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, said "If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place", he meant it, but he meant that your nefarious activities should make us money, not that the state should find out. Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems said "You already have zero privacy. Get over it". I would like to make it clear on behalf of Silicon Valley's leading social media corporations that there is a price to pay for information: even if you're the government. It's a new world, buster. Governments are history. Governments can't be trusted with your information, whereas we only sell it to anyone with a wad of cash. We're deeply concerned that if this intrusion goes on, our users will flee to some pathetic tax-paying European company which doesn't hand over your data to anyone who asks for it and we'll lose money the founding principles of the internet will be betrayed.  We own you now, and we insist on getting paid. We demand immediate legislation to ensure that we're never caught saying one thing to our users while handing over everything the government and advertisers want. This legislation should take the form of 438 pages of legal jargon in size 3 font with a checkbox at the end: we've got the iTunes guys drafting it right now. Don't bother reading it'.   
The spokesman concluded his remarks and climbed into a personal jet to visit the companies' money, currently holidaying in a tax-free resort out of reach of any government. The money declined to comment, citing 'privacy concerns'. 

(By the way: I'm completely opposed to what GCHQ, NSA and the various governments have been up to. I just don't think we should allow these intrusive media giants – who cooperated with the spooks until they got caught – should get away with pretending that they're suddenly interested in principle over profit). 

Friday, 6 December 2013

They come to bury Nelson, not just to praise him

Nelson Mandela's death is the best thing to happen to politicians everywhere. In death, he's frozen in history as St. Nelson, posing with every political hack and minor pop star whose PR advisers had enough clout to get them in the same room as him. 

Here's the son of a notorious racist and some manufactured corporate pop stars getting their moment. 

Here's the Prime Minister posing with the world's favourite grandpa, with his twinkling eyes and lovely sense of humour:

Last night I watched Richard Branson almost claim that Mandela couldn't have done it without him. Louise Mensch is currently tweeting that Nelson Mandela was never a socialist. 

Even Elle fashion magazine feels that it has to communicate its deep sense of loss amidst its usual parade of banality (let's not be so cruel as to calculate the white/black ratio in its pages):

Meanwhile everybody on Twitter, especially those with a public profile, are calling him 'Madiba', as though they spent the last 40 years in that prison cell with him, or storming the barricades with the ANC. Sorry: unless you're a black South African, a comrade or a personal friend, it's Mr Mandela to you. 

Because let's face it: Nelson Mandela is no longer a real person. He's hyperreal. He's become a brand, an icon, a signifier. Now he's dead, he's anybody's property. Take David Cameron, for instance. 

You'd never think, from that statement, that David Cameron once took a trip to apartheid South Africa, paid for by a pro-apartheid lobbying campaign. Nor that the notoriously extreme Federation of Conservative Students was distributing this image in the 1980s:

while the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, called Nelson Mandela a 'grubby little terrorist'. She wasn't alone, either:

'This hero worship is very much misplaced'- John Carlisle MP, on the BBC screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990
The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land' - Margaret Thatcher, 1987
'How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?' - Terry Dicks MP, mid-1980s
'Nelson Mandela should be shot' - Teddy Taylor MP, mid-1980s
And of course there's conservative satirist Kingsley Amis, who once remarked that the situation was easily resolved: 'You should shoot as many blacks as possible.'

But the point of history and politics when it reaches the public sphere is that the facts don't matter nearly so much as the battle over the airwaves. It's back to Karl Rove's statement about politicians 'creating new realities'. Celebrities and politicians (and us) can flood the media with platitudinous statements of sorrow and we'll forget what they really did and said. And we all get that little bit thicker, lazier and more dishonest.

It's not fair to Nelson Mandela. He wasn't a saint. He wasn't a god. He wasn't perfect (though he got closer than most). Putting him on a pedestal is dishonest partly because it makes him fair game for the opportunists I've mentioned above, but most importantly because it denies the complicated realities of what he did and what we all did. He shouldn't be turned into an all-purpose photo opportunity for people on the make. David Cameron shouldn't be allowed to cuddle up to him without question, Richard Branson shouldn't be allowed to claim him for capitalism. Louise Mensch certainly shouldn't be able to claim, unchallenged, that he was 'above' politics: this is a man who ruled in coalition with the Communist Party of South Africa.

You just know that whenever anyone rudely asks Tony Blair about all the kidnappings and deaths, or mentions tax evasion to Bono, these elitist capitalist shills scowl and then brighten as they pull out their mobile phones and point to one number. 'I'm on the side of progress', they'll say, 'I've got Nelson's phone number'.

Instead, let's deal with some hard truths. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. He was a non-state actor using violence to advance a political cause. Now, I've seen some people last night using the defence 'OK, but he changed'. WRONG. The proper response should be 'Yes, he was a terrorist. Good'. But that means that we'd all have to engage in a little thinking beyond 'terrorists bad'. Nelson Mandela used violence against a state which used greater violence against his people. He never renounced this: when negotiating his release from prison, he refused to commit to non-violence, qute rightly.

Another example. I remember very clearly the flag-waving in Northern Ireland. At football matches, nationalist and republican supporters would fly the Irish tricolour, Palestinian and ANC flags. The unionists and loyalists flew Union flags, Israeli and apartheid South African flags.

1980s ANC/IRA mural

Distastefully opportunistic and reductive of multiple conflicts you might say, but it's pretty clear that the IRA got it right and the loyal subjects of the crown got it wrong. The nationalists saw themselves as native peoples oppressed by settlers, the unionists saw themselves as superior bringers of civilisation now encircled and threatened by uppity natives incapable of running their own lives. The IRA, it seems, helped train the ANC's armed wing and carried out bombings for them, and Mandela – despite the cuddly persona – didn't think they should have decommissioned their weapons.

I've also been listening to news reports and interviews in which apartheid South Africa is presented as a uniquely horrible country, isolated from the international community which was merely waiting for it to catch up with civilised standards of behaviour. This too is a massive lie. Segregation in the United States was legal until the 1950s and still operates in practice. Australia had an official policy of banning non-white immigration, the 'White Australia' doctrine which wasn't overturned until 1966, and that country's current rules don't look much different. New Zealand was little better. Let's not forget, either, that apartheid didn't come from nowhere. South Africa was a British territory until 1931 and had a British Governor-General until 1961. Apartheid was merely the most recent legal system of racial separation, with plenty of British precedents.

Apartheid South Africa wasn't a pariah state. While you and I boycotted South African oranges, sherry, cricket teams and the British banks which invested there, it was a full member of the capitalist side in the Cold War. Aided by the French and the Israelis (who saw the apartheid regime as spiritual allies) in the 1970s, it built a nuclear weapons programme in case of Soviet attack, and was treated as a bulwark against communism by NATO. In return for remaining anti-communist, the South African racists were allowed to do whatever they wanted to their black population (many of whom consequently became communists, including Nelson Mandela). The US Navy had military bases there and President's from Kennedy to Nixon and Ford, then Reagan preferred apartheid South Africa to free South Africa.
Former President Ronald Reagan told CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite that if the United States could negotiate with Russia it could surely continue to negotiate "with a friendly nation like South Africa" that "strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals."
Dick Cheney even voted against a resolution calling for Mandela's release from prison.

All very complicated. I'm not going to tell you what to think. But I do insist that you do think. Look at the rightwing newspapers canonising Mandela today: they don't want you to remember what they said about him, the ANC and black South Africans back then. Nor do the politicians, nor the celebrities who don't really know who Mandela is, but whose PR agents have told them that they should say nice things about him.

Nelson Mandela has become a shell to be filled with idealised, dishonest and mendacious perspectives of opportunists. Now he's dead, it'll be even easier. We owe it to him and to history to make it more difficult to appropriate him for any cause, position and ideology. If we see him as a complex man, who held unfashionable and inconvenient opinions, who changed his mind multiple times, who didn't fit into the Madiba mould of the world's kindly grandpa, then we retain a history which is ambiguous, unresolved and much more interesting. More importantly, it's honest - a commodity in short supply this morning.

Forget Saint Nelson. Welcome – and remember – Nelson Mandela: terrorist, communist, lover, President and flawed human being. He's a much greater man than the one they're talking about on the news.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

In my virtual absence…

Hi everyone. Like yesterday, I'm not properly back online: too much to do. But I thought some of you might like to see some photos of Jack Zipes' public lecture here at the Dark Place on Monday. 

On the big day itself I was away giving a lecture to first year students at the University of Gloucestershire, on the Mabinogi, myth and post-realist readers. Before my bit, I joined them for a lecture on nationalism by an incredibly charismatic historian who started off with Braveheart in French (a 'slightly more historically accurate' story of feuding Normans led by Robert le Bruce and Henri Plantagenet, as he put it) and explored the origins and ideologies of nationalism with some panache. As much as I loved it, I did wonder how on earth I could follow such a performance. 

Thankfully, his lecture segued into mine beautifully, as I was talking about the translation, revival and retelling of ancient Welsh myths in new cultural conditions, particularly Alan Garner's wonderful and disturbing The Owl Service and Gwyneth Lewis's The Meat Tree, both retellings of the Blodeuwedd story (man cursed never to have a human wife makes a wife out of flowers; she winkles out of him the extraordinary conditions needed for him to die; attempts to kill him with her lover; he escapes by turning into an eagle; she's turned into an owl, which is why they sneak around at night and are objects of hatred in Welsh tradition). The students hadn't read The Meat Tree but had seen a translation of the Mabinogi version, and talked really intelligently and interestingly. We talked about imperialism, the Enlightenment, Freud, Jung, postmodernism, science fiction and devolution. I made some Star Trek references and raised some pitying laughs, which was kind of them. 

It was fascinating being at a different university. The students were a very different demographic, so it was a bit like being on holiday. Not better or worse, but different. And of course I didn't have to mark anything!

As soon as that was over, it was on to the train and back to the Dark Place for Zipes. Posters to replace, welcomes to arrange and I had to work out how to use a professional video camera. Not quite well enough, it turns out: I now have 30Gb of Jack Zipes as a silent movie. I still can't work out why the sound didn't work, but nor can my Broadcasting and Journalism colleague, so I'm only feeling disappointed rather than moronic. For a change. 

Crowds gather for Jack Zipes

Jack Zipes

Jack Zipes

Candi Miller, Jack Zipes

The lecture itself went really well. I think there were about 230 people in the 250 capacity hall, many of them from outside the university. The Vice-Chancellor welcomed Jack, the interpreters did their thing and Jack was fascinating. He spoke mostly about the Disneyfication of Red Riding Hood, showing multiple versions of the story by Disney and others, including some compelling independent productions. Largely based on classical Marxist analysis, the lecture ended with an attack on the way the rape at the heart of the story has been elided or silenced. This, Zipes concludes, mirrors the way sexual assault has been marginalised or denied in society itself. 

Here's one rather outré version, starring Betty Boop:

and this rather racy (not to say misogynist) version by Tex Avery:

After the lecture, we went off for a curry with Jack which was joyful too: he's a master raconteur with a lot of tales to tell. Eventually we parted and he wished us well for the next morning's strike. 

5 hours later I was dragging myself out of bed and on to the picket line. Considering the employers have unilaterally imposed their settlement, the turnout was pretty good. We spoke to students and handed out lots of leaflets, and soaked up the usual parade of abuse and lies from so-called colleagues. One Principal Lecturer claimed it was 'illegal' for PLs to strike, which was news to the PLs on the picket line with us. Another claimed that she couldn't strike because she had a cold, the logic of which defeated me. Yet another claimed that striking was impossible because there were children to feed - which rather misses the point that missing one day's pay for striking is nothing compared with a fifth real-terms pay cut in a row. Honestly, I prefer the honest opponents who crossed the line. At least one guy had the selfish honesty to say 'my pay isn't going down, I've had a promotion'. Solidarity, baby! But at least he didn't bullshit us, unlike the Vice-Chancellor who keeps sending emails claiming that 'the majority' wanted to work, and that we're 'moving forward positively', which might cut the mustard at a meeting of PR Bullshitters and Management Consultants Anonymous but means precisely nothing other than 'tough shit: more pay cuts ahoy!'. 

By this point, i.e. Tueaday lunchtime I was exhausted and cold. As an antidote, I headed off to a colleague's house to plan some new research which will take in Dr Who, Star Trek, Beards of Evil, Poe and Lacan, just for starters. It'll knock your socks off, I promise. Unless this is just stoner logic of course. 

Wednesday was another killer - two long sessions without a break. I was already feeling exhausted and slightly ill, but the students were so good that I felt thoroughly revived. In the Shakespeare class I gave them several sonnets with the lines jumbled up. All they had to do was use their knowledge of poetic form and of sonnet conceits and narrative to get them in the right order. Nobody was completely right, but they were pretty good. The last one I gave them was a bit of a favourite, Wendy Cope's 'Strugnell's Sonnets VI':

Let me not to the marriage of true swine
Admit impediments. With his big car
He's won your heart, and you have punctured mine.
I have no spare; henceforth I'll bear the scar.
Since women are not worth the booze you buy them
I dedicate myself to Higher Things.
If men deride and sneer, I shall defy them
And soar above Tulse Hill on poet's wings --
A brother to the thrush in Brockwell Park,
Whose song, though sometimes drowned by rock guitars,
Outlives their din. One day I'll make my mark,
Although I'm not from Ulster or from Mars,
And when I'm published in some classy mag
You'll rue the day you scarpered in his Jag.

The students liked it too, which cheered me up a lot. 

After that, it was straight into my Ethics and the Media class, focussing on social media. We looked at footballers' tweets, openness and privacy, Bentham and Foucault, sock-puppetry, online reputation management, honesty on dating sites (research shows people are comfortable about stretching the truth a fair way because they assume everyone else is doing the same) and Glenn Mulcaire. We toyed with the ethics of editing the university's Wikipedia page, and discussed why nobody would tell the class when they last had a poo. There was a reason for this:

‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’. - Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google

‘You already have zero privacy. Get over it’. - Scott G. McNealy CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc

All this was illustrated along the way by excerpts from The Circle, Dave Eggers' new novel. It is, like all of Eggers' works, written without any literary style whatsoever (the symbolism is astoundingly clunky) but it's packed with good ideas fairly carefully worked out. It's only a small step from the quotations above to the fictional CEOs of social media company The Circle saying things like this:
when thousands, or even millions, are watching, you perform your best self. You are cheerier, more positive, more polite, more generous, more inquisitive…Every day she’d done without things she didn’t want to want. Things she didn’t need…Anything immoderate would provoke a flurry of zings of concern, so she stayed within the bounds of moderation. And she found it freeing.
Mae is the central protagonist. At first resistant to the company's insistence on 100% surveillance, she is eventually converted and becomes an evangelist for the effect it has on the individual and society despite the increasingly oppressive demands on her to share every experience and constantly interact with others to build social capital.

It's an interesting novel not only for its exploration of the techno-utopians' ideology, but also for its fears about the nature of identity in a fully-integrated surveillance society. It is, quite literally, Foucauldian. Mae and others not only welcome surveillance, they internalise it. As Foucault points out in Panopticism, you don't need omniscient surveillance at this point, because the inmates act as if they're being watched at all times. This is where the conversation turned to the philosophy of ethics: we'd talked about the ethical responsibilities of social media companies and users, but the central question is this: is Mae acting ethically when she allows observation to dictate her behaviour, or is ethical choice impossible in this context? Her boss explains the new rules to her like this:
‘…my spouse said to me…I should behave as if there were a camera on me. As if she were watching…If I found myself alone in a room with a woman colleague, I would wonder, what would Karen think of this is she were watching…This would gently guide my behaviour, and it would prevent me from even approaching behaviour she wouldn’t like. It kept me honest.’
But did it? If the fear of getting caught is what keeps him honest, is he in fact honest? The utilitarian would say so, especially Bentham, but a Kantian would not: the motivation destroys the ethical nature of the act. The students definitely got the hang of this, and we had a really enjoyable discussion. The irony is of course that in-between reading this novel about the dissolution of the interior self under surveillance conditions (which is really a return to pre-Enlightenment, pre-psychology theories of the self, only with added consumer capitalism), I've been tweeting like mad on all sorts of matters. Now I feel guilty every time I tweet or share something, which is pretty inconvenient given that I do so about 347 times per day.

We finished with this clip of Glenn Mulcaire, News International's chief phone hacker. Going one step further than  Schmidt and McNealy, he has this to say about privacy: start at 1.13 in.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Solidarity, baby!

Hi everyone. I'm not blogging properly again: it's been one of the busiest weeks in years and I'm rushed off my feet. But here's a letter I've just sent to the President of The Dark Place's Students' Union. 

Dear President, 
thank you for your email asking me if I could help out with the Students’ Union’s University Challenge effort this year. As you know, I’m a huge fan of the show and would love to see our students do well.  
However, I feel I must decline your request. As you know, academic staff took strike action yesterday and are working to contract. This is because our salaries have reverted to their 2008 level, with further real-terms reductions projected some years into the future. As a hard-working, committed, conscientious academic, I support students well beyond my contractual duties, as any of them will tell you. My colleagues in the library, the cleaning staff, the caterers and security guards all do their best for students, in public and in a thousand little ways which might never be noticed. This university is rightly proud of the ‘student experience’, but it never acknowledges that its success is dependent on the good will and free labour provided by staff who go the extra mile, not for money, but because it’s the right thing to do.  
Yesterday, I stood on the picket line, in the cold, for hours. Between explaining to strike-breaking colleagues and passing students why I wasn’t in a nice warm classroom – which is my natural and favourite environment – I followed the Twitter feeds of fellow academics and students across the country. I saw Students’ Unions at Warwick, Birmingham, Sussex and many other places joining their friends on the picket lines, or occupying their universities.
What you won't see at The Dark Place

They know that to attract and retain good teachers, cooks, cleaners and other workers who make the ‘student experience’ so good, universities need to stop squeezing their standard of living.  
What did your Students’ Union do? As far as I can tell, the Student Council has no policy on this matter. The Executive decided to make policy in breach of its own constitution, and decided to remain ‘neutral’ as you put it to me. I and my UCU colleagues are not ‘neutral’. Nor are you fellow student leaders in the NUS and across the country. They know that good staff make life good for students. I am desperately sorry that the Dark Place’s Students’ Union is ‘neutral’ when faced with declining living standards.  
I’m sorry I can’t help with University Challenge and wish you well. But it’s just a giggle in the end. What will really help students is solidarity in our fight to make sure that this institution can attract and retain motivated, secure staff, whatever their jobs: some of them are or will be your members. We support your members every day: when it came to the crunch, you failed to support us. Until this changes, I won’t be taking on additional duties, however much I enjoyed them. 
Plashing Vole 

Friday, 29 November 2013

This just in from the irony desk

I really don't have time to blog today, but can't resist this one.

When Henry Kissinger was given the Nobel Peace Prize, satirist Tom Lehrer announced that his profession was dead. There could be no higher form of sarcasm than the architect of the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction and the Vietnam War getting a prize for peace.

At last, I think we have a worthy successor to Mr. Kissinger. Paul Uppal MP is to address The Bridge Group on the theme of Social Mobility Through Education, alongside his boss, David Willetts. Sadly, I can't attend on Dec 3rd, but I'd encourage you to pop along to this free event.

Now, I don't know who the Bridge Group are and what they do other than host cosy networking events, but I'm assuming that their events organiser is a satirist of the highest order. How could it be otherwise when Paul Uppal's only contributions to Social Mobility Through Education have been to

  • vote to abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance which kept poor teenagers in FE
  • vote to impose fees of £9000 on HE students
  • sign a manifesto calling for overseas students to be admitted only to 'top ten' universities.
Did Mr Uppal achieve social mobility through education? He certainly got in to Warwick University to study politics without having to pay fees or take out loans, though he's very cagy about the degree he attained. But I'd say his present position in the political firmament is more to do with the millions of pounds he acquired through property investment, which isn't exactly the 'knowledge economy' and a shameless lack of concern for those of his constituents whose lives might be transformed if they'd had the same access to free education as he did. 

What has Paul Uppal done for social mobility through education? As far as I can see, he's stopped it. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

'Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs…'

I'm way, way too busy for blogging today thanks to those bastards who pay me wanting me to do stuff, which seems pretty rude. Marking. Organising tablecloths, signers and pastries for a public event next week, writing the lecture I'm doing at a different university on the same day as the public event, exhorting colleagues to support next Tuesday's strike and host of other things.

But as it's Thanksgiving, a festive clip for your delight:

I adore the Addams Family films: whipsmart social commentary from the heart of Hollywood.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Red Ed v Red Mist

I watched the last half of Kick-Ass last night. I just did, OK?

An uncanny likeness occurred to me, between likeable, unlikely and nervous hero 'Red Ed' Miliband and gawky costumed crusader Red Mist.

I should point out that Red Mist wins in the end once he joins forces with a determined young woman named Hit Girl. I have every confidence that Ed Miliband will similarly triumph in the end, having enrolled the support of more radical elements in his party and beyond. He, too, should Kick more Ass.

(I've met Ed, and liked him very much. Here are the photos I took of him. Grant Shapps: stop stealing them).

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

It's not all hard graft…

Yes it is 8.53 p.m. and yes I am still in the office despite officially 'working to rule' but it's been a good day. Mostly, I have to admit, because I've ignored the two piles of marking under the desk (not room actually on the desk these days) and done other things, like sorting out students' problems – organisational that is: their psychological traumas are beyond this doctor – and actually thinking about books and ideas.

I was already in a good mood, because I went to a concert last night and enjoyed some music I didn't think I would. I got to Birmingham's Symphony Hall excited to hear Bach's Cello Suite No 3 (my second-favourite one after 4 or perhaps 5) and OK about the other stuff on the bill: Liszt, Schubert and Rachmaninov. Not my taste but I knew that Adrian Brendel (cello) and Imogen Cooper (piano) would be great anyway. Or rather, I thought that his father Alfred would be great because that's who I thought was playing.

Eventually I got to Birmingham Town Hall where the concert actually was, which just shows you how attentive a reader I am. The place was only two-thirds full, which was a bit disappointing. Even worse, I think lots of them had come on the bus from a cholera hospital, because at times it felt like the Massed Bronchial Choir with a little background music playing in the breaks between eruptions. Particularly unfortunate given that the Cello Suite requires a single person playing one instrument to fill a concert hall with sound. Despite the beauty of the music I was ready to reinstate the quarantine laws. Or perhaps the death penalty.

So, first piece. Here's Maisky's rendition of the Bourrée:

My taste in classical music largely leaps from Bach to the twentieth-century, with some exceptions partly because I like Bach's austerity and that of the minimalists, and I think all the pretty stuff is a product of decadence and denial of life's misery. Not too keen on escapism, on the whole. I know this is rather Philistine, and it's not quite as stark as I'm putting it, but it's how I feel. I just don't go for powdered wigs and frilly bits (on clothes and music).

All this means that while I've heard plenty of Classical and Romantic music, I've never really made a point of getting to grips with it. Maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age, but I loved Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata even though it felt as emotionally manipulative as a Georgette Heyer novel. Here's a version of it arranged for cello:

And here it is played on the arpeggione, a 19th-century fretted instrument which didn't last very long: it was like a bowed guitar and was only invented a year before Schubert wrote for it, so he was clearly a Romantic neophyte. I'm sure he'd be playing with Garageband, sampling and theremins if he was about today.

For an added treat, read the comments, in which classical music scholars suddenly get really rude and snippy with the musician even though he posted the video and tries to engage with them… no wonder the first rule of the internet is Never Read The Comments.

Anyway: all of the above was played astonishingly beautifully – from memory – through the rolling thunder of coughing. After the interval, we got more of the stuff I thought I didn't like: three Liszt pieces, and then Rachmaninov's Sonata for Cello and Piano, to which I was looking forward.

Either I am getting soft or the virtuosic playing carried me through, but I enjoyed every second of those pieces, perhaps more than the Rachmaninov. I expected more violence from that: although there was plenty of drama, I wasn't expecting the nostalgic sentiment:

So that was my night: learned a lot and also got to stuff my face at the German Market before heading home in time to laugh at Fresh Meat, a very different cultural experience.  Then tonight, rather than going home or doing some marking, I sat in on my friend's lecture on DM Thomas's The White Hotel. If you haven't read it, do. You may hate it, but that's OK, in fact quite normal. Not many novels mix Freud, Freudian analysis with the Holocaust tack on an extraneous happy ending which may or may not be part of the narration, attract accusations of plagiarism and generally yank you out of the realist rut. I'm pretty sure I don't like the novel, but I do admire it and keep re-reading it because new ways to understand it always occur. Going to Mark's lecture added several more, especially as the students contributed some really good ideas. In return, I told them of the existence of Stalag Fiction: pulp erotic fiction written in Hebrew sometimes by Holocaust survivors set in concentration camps.

That drew some gasps, which at least proves that the young aren't entirely desensitised. As Mark said, 'people are weird'.

I recommend going to other people's lectures. Apart from picking up tips on how to lecture, there's so much to be learned. It's really easy as an academic to be so tightly focussed on your patch that you forget how interesting other fields are. I really enjoy just popping in occasionally and listening, free of the need to memorise bits for examination or research – just sitting back and learning for fun.