Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Before I go, a commercial message from Ectogram

I meant to do this ages ago, but kept getting distracted.

As you may know because I go on about it endlessly, I was in the prime of youth during the days of Cool (or Cwl) Cymru. I go on about it here because I don't have children to bore. If I did, they're the ones who'd be shouting 'it's just noise' at me, because one wing of the Welsh music scene specialised in weirdo-psych-krautrock incantation. I loved the cheery tuneful bands, but I had and still have a place in my heart for the bloody-minded experimentalists and their gamelans.

In particular, I loved Ectogram, with their wacky titles (Concentric Neckwear? Fluff on a Faraway Hill? We're a long way from Menswear) and 10" singles which topped the charts in Spitzbergen (I'm not joking, by the way). They were a hard band to love, but only because Alan, their multi-talented instrumentalist was the record shop 'assistant' who spent years of my life openly mocking my purchases and loading my bag instead with his own stuff. The archetypal Record Shop Guy. I only realised later that all the Can records were just his way of getting me into the right frame of mind to voluntarily buy Ectogram's releases.

Which brings me round to the music. Here's them playing with Damo Suzuki, of beard-furrowing Can fame:

And here's the rather characteristic Cymrock groove of 'Tu Fewn Ceg Gerallt'.

And the rather sweet country-Welsh-krautrock of Cyfan Gwbl:

And now Alan tells me there's a new album out, Exo-Celestial, which he describes as the band's
pop album, although a pop album more in the tradition of The Art Bears,Roxy Music and Stereolab rather than One Direction, Olly Murs or JLS.
Recorded under a set of vague rules for no apparent reason, it's available here, though only (obviously) on 100 LPs in the UKK and (obviously again) Germany, so it won't be troubling the charts. I've ordered one, and I know it's going to be good because a) everything they do is good and b) when they say they'll do a pop album, they really mean it. I'll review it properly when it arrives, but in the meantime, if you go here you can order it, or download pretty much every underground experimental North Welsh album made legally and for free. I particularly recommend Fflaps: melodic motorik beauty.

And with a single leap, he was free

After yesterday's mega-post reporting on the AWWE conference I attended at the weekend, I need a holiday. And I'm going to have one: a whole week in Ireland. This means no phone, no texting, no tweeting, no blogging, no e-mail and no marking.

Actually, no fishing either. Having been forced to eat the horrible stuff every Friday for 18 years (and for breakfast every Saturday if I didn't eat it for dinner, until we got a greedy and clever cat which knew under which chair to sit), I can't face it. Though I did eat a big plate of hake served by my gourmet aunt last year.

But I digress. Which is really the point of blogging, surely? My week off means lots of walking (in the rain), perhaps some swimming in the Atlantic and plenty of reading. After the holiday I'm teaching more Milton, Lorna Sage's Bad Blood, Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow for thy Sons and, er, Jilly Cooper's Riders. It's for a course on the relationship between reading positions and social class, so it fits. The only problem is that it's such a relentlessly terrible book. The clichés come thick and fast, the plot is painstakingly explained at length in every other paragraph by a very bossy narrator and even the famed filth, which is meant to pervade every comma and syllable, is actually evasive and minimal. So far I've read 80 pages and there have been 6 lines of hay-rolling, expressed in language so coy that Barbara Cartland would be yawning.

The plot is basically class-rivalry between a cruel double-barrelled Toff and a Hard But Ultimately Good Gypsy with a chip on his shoulder. Meanwhile there are nasty female toffs and nasty social-climbing toffs and miserable fat toffs (who shag said Gypsy to annoy Mummy) and lots and lots of horses. Even worse, the fat toff woman is called Tory, so I'm finding empathy difficult.

Chums, I once read a Jeffrey Archer novel: this is far, far worse. I'm just hoping that it will become ludicrous enough to amuse me. But it will still serve my academic purposes nicely. Perhaps on my return I'll regale you with choice quotes. For now, have a taster of the TV version ('You don't need French to make love… just a Frenchman'). Near the end there's a lovely reference to prurient media interest in the lives of the rich ('Gotcha, super-bastard', goggles the tabloid hackette):

Monday, 25 March 2013

The wanderer returns

Hi everybody. I'm back from the 25th Conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English (though there was of course considerable overlap between the two languages), held at Neuadd Gregynog near Y Drenewydd / Newtown in Powys. I am bursting with energy and enthusiasm, having spent a few days in snowbound natural beauty talking about all the things I love – and more things I didn't know I'd love – with lots of other enthusiastic, friendly and intelligent people. It was like a mini-holiday.

Gregynog itself was built as a Victorian experiment in concrete. It's a huge, rambling pseudo-Tudor structure with all the quirks that implies. Antique toilets retained for show, enormous rooms with complimentary draughts, beautiful antique and art (there's a fine-art printer, Gwasg Gregynog, on-site – I bought a beautiful pamphlet of Gwyn Thomas's poetry, and left it somewhere I know not where), cake and wine shovelled down your throat seemingly every 23 minutes and no showers. Great big baths, begging for luxuriating in only with 65 other people queuing it seemed rude to really wallow. The grounds are enormous and beautiful, a beauty sharpened by the snow which fell continuously for 36 hours.

Here's the view from my bedroom window at 6 a.m. one morning and – explaining my sadness at returning – the view from my flat last night. You can see all the pictures I took at Gregynog here. To see these samples larger, click on them.

Consequently, the conference felt like it was only one murder or power-cut away from an Agatha Christie mystery. We had a library, a music room and all the other venues for a country-house drama or a live (dead?) edition of Cluedo. I thought, too, of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Box of Delights, all texts which require large country houses, a sense of isolation and lots of snow. Sadly the one realm accessible through my wardrobe was an REF panel demanding to know where my articles were and the Student Experience Committee wanting to turn me to stone. Little disagreement about my PowerPoints.

The conference itself focused on Literary Topographies: Mapping Welsh Writing in English literally, literarily and symbolically (focussed, that is, once we'd all stopped repeatedly laughing at England's humiliation at the hands of Wales in the 6 Nations). I couldn't go to everything, as there were usually two sessions running in parallel, but those I did attend were magnificent. M Wynn Thomas and Tony Brown launched their new books on RS Thomas. MWT, who examined my PhD has written RS Thomas: Serial Obsessive while Tony co-edited the Uncollected Poems of RS. I was really pleased to discover that most people share my feeling that the later, less didactic poems are better than the nakedly political earlier work. In the questions we got to talking about presence and absence of nation and god in the poetry, and RST's search for them both. Also launched were the new edition of Allen Raine's A Welsh Witch edited by Jane Aaron and Kirsti Bohata and Katie Gramich's collection of essays on the wonderful Margiad Evans.
M Wynn Thomas in the midst of full-on hwyl

The books being launched. Did I buy them? Of course. And more…

The first keynote speaker was Damian Walford Davies, one of a clan of extremely accomplished critics and authors. His subject was Swedenborg's Skull, Swansea and the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins. He took us through the details of the Swedish mystic's posthumous indignities (his skull was repeatedly purloined, substituted and traded), including its sojourn in Swansea in the mid-twentieth century. Vernon Watkins, friend, mentor and obituarist of Dylan Thomas, said DWD, subtly channelled the Swedenborg story in poems covertly memorialising his deceased friend, along with references to the Mari Lwyd tradition (parading with a mare's skull) and perhaps (I added) to the Celtic tradition of collecting your enemies' skulls and of talking decapitated heads. Entertaining, erudite and  enjoyable.
The Gregynog Dragon - all fire extinguished

Then, it being 10 o'clock, we headed to the cellar bar to carry on the discussion. Next morning, I was up at 6.15 not to beat the queue for the baths (nobody needs to see Plashing Vole en dishabille) but to go for a walk with my camera before everybody stamped through the deep, undisturbed snow. I met Kirsti, a pheasant and a lot of very depressed sheep standing around in what became quite a snowstorm. I make no apology for the huge number of pictures of sheep. I like them. They have a quiet dignity only enhanced by the sure and certain knowledge that they will soon be dinner. Here are some of the snow shots I took. 

Depressed pheasant

Gregynog Hall

Kind of makes you stop and think, doesn't it?

Before long the sheep appeared to look upon me as their Saviour and followed me around the fields bleating piteously. Mind you, I was covered with snow: perhaps they thought I was one of them. 

After a hearty breakfast larger than my usual entire day's intake, I went to the Transformations session. Reuben Knutson presented a fascinating ethnographic documentary/art production examining the hopes and dreams of the 1970s eco-incomers who made their homes in Wales, escaping from what they saw as damaging and self-destructive urban English life. One of the organisers was a child of this movement, as is my colleague Steve, so it was fascinating to see their lives in a wider framework. 

After that, Andy Webb of Bangor University examined poetic responses to the spate of reservoirs built in Wales by English city councils in the 19th and 20th centuries. He used new approaches from human geography to get us to see the reservoirs and the massive amounts of surrounding land as industrial, capitalist products. Without the water, the English cities couldn't expand and develop. So they acquired enormous tracts of Welsh land, flooded historic villages and valleys, and entirely stopped development in the watersheds, meaning that the land we're encouraged to see as natural beauty and as a leisure resource is deeply implicated in capitalist and national imbalance. The poems we discussed were by Ruth Bidgood, RS Thomas, Gillian Clarke and Harri Webb. I didn't know much of Bidgood's stuff: now highly recommended. 

The final presentation was Anwen Jones and Rowan O'Neill's discussion of Owen Rhoscomyl's fascinating and frankly bonkers National Pageant of 1909 and Cliff McLucas's ethnographic-art-human geography-ethnographic-cultural studies exercises he calls 'deep mapping'. All completely new to me but compulsively interesting. I'd like to see some of McLucas's work at some point. 

Quick stop for cake and coffee, then I went to the session on Placing Literature. Jon Anderson and Sarah Morse talking fascinatingly about the porous borders between fiction and reality when texts take 'real' places as settings. The result is that places 'make' texts and texts 'make' places: I know that I'm always aware of the literary significance of the places I visit, such as Lud's Chapel appearing in Gawain and the Green Knight. They also discussed the importance of 'plotline' as a means of readers orienting themselves in a text, in very creative and individual ways. Following that, they showed a film they made tracing the various Cardiffs of several authors, overlapping each one's fictional setting. They also presented this quotation from one of my favourite books, Gwyn Thomas's A Welsh Eye (not the poet Gwyn Thomas previously mentioned):
the geology of remembrance is damnably deep and will need to wait overlong for its final textbook. It will prove to be more insolent and unyielding than the rocks and destructive bubbling filth of this eroded and ambulant clinker. And legend has made our particular case more than usually complicated. 
The final session was a presentation by Bronwen Price, 'Literary Tourism'. Holding a PhD in Welsh literature and working for Llenyddiaeth Cymru / Literature Wales, she organises literary tours around Wales: the Dylan Thomas canoe tour, a talk on RS Thomas in the Manafon church he hated being vicar of, a Tolkien's Wales tour and several others. Some sound tenuous, others fascinating, and I shall be attending several in 2014.

After lunch, I went to Robert Clark's keynote on 'Critical Literary Geography'. Clark runs the subscription site Literary Encyclopaedia and described himself as a 'humanities enterpreneur'. I happened to share the train ride home with him and he told me a lot about his friendships with the late, lamented Angela Carter and Lorna Sage. Clark is soon launching Mapping Writing, which uses Google Maps to locate events in authors lives and in their works, such as Robinson Crusoe's journey. A long time ago it occurred to me that this kind of thing would be excellent. Imagine clicking on, say Bloomsbury to find out that Virginia Woolf wrote a chapter of Orlando in this house on that particular day, while over in Mayfair Bertie Wooster was rudely awakened by Aunt Dahlia. Of course, authors and their texts aren't (and shouldn't be) literally reliable, but it's a fascinating exercise. For instance, Clark explained that calculating the costs and distances travelled by Austen's characters gave one a sense of their social positions and her careful approach to accuracy. From the novels, one can even work out which maps she used, and how these maps created a particular cultural perspective (e.g. by depicting the Great Estates rather than the villages nearby). Bergson, Chatwin, Swift and Lefebvre were all fed into the mix. Interestingly, he also claimed that French intellectuals are swiftly consigning Foucault and Lacan to the intellectual dustbin. I must confess to being surprised, but then I don't keep up with the debate, embarrassingly.

The site works with Safari but it's not quite ready and is better viewed with Firefox. Contributors are being sought and I'm rather tempted.

Robert Clark
I must confess that I skipped the next session. Exhausted, I bought more books and retired to my single bed in the room larger than my entire flat and dozed. Following more tea and cake, I returned to the fray for the Masculine Modernities session. It could have been designed for me, both papers touching on work I've recently done on Welsh masculinities and walking tours. Steve Hendon covered David Jones's and Llewelyn Wyn Griffith's 'Representations of First World War Masculinities' (if you haven't read Jones's In Parenthesis, you're in for a treat: one of the most impressive modernist texts you'll ever encounter), while Tomos Owen discussed WH Davies's and Ernest Rhys's accounts of walking tours through South Wales. I learned an awful lot and took copious notes.

Actor and academic Peter Morgan examines a research poster.
Detail from an enormous painting leaning against a wall

Prof Jane Aaron examines Nor Hashima Isa's poster

Llenyddiaeth Cymru / Literature Wales walking tour guides

After that, more wine and a poster session on new research, followed by dinner and another keynote, Tristan Hughes reading hilariously from his novels and talking about his Canadian-Anglesey life. I'd never heard of him before, but have now ordered all his work. I particularly enjoyed his short story about a flaky, aggressive, deluded New Age hippy. When I was a student at Bangor, every Surrey-dwelling Tarquin and Annabel donned a tie-dye disguise, grew dreadlocks, got faux-Celtic tattoos and tortured us all with bloody digeridoos everywhere we went. I would put them in camps. Or at least take away their trust funds.

The day was only enhanced by the other event on over the weekend: Welsh Young Musician of the Year trials. Gorgeous live music emanating from random rooms wherever I went.

Another trip to the bar ensued, this time chatting to poetry Demiurge Kathryn Gray, Eighteenth-century expert Elizabeth Edwards and the whole CREW (little in-joke there) of postgrads from Swansea, quite the coolest bunch of people I know. I got several tips for my Welsh SF plan and caught up on all the gossip, particularly the tale of the egregiously self-promoting and entertainingly bitter Julian Ruck, a man with even more opinions and fewer brain cells than me: the Swansea crowd got caught up in the media coverage of the man's latest little outburst against the 'Taffy literary establishment' which won't print his appalling books. They spent the day wrecking our heads with the 'missing pound' maths conundrum then spent the early hours wrecking their heads with copious quantities of alcohol. Their disgusting youth meant that they turned up to breakfast looking fresh and relaxed after only three hours in bed. The serene bastards. 

I stayed in bed on Sunday morning rather than go for another walk in the snow. (In case my mother's reading: even this Pope would have forgiven me skipping mass, and anyway I'm an atheist now mother and there's nothing you can do about it). After that, I fancied some genre fiction, so I went to Alyce von Rothkirch's and Catherine Phelps's 'Big Data' take on Welsh crime fiction. I don't read much crime fiction other than Pryce's Aberystwyth noir-parodies, but they demonstrated some fascinating conclusions about the ways in which Welsh crime fiction can be categorised. Then Katriona Mackay discussed Underworlds and the Gothic in Pryce's work and Torchwood. As I'm going to do something on Welsh SF, her material was fascinating and very useful. She and Katie Gramich are doing some fascinating work on Welsh Gothicism, so I'll be keeping an eye out for their stuff. Finally before lunch, Paul Vigor presented his preliminary thoughts on Tolkien's possible use of the Marcher wars as models for his Gondor v Mordor fantasy history, drawing on topography and place-name meanings for support. I've never voluntarily sat through a paper on Tolkien before!

Finally, I went to the session on Writing Places 2. I really wanted to hear Steven Lovatt on Dorothy Edwards (about whom I wrote my MA), but he couldn't make it. Instead, Gwyneth Tyson Roberts and Rita Singer gave what I thought were exemplary papers. Tyson Roberts spoke about two early poems by the 19th-century poet and essayist Jane Williams (Ysgafell). She handed us copies of the poems and pointed out that they were derivative, conventional and even (whisper it) clichéd homages to 18th century poetry rather than the more current Romantic trends. Oh god, I thought. This is going to be dreary. Wrong. Roberts demonstrated with utter conviction that the poems were deliberately written with the taste of literary authority in mind because Williams was 19, sequestered in a Welsh cottage as an au pair and desperate to be accepted as a poet. And if that wasn't enough, Roberts uncovered the covert biographical elements of these seemingly non-specific texts in a virtuoso demonstration of close reading and cultural contextualisation. Afterwards, Rita Singer did something similar with the early 20th-century novels of Allen Raine, explaining that there's a cultural and moral geography at work in her interesting (and finally re-published) texts. 

Readers, returning to the Dark Place and the pile of marking was a struggle. How I wish we'd been snowed in for another couple of days. I had enough pairs of clean under crackers, the wi-fi worked, there's a grand piano and a fully-stocked library. And bar. Instead, here I am in the office once more. 

PS. As you can seen, I'm a prime example of Michael Gove's 'Bad Academics', one of the Enemies of Promise, a Marxist 'Hell-Bent On Destroying Our Schools', one of 'The Blob'. Poor Mr Gove appears to have overdosed on McCarthy speechs, Tea-Party videos and 50s alien invasion movies. I almost feel sorry for him. Almost, but not quite. If he was merely dim, one could forgive him. But Michael's a sold B-grade student: not up to originality, but quite intelligent enough to know better. And he does know better. That's what's so sad. He doesn't really think that the country's schools and universities are packed with traitors brainwashing students. He just knows that's what UKIP voters and Mail readers believe, and he's all too willing to service them. This kind of cynicism is far worse, far more reprehensible than merely being a bit limited in the Grey Matter department. No amount of re-sits will help him now. He should be gently ushered out into the world of work. I'm sure there's a level crossing he could operate, or a lift old-fashioned enough to require an attendant. He'd like that.

Reflections on the piano

The Library corridor

Another library room

I'm quite pleased with this still life of Daffodils

I just liked the symmetry of the stairs

Books reflected in the harpsichord

Again, I just liked the architectural lines

Friday, 22 March 2013

'I am just going outside and may be some time'

Good morning everybody. I trust the snow is 'deep and crisp and even' where you are. I'm off to the annual conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English, held at this time at Gregynog, the beautiful stately home in Mid-Wales owned by the University of Wales. Coincidentally, exactly where the heaviest snow is forecast.

Being a spring conference, the weather has always been, well, variable: I've been there in heavy snow and in hot sunshine before. Last time, it was all daffodils, bluebells and cute little baa-lambs. I shall take my camera today for a compare-and-contrast set.

Anyway, it's great to get away for a few days. No mobile phone reception. No marking (the pile glares at me from the top of the filing cabinet). Just people I like talking seriously and interestingly about the things I like. I'll go for a walk around the estate, drink fine ale in the cellar bar and catch up on all the academic gossip. Or alternatively, hide in the corner trying not to catch anybody's eye. There's also the launch of the new Uncollected Poems of RS Thomas edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, and a new edition of Tony Brown's short biography of the poet. Tony supervised my MA so I'm biased, but here's my review: 2 thumbs up – a classic!

Meanwhile, did you see Question Time last night? This one called for an extra-large bag of the horse tranquillisers I now require to get through an edition of the show. It really was a barrel-scraping shocker, quite the worst episode in an already depressing series. The panel nowadays consists solely of predictable trolls picked (successfully) to cause outrage rather than to shine a light on pressing issues, while the audiences are getting more and more racist and reactionary. I strongly suspect local political parties have found some way to game the ticketing procedure. Last night featured Michael Gove, one of the most astoundingly arrogant and patronising politicians of recent years, Mark Littlewood (a think-tank lobbyist who combines the economics of Pinochet with the human warmth of a hungry Komodo dragon), Anthony Horowitz the writer who turned out to be an ideal potential press officer for Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, Emily Thornberry of the Labour Party who struggled valiantly to get a word in edgeways, and Natalie Bennett of the Green Party who barely got to speak.

The lowlight of the show was Gove responding to a question about whether he ever listens to advice by interrupting Thornberry extremely rudely with the words 'yada yada' (from 47.45). He also repeatedly lied, particularly on job creation. He claimed (as the government always does) that 1 million new private sector jobs have been created. To my certain knowledge, over 180,000 of those are not 'new': they're FE academics who've been reclassified as private sector, despite still working for and being paid by state-run institutions. He also claimed that the recession was caused by state spending and not banks being over-leveraged in pursuit of unsustainable and frankly stupid financial instruments, leading to us having to bail them out, and a number of other direct lies.  He said we were 'living beyond our means'. This is the same Michael Gove who 'flipped' his tax-payer funded home and charged us £7000 for a television.

And while I'm on the subject, this former Murdoch employee married to a current Murdoch employee managed to give a sterling and principled defence of press freedom without once referring to his former colleagues' use of press freedom: to hack the phone of a murdered teenage girl; to hack the phones of celebrities, their secretaries, their families and their friends in pursuit not of wrongdoing in the corridors of power, but to find out whether they were pregnant, or dating, or putting on weight, or losing weight; to set private detectives on hacking victims' lawyers and on Crimewatch presenters; to build up dossiers on political opponents and on and on ad infinitum. Did the Murdoch press uncover the parliamentary expenses scandal? No. Catch Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer? No. Expose Jimmy Savile? No. They bugged and burgled (to steal a phrase) across the world to monster the innocent and harvest ridiculous, pointless gossip. As far as I'm concerned, Michael Gove is merely on secondment from Murdoch. Or perhaps Alpha Centauri. We're just the mugs paying for him.

As an anecdote, here's a clip from The Brains Trust, a BBC Radio and then TV show from the 1940s onwards:

And to unite the two rants of the day's blogging, here's Anthony Hopkins playing Gwyn Thomas appearing on The Brains Trust in the dramatisation of his autobiography A Few Selected Exits: I wrote my PhD on Thomas.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Budget 2013: the lowlights

Morning everybody. Did you enjoy the budget? In the small print, all sorts of nasty shocks await anybody who might be ill, disabled, unemployed or poor: exactly what you'd expect from a government which sees its role as redistributing from 'shirkers' to 'strivers' (i.e. from the poor to their own Randian donors).

But what of the headline decisions?

  • A new mortgage subsidy scheme
  • 1p off beer duty
  • A halt to petrol duty
  • Corporation tax down, national insurance payments abolished for small companies
(And of course subsidies to the dead-end fossil fuel industry)

I should be overjoyed by these, and ready to vote Tory. I'm 37 and can't scrape together the cash for a deposit. On the Tory campaigners' database, I'm a prime candidate for membership of the Home Owning Democracy, that mass of people persuaded to switch to Conservatism in the 1980s. All they have to do is use taxpayers' money to lend me a deposit: after that, I can afford the monthly mortgage payments. It's a simple idea really: mortgage rates are historically low, but lots of people don't earn enough to save enough for the large deposits required to get a mortgage.

So why am I not jumping for joy and polishing my I Heart Maggie badge? Well, firstly I don't think there's an essential link between property ownership and full citizenship. It smacks of the 19th-century's requirement that only citizens owning property could vote, on the basis that everybody else had no 'stake' in the country. Secondly, we're in the midst of an obscene housing crisis. People on housing benefit are being forced out of their homes if they have a spare bedroom, even though there aren't nearly enough smaller dwellings. Pouring money into the housing market without building enough houses won't help people: it will increase house prices. Great for the Tory-voting Mail readers who see house prices rises as Progress, but it massively screws up the entire economy for home-owners and home-seekers alike. Remember the 90s: all those TV ads encouraging you to remortgage your house ('release the equity') to take advantage of the rising market to buy holidays and boob jobs and jacuzzis? It will all flood back, and this time, it's subsidised by the state. Not only that: they'll be helping people out up to the tune of £600,000 and include 2nd homes, so if you fancy getting yourself a holiday cottage at the expense of the poor, you're in luck – George Osborne will spend my taxes on your luxury lifestyle!

Am I more likely to buy a house under the new scheme? I doubt it. I don't like paying my landlord too much money for a cold, noisy and unmaintained flat, but a mortgage is little more than renting from a bank. I'll buy a house one day… that day being when my beloved parents fall down the stairs. That is, if they haven't blown the loot on cigars and gold-plated crucifixes and all the other things they like. As for the population which doesn't have an inheritance in sight: you won't just be no better off after this budget in housing terms, you'll be far worse off, because the state-subsidised boom will put even the humblest abode way out of reach again – and there won't be any social housing for you either.

So let's be clear: this is redistribution from the poor to the rich. Worse than that, it's not even aid for homebuyers: it's aid for the property developers who've crammed us into smaller, more expensive, badly-built hutches for generations. Coincidentally enough, they fund the Tory party.

Next up: the reduction in beer duty. Clearly this is just meant to get a cheery headline in the tabloids. Who could object to 'blokes' getting a slightly cheaper pint? Except of course, that we're meant to be concerned about binge drinking, and that it's economically meaningless. It won't even reduce beer prices much: like most tax cuts, it will inflate profit margins and shareholder prices rather than depress prices.

Petrol duty? Do I really have to remind everybody that burning fossil fuels is literally killing us and everything else on the planet? That the UK has the worst air quality in Europe? That this small island is crammed with overpowered, underoccupied vehicles spewing out poison? But this is a sop to White Van Man who doesn't give a damn about killing his own kids, let alone the bunny rabbits. And of course once again it's economically meaningless: compared with the profit margins of the oil producers and petrol refiners, a penny here or there makes no difference at all. Personally I'd be taxing engines ruthlessly, banning large, heavy and inefficient vehicles unless individuals have particular requirements, and generally making life very uncomfortable for people who choose selfishness over mass transit. (Though of course I'd be spending a hell of a lot more on public transport infrastructure and nationalising the lot).

Finally, the reductions in corporation taxes and NI employers' payments. These are the things which pay for schools, road, healthcare and everything else the state provides. Cutting corporation tax is meant to attract companies to set up here rather than elsewhere. It is, of course, nonsense. Ireland has a mega-low corporation tax. Companies appeared, then disappeared when some other barrel-scraper offered a further 1% off. When the crash came, the state didn't have enough money to maintain services or a decent way of life for its citizens because it pursued corporations without regard for the future or the people. It's a race to the bottom. The same goes for the NI cut. Will they improve the economy? Of course not: these cuts don't mean there's more money sloshing around to be spent on beer and cars and cinema tickets and corporate investment and higher wages and more jobs. British companies are notorious for exploiting their workforces. That money will be shovelled into management bonuses and shareholder dividends. It will go offshore where it can't be taxed and won't be recirculated into the UK economy. If it was properly taxed and fed into the Treasury, the government would get a boost, by spending it on new railway lines and hiring more tax inspectors etc…: that would get it flowing round the economy as salaries are spent on decking and nappies and dreamcatchers or whatever. That's what we need: more money in the hands of ordinary people who need things, not fattened executives' tax-evading yacht funds.

But what do I know?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Ssshhhh… don't tell the Press Police I'm back

Where've I been? Keeping my head down in case Paul Uppal MP or Peter Rhodes report me to the new Press Complaints body and sue me for millions.


No. The current hysteria about whether bloggers are going to be state-regulated by a committee of freedom-haters has been whipped up by the newspapers which have hacked, stolen, bribed and lied for years and having been caught, are desperately trying to grab fig-leaves of principle to hide behind. Most shamefully of all, the rightwing papers are citing European Human Rights law in their defence: the very human rights legislation they think should be abolished. 

Like you, I haven't read the small print of the proposed Royal Charter. My instinct is that the press should be free to make mistakes and pay for them afterwards (basically Milton's position in Areopagitica). However, I do feel that the press became dependent on lazy, illegal and bullying methods in pursuit not of Speaking Truth To Power, but of cheap headlines about unimportant things. It's one thing to fake a fax to catch a government minister lying about arms deals, as the Guardian did (illegal but in the public interest), it's quite another to hack celebrities' friends phones to discover who he's dating or where she had dinner. 

The existing Press Complaints Commission was a joke. It was set up by newspapers, run by the editors and owners of the most offensive newspapers and the code was deliberately written to be meaningless and unenforceable. Take the two occasions on which I complained. The first complaint was about the Daily Mail, which ran a report about the student riots on the news pages. The article in question claimed that some female students were there solely to get dramatic Facebook photos, and went on to make a number of misogynistic and speculative claims. I complained under the sections referring to accuracy and substantiation. Complaint rejected because the piece was 'opinion', despite being printed in the news section and presented as an eye-witness report. Complaint 2 was about the Express and Star's predilection for repeatedly dehumanising Travellers and explicitly linking criminality to their ethnicity. Rejected: the rules say that an individual from an ethnic group can suffer in this way and protest, but an ethnic group can't. So – as I pointed out to the PCC, its rules mean that you can't say 'Paddy is an Irish Traveller which is why he's a thief' but you can say 'Irish travellers are congenital thieves'. You might not have strong feelings either way about Travellers but try replacing that with 'black people' or 'Jews'. 

So for me, it's time for the newspapers to be answerable to a firmer authority than their own little club. They can be as offensive as they like – but unless there's a clear public interest defence, they have to acquire their stories legally and be prepared to check their veracity much more carefully. They might run more boring stories but they'll be better papers in the long run (except for the Mail and Express which will be 3 pages long once the made-up racist and health scares are abandoned).

The newspapers have long hated bloggers: we're tenacious and sharp and we bite back. They steal material from us and they resent us for our nimbleness and lack of debts. Quite rightly, the intelligent papers point out that we lack resources, time and reach too: we can't be all things to all people. Papers are the life-blood of democracy, though let's not forget that they're the mouthpieces of dictatorships too. But we aren't hostages in the newspapers' fight to continue lying, thieving and hacking. The legislation is pretty dumb on web-based news, but I'm not going to prison for breaching the new rules - though I conceivably might if I let someone else have a guest post on Plashing Vole. 

the "publisher would have to meet the three tests of whether the publication is publishing news-related material in the course of a business, whether their material is written by a range of authors – this would exclude a one-man band or a single blogger – and whether that material is subject to editorial control".
For the papers to cry foul on behalf of us bloggers is just humbug. However, intelligent commentators are right to point out – as Emily Bell does – that the legislation is behaving as though 'the press' was a club of identical institutions like the 1940s, comprising owners, physical products, editors and professional journalists. It really isn't like that any more: these organisations exist, but they're surrounded by amorphous bodies: press agencies, bloggers, PR spoon-feeders, RSS streams, aggregators, re-Tweeters and more. The Press doesn't come with a homburg-and-Press-Card any longer. 

Say a spoof Twitter account said something notable and convincing but untrue about its subject. It gets reTweeted. A news agency picks it up, which makes it look credible. Then the newspaper websites propagate it. Google and co feed the story to everyone. Who's to blame? The anonymous satirist? The agency which didn't check properly? The newspapers which simply republished it? The bloggers and Tweeters who expanded the story's circulation exponentially? Who goes to prison? Just the newspaper because it made money from the story and had supposed 'editorial control'? Or all the links in the chain?

So I'm confused by this legislation. Its test of responsibility is a mish-mash of size, commercial model and editorial responsibility: it's not coherent in any way. 

Monday, 18 March 2013

A week of living culturally

Despite the impression you may get that I rarely leave the keyboard, perhaps breaking off from blogging only to scratch my gentleman's areas and moan at students in the flesh rather than passive-aggressively through the medium of blogging, I do occasionally look up from my cultural gutter to the stars.

Last week was like High Culture Boot Camp: Rutherford and Sons at the New Victoria Theatre, then Wagner's The Flying Dutchman at Symphony Hall on Saturday, and propitiating the ancestors by marking Lá Fhéile Pádraig on Sunday, sandwiching a birthday dinner with Days of Enlightenment. I didn't wear my meggings or Velcro shoes once in several days. My dears, the enlightenment!

Rutherford and Son is the latest Northern Broadsides play to be toured round the country. Written by Githa Sowerby in 1912 and updated by Blake Morrison. Having attended plays in the Midlands and North for a couple of decades now (filling in time between NASCAR seasons), I'm quite familiar with the sub-genre of Bitter Northern Industrialists' Broken Family Melodramas, and Rutherford and Sons is a very superior instance indeed (later American analogues would be Death of a Salesman or O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night). Mother's dead, the sons are useless, the daughter's repressed and pater Familias has subjugated his morality and his family's emotional well-being to the service of the family firm. So the main themes are the division between outward respectability and emotional decay, with a side-order of proto-feminism and critique of the deforming effects of capitalism on all concerned. Leavened, I should say, with some very funny one-liners though the lingering effect is that it is indeed Grim Up North.

The performance was superb: set in just the Rutherford family's parlour, the actors compressed a world of conflicting emotions into tone of voice and short sentences, clothes and body language bearing the weight of meaning as much as the dialogue. The villain of the piece is the father, who has destroyed all trace of empathy and understanding in himself as he seeks to extirpate it in his family and work. Only Mary, the cockney wife his son has shamefully hitched himself to is capable of resistance: at the cost of everything good about her.

Rutherford and Son is touring now: catch it while you can.

The other High Culture event was The Flying Dutchman, performed rather than staged by the CBSO and Chorus with top-notch guest singers. I should say that I'm not in general a Wagner fan: the mid-to-late nineteenth century is my classical music blind spot, I'm not keen on the coloratura warbling of the Grand Classical style, and Wagner's reputation as a reactionary has rather put me off too.

However, I enjoyed this performance immensely. Largely because it's astonishing what the singers can make the human body do. The text is largely misogynistic nonsense: a man is condemned to wander the seas for eternity until he can find just one woman who'll be faithful to him. There's some good ghostly horror stuff to balance that though. The only thing that slightly undercut the drama for me was the use of English surtitles. Even if your German is quite good (mine is just about passable), the powerful delivery convinces one that they're singing about the eternal battle between good and evil. With the electronic surtitles giving the English translation, you realise that the first 40 minutes features blokes singing about the weather and how they got there. Much like men at parties exchanging advice on how to avoid the A40 at rush hour and swapping stories about the rain, only with ships instead of Ford Focuses (Foci?).

Here's a clip of an American production:

Anyway, it didn't matter: the virtuoso performance of orchestra, conductor, choir and singers held me rapt. Any orchestra can do power and volume, but the CBSO is special because it's so good at dynamics: no subtlety escapes them.

Right, that's enough from me for a while. I'm teaching Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow for thy Sons this afternoon, getting some marking done, going over to Stratford to interview a Fencing Regional Hub Officer this evening, teaching an extra class on religion and multiculturalism tomorrow morning, then one on Farrell's Troubles and seeing dissertation students. It's going to be busy. Hopefully I'll find the time to revert to normality and slump in front of my normal diet of Jeremy Kyle, Geordie Shore and Pointless at some point too. My IQ can't cope with all this clever stuff.

Friday, 15 March 2013

That Friday feeling

It's grey and wet outside, nobody else is in the office and I've been doing a lot of very routine admin (such as trying to get the techs to explain why they can get a documentary video running in the VLE but neither I nor any of the students can see it), so I'm not in the most exuberant of moods. 

So this probably wasn't the right moment to read this very candid and witty post about the tribulations of getting students to actually read the bloody books and say something in class. It's certainly something my colleagues and I are struggling with at the moment. Not with every class: my Milton group, for instance, won't shut up and are a delight to see. But some simply will not read the books. Quiet, shy or nervous students are fine: it takes a while to warm up, but not reading the books really bothers me. My job is to provide an environment in which every student feels comfortable asking and answering searching questions of me, themselves and each other, and this takes time and effort.

Mostly because I too was a quiet shy student as an undergraduate. My first philosophy class was a test of wills. The lecturer simply sat there, in total silence, until someone cracked. It took 20 minutes and the person who cracked was me. Why? Because despite the terror of being thought dumber than a box of hammers, I was bursting with enthusiasm and forced myself to speak having decided that vocal stupidity was better than cooler-than-thou disengagement. I went to a very bad school which discouraged questioning to the point that I forgot that my name wasn't 'Shut Up', so often was the phrase directed at me by certain teachers. University was liberation to me. That isn't to say that I read everything. I fully admit not reading all of The Faerie Queene nor the collected works of Henryson, Skelton and Dunbar (though I now regret not doing so). In my first year, we had tutorials of 4-5 people. Having realised early on that the sleazy tutor only spoke to the young women in the group, my friend and I abandoned preparation and drank spirits in the lift on the way up. We'd compete to say the most brainless and tangential things, knowing that nothing we said would elicit the slightest bit of consideration or attention. Very childish, but sort of satisfying for a while. Moving on to other tutors in the second year was a shock: they listened to us and probed what we said. Not comfortable, but much more satisfying.

Kids: if you signed up to do an English literature degree, we should be allowed to assume that you're enthusiastic about a) reading books and b) talking about books. We don't expect you to love or even understand every text, certainly not from the start. But we do expect a degree of enthusiasm and co-operative exploration. When I give you a 110 page novella, it's not unreasonable to expect you to read it by the end of the three weeks I've set aside for examining it. Seriously.

Now plenty of people online have said that reacting negatively to disengagement is Just Not On. It ignores the multiple complexities of students' lives and the hidden reasons for reluctance. In some ways, this is fair enough: many of my students have families to look after, long hours at work to pay for their studies and lives to live. But only up to a point, Lord Copper. They're here because they want to be. Nobody forces them to sign up for a degree and nobody forces them to come to class.

I don't think schools and universities have made it clear enough that higher study demands commitment and effort, in return for which the intellectual and social rewards are great. School league tables have abolished enthusiasm and encouragement there: the kids are just meat-space representatives of statistical achievements in which corner-cutting is deemed perfectly acceptable. The students turn up here with stories of 'skeleton' essays in which the teacher tells them what to put in each paragraph. They speak of rarely reading a whole novel: instead, photocopies of 'key chapters' are provided to enable model exam responses to be regurgitated. Teachers have told me of being warned against talking about complicated ideas ('they don't need that to pass') even if the students are perfectly capable.

So small wonder that some students (nowhere near all) might be feeling sullen. They've been treated like drones for years and suddenly a new load of teachers are acting all disappointed in them for not adapting quickly enough to a scarier (but also much better) educational model. The question is how to cope as a teacher. The author of Curiouser and Curiouser rejects the Angry Rant despite its promise of instantaneous satisfaction, and rightfully so. The last thing I'd want to do is turn mutual educational encounters into mutual hostility. And besides, these students are adults. They're here by choice and they can leave by choice: shouting at them makes the latter more likely. With first-year students, you've got three years of their company to look forward to: if you treat them as an undifferentiated mass of relaxed muscle, it's going to be a terrible three years.

For Curiouser and Curiouser, there's a gendered aspect to this too: her male colleagues don't get anything like the abuse she gets whenever she assays a little criticism or exhortation. That kind of thing doesn't happen here as far as I know. The vast majority of students are female in my English Lit classes, and it's pretty balanced in the Cultural Studies modules. Also, my students are nice. However annoyed they might get sometimes, confrontation and abuse just don't happen.

So how does Curiouser and Curiouser handle the disappointment?

My response has always been to give the Sincere And Concerned Speech About Investment In Your Own Education. This is a speech designed to make them see how they are selling themselves short by not being active learners. I have speeches about How To Take Notes, and How The Skills In This Class Are Transferable, and Why You Should Care About Doing Well Even Though You Don’t Like This Subject Matter
But I do not have a speech about How You Are A Lazy Ass Who Needs To Just Do The Assignment Already.
I think this is wise. My response is to make light-hearted references to the joys of reading, then progressively less light-hearted but not angry appeals to their better nature. More This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You disappointment speeches, and One Day You'll Thank Me For Getting You To Read This speeches (I exempt The Faerie Queene and comic Dickens from this routine) and persuading them that An Informed Opinion Makes Reading A Book A Richer Experience Than Just 'Reckoning' Something About It, Really. I also deliver the Everybody Keeps Quiet Because They Think Their Question Will Sound Stupid When Everybody Else Is Thinking The Same Thing And This Isn't A Judgemental Space Anyway speech with some regularity. Oh, and the Lectures Are When I Talk A Lot, Seminars Are Specially Designed For Your Voices one. That's a classic. My colleague likes giving the I've Got Four Degrees Already, The Question Is Whether You Want To Get This One. I have, once or twice, cancelled a class when it became apparent that virtually nobody had read the text. Not angrily, but disappointedly and matter-of-factly. Do it often and it becomes a pose, but when you have a reputation for being friendly and suddenly take extreme measures like this, there's often a good response because it's clear that you really mean it.

What's most annoying is that my disappointment is based on the students' refusal to grab hold of every opportunity going, which is a function of getting old. When I was 18, a three year degree seemed like forever. There was no hurry. Now I'm 37 and entire months disappear in the blink of an eye (along with my hair and waistline). I know that those three years are precious: never again will they have the luxury of just sitting around reading and talking about things without some arse in slip-on shoes and attention-seeking glasses demanding a spreadsheet NOW!

I also try to make my own enthusiasm for a text apparent. A couple of weeks ago I found myself slipping off my shoes in the lecture (still have no idea why) and wandering around the room talking about post-modernist versions of Romanticism without notes. It felt good, and hopefully my passion persuaded them that the texts were worth reading and talking about.

Other things I do relate to the choice of text. I happen to like a lot of the traditional canon, but it doesn't deliver an element of surprise. So I choose texts for first-years according to what I think will make them talk. Bad books work well: ones where the plotting, characterisation or narrative are so ham-fisted that the students feel compelled to critique them. It's always easier to point out a text's flaws, and it's a good way of quickly identifying technique, particularly with novels. Also, students are happier tearing into an author unknown to them than they are having a go at what they've always been told is Great Literature. 'Why Doesn't This Shakespeare Scene Work Very Well?' is not going to go down very well with nervous neophytes.

But like Curiouser and Curiouser, I feel there's a balance to be struck. I'm inspired by the '68 generation of students who took control of their universities and their learning. I didn't quite manage that as an undergraduate, but I want my students to do it. I want them to be more demanding, to push me and each other. At the same time, do I worry so much about the power inherent in being a teacher that I'm too nice to the students? A teacher who wants to be everybody's friend is liable to be disappointed (especially when grading time rolls around) and the object of scorn: the students have enough, cooler friends than you). Is a bit of discomfort and pressure educationally fruitful?

The next obvious stage is to find out how the students feel in these situations - without putting them on the spot. I shall give it some thought.

Update: @KateMfD points out that I'm perhaps overestimating the students' agency: have they really made a positive choice to go to university? Certainly to some (including to me), it was scary but automatic: like going up a class in school. I never sat down and thought about why I was going, or what else was out there. 'English' doesn't sound much different from 'English' at school level, so it may be a 'default' choice for people who feel like they've been railroaded into the institution. Another question to ask the students…

Anyway, enough of this serious soul-searching. Have some bubblegum pop to start the weekend. It's Mott The Hoople's 'Take The Skinheads Bowling' – another way of motivating the reluctant! I particularly love the call and response lines.

Mostly today I've been listening to Prokofiev Piano Concertos, a collection of Peter Philips' Renaissance choral music and the new Faustus album, Broken Down Gentlemen: folk-tastic fun. In complete contrast, I'm off to Wagner's The Flying Dutchman tomorrow: my first live Wagner, then honouring the ancestors by celebrating St. Patrick's Day at the Birmingham parade. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Your daily charlatans

Got this very spammy email today.

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So what these people are promising is censorship – a service many PR firms sell their clients too. Unlike PR firms though, these muppets are so professional that they have a Yahoo free email address: 'reputationdefenders1@yahoo.co.uk' although the link goes to badreviewremovers@europe.com: another free address.

So let's see how good they are. Reputation Defenders: you are rubbish. Nobody should ever use your service, particularly as you are SPAMMERS and probably just phishing for personal details.

Let's see them remove that!

More Uppal humbug

The other day, MPs had a debate about the contribution of the Sikh people to British society. As a proud Sikh and currently the only one in Parliament, Paul Uppal contributed to the debate several times. Here's one little speech he made:

Paul Uppal: I cannot resist: it says something about the common sense of the people Wolverhampton that in 1950 they returned Enoch Powell to the House with a majority of 691, but they returned somebody of Sikh descent in 2010 for exactly the same constituency with a majority of 691. Rest assured, I will not make a speech about race relations in 18 years.
Hmmm. So he's proud that his pathetic majority is exactly the same as that of a man (from his party) most famous for predicting 'rivers of blood' due to immigration. Perhaps he could also address the Conservative Party's notorious racism: in Smethwick, Paul's party once campaigned under the banner 'If You Want A Nigger For A Neighbour, Vote Labour'. 

I don't think, Paul, that people voted for you because you're a Sikh. You got in because Labour's vote slumped in response to the perceived chaos of the Brown administration. 

I'm glad you don't intend to make any speeches about race relations. Firstly, you're only going to be an MP for another 2 years, and secondly because – as I'm sure you remember – the last time he did so he described those pursuing racial equality as 'the foaming McCarthyite race relations industry', in an online discussion now sadly deleted from history.  

But he gets some things right, in a moment of self-awareness:
My personal belief is that this is why we do not see more Sikhs coming forward into politics: to be a Sikh, one must always be humble and contained within oneself and always be modest. I have to tell hon. Members that that does not always fit well with politics. As we know, this business is often about self-promotion, and that goes across a central element of Sikhi, which is always to be modest.

Sikhs are taught that there are five sinful temptations that take us away from the ethos of Sikhism: Kam, which is lust; Krodh, which is rage; Lobh, which is greed, Moh, which is attachment; and Ahankar, or ego, which I have just alluded to and which is a bit of a stumbling block for many Sikhs in terms of coming into politics.
And then he goes on to extol the joys of the Sikh traitors who fought for the Raj against the Afghans in the colonial wars, as though we should be impressed and inspired to support the current appalling war. 

Paul has replaced modesty with secretiveness. He wouldn't tell me whether he'd reported his suspicions of electoral fraud to the police (he hadn't). He wouldn't tell us what degree classification he achieved. He won't tell us how he made his millions. He didn't want his photograph taken when I attended a meeting he hosted. He avoids the presentation of petitions. He always has 'a constituent' who completely agrees with him and speaks in Parliamentary language, and yet is very reluctant to give details. 

But Paul's done some good for the world's poor:
when the Prime Minister went through the Golden Temple—the Harmandir Sahib—I could see that the people who organised the trip were anxious to take him away from them, but he indicated that he wanted to meet them. As was highlighted earlier in the debate, there are four doors in a Sikh temple—one on each side—which mean that it is open to all faiths and communities. The Prime Minister met those incredibly poor people, and I can tell hon. Members how humbling it was for him.
Yeah, 'humbling'. That's the first word that springs to mind when I think of David Cameron. A shame that he avoids this country's poor (when pressed to visit a food bank, he paid an after-hours visit and met only staff) and cuts off aid to India. The poor, in Paul's view, aren't a pressing moral concern: they're props for a private psycho-drama in which one hones one's sensibility. Oh, the humanity! 

And as for this:
my oldest daughter encapsulated my feelings on Sikhism quite wonderfully when she said, “Dad we have such a cool faith, why don’t we talk about it much more?” I hope that in some small way, by making this speech this morning, I have helped that process.
Ugh. Do any children talk like this? How old is she? Still, from the speech, young enough to be bathed by her parents, but old enough to be a religious zealot. Unless, of course, this is a paraphrase. Or made up.  Surely not!

So humbug all round - but the entire debate is much better. Read it here

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A poem for students

Like every other academic who ever lived, I get weekly emails from students innocently asking if they 'missed anything important'. The simple answer, of course, is 'yes'. Otherwise I wouldn't have held the class. 

Now I can just send them this poem and let them work it out for themselves. I found it here.


Tom Wayman
From:   The Astonishing Weight of the Dead. Vancouver: Polestar, 1994.
                                                        Question frequently asked by
                                                        students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

        Everything. I gave an exam worth
        40 per cent of the grade for this term
        and assigned some reading due today
        on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
        worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

        Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
        a shaft of light descended and an angel
        or other heavenly being appeared
        and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
        to attain divine wisdom in this life and
        the hereafter
        This is the last time the class will meet
        before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
                on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

        Everything. Contained in this classroom
        is a microcosm of human existence
        assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
        This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

        but it was one place

        And you weren't here

Papal bull

Here's a song that could have been written for the Papal Conclave which as you know, vents white smoke when a Pope has been elected and black smoke when a ballot is inconclusive.

It's Tindersticks' 'Black Smoke'. 'I told myself I was greedy for it… checking out my reflection' – rather appropriate for the red-hats jockeying for power in the Church. 

What else has caught my attention today. Well, I've got lots of preparation and marking to do, but I'm finding it hard to concentrate. It doesn't help that my colleague kept hold of my marking pile for a whole week but still wants them done within the time limit. Not helpful and not conducive to me turning to the pile first. 

Instead, I've been reading, teaching Paradise Lost (today's question: is it as misogynist as one might think?) and opening parcels of books. Mostly a pile of Jim Crace novels for a research project, plus a reprint of Alec Waugh's The Loom of Youth, fuelling my 1920s-1930s obsession. In pursuit of this, I've also been reading the interesting James Laver's 1933 collection of mock-epic satires, Ladies' Mistakes. It's a knowing and witty homage to Pope's work, full of film-stars, trips on the underground and weedy young gentlemen transformed into studs by a moment's dalliance. It's also very funny, and beautifully illustrated by Thomas Lowinsky. Highly recommended! It felt quite strange to be reading Bright Young Thing poetry in the utilitarian atmosphere of the works canteen. 

What else? Well, I read an appalling report pitch on the virtues of online education by one Sir Michael Barber and his chums Donnelly and Rizvi, who basically thinks that online videos mean everyone can be taught by 'celebrity academics'. As he said to that reactionary know-nothing John Humphries on Radio 4, 
Why would you go to the quite ordinary lecture by a quite ordinary lecturer when you can get Niall Ferguson online?
Er… Mostly because 'celebrity academics' have stopped thinking by the time they get famous. They hit on a big idea. Then they make TV programmes about it. The producers ask them to cut out all the waffly bits and sharpen the lines. Complexity and ambiguity are lost. They start to believe their own reviews and get suspicious of alternative or newer approaches. They certainly get fed up with the 'ordinary' academic's cycle of writing, submitting to peer-review, rewriting and re-submitting. What do these people have to say to a Celebrity Academic? Niall Ferguson is an ideal case in point: his books are largely polemic these days, facts and opinions shaped to suit his ideological perspective rather than exploring events or ideas. 

I have another anecdote which may explain why you might prefer the 'quite ordinary lecture' to the superstar. A young friend of mine was sent off to an Oxford study weekend as part of his preparation for university applications. Simon Schama was dangled in front of the aspiring scholars as bait. 'What shall I say to him, Dad?', my chum asked his father, who had been taught by the good professor in the early 1980s. 'Ask him if he's read and marked my essays yet', replied Dad. 

Anecdotal, it's true. But the Celebrity Academic (and quite a lot of high-flying non-celebrity academics) rarely trouble themselves with undergraduate lectures, tutorials, and marking. After all, what are hourly-paid PhD graduates and post-grads for? You're more likely to find the Celebrity Academic in the departure lounge or Radio 4's Green Room than slaving over a module guide or attending the Staff-Student Forum. 

But what of the other element of Barber's rather silly claim? Why not watch a video at a time of your choosing from the comfort of your own home? I've gone on about this rather a lot in the past, but nobody's listened so I'll say it again. A video lecture is a very useful resource. You can play it and replay it and stop it to make notes and extract a good deal of wisdom from it. But what you can't do is put up your hand to ask a question, or make a point, or disagree. The online video implies that you have no role other than to accept what's put in front of you. This is particularly true of the Celebrity Academic Video, which is more like an MTV pop promo than an educational event. Here is a Star, it says. Worship it and a few flakes of star-dust might fall about your shoulders. 

What's entirely absent is the glorious possibility that you, yes YOU might have something to say, and that all the other people watching might equally have something interesting and intelligent to say about the subject in question. That you might speak to each other, and pursue the lecturer's thoughts. If you watch a video, you're part of the mass audience. If you come to a real-life lecture, you're a participant. You can stop me to ask for clarification, to propose another idea, to put me right (these things happen to me all the time) and I will respond, often delighted that somebody's listening and thinking. The Celebrity Video Star will never, ever be halted mid-flow by somebody else's idea. Additionally, the Video Star can never tell you you're wrong, or that you need to work harder, or read more. You're the consumer, the customer, and you are Always Right. That's why the real-life encounter is Education and the online video is a simulation of education in which the Celebrity is simply 'product'. 

Of course, the most eminent researchers are not always the best teachers, nor is fame an index of quality either: where I work, many quiet, modest teachers earn their students' respect without showiness. In the brave new world, they'll be discarded or reduced to the level of piece-work marking machines. Despite this, they'll still know when a student is struggling, or has worked the night-shift to keep the family fed, or has a particularly personal response to a text or loves one special critical approach: all the things about which the remote Celebrity Academic will not give one solitary hoot. 

The Celebrity Academic is the grinning, styled face of a pyramid scheme Victorian in its outlook: that Great Men (and women) deliver Enlightenment from on high (hence my application of Capitals to this blog post) to the undifferentiated masses. This is of course what's known technically as 'bollocks'. Take my Milton class today. Afterwards, I went downstairs to Ye Olde Slopperie for some gruel and spotted a group of the students slurping sugary drinks and pointing at bits of Paradise Lost. They were educating themselves and each other: hopefully agreeing with bits of the lecture and disagreeing with other bits. You don't get that from watching a video in your home or on your phone. 'No man is an island', some clever bloke once wrote, and it's never more true than in education. You don't simply absorb a lecture's words and become educated: you think about them, talk about them, test them in debate. Then you're educated - but that's not a very profitable model. It requires buildings and staff and libraries and all those things – particularly emotional and intellectual commitment and bravery – which can't be assigned an IP address and be billed via Direct Debit. And that's ignoring the issue of control. Who do you want decided on the curriculum? Some TV-friendly bloviator and his corporate chums, or people you know personally, and know you?

But we shouldn't expect Sir Michael to acknowledge this: he's the Chief Education Adviser at Pearson, a company betting the farm on replacing Ordinary Lecturers You Can Talk To with Celebrity Academics' Greatest Hits, for money. He is, simply, a salesman. 

Will the children of Barber and Co. be educated via video-link? You bet your ass they won't. They'll be buying physical access to the Dreaming Spires like all the rich kids. Video's for the plebs. Which is what really annoys me. Educational technology can be brilliant. Look at the Open University and the wonderful things it does. I personally use forums and Twitter and all sorts of lovely toys in my teaching. What I don't do is employ shiny things to disguise the fact that what Pearson, Clay Shirky (who thinks video-Ed is the educational Napster) and their friends in government want isn't better education: it's cheaper education for the great unwashed. 

But don't just take my word for it. Here's Andrew Ng on the value of classroom interaction:

“If you think about your favorite teacher you had back in college and the conversations you had with him or her, there’s just no way to replace that with a computer,” Ng said. “But you need to figure out the economics and the logistics to hire more teachers to deliver those sorts of amazing interactions.”

Who he? Only the founder of Coursera, one of the world's biggest (and most interesting) online-education providers. 

What's the link between my original subject (the Papal conclave) and the Barber report? Simple: they're both hierarchical models which valorize the linear transmission of uncontested truths to the obedient masses without any possibility of the masses contributing, let alone seeking their own way to enlightenment. I may have been brought up a Catholic but when it comes to education, I'm a thoroughgoing Protestant.