Friday, 30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney

I have nothing to add to the outpouring of sadness at Seamus Heaney's death. He can speak for himself:

It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.
(from Heaney's translation of Beowulf)

All I know is a door into the dark.
('The Forge')

Before Heaney, poets came from everywhere. Since Heaney, they've all been Northern Irish, or so it seems. The curious confluence of Irishness and English, of borders, of faiths, of bogs and bombs, of old learning and new institutions, of the slow rhythms and swift history seem to breed them there.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Of Treason, Subversives, Propaganda, Anti-Communism and Anti-anti-communism…

Some of you may wish to skip today's entry: those of you who read me in search of thrills and spills, because I'm just going to drone on about yesterday's conference. I thought it very exciting indeed, but apparently not everybody is shaken to the marrow by discussions about forgotten literary periodicals and the like. I know, hard to believe, but it takes all sorts to make a world.

So, I'm back from a couple of days in London, visiting the British Library's Propaganda exhibition and attending a conference on Anti-Communism: Culture, Literature, Propaganda in the rather wonderful Deco Senate House at the University of London. After working on Clearing – important but frankly not exciting – it was great to spend a couple of days listening to thinkers I respect showing me how little I know even about my own field!

The British Library exhibition was fascinating, though flawed. It took the line that propaganda is a neutral concept, and presented material from a range of cultures, organisations and historical periods. I did think that it treated the British Empire with kid gloves and was therefore ironically propagandist itself, and that the range of texts should have included a lot more literature and film (no Casablanca?), but what they did have was fascinating.

The first item was this 'educational' film from 1949: it makes some important points but it has, to put it kindly, some ideological flaws. An interesting curio, nonetheless:

I also liked the prescience of this (rather hypocritical) Soviet poster entitled 'Freedom, American-style', accusing the United States of being a surveillance state, by Prokorov:

Frank Capra's Why We Fight is also a fascinating piece of Allied propaganda:

I also loved the propagandist fashions: lovely silk Jaqmar scarves from WW2 decorated with posters such as 'loose lips sink ships', Fougasse cartoons, and of London maps marked with bombed historic buildings. 

Rather wittily, the exhibition was liberally sprinkled with video clips of Alastair Campbell discoursing on propaganda without the slightest acknowledgement that he might be viewed as a (rather obvious, dishonest) propagandist in any way. The other good thing was the total absence of that monstrous cliché, the Keep Calm And Carry On poster, originally produced for the event of a German invasion of the UK. Well done, British Library. 

So that was the entrée to the conference. Anti-communism is a huge cultural field in the post-war period. The CIA was all over the cultural scene, funding arts festivals, artists' tours, concerts, cultural magazines, scholarships and symposia (see Stonor Saunders and Wilford), though not much has been written about the UK security services' interventions into culture, though James Smith, who was at yesterday's conference, has recently published a book on MI5 surveillance of poets and other artistic types. My kneejerk suspicion is that the British security services were too Philistine to devote much energy to Bloomsbury and Co. Drawn from the aristocracy and military, British spooks were at best indifferent to culture as praxis and pursuit: in an earlier age, Arnold despaired of the aristocracy as a bunch of wasters squandering their cultural privileges. In contrast, the US State Department (dealing with foreign affairs) and security services prided themselves on being highly cultured. Hence their keen interest in, for example, abstract expressionism, which they covertly promoted as proof that Western freedom produced great, cerebral art in opposition to the moralising Socialist Realism of the USSR. 

So that's the background to yesterday's symposium, which explored specific currents and examples in the anti-communist movement. David Ayers, for example, discussed the battle between the USSR's supposed universalism (overwhelming ethnic, national and religious difference) and TS Eliot's defence of 'European' values and human individualism. Two academics (Thomas Karshan and Adam Piette) discussed Nabokov's leading role as a literary anti-communist: his father was a liberal minister in the Kerensky government. According to Karshan, Nabokov's literary techniques and subjects, particularly play, self-division, contempt and indifference in his early Russian-language novels counterpoint the programmatic political engagement required by Soviet literary authorities. However, Karshan feels, Nabokov's 'crude, childish determinism' in books like Bend Sinister and Pale Fire demonstrate that he was locked into the forms and concerns of his Communist opponents: he never really managed indifference. 

Matthew Taunton of UEA discussed Brecht's Die Massnahme (in which a young comrade accepts that the revolution requires his own execution) as a way to examine Soviet notions of law and justice, which gradually drove away British fellow travellers such as Stephen Spender (poet and editor of Encounter, scandalously revealed to be a CIA front, which Spender probably knew) and Arthur Koestler (a central cultural figure at the time, later revealed to be a rapist). Those of you following the SWP's appalling treatment of serious rape accusations against a leading cadre might find Taunton's work instructive. 

The second session featured the highly-esteemed Ben Harker (soon to join Manchester University's English department), who discussed the cultural ramifications of the 'Soviet Literary Controversy' (the Party's victimisation of Akhmatova et al) in British intellectual life, taking in Raymond Williams, the Leavisites, Cyril Connolly's prediction of a repressive socialist Britain producing homegrown Socialist Realism and the relationship between art and political engagement, leading eventually to Cultural Studies and the New Left. Some background on British Communist literary culture here

Harker was followed by Nick Hubble's exploration of work by Orwell, Spender, Cornford, Cornforth and Sommerfield, particularly about Spain, as the 30s came to be re-evaluated in the post-45 period. Spender, in particular, scrambled to associate himself with the elitist High Modernists who had refused to explicitly discuss politics in their work, rather unconvincingly. 

After lunch came Debra Rae Cohen from the University of South Carolina. Horrifyingly, she recognised me from a 1930s conference I presented at in Arkansas, 2001. It was my first conference paper and I was frankly awful. But her presentation was utterly fascinating. She spoke about ex-socialist and talented author Rebecca West's journalism and writing on treason, the Atomic Spies trials, her letters, her vocal support for HUAC and McCarthy, and her ongoing conviction that everything that went wrong in her life – including her estranged son's bitter autobiographical novel – were part of a Communist plot to ruin her. She also, fascinatingly, saw celebrity culture as part of a communist media plot to divert the reading public's attention away from the dangers of subversion and brainwashing. 

I didn't think that paper could be rivalled, but Marina MacKay of Durham University was equally fascinating. Speaking on 'Religious Fantasy and Anti-State Allegory in the 1940s', she introduced C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength and Rex Warner's The Aerodrome (which may well have influenced Orwell's 1984) to discuss conservative fears of technocratic British Sovietism turning the country into a conformist dictatorship. I've read The Aerodrome (it's fascinating) but had never even heard of That Hideous Strength. After this paper, I have to read it: it sounds completely bonkers. It's essentially a campus novel in which a sociologist is seduced with promises of 'impact' (a current academic buzzword) into allowing an oppressive UK government to use her ideas to institute a police state. Women, lesbians and sociologists don't come out of it very well, unsurprisingly if you know anything about Lewis. 

Finally in that session came Benjamin Kohlmann from Columbia and Freiburg Universities, who gave a very different case of anti-communism. We'd already discussed plenty of conservative anti-communists, as you'd expect. But Edward Upward, an interesting communist figure though not, it has to be said, a novelist of any talent whatsoever, was what Kohlmann described as Communist Anti-Communist. Despairing of the CPGB's early turn away from serious revolutionary politics, he eventually left the Party for points further left. He became convinced that the real anti-communists were in fact the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain. From this point, the discussion turned to whether the CP's sole source of unity was resistance to anti-communism rather than any serious and positive programme of communism itself. An interesting point, though a long way down the rabbit hole for most of us!

Following Kohlmann, the final session saw Tyrus Miller exploring e. e. cumming's long-standing anti-communism. Having visited the USSR as a socialist, he came back convinced that authoritarian regimes crushed individual spirit, exhaustively explored in Eimi, his experimental travelogue. Oddly, it was one of the few texts mentioned in the course of the day that I didn't order on the spot. He was followed by Adam Piette on Nabokov's Pale Fire, and Petra Rau's examination of travel writing about the USSR, especially Eric Newby's The Big Red Train

As is usual when I attend conferences, I came away inspired, awed, despondent and poorer. Poorer because conference wi-fi + online bookshops + great speakers = rapidly depleting bank account. I dread to think how many books I ordered during the course of the day. Despondent and inspired because hearing all these people speak so brilliantly simultaneously recharges my enthusiasm for my field while making me wonder what I could possibly contribute. 

And so here I am, back at work, refreshed, enthused and with a lot more books to read.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Sport: a game of two political halves

Hi everyone. Not much from me for the next couple of days. I'm off to London in an hour, ready for tomorrow's conference: Anti-Communism: Literature, Culture, Propaganda at the Senate House. Having worked on Communist literature and culture for so long, I'm getting interested in the right's cultural activities… something else to add to the list of Putative Papers.

This morning I've been thinking about some research my colleague Mike is doing into the political and historical origins of the Youth Hostel Association in Britain (all contributions gratefully received). He has access to their archives and the various publications the produced, but there's very little on the motivations for the YHA's foundation. So it's a matter of tracing the interests of the founders and any public debate on the subject. One potential impetus is the widespread fear of urban youths becoming a squalid, unfit underclass: WW1's conscription revealed widespread malnutrition, TB, polio and general unhealthiness associated with poverty. Another inspiration may have been the various German cults of Youth and the outdoors, from both the left and the right. Green's Children of the Sun records that Parliament sent a delegation to investigate the Strength Through Joy movement, and came back to pass a Physical Training and Recreation Act, and to found a Festival of Youth. Here's a little footage, with some very interesting commentary:


Note that the commentator carefully disassociates these well-drilled youths from the Hitler Youth and other fascist organisations: there's a degree of wishful thinking there. As well as fitness, the formation of organised groups of strapping young people was always going to be political. The Scouts, for example, were explicitly formed to bind young people to God, King (or Queen) and Country, and to produce the next generation's military. Other organisations worried that the urban proletariat were prey to 'cosmopolitan' (i.e. Jewish and/or Communist) subversion and, following the German 'Blood and Soil' ideology, believed that getting them out into the country would reconnect them to the 'real' England, which was held to be the countryside. Physical exercise was better than sitting around, either doing nothing or reading subversive books. The Festival of Youth commentary reminds me of a visit to the Bonn Museum of German History (1946-onwards, rather evasively). One on side, pictures of depressed East German teenagers with information boards explaining that they were 'forced' to join the Pioneers and were little more than slaves. On the other side, photos of cheery West German teens happily marching in Western youth organisation out of patriotic fervour. Truly, the victors write history.

And it's certainly true that all the leftwing people with whom I associate would prefer to read books than play rugby. However, there was a thriving leftwing sporting world. Cycling was always a stronghold of the left, affording cheap transport to pleasant places in the company of like-minded people: the Clarion Clubs formed in Birmingham and Stoke before spreading through the nation (still just about going) merged socialism with cycling.

Hiking was the ultimate leftwing sport: socialists organised the campaign for footpaths and open access, including the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, led by communist Benny Rothman.

Athletics was also a popular working-class sport, particularly the disciplines which required little equipment, such as long-distance running: events were held under the auspices of the British Workers' Sports Federation (largely Communist-inspired) and the British Workers' Sports Association, a centre-left splinter body after the CPGB's authoritarianism got a little too much. The BWSF was a leading light in the Mass Trespass.

As for my sport: very disappointing. Although Karl Marx was an enthusiastic fencer (epée, sadly), so were Mussolini and Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists.

He was a leading member of the British teams, based his shock troops' uniform on the fencing jacket (in black, of course) and used to put on fundraising fencing galas for his Nazi party, with the connivance of other senior fencers and – I suspect – the Amateur Fencing Association. Certainly Charles de Beaumont, after whom the previous national HQ was named, aided Mosley's exhibition matches at the unsavoury Gargoyle Club. Unfortunately, the archives have long since disappeared and there was no newsletter, so tracing the story requires a trawl through the sporting and aristocratic press. One day, perhaps.

Sports' political characteristics tend to divide between team/individual, and be influenced by their social backgrounds. Fencing, mountaineering motor sport and aeroplanes in the 1930s were associated with Fascism: the Übermensch proving his worth as an individual by solo achievement by going higher to look down on us vermin, faster or further (and they were expensive). Rugby League was the preserve of Northern working men. Rugby union split between posh privately-schooled English people and Welsh or Scottish miners looking for a chance to duff up the English without getting arrested. Football tended to be grass-roots and socialist, though many clubs were founded by companies or churches to improve their parishioners' fitness or simply to get them to behave. Tennis was utterly suburban and middle-class: see Sorrow For Thy Sons' damning indictment of social-climbing Herbert who joins the tennis club in his Welsh valley because that's where the (English) managerial class go to escape the grime of the mining village.

Anyway, enough of this: I'm off to That London. More anon.

Friday, 23 August 2013

How to lose (Irish) friends and alienate people

Doing Clearing today. It's quiet. Too damn quiet. Though I have made some offers to some lovely people. If they sound downcast I point out that I got to university through Clearing, thanks to an entirely expected massive failure on the Latin A-level I was forced to do against my will. I should, at this point, say a big thank you to Bangor University for taking a chance on an unknown kid. 4 degrees later, I can confidently say that the system works!

Anyway, that's not the point of today's post. I'm going to review a book instead, John Niven's Single White Male. I read and enjoyed his previous novel about the 1990s indie music scene, Kill Your Friends. That novel was a kind of American Psycho with added Shed Seven. It was amusingly vile and a good diversion.

Single White Male applies the same formula to creative writing and academia. Kennedy Marr is a bloated arrogant, burned out, sold out Irish writer, a man who has sold out his talent to Hollywood. Having become a careless, greedy, oversexed monster, his creative, personal and fiscal lives are in meltdown and he's forced to accept a lucrative fellowship at a Midlands university which coincidentally enough also employs one of his former wives. Cue the usual rather reactionary set piece lampoons of Hollywood and trendy critical theory teachers. Not original but mildly amusing with some genuinely funny bits. My own university is recruiting a professor of writing at the moment so the novel's cynical enunciation of institutional motivation is particularly interesting.

However, the novel's representation of Irishness is such a huge stumbling block that it's impairing my enjoyment of the whole thing. Niven clearly knows Hollywood well, and invests considerable effort in the minutiae of its lifestyles: food, cars, clothes, speech patterns and so on. But when it comes to the protagonist's background, his family's dialogue and lives, it's embarrassingly close to a 19th century Begorrah stage Irish routine. Kennedy and his family are differentiated from other speakers of English in only two ways: they either start sentences with 'sure' or end them with 'so you are'. There's also a smattering of 'eejits' and 'fecks', and Kennedy sometimes tells people to 'stick it up in your hole'. The 'in' is entirely superfluous of course.

This is funny because if you turn to page 220 we find our hero reading a pile of student novels and screenplays, all of which he finds lacking:
If you don't buy the tone of the thing, you're dead. And reading some of the dialogue... he wondered if some of the authors had ever had a conversation with another human being in their lives.
Ad then he quotes some Wordsworth to prove that there's Proper Book Learning going on here.
 It is, in fact the Mrs Doyle characterisation except without the smart, affectionate insider's wit of that show:

Other than speaking like Shakespeare's MacMorris, the Irish characters split between saintly Mammies, decent sons who love their Mammies, Behan-style tear-aways like Kennedy and troubled Limerick heroin losers. It's always raining and emotionally repressive.

The problem, other than authorial laziness, is I suspect, old-fashioned British imperialism. Hollywood is distant and glamorous. No doubt Niven enjoyed his research trips to LA. But Ireland's cold, wet, local and (he thinks) familiar. No research needed. He knows what the Paddies and Bog-trotters are like. Their characters write themselves. So we end up with these tissue of clichés masquerading as characterisation and dialogue. And it makes my toes curl. 

Still, Caitlin Moran likes it, so who am I to complain?

Update: right, I've finished Single White Male now and there are plenty more reasons to dislike it. I'll just pick one.

It's a novel about masculinity, starring a hyper-macho stereotypical Irish author: he drinks too much, is too attached to his dying Mammy who preferred him to his siblings, can't live up to his father's role as a stable, quiet provider etc etc etc. So far, so tedious. It's a very knowing book: Kennedy Marr keeps remarking that there's nothing more clichéd than a book at middle-aged male authors coming to terms with responsibilities and with their own mortality. But being knowing isn't an excuse: Single White Male falls into exactly the same traps as its hero. Kennedy shags and boozes his way to notoriety and then a suicide attempt. Then the author bottles it: Kennedy survives, reconnects with his ex-wife and daughter and becomes a reformed character. Niven is too chicken to let the suicide succeed.

And so we get to a deeply conservative resolution. Having been encouraged to admire Kennedy's Irish-by-way-of-Hemingway nonconformity, it turns out that uxoriousness, familial duty and the literature of emotional commitment are what Niven implicitly promotes. Nowhere is this more clear than in the book's sexual politics. Kennedy Marr is a misogynist bastard, and we're expected to understand that the way he treats women is disgraceful. Men like him are socially destructive, as he realises when he understands that he treats women in ways he'd hate people to treat his own daughter. So far, so progressive. And yet… part of his epiphany is tied up in a sense of ownership of his daughter's sexuality (she's sixteen: children are only interesting in these kinds of novels when they're sexually maturing, which bothers me). From this, you realise that the women in the novel are completely present solely to reflect the male protagonist's 'journey'. They have no inner lives or agency of their own. They're in the book for Kennedy Marr to damage or to love. They speak only about Kennedy or other men. While Kennedy's realisation that he should properly love his daughter and ex-wife seems progressive, a structural examination of the novel reveals that they are merely Helpers and Objects in the boring old Bildungsroman male quest. It's a novel by an 'outrageous' male writer in which another 'outrageous' male writer very much has his cake and eats it.

Conservative values, artistically, politically and socially. You can't have a writer (or any artist) as your central protagonist without inviting your readers to apply the text's concepts and structures to the book and its author – that's how literature interacts with the 'real' world. Niven's vicious satire is revealed to be – like most satire – deeply conservative. Kennedy's socially destructive behaviour isn't the product of cultural ills (he could have picked Ireland, Catholicism, the relationship between the arts and capitalism), but the result of his failure to adopt the Daily Mail's programme of neat heterosexual nuclear families and 'decency'.

It was a fun read, but a few moment's thought reveals a swearier update of Waugh and Amis.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Pointless round-up of reckons

Good afternoon from the Midlands! The sun's shining, enough colleagues are back for the first collective moan of the new academic year, I've been for a swim and I'm not doing Clearing until tomorrow. Some books have arrived and I'm now in possession of an iPad, for which I'll find a use at some point: it'll be easier to carry round for lectures than toting the MacBook at the very least.

This week's books are the Broken Homes, the latest in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London police procedural-fantasy series which was very enjoyable; Peter Heller's interesting-looking post-apocalypse novel The Dog Stars (acclaimed by Oprah, Playboy and the Wall Street Journal, so I'm more interested than convinced), John Niven's Straight White Male which will no doubt be scabrously satirical (and this one features a burned-out writer consigned to a Midlands university); B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates which as you know comes as a series of bundles in a box to be read in any order,

B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates

and finally Ceri Jones's Dweud eich Dweud, which is a guide to colloquial and idiomatic Welsh. Basically, it'll help me curse convincingly in yr hen iaith. Though if you're from Caernarfon, all you need is 'Shw mae, gont?' anyway. As Caliban says in The Tempest,
You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language.

So all in all, a good day. I will get back to Serious Academic Texts shortly, but there's no rush. I can't do anything substantial in the Clearing call centre anyway. Yesterday we chatted about all sorts of interesting research they're doing in between gossiping, and I came away with a whole other list of books to read, particularly Northern Irish Troubles novels.

The other excitement of the day was my colleague Alan doing an interview about a forthcoming TV series, Peaky Blinders, which picks up on Birmingham's gang history to present a local and richly-accented version of Gangs of New York.

Meanwhile, here's a comedic version of Michael Gove's vision of history, courtesy of Fry and Laurie:

and a bit of academic humour for you Foucauldians:

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Clearing the decks

So here I am manning the phones for Clearing. It literally is a call centre and takes me back to the days when I worked the night shift at Transco.

It's important work, but very, very, very boring, though leavened by colleagues' humour and support. And it's nice to change an applicant's life in the course of a short phone call. When, that is, I manage to operate the fiendishly complicated telephone system. I've already lost the university a string of AAA students by cutting them off. Now they'll slum it at some Oxbridge dive and miss out on all the opportunities we afforded them. 

But stuck in this place, there's very little about which to blog, and the all the news stories, especially Snowden, Miranda and the Guardian, are so obvious that I need hardly add anything. So I thought I'd regale you with the story of those months at Transco, months which gave me enough insight to working life to know that I'd do anything to stay in academia.

Let me take you back in time to the heady days of 1996. There I was, clutching a shockingly (to me, friends and family) good English degree and no clue whatsoever about what to do next. Obviously I'd given not the slightest thought to a career, unlike friends who spent their final years securing their futures. Eventually my alma mater suggested I do an MA at their expense and I had a year to reinflate my bank account. Which lead me down to a shady agency to do a typing test. 

Before long I was the newest, keenest Data Entry clerk on Transco's night shift. A mere 14 mile bike ride took me to a bleak trading estate in the bowels of Stoke on Trent, along with several hundred denizens of the night ready to enter data like daemons between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. for the princely sum of £3.12 per hour. One on of the first nights, some kind passer-by took the time to cut my brake cables, a discovery I made on a fairly steep hill in the rain.

I'm ashamed to admit that I was now a cog in the wheel of utilities privatisation. Our job was to clean up British Gas's addresses database so that new private companies could start making fraudulent cold calls to unsuspecting victims. At least, that's how we all saw it. No doubt they thought they were 'adding value in the marketplace' or something similar. 

The routine was awful. When there was work, it consisted of checking house addresses across three databases then generating a correct one. Anything more than one letter out and we had to call a manager. Anyone who made five mistakes in a week was fired. Yet at the same time, anyone who completed fewer than 50 addresses per hour was also fired. each week the target was raised and someone else would be publicly fired pour encourager les autres. Now and then managers would take another tack and hand out bottles of Kwik-Save perry to the employee of the week, or give us chocolate bars in the hope that the sugar would make us work harder. Yes, just like feeding the animals in the zoo. The result of the contradictory demands for speed and accuracy was that we'd simply cheat. So if you're wondering why you've never had a gas bill or they won't come out to your house, I can only apologise.

We weren't allowed to speak to each other even if there wasn't any work to do, so entire shifts were passed in silent inactivity: picking up a book was a disciplinary offence, as was spending longer than 3 minutes in the lavatory. Actually, anything more proactive than light breathing appeared to be a disciplinary offence.

As well as the weekday night shift, I did a full day on Saturdays. This was relatively enjoyable because the lunch break was taken (against the rules) in the breeze-block pub across the road. It was a shell seemingly bereft of electricity, hope and cheer, yet we made it our own, necking as much beer as we possibly could in the allotted 25 minutes, while I gather that some people even went so far as to inhale illicit herbal substances in a bid to lessen the pain. 

Workplace resistance wasn't restricted to mild sensory alteration either. Obviously I never did anything naughty, but it was a general view that deleting your family's and friends' addresses would save them a lot of bother in the future. Then one electric evening all the female drones were called in for a private meeting. Half an hour later, they were back, laughing fit to burst. Apparently some employees had been snorting coke in the female lavatories, my very first encounter with the devil's powder. We men were shocked. Shocked that they could afford it and that they hadn't shared. Even more shocking was the second offence. Taking particular umbrage at one male manager's sexism and boorishness, some colleagues had taken to disposing of their sanitary wear... in his desk drawer. Pretty revolting but rather effective. 

On the whole, it was a degrading a depressing place to work, though the other workers made it bearable. Nothing demonstrated the contempt management had for us more than its end. Nobody told us the work was done. We came in one night and sat there in silence for 6 hours, which wasn't out of the ordinary. Then at 3.30 a manager stood up and shouted that we shouldn't come back the next day or indeed ever. He explained that we'd be paid for this last shift but they couldn't tell us at the start of the evening in case we sabotaged the system.  

And so ended my career in the exciting world of IT systems. I've had bad jobs since (I'll tell you tales of supply teaching another time), but Transco certainly reinforced my previously only theoretical socialism. And persuaded me to retreat to the comparative safety (then) of the education system. I may not have been a miner or sold burgers but it was enough to give me an insight into the misery and insecurity of the zero-hours, low-pay economy in which my students live as though it's normal, the poor sods. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

I Told You So (Egyptian Edition)

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece warning anti-Morsi protestors that egging on the military to overthrow a democratically-elected government, however bad, would rebound spectacularly.
the people of Egypt are deluded if they see an army coup as a necessary stage in the pursuit of democracy. Morsi was a bad president but he wasn't a dictator. The demonstrators should sup with a very long spoon: supporting a coup against someone you don't like tacitly authorises the next coup, which might be against someone you do like. 
Ask yourself this: how many times have military coups lead to democratic governments?
It's not, of course, a simple matter. The Morsi government was elected democratically, but it was hardly governing in that spirit. Democracy is more than installing an dictatorship with a mandate for a fixed period of time and letting them get on with it (though this is of course the British system: the current coalition is behaving as though it has an enormous mandate for radical change). 

One of my friends, a leading Socialist Workers' Party thinker, had a chat with me about this. He thinks I called it wrong and that the strength of popular feeling on the Egyptian street indicated a brighter future than I thought.

But now hundreds of people are being murdered every week by the military in the name of security and the people who overthrew Mubarak are loudly cheering them on.

But what's this? President Morsi has been charged with criminal offences against Mubarak's military dictatorship (imagine the West German state trying postwar politicians for resisting the Nazi regime?) and Mubarak is being released by the military government. If I were an Egyptian democrat, I'd be looking from the pigs to the men and finding very little difference indeed. And then I'd be packing my bags and quietly heading towards the exit.

Open Sesame?

I'm sure we all know what this is. I have several in my pocket.

Until yesterday, one very like it opened my office door. Then some people came round and replaced it with an electronic card access system. You touch the door with your ID card and it opens. 

Or rather, it will open at some unspecified point in the future. Rather bafflingly, we weren't told that this was going to happen, and the cards haven't been activated. Right now, there are some very annoyed porters puffing and panting their way around the building as they get called to open the doors. Once in, we either have to urinate in the filing cabinets, leave the doors wide open while we visit the lavatories, or call in the porters to open the doors again every time we leave the room, because they lock automatically when the doors close. 

So that's the short-term problem. But it led me to wonder about the long-term aspects. For instance: when we had physical keys, our ID cards functioned as little more than library cards. If I lost it, I could still get into my office and carry on as normal. If I lose or leave behind my ID card now, I won't get onto campus and won't be able to access my work materials. Even worse than that is the security aspect. No doubt whoever sold the university this system claimed that it's more secure. Actually, it isn't. If I lost my office key, the finder had no way of knowing which door it opened. There are no clues on the key at all. If someone finds my ID card, they can get through all the security points, easily look up my room number and ransack the place without any problems at all. Being electronic devices with a master access port, they've already been cracked. With a physical key, you'd get a bit suspicious of someone fiddling around with the lock, but a cracked e-system wouldn't take any longer than opening it legitimately. So I'm actually less secure. 

Oh yes: these locks are networked. Presumably this means they can lock us out of our offices if we're rude about management or something, but it also means that a power cut or a Windows crash (unheard of, I know) on the server will lock out – or in – every single person on campus. One melted motherboard and we're all incarcerated. 

It's also an antisocial system. Because the doors lock whenever they're closed, we won't be able to breeze in and out of each others' offices to drop off an essay, fire off a quick question or have a moan. We'll have to knock. And wait. Then the person required will have to get up and open the door for us and we'll feel bad for disturbing them. (Then again, nobody can see my desk from the door: I can pretend to be out for ever).

Additionally, these card access systems are battery operated. At some point, the batteries will run out. Then the maintenance people have to come up, use their master key to open the door, dismantle the mechanism, replace the batteries and leave again: as opposed to the maintenance-free key system that has operated for more than two thousand years without requiring electrical assistance. Apart from the hassle, I don't quite understand why in a society which really needs to cut down on energy consumption, we'd replace a no-power system with a powered one. 

So in summary, we've replaced a simple, secure and efficient concept (keys) with an unsafe and inefficient one. This, I submit, is an admittedly minor case of two things: Being Too Clever For Your Own Good and Falling For The Attractions Of Shiny Things Being Dangled In Front Of You By Corporate Sales Reps Because It Makes You Look Modern. I can't think that there was a problem with staff members having keys to locks: the technology has endured for a remarkably long time because it simply works

Unless you're a conspiracy theorist. Keys are dumb: they don't tell anyone anything. These cards work via RFID. The networked system logs each and every use. So now they have a register of my presence in the office and a crude guide to how often I'm at work and where I go on campus. As the government says, only people with something to hide need worry, but I confess to finding this sinister. There's no need to collect this data: but once it's collectable, it'll be used. So what seemed like a simple technical innovation is both a profound power-shift and a major social change. 

Or am I just a Luddite? (Actually, I have a lot of sympathy for those misunderstood people). I must confess to liking physical controls: buttons, switches and other manual interfaces. This little example worries me that overcomplication alienates us a little more, and rather pointlessly, from the real world for no obvious gain. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Seal's nostrils and other delights

OK, I won't overload you with hundreds more photographs, but here are some from the 2.30 a.m. wander round Puck Fair after a very convivial night's dancing, and some from the Skelligs. The Puck Fair photo-set is here (or see daytime event favourites here) and the full set of Skellig Island photos are here. Or click on these ones to enlarge.

King Puck in glorious neon
This chap insisted I take his photo, in colourful terms. 

Looking down Killorglin Main Street, approximately 2.45 a.m. 
I like this photo for her face and her isolation, for the bright colours, and for the contrast between the street lighting and the van's internal lighting

General revelry, and I like the Keep Killorglin Clean sign amidst the mess. The pubs closed at 4.00 a.m. and the streets were clean again by 7.00 a.m.
Hazel takes advantage of a lull in trade at her catering van
Defocussed coloured lights over the Laune Bridge
I like the cheeriness of food vans, and the lighting works really well here. It's why I virtually never use flash.
Looking up Killorglin's Main Street from the bridge
A rare quiet moment on the Laune Bridge as a solitary reveller weaves his way home. Or somewhere.
One of the absolute highlights of the week was an open-air performance of The Tempest by the St. John's Mill Theatre Company, on the bank of the Laune at Ballykissane where the river becomes the sea. There was no set, and no props beyond a couple of lumps of wood and some costumes borrowed from the Killorglin Pantomime. Stage and seats were on a strip of shore twenty feet wide and a couple of hundred feet long: behind the actors was the estuary and the mountains of the Dingle Peninsula: perfect for a tempest, a shipwreck and a fantasy. It was a great choice of play: it explores the experiences of colonist and colonised, notions of civilisation and barbarism, and therefore had extra resonance in an Ireland multiply invaded by the British (and the IMF).

The performance was superb: clearly influenced by the Globe Theatre's recent version which I saw: that too used a minimal set and sexed-up Miranda as a naive but lusty young innocent. The audience was enlisted too: the 'natural spirits' which entrance and terrify the Milanese nobles were played by us: big laughs ensued as a bearded gentleman was cuddled and admired while Gonzalo notes his 'monstrous shape'. My companion was relieved of her wine-glass (at €4 for terrible plonk, littoral prices are on a par with London's) and other audience members were enlisted in various other ways. Playing out in real-time, the action's three hours covered late afternoon to evening. A few lights appeared on the other peninsula as darkness fell, no traffic or urban sound interrupted the play, bats and gulls flapped overhead, torches lit the final act and a seal swam past intent on raiding the salmon nets. It gazed at us then swam on unimpressed - everybody's a critic. 

I loved the Globe's interpretation of The Tempest, but I wonder if I'll ever see one as evocative as this one. The setting was wildly romantic, the subject matter given real edge by Irish history, the actors largely convincing and the music – performed by unseen musicians concealed behind a bush – keeningly evocative. The 'rough music' which entrances the visitors was in this case Irish-language laments, beautifully played. 

Sorry I haven't any pictures: I thought it would be disruptive and rude, not an instinct which occurred to several other audience members…
After a day's recovery, I achieved a long-held ambition to visit the Skellig Islands, two spiky and inhospitable rocks 12 kilometres of the Kerry Coast. Occupied by unsociable monks for 1000 years until the 1500s, frequently raided by Vikings, host to tens of thousands of gannets, puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, other seabirds and a lighthouse, it's been a place of folk-lore, illicit marriages, pilgrimage and tourism for aeons. The islands are a spectacular sight, as is the view of the mainland afforded from the rocks. It's remote, but it's not isolated: the monks were carrying on the tradition of withdrawal they'd learned from Anthony and the Syriac monks, while the Annals of Inisfallen from the same period recorded current events from both their immediate surroundings and news from elsewhere, such as a sacking of Rome.

Or so I'm told. My visit was a more authentically Irish experience. As well as being lost in the mists of time, the Skelligs were lost in a far less metaphorical mist. Of which more anon. 

We got there by boarding Des Lavelle's boat on Valentia Island. There was none of this 'here's a lifejacket, emergency drill as follows' nonsense. 12 of us piled onto the open deck of this very boat, a 20-foot fishing vessel. The captain had a cabin. We very much didn't. 

And off we went, lurching and bouncing through tempestuous seas: even the captain described conditions as 'monstrous'. I narrowly avoided meeting my breakfast again on the way up, but it was a close-run thing. Occasionally the fog would momentarily lift to afford us the sight of a flight of gannets or other shipping, but I took very few pictures, so intent was I on not drowning. It was a sobering thought to imagine generations of monks heading out in all weathers in a rowing boat made of skins stretched over wood. I idly wondered how many of them actually made it over there…

After an hour or so of this, we finally got a foreboding glimpse of our destination:

Skellig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael or Great Skellig)
Getting on to the island was no picnic, even with the 19th-century quay and paths with low walls built for the lighthouse crews. 

Once on land, we met the (very impressively informed) Office Of Public Works staff. They pointed us all to the signs warning anyone suffering from vertigo, unfitness, heart failure, sea-sickness and a range of other complaints to stay at the bottom: between heart attacks and simply falling off, deaths are rather common. The island is a Unesco World heritage site and there are no amenities, whether toilets or intensive care units. We were told that 'the birds are angry' and warned not to eat up at the top: a determined gull will steal your lunch and drive you off the cliffs if it doesn't think much of your sandwiches. 

Was it steep? This gull thought so:

Sadly, not all deaths on the Skelligs are accidental. It's a notorious hotspot for bunny suicides, as this picture taken under a cliff shows:

Sorry. Here's a cute picture of a robin taking a bath to cheer you up. 

But back to the Skelligs. We started the climb up the 600 steps hewn out of the limestone by monks over the centuries, up to the narrow patch of almost-level ground on which they founded their monastery. 

At times the fog was quite useful: it was so dense that you couldn't see the immense drop from the steep paths into the sea or onto the rocks. 

Plus it was all very atmospheric: sidling up the wet stone or hunching in a damp stone hut gave a real sense of what it might have been like to live there, year in, year out. Except of course that we weren't starving, maddened by hunger (on tonight's menu: gannet feet served on a bed of weeds), fear, religious mania and superstition. 

Up at the top, you enter a stone enclosure marked by this cross engraved on an upright:

to find a range of these beautiful bee-hive huts for living and praying in. They're dark, cold and strong: well over a thousand years old and still solid. There's so little flat space and soil that even the graveyard is man-made - it's a small raised bed labouriously built in the middle of the settlement. 

The graveyard through a window in a bee-hive hut

Large cross in the monastery enclosure

A window in one of the huts.
After a while it was time to clamber down in the fog. 

Thankfully, some of the signage kept us on the right track:

And then we got back on the boat and headed off to Sceilig Bheag (Little Skellig), which as the world's second-largest gannet colony, is closed to landings. It also hosts thousands of puffins but they migrate in early August… a week before we got there. I saw one lonely puffin flapping forlornly out to sea. Whales and dolphins played around the islands the day before too, but we did see one dolphin crest a wave on the way back. 

 Little Skellig is amazing. The white encrustation isn't guano or rock: it's birds. Thousands of angry, squawking birds.
Sceilig Bheag

 Not just birds, either. Look closely and you'll see a pair of seal's nostrils:

Even better, a couple of seals had dragged themselves onto the rocks and were lounging around. One of them bothered to lift its head as our boat got close, but couldn't be bothered to panic and soon flopped back down again. After two weeks of big dinners, I knew exactly how it felt. 

And so endeth the holiday. Now I'm spending most of the next couple of weeks doing Clearing: basically being God with a database. Tremble before me, O Supplicant Students!

Get Pucked…

Hi Everyone. I'd like to say it's an enormous pleasure to be back… but that would be a big fat lie. To some extent, anyway. I was back in the office on Friday but spent the whole day reading 600 emails, one of which accused me of failing a student for 'being Chinese' which obviously made my day. Given that the marking was anonymous and the dissertation plagiarised, I think my defence is fairly solid.

Anyway, before I get back into my standard rant/work/politics paradigm, I thought I'd share some of my favourite photos of the holiday with you. I know this is no better than physically demanding that any visitors to the office sit there and view every snap of What I Did On My Holidays, but you might like some of them. And if you don't, you can go here, though you may never leave.

My Irish holiday fell naturally into a few core activities. After a stop-off in Dublin to pay homage to the Messiah (i.e. my sister's newborn son) it was off to Co. Kerry in the far South-West. I read a lot: the luxury of three quality newspapers – on paper – every day (the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner and the Guardian) and a pile of books. I can thoroughly recommend Nick Barlay's downbeat urban morality tale Hooky Gear, which convinced me to read all his others; Ian Samson's amusing and informed but resolutely unstylish The Norfolk Mystery; Martin Green's amazing cultural history of the interwar period Children of the Sun even though it also infuriated me: thoroughly fixated on an aristocratic coterie and completely incapable of differentiating between 'England' and 'Britain'; Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema which was difficult to read. I agreed with everything it has to say about technology, new media, copyright and so on, but the plot's full of holes and it's little more than agit-prop. Endless pages of expository dialogue ('So Parliament works like this, right…'). You can download it for free here, though I read it on dead trees. Gordon's huge account of Emily Dickinson's family feuds, Lives Like Loaded Guns, was astonishing and addictive, even though her writing tends towards the Mills and Boon. I distrust any biographer who deploys ! all over the place. The scholarship is superb though, and I can honestly say that I was surprised at the amount of polysexual orgies going on in 1880s New England. I'll be going back to Dickinson with wider eyes, I can tell you. I thought I might run out of reading material so I slowed down for the last few days and came back with Patrick Hamilton's grimy Hangover Square unread. Once I've finished Robert McCrum's Jubilee, I'll get on with that one.

When I wasn't reading and eating enormous amounts of Proper Irish Dinners, I wandered around the countryside, swam in what 2000AD readers will know as The Black Atlantic (some wimps were wearing wetsuits!), took part in the revels of Puck Fair, which celebrated its 400+ anniversary (it's probably much older than that but documents only go back as far – predictably – as the British arrival and takeover. This year featured a gymkhana, a horse fair, a huge parade, the Crowning of a goat as King Puck, a funfair and of course several days of mass inebriation. In short, a photographer's dream. The only shots I chose not to take were of the Traveller community. They're a superb group of people: culturally independent, proud and confident. They dress, especially the women, really distinctively, without any concern for anybody else's attitudes. I'd loved to have photographed them, but they're so harassed and despised by settled communities that it would be very easy to upset them, or just seem incrediby patronising and I didn't want to objectify them. Or get beaten up by stealing sneaky shots. Thankfully, Puck has no shortage of other great faces and photogenic events.

After Puck, the main event was a trip to the remote, dangerous and atmospheric Skellig Islands. I'll post night shots of Puck and the Skelligs in the next entry. Meanwhile, here are some pictures of Puck Fair. Click on them to enlarge and see the whole lot here.

One of the delights of the horse fair is seeing loads of really young kids riding around on their prides and joy, like city kids in BMWs.

The main Kerry to Cork road

Is this a Dragonfly or something else?

See the insect at the bottom of this bramble

I haven't touched the colour: its eye is naturally the same as the plastic sacks

Little did this busker know she'd be 'assisted' by the oul' fella.

The identical stances are what caught my eye.

I like donkeys. 

'I've got a horse outside'. 

I also have a horse outside

For three days a year, Chilled Cans is a fully functioning pub, despite being derelict inside

The girl on the left really makes this shot

King Puck on the way to being Crowned

The King surveys his temporary realm. After 3 days, he's released back into the wild.

I can imagine this man swilling port and beating the peasantry in about 1810