Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Why I will be on strike tomorrow.

Those of you who pay attention to the times I post here on Vole will be aware that far from being a lazy shirker getting fat on state-funded largesse at the expense of 'hard-working families' (copyright: all politicians), I actually find it hard to tear myself away from the dear old place. Being on campus for 12 hours per day is pretty normal for me.

And yet tomorrow I'll be standing outside my workplace, stamping my frozen feet and brandishing a placard and very politely asking colleagues and students not to enter the building. Not just to experience what I've read about in the 1930s proletarian novels I spend my life researching, but because we have a serious problem.

By most standards, I'm quite well paid: more than a schoolteacher of the same age and seniority, vastly less than a doctor or lawyer. However, that's just the headline figure. Like most of my colleagues, I've only achieved secure employment very late. After my first degree, I needed to get an MA and a PhD, which took a long time and sunk me in debt. For several years after that, I got by on hourly-paid teaching: a bit of Politics here, a semester of Sociology there, a dollop of Media Studies. The work wasn't reliable, stable or predictable. Pay arrived months late, and didn't cover the hours marking, research and extra tuition required to do a good job for my students and my colleagues. Summer was entirely income-free and a pension was a distant rumour. Financial disaster was narrowly averted a few times through gifts and by selling treasured possessions. I finally achieved permanent status (with the help of sympathetic management) in my mid-thirties, long after most people would be thinking about mortgages and families.

There's a whole army of colleagues out there teaching classes every day without a scrap of security, and carrying huge debts earned in pursuit of a moderately paid job. They spend their salaries on petrol and train tickets as they shuttle between 3 hours at X University and 2 hours at Y College in the vain hope that one day, one day a bean-counter will realise their true worth and find some way to given them a decent job. You just can't tell us apart because we're all so damned impressive in class (ahem). Even those of us with decent jobs got there very late, meaning that our apparently excellent pensions aren't nearly so gold-plated as you'd think. My retirement date is currently 2046, and it's absolutely certain that it will be extended several years beyond that by the time I get there. Most of my students think I'm a boring old fart now: what will they make of a septuagenarian trying to comprehend their cultural world by then, trapped in the classroom by the urgent need to earn enough to avoid burning my books for fuel? Academics are like footballers, only more attractive and less likely to steal each others' partners or start fights in nightclubs (some exceptions apply): our careers are shorter than in other professions, and rely on the repeated demonstration of very individual skills – a decent salary and secure pension isn't too much to ask.

The immediate cause of this strike is this year's pay offer. It's 1%, which is an effective pay-cut because inflation is around 3-3.5%. This is the fifth consecutive pay cut, meaning that we're 13% poorer than we were in 2008. I hear politicians and business leaders explaining that management bonuses and huge salaries are essential to attract talent: how are universities meant to attract the bright young academics of the future if they're left with little to eat but professional pride? You can bet your ass that most universities' senior executives aren't accepting these settlements: only dishing them out. My university is spending nearly £40m on much-needed buildings to offer students top-quality educational opportunities: if only they could find the tinier sum needed to make sure that those labs and lecture halls will be staffed by eager, motivated teachers.

My university recently renamed the Personnel department 'Human Resources'. Well, let me tell you this: Soylent Green is people! We're not just a fixed cost, or a 'fungible asset' (as one of my IT friends was once called by his boss). Yet the way the government and the more business-aligned academic leaders talk, we're no longer professionals with duties beyond the merely contractual (to society, to students, to public culture), we're disposable delivery units to be sweated and discarded.

Tomorrow morning, my students are going to be confused and upset when their classes are cancelled and they see me asking for their support. I hope they will see our cause as just, and as a microcosm of this country's ugly turn towards a low-wage, low-skill, high-dividend economy in which shareholder profits trump justice, fairness, the public good and collective benefit. Some of those students, carrying £50,000 of undergraduate debt, will be lost to academia because they can't face additional years of debt and study to qualify for a job which pays less and less and attracts only the scorn and hatred of the political class and their media lackeys.

I can live with a fifth pay cut in a row. I'm striking because I can't see where this will ever end.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Keyboard warrior offers truce

It seems like every time I use this blog to think aloud, to consider the wider contexts of events in the news, or to discuss the highs and lows of my job, some weasel makes hostile hay with it, either about me, or about my job, colleagues and students. Which is a shame, because we need to be honest about these things. For instance, yesterday's lecture and seminar was really difficult because only a small number of students engaged with the material. The rest reminded me very much of this:

But going by recent experience, this will appear somewhere as either 'Students Are Morons Compared, Not Like In Our Day' or 'Subversive Lecturer Slags Off Students', whereas I'd like to exchange ideas with readers about why some classes work, and others don't, about what I might be doing wrongly and what I might do instead, about whether lectures still have a place, for instance. This rather saddens me. My experience of the internet is that despite the occasional troll, it's a place in which intelligent people can discuss ideas and situations in an informal but informed fashion. People comment on my pieces critically; they bring opposing or divergent views and I enjoy the debate. Very few people are simply abusive. This is great: I've learned from opponents and gained pleasure from the exchange of views even when I haven't been converted or converted them. It's the same on Twitter: I follow and am followed by people like @KateMaltby who describes herself as a 'Tory feminist' because she's interesting and thoughtful. I don't follow @ToryEducation (apparently run by Michael Gove's advisors) because it eschews discussion in favour of abuse.

It's just a shame that some in the media have failed to keep up with the times. The joy of new media is that we can all exchange ideas with a wider network than ever before. As you probably know, I'm a newspaper addict. I deliberately spend money on print media because they're essential to a functioning democracy, which is why David Cameron's threat to punish the Guardian is such a frightening thing. I get frustrated with my chosen papers (The Guardian, The Observer, Private Eye, the London Review of Books, New Statesman, The Sword, New Welsh Review, The Irish Times) at times, but no other organisations have the scope or the resources to conduct serious news gathering and commentary. The internet resembles Metro: cheap, simplistic, often 'human-interest' stories in bite-size chunks, derived from the wire services and PR releases. There are exceptions, of course, such as Politico (which has interestingly launched a print version) and Glenn Greenwald's new venture, but on the whole print media are still the go-to outlets for long-form investigative journalism and commentary. Andrew Rawnsley and Nick Cohen, for example, are the highlights of my week. They make me grind my teeth regularly, but their work reflects decades of expensive research, hard work and careful thought.

Yet where some outlets have failed is the reciprocal nature of new media. Rawnsley and Cohen are to varying extents responsible in the technical sense: they engage with their readers and see no contradiction between justified pride in their own expertise and the need to draw on the skills, knowledge and experience of their readers: we learn from each other. This is the utopian side of the social media revolution: billions of people in mutually enriching conversation. There are dissenters, of course. Plenty of old media figures jealously protect their occupation of the bully pulpit: like fundamentalist preachers, they see us as a barely-restrained mob of barbarians requiring their professional enlightenment and discipline, and they get very shirty when their work is critiqued or dissected in public. What could they possibly learn from us? Actually, quite a lot: while professional journalists have the funding, time and training for serious in-depth work (stop sniggering, it does happen), we keyboard warriors have the obsession to stick with particular stories, the weak social capital that comes with particular interest groups, and skills derived from our offline lives. As a trained literary critic/scholar, I bring wide reading, background knowledge, an eye for the wider context and significance of local or limited events, theoretical knowledge and critical skills to bear when I write about literature, politics, popular culture and whatever else catches my eye.

My audience is different too: a journalist has to write for a section of an idealised general public; I write for a group of people drawn to my blog voluntarily. The journalist has a captive audience of readers who may or may not care about that particular writer's views or interests (they may just want the racing tips); I have to compete with and connect to millions of other amateurs, but I don't depend on blogging to make a living. This means I'm free to some extent. I don't have to whip up outrage or air extremist views simply to sell copies (Stewart Lee describes Jeremy Clarkson as cynically 'having outrageous opinions for money'), or pretend that the world is simple and comprehensible. The worst that could happen to me is that my few readers dwindles to no readers – matching my peer-reviewed publications! I'll still have a job.

I couldn't write anything without the resources of the professional media to draw on: through them I learn new things, hear about new outrages or recent books to read: from people like me they occasionally pick up new stories and new ways of thinking outside the Westminster bubble. I think of us as complementary rather than oppositional.

In my own field, social media has widened my intellectual horizons. Before its advent, new developments in literary criticism depended on the slow process of journal and book publication, and the inherent costs thereof: some academic books now cost hundreds of pounds. There are queues to get published and impossible quantities of material to get through in the quest for useful work. Now, I can go to or Twitter and find an expert. And unlike the old days, I know that anyone I approach is happy to talk about their work: otherwise they wouldn't be on there. The same goes for authors, most of whom are really eager to talk rather than behave like gods passing down tablets of stone and not to be questioned: Iain Banks (as @amendlocke) was particularly enthusiastic. It's a democratic space: except for some mega-celebrities such as Fry or Gaga, you're only as good as your feed: any unknown Tweeter can be as witty or informed as a professional pundit or comic.

The professional boundaries are now porous in a good way: expertise is strengthened and disseminated more widely, at least amongst those privileged enough to have social media access. I publish work in peer-reviewed journals for one professionally-accredited audience and to further what might laughably call my career: I write Vole to air ideas I'm not ready to publish, and to apply things I've learned professionally to different contexts. I'm also on here to engage with people I wouldn't ever meet: fellow professionals in my field, but also anyone with an interest in the same sort of thing: I don't see the point of doing all that research and cogitation simply to talk to the three people who'll read my journal articles.

My attitude in lectures is that I'm no brighter than my students (sometimes much less bright) but that I've had a head start in years and resources on which I can draw to help them: it's a way of recognising and countering the inherent power imbalances encountered in education. My online existence is hopefully an extension of this – a way to engage and be engaged by the outside world, to demonstrate the relevance of my niche to the wider culture, to learn new stuff and to have some fun along the way. There's also a therapeutic aspect to it: I find academic writing difficult intellectually and psychologically, and thinking aloud in this way is helpful. I also passionately feel that academics, particularly in the humanities, get a raw deal in public discourse: there's always some blowhard politician or commentator slagging off medieval history or media studies, and the more of us who engage in public debate, the better. In fact, looking at Inger and Thomson's recent paper 'Why Do Academics Blog?', my motives are pretty much exactly those of my peers. Plus, it's a way to show off, not something I do 'IRL'.

Having been through the mill a bit recently, what with the Sun on Sunday trying to get me sacked, I'm conscious of having internalised a little of the hegemonic structures' disciplinary power. Should I talk about difficult teaching sessions? Am I allowed to have political opinions, or make tasteless jokes? How far off-piste can I go without my writing sounding like a drunk know-all with the in-depth knowledge of a pub-quiz champion? It's hard to honestly and openly discuss things - which for me is the essence of social media culture - if I'm aware that anything I say is likely to be used to attack me, my peers, my institution (which has been unfailingly kind to me) and my profession.

Answers in the comments box please!

Green Shoots?

Finally, there are signs of economic life in The Dark Place. At least, according to Paul Uppal, the invisible MP:
From anecdotal evidence in recent canvassing sessions, I have noticed a pick up in drug dealing, particularly in the
south of the city.
An honest Tory would be delighted. Increasing custom implies that there's more money around for luxury purchases. Drug dealers are of course natural Conservatives: they don't like paying taxes, they respond readily to the laws of supply and demand, and they're entrepreneurial small businessmen opposed to regulation and state intervention. They're opposed to Health and Safety, few of them are unionised and they're fully integrated into the globalised economy. What's not to like? Uppal had no criticism to make of HSBC becoming an integral subsidiary of the Mexican drug trade so why's he so down on hard-working local drug dealers? They might well help him keep his seat given his tiny majority of 619.

And of course the more constituents get smacked-up and delusional, the more likely they are to vote for him.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Now THAT's What I Call A Funeral

I was way on Friday for the funeral of my friend Matthew - engineering designer, fencing coach and nerd extraordinaire. A lot of people turned up, most of them in cheerful clothes, as requested. We took our seats to the strains of Brubeck's 'Take Five'.

So we had a fairly dignified, cool start. I knew it would go well when the giggling started, as soon as the coffin made its appearance.

Having been let down by Leon Paul, makers of fencing equipment, Matthew's plan to be cremated in an extra-large fencing wheely-bag to be ceremonially bounced down some steps (as is traditional in fencing), we instead had to settle for a coffin printed to look like a large bar of chocolate, on of his addictions. On being congratulated for major weight loss once, he explained that he'd given up beer, cheese and chocolate. When his interlocutor asked why he didn't look very happy, he replied that it was because he'd given up beer, cheese and chocolate.

My friend Jenny then gave a warm, witty account of her friendship with Matthew, the multiple ways in which he'd been a lovely man, and explained the peculiar nature of his memorial. Then his brother and sisters staged a joint call-and-response piece about what he'd been like as a brother, before we had Peter Sellers' Shakespearian/Olivier version of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, which you have to see to believe:

Believe it or not, as well as being funny, I found this really sad: it's a melancholic song stripped of the cheery music! After this, I did my bit, which I think went OK. I started with a joke about the funeral being less long, drawn-out and miserable than your average epee match (I'm primarily a foilist) and went on from there. Then some serious music, after which it was time to open the envelopes handed to everyone at the door. Inside were the lyrics to one of Matthew's favourite songs, one rarely heard at funerals:

It worked brilliantly: even those in the congregation old enough to know it well couldn't keep up, because it's designed to be impossible to sing. A perfect way of preventing too much sadness.

Of course Matthew needed to top the absurdism with a final macabre joke: The 'Ying Ting Song' was interrupted by this:

Yes. He loved the Carry On films and, meeting his end in a crematorium, couldn't resist 'Frying Tonight'… He certainly went out in the style he lived.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

My So-Called Teen Life

Ok, so tomorrow I'm off to the funeral of my friend Matthew, at which I'm giving the eulogy. Because I'm essentially shallow and have soaked up too much mid-90s popular culture, my mind wandered from the funereal to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, in particular the episode delivered entirely as a musical.

Here's Buffy's aria 'Life's A Show': the actor isn't a great singer but it's pretty impressive nonetheless.

Yes, like the entire show, it's an allegory for teenage alienation. I loved Buffy, even when it got a bit preachy. Despite hating musicals, I was transfixed by an entire episode in the genre – the first time this kind of thing had been done on mainstream TV. I just liked the idea of playing with genre - very smart. Similarly, I warmed to Melrose Place when I read that the designers were in cahoots with an art collective to dress the sets with unexpected items: paintings of massacre sites, a duvet patterned with the molecular structure of an abortifacient - little things like that.

Not that I ever watched Melrose Place, to be honest. I was too busy soaking up whatever BBC2 showed at 6 o'clock before they got snobby. Westerns, Star Trek (not TNG), Quantum Leap, Blossom, My So-Called Life, Degrassi Junior High, The Phil Silvers Show and a whole lot else besides. Pretty much entirely American (Degrassi was Canadian) and certainly part of the Hollywood sausage machine which strongly implied that teenage life in America was sparkling on the outside and thoroughly miserable on the inside. The answer, every time, was to 'be yourself', which is pretty much meaningless even before I later discovered the decentred subject. Presumably the infestation of TV with teen angst movies is a manifestation of social unease with the erosion of the self. Adults are easy: by then you can perform a stable self on TV by blowing someone away, engaging warp speed or (if you're female) having a middle-class career and children (later on, perhaps even by having sex and not feeling guilty about it). But for the teens, it's a more pressing issue: adults trying to impose a deterministic selfhood on you and treating the instability of identity as a problem, not a solution.

Looking back, I was a sucker for thinly-disguised educational (hegemonic, ideological) material. No doubt if I'd been an American teenager I'd have dealt with the daily routine of jocks and killing sprees  with wisecracks and complaint rock, just like my TV heroes. Perhaps resenting the social pressure to become socially-integrated as a coherent subject is why I identified with the slippery characters: the ones who came to a bad end in the teen dramas, or the wily Bilko in The Phil Silvers Show, the classic trickster who always beat the institution oppressing him – in his case, the army which prefers rigid social structures to his capitalist anarchism. Here's Bilko's Bopster, in which the eponymous hero comes to term with the jazz hipster generation:

Too many of the teen shows, perhaps all, were carnivalesque: they promised a certain amount of leeway for wayward kids as long as it was understood that they'd shape up in the end: get a job, learn to express their feelings, do well in school or at least become reliable, predictable figures. Certainly they never had any concrete feelings about the social structure: politics was off the menu. Instead, their job was to adjust themselves to a world whose levers were forever beyond reach. It was, in fact, a variant of self-help literature. The kids would object to some social problem, perhaps do something to help the local situation, then integrate lessons into their 'real' selves.

Buffy, for instance, spent several series learning that she had to accept her destiny as the Chosen One, then the rest saving the town from 'evil'.

(Can't find any unadulterated clips for posting, so I'm exposing you to the true horror of fan tributes with tear-jerking music)

It was more sophisticated and knowing than most, but Propp would have had no problem fitting it into the Morphology. The rest eschewed the supernatural in favour of an unconvincing realism in which the default solution to any situation (divorce, coming out, bullying, anger) was a cuddly blanket of liberalism and good intentions – no character ever challenged capitalism, or sexual identity as a fundamental component of identity, for instance. A bit of quirkiness is permitted: rejection is not.

Instead, the disaffected teen would – by the end of the episode or in more ambitious cases, by the end of the series – discover their 'true' selves, which coincidentally enough, fits into a narrow trajectory of bourgeois success: just look at Smallville.

So basically, all these characters were Judas goats for globalised teenagers anywhere: soft power writ large. I didn't watch much UK teen TV because it was so familiar. Who wants to watch some friendless loser get beaten up in a fictional comprehensive school when I could experience the real thing from a first-person perspective on a daily basis… in 3D Punchovision too. Sunny Californian teen angst felt so much more significant than my usual routine of having books ripped out of my hands ('are you some kind of poof?') and being mock-executed for not owning a pair of Kickers.

What's the result? Apathetic apolitical losers whose idea of a good time is to get nostalgic about whatever culturally-negligible mush was on TV when they were at school (for a perfect example of where it gets you, watch The Big Bang Theory in which the supporting cast – including Blossom – are survivors of 80s and 90s teen entertainment, pressed into the service of a viciously conservative project).

Damn it. That includes me.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Basking in academic sunshine

Two great classes today. One was on journalism and ethics: I managed to restrain myself and not recount recent personal experience, but we usefully explored Nick Davies idea of 'churnalism' and the  difference between the ideal journalist as scrutineer of power on our behalf and the reality. Slightly hampered by the fact that very few of the students ever watch or read news broadcasts, but they're quick on the uptake when it comes to ideas.

The other class was my English Renaissance seminar. The subject was Ben Jonson's Volpone, in which a rich old Venetian man pretends to have a terminal illness in order to received splendid gifts from three other greedy old men, in the hope that they'll be named sole heir. There's a cast of freaks, a wily servant, the legacy-hunters, a bland young man who saves a bland young woman from rape by the eponymous anti-hero, and for comic relief, a naive English couple abroad, agog at the city's conspiratorial nature: they want in.

Volpone 'seducing' Celia in the 1941 French adaptation

I decided that we should look at the play as a performance, because that would require the students to consider all the other questions about how it works. So I asked them to prepare the scenes in which Corvino orders his wife Celia to sleep with Volpone, and the one in which Volpone attempts to rape her. They had to explain their casting choices, costumes, tone of voice, movement, set design, whether to keep the action in Renaissance Venice or move it to some other time and place, what to do about the language and a host of other things. Finally, they'd have to consider genre: how does a rape scene play in a comedy? In doing so, they'd have to make choices: about attitudes to sex, gender and ageing, whether virtuous Celia is a heroine or a prig, whether retaining the original setting and language distances a 2013 audience from Jonson's social critique, and how to portray the animal symbolism which structures the play: do we want to produce a piece of symbolic art or an intervention into a discrete cultural situation?

A more stylised production of Volpone

The idea was to get them to do a reading of the play in the seminar, once we'd discussed their ideas. They chickened out of that (though a few were enthusiastic), which I can understand completely (though it's going to happen soon, now I know how good they are), but otherwise the exercise was hugely successful. They enjoyed it, they drew on all parts of the play to justify their choices. One group went for the original setting but a farce-like staging, while the other chose a modern setting in a scrapyard, perhaps drawing on Steptoe to emphasis Volpone's purposeless acquisitiveness. One group decided that Celia is a figure of fun because she's so uptight and dull, so they proposed casting Sheryl Cole to avoid the audience sympathising with her: their Volpone was to be Alan Rickman thanks to his depiction of evil in Harry Potter. The other group went for a Benny Hill-style romp: lots of chasing each other round the furniture. 

I was so impressed by the sophistication of their thought. Just goes to show that breaking away from the standard seminar format can produce really rich results: we talked about all the same issues but the challenge of performance really added something. One of those occasions which makes this job so brilliant.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

'The person…who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid'

So said Mr Tilney, in Northanger Abbey, reflecting Jane Austen in typically waspish form (if you don't think waspishness is typically Austenian, stop watching the TV adaptations and start reading the books). I'm not sure he's right – my own dear parents have never knowingly opened a novel but aren't noticeably stupid, but it's a good line.

There's a new Austen project afoot: six very well-known authors have been commissioned to write new versions of Austen's novels. Joanna Trollope's Sense and Sensibility is out now, followed by Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey, Curtis Sittenfeld's Pride and Prejudice and others to follow. Interesting choice of authors. Trollope does social mores well, McDermid's crime fiction lends itself well to the creepy mock-Gothic of Northanger, while Sittenfeld's Prep, The Man of My Dreams and American Wife all deal with territory close to Austen's: forming a self, finding a place, being a woman in a masculine public sphere.

I'll be buying them. I think it's an interesting idea, and I like the authors so far (though I've only heard McDermid speak, rather than read any of her books). I'm interesting in Jane Austen's afterlives as much as I am the books. My boss calls her 'the most dangerous author in literary history': he sees her work as a trap for women reader and writers, and as a diversion from literature's counter-hegemonic mission (I think: I only got the short version of his quite famous lecture, delivered in a corridor on the way to a seminar). I can empathise with the argument but for me Austen is the author of despair, desire and yawning insecurity: beyond the frocks, these women are engaged in a desperate battle for survival no less real for the privileged surroundings. I'm fascinated by what happens to Austen afterwards: the way her family and admirers tried to hug her work to death for instance, burning diaries and suppressing anecdotes which made Jane look less saintly. Then there are the cults of Austen which popped up in unlikely places, such as WW1 trenches as escapist fantasies and reminders of the values supposedly being defended (read Harman's Jane's Fame and Sutherland's Jane Austen's Textual Lives on this). I enjoyed Bridget Jones as an Austen adaptation, appreciated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well as Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen as witty homages, and above all Clueless: it lost the political edge but remains one of the truest film adaptations of all, despite the total absence of corsets and carriages.

I also hugely enjoyed a spiritual ancestor of this project, ITV's tongue-in-cheek Lost In Austen. 

So I'm going to buy these adaptations, despite the critical alarm at the project. Yes, it's clearly an attempt to cash in on Jane to shift some books, but I can't get angry about that. I'm actually quite appalled at the idea raised by Elizabeth Day that it's a waste of time 'reading something that lifts its ideas from someone else'. I haven't read her novels, but I'd be surprised if they were entirely original, given that even Shakespeare nicked large chunks of plot from a plethora of sources including Chaucer, who lifted enormous chunks of his work from the Italians and so on ad infinitum. Day worries that there's no suspense in the adaptations because we know what happens - but surely any sophisticated reader will enjoy the quality (or absence thereof) of the writing: we don't always read for the plot (I hope).

It's long been a cliché that there are only six basic plots to any narrative, but it's nonetheless true(ish). Even if these books are terrible – and the shadow of PD James's awful Death Comes To Pemberley hangs over them like a ghost at the party – they'll be interesting.* Austen's novels weren't 'original' in that they're largely about privileged young women getting married, but the way she handled the elements was original. What will be interesting about these texts is the decisions made about which Austenian elements are retained, or adapted, or dumped. How much water has flowed under the cultural bridge since then?

I don't really buy the argument that Austen needs to be made 'relevant', nor the argument that we should read her work because it's 'relevant'. Relevance be damned. I'm not an upper-class early Victorian virgin in want of a husband and large estate, but I read Austen because I'm capable of empathy and because the work is well-written. If Trollope's Sense and Sensibility is rubbish, I'll hurl it into the circular file, but I don't 

When Day criticises these authors for 'lifting' ideas unoriginally, I imagine someone round at Turner's house ('Not another fecking seascape!') or Stubbs's latest viewing ('Horses again, George? Really?'). Nobody criticised the English Renaissance writers for attempting sonnets, with all the rules handed down: what people criticised was the worst practitioners' adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of the law, hence Shakespeare's mocking 'My Mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun…'.

I've still got Walter Benjamin and Baudrillard on my mind: these adaptations certainly strip away the 'aura' of genius – which is a good thing – and are in a sense hyperreal or second-order simulacra, but I don't think we should worry. Jane's work is good enough to withstand a few shonky adaptations. Relax!

*Seriously, you'll want to pluck out your eyes and wipe your memory after this excrescence.

Monday, 21 October 2013

In Memoriam: Matthew Thompson

A few months ago, I wrote a 'pre-memorial' and published it on this blog for my friend Matthew, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died last week, and I've been asked to deliver an edited version at his funeral (which he planned himself, and which promises to be genuinely hilarious).

Matthew avoiding the camera

Matthew objecting to the camera

As some people can't attend, here's what I'm planning to say about him on Friday:
As you can probably imagine, one of the saddest things I’ve done over the last few days is to edit this piece, changing the present tense to the past: from ‘Matthew is’ to ‘Matthew was’ is a simple, awful thing to have to do. 
I knew Matthew for just over a decade as a (usually) friendly face around the circuit, though it's only over the past few years that we've become friends. An engineering designer, he lead a glamorous life in which he designed everything from turbines to Tube trains: if you’ve ever sat on the little cushioned ledges at the end of each carriage, you can thank him for your comfort. From this life, he acquired a number of characteristics you’ll recognize: pragmatism, a concern for precision and accuracy, a preference for answers over questions and an eye for style, which is why he was so consistently rude about my fencing, whether I won or not. 
He was a leading fencing coach, referee, and board member of England Fencing. Without him, many of the stars past and present would never have achieved success, which is why it’s so good to see so many of you here. 
I'm not one of those stars: I first met Matthew at the Much Wenlock Olympian Games when I was in my twenties, when he refereed one of my fights. Disgusted by having to award points to such a sloppy and ungainly fencer, he added a running commentary about what an awful fencer I am, with his usual wide grin. Noticing that I wasn’t just smiling, but in total agreement, he redoubled his efforts then and at every subsequent opportunity. If I won, he would loudly suggest that I should be ashamed of myself. If I ever beat someone better than me, he’d allow me a grudging ‘huh’, which I knew was actually his way of congratulating me. At least, I think it was. But from then on, we were friends. 
It was the start of a friendship forged in dank sports halls and meeting rooms across the country, one which started in sport and came to encompass so many other aspects of our lives. MT is at the heart of a network of fencers who meet up for plotting, gossip and teasing occasionally interrupted by a little light coaching or competition. He was also a leading member of the shadowy underground fencing club dedicated to mischief known as Salle de Twang, some of whose members may – or may not – be in this room. 
Being a friend of Matthew’s meant always seeing a friendly face whether you're fencing at an Under-8s competition or a World Cup event. It means being inducted into the cultural memory of my sport, and it means joining the Resistance. If there's an Awkward Squad in fencing (and there definitely is), he was its leader, but he always played the ball, not the man, though I’ll miss his devastatingly witty character judgements, which were always accompanied by a disarming giggle. 
Matthew was one of those labourers in the vineyard who would have been horrified at the thought of medals and honours. A well-run event, a nicely-timed riposte, a young fencer’s continued success long after they’d moved on from his tutelage or a decent bit of engineering were the kinds of thing that gratified him, rather than recognition: he hated 'fuss'. which is why it was so important to tell him how we felt about him while we still had the chance. 
I’m not sure who gave Matthew my mobile and office phone numbers, but I want to thank them now, though I wasn't always so grateful. He would phone me at random times of the day or night, often more times in a week than I could cope with – my colleagues in the office assumed it was him every time the phone rang. There were never any ‘hellos’ or ‘It’s Matthew’: most of the time he would launch into ‘Have you read?’ or ‘Have you seen what X has done’: sometimes fencing gossip but politics, economics, photography, hi-fi, public services, transport, taxation and a whole range of topics would occupy us for hours, often with no end in sight. 
There were no short conversations with Matthew until, appallingly, towards the end. We had so many shared interests and on hot topics, interest in each other’s points of view, especially when we disagreed, as we often did. I always thought that Matthew’s engineering background contributed to this. As well as a concern for fairness and justice, he always had an eye for policies and schemes that worked, and despaired of my more abstract or ideological flights of fantasy. 
I once told him that he was the most organized anarchist I’d every met, which he took as the compliment I intended it to be. That’s why I wasn’t in the least surprised when he told me of his intentions to set up his Trust. I never spoke to him without learning something new or seeing an issue from another perspective. 
I’m glad I got to tell him this, via the internet, before he went, though I’d never have dared say any of it to his face and he’d have hated having to listen, because he was above all a modest man. 
Those of you who are fencers will know – in theory at least – that the referee’s word is final. However unfair, unjust are just plain wrong he or she is, the fencer’s job is to accept the decision with good grace, shake hands at the end and get on with it.
In this slightly laboured analogy, Matthew’s cancer was of course the referee. Nothing became his life so much as the dignity and style with which he left it. Faced with the end, he coped with the pain and the medical miseries with considerable wit and verve, as this funeral he planned demonstrates. 
I saw him in pain and sometimes scared but I never saw him give up, or rage against the futility and injustice of his fate. That, I think, is his last gift to us: he showed us how to snatch a very human victory from the jaws of a terrifying defeat.

Welcome to the matrix

Responding to my earlier piece on the fetishism of vinyl (records, random saucy Googlers), Dave of the excellent Didsbury Bookshop sends me this Walter Benjamin quote, which he suggests applies as much now with reference to Twitter as it did then, when cinema and radio were the scary new media:

Obviously he wasn't talking about Twitter, those of you who arrived here looking for essay material, but Dave's right. The move from élite media to mass media did involve a degree of disreputable activity: a colleague reminds me that it took a mere 7 years from the invention of photography before a man was arrested for selling shots of a woman in congress with a pony.* In more recent times of course, video and DVD sales were driven by pornography: lots of people wanted the material but didn't much fancy the experience of going to a porn cinema. I think Benjamin would have seen Twitter in the same way: the form invites 'disreputable' use as much as 'reputable' use, but like printing, cinema and the web in general, a thousand flowers will bloom, not all of which will be organising lynch mobs, cyber-bullying, being cruel to sensitive politicians or sexting. Equally, not all social media use will revolve around organising bridge night and Mozart appreciation evenings - nor should it.

*Citation very much needed.

A preview of a record I haven't listened to yet.

I got Euros Childs' ninth solo album last week, Situation Comedy. It's on double-vinyl, spread across three sides, in a lovely gatefold package. As consumer fetish items go, it's lovely. Every time I buy one of his albums, it comes with a personal note, which is wonderful, though it makes me worry that he doesn't have enough fans to make personal notes unviable. And this delightful touch is clearly an attempt to remedy the implied impersonality of the exchange too: it highlights one of capitalism's problems. Which made me think about things more closely, as you'll see if you read on…

What's the music like? No idea. I haven't taken it home to play it yet. But in a sense, that's beside the point. You see, I buy most of my music on vinyl when it's available. There are a number of reasons why: mostly for the romance of it. When I started buying music as a fresh-faced, well, fresher, the local shop was Cob Records. It mostly sold vinyl because it mostly sold indie, prog and Welsh-language stuff. Vinyl was cheap, and it was rather conservative way of asserting difference to (from?) the shiny consumer futurism of CDs. Britpop's nostalgic element fuelled the vinyl craze, releasing multiple versions of songs on coloured vinyl at 99p each, all 'limited edition' which just fuelled my completism. I loved the sleeves, the numbers, the little messages on the run-off grooves, the ritual of placing the needle on the disc and getting up to turn over a record. I have at least 20,000 circular oil-based discs in my flat now, too many to play particularly often.

I can't claim that sound quality was foremost for me: I was using a cheap early 1970s record player with horrible speakers connected with cables thinner than shoelaces. By the mid-2000s I'd acquired my parents' 1985 Sony hi-fi but that wasn't much better. I've only had a decent-ish system for a couple of years now. No, in all honesty, I bought vinyl because I thought it was cool, and because it didn't feel as acquisitive as 'mainstream' consumption. Which it is, of course. It's the 'leftfield dollar', as Bill Hicks would no doubt call it: self-deluding hipsters eagerly hoovering up resistance on a pressed black disc.

But at least in those days, I could claim that vinyl was a mainstream, respectable format rather than purely a fetish object. When I unwrapped Situation Comedy last week, I realised that something had changed. The record player isn't just a slightly hypocritical act of lame defiance with which I can live, it really is a betrayal of modernity. Why? Well, I'm used to LPs now coming with a slip of paper bearing a download code, so that I can get the music on my computer and iPod. It's an explicit, if slightly shameful, recognition on the part of musician, record label and listener that the slab of vinyl is meaningless. It's virtually never going to be used. It's a luxury item whose semiotic meanings (time, luxury, conspicuous superiority over those oiks downloading ragged Rihanna MP3s) have completely overwhelmed the format's use-value. That sneaky bit of paper implies that even the most purist music snobs are actually going to dismember the album into its constituent parts and listen to random songs on Shuffle. If not, then at least it's going to be played on the bus, in the gym or used as background to washing-up or solitary self-abuse. Whatever.

What gave me pause with Situation Comedy is that no slip of paper fluttered out of the packaging and it bothered me. Who does Euros Childs think he is? He's written a set of songs which he wants me to settle down and listen to in order, from beginning to end. It's possible to skip songs on an LP but it's a bit fiddly. At the end of each side, you have to get up, lift the needle, turn the record over, put the needle back on the disc and start up the player again. In case that becomes too automatic, Childs has left a side blank, so that if you unthinkingly drop the needle on that side, you'll get a foul screeching noise and the pristine smoothness will be forever scratched.

It's a brave thing to do. Childs has decided that his art is no longer to be the soundtrack for other activities, it's to be an event in itself. The album is available on CD too, of course, or you can download it for free here, but the stand-alone LP implies that for those of us reactionary enough to insist on a heritage format, we'll have to really commit to the experience. Without the download option, it's no longer a postmodern joke: paying close attention to the aural and physical album is our only option. It is, in a sense, an implied challenge to we vinyl fans: face the consequences of what might have seemed an easy choice. Though one could of course argue that offering the MP3s for free is a coded critique of the downloader: buying the vinyl means buying restriction, commitment, time and attention. Downloading the music for free is to acquire something which is going to be pulled apart and treated like junk food. In a sense, paying Euros Childs for an untransferable format like vinyl is an investment in oneself.

Walter Benjamin wrote about this nexus of experience and feelings in 1936, in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. In it, he differentiated between the experience of viewing a painting and viewing a photograph of a painting. To him, every further reproduction distances the consumer from the 'aura' of an authentic piece of art. Into this space, he suggests, is silently introduced an authoritarian dullness: without the immediate experience of the artwork, we're at the mercy of the reproducer's choices and intentions, while we develop an unhealthy reverence for the artist of the 'original' piece of work. A Monet painting, it seems, is only worth millions because we're all overly-familiar with postcard reproductions. Although there are positives to the loss of 'aura', Benjamin worries that by becoming captivated by the process of mechanical reproduction (the wonder of CDs, vinyl, or moving pictures), we're abandoning the ability to enjoy or appreciate an artwork autonomously or subjectively.

To Benjamin, the vinyl record is merely a mechanical reproduction of a real event. It isn't as good, and it has different qualities. If Euros Childs had been around in 1936, the 'event' would have been his performance, and the recorded versions a pale imitation (though the divergence between live recording and the production of music designed to be listened to on any format adds another layer of complexity: some records can never be performed live). Yet the act of listening to the record in other situations would have had a very different meaning to the act of experiencing the live creation of music in a concert hall or studio.

In the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard returned to Benjamin's theme with his notions of simulation and simulacra. To him, postmodern society had interposed layers of imitation between itself and reality, to the extent that 'reality' had been replaced, or even sought to imitate the imitation (Apple's use until recently of paper-and-leather-effect skeuomorphism, I think, betrayed a certain discomfort with simulation, while ironically and accidentally distancing us even further from 'authentic' paper and leather).

When vinyl was the only available format, it was a 'first-order' simulation: a recognisable illusion standing in for the 'real' event, the original performance. The closest one could get, having missed the concert or wanting to hear it again. With increasing technical wizardry, the LP became a second-order simulation, so all-encompassing and convincing that it both pays homage to and threatens to overwhelm the 'real' – such as when the music heard on a record couldn't possibly be performed in real-time. Finally, in the postmodern period, then vinyl record becomes a third-order simulation, in which it appears to be both real and non-real, leaving behind any concern for authenticity and reality.

I doubt they'd agree, but I think Situation Comedy is both a third-order simulation and an attempt to deal with the loss of 'aura' in Benjamin's terms. Because Euros hasn't included a handy download for convenience, he's insisting that the experience of listening to his music becomes more 'real': it demands that I set aside time, that I pay attention to the physical object, to the grooves and the end of each side, that I listen to each song in the order its composer ordained. Yet at the same time, because a mechanically-reproduced event becomes my aim, the musician's original performance disappears completely. I chose not to have a CD, and therefore chose to add the complications and delights of vinyl. The experience was meaningless when only vinyl was available: so to choose it over CD or a download is to insist that the music is actually less important than the experience of the format.

I'm sure that Situation Comedy is a superb album, because Euros Childs' music always is. But what seemed like a slightly nostalgic decision actually turns out to be more complicated than I thought. And not entirely one as anti-capitalist and rebellious as I thought! Will I get the free download and solve all my cultural problems? Maybe, but not yet: having committed to the vinyl and the listening experience it demands, I'll at least go home, drop the needle and pay proper attention first.

Anyway, if you've got this far, you deserve some kind of reward. Here's some Euros Childs, starting with the single from Situation Comedy.

Here are a couple of tracks from Euros's first band, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, as a teenager. True to form, I have it on 10" vinyl…

My favourite GZM song. Always cheers me up:

Friday, 18 October 2013

This Sunday: World Exclusive - Blogger Makes Tasteless Jokes

You may recall that under its previous guise of The News of the World, Murdoch's flagship Sunday paper hacked the phones of murdered children, people in the public eye and people who might vaguely know people in the public eye. It, and its rivals, conducted a reign of terror: Charlotte Church, aged 13, was induced to sing at Rupert Murdoch's wedding with the promise that it would give her better media coverage than she might otherwise expect. The Sun is of course notorious, amongst other things, for claiming that Liverpool fans urinated on and robbed the bodies of their dead at Hillsborough, under the headline 'The Truth'.

And now, in a very minor but unsettling way, it's my turn.

I just had a call from a Sun on Sunday 'reporter', to whom I declined to talk: he turns out to be the political editor, and was formerly (surprise surprise) in the same post at the News of the World. He, or someone with his phone number, has read my Twitter feed or blog (it's not entirely clear which) and has discovered that (shock, horror) I've utilised these media to make exaggerated and striking analogies about Conservative politicians for satirical effect. One of them was this tweet, in response to Theresa May's vow to make Britain 'hostile' to undocumented migrants, and her appalling appearance on the Today programme during which she completely failed to provide any evidence for the scourge of 'health tourism'.

Not my wittiest retort, I have to admit, but I'm a private citizen (of partly Jewish descent) with a sense of horror at the government's decision to load the ills of society on some desperate people yearning for a better life. Exaggeration for comic effect is a recognised satirical technique, one which is de rigeur on a medium like Twitter which is all about catching the eye (almost like a Sun headline, one might say), and one sanctioned by authors such as Jonathan Swift for one.

Apparently I've also said something disobliging about Iain Duncan Smith, which sounds very likely. After all, who hasn't cursed this proven dissembler? It doesn't matter particularly that I didn't make the statement, but passed on a picture of this letter to the New Statesman by one of IDS's old teachers:

Their crack investigative team has also discovered that Labour Party Member And Academic Doesn't Think Much Of Paul Uppal And Margaret Thatcher. They're very upset that I accuse MP Paul Uppal of playing the race card, while overlooking my point that he once referred to the campaign for racial justice as 'the McCarthyite race relations industry'. Even more hilarious, they're really upset that I called the Daily Mail evil.
‘Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has finally gone off the deep end. It's always been evil, but now it's added wild and vicious idiocy to the mix’
Just to remind you: this is the Daily Mail that accused Ralph Miliband of being 'evil' for disapproving of the public schools and the monarchy, but who nevertheless fought for the UK against fascism. Intellectually and socially, I'll never reach the heights of Ralph M, but I'm proud at least to be smeared in a minor way by his phone-hacking, thieving, pornographer enemies.

I'm just disappointed that it's hack David Wooding on the case and not the Fake Sheik. Oh well, to be monstered by the Sun is reward enough for me. Though you do wonder whether Jimmy Savile, for instance, would have been exposed earlier if the Sun etc. had dug as deeply into stories about him as it has for non-stories about little old me.

Hold the front page. It must really be a slow news day. The Sun on Sunday also tells its readers that I call myself 'vile' and 'emotionally dead', which regular readers will recall was a comment made about me by a friend, and which I reproduce from time to time in the spirit of humorous self-deprecation.
‘Oh. Vile is what I'm aiming for. And 'emotionally dead' is what I was once called. I saw it as a compliment’
It is shocked to discover that I a) have a job and b) am a member of the Labour Party (about which, I should point out, I'm regularly critical). The Sun has also contacted the Labour Party and apparently I'm being 'investigated'. What that means, who can tell?

What does matter is that while the Sun on Sunday is calling press regulation an attack on press freedom, it seems to have decided that I shouldn't simultaneously have opinions it doesn't share and keep my job. In support of this slightly bizarre position, it's wheeled out a rather tragic little Tory MP by the name of Conor Burns, who is calling for me to be sacked. The Sun claims the MP came to them (that's right, a Bournemouth MP who doesn't like the views of a person from nowhere near Bournemouth automatically phones a national tabloid to draw attention to me).

But what's this? An informant draws my attention to a newspaper article about poor sensitive Conor, the man who thinks people who make tasteless jokes should lose their jobs:
A FOUL-MOUTHED Tory candidate sparked outrage by branding hecklers "spastics" and calling a woman a "hunchback."
First, he described a woman who edits the student union magazine as the "hunchback of Glen Eyre," after the name of her hall of residence. Then, as barracking continued, he turned his venom on his audience calling them "spastics."
What was Conor's defence?
"I was exasperated by the preposterous Left-wing views and disorderly behaviour of the Labour party. "There was an extremely hostile and intimidating atmosphere. I did remark that they were spastics - but I immediately apologised."
Did he resign as a matter of principle?
But I am a fighter and I will certainly not quit
I don't think I've been that offensive, so I don't think, on balance, that I'll quit either. I use 'Plashing Vole' as my online identity not to hide myself from criticism, but to distance my employer from my sharper opinions. I occasionally grumble about The Hegemon and its quirks, but I love working here and feel respected as an academic and colleague. It has never sought to silence me and I try not to embarrass it. The university's view is that I can be as idiotic as I like on my own computer as long as I'm not claiming to speak for the institution. For a newspaper to decide that citizens with opinions should be hounded out of their jobs seems frankly McCarthyite: the Red Scares in 1950s America included a sustained assault on academic freedom. For what it's worth though, I apologise whole-heartedly to my colleagues from the VC down for wasting their time with this nonsense today. With HE under such pressure from all angles, they don't need to be distracted with this stuff.

So when the Sun and its allies complain about assaults on freedom of speech, this is what they mean: that minor academics buried in the provinces should be fired from their jobs and expelled from their political parties because they pithily express their opinions. O Brave New World!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Morrissey and me…

That's a bit misleading actually: there isn't a Morrissey and me. There was a young Vole who was obsessed with The Smiths, and a friend of mine once accidentally sent Moz flying at a gig and was bullied mercilessly when she was thrown back off the stage and into the crowd ('you hurt God', someone hissed at her). But that's about it.

The Smiths split in 1987, when I was 12. I may have seen them on Top of the Pops before then, but at this stage I can't tell what's original memory and what's the result of seeing too many dishonest 'I Remember 1985' shows starring Stuart Maconie and Zoe Ball. What's certainly true is that I had no interest in music for several years after 1987. My parents listened to Vaughan Williams, church music, RTE and my dad owned – apparently for patriotic reasons – a Dubliners tape and a best of U2 (their manager was in his class at school). A book of Beatles sheet music was in the piano school but I doubt mum could hum a single one of their songs. 'Revolution No. 9' did not play while we ate breakfast.

And yet…once at university The Smiths became central to my musical life. I arrived clutching a copy of REM's Automatic for the People on cassette tape (a present), quickly acquired a cheap 70s record player and 10" copies of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's Patio and Tindersticks' Sweet Kathleen and began my musical education. While hoovering up pretty much anything released as long as it was a) limited edition b) on vinyl c) on a cool record label and d) new, I quickly realised that everyone around me knew an awful lot about music I should have been listening to for years. Most prominent of all was The Smiths: every cardiganed soi-disant intellectual I knew (hello James!) talked about them constantly. I had to acquire some. I grabbed whatever I could find second-hand at Cob Records and started studying them like sacred texts. Perhaps because virtually all pop music was new to me, none of it sounded weird. That voice: normal. Singing about books and child murder: no weirder than Wham!. Artfully ambiguous cover art: OK. Coming to them late, I didn't listen to The Smiths as an act of defiance in the face of a beastly and degenerate pop world. They just felt perfect. As an angsty 18-year old who preferred reading to socialising, they were perfect.

Down the indie disco competing to hit the dance floor before even the first chord had finished, shouting the lyrics to the other misfits flapping awkwardly next to me and feeling enormously superior when they stumbled over a line, while the morons and philistines on the edges waiting for an Oasis track stared at us.

And of course, being a newly-minted record collector, they were ideal: a complete works could be collected on lovely vinyl, very cheap (they were a minority pursuit by this point) and endlessly discussed over beer and joints. Once the LPs were in my possession, it was on to the singles. 12", 7", imports from America, Japan and even Greece ('Draize Train').

James, Matthew and I would test each other not on the lyrics, but on the little messages scratched into the run-out groove of the records. Later, when I would commute up and down to Bangor for my MA, I knew where I'd find the pair of them: unconscious through drink on the floor of my bedroom. Always, always, a Smiths album would be on the record player.

Aside from all this terrible stuff, The Smiths introduce me to more than a lifestyle. Through their records I discovered books, films, entire artistic movements and politics: as a vegetarian (then), it was wonderful to flaunt the rather crass slogan 'meat is murder' in the faces of carnivorous friends. The Smiths looked both ways: nostalgic for a working-class solidarity and independence that I'd never experienced but found rather attractive, but also outward looking in a romantic fashion ('Keats and Yeats are on your side, while Oscar Wilde is on mine') which seems dreadfully gauche now but filled our lives then. Plus, it was wonderful to find yet another wonderful band was first-generation Irish. The Smiths proved you could be leftwing, oppositional, bookish and cool (though it was very much a tiny subculture by the time I got round to hearing them, at the start of brash Britpop).

It had to end, of course. Musically, I caught up with Morrissey's solo work: decent at first but gradually descending into self-parody. Every album I bought taught me never to rely on your heroes (or on newspaper reviewers, who claimed that every fresh horror was 'a return to form'). Worse though were the interviews. Every time Morrissey opened his mouth, he said something horrible. 'Reggae is vile' had amused me at first, but soon what seemed like arch, ironic Englishness came to form a pattern of xenophobia, at best. His defenders explained away 'Bengali in Platforms', 'Asian Rut' and 'National Front Disco' as commentary on political and cultural developments, but I was never convinced. As far as I could see, the son of immigrants had wrapped himself in the flag of Ireland's oppressors, then adopted the attitudes of the most reactionary elements of society. Describing the Chinese as a 'subspecies' for their attitude to animal rights, dismissing the Norwegian massacre as no worse than daily life in McDonald's or KFC and lamenting immigration (from his homes in Rome and Los Angeles) as dissolving Englishness or Britishness just horrified me. Would he send his own parents 'home'? The sight of him dolled up in skinhead gear waving Union flags might have been a homoerotic position, but it didn't look like it - no wonder Oasis, also sons of Irish immigrants, felt comfortable with Union flags all over their kit.

Sometimes, The Smiths would resurface to remind us, scattered amongst the housing estates and office jobs of an awful, consumerist culture, that a flame of refusal still flickered. When Diana Spencer died, I wandered through the streets of Stoke surrounded by weeping zombies. People I liked and respected mourned the death of a spoilt toff as if they'd known her, as if she meant something other than a minor variation of aristocratic style and a failure to 'clunk click every trip'. Amidst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth and sombre music, I switched on Radio 1 (not a habit) and chanced upon the otherwise bland Jo Whiley playing this:

It was soon yanked off and I gather she got a severe wigging for playing a song in which the narrator fantasises about being killed by a ten ton truck 'in a darkened underpass', but for a moment I was reassured that somewhere out there, others retained a sense of proportion.

A shame really that he lost it. I like Morrissey's outspoken hatred of animal cruelty, the Royal Family and all sorts of other positions. But as I grew older, I wondered firstly what had happened to the thoughtful, wry, ambiguous persona of The Smiths era, and started to see his statements and music as a form of rut. Stuck in a teenage mentality, he seemed to replace musical inspiration with attention-seeking. Easy for pop stars, I suppose: nobody's going to challenge him or if they do (as several newspapers found out), they get sued. Pop stars exist in a bubble in which success and adoration confirm their belief in their own infallibility. Some escape this, even some of the weirder ones like Michael Stipe, while others develop a carapace of righteousness (looking at you, Bono) which rapidly becomes unjustifiable arrogance. That it came to Morrissey feels worse, because even to this late-comer second-generation fan, he felt better than that, he felt like one of us.

What a loser I am to feel this strongly. At least I never tried to copy the quiff, though I do pair cardigans with DMs quite frequently… And I'm recovered to the extent that I find this Mojo Nixon cover of 'Girlfriend in a Coma' highly amusing:

Will I be buying the autobiography, just published as a Penguin Classic? Maybe. Probably second-hand, as I think Moz has enough of my money already. Am I outraged that Penguin agreed to the great man's demand that it come out in the Classic imprint?

No, not a bit. Canonisation is a subjective exercise of cultural hegemony. If Morrissey cares enough to want to share a shelf with 'the Greats', that's his privilege. It's an auto-didact thing, I suspect: he educated himself to a large extent and wants to associate himself with his teenage literary heroes. Half his record sleeves looked like Penguin Classics anyway, so this is a neat addition. It seems rather sweet to me, and if it subverts the Telegraph and Penguins definitions of 'classic', that's fine by me. I'm guessing it's a better read than bloody On The Road anyway.

If you're wondering about buying the book, here it is sung by comedian Peter Serinafinowicz:

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

'Turdy-facy-nasty-paty-lousy-fartical rogues'

It's been a long and tiring day, teaching several things which required extra energy to get students engaged. This isn't a moan by the way: it's what gets me up in the morning. We had a seminar on Ben Jonson's Volpone, a witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny play which casts a baleful, misanthropic eye on a world cheapened by greed, commerce and corruption. Can't think what led me to put it on a course in this day and age. Here's Volpone disguised as Scoto the Mountebank, flogging quack cures to the gullible

Other mountebanks are fraudulent, of course, or as Volpone calls them, 'turdy-facy-nasty-paty-lousy-fartical rogues'

Quite neatly, I went straight into the Ethics and Media class, which is largely actually populated by students from Religious Studies courses. After several weeks exploring Bentham, Mill and Kant, we're at the stage of doing case studies. Today was advertising: can it be ethical at all? How does it work? We looked at Kerry Katona's banned loan shark advert,

a furniture ad, one for shampoo (replete with dodgy statistics and misleading claims) and discussed whether the onus is on the advertiser to be truthful (if such a thing is possible) or on the buyer to be aware. More than a few decided that it's OK for corporations to lie because they need to make a profit.

Conversation turned to pseudo-science and surveys as they're used in ads. The cohort choice is never presented, neither are the questions or contexts. The numbers are laughably low: none of this would every stand up to scrutiny. This of course gave me the chance to show them one of my favourite comedy scenes, from Yes, Prime Minister. It's funny because it's still true, in politics as in commerce:

It still raised a laugh from the students, who have never heard of the show before, so respect is due to the authors. Sadly I didn't have time to show them another of my favourite exchanges, on newspaper readerships:

I used to think this was comedy:

until the banking crash, and in particular the sight of a line of bank CEOs admitting to Parliament that they didn't have any financial qualifications and didn't actually understand how the financial instruments they sold actually worked (or failed to work). Can't find a clip, but here's the exchange:

Q779 Nick Ainger: Let us start with you, Sir Tom: what banking qualifications have you got?
Sir Tom McKillop: I do not have any formal banking qualifications. I was five years in (?).
Sir Fred Goodwin: Whether you would call them banking qualifications or not, but I have a degree in law; I qualified as a chartered accountant; I was in public practice, including auditing banks for a number of years; I was involved in winding-up banks and then looking at providing advice for banks; I was Chief Executive of Clydesdale Bank; and I was a Chief Executive of Yorkshire Bank before I joined the Royal Bank of Scotland group in 1998 as Deputy Chief Executive.
Mr Hornby: I do not have any formal banking qualifications. I have an MBA from Harvard where I specialised in all the finance courses, including financial services; and before I took over as Chief Executive two years ago I was a Director of HBOS for seven years.
Lord Stevenson of Coddenham: Like Andy, I have no formal banking qualifications. I have of course been Chairman of the Bank for ten years; and before that I was initially, for about 20 years, an entrepreneurial businessman and I have run large businesses since then.

And now I'm going fencing. I haven't hit anyone all day and I feel the need.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

McCann: trial by fury

On Twitter, I follow nice people. Academics, politicians, students, wits, gadabouts and cards. It's a bit of an echo chamber to be honest: they're mostly left-of-centre, thoughtful people with whom I agree about most things. I don't often get a sense of what the rest of the world thinks, or of whether I'm in the majority on a given issue (I am, of course, always right: it's just that the rest of the world doesn't always realise that fact).

However, on some subjects, reason flies out of the window and Twitter becomes a sounding board for the most inane, reactionary and dumb views. One such subject is Madeleine McCann's disappearance. To recap: while her middle-class parents were at dinner in a Portuguese holiday resort, the toddler was kidnapped. No body has been found and no leads unearthed.

That's the extent of the evidence as far as you and I know. Not speaking Portuguese, being au fait with investigation protocols, having access to first-hand evidence and witness statements, or to the unmediated thoughts of the family and others, I can confidently say without a shadow of a doubt that I do not have the slightest clue what happened to that child. I plead the Douglas Adams defence: 'I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer'.

Sadly, I appear to be on my own in this regard. Twitter and other fora are packed with thousands of people convinced that they personally have solved the case. It was the parents. It was some shady bloke seen hanging about outside. Aliens did it. On what grounds? Er… the parents were neglectful. Them Portugals look a bit foreign to me. They think in English really, they're just trying to be difficult. Or… whatever.

This genuinely sickens me. Is this what people are like in real life too? Or is there something about the medium that encourages idle speculation on specious grounds (an activity usually restricted to local newspaper columnists in my experience)? At least I blog about things about which I have spent time thinking about. The McCann lynch-mob reminds me of the time I served on a jury. We went into court for five minutes, then got sent out for some legal argument. 'Well', said the forewoman, 'he must have done it'. 'How so?', I piped up, puzzled. 'He doesn't look sorry' she said, as though the case was closed. Never mind that he pleaded not guilty. Evidence be damned.

Apart from my general revulsion at the Great British Public's willingness to accuse people of murder without the slightest justification beyond what they've picked up from New Tricks and CSI: Portugal, I'm fascinated and appalled by the obsession with this one case. Is it because the parents won't do the sobbing interviews with the Daily Mail on 'Maddie: our heartbreak'? Is it because she's a cute kid? Because the family are middle-class professionals? Because it happened Abroad? Are people posting on Twitter what they'd say in real life, or has the medium given vent to a whole new genre of vileness? Perhaps in an earlier age these people would be writing poison-pen letters to the local papers.

Or perhaps the obsession is related to the tandem growth of modernity and detective fiction. As the world got less understandable (urbanism, world wars, psychology, the end of rational motivation), readers turned to fiction which promised clear motives, logical paths and total understanding if enough attention was paid to detail. The world was readable after all, if you had the right technique. Perhaps the McCann story is another manifestation of this epistemological dread. Horrible things happen, things we can't explain or fully know. So in response, we feel the need to generate opinions and announce them as fact. We can't bear not to know so we sound off without regard to logic or facts because it's better than having nothing to say. Right?

You McCann-speculators are getting off easy: all you have to do is watch this, then ask yourself whether the strength of your opinion is justified by its grounds, and whether the world is a better place for knowing that you personally reckon that it was the parents what did it because well just look at them with their clothes and faces and hair etc. etc. etc.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Not all my readers are thinkers

A local hack writes that the Shakespeare classes taught at 'a local university' are 'third-rate' and wouldn't even pass O-level in the 1960s. I think he means me, because I moved from pointing out that he's a poor excuse for a journalist to detailing the class on Jonson and Shakespeare I'd just given, in which I discussed the multiple versions of Shakespeare each 'age' arrives at: the timeless Bard, the businessman, the uncouth provincial (he slipped out of performance for a surprisingly long time), the family man, the homosexual, the imperialist and the anti-imperialist. Standard stuff at this level, these days. 

Sadly, the columnist failed to provide his readers with any of these details, or explain how and why this would have been inadequate to pass an exam for 15/16 year old kids in the 1960s. I can't dig out 60s exam papers, but I'm fairly certain that any kid pulling out this level of cultural and historical detail would actually have done rather well, despite the reactionary and uninteresting nature of the O-level syllabus.

As luck would have it, I don't need to smear and guess: the distinguished Alan Sinfield did a rather splendid analysis of 1980s O and A-level Shakespeare questions, which you can read here.

I will point out in the question papers the two fundamental mystifications of bourgeois ideology. All the questions specified were set in 1983.
They aren't exactly inspiring: sexist, uncritical and dull. Most of them go along the lines of 'Why was Shakespeare so great?', which gets us precisely nowhere intellectually, is a-historical and promotes a very conservative model of literary history.
The main move is the projection of local conditions on to the eternal. As Rachel Sharp puts it, 'The power relations which are peculiar to market society are seen as how things have always been and ought to be. They acquire a timelessness which is powerfully legitimised by a theory of human nature ... Political struggles to alter present-day social arrangements are seen as futile for "things are as they are" because of man's basic attributes and nothing could ever be very different. This move is built in to the structure of the whole exercise, through the notion that Shakespeare is the great National Poet who speaks universal truths and whose plays are the ultimate instance of Literature. It is made also through the ways the questions invite the candidates to handle the plays. Almost invariably it is assumed that the plays reveal universal 'human' values and qualities and that they are self-contained and coherent entities; and the activity of criticism in producing these assumptions is effaced.
The effect of the model still extant in the 1980s is to rope Shakespeare off as a museum piece, or as a defender of the status quo - not one his contemporaries would have recognised, given his idenitifiable responses to the political, cultural and economic shifts of his milieu.

The appeal to absolute values and qualities is ubiquitous: 'At the centre of King Lear lies the question, "What is a man?" Discuss' (Oxford and Cambridge, A level); 'Beginning with a consideration of the following passage, discuss Shakespeare's presentation of Goodness in Macbeth' (Welsh, A level). Women, of course, are a special category within the universal (there are fewer questions about female than male characters): "The Winter's Tale is much more concerned with the qualities of womanhood, its virtue, its insight, and its endurance. Discuss' (Southern, A level). If women seem not to be
manifesting the expected qualities then that is a matter for comment: "'The men in Twelfth Night are ridiculous in what they say and do: it is the women who are full of common sense". Show how far you agree. ..' (Welsh, O level). The alleged coherence and self-containedness of the text re-enacts at the level of the particular reading the coherence and self-containedness claimed by ideology. 
In the examination questions almost no reference is made to the diverse forms which the play has taken-- and may take --to scholarly discussions about provenance, to the conditions under which it has been transmitted, to the different forms it takes today, from school editions to stage, film and TV productions. Even the occasional question about staging is liable to involve the assumption that there is a true reading behind the diverse possibilities: 'How, as a young actor, would you try to cope with the difficulties of playing the part of John of Gaunt' (Southern, O level- bad luck if you're an actress). The text is there; the most common form of question at O level begins 'Give an account of ...' and 'precise reference' is repeatedly demanded. That the text is to be regarded as coherent, either in terms of action or of dramatic effect, is frequently insisted upon. "'While we may hope for a happy ending to King Lear, Shakespeare's conclusion is entirely fitting. Discuss." (Associated, O level); 'Write about the dramatic effectiveness of the last act of Twelfth Night, and show how the ending is connected to earlier episodes of the play' (London, O level). Everything comes out the way it always had to, every incident is justified by its 'effectiveness' (one of the commonest terms on the papers).
Perhaps my hack correspondent is right: a student taking Sinfield's view would have failed: not through stupidity, but because she would have challenged the use of Shakespeare as a weapon in the hegemonic struggle against cultural authority. Or as Sinfield and Anderson have it:
As Perry Anderson showed, this Leavisite strategy demands (whilst lamenting the absence of) one crucial precondition: a shared, stable system of beliefs and values'; what actually happens is that candidates are required to take up a certain system of values --those we have been identifying--in order satisfactorily to answer the question.
The exam question is the culmination of a system of oppressive power in which the successful student shouldn't think, but regurgitate a set of learned answers to authority. Agree and pass, disagree and fail. Any student who obeys is trained to obey the powers that be in non-literary matters too: on the street, in the voting booth and anywhere else independent thought it frowned upon. The exam system proves to be a fundamental point of contradiction: while individual literary judgement is condemned to failure, the questions promote an anti-social individualism of savagery:

The second fundamental mystification of bourgeois ideology is the construction of individual subjectivity as a given which is undetermined and unconstituted and hence a ground of meaning and coherence: 'In effect the individual is understood in terms of a pre-social essence, nature, or identity and on that basis s/he is invested with a quasi-spiritual autonomy. The individual becomes the origin and focus of meaning -an individuated essence which precedes and --in idealist philosophy --transcends history and society.' Eternal values can no longer be ratified securely by religion, but now they are grounded in their perception through authentic subjectivity. This relationship is figured precisely in the question: 'There are moments in King Lear when the insights of individual characters seem to provide a key to the play's deepest themes and preoccupations. Consider this claim in relation to one of the following "insights"' (Oxford and Cambridge, A level). The individual and the universal are constituted in a mutually supportive polarity. 
The examination papers construct Shakespeare and the candidate in terms of individuated subjectivity through their stress upon Shakespeare's free-standing genius, their emphasis on characterisation, and their demand for the candidate's personal response.

What kind of person does this doctrine produce?

We may envisage, then, the intellectual cast of the successfully socialised GCE candidate. She or he will be respectful of Shakespeare and high culture and accustomed to being appreciative of the cultural production which is offered through established institutions. '~he or he will be trained at giving opinions -within certain prescribed limits; at collecting evidence -though without questioning its status or the construction of the problem; at saying what is going on --though not whether that is what ought to happen; at seeing effectiveness, coherence, purposes fulfilled -but not conflict. And because the purposeful individual is perceived as the autonomous origin and ground of meaning and event, success in these exercises will be accepted as just reason for certain economic and social privileges. 
It all seems perfectly adapted for the fastest-growing class fraction, the new petty bourgeoisie working in finance, advertising, the civil service, teaching, the health service, the social services and clerical occupations. The new petty bourgeoisie (unlike the old, of artisans and small shopkeepers) is constituted not by family but through education: 'The various petty bourgeois agents each possess, in relation to those subordinate to them, a fragment of the fantastic secret of knowledge that legitimises the delegated authority that they exercise. Hence the belief in the 'neutrality of culture', and in the educational apparatus as a corridor of circulation by the promotion and accession of the "best" to the bourgeois state, or in any case to a higher state in the specific hierarchy of mental labour." The combination of cultural deference and cautious questioning promoted around Shakespeare in GCE seems designed to construct a petty bourgeoisie which will strive within limits allocated to it without seeking to disturb the system-"it does not want to break the ladder by which it imagines it can climb" (Poulantzas, p. 293).
In short, exactly the kind of selfish, individualist, obedient, Philistine reactionary the Express and Star admires and courts. If I produce Shakespeare-loving rebels, I'm on the side of the angels.