Friday, 29 November 2013

This just in from the irony desk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 28 November 2013

'Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs…'

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

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

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

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Red Ed v Red Mist

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

It's not all hard graft…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 November 2013

My perfect student

Feel free to weigh in using the comment facility…

I seem to spend a lot of time agonising about what makes a good academic, particularly when it comes to the teaching aspect of the job. I also occasionally mention the annoying and/or cute things students do as though they're a different species ('I swear, when you look into those big eyes, it's almost as if they understand what I'm saying'). Today for instance, two interesting and interested second-year students came to discuss an essay. They'd thought about issues and had picked useful examples. The one thing they hadn't done was read anything – it just hadn't occurred to them.

So I thought today I'd think a little about what we want from students and how we communicate this. Of course, the first thing to recognise is that all lecturers were students, often for much longer than most of ours will be. I have a BA, an MA, a PhD and a PGC so I've spent a long time on their side of the fence (note to self: there is no fence. Get over the fence). I've seen good and bad teaching and I've been a good and bad student. As all practice is rooted in experience, I should say a little about my time as an undergraduate.

Firstly, I turned up with little idea of why I was there. At no point did anyone sit me down and ask me about the future. I was told to apply to university. I only liked reading books and English classes were the only bearable moments in a miserable and undistinguished scholarly career thus far, so I put down for English and Philosophy (because I'd heard that Philosophers were cool – this turned out to be only partially true). I didn't visit any universities, read any prospectuses or do any research. I picked places that a) I might get in to and b) ones a long way from home. I also passed an audition for Trinity College Dublin's Drama and Theatre course but that's a whole other tale of woe and misery. Needless to say I'd never acted either. After some school-and-parent-related shenanigans including a Cambridge interview which didn't reflect well on anyone concerned, and a less than stellar A-level performance, I ended up at the University College of North Wales on an English course with Philosophy as the minor.

I'd got what I wanted: a place a very long way from home and virtually anyone I'd ever known. I had a box of books stolen from the school library the night before its stock was sold to a book dealer (thanks to the appalled librarian who had 'dropped' the keys in front of me) and the vague idea that I could spend the next three years reading and talking about books. As it happened, that's exactly what transpired. The only problem was the talking bit. Pretty certain that I was far less intelligent, experienced, cool and attractive than everyone else there (an accurate surmise), it took a long time to say a word in class. Any opportunity to speak, it seemed, was an opportunity to prove that I was indeed as dumb as everyone suspected.

And yet… What saved me was the sudden realisation that I was wasting my time. I'd come from a very restricted and insular background in which my opinion on any subject was very much not wanted on voyage, to the extent that I started to think that my forename was Shutup. I cared about everything we were reading about because I was a teenage idealist. Here was the chance to have all those passionate debates I'd read about and seen on TV (I didn't know any university students as a child, so only saw popular culture versions), and instead I was hiding in the corner.

I still remember the moment I cracked. It was a philosophy lecture lead by Maurice Charlesworth, a terrifying, noble and (it turned out) adorable figure. Clearly not a man who had ever endured a pedagogy training session, he sat there in total silence. For five minutes. Ten minutes. Perhaps an hour… who could tell? Eventually someone had to break the awful silence out of sheer embarrassment. That someone was me. 'Er…'. 'Yes?'. 'Er…should we do some philosophy?'. People stared at me. Relieved? Envious? Appalled? I still don't know. 'Alright', he said. 'You start'. Which serves me right, I guess. I stammered something, obviously enough for him to expose us all as teenage charlatans with no real understanding of what philosophy entails and then we were off on a tour of AJ Ayer and the Logical Positivists.

I can remember a little of that class's content, but everything about that exchange made me the teacher I am. I wouldn't dare try the Charlesworth Manoeuvre – still too polite – but I distinctly remember leaving knowing that I had opportunities which I was only denying myself by staying silent. However embarrassing it was, I was determined to talk, whatever my colleagues and teachers thought. I did have one advantage: I was inhaling books because reading didn't feel like work at all. It was only when essay time appeared (very rarely, I'm relieved to say) that I realised that some others found the course boring, or didn't read for pleasure, or skimmed. So for that alone I'd like to thank the school bullies for giving me all that time alone, to be filled with books.

After that, it was easy. I decided quite consciously to overcome my natural shyness and DO STUFF: before long I was on demonstrations, writing for the union's papers, taking part in student politics, taking a turn on stage. Tempus fugit, it seemed, and the answer was carpe diem. Not that I'd have put it like that. Very stressful, of course. Terrifying in fact - but the alternative was a form of non-existence. I admired those who did it all naturally, though later on I wondered if most of them were more like me than anyone admitted. Perhaps we were all faking it. Perhaps those who aren't faking it are the ones of which to be scared. I once asked David Miliband whether there was enough self-doubt in politics: when he didn't understand the question I knew he was a bad 'un.

Which brings me by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and my original question: what is the perfect student?

For me it's these qualities:
1. Enthusiasm.
2. A healthy degree of self-doubt.
3. Determination and the awareness that it's your education rather than ours.
4. An ability to put aside social cares and fears
5. A degree of obsession.
6. Curiosity.
7. Intellectual dissatisfaction: accept that you don't know everything, but never accept that this isn't a possibility.
8. Empathy.

Note that I don't give a damn about employability. A student who wants a degree certificate and nothing more is intellectually dead. What he or she really wants is training, and that's not what I do. To me, a student with the qualities listed above is already an ideal candidate for any job.

Note too that I haven't listed 'intelligence'. Apart from the fact that I distrust any of the common measures, I've seen too many bright but lazy students coasting through. I've far more time for the hard-working struggler scraping passes than quicksilver insights of people living by their wits.

You only need to do two things to succeed in my classes:


The first is easy: start simply, and do a bit at a time. The second is harder, and it depends on me and your colleagues to make the class supportive and stimulating. But it also depends on you: you've got to make the effort. Sometimes we do make things too easy here, particularly by shaping classes around the assumption that students haven't done the independent work required. It avoids embarrassment but it lets students down in the long run.

Personally (and I know this is predictable) I blame the government. Its education policy aids the pursuit of league tables over intellectual development, while its industrial policy prefers conformist drones rather than quirky weirdos, which is a mistake. So students come to us without having made a life-changing choice, and expecting education to be a matter of grades and clear answers handed to them.

I wasn't the perfect student at the beginning nor the end, as my postgraduate tutors will happily tell you (not that my education has ended). I deferred to authority too much and struggled with the more abstract reaches of my subjects. But I was aware of my faults and determined to compensate for them. I had no concept of education as a route to money or a career (wisely, it turned out) and so in a sense had no external pressure to succeed. What was work to some was adventure to me, even when I got things wrong. I feel sorry for my students, despite most of them being clever and funny and interesting. They're trained to see education not as liberation but as the key to more distant goals: it's something to get through rather than the end of the quest itself. I didn't care about the future, so I was free in (privileged, bourgeois) way my students largely aren't. Their degree means different things: £50,000 of debt for a start. No wonder risk-taking isn't at the top of their list.

In the end, all I want in my seminars and in students' essays is a sign that they've thought about what we're talking about. I don't want to hear my ideas echoing back to me. What I'd love is a question I can't answer, or a student bringing up an article I haven't read. It happens, but not enough.

Have I ever had a 'perfect student'? Yes, several times. There are always some near enough, and I'd like to say this with added emphasis: they aren't always the ones who come out with First Class degrees. Some of the top-marks students are experts at playing the game, whereas some of those with Seconds or even Thirds have wrestled with the challenges of a complex and exciting subject to the best of their abilities. Some achievements can't be graded (something I'd like to tattoo on Gove's face).

The question is: how do we bring back the magic?

Friday, 22 November 2013

Poetry corner

As a brief respite from my usual spleen, have some of my favourite poems. 

Some Ginsberg:

Burton reading RS Thomas:

Some Edna St. Vincent Millay

Copland's setting of 12 Emily Dickinson poems:

Got to have some John Cooper Clarke:

and of course Pam Ayres even though she has taken the advertising dollar: I fear this poem presages my future.

And in another mood entirely, here's Simon Armitage's 'Poem'. I can't find a reading of it, which is a shame, but here's the whole bittersweet text:

Frank O’Hara was open on the desk
but I went straight for the directory.
Nick was out, Joey was engaged, Jim was
just making coffee and why didn’t I

come over. I had Astrud Gilberto
singing “Bim Bom” on my Sony Walkman
and the sun was drying the damp slates on
the rooftops. I walked in without ringing

and he still wasn’t dressed or shaved when we
topped up the coffee with his old man’s Scotch
(it was only half ten but what the hell)
and took the newspapers to the porch.

Talking Heads were on the radio. I
was just about to mention the football
when he said, “Look, will you help me clear her
wardrobe out?” I said “Sure Jim, anything.”

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Our Spain?

Imagine the scene. Overseas, a country has spiralled into civil war. Some very unpleasant neighbouring countries are illegally intervening, as are more distant ones, in support of 'their' sides and in pursuit of a proxy war of beliefs. The British government makes a few noises of distress but essentially washes its hands of the suffering civilians.

Outraged, young men make their way by illicit routes to the war zone where they take up arms in defence of their people and their principles. Back home, they're feted as heroes by a minority, and considered potential seditionaries by the state. They are 'extremists' and terrorists in the eyes of many. On their return, the security services track and harass them using every means possible.

This could be Syria of course – I've just watched an earnest Channel 4 News piece about how why these young men become radicalised and feel the need to slip across Europe, cross the Turkish border and fight. But it isn't. Although the piece appeared to have no historical context at all, we've seen this before: in Ireland of course, but most obviously in Spain, 1936. When a socialist government was elected, General Francisco Franco (with logistical support from the UK government) attempted a coup which became a long and bloody civil war. The Nazis and Mussolini's Fascists joined in to help Franco, honing their skills for the upcoming world war. Stalin's Russia armed and trained the Loyalists, though at a cost: the arms were old, the costs high and the Republican forces were splintered by the activities of the Russian espionage machine.

Cities became killing fields, where the front line moved back and forwards by inches. Communities and sometimes families were split down the middle. Religious and ideological figures preached hatred and encouraged barbaric behaviour.

When the European governments decided to abandon the legitimate Spanish state to its fate, Communists and socialists across the world volunteered to fight in the International Brigades: from the UK, Ireland, the United States, France and many, many other countries. Getting there was hard: volunteers were liable to arrest before they reached the border in the Pyrenees, and the costs were high. Many volunteers had no military experience, hoping that enthusiasm and ideological zeal would be enough. Many were caught up in the factionalisation of the Republican side, particularly as the Communist Party tried to exterminate its Trotskyist and Anarchist 'allies' (read Orwell on this, but don't believe every word of this). Others' lives were wasted through military incompetence, poor supply lines and logistical blunders. Civilians were massacred in their thousands by both sides, though mostly by the Francoist forces.

Despite their determination and often heroism, the Spanish Civil War was lost: Franco's fascists won in April 1939, unleashed a wave of terror and blood-letting, then established a fascist state which endured until 1975. The International Brigadiers and other foreigners (some of whom had been thrill-seekers) went home: some like Orwell were disillusioned, others damaged, others reinforced in their belief that fascism should be challenged wherever it reared its head. Many of them went on to join the Allied forces to defeat the Nazis, though plenty remained under suspicion. During the Cold War, the Americans even had a term for such volunteers: 'premature anti-fascists'. It was, it seemed, OK to fight the Nazis for freedom, but suspicious and disloyal to fight them before 1939 (or 1941 for the Americans). Many of the volunteers returned to what they saw as cynical, complacent or degraded societies blind to the issues of the day, and remained alienated from their previous existences, never settling or exhausting themselves in legitimate or illicit political activity.

Are these young Muslims so different to the International Brigades? They have an ideology which transcends national differences, just like the Communists and socialists. They are loyal to Muslims anywhere, just as communists profess that they have more in common with overseas workers than other classes at home. They see an international community which is indifferent to injustice, and they see a conflict fuelled by realpolitik and the cynicism of neighbouring states. They're radicalised by firebrand speakers, appeals for help, speeches and literature calling on them to sacrifice themselves for a noble cause. Where the Syrian factions use Youtube, Aid for Spain and the Communist Party held mass meetings and fundraisers. Lewis Jones, the Communist novelist and activist died in 1939 of a heart attack after addressing tens of thousands of supporters in a series of street meetings, despite his reluctance to send young men to die in a now lost cause.

We might disagree over the root cause, but the pattern of idealistic young men and women taking up a cause is hardly unfamiliar.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

I have read and agree to the terms and conditions…

Today's Media and Ethics class explored the fascinating world of Codes of Conduct. No, wait! Come back! Specifically, we looked at the basic issue of what they're for and whether we need them at all. We examined the National Union of Journalists' code, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations one, and the Student Charter that they all sign when they join the university.

Not one of the students know that they've agreed to adhere to a charter setting out their rights and responsibilities. That's instructive in itself: we all tick licence agreements and terms and conditions online without ever looking at them. Can we be said to have consented to them? Or should we accept the responsibility and read every line? Certainly the student code is a rag-bag of ideas drawing on Kantian and utilitarianism and ranges from the bleedingly obvious to the staggeringly impractical. Our students commit to things ranging from keeping their contact details up to date (which isn't an ethical matter) to committing to 'celebrating diversity'. This is a bit shocking to me. Without knowing much about it, the students have agreed to a particular ideological viewpoint. Now, I'm as anti-racist as anyone, perhaps more so, but I'm a bit concerned about this. Are we saying that racists can't study here? I'd be happy with that, but I'm not sure it would stand up in court and if we are saying so, we should make it clear, rather than shoving in a list which includes a commitment to speak up in seminars and do the reading. I have a strong suspicion that few of them actively 'celebrate diversity', partly because it's a completely meaningless formulation, so they're all in breach of the Code. The law doesn't ban racism or paedophilic impulses because that's an impossibility: it bans racist and paedophilic behaviour. I'm such a wet liberal that I don't want to ban racists from getting an education here. In fact I think it's imperative: a good education will stop them from being racists. Nor do I think that ticking a box agreeing to a Charter will turn a racist into a non-racist.

The fact that the students didn't know they'd agreed to it implies that the charter is little more than PR, or a trap for anyone of whom we wish to dispose. 'You signed the charter', we can say, 'and now you've broken the rules'. In theory, at least: no sanctions are mentioned, which led to a discussion about whether any code is worthwhile if there are no consequences to breaches of that code. On the other side, a Kantian might say that behaviour dictated by fear of consequences can't be ethical at all. Another point against codes of conduct is that they outsource ethical consideration to a finite list: whether it's intended as a minimal or maximal formulation, it encourages the individual to rely on prescriptions rather than close consideration of their own actions.

Certainly the NUJ code is an idealistic wish-list which assumes a working culture of fairness and respect: not that of the News of the World and its sister papers. The Nuremburg Trials banned the 'only following orders' defence on the grounds that some crimes are so manifestly unethical that the individual should have been able to recognise their innate evil. The NUJ code ends with this:
The NUJ believes a journalist has the right to refuse an assignment or be identified as the author of editorial that would break the letter or spirit of the NUJ code of code.
Which is lovely. But imagine yourself in the busy newsroom of a Sunday tabloid on Saturday night. You don't have a proper contract, a thousand people want your job, you have kids to feed and the editor is demanding that you hack a phone (this is a hypothetical scenario, you understand). What happens to you when you point to the NUJ site and decline that order? Security pop round, dump your I Heart Rupert mug in a cardboard box and escort you from the building, and you're replaced by a meaner, hungrier hack in minutes. The NUJ code is all very nice, but lots of newsrooms don't even recognise the union, and even fewer give a damn about the moral qualms of its staff. Codes of Conduct don't recognise the structural and institutional context of ethical decision-making, even the ones that aren't deliberately written to leave massive loopholes. 'No man is an island'? Not until you're being asked to take the ethical weight of the world entirely on your shoulders while your erstwhile colleagues shrug and look away.

One school of thought holds that codes of conduct are just advertising - a way to dignify your profession. Occupational lobbyists look at the respect we have for doctors and lawyers (in theory) and decide that the way to join them is to have a Code of Conduct - a public list of rules. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations is so grand that it has a Council which approves the Code of Conduct. It talks about 'professional standards' and 'other professions' a lot, which rather strongly implies that being a PR agent is a profession. Actually, it isn't. Professions are those occupations in which the individual practitioner has a duty to 'the public interest', 'the public' or some abstract concept which outweighs the requirements of the practitioner's client or self-interest. Put simply: if you're a professional, you'll sometimes have to make decisions which hurt you or your client because they're right but inconvenient. The journalist (yes, we're still talking ideal situations here) has a duty towards 'truth' and 'the public interest' and should therefore present the facts as objectively and fully as possible ha ha ha ha ha. But it's something to aspire to and that's what makes journalism a profession. PR operatives aren't. They can be honest and hard-working and fair, but they don't have a permanent, unbending requirement to act according to the public interest. The original CIPR code did say this, but it got taken out by 2011 and replaced with this:

deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public
which is less about ethics and more to do with efficiency and practicality. The public is tacked on at the end and 'honestly and fairly' is very, very vague. In any case, none of this is about behaving ethically: the purpose of the CIPR code is simply a matter of marketing:
Reputation has a direct and major impact on the corporate well-being of every organisation, be it a multinational, a charity, a Government Department or a small business.
It is, essentially, PR for the PR industry. What are the sanctions for people who break the code? Well, you might get thrown out, though Max Clifford is a member and never got disciplined whatever lies he told the press. If you do get thrown out, nothing happens. If a lawyer or doctor breaks their oaths, they never practice again: CIPR membership is voluntary and 80% of practitioners aren't members, so  it's a piece of window-dressing.

Anyway, that's the kind of thing we talk about in my Ethics class. Recruitment is open for next year and we have plenty of space. All you need to do is sign the Student Charter…

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

We happy few…

As so often these days, I'm in two minds about what to post here. This is the fault of a local journalist who uses anything I say as evidence that academics are detached, arrogant and stupid, and that students are awful in a variety of ways. Your comments also get lifted and reused without acknowledgement either. I wrote to the editor about this but – in the tradition of open journalism – got no reply. 

However, I believe in the free exchange of ideas. I think that the good things that happen here should be shared, as well as the bad things (up to a point). Difficulties in my research, teaching or academic life are likely to be ones others have experienced too, and a problem shared is a problem solved. Or at least commiserated with. So yah boo sucks to the local Rita Skeeters. 

Though at least Rita Skeeter gets out and about before making stuff up. 

And so to today's business. I was recently asked to take over organising our programme of visiting speakers. The idea is that we invite prominent academics in their field to talk about their research – a good way to exchange ideas and get a different perspective on the field. Hopefully they benefit from a different audience too, asking questions and supplying new takes on their work. 

Apart from the endless administration (it took 4 people to organise the expenditure of £16.50 on posters), it's a fun job. I get to consult with colleagues and construct a Fantasy League of guests. Only Grayson Perry's agent hasn't bothered to reply, but to be honest I wasn't expecting that one to come off. Everyone else has been lovely and we have a decent number exciting events lined up (including public ones: Jack Zipes is here on Monday 2nd Dec and Ben Knights is coming in the new year: all welcome).

Today was the first event. We invited Dr Mary-Ann Constantine over from the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies / Canolfan Uwchefrydiau Cymreig a Cheltaidd, a seriously prestigious research-only institution. One of the country's leading multi-disciplinary Romanticists, she gave an amazing lecture on Thomas Pennant's Tour of Scotland and Tour of Wales which had new things to say about authorial practice, intellectual networks, the birth of Welsh nationalism and the foundations of Britishness (as much contested then as now, perhaps even more). I even managed to dredge up a bit of Tacitus which shed light on Pennant's intertextual habits as a little contribution. In short: it was not just interesting, it was important. 

Sadly, it was delivered to three people: me and two colleagues (and we were all wearing corduroy, as an aside), which was both embarrassing and a missed opportunity. Others were ill, looking after the ill, teaching, on sabbatical, away or simply drowning in other duties. It seems like a really obvious thing to say, but the way modern universities are run simply excludes time for intellectual work. It's a long time since Levy was able to respond to the appraisers like this:

It's not that any of the other things we do are bad: I love teaching and I know that committees, meetings and other duties are necessary, though I do feel that some of our work detracts from what we're principally here for and could be done better by others. It's that the mania for targets and quantifiable achievements relentlessly drives out the opportunity for intellectual development. We used to have a staff room, for instance. In there, you'd find yourself sitting next to an economist or an historian and suddenly find that there are shared interests, or that you've read the same critics. From that might be born a module, a paper, or a book. Now we don't have a staff room and it's harder to speak to anyone other than your office colleagues (lovely though they are). 

Tired and coping with everything from REF submissions to requisition forms, it's no wonder that my colleagues have neither the time nor the energy to come to a paper on something outside their immediate field, even though we all know that what generates interesting teaching and research is the unexpected moment of serendipity or recognition. What example are we setting our students when we stress 'employability' yet convey a sense of isolated struggle and heads-down labour even in the relatively humane environment of the university? My colleagues and I need the space and time to hear and discuss other people's ideas to keep us interesting (or in my case, to make me so). 

So excellent as today's visit was, I found it pretty depressing. Nobody sat around thinking 'that's really boring, I won't go', but a large number of people found themselves unable to attend for structural, institutional and cultural reasons which conspired to produce an audience of three.* I just hope the next event is better attended… 

*Which is two more than a lecture I once gave. It was scheduled for the same day the module's final essay was due (not my choice). So 149 of the 150 students skipped it and one, keen on learning something for its own sake, turned up. I offered to cancel, but she wanted the full lecture and that's what she got, in a cavernous hall. Along with my unstinting respect. 

Monday, 18 November 2013


I took a break from being splenetic and incandescent with rage this weekend. No, really. Even someone as permanently grouchy and curmudgeonly as me needs the occasional day off. To soothe my furrowed brow, I went to Birmingham. Or more specifically, because I'm sure you're all wondering how being in Birmingham could help any mental torture, I went to Symphony Hall for a couple of concerts in their international series.

The first one was Mahler's Seventh Symphony, played by the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducted by Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, the hip young gunslinger of conductors who established El Sistema to provide a route out of the favelas for the poorest children in his country. I'm not a huge Mahler fan to be honest, finding too much of it bombastic, but the experience of one of his big symphonies is stunning, and Dudamel did a fine job. Perhaps now there's a vacancy at the CBSO, he fancies his chances?

If you don't know Mahler, you probably do know Mahler through echoes and homages, especially if you watch films much. No Mahler, no John Williams and a host of other soundtrack composers. In particular, no Star Wars Imperial March, no Star Trek theme and arguably no Red Dwarf theme either: the seeds of all these pieces are in there.

The other concert was Maxim Vengerov and the Polish Chamber Orchestra playing Mozart's Violin Concertos 4 and 5, followed by some Tchaikovsky. Again, not my favourite periods or composers but I was in the mood for some high-octane virtuoso stuff, and by Toutatis I got it. Playing the 1727 Kreutzer Stradivarius, Vengerov played like a man possessed (and a man who likes to show off). He wrung everything from that violin, and the orchestra did him proud too. He gave two encores (both Saint-Saens pieces) and got a standing ovation. A superb night. Or it would have been were it not for the man sitting next to me, who appeared to have contracted St. Vitus' Dance. Worse than that, his clothes appeared to be made of foil, his skin was like paper and his beard reminded me of the old guy in this ad.

He couldn't stop rubbing his sleeves, hands or whiskers, even in the quietest, most intense moments. I wanted to relocate his teeth to his lower intestine, which I am sure was not Mozart's intended emotion.

Here he is playing it elsewhere some years back, without any audience sound-effects.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Letters to the Editor

Despite adding a CC licence to my blog and making it very clear in a post devoted to the topic, the local hack has lifted material from Plashing Vole twice in the last four days. Cue a letter to the editor. What will happen? Mr Rhodes will doubtless write another splenetic article. 

Dear Mr Harrison or Ms Hancox (I don’t quite understand why clicking ‘Keith Harrison’ on leads to ‘Claire.Hancox’),

My name is Plashing Vole. I’m an E+S reader (congratulations on the WWFC/Bettison story: a proper scoop) and an academic at the University of The Dark Place. I also write a blog called Plashing Vole (, which covers academic life, literature, politics and popular culture. Now and then, I mention Peter Rhodes’ column, most often because I disagree with it. 

More often, he mentions my writing: I have lost count over the past few weeks. He rarely credits me and usually distorts what I’m saying, usually through being rather selective. While I’m flattered by the implication that my views are considered newsworthy on an almost daily basis, I would like to draw your attention to the terms and conditions of my blog. It is written under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivations licence. In short, this means that while ‘fair use’ and ‘fair comment’ custom applies, any use of my copyrighted material must be a) credited and b) not altered or transformed. You can find the UK Copyright Service’s definitions of fair use here and of fair dealing here

Mr Rhodes is aware of this. As an almost daily reader of my work (the analytic tracking service I use is a mine of fascinating information), he will have seen the blog entry I posted about this, and the licence icon underneath each article. And yet today’s column includes another reference to me - uncredited. 

For instance, he recently attacked my account of the Wolverhampton riots (from two years ago: how much time does he spend trawling my site?) as not being very supportive of the Chamber of Commerce, not a body to which I have any responsibility. Through selective quotation, he made it sound like I’m some kind of distant, ivory tower type. In fact, I live 200 yards from the E+S building and my own front door was kicked in during the riot. My interpretation of events might not be to Mr Rhodes’ liking, but your readers might like to have known that it was written from personal experience.

I have no wish to stop Mr Rhodes mining my blog for his material (though sometimes I think it’s so extensive that I should get the byline and commission) but I would like you to acknowledge the source as a matter of good practice. My students fail essays through over-reliance on single sources and failure to acknowledge them properly. 

Finally, for a man who wrote a whole column about ‘Why I Dislike Twitter’, he seems to spend an inordinate time on it and the web ’sashaying through cyberspace looking for yet more comments and conversations’ as he puts it, judging by the amount of my material which appears in his column, let alone the comments made on my blog and those of others who have commented on my work which he has recycled. Even the quotation from ‘an academic’ he cites in support of his position is in fact taken - without acknowledgement - from the comments section of my blog discussion of students’ news sources. This is, at the very least, ironic. 

Sorry to ramble on like this. In summary: I’m very happy for Peter to carry on lifting my thoughts. I’d just like him to acknowledge the source - perhaps providing a link on the web version - and provide enough context to give an honest impression of what I said, as per the terms of my licence. 


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

We have always been at war with Eurasia

No you don't
How about
False memory syndrome.
Try the repeated Conservative calls for deregulation in the financial sector?
A figment.
What about the Tories' promises to maintain Labour's spending commitments (George Osborne: 'Tories cutting services? That's a pack of lies'?
Made up.
Or the pledges not to restructure the NHS?

You must have been dreaming.

You may think that you remember all these things promised in speeches by leading Conservatives in the run-up to the 2010 General Election, but I assure you that they never happened. At least, that's what the Conservative Party would like you to think. They've decided that the Internet is full, so to help out, they've deleted all texts from the pre-2010 period just to save space. And to show that they really mean it, they haven't just deleted this stuff from their own servers, they've deleted it all from the Internet Archive, which preserves the internet for the rest of us. Think of it as a public service. Now there's plenty more room for LOLCATS.

Joking aside, I do think there's something sinister about this. It's dishonest, for a start, and it's irresponsible. For good or ill, these are events are historical, so to wipe them off the slate is an affront to the public interest and to history. It's also really stupid: these things are on the public record, so all they're doing is annoying people looking for an accurate record. They won't be able to accuse us of distorting what they say, because there won't be a definitive text.

It reminds me of a couple of things: Karl Rove's assault on journalism and truth:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
and of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the past is a battleground to be bulldozed in the interests of the present.
To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. 'Reality control', they called it…
The past, he reflected, had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed. For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?
Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.
Still, perhaps it's not as bad as I'm making it sound. Winston Smith reminds himself that a distorted lie is no worse than the original lie:
But actually, he thought as he re-adjusted the Ministry of Plenty's figures, it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connexion with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connexion that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Mr 'Shapps'! We meet again!

This morning, I posted a short piece making it clear that the text and images I produce are freely available other than for commercial use, as long as they're not distorted.

With uncanny timing, I'm directed by Twitter to a piece on Buzzfeed which purports to be by one 'Grant Shapps'*, attacking in a highly misleading fashion Ed Miliband's energy policy. Some of the 12 FACTS are in fact claims, some of the claims are repeated, and some don't address the question at all. Amazingly, none of the 12 FACTS are that capitalism's purpose is to redirect money from consumer to shareholder

That's by the by. But what amazes me is FACT 10, which dismisses all climate science and claims that Ed Miliband personally wants your energy bill to rise by £125 this winter. He doesn't, by the way -  but he does think that the decarbonisation levy is important. More important than shareholder profits. The photograph accompanying the article is this one:

It seems somehow familiar. Let's check the credit. Oh! It's by Plashing Vole from when he met Ed Miliband a few years back! Despite being much, much more left wing than Ed, I like him and respect him. In person, he's warm, friendly, thoughtful and much sharper than you might think. I voted for him in the party leadership election (I hoped to vote for John McDonnell but he didn't get enough parliamentary nominations) and having met David Miliband too, I'm very pleased he won. 

Now, I distinctly remember a previous entanglement with Grant Shapps. What was it now? Oh yes, I remember. I reported him to the Advertising Standards Authority for misleading and inaccurate advertising, namely posing under several pseudonyms – such as Michael Green – to sell software designed to plagiarise websites for the purpose of driving advertising clicks, and the story went national. I noted too that some of the ebooks he sold as rare and hard to find were available for pennies, and that not a single one of his testimonials were by people who were proved to exist. The company was recently dissolved and its behaviour was said by police to be potentially fraudulent. Here's a very enjoyable clip of the hapless Mr Shapps trying to avoid questioning by the redoubtable Michael Crick after it became a national story:

If I recall correctly, my complaint was dismissed by Mr Shapps as that of a 'politically motivated' blogger, which seemed a strange term for a professional politician (the chair of Britain's governing party, no less) to use pejoratively. 

But clearly we must be friends now, or he wouldn't have spent time patiently looking through my Flickr feed looking for material to use without asking me. He's done nothing wrong, of course: the terms of the Creative Commons licence permit reuse, but it's a bit funny that of all the people whose work he could use, he finds mine! 

*I'm not putting 'Grant Shapps' in quotation marks solely because he masquerades under multiple identities, but to draw attention to the widespread use of politicians' names on articles they patently haven't written. Who wrote this piece? Some drones in Conservative Central Office. I knew an MP's assistant who explained that when his very famous boss 'wrote' a piece for The Sun and other papers, he usually never even saw it. A Sun journalist would write it, my friend would OK it, and thus it would appear. It's normal practice. It's a lie, of course, but a standard one. 

To whom it may concern

I believe in free speech, in that I think all ideas, however bad, are proven, improved or disproved by vigorous public debate. This applies, of course, to anything I say too.

However, I don't believe that anything I write here should be taken, selectively edited and retailed for profit in commercial outlets. I declined a request by BBC Countryfile magazine to use my photographs for free because it is a profit-making publication: if it was a charitable or free one, I'd have said yes. I don't take photos for monetary purposes (though if you'd like a high-resolution print of anything I've taken, I'm sure we can come to an arrangement)

I have therefore added a Creative Commons licence to Plashing Vole. Under this licence, anyone is free

to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work
as long as

you give the author credit

you do not use it for commercial purposes

you do not alter, transform or build upon this work

However, I am happy to give a waiver on request: I've contributed to a number of reputable online and offline media outlets in the past and wouldn't want to stop (fellow bloggers and The Guardian are hereby awarded a permanent waiver of all conditions of use).

The purpose of this licence is simply to stop newspaper columns being based on distorted elements of this blog and comments made on it by third parties, for the purpose of making money. As the licence puts it, 'You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You… in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation'.

This doesn't, of course, prevent the 'fair use' of Plashing Vole for the purposes of commentary. It merely stresses the legal requirement for such material to be attributed and minimal, and subject to UK law's definition of 'fair dealing' which interestingly requires 'actual discussion or assessment' to justify inclusion.

In short: anyone is still free to critique me, but not to mine Plashing Vole for material as though it's just left lying around like autumn leaves. I'd love to freely exchange ideas in the public forum, but don't see why my work and that of my contributors should be treated as fair game for lazy hacks making money from faux-outrage. They get paid for incoherent rubbish - so should I!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Hypocrisy, thy name is UPPAL

My MP is Mr Paul Uppal. He is a multimillionaire property developer with a fairly distant relationship with Truth and Honesty, as I've chronicled over the three years since his marginal election.

One of Paul's proudest boasts is that he has never ever voted against a single Government measure, despite supposedly representing one of the poorest, hardest-hit areas in the country. Disabled children's support? He voted to cut it. £9000 tuition fees? Yes please. The bedroom tax? Get those shirkers! NHS privatisation? It couldn't come fast enough for him. Education Maintenance Allowance? A disgusting subsidy. Sweep it away!

And yet, what's this? Paul and I have both signed a petition opposing the closure or sale of the local municipal swimming baths! He objects to any 'front-line' service cuts'. What can possibly be going on? I know why I oppose closure: I use the pool a couple of times a week and know how good it is not just for individuals but for public health. The fitter people are, the less likely they are to need NHS support for obesity and other ailments.

But why is Lazy Paul suddenly discovering the joys of grass-roots democracy? Surely it isn't because he believes in public provision of services for the common good, with his track record? Don't be silly: it's because he's a cynical hypocrite. He'll sign anything that gets him in the local paper or on the radio, anything that gets him a few votes. Does he care about the Central Baths? Not a bit. If anything, I suspect he'd privatise it tomorrow without a care in the world.

I'll say this for the Conservative Party: they've played a blinder with the massive public sector cuts. The true genius was to load the biggest cuts on to local council budgets, and in particular on to northern, poor and mostly Labour councils. Stricken Stoke, for instance, lost £200m over the past couple of years, well over 10%: plenty of rich Southern areas saw reduction in the 1% range. The political genius was to funnel the cuts through councils which are largely not Conservative. People will blame the immediate axe-wielders – in Wolverhampton's case, Labour – and (the Tories hope) vote in the opposition in the next local elections. If that's not breathtakingly cynical, I don't know what is.

The immediate effect is that you get millionaire Conservatives signing petitions and on the streets crying crocodile tears while solemnly voting in Parliament for massive cuts that they'll then oppose locally. We've seen it before with Cabinet Ministers such as William Hague campaigning against local hospital closures that they've supported in principle and in practice at the higher levels, while claiming to be entirely innocent.

I'd like to hear more from Paul Uppal. He voted through massive cuts for public authorities to pay for the banks to be bailed out. If 'front line' services are to be protected, where should the cuts go? This council has been cut to the bone and beyond in recent years, thanks to him and his friends, yet they have absolutely nothing to say when challenged about this. Rather than take a principled line for or against these attacks on the public realm, they have their cake and eat it: vote through disgusting cuts then campaign against them when there's a photographer around.

Will he change his behaviour in Parliament? Of course not: he's going to go round attacking the council for doing what his party has made it do. Thanks to the lack of any serious media scrutiny, people like him will be able to play it both ways: vote for cuts and attack cuts simultaneously. He's probably writing a speech about 'local government waste and inefficiency' right now.

Uppal's is one signature this petition can do without.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Return of the Son of the Friday Conundrum.

One of my colleagues posed an intriguing question yesterday: if we were asked to nominate one book that all humanities, law and social science students should be given when they arrived at the university, what would it be?

It appealed to my deeply nerdy list-making side - a bit Desert Island Discs, a bit High Fidelity. The honest answer is the that question induced a state of indecisive paralysis. All students? If it was a different book for each subject area, that would be easy. Catch 22 or Fahrenheit 451 for the War Studies, Uniformed Studies and other military subjects. Thoreau's Walden for philosophers. Ben Goldacre's Bad Science for the social scientists, or perhaps some Goffman or Durkheim. Barthes' Mythologies for Cultural Studies, Flat Earth News for the broadcasting and journalism kids. Everyone would get Helen Sword's Stylish Academic Writing of course, but that's a guide rather than something that would blow their minds and mark the end of school and the start of a new educational adventure. I'd love to give them a radical history of Britain and its neighbours, because all the wonderful bits of British history are excluded from school curricula: the Chartists, Tolpuddle, the Luddites, Rebecca Riots, Tonypandy, the General Strike, the Lollards, Jack of Kent, the Commonwealth, John Lilburne, Winstanley, the rebellions and the workers' organisations, 1798, the Wild Geese, 1916, Y Mudiad Cymraeg, the Plough and the Stars, the NUWM, the Clearances and so on. Likewise the evils of the British polity are never mentioned: the Empire is presented as a cuddly social club and foreigners as largely puzzlingly ungrateful.

That's really the important point for me. So many schools now are exam factories – despite the best efforts of the teachers at the chalkface – in which the league tables and the school's reputation massively outweighs the purpose of education: not to inculcate facts in a robotic fashion, but to encourage weirdos, rebels and free-thinkers who might just come up with new ways of living and new ways of loving. But no. Instead, from Eton to Scumbag Comprehensive, the emphasis is on Knowing Your Place, whether that's at the top or the bottom. There's a direct link between Etonian Cameron not having a single unorthodox economic idea despite doing PPE at Oxford and hordes of young folk leaving school fit only to serve coffee or sell mobile phones. It's not an accident: the plan is to produce a workforce of limited, obedient drones grateful for the minimum wage while the elite jealously guard their privileges. Eton might have better facilities but its purpose is identical to the poorest school: to maintain the status quo.

The population you eventually get from children who have spent 20 years training to pass exams is not one which will change the world: if you look at the inventors, economists, theorists, scientists and philosophers who have done it, you'll often find that they didn't fit very well into the sausage machine, but carved out enough space to retain their weirdness, while finding sympathetic allies, teachers and mentors who encouraged them to reach beyond the mundane. If my students are trained to hope for nothing more than mundanity, this country will become a stagnant pool of mediocrity and wasted talent. Look at the economy: crashed and burned by two generations of economists and city types buried deep in standard mathematical models who either couldn't or wouldn't see the obvious truth – that their models would impoverish us all for decades to come. There were dissenting voices, but nowhere influential. The finance ministries, boardrooms and (sadly) the universities were stuffed with people keen not to rock the boat while they and their friends got rich. No wonder Manchester University's economics students are in open rebellion, and all power to them.

When they get to university, a lot of these students have had their natural curiosity ground down. They're often not sure why they're here at all, so automatic has the process been. The effect is depressing: without the enthusiasm which comes with choices freely made and dreams potentially fulfilled, university feels like school, a place attended on sufferance. Too many students expect to be given answers suitable to passing exams, rather than seeking out questions which will expand their consciousnesses and their sense of cultural and social place. Not all of them, of course: there are always lots of lateral thinkers, odd-bods and weirdos restless and curious enough to want something more. My sense of the student body twists in the wind depending on whether today's seminar consisted of passionate arguments or total silence from a bunch of people who haven't bothered to do the reading.

So back to the books. What we need is a book or small selection of books which definitively communicate a new start, a new intellectual mode to incoming students. Ones which will start the process of widening their horizons and flexing their cerebral muscles. I asked my contacts on Twitter. Suggestions included Kafka and Camus, Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club, George Orwell's essays or 1984, Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen to avoid Death By Powerpoint, Bleak House (I'd go for Hard Times over that if I had to choose Dickens but excellent bookshop owner Dave makes a compelling case), The Selfish Gene, Bartleby the Scrivener, AP Herbert, Douglas Adams (me), Caleb Williams, Middlemarch, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (tempting, but enormous), Midgley's The Myths We Live By, which I would second whole-heartedly), Ant and Dec's autobiography (thanks, head of the university press office) and the Quran. In the United States, lots of colleges ask students in every subject to read the same book as an introduction: Random House's selection (thanks for the link, @RobertaWedge) is a little too triumphalist and/or soft-centred for my tastes.

My personal favourite is Walden but lots of these appeal. So, over to you: if you were asked to administer a swift literary kick to the head to a diverse bunch of students taking a massive range of subjects, what would it be?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Tolkien to tapes - just a normal day in Vole Towers

Despite having a massive headache, today has been an excellent one.

I've seen two of my dissertation students who are sorted, thoughtful, interesting and organised. One is doing a Tolkien thesis, which would normally send me running to the loos for a spot of retching (I write as a teenage Tolkien fan and – the shame – member of the Tolkien Society) but her plan is to examine the nature and cultural origins of the various models of heroism in Lord of the Rings. We talked about narrative strategies and commentary, sex, race, theories of degeneration and a host of other things. I've sent her away to read The Decline of the West (with asbestos gloves) to give her a sense of the conservative intellectual climate of the time. I just hope she doesn't turn up for our next consultation planning to liquidate me as an untermensch!

The other dissertation consultation was about a project based on the nostalgic revival of music formats, particularly the recent cult of the cassette tape. Like me, he collects vinyl, and plans to talk to record label owners about the motivation of producers and consumers of obsolete formats.

Neither of us think vinyl is obsolete, but cassettes definitely are: they were poor-quality back in the day and have no redeeming characteristics other than wilful obscurantism. We're thinking that he can start with a Frankfurt School take, then look at theories of subcultures and material objects in popular culture.

If the pair of them write as well as they talk, it's going to be a fascinating few months.

I remember tapes - they were how I first encountered recorded music. They were rubbish. My parents owned a Best of Vaughan Williams together, and Dad had a Best of U2 and Best of The Dubliners. As you can see, 'Best Of…' was a theme, and one which to me meant 'these people don't really like music', which was only partially fair. Completists they were not. They also possessed hundreds of C120 tapes, previously used to dictate letters and medical notes for transcription. If you think C60s were rubbish, C120s are a revelation. The sound quality is utterly appalling and the tape is really, really thin, so any music sounds like it was recorded in a gale, you could often hear the tracks on the other side as well, and they'd snap or foul frequently. Oh, and each play wore out the tape: permanent, they were not. Much time was spent gently coaxing fragile magnetic ribbon out of my £12.99 white Woolworths dual-tape player with a pencil, soon replaced by a £15 Sanyo one.

And yet for a kid without pocket money, this was a lifeline: recording John Peel and Evening Session programmes onto one tape, then editing it down to just the interesting bits on the other deck. After that, one was free to listen in bed using my dad's 1970's Aiwa pre-Walkman, and to make compilation tapes, which demanded considerable dexterity to hold multiple buttons down, and maths skills (to fit the right number of songs per side without cutting them off or leaving long gaps), let alone the artistic and creative requirements for producing a coherent sequence of tracks communicating exactly the sentiment required. Though I say so myself, I think I was quite good at that: every song a pleasurable gem, while making the recipient understand exactly how highbrow and musically adventurous I was. Ahem. I was very upset when whoever nicked my friend Vicky's car stole all her tapes except for the one I'd done her. Philistines.

I've just finished writing my union branch report on the REF process (wailing and gnashing of teeth) and now I'm off to a colleague's house to watch loads of old Dr Who. For the purposes of research, I'll have you know: we've a couple of papers cooking but I can't tell you what they're about because you'll all just nick our ideas. Or laugh at them anyway.

Soundtrack to the day has been Oliver Knussen. Have a cantata:

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Plashing Vole's Guide To Life

Pondering my childhood last night, I've boiled down my parents' basic rules that made me the Vole I am.

1. Cold is a figment of your imagination.
2. If you don't like your dinner, perhaps you'll like it as tomorrow's breakfast. Whatever: it's what you're getting anyway.
3. Just because windows and curtain can close doesn't mean they should.
4. One can never attend too many Masses, Stations of the Cross, Confessions or Benedictions.
5. 6 siblings: 1 haircut. This is non-negotiable.
6. Summer is February to November, and will be spent outside. Lunch will be passed through a window.
7. Short trousers will be worn until you get your GCSEs.
8. Grange Hill is evil. As are ITV, VCRs, Monty Python and any books published since 1918. Prisoner Cell Block H and the snooker are the only acceptable art forms.
9. Offer it up.
10. Boiled potatoes are an integral part of any culinary dish. Garlic is a tool of the devil.
11. Thursday night is stew night. So it is written. Amen.
12. There are Protestants but that doesn't mean you have to pay attention to them.
13. Lourdes is a holiday resort.
14. Your grandfather's chainsaw makes a perfect toy.
15. Obvious lack of talent is no bar to compulsory music practice.
16. Near life-size religious statuary looming over your bed is in no way creepy.
17. If those clothes were good enough for your grown-up cousin 20 years ago, they're good enough for you.
18. You live in the countryside. If you want friends, talk to the sheep.
19. If the nuns hit you, you must have done something.
20. A broken arm is no reason to make a fuss. You're almost 7!
21. There are six of you. How should we be expected to know your names?
22. A wooden spoon is a Reusable Learning Object.
23. No, tripe and liver are foods.
24. What are these 'feelings' to which you refer?
25. A handshake on Christmas Day is enough affection to be getting on with thank you very much.
27. Burying pets builds character. Giving them names is weakness.
28. Rosary beads are what every child wants on their birthdays.
29. Bodies are not to be mentioned under any circumstances.

Follow these simple rules and your children too can grow up to be socially maladjusted misanthropes! I'm planning to expand this into a Channel 4 show and tie-in book. Sort of an Angela's Ashes How-To.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

This is the news!

Wow. Four days since I last blogged. Back then I was young, naive and optimistic. The world was an exciting place and possibilities were endless. I was leaner and lighter, the lines etched on my face weren't so deep. Now, older and not necessarily wiser, the horizons have narrowed and death is that bit closer.

Still, at least the teaching keeps me in touch with the world of 'the youth', though the first-years fresh from school were born while I was studying(ish) for my first degree and the cultural gap widens rapidly. It's fascinating seeing what they know of the 90s: they recognise but don't watch The Simpsons, whereas Friends is widely watched still, though to me it looks impossibly dated (and I hated it back in the day too). I guess I watched some 70s comedy in the 90s: To The Manor Born, Yes, Minister, The Good Life and several others, though not always by choice. With one TV in the house, we watched whatever my parents or grandparents wanted. Though I still adore Yes Minister.

My students watch remarkably little TV, and rarely on an actual television: they have access to so much programming without the constraints of technology or time. In some ways it's liberating: the past is as immediate as the present, though without the context it means something different. In other ways, the dislocation is disorienting. For instance, most of my students have never heard of BBC Radio stations 2, 3, 4 or 6, and tend not to listen to 1 or 5 unless they're football fans. BBC TV 2 and 4 may as well not exist, and channels themselves mean relatively little: it's programmes that matter. They never read newspapers other than Metro on the bus, and have never watched a news broadcast. I discovered this when lecturing about genre the other day. In the course of explaining the characteristics of a news programme, I played this opening clip, expecting laughter:

Laughter came there none: not having ever seen a real news broadcast, with its portentous music, pompous graphics and demanding editing, they didn't realise that this was a parody, and assumed it was news.

This isn't their fault, of course: contemporary news broadcasts make The Day Today ('bagpiping fact into news') seem less parodic than prophetic. Plus, most of them are young and I'm acutely aware that being a teenage news junkie made me less than normal. It's tempting to dismiss them as ignorant and incurious about the outside world, but wrong: they do have concerns, but aren't well-served by news media (especially outlets aimed at young people) and don't have the social and cultural capital to make news relevant. News happens elsewhere and features the activities of other people. My students are on the receiving end of political activity, but their disenfranchisement is so complete that knowledge, in their case, isn't power. Or so it seems, anyway. The media economy isn't really set up to engage the young masses anyway: in a world of corporate power, reducing citizens to passive consumers is pretty much the game plan. Why give them the means to hold power to account when you can distract them with the opium of the people, whether that's religion or Angry Birds?

It is frustrating: I'm always trying to encourage them to read newspapers, watch the news or engage with the world outside home and the university, but the immediate rewards are pretty low, frankly. It's partly a regional and class thing: while the children of privilege in élite universities are being trained to rule, it's hard to persuade my students that they too are equal citizens with a valid voice: because however much I'd like it to be true, it definitely isn't: they don't have the social capital to succeed en masse in a competitive society. That's why I see education as an act of civil resistance. We could do the empowering thing like an intellectual Oprah, or we can flag the inequalities inherent in the system to rile them up. I try both at different times, but it's hard to beat generations of internalised acquiescence.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Books do furnish a room

After the picket and failed ambush of the prime minister yesterday, I was somewhat at a loss for things to do. I'm so institutionalised from spending 12 hours a day at work. In the end, like Homer Simpson looking for an all-you-can-eat fish restaurant

I went to Birmingham to visit the new library, just to be surrounded by comforting books. And to admire the architecture of course. I was pleased by the centrality of books: this might seem weird, but modern libraries often seem a bit down on boring old dead trees. My university library isn't called a Library any more: it's a Learning Centre, and you don't see any books from ground level.

And yet… while aspects of the new Birmingham Library are striking, I couldn't help feeling that it's a little lacking architecturally: it reminded me very strongly of the Selfridge's store across town, internally at least. I wasn't convinced by the decorative cladding, though I liked the furniture and multiple vantage points across the city (though I'd recommend they move Welsh-language material out of the 'foreign language' section). And it's a definite improvement on the previous library: a Brutalist structure which didn't exactly welcome anybody. I like Brutalism, but that place's dark, forbidding and decaying skin resembled an incinerator rather than a library.

Some pictures (rest here). Click to enlarge.