Friday, 31 January 2014

Witness: for the prosecution

As you know, we here at Vole Towers keep abreast of the very latest in popular culture. Which is why today's subject is a 1985 film set in the medieval Pennsylvanian Amish community. It doesn't star a Kardashian, but is still interesting.

Witness is one of those films I'll always sit down and watch whenever I catch it. It was on after Question Time last night while I was ironing my undercrackers, so I happily stuck with it. It's the story of honest cop Han Solo John Book (Harrison Ford) who is rescued and hidden by an Amish family who witness a murder, while his corrupt fellow officers search for him with his murder in mind. Ford's character discovers the joys and frustrations of a pre-industrial, devout way of life by working on the farm and helping with communal tasks. He discovers their code of non-violence and conflict resolution, and he falls in love with the widowed Rachel (Kelly McGillis), who has a young son, Samuel. There are heartwarming scenes of a barn-raising, one of erotic repression as he watches McGillis washing her naked torso, and there's a violent resolution. It's all soundtracked by a rather beautiful Jean Michel Jarre synthesiser soundtrack.

One of the weird things about getting older and thinking more is that doubt starts to eat away at even your favourite things. I remember a close friend leaving our final BA exam and announcing that he wasn't ever going to read a novel again because analysis had spoiled the enjoyment for him. He did start reading again, but not for a while. Some of my students have said the same thing.

My sense is that the ability to see how a thing is put together and being able to recognise and understand its flaws is a richer form of enjoyment than the pleasure of being lost in admiration for a text. I can still get carried away by a story, but I really feel that understanding its context and construction adds something for me. But I have to admit that sometimes, my appreciation of a text is lessened. This is where Witness comes in.

The attractions of Witness are, I think, pretty clear. There's the contrast between a corrupt and violent 'real' world and the simple, peaceful but static Amish community. It's like all those Shakespearean comedies in which characters flee the nasty city to sort out their problems in an unchanging, benevolent wood or country estate. The photography is beautiful – as are the actors – and the soundtrack is seductive. It feels like a response to 80s angst: gun crime, police corruption, moral ambiguity, urban alienation are all juxtaposed with this enclosed community in which simple rules regulate an organic community which has endured for hundreds of years. Everyone from outside the Amish other than Harrison Ford is loud, violent, greedy, aggressive and superficial. Take the confrontation between the Amish and some local goons:

However, this isn't a simple conflict between peace-loving devout people and degraded delinquents. I started to think that Witness is a betrayal of the people it purports to represent. The 'answer' to violence in this film is provided by our hero: more violence. Despite the lessons of his rescuers, Ford's aggression is the only thing that protects the Amish: clearly they're helpless.

It gets worse. You could say that at least here, only Ford is violent: despite (hypocritically) relying on him, the Amish at least don't betray their principles. However, the film ends with Ford's enemies invading the farm, intent on killing him. Ford kills two of them and in a clip I don't have, Eli Lapp – having impressed on young Samuel his hatred of guns and violence, sends the boy to fetch Ford's pistol. Luckily, by this time Ford has acquired a dead cop's rifle and used it to kill another. When Rachel is held at gunpoint, he's compelled to drop the rifle and it looks like he's going to be shot dead, when the Amish cavalry come over the hill and Ford ends the stand-off peacefully with a speech about 'enough' violence.

This bothered me as a piece of film-making. Witness spends a lot of time and soft-focus photography extolling the moral beauty of the Amish code

but the plot depends on these two outbursts of violence in which Ford meets corrupt force with righteous force, a total rejection of his hosts' pacifism. Without him, they would be dead – an argument made against the Amish when they refused the Vietnam draft. Far from exploring and testing this religious pacifism, I feel that Witness behaves rather shabbily by sucking as much as possible out of the Amish (simple clothes, good food, hard work, helping one's neighbours) while sneaking its devastating critique through without examination or comment. The ending is lifted straight from a standard cop drama and dumped in without alteration.

The film is also rather dishonest when it comes to sexuality and gender. Ford is an intelligent alpha male. McGillis's Rachel is young, widowed and beautiful. The increasing attraction between them is beautifully staged and forms the film's major sub-plot. He represents a dangerous form of sophistication, she is the emblem of demure female quietude, but the insular and repressive aspects of the Amish sexual code are critiqued. This is pretty good, I think, but the solution is a moment's kissing, some dancing, a lot of angst and self-sacrifice (she also literally lets her hair down: subtle!):

Rachel feels her love is unsinful, while the patriarch threatens her with 'shunning'.

It's all – explicitly – about the power of the patriarchy, as that clip shows. She cannot go into the world with Ford; he will not leave the world for her. Throughout the film, an Amish suitor is waiting, slightly jealously (part of the plot is the resolution of this homosocial tension through Ford demonstrating his good faith). As the credits roll, Ford stops his car to bid farewell to his rival, Hochleitner. To me, this is more than goodbye: it's the assurance that the young woman's sexuality is once more to be channelled back into its 'correct' course: love and desire denied in favour of propriety, all arranged between the men.

So there's ambiguity here. Witness endorses Amish sexual morality after highlighting the tensions inherent in it, while rejecting Amish pacifism. That seems to me to be a pretty good example of American morality: yes to guns, no to female desire. Perhaps this is OK, but I felt that Hollywood is guilty of massive hypocrisy in taking the Amish to task for its conservative and repressive sexual politics, given Hollywood's pervasive misogyny. The director makes sure that this film depicts McGillis's naked breasts: the male gaze is valorised here. No male flesh is exposed: the film industry carries on as normal. The scene seems to suggest that voyeurism is OK, even while it (temporarily) endorses Rachel's sexual desires. The patriarchal repressiveness of the Amish is critiqued even while the film lasciviously exposes a woman's body for a man and all the men in the audience. Which is more repressive?

I started to see the film as a precursor of Dances With Wolves and an array of other texts, including Avatar. In Witness the 'natives' are Amish, but they could just as easily have been Native Americans or the inhabitants of wherever it is Avatar's set. The point is that they're just props. They're their not to be taken on their own terms, but to mirror contemporary mainstream angst. In 1985, middle-class Americans were voting Reagan, fleeing the cities, moving into faux-Victorian cottages and fearing the kind of urban dystopias seen in Blade Runner (1982, also starring Harrison Ford) and Back To The Future (also 1985, also a satirical critique of consumerism). In Britain, people were buying Laura Ashley clothes and wallpaper and generally playing at Landed Gentry, if they had the money (much like now). So into the 'Amish' characters, Witness placed all the qualities urban America was supposed to have lost. The natives, whether Amish, First Peoples or alien, are what might have been, American before the Fall.

However: this is Hollywood. The origin – according to some – of the capitalist, consumerist poison. It shows up in the plot denouement: Harrison Ford's peaceful resolution is meant to show that he's learned something, but he has brutally killed two people minutes beforehand. The Amish have explicitly endorsed violence, symbolised by Eli's decision to send the boy to fetch a gun. Ford leaves: he can't stay on the Amish reservation. In terms of film-making too, Witness is hypocritical. Apart from being a film, and therefore something its characters' real-life equivalents can't watch, the soundtrack is deeply paradoxical. Using synthesisers for music supposedly resembling the authentic folk sound of the Amish has to be a sophisticated joke at their expense.

So in the end, I felt to my sadness that Witness is a rather beautiful deception. It poses as an indy film exploring the freedoms and constraints of an alternative way of life, but in the end it's guilty of bad faith. The Amish are merely picturesque: the plot doesn't allow them moral agency and they are exposed as hypocrites when it comes to violence, while their sexual repressiveness is attacked in a film which celebrates voyeurism and silences critiques of Hollywood's misogyny. In the end, it's little different from a 50s Western, and is conservative to the core. Fantasies of escape are raised as an implicit critique of contemporary life, but never taken seriously: in the end, the system is endorsed and reinforced by the combination of Book's violence, innate honesty and ability to learn. Despite the seductive depictions of communal harmony, 'one good man' is what it takes to change the world.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

To have sex with the ocelot, turn to page 45

At last! The literary world has found room for a contemporary twist on the Choose Your Own Adventure stories, of which I owned several as a young tyke. I can't remember which ones I read, though I vaguely remember Nazis featuring heavily, but I do remember finding them boring and frustrating:

I presume that the books were a response to the perceived threat of computer games, which were beginning to evolve from simplistically teleological (win/lose or live/die) narratives to more sophisticated texts in which simple actions were replaced by complex decision-making. I guess Skyrim is a decent modern version, as the quests can be ignored in favour of exploration to some extent. My favourite computer game, by the way, is this one. You can play it for free, for ever. I have memorised the books and still can't get far. I also used to play Civilization II but gave up once I realised that it was ideologically constrained: it was impossible to succeed by running a peaceful socialist state, and I hate being lectured to.

The other motivation is of course the perception that boring old novels with their starts, middles and ends were incapable of holding a cool 80s kid's attention, too bossy and prescriptive for Gen-X rebels. In this sense, I'd have to say that they were failures. The idea that the reader was 'free' to choose an adventure of his or her own was illusory, and the illusion was brought to the fore by the mechanism. The slim books only held room for a certain number of choices, and in particular of endings. The mechanism of narrative was laid bare in a really boring way for me, though that in itself was educational, I suppose.

Paradoxically, the classic novel affords the reader far more freedom than the CYA ones. The latter are solely about plot: there's almost no characterisation or narrative commentary. Entirely written in second-person ('You reach a fork: to turn left, turn to page 31…'), the destination becomes the only thing of interest and the outcomes were so stark that boredom is inevitable. Where the traditional Bildungsroman would end with the protagonist growing up, understanding society, himself and his place in (or out of) society, the CYA novels would end with 'You are dead' or 'you find the treasure'. Not much room for ambiguity or side plots, let alone allowing the reader to prefer death or not care about the treasure. While established genres have more or less authoritarian narratives, none of them are quite so reductive. Tristram Shandy's black page and the first-person narration of Tristram's own conception, various authors' use of pages to be read in random order, or the seemingly random flow of Ulysses leave the reader with far more freedom of interpretation, understanding and creation than the CYA sub-genre. Even the less experimental texts are implicitly more adventurous than CYA ones. Take Pride and Prejudice and its famous opening sentence:

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
So many choices have to be made just by the time you reach the end of this sentence. Your choices dictate what kind of novel you read. Imagine assuming that this sentence is entirely seriously intended. The result is a novel in which the interest lies in getting the rich man a wife and we're just reading for a conservative happy ending in which the rich man acquires his female trophy. It's a romance, slightly undercut by the monetary foregrounding (which makes a 'straight' reading difficult). Let's choose another adventure: let's assume the narrator is being ironic. Just by changing the tone of voice, we have a completely different novel which uses satire to challenge established social conventions. There are other choices to make. Is this an external narrator, refereeing the action and characters, or are the attitudes of one particular character being relayed (we call this free indirect discourse) and perhaps even mocked? If so (and I'd suggest Mrs Bennet) then we have not just a social comedy or satire, but rather a cruel parody of a woman trying her best in difficult circumstances to provide for her daughters. Another possibility is that the text sympathetically explores the precarious situation of young women whose only salvation is in snaring the young man, whether they (or he) wish to or not.

That's not all: as long as Choosing Your Own register and genre, you have all the fun of reading with or against your narrator, picking your characters' clothes, appearance, back-story, preferred fates, accents and a host of other things. A decent book will leave you with lots of space to interpret events, statements, implications and endings for yourself, far more than a CYA novel will.

And what of the new Choose Your Own Adventure novels? Rather boringly, they're Choose Your Own Sexual Adventure texts. Not 'boringly' in the sense of 'middle-class academic takes fashionably dismissive view of sexual content', but boringly in the sense that this was inevitable and will inevitably be entirely reductive and predictable. In one way, sex is the ideal subject for a sub-genre (no pun intended) with the limitations described above. However you look at it, the basic permutations of sex are pretty limited and mechanical, and for men at least, lead quickly to a defined end-point, however one chooses to get there. As Pulp's jaded take on sex and by extension life, 'This Is Hardcore' puts it,

I've seen the storyline played out so many times before.
Oh that goes in there.
Then that goes in there.
Then that goes in there.
Then that goes in there. & then it's over.

Oh, what a hell of a show but what I want to know:
what exactly do you do for an encore?

The inventive aspect of sex, and sex writing, is how one dresses up the the permutations and divert attention from their repetitiveness. The books will feature a few relatively mild sexual options (light S+M, different locations, no doubt some class and racial mixing) all of which will tell you quite a lot about the idealised readership's cultural state, but they'll be as boring as porn, which I'm told also lacks compelling plots, characterisation or discursive variation.

The limited nature of the children's versions of CYA books will only be accentuated by the sexual versions. All the readers will know (at least in theory) what the preferred ending will be, and certainly won't be pleased by a realist treatment. Just imagine it:

p. 1. A rich man invites you to stay with him on his yacht. If you choose to go with him, turn to page 3.
p. 3. Your sexual adventure is over in 32 seconds. Your partner claims that this has never happened before and falls asleep. He later wakes up, gets your name wrong and explains that his wife doesn't understand him while ostentatiously looking at his watch. Go back 7 pages and try again. 

Your new acquaintance asks you to use some toys and 'sexy' clothes. Do you a) laugh derisively or b) give it a go? If b) turn to page 69.
p. 69. Your partner is snoring loudly. You lie awake in the dark empty, disappointed, unfulfilled and used. Do you wish to try again or browse dejectedly for LOLCats on your phone until sweet oblivion takes pity on you?
Actually, I'm tempted to give writing one of these a go. Although Joe Dunthorne, whom I admire very much, has already written one.

If you think I'm being overly mean, let's have a look at what these books actually do:

"you" are a woman who has been stood up in a swish hotel bar. When a stranger mistakes you for a high-class escort, slips you an envelope full of cash and invites you to his room, the first of many choices begins. 

Erotic adventures could include "enticing two young men into a memorable threesome", "dinner with a stressed-out executive involv[ing] more than food on the table", or a visit to a porn set. "Remember, even if you choose submission, the control is still all yours," says the publisher.
Interestingly, the author decides that some Adventures won't feature:

Dominatrix for instance, just didn't come out erotically.
So: choosing your own adventure starts by asserting a fixed sexual identity: female and heterosexual, with the cash-sex nexus and male dominance firmly established, despite the claims that the female reader at whom the novels are aimed remains 'in charge'. The only choice is between thinly-disguised variations of tired, conventional social positions (no pun intended, once again) with no opportunity for genuine transgression ('You arrive at the zoo. If you wish to sleep with an ocelot, turn to page 45…').

Choose Your Own Adventure indeed! The only real choice is whether to further enrich an opportunist publisher by buying another coil of old literary rope, or retire to bed with nothing other than your own imagination. Or a copy of Ulysses. And my answer to that would be:
yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Striking with Seeger

So, Pete Seeger's died on the day I'm heading out to a picket line (though we've been on strike so often recently that the odds were in his favour) which seems appropriate. I've always liked Pete's music. He acquired a reputation for being a bit reactionary because his devotion to folk music purism left him marooned when Dylan went electric: some people say he tried to cut Dylan's guitar lead with an axe, he says that he only wanted to. Amazing, looking back, that such distinctions caused bitterness.

However: one moment of stuffiness against a career of devotion to music, to the working people of the United States and elsewhere, and in which he endured state persecution and critical mockery? Seeger's on the side of the angels, and sometimes sang like one too. Here's one of his, good for a strike day:

Here's one for the UKIP crowd: Seeger's vicious lampooning of Senator Bilbo, also governor of Mississippi, one of the foremost white supremacists of his day, after one of his anti-immigration campaigns.

Lisa Simpson's 'Union Strike Folk Song' is an affectionate parody of Seeger and Guthrie:

Funnily enough, after our strike, we're hosting a talk by Rhian Jones about her book Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class And Gender. In it, she points out that my entire musical youth (1993-99) was a period of reactionary misogyny and class hatred in which all the good, spiky, autonomous female and working class bands (Kenickie, Elastica, Shampoo, Pulp, Lady Sovereign etc.) were marginalised by the posh, the manufactured arrogance of the Spice Girls and by cartoonish, reductive versions of working-class femininity and masculinity, helped along by the promotion of 'chav'. It's a bit weird, having your youth consigned to History, but it's a bracing and brilliant read. We'll be playing a bit of music and asking what happened to protest music, or just music made by and for its audience rather than dropped from a great height by record labels with little regard for real lives.

Here are some of the gems you may have missed, buried under the Indie Landfill:

PJ Harvey: Sheela-Na-Gig

The Period Pains: Spice Girls

Suede - Animal Nitrate

One of my favourite Pulp singles: My Legendary Girlfriend

Helen Love and Joey Ramone: Punk Boy

Ash - Uncle Pat:

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's lovely Gewn Ni Gorffen

I could go on… and will. But not now. Teaching awaits.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Despatches from the picket line

So here I am, back at my desk after our first 2 hour strike in pursuit of our pay claim. In case you haven't been following it, we've been awarded 1%. Given that prices are rising at at least double that, it's a pay cut. Not the first one either: inflation's been up to 4% and our pay awards have been as low as 0.5%. When inflation is taken into account, my salary is back to 2008 levels, though my duties are very much of 2014 vintage.

To make matters worse, our pensions have been cut, our pension contributions increased and our retirement dates extended far into the future. So far, my retirement date is 2048, and it will be extended further than that before then. I fully expect to be commuting to work on a jet-pack, as a bag of bones hanging limply from a sentient metal exoskeleton, while some robot Vice-Chancellor demands to know why I'm not using the 24 hour telepathic feedback system installed for the Martian exchange students. What really depresses me is that we'll never recruit a new generation of academics. Students graduate with massive debts to pay off, and won't be attracted by a profession in which research and teaching (the good bits) are rewarded by ever-decreasing salaries, while becoming a sharp-suited upper-management axe-wielder attracts vast pay, perks and prestige.

And as if to ad insult to injury, the university's management ha budgeted for below cost-of-living settlements for the next four years, which means that teaching staff will have got poorer for an entire decade. Is the same true of senior management? Of course not: rather a lot of them are on £100,000+, while the VC is on significantly more than £200,000. They negotiate their contracts individually, making a case to a hand-picked bunch of chaps and chapesses just like them. They need to be 'retained' by massive salaries of course: shame they don't value our service just the same. Take the Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield University, who had a handy little pay rise to cover his gas bill this year: this charming gentleman is offering 1% to academic staff and refuses to raise support staff salaries to a living wage. Thankfully his new salary enables him to keep body and soul together – Sir Keith has gone from a pitiful £269,000 to a more reasonable £374,000, a modest increase of only 39%. No wonder there's nothing left in the kitty for the cleaners and teachers.

So, off we went for our strike today. In an additional burst of petty spitefulness, our Executive decided that our 2 hour strike would be punished by docking an entire day's pay, so we'll be seeing them in court very soon, as I cheerily informed the head of HR when she calm skulking round. Hoping to see a pathetic, reduced turn-out, she was greeted by a large rumbustious group which was receiving a lot of support from students despite the vile and disingenuous propaganda circulated by the management and students' union, which is sadly little more than a marketing wing of the university. Management claimed that our strike was 'disruptive' - failing conspicuously to recognise that locking us out for a full day is rather more disruptive than 2 hours of action.

Interestingly, the head of HR told the governors that they were sticking to the 'nationally agreed' 1% settlement. Now, call me a pedantic old teacher of English literature and communications, but I was under the impression that an 'agreement' needed two or more parties,

a negotiated and typically legally binding arrangement between parties as to a course of action

rather than the various members of UCEA, the employers' association , and that the poor illiterate must have mistyped the word 'imposed'. Either that, or she was deliberately misleading the governors, and I wouldn't like to believe that.

We're on strike again next week, and again the week after. Another day's pay lost, more disruption for students. We don't like it, but it's nothing compared with the tatty, demoralised, exhausted and downgraded condition higher education will be in if we let these grasping bureaucrats turn what used to be a collegiate profession into a low-rent, low-trust, low-quality service industry.

Oops: almost forgot. Kittens for the local paper.

'What do we want? Fair pay in HE!' Best picket line ever. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Free speech v a free press

What a depressing title to a blog. Normally there shouldn't be any dissonance between the notion of free speech and a free press.

Sadly though, I'm finding that my local paper (the one that employed racist Enoch Powell as a columnist then got more rightwing) is making it very difficult for me to say anything other than the blandest remarks about insubstantial issues.

Over the last couple of years, so-called journalists have used what I've written here on Plashing Vole to do two things: destroy my professional reputation and to find material to use against the university. Lacking any sense of irony, they see no contradiction between naming and shaming me as an exemplar of all that's wrong with academia, while diligently mining my writing to manufacture outrage against the university by distorting and selectively editing anything I write.

The latest effort hasn't yet appeared in its pages but I've been tipped off that the piece I wrote on plagiarism the other day has 'inspired' them to generate some faux-news. There are several layers of irony here. My definition of plagiarism is to pass off as your own work material written by other people. I'm sorry to say that while this newspaper is outraged at the possibility of students behaving in this way, its own staff do so with astonishing regularity. 99.6% of our students do not plagiarise. I do not believe that 99.6% of the rag's articles are free of re-processed press releases, PR material or the work of people like me. I got so used to my work reappearing under certain people's bylines that I wrote to the editor suggesting that he either stopped it, sent me a cheque, or simply hired me directly. Sadly he didn't find time to reply.

This particular instance has annoyed me more than usual because it's a subject on which the university and I are in total agreement – unlike pretty much any other one. Plagiarism is an intellectual and moral problem, though not a huge one in terms of numbers. We try to eradicate it through education, good task design and ultimately by applying sanctions. That I feel every instance deeply is not an indication that plagiarism is rife. But thanks to the local hacks, the press office has to fire off another defensive statement and someone in a suit adds another page to my bulging personnel file

In the wider context, I'm absolutely sick of the lazy, cynical replacement of actual journalism with this brand of manufactured outrage. Local newspapers are the lifeblood of democracy and the community. They used to employ staff to get out into the streets, the courts, to public meetings and council events. Now, they'd rather pay someone to surf the web in the hope that they can turn the kind of thing I write into a cheap headline.

It's got to the stage where I'm wondering if I can every express an opinion about my job, teaching, literature, politics or public events ever again. The local (and sometimes national) press are so proficient at stripping out context and nuance that there's no chance ever of getting a fair representation or hearing.You know me: I like a rumbustious punch-up, with you, with my bosses and even with the local press. What I am heartily sick of is being used as cannon fodder or cheap filler by a paper with no respect for different perspectives or other people. There's nothing progressive or in the public interest about trying to stir up controversy for controversy's sake.

My local paper has no interest in the public sphere, in give-and-take or the exchange of ideas, hence its readiness to steal my ideas and refusal to engage in any sort of conversation. Frankly, it hasn't adapted to a world in which it is now one voice amongst many. In the days when it employed journalists and pursued stories, it performed an essential function. But now it's one of us. Like me, it monitors the internet, Twitter and other outlets for subjects on which it can generate an instant opinion. It's abandoned what made it special for a weak version of what the rest of us can do just a well now. Just as well? Better. I'm too old to be a digital native, but I understand the etiquette of digital media. Attribute sources. Link. Give credit. Don't distort: nothing can't be checked. Expect and welcome conversation, disagreement and debate, and join in.

So from now on, it's lovely kittens.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A lovingly-detailed model of Benefits Street can be yours, for only…

For fans of Benefits Street, Vole Towers has the perfect gift for you: a lovingly moulded fine ceramic diorama of the notorious haunt of the feckless, the criminal and the foreign, full of artisanal detail. Marvel at the discarded mattress! Thrill at the sight of abandoned cookers in the front garden! Shudder at the sight of the underclass in all its filthy glory. Remember: you're paying for this luxury! Order your limited edition model now, before the economy revives and prole scum are swept off even these streets!

(Click to enlarge)

Actually, it's not mine at all: this was a spoof ad in Viz magazine many years ago. How times have changed.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Slippery Trollopes on Blue Monday

Hi everybody. Ignore all that 'Blue Monday' rubbish: it's just an abuse of science in the name of PR. Instead, have some music. Starting, appropriately, with New Order's 'Blue Monday'.

As it happens, I collect cover versions of New Order and Joy Division songs. One of my favourites is this 'Blue Monday', by the Côr Meibion Brythoniaid to promote the rather wonderful Festival No. 6, held in the weird and wonderful fantasy world of Portmeirion. Much to his shame, my experimentalist drone-rock friend Alan's dad is one of the singers.

I went to a very different musical event on Saturday. Wearied by making hollandaise, marking and teaching preparation, I headed to Birmingham's Symphony Hall for some virtuoso violin action. I'm not normally a fan of the classical western canon, preferring the medieval and the twentieth-century's dissonance and experimentation, but I couldn't resist Joshua Bell whatever he played. The highlight for me was Brahm's Violin Concerto: I didn't know he could be so exciting. The first movement's cadenza (improvised by the violinist) was just stunning, and deserved the applause it earned. After the interval Bell and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields played Beethoven's Eroica: familiar and beautifully performed, but not as acrobatic as the Brahms. It all made up for Stoke losing to Crystal Palace earlier…almost.

Teaching started today. For me, it was straight in with the final-year students and the first of two weeks on Trollope's The Way We Live Now. It's a great big brick of a novel and resoundingly unfashionable. This baffles me: how can a novel obsessed with dodgy businessmen, élitist politicians, snobbery, public displays of wealth and racist attitudes towards incomers not strike a chord today? I don't know why the BBC doesn't repeat its 2001 adaptation.

I wasn't expecting any of the students to have finished it by this point, but I was pleased that so many of them were a good way in, and more of them than usual were ready to talk about it. I also discovered that they have a Carry On sense of humour: much giggling when I said 'Trollope is a bit slippery'! I was talking about his narratorial technique, kids!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Academic Spring is Cancelled.

By and large I like and respect my students. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and appear in class with very different aims and motivations. Some are quiet, some are loud. Some are very committed, others less so. Some find what we do easy, other struggle. Some enjoy it, others less so (and not necessarily because they find it difficult or easy). I get glimpses into their lives and I presume they get insights into mine. Whether we're amused or horrified most, I couldn't say.

Because we're a relatively democratic institution, and most of the students are local, I see them around a lot. They call in to my office just to say hello, or they serve me fine ales and pork scratchings in the pubs. I even meet (scare) their children when we meet on the street.

Basically - there isn't a gulf between most of us teachers and most of the students, though this is of course my perception. Perhaps loads of them are terrified and rush for the exits whenever I walk into their pub. Perhaps they spit in my food. Let's not think about that. Ideally, however, they get the idea that we're relatively normal people to whose lives and profession they can and should aspire. I don't like the idea that we're aliens from another planet landed to tease, look down upon or baffle the restless natives.

And yet… it's the start of the year and my hackles are raised already. I've been back in the office for just over ten days. I've met a lot of the students who've been working on essays and really enjoyed chatting to them outside the classroom environment. I'm looking forward to being back in the classroom and catching up with the others. I'm refreshed and ready to go… or I was until today. I'm marking a set of essays about ethics. Most of them are OK to good, or not good enough but the product of honest effort. However, a small minority are simply stolen goods. Some are cut-and-pasted from the internet, others show signs of attempts to disguise their origins. A few essays have clearly been worked on: their sources are legitimate academic work and I just don't understand why the authors don't add quotation marks, stick in a footnote and get full credit for research rather than try to pass it off as their own work by changing a few words.

We expect a degree of plagiarism these days. The motivations are much-debated. Some people are lazy. Others panic. Some are motivated by the acquisition of a degree certificate and have no desire to learn anything along the way. Some come from cultures in which the reproduction of other thinkers' material is seen as legitimate. We make considerable efforts to explain that plagiarism offends the intellectual community, isn't educationally productive and is morally wrong. And yet still they do it. I guess it's particularly galling at this time every year because it's always these essays on this subject. Anyone who plagiarises work about ethics either has no sense of irony or a highly-developed sense of humour. I always hope that after 15 weeks of talking about the philosophical frameworks which inform our decisions about what's right and wrong, they might be a little more self-conscious about stealing other people's work and claiming it as their own. And I'm always proved wrong.

Update: edited because the local excuse for a newspaper is sniffing around trying to make this general piece into a news story. 

What's additionally annoying is that plagiarised work takes an age to deal with. You read it. Then you note the bits that don't sound right. Then you look for them. First on the web. Then on Turnitin. Then in the course texts and others which sound right. Then you have to print out the sources and annotate them and the essay. Is there any point to all this? If I thought that I could induce an epiphany or even a moment of shame, I'd say yes. It happens sometimes, but you'd be surprised how often the same names appear on the Naughty List time after time. An honest essay is a breeze in comparison: some comments on the good bits and the weaker elements, a few lines on how the student did and how s/he can do better next time and you're done. I always hope that the honest students aren't watching cheats prosper or escape relatively unscathed, and that I can bring them some pleasure by talking to them seriously about their deserved successes and progress, whether its slow and gradual or triumphant.

I should make a confession at this point. No, I've never plagiarised. But I could if I wanted to: I took part in some research into plagiarism tactics. We all had to take a paragraph from a text and alter it until it conveyed the exact same ideas while seeming like original work. I did so well that the researcher congratulated me on my skills!

I do wish I could get further than two weeks into the year before I have to deploy my spider-suspicion though. I like my students. Why must a minority…

or the longer version:

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Capitol Capers in the Silly Season

Actor Brian Cox is in the news: he called for Parliament to be sited in a provincial city, such as Wolverhampton. A staunch Labour supporter on the soft left of the party, he makes the reasonable point that the costs of London and its associated lifestyle led inevitably to the expenses scandal. 

This of course got all the local papers going, as well as the region's politicians, never averse to a bit of free publicity earned by spouting some patriotic cant:
Mr McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East, said: “I think it’s a great idea. We have plenty of areas in need of regeneration and I am sure all the MPs would get a warm welcome.” 
Wolverhampton North East MP Miss Reynolds added: “If there was a serious proposal on the table to move Parliament outside of London, I can think of no better place than Wolverhampton.
Nauseating enough, but not nearly as bad as (of course) multimillionaire property speculator and MP by 619 votes Mr Paul Uppal:
I think the idea of Parliament moving to Wolverhampton would be very welcome. It would make the whole place less London-centric and introduce more Black Country traditional values. I’ve always tried to bring Wolverhampton common sense into Westminster, if that could be reversed too by Westminster coming into Wolverhampton I think everyone would benefit.”
McFadden's point is simply economic, while Emma Reynolds avoids any substance at all. Both efforts are less appalling than Uppal's lazy attempt to ingratiate himself with the locals. What are 'Black Country traditional values' and 'Wolverhampton common sense'? A strong case could be made for them being old-line socialism. There's also a streak of racial prejudice: Paul's predecessor was Enoch Powell. They're just empty phrases, the usual cant of the professional politician. It's a bit cheeky of Uppal to appropriate the city's supposed values: he doesn't even live in his own constituency and can't vote for himself. Could he point to a single example of 'Wolverhampton common sense'? His voting record is of 100% loyalty to the party line. He voted to cut benefits for disabled children, to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance, to privatise the postal service and to triple student tuition fees.

In this company, Brian Cox looks like an intellectual giant. Whether he knows it or not, he's echoing the sentiments of the Syndicalist movement of the 1910-20s. Particularly strong in the South Wales coalfields, the Syndicalists believed that their political and union representatives were bound to lose touch with the rank-and-file: once dressed up in sharp suits and drinking sherry with the enemy in negotiations, they'd become part of a political class. Here's what the 1912 manifesto The Miners' Next Step has to say
‘All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions…They… become “gentlemen”, they become MPs and have considerable social prestige because of this power.’ 

The leadership then starts to see the rank-and-file as a mass to be controlled for his/her own prestige, rather than as a set of independent thinkers. The syndicalists' solution was to dissolve the state and employers in favour of workers' control of their own industries, negotiating directly with the workers controlling other sectors of the economy.

Cox is nearly there. He sees London as the Great Maw, sucking in innocent politicians and turning them into self-interested cogs in a self-perpetuating machine. This isn't necessarily a leftwing or progressive position of course: plenty of rural Tories – especially those calling themselves the Turnip Taliban – see the city as a site of moral degradation. This is a long-running cultural theme too, hence the juxtapositions of bucolic idyll and urban corruption in Shakespeare and a host of poets' work.

As usual, I'm way ahead of Cox, McFadden, Reynolds et al.. When the Supreme Court was founded in 2005 by separating its functions from the House of Lords, I saw an opportunity. I wrote to my New Labour MP observing that it had no need to be in London. Justice – being an abstract concept – could be served anywhere, and locating the court away from the symbolic and actual centres of power in London would be a good way to communicate the separation of powers (even though Blair's cancellation of investigations into BAe/Saudi arms corruption proves that there is no actual separation of powers). Furthermore, perhaps judges and lawyers conducting their affairs away from the cosy confines of central London, gentlemen's clubs and Establishment haunts might inform their perception of life as it's lived by the rest of us.

JB Priestley said something similar in English Journey. Visiting West Bromwich (which makes Wolverhampton look like Manhattan's Upper West Side), he wrote about the degrading squalor of one street he called Rusty Lane. Despairing of the division between rulers and ruled, he says this:
There ought to be no more of those lunches and dinners, at which political and financial gentlemen congratulate one another, until something is done about Rusty Lane, West Bromwich.
The truth is, of course, that the political classes, particularly those on the Conservative side, either never see such places or blame the inhabitants. As Boris Johnson recently said, wealth is the natural product of genetic superiority: poverty must therefore be the inevitable result of congenital inferiority.  There's no solution to that.

Finally, the establishment of a major state institution in a poor city like Wolverhampton or Stoke would be good for the local economy.  It wouldn't just be judges appearing from the train station: lawyers, administrators, civil servants would all settle locally. I pointed out the Irish government's decentralisation strategy (now sadly ended) and suggested that the UK should try the same thing.

Rob Marris replied to me with good humour. Nice try, he basically said, but no chance. He didn't go into any detail, but we all know that the UK's political class considers that it deserves certain associated rewards: Gothic architecture, agreeable accommodation, high security and little contact with the conditions the rest of endure unless under strictly controlled circumstances.

I would support moving Parliament to Wolverhampton, Stoke or any other deprived area. I would fund MPs at exactly the same level our poorest citizens are expected to survive. They could lodge in private rented accommodation and have to prove that they were working hard enough to claim these perks. They should not only see but experience the lives of the hardest-pressed citizens. I would make our representatives much more insecure and end their culture of entitlement. Proportional representation would end the blight of safe seats and key marginals. Second jobs and directorships would be banned and our political representatives would be encouraged to rediscover the privilege of serving the citizens, not 'leading' us like cattle.

But let's not kid ourselves. Britain's political class is a centralist as France's. They're too habituated to moving in a closed physical and social circle. This is just a silly-season story out of season, an opportunity for local big-wigs to get on their high horses and into their local rags. It's a bit of a laugh then our lords and masters will retreat behind their blast walls and smoked glass and we'll forget there was ever another political possibility.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Books Are To Remind Us What Asses And Fools We Are

Apparently my career can now be reduced to two words: 'fire hazard'. 

My shared office was just inspected for untested electrical equipment and hazards. They found some interesting stuff, like an integrated TV/VHS player I'd never noticed sitting on top of a bookcase. The printers didn't impress them either, despite being new and in daily use. But most of all, the tools of my trade (Weapons of Mass Instruction) shocked my visitors. It's true that I have a lot of books, and a lot of them are in the office, but it did feel slightly depressing to hear them discussed as a threat rather than as the means to a better (rather than 'next' life). All very Fahrenheit 451 especially in a university!

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. 
There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.
The next comment was 'I bet you're unmarried. Or divorced', which I thought was quite funny. 

It's true that there are a lot of books here, but there are also a lot of uncollected essays and I don't hear anybody offering to take those off my hands. Still, it could be worse. I've had students describe purchasing and retaining books as 'stupid…like my mum' and more than one has told me that s/he doesn't like reading. Having a lot of books in the office isn't just convenient and necessary for work: it's performative. It's good for reading-resistant students to see us working with books, enjoying books, appreciating them. I wouldn't want them to fetishise the book as an artefact (collectors are a royal pain, little better than train-spotters) but I do think cherishing physical books is an attribute to encourage.

I admit that a large number of books can be overwhelming. My flat has very little in the way of artwork on the walls because most of the space is taken up by cheap Ikea shelving. I too occasionally look round and desire clean, uncluttered, minimalist lines. Or at least somewhere I can hang the stacks of framed prints currently residing in an office corner: a 70s pop-art poster of Angela Davis

I can't find a version of my Davis poster online, but this is fairly close

the Tree of Literature and Renaissance Tree (in Danish), 

a batik seascape given to me by a friend, 6 reproductions of classic CND posters and David Jones' Cara Wallia derelicta:

I would like to live neatly and tidily, but not at the expense of the books and objects that make up my personal history. I find minimalist design sinister, like a Speer building: forbidding, life-denying and inhumane. Life's messy. We acquire things. Some are lost along the way. Some of the significant things may not be beautiful, streamlined or convenient (like my sorry carcass) but they're what we are. I couldn't imagine disposing of books, even the ones I've hated or struggled with. One day I might read them differently, and even if I don't, my feelings about them are part of me. I have an iPad and I can see the attraction of carrying texts around electronically. Light, clean, efficient – but there's more to a book than the marks on a page. I like the inscriptions, the leaflets that fall out of my Left Book Club volumes, my handwriting (and others') in the margins, the nicks and marks that turn a medium into a message. 

I couldn't cast a book out into a cruel and indifferent world, to fall into the hands of some unthinking lout! Just today I received a copy of Muriel Jaeger's 1926 utopian novel The Question Mark. Jaeger was an interesting author of a handful of SF novels and a lot of non-fiction, published by the Woolfs and associated with Dorothy L Sayers, Winifred Holtby and other intellectual Oxford women of the 1920s. My copy is special in another way too. It has an owner's tag:

Maybe it's just because I'm a boring unattractive fire hazard, but that makes this book special. It's crossed the Atlantic, it's spent decades in a place I'll never visit (except when I read The Wizard of Oz and its sequels) and it belonged to someone interesting. Professor O'Leary wasn't just a provincial teacher: he spent time at Oxford University, his wife was a leading Jewish intellectual activist and his son was a prolific sports writer and journalist. Perhaps he wrote about The Question Mark or just enjoyed it, but he was clearly a man interested in the future at a time between two apocalyptic wars when hope was in short supply. I don't know when the University of Kansas decided that it didn't need his books any more, but there's a cultural history tied up in just this one book. I look around all the other books I can see from this desk and see not just the texts and their authors, but phases in and aspects of my own life so far. Anthologies and textbooks for teaching, critical works waiting for assessment, my recently-acquired pile of Beverley Nichols novels atop the rest of my posh-30s buys (Laver, Powell, Connolly, Bryan Guinness, the Mitfords) designed to widen my experience past the proletarian novelists I know most about. There's a pile of books about Anne of Green Gables from a previous research moment, unread journals staring me in the face, rows of texts bought online during fascinating conference presentations in a rush of enthusiasm… you get the picture. 

Every so often I tidy up, and I've read more books than I've bought. I feel for my colleagues in the office who have to share space with me. But they'll have to dig me out of a book-fort before I'll let them take away these extensions of myself. And anyway, I'm not as bad as two of my colleagues. I helped one move office. After emptying one bookcase and taking down the book wall behind it, I was shocked to discover a previously unknown window. The other one had to dispose of part of his collection because a surveyor said his house's structural joists were giving way. Until my books threaten the physical integrity of the university, they're staying here! 

One final quotation from Fahrenheit 451:
The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They're Caeser's praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, "Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal." Most of us can't rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven't time, money or that many friends. The things you're looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don't ask for guarantees. And don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Gove, Actually

I wish I could hibernate… until 2015. After a decent Christmas spent reading books about the 1930s depression – one largely devoid of political leaders of any colour abusing the poor – I emerged into 2014 only to be confronted by the worst aspects of British political and cultural life.

Item 1. Amateur Secretary of State for Education and professional troll Michael Gove whipping up the Daily Mail crowd by pointing out particular eminent historians and shaming them in public as leftwing propagandists laughing at the British dead of World War One. I couldn't help seeing Gove as Kim Jong-un and Richard Evans as his luckless uncle being dragged out of a meeting to be executed. Not only do Gove and Jong-un share rather smug expressions and believe themselves infallible, both men believe that history is a commodity to be deployed at one's own convenience, for political advantage.

Even without being a historian, Gove's Mail article is an obvious farrago of lies. It's titled 'Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?'. This is, of course, in the grand Mail tradition of using rhetorical questions as headlines, particularly ones which make untruthful assertions. What is 'the Left'? I'm leftwing, but would happily consign quite a few other soi-disant leftists to re-education camps for being capitalist running dogs. I'm damn sure there's no such thing as a singular Left. Then there's the 'insist'? As the kids say: 'citation needed'. Despite it not being my area, I read a fair amount of revisionist, post-modern and leftwing history (they aren't the same thing), and have never come across anyone mocking the war dead. My great-uncle Thomas spent Easter 1916 killing British soldiers and even he never mocked his enemies, let alone those on his own side. Anything else wrong with this headline? Well, millions of the dead weren't British, of course: quite a lot were German, French, Belgian, Irish, Australian, Indian, Chinese (yes), New Zealanders, Russian… the list goes on. 

Finally, what's a 'here' and what's a 'true hero'? Not every soldier is a hero. Surely some of them were cowardly, lazy or simply did their job without heroism? Unless we say that anyone conscripted and sent to the trenches was a hero. I'd agree with that – but that would require empathy for the German forces too, something to which I don't think Mr Gove could quite stretch.

Gove's main gripe is this:
Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.
I actually agree with him…for the first eight words. Anyone's understanding of any event is overlaid with perspectives. You'll view the war differently if your great-grandparents were cannon-fodder or as Viz magazine's Kitchener parody memorably put it 'sitting in a fucking great castle' on one side of a family dispute. Where Gove goes wrong is to assume that there is only one legitimate interpretation of World War One or any historical event. This is bonkers. But it's not just bonkers, it's sinister. I am genuinely frightened that a man who hopes to be Prime Minister thinks that an 'ambiguous attitude to this country' is a bad thing. For a start, what the hell does he mean by 'this country'? Does he mean Shakespeare/Cotswolds/Big Ben/shortbread/cathedrals/green and pleasant land, or does he mean the Britain of nuclear weapons, food banks, crashed banks, demonising immigrants, racist politicians, underfunded schools and illegal wars? Because I have to say, I'm pretty damn ambiguous about it myself. And so was the veteran poet who called Gove's clichés 'The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum set / pro patria moro'.

Or perhaps he means that you're an Leftist Enemy if you're ambiguous about World War One itself. If so, he's on shaky ground. I've got four degrees and spend a lot of time reading, and I'm damned if I could give a snappy answer to the question of why the UK fought that war, with those allies, in that way. What linked the nationalist murder of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to a German invasion of France opposed by Imperial Russia and non-democratic Britain? I have no idea beyond a vague concept of webs of mutual aid agreements. Could anyone, with even an inkling of what the trenches were like, or the average life-expectancy, unambiguously recommend a chap sign up? If so, you're an inhuman monster.

But just for a moment, let's indulge Mickey. He likes 'patriotism, honour and courage'. Excellent. So let's hear him say a kind word for those other conscripts, in the other trenches. After all, if they were fighting for any other reason than compulsion, then surely 'patriotism, honour and courage' were what motivated them too.

Gove goes on to make a series of non-sequiturs which would have me reaching for the red pen, were I marking this excrescence. Firstly, there's this:
The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.
He starts with an unsourced assertion ('for many') and cites three texts, only one of which will be at all familiar to a contemporary audience. He's certainly wrong about Oh! What A Lovely War which actually present the political leadership on all sides as desperate to avoid war. He's also wrong about the 'Left-wing academics': it was the ferociously rightwing Tory MP and amateur historian Alan Clarke who wrote a book called The Donkeys, referencing the belief that the ordinary soldiers were lions led by the aforesaid beasts. Evans also lists a number of very conservative historians who think Britain should never have engaged in the war, and attack the way in which it was conducted. As to the idea that Richard Curtis and Ben Elton are lefty subversives: has he seen Love, Actually or anything either of them have done since 1985 or whatever?

And then we get on to the really Orwellian bit: a Government Minister smearing a historian:
Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian and Guardian writer, has criticised those who fought, arguing, ‘the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong’.
Even Gove's choice of quotes subvert his attack. Evans doesn't criticise the men at all. He speculates about their possible motivations and points out that their hopes were not realised and their political visions incorrect. Not once does he question their bravery, their sense of duty, their sacrifice. If anything, his point should make us feel even more deeply for them. Those men were used by two imperialist powers to fight a war which failed to benefit any of the survivors, and murdered millions. It didn't end war. It didn't enfranchise those who served or their civilian counterparts, it didn't defend freedom. As Evans points out elsewhere, Germany was rather more democratic than Britain or Russia.

And then there's this:
And he has attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub-thumping jingoism’. These arguments are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.
Apart from the hypocrisy of a man using the Daily Mail for an ad hominem attack on an academic while calling Evans a showman, it's a lie. Evans just plain did not attack 'the very idea of honouring their sacrifice': he attacked Michael Gove's plans for history education
I said his proposals for the National Curriculum were narrow tub-thumping jingoism
which isn't the same thing at all. Far from it, and Michael Gove is a dishonest liar to say so. Evans actually commended Conservative Culture Secretary Maria Miller for planning a commemoration far removed from Gove's asinine 'Engerland' approach. As for the  'sober' 'proper historical debate': we eagerly await Mr Gove's peer-reviewed original research.

Gove then moves on to the war as a whole:
The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war.
Plainly. Why?
The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.
As far as I can see, the British élite was little different: perhaps simply more successful. I don't know how comprehensive (excuse the pun) Mr Gove's expensive private education was, but I'd hope he's seen a globe with the British Empire filled in. Here it is in the 1920s:

And here's a map of the German Empire:

Who was 'aggressively expansionist'? Or is it Mr Gove's contention that the British Empire was a matter of turning up with crumpets and offering a consultancy service (or as Blackadder puts it, an Empire snatched from an enemy armed with sharpened mangos)? If so, perhaps he'd like to explain Ireland in 1916, the Kenyan and Malayan massacres, and a host of other murderous events. Perhaps, though, he's just an old-fashioned racist and doesn't really mind 'aggressive expansionism' as long as it's only against brown people (and the Irish). Perhaps where the Germans went wrong was to occupy nice European places? But despite Mr Gove, I strongly suspect that absolutely no Africans, Asians or anyone else sat around in 1914 thinking 'could be worse: at least it's not the Germans'. Though they'd be right to think that of the Belgians – allied to the British of course.

Then we reach this unhinged series of assertions:
And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.
For feck's sake. Just because a person thinks they're fighting for a noble cause doesn't make it one. It might be. It might not be. Dying for something doesn't prove it right. As to the 'western liberal order': well maybe it looked like that from a bloody great mansion in the countryside, but for the working class I don't think it mattered a damn who was in charge. They still starved.

Oh sod it. I was going to mention Channel 4's demonisation of the poor in Benefits Street and all the other vile, cynical, dishonest attacks on this country's population perpetrated by the government just this week, but life's too short and I've got to go home and price up a dead man's CD collection. Toodle-pip.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Fencing: poetry in motion

One of the fun things at the Olympic fencing event was the GoFence session, in which children (and quite a lot of adults) were invited to bash each other with foam versions of fencing weapons - part of the sport's attempt to widen participation. Some of my friends were running the show and I joined in occasionally when I wandered past during my breaks from standing around looking essential in the main event.

Only when I bought John Hegley's excellent new poetry collection New and Selected Potatoes did I realise that it wasn't just fun: it's the stuff of which art is made.

So here it is.

'London, 2012'

Backing and advancing.
Competing and dancing.
Outside the Olympic centre
my brother who was once a fencer
and Sally, from the north,
who was one also.
They have taken up plastic swords
from a stall provided to catch
the enthusiasm of children
and perhaps set them on a path
of lunge and parry.
Marcel and Sally
in touch with their own younger selves.
A brief exhibition of joy.
Harking back.
Sallying forth.

I like it. It's got some good wordplay around his brother and Sally's names, and it captures the brief moments when we adults are allowed to play, unselfconsciously and freely. The rhythm is interesting also: sometimes regular, sometimes broken, just like a proper series of fencing phrases. I hope he doesn't mind me excerpting this poem: you should buy the whole collection because it's very good.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Let Us Be Too Proud

For Christmas, my mother gave me a recent and rather magnificent copy of JB Priestley's English Journey (rarely, for an Englishman, he actually just means England too). Originally published in 1934, it's a fair rival to Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier. Most famous for his play An Inspector Calls, Priestley's friendly, socialist, sometimes slightly tetchy style, his love of ordinary people and his fury at the lives to which they are consigned by industrial capitalism makes for very enjoyable reading. I spent quite a lot of the Christmas break tweeting his pithy aperçus about the Black Country, Stoke, the Irish, hunting and so on.

Here are some of my favourite bits. On the Black Country and its inhabitants:
a beauty you could appreciate chiefly because you were not condemned to live there
Nobody can blame them if they grow up to smash everything that can be smashed.
While they still exist in their present foul shape, it is idle to congratulate ourselves about anything 
A typical visit is his trip to Stoke. It's foul and barbaric, but he thinks the people are wonderful, and they have been betrayed by the state and the ruling classes.
a grim region for the casual visitor…I have seen few regions from which Nature has been banished more ruthlessly…Civilised man…has not arrived here yet
He doesn't think much of hunting either, particularly those who claim it's an agricultural duty or whatever:
men and women who…spare no pains to turn themselves into twelfth-century oafs, are past my comprehension'
Though he says he'd have a bit more respect for 
the man who … declares…"It may be…cruel and anti-social, but I don't give a damn".
Rather wonderfully and topically, Priestley proclaims his love of state healthcare, immigrants (his home town of Bradford declined after the German Jewish population was victimised after WW1, he says) and the poor, no matter what fat politicians say about them. He hates talk of rationalisation:
You may do a good stroke of work by declaring the Stockton shipyards "redundant", but you cannot pretend that all the men who used to work in those yards are merely "redundant" too… Their labour, wages, full nutrition, self-respect, have been declared redundant. All their prospects on this earth have been carefully rationalised away. They have been left in the lurch. We have done the dirty on them. We can plan quite neatly to close the doors of their workshops on them, but cannot plan to open anything. 
Priestley's particularly incensed by the plight of the miners. He declines the offer of a trip down a pit because he was buried for a while in the trenches and clearly suffered considerably. He knows what a foul, dangerous life mining is, and is infuriated by bourgeois accusations and the complaints of 'red-faced gentlemen lounging before club fires' that miners are lazy Communist subversives.
Every man or boy who goes underground knows only too well that he risks one of several peculiarly horrible deaths, from being roasted to being imprisoned in the rock and slowly suffocated.
He's not a 'dignity of labour' type in general, but he has some curious blind spots: though he sees the miners' wives as cleverer and more determined than their sons and husbands (they have 'gumption'), he thinks that women are more suited to repetitive factory work because they find it easier to escape into a fantasy world, and he also thinks the Irish are troglodytic peasants beyond redemption. However, he has a cunning solution to the divide between the productive classes and the parasites:
Suppose we had a government that began announcing: "Coal is a national necessity…We will now have conscription again, this time for the coal-mines, where every able-bodied man shall take his turn, at the usual rates of pay. All men in the Mayfair, Belgravia, Bayswater and Kensington areas…will report themselves…for colliery duty" What a glorious shindy there would be then! And if you could buy yourself out by subsidising a professional miner, how the wages in East Durham would rise. 

To him, the state of the mining areas is the fault of
greedy, careless, cynical, barbaric industrialism
The Daily Mail style bigotry of the urban middle classes infuriate him. He loves to see the workers having fun, whether on a trip to the seaside, having sex or getting pissed in the pub:
Those persistent legends about miners who buy two pianos at once and insist upon drinking champagne… A man who has been working for seven hours at a coal face, crouching in a horribly cramped space about half a mile underground, has a right, if anyone has, to choose his own tipple; and I for one would be delighted if I knew that miners could afford to drink champagne and were drinking it.  
He's not keen on bankers either:
Until they are openly proved to be crooks, our own financial jugglers are regarded as distinguished…benevolent wizards…a sphere of action in which all depends on your being able to "get away with" certain things.
I know all this looks like he's the world's grumpiest man, but he's on a mission - to puncture the chocolate-box-Chipping Norton definition of England peddled by politicians and his fellow writers:
Most of my fellow-authors do not go blundering in like that; they never go near these uncomfortable places; they continue writing their charming stories about love affairs that begin in nice country houses and then flare up into purple passages in large hotels in Cannes… 
As it happens, 1930s 'proletarian' novels are my specialist subject: for an antidote to the Purple Prose of Cairo, I'd recommend Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow for thy Sons, Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live, Hanley's Grey Children and Bert Coombes's These Poor Hands.

By the end, Priestley identifies three Englands: Old England of honeyed manor houses and meadows (the tourist and aristocrat version), which depends on the Nineteenth-Century England of 'sootier grim-like fortresses' like Birmingham and Stoke, where money (for some) and misery (for most) went hand-in-hand, and post-1918 England. Priestley isn't nostalgic: he knows the pretty countryside was a place in which peasants starved and died, or were glad to escape to the cities, but he's determined to end our illusions. Industrialism
found a green and pleasant land and had left a wilderness of dirty bricks. It had blackened fields, poisoned rivers, ravaged the earth, and sown filth and ugliness with a lavish hand…What you see looks like a debauchery of cynical greed… Wolverhampton and St. Helens and Bolton and Gateshead and Jarrow and Shotton. … I felt like calling back a few of these sturdy industrialists simply to rub their noses in the nasty mess hey had made. Who gave the leave to turn this island into their ashpit? … and the people who were choked by the reek of the sties did not get the bacon. The more I thought about it, the more this period of England's industrial supremacy began to look like a gigantic dirty trick. At one end of this commercial greatness were a lot of half-starved, bleary-eyed children crawling about among machinery and at the other end were the traders getting natives boozed up with bad gin. 
Not that post-industrial England holds much charm for Priestley either: a land of strip malls, escapist cinema, advertising and filling stations. Like the Frankfurt School, he fears that we're all being bought off by cheap tricks and shiny toys (from Woolworths, he reckons). It looks like being a classless society in which people admire sportsmen more than royalty, so not all bad, but
too much of it is simply a trumpery imitation of something not very good even in the original. There is about it a rather too depressing monotony…leisure is being handed over to standardisation too… I cannot help feeling that this new England is lacking in character, in zest, gusto, flavour, bite, drive, originality, and that this is a serious weakness. 
What he fears is that a complacent, lazy, satisfied England is ripe for authoritarian politics: to him, the contrary, pushy, touchy, loud, drunk, proud working classes are what keeps us safe from the dictators of either doctrine.

By the end, JB is a sad and angry man. He has met working and workless people all over the country. Some of them are depressed, some broken, some slovenly, some angry, some phlegmatic. None of them, he feels, deserves the 'dole' and the attitudes which come with it.
…the England of the dole did not seem to me to be a pleasant place. It is a poor, shuffling job, and one of our worst compromises… The young men, who have grown up in the shadow of the Labour Exchange, are not so much personal tragedies, I decided, as collectively a national tragedy.
It cannot be every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. [my italics] 
Priestley remembers the drawn, grey faces of starving German POWs in 1918:
I did not expect to see that kind of face again for a long time; but I was wrong. I had seen a lot of those faces on this journey. They belonged to unemployed men. 
…this blackened North toiled and moiled so that England should be rich and the City of London be a great power in the world. But now this North is half derelict, and its people, living on in the queer ugly places, are shabby, bewildered and unhappy. And I told myself that I would prefer…to see the people in the City all shabby, bewildered and unhappy…because I like people who make things better than I like people who only deal in money…What had the City done for its old ally, the industrial North? It seems to have done what the black-moustached glossy gentleman in the old melodramas always did to the innocent village maiden. 
What's the inevitable consequence of a country in which the workers are raped by the rich?
People are beginning to believe that government is a mysterious process with which they have no real concern. This is the soil in which autocracies flourish and liberty dies. Alongside that apathetic majority there will soon be a minority that is tired of seeing nothing vital happen and that will adopt any cause that promises decisive action.  

And yet Priestley sees hope. Underneath the swaggering
'red-faced, staring, loud-voiced fellows, wanting to boss everybody about all over the world and being surprised and pained…if some blighters refused to fag for them'
he detects an England of natural beauty, technical genius, literary glory and generosity:
Let us be too proud, my mind shouted, to refuse shelter to exiled foreigners, too proud to do dirty little tricks because other people can stoop to them, too proud to lose an inch of our freedom, too proud, even if it beggars us, to tolerate social injustice here, too proud to suffer anywhere in this country an ugly mean way of living… We headed the procession when it took what we see now to be the wrong turning, down into the dark bog of greedy industrialism, where money and machines are of more importance than men and women. It is for us to find the way out again. 
Now, I know I've gone on far too long, and you probably feel that I've typed out the whole of English Journey, but there's a good reason. We're governed once more by a group of Southern English multimillionaires with no real experience of work, hunger or want. They inherited their cash or made it on the money markets. They're experienced tax-evaders and system players. They move between Notting Hill and the Cotswolds. They encourage us to blame the poor, the weak and the foreign rather than their friends in the City, and tell us that the solution to our ills is to close the borders, sell the Mail and the NHS, and to hate the workless.

Like Priestley, we have a population eager to work but no government is interested in finding anything for them to do. What should happen to them? They won't just dwindle away. They can't all be 'sleeping off a life on benefits' as the Chancellor put it, and they can't all serve us coffee on the minimum wage. Priestley's minority is UKIP and the Tory voters encouraged by their leaders and their friends on the Mail and the Express to see every foreigner as a terrorist benefits thief, every welfare claimant as a fraudulent scrounger rather than as a fellow citizen. This is the country in which a millionaire investment banker made Minister for Welfare Reform can stand up in the House of Lords and claim – on behalf of the government of this country – that food banks are busy because everybody wants a free lunch.

Have we heard any politician come anywhere close to the pride, or despair, of Joseph Priestley? I could imagine Atlee nodding along in his quiet way, perhaps Wilson even. But this shower: they see us as so many millstones round their moneyed, tanned necks. When they venture North of their hunting grounds, they sneak from limo to photo-op without a care. My own MP made his millions in property speculation: he hasn't a word to say about his constituency's decline from being the workshop of the world to a grey, sullen sinkhole of ambition.

Happy New Year. 

Vole's Christmas Holiday: a Pictorial Account.

Went home. Entertained the nephews and nieces:

Saw a dead bat.

Also saw a woodpecker:

Went for a walk:

to Lud's Church which is a giant hidden chasm on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border in the Peak District:

It was probably a meeting place for Lollard dissenters and others, and may well have been the model for the Green Chapel in Gawain and the Green Knight:

…high hills, and steep, on both sides
And rough, knuckled crags with rugged stones;
The skies grazed off the jutting rocks, it seemed to him. 

Except, a little way off, across a lawn, a mound as it were,
A smooth barrow on the side of a slope next to the water,
By the channel of a stream that forked there,
The brook blubbered in it as if it were boiling. 

It had a hole at the end and on each side,
And overgrown with grass in patches everywhere,
And it was entirely hollow inside, nothing but an old cave,
Or a crevice of an old crag, he could not say which it was. (lines 2180-84)
Then from that high hill he (Gawain) heard, in a hard rock
Beyond the brook, in a hillside, an exceedingly loud noise.
And then he (the Green Knight) comes around a crag, and
comes out of a hole,
Whirling out of a corner with a fell weapon. 

Or in the original

It's still a place of ritual. In the chasm is an old branch. Successive walkers have stuck coins in the wood until it became an object of numinous beauty:

Then I went to the Manchester Science Museum to look at components and see my friends. 

I also read a lot of books, but that's a whole other entry. Full set of pictures here