Monday, 30 June 2014

Weir all crazee now*

Can you name a female composer other than Hildegard of Bingen? I bet most of us can't. I'm fairly knowledgeable about contemporary classical, and I struggle to get to ten (Nadia and Lili Boulanger, Saariaho, Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav, still overlooked), Maconchy, Beamish, Bingham, Nicola LeFanu and Judith Weir. Why? Partly because I'm shockingly ill-informed of course, but also because classical music is one of the last bastions of patriarchal privilege. The 'High' Arts are where the men rule. They get the training, they get the jobs, they make the contacts and they get the critical attention. It's OK for women to perform – essential, given we've given up castrating boys thanks to the 'elf and safety mob as the Mail would no doubt put it – but there seems to be a structural resistance to women as creators of anything other than babies. There are female artists from the pre-feminist era, but relatively few because women weren't thought capable of philosophical, creative or abstract thought, barring them from the production, circulation and criticism of art. The music world is like the medical world: just as there are plenty of female nurses and junior doctors but almost no surgeons, there are lots of women filling the orchestral desks, few leaders, almost no conductors and very few regularly-performed composers.

A composer's sex shouldn't matter, but it does. Who knows how many great works have gone unperformed – or uncomposed – because a woman has been deterred from writing, or from learning to write, music? (And all this applies to non-white composers too). Classical music is split between the defenders of Culture who tend to be crusty reactionaries and hip young gunslingers eager to demonstrate the form's variety and openness to contemporary society. What brings them together is their white maleness. The 'new' composers are just as likely to be earnest young men playing with samplers as the traditionalists' heroes too which is really disappointing though as I say, it's structural. None of the composers, conductors, orchestra managers or whoever would admit to being sexist, but they do operate a boys' club. Why aren't women signing up for composition classes, or winning commissions, getting on the concert bills, or getting the various other hands up along the way? I refuse to accept the claim that they're somehow not good enough - there are plenty of mediocre men who get their work played (yes I'm looking at you, Terry Riley, Ravel, all the Strausses, Fauré, de Falla, Gorecki, Respighi

So here are some clips from some great female composers I like, starting with Judith Weir who has just been appointed Master (or Mistress, it's unclear yet) of the Queen's Musick. I know it's a silly title bound in to an embarrassing and outdated patronage system, but at least somebody has noticed that there are great composers with genitals on the inside. Enjoy.

Some Judith Weir (she writes operas too but I'm not that keen on those)

Some Nicola LeFanu, whom I really like:

Some solid Elizabeth Maconchy (mother of Nicola LeFanu - demonstrating that good role models and contacts help nurture another generation):

*Apologies. I couldn't resist that gag.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Just for fun…pop, politics and teenagers

Here's a historical curio for you. I'm writing an article (possibly a book) on creative writing by politicians. As background research, I'm reading Steven Fielding's survey of politics in popular culture, A State of Play, which is fascinating. 

It's led me to Just For Fun, a 1963 teen movie which mixes musical numbers with a story of fun-loving teens being crushed by the pop-hating Right Party and cynically used by the secretly-pop-hating Left Party. Various incredibly bland pop groups appear performing songs with utterly lame slightly political songs, shoe-horned in to a terrible plot. For added joy, celebrity paedophile Jimmy Savile appears, as does Alan 'Fluff' Freeman. It's one of the corniest things I've ever seen, and it's great fun. By the end, the Teen Party wins the election…and destroys the country.

Another teens-meet-politics novel, Angus McGill's Yea Yea Yea was very freely adapted for Press for Time, a truly awful Norman Wisdom vehicle. Can you last for the whole trailer? 'Get an eyeful of les girls: they're busting out all over!'

Sadly I can't find any footage of Swizzlewick, the cynical and 'lewd' local politics satire (the Guardian: 'a new low in tastelessness') and only episode is believed to exist, but you can have a speech from Dennis Potter's 1965 Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, which was yanked from the broadcast schedules hours before it was meant to go out so that its satire could be watered down to avoid offending the poor political classes. 

I've recently read Wilfred Fienburgh MP's No Love For Johnnie (an MP who is 'the most unmitigated, grasping and self-important bastard...' encountered in politics) which one review reproduced on the cover declares 'the most cynical book ever written on any subject'. I haven't yet watched the film, but note that what was an X certificate in 1961 is now merely a 12. Whereas the contemporary reviewers condemned its focus on 'sordid mattress capers', the BBFC now merely notes 'moderate sex references and languages'. 

There's no footage from the film online, but here's some of the music – it's by Malcolm Arnold and therefore is great. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Cycling: the latest zombie pursuit?

You might know that I'm a keen cyclist. You can catch me out on the roads at any time (as long as it's dry and the temperature is between 10-23C) wearing Specialized cleat shoes, Craft Lycra shorts, Lycra top, gel gloves, DHB cycling glasses and a helmet, inelegantly atop one of my two bikes, either my carbon-forked Forme Longcliffe 4.0 or my customised 1967 Moulton Classic.

I am, in short, a MAMIL: a Middle-Aged Man In Lycra. There are lots of us about. Whenever I go out, I give a cheery nod to lots of men and some women dressed just like me, often riding bikes that wouldn't shame a professional cyclist with a ticket-price to match. They're all faster than me.

Aside from the mid-life crisis crew, cycling's everywhere. The Tour de France is coming to the UK this year. Bradley Wiggins, Varnish, the Trott sisters, Cavendish, Froome, Pendleton, Armitstead and several others are all over the media.

So lots of people are cycling and professional cycling is hugely popular. Why, for the love of God, do I think it might be dying? Well – I'm worried that it's becoming ghettoised as a hobby for rich elitists, professionals and gear-fetishists. Look at my description of my cycling life: branded to the last comma. Ten years ago I had a knackered 1970s racer bought for £10. I don't even recall whether it still had a maker's name. I didn't agonise over the extra weight incurred by using cheap inner tubes, nor care what other cyclists thought. I just went places. Nor did I concern myself with consuming gels: I had a bottle of water. Now, we acknowledge each other while casting a discerning eye over each other's frames and wheel sets, all trying to look like we're on the Sky reserve list.

In short, I worry that cycling is next in line for the golf treatment. I loathe golf, but I know it has a rich history outside the Home Counties of being a poor man's pleasure (let's discuss golf's inherent misogyny another time). Out in the wilds of Aberdeen or Kerry, normal people could go out and smash a few balls round a course with a basic set of golf bats then go home happy. Then courses started getting professionals. And expensive redesigns. Equipment manufacturers realised that they could whack up the prices by holding out the promise that buying their stuff would improve players' games and make them look like their heroes. Bingo: a sport becomes a business.

Cycling used to be more than a lucrative 'lifestyle' occupation. It used to be mass transport, and it used to be a means of liberation. For a low price, the workers could reach places previously out of bounds. The price of admission to the countryside or the seaside was a very few pounds and strong legs. Entire sub-cultures grew from the invention of the bicycle, such as the Clarion Clubs (still in existence), which linked exercise, travel and socialism.

I could just about imagine Bradley Wiggins endorsing this slogan, but not Chris Froome, currently residing in Monaco for tax purposes. There were a whole load of other people's cycling clubs too: for vegetarians, communists, Tories, workers, Masons, Daily Mail readers, servant girls, actors, soldiers, Christians… There was even a rebel British League of Cyclists formed to run illegal road races after the National Cyclists' Union caved in to government hostility and banned the sport.

The bicycle didn't just bring about political liberation either: for women it assisted their move into the public sphere, allied to Rational Dress and closely entwined with the Suffragists.

Cycling was good for the genes too: though I've never been able to track down the source, there's a claim that the French peasantry grew an inch taller once a generation of them had the chance to ride bikes to court people living further away than a decent walk, most of whom were their relatives!

So cycling's a special activity: it's a product of industrial capitalist modernity which democratised movement, speed and physical exercise at a fairly minimal cost. But now – and I'm certainly part of the problem – the sport has been to some extent taken over by cults of consumerism and physical perfection. You don't see people like the young me around so much, riding ramshackle contraptions for fun, though many of the country's cycling clubs are doing fantastic work. Instead, there's a competitive element both with regards to kit and performance which I think moves cycling into the same category as golf and similar bourgeois sports in which the consumerist aspirational element has become too prominent. I can see how it happens: I know very well the seduction of desiring more, supposedly better kit (in my other hobbies of fencing and photography too) when I know in my heart that just trying harder will make more of a difference. At least when I go swimming there's almost no equipment to worry about! Or at least none that can be improved without serious surgery.

I love cycling (in the right conditions). I like the speed, the surroundings, the pleasure of squeezing that little bit more out of what's frankly an unlovely and low-quality body, and simply of getting to interesting places under my own steam. I think cycling is special because it's so open and democratic, and don't want it to become hierarchical, competitive and the preserve of the MAMILs. Few phrases are more snobbish than 'Bike-shaped Object', used by 'serious' cyclists –and me, sometimes – to describe the (often-dangerous) budget bikes on the roads. Cars and bad urban design have pushed bikes off the roads for work as well as pleasure except in a few British cities - I'd hate to see the cult of consumerist perfection and professionalisation discourage the leisure cyclists and those without loads of cash by setting examples that can't be followed. Fatties of Britain: Unite and Get On Your Bikes!

Friday, 20 June 2014

We need to talk about Tristram

I'm a member of the Labour Party. Being a member of any political party makes me a little bit weird - formal participation has been declining for many years. I'm even weird amongst my friends. Most of us are socialists, and we're not especially welcome in the Party. But I carry on because I'd like to have even a tiny say in the policy determinations of a party that has a strong chance of winning a general election. I admire my friends who spend their time arguing over the minutiae of leftwing ideology before standing in the rain selling three sectarian newspapers a week, but let's face it: that's more of a hobby than a plan for government. 

So I'm in the Labour party. I joined to vote for John McDonnell in the leadership election that led to Gordon Brown's elevation. What can I say? I unerringly support the losing side. I wanted Denis Kucinich to win the US Presidency. I've met both Milibands, and far preferred Ed. David struck me as an unreflective and cynical machine politician. Ed, for all the scrapes he gets into, seemed to be principled and genuinely interested in the people he met.

But my party doesn't make it easy for me to remain a member. There's the whole embrace of neoliberalism, for a start. Then the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture, the kidnapping, the deregulation etc. etc. ad infinitum. There's the latest wheeze, which is to punish young unemployed people for the bankruptcy of Britain (caused by the financial sector) by reducing their social security support. It's marketed as 'help to train' so I'm sure it's a complete coincidence that the 'help' is significantly lower than the current rate of unemployment benefit.

But most of all, there's the Honourable Tristram Hunt MP.

Tristram is the privately-educated son of a Lord (not that I'm particularly bothered about that: Benn and Dalyell were both quite posh) who was unaccountably parachuted into the poor and socialist constituency for Stoke-on-Trent Central, apparently thanks to the machinations of his friend Peter Mandelson. Tristram is an historian, or as the newspapers put it, a 'distinguished' historian, i.e. one who can produce a decent narrative from interesting though not essential material without troubling the reader with tricky metaphysical questions.

Tristram is the Shadow Secretary of State for Education. That means his job is to oppose the work of Michael Gove, the man who thinks that education should be given to private corporations who'll reproduce the atmosphere of Mr Gradgrind's drone factory and make a profit along the way. Mr Gove wants you all to become junior Empire Loyalists who know that Muslims are Bad and the British have been, are and always will be White, Christian and Nice.

Tristram isn't up to the job. Worse than that: he agrees with everything Mr Gove does. He simply feels that Michael could be a little more efficient. For a very clever man, he seems incapable of thinking anything through beyond the question that obsesses all rightwing Labour politicians: 'what will the Mail say about this?'.

Not only is Tristram incompetent, deeply conservative and entirely lacking discernible Labour values, he actively works against his party's history, beliefs and members. A few months ago, this former academic went back to Queen Mary College to deliver a lecture (apparently he doesn't consider being an MP and shadow cabinet member constitutes full-time employment). To do so, he crossed a legal picket line of his own colleagues. The subject of that lecture? Socialism. The biographer of Friedrich Engels stirred the workers with his principled defence of the right of exploited workers to withdraw their labour:
"I support the right to strike for those who have balloted to picket. I have chosen not to join the strike." Mr Hunt, who is also the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said his "personal commitment remained to the students" he was lecturing.
Funnily enough, that's the exact same claim deployed by my scab colleagues here at The Hegemon. It is, of course, transparent bullshit. I took strike action because I'm committed to my students: I want them to be taught by rested, decently-paid academics who have the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research, not by exhausted hourly-paid ones exploited by a management that cares for nothing beyond bums on seats, while the financial sector or whatever creams off potentially great thinkers.

I won't be going to my constituency party's summer party to be lectured on Labour values by a man who betrays his colleagues and his comrades. The continued presence of Tristram Hunt, while marginal compared with all the other failures of the political class, has become symbolic to me of a party leadership which can't throw off the mental shackles of the New Labour period, a clique which is more concerned with appeasing the right than developing the self-respect required to make a case for socialism and persuading the voters of our cause.

I know that my party's local and national representatives will write off my whinging as typical of a privileged élitist, but they're wrong. You don't have to be a raving Trotskyist to understand that you don't cross picket lines, especially when you're a massively rich person earning a second or third income by taking work done by former colleagues protesting about eight years of declining pay.

Tristram is the touchstone of the debate, a symptom of the cowardice and isolation of the upper reaches of the Labour Party. If you can't find anything to argue about with Michael Gove, you're in the wrong party and the wrong job.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Getting Stuffed With Paxo

Tonight is Jeremy Paxman's last appearance as lead anchor for Newsnight, the BBC's premier long-form news broadcast. To many, Paxman is a hero of hard-hitting journalism, famous for encounters such as this, with the egregious Home Secretary, Michael Howard:

Or this more recent one with the hapless Chloe Smith of the Treasury

There are many other examples of him at the top of his game: the interview with Blair in which he tried to pin down the PM's rather shifty conflation of Christianity and neoliberalism, then listed (from 8.50) one Labour donor's publishing stable ('Horny Housewives, Mega Boobs, Skinny and Wriggly') to which Blair could only reply 'I've said what I've said…Look…'.

I used to love Newsnight. The other news broadcasts seemed lazy, lightweight, incurious and uninformed. They were also, to my younger self, thrilling. A rude, loud and openly sceptical interviewer demanding answers to awkward questions from people I hated - Tories and rightwing Labour ministers and MPs. It was, frankly, a macho thing, a gladiatorial battle. I felt exactly the same way about the Today programme, Radio 4's flagship 3-hour morning news show.

I no longer feel that way. Firstly, probably because I'm getting old, I find myself frustrated by the sheer lack of knowledge displayed by all sides. I keep thinking that if I can educate myself in basic economics, climate science, philosophy, the arts, sociology etc. etc., the least the politicians and journalists paid to be experts can do is be ahead of me. I'm also sick of the closed circle of Establishment voices represented on Newsnight and its equivalents. Despite the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the importance of the EU, the dissemination of expertise to charities, universities and local organisations, the political and media classes are still resolutely metropolitan and Westminster-centric. I'm tired, too, of the relentless parade of privately-educated, Oxbridge-finished faces and voices reflecting a world-view and an interrogative style derived from the tired rituals of the Oxford Union debating society. The perspectives of tens of millions of other people just never get a look-in: and that's before we even touch the exclusion of female, minority-ethnic and northern people. Civil society is now invisible in political and hard news journalism, which I find deeply saddening. The obsession with the remnants of democracy seems rather archaic when executive and corporate power retreats further out of the reach of electoral politics.

Presentationally, I'm now utterly drained by the moribund, sterile set-up of Newsnight and Today. Paxman's aggressive approach was once essential: the interview with Michael Howard may well have changed the course of British politics by revealing him to be not just authoritarian but also profoundly dishonest. But it's a tactic that stopped working long ago. Any politician – with the exception of Chloe Smith – has had so much media training that an appearance opposite Paxo holds no more terror. They're trained in the art of 'bridging': filling the available 3/8/15 minutes with so much bland pap that neither the interviewer nor the audience is given anything to grasp beyond a sense of whether the interviewee is 'good on telly'. Paxman's brute force frontal attack can't do anything against an interviewee whose only concern is to 'fill'. They're trained to look human (I know, what a world, in which our representatives need training to sound like the rest of us, but it is, of course, our fault: we and our chosen newspapers and TV channels demand robotic perfection then mock them for giving us what we think we want), not to answer reasonable questions.

I am tired of the two-heads format in which people with extreme views are presented as equally knowledgeable while a presenter mediates ('Well he says you're a liar, what have you got to say to that?'). Yes, we all like a good argument but we often end up none the wiser, or even misled. Climate science is one particular victim here: presenting the views of corporate whores like Lawson (who has zero scientific background) as co-equal with 99% of active researchers in the field has literally done enormous damage to the planet. Last year I fruitlessly pursued a complaint against Newsnight, which presented Peter Lilley MP as an expert who'd written 'a report' about climate change, which he thinks is a hoax. The programme didn't mention that he has no credentials, nor did they mention that he is a director of an oil exploration company. In short, they presented him as a qualified and neutral observer. When I complained, they refused to accept that his interests should have been flagged up. When pressed, their defence was that Lilley's financial interests are listed in his Parliamentary Declaration of Interests, and were therefore common knowledge. Really? I strongly suspect that more people watched that interview than even know that there is a Declaration of Interests, let alone where to find it. TV is powerful, much more powerful than the notion that viewers are out there Googling the background of guests afforded the privilege of airtime on a flagship show. Newsnight's actions, and their response to my complaint, seemed little short of dishonest to me, an abuse of power.

Paxman famously cited Louis Heren's approach, 'Why is this lying bastard lying to me?' as the source of his style, but it's become unproductive, and contributes to a general cynicism which is infectious. I have no doubt that politicians did – and do – lie to Paxman and the rest of us, but Newsnight seems to have applied this method to absolutely everybody. The result is the grotesque sight, last Monday, of Paxman telling Professor Alice Roberts what the scientific method was, of functionaries, charity workers and ordinary people being treated as objects of suspicion, of climate scientists being accused of misleading the public for some kind of obscure conspiracist purpose, of good people being assumed to be up to something. This is corrosive, but it's also counter-productive. It's noticeable over recent years that Jeremy Paxman's editorialising and sneering is more frequently applied to people you might call liberal or leftwing. He has become openly reactionary, about climate science, non-neoliberal economics, youth culture, the arts, non-Establishment approaches to history and a host of other subjects, often, I suspect, those about which he knows least. This week's series of farewell interviews has been instructive. He seemed most at ease with Hillary Clinton, a rightwing machine politician well-versed in the art of giving nothing away. He is drawn to power and nowadays rarely interested in principle and motivation: like him, Clinton is about the exercise of authority rather than any kind of idealism. Paxman then talked to Lord Saatchi, who presented him with a copy of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and proceeded to explain that corporation tax should be abolished in the name of 'freedom'. To this, Paxman had no response to the redefinition of freedom as merely economic and available to rich capitalists, despite there being no shortage of very mainstream alternatives. The gift, it seemed to me, represented the thanks of a grateful class of neoliberal governors.

Is Jeremy Paxman a Conservative? I doubt it: he seems like a patrician radical to me. But away from the individual personality issues, I think he represents a deeply radical-conservative perspective which is socially damaging. The assumption that nobody has any higher motives reinforces the status quo. It militates against social, economic and political change. It maintains the dominance of a ruling class which may occasionally incorporate some dissent and alternatives (such as the general acceptance of homosexuality) as long as the deep structures of the state and the economy remain unchanged. Once this is understood, Newsnight, the Today show and its ilk become simply ritualistic performances little different to the excruciating arse-kissing seen when politicians turn up on breakfast TV sofas to talk about what they feed their kids or whether their partners have to do all the ironing: it's just a way of reaching a different demographic.

We end up with the tired rehearsal of familiar scripts, as Chris Morris pointed out a very long time ago in a satire that now doesn't look particularly extreme.

Do we gain anything from these shows? It's noticeable that neither the flagship programmes nor the investigative newspapers foresaw the financial crash, LIBOR, Snowden, the Savile affair or any of the major scandals of our time.

I think we've reached an impasse. The Fourth Estate is now too entirely bound up with corporate interests (the private sector), paralysed by fear or simply too enmeshed in the ritualistic, performative practices of the establishment. Effective scrutiny of power is now out of reach. There are journalists I admire: Paul Mason for one, but it's too easy for those with authority to evade their grasp. Citizen journalists, big data analysts, leakers and websites do their best, but they're largely excluded from the public forum and lack the resources for serious investigation, or they're also wrapped up in corporate webs.

I'm sorry to say that I won't miss Paxman. There's a place for attack-dog journalism, but the media landscape has moved on. Power is dispersed, discursive and often invisible. Unfortunately, being a mere blogger and so-so academic, I now run into the sand. We need a searching, effective media environment more than ever, one capable of reflecting on, exposing and investigating our governments, cultures and societies. Newsnight, battered by the Savile affair, has attempted a new direction (perhaps occasioning Paxman's departure) but it's a sad and pathetic show, seemingly desperate to keep up with the kids on Twitter by running LOLcats, excruciatingly 'funny' or 'quirky' pieces and trying badly to be arty, which communicates little more than creative and journalistic exhaustion and insecurity. I have no idea where we go from there. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Tales from the Christian Madrasas

Now that Mr Gove tells us that we're to look out for Extremists and Fundamentalists in schools, the kind of people who don't teach British Values, I start to wonder which of my teachers I should report to Special Branch. Come to think of it though, they were all white and Christian, which doesn't count. Nor, apparently, do the Market Fundamentalists to whom the government has handed schools. Seriously, people: we've given the education of our schools into the hands of liars, spivs, tax-evaders, low-pay merchants and con-men. Remember Robocop, and the police strike called because public order was being privatised? This is far more worrying. Just wait until your kids learn about slavery in their Corpo-School: "profits must be maximised. Labour costs need to be kept down. They got subsidised food, free accommodation and free travel to America. What's not to like?".

But I digress. Back to my schools. I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Brothers, some lay Catholics in a mixed comprehensive – and educational and social oasis compared to the other places I attended – and by the Benedictines. Segregation? Yes. Violence? Yes, official and unofficial. Sister Rosario wielded a rounders bat which was deployed for such sins as sheltering in the porch from driving rain or having a loose tie. Many years later, I was caned once for allowing a much older group to mess around in the library - they got off scot-free because they played rugby. A library, I should point out, that was subsequently closed and sold off because hey, schools don't need books! (I should confess that a certain English teacher 'dropped' the keys a night before it was stripped bare, allowing me to remove a couple of wheelbarrows-full of select favourites). The vicious nature of the official school regime was, predictably, reproduced unofficially amongst the pupils, who internalised the system's use of random terror to enforce a hierarchy.

Fundamentalism? Certainly. It was accepted that non-Catholics existed, but they weren't discussed. The roots of our religion were not examined, nor were our practices. Things were true (what we did and/or believed) or they were Not True (anything else). Debate was not on the curriculum. At the Benedictine school, I came to believe that my name was Shutup, as that's how I was habitually addressed. Religion was a matter of repetition, not examination or belief, and it informed much more than theological matters. Attitudes towards women, social structures, the kinds of responsibilities we had – or not – to our fellow humans, morality, politics…all filtered through a prism of rigid, undemocratic and unforgiving dogma.

Ah, but the teaching standards were rigorous? I'm afraid not. The Sisters of Mercy couldn't spell. The Christian Brothers helped me achieve 4% in a maths exam, having spent an entire term putting me in detention for refusing to copy out an exercise book neatly before I was allowed another one. The Benedictines divided teaching between wholly unqualified and bitter monks and wholly unqualified lay teachers, many of whom were failing to cope with alcoholism, with two massively inspirational exceptions. You haven't lived until you've witnessed an ex-SAS monk violently attack his colleagues and pupils while in the midst of an alcohol-fuelled crisis. I was made to take a Latin A-level. Despite being the only person in the class, I barely passed, having repeatedly pointed out that I didn't actually know any Latin at all. Whole subjects were passed over in silence: politics, citizenship, and in particular sex education, which consisted of one diagram in one book over the course of 7 years of secondary education.

Were we socially isolated? Yes - as Catholics the whole way, and as a sex except for a short and civilised sojourn in a comprehensive school. The other schools were like poor-quality madrases. Ritual performances formed the mainstay of the educational process, whether that was religious services, violence, sport or humiliation. Rigid hierarchies were encouraged officially and amongst the pupils, with savage punishments for those who couldn't or wouldn't conform (the homosexuals, non-sporty types, readers, ethnic minorities, non-believers). Rules were both cruel and arbitrary, designed seemingly to enforce control rather than ensure safety and development. In particular, I remember being held down by the prefects while the headmaster cut my hair, to which he'd taken exception. This was the day before a university interview. He claimed it was 'too long', despite several of his favourites sporting much longer styles. So I turned up at Cambridge looking like a battered mess. I also had an interview at Derby University. The lovely head of English ended our chat by saying 'We'll definitely take you. You're nothing like your head's reference indicates'. Turns out the vindictive bastard had written that I didn't deserve a place at university at all because I was a lazy troublemaker. I didn't go to Derby but I'll always be grateful. A year later, the school was closed down, amidst scandal aplenty on matters sexual and educational.

The result is that these schools produced two types of people on the whole: triumphant conformists who ruled the roost and broken conformists who got by, or ensured their survival by meting out to others what was meted out to them. None of us were rounded individuals equipped to cope with a world which wasn't structured or simple. No doubt the bullies and conformists found niches in which these skills served them well (such as in politics), but I suspect a lot more struggled outside. We weren't trained to empathise, to care for others, to respect a diversity of views, to argue for what we believed rather than to simply insist on its truth. we were good at put-downs, at excluding the weak and the different. Our world was Manichaean. Simple. Predictable even in the areas which were arbitrary. I – and I suspect many others – were emotionally and intellectually stunted in a variety of ways, and it took many years to adjust to the outside world, to a barely-known family, and to catch up with all the things we could have learned instead of being indoctrinated. I had some advantages - having been to a number of schools, I was used to making my own way, keeping quiet and disappearing at opportune moments, or simply enduring. I found my salvation, too, in books which offered an infinite range of alternatives, but also provided templates for life inside and outside the institutions. And I also had a reserve of bloody-mindedness of my own, from some unknown source. Perhaps I'd internalised the interminable stories of martyrs and resisters and turned it against them, because I found that there were limits to what I'd withstand or witness without intervening, whatever the consequences. I'm still shy and nervous about most things, but I do still have those limits.

Reading back, this is way too self-obsessed, too narcissistic (and these are just the highlights). Apologies for that. But I think there is a wider point just about detectable. My experiences made me a secularist and a socialist. I don't think there's any excuse for monocultural, unsupervised education, whether it's religious, single-sex or class-segregated by class. Such places reinforce social and intellectual isolation. They don't bolster genuinely held beliefs by justifying them: they enforce them. They produce rigid thinkers rather than reflective ones, people incapable of coping with a world that doesn't automatically find room for them. They may well attempt to reproduce the structures of feeling enforced at such schools in their adult lives, with often disastrous consequences for themselves and others.

When I'm dictator for life, there will be no religious schools, no fee-paying schools, no segregated schools. Religious and political indoctrination can be carried on at home if required, and the kids will be able to test such beliefs in the cauldron of a secular, democratic education in which they meet people of all classes, creeds, sexualities and sexes rather than being protected from reality by a damaging wall of separation and suspicion.

I only know one person from my schooldays now, from the comprehensive I briefly attended. We exchange Christmas cards. As to the rest: I occasionally Google staff and students in the fond hope that they're dead or imprisoned. So I guess I'm not entirely recovered yet…

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Mice That Roared

I've been reading Steven Fielding's fascinating book A State of Play: British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It as preparation for my papers and hopefully book on politicians' novels (in the post this week: Mary Agnes Hamilton's Murder in the House of Commons and Folly's Handbook, and Joe Ashton's Grass Roots). It's a great survey of creative media attitudes towards the political process. I'm familiar with the more recent films and TV series, and quite a few of the novels from the 1880s on, but there are plenty of surprises.

One of those surprises is He Snoops to Conquer (excellent title) from 1944. I knew George Formby was politically sound: he refused to play segregated audiences in South Africa. His wife and manager Beryl was great too: When Malan threw them out of the country in 1946 after she hugged a black girl, she told him to 'piss off, you horrible little man'. He Snoops, according to Fielding, is Formby's call for a land fit for heroes, explicitly endorsing Labour's call for a mass house-building programme to counter the machinations of corrupt councillors and house builders. All done with the aid of a banjolele:

George, despite a happy-go-lucky persona that wouldn't get him a screen-test for Chinatown, plays an odd-job man who helps a reporter exposing dodgy dealings by an idle and corrupt local councillor and their mates in corruption. George gets tangled up in all sorts of shenanigans as the old guard fight to retain their privilege, before getting elected as a tribune of the people in the kind of popular uprising that resulted in the 1945 Labour landslide. (The other thing it's notable for is that some of George's songs aren't about voyeurism for a change). Here are the opening few minutes:

I've always liked those British films aimed at the 'provincial and industrial class' as Fielding puts it: Gracie Fields is another favourite, and the Boulting Brothers are also excellent though slightly reactionary film-makers. Fielding mentions Passport to Pimlico which I've loved ever since watching it with my grandmother. It's sweet and funny take on the post-war reconstruction. Annoyed at not getting their fair share, the people of Pimlico discover that they're actually a remnant of the vanished (real) Kingdom of Burgundy, and declare independence. Thus they get to make a lot of jokes at the expense of the technocratic government from a 'little people' perspective - it's the small-c conservatism of a people suspicious of the technocratic and bureaucratic state after the privations of war and rationing.

A few years later came a similar film, The Mouse That Roared starring Peter Sellers ('an hilarious new personality') in multiple roles.

Based on a series of comic political novels, the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick decides that it wants Marshall Aid and a voice in the corridors of power…so it invades New York with a band of archers intending to lose badly and therefore qualify for aid, but instead the 'army' acquires a devastating weapon from the Yanks (who haven't realised they're at war) and ends up dictating a new world order of peace and diplomacy to the major powers. Wish-fulfilment of the most delightful kind until you notice the film's sharp points about realpolitik and Cold War attitudes.

And on that note: time to go. I'm back here again for an Open Day tomorrow, the second weekend in a row I've been at work. Could be worse: it's better than watching Wayne Rooney's angry loser face on TV. Ho hum. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Tory Taliban Taking Over Our Schools

According to Michael Gove, you need a former anti-terrorism spook to sort out the mess in Birmingham's schools. Homophobia is rife. Children are segregated by sex. Respect for other cultures is sorely lacking. Misogyny is the order of the day. Little respect is shown to the lives and beliefs of others. Schools must inculcate 'British values'.

It seems unlikely that Gove is the standard-bearer for multicultural, progressive values. Like most of his Cabinet colleagues, Michael attended a fee-paying school, almost of all which were single-sex. He even complained that there were too many Old Etonians in the Cabinet! At least school drop-out John Major has a leg to stand on.

What did Mickey and his chums learn in their posh single-sex schools? Largely, I suspect, the homophobia, misogyny, chauvinism and social Darwinism they detect in these Birmingham schools. If he really is against segregation, he should be looking very closely at Eton and all the other private schools.

What are these 'British' values he intends to promote? Anyone with half a brain should assume that it's just an empty signifier for stuff the Daily Mail will like (not stuff the Mail will actually do, of course: its owner lives in Wiltshire mansion while claiming to be a French non-dom for tax purposes while the paper is itself owned through a series of Bermudan shell companies). While British right-wingers complacently mutter about 'fair play', decency etc., two-thirds of the world's nations were invaded by Britain at various points, up to the last decade. To them and many of us, Britishness means illegal wars, torture, invasion, occupation, exploitation, the invention of concentration camps (during the Boer War), the industrial murder of political activists, the crushing of native languages (Wales, Scotland, Ireland), the deportation of entire peoples (the Chagossians for a start), UKIP, Jean Charles de Menezes, stop-and-search, cops sleeping with environmentalists to spy on them, zero-hours contracts, a Prime Minister who thinks buying the products of slavery is a matter of consumer choice, slavish devotion to whatever the United States wants at any particular moment, the bullying possession of nuclear missiles, support and weapons for the most disgusting and oppressive governments – apartheid South Africa, Iraq, Pinochet, Saudi Arabia – conscious support for tax havens to stop developing (and developed) countries claiming their rightful share of taxes to fund public services, ATOS, privatisations galore and of course a comfortable bolt-hole for plutocratic dictators, oligarchs and other thieves to hide their billions in.

What a cynical view. Of course, there's another Britain - that of the NHS, the National Trust, poets and Chartists and Tony Benn, the Guardian and allotments, trades unions, political party members, Swampy, cricket, trainspotters, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, Tolpuddle, striking miners, the Poll Tax rebels, eccentrics, Ivor Cutler, Stereolab, Pulp, John Cowper Powys and Mervyn Peake, Peter Tatchell, Shami Chakrabarti, Mary Beard, Gareth Peirce, Edward Carpenter, Dennis Skinner, the Mitfords (well, Jessica anyway) and a whole panoply of square pegs in round holes. The country that sheltered Karl Marx. That's our Britain, in a sense. The difference between them is power. 'Their' Britain is the captured state, used for pursuing the narrow ends of a small elite group. They're an unwieldy coalition, most clearly captured by John Major's evocation of a Britain of:

A country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist.
 This is the Britain he and Gove claim to want: ruralist, monocultural, gentle, conservative with a small c. Sadly the cricket ground is now a car park, the beer is Carling, the suburbs vote UKIP and the old maids (very patronising) get hit by lorries.

The problem is that everything they do subverts the Britain they claim to want. Gove talks about freedom but is now personally in charge of thousands of schools once democratically overseen by elected councillors. He's handed them over to his corporate friends (I genuinely don't understand why parents aren't rioting over their kids' schools being handed over to carpet-makers and creationists hedge funds) and they're being milked dry. Take Sir Greg Martin, of the Durand Academy. As head, he earns £230,000, about £20,000 more than the VC of my university and much, much more than the Prime Minister. This is all taxpayers' money, of course. But that's not all. Clever Sir Greg has another job on the side: he owns GMG Ltd. What do they do? They run the school on a day-by-day basis. That's another £256,000 for paying the rent and doing the typing. No doubt it's a complete coincidence that the headmaster's company got the job and it was all done at arms length: they were subcontracted by London Horizons, a company that, completely coincidentally trades from Durand Academy. Then there's PLMR Ltd, which handles the school's PR needs (I know, I know: a school 'needing' PR): entirely coincidentally, it's owned by one of the governors.

So we have taxpayers' money, handed over by us for the provision of public services, diverted to the profit margins of various sharp spivs, and it's happening all over the country. Whatever these 'British values' are, the actual practice is the commodification of education in a profit-making system. I'm pretty sure some of these Birmingham schools have overstepped the line (I'm an atheist who only ever went to hardline Catholic schools, so I'd ban all religious involvement), but as far as I can see, the only fundamentalist who matters is the extreme right-winger running Britain's schools from his desk. The central tension is the enduring one in the Conservative party: how to persuade small-c conservatives who care about woodland, badgers, jam, church, litter, politeness, public services etc. to vote for a party whose elite wants to sell off forests, schools, the NHS, social work, and literally everything else to multinational corporations. I don't know how they manage it, but they do.

I also think there's a massive stench of racism about this persecution of a small group of schools attended mostly by Muslims. There's no equivalent inquiry into the segregationist, exclusive teachings in creationist Christian schools, the few Jewish schools, the Sikh Free School near me, or the market-fundamentalist Academies. This is dog-whistle politics of the very lowest sort. It tells UKIP and BNP voters that they can come back to the Tories because the party understands that Islam isn't compatible with Britishness, that all radicals have brown skin, that the country's problems are caused by a few bearded terrorists in urban slums who need rooting out. The Enemy Within isn't the Catholics or the miners anymore, but there's always another group ready to fill that role.

It's hard to distinguish between the current government's crew of spivs, thieves, liars and crooks (Andrea Leadsom's finances stink to high heaven) but I think I only really hate Gove and Hunt. The others depress me, but those two just press all my buttons. They don't even pretend to be acting in the public interest any more. They're simply the front men for a great big auction. Gove in particular reminds me of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. In the original graphic novel, the Conservative Party has morphed into a fascist one, named Norsefire, which trades explicitly on Anglo-Saxon Protestant values. It's lead by Adam Sutler. Its logo is a cross, religious and ethnic minorities are crushed, and its slogans include 'England Prevails' and 'Strength Through Purity, Purity Through Faith'.

As Gove continues his crusade against liberals, teachers, Birmingham and brown people, the only difference I can see between him and Sutler is that Gove's capitalist fantasies are much more deep-rooted than this racist culture war. I think he's even more cynical than the genuine fascists: he's prepared to court their votes and throw them some red meat as long as he can continue giving away the state to his elite corporate friends.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Evaluation time…

I'm away tomorrow at a UCAS recruitment day. I don't actually know what that involves because nobody has told me. All I know is that I have to be at Bangor University for 9.30 a.m., presumably wearing clothes, and that the train leaves at 0548, which is no time to be awake. Presentation? Hand out prospectuses? Demonstrate my juggling skills? I have no idea. What an excellent use of my time.

However, I did my BA and MA at Bangor and have friends on the teaching staff there, so I'm going to do whatever my bit is, then have a convivial lunch and do some planning for the next Association for Welsh Writing in English conference. Normally when in Bangor I'd go to the world's greatest record shop to fill several bags with whatever micro-label tat they tell me is good, but in one of the cosmos's most outrageous injustices, Cob Records closed down a year or so ago.

Anyway, I have my appraisal on Wednesday. Thankfully, the students have provided their Module Evaluation responses. Here's a summary.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Who's been eating Dawkins' porridge?

Oh dear. Here we go with another tedious Richard Dawkins controversy.

I haven't read Richard Dawkins' scientific publications, nor have I read his popular books. Like him, I believe in evolution and don't believe in deities. Unlike him, my acceptance of evolution and all that goes with it isn't derived from my own research. By and large I trust the scientific method of hypothesis testing and the institutional structures of academia and publishing to get close to the facts. I'm sure Dawkins' research has been peer-reviewed thoroughly and that's good enough for me. I'm busy.

I haven't read his popular books for a couple of reasons. Firstly, having accepted the basic tenets of what he proposes, I don't feel the need to reinforce my conclusions by reading propaganda to wheel out in the pub when meeting opponents. Secondly, Dawkins appears to have become a victim of a condition I call Celexpertism, in which a person who becomes well-known for a particular set of skills or achievements suddenly believes that they are more than qualified to pronounce – often at tedious length – on everything else. With Dawkins, these pronouncements are usually freighted with the implication that everything else is a subsidiary of his own more important primary interests.

In short, despite my general agreement with him, I find Dawkins to be both a bore and a boor, a man who specialises in deliberately seeking attention by causing offence. He is in fact the Clarkson of popular science. It is, in fact, to be right without actively jeering at the people who are (or you think are) wrong. If he spent more time in a classroom or meetings with managers, he'd get quite a lot of practice.

His latest broadside is against bedtime stories. According to several news outlets such as the Telegraph, Dawkins informed an audience that:
it was ‘pernicious’ to teach children about facts that were ‘statistically improbable’ such as a frog turning into a prince.
“Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?’
“I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway’.

How sad. It just proves that a very clever man doesn't understand children, adults or indeed the entire structure of human discourse. He knows how the pieces fit together, just not how they work. Firstly, 'statistically improbable' events are quite often the important ones. I gather most physicists think there's only been one Big Bang. Many cosmologists think we may be alone in the universe, having been the beneficiaries of an unlikely convergence of conditions. I hope this isn't true by the way: I tend to assume that as TV broadcasts and atmospheric readings reach the neighbours they shake their carapaces in despair and mutter about humans bringing down the neighbourhood. 

Does Dawkins really think that children actively believe in any of the vampires/talking pigs/aliens stuff we read to them, or they read themselves? Or that a child who indulges in fantasies can't also be a sceptic about the things that they observe and experience. Does he in fact sit in front of the TV shouting 'BUT THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN IT'S ALL LIES' when The Wire or Star Trek or Dora The Explorer is on? Amusingly, Dick finds himself entirely in alliance with his Christian fundamentalist enemies: the Puritans closed the theatres and generations of Protestants condemned drama as telling lies. 

What poor Mr Dawkins fails to see is that what makes us human is our need to construct narratives from the materials to hand. Existence is a confusing, plot-free, sometimes lovely sometimes terrible thing. We try to make sense of it just to get by, so we tell ourselves stories. Our brains largely can't deal with the confusion. So we construct metaphors to convey the gist of things. Little Red Riding Hood is an extended metaphor for (depending on which reading you opt for) puberty, male and female sexualities or the structural differences between human civilisation and our animal natures. Difficult concepts to explain in purely scientific terms, but remarkably accessible through narratives and plots. Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man isn't, Richard, about a man who is literally invisible: it's about a man whose skin colour renders him of no account in a white-supremacist society. Battlestar Galactica isn't a documentary: it's a retelling of the Aeneid retold as a way to examine American attitudes post-9/11. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has more to it than a description of a caterpillar who is inordinately hungry. See where I'm going with this Richard? We use metaphor and narrative because it's a profound way to examine key concerns. Some we grow out of individually. Some we grow out of collectively. Others hang around, usefully or not. 

Even science is a series of narratives which provide the 'best fit' for what evidence is to hand - the fact that it's never settled is what makes it so important: the narratives of science undergo constant change as ideas are reconsidered. If science wasn't a story, it would become a rigid, damaging fact - just ask the biologists who suffered under Lysenko's dogma in the USSR. 

Language, too, is not Richard's friend. Structuralism pointed out that words don't have innate fixed meanings but generate them within a constantly changing network, and post-structuralism asserted that meaning is always just out of reach: we accept that language is simply a construct, a story, a metaphor, a convenient shorthand for things we can't quite explain. The very words Dawkins uses to express his hatred of stories betray him. 

Dawkins' arrogance has led him directly to rigid fury. In his furious pursuit of something he thinks is 'truth', he has become Mr Gradgrind. 
'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!' (Hard Times, p. 1)
'You are extremely deficient in your facts. Your acquaintance with figures is very limited. You are altogether backward, and below the mark.' 
'Thank you, sir. I have thought sometimes;' Sissy very timid here; 'that perhaps I tried to learn too much, and that if I had asked to be allowed to try a little less, I might have — ' 'No, Jupe, no,' said Mr. Gradgrind, shaking his head in his profoundest and most eminently practical way. 'No. The course you pursued, you pursued according to the system — the system — and there is no more to be said about it. I can only suppose that the circumstances of your early life were too unfavourable to the development of your reasoning powers, and that we began too late. Still, as I have said already, I am disappointed.' (1.14.11-15)
Poor Richard. He thinks that once you block up Santa's chimney, mass enlightenment will follow. What a sad, limited worldview, no doubt derived from the cold and brutal boarding school experience he endured, one devoted to 'toughening up' the young gentlemen.

I don't have any children (they keep escaping) but if I did, I'd be telling them a story about an Angry Bear that none of the other animals liked because he wouldn't let them play in the woods.

Update: a kind commenter points out a subsequent Guardian article in which Prof. Dawkins says he's been misquoted, and that he's reconsidered some of his points, so all's well that ends well.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Suit you, sir?

Hi everybody. Apologies for the decline in blogging in case you miss my regular posts (tip: seek help). This is the busiest time of the year: essays and dissertations to mark. Hundreds of them. Good bad and spectacularly weird. This year, because we have a management team that hasn't been near a classroom in several decades, other urgent tasks have been added. With under a week's notice, we've been asked to propose PhD studentships (with a guaranteed job afterwards) and research projects to qualify for workload buyouts. So that's more forms, drafting, circulating, putting together supervisory teams, redrafting etc. ad infinitum. Even when they hit on a good idea, this place manages to screw it up by imposing arbitrary and ill-timed deadlines.

Even more inconveniently – especially to the deceased – I had a funeral to attend today. Jean was a stalwart of the nursing profession, one of those nurses who not only saved the lives of those for whom she cared, but brightened the lives of everybody she met, despite having a considerable amount of heartbreak thanks to losing her son David when he was only 28. The church was packed beyond capacity and the familiar cliché about celebrating a life rather than mourning a loss was for once entirely true. After five years of cancer's ravages, peace was what she wanted.

So here I am in the office at 7.30 in the evening, wearing my best suit and ready to mark some Shakespeare essays. Perhaps the professional garb will up my game. Despite the kind words of a French Philosophy colleague I bumped into, I am a living reproach to the tailor's art. However expensive and lovely the clothes (today I'm wearing Church Oxfords and an Aquascutum black 3-button suit with a Turnbull and Asser shirt), I always look like I acquired my wardrobe by robbing a clothes bank. In the dark.

Tomorrow I'll be wearing my regulation DMs, cords, v-neck jumper as though Belle and Sebastian never went away. I used to laugh at my boss, who told me he decided at 16 that he'd wear the same clothes for the rest of his life rather than worry about it (shirt, tie, jersey, blue blazer) and stuck to it. I've accidentally done the same thing - virtually everything I wear in public can be seen in the publicity shots for Blur's seminal Modern Life is Rubbish. (Though I don't agree that modern life is rubbish, by the way).

Clothes are difficult: teaching means being exposing yourself to the judgement of hundreds of people for whom clothes are important, whether it's students or the other Governors (and it's much harder for women, who are wrongly judged on appearance even more). I don't want to dress like them. I don't want to distance myself with a suit. It's important, I think, to convey to them that what we're interested in is the life of the mind rather than appearances. I tend to aim for utter anonymity. No extremes of style, nothing figure-hugging, muted colours, no artificial materials and no labels (I would make an exception for old band shirts but none of them fit anymore). If I find a good article with a label, I'll unpick it. If in doubt, I think of my colleague who turns up in patchwork clown trousers: nobody cares because he's a genius. My old philosophy tutor took a different approach: brown shoes, brown socks, brown suit, brown jersey, brown shirt, brown tie and brown hair. Accesorised with a brown Gladstone bag. Fully committed to brown, that man.

However… the older and fatter I get, the more I wish I could afford the kind of tailoring that conceals the more grotesque aspects of my ravaged carcass. I have one of my dad's suits from the early 70s. I don't know how much he was paid, but it's a work of art. Dark grey wool three piece, felted lapels, working cuff buttons, horn buttons, ticket pocket, tailor-made for him in Dublin. When I reached the same age he was when he had it made, it fitted like it was made for me. These days I couldn't get my fat fingers into the arm-holes (whereas he's lost so much weight he probably could wear it again) and there's no way on earth that I could afford a bespoke suit of the same quality. I did once get a tailored suit from one of those companies that measures people up in hotel rooms (this is not a euphemism). Though I paid extra for pure wool, I definitely didn't get it, and despite it being bespoke, it looks like I borrowed it from someone of entirely different proportions, and always did.

Ho hum. Back to the marking.