Tuesday 9 September 2014

Don't read this. It's mainly boasting.

Afternoon all. The sun's shining and I've had an unusually wonderful few days, so I thought I'd indulge in a little light gloating.

It all started on Thursday. My colleague and I headed off to London (eventually) to present a paper at the Politics of Doctor Who conference organised by the indefatigable Prof Danny Nicol at the University of Westminster. Our hotel was in Walthamstow, East 17, which reminded me of my younger sisters' taste in 90s music. After that, a night drinking fine Samuel Smith ales on Shaftesbury Avenue, then off to the conference in the morning. I was stunned by the international nature of the event - lots of speakers from US, Australia and Germany – and by their eminence: lawyers and others with strings of books to their names and all cheerfully proud of our Who knowledge. It was really multi-disciplinary too. The Germans from Chemnitz Technical University drew parallels between Who stories and the NSA, social scientists did content analysis work (months of painstaking event logging), lawyers examined questions such as whether the Doctor is a war criminal and whether the assistants can sue him for distress and injury (yes he is and yes they can, but he can also sue the TARDIS for negligently taking them to dangerous places, as it's sentient). One paper looked at parallels between Doctor Who and HG Wells, while others examined the fluid gender politics of the various series. My paper used Foucault's theories of power relations to examine the dystopian mirror universes of Doctor Who 'Inferno' and Star Trek 'Mirror, mirror' (ensuring that I beat the other nerds hands down) to suggest that the idealised prime universes (near-future Britain and the Federation) might actually be more subtly oppressive than the abjected evil mirror universes, and that the British and American shows have a rather different politics. Who is pragmatic, flexible and believes in muddling through, while Trek deals in moral absolutes even if it means avoiding resolution in the end. It was enormous fun, and I think people liked what we said, especially when we introduced them to the Beard of Evil. I blogged a summary a few days ago.

I guess what held us together was the shared understanding that popular culture is important from a supply and a demand perspective. Popular drama matters because they're platforms for the expression of aesthetic, ideological and cultural perspectives and reach people in ways that formal non-fictional genres don't. From the reception side, I think that anything millions of people consume – and the very complex and multiple ways in which they consume them and incorporate them into their lives – is by definition important. That's why I happily promote media studies in the teeth of snobbish opposition. If you want to know what the majority of a society cares about, you don't examine the avant-garde: you examine the soap operas, news broadcasts and prime-time TV shows.

So that was massively enjoyable and interesting. How could we top that? Well, by going to Hammersmith's gorgeous deco Apollo to see Kate Bush perform, her first live shows since 1979 when I was four (and hadn't heard of her). I've only known her music very well for a few years, but couldn't miss these shows. In our lifetimes, I guess they're the equivalent of Elvis's Vegas years, except that Bush isn't washed-up creatively and physically. I wasn't disappointed. Her voice is strong, dark and rich. The high notes are still there, but they've lost the piercing quality that may have put off people in songs like 'Wuthering Heights' all those years ago. The show is split into two - The Ninth Wave which is the second side (that dates me) of Hounds of Love, and 'And Endless Sky of Honey' from Aerial, a much later album. I love both LPs very much, but preferred the staging of 'The Ninth Wave' - slightly less sentimentality about her son, and a darker tone (and no puppets). Whatever the differences, this was more than a gig, more than a list of songs: it was art. The staging was inventive and mesmerising, always daring if not always successful.

The crowd I could have done without. A standing ovation every time they recognised a song starting, and obsessive cheering and applauding Bush's son came close to sycophancy. As her chat between songs was completely drowned out every time, I wondered if everyone was too fixated on being part of the event that they'd forgotten who was actually the creative one. Credit to everyone for accepting Bush's request not to film or photograph the show though: I didn't see a single glowing screen.

Though I had a few reservations about individual artistic decisions, the event was important because it so confidently raised the artistic bar. Bush takes risks because she believes her music, acting and dance form a coherent mode of expression which deserves respect, and she's right. It'll be hard to go back to see bands which just run through a set-list and hope they land a lucrative advert. The tickets were hugely expensive, but you could see that every penny had gone into planning, designing, building, rehearsing, lighting, choreography and thinking. Other bands have staged spectacular events – such as U2's supposedly subversive Zoo TV and Popmart tours, which simply demonstrated that they'd grown too big for their tax-avoiding globe-trotting boots, and that their grasp of irony was superficial at best. Bush's worked because she's more intelligent and more sophisticated than anyone else in her field.

How to top presenting on Doctor Who and seeing Kate Bush on the same day? Spending the rest of the weekend in good company. A trip to Tate Modern, an afternoon catching up with more distant friends, one of the best meals of my life in a dilapidated, deserted Indian social club, and finally a trip to the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow. After that, it was back to work, where the first job was to give the encomium at a graduation ceremony to Olympic athlete Denise Lewis, to whom we awarded an honorary doctorate. I'd seen her in action before at the UK School Games: she's down-to-earth, funny and kind, as well as inspirational to our students. She even laughed at my reference to her second place in Strictly Come Dancing, which was generous of her.

Today I've been meeting the new Graduate Teaching Assistants, a new training post for the next generation of academics: I'll be mentoring them. I'm slightly scared: they're all very very clever and much more advanced than I was at their age. I shall have to crush their optimism and energy before they turn their powers against me. Otherwise, I have visions of Logan's Run, and I don't mean the naked Jenny Agutter scene.

Tomorrow it's back to more graduation ceremonies, back in the gown and hat. This time it's for my own students, so I'll be applauding (mostly fondly) as some familiar and some inexplicably unfamiliar) faces appear on stage. If I'm feeling really satirical I'll bring along all the uncollected essays from their years here. I've done it before…

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