Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The year has closed with a particularly sickening thud.

Well, here I am, in the deserted building on December 23rd. I like it when there's nobody here (this also happens in the depths of summer). I can stock up on stationery, chocolates, whiteboard markers, pornography and alcohol by ransacking my colleagues' desks. The canteen's quiet and I can practice my different handwriting styles ready to fill in a whole load of Module Evaluation Questionnaires.•

Shakespeare finger puppet from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

How's the year been? For me, mixed (as ever). I've been to a record number of funerals, none of which were for people I actually wished dead (the list is available on application: if you suspect you're on it, you probably are), made some good new friends and caught up with old ones.

Culturally, it's been great. I've seen a lot of good plays, most of them at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, a couple at the RSC in Stratford and one at the Globe in London. I also saw Stephen Greenblatt launch his new Shakespeare, which was a little bit disappointing, and did some photography from the top of the Shard.

In music, I was surprisingly smitten by the new Joanna Newsome album, Sally Beamish's Viola Concerto, New Order's 'Music Complete', Bridget St. John, Euros Childs's 'Sweetheart', the Spectralate album 'The Students' Companion', Biber's Rosary Sonatas, Gwen's 'Y Dydd Olaf' (named after an interesting Welsh SF novel), John Lawrence's 'Songs from the Precipice', Meilir's 'Arabella' and was a little disappointed with the latest Low album, although I think they're one of the best bands in the world taking everything they've done into account.

The old album I bought and fell utterly in love with was Young Marble Giants' 'Colossal Youth'. Many thanks to David Byrne for playing that on 6Music one rainy Sunday afternoon. I bought Esenvalds's 'Northern Lights' and was simultaneously entranced by it while getting very suspicious of the easy-listening tendencies associated with 'mystic minimalism'. C Duncan's 'Architect' and Jocelyn Pook's 'Untold Things' also struck a chord with me.

Live, I loved seeing my old friends The Nightingales a few more times: their latest album is also wonderful.The other great gig of the year was Andris Nelsons' last concert as conductor of the CBSO: he's been wonderful and the last concert was just an outpouring of emotion from him, the orchestra and a crowd which knew how lucky it was to have had him for a few years. Another high point was a reading by Liz Berry, the poet.

In terms of books, having moved house 13 months ago I bought and moved around many, many more books than I've read. Shelving them took/is taking more thought than their contents. There a still several boxes taped up and plenty of piles on floors. It turns out that I should have bought a bigger house. Still, I made some shallow aesthetic choices, like shelving all the original Penguins together, which was mentally troubling. Yes, they're a series and a few shelves of orange and white spines looks lovely, but it means separating works by the same author. The same goes for the output of people who wrote poetry and prose. Argh! I've also been moving books around – carrying a backpack stuffed with them from home to work and work to home. Anything 'work' is going to the office, anything 'non-work' is going home, though the borders are porous as my main subject is English literature. Plus there are space issues in both places as my long-suffering office-mates will gladly tell you. I discovered along the way that I own at least six versions of Tristan despite having only done one year of Arthurian studies back in 1994. Paths not taken and all that…

I've read a funny lot of books this year. Going to the Association for Welsh Writing in English conference (which I co-organised this time) meant acquiring a whole new list of must-reads: Nicholas Royle's Veering was particularly interesting, and Andy Webb even persuaded me to go back to Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral. I also got caught up in the Caradoc Evans's centennial, contributing to a BBC Wales documentary in January and presenting a paper at a special conference in January. This meant reading that Irish cause celebre, Brinsley MacNamara's The Valley of the Squinting Windows – which reminds me that I need to write up the paper for publication. If you haven't read it or Evan's My People, you're in for an infuriating treat. Less controversial was Jon Day's Cyclogeography, his compelling memoir of being a bicycle courier. As a fat cyclist who has spent most of this year injured (RSI, Achilles' injury) and not being able to go fencing, cycling or swimming, at least reading his book let me be out on the road vicariously. I also absolutely loved James Hannah's The A to Z of You and Me. I hesitated to read it at first for the same reason I hesitate to say too much about it here: because James is a friend and I worried it wouldn't be up to the standard I expected of him. As it turns out, there was no need for alarm and I think I'd be recommending it to people even if I had no idea who the author was. It will make you laugh and it may well make you cry. The other book that made me roar with laughter – in public – was Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void, his tricksy melding of an Irish banking crash tale with the story of a blocked novelist. The satirical elements are so dark too that they put the non-fictional coverage of Ireland's recession in the shade. Literature seems to have become an Irish colony once again: Anne Enright's The Green Road is brilliant, Eimear McBride told me to read Spill Simmer Falter Wither and she was right. Kevin Barry's Beatlebone is waiting for me, while Thomas Morris's We Don't Know What We're Doing is a stunning collection by a Welsh writer based in Dublin who is also part of the Stinging Fly press, which is a leading light in the new Irish literary revival.

Sadly an awful lot of my reading this year has been rather less enthralling, though interesting in its own way. One of my research projects at the moment is about politicians' writing. I've built a database of (hopefully) all the politicians who've written fiction, poetry or drama – please let me know if you come across any I may have missed: I have only a few in Welsh and none in Irish – and the plan is a couple of journal articles and a book over the next few years. The Times Higher and the Times (the latter behind a paywall) both ran articles about it and my colleague and I won an AHRC-sponsored gig at the Cheltenham Literature Festival which seemed to go down well, but the hard work is only just beginning. Of the several hundred novels, most are parliamentary thrillers, with espionage and murder mysteries coming up behind. There's very little poetry since politics became professionalised, and almost no drama – and virtually no Liberals or Liberal Democrats write. Amongst the working hypotheses at the moment are a sense that thrillers act as the political subconscious of the legislators' class, and that they are bored and disillusioned by quotidian democracy. Norman Tebbit's novel was a particular low point, though Iain Duncan Smith's effort is certainly down there. Boris Johnson's Seventy Two Virgins is (predictably) more fluent but in a sense more disturbing: a comedy about suicide bombers might be expected to be tasteless, but there's a concurrent strand of unconscious racism throughout the text. Over the Christmas break I'll be taking Nadine Dorries, Roy Hattersley and Michael Spicer to bed with me. Now there's a coalition we can all get behind!  I've also been working on contemporary Welsh working-class fiction with my Coleg Cymraeg counterpart Lisa Sheppard - there are some amazing works in both languages appearing at the moment. I've also got plans to force an Alison Bielski revival somehow, and look at David Jones's time in Ireland, which never gets mentioned in the critical work. The other thing I really should do is write something on Jilly Cooper's Riders series: I teach it every year and it goes down consistently well, but there's no critical work on it.

I am looking forward to reading Mary-Anne Constantine's debut novel Star-Shot though. Trying to work my way through the unread orange-and-white Penguins I was pleasantly surprised by Chesterton's oddity The Napoleon of Notting Hill in which a man from that place is unexpectedly made ruler and promptly starts wars simply to manufacture civic pride. That certainly wouldn't happen now… I'm also loving Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, about a simple chap who simple accepts the cruelties and insanities a war-mongering world throws at him, his innocence throwing their megalomania into sharp relief. Wish I'd read it years ago. I've also started reading Margery Allingham's Campion novels - more for my 1930s interest than for the detective format, but they're fascinating, and slightly odd. Terry Pratchett's death was very sad: I've long loved him not just for the angry liberal humanism that shaped his novels, but for his deftness of touch and the love (of life, for people) that spilled from the page. I was pleased that his last novel was a Tiffany Aching one: she's the chalk-bred witch whose strength reminded me so much of PJ Harvey's bleak, wonderful album White Chalk.

In the SF world, I was addicted to Peter Higgins' Wolfhound Century series, set in a strangely altered version of the USSR (and before I forget, it's not SF but is Russia-set: Wiliam Owen Roberts's Petrograd was translated into English from Welsh and is just stunning - Paris is available in Welsh but there's no translation yet). Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake was also a magnificent re-situation of the dying Anglo-Saxon world as a linguistically-alienating dystopia.

Anyway, I'd better stop going on about books - I've read so many good ones this year, and bought so many, many more. It's time to talk about the major event of the year: Labour's defeat and the Tories' election victory. So many feelings, amongst them ones I'm not proud of, such as a flash of misanthropy. Despite having the most reactionary, vile and rightwing press in the world, I hoped the British electorate would see through a government promoting the policies which led to the recession, was openly planning to reward the businesses and classes which caused the crash, and was going to take the opportunity to strip the state of all the social protections and worthy activities a century of neo-democracy has achieved. They didn't. The result taught me several things, amongst them that social media does not reflect the state of the nation, and that I have absolutely no insight into how the Great British Public thinks. As a Labour member, I have no regrets about voting for Ed Miliband to become leader, and I wish he hadn't resigned. In the subsequent election I voted for Jeremy Corbyn because I believe many of the same things he believes. I expected him and his team to be more competent and much more aggressive so I'm disappointed on those aspects, but at least at the next election there can be no doubts or claims that all politicians are the same. It'll be a clear choice between serious socialism and the most vicious neoliberalism, conducted amongst the ruins of the post-1945 settlement. The cynicism and triumphalism we're now seeing reminds me of Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Reports of the Prime Minister partying with Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks once more shows you exactly what they think of us.

First up, of course, is another war. A couple of years ago the Tories were telling anyone who'd listen that Ed Miliband was supporting terrorism by refusing to vote in favour of bombing Bashar Al-Assad. Now Jeremy Corbyn's apparently supporting terrorism by refusing to bomb Assad's enemies. Nobody, apparently, thinks that the British in particular have done plenty of damage to these countries over the past century or so and might usefully engage in a period of quiet contemplation for a while. Instead, we're going to drop democracy from 35,000ft again and buy a whole new generation of holocaust missiles…in the name of peace, British values and Punching Above Our Weight. I'd just like us to stop thinking about the world's problems as reducible to punching people.

Finally: work. I'm enjoying my research. Teaching is absolutely brilliant at the moment: all the year groups are engaged, intelligent and composed of interesting and likeable students. It's a sheer pleasure to walk into a classroom at the moment. On the down side, I'm losing one of the best heads of school we've ever had and I'll miss him a lot. Other aspects aren't so great: Faculty leadership has been unremittingly hostile to the humanities this year and I've had to fight a series of losing – and depressingly personalised – battles over basic things for students and colleagues, and not only in my roles as governor and union representative. There have been times when the good things have been overwhelmed by the bad and going to work has been less than joyful. I could always go somewhere else of course…except that I can't: I can't even get an interview these days.

I'm sure that there's plenty more to mention, but I'm tired and I need to go home and do some ironing. Enjoy your Christmas wherever and whoever you are, and I'll be back in January. As always, thanks to friends, colleagues, loved ones, readers and Twitter interlocutors for a) knowing so much and b) knowing the right thing to say.

•Note to Jo Johnson: this is satire. It never happens. All Higher Education metrics are entirely legitimate and statistically sound – just like the claims you made about teaching standards. Nobody would dream of questioning them. In point of fact I once received an MEQ which read simply 'nice arse'. Which was (once) true but wasn't particularly salient. But it's still better than the one my friend got in LA: 'fuck off back to Britain you Limey bitch'.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars and Me

There is no Star Wars and me really. Coming from a large rural family which viewed VCRs as an instrument of the devil, being inside and warm as sinful, and growing up before multi-channel TV, opportunities to see the films were very limited (in other childhood woe, we queued to see ET for hours until my dad got bored and made us go home, so I didn't see that until I was in my 20s). A few of my friends had Star Wars toys but I was always a reader and with six kids in the house, our toys tended to be more generic anyway. I did become a devotee of Star Trek however: being primarily a decades-old TV series it was cheap to air and easier to schedule. I gather that Trek is somehow seen as less cool than Star Wars but that's OK: as well as being enjoyably camp in some ways it introduced me to concepts such as human rights, discussion about intervention, just wars and all sorts of philosophical discussions. Given the time in which it was made and the space afforded by multiple series in episodic form on TV rather than cinema, it was always going to have the political edge over a few films which had to compete for the movie-goers' buck. Perhaps that's why the Trek films were less successful: they tried to recreate the intelligence and depth of the series rather than adapting to the demands of the blockbuster. I tend to see Star Trek as mainstream America painfully wrestling with its imperial conscience in a time of simultaneous paranoia and optimism: you can see these upstanding semi-military types coming to terms with the hippy movement for example, or moving from a pro-Vietnam War (A Private Little War) stance to an anti-War one (The Omega Glory), and its construction of the Federation Utopia is very revealing. Perhaps that's why I've written about Trek and Doctor Who rather than Star Wars.

A Private Little War: Kirk agrees to supply weapons to maintain the balance of power
The Omega Glory: a civilisation ruined by ceaseless pursuit of ideological battles

By contrast, I always saw Star Wars as a product of late-1970s American wounded imperialism. The first film appeared in 1977- not long after the deep wound of losing the Vietnam War and only a year after the Bicentennial Independence celebrations, it seems to this partially-informed commentator that it was an attempt to recreate the feeling that the American people were the freedom-loving rebels rather than the Evil Empire (to nick Reagan's later appropriation of the movies' terminology): apart from Vietnam and the middle East as usual, the US spent the 70s and 80s aiding the torture and murder of thousands in military dictatorships across South America. Like Jaws which came out not long before, the movies tried to imply that decent American values were being threatened by implacable evil, but I imagine that any Vietcong seeing Star Wars would have cheered on the Rebel Alliance. Mind you, perhaps Lucas was quietly critiquing US foreign policy: after all, it was 'a long long time ago' that the Americans were the freedom fighters against the evil British Empire. There is another interpretation available which might chime with our times more easily: Luke as the naive young man from a desert plant looking for any kind of adventure, when along comes a robed gent and a good line in mystical patter about destiny who recruits him to their band of religiously-inspired terrorists…

The first Star Wars movie I saw was The Phantom Menace, having been dragged along from Bangor to Rhyl one very rainy day (one of the worst places on earth) by obsessive fans desperate to see the latest instalment in their beloved series. Despite being adults, some of them appeared to still own various bits of plastic tat that they'd carted around since their toddler years and were transported back to their childhoods by the prospect of seeing an actual new instalment. Perhaps this infantilisation explains why we went to McDonald's on the way to stuff our faces with baby food.

Snobbery aside, it was one of the worst cinematic experiences of my life. Lacking any emotional investment in its universe, I saw a nonsensical plot, objectionable characters and facile attitudes, all rendered on a computer to look no more sophisticated than the PC game I was then playing obsessively, Civilization II. It was so awful that I couldn't even bring myself to tease my heartbroken friends. We emerged from the fleapit cinema into the cold and damp, and just stood there in silence until someone stammered out a few disappointed words. They weren't even angry, just shocked by the lazy, cynical, greedy appropriation of a world they thought belonged to them as much as to George Lucas.

After that, I didn't make any effort to watch the originals, despite everyone telling me they're 'so much better except for the one with the Ewoks'. I've caught large chunks of them while idly flicking through the multi-channel hell, and I think I've watched all of the middle one now, but my main exposure is through catching the Family Guy parodies, which at least give me an insight into the devotion people have for the originals. That doesn't seem to have changed. My boss went to a midnight screening last night, and another friend saw it at 9 a.m. this morning. the phenomenon is fascinating and demonstrates some of the arguments cultural studies and reception studies thinkers have been having for decades. I can imagine Adorno and the Frankfurt School dismissing Star Wars and most Hollywood products as machine-generated propaganda, social and cultural disinformation pumped into the cortexes of passive victims. However, my friends are happy to dismiss the elements of the films they don't like: 'that's just George Lucas, ignore those bits' they say, and no doubt they'll discount the Disney influence in the new ones, demonstrating Barthes's point about the Death of the Author. With a text this widescreen and an audience so huge and intelligent, the author's intentions and concerns are set aside in favour of the individual audience member's interpretations and the emotional personal contexts they bring to the experience. In that sense, it doesn't really matter whether the films are any good in cinematic terms, because they serve a whole range of uses beyond that.

Which is all a complicated way of saying that I should stop being such a snob and wish my Star Wars-loving friends a good weekend in the endless queues.

Friday, 11 December 2015

I Come Not To Praise Boris, But To Bury Him

A while ago I read a children's novel from the height of Empire called Behind the Mountains by Wray Hunt, a Victorian/Edwardian novelist who turned out yards of this stuff: imperialist, patriotic tales of derring-do by upstanding young white chaps. In this novel, the setting is the borderlands between Afghanistan and India (as was) and our heroes are two English teenagers whose aeroplane has been downed because the gentle but unreliable Hindu servant has forgotten to fuel it properly, marooning them amongst the 'hook-nosed savage' Muslim Afghans. The rest of the plot is as you'd expect: our heroes outthink and outfight their racial inferiors in a range of adventures and win through in the end. Huzzah for White Chaps and the Empire on which the sun never sets (this was 1930).

Having read it as an historical curiosity which captured perfectly the imperialist mindset at its most bumptious, I set it aside and thought of it again very rarely. And then in the course of my research into politicians' creative writing, I read Boris Johnson's 2004 comic thriller about suicide bombers, Seventy-Two Virgins. The tone and much of the language is very much that of Behind the Mountains, and I strongly suspect that it's the kind of stuff on which Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was raised. You can spot the Muslims (and therefore the bad guys, and gal) by their 'hook noses' and 'dark brown eyes', phrases which recur throughout the book. They are both evil and stupid, while their personalities are formed of the simplest stuff, despite Country Life describing Johnson as 'brilliant at characterisation'. What motivates jihad? It is never their 'official' cause, be that Palestine or Islam. It is…'something to do with sex, or at least with self-esteem'.

It's an interesting novel at least. It features as one of the heroes a bumbling young bicycling Tory MP called Roger Barlow who exists in a state of marital conflict who worries that the tabloids are about to expose him. Some terrorists, one of whom is radicalised in Wolverhampton as the consequence of his illegitimacy (conceived by a Jewish kerb-crawler looking for 'a bit of black' and a prostitute), his adoption by awful petty-bourgeois yam-yams (Boris spent a short time working on Wolverhampton's Express and Star newspaper and fondly imagines he knows the place and its dialect) and general inadequacy, take the US President hostage in Westminster Hall as he addresses the assembled great and good.  

There are farcical elements, but it's largely a manoeuvre designed to promote the argument that people who believe very strongly in anything are brittle and dangerous, whereas bumbling anti-ideological Toryism of the kind Roger espouses is far more humane than either what he calls 'Islamofascism' or even American Neoconservatism. For most of the novel the Americans are viewed as trigger-happy blowhards in need of softening by common-sense Brits, though the hereditary and elected ruling classes are presented as etiolated, tired and inadequate: they need a bit of Yank Resolve to stiffen them up. However, by the end the reader is encouraged to choose sides in a stark fashion. Faced with the prospect of Terrorist Victory, even the French Ambassador makes a stirring speech in which he explains that despite the US being an Empire, it's not evil and the French embrace of McDonald's demonstrates that underneath we know they're the good guys. It's a bit like the end of Team America: World Police without the ideological complexity (not entirely SFW by the way).

Along the way Johnson has predictable pops at the usual suspects: Nigerians are oversexed traffic wardens of royal origins whose relatives make their money from online scams; builders are all illegal immigrants, journalists are shifty, the BBC is cynical, lefty and massively overstaffed, while parliamentary democracy is an exhausted talking shop. The police are lazy and thick, while the paramedic service is obsessed with 'elf and safety' to save anyone. The voters are awful whining provincials with terrible taste, while all protestors are unwashed hate-filled arseholes without an ounce of true principle in them. Multiculturalism is damned as a failure, while mass higher education is a 'Stalinist' exercise populated entirely by smarmy male tweed-and-cord-wearing intellectual snobs (OK, guilty as charged) and the Welsh language is a 'weird creole' (one of the hilarious aspects is that one of the bombers attends Llangollen University under a false identity and becomes known as Jones the Bomb). The lesson I think we can draw from all this is that Boris always kicks downwards. His mission is to make the powerful comprehensible to right-thinking people, while laughing at the brown, the regional, the bourgeois, the principled and the disenfranchised.

Is it well-written? Unfolding the action over four hours is fairly effective, though there are some pointless interventions including a scene of Henry VIII playing real tennis in Westminster Hall, but on the whole it's not much cop. He drops in the occasional literary reference such as a line of Marvell's poetry, but he's not capable of characterisation despite occasional efforts: Roger's glamorous neocon American assistant refers to 'hunnish practices' and invokes Molesworth which seem rather too English public-school for her. There's also a sub-plot which is explicitly stolen from PG Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters: the secret of Roger's tabloid shame is not that he's betrayed his wife (the novel is a Boris fantasy, remember) but that he has invested in a lingerie shop called Eulalie's which it transpires is a front for a brothel. Compare this with the Wodehouse novel in which the fascist leader of the Blackshorts Roderick Spode is cut down to size by Wooster threatening to reveal that he is the co-owner of a lingerie emporium called…Eulalie's!

It's a deliberate reference rather than plagiarism, but it's indicative of Johnson's primary obsession. While there's plenty of discussion about liberalism versus ideological rigidity and the exhaustion of the political classes, what Seventy Two Virgins comes down to is a tale of masculine crisis. The terrorist's hatred of the West is sexual fear and inadequacy: "chippy, pathetic, pretentious, envious Islamic nutcase…vote for America". Roger tells them. The British are barely or not at all heterosexual, which is why they're so useless. The Americans are over-sexed and it leads to their single-minded pursuit of violent solutions to everything. Tellingly, when Roger Barlow survives the hostage scenario he promises that he will reform his life and become a better man. What this means is slightly underwhelming. He will resist win his Oedipal battle with his toddler son. He will see off the 'vicious wheedling' ethnic journalist woman. He will 'clean up the puddles on the bathroom floor…make stuff to eat…and perhaps…roll up [his] sleeves and wear some gay pinafore'. What a sacrifice! There are, it seems, no positive decisions he can make: his perfect man is one who picks up his own towels.

For a novel which promotes itself as transgressive - a comedy about suicide bombers in which the President of the USA is taken hostage in Parliament – Seventy Two Virgins is quite a failure. There are two many points at which Boris pulls back. Nobody swears beyond 'bloody', for instance, and women are absolutely not allowed to commit acts of violence, even to save the day. Despite his gibes about useless politicians, Boris won't even allow himself the joy of demolishing Parliament: instead he arranges it so that the suicide bomber explodes in the toilets, 5kg of high explosive 'Jackson Pollocking' his 'blood and brains' over the Gents' but doing 'remarkably little damage'. 

In the end, Seventy Two Virgins is little more than the sniggering of a little boy who is still thrilled by 'down there', despite the occasional glimpse of a political idea. He feels that 'muddling through' is better than being a fanatic, but that when the chips are down, American might should be trusted and respected. But it's basically about willies. However, in a week during which Boris Johnson is widely praised for countering Donald Trump's rubbish about Muslims, his novel suggests that our own oddly-coiffured joke politician has some disturbing impulses in that direction of his own.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

If in doubt, bomb something? Or, What A Difference A Year Makes…

Way back in February 2011, Vogue ran a grovelling interview and photoshoot of Asma Al-Assad entitled A Rose in the Desert, which went out of its way to praise her 'wildly democratic' family and enlightened views (as well as her exquisite taste in designer clothes), pausing only to gently chide her country for not being as secular as Vogue might like (Vogue has a theological position: who knew?) while describing the murderous regime's state as 'the safest in the middle east'.

The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement—a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: “I was, like. . . .”

The article has – amazingly – vanished without trace from that magazine's history (insert gag about make-up remover), but you can read a summary here and the whole thing here. Astonishingly, it turns out that a PR agency was paid lots of money to arrange the Vogue article. And there was me thinking that we could at least rely on the fashion press to uphold basic journalistic standards of integrity and incorruptibility…I'm not sure I can take many more of these disappointments.

The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship.” “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”

Well, I guess you could say that she achieved her goal: one way or another, millions of young compatriots are very actively engaged, often at the point of a gun. Things didn't work out quite so well for Asma and her husband Bashar. As well as being the other half of a seriously well-dressed woman, he was hereditary President of Syria, and for various complicated reasons connected with trying to look vaguely in favour of the Arab Spring at least when it turned on our enemies, the West decided to support the various rebel groups calling for (it appeared) freedom and democracy. Supporters of the aforesaid fighters for freedom and democracy included utopian, freedom-loving countries such as Saudi Arabia, so there was no doubt at all that this was a principled war of liberation. Anyway, it was about time for another little war in the area. Those countries have had it too easy for too long and besides, the West has spent a lot of money on desert camouflage in recent decades and we need to get full use out of it. Alright, some of those bearded Johnnies in the queue for guns and cash sounded a bit earnest about the old prayers-and-beheadings, but it was nothing that couldn't be sorted out by placating them with planeloads of hard currency and heavy weaponry. And in any case, we'd lined up Turkey and those lovely Kurds to help out. We know they've had their differences now and then but that nice Mr Erdogan could be relied on to do the decent thing in a tight spot, rather than take the chance to fix an election, murder his own Kurds and bomb the blazes out of our Syrian Kurdish pals. Couldn't he?

So there we were in August 2013, all set for another spot of dictator-biffing, having triumphantly brought about a soporific peace from Afghanistan to Iraq, when those damned conchie traitors in the Labour Party and their allies in the Conservatives conspired to vote against the government's plan to bomb Syria. Hard words were bandied around about Mr Miliband. 'Playing politics'. 'Giving succour' to a brutal dictator. Paddy Ashdown said he was 'sad' and 'a little ashamed' by Parliament's decision not to bomb Assad's forces.

And yet today, we have another chance. Parliament is voting today whether or not to bomb Syria. Hard words are once more being applied to the leader of the Labour Party. For opposing the bombing, Mr Cameron described Jeremy Corbyn (and any doubtful Conservatives by implication) as 'terrorist-sympathising'. That's right: bombing Assad's enemies now isn't giving succour to a dictator, while opposing Assad is 'terrorist sympathising'. What a difference a year or two makes…

There's one crucial difference: this time we're going to be bombing the rebels in support of Bashar Al-Assad's regime. That's right, the brutal one that uses chemical weapons, barrel bombs and torture on its freedom-loving people. Mr Cameron and his friends have suddenly discovered – only a few decades late – that not all the enemies of Western-backed dictatorships are members of the WI or the Liberal Democrats. Coming around very late to the policies of vultures like Henry Kissinger and Henry Jackson, he's decided that we're actually in favour of brutally repressive dictatorships because they keep the lid on millenarian fundamentalists who take the weapons we give them and use them on the streets of our capitals.

It's all rather Orwellian. In the space of two years the same Prime Minister has gone from wanting to bomb Assad to support the rebels, to wanting to bomb the rebels in support of Assad. The Russian role has moved from being reckless interventionism to principled foresight, and the Turks' genocidal treatment of the Kurds has quietly been forgotten about (this, at least, is continuity cynicism). In 1984, George Orwell wrote of the condition of unending war conducted between the great power blocs. I don't think he meant it literally, but history has a funny sense of humour and 'we have always been at war with Eastasia' has come true. In the novel, enemies become allies and allies become enemies over the course of Hate Week: the two years its taken to turn Assad from enemy to friend and Isis and co from friend to enemy isn't much less shocking. While we're at it, here's another ironic snipped from 1984 which you may find thought-provoking.
If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate. It is therefore realized on all sides that however ofter Persia, or Egypt, or Java, or Ceylon may change hands, the main frontiers must never be crossed by anything except bombs.
 So here we are. Multiple murders in Belgium, Paris and less recently the UK have contributed to the feeling that we must Do Something. Or as Steve Bell put it:

Obviously I have it easy: I'm not my MP, wondering how to vote this time, nor a minister or security official. It's tempting, surveying recent history, to put my head in my hands and reply to 'what would you do?' with 'I wouldn't start from here'. It's the telescoped nature of this volte-face that really gets to me: two years from 'brutal dictator who must go' to 'essential bulwark against terrorism'. 

However, that's a more philosophical perspective. What about the 'something must be done' argument? Those in favour of bombing say that attacking ISIS isn't like the meaningless 'war on terror' because ISIS is effectively a state: it has territory, supply lines, administrators, an economy and so on.  I don't really buy it. For starters, Afghanistan is a country of sorts, and allied pacification seemed to involve an awful lot of bombing wedding parties, cattle-herders and other 'collateral damage' alongside driving out the Taliban. ISIS territory is packed with captive populations who didn't meet the requirements for genocide (i.e. being in a different ethnic and sectarian category to ISIS) but who aren't supporters. I saw the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon explaining that British weapons can actually distinguish between terrrorists and innocent people and RAF bombing hasn't killed a single Iraqi civilian over the past years campaign and just wanted to weep at the cynicism fuelling that kind of blatant untruth. Let's not forget that the British police couldn't distinguish from a Brazilian man who was late for work and an Islamic terrorist with a bomb from a couple of yards away, let alone from 35000 feet or 3000 miles away.

I think the argument that bombing ISIS is a good plan fails for the obvious reason demonstrated by Iraq and Afghanistan – that repressing enemies requires long-term occupation alongside nation-building of a kind that we certainly haven't mastered – but also because the Brussels bombings can't be stopped by crushing head office. While ISIS has an administration in Raqqa and no doubt helps operatives commit crimes across the globe, defeating it in Syria/Iraq doesn't defeat the ideas and techniques which lead to bombings on the street. I tend to agree with the argument that ISIS is eagerly awaiting the drones and bombers. It will confirm to its supporters everywhere that they're fighting the war they want to fight: one to the death between its own religious purists and the West/Christians/enemies of its version of Islam. Bombing ISIS will simply encourage more disaffected people in the miserable slums to which they've been confined that an existential and theological confrontation is to be welcomed, and the result will be more, not fewer, atrocities. While not every bomber will be familiar with the very specific doctrines ISIS espouse, they will concur with the argument that the answer applied by the West to every outrage is to bomb brown people. 

I would take a different, perhaps harder tack. I would separate dealing with violence at home from global politics. Rather than bombing Syrians for the crimes of Belgians, French and British people, and tacitly elevating the perpetrators to the status of combatants, I would relentlessly pursue them through the criminal law. Very very sadly (I'm not sure yet) I'd be tempted to do nothing about ISIS where it is. We've tried bombing people into peace, freedom and democracy, and it hasn't worked. We've a long and shameful history of supporting brutal torture states: Israel and Egypt are only the most recent examples of the West deciding that stability is more important than human rights, so perhaps ISIS should be the next beneficiary of this familiar rejection of universal values. The problem here, though, is that al-Sisi wants to be left alone to murder his opponents while Netanyahu will be satisfied with crushing the Palestinians and taking their lands: they have specific, limited aims, whereas ISIS is expansionist, fuelled by the theological drive to impose their version of religion on everyone. Much like capitalism, actually. 

So in the end, I don't have an answer and don't know what to do. But I do know that bombing for the sake of it is no answer either. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

So you #standwithparis…?

One of the interesting things about social media is that it's so emotionally open. Anyone can turn up, express a depth of emotion – positive, negative, baffled – which will be echoed widely, with no entry or exit costs. It's become a means of easily identifying oneself with a cause or stance without consequences.

For instance, here's the Twitter avatar of a company called Accusoft, whose promoted tweet turned up on my timeline a day or so after the attacks in Paris.

I forget quite which one it was, but here are a couple more. Their avatar remains a tricolour with their corporate logo stamped on top (the symbolism is quite clear to me, but not perhaps to them), but the action of feeding promoted tweets into a timeline shortly after a mass murder, complete with appropriated flag didn't convey solidarity to me: it conveyed the opportunist appropriation of grief to sell products. 

Here's one of their tweets which purports to be a little more reflective, but it's so bland as to be meaningless, and immediately subverted by the stream reverting to promotional stock-photography type:

Does this really mean anything? Is it simply a PR office telling the boss that they need to look caring? Will it encourage these corporations to start paying taxes to improve security (yes, that is a trick question)?

However, this isn't one of my normal anti-corporate rants. These organisations are lazy and cynical, but so are an awful lot of people, many of them friends of mine. Try a search for #IStandWith on Twitter and you'll get tens of thousands of examples, ranging from people 'standing with' rescued dogs to the city of Paris. Many of them are good caring people expressing themselves in public as best they can. Here's a selection (which all appeared together just like this) ranging from the helpful to the banal to the sinister.

Once we've agreed that these sentiments are honestly and deeply felt, we have to ask whether they're any more meaningful than Accusoft's appropriation of grief. In short: are there consequences to 'standing with' anything or anyone? The point of 'standing with' is, as far as I can tell, to associate oneself with the oppressed and sharing their struggle. The image I have in my head is of civil rights activists joining Rosa Parks or the school children being bussed in Alabama, and sharing the beatings and abused meted out by the police. I'm also reminded of the late Simon Hoggart's political maxim that any speech which proclaims the speaker's unwavering devotion to motherhood, apple pie, happy children, clouds or freedom is just so much humbug because it's impossible to imagine anyone seriously opposing such things.

Because social media allows us to publicly endorse popular opinions without consequences, 'standing with' becomes little more than a form of smug self-indulgence. ISIS is unlikely to be keeping a list of people who stand with Paris, whereas Rosa Parks was arrested and her friends harassed and beaten. People: stop metaphorically #standingwith things. All you'll get is the emotional reinforcement of your personally-curated echo chamber, the lowest common denominator of community empathy rather than any meaningful form of political or emotional engagement. The same thing can be said for #jesuiswhatever and the other variations: they are in Baudrillardian terms simulations of unity without meaningful symbolic exchange. It's like going to a rugby match and shouting in pain when a player is tackled. I don't mean that those expressing the sentiment aren't genuinely pained by what's happened to our fellow human beings: I am horrified and moved too. But that's not quite the same as claiming to 'stand with' those who were directly or indirectly affected. It is in fact a denial of the reality of their suffering by inserting one's own distanced feelings into the situation by loudly and publicly associating oneself with an unjustifiable claim to be a participant. If I were a Parisian, or a loved one of the deceased, I'd be revolted by the armchair bravery of those claiming to be standing with me from behind their keyboard.

Yes I know this sounds harsh and unempathetic and dismissive of other peoples' feelings, but I do think that the facility by which these memes circulate promotes the sense that we've done something by expressing the shallowest sentiments. Life is hard and complicated and requires complicated responses, not emotional spasms.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Literary Deathmatch: Jilly Cooper v BS Johnson

I went off to a sixth form college yesterday to run a 'taster session', designed to enthuse some teenagers about a) taking an English degree and b) taking an English degree at The Hegemon. I got the gig mostly because I briefly attended said college and I have a certificate proving I'm not a danger to young people…at least not in the narrowly legalistic sense the law means it. But no doubt the Prevent strategy plus the increasingly conservative discourse surrounding academia these days means that before long I'll be kept in a box.

The conundrum at these events is how to avoid doing a sales pitch, while organising a session which is meaningful and engaging despite the students being complete strangers and without having had the opportunity to send them something to read in advance (I may be dumb, but I'm not naïve). This time I hit upon the hoary old idea of doing the High/Low Culture face-off which might be familiar enough to seasoned HE academics but may be relatively new to A-level students, with some added stuff nicked from Cultural Studies.

So I brought along two books:

The first is of course self-explanatory, though I took along an even trashier edition without the faux-classy typography. The second is BS Johnson's The Unfortunates, a novel-in-a-box. The first and final chapters are fixed in place, but all the other pages are loose and you're meant to read them in any order. The students were quite impressed with this, and we discussed at length whether a reader would or should try to impose order or plot to 'make sense' of it, or whether she should abandon linearity entirely and surrender to the random flow of impressions. This led to the question of whether literary fiction like this is a rebellious philosophical blow against the conservatism of realism and familiar modes of fiction which encourage us to think of art and life as having purpose, meaning and trajectories, or whether it's a clever male intellectual game. We looked at the book as an object, the author's name (why BS and not Bryan Stanley?) and the rest of the metatextual artefacts that declare it Literature rather than just a novel. 

Then we looked at Riders. As with the Johnson, nobody had heard of it, but they all knew what kind of novel it was from the cover alone. So we talked about design again, and where these books were meant to be read (bedroom, sites of transit – hence 'airport novel'), and even the pagination and typography. They discussed whether texts like this were reactionary old tosh designed to maintain the status quo (the novel works very hard to ensure the reader fears and distrusts lesbians and academics, and especially lesbian academics) or whether it's as radical as The Unfortunates…after all, a 900 page novel aimed at a female readership requires that she sets aside the domestic and work duties which might interrupt sustained engagement. Is it a feminist act to run a bath, light some candles, lock the door and plunge into a massive book even if that book is explicitly anti-feminist? 

So that led into a discussion of the supposed masculinity of certain areas of human experience such as philosophy and classical music composition, and what happens to women who produce such work, and the class became a discussion of Life, the Universe and Everything - hugely enjoyable. Whether it will result in any students opting to spend the next three years in my company, I'm not entirely sure. But at least they spent an hour considering the political implications of pubic shaving in Riders. If that doesn't contribute to employability, nothing will. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A weekend of culture in Stoke on Trent.

Needing a few days of proper culture, I spent the weekend in Stoke-on-Trent, where Culture is never hard to find, despite what some of you London/New York/Paris inhabitants might mutter into your flat whites. If you don't believe me, here's visual proof.

On Friday, I went to the New Victoria Theatre for Northern Broadsides' in-the-round production of A Winter's Tale, that trickiest of Shakespeare comedies. It's a hard one to perform because it feels like two plays rammed together. In one story, the jealous king suspects his virtuous wife of infidelity with his best friend, so he orders his new-born daughter to be left outside to die and his friend King Polixenes to be poisoned. His wife dies of horror in prison, and his other son dies too. It's all very Othello - claustrophobic and vicious.

Then in subsequent acts set 16 years later, we have a lot of rustic songs, yokel humour and lusty gags as we watch unpoisoned Polixenes spy on his son, who is wooing a gorgeous peasant girl. It's all good fun until the boy tells his disguised father that he's going to marry the girl whatever Daddy might say. They have to flee…back to jealous Leontes's kingdom. It soon transpires that not only is the buxom wench his supposedly dead daughter, but his wife Hermione is alive and well: she'd only 'swooned' all those years ago. Now Leontes feels bad about killing his family and has suffered enough, he gets them all back, marriages are arranged and they all live happily ever after. So as I say, structurally a bit lumpy, but they made it work magically at the New Vic. Look out for it on tour.

The next day, I took a wander around the British Ceramics Biennial, which displays the very best in art pottery to trendy cosmopolitan types slumming it in The North. It's held in the rotting carcass of the Spode pottery works, soon to be transformed into something or other as part of the endless regeneration efforts to which the city is regularly subjected. Some years the ceramics on view are astonishing, sometimes they're banal or irrelevant. This year they were a very mixed bunch. But I took some photos of the venue and a few of the more interesting elements. Click on these to enlarge or see the whole lot here.

Molten clay churning in a bowl

The crockery vending machine, with a stone in the bottom to make sure your choice is properly smashed. I liked this one a lot.

Afterwards, I wandered over to the Minton Centre, a high Victorian piece of municipal beneficence. Building on the local Athenaeum Club which provided a library and museum, the Centre added a free library, baths and other civic amenities for the public, funded by the local pottery owners and decorated to display the best of the city's skills. Over the years its function changed – the basement became a canteen for Minton's workers at one point – before the council abandoned it, then sold it for £128,000(!) to a private investor who hasn't quite decided what to do with it but is well-disposed to the place. I've always wanted to see inside, and this was the first chance ever. 

It was fascinating. The old canteen was decorated with tiles from various Minton ranges designed to Improve the Mind: Biblical, Shakespearian, Tennyson's Arthurian Idylls of the King and Spirit of the Flowers scenes (as you'll see, the flowers are all topless women: those Victorians) and the Rustic Humours series, most of which are seriously rare (and valuable) now. More of them here. Many of the external reliefs have been wrecked by acid rain, while the internal decoration has suffered too - some of the tiles even have drill holes through them, having been hidden under layers of wallpaper for decades.
The Minton Centre

Free Libraries


The tiles uncovered in the old potters' canteen

A selection of commercial china makers' marks

The state of Stoke's cultural heritage 
Ignorance, from the Rustic Humours series

The slightly disturbing pixies series

The Frog Prince from the fairy stories series

Water Lily. Your interpretations are entirely your own problem

Isolt (Isolde, Yseult etc.) from the Arthurian Idylls of the King series

La Morte d'Arthur

A young Joseph Chamberlain - an early piece of political memorabilia

It turned into an expensive afternoon: I bought six beautiful and interesting books for £1.20, then dropped my camera, breaking my 50mm lens. Argh. Still, it meant I could in all good conscience but the f/1.4 lens to replace the f/1.8…