Friday, 31 July 2015

Reading recommendations

If you're as old-fashioned as me and read actual newspapers at weekends, you'll know that the culture sections devote huge amounts of space to holiday reading recommendations by fashionable or dependable authors. It's often an opportunity for them to show off their superior intellects ('…but you have to read it in the original medieval Armenian to fully appreciate her genius'), to reward those who've reviewed them kindly, or to support writers with the same agent or publisher. If you're AS Byatt of course, you see it as another opportunity to pursue the sisterly rivalry which has so entertained the literary world for the past fifty years or so ('I may spend ten minutes noting the most egregious errors in my sister's latest so-called novel').

So in the same spirit (though sadly lacking a publisher), I'm picking my holiday reads as I'm off next week. Two weeks in south-western Ireland. Hopefully some cycling, swimming in the Atlantic, climbing some mountains and the world-famous Puck Fair. It will, naturally, rain incessantly. I tend to read the Irish Times and the Guardian every day, and leaf through the Cork Irish Examiner, but that still leaves me with plenty of reading time.

It's tempting to bring these two volumes, which I came across yesterday while unpacking another box of books. I also own a surprising number of works by Stalin and Lenin, despite not seeing myself as that kind of authoritarian lefty.

Marxist-Leninist Philosophy (illustrated edition), Progress Publishing, 1987

A typical illustration from Marxist-Leninist Philosophy. They aren't all so eye-catching.

Early Lithographed Books. Sadly 'improper books' are not what you might think

One such improper book. 

Instead, this year I'm skewing the list towards Irish work. The only hardback I'm taking is Anne Enright's The Green Road: coming from an Irish family which is spread across the globe and has been known to fall out occasionally (hem hem hem), it seems fitting. Also Irish but from a different era and culture, I'll read Maria Edgeworth's 1801 Belinda: I'm a bit of a fan and am trying to read all her novels. Early editions feature the first interracial marriages in English-language literature: her racist father prevailed upon Edgeworth to remove them from subsequent editions. I'm also taking Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void, a comedy set in the world of banking during the crash. I shall stand outside the IFSC and try to raise a grudging laugh. As it's almost the centenary of the Easter Rising, I shall pay tribute to my ancestor Thomas who was in the GPO that week (taking part, not trapped while buying stamps) by reading Foster's Vivid Faces, his cultural history of the revolutionary generation. It will also help me with my current journal article about Brinsley MacNamara's scandalous The Valley of the Squinting Windows and Caradoc Evans's My People. I also take at least one old theory favourite: this year's choice is Foucault's The History of Sexuality volume one. To fuel my 1930s interests, I'm taking Margery Allingham's 1936 Campion novel, Flowers for the Judge. I read all the Wimsey novels recently, and gathered that Campion was Allingham's riposte to Sayers' creation, so thought I'd give her another go. I read The Tiger in the Smoke a few years back and thought it was interesting but very odd. I've no interest in crime at all, but do appreciate the machine-like beauty of a well-written genre piece. It's the same when I read the Jeeves and Wooster novels: the plots are negligible, you always know what's going to happen but the enjoyment is in the unfolding variations on the underlying formula.

What else am I bringing? The latest William Gibson because I like to keep up with his stuff even when I'm not convinced by some of the more self-consciously hipster elements; Le Carré's A Most Wanted Man, Will McIntosh's The Soft Apocalypse because I'm fairly convinced by the argument that the brutal capitalism we keep voting for is rapidly eroding not just the workers' lives but also those of the bourgeoisie or professional classes. As a very mild example, we're currently slated to move into great big call centre-style accommodation rather than shared offices of 3-4 people. Nobody (obviously) has asked us what we think we need or (even more obviously) what we'd like, but I see it as a concrete example of the proletarianisation of what was formerly the professions. Private and permanent space is now a privilege of the hierarchy: the Dean has a (university-owned) Steinway in his office. No doubt his deputies have the luxury of shelving, photos of their kids and all the little things that denote stability. Beyond the obvious stupidity of 12 person rooms for academics (try reading a book, let alone writing one there), and the impossibility of counselling a student, giving a colleague union advice or maintaining a personal library available for consultation when a student calls in, the removal of intimate space really does seem like a power play. In hot-desking situations, the work-space becomes the 19th-century factory floor in which the worker is depersonalised. On my pinboard and surrounding my desk are gifts from colleagues and students, collections of interesting artefacts, multiple piles of books relating to my current research and teaching duties, and a whole range of stuff which are extensions of me.

Without it all, we become interchangeable machines for teaching. We are no longer permanent and valued colleagues, but hands. We cannot reach for something interesting and useful if someone comes in for a chat. I probably won't be there, because without a permanent space and storage, I'll just stay at home when I'm not teaching. I won't be available for impromptu meetings, tutorials and consultations. Work becomes a chore and anything beyond the mechanical becomes a private indulgence to be kept apart from work – all the things that we middle-class people thought signified the value of our labour.

Without wanting to be overly dramatic about this, the hot-desking, call-centre model is essentially a fascist vision. It is fixated on efficiency, which to them means the absence of clutter and total visibility. It means no lounging about talking or reading (this also drives the total removal of books from areas of the library visible from outside) because that doesn't look like working. Their version of our work is people sitting at computers, not speaking to each other, typing. Typing anything.

For any other kind of activity, they should leave. Desks should be clear. Books and papers (the past) should be banished, as should mugs with jokes on them, family photos and all the other detritus of social intercourse. All these things – along with privacy and adequate space – are considered perks rather than necessities, of the kind that come with authority. We're told that these spaces are required for efficiency, but I've never heard of a manager applying these principles to him or herself, because they are important and need private conversations whereas we (the ones students turn to when they're suicidal, sick or about to be evicted or deported) are not and don't. So much for the academy's self-confident assertion of its' own structures: now we ape the corporate world, with depressing results.

What happens when this is done to us?

and there's a way to deal with cubicle farms too:

There's a gap between not having a permanent desk and the final ejection of the middle classes from secure employment, but I don't think it's as huge as you may think. The driving force in contemporary capitalism is to automate as much work as possible, and 'outsource' the rest so that we don't see the conditions in which our products are created, while boosting profits and share prices. The professional classes will join the workers in the bin marked 'no further use' and at some point we'll have to work out what to do with all these surplus people. That's the major failing of western market societies: having brought mass industry to an end, you're left with a large group of people who have nothing to do. Some can become hairdressers, some will serve us coffee, but there aren't enough skilled jobs to fulfil everyone, or to keep an economy going. Personal debt keeps it going to some extent, and Labour extracted just enough from the finance sector to dole out tax credits and a minimum wage, but these are just sticking plasters. The Tories are abandoning the benefits system and reducing corporate taxes so that the state won't be able to provide subsistence for the workless many – and they're in any case proclaiming that these people are unemployed because they're lazy shirkers, not because we've designed an economy based on exploitation wages and job exporting. Maybe we'll muddle on a bit longer but I can't see a good ending to this one.

Damn it. I was going to talk about books.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Labour! Back to the Future with Morris and Kropotkin!

I've largely kept my own counsel about the Labour Party leadership election. It's proving so divisive, and the arguments are so tediously familiar that it's hardly felt worth joining in. I'm a Labour member despite the attractions of more radical, purer and (sometimes) open-minded alternatives to the left such as the Greens, Plaid and various groupuscules. Mostly I'm in because I don't like vanguard parties: those who would far prefer having another purge of ideologically suspect splinter factions than actually make any effort to attain power. Labour, for all its myriad sins, wants to be elected and actually run the country. Also, the SWP is run by a rapist and his rape apologist friends. If any one of the revolutionary parties actually showed any sign of getting a revolution going, I'd be tempted but I strongly suspect that they're actually just fantasists.

So anyway, that leaves us with Labour and its interminable election. The party which encouraged its MPs to 'lend' left-winger Jeremy Corbyn enough nominations to 'widen the debate' beyond the three centre-to-right Oxbridge wonk candidates and whose higher echelons are now screaming blue murder because people listened to the debate and seem to have decided that they rather like what Mr Corbyn has to say. We're not quite at the stage of Dick Tuck's 'The people have spoken, the bastards', but several rival candidates say they wouldn't serve under Corbyn while the newspapers are full of threats to stage a coup against him if he wins. That implies that New Labour hasn't yet grasped the point of democracy yet.

The New Labour argument is that the people are now very rightwing, and if you don't become equally rightwing, you can't be elected. If you think back to the Blair government, the discourse around the poor, minorities, civil liberties etc. seemed to imply that the Masses are small-minded racists who should be pandered to, while simultaneously providing some social support to make up for the determination to become a fully-fledged neoliberal economy.

There's also the – very real – threat of the press. Politicians need the press because there's no way to communicate with the electorate in an unmediated fashion. Yes, there are social media but the research I've read suggests that it's far less important than we might think. The printed press is overwhelmingly Conservative and the BBC long ago adopted the discourse of the right.

So that's the message from Cooper, Burnham, and Kendall. The market has won, the people hate scroungers and foreigners, the state should shrink and shut up. It's the politics of fear, and of failure: they have abandoned any attempt to formulate a set of principles, and to attempt to persuade the electorate of the virtues of said principles.

And then there's Jeremy Corbyn. I read this short profile and found myself nodding. He attended a polytechnic for higher education, a much more common experience than the elevated world of the others. He grew up in the rural provinces – Wiltshire and Shropshire – and moved to London, so he's seen several sides of life. Like me, he's a socialist and a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and opposed the war in Iraq. He opposed apartheid actively and made links with Sinn Féin in an effort to end the war in Northern Ireland, years before it became fashionable. He supports the Palestinians without being an anti-semite. He's a cycling vegetarian who also takes the train, and he likes his stimulants to be of the Fairtrade variety.

In sum, he's everything that Orwell hated about the left back in the 30s, and that the sharp-suited managers of neoliberalism who run Labour abhor. He's that most tedious of things, a true believer. He has principles which alter not when he alteration finds.

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” (Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier)

A few months ago, I suggested that Labour would win if they returned to the optimistic vision of the pre-Labour socialist movements, particularly William Morris. It's been a bloody awful century or so for Labour: always on the back foot, always struggling to protect those battered by the worst depredations of capitalism and global realpolitik (when it bothered, that is). Labour has been so preoccupied with defensive manoeuvres that it forgot to articulate any positive vision: the big ideas have all been from the right, and Labour has, in government, attempted to ameliorate them round the edges.  But if you look back to the late 19th century when London was a hotbed of leftwing debate from Kropotkin to Marx, Crane, Morris and the Socialist League, you see a left that thought the future belonged to the workers, that a new society was possible. They were confident, optimistic and articulate. That their campaign material was beautiful made the point: a socialist future was a beautiful, fulfilling future which was within reach.

Walter Crane
I can't imagine Morris or Crane designing this, for instance:

I'm being told that a vote for Jeremy Corbyn is a vote to make Labour just another purist sect with no interest in governing; that a vote for any of the others is 'serious', a commitment to seizing the reins of power. What I don't see from them is any indication that they know what to do once they get there: they are neoliberal technocrats. I don't know whether they have any beliefs because all I hear from them is tactics. Do they really think the British people are mostly selfish racists, or is it just a tactic? Either way, they depress me.
Walter Crane

I genuinely believe in most of what Jeremy Corbyn stands for. But more importantly, I think he has a value system and a programme which goes beyond triangulating the results of focus groups. I think he – perhaps naively – believes that his fellow citizens are at heart kind and thoughtful, and that if he articulates a clear vision of a better society, they will vote Labour.

Neither I nor, I suspect, Corbyn, is quite the unreconstructed Dictatorship of the Proletariat socialist he's being painted by his Labour or external opponents. We all know that industrial, economic, social and global upheaval means that a movement based on and only obsessed with skilled manual labour has little future. The miners, millworkers and factory hands are largely gone. Their work has mostly been shipped off to dictatorships so that we don't have to think about it. In its place here is a working life of insecurity and invisibility: for now it's the cleaners and call-centre workers who are exploited, bullied and fired without cause. But soon it will be almost all of us. Our jobs are becoming weightless: we work in isolation, on zero-hour contracts. Not just the immigrant cleaners and traffic wardens but the university lecturers, those who care for our old folk and those who grow our food. Being middle class won't help: virtually every job can be automated (check your job via that link). Our climate sickens and dies, but we get cheap flights and cheap clothes (thanks, Indonesian toddlers).

Trained to be individualists and isolated in the way that the factory workers and miners weren't, we've been stripped of the means to resist, but also stripped of the opportunity to formulate positive alternatives: those obsessed with the promise of Big Tech and the 'sharing economy' might like to recall that Google, Apple, Pixar and Co engage in some very Old Economy behaviour: tax avoidance and ganging up to stop its workforce becoming mobile and demanding a fair share of the profits. It is a new world, and forward-thinking socialists must generate new solutions to new problems, new ways to organise, new conceptions of the state and new arguments formulated in collaboration with the people. I think that Corbyn will, whereas I think the other candidates don't even see them as problems at all. The ultra-poor don't vote, so why bother worrying about them?

I'm voting for Corbyn because I think that a point comes where you have to shake off the fear that drives political calculation and express faith in a set of principles. I think people are sick of the petty differences between essentially indistinguishable parties. I would like to elect a leader who thinks that persuading the electorate is his or her job, rather than to assume that its darker impulses are its overriding values. In the end, I'm a democrat. I think that most people, given the chance, want to be kind, supportive, co-operative, peaceful and fair to each other: tendencies despised and rejected by the current political model. All we need is the political space to express those instincts, and I think a Labour Party led by Mr Corbyn could go some way to creating that space. And if I can't vote according to my principles in an internal party election, when can I?

Friday, 17 July 2015

Call for Moominpapers

Posting this for a friend - wish I'd thought of it! I'm basically the departmental Groke. Here's a scene in which the new university managers meet a Moomin:

And this is my response:

I've loved the Moomins for many years. I had a couple of books as a child, but never saw the comic strips or TV series. As a kid, I knew there was something special about the emotional sophistication of these fat herbivores - going back to them later I realised that Jansson had created a nigh-on perfect set of characters through which to explore anything from fascism (the comic strip in which Moominvalley is invaded by bullying exercise fanatics) to depression (take your pick) but which never lectured or moaned: there's at least as much joy at simple things and egalitarian community values as there is worry. 

Call for papers
Moomin collection

The Moomins, created by Tove Jansson, have delighted and enlightened adults and children for generations, and have been translated into several languages. In all, nine books were published , together with five picture books and a comic strip, between 1945 and 1993. The Moomins have since been the basis for numerous television series, films and even a theme park called Moomin World in Naantali, Finland. 

At the centennial anniversary of their creator’s birth, a new film has been released and more of Jansson’s works are now being translated from Swedish into various other languages, including, finally, her work for older readers. This has put the Moomins back on the map, and created a second ‘Moomin boom’, which is, in itself, worthy of analysis. Her works have often been regarded in terms of potential autobiographical readings – an approach perhaps encouraged by Jansson’s much-famed ‘island’ lifestyle – but the time is ripe for revaluations and reconsiderations. This collection therefore seeks to extend the work already done in the field, and to take into consideration as many of the different variations, and incarnations, of the Moomins as it is possible to cover in a book-length study, it aims to have an open focus, and to begin conversations about The Moomins, their roles, impact and influences as children’s characters, and their status as ambassadors of a greener, more bohemian, lifestyle.

I am seeking contributions of 5000 words and envisage that the collection will comprise entries on the books, comic strips, theatre productions, TV series (Soviet & Japanese) and film, and even the theme park. At present I do not have a publisher for this book but will be approaching Palgrave, Bloomsbury et al once I have some more contributors and potential chapter abstracts to submit. Themes might include (but are not limited to):

Ecological elements
Philosophical aspects
Narrative structure
Grief and loss
Legacy (commercialisation)

If you would like to contribute, please send an abstract of not more than 500 words by October 30th 2015 to Dr Nicola Allen at:

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Bye Bye Beeb

Too many depressing things are happening at the moment, though there are bright spots (I refereed 57 straight fights at the Much Wenlock Olympian Games fencing the other day and only made one result-changing cock-up; I turned 40 on Tuesday too) and I can't keep up. Attacks on organised labour, on healthcare, on public service broadcasting, on education… It's like the Tories, with a majority of 12, bought a copy of The Shock Doctrine and are using it as a guidebook. If you haven't read it, it traces how the CIA-supported 1973 fascist coup in Chile gave American monetarist economists (known as the Chicago Boys) the opportunity to try out all their ideas in one go, untrammelled by democracy, debate, human rights, concern for the people or any of those outdated ideas. Capital loved the Cold War: it enabled them to link freedom, democracy and capitalism, when they have no natural connection at all. China's the most successful capitalist nation on earth – because its people are neither free nor democratic.

So that's what's happening in the UK (and Greece, obviously). A government is using a tiny mandate to rush through the privatisation of public services and the abolition of the very concept of the public good (here's the excellent open letter on the marketisation of Higher Education). Here's a short piece I've written for a university magazine, with a few additions and subtractions for this different kind of outlet.

Some years ago, the Daily Telegraph ran a click-bait style piece entitled ‘Five of the Worst BBC3 Programmes’. For the sake of posterity, they picked Coming of Age, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Tittybangbang (‘Awful, all-female sketch show'), Danny Dyer: I Believe in UFOs and Little Miss Jocelyn whose crimes seem to include youth, being female and black.

Some, perhaps all of these shows might be your idea of hell, and no doubt readers also tend to shudder at the thought of a night in front of Snog, Marry, Avoid or Dog Borstal though I would point out that all the shouty smugness can often be a diversionary tactic: those sneaky TV-types are smuggling educational stuff in under the cover of crass rubbish. I used to be quite good at spotting weaselly indoctrination in kids' TV and boycotting shows when I was young: give me Ren and Stimpy over Grange Hill any day. You don't have to like everything on TV: you just don't have the right to demand that anything you don't like should be shut down. 

Anyway, fair enough. Being a white middle-class 40 year-old, Radio 1's current disposition makes me want to cut off my ears rather than endure a second’s more ‘banter’ and self-promotion by one of their interchangeable smug DJs playing bland rubbish. I once listened to nothing but Radio 1. John Peel, Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session, Mark and Lard in the afternoon. The commercial stations didn’t play the kind of thing I liked, and I’m allergic to advertising. As I aged, Radio 1 fulfilled its requirement to cater for a younger demographic, but I still had Radio 3. Well, at least Late Junction: the rest of it has been ruined by market forces. Classic FM has destroyed classical music by its strict policy of only every playing snippets of music that has featured on adverts. Nothing unfamiliar, unhappy or untuneful can be tolerated. If it happened in visual art, our galleries would be full of nothing but dogs playing cards and selfies. Classic FM attracts listeners by giving them soothing background muzak and R3 has largely followed suit, at least in the daytime.

I still have Radio 4 (except for the damned Archers) and sometimes 6Music. My tastes in TV changed too: where once I watched little but science fiction, Westerns and smart-arse American cartoons, I’m became addicted to The Wire (BBC2), Newsnight (BBC2) and New Tricks (BBC1). I shout at the TV and radio quite a lot, because I think that the BBC has a markedly conservative tendency at the moment, but as long as the other half of the population is shouting at it because it’s full of lefties, it’s probably getting things about right.

And now theCulture Secretary wants to strip the BBC back to making programmes that ‘the market’ won’t make. The BBC, he declares, should stop making popular and populist shows that ITV or Channel 5 or (and I suspect this is the major point) Sky could do. The Voice has been mentioned, amongst that plethora of talent shows. What it should do, he thinks, is produce the unprofitable shows that are good for us. No doubt he means wall-to-wall Question Time, Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise gardening programmes, golf, golf, more golf and property speculation shows designed to make us view the panoply of human life solely in monetary terms. He and his friends want coverage of the stuff they like on the BBC, and want everyone else to shut up or pay Sky. They hate the BBC because they think it's run by communists: as far as I can see, it's run by Daily Mail readers. They also hate it because they resent the popular will being embodied in collective non-commercial provision of public goods. It's an example of a largely successful popular institution which reproaches the market by simply existing. Like the NHS it's got to go, because it implies that there is an alternative to the market.

Essentially, the new government wants a BBC which panders solely to the tastes of rich, white, conservative, southern people, especially men. Women, ethnic minorities, Welsh-speakers, homosexuals and liberals should try their luck in the fabled ‘market’. Children too can get lost. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but children’s TV has largely disappeared from the commercial airwaves: hampered by pesky regulations (soon to be abolished, I presume) about not advertising sugary drinks and foods means that there’s no money in it. What little kids’ TV there is tends to be cheap rubbish designed to sell toys. Only the BBC – thanks to its public service broadcasting requirement – provides high-quality children's programming, often with an educational bent. News, too, is under threat: imagine running a report on aircraft safety, for instance, if you depend on Ryanair adverts, or on hidden sugars when you know that Coca-Cola is one of your major clients?

The attack on the BBC is an attack on the idea of universality. You and I might hate every programme on BBC3, but that’s OK: it’s audience might hate everything we watch. We all pay the licence fee (in theory) and part of the public service ethos is that all our needs are served equally. I pay for Dog Borstal and Dog Borstal fans pay for my University Challenge. Viewers of Dog Borstal and University keep paying, and might even watch the other’s types of show. In the brave new world of subscription-funded broadcasting, those with cash will get the programming they want; the rest may as well go for a walk.

John Whittingdale objects to The Voice because he thinks the BBC shouldn’t make shows replicating what the commercial channels are doing. While the rash of talent shows may be annoying, he perhaps forgets that most TV formats are trialled on licence-funded channels, where ratings are slightly less important than quality. What seems tediously familiar now was once innovative. Take Mad Men, for instance. Made by an American commercial station, only BBC2 took a chance on it in the UK. Once it was a critical hit, Sky swooped in to outbid the BBC for later series: the BBC built the audience up, and Sky took the credit (though not the viewers, interestingly). Whittingdale also forgets that popular hits pay for expensive unpopular but important shows. No Top Gear, Sherlock and Doctor Who, selling round the world, no Newsnight or Desert Island Discs. Nor, I would add, any highly trained directors, producers, engineers, actors, editors and sound recordists: the commercial sector is subsidised by the BBC’s world-class training programme.

Infuriating though it often is, the BBC represents the very best of British culture (despite it being Establishment, Unionist, a capitalist shill and all the other things about it I hate). It believes in equality of representation, universality, and that very old-fashioned concept, ‘public service’. Without a broadcaster committed to serving us all uninfluenced by the profit motive or chasing ratings, we are all poorer. 

The same model is being applied to education, by the way.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Pick out mine eye's with a ballad-maker's pen

On Tuesday night I went to Stafford Castle's Shakespeare Festival to see Much Ado About Nothing, performed en plein air. I didn't really know what to expect: anything from am-dram to the Globe, but my boss and I had free tickets because we'd written the notes on the play for the programme. So I bought a load of other tickets for my friends and off we went. We dined on crisps and beer (the vaunted dining experience was inexplicably closed) and hoped for the best.

The best is what we got. The actors all had strong backgrounds in theatre (and, of course, they've all been in Doctors, Holby City and Casualty, the proving grounds for this generation's thespians) – I'd seen several of them in repertory plays at the New Vic theatre in Stoke. The setting was a bit odd: an English garden just after Armistice Day 1918 - flag bunting, delightful upper-class summer clothes or officers' uniforms. A cash-in on the current commemorative feeding frenzy? If so, it was a cheap and easily forgotten gag: the play soon took over. Perhaps, though, the setting had a deeper purpose beyond entertainment. The play starts with the successful end to a war: not many 'gentlemen' dead and of those few, 'none of any name' says the Messenger: Leonato replies that 'a victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers'. I doubt that any 1918 productions would have used a contemporary setting simply because those lines jar so much – perhaps this production is silently commenting on the current elite craze for presenting WW1 as (in the words of one of my War Studies colleagues) 'a triumph'.

Much Ado is a weird play. It's a comedy: you can tell because it finished with a couple of marriages, and there are comedy proles, chiefly Dogberry the Constable, played with relish as a stage-Welshman by actual Welshman Phylip Harries. Shy but romantic Claudio enlists his friend Don Pedro to woo posh, hot Hero for him and in the end it all works out fine. But in the two sub-plots, much nastier things are going on. Ageing Benedick (a bachelor soldier who is as they used to say 'not safe in taxis' with young women and always has a handsome young man around) and Beatrice spend most of the play wittily sparring with each other and declaring that marriage will never happen, leading the youngsters to set them up to fall in love with each other, while moustache-twirling villain Don John pays some low-lifes to fake Hero boffing Borachio the night before her wedding, with her betrothed witnessing it all from outside the window. The wedding ceremony starts and Claudio is as vilely misogynistic as it's possible to be ('Give not this rotten orange to your friend…he knows the heat of a luxurious bed; Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty') breaking off the match. Eventually, to prove her virtue, Hero agrees to have her death announced in an effort to punish Claudio and disprove the accusations against her. Even the comedy characters take sides: sad old Benedick tries to challenge Claudio to a duel in defence of Hero's honour and is cruelly rebuffed with scorn. In the final act, the villains are apprehended, Claudio keeps his word to marry Hero's cousin, sight unseen, as recompense for killing Hero (I know, I know): when the veil is removed, it's really Hero, and all's well that ends well (sorry).

As I said, it's a weird play. The first act or so set it up as a comedy of manners - life returning to sweet jests after a war. The older couple of Benedick and Beatrice are set up as the butt of the humour as well as inevitable lovers, the rude mechanicals (and the toffs actually) come up with quite a lot of surprisingly effective knob gags, but the Don John plot, Claudio's rapid descent into misogynistic hatred and the faked death move it rapidly into the territory of Romeo and Juliet and perhaps more saliently, Othello. Don John is Iago - overlooked by his brother perhaps but motivated more by depression and loneliness, he wrecks Hero's reputation and marriage simply because misery loves company:

I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in
his grace, and it better fits my blood to be
disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob
love from any: in this, though I cannot be said to
be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied
but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with
a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I
have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my
mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do
my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and
seek not to alter me.

Shakespeare's plays are scattered with these jealous poisoners: what's truly dark about Much Ado is the way Claudio responds to this slur on Hero's virtue. That women's reputations depend on their virginity is part of the character of the times – but Claudio responds too quickly with heavily sexualised imagery direct from the dark pool of male suspicions about female sexuality:

you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamper'd animals
That rage in savage sensuality.

Her father's no better: it's a long time before his brother and the friar convince him that further proof is needed. His first thought is of Hero's guilt, and that she'd be better off dead.

Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature's frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar's issue at my gates,
Who smirch'd thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said 'No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins'?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,--why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!

In this context, Benedick's resistance to marriage (to anyone, not just Beatrice) comes to seem truly light-hearted compared to what's in the heart of the aristocratic men around Hero.

So what we really have is a tragedy disguised as a comedy: it's pretty uneven, especially in the last couple of acts as the play lurches between Dogberry, the Benedick and Beatrice flirtation and Hero's fake funeral. What does it all mean? I think the lurching between registers is a social critique. Here we have a post-war society which is dangerously immature. The war's been won without any suffering. Love seems to be a pretty game, and other people pawns in it, hence the way all the toffs decide to force Benedick and Beatrice together. But when the crunch comes, it takes just one malignant individual to set family against each other, to bring out the worst in our handsome young hero, to ruin a good woman's reputation. None of these people are equipped to deal with the deeper emotions. Perhaps this is the reason for the post-1918 setting. The Edwardian toffs in their country homes were simply not prepared for the type of war and post-war society into which they were thrust. The endless summer of what seemed to them a Pax Britannica was over, and finding a new place was proving difficult, to say the least.

The unevenness of the play is what brings this out, I think: light comedy only a few lines away from genuine hatred, grief and horror. The ending works, I think, because the characters agree to stick to the old rules of honour and atonement, but it's a real effort. They don't have the emotional or philosophical resources to deal with what spills out of them when the polite surface is disturbed, and their only solution is to perform the old rituals as though good manners conquers all – a response we see in the poetry and theatre of the Restoration too. Does it work? Well, WW1 was followed by WW2 in short order, and some would say the Holocaust casts its shadow over all literature thereafter.

Apologies if I've ruined a lighthearted night out for you! I'd recommend a trip to see this production: the actors are superb, the setting lovely and the play fascinating. Ignore my over-analysis, have an ice-cream and revel in the verbal sparring.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Slight return

Apologies for the break in service folks. It's been a hell of a couple of weeks: exam boards, marking, a funeral over in Ireland, individual casework for the 19 professors faced with redundancy, meetings with management and so on and so on. Last and (in management's eyes, least), I have an hour-long conference paper to write, for delivery in two days' time. In those two days: long, long department meetings and what's set to be a very confrontational meeting of the board of governors. 

Panic is of course setting in. I'm starting to feel like poor old Doctor Faustus, though at least he had some fun before payback time:

O gentlemen, hear me with patience, and tremble not at my speeches! 
Though my heart pant and quiver to remember that I have been a student here these thirty years,
O, would I had never seen Wittenberg, never read book!
God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it: for
the vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost
eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood:
the date is expired; this is the time, and he will fetch me.
O Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn'd perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.

The appropriate music, of course, is Madder Rose's Panic On. Not that I ever need an excuse to play unjustly-forgotten indie.

See you on the other side of Friday…