Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Reaching the peaks - literally and figuratively

So last week I had an afternoon off and went to London for the launch of the new Norton Shakespeare. It's 3500 pages long and 7.3cm thick (3 inches). In case that's not enough, there's an awful lot more online: more variants, facsimiles, renditions of the various songs). The overall editor is Stephen Greenblatt, the eminence grise of New Historicism, a mode of analysis that I find fascinating though with some reservations. To do extreme violence to its subtlety, it holds that texts should be examined alongside almost any kind of other contemporary texts from shopping lists to diaries, because they'll all feature in some way the cultural and social anxieties which can be found in the texts (even if they're detected through their studied absence).

I'd received a desk inspection copy of the Norton volume and received an invitation, so I decided to go along. I'd be an idiot to miss a lecture by one of the world's greatest living Renaissance scholars. Besides, I could sneak off to the Shard  - that monument to speculative plutocracy - and fulfil my ambition of doing some photography from Europe's highest tower.

Both experiences were fun, but also a bit disappointing. The Shard first, as it doesn't matter in any meaningful way. I'm no architect, but I do think that if I'd built the highest photography spot in Europe, overlooking one of the world's greatest cities, I might just have spent a little extra on non-reflective glass. Just a suggestion. Anyway, I bought a Day and Night ticket for £35, allowing me up the monstrosity in the early afternoon and again at night (Greenblatt was speaking at sunset).

The view is just astonishing - the flat geography of the London region is laid out in front of you and you can see the weather changing from miles away. From this height (much like a tower in Jacksonville, I was informed by a fellow visitor) you can see the city as a system: transport, topography and infrastructure, rather than as a habitat. It was a bit of a dull day so the light wasn't great but the place still looked good. Click these to enlarge, and the rest of the photos are here.

A patch of sun

The open bit at the top of the Shard

Sun over IKEA

Decorative strip reflected on the windows
The Globe Theatre from the Shard

St. Paul's from outside the Globe

Perhaps my favourite picture of all

The night-time shots are a bit clichéd perhaps, but still stunning – mostly for the amount of light pollution.

As to the Greenblatt event, it was fun but a bit of a missed opportunity. Beforehand I had a pint of beer and a piece of cake in the theatre as a Shakespearian homage – I'm sure you'll remember these lines from Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night (apologies for the weird formatting - Blogger won't let me fix it):

Out o' tune, sir: ye lie. Art any more than a
steward? Dost thou think, because thou art
virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Thou'rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink.

Marian, I say! a stoup of wine!

Then it was on to free prosecco surrounded by the most eminent Shakespeareans in the world and their impossibly hip PhD students (all of whom appeared to be auditioning for the role of Fey Quirky Belle and Sebastian LP Cover Star).

I knew I was in trouble when Greenblatt asked for a show of hands from those who had like him edited Shakespeare for publication. A veritable forest went up - I haven't edited so much as a limerick. Anyway, Greenblatt was very funny ('why is my edition 3500 pages long? Because you physically can't make books any bigger') and informative about the volume, as was Gordon McMullan, the other editor present. But what didn't happen was a full-on reflection from his critical perspective of the demands and purposes of editing, or anything like it. 30 minutes between the two and it was back to the fizz. Entertaining enough, but rather more lightweight than I'd expected.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Tax Credits and the Constitution

In case you missed it, the government's plan to cut tax credits (a form of social security payment) to the working poor has attracted some opposition both in other parties and on their own backbenches. Lacking a majority to overturn it in the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats are tabling a 'fatal motion' to reject it in the House of Lords, while the Labour Party is offering a delaying motion in that house.

The Conservative Party is furious. They say there's a constitutional convention that the unelected House of Lords doesn't overturn finance bills, and manifesto commitments. The opposition points out that the tax credit cuts weren't in the manifesto (the Prime Minister even promised they wouldn't happen) and that if the Tories were serious, they'd actually legislate for the cuts rather than use a statutory instrument.

Nevertheless, the Labour Party in particular seems very scared by the Conservative threats to flood the Lords with new Tory peers and take other forms of revenge: the peer tabling the fatal motion has discussed these threats over the last few days.

I don't know what Labour's problem is. The facts are these:

1. The Liberal Democrats tried to get House of Lords reform through when they were in coalition.
2. The Conservative Party blocked it. They wanted the unelected house to carry on as it always has (it's massively bigger than the elected chamber now).
3. Now the Tories are threatening the Lords to stop it doing what it's allowed to do under the rules the Conservatives fought to uphold.

Labour should call their bluff. The Tories opposed constitutional reform and must now face the consequences. They can't moan about having a democratic mandate having fought strenuously to avoid making the Lords have one. If the Tories do stuff the Lords with placemen, hopefully the electorate will start to vote for actual democracy. Or perhaps they won't.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Back to whose future?

It is, they say, Back to the Future 2 Day: the date Marty McFly arrives on from 1985 in the sequel and lots of spoiled millennial are making smart remarks about hoverboards. I have to say that I have a huge soft spot for the films – they're sharply scripted, do odd things in a blockbuster setting (intergenerational incest as a comedy plot driver?) and revel in pop culture without being entirely driven by immediate cultural pressures. And yet because I'm a literary critic here I am about to pull apart the thing I love.

I used to think that the series was entirely progressive. Look, 1955 Hilldale has unsegregated diners! The 1985 Mayor is Goldie Wilson, a black man! The dystopian 2015 Hilldale is a creation of unrestrained capitalism, polluted, dangerous and brutal! 1985 Hilldale is a wreck, caused by Reaganite economics. The Brown mansion has been sold off to developers. While the suburbs are tidy and aspirational and life for their inhabitants revolves around the Mall (formerly a farm) and the golf club, the town is a hollow shell: the park benches are sponsored and occupied by the homeless, the clock on the town hall goes unrepaired, the cinema is now a downbeat fundamentalist mega-church, and local businesses tend towards the porn and pawn variety as you can see in the second half of this clip.

It looks, on the face of it, like an indictment of 1980s America. The solution, however, is a fantasy. 1955 is a fake. The town is neat and clean, the races are starting to respect each other, the businesses are independent and their products All-American.

And yet…the goods the 1985 characters desire are all foreign, from De Loreans to BMWs to that scourge of the environment, the 4x4. In all the films, politics are absent other than in the broadest terms. Social and environmental degradation is the product of individual bad eggs in the form of Biff rather than the collective failure of the people: democracy clearly provides no counterpoint to evil (though as future Biff strongly resembles current Presidential candidate Evil Donald Trump, perhaps Spielberg's right).

Culturally too, the films' weakest point is their strongest dramatic moment: when Marty celebrates his continued existence by leading the band in a rendition of Johnny B. Goode and thus revolutionises music. That's right: the white boy from the future teaches the black band how to play one of the foundational rock and roll songs of (ahem) 1958 by Chuck Berry, not a man who needed white people to show him how to do anything and even steals his moves. Unforgivable and that's not even considering the appalling caricatures that are the 'Libyan terrorists'.

We have a word for this: appropriation. Thus a film which along the way appears to promote racial harmony in its ideal setting actually removes agency from the minority. And let's not even get into the discussion of why the heavy metal improvisation at the end of the song is somehow meant to be a vision of a better, inevitable future…

So is Back to the Future progressive in any sense? We can see what the director likes: old cars, neat town squares, good weather, racial harmony and individual fulfilment within a cohesive community. He doesn't like bullies, pollution or isolation. But looking more closely at what constitutes the ideal society, we find something like a white supremacist, bourgeois idyll in which a yuppie version of the white picket fence American Dream can be achieved if only the one or two bad apples can be defeated. A BMW for dad, an SUV and the girl for the hero, a slim waistline for Mom and Van Halen for all (actually I could live with this last bit). It all starts to look a bit repressive under the surface.

Which all means that I've managed to ruin one of my favourite films for myself. Damn it. Still, as the philosopher said, better a man dissatisfied than a pig, satisfied (eh Dave?).

Monday, 19 October 2015

Hip Tunes for Hep Cats

Happy Monday one and all. There's so much going on between work and the usual dreadful events in the world that I don't feel capable of expressing it all and anyway, you must be bored with me ranting. Instead, how about a musical interlude - a round-up of what I've been enjoying recently?

Firstly, Euros Childs' latest album. He releases a faux-naif solo album every six months or so, always with a hand-written card tucked inside. I've bought everything all the ex-Gorky's Zygotic Mynci personnel have released since they split up. Nothing's quite like the unhinged Welsh teenage psychedelia they specialised in, but nothing they've done has ever been uninteresting. Annoyingly, Euros never tours near me.

Sticking with Welsh psychedelicists, the people behind Ectogram, Parking Non-Stop and various other groups have released what is for them a rather straight-forward album of lovely melodic songs under the name Spectralate.

crocodile tears from Robert Zyborski on Vimeo.

The follically-challenged chap was relentlessly rude to me about my taste in musics twice a week for ten years when I went to Cob Records, but we're great friends now and I have to admit (though you may not agree) that my tastes have if not improved, at least widened.

I've also recently bought the 4CD Bridget St. John album - a 60s/70s folk-rock singer I'd never come across before. She sings like Nick Drake mixed with Nico and the songs are reflective, thoughtful and lovely. Wish I'd come across her work before. The discs include this French live version - delightful to hear an English person speaking passably in another language for a change.

Radio 3 has been making a slight effort to include more female composers recently, which is good. Not because they should play anything by female composers just because, but because there are lots of really excellent ones who've been shamefully overlooked. R3 introduced me to Rachel Clarke's Viola Sonata: I love violas in general and this is a humdinger.

As it happens, I've bought loads of music by female composers recently so here are some of my favourites by Sally Beamish (more viola), Julia Wolfe and Pauline Oliveros (experimental drone accordion - what's not to like?).

I've also bought the latest New Order album, Music Complete partly because I buy everything they do, but partly because something interesting must be going on if they're referencing musique concréte. But I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, mostly because I've been listening obsessively to Gwenno Saunders' Welsh-language SF-inspired solo album, Y Dydd Olaf. She was in the rather lovely English-language band The Pipettes, but this album is entirely different: electronic, political, futuristic and compelling:

Slowcore heroes Low's new album Ones and Sixes hasn't quite grown on me yet - I'm quite an obsessive follower but this one doesn't have quite the impact so far as the albums I think of as their classics: C'Mon, Drums and Guns and I Could Live in Hope. It may be a grower though.

The final album I've been playing an awful lot is one I'm just not sure about. I went to Andris Nelsons' last concert as conductor of the CBSO, which was marked by a premiere of a new piece by Eriks Esenvalds, the Latvian composer. The piece itself isn't out yet but it was interesting enough to persuade me to buy his orchestral work Liepaja Concerto and one of his choral pieces.

The orchestral one is pretty good - quirky European modernism with a Baltic twist, but Northern Lights is troubling me.

It's just too pretty (I love the glasses though). There are heart-stopping moments of beauty but I'm not convinced that that's what contemporary classical music should be doing. It's where the post-minimalists went wrong, and Esenvalds' choral music is at least partly within the Baltic 'mystic minimalism' strand. I can see where it came from: even extreme modernists like Penderecki went from this to this as religion countered the version of communism in which they grew up.  I'm not against beauty per se: we need it, but I do think that modernism in music (and literature) attempted to represent the world as it is – ugly, dissonant, often incomprehensible – rather than as we'd like it to be, and that seriousness requires us to confront what is (not just modernists: hurray from Oliver Cromwell demanding his portrait be painted 'warts and all'). The mystical minimalists (see also non-Baltic Lauridsen and Whitacre and here for a fan's view) moved a musical language on from one which exposed the beauty of structures to one which returned to a form of magical thinking (if I'm not careful I'll start throwing around words like ineffable), or of propaganda, despite often being a pointed response to propaganda.

It's like 21st-century novels which tell a nice neat story about comprehensible coherent characters who overcome challenges to live happily ever after, all within 250 pages. Hard to do with a clear conscience in the midst of decay, decadence, mass murder and environmental degradation. And yet that's what we all (me included) read and listen to most of the time.

Which is all a very long way from Esenvalds, but what I think I'm trying to say is that his choral music is too easy, too comfortable. I know we all need to relax occasionally but I distrust escapism as reactionary. You don't have to be miserable to be serious: lots of humour does it too (I liked Hope: a Tragedy as an example of serious hilarity) but I think my definition of Literature or Culture in general is work which refuses to reinforce the artistic status quo, even if only in small ways. It should unsettle, or nudge your perceptions in some way. Gwenno's Y Dydd Olaf does that musically, lyrically  (for non-Welsh speakers, just by being in Welsh) and politically. While existing in the far reaches of 'high culture', Esenvalds manifestly does not.

And now I'm going to listen to Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power as an antidote.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Back down to earth

Well, I'm back again. Where have you been, I hear absolutely nobody ask? But this is the blogosphere so the existence of a reading public is of no import. What matters is recording things, not reading them…

In actual fact, I've been nowhere. It's just that a combination of freshers' week, the start of teaching, preparing my Cheltenham Literature Festival gig and contracting a particularly debilitating dose of Repetitive Strain Injury means that I've barely had a chance to put sore fingers to keyboard. Even though I'm a cyclist and a fencer, I think it was editing photographs that brought on the inflammation. That and extreme old age and a dissipated, dissolute lifestyle. Some nights I'm out so late I miss The One Show. Crazy times, man, crazy times.

Blessed by a paper-thin pseudonym, I can just about afford to be completely honest about my students, but there's no need for puffery anyway this year: both the returners and the new students are a delight. We had a social event last week which was a huge success: friendly, funny and really enjoyable. Despite my witty colleagues directing students with a burning desire to learn Anglo-Saxon in my direction - a few weeks tuition in 1994 is hardly a qualification. So anyway, institutional 'challenges' notwithstanding, I'm full of optimism about teaching this year. This feeling will last until 5 p.m. on October 19th, which is when the first batch of marking comes in.

The major event was the Cheltenham Festival gig. Back in January I had to go to Swindon for a workshop and pitch day run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, neither of which nouns I had any taste or aptitude for. In the morning we shared our ideas with the other applicants and discussed how to improve them. In the afternoon we sat silently in an anteroom as one by one, we were called to present our big idea to a panel in three minutes. The prize was a slot at the Festival and my pitch was to discuss the history, character and context of the hundreds of politicians' novels, poems and plays which exist. Amazingly, although there are excellent books about politics in novels, nobody's written so much as a journal article about work by politicians. Instead you occasionally get newspaper pieces about why they're all so rubbish. My colleague and I reckon there are some interesting things to say about them, including whether the fact that the vast majority are murder thrillers implies that even politicians have lost faith in the boring, quotidian advance of democracy. Though I must admit that being in the same room as Jeremy Hunt would make me fantasise about murder too.

Somehow I managed to win (it was either my witty and topical jokes about Winston Churchill's novel or their overdeveloped sense of pity) and my writing partner and I were passed over to the Festival people to plan our session. They picked a panel for us (Robbie Millen, Literary Editor of the Times, Michael Dobbs (Tory lord, author of House of Cards) and Anne McElvoy (The Economist and Evening Standard) as the chair.

Come the day and we arrived, as did a charabanc load of friends and family (the cringeworthy highlight of my day was discussing the nipple count in Widdecombe's novels in front of my mother, aunts and young cousin). Our fellow panellists hadn't read any of the politicians' work which gave us at least the upper hand. It was also our first taste of being 'the talent', if only for an hour or two. Sitting in the hospitality tent we observed the way each entrant would pause in the doorway, scan everybody to see if they were worthy of an air-kiss, and pass quickly over those of us deemed insufficiently famous. We sat quite close to Salman Rushdie, which looking back might not have been the safest berth on the ship. Thank heavens the Russians are keeping ISIS and co busy at the moment.

The event went – I think – quite well. Michael Dobbs was as patrician as you'd expect ('you're a very naughty girl' he told my colleague afterwards, which is rather toe-curling), and said many interesting things from the author's point of view. We managed to get some of the serious points in without detracting from the light-hearted tone, and I swallowed the unpleasant partisan jokes I'd lined up. 

In my mind, all Plashing Vole readers dress like this chap

The discussion wasn't quite as heated as this shot implies

The questions from the floor were good and McElvoy was such a good chair - nobody got talked over or ignored. The room was full and I hope they got their £8 worth. Afterwards I went off for tea and chat with my relatives and a few friends, while the coach load from work hit a speakeasy for multiple gins. 

Going back to ordinary lectures today was a struggle. No Salman. No flowers and sound engineers. No applause. Back to reality… And now we have to produce the research. 

Friday, 2 October 2015

Support Your Striking Doctors

Doctors eh? Public school rowdies who spend most of their time fiddling with their bow ties, groping nurses or playing golf. Overpaid, constantly skiving off to do private work, probably Freemasons, rude, uncaring gits.

I should know - my parents are doctors. Some of the stereotypes are true: they have the social skills of a truculent whelk.

Actually, they largely aren't. Last time I spent much time with unrelated doctors they fulfilled another stereotype entirely: they looked like teenagers, which tells you how old I am. More specifically, they looked like well-paid teenagers who'd just caught a taxi from an indie all-nighter to their surgical round. Directional haircuts, pointy shoes, floaty dresses and manicured facial hair (not all on the same person).

Clothes aside, they looked like they'd just tumbled out of a nightclub because they were fashionably dishevelled, by which I mean they looked exhausted, not self-medicated at all. That would never happen. It wasn't even what's privately known as Death Week. They were junior doctors: the skutters of the medical profession. They've got their degrees but need lots and lots of hands on experience with real live (for now) bodies to translate theory into practice. They work insanely long hours on a schedule that would drive the rest of us mad, in conditions that a crane operator or lorry driver wouldn't be permitted for safety reasons, and they don't get paid nearly as much as you might think. Those bow ties and Rolls-Royces come much later.

They do get some extra payment for unsocial hours, outside 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday to Friday, seeing as that's when most of us like to sleep or see our friends and families or just stare vacantly into space without anybody's life depending on us. But now the Secretary of State for Privatising Health (a devotee of homeopathy by the way) has decided that 'normal' hours are 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., Monday to Saturday. A basic pay rise is mooted but there are no details. Lots of doctors doing emergency work will probably get a bit poorer, or more likely follow the massive crowd of medics packing flights to Australia. Lots more just won't go to medical school. Why spend every night with your arm up somebody's bottom for an eventual middle-class salary when you have the grades to go into banking and gamble with everybody's pension for a shedload of cash and no responsibility at all. You still get access to high quality drugs after all.

The juniors may strike soon – not emergency care, but routine activity, for very short periods. I know it's hard to generate much sympathy for a gang which is paid very well by national standards, has never supported the rest of the union movement and has a hotline to those in power (no Health Minister wants an appendectomy from a displeased doctor) but we need to understand that in the new economy, doctors, legal aid lawyers and a whole host of groups who used to think that they were the bourgeoisie and thus rising with the rentier class are actually all workers now. Their jobs – like those of educators and a whole host of others – are being mechanised, downgraded, sold off and casualised by a class obsessed by profit and a reductively-defined notion of efficiency. Like it or not, doctors are becoming as disposable and subject to the whims of the market as factory line workers. Their wages and conditions are to be degraded as much as humanly possible and their professional objections will be dismissed as special pleading. I certainly don't want a tired doctor on a reduced salary wondering how to pay off her £100,000+ student debts without going private or fleeing the country.

We need to support the doctors because if it hasn't already been you, it will be your turn next.