Monday, 19 December 2016

Well that escalated quickly…

Last year's end-of-term report seems so sweetly naive now. There I was in a deserted office (just like today, only it's a different building), reflecting on the excellent books and albums I'd bought, and the research I was thinking of doing. The only dark spots were the multiple funerals I'd attended and Labour's then-shocking defeat in the general election. And Syria…

This year? 2015 looked like a warm-up for 2016. And 2016 looks like a warm-up for 1938. Bigots and billionaires – usually the same people – running the UK, the US, Russia and lots of other places. Electorates the world over are looking to atavistic con-men to save them, despite these con-men largely being the causes of said misery. Generosity of spirit seems in short supply and the Cult of the Great Leader is recruiting, from the White House to Vice-Chancellors' offices across the world.

Trump reminded me of the late and very much unlamented Senator Bilbo, a man rather less endearing than the fictional character you first thought of. A few days ago Trump asked a rally to applaud the black voters who stayed at home on election day: Bilbo – a Senator and two-term Mississippi governor – appealed to
“every red-blooded Anglo-Saxon man in Mississippi to resort to any means to keep hundreds of Negroes from the polls in the July 2 primary. And if you don’t know what that means, you are just not up to your persuasive measures.”
Here's the Claibornes' song about Bilbo's campaign to prevent immigration. He particularly hated Catholics, black people and Jews) and tried to get 12 million black Americans deported to Liberia, taking advantage of Marcus Garvey's black separatism.

The main difference between Bilbo and Trump is that Bilbo had a long track record of (evil) service to his state and country: Trump's such a lazy autocrat that he has no such record. Like Trump, Bilbo was seen as dishonest and underhand: the Senate passed a resolution stating that he was:
unfit to sit with honest, upright men in a respectable legislative body
Bilbo was as thin-skinned as Trump too: on becoming Lieutenant-Governor he had the resolution stricken from the record.

So that's the USA. For a lot of complex – and not very complex – reasons they voted against the gradual and controlled triumph of financialised capitalism, drone warfare and rentier economics (don't forget that Hillary was 'proud' to serve on the board of Wal-Mart) and for demagoguery, racism, corruption and vicious self-interest. Over in the UK, the Great British Public voted against the aforesaid financialised capitalism, drone warfare and rentier economics and for demagoguery, racism, corruption and vicious, but deluded, self-interest. Only Brexit came without the laughs associated with the Trump campaign. Instead it was a grey and seedy return to the small-minded suspicion of the 1950s, wrapped up in an awful lot of sick-making hypocrisy about British values and now loyalty oaths, not seen since McCarthy or 1930s Germany. One assumes that Mr Javid will not be requiring his former colleagues to solemnly swear to pay corporate taxes.

In the plus column: I've been to Iceland, and met Liz Morrish, Richard Hall, Kate Bowles and her daughter Clem in the flesh. I read some good books and listened to some good music.

Hmm…the scales don't seem very balanced. It might be that the individualist pleasures of friends, books and music don't entirely outweigh the collective misery of a glob gripped by hatred and suspicion, but I get the sense that it's what most of us will do: retreat into a cosy cave in the hope that the storm passes rather than get out there to do something about it. When faced with climate denial, racism, economic hostage-taking, Syria and all the other evils abroad today it's much easier to treat power like the weather and behave as though there's nothing to be done other than wait it out. Sadly, I suspect that it doesn't work like this. If we don't get out there with our social/cultural/political sandbags, we're going to sink beneath the waves.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, 9 December 2016

At the revels

This week I have mostly been going to cultural stuff. And watching my friends and colleagues marking essays. As I'm on a sabbatical (cough cough) this is the first time since 2000 that I haven't had any. I miss the teaching, but marking? Not so much.

So last week it was a Beethoven and John Adams concert at Symphony Hall: the Leonore Overture was pretty enough (yes, I know this sounds terrible), the Violin Concerto was stunning – particularly good cadenza – and Adams's Harmonium was utterly wonderful - it draws on poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson to thrilling, gutsy effect. It's just a shame that the audience is reduced by a half whenever a living composer appears on the bill. The version below is from the 1980 CBSO performance under Simon Rattle. It was also lovely to see the James Ehnes, the Beethoven soloist sitting near us for the Adams half of the concert. That doesn't happen often.

I've also been to see a two-hander of Pride and Prejudice which worked wonderfully, went to the cinema for I, Daniel Blake which reduced me and everybody else there to tears (though we all enjoyed one character's devotion to Stoke City's Charlie Adam), and saw Pixies last night. Sometimes I worry about bands over the creative hill flogging the old favourites, but Pixies were utterly ferocious. The famous songs weren't reverently reproduced identically to the recorded versions, and new songs fitted well. The gig finished with their Krautrock b-side (considerably toughened up) 'Into the White' being delivered into a hall filled with blinding white smoke, which looked and sounded amazing, and also annoyed the ghastly folk who view gigs through their mobile phones. Which was a bonus.

Change of tone for the next couple of gigs: Oxford this weekend to hear my sister sing with the City of Oxford choir, including the modern masterpiece that is Lauridsen's 'O Magnum Mysterium', then on Tuesday it's back to Brum for the Tallis Scholars' Renaissance Christmas, which also features a contemporary piece, amazingly.

It's not all fun though - several Annual General Meetings and the like to get through first… Oh, and tonight's the very last All Hands On Decks, where failed or wannabe DJs get to torture the general public with 10 minutes of their musty vinyl. Not sure what I'll play tonight but it's bound to be something far removed from the soulful and groovy stuff everyone else likes. Why is it the last one? Perhaps because – like Mary Bennet – I have delighted them long enough.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

No laughing matter

I just got an email from the Birmingham branch of the Glee Club, a chain of comedy venues.

Something didn't look quite right. Can you work out what it is?

OK so far?

Starting to twig?

I think a theme is starting to emerge. But let's read on. 

Yes, there's definitely something that links these performers. Are there any more? There are!

It's on the tip of my tongue… What could it possibly be?

It's coming to me. I'm almost there. One last push.

By George! I've got it!

Male comedians listed by Birmingham Glee Club in the six months from December 2016 to May 2017: 25
Female comedians listed by Birmingham Glee Club in the six months from December 2016 to May 2017: 4.
Male headline or solo acts listed by Birmingham Glee Club in the six months from December 2016 to May 2017: 18
Female headline or solo acts listed by Birmingham Glee Club in the six months from December 2016 to May 2017: 0.
Pictures of male comedians: 19.
Pictures of female comedians: 0.

Now, what are the possible explanations for this?
1. Women aren't funny.
2. They were all busy for half a year.
3. All female comedians have collectively decided that Birmingham is shit and they're never coming back.
4. The inhabitants of Birmingham are so sexist that the Glee Club is actually protecting women by not booking them.
5. Female comics hibernate for six months of the year. Do NOT open their cardboard boxes too early.

I did ask the Glee Club about this. They got a tad defensive.

Firstly: I'm no comedy expert. They have a professional team which looks for talented comics to book and that team has managed not to book any women. They have managed to book six women this year: not, to my mind, an astonishing number. They also said that they'll be announcing more acts…which makes it sound like women have to fit in the gaps left once the men have been booked. Or perhaps it's that they have booked women but didn't think it worth mentioning.

Finally, here's what happens if you unsubscribe from their mailing list.

That's right. It's not them. It's you. Or your nasty, stupid friends. You can't really want to opt out of their list. That would be incomprehensible. You heartless brute!

PS. As @MrSimonWood points out, the excuses are similar to those made in academia:

Friday, 25 November 2016

Something to chew on (you smug gits).

This week has mostly been dominated – at the risk of sounding like the egregious Martin Amis – by my teeth. I'm part way through a dental restructuring exercise which feels more like the medical equivalent of slum clearance. Extractions here, fillings there, and lots of very equivocal promises of a bright future from my dentist (who has very kindly suspended the associated programme of Reproachful Shaming).

Until this week it was fine – even the extraction didn't call for any painkillers once the anaesthetic wore off. Until Tuesday, when a simple filling led to a night of uncontrolled shrieking and sobbing. The pain far outweighed that of the various broken bones and sporting injuries I've had. It still hurts. At one point during that eternal stretch of delirium I found myself recalling the Fredric Jameson I'd been reading earlier. In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act he talks about texts being apparently isolated units while actually functioning as examples of wider social struggles and contradictions, however subjective they appear to be ('a symbolic enactment of the social within the formal and the aesthetic'). Angela Carter makes a related point in the introduction to The Sadeian Woman, speaking specifically of sex:
We do not go to bed in simple pairs: even if we choose not to refer to them, we still drag there with us the cultural impedimenta of our social class, our parents’ lives, our bank balances, our sexual and emotional expectations, our unique biographies – all the bits and pieces of our unique existences.
(Next year I'll be adding the word 'discuss' and setting it as an essay question).

I think it's true to say that the violent encounter between me, my dentist and his assistant is also no simple triangle. We've exchanged details of our working lives, our neighbours, our relationships and on the relationship between the body and the self and whether repair or improvement is a meaningful concept. As I lie there my parents are around me: being medical doctors, I got the sense that they considered dentists to be mere mechanics, on a par with surgeons. I also curse them for never making me look after my teeth as a child, leading me to this humiliating, painful and incredibly expensive situation. My bank balance, therefore, is present: without a secure middle-class job I'd be in even more pain, and so the encounter is also a political one, going back to the abolition of universal free NHS dentistry so that the British could have the atom bomb. I can't say there are 'sexual…expectations' but the dentist and the nurse are now on a very short list of people allowed to stick things in my mouth. My presence at the dentist's and my previous long absence from it, and the way I behave while there are not simple facts but narratives of deluded self-sufficiency, denial, power relations, Catholic notions of suffering, sacrifice ('offer it up') and guilt, fear caused by previous encounters, sorrow and anger (I liked my previous dentist and he retired early through illness, and then the practice was taken over by some disgusting corporation). No doubt the nurse and the brute dentist have similar narratives which resulted in their presence in the room.

Then, finally, are all the cultural associations I've picked up around dentistry: the horror of Marathon Man, the appalling Oedipal-dental sub-plot of the insulting adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the gleaming perfection of Hollywood teeth in in the mouths of actors playing Dickensian urchins or destitute medieval peasants, a practice I've long considered represents a deliberate subversion of realist pretensions, and of course the Simpsons.

Do I, should I, aspire to Richard Briersesque levels of gnasher hyperreality? Should I make myself super-human via implants, veneers and bleach and embrace the full Kurzweil? Or should I accept pain, gaps, gumminess and the inability to eat hazelnuts as a corporeal reminder of impending mortality and my rapidly declining usefulness to the tribe? No teeth, bad eyes, failing legs: all signs it's time I was for the sabre-toothed tiger while the young and hale make their escapes.

Still, there's nothing like overthinking to take your mind of the agony. See you next week.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Spam, spam, egg and chips…

Who am I? According to my spam folder for Nov 10th-15th I am:
  • a heterosexual woman unsatisfied by her boyfriend's small penis
  • a lonely heterosexual man
  • Fat
  • the laziest of academics
  • unobservant when it comes to how major corporations' names are spelled
  • greedy
  • about to be a millionaire
  • cold
  • sick
  • American
  • bored
  • a Labour member
  • uneducated
  • a future Captain of Industry
  • hobbled by obsolete IT
  • a small business owner
  • low in confidence
  • missing some parcels
  • quite racist in a creepily sexualised way
  • bald
  • paranoid
but capitalism will save me.

Here's the found poem of the spam list. 

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If you're "Curvy" this will change your sex life
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RE: Dear Account Owner,
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Slumming it with the historians

This is my last comment on the US election for now. Though I'm sure I'll get sucked back in before long:

I liked the Joe Biden prank meme: Biden acquired a reputation as the proletarian tough-guy foil to intellectual Barack Obama, which I am sure is far-removed from the reality, but the double-act worked well. I chose this Gramsci quote partly to suggest that Biden's a clever guy, but partly because I think Gramsci is right: élites survive by appropriating the energy of challengers. Trump's not part of the political class but he's long been the court jester for the economic élite: either Washington will use him as a puppet as happened to Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, or he'll fall from grace spectacularly. My suspicion is that Trump will be the TV president who barks out orders then quickly forgets what he's said while his appointees will commit acts of great evil with dedication and determination.

Anyway, enough of that. What have I done in this week, given I'm on sabbatical? Well, the week started with the Digital Campus Research Focus Group, NSS briefings and various other committees. Then I saw students. There were union meetings, an interview panel to attend, a course committee meeting, a school meeting with the Dean and several unscheduled other duties. But one colleague gets a small reward for uttering the previously unheard words 'actually I'll ask X as you're on sabbatical'. In fairness, all my colleagues have been great but the structure and the pressures from above, especially in small departments just don't allow for things to be put off or passed on.

That said, I have been to a couple of very enjoyable events. The History department hosted Richard Evans one night, and Dominic Sandbrook in conversation with Keith Gildart the next. I remember reading Evans's counterblast against postmodern historiography – In Defence of History – many years ago and finding it highly enjoyable and thought-provoking but also very very wrong. His talk this week gets filed under the same category. It was very old-Oxbridge: it takes 6 weeks to write a book, you draw on the books in your office and on the famous experts along the corridor, and you never ever talk about historiography if you want to keep your readers. Evans is a wonderful speaker: no notes, very funny, tightly structured while appearing to be spontaneous, but essentially anti-intellectual in that classic English empiricist style.

One thing that linked the two guests was the nature of being a popular historian. Evans isn't a TV-and-tabloids historian in the way Sandbrook is, but his work is classic narrative history and he talked extensively on how he (and his notorious agent Andrew 'The Jackal' Wylie) made a fortune from the History Boom by writing clear, uncomplicated and emotionally-moving work: his history of Europe 1815-1914 starts each chapter with a biographical vignette of an ordinary person (serf, soldier) in recognition of the 'history-from-below' movement, and he abolished footnotes entirely. Sandbrook does a lot more TV and writes for the Daily Mail, largely producing work which stresses the continuities of British cultural history in a rather conservative and nationalistic way. I chaired the conversation between him and Keith Gildart, our prof of Labour History who wrote a history of English popular culture which takes the opposite tack. Sandbrook thinks popular culture is largely Victorian, that the 60s didn't make much difference to most people, and that the mythology of the Swinging Sixties and since works by excluding unfashionable or conservative popular culture, and that the cultural economy is and always has been controlled by the rich. For a Daily Mail writer, he's very close to what we used to call a 'vulgar Marxist' analysis: dependent on economic structures, sales figures and fixed definitions of class, without much analysis of content or context. There are also lots of snide comments about intellectuals and theorists which are rather unnecessary. 'Life's too short', reads one footnote.

There are things to agree with: the chapter on Catherine Cookson persuasively argues that the books little old ladies read in enormous quantities deserve serious consideration as popular culture: not a surprise to me as a Cultural Studies academic, but worth making. It was revealing, however, that Sandbrook admitted that he'd never read Cookson until the TV show producer proposed including her in the series: while Sandbrook is widely-read, keeps on top of historical debates and academic work, once his choices are made in this way, you become (in Heffer's words) 'a man who writes about the past' rather than an historian.

Gildart's work covers similar, though narrower ground, but from a different perspective. He writes the 60s/70s music scene as the site of working-class re-evaluation of the post-war condition of England, and rather than just looking at the content of songs, for instance, he's interested in what fans and subcultural groups did with them: where they congregated, how they responded with fan-art, fashion, fighting and identity formation. He draws on interesting sources, such as the letters page of Jackie magazine to get a sense not just of what people bought, but how they thought about where they went and what they did, and of who they were. Highly-influenced by Raymond Williams and the Birmingham School, it envisages a working-class that used popular culture both to understand the continuities of their contexts, but to explore new formations and structures of feeling.

We ran the event as a conversation between two historians with different approaches to the same ground. Dominic went from boarding school to Oxford, then to popular history and media work after a short stint as a lecturer; Keith was a miner in the North East Wales pits for several years before rejoining academia via Northern College. As they very neatly put it: Dominic's family watched the BBC, Keith's watched ITV. Both have strong reservations about each other's historical practice and interpretations, but they explored these ideas and conclusions in thoughtful, generous respectful and often very funny ways, with me occasionally putting the boot in by asking why England was the sole paradigm, and how discussions of 60s popular music and class could totally ignore Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey… The questions and observations from the audience added richness to the discussion and it all carried on in the pub afterwards.

And now it's back to the admin…

Friday, 11 November 2016

Not the best of weeks.

What can I say? Everyone else has weighed in on this week's landslide of misery: Kate prescribes kindness and listening. Others counsel resistance, others rage. Normally I'd be on the side of kindness but it's too early and raw. I thought Hillary was a highly qualified  expression of the machine, and that there are enough sensible Americans to prefer the hawkish but rational status quo to the juggernaut of driverless hatred that Trump represents. I was, clearly, wrong.

It's fine to say that Americans are sick of neoliberalism depressing their wages and hollowing out their towns but it falls apart when you remember that they voted for a man whose entire business encapsulates the practices of decayed neoliberalism: dishonesty, boastfulness, manufactured losses, tax avoidance, financialisation, exporting manufacturing jobs overseas, anti-trades unionism and wage depression…the lot. I recently read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? which is a few years old now but beautifully illustrates the way the Republican Party split between the upper-middle class economic republicans and the working-class ones who were diverted towards cultural politics – guns, abortion, race – by people like the Koch brothers who have no real commitment to such matters but are invested in keeping the workers from noticing that they're being impoverished by their own leaders. Kansas, like much of the mid-west, was militantly radical in the 30s and 40s, but has become a bastion of the paranoid, zero-sum right that sees oppressed groups' gains as their losses. Then there are the evangelicals and women who voted for a thrice-married sex pest without concern, and the Latinos who voted for a man who called Mexicans 'rapists'. At this point you have to abandon private concerns about Hillary and just accept that half of the American population would preferred a boorish bogeyman to any woman at all.

So yes, I have nothing to add and no heartening advice. Global warming will rocket, reproductive rights will once again be at the mercy of angry rich old white men. Trump's thin skin and short attention span will cause wars and he'll appoint a lot of people who share his bitter paranoia while having the work ethic and determination that will enable them to get bad things done: the Gingrich's and his ilk.

And Leonard Cohen's dead. He had something to say about this:

Thursday, 3 November 2016

5 minutes with the Mail

Sometimes only cut-up poetry can capture the tenor of our times.

Core access.
Crooked Donald.
The Hillary.
Older than they look.
Back where you came from.
Lock her up
Ample assets
Send them back
Check their teeth
With their soggy bottoms,
Flaunting their curves, all grown up
Immigrants (illegal)
Up against a beautiful wall.
Why don't they just all bake off?
Brexit brexit brexit.
Everything's rigged: poetry prizes and elections.
Unless I win.
Friends fear for her
Gig economy.
Our collateral damage
Poured into
Their war crimes.
Busty display
'Openly gay'
Stick to football
Wardrobe malfunction
Fury as
Exclusive betrayal
SECRET revealed
Braless in the dance-off twice
Cancer Diana cancer Diana cancer Diana
House prices.

Friday, 28 October 2016

In no particular order

This has been a whirlwind week of literal and intellectual travel, hence my relative absence. A week ago almost to the hour – a treat partly to mark the successful despatch of my extended paper on Doctor Who, Star Trek and Foucault – I was changing trains on the way to Dublin, rather impressively leaving my case far behind me. Once I reached that city I spent a grudging hour in Brown Thomas buying enough clothes for the weekend and wincing as the reality of the pound's slump hit home. Two hours later I was exposed to an entire Munster rugby match in a fine pub as a mark of respect to recently deceased Anthony 'Axel' Foley, after which I kindly donated my passport to Sheehan's stock of Stuff Dropped By Idiots. Other fine pubs visited included the Palace on Fleet Street, which was new to me. I particularly enjoyed drinking pints of Beamish so close to the Guinness brewery. I nip through Dublin several times a year but it felt different this time, between Foley's death and Brexit: Ireland is seemingly torn between worry and despair when considering the neighbours. Everyone has relatives in the UK and so much of the economy depends on it. Then of course there's the prospect of braying thieving British bankers moving en masse: Dublin can't accommodate them and the country has already been bankrupted by its own finance system, while the regulatory system swings between incompetence and corruption. The prospect of hordes more of these vampires descending on Ireland fills me with horror.

The other trip of the week was to Leicester (which was lovely) to meet the Justice League of Academia, a small group of internationally-acclaimed scholars – and me – who have developed cogent and moving critiques of the neoliberal academy from various standpoints, and suffered for it in the process (perhaps were the Academic-Team: sentenced for crimes against management we didn't, or did, commit). The afternoon was pitched somewhere between therapy and consciousness raising for me: being in the presence of such inspiring colleagues was wonderful, and it reminded me that the duty of the academic is loyalty to the principles of the academy: beyond the institutional frameworks there's a set of ethical principles to students, colleagues, intellectual integrity and society which are so easily occluded amongst the day-to-day practice of working in the machine. It was also enormous fun – they're a witty and warm bunch.

It wasn't all work: my super-power is to find a bookshop within seconds of arriving in a strange town. I was after more Nicholas Blake, and my usual Left Book Club volumes. No joy there, but I bought a pile of CP Snow novels for my politicians' writing research (he was a Leicester man), a couple of lovely Penguin editions and a pristine copy of Malcolm Muggeridge's grouchy The Thirties, complete with a huffy disclaimer by Stephen Spender:

The 'Services' edition is from 1945, part of the ultra-cheap, slim volumes Penguin produces for the Armed Forces Libraries and designed to slip into the pockets of battledress. This one was in a naval library: I like the idea of a sailor reading 'A Room of One's Own' in a hammock below-decks. 

Muggeridge doesn't suggest that Spender smelled of wee: he claims that Spender claimed that he'd spy on the Francoists during the Spanish Civil War. Spender's now considered second-rate compared with his 30s peers like Auden and Day Lewis. He lived too long, sat on too many committees and ended up working for the CIA, probably wittingly and was once described as 'a minor poet and a major luncher'. One of my colleagues shared an uncomfortably silent taxi ride with him towards the end of his life (this sparked an Awkward Celebrity Taxi Share competition in the office: the other winner was Leonard Bernstein). 

Other than these breakouts, I've spent the week doing admin (obviously), attending meetings and squeezing in some research where gaps appear. I read Adam Roberts' ambitious latest novel, The Thing Itself which turns Kant's concept of das Ding-an-Sich into a weird SF thriller, complete with pastiches of various literary texts, including Molly Bloom's soliloquy. It works as a literary novel, it works as a thriller and you wouldn't go too far wrong using it as a Kant primer. I also read Nicholas Blake's The Private Wound – set in Co. Clare, 1939 – which manages to avoid most of the usual rural Irish clichés (Blake/Lewis was Anglo-Irish) while using some key ones very knowingly as plot points. I've almost finished his The Beast Must Die which has an intriguing premise – grieving crime novelist father narrating how he tracks down and tries to murder the man who fatally ran over his son – but is a little uneven in tone (though everyone else seems to think it's his best one). 

My work reading is split into pain and pleasure at the moment. I've just finished Christopher Harvie's The Centre of Things, a 1991 history of political fiction: Harvie's a historian but his literary sensibility is well developed, particularly on structure. Amongst the central points is that the development of Parliamentary fiction mirrors and contributes to the centrifugal force of unionism in the long nineteenth-century: writing about politics and power automatically became writing about Westminster, just as the publishing industry became dominated by the metropolis. Harvie is admirably well-read across a range of genres and gives full attention to political fictions from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. He's also amusingly opinionated in ways that we journal article toilers can't be: Bragg, Drabble and Co. are 'liberal herbivores' incapable of responding adequately to the crises of the late 70s, while Archer's novels are 'hack-work' found 'in the supermarket dump-bucket. Women and political writing don't get much attention but he makes the unarguable point that 'the position of women in orthodox political fiction can only be summed up in one word: prone'. Having now read all the novels by female politicians, I can say with some authority that very little has changed since 1991. 

The reading pain is having to read Dominic Sandbrook's The Great British Dream Factory, his post-war cultural 'history'. I've read some of his other books and thought them rather too slick, metropolitan and male – and uninterested in historiography, which is unacceptable these days. Also, I'm allergic to the Banal Nationalism of 'Great British' anything and yes, that include Bake Off. However, I'm chairing a conversation between him and an actual cultural historian in a couple of weeks and need to familiarise myself with the new work.  Wish me luck…

Friday, 14 October 2016

A stab in the dark

I've read a couple of detective novels recently, part of my effort to familiarise myself with popular 1930s-40s culture as well as the Literature. Crime and detective fiction isn't really my thing: I'm not interested in them per se, I don't like gore and I distrust the glamorisation of crime. I am interested in how popular fiction reflects social and cultural concerns though, and crime novels do that in spades. I've read a boatload of Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Wimsey character gets more interesting with every novel, I'm a good way in to Allingham's Campion novels which start as parodies of Wimsey but rapidly become strange, disturbing and often dependent on social mores and infractions that at this distance are hard to comprehend even when they're not upsetting (in Police at the Funeral, the family shame that occasions murder is mixed-race ancestry).

The ones I read this week are Cameron McCabe's The Face on the Cutting Room Floor and Nicholas Blake's 1949 The Head of a Traveller. McCabe's novel features a first person narrative by the central protagonist, a film-editor called Cameron McCabe. He and the investigating policeman have grown up in North America and speak in a clipped, slangy Hollywood argot despite living and working in London. Atmospherically, it's very good: life in a film studio, jazz, nightclubs, sports cars, assignations and the famous London fog. It's recently been republished as a lost classic, largely because of the confluence of author and narrator, and because the mystery is cleared up two-thirds into the book. The rest is an analysis by another minor character of the literary qualities of McCabe's account, situated within the parameters of the crime genre. McCabe himself was actually Ernst Bornemann, a refugee from Germany who learned English in double-quick time, was a film editor, a jazz critic, later a TV director, author and eventually academic sexologist back in Germany and Austria.

An interesting history, certainly, and the book is a serious achievement for someone who didn't speak English two years before he published it, but I'm not sure it's a 'classic': the plot is confused and the dialogue is way too pleased with itself without really working. The faux-scholarly apparatus is little more than showing-off and there's very little to connect the crimes with their society other than the claim that urban life leads to alienated behaviour, which you know if you've read Henry James, Patrick Hamilton, TS Eliot, James Hanley and an awful lot of other authors. I'm glad I read it but don't think it bears the weight of praise heaped upon it.

The Head of a Traveller is interesting too. Nicholas Blake is actually the poet C Day Lewis, who claimed to have started writing his Nigel Strangeways novels to pay for a new roof: there's a distinct air of genre snobbery hanging about this and it's hard to tell whether he was double-bluffing to avoid losing face in his poetic circles or if he really did look down on a sizeable chunk of his life's work: judging by his facility with the 'rules' of golden age fiction I think he probably did enjoy crime fiction. Certainly Head of a Traveller attempts to dignify the crime genre by being infused with intertextual references – mostly to poetry – and through the key characters: a wonderful poet whose decade-long writer's block is cured by a murder on his country estate, a failed artist and his damaged but more talented sculptor daughter Mara, and the detective himself, torn between solving the crime and aiding the production of  Robert Seaton's great work. Being a poet himself, using a poet and other creative artists as characters are bound to make us reflect on the relationship between society and the production of art (and the thin line between crafting literature and criminal schemes). The novel poses the question of whether the law and morality are outweighed by artistic merit and production, though the ending rather fudges the answer but seems to imply that a little light murder shouldn't be held against

There's also a strong Gothic streak running through it which distinguishes it from mainstream crime fiction: the titular head turns up everywhere, dark deeds are done at midnight and the household includes a speechless dwarf of uncertain origin who may be demonic or innocent.

I enjoyed it enormously until about 150 pages in, when the detective hero casually cures the damaged sculptor of her traumas by explaining that her problems (which include talking about her sexuality openly) stem from failing to admit that she'd enjoyed being raped by the dead man when she was fifteen. Having cleared this up he leaves her happier, but worried that he has ended a promising artistic career because, it is implied, suffering is the sacrifice artists make to produce great work.

I finished the novel and appreciated it on a structural level, but enjoyment had disappeared entirely: either Lewis really held this shallow and warped understanding of psychology and sexuality, he was simply a misogynist, or he didn't feel it was worth developing a more intelligent plot device.

Still, it could be worse: I've got to read a Jeffrey Archer novel for research purposes next…

Monday, 10 October 2016

These New Puritans.

And how many sources confirmed your story?

Last week I read this piece in the New Statesman, by professional journalist Andrew Gimson, who also wrote a biography of Boris Johnson.
Long ago, when he went to Brussels as a correspondent, his rivals accused him of embroidering his news stories for the Daily Telegraph in a way that was not strictly true. This was intensely annoying for them, especially when they were hauled out of bed to follow up reports that turned out to be inaccurate. They were not prepared to accept the defence that Johnson had made these imaginative embellishments in order to dramatise a deeper truth – namely, that Jacques Delors, the then president of the European Commission, was grabbing power at the expense of the nation states.
Gimson's wider thesis is that the Conservative party and wider society are now riven not on left-right lines, but between fun-loving types like Boris Johnson and Puritans, amongst whom he counts Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.

The quotation above is designed to make the point that while the Puritans insist on mere facts, there is a deeper level of truth which can be accessed by buccaneering free-wheelers like Mr Johnson.

I agree with Mr Gimson. There is certainly a place for those who generate imaginative narratives about the way the world works in order to dramatise their philosophical, cultural and political perspectives. It's called fiction, and it's what I make my living teaching and researching.

Mr Johnson wasn't publishing fiction at this point (though I have read his comic novel about suicide bombers, Seventy-Two Virgins and his book of cautionary verse). He was writing for the news pages about specific events and decision made by actual people in a real organisation for credible newspapers whose readers had an expectation of accuracy. And yet he cheerfully concocted stories from soup to nuts, or as Gimson has it, 'imaginative embellishments'.

This marks me out as a Puritan, clearly. But the story isn't really about Boris Johnson. Yes, his blatant lies contributed to the public's trust in the EU decaying to the point of Brexit. The wider story however is that Andrew Gimson and the New Statesman have succumbed to the disease of 'truthiness'. An early example was the exchange between journalist Ron Suskind and George W. Bush's spokesman back in 2004.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Sadly we expect our politicians to lie to us these days. What's really poisoned the public sphere is the total collapse of the dividing wall between 'news' and 'opinion': if Boris's tall tales were on the opinion pages we'd all have giggled at his exaggerations. Instead they were on the supposedly factual news pages and therefore gained illegitimate credibility.

The New Statesman knows that Johnson's claims about straight bananas, standardised condom sizes and banned sausages were lies, because it recently printed a piece dedicated to linking these lies with the referendum result. Now, however, they're happy to print without comment a defence of such behaviour which entirely rejects the notion of basic factual truth, on the grounds that it's boring or short-sighted.

Why should I ever believe anything Mr Gimson or the New Statesman (I'm a subscriber) prints in future? I have to assume that any claims they make are informed by a desire to access a 'deeper truth' which – crucially for this discussion of media ethics – must remain untestable and even invisible to the reader. We all know that journalism is necessarily incomplete and can never be impartial, but this is a new low: a journalist and a news magazine proclaiming that it's OK to lie, and uncool to object.

(I sent the NS a short letter on this subject: it went unprinted).

Friday, 7 October 2016


The end of the academic year is always bittersweet. There's always the violence-inducing and inaccurate comments from friends and family: 'looking forward to a three month holiday then?', but there is the sweet release of marking your last essay. I love teaching and find 99% of the students I teach to be delightful people with whom I am happy to socialise outside class when we bump into each other. Then marking comes along and the pressure to get through 150 essays on a limited range of topics within a very short space of time turns me into a misanthropic git of the worst sort. The usual safety valve – gleefully circulating the most outrageous howlers – is no longer the done thing, so you trudge through it, gradually losing your own humanity and running the risk of forgetting theirs.

Then summer comes and your attention turns to rewriting last years bad lectures, designing new courses and now and then reading a new book. I graduated 20 years ago so it's probably time I stopped reading out lectures delivered to me back then.* Before you know it, term starts again and all is forgiven: I find that I've actually missed the classroom and the company of the returning students, as well as looking forward to the new starters who will laugh at my jokes for at least one week. The next load of marking is far beyond the horizon and all's well with the world.

It's a bit different this semester. I'm technically on sabbatical, though I'm still course leader which makes things a bit tricky. It means that as I'm still around in the offices I see all the students I'd like to teach without actually doing any teaching, and I feel bereft. Other people are having those odd conversations, pointing them in interesting directions that I may not know about, and giving great lectures. It's all gravy for the students but I've a bad case of FOMO.**

Meanwhile in the outside world, things are getting very nasty indeed. The government wants to get rid of all their overseas-trained doctors: so that's goodbye to my post-retirement age da who still works 7 days a week in the NHS because there aren't enough doctors. Then Amber Rudd, who has a very shady record in business including – and this makes my head spin – directorships of dubious companies located for taxable purposes in the Bahamas, has decided that she wants to exclude foreign students from the country unless they're attending 'quality' courses at 'quality' universities, whatever 'quality' means and ignoring the fact that overseas students' fees keep an awful lot of universities afloat, never mind the manifest cultural benefits of international education. She also wants British Jobs For British Workers, despite her party employing an Australian tax evader to run its anti-immigration election campaign, and a Canadian to be Governor of the Bank of England. Her colleagues meanwhile have decided that universities are going to be ranked 'gold', 'silver' and 'bronze', like the egg and spoon race at your local school. And then, to add xenophobic insult to moronic injury, the government has decided to sack EU academics working in British universities – the ones who actually understand trade law, diplomacy, international relations etc. etc. – from giving them advice on the Brexit process because they might be spies. Never mind: no doubt she's met a cab driver who reckons he knows how to sort it out.

How long before Jo Johnson and Mrs May tell me that I can only teach literature from England by English people which celebrates how wonderful England is? The Collected Works of Melanie Phillips, Richard Littlejohn and Boris Johnson (poetry collection and comic novel about suicide bombers, both of which I have unfortunately read).

What am I trying to say? That the experience of teaching lots of young and not so young people from all over the world is a joyous one. Hopefully they benefit from my work and their encounters with their classmates, and I know I certainly do. But all the pleasures and gains feel like nothing compared to the murk of xenophobic, paranoiac, philistine nastiness emanating from our elected representatives. I want to contribute to making the world a better place but they're making it smaller, meaner and more hostile.

Enjoy your weekend.

*To avoid a tedious exchange of letters with my local paper, head of department and the QAA, this is a joke. Nobody would claim ownership of the puns which constitute 80% of my lectures.
**The young people inform me that this stands for Fear Of Missing Out. Given that my life thus far resembles that of an agoraphobic Trappist, there's a lot of Out to Fear Missing.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Death by a thousand sequels

I'm drowning in work this week: mostly induction talks and trying to find out where the students who missed induction talks might be and working out how many students we actually have and whether that's an astonishingly good number all things considered or an astonishingly bad one and where we're going to teach them and whether there's an ethical or moral problem with teaching (e.g) the Holocaust while lounging on the bean bags furnishing our new teaching space and so on and so forth. In a word: your normal Freshers' Week. The bright spot is meeting new students – my admittedly limited contact with them leads me to be hopeful.

In the midst of all this, I've managed to do some reading and listen to some music. Thanks to a friend's performance from memory of Sonic Youth's grossly offensive yet seductive 'Tunic (Song for Karen)' (Carpenter, that is) and the discovery that I don't actually own any of their LPs – possibly part of the vinyl haul I sobbingly sold during the Great Teaching Hours Drought of 2003) I've acquired several in one go:

So far the one I'm enjoying most is Goo, followed by Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Which reminds me: Dinosaur Jr. released a new album last month that I still haven't bought. The other album I've just acquired is an NMC release of Emily Howard's compositions. I remember a few years ago looking through my classical section and realising that I didn't own a single piece of music by a female composer other than a collection of Hildegard of Bingen sacred settings. Having read Joanna Russ's wonderful How To Suppress Women's Writing I knew that there must be oceans of good music out there, lost, silenced, unperformed or unpublished and that I'd missed out badly, so I've started seeking it out. I haven't yet been disappointed, though some is less to my taste than others. Howard's great: she has a background in maths and science, and her music tackles the forces that drive the universe.

Amongst the recent discoveries, I've really got into Pauline Oliveros. An accordionist into drone electronica: what's not to like?

I'm also very partial to a bit of Sally Beamish, particularly her Viola Concerto: much more classical modernist than experimental, but moving and thought-provoking.

Others I've listened to recently: Deirdre Gribbin, Imogen Holst, Kaija Saariaho, Roxana Panufnik (her father Andrzej is underrated too) and Julia Wolfe.

And now to books: this week I've read one good one and one terrible, shameful waste of ink. The good one is Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford, a beautifully written – speculative – romp through the short life and untimely death of Christopher Marlowe who in this novel loves boys, poetry and pub brawling, but is less keen on spying and the violent deaths that ensue from his espionage activity. There are walk-on parts for Shakespeare, Greene and various other contemporaries, and it's written with a nod to the speech, vocabulary and orthography of the day. I wouldn't rely on it to write an essay on Marlowe but it's diverting and thoughtful.

The terrible book I read saddens me. I loved Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, her fictional, imaginary biography of Laura Bush: it had so much to say about American, sexual relations and power. It led me to read her other novels too, including Prep, a fascinating look at the chilly schooldays of the WASPs. And so, liking Sittenfeld and being an Austen nut, there's no way I wasn't going to read her retelling of Pride and Prejudice, entitled Eligible

Not that I was entirely starry-eyed: I have already read several Austen retellings that did no good for my blood pressure. I'm happy to admit that Clueless is by far the best adaptation I've ever seen: a perfect example of how the spirit of Austen's social structures and plots can be reproduced without slavishly photocopying the original. The worst one – by far – is PD James's 'sequel' to P and P: Death Comes to Pemberley, in which the characters assemble while the killer of Mr Wickham is sought. Reader: I cannot remember reading so dreadful a novel, especially one by a long-established, acclaimed author. It's like PD James had a personal grudge against both Jane Austen and the English language and sought to do to them what she does to Mr Wickham. The original Austen mash-up, Pride and Prejudice With Zombies is far, far more faithful to the spirit and style of Jane's work, while Bridget Jones's Diary (Bridget, like me, is unfairly mocked for being a graduate of Bangor University's very fine English and Linguistics department) wears its debt to Austen both visibly and lightly. The other one I rather like is The Price of Butcher's Meat, Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural retelling of Austen's fragment Sanditon.

 I thought that Death Comes was the worst anyone could do to Austen until I started reading Eligible. I thought that given Sittenfeld's excellent track record in anatomising upper-class American life she might to a decent job. It's set in Cincinnati, which must be the equivalent of Netherfield – self-regarding, provincial, smug but rich. Mr Bingley is now 'Chip' Bingley, a wonderful doctor who appeared on a series called Eligible (modelled on Love Island) but not entirely willingly: his 'manager' is his sister Caroline. Darcy is a pompous surgeon, and the Bennet girls are older than in Austen's original, and their social situation is rather different. Lizzy is a style journalist, Jane is a yoga instructor, Mary's a permanent student probable lesbian and perhaps even a feminist (outrageous!), while the younger two are foul-mouthed gym bunnies. Mr Bennet has recently had a heart attack and Mrs Bennet is a shallow shrew. Essentially it's like buying a posh car to discover that someone's ripped out the good bits and added go-faster stripes, bucket seats and a Trump bumper sticker. It manages to maintain Austen's attack on snobbery while being supremely snobbish.

Worst of all, however, is the writing. I cannot adequately convey the awfulness of the dialogue, from the abysmally-failing attempts to make Mr Bennet and others sound dryly witty, to the obsessive addition of 'she said' or 'he said' to every utterance as though the implied reader cannot follow a conversation even if it lasts no more than two sentences.
“That wasn’t bad,” Liz said. “Especially for someone who scored as low as you did on the verbal part of the SATs.”
“Stop quarrelling, girls,” Mrs Bennet said. “It’s unbecoming.”
“They’d never speak to one another otherwise,” Mr Bennet said.
It's not a satirical reproduction of degraded Cincinnati posh parasites' slang: it's just cloth-eared, crude, leaden, lumpen and patronising. Austen may be conservative and didactic but her wit and intelligence shine through in ways that Sittenfeld – in this novel anyway – can't manage.

I own Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid's Austen's retellings in the same series: I'm now dreading reading them. There's a long tradition of appropriating characters, texts and plots to do something new with them – in the 18th century people didn't even wait for authors to die before rushing out cheap and unauthorised sequels to best-sellers – and many of them are successful on their own terms. Eligible may just have cured me of the habit of reading them. Though I have just bought the Manga Emma.

Friday, 23 September 2016


The week has had two or three main themes: toothache, work and culture. The toothache is self-explanatory. My wonderful dentist, who had an MA in English and (I hope) dentistry qualifications retired due to ill-health three years ago and I haven't dared go back. The resulting misery is therefore self-inflicted and therefore deserves no sympathy. And the piercing nature of the pain is a useful counterpoint to the dull throbbing gloom of the more objectionable aspects of being at work – basically anything involving Powerpoint, acronyms graphs and spreadsheets. I'm a literature specialist, not an actuary! (There's also the self-harm pain of being a member of the Labour Party but my thoughts are too incoherent even for this medium and I don't like being abused on Twitter so I'll keep my opinions on that one to myself.

The culture bit is the bright spot. Last night I went to a cinema for a live-stream of the National Theatre's production of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht and Weill's exploration of the effects of poverty and exploitation on those at the bottom of society.

It was an English-language production, with plenty of editing and alteration to suit a contemporary audience, though still set in a stylised version of 1928. It is an opera but it verges on being a dark musical – I'd have coped happily with fewer songs, but the music is astonishing: rough jazzy classical matching the text's determination to confront the classic opera audience with a cold, sharp slice of reality. It's a morality tale which denies morality: the message is that morality is a disguise worn by the bourgeoisie. The poor don't have that luxury and the rich don't care for it. People do dreadful things in dreadful circumstances, and there's no reward for doing good and moo punishment for doing evil: it's a nihilistic, amoral universe in which survival is all that matters…a timely revival.

If I get all my induction speeches written in time (can you tell I'm on sabbatical?), I'm off to see The Gloaming on Sunday: they're an Irish-language experimental, often melancholy folk group, currently on their second album.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The wanderer returns

It's been a strange couple of weeks. New office (still being built). Job interview (failed again, but at least they met me before deciding they'd rather not, unlike most institutions). Working out what it means to have a semester's sabbatical while also being an acting course leader. Going to presentations for my boss's job. And I did the School Games for the Northern Ireland fencing team. Much of what went on is the subject of investigation by no less than three governing bodies so I can't go into it in any detail, but suffice to say that spending several days with other people's children is a highly persuasive form of contraception.

One of my favourite moments was turning up and asking who the Northern Ireland coach was this year. The answer? 'You'. Shame nobody mentioned it in advance, or I'd have brought some kit. Oh well: my colleagues were lovely and highly professional, as were the vast majority of the kids. I'd also like to thank Sainsbury's for pulling out of their sponsorship deal: an unbranded Games was very pleasant.

I took some photos: click here for almost the full set or click on those below to enlarge.

The label is not related to Northern Irish politics at all. 

This is how you give a medal to a 6'10" 15-yr old.

A coaching session


Towers Hall, Loughborough University

And I made this to mark the departure of David Cameron from public life (and the arrival of £5 with the image of that murderous imperialist Winston Churchill). The guy who said he wouldn't resign the prime ministership if he lost the referendum, then did, and who said he'd serve a full term as MP, then quit.