Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Out and about

The end of last week was both sad and joyful: it mainly consisted of self-anaesthetising myself at a party to mark the departure of one of my many bosses, who is off to extend his reign of terror to the staff and students of Oxford Brookes University. They are very lucky people. I applied to fill his shoes (and my boots) but wisdom prevailed and one of my friends got it to general rejoicing. I shall remain an humble droid, the Wall-E of the English and Cultural Studies departments. This delightful CIA document shall be my Bible in the years ahead, though I fear that the higher echelons of management have mining the same seam for aeons.

Anyway, I rose the morning after the party with a clear memory of the night before, which is better than some colleagues, but a slight headache and a guilty sense that it was much later than I planned to be up and out. Having done the majority of my marking and attended more meetings than any human should, I needed to blow away the cobwebs with a decent bike ride. The rain eased off as I got off the train at Wellington and headed (as I thought) to Ludlow. Sadly between the electronic map in my phone and the hastily jotted list of villages in my pocket conspired against me and I discovered that my route took me up every hill in Shropshire – some of them twice as I retraced my steps. 

Despite the pain, it was glorious. The sun was out, Shropshire's rolling hills looked beautiful and the back roads were empty as I headed very, very slowly around the Wrekin 

to Little Wenlock, Dawley (wrong way), Buildwas, Much Wenlock, 

Brockton, Aston Munslow and all sorts of tiny villages the length of the county. It was cold, sunny and deserted - absolutely perfect for a fat git hauling his weary bones across the landscape. Nobody needs to see me in head-to-toe lycra (yes, I may be a MAMIL but I'm not a full pro kit wanker because I don't want to be mistaken for an habitual, professional drugs cheat).

I finally creaked into Ludlow three hours later and scarfed two chocolate bars down before getting on a train home because I'm not a proper cyclist and couldn't face the return journey at all, let alone in the dark. A day's recovery later and I was off walking in the Pennines with my friends: we scrambled up to a cluster of the very biggest inland wind turbines they make – deeply uncanny as well as majestic. Despite being way off the ground, when the blades come towards you it's hard not to flinch. The sound is wonderful too: a deep hum overlaid with a slicing noise as they cut through the air. 
And now here I am, back at my desk with more marking and admin to do than your average junior employee at Das Schloss… Woe is me. Still, at least my Hungarian colleague has brought me some fine paprika to snort. That should keep me awake during meetings…

Oh yes, I also read Llewellyn Powys's Ebony and Ivory: very much the minor one amongst the three Powys brothers who were writers – he was one of eleven –  I would suggest (I have yet to read his sister Philippa's novel or see his sister Gertrude's art), and Jonathan Coe's new novel Number 11, which has many good moments but doesn't quite hang together. 

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Spring Intermission

I have no opinions this week.

Instead I have a pile of marking, a new nephew in New Zealand, lots of Module Specification Templates to write, new lectures to contract (The Duchess of Malfi, The Tempest, The Sorrows of Young Werther and many more) two chapters to get into publishable shape and more to start on, some external examining work to read and a PhD to examine. Oh, and 7 meetings in the next few days. I also have this terrible pain down all the diodes on my left side.

While I get on with all that, some incidental music from recent purchases.

Séan O'Sé's still going - I saw him singing An Poc Ar Buile at Puck Fair only last year.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Heil and Farewell

“It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.” 
- Cervantes

This morning David Bowie died, of cancer, aged 69. As you can imagine, the airwaves and social media are full of emotion, from sadness to shock. I'm saddened too, though human mortality is not as much of a surprise to me as it clearly is to many people. Being born in 1975, I'm too young (not a phrase I'll be able to use much in future) to have experienced Bowie's work in its original context. I suspect my first exposure to him was either his role in Labyrinth or his duet with Mick Jagger, Let's Dance. I recall the former with some affection, the latter with none. Some years later I bought and liked Low and Heroes, enjoyed the film The Man Who Fell To Earth and liked scattered songs from his other work. I also read about his pioneering embrace of financial instruments when he sold off futures in his royalties in the form of Bowie Bonds. I loved, by the way, Philip Glass's reworking of Low and Heroes into symphonies.

So in musical terms I'm an interested bystander. Bowie wasn't ever important to me in the same way Joni Mitchell, Tindersticks, Gorky's or Ligeti were, but I'm an admirer. However, I'm also an academic, and one of the uncomfortable things academics do is remember everything and point them out. So this morning I recalled the dark side of Bowie, particularly this and similar statements he made. 

My direct source for this is Standpoint magazine (not one I like but it's not given to make things up) and the same interview is cited in conservative historian Dominic Sandbrook's Seasons in the Sun – the interview is with Cameron Crowe in (apparently) Playboy in September 1976, following up comments in a similar vein he made to the NME a year earlier. Here's the full interview

Occasionally I teach literature or art by people who held deeply unpleasant opinions: Eliot, Larkin, Eric Gill to name but three. I do think that we should be capable of appreciating the art separately to the attitudes. Bad people have made good art. Good people have made good art. Good people have made bad art and bad people have made bad art – and that's before we even get close to defining 'good' and 'bad' in artistic and moral terms. However, I don't think that the attitudes should be forgotten or overlooked. With Bowie, everyone from the Prime Minister to the Archbishop of Canterbury (perhaps Eton had a copy in the prefects'  Beatings Chamber) was quoted without reference to Bowie's mid-seventies stance. It's not as if nobody noticed at the time - newspaper articles were written when he turned up in London dressed in black, riding in a black vintage Mercedes drop head and 'waving' (as he later put it) in a suspiciously stiff-armed manner:

Bowie isn't the first celebrity to flirt with – or even plunge deep into fascism or racist politics. Nothing Bowie has said or done compares with Eric Clapton's speech from the stage in Birmingham (also in 1976, clearly a peak year for pop racism), while a few years ago the editor of GQ magazine was fired for printing something facetious about Nazi uniforms being stylish

So, this morning I posted the Bowie quote on Twitter. A lot of people didn't know he'd said it. Some were shocked. Some were angry that I'd posted it. Some contextualised it within the cultural and political conditions of the time and noted that a minority of artists have either employed fascist imagery to shock, or have dabbled in fascism more substantially (Lemmy, I recall, collected Nazi weaponry, uniforms and so on). Some made the point that the work and the attitudes should be separated. Many took the attitude that you shouldn't be held responsible for things you say when you're on drugs. 

Here's a taste: I've removed the authors' names because I don't believe in publicly shaming people: I'll deal with the arguments instead. The drugs ones first:

I don't think this argument washes. Lots of people take large amounts of drugs. Very few of them make substantial and internally coherent arguments in favour of fascism across the course of at least a year. Is cocaine a gateway drug to fascism, or is fascism the natural habitat of people who like cocaine? Secondly, I'm not entirely convinced by any argument that uses the copious intake of illegal substances as a defence. Bowie was not spiked. Nobody forced him to repeatedly take loads of mind-altering substances. Nor do I see anybody claiming that it was just the drugs which produced the great music – so if he gets the credit for the songs, he gets to take the blame for the Nazism. I tend to go along with the interlocutor who put it like this: 

Likewise, I hugely admired John Peel for many reasons but I don't think that 'it was legal in Texas' is sufficient justification for him marrying a 15-year old girl. 'Legal in Texas' is no defence of anything. 

A couple of people made very interesting comments about the role of celebrity in our lives: that they're such public property that the uncomfortable details are washed away. A kind of cognitive dissonance. I think this is understandable and probably true. It's an extension of the 'death of the author' argument. The celebrity-as-text is transformed by the reader's purposes and cultural context and made anew.

This also links to the tweet listed above in the 'drugs' section that promotes Bowie as a 'provocateur'. I can see the argument – nobody more than Bowie operated on the basis that his entire visible existence was a performance of some sort, and perhaps his utterances should be understood in this way.

However, I do have a problem with this. If Bowie's point is that dressing in a Nazi-esque fashion, appropriating Nazi salutes and calling for an extreme right-wing dictatorship is simply a performance, it requires us to put aside the specifics of Nazism and fascism. Concentrating on the style or the attitudes demands that we put aside the mass extermination of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, the intellectually-impaired, trades unionists and other ethnic, religious and political groups. It asks us to put aside the occupations and slaughter, the ghettos and the gas chambers. Bowie didn't just make provocative statements, including some about Hitler: he moved to Berlin which as well as having a vibrant artistic scene, was a divided, occupied city whose government, judiciary and media spheres still harboured lots of former high-ranking Nazis hurriedly rehabilitated as the Cold War took hold, while the general population consisted of many former Nazis and their victims. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd think twice about turning up in Cambodia wearing a Pol Pot t-shirt and explaining that he had style, or that I was just being 'provocative'.

 I enjoyed the robust exchange of ideas that Twitter enabled this morning. People gave me context and supplementary information. They provided context and new ways to approach the facts – some calmly, some passionately. Excellent – this is what it's for. The only really sour note was this one:

The sender blocked me. Again, normal practice on Twitter, and I'm big enough and old enough to be able to take it. What really rankles is that this was an academic. Rather than discussing the substance, like academics do as the core of our existence, she decided that intemperance and blocking was the way to deal with uncomfortable facts. A shame: I like following people with whom I disagree.

The header to this post includes a Tweet about letting the dust settle – a dry, amused and amusing point which deserves serious thought. When is the right time to introduce inconvenient elements? Should the Bowie fans be left to fill social media with uncritical assessments for a few days while their grief is fresh? (As an aside: thank heavens Twitter didn't exist in 1997. I'd have been lynched for my opinions on Diana). I think it's a judgement call. Everybody's talking about Bowie so I felt the time was right to introduce other aspects to the conversation. That may be insensitive but I don't think it's 'vile'. Perhaps we need a more grown-up culture in which we don't idolise those we admire, nor pillory those who err in our eyes.