Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Pre-strike portmanteau post

It's Tuesday. I wouldn't normally post this early in the week (it's quite a while since I was blogging 4 times per day!) but the rest of the week isn't going to be normal.

Today sees the first Staff Summer Party over at the other campus. There are rides and ice-cream stalls and a bucking bronco because that's what academics really want to do apparently. Truth be told, a summer tea party after a long year is rather a nice idea, but this one falls on the eve of our strike. We all got a letter from the Vice-Chancellor explaining that we should all be satisfied with a 1.1% pay rise after 8 years of below-inflation settlements, and that he's very very disappointed with our ingratitude (I paraphrase, but only slightly). I've suggested that the party be renamed the Let Them Eat Cake bash, but apparently that's not helpful.

I wouldn't mind, but that very day the Times Higher Education Supplement published a report which singled out our VC for his 19.6% pay rise: a very handy £44,000 which should see him through the summer. The Chair of the Governors told THES that the rise is due to the VC's excellent performance, while forgetting to mention – and this is in the publicly available records – that the VC's salary is being increased to the median for the sector as a matter of policy.

Now, I'm a governor of this institution (though I'm excluded from the Renumeration Committee) and am bound by a duty of confidentiality, so I can't give you all the details, but I can give you my view. Academic staff are not rewarded for 'results': we're assessed and appraised and criticised and occasionally praised, but not rewarded. Only senior executives – some of whom are demonstrably ignorant of what goes on in classrooms – are afforded bonus payments and a salary scheme which depends on an all-universities pay survey. What this essentially means is that the senior managements of all universities are on a one-way conveyor belt of pay uplifts. If senior pay is benchmarked to a sector average, all they have to do is tell each other that this year, they've deserved an increase. Hey presto, they all get one! As we say round here, credit and money rise to the top. Only blame trickles downwards.

To be honest, if it wasn't for the sight of people on 20% pay rises sending out threatening emails telling us we're greedy I wouldn't mind so much about the salary. What I do object to is the complete absence of analytical rigour. Universities' monies are loans from students, to be paid off (over decades). I want to see a Vice Chancellor or a Head of Finance of a university – which is a charity, let's not forget – stand in front of a student and explain why he or she deserves to soak up the £9000 fees of 30 students (45 for Birmingham University's VC) while they're being taught often by insecurely-employed, part-time teachers who are expected to produce world-class research, generate external funding and top-class National Student Survey reports while often being employed on zero-hours contracts.

Academics aren't fat-cats. We're like footballers in that our careers start very late: I did 4 degrees to become fully qualified and worked on an hourly-paid basis until I was 34, so I've missed out on at least a decade of savings, pension contributions and housing costs. My female colleagues have done the same, except that those who take time off to have children lose out even more. Our pensions have been slashed while the contributions have increased. And yet I'm expected to keep quiet while the VC gets a top-up equivalent to my annual salary. We're not like footballers in that football managers don't get all the money when the team plays well.

We all know what happened to the banking sector. They were captured by a group of employees who treated their institutions as personal piggy banks, and therefore thought it was OK to use shady and often illegal methods to achieve short-term gains for themselves while bringing about a global recession for which we all paid. Education is too important to be captured by uncollegiate, self-reinforcing circles of sharp-suited snake-oil salesmen and women, convinced by their MBA training that they and they alone have 'saved' their institutions and deserve corporate rewards, while the teachers, technicians and support staff are simply fungible assets to be sweated and discarded.

Universities need managers, and the skills required to keep a complex, enormous institution like a university going aren't necessarily the same as those required to propel an academic to the top of her field – I don't think we can manage without them. However, I do now feel like the public service ideals which underpinned the collective enterprise of the academy have been replaced by a Directors and Hands structure whereby our views are unwelcome and our labour to be sweated.

How can I say to my nephews and nieces – and my fresh-faced PhD students –  that they should consider a career in teaching and research when they could get a decent job at 21 with a BA or even no degree at all? My life is mostly brilliant: I spend all day talking about books and get paid for it. I spend my classroom time with students and colleagues who are a pleasure to be with – but I'm old. If I were 21 and burdened with £50,000 of debts I'm not sure that the simple pleasures of intellectual enlightenment would make up for another decade of unemployment, another £50,000 of debt, of scrabbling around for enough hours to make ends meet, followed by decades of bullying and pay cuts delivered by someone with a chauffeur-driven limo and an air of bemused contempt? That's a tough gig.

That's why tomorrow I'll be out on the picket line with my bags of peanuts (representing our pay offer) and some 'filled pockets' Whiskas treats for the fat cats as they sweep past us.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Poetry please

Last night I toddled along to a Dialect Night: readings by poets and novelists united by pride in their accents and divided by their origins, styles and interests. The work ranged from free verse to highly structured work, low-life novels to Northern Irish teen romance and on to the joys (and otherwise) of West Midlands motherhood. The Granta set came in for a kicking too. Hosted by Niall Griffiths, it featured prize-winning poet Liz Berry, Joao Morais from Cardiff, Sam Roden and Dave Pitt from the West Midlands, Russ Litten from Hull, Grahame Williams from Northern Ireland who managed to make a fine Troubles-related knob gag in the course of a rathe moving story and another person whose name I failed to hear.

Dave Pitt

Dave Pitt

Dave Pitt

Dave Pitt
Liz Berry 

Niall Griffiths, Liz Berry

Liz Berry 

Liz Berry
Niall Griffiths

Niall Griffiths

Liz Berry, Russ Litten, Sam Roden, Tom Pickard

Graham, ?, Joao Morris, Liz Berry, Russ Litten
Niall Griffiths, Russ Litten

Russ Litten

Sam Roden

Sam Roden
Tom Pickard

Tom Pickard

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Just another ordinary day round here.

We're currently running an Arts Festival at the university, and our department's Graduate Teaching Assistant Kauser suggested inviting Akala, the leading conscious hiphop artist, to give one of his Hiphop Shakespeare lectures.

I've really got to up my lecturing game. There may not have been an awful lot of textual exegesis, but it was a free-wheeling, massively-informed, political and cultural tour de force. Amongst the many things Akala talked about was different cultures' relationships to Shakespeare, the history of British imperialism, the need for all ethnic groups and classes to educate themselves autonomously of the hegemony but also to learn about each other, the importance of every teacher changing just one life, why Radio 1 plays adoring songs about cocaine but won't playlist him (they don't touch 'political' music') and why it's their artistic loss, an awful lot about Wu-Tang, why hiphop and Shakespeare go so well together (the audience was woefully bad at spotting which lines were by The Bard and which by Nas, RZA and others, why rappers are blamed for their lyrics rather than the audience and record companies, and why Jamaicans are stereotyped as lazy in the UK but hardworking go-getters in the US. That's just a taste. He was funny, warm, angry, witty, clever and political. And he writes books. Damn his eyes.

I took some pictures.

Last night was also very entertaining and informative: Francis O'Gorman gave a lovely lecture on the literary and cultural history of worrying, which turns out to be a Victorian invention which emerged alongside the Stiff Upper Lip, though there are versions going back earlier. His basic line was that anyone who isn't a worrier in a society designed to put maximum pressure on individuals simply isn't paying attention. Hamlet's a worrier and so – as my boss pointed out – is Tristram Shandy ('the Iliad and Odyssey of worrying' as he put it). There are plenty of others: J Alfred Prufrock, Mrs Dalloway… I wondered why so many literary and cultural worriers are played for laughs: Mrs Bennet, the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Mr Bean, Basil Fawlty, Arthur Dent and Mark Corrigan are consumed by worry. 

Something different tonight: an evening of dialect poetry from across the UK, including Niall Griffiths, Liz Berry, Joao Morris and many more. 

Friday, 13 May 2016

Drastic times call for drastic measures

I read a horrifying newspaper article yesterday about a global warming tipping point: that several recording stations will never again dip below the 400 parts per million level of atmospheric CO2 and that whatever we do from this afternoon onwards, this isn't going to be changed.

I know, you're not horrified. You're bored. Or vaguely depressed. Or hungry. Whatever you are, you're not that bothered. Nor is anybody else, or anybody else that matters. Why? Because the climate's cycles are not comprehensible according to our own cycles, which tend to revolve around hanging washing out, working out whether to wear a vest, or getting elected in the next couple of years. Perhaps a few of us might worry slightly about our grandchildren, but faced with a problem this big, we'd rather assume that the cleverer next generation will make an app to fix it. It's complicated and invisible and quite frankly we can crank up the A/C or holiday somewhere else if that island has disappeared since you booked the flights.

Most people, locked in a room with some facts, would admit that climate change really is a problem, and that we (rich Westerners) are causing it. Even the ones with Range Rovers ('they're very safe for my kids' I hear them cry) might grin slightly guiltily and then mutter something about Chinese coal stations making any mitigation we might effect rather meaningless. Why are the Chinese (the world's biggest makers of solar power by the way) building coal power stations? To turn slave-produced raw materials into your iPhone.

So we know the science. We know the results. We know who's causing climate change: rich white people in the Northern Hemisphere (plus Australians). We know who's suffering first: poor brown people who haven't even had the luxury of the goods produced. We just don't have any way at all of persuading people that their behaviour is wreaking environmental destruction on the planet. We either don't care or we semi-consciously believe that a weekend break in Marbella after getting that sales report done is worth a medium-sized atoll in the Seychelles.

I have a solution. It's 'beatings'.

As an academic I'm ashamed to have to say this, but discussion, research, evidence: none of them has worked. We've spent long enough making the scientific case. Governments aren't interested because getting elected has never so far involved telling people that they're greedy bastards who need to adjust their selfish lifestyles: instead they fly off to glitzy conferences to sign vague memoranda of understanding that turn out to mean nothing, while they lobby to allow the car industry (for instance) to deliberately cheat the already lax laws in place. We need to get tough. Nobody can now claim that they don't know that a flight, an SUV or a piece of plastic tat represents an enormous amount of embodied energy whose burning involves the wilful destruction of some poor person's habitat. Yes, there's long-term work to be done to make our cities and infrastructures sustainable, but we don't have a long-term. We only have the short-term.

So we devise a tariff of beatings to accompany the price of these objects. Tax alone isn't enough: rich people see expense as a mark of privilege and luxury, and figures changing on a bank statement doesn't really impact them in the same way that an actual beating will. It's not as radical as what happens on Bethselamin, for example.

Imagine the scene. A flight from the UK lands at Sydney Airport. Awaiting the travellers is a chap with a clipboard. He is from the Solomon Islands, which have already sunk beneath the waves. (This is the other advantage of my plan: as land is lost or made uninhabitable, their inhabitants are employed to administer the Green Beatings, giving them an income and a sense of justice). He's pretty steamed. He liked life on the Solomons and feels that it's a bit unfair that his island disappeared so that Jordan Speith could swan around the world in a private jet to play golf. He goes through the list: miles travelled, purpose of visit, what class of cabin. Someone travelling in economy to be at the deathbed of a loved one gets off with a mild pummelling. The tourist gets a dead leg and some abrasions. The academic receives a Glasgow kiss and some nasty corduroy burns. The government minister gets kicked firmly and repeatedly in the shins. The KFC tax lawyer is introduced to Mr Bat and his friend Mr Knuckleduster. The arms dealer learns what it's like to be on the receiving end of her own products. Mr Speith learns just how many clubs can be carried inside a human caddy. The Daily Mail gossip writer is repeatedly run over by a group of immigrants (not for any environmental justice reasons, just because he deserves it). The beauty of this system is that it keeps free-marketeers happy. Nobody's interfering with freedom to travel or economic autonomy. We're just adding another element to the traveller's experience. It's simple, it's cheap and it's quick. You queue up, you take your beating and you go on your way, whether it's to take the salute for your Official Birthday or to bask on the beach, nursing your wounds and perhaps thinking about making a video-call next time or renting a narrowboat for your next holiday.

Aside from air travel, there are other simple ways to communicate what selfish and destructive pigs we are. As a pedestrian and cyclist I'm stunned by the number of SUVs on the road: massive, heavy, filthy vehicles with the power and solidity to drive up a mountain, used mostly to run over children outside schools. I propose that we start with a harmless black dye added to car exhaust so that we're visibly reminded that we are being deliberately poisoned by the car industry and those who choose to buy outsize and inefficient vehicles: perhaps shame at travelling round in a cloud of black smoke will make them think differently. After all, it was the Great Stink and the Pea-Soupers that persuaded British politicians to fix London's sewers and pass the Clean Air Acts.

If that doesn't work, we move to Phase 2: installing a jet that directly feeds exhaust gases into the cabins of motor vehicles. Plenty of people in SUVs do not give a damn for people outside their vehicle: let's see how they like experiencing road travel the way I have to on a bike. They might start lobbying for cleaner engines at that point. Finally, Phase 3 involves the supreme invocation of Libertarianism. Abolish all safety and luxury measures in motor vehicles. No more seat belts. No antilock brakes or roll cages. Engines that won't get you up to the speed limit. Gradually remove headlights, windscreens, heaters: the lot (and home air-conditioning is definitely banned: choosing to live somewhere requiring you to burn fuel to cool down air heated up by the reckless burning of fuel is pathologically insane). And abolish free access to the NHS if you crash. Before long, anyone who wants to travel privately is reduced to a glorified skateboard.

Extreme? Maybe. But I don't see anything else working at the moment. It might not be fun (except for the vengeful inhabitants of sunken lands) but life will be so much worse for your grandchildren if you don't shut up and take your beating now. I say all this, of course, more in sorrow than in anger. We've tried fixing things my way, and it hasn't worked.

So, who's with me?

(In the interests of openness: I've taken 13 flights in the past 7 years, multiple short ferry trips and haven't ever driven a car. I do have a huge vinyl collection ('"that's a paddlin") consume an awful lot of paper and have too many – though aging – electronic devices. I certainly wouldn't come out of the annual beatings assessment unscathed. I bought a duvet the other day which proclaimed 'British Wool' on the packaging. The very small print revealed that this British wool had been sent to China and back to become a duvet: unforgivable).

Friday, 6 May 2016

Party like it's 1996

I remember 1996, just about. I graduated from my first degree. I thought I had a lot of books and records ('twas merely the beginning). I had long, long hair and my waistline fitted into just the one postcode. The Spice Girls were atop the charts, Blur and Oasis were in artistic (though sadly not commercial) decline and we danced either to the Macarena or Born Slippy. Well, 'people' did. I was chasing Tindersticks obscurities. And I was right.

Amazon's best-selling book of 1996 was Creating Killer Web Sites by David Siegel. We were reading Primary Colors and didn't even know that Anonymous was Joe Klein. Game of Thrones was on its first volume and Bridget Jones had made the leap from newspaper to novel.

Fargo and Secrets and Lies ('Sweetheart?') were the only two decent films released, though my grandmother used me as cover to watch The Rock because she had a thing for Sean Connery (" ah 'gwan Sean! He's the grand fella"). Every student room except mine was decorated with posters from Transpotting and Pulp Fiction (which is why I've never seen either).

But aside from me being 21 and me being hip, handsome and right about everything, Britain was transfixed by the long and sorry tale of Mr Neil Hamilton, a rancid neo-fascist with a history of involvement in the worst aspects of the middle-class far-right: the Monday Club, the Western Goals crowd and the Italian MSI. He distinguished himself – if that's the word – by lobbying for apartheid South Africa,  for tobacco companies without mentioning the cash they gave him and against withdrawing lead-free petrol.  The Major government was collapsing amidst a welter of sexual, political and moral corruption. The Tories were destroying themselves over Europe (sound familiar?) and the civil war between their money and social wings erupted as the spivs were exposed by crusading newspapers like the Guardian.

Accused of taking bribes in brown envelopes from the owner of Harrods Mohammed Al-Fayed, of taking gifts and money from lobbyists and tobacco companies to ask Parliamentary questions without declaring them, Hamilton decided that he was the man to clean out the Augean Stables of the British press, and sued the Guardian, only to pull out at the last minute because he was bang to rights. He was then excoriated in the Downey Report into his behaviour in Parliament, and lost another libel case, this time against Mr Al-Fayed. 

In the mythical golden age of decency, Neil Hamilton would have been left alone in the library with a revolver and a bottle of whiskey. He could equally have withdrawn from public life and devoted his remaining years to public works in atonement, as John Profumo did. He chose not to. 

Why am I recounting this ancient history? Because the people of Wales, in their wisdom, have elected Mr Hamilton – in full knowledge that he is a disgusting corrupt white supremacist – as a member of the Welsh Assembly in the UKIP interest. Who says there are no second acts in politics?