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
Re: Revistas Academicas Journals
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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.