Monday, 26 June 2017

Mandatory Harry Potter Post

Twenty years since we first heard the words 'butterbeer', 'Slytherin', 'Quidditch' and 'Sorting Hat'. How time flies. As do young witches.

At the risk of annoying those who believe people should read only age-appropriate books, I picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone towards the end of 1997, at the age of 22. I was between degrees, working the night-shift at a British Gas data entry centre (there are many horror stories), I was ill one week and I'd read every book in the house. My youngest sister (I'm the oldest of six) tossed me a brightly-coloured book and explained that she'd only bothered with a couple of chapters because she hated reading – since then I've tried to disguise her every Christmas and birthday present as a book just to wind her up. By the way, I should thank her: that first impression, first edition paperback is worth a healthy sum now.

As a reading experience, bearing in mind I was delirious with 'flu, I enjoyed it. Having read all my sisters' Blyton boarding school novels, all of Alan Garner (still the best), the Narnia series, The Dark is Rising (never, ever watch the film), The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseThe Worst Witch, The Secret Garden, The Box of Delights, Jennings and pretty much every children's book written, it was all very familiar, but well done. Certainly the writing was occasionally clunky, and the structure fairly plodding, but I thought it was a superior bricolage with some additional interesting things. Yes, they're liberal-bourgeois wish-fulfilment, but I'm bourgeois and liberal, and rather feel that there's not enough of it about. So despite subsequently doing a Welsh literature MA and PhD, I kept an eye on children's literature, and carried on reading the Potter novels. Come 2000 I got my first teaching gig on a module about families in literature: I did what I think may have been the world's first academic lecture on Harry Potter: one of the things I did was pass round a big pile of the books I thought had most influenced The Philosopher's Stone.

The two things I thought Rowling did increasingly well as the series appeared were comedy, and the shifting, uncertain nature of teenage friendships: how they're made and how they're lost. I thought, and still think, that she does loss and depression – particularly Ron Weasley's secret inadequacies – very well. I also liked her increasing taste for satire: the Ministry of Magic moves from being a classic British shambling bureaucracy to an oppressive surveillance culture modelled on the post-Iraq War/9/11 security state, Dolores Umbridge, the sadist in frills, is a comic but also chilling masterpiece, while Rita Skeeter is a pitch-perfect parody of the Daily Mail's columnists (a comic version of Sophie Stones from Jackie Kay's Trumpet).

Halfway between Miss Mapp and Theresa May

Other arguments made against the Potter novels are fairly predictable: derivative, clunky, middle-class, fantasy, Satanic (yes, oft-banned in US states and various other places), over-extended (I'd agree: the more books anyone sells, the longer they get because nobody wants to take a blue pencil to The Money) and lacking in social realism. All true to some extent, but they're also well-pitched for their audience, they address subjects such as death with a sensitive touch, they promote a degree of liberalism that's often lacking – just have a look at C. S. Lewis – and there are far worse-written books out there. They got boys and girls reading over the course of years, and they made literature central to popular culture for a good few years. I have a sneaky feeling that the primary-colours moral lessons contained in the series, alongside Terry Pratchett's later works, may be responsible for young peoples' increasing interest in egalitarian socialism.

I don't know that I'll ever read them again unless I find myself teaching them – I have no children to read to, but I am mystified by the strength of feeling Rowling and her works arouse. It's almost as if their popularity has meant that they and she have achieved the status of straw men or public property. In reality, they're page-turners written by someone who isn't and shouldn't be expected to be perfect, right all the time, a Delphic oracle or the Devil Incarnate. The novels and their author are interesting, thoughtful, flawed, warm products of their contexts and cultural environment. They make some people happy and they annoy other people. They answered a need for a particular type of fiction at just the right time. That's all.

Finally, if you're a Potterphobe reading this, THE BOOKS AREN'T FOR YOU. They're for children. How easily this is forgotten in the rush to praise or condemn. Twenty years has passed: we can all relax and assess the actual texts at leisure.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The best I can say is, it's been another week.

I've (almost) nothing to say this week. Personally, it's been one of banal but necessary administrative labour the details of which I won't burden you, and one of social horror out there. This morning I watched a billionaire with a number of palaces make polite conversation with those burned out of their homes by capitalist greed, while yesterday the political figurehead of said capitalist greed took time out of her self-interested negotiations with the representatives of 17th-century Planter Bigotry to visit Grenfell without meeting any of her victims. What more is there to say?

Back here, it's results week: some of the students are thrilled, some are OK, some are resigned and others are very unhappy, and I'm hearing from all of them. Most of those who've failed or marginally passed have clearly worked hard, while a small minority fail because through lack of effort, and an even smaller minority cheat, but the key thing at this point is to encourage personal responsibility while not being a dick about it. We talk to those who come to see us about their academic practice and support them through the resit process, and we worry about those who for various reasons don't come to see us. I usually point out, too, that we submit work to journals and publishers and rarely get things accepted first time round.*

I'm keeping up culturally too: last night I went to a poetry reading organised by a PhD student and one of my ex-students, featuring their own work plus their favourite regional poets. It was really good - a range of styles and subject matter, and uniformly good delivery which isn't always the case. Sadly only one English student came along, and not a single Creative Writing student or teacher. No doubt they all had good reasons but it's a bit disheartening for the artists.

Except for the one on fan fiction-erotica and neoliberalism I wrote with one of my PhD students. Straight in! With the added joy of slightly freaking out the reviewers and editor. You quote one story about humans mating with anthropomorphised cats…

Friday, 9 June 2017

Musical and Political Twists

What an odd 18 hours or so. My emotions – so far as I have any – are mixed. The joy is easy: my arch-nemesis Paul Uppal lost resoundingly. His campaign to return as Tory MP relied on keeping utterly silent about his record and his distasteful business activities while hiding behind Theresa May's coattails. Faced with three excellent young women running for the Lib Dems, the Greens and Labour, he avoided almost all public appearances, and turned a 400-vote loss in 2015 into a 2000-vote one in 2017. Next time he might think twice about campaigning by covering a £70,000 SUV with his posters and driving through one of the country's most deprived areas. He was venal, dishonest and self-interested. Let's hope that he will slide back into the obscurity he so richly deserves.

I'm also hugely impressed by my students. After indulging in the usual academic's lament ('you're so apathetic, you've got no politics or beliefs', as my UG tutor constantly told us) for years, I've been hearing my students plan and discuss and read political material and register to vote. I think most of them voted Labour, but it's more important that having been on the receiving end for so long, they're riled up. It's a shame they won't get the immediate reward of a decent minimum wage and the abolition of tuition fees, but as long as they stay enthused, we can help mitigate the damage of Brexit and the decades of neglect to which they've been subjected.

I also had two friends standing for Parliament, neither of whom won: Julia Buckley for Labour in Ludlow, who didn't win but did achieve the best placing for Labour in nearly 50 years, and Daniel Williams for Plaid in Neath. Labour won by a massive amount and the Tories nearly doubled their vote to 20%, squeezing Daniel out, which I'm very sad about.

Nationally I'm confused. It was glorious to see places like Canterbury turn Labour, and Labour's result is far better than expected, but other aspects confuse and sadden me. I still find it almost impossible to comprehend why Welsh and Scottish people would vote for the Conservative Party, and I don't really understand how Scots could move their votes from the separatist SNP to the Unionist Tories so decisively in several constituencies. The ideological gulf just seems so wide. I was also hugely disappointed that Amber Rudd just about survived, alongside various other excrescences. But most shocking – though not surprising – is May's decision to form a government with the DUP. A party which took less than 1% of the UK vote is now dictating British political policy. Despite May's howling about Corbyn's links to Irish Republicanism, she's in bed with a party that has consorted with and encouraged sectarian terrorism since its foundation. Its leader held a meeting with the Ulster Defence Association's commander only last week.

They oppose women's reproductive rights, firmly believe that homosexuality is a sin and should be illegal, and believe that the earth is six thousand years old. They also designed a renewable energy incentive that was so badly (or carefully) written that £500m was paid out to their friends. They refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Irish language, they accepted a secret donation of nearly £500,000 to spend on Brexit adverts…in London, and they believe that the Pope is the Anti-Christ.

Live footage of Offoster negotiating legislative priorities with the DUP
You're all going to need a DUP name now. I've bagged Ofpaisley.

The DUP's idea of Utopia is that depicted in the current adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale: unremittingly brutal, hostile to joy, self-expression, women, ethnic and sexual minorities, imperialist and sectarian. Theresa May will shortly find that she has a new name: Offoster.

So I'm torn: pleased that a radical agenda can attract votes, saddened that it hasn't attracted enough to take power. I wish Plaid, the Greens and the SNP had done better, and I wish that this country would grow up and adopt a proportional electoral system that reflects the obvious complexity of voters' beliefs: there should be more Greens, nationalists and – sadly – UKIP MPs. Instead, we have Conservative and Labour MPs elected with literally a couple or tens of votes more than all the other parties in their constituencies combined. Nowhere is this more outrageous than Northern Ireland, where parties shamelessly collude to make sure that 'protestant areas' get a protestant MP and 'Catholic' ones get a Catholic representative regardless of political beliefs. Look at Jim Wells:
Many complaints about Sinn Fein canvassing in Rathfriland yesterday. They are not welcome in this unionist town- particularly on a Sunday.
So much for the idea that individuals have a right to hear a variety of views then make their own political decisions (and Rathfriland is 40% Catholic). One of my friends campaigned for the Workers' Party in Belfast in the 70s, shortly after it spun off from the Official IRA and ran on a socialist, cross-community ticket. He tramped 'Protestant' Streets in the company of 'Machine-Gun Tommy' for protection, and was surprised to get a warm welcome from people sick of being taken for granted because of where they lived or which chapel they attended.

For now, I'm going to enjoy the crestfallen misery of the Conservatives, and worry about the new regime next week.

Yesterday wasn't all politics. In 2008, I went to see Sigur Ros the night Obama was elected, and ended up partying with some Dutch students as we watched history unfold. I now associate ethereal music with political success. So last night a few of us went to the Arena Theatre for Powerplant, a percussion-electronica-visuals musical performance. I knew that some Steve Reich pieces were on the programme, but nothing prepared me for one of the best and most mind-bending performances I've ever seen. Joby Burgess mixes various percussion instruments with live-looping and samples to produce immersive, hypnotic performances. The first piece was a drums-only version of weird visionary Conlon Nancarrow's Piece for Tape: Nancarrow's music is so fiendishly complicated and fast that he ended up writing for mechanical player-piano, because humans couldn't manage it: the invention of tape loops and sampling brought it into the realms of the possible.

Here's a few seconds of Burgess's version, plus another bit of classic Nancarrow.

Here's Burgess's percussion plus taped piano performance of de Wardener's 'Im Dorfe', essentially sampled and warped from a Schubert phrase used in The Piano Teacher:

Burgess also played this astonishing piece by Gabriel Prokofiev, written for 3 Nigerian Fanta bottles and sampler: apparently Nigerian bottles have striations, and the musician consumes some of the Fanta to change the pitch during the performance.

Burgess also 'played' Steve Reich's 'My Name Is', which I hadn't heard of. He recorded several audience members including a distinguished member of my party saying 'My Name Is (their name)' and looped it in phases, moving in and out of comprehensibility. Having to extract meaning from a babble of my managers' voices was eerily reminiscent of being at meetings. It was amazing though, and wonderful to think that those sampled people made a piece of amazing art that can never be reproduced. It's gone for ever.

There was also a piece called 'Temazcal' by Javier Alvarez, a sampled piece about music censorship by Nicole Lizée called 'The Filthy Fifteen', then two classics given amazing twists. He performed Arvo Pärt's 'Fratres' (usually drums and choir) using drums and a Canna Sonora, or Aluminium Harp, a weird friction-operated metal contraption. Sadly there's no recording but the effect was astonishing, moving and ethereal. Here's a different bit of music played on this odd instrument.

Burgess finished by playing Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint' on the xylosynth - amazing performance, but I admit to hating the sound of that instrument. Try the marimba/vibraphone and (original) electric guitar versions instead. If you liked The Orb's classic 'Little Fluffy Clouds' you'll recognise this piece.

So, mind blown, I went home for a night of anxious election coverage. I was not disappointed.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Incidental music

No insights into my working life or current affairs coverage this week, Vole fans! All I've done is mark essays and clean my house. Guess which one is most fun… Still, I'm down to my last 54 2500-word portfolios. Argh.

So as a placeholder: some music I've come across recently or returned to.

Phil Niblock's Works for Hurdy-Gurdy. I think I heard an extract on Radio 3 a few weeks ago and was hooked. Half-way between classical drone and kosmische, played on medieval instruments. If it wasn't such an effort I'd source some quality mushrooms for the full effect. This is one I can't play in the office while people are around – I think it might fray some nerves.

I've also got out my old Chumbawamba albums. Years before the awful hit they had, they played my SU as part of their pretty much permanent tour of anarchist squats and grubby student dives. Musically they're no great shakes and they're even more didactic than one of my more boring lectures, but I like their anarcho-syndicalist politics and they have a way with a tune. I also liked their adoption of postmodern remix and appropriation tactics: I bought their Jesus H. Christ album under the counter: made entirely of unapproved samples, it would have tied them up in court cases for decades. You can download it from various places or buy the 'official' (but still legally-problematic) version, Shhh

Which as I'm now in a crusty-rap-rock frame of mind leads me straight to Blaggers ITA, which might be the very first thing I ever bought on CD.

Which leads naturally to Tystion:

Back in the present, I've fallen for the new Thomas Adès album, particularly Polaris, and Charlotte Bray's At The Speed of Stillness. 

See you next week.