Friday, 24 November 2017

A counsel of qualified despair

Roaming around the country, I keep seeing the same message scrawled on urinal walls and bus shelters. 'Where's Vole?' they say. 'More Hot Takes Now' read others, beneath a scratchy line-drawing of an indistinct creature. A shrew? A vole? Perhaps. It's clear that my public exists from post to post, twitching impatiently as they wait for enlightenment on the burning topics of the day, reduced to trolling their children on Facebook as they endure yet another lengthy opinion desert.

I jest, of course. My views on all subjects are largely meaningless and irrelevant even in the areas for which I'm qualified. Additionally, I find it harder and harder to differentiate between subjects about which I should have an opinion and those which are merely prominent in the public discourse. It seems pointless having a hot or even salient take on global affairs given the disconnection between we citizens and the political-financial elites. My brother is a lawyer specialising in helping very rich people avoid paying any taxes (this is not, you understand, how he phrases it). His employers and their clients won't be concerned in the slightest by the Paradise Papers, just as they weren't touched by any of the previous links. A few IT security contractors will be fired and a fresh bunch of lawyers will be hired to find more obscure states and loopholes, while the corporate lobbyists will up their rates in return for some friendly breakfasts with legislators who have no intention of making life any tougher for their friends. You and I are less than sea-lice on a blue whale. I recently read of a Tory MP who explained that the art of government is to give out just enough to those with just enough to ensure the continuation of plutocracy. The man was honest, at least.

As to the rest of the news…well, I'm enjoying the well-deserved defenestration of a few sexists in a small number of fields (media, film, politics) but it's hard to rejoice when the structures of power that enable those people remain untouched. A few particularly egregious offenders will be publicly humiliated but politicians will continue to be largely white and male, Oxford will carry on letting in one black student per decade or whatever the embarrassing number was, and Britain's rich will still be Normans (yes, really). I'm enjoying Marina Hyde's excoriation of Hollywood's worst offenders as much as anybody, but we're not addressing the fact that we run a society in which we reward and encourage ruthlessly exploitative behaviour, and which relies on the bravery of a few isolated individuals to occasionally provide a corrective. Every Hollywood star who speaks up should be congratulated because they're resisting a century-old machine for the consumption of young women and anyone else without capital: financial, cultural or social, but you can bet that every factory, office and shop is staffed with people with similar stories to tell. A friend of mine matter-of-factly told me that she accepted a job offer from a very prominent academic which came with a hand on her knee in an enclosed space, and the words 'I can be very good for your career'. That, she said, was how it worked in her field.

Ah well. Between exhaustion and disempowerment I'm reduced to observing the wider world with increasing cynicism. I remember encouraging the Labour Party to return to a programme of Morris/Crane optimism to counter the relentless pessimism that pervades the body politic, but I must confess that my colleague Jim's strategy of staying happy by never watching the news is becoming increasingly – though irresponsibly – attractive. I am, perhaps, the country mouse despite seemingly dwelling in a great wen.

Many of my current woes are the kind of things I can't discuss publicly for professional reasons, but most of the pleasures are also personal rather than collective. For instance, last Friday I went to Cardiff University to be the external examiner on a PhD (hence no blogging). While universities are like Tolstoyan families ('Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'), it was just a sheer pleasure to spend a couple of hours talking intensely about someone's life's work, in a department that really feels like a community. John's PhD covered some of the texts I did my PhD on – particularly Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live, and also discussed Menna Gallie's Strike for a Kingdom, Gwyn Jones's Times Like These, Ron Berry's So Long, Hector Bebb, Roger Granelli's Dark Edge and Kit Habaniec's Until Our Blood Is Dry, the latter two being set in South Wales during the 1984 miner's strike. You'll have to wait until publication to see just how good John's readings of the texts are, but I'd recommend most of the primary texts. I'd forgotten how brilliant Menna Gallie is, and I'd never read Dark Edge or Until Our Blood Is Dry. I don't think the Granelli is a particularly well-written book but there are lots of interesting features, while the Habaniec novel is well worth your time.

I've seen a good film (The Party: like a Woody Allen film from when he was good and nobody had to think about his sexual creepiness) and went to Oxide Ghosts, a film and Q+A by Michael Cumming, the director of Brass Eye and one of our graduates. Here's a clip that represents what they satirised: the neediness and pomposity of public figures:

Above all, the last couple of weeks have been made special by students - the PhD candidate of course, but also my undergraduates and MA students. The latter are three-quarters of the way through the Ballard module and have weathered the relentless misanthropy (and, I would argue, misogyny) with considerable grace. This week was Crash, a challenging read for most people, though given last week was The Atrocity Exhibition, they may well have thought it quite mild. The UGs this week have been through the joys of a lecture on gender theory, a session on Ellison's Invisible Man (thankfully nobody brought along a copy of HG Wells's similarly titled novel, and the first session of many on Paradise Lost. My boss handled the syntax game while I doled out apples or applied the Golden Scythe (really) to those brave volunteers who dared compete. Every year I teach Milton I enjoy his work more, despite being a) an atheist and b) formerly a Papist and therefore not likely to have been entirely welcome on Team Milton back in the day. I do feel a bit like God though: I keep telling them that there's no 'right' answer to essays, then failing some of them for getting it wrong. A bit like setting up a Tree of Knowledge and saying 'you're perfectly free to stuff your faces but I will wreak vengeance upon you and your descendants unto the nth generation if you do'. Other pleasures this week were doing an observation for this year's Graduate Teaching Assistant, who will be a better teacher than me by roughly next Tuesday, and diving back into Ginsberg and Maupin for a special Gay San Francisco session next week. I'm not teaching this particular poem, but here's a treat: Ginsberg reading 'A Supermarket in California' and one of my favourite pieces of music: Philip Glass's setting of Ginsberg's poem 'Wichita Vortex Sutra'. I keep trying to get my students into minimalism and 20thC classical music but to no avail. Even Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima fell flat.

Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 10 November 2017

This indigested vomit

You might be getting bored by my now-weekly blog starting with the familiar words 'it's been a busy week', but there's no end in sight. Life is hectic but it's very far from dull. Academically, every class has been a joy: the students have really exceeded my expectations - from the Sonnets class to Ballard (Hello America and The Unlimited Dream Company), the lecture/seminar on The Handmaid's Tale and the class on Brick Lane. I've also trained the new module and course representatives ahead of our regular review meetings, and we ran a mini-conference which ranged from Being an Editor to Why The Dutch Students Hate Cheddar and British Tap Water. They really, really hate them. In return, I promised to show them Andrew Marvell's rather Ukippy poem – and rather bitterly extended –  about their country. Here's an extract from 'The Character of Holland':

Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land,
As but th’ off-scouring of the British sand;
And so much earth as was contributed
By English pilots when they heav’d the lead;
Or what by th’ ocean’s slow alluvion fell,
Of shipwrack’d cockle and the mussel-shell;
This indigested vomit of the sea
Fell to the Dutch by just propriety.

To give a bit of context, the Commonwealth and the United Provinces had fallen out: despite both being Republics and Protestants, the Dutch had carried on trading with Royalist British colonies and were a bit shocked by the regicide. In a stunning echo of the British triumphalism currently in vogue, Cromwell's advisors even popped over to Holland to propose a merger of their countries – not overwhelmingly embraced by the Dutch – and then suggested joining up to biff the Spanish before dividing up the globe between the two countries. The Dutch suggested a free trade agreement and the English carried on capturing Dutch ships. It all ended with a short and rather mutually exhausting war and then they had a break before having another go in 1667, when the Dutch rather daringly sailed a fleet up the Thames, captured Sheerness, trashed Gravesend, sunk a lot of British ships and helped themselves to some of the good ones. 

But I digress (it's a blog: they're meant to digress). I must get back to writing next week's lectures on Niall Griffith's Sheepshagger (I told him some colleagues and students were horrified by it and he just said 'my work here is done'), on The Duchess of Malfi, Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth and Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and something else which temporarily escapes me. The Gil Scott-Heron class will be interesting. We're going to have the discussion about whether the word should be used at all, and if so, by whom: the class is, unlike certain universities you may have read about, very diverse. After that, it'll be interesting to see what they make of the novel, which I really rate. I'll have to play some of Heron's music too. Definitely 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' but probably not 'Gashman'. Let's just say that revolutionaries are not all-round progressives.

It hasn't all been work: I've been to two gigs recently. I've reached the age where I'm only seeing bands from the past, in the company of 99% balding blokes. Recently, they've been seminal post-punk Wire and Ride. In my defence, they either didn't tour or had split up by the time I was going to gigs as a youth, so I'm just filling in gaps. I was a bit disappointed by Wire: every record is a joy but the live sound was so sludgy that the spare quality of their recent albums didn't really come across. Like Ride though, they really excelled when they wigged-out and went on an extended Krautrock-style improvisation. Utterly thrilling. Here's a recent one and one from their debut album, which you might recognise because REM covered it on Document.

Here's some Ride - one of the wonderful shoegaze bands swept away by the Britpop degradation. 

And just because I was singing it on the way to work the other day, Sisters of Mercy's 'This Corrosion'. 

See you next week.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Deep breath and start again

As usual this semester, I'm almost to exhausted to have opinions about anything. Not just physically exhausted, but mentally. The teaching schedule is punishing, I'm still recovering from ripping a calf muscle, and on non-teaching evenings I come home, stare at the ironing pile and retire to my bed. Currently my only retirement fantasy is to do precisely that: there's a long cultural tradition of people who 'take to the bed', surviving on a diet of red wine and chocolates. Admittedly on my pension taking to the bed will be more like Charlie Bucket's grandparents than the Queen Mother, but it's a seductive dream nonetheless.

But as I said, it's not just physical exhaustion. Writing a large number of lectures in short order week after week is tiring, while research just isn't happening: course administration is as relentless as it is often pointless. The highlight of my job is the opportunity to sit and talk to students about ideas and books, but I'm finding too often that the bureaucratic demands of the post are reducing the scope for teaching and learning well, and I find that profoundly depressing. It's also a period of high stress for students and colleagues – much of it avoidable if senior management cared to treat us as anything more than fungible assets or profit centres – and as a course leader and union representative I often see people at their most distressed. Being able to help is a wonderful thing but I also have to remind myself sometimes that happiness and collegiate working conditions are possible!

Beyond the immediate world of my working life, I'm also suffering from a severe case of Advanced Liberalism. The main symptoms are a kind of debilitating miasma, and the primary cause is paying attention to the news media. This week has seen the ongoing corruption of America's neo-monarchist regime; Trump's decision to increase nuclear weapons stocks; a tidal wave of sexual assaults by men in every sector from film to politics; the environmental degradation that's becoming little more than an ignorable background hum; constant economic bad news; Brexit and all the nastiness seeping out from under its leaders' rocks; the demonisation of the poor and the concurrent valorisation of corporations looting every country they touch, leading to the destruction of public services from libraries to mental health provision; the Catalunyan situation (particularly depressing to see Ireland, which unilaterally declared independence from the UK in the absence of any meaningful mechanism for legal secession, refusing to recognise the bind the new republic is in).

Of course there are diverting pleasures: I saw Wire play a small venue the other night, and teaching is sheer pleasure at the moment, between engaging texts (yesterday: Three Guineas and The SCUM Manifesto, and next week includes The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello America, The Handmaid's Tale, a selection of sonnets and Brick Lane)  and really excellent students, but  – and maybe this is because I'm teaching 15 weeks of JG Ballard – the cultural, political and physical landscape seems to be pretty apocalyptic. I bet Leicester tonk Stoke City tomorrow too.

Enjoy your weekend. Here's some Ballard to cheer you up.