Monday, 19 February 2018

Strike for a Kingdom

Well, I let a whole ten days or so slide with out blogging. I'm not sure whether I'm lazy, overworked, or an emblem of a generation tiring of semi-long-form social media in the era of snarky one-liners (if you haven't seen my Twitter feed, it is indeed mostly snarky one-liners designed to bring about fully-automated luxury communism by lunchtime). It might be all three. Being the Voice of a Generation is tiring, especially when you're trying to fit it around marking and episodically head-butting the desk when some lanyard-wearing gimp emails you another set of time-wasting things to do that aren't going to help him, you or the students.

Anyway, now that's off my chest, let's talk about all my friends at posh universities. By posh, I mean those universities with a staff room and whose pension scheme has more syllables than mine: the Universities' Superannuation Scheme. I'm in the Teachers' Pension Scheme because I'm from Scumbag College and won't have a Volvo or a labrador to feed in my old age.

My own pension scheme was reduced to a serving of gruel and a boot up the arse some time ago (and despite being 42, I've only 8 years of contributions because university teaching has been casualised), but it's relatively safe, being government-backed rather than 'invested' on the stock market, overseen by some massively overpaid VCs who turned out to be taking home up to an extra £90,000 to help the USS decline. Will their own pensions be hit? Of course not: VCs and other executives hit the limit years before, and get massive payments in lieu of pension contributions.

Academics at pre-92 universities tend to be paid a little less, but they had a better pension scheme. Then the USS board (stuffed with the same VCs and their cronies whose pay has risen 56% in a decade while teachers' pay has been eroded by inflation) announced that the scheme is bust and pensions have to be cut by £10,000 per year. Small beer for the VCs of course: mine got a £27,000 pay rise in a single year not long ago and has never once expressed concern for the decade of earnings loss suffered by his employees, but a lot for someone who probably didn't get a permanent, pension-contributing job until they hit their thirties.

On top of that, it turns out that the fund isn't in deficit: USS has fiddled the statistics. Why would they do that? Because Oxford, Cambridge and UCL, being hugely rich, decided that they'd rather not lend their superior credit rating to the national pension scheme, thus throwing their own employees and those of all the pre-92 universities overboard in the process. They want to get out and what the élite universities want, élite universities get. Will a government stuffed with Oxbridge graduates refuse? Of course not? Will the regulator refuse? Given that the Office for Students is headed by Nicola Dandridge, formerly chief lobbyist for Universities UK, I think it's safe to say that they won't rest until teachers have all the perks and benefits of your average Amazon worker.  

Will they get away with it? There's a big strike starting this week, and a few VCs are protesting, but most of them are claiming that it's nothing to do with them guv: despite being members of the USS board and of Universities UK, they claim it's out of their hands. Having routed money away from investing in staff and students, they're cannibalising their employees' retirement fund to pay for their grace-and-favour mansions, chauffeurs and bonuses. Do they care that pensions aren't bonuses, but deferred pay? They do not. Do they care that a generation of bright young things will opt for some less useful job away from academia? Not a jot.

What does the strike mean for USS staff? On a very basic level, it means losing 14 days' pay, and the concomitant loss of pension contributions (and universities regularly take a day's pay when staff stage two-hour strikes, because they're deeply unpleasant people: Leeds and other universities are planning to fine staff who simply do the hours stipulated on their contracts - my own university is even more punitive when we strike: they take 1/260th from our annual salaries rather than 1/365th). Most people with a household budget would struggle with losing two weeks of salary, and given that 50% of the people who teach you or your children at university are on hourly-paid and/or precarious salaries, it's a big loss. Most branches have a hardship fund, and I'll be donating. More than the financial loss, academics are torn and saddened by the need to deny students the education, support and care that they provide every single day. If you've studied, or been an academic, you'll know that emails arrive at 2 a.m, that students come for help at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., that marking deadlines mean that friends and family get locked out at weekends, references get written at short notice and drafts read on Sunday nights. Decent academics put in way more work than their employers care to notice, and this labour is often emotional labour. None of my better-dressed colleagues want to withdraw any of this, but they need to demonstrate to their chauffeur-driven suits that they aren't fungible assets, and they need to show students that another world is possible.

Across the country, academics from 61 universities aren't simply putting their feet up: on those strike days they'll be holding alternative lectures and seminars, teach-outs and rallies to examine the mean-spirited, ideologically-driven ideology that led to them treating their former colleagues like assets to be sweated. To those parents protesting that their children are being deprived of the education they paid for,  experiencing a strike and finding out the causes are precisely the kinds of educational experiences that will stand them in good stead.

Academics are professionals, and part of being a professional is recognising that you have a duty to a set of principles rather than a local organisational manifestation of these principles. Lawyers have a duty to the law rather than a client or the state; doctors have an oath that outweighs the time clock or a manager's demands; academics have a duty to the pursuit of knowledge. The ideological sea in which we've swum for decades has been one of deprofessionalisation in all areas of human activity. because independent centres of resistance have to be crushed if Lord Ashcroft, Richard Branson, Tim Cook and the Carillion directors are to be guaranteed that extra olive in their martinis. The proletarianisation of all professions is a concerted effort by neoliberals to turn work into nothing more than the exchange of products for wages, with no voice and no principles. Working-class colleagues have a far harder time than me and my academic friends, but without the security of a decent pension, academics won't ever be able to challenge the juggernaut of the piecework labour model that's rolling over us all. This week it's university lecturers. Doctors and lawyers – through the withdrawal of legal aid – have already been through the mill. Who's next?

I'm not on strike next week, but I'll be supporting those who are, and I won't be crossing any picket lines. If you're thinking that academics have it easy and are lucky to be able to strike, think about this: it's because we clung to our right to unionise, despite repeated attacks on those rights. Try doing the same. Here's a guide to how to support your lecturers:

Now go away. It's 7.21 p.m., I'm still in the office and there's still work to do.

*The title of this blog refers to a seriously good novel written by Menna Gallie. Her husband was a professor of philosophy at several universities: another of her books, Man's Desiring, is a funny, moving campus novel based on Keele, where she lived while her husband taught there.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

I've got piles…

I for one definitely didn't spend four hours moving books around last night because several piles fell over in the middle of the previous night, covering themselves and most of my bedroom in Linen and Sandalwood oil from the bottle onto which they collapsed, and waking me up from a dream in which I was having to do a practical criticism exam on the works of Baroness Orczy, with the Baroness in the room. I've read the first of her Scarlet Pimpernel novels, and that was enough.

By shelving, I mean that the books I've read get moved onto shelves in alphabetical order while the piles of unread books next to the cases of unread books in the Room of Unread Books get higher and more unstable. Currently my vinyl and CD collections share the dining room with Ben Aaronovitch-Jilly Cooper (I'm very sad that with the death of my Positions module, Riders will no longer be taught here), Victoria Coren-EL James (before you say anything, I'm supervising a PhD on fan fiction) are in the drawing room with the Left Book Club collection (as yet incomplete), typography, art and architecture selections plus the bound set of London Review of Books.

Henry James-Philip Ziegler are in the spare bedroom alongside several piles of unread fiction and a case of biographies and autobiographies, the box room contains three double-shelved cases and piles of unread fiction and non-fiction, while the bedroom holds books I'm reading right now, a bookcase of poetry and various uniform edition rows, and there are a couple of random piles. Cookery books are in the kitchen, naturally, and for some reason Fire and Fury is on the washing machine. There are no books in the bathroom, though I'm reliably informed that cheaply-glued paperbacks hold together if exposed to the steam. Around the piles of books are a nest of rags to sleep on, a plastic bag for clothes and a bucket for ablutions. Oh, and a couple of bikes. Imagine 221b Baker Street but lacking the cocaine, the amanuensis, or the genius. I do have a violin though.

At work, we get one cupboard for books: in mine are my holdings of Welsh literature, triple-shelved, and a few things I'm teaching. Next to it, behind my Moulton bicycle is an enormous pile of Tory Novels (mostly Tory, mostly novels) which form one of my current research projects (thanks colleagues).

Mine is actually blue and has drop bars and various refinements

The desk is also rather piled high with either books I'm using at the moment or ones which have just come in. Only today I picked up Kit de Waal's My Name Is Leon: Kit is coming to the university on Monday, and Joe Dunthorne's The Adulterants. I've long been a fan: Submarine was funny and moving, Wild Abandon raised the bar considerably, and like Margaret Atwood, he's an even better poet than novelist (shame that neither of them will sell the movie rights of their poems to HBO). And finally, we have a Reading Room with some huge, beautiful glass-fronted bookcases. I've appropriated 4 of them for all my critical theory texts. In return, they are available to students, at least two of whom will shortly be hunted down like dogs for apparently sending them away on a long, long journey.

Other things I've picked up recently include Danny Morrison's story of same-sex love amidst the Troubles, On The Back of the Swallow, GR Mitchison's 1934 speculative fiction The First Workers' Government or New Times for Henry Dubb with an introduction by Stafford Cripps – both for the politicians' fictions project – Simon Morden's The Lost Art which had plenty of good ideas but a fairly thin plot, Jeff Noon's new one A Man of Shadows and Will Self's Phone. I've been teaching A View From the Bridge and Foucault this week, so I read them, finished Nicholas Blake's A Tangled Web (as usual with him, taut structure, literate, vampirically misogynist) and am still reading Religion and the Decline of Magic. Between manic bouts of marking, that is. We've all really felt under the cosh recently, and despite the official mantra of 'Students First', colleagues have been struggling to write Teaching Excellence Framework documents at the same time as teaching and meeting marking documents. As a reward, we all received a notice from the VC's office practically begging us to take a very little money and run, which is reassuring. Still, the Literature Festival turned out to have been a success: 6200 visitors to 98 events. I'm going to work on more successful children's events next year. I think I'll need a costume and a song.

Actually, this isn't far removed from the desperate, craven methods we're using to unsuccessfully persuade students to complete the NSS. I threatened to drown the department dog last week…

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Amongst the literati

I'm going home early tonight (it's 7 p.m., which is early for me) and I have the joy of a long Award Validation Meeting on another campus tomorrow, before dashing back to welcome a trio of Northern Irish loyalist friends for the weekend, in a reversal of last week's Derry Girls. When I stayed with them they hung a Union flag in my bedroom, informed me that I was the first Catholic to enter the house,  and took me to an RUC bar to sing karaoke. They made me sing 'The Sash', and declined to join in with my rendition of 'The Fields of Athenry'. It was a great weekend and I'm going to enjoy flying a tricolour and teasing them for their rather hypocritical acquisition of Irish passports since the Brexit vote…

So anyway, I'm still marking massive piles of essays, and recovering from the second Literature Festival we held in this city. 97 events across 26 venues, with loads of contributions from my colleagues. For me, the fun kicked off early when the university authorities got cold feet about hosting a debate on Rivers of Blood 50 Years On. They didn't much fancy attracting the Powellites, and the academic historian on the panel dropped out rather than share a stage with one of the more objectionable UKIP MEPs. Then the Labour MP and another anti-racist campaigner dropped out. Cue a flurry of calls and emails from management, the council, the local newspaper which organised the whole thing (and which the university doesn't like to upset), and meetings to recast the panel (now all-male and covering the political spectrum from rabid right to moderate), set the tone and arrange security. After all that, the SWP decided to stage a demonstration outside, which terrified people who don't know that when they're not covering up rape accusations, these red-blooded revolutionaries have all the fervour of a self-warming sock and couldn't fill a phone box with slavering militants. Once the West Mids Police had phoned me asking for the names of these revolutionary comrades, I started to enjoy the irony. Despite the SWP's many awful characteristics, their local members always turn out to support industrial action and social ills. So there I was, refusing to name people who were demonstrating an event I wasn't involved in, organised by a paper whose star columnist tried to get me sacked, all in the name of free speech.

Thankfully being detained at a different event, I didn't have to witness the clash of intellects, but I'm assured that the demonstration was very polite (how many dangerous subversives own a collapsible gazebo?) and the debate was actually rather dull, partly because the paper's editor refused to let the UKIP MEP try any grandstanding. Still it was quite a stressful few days.

Away from the Battle of Civilisations, LitFest II was enormously successful. We haven't quite cracked the kids' events yet, and a few events didn't attract many punters, but last year's collective audience of c. 2300 became one of 6200 or so. Loads of my colleagues and some students contributed, and lots more attended events. I went along and introduced Lynsey Hanley, who writes about council estates, housing policy, social class and mobility, in conversation with my colleague from a similar background.

Nicola Allen, Lynsey Hanley

Then it was off to Niall Griffiths, the scabrous novelist and intellectual who delights in teasing the prim: his new novel is partly set here, and examines what he sees as England's failure to define itself. The EU, he says, asked England to find an identity, and it couldn't, unlike Wales and Scotland. One of the things I like about Niall's work is that working-class and underclass people (thieves, drug-dealers, prostitutes) get the chance to talk about the big issues rather than being treated as a mute, brutish mob.

Niall Griffiths

Niall's right too: the star of the next thing I went to was Don Powell, drummer of Slade. The crowd was packed with fans who booed mentions of bent managers and cheered early songs' chart successes. They asked interesting questions and Powell reeled off anecdotes and observations with enormous charm. You'd never know that he's been a rock star for 50 years, with the cash from 'that song' as he called it providing him with luxury unimaginable round here. You wouldn't actually know that he'd ever left the area. He even organised a round of applause for his old roadie from the 60s, whom they used to pay £10 a week.
A Slade fan's lonely struggle

Don Powell, ex-Slade

After that, it was off to Cummings Up For Air, a semi-comedic Jonathan Meades-style monologue and series of films about the more deservedly obscure parts of the Black Country - one of the best things on.

Cummings Up For Air

Then a collective reading by my colleagues Kelly Hadley-Pryce and Rob Francis, alongside poet Luke Kennard and novelist Anthony Cartwright, whose novels I really rate. Day 2 started for me with How To Get Away With Murder, a panel discussion between three very different crime novelists and my colleague Gaby, who never lets anybody get away with anything. I don't read contemporary crime to any great extent, and I was fascinated more by the discussion of craft and planning than by the various vile deeds enunciated. The authors were very generous and reflective, which made for an enjoyable hour. Then it was off to Arts Foundry, run by Louise Palfreyman, and featuring creative writing contributions by several local authors, including two of my students, who revealed sides of their personalities hitherto unglimpsed in essays and seminars!

Kerry Hadley-Pryce
Not LitFest but nearby. I liked the idea of Enduring Memorials promised on the side of a building being demolished

An unappreciative LitFest audience
Lousie Palfreyman and Storm Mann
Dreadful light, but I liked the way her hair and the inner surfaces of the sculpture chimed.

Exhausted but not defeated, I headed off to Will Self in conversation with our new professor of English. I like Self's earlier work and am behind on the recent trilogy, but I'm quite an admirer of his, mostly for these two total destructions of morons on Radio 5 and Newsnight. You never quite know what you'll get, but Self was on tremendous form this time: witty, warm, hugely entertaining and almost flirting with the sold-out audience. The things he said fell into two categories: witty bollocks and obviously true. No, three categories: the observation that people with google maps see the world differently from Before felt like something from Grumpy Old Men, and I can't help remembering that we had maps then. Some of them, like Roman maps, were every bit as reductive as those on our phones, simply showing the roads between places. In the 'witty bollocks' category came Self's sterling defence of modernist fiction: 'postmodernism is an architectural style, it has nothing to do with literature. Only me and Eimear McBride are getting it right'. He also cheerfully accepted that 'literary fiction' is dead: 'it's a conservatoire form; even I've got Netflix'. He has a new series on Radio 4 in which he takes the bus to unfashionable places. It might sound like the product of eating too much cheese before bed, but it's very good.

A Selfie with Self
Good hair in Will's World. 

Finally, I went to Tim J Jarvis's experimental poetry/music experience. Cut-up poetry in the dark, accompanied by experimental drone music by his colleague. As you can probably imagine, just my kind of thing. Not everyone's though: a fan told Tim that 'I enjoyed it, but my wife left'.


Tim J Jarvis
Not a bad way to end a literature festival I guess. And now for home. You can see more photos here.