Friday, 27 April 2018

Prizes, professionalism and…something completely different

Good Friday!
You catch me in a mood of unaccustomed indeterminacy. On the one hand, my wonderful students voted to give me an award yesterday, so I'm now the proud holder of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence.

I'm always ambivalent about prizes, knowing that anything any individual does is the expression of wider culture, context and structure and also because I'm deeply bitter and unfulfilled, but it's lovely and very humbling to know that I've made sufficient difference to people's lives that they want me to know about it. The other hand is the continued bullying and unprofessionalism emanating from our Human Resources department, which is now reaching back to the 18th-century to employ cant to defend their various assaults on our professionalism. Get this: Faculty union reps cannot be allowed to represent colleagues because it might be upsetting and the university which wants to sack them has a duty to care about their feelings. 

The previous argument was that union reps potentially impacted by the restructure would be conflicted. They've kept that one and added this utter nonsense about sparing our snowflaky feelings. Then they told a blatant lie to prevent a union rep from another faculty getting into a meeting (failed).  And they wonder why when an HR manager asked 'who do you trust? Your union or your employer?', colleagues just laughed.

It's a very odd thing to go from shaking hands with the VC at 9.00 p.m. to explaining to him the shortcomings of his Faculty managers at 9.00 a.m.!

Academia is a very strange life. As a profession and an institution, it's way older than the corporate and financial structures within which it now exists: it emerged from religious and communal models with a set of values relating to the communal good, but now has to justify its existence in a much more hostile environment: one of the good things the VC did this morning was to give a clear, analytical assessment of British HE's political and social environment. Institutions have to balance values, a coherent understanding of what constitutes the public good, commitment to the local community and economy, an increasingly competitive prestige market, a sales-oriented approach to students, its own financial sustainability, and a regulatory environment which is both chaotic and relentlessly opposed to autonomy, challenges to its own underlying assumptions, and to any values beyond 'value for money'. HE leaders want to simultaneously preserve the special nature of universities while also behaving like CEOs. They like the gowns, title and towers but they also like to individualise and hierarchise decision-making and policy-setting (they call this 'modernisation') because they think Elon Musk and Alan Sugar are cool rather than exploitative, sociopathic, greedy nineteenth-century style sweatshop merchants, and because they believe that survival is a matter of speaking the language of marketisation rather than transcending it - understandable but in my view conceding the field. We see these tensions in play all the time: the shenanigans around REF eligibility, executive pay (constantly increasing), academic pay (no increase since 2008), recruitment struggles, battles over union recognition and a host of issues.

Although some of my good friends have been bullied out of higher education and feel much the better for it, life is worthwhile despite it all for me because all I want to do is talk and write about creative work with people who are equally enthused by the curious thrill of encountering a cultural artefact, however, weird, scary, offensive, mainstream, obscure, boring, sexy, cerebral or incomprehensible that particular book, play, sonata or doodle might be. I have my off days and no student could ever be completely engaged all the time, but my teaching model has always assumed that the other people in the room are as curious and open-minded as I am. If not, we cope with it and sometimes we fall out, but on the whole I find that enthusiasm is contagious despite the ever-widening cultural and age gaps between us. I can shut the classroom door, be isolated from the tide of metrics, survey, quality enhancement strategy documents, course journals, directives and threats that fill the inbox and just converse about interesting things.

The same thing goes for my colleagues and managers: none of us do this for the huge cash jackpot (which is just as well) and goodwill abounds. I always hope that when I cross swords with executives and senior management figures, they understand that it's mostly out of a genuine and deeply-held commitment to the open, democratic ideals of academia, though I'm first to admit that I find it very easy to rub people up the wrong way and I have on occasion contacted people to say so or to apologise for letting my mouth get the better of me. Nobody likes a smartarse (which I know I can be) and relentless hostility doesn't often produce results, so I'm trying to reserve my deepest ire for the most serious situations. Sadly this is one of those times, and I've had to publicly call for the replacement of my Faculty management because its actions, plans and methods will retard the provision of good teaching and research to the community even when the current difficult HE climate is taken into account. The outrageous behaviour of our HR department is really testing me though - currently they're saying union representatives in a Faculty facing redundancy can't attend meetings to protect them from stress, and they're claiming that any expression of no-confidence in management is 'personal' criticism and a breach of the university's values. I look forward to deploying the same arguments when I next represent a colleague accused of unprofessional behaviour…Meanwhile, threatening all 700+ members of the academic staff with disciplinary action at the same time is apparently perfectly acceptable.

Anyway, sermon over. If any of my students and colleagues at any level are still reading: thank you - you keep me going and I hope I help you too.

As for the rest of my week: it's been busy. My drama class had a second week on Jennifer Haley's disturbing, brilliant play The Nether, and a visit from dramatist and comics author Matt Beames, which provided students with insights into the creative life. I went fencing and for the second week running didn't lose any fights because, having been away injured, people had forgotten how useless I am and mistook my graceless flailing for cunning second- and third-intention attacks. I bought a mop. I went to the SU Awards which involved good company and an excellent dinner in the stadium restaurant of the football team that is about to replace my beloved Stoke City in the Premiership but I'm absolutely fine with that completely fine no bother at all honestly. I read the lightest of light books: The Clue Bible, a history of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Despite everything (the rather reactionary, boys-only, posh, Cambridge-common room culture and the refusal to engage with the real world), I have an enduring love of the silly, weightless word-play and gentle anarchy of radio comedy. I have the complete Round the Horne on my phone and I'm Sorry… will often leave me helpless with laughter and I'll confess to a love of Paul Temple and Steve, George Formby and Gracie Fields too. Here's a taste - dive into a different mood.

Monday, 16 April 2018

When HR goes bad…plus some book talk.

Good afternoon from what is surely the only university that simultaneously threatens the entire teaching staff of c. 750 people with disciplinary action (for declining to sign something they say doesn't need our consent anyway).
we have a duty of care to ensure staff are aware that such actions may place them at risk of formal action under the University’s disciplinary procedure. We must stress that this is not an option which we wish to adopt and we would do so extremely reluctantly and as a last resort.
The tl;dr version of this: 'now look what you made me do'. 

'I'm from HR. I just want what's best for you'

The invocation of 'duty of care' is simply humbug or cant of the worst sort. As you can probably imagine, that combined with a frankly moronic program of redundancies and restructuring has resulted in a dull ache of resentment rather than my normal sense of dedicated service to academia this Monday. Which is a shame because I've seen a lot of students who needed care and attention today of the sort that I can't expect to receive from my employers. 

However, enough of that. There are exciting things happening this week that I've played a small part in making happen. Tomorrow I'm teaching The Nether, a tense, scary, morally complex play about online paedophile fantasy spaces. The best first-year English Literature student work last year was about this play: rather than presenting an analysis, two groups performed scenes so effectively that people in the audience cried. In the evening, Kate Lister, aka @WhoresofYore is coming to give a public lecture on 'A Nasty Word for a Nasty Thing: a brief history of C**t'. Kate's pretty much the model academic: socially-engaged, hugely learned and a brilliant communicator. Then a couple of days later we have acclaimed author and critical scholar Adam Roberts coming to give another public lecture on science fiction and current affairs - Thursday, in the Art Gallery, 6.00 p.m.

I've also been reading a fair amount. I've whipped through Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series which was OK, though almost entirely lacking in characterisation and I can't help reading Gurgi as a comic manifestation of the Magical Negro trope, the Jar-Jar Binks of children's mythological retellings. The three witches were good though and Alexander is very witty. 

I'm also part-way through Daniel Kalder's Dictator Literature, which I thought might be useful, or even a model for, my work on politicians' fiction. It isn't. It's actually dreadful. You know a book is bad when it tries to get the audience on side by making snide comments about academics, but Kalder's work is essentially 400 pages of him being snide. He traces - in detail, the research has certainly been done - the logocentricity of a range of twentieth-century dictators and demagogues, but instead of using all this to ask about the complicated cultural contexts of these figures, he uses it to ridicule them as individuals and to point out that virtually none of them could write very well. Which is OK, but you've got to be an excellent writer to criticise others, and he isn't. It's hardly ground-breaking or daring to point out that Lenin and co. were often dense writers, or thinkers rather than street revolutionaries, and Kalder's style is that of the Pub Bore. What could have been an interesting book about why these people were so wedded to the manifesto, the newspaper and the novel is instead a bloated tract that demonstrates how superior its author is to all these men. Kalder thinks their work should have warned people what dreadful rulers they would be. On that basis, I've learned that Daniel Kalder shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a lever of power. 

I also leafed through Salisbury's The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-70: a rather lovely coffee table book which reminded me how many great artists, such as Paul Nash, designed book covers, and I much I dislike the bucolic side of 1950s book designs. Give me the Dutch-influenced postwar graphic designers any day. I'm working my way through Tony Harrison's Collected Poems too, one a day though I did cheat by reading V first. The other book I recently finished is Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies which has been on my shelf collecting awards since it came out. My immediate reaction, after inhaling it pretty much over one weekend, is that it's brilliant. Taut plot, strong sense of location and culture, dialogue absolutely spot on – a triumph. A week later, all those things are still true but I'm struck by the feeling that there is now a formula identifiable for these novels: a Celtic location seen from the centre as bucolic/touristy/untroubled by modernity – dialogue and sometimes narrative rich in dialect and scattered with words from the native language – interconnected tales of the 'hidden', i.e. working or non-working population – some crime and grime – suffused in a Celtico-religious soup either for contrast or explanation – with a dark wit. McInerney's novel is set in the urban Cork underclass. The dialogue and some of the narration draws on Cork English with the occasional Irish word thrown in. The cast each have their own plot but they intersect to devastating effect, and the evil effects of twentieth-century Irish Catholicism form the superstructure for events. It's also very funny. 

I say this not as critique but as an observation. These novelists – James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths, Richard Evans, Rachel Tresize and Lisa McInerney to name just a few, and let's not forget Y Gwyll/Hinterland and the various Scottish murder serials – are far better and much more interesting authors than the multiple purveyors of sensitive tales of the north London bourgeoisie who tend to dominate the literary pages of the newspapers and periodicals I read. I also think that there's a market for the Celtic anti-pastoralia, perhaps because publishers and their idealised audiences holiday in West Cork or Pembrokeshire, while pretty much any novel about the Birmingham or Newcastle underclass gets little more than admiring reviews: just ask Anthony Cartwright or Lisa Blower. They just aren't 'other' enough for these supposed audiences and readers can't thrill at the idea of their Dudley holiday home being burned down by nationalist smackheads. 'Celts' are still suffused with mysticism in the English imagination for better or worse, and Celtic Dirty Realism gives them a good dose of the Celtic while adding a good dose of Insider Realism to give the readers a decent jolt. 

Anyway, that's enough for now. Maybe I'll be in a better mood next week.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Why can't we all just get along? A book review

I'm back in the office - have been for a couple of days, after popping over to see the mother and assorted siblings and their children over Easter. I took Good Friday off as promised and went on a long and hilly bike ride, then slumped into utter inactivity once the Saturday Vigil was over (it was a trap: a 2h45m trap).

It was a good opportunity to catch up with some reading though. The best thing I read was Dark Territory, the translation of Jerry Hunter's 2017 novel Y Fro Dywyll.

Ranging from Wrecsam to Naseby to Drogheda to New England and beyond around the 'English' Civil War, it follows Rhisiart Dafydd through multiple identities starting with his Protestant radicalisation as a boy through his service in the Parliamentarian Army, subsequent work as an agent of John Powel, before his encounter with a Welsh Calvinist settlement in America and the gradual realisation that fundamentalism is not just socially destructive but a means of repressing the complexity of the self (a message also glimpsed in the Buffy episodes 'What's My Line?' 1 and 2). In the case of Dark Territory, we see the constant dialectic between sects and visionaries in the early period of the Commonwealth mutate into mutual hostility followed by brutal violence, culminating in the darkest practices of this group of Calvinists, who take the doctrine of 'election' to a horrifying conclusion.

The novel is partly about Welsh identity within a British-English hegemony and within the Christian tradition, and partly a spiritual Bildungsroman, but it's pretty obviously meant as an allegory for Islamist radicalism. Useful, I suppose, to remind us that most religions have these periods of violent repression, but thankfully it's not overdone. Hunter's conclusions are good liberal ones, with an added suggestion that masculinity is closely tied to the search for fundamentalist purity: men, it seems to imply, privilege certainty over mutual respect and openness, unless softened by women. Oddly, a similar – though less nuanced – conclusion is reached in Boris Johnson's Seventy Two Virgins, a 'comedy' about suicide bombers which suggests that more sex would reduce the pool of young Muslims ready to blow people up. Certainly Rhisiart Dafydd learns through hard experience – committing atrocities, losing loved ones – that exclusivity and certainty are the weapons of idealistic young men and dangerous old ones.

I liked Dark Territory very much. It's beautifully and viscerally written (translation: Patrick Ford), carefully-researched and intellectually wide-ranging. Hunter takes seriously the various spiritual and intellectual perspectives found in the Civil War period while subjecting them all to a critical analysis, wrapped up in a compelling narrative. I did find it rather one-eyed when it came to men and women though: while one or two women offer alternative perspectives to the men in their lives, they're relatively marginal. Wives and children die in the plague, widows fear for their babies, a sister nurtures her orphaned brother, and camp followers (though carefully not presented as 'whores') are massacred in the process of Rhisiart's journey to enlightenment. What they are not are thinkers or protagonists to any serious extent. Nor are the native Americans Rhisiart meets: carefully constructed as nice people carefully differentiated by tribal group, they help him in his quest and remind the reader that pat distinctions between Civilised and Barbarian are unsustainable despite the efforts of the fundamentalists, while also suggesting to English readers that the Welsh and Irish might have been analogous. Purpose served, they disappear until, at the end, we're told that they wiped out most of the early English settlements.

I struggled with Hunter's previous novel, Ebargofiant, which wasn't translated into English – the challenging language and literary style combined to defeat me almost completely (my fault, not Hunter's), so I'm delighted that Y Lolfa translated this one. I just wish it would get some reviews and attention in the English-language press. Last week the Guardian ran a piece on translated literature people shouldn't miss: not a single one was originally in Welsh, Scots Gaelic or Irish.
The possibilities aren’t (strictly speaking) infinite, but this month’s remit takes in everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the latest releases from pioneering translated fiction publishers such as And Other Stories and Peirene Press. So: all the classics, and all of French, German, Portuguese, Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian or Russian literature … You get the idea.
You can go for massive, immortal classics such as The Aeneid, The Ramayana, Don Quixote and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain – or you can go for a slice of modern life from Dorthe Nors, Xiaolu Guo, Orhan Pamuk and Haruki Murakami.

Mostly wonderful stuff, but without classic and contemporary work from the rest of the archipelago, Anglophones are really missing out on some wonderful literature.