Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Long Goodbye

OK, it's not as long as its author envisaged, but I am going away – first to a conference and then for a holiday on the ould sod. The conference is Naaswch - the North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History. It moves between Wales and the US or Canada each year. I didn't manage anything for the Harvard gig last time, but I have the pleasure of going back to Bangor this time, the institution that took a chance on an unknown kid during the Clearing process and gave me two of my degrees.

My last Welsh-related paper looked at the signifying role of food in a selection of literary texts (which I must write up and publish). This one draws on the long history of colonial and postcolonial literary theory and applies it to something new in the field: the ways in which the Welsh, Scots and Irish have been represented in video games. The TL;DR version is that there's basically a mashed up version of all 'Celts' (the concept is a 19th-century confection) dragged out when modern, technologically advanced societies feel the need for a bit of spiritually-informed violence. Arthur, tartan and blue face-paint feature a lot. There's quite a bit of smiting, plenty of castles, grottoes and caves, and some impractical and frankly a-historical ladies' clothing. Not the kind of thing that will keep the midges off as you plod across the bog. For a little light relief, there's also Welsh-as-comic-sidekick, as seen in some Japanese games.

Brennos - a Celtic Barbarian. All you have to do is wipe out his villages

Castles (1992): you play the oppressive Saxon invader

A typical Arthurian MMORPG

Dún Darach (1985)

A still from Grand Theft Auto V

Korean MMORPG Mabinogi. Not a scene I recognise from the Four Branches

Basically, the Celts are usually The Past: too wild or effeminate to cope with modernity, with the possible exception of DJ Dai (who plays sheep noises and has a terminal illness. I'm suggesting that the Romantic and Victorian struggles over how to define Celtic identities have been carried over wholesale into video art.

Here are a few of the games I'll talk about.

Comic relief: Ni-no-kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Hot Warrior Maiden (though she does speak a formal approximation of modern Welsh): Civilization V:

Celtic spirituality as close to mental ill-health and self-help: Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

and finally an interesting comparison: the Shropshire-set Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, which looks forward rather than to the mythical past while addressing key questions about life, consciousness, progress, science and the future in a way that even the best Celtic-based games just won't do.

So that's my paper. After that it's over to Ireland for (hopefully) some rain, reading and relaxation before returning to find out how many and which of my excellent colleagues have been fired in pursuit – according to my VC in the local paper – a 'Renaissance' of artistic activity in the area. No, really. He actually said that closing courses (he didn't have the space to mention the redundancies) and diverting the cash to STEM and nursing courses would magically stimulate the arts. Mind you, I'm doodling some pretty graphic images of him right now while a friend has sent me a bespoke tie which beautifully encapsulates my feelings towards management, so perhaps he's right.

Try not to miss me too much.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Spot the Difference, or, a Teachable Moment

All staff got this message this morning.

Excellent. I'm all for it. We have a large proportion of BME students and manual staff especially cleaners and cooks, and a very low proportion of BME academics and managers. Basically, seniority looks white here. 

Simultaneously, we ran this billboard and web campaign:

Oh dear: the old 'white saviour' trope in which kindly white individuals solve the problems of an undifferentiated mass of dependent and grateful black people.

Plus the extra touch of describing Africa as an unexplored new world. This will be news to its inhabitants, one suspects. I feel too for my students, 40%+ of whom are of BME extraction: rendered in this ad not as potential teachers/health workers but as the recipients of white bounty.

Having been alerted to this the university has been quick to pull the campaign off the web and the billboards are coming down today. It still suggests that there's a problem though. My colleagues in English, Media and Cultural Studies have been teaching this stuff for years - I used to do a whole lecture on media coverage of the 1984 Ethiopian famine - but this campaign was written, designed, cleared, printed and published without anyone noticing the implications. I have absolutely no doubt that there's not a shred of conscious racism in what happened, but despite every member of staff having to take online courses in 'unconscious bias', this still appeared. 

While I applaud the university's efforts to put in place structures and plans to create an inclusive culture, I can't help thinking that strategies and publicity campaigns are looking like marketing devices rather than searching self-examination. Academic departments' courses have been revitalised by the decolonisation of curricula: now it's time for the managers who harangue us about such things to systematically reconsider their own practises. 

Friday, 13 July 2018

'Curse your English education'!

What a week…what a week in public life. A Chequers away-day for the government that sounded as awful as anyone else's away day, and culminated in Johnson, Davis and Gove talking big to their mates, grovelling to the PM to her face, then resigning once they'd got home and out of her sight. Well, not Gove, obviously, but Davis, Johnson and several Tories whose existence was previously unsuspected.

The week ended back in the same place, with the same PM (somehow) having talks and dinner yet again with a collection of rude blowhard men who think that bluster is an acceptable substitute for brains. The accents may have been different, but it's hard to tell one portly, amoral, sexually-promiscuous racist half-American New York-born blond (Boris Johnson) from another (Donald Trump). I know a lot of people were rooting for May – despite everything – to grow a spine and re-stage a scene from the world's worst film (Love Actually followed closely by Drop Dead Fred and Jack Frost) but it was never going to happen.

Having walked out on some fairly decent allies, May is left clinging to a country which doesn't need Britain, led by a man who has no concern for his own country, let alone its allies. Given Trump's obvious hatred of democratically-elected women, I'm actually feeling sorry for the PM: she's being gaslighted by Trump. I watched his press conference this afternoon, which consisted of him describing the interview he gave to a friend's newspaper only yesterday as 'fake news', mealy-mouthed attempts to smooth over the insults he sent her way in that interview, and the repetition of the lie he keeps telling about being in Scotland the day before the EU referendum and predicting the result. He wasn't: he turned up a day after the result was announced.

What a shambles: thirty years of shameless lying has led to a supposedly serious country being thrown into the arms of a rogue state which will strip what's left of Britain bare then leave it for dead, while enriching a few oligarchs along the way.

Oh yes, and there was a game of football that I missed. At least Thierry Henry's Belgium lost – a modicum of recompense for cheating Ireland out of European qualification. Yes I know it was in 2010 but it feels like only yesterday. I gather England played too, but I was fencing and missed it. To be honest, my sporting focus has been on the Tour de France: compromised as it is by drugs, Sky and repressive regimes sportwashing their reputations by sponsoring teams, I find it utterly compelling: the effort involved, the tactics, the distances, the landscape, the bikes I can neither afford nor deserve (if anyone's got a spare £18,000, this is the one I want), the spectators dressing up as giant syringes to greet Chris Froome…magic.

My week is ending in sport too – this weekend is the Much Wenlock Olympian Games, acknowledged by the Olympic movement as one of its inspirations. It's a great mix of events: some serious events on the calendar (fencing, triathlon, archery) and some properly silly things, like wonky bicycle races. I tend to alternate refereeing and competing, depending on whether my waistline is waxing or waning, but this year I'm refereeing/organising as we're unavoidably short of staff. We run adult competitions plus a mixed-sex children's team competition, perfectly scheduled for the hottest weekend of the summer.

The rest of the week has been spent successfully not writing the conference paper I have to deliver in not many days. Marking re-sit essays and dissertations has filled quite a lot of it, plus seeing students to sort out their programmes and suchlike. The redundancy situation rumbles on with no sign of management managing to extract their braincases from their rectal passages. All we've heard this week is that a) research by people being fired won't be accepted by REF, which is both fair and a disaster for the faculty and b) graduation attire is even more prescriptive because management doesn't want to see the Save The Arts logo anywhere. Which is just a challenge, as far as I can see. There's even a line about 'formal business attire' and 'formal shoes'. They will of course be wearing their traditional academic-manager costume:

and shoes…

Ah well, it depresses me to even think about these vandals. 

I have managed to read a little this week. Two very contrasting texts: The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth, and Nick Harkaway's Gnomon. I've read almost all of Edgeworth's novels now – she's a fascinating slightly older contemporary of Jane Austen, and her work is a more uproarious version of the social comedy form, with lots of added Irish elements: she was part of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, though one with considerably more social concern than many of her peers or indeed characters. The Absentee is a short, funny but also uncomfortable comedy about her own class: minor Irish aristocracy torn between where the cash comes from (grinding Irish peasants into the dust of the land stolen from them) and the giddy social whirl of the London establishment that sees them as figures of fun. Edgeworth attempts a defence of the 1801 Union (English manners and Irish spirit will benefit each other) but it's not pursued far, and the more parasitical absentees are lambasted roundly, all within a spirited marriage plot and lots of family in-jokes. As an early examination of the tricky colonist's social perch, it's unmissable. 

Harkaway's book is unmissable in another sense: it's 684 pages long and far, far too pleased with itself. A near-future rendition of Britain under total surveillance, its politics are hard to disagree with but god it's hard to love (and that's even without going in to a novel whose dead dissident is called Diana Hunter: not subtle, Nick). There's something odd about surveillance novels: Dave Eggers's The Circle (another bad book attacking bad ideas) also falls into the trap of using the omniscient-narrator novel form to attack omniscience, though I must admit that it does caution against the possibility of objective perspectives throughout. Most readers want total awareness of everything that's going on - as I know when I give my students texts which obscure, complicate or refuse 'truths'. While Harkaway's book is a little more adventurous stylistically (The Circle is sort-of cleverer in that it keeps subtly referring to Wordsworth's Prelude), I don't think either author is deliberately playing with the irony – I don't think it's occurred to them. 

I suppose, in Harkaway's defence, a 684 page novel is a kind of warning against state Total Information Awareness: overload is a real danger. I'm not sure what a decent surveillance novel would look like, but I don't think its either of these. Gnomon is a fun read but its exhaustiveness defeats its own point and starts to look like a rather Victorian-patriarchal attempt to dominate its readers' every thought… which rather defeats its own point. 

See you next week. 

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Prince of Wales Bridge Naming Ceremony Transcript

A grateful nation woke this morning to the news that the new Severn Bridge had been secretly ceremonially renamed as the Prince of Wales Bridge, without any public consultation or invitation to the momentous event, nor even a photographer. Luckily a concealed bridge-spotter was on hand to record the glorious pageant, which took place in the basket of a hot-air balloon floating high above the structure deep in the middle of the night.

Alun Cairns: 'Welcome, everybody to the Great British Bridge Renaming Ceremony. Please don't lean too far over the side'.
Carwyn Jones: 'Sssshhh. The proles might hear us'.
Prince Charles: 'Who's there? I can't see a damn thing. Are you quite sure the grateful masses are gathered on the bridge? 2 a.m. seems a bit late even for the jobless. I can't hear any forelocks being tugged.'
Alun Cairns: 'Absolutely sire. They're only keeping quiet to avoid disturbing the barnacles. Have you rolled up your left trouser-leg as prescribed by ancient rite?'
Carwyn Jones: 'Dw i eisiau…'
Prince Charles: 'None of that Welshie stuff. Can't understand a bloody word. Bloody ugly bridge too. Monstrous carbuncle. Concrete isn't even organic. Get on with it before those damned gulls snatch my chips. Should have brought my Holland and Hollands.'
Camilla: 'Yes, get on with it. I can't hold onto him much longer anyway. Swing the bloody bottle Charles and get back in pronto. I need a gasper'.
Alun Cairns: 'OK, OK. By popular demand, er, anyway for some reasonInamethisbridgeafteryoursereneandgracioushighnessgetoffgetoffGETOFF…'

Monday, 2 July 2018

Poetry corner.

A Poem Listing All The Things Thrown At Me From His Apartment Window By A Stranger As I Walked By One Sunny Afternoon

One earthenware teapot, yellow;
One plain pint glass, empty;
One can of Heinz Baked Beans, full.
Abuse, largely incomprehensible.