Friday, 28 September 2018

A course is a half-formed thing

The phoney war is over, not that I think of the new term as any sort of war unless management is the enemy and we're the side that set off armed with sharpened fruit. Forget about the metaphors – it's Freshers' Week, Welcome Week, Induction Week or whatever you call the period in which you meet the human beings so badly represented by the inaccurate statistics I get sent. A tentative and unreliable list of student numbers becomes a smiling, slightly apprehensive (and shockingly small) number of faces in a bland room betraying pleasure, fear, excitement and trepidation. Especially those who received my welcoming gift: a free copy of Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.

Some of my colleagues think that this is a terrifying idea: sending new entrants a full-on modernist stream of consciousness novel about an Irish girl who copes with familial and sexual exploitation through self-harm, but most of them aren't Irish and miss the top-quality gags sprinkled amongst the explicit scenes of rape and self-abasement. More seriously, I do it because it's one of the best novels I've read in decades, and because I want our incoming students to realise that literary study is an emotional, often disorienting experience. Too many of them come to us exhausted after the mechanical trudge to which the A-level system has reduced English. It's not the fault of the teachers, it's the rigidity of the examination. One of the key questions I pose to my first-years is 'how did this text make you feel?', and I follow it up with 'why?', so that they can start to examine their own cultural and social context and how it shapes their relationship with any particular work. As I keep saying to them, 'Bored' or 'I hated it' is as productive a response as 'Loved it', providing that there's a thoughtful answer to the follow-up question which can take in structure, plot, characterisation, individual experience, linguistic recognition and myriad other things.

Some of the incoming students have started reading it, others haven't, or haven't had a chance yet: we recruit right up to the first week of teaching and even further, but 'weird' is a word I've heard more than once, which pleases me mightily. I think of it as a process of creative defamiliarisation. Sadly though, I'm not teaching the first-years much this time: while I designed two of the core modules and taught them for years, what one might euphemistically call 'personnel changes' mean that I've had to hand over my beloved modules, including Making A Scene, to much better scholars than I. I have got my hands on Writing for Children though, which under my control will become a ruthless exercise in spoiling treasured memories. The process starts in Freshers' Week actually: we take the cultural temperature of our new intake by asking them to propose the book, song and film they'd use to justify humanity's continued existence in the face of an alien invasion. The music of Queen comes up with depressing monotony, and I do my best to discourage it with shameless subjectivity (and pointing out that they played apartheid South Africa).

Other than that, the highlight of the week has been the Timetabling department's decision to turn next week's lectures into an exciting form of scavenger hunt – due to a series of unfortunate events involving faculty laxness, personnel turnover and a magnificent new piece of software, I have no idea where my classes might be occurring. I like it. It adds a frisson of unknowability to an already stressful week which keeps the cardio-vascular system going. At my age, it all helps.

What else has happened this week? Well, between the efforts of my immediate boss and my UCU colleagues who patiently taught our managers to count, the threat of redundancy has been lifted for a lot of people in my department - not quite all, so the battle continues, but things are looking a little better. I went to a research seminar which covered a Bulgarian modernist poet and then female terrorists in Victorian novels (all beautiful and Jewish, basically), and have attended a lot of meetings, livened by the retirement do for a colleague who started teaching here when I was six weeks old. A leading feminist and communist who founded our Women's Studies degree (RIP) and terrified successive generations of the men in suits, she'll be much missed. People are about to find out that the secret to my union casework success was actually just asking her what to do, every single time.

Like a lot of people, I've also been keeping an eye on the Senate bin-fire that is the confirmation (or not) of Brett Kavanaugh to the American Supreme Court. I resent the fact that the US impinges so heavily on my consciousness but that's capitalist imperialism I guess. What I've seen of it is a combination of the purest bigotry, misogyny, the angry face of patriarchal power responding to the merest hint of token resistance, and a brave woman marooned in a political and cultural morass. I don't suppose other countries' judicial appointments are any better (in the UK it's a matter of going to the right school and university, making the right friends and never having to face any scrutiny - a polite exercise in privilege-continuance) but the naked exercise of power in the US is fascinating and horrible at the same time.

I've only had the chance to read one book this week: Gillian Darley's Villages of Vision. It's the recent edition of a 1970s history of model villages, estate settlements, communes, utopian settlements and the like, covering England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Darley's strength is a keen and critical eye for bad architecture and a keen social understanding of the cultural, economic and social conditions which generated these schemes, most of which failed.

Fairfield Moravian Settlement, Droylsden, Manchester

They range from rich men treating their tenants as decorations – moving entire villages out of sight of the big house, and requiring the inhabitants to wear stupid hats – industrial schemes designed to make sure the factory hands behaved themselves such as the one which included holes in the shutters so management could make sure everyone went to bed early – to racist endeavours such as the multiple Irish schemes (including New Geneva) which imported Protestant English and Scottish workers to displace the ignorant, Irish-speaking, truculent and Catholic natives with 'civilised' people. Some schemes seemed rather benevolent and fruitful, such as the Moravian settlements in Manchester, Gracehill in Ireland and elsewhere: despite being incomers, Gracehill was never burned down in the rebellions because its inhabitants didn't insist on converting everybody for miles around.

Plaque at Snig's End, disastrous attempt at a Chartist commune. 

Schoolhouse at Snig's end. 

I particularly enjoyed learning that the modern Tullamore has its origins in a hot air balloon crash in 1785 that burned the town down – the first aviation disaster in history. Anyway, I highly recommend it: it's a fascinating story of the mixed motivations fuelling these schemes, and I now know what to look out for when wandering about.

And now I'm off for the second weekend spent in polyester and a sports hall as I (hopefully) succeed win renewing my fencing coaching qualifications. I won't go into detail about it: I'm a bit touché on the subject (sorry*).

*Not sorry.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Lots and lots of stuff

Apologies for leaving you uninformed and alone for almost two weeks in this disorientating, howling cultural and social maelstrom. It has been, for variously sad, depressing and interesting ways, quite a fortnight and coming up with a semi-coherent thought about anything has been slightly beyond my capabilities.

Firstly though, a word about clothing shop H+M. That word is 'bastards'. I speak, as you've probably guessed, of their new William Morris line of clothing. Morris and Co. was famed in its time for selling enormously expensive, beautiful products ethically produced by well-trained, well-paid workers. Morris was a political revolutionary who believed that beauty, quality and fairness were inextricably linked.

H+M, to put it gently, are not famed for any such beliefs. Their badly-made disposable items – despite their vague claims – are environmental and social poison. Their manufacture takes place in the usual Asian sweatshops in which no more than a quarter of the workers are paid a living wage.

Actually, it's not H+M who are the bastards. They're just standard issue capitalist scum of whom we should expect no better. The absolute rotters in this situation are the owners of Morris and Co., Walker Greenbank, for trading on a heritage based on care and mutuality, and have sold out every principle their founders and original employees stood for. I'd rather wear clothes that proclaimed their social damage in giant letters than hide behind a proud history.

Anyway, rant over. What else has been going on? Well, the parade of leaving parties have started, which is deeply saddening, and we're living in a state of permanent insecurity leavened only by spasms of sheer fury. A terrifyingly small cohort of new students start next week and perhaps we'll know what rooms we'll have to teach them in before the big day. But don't rely on that. I've done some cultural stuff (BlackkKlansman was utterly brilliant: see it) and I've been down to London for my very last gig as external examiner at Newham University Centre. I've seen it develop from a tiny place to one that employs excellent academics doing wonderful teaching and now getting the chance to do some research. If you can't reach my place, go there. I'll miss the East End and my trips along the Thames. My new EE gig is at Swansea/Abertawe – a mile's walk along the beach is small consolation for being deprived of the famous Cafe Lympic (sic): threatened by the IOC's lawyers, its owners simply painted out the first letter. I'll also never see sister no. 3 and her kids/husband again: I only visited while on duty at NUC and they're unlikely to leave Greenwich for the delights of The Dark Place.

We've had graduation this week: one of the highlights of my year. I love seeing my students depart in a blaze of glory (though some stay on for PG courses), and it's sometimes a nice surprise to meet one or two of them who have spotty attendance records, let's say. We gave honorary degrees to our ex-colleague Howard Jacobson and to author Kit de Waal. I had dinner with HJ the night before and was surprised by how warm and charming he was. His roman à clef about the place was not exactly kind, though it is funny.

I've been to meetings about the 2019 literature festival I help run, and there have been staff conferences about all the extra things we've got to do with fewer colleagues. I attended a long and painful disciplinary meeting to support a trades union colleague (the details of management misbehaviour in this case are jaw-dropping but I can't share them. Suffice it to say that heads must roll), and I went on the first of a couple of fencing training weekends to renew my coaching certificates. There's an exam and observation at the end so it's fairly daunting. I'd forgotten so much, and slightly regret choosing a second-intention prise-de-fer when asked to teach someone the principles of counter-time. A touch too complicated for a beginner. Come to think of it, a touch too complicated for me. I also wrote a short version of the Pixellated Celt conference paper I mentioned a few weeks ago: it's going to appear in Planet magazine, which is a huge honour as it's cool, radical and clever. Writing it was a very salutary lesson: cutting 4500 academic-audience oriented words down to 1500 more journalistic ones is hard. I asked a friend to help get rid of the last 1000 extra ones. She did, then I put almost all of them back in. I'll write it up as an extended journal article too when I have time, but I'm quite pleased that something I dreamed up might be of some interest outside my own head.

I think I've read some books too, and I've certainly bought quite a lot. I read Sally Rooney's much-lauded Normal People, which I liked a lot but didn't think was quite as amazing as the reviews. The characters were interesting but the plot (damaged boy and girl from Sligo have an on-off relationship at school and at TCD university surrounded by South County types in gilets) was slight and not wholly different from Nicholls' romantic page-turner One Day. The writing makes gestures in the direction of Eimear McBride and the other contemporary Irish modernists (no speech marks, for instance) but the Hiberno-English was distinctly muted. I do think it's well worth reading though, and I've bought her first novel, Conversations With Friends. Hugh Howey's Sand was a bit better than his Silo trilogy (I also read the last of those, Dust) but finished weakly, which is a problem for a realist novel. I'm half-way through John Buchan's Prester John, which is without doubt the most racist piece of trash I've ever encountered.

Even when you take account of its time and his background, it goes the extra mile to be as racist as possible. I'm not even going to quote it. All black people, whoever they are and whatever the context, are misshapen evil scum, is its message so far. I'm reading it because he was an MP and so part of my research, but I don't think I'll be adding it to my 'They Come Over Here…: Literature and Migration' module. I'm also most of the way through Chris Beckett's climate change spec. fic. novel America City. I have to say that I was expecting better prose after reading some of his earlier stuff. It's not uninteresting: he's pretty tough on liberal handwringers who lack the honesty of brutal uncaring right-wingers (they seem to get off pretty easy) and there are some interesting analogies between tough leaders and Anglo-Saxon kings, but it all feels a bit slack compared with his epic other work. I'm going over some of the Children's Literature texts for next semester (a couple of Awdry's Railway Series texts, Farmer Duck, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Peter Rabbit, the Just-So Stories, Comet in Moominland, Northern Lights, Anne of Green Gables, the first Tracy Beaker novel, The Owl Service and Treasure Island), and I've piled up some excellent looking other books: David Jones's essays, Thomas Docherty's Literature and Capital, Lisa Lewis's Performing Wales, Jasper Fforde's Early Riser and Kate Atkinson's Transcription, but I have lots of lectures to write for next week before I indulge myself, plus an M. Res and an MA to mark, a PhD chapter to read and 2 PhDs theses which should arrive very shortly.

To relax, I filled in another job application. I do these purely for my own amusement: I've had precisely one interview in ten years (I cocked up the first question, 'how would you organise multiple redundancies?' by giving a socialist answer) so long since gave up any real expectation of being considered. It's more like the old Puritan practice of self-examination, an opportunity to contemplate the gap between me and what others consider a decent minimum of intellectual, academic and merely human achievement. I'm quite proud of some of the commas though.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Out of tune, as always.

Here we are again – another Friday rolls around and I try to make my sense of too much week.

Last week I read this article about Berlin underground managers trying to get rid of homeless people by playing classical music around their stations. Its headline is 'Art Shouldn't Be Weaponised'. Wrong. Art is, always has been, and always will be weaponised, if we accept that 'weaponise' is now an acceptable word.

In the narrow sense of course, the piece's horror at what was happening is entirely correct. Homeless people shouldn't be treated as inconveniences to be moved on out of sight, though you can understand the S-Bahn's sense that they can't deal with a wider social problem on their own. Nor should classical music be treated as kryptonite. It's happened in this country: every so often a news story appears explaining that a shopping centre or transit hub has started playing classical music to drive away the kids. In a variant example, high-pitched noises were played, audible only to children whose hearing hasn't yet deteriorated. Some of my students adopted these noises as their ring-tones so they could use their phones in class, which seemed fair.

So I'm annoyed in two ways: annoyed that children and the homeless are seen as a problem to be solved rather than as citizens who deserve fair treatment. But I'm also annoyed that classical music is assumed to be either so unpleasant or so bland that people will flee rather than endure it. I'm fully aware that classical music is seen as irrelevant to most people: I quite often try to introduce some when relevant to my classes, and it rarely evokes any interest at all. I mostly blame advertising and Classic FM, who between them have conspired to define 'classical' as 'nice bits to underscore a car ad'. It's spread to Radio 3 too, which is stuffed with very self-satisfied Tristrams, though at least Late Junction still exists.

I listen to a lot of music – indie, folk, bits of hiphop, the occasional metal album, some laptronica, a lot of twee and mathrock, and loads of music from the spectrum of 'classical' music – I like very early stuff, Bach, not a lot of baroque, some Classical, virtually no Romantics, modernism, serialism, minimalism and all the interesting stuff that's emerged in the twentieth century. There's a fair amount of music that's nice to have in the background after a tough day, but on the whole I'm thoroughly sick of the assumption that music of any sort, and classical in particular, is meant to be relaxing. Anything that relaxes us is conservative, lulling us into inaction. No wonder the worst regimes like the most hummable tunes. Or as Yes Prime Minister put it in 'The Ministerial Broadcast', 'Bach for new ideas', Stravinsky for 'no change' (around 19 minutes in). At least A Clockwork Orange paired horrendous antisocial violence – not just Alex's – with 'Ludwig van': ('he did no harm to anyone', says Alex as the state use his hero's music in a course of intensive aversion therapy):

Classical music addresses the tensions, excitements, horrors and social changes of existence, and therefore a lot of it isn't nice, relaxing or soothing for the savage breast etc.. At least the S-Bahn's goons understood that (atonal) music still has some emotional and intellectual power. One of the things I used to do in class was play whatever my students said was innovative, socially-challenging, heavy or rebellious music, and then introduce them to some of the more challenging pieces from the classical canon. Amongst them:

and of course these two notorious examples

(Yes, Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet involves a quartet playing in separate helicopters. What of it?).

I don't hold any brief for the classical world and frequently find myself infuriated by its sexism, insularity and conservatism, but I do think that it includes a lot of thrilling, edgy work that attempts in a serious way to process or reflect the world we live in rather than provide muzak (the Penderecki above attempts to translate the moment of the Hiroshima bombing into music, for example), and I'm pretty sure that shorn of all its social paradigms, classical music by recent and living composers can reach new audiences. There is of course a counter-argument: that the more abstruse and deliberately jarring experimental music is, the more it becomes a closed shop for elite aesthetes who look down on the common herd as incapable of appreciating 'difficult' work. It's the same argument found in discussions of TS Eliot's poetry, and there's something in it – certainly Reich, Glass and some of the other minimalists reacted against serialism by returning to tonality, rock and jazz. However: if the lids are capable of listening to death metal, gabba, and the enormous range of EDM, they're more than capable of genuinely appreciating and enjoying Milton Babbitt, Stockhausen and George Crumb. But using the stuff to drive away young or poor people is no way to go about it, unless – and I may be grasping at straws here – the victims start to associate classical music with resistance and develop an underground anarchism-and-violas revolutionary movement.

Anyway, enough of this nonsense. This week's books: not many because I've been struggling with module guides and timetables (I lost). I finished Muriel Spark's Territorial Rights and wondered why I bothered. Some neat characterisation and witty observations but a hopelessly confused and pointless plot which went nowhere and didn't do justice to any of the weightier ideas thrown into the mixer. I also read another of the new slew of rural eve-of-fascism novels, following on from All Among The Barley. This one was Cressida Connolly's After The Party. Once again, the writing is very fine, the mode is simple realism and the structure is a retrospective narration designed to gradually reveal to the reader what the protagonist has got herself into. If you know much about posh British dabbling with fascism in the 1930s, you get the hang of it within the opening pages; if you don't, it takes a few chapters. After The Party concentrates on an upper-middle-class woman newly returned to Britain with her family, all of whom get sucked into the British Union of Fascism because 'something needs to be done' and it offers them a sense of community and purpose. You get a really good sense of the social milieu of genteel fascism as rural Tories' children abandon their social responsibilities and look (mystifyingly) for millenarian ways to prop up their ever-more-impossible way of life.

What doesn't work about it is Connolly's strategy of gradual revelation. The narrator tells us a lot about all the fun to be had at New Party/British Union of Fascists camps, so we assume that this is what hooks her. However, she also tells us that she's attending discussion groups, training sessions and all sorts of other events which would have been full of Mosley's specific, hard-edged attitudes and policies, such as anti-semitism and the abolition of democracy. The narrator doesn't try to downplay all this as a form of denial, it's just not present in any substantial way, which means that the problem is with the author, not the character. I'm not quite sure what I think about this but it feels like there's a degree of evasion, as though British fascists could be excused for their naivety within a febrile atmosphere, whereas an awful lot of them (see Richard Griffiths's Fellow Travellers of the Right) were under no illusions about what fascism meant at all. Yes, they probably did think that they'd still have drawing rooms and staff, but they also enthusiastically embraced Jew-hatred, feudalism and dictatorship on their own terms, not as by-products of putting themselves into the hands of the right chaps.

I also went to a fencing competition last week. Despite being old, fat and cack-handed, I came 5th and still bear the bruises to prove it. Only a couple of mistakes here and there stopped me getting even further too - annoying but better than being thoroughly trounced.

Enjoy your weekend.