Friday, 30 November 2018

Computer Says Again

This afternoon, I am filling in a Course Specification Template to delete a couple of modules and add a couple of new ones. It's 23 pages long. Some of it requires you to write a list of learning outcomes. Then a few pages later it asks you to reproduce that exact list again, in a different format. By Tuesday, I have to do all this again. Twenty times, to cover the joint degrees, the part-time versions, and the versions that come with a foundation or sandwich year.

I have 150 hours in my workload to cover course administration. Each of these forms takes 3 hours to do. So more than a third of my annual allocation will be taken up reproducing the same information on multiple versions of the same form.

150 hours, by the way, is the same allocation I get to produce 3* and 4* REF research outputs - the expectations are the same as at a Russell Group university, but the allocations are, shall we say, rather different.

I am not, you may have detected, in a particularly good mood. The desk opposite me has been empty all week because my excellent boss is off sick – broken by the unceasing demands of a management which has no contact with the worlds of teaching and research, and no interest at all in the health, sanity or lives of their academic colleagues. To them, reproducing the same information twenty times is a perfectly reasonable request, and not at all a waste of anyone's time, let alone someone who is trained (in my case) in the literary qualities of twentieth-century Wales (and fictional cat sex, I should confess). This isn't about administrators versus snobby academics: the work seems, in a very real sense, pointless: the kind of thing a decent piece of software should be able to process, distributing the essential information across the relevant documents. Instead, I need to find 60 hours – between writing next week's lectures, including the sickness cover ones – before Tuesday to devote to cutting and pasting until my eyes bleed.

So there you are: an insight into the modern academic's life. It's not all bad: this week I went to a history seminar on British Army discipline in 1970s Northern Ireland (amongst the many eye-popping facts: the UVF bombed an American navy base because they felt the Yanks were getting too cosy with the local Catholics), taught Flyting and Broadsidess (the Reddit of their day), Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Popular Culture from Matthew Arnold to Fan Fiction, and the students have been absolutely wonderful. I popped down to Swansea to examine an M.Res, which meant a detailed, fascinating conversation with a new academic and a walk along the beach from Mumbles to the university, and I read the first two novels in the Aftermath series: a bit of a stunt by which the publisher gets various authors to write novels within a serial set in the same world. The first one was Dave Hutchinson's: a bit too military and standard post-apocalypse for me, but the second one is by Adam Roberts, who plays with genre very wittily and knowingly. The only thing that spoiled it for me is the apocalyptic device: to choose a meteor storm is very Wyndhamesque/Silver Age, but it feels like irresponsibility when the real environmental apocalypse is staring us all in the face. I've also carried on with Kiberd's Inventing Ireland and a few other bits and pieces.

Having moaned about being too busy, it's a bit cheeky to blithely list a load of books I've read, but the fact is that I can't sleep unless I've read a substantial amount. I'll happily eat into sleeping time and function on three or four hours rather than cut out the reading.

Must go - forms to fill in.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Of Snidge Scrumpin' and more

No time for coherent thought this week, beyond the minimum necessary required to get through classes (Paradise Lost and Tales of the City - both appreciated by the students as far as I can tell).

There have been meetings. And demands from management that I furnish them with statistics that they already have, plus magic solutions for things like why my working-class students in one of the most deprived areas of the country don't have higher incomes when they graduate. Such is the Teaching Excellence Framework: universities and from next year courses are judged on things like post-graduation salaries because as we all know, if I'd been a little bit sharper on the definition of a trochee in year 2, average wages in the area would have gone up. Forget about the state of the local economy, or the decade-long wage freeze hitting the kind of jobs a lot of my students want to do for the good of society, or the prestige that undoubtedly helps graduates of certain institutions not including mine. No, it's just bad teaching. Trochee clarification. That's the answer.

There has been some pleasure this week: my colleagues' research into memory and the senses culminated in a very enjoyable evening of 'Snidge Scrumping', during which we had to identify various fragrances painstakingly collected from the area and consider their personal significance. I failed to identify at least half of them (including burnt tyre and canal water), and not being from round here, didn't have any Proustian epiphany, but maybe that's because I am – as an old friend once told me – 'dead inside'. It was very enjoyable and thought-provoking though, even if I do feel sick from the burning tyre one. You can see some pictures here – mostly of people reacting with disgust!

Other than that, I've been doing a little reading. Slowly, in the case of Declan Kiberd's meaty Inventing Ireland, and more rapidly with the entertaining things. I read the latest Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London series – police procedurals with a magica, folkloric twist – straight through: they're good page turners, very evocative of mood and slyly witty. Highly recommended. I've also started Jessica Townsend's Nevermoor, on the recommendation of a student's daughter, with a view to perhaps adding it to the Children's Literature module next year. It's very good so far: a reversal of the Chosen One trope in that the central protagonist is a Cursed Child who acts as a social scapegoat for anything that goes wrong (very expensive for the parents) and is scheduled to die on her eleventh birthday, having spent the previous years as a pariah. Other than that, my reading this week consists solely of the M.Res I'm examining in Swansea on Monday, and the two PhD dissertations I'm examining in December and January. 

What else? Well, I assume from the silence that I didn't get shortlisted for the job at NUI Galway, but a one line note to say 'thanks but no thanks' would be nice. To demonstrate that I never learn, I applied for another job, this time at UC Cork. I see applications as spiritual reminders of one's true place in the grander scale of things. Feel unappreciated at work? Apply elsewhere and discover that the universe is similarly indifferent. There's also a literary aspect to the quest for the perfect covering letter and CV too: constantly striving for the perfect way to make mediocrity appear desirable. Sisyphus meets the Wizard of Oz. 

Oh well. Applications are more of a hobby these days, though if cutbacks and student numbers slump any further they may become a full-time occupation – it's happened to enough friends recently to be a clear and present danger. A couple of weeks ago a newspaper suggested that one northern university and two on the south coast were on the brink of going bust: within days teenagers and their parents were asking me if I knew which ones they might be, as they decide on their final choices. The sad fact is that the government actively wants a couple of ex-polytechnics to go bust. They think it would be good for market discipline, and it wouldn't affect their children, or those of their voters. The same logic applies to the much-promoted 2 year degrees: their children will continue to take three-year less vocational courses (plus medicine) amidst medieval splendour, safe in the knowledge that institutional prestige, nice manners and intellectual fluency will land them a nice job. They don't see why the great unwashed should do anything other than wield spanners and deliver pizzas, and suspect that any subject not taught at a Russell Group university is a doss. They also wonder why highly-skilled technical jobs are being shipped out to India and China. Putting these two thoughts together is apparently beyond them. 

Anyway, that's enough from me. Paralysed by the competing demands on my time, I've decide to ignore them all and lie face down on the floor for the weekend. If sufficiently moved – by the news, perhaps – I shall occasionally thrash around in despair, a tactic adopted by a senior official at the Bank of England during the 1976 IMF bailout, I once read, and no doubt experiencing a Brexit-related revival in the corridors of Whitehall. 

Friday, 16 November 2018

'Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes'


Another strange week. All the usual duties need doing: teaching, admin, washing and cooking, but pushing from the background to the foreground are the signs of a state and an establishment falling apart under the weight of its denial and self-contradictions. Yesterday I found myself checking in seminar coffee breaks whether the UK still had a government, whether Trump had exploded as inconvenient election results trickled in, whether California (where I have relatives) was still an inferno.

So it was with a considerable degree of irony that yesterday's class was on Allen Ginsberg's Howl, a poem that starts with 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness / starving hysterical naked…'. As the students pointed out, the madness isn't necessarily that of the best minds (who are his Beat friends but also his mother, repeatedly confined to mental hospitals): it could be the collective madness of a polity and culture at war with itself. This reading really works: in part II we meet Moloch, the god to whom babies are sacrificed and who represents American industrial-military society. We had a really good discussion of the Jewish roots of the anaphoric form Ginberg uses (the repeated clauses starting with 'who'), which led us discussing RD Laing's anti-psychiatry and Basaglia's work to close down all Italian residential psychiatric hospitals (see John Foot's excellent book) and to me playing Leonard Cohen's 'Who By Fire', based on the Day of Atonement prayer, and the influence of Zen Buddhism on the proto-hippies in San Francisco and New York.

We talked about yoga (which at least one student practises) and how Howl eschews teleological meaning and progress in favour of revelation through repetition and revelation, echoing Blake and Dickinson, and ended up talking about the relationship of meaning to form, and the twin poles of what Nietszche's Appollonian and Dionysian attitudes towards personal engagement with society – Apollo represents logical, thoughtful engagement, whereas Dionysius favours emotion and irrationality. In Howl, Moloch is the perverted end-state of Appollonian culture in which the madhouse awaits all dissenters, reminiscent of the argument that the Enlightenment led to the gates of Auschwitz, whereas the bath-houses, sex in the bushes and the pursuit of pleasure are the ecstatic rejection of the system and any attempts to reform it.

Obviously we couldn't just talk about this stuff: a lecture about underlying theories would be the Molochian approach to the poem. Instead, I treated the students to a range of musical and artistic experiences that explored the same ground to make the point that form is culturally loaded. We looked at Jackson Pollock's abstract expressionism in comparison to the Soviet realism from earlier weeks, while not forgetting that the CIA fostered abstraction and avant-garde art forms as part of the Cold War rivalry (see Hugh Wilford's The Mighty Wurlitzer and Frances Stonor Saunders's Who Paid The Piper: the CIA and the Cultural Cold War for more details). In musical terms, I started off gently with Ginsberg reading Howl:

 'Wichita Vortex Sutra' over Philip Glass's piece of the same name:

Then we dodged back to pre-modernism by playing a little of Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending as a (beautiful) example of art that provided solace rather than confrontation.

After that we went straight to the avant-garde and classical music's attempt to reflect and examine modernity: in particular, minimalism's affinity for Eastern Buddhist forms merged with the Jewish inheritance of composers like Steve Reich:

I was really interested in the students' reactions to Come Out: they're immersed in a culture of samples and loops, but Come Out is an early and particularly uncompromising version of it. The initial reaction was horror: it's so relentless. A couple of students who looked it up on their phones got the point of it, but there wasn't the time to get fully immersed in the piece. Incidentally, I have wondered whether the starkest minimalism is a male thing: a friend of mine cried when I played another Reich piece a few years ago. For her the repetition produced a form of claustrophobia. I find it soothing and hypnotic: I'm drawn to the same kind of rock/pop music: kosmische or Krautrock, and the music of bands like Stereolab. Curiously, I don't get much out of techno, which came from similar roots: the inanity of the vocals stop me from falling into the groove (and no, I'm way too old to pop a couple of yokes to get there chemically). I did play them The Orb's famous 'Little Fluffy Clouds', which sampled Reich's Electric Counterpoint, apparently to the composer's bemused delight. 

However, the point of minimalism is that while it's partly about rejecting the European avant-garde's atonalism (I happen to like that stuff too), it's about meaning through the absence of teleological (goal-oriented structures), hence the composers' fascination with Jewish and Buddhist religious practises. I played them Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as an example of the classical world engaging with the horrors of the twentieth-century rather than providing comfort:

That wasn't their favourite piece, but that's the point: it's horrific. By this point in the class I was getting cocky, so threw in unannounced a performance of John Cage's 4'33".

This was fun: the video helped because it set up the expectation of something happening: man at a piano wearing full classical rig. At first there was silence. Then some giggling. A few people spoke, to me and to others, and there were plenty of noises off: phones buzzing, passing traffic, coughing and twitching. I ran it for the whole 4 minutes and 33 seconds, and then we talked about form: that Cage had reduced it to a performer and a space of time, redefining what music is by playing on audience expectations. There was some thrifty economic humour ('you paid to see that? How much was the ticket'?) but they really got the point. Finally, we went back to the Ginsberg poem to discuss sex as an anti-political act, pausing to consider the misogyny inherent in the stanza about the 'three shrews'.

After last week's heated, and very necessary, discussion of structural and personal racism, the class was almost relaxing. There were no deep divides on matters of sexuality to be seen, so the poem's targets and structure were sufficiently distant from the students' immediate lives to be safe topics, which is a mark of progress I guess, considering that Howl was once banned for obscenity. I hope the students got more out of it other than marvelling at my musical tastes, but time will tell. We had our course committee the day before and several people said how sad they were that this module was coming to an end. I am too, but economic austerity has sadly led to educational and intellectual austerity.

As to the rest of the week: I had the pleasure of going up to Keele University to see the Women of Keele Educate (WOKE, geddit?) host Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, who was very impressive personally, politically and intellectually. There was another of my regular punishment beatings from the dentist, and a little bit of reading: I finished TC Boyle's environmental bildungsroman A Friend of the Earth which though a bit lumpy seemed all too sad and prophetic after twenty years since publication: while the central protagonist comes to term with failure, his fury at environmentalist leaders' slow corruption from activists to gradualists really chimed with recent history. It was a pleasure to whip through the latest collection of Steve Bell's scabrous Guardian cartoons, The Corbyn Resurrection, and I read the final volume of Dave Hutchinson's Europe quartet, Europe at Dawn. The series is semi-fantasy examinations of the nature of states and nations: there's a semi-fantasy premise in which a slightly-future Europe has dissolved into ever-more fissiparous city-states, ethnically-exclusive enclaves and various other polities, requiring a clandestine organisation called Les Coureurs des Bois to negotiate borders and laws in constant flux. Meanwhile, a posh South-western family has in the nineteenth-century learned to make pocket universes, and founded a Community which preserves a kind of 1930s white English rural society in all its poorly-nourished, paranoid glory and develops the ability to hold Europe to ransom. If you're thinking there's a hint of Brexitty satire in there, you'd be right. Anyway, I like them very much: the series has all the qualities of the best SF or fantasy, being both politically thought-provoking and page-turning. I've now started Declan Kiberd's magisterial Inventing Ireland and Andrew Tate's Apocalyptic Fiction, which should keep me going for a while.

Enjoy your weekend. I'll be mournfully watching Ireland almost-but-not-quite beat New Zealand.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Should I Be Talking to BME People About Race?

I've just come out of one of the most intense classes I've ever been involved with and thought it might be worth mentioning, even though I'll have to skirt around some aspects to preserve students' confidences and identities.

I run a module which looks at literary and cultural responses to a number of liberation movements: mostly literature but occasionally other media. It has flaws: like all modules, there's too little time to do too much and I made the decision – perhaps erroneously – to cover several movements rather than devote the module to, for example, African-American civil rights, or gay liberation. It feels, therefore, a touch if-it's-Thursday-it-must-be-feminism about it, really just skimming the surface and it obviously reflects my interests. Not ideal, but I wanted students to get their hands on as many texts as possible that they might never otherwise see. We look at two proletarian/socialist novels, Gwyn Thomas's The Alone to the Alone and Lewis Jones's Cwmardy, Virginia Woolf's 'Three Guineas' and Valerie Solanas's Manifesto of the Society for Cutting Up Men, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Ginsberg's Howl, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Tony Harrison's poem 'V', Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club.

It's a small second-year class - 19 when everyone turns up, and I know all the regular attenders well from first-year, except for the Erasmus students. Only one student is male, virtually everyone is the first person in their family to attend university, there's a fair age range, and the students' ethnic origins are very diverse – much more so than you'd get in an Oxford college for instance. Basically, they reflect the local community and this institution's stated intention of making HE available to all.

Each week, I expect the students to have read the week's text(s) and we start with a sub-group presenting their perspectives. They're asked to build in opportunities for discussion, and part of the overall grade depends on participation in other groups' presentations. That means everyone has to read all the books and contribute in the way they'd expect others to contribute to their own week. Nobody can hide at the back or ride freely.

Some weeks the texts seem impossibly distanced from the students' lives. Cwmardy and The Alone to the Alone aroused considerable debate, but the days of autonomous, organised mass working-class politics sounded fantastic to them, depending as it does on mass employment, industrial economies and less atomised communities. All of the students have jobs, but unionisation is either a mystery to them or a privilege of middle-class, securely-employed people like me. A lot of students liked 'Three Guineas' but found Woolf's (self-admitted) concern for upper bourgeois women limiting: Manifesto led to a huge discussion about men and sexism in their own lives, but the rhetorical aspects of Solanas's work, especially the humour, was missed. Last week we looked at Invisible Man, the 1950s classic of one man's attempt to be himself when neither his black community, the Communist Party nor white society would ever see him as anything other than a type or a representative. All the discussions were lively, sometimes going on for 90 minutes without me having to say much at all, and the students' engagement was serious, passionate and thoughtful (even though at least one person initially read The Invisible Man before realising her mistake!). It's also an education for me, intellectually and emotionally. I'm essentially Privilege personified: every week I teach people who don't look, act or sound like me about texts in which the people who do look, sound and behave like me are justifiably the enemy. All the things I'm reading about in the abstract are being experienced by my students in their daily lives.

This week was Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and Reni Eddo-Lodge's book, starting with a presentation by three white continental European students from different countries about the latter text. All the terms that have swirled around in current debates came to a head, particularly 'white privilege'. Even requiring students to read a book with this title, and talk about the word in class, is an act of white, gendered, class privilege: while I've been the target of local media ire in the past, I can't help thinking that a black colleague – if we had any – would face accusations of indoctrination by the forces of reaction.We talked about discourse and representation, about media coverage and about 'black racism'. Students discussed their personal lives, the murders of close friends, their experiences in schools and relationships and tried to fit them into the racialised structures identified by Eddo-Lodge and Scott-Heron. We talked about why I and my colleagues don't look like the student body in terms of sex, gender, class and race, and we looked at the notorious White Saviour advert the university deployed in the summer (which I ridiculed in an earlier blog post). The discussion quite often became an argument and I tried hard, not completely successfully, to encourage students to express themselves honestly while thinking about the impact of their language choices and assumptions.

One of the things that came out is the huge amount of emotional and intellectual labour needed to discuss these things. When we discussed representations of BME characters in fiction, we talked about the way their plots always relate to their ethnic identity, or they're always bad guys: the BME students made it very clear how utterly exhausting it is to live – like the nameless protagonist of Invisible Man – as a type or an issue rather than a person. Conversely, my white students had to work hard too: Lodge's book in particular demands that white people examine their lives and fortunes as the product of structural racism rather than individual good or bad luck or effort. One student needed a break to calm down after some ill-chosen words struck home, while we all struggled to relate anecdote to systemic issues. Voices were raised and I frequently had to consider the tensions between free speech, full exchanges of views and the nature of offence. 'Safe space' is a much-abused concept these days, but we all had to think about it, and I had to consider the ways in which the power I wielded in that classroom is a product of my own multiple privileges, and whether I was wielding it responsibly (I did encourage revolt though). One of my slides simply asked 'should I be in the room?'.

I've never left a three hour class before so sure that we could have carried on literally all day, but I'm also left with doubts and concerns, particularly about my duty of care towards them. I'm thrilled that my students felt able to say what they think to each other; I'm not sure that all the wounds will heal, and the hard labour involved falls disproportionately on those from subaltern positions. There are wounds, and many of the students were clearly reassessing their own perspectives and others' as the class went on. I genuinely don't know whether the pain involved justified requiring them to read and consider these texts. One student very much felt that the opportunity to talk about these things in the open was exactly what a university should be doing, but I'm sure that others felt that either their own lives were post-racial, or that they might be expected to speak as representatives of their own ethnicities. All lives are texts, I suggested, but a classroom shouldn't become a psychologist's couch with the students and teachers as the psychologist. I'm not from a culture that shares much (ugh), but that means that if I weren't a perpetually-worried academic, I probably wouldn't interrogate my behaviours and their contexts much either: while my students have a very full range of personal and political perspectives, they're much happier to discuss them without filter as the kids say.

It comes down to power. I have it, they largely don't. I used it to make them confront themselves and others through the medium of these texts. If I hadn't, would they have had the opportunity to consider these issues? Is it OK to invite BME students to publicly address their experience in the interest of educating those from the dominant group, or is it empowering to given them and the others the opportunity to locate their personal experiences within structures and systems? At the very least, we can't just 'do' this subject in one class and move on: it's got to be part of a long, serious conversation.

Any thoughts?

Friday, 2 November 2018

In haste…

Way too busy for a substantial blog post this week! Some good news though: not a single near-death experience on the roads: it's half-term!

It's not all been work though. After seeing my friends in an am-dram Poirot play, a bunch of us went to see The Comedy of Errors (hilarious misunderstandings involving two pairs of long-lost twins) at the RSC in Stratford at the ungodly hour of 10.15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Even more barbaric, it was a children's version! I had visions of it being a modern-language attempt to be down with the kids, with all the filthy bits stripped out, but it turned out to be rather a triumph. All the saucy lines were kept in at high speed so the kids didn't get a chance to ponder what they'd just heard, the actors were hugely energetic and the audience interaction was beautifully done, especially the recruitment of a random little boy to play the arresting officer, complete with cape and a script. The cast also made sure he was called back for the final bow too. With no interval and a few judicious cuts, it worked beautifully - lots of high speed slapstick, some adult jokes for the parents and all wrapped up satisfyingly (except for Luciana, whom you'd normally expect to be married off to a spare twin) before lunchtime, which meant I got on the outside of an espresso martini or two several hours in advance of my normal drinking habits.

The other cultural highlight of the week was a visit by the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley. I'm an NS subscriber quite often despite my better judgement: I like Laurie Penny, Helen Lewis, Tracey Thorn and the arts coverage in general, but I find the political coverage increasingly tedious. As Cowley said, he's covered what he called 'jihadism' in depth, leading him to some very dubious conclusions in my view, and the magazine also seems to be obsessed with Englishness, unionism (state, not trade) and the virtues of Christianity to an unhealthily muscular degree. Cowley had an interesting route to the editorship and he's fostered some excellent and forward-thinking writers, but his talk reflected his general approach: well-meaning liberalism almost incapable of considering the world from any view other than that of the decent cosmopolitan London chap: his political horizon is white and male and his Britain is actually middle-class southern England. The rest of us feature largely as puzzling ingrates.

Anyway, it was an interesting and thoughtful talk apart from the blokey football banter  Like the NS, there's a slight sense that Cowley's political perspective is like that of a man who can't understand why his wife has left him but knows it isn't his fault because he's a decent chap. Well-meaning, but shocked that the right isn't interested in common sense and decency any more, and faintly appalled by the brusqueness and energy of the left. To his enormous credit, Cowley acknowledged that NS took a long time to understand Corbyn's Labour Party, explaining that they never expected such energy, enthusiasm and fresh ideas from a group of people who'd been fixtures on the back-benches for decades, and that he made an effort to recruit writers and thinkers with whom he disagrees. I still haven't forgiven him for the magazine's disgraceful attempts to get Ed Miliband overthrown though - a clear case of stepping over the line between commentator and player.

As to the rest of the week, teaching has been fun (for me, anyway: the students may have a different view). Hamlet (apparently renaming Ophelia Opheliaarrggghhh in honour of Hallowe'en isn't funny), which somehow led me towards an ill-advised comparison with Team America: World Police (NSFW), and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The student leading the discussion was both honest and hilarious when she confessed to having bought and read The Invisible Man before realising her mistake – the HG Wells novel is kind of fun but very far removed from Ellison's civil rights classic!

It's on a module I lead on literary responses to protest and resistance movements – socialism, feminism, civil rights and so on. One of the great things about it is that it's an all-women group with a minority of white people: introducing such a group to works of literature about them by people like them and hearing how they relate to them (highly unpredictably, I should say) is a privilege, and a frequent reminder of my own social and cultural privilege, but also really enjoyable. Some weeks the student-led discussion takes over the whole slot, which is when I know it's been a success. Next week should be very interesting: Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Obviously we're starting with a conversation about that word, who gets to say and define it, and how to deal with it in the context of a literary discussion, which should prove instructive. It's a great novel too - examining the cultural and political divide between the gradualist civil rights leaders who led historically-black universities and the angry 1960s students fed up with playing nice (a divide which also appears in Invisible Man twenty years earlier). Scott-Heron was on a leave of absence from university when he wrote it - long before he became a jazz/rap/poetry star.

Here's Gil Scott-Heron's famous song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: I love his work and that of his group, The Last Poets, but quite a lot of it reveals the gaping holes in their liberationist philosophy - women and homosexual men come off particularly badly in songs like 'Gashman', for instance.

Other than that, I haven't had much time for reading. I finished Jonathan Coe's Middle England and enjoyed it very much while wondering whether its Condition-of-England theme really suited the concurrent conclusion of the Trotters' family saga. As always with Coe, I couldn't point at a paragraph or two of really stylish narrative, but the dialogue is absolutely spot on, as is the comic timing. Even when you can spot the punchline coming a mile off, the jokes are beautifully wrought, as are some of the set-pieces, like the feuding clowns. A moment of appreciation for the dust jacket designer too, who came up with a 1930s-50s style bucolic scene in watercolour like something from a Shell Guide, crudely ripped away to reveal a blankness where Englishness (that word again) was once thought to reside.

Special Editions | Waterstones

I also forced myself to finish John Buchan's astonishingly racist and imperialist African adventure novel Prester John, which might find its way on to my upcoming module on migration and emigration, and I've started T. C. Boyle's 2001 environmental comedy-tragedy A Friend of the Earth starring Tyrone Tierwater, 'half-Irish, half-Jewish' and therefore comically grumpy. It's less funny in 2018 than Boyle may have expected, given the speed with which his predictions have come true. I'v seen Boyle's work around for years but never got round to reading any and so far I'm enjoying it.

See you next week.