Friday, 21 December 2018

Vole's Occasionally Festive nearly Fifty

Well here I am in the office alone, because the student who asked for a tutorial has stood me up, and all of my colleagues are curled up in their nests or out digging up acorns.

It's been an odd week. On Tuesday I had to represent someone at a disciplinary hearing, which turned into a version of one of the cheaper courtroom dramas on ITV3. Within 5 minutes of walking in I found myself reading out sections of the procedure to the chair and the HR lackey, neither of whom had apparently familiarised themselves with their own regulations. Two minutes after that I was heard to say 'don't answer that' and we walked out in the most corduroy version of a mic drop ever seen. Yesterday was a slightly happier encounter: finishing the year by examining a Creative Writing PhD thesis. These consist of a lengthy original work, a critical section on the literary context and a theorised self-evaluation. While we gave the candidate a good grilling over his theoretical contextualisation, the external and I were deeply moved by the novella, a polyphonic, destabilised retelling told entirely in Black Country dialect of the locally infamous and unexplained murder of 'Bella', an anonymous woman whose skeleton was found stuffed into a wych-elm in 1943. The cliché of PhD vivas is that they should be enjoyable conversations between the only three or four people who'll ever read your work with such close attention, but I genuinely think that was the case yesterday. The external examiner was Luke Kennard, a really talented poet and novelist in his own right, and it was a privilege to listen to two authors discuss the creative process with a keen critical eye. My contribution was largely centred on punctuation, but every little helps.

So rather than tackle any of the mountains of work I still have to do, I thought I'd look back on the various records I've bought and in most cases enjoyed this year. Despite my young GTA dividing my musical tastes into 'boring background music' (the classical stuff) and 'not as good as Ariana Grande' (inc. Kate Bush, Portishead and Massive Attack) I think it's been quite a good year. So in reverse order of purchase:

1. Suede, The Blue Hour. I bought this on vinyl, so marks are knocked off for not providing a download version for mobile/office listening. It's beautiful, and reflective: Suede have aged gracefully and thoughtfully, rather than trying to reclaim their youth.
2. Audiobooks, Now (In a Minute): I've always loved David Wrench's work, from Nid Madagascar to the bilingual (Welsh) folk-goth of Blow Winds Blow to the horny pop of The Atomic World of Tomorrow and all the collaborations he's been involved in.

Audiobooks is the result of his move to London and a chance meeting with a young art student called Evangeline Ling. It's another late flowering - having made a career mostly from producing other people's records, Wrench records albums at odd intervals seemingly for fun rather than profit, but this one really deserves to be a hit. It's funny - as the Welsh in-joke of the title promises - but it's also catchy and funky dance music.
3. Per Norgard, Symphonies 3 and 7. I'd missed Norgard's existence until this year, when a review in the Guardian mentioned the 3rd symphony as a good choral piece. They were right - it's contemporary classical that uses interesting rhythmic patterns to produce something that's uncanny without being unbearably abstract.
4. Julian Anderson, Book of Hours - Choral Music: some of this is beautiful without being memorable, but I really fell for the 'Four American Choruses', which push choral music beyond the familiar sounds and structures you get on Classic FM or daytime Radio 3.

5. Andrew Kirkman and the Binchois Consort, The Lily and the Rose. I much prefer medieval music to the Baroque and Classical period - early music can be a bit rougher and earthier, until it was captured by the church and princes and prettified. This CD is mostly of religious music, but it's full of life, and doesn't sound like the aural equivalent of the Sealed Knot society.
6. Philip Glass, Hydrogen Jukebox. I'm still not entirely convinced that minimalist/post-minimalist opera can or should be a thing, but 'Wichita Vortex Sutra' has never been far from my turntable, so I bought this patchy but intriguing opera to hear what happens when Ginsberg and Glass get together. It's still growing on me, but I am starting to love it. I played 'Wichita…' to my students this year. I can't say they were immediately converted to Beat poetry and minimalism but neither did they race for the exit.

7. The Breath, Let The Cards Fall. Not as rough as the folk I really love (think Unthanks) but this is a superb example of modern Anglo-Irish sort-of folk music with not a hint of nostalgia.
8. Chris Isaak, 'Wicked Game'. It was stuck in my head and I've never owned a copy. It's good!
9. Tori Amos, Boys for Pele. I'm literally two decades late, as this is the 20th Anniversary re-release. I'd only heard the club remix of 'Professional Widow', so not bothered with her stuff. Turns out she's like Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Joanna Newsome and PJ Harvey, i.e a musical polymath, a poetic turn of phrase and a singular vision. A bit of a revelation to me.
10. The Master Musicians of Dyffryn Moor, Cerddoriaeth Ddefodol Gogledd Sir Benfro (Ritual Music of North Pembrokeshire). Tipped off by a friend who heard Huw Stephens play some of this on 6Music, I bought it, attracted by its witty song titles, to discover that it's an album of beautiful twisted folk-pop instrumentals. Even more pleasing was the discovery that one of the musicians is Owen Martell, the brilliant Welsh-language novelist, critic and translator I invited to the university a year or two ago.

11. Alison Statton and Spike, Bimini Twist. Statton was the singer in Young Marble Giants, who recorded one amazing album in the 80s then split up: this is a lovely though inessential record.
12. Pulp, It, Separations and Freaks. I'd forgotten how much I loved pre-fame Pulp until I bought electronic copies of these albums to horrify my office colleagues. 'My Legendary Girlfriend' and 'This House is Condemned' will astonish you.

13. The Nightingales, Perish the Thought. Disclosure: I'm friends with most of the band and quite a few of their ex-members too. That aside, they get better and better. This one's a compulsive rush of social commentary over the top of their most grumpily catchy tunes ever.
14. Norma Waterson and Liza Carthy, Anchor: the best folk musicians of their generations get together and wipe the floor with everyone.
15. Susanna, Go Dig My Grave: Scandinavian, hushed goth-ish chamber pop. Like being told a particularly good ghost story during a power cut - and it's a covers album of very unexpected songs.
16. Dubh Chapter, Silence, Cunning and Exile. For years I've had a solitary battered 7" of their single 'Happy is the Bride'. On a whim I got hold of the LP and it's lovely - pre-Britpop goth-tinged guitar pop. They should have made it big.
17. Low, Double Negative. A Mormon married couple plus a bassist who turn out albums featuring close-harmony rock about spiritual torment every couple of years: what's not to love? Seriously, I've loved Low since the mid-90s and while they build on their sound every time in surprising ways, they just get better and better. See them whenever you get a chance: they're mesmeric live. Another album of the year.
18. Daniel Bachman, The Morning Star. Not sure how to categorise this, but it's got guitars and folk tunings and found sounds. Like a particularly unstructured dream. Wonderful.
19. Chvrches, Love is Dead. I thought I was hip when I bought their last album, but the kids laughed at me. This follow-up is less immediate but it's cool and compulsive Scottish synth-pop.
20. Gruff Rhys, Babelsberg. Like Euros Childs's records, I'll get everything Rhys does. Not everything is a success, but all his records are interesting. I'm filing this one under fascinating: orchestral pop with a scathing view of contemporary America.
21. Stuart Staples, Arrhythmia. Staples is the lead singer of another of my enduring favourites, Tindersticks. This is a more personal record, but it hasn't made such an impression on me yet.
22. Mazzy Star, Still. An unexpected comeback in EP form. I expected hushed beauty and ethereality. I got it.
23. Joan as Police Woman, Damned Devotion. I always think of her and Regina Spektor as working in similar ways: classically-influenced, mistresses of the distorted torch song, should be more well-known.
24. The Nightingales with Vic Godard, 'Commercial Suicide Man'. A fun one-off collaboration.
25. Adwaith, 'Femme' (hilariously sarcastic attack on how teenage girls are kept down), 'Pwysau', 'Fel i Fod', 'Haul' - four singles from the future of Welsh-language indie.
26. Steve Reich, Pulse/Quartet. I'm trying to collect everything Reich has written. Pulse is new, and actually doesn't add much to his canon, but the Colin Currie Group do a great job.
27. Cavern of Anti-Matter, Hormone Lemonade: post-Stereolab warm electro dance genius. I may be alone on this one.
28. Joni Mitchell, For The Roses and Song to a Seagull: obviously everything JM did before about 1983 is amazing. I already knew this because I have these on vinyl, but I wanted download versions for those times when I'm dragged away from my record player. 
29. Kate Whitley, I Am, I Say. I bought this because I love viola concertos. Very glad I did: clearly a rising star in the classical world.
30. Paul Giger, Ignis - another contemporary-ish classical composer bought on the strength of 'Organum' popping up on Radio 3. Immersive.
31. Winchester College Quiristers, Three Wings. This is great: Perry is a contemporary composer who took a load of 14th-century plainchant and added washes of electronica. It could have been Enigma. It isn't.
32. Yo La Tengo, There's a Riot Going On. Only a polite one though. I love YLT very much: slacker harmonies and the occasional wig-out. This time with pop hooks! Saw them live in the spring and had a great time.
33. Breeders, All Nerve. Yes they're still going, and yes they're still providing good time guitar pop.
34. Various, Trans Limen ad Lumen. Lovely choral album, mostly bought for Giger's Tenebrae.
35. Levellers, Levellers and Levelling the Land. Saw them live once. Hated them. Listened to them as an undergrad: loved them. Didn't pay them any attention for another 20 years (or so) until I started teaching texts loosely based around the 1988 Summer of Love and the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield and decided the kids should hear the soundtrack to the last time their predecessors really freaked out the grownups. How I wish those days would return. With fewer didgeridoos this time.
36. Pauline Oliveros, The Roots of the Moment. I've been looking for the overlooked women in the minimalist/post-minimalist movement. Oliveros represents the best of 60s idealism, and her music is a magical blend of minimalism, drone and harmonica. Absolutely hypnotic.

37. John Adams, The Gospel According to the Other Mary. See previous comments about minimalist opera. Must keep trying with this one.
38. Grace Williams, Sea Sketches and Symphony No. 2: overlooked mid 20th-century Welsh composer. Lovely, but a bit conservative compared with what was going on in France and elsewhere. Just as good as her male British contemporaries. 2nd Symphony is really, really good though.
39. Simon Holt, A Table of Noises. Does what it says on the tin: quietly challenging contemporary classical percussion. A real discovery for me.
40. Powerplant, Electric Counterpoint and other pieces. Powerplant is Joby Burgess, a guy who does electronically-enhanced percussion music, sometimes on instruments he's invented: this CD includes some Steve Reich, Kraftwerk and other pieces. We saw him live at the start of the year and loved the way he made their music do something else entirely. He also did a live tape-looping piece using members of the audience that was thrilling to be part of (not that he asked me to contribute). Bah.

I've listened to a lot more music than this: these are just this year's purchases. Taken together, they show me how my tastes and interests are changing. A bit less folk than previous years, but more interesting ones. A lot more female artists and composers - partly because I've been deliberately seeking them out. Virtually all British, European or American, which isn't good. Also, almost completely white, which reflects badly on me, my ingrained cultural preferences and my sources of new music but also on the industry, particularly the classical world. I'm not going to list all the music by black people I own because it's the equivalent of 'Some of my best friends…' but I am struck by quite how exclusive this year's purchases have been. Something to think about next year, definitely.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, 14 December 2018

'…secret and self-contained as an oyster'.

You find me relatively full of festive cheer today. Despite spending an hour in the ring with my vindictive dentist – someone clearly prey to fits of irrrational violence – on Wednesday, the week has mostly been rather pleasant. The last class before Christmas is always an opportunity for reflection, and all the awkwardness of previous weeks (chiefly the chilly moment of silence after making grades available) is forgotten. We're a bit beyond the school-level technique of sticking on an inappropriate video, but there is something lovely about receiving the occasional card, enormous quantities of all the things the dentist has forbidden me to touch,  and wishing students well.

It's properly goodbye to most of the Erasmus students: with only a week of tutorials left after Christmas, they're taking their chances and saving their Euro by submitting work early and not returning. One of my French students yesterday told me that she'd enjoyed my module so much that she was going to recommend it to her successors. Sadly, the module is being abolished (we're struggling with staffing levels) but I appreciated the sentiment. The same student announced during the seminar that her home university had been shut down by student protests: the cause of the protest was unknown. Admirable. I very much subscribe to the view that universities have become slick, controlled consumer experiences that need a hefty dose of rebellion to keep them honest. There's something sickening about obedience in young people. Obviously that view is hopelessly middle class: most student resistance is led by people with economic and cultural capital rather than – as my students mostly are – those who are first in their families to reach HE and struggling economically. That said, some of them are political and principled (in various directions) so there's hope for the occasional occupation yet. The response to my attempts to decolonise the curriculum was fairly passionate, so perhaps that will kick something off.

Mind you, it's not just me being middle-class, it's age too: I remember my own tutors teasing us for not having half the arrest records and scars they'd acquired as students, and now here I am bemoaning subsequent generations' apathy. Age is on my mind not only because my teeth have voted for Mexit, but because we looked at Fight Club (the novel: I've never seen the film) yesterday, and the students repeatedly ascribed its attitude to its ancient historical context ('in those days', 'back then' and so on): it was published in 1997. We weren't quite communicating by drum and dragging each other round by the hair: I had a mobile phone and had sent several emails by then. In one of my more cynical moments a few years ago I constructed the Student Historical Timeline: it goes Dinosaurs-Tudors-Nazis-Grandparents-Now. In slight mitigation, one of the things my students often say is that the more the do at university, the more they realise was missed out at school in the pursuit of exam passes and league table rankings. I do rather enjoy introducing them to all the fun/subversive/unexpected things the British did and wrote when their masters weren't paying sufficient attention.

Other than work, I"m hard-pressed to decide whether the ongoing Brexit saga and Donald Trump's legal counts as tragedy or farce. On the one hand, two major nations are deliberately consigning themselves to the trashcan of history by self-immolation: on the other, there's something delicious about discovering how fragile hegemony really is. The Early Modernists (like Tracey Hill) will tell you that the exercise of power depended on performance rather more than action: Brexit and America's neo-monarchist presidency demonstrate that the two states only function if you don't look under the hood. The least stress and the mechanisms fail and some deeply unpleasant attitudes – such as Tory views of the Irish – come slithering out. For the British, it's the culmination of the establishment resistance to philosophy and conscious political organisation: making a virtue of pragmatism is all very well when you're making the weather, but without a clear set of principles based on higher beliefs than a general distrust of the unwashed and the foreign, the ramshackle set of institutions that make up the British state are revealed to be incapable of either resisting the more atavistic leanings of the gammons, or of responding to the complexities of interdependent international politics (known in Whitehall as Bloody Foreigners). If I wasn't living here and facing imminent economic and social collapse I'd probably enjoy watching all my suspicions about our overlords proved correct, but here I am, and despite being an Irish citizen, the combined efforts of various Irish university recruitment officers and my own failings mean that here I will remain for some time yet, sharing the wintry blessings of Going It Alone. However, having  been condemned to watch it all play out, I'm determined to get as much amusement from government shenanigans as possible. When I find some, I'll let you know. Until then: cold fury.

There have been compensations recently. Lego Masters has been a delight, and I've been reading escapist nonsense. I finished one 500 page volume of EF Benson's Edwardian Mapp and Lucia stories the other day. They're like a delicious, over-rich box of cheap chocoates: too many in one go will make you sick, but it's hard not to keep dipping in and reading another in the interminable merry-go-round of of small-town rivalries between genteel monsters. I also realised that my book-buying and reading has become slightly problematic when I found myself at a loose end in town the other day with – horror of horrors – nothing to read. I might have strolled around admiring architecture or making conversation with fellow citizens, but all I could think of to do, bearing in mind that I own nearly 6000 books including two rooms of unread ones, was to buy another book to fill that 40 minutes. It turned out to be Christopher Brookmyre's Places in the Darkness – I'd read one of his crime comedies years ago and not thought much of it, but this novel filled the gap nicely: it's essentially a 1930s Chandler-esque noir thriller crossed with Bladerunner…in space. If, like me, you think that any text or title can be improved by the addition of in space*, it's a winner: efficiently constructed, decent pace, intelligent: I know it sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but I did enjoy it as an excellent example of genre fiction (I also enjoyed Jeff Noon's pomo-SF-noir thriller The Body in the Library and Adam Robert's loving pastiches The Real-Town Murders and By The Pricking Of Her Thumb). Well worth £2. The other novel I read was Patricia Duncker's Sophie and the Sibyl - I'd seen my GTA enjoy reading it for her MA module on Neovictorianism and thought it sounded good: it's a very conscious postmodern pastiche of the Victorian romance form, using George Eliot and GH Lewes as protagonists, frequently interrupted by a narrator who has it in for John Fowles, who of course wrote his own postmodern pastiche of the Victorian novel (and its impossibility) in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Obviously it could be improved by becoming Sophie and the Sibyl… In Space, but it's a rattling good read which makes mediocre literary theorists like me feel very sophisticated by playing with form wittily. I won't have much time for non-work reading over the next few weeks thanks to a PhD viva on Thursday, another one at the end of January,  and a book review to write (leaving aside all the lectures I need to write and marking I need to do) but I'll fit in a few more. I'm about to start Richard Williams's Mostyn Thomas and the Big Rave, on the recommendation of an extremely eminent Welsh-language cultural theorist with zero interest in disco biscuits and gabba, and it looks fun. It's about time someone wrote a cultural history of the rave movement but it won't be me: I always hated the music and don't like drugs that make you feel like you love everyone because I'm a crabby, bitter old git. After that, I'm going to read Ernest Bramah's 1907 What Might Have Been, a deeply reactionary fantasy of a Conservative guerrilla resistance movement against the jackbooted Labour government. It's basically an Edwardian Red Dawn. I'm also going to dip into EBB's Aurora Leigh: it's got a reputation for being didactic and boring, but there are flashes of weirdness (often in the syntax) that remind me just a little of Emily Dickinson. How am I going to find time for all this? Well, I'm relying on my annual Christmas present from my darling nephews and nieces. In return for an array of outrageous gifts from me, they habitually present me the very latest bacterial infections. Last week's Stephen Collins cartoon felt horribly familiar.

So anyway, merry Christmas to one and all.

*Go on, try it: Martin Chuzzlewit… In Space. The Mill on the Floss… In Space. The Anti-Federalist Papers… In Space. A Brief History of Time… In Space. The Joy of Sex… In Space. Delia's Meals for One… In Space. And if you don't believe me, it's a tried and tested pop culture manoeuvre. What is Battlestar Galactica but the Aeneid (plus some Mormon elements) In Space, while Gene Roddenbury called Star Trek 'Wagon Train in space'.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Welcome to the Land of Do-As-You-Please

Well, it took me until Tuesday night to submit 17 amended Course Specification Templates (see last weeks's despairing rant), laboriously typed out because the Quality Control Unit could only send me locked PDF documents. You can probably imagine my joy when I discovered that said locked PDFs were actually so out of date that quite a lot of the work I did turned out to be all for naught. Reader, my stress dreams were replaced that night with delightful visions of certain bureaucrats being roasted to a crisp by a grinning demon.

Thankfully, there have been compensations for the relentless grinding misery of such duties, though sadly cold hard cash is not amongst them: subject leadership does not attract an increment despite it being the exact opposite of what anybody gets into academia for. However, the compensations include spending time with actual students. There are stresses and strains within and between groups of the little darlings: hard-working v. slackers, mature v. young, local v incomers and various others divisions, and the pressure of heading towards the finishing line is showing amongst the final-year ones, but after a couple of weeks of tension during which my tissues box needed replenishing more than once, peace appears to have broken out and my own classes have been a delight. This week I taught Book 9 of Paradise Lost to the second years, who once again amazed and impressed me with their willingness to engage with tough material without the benefit of any secondary-level literary or cultural context. A-level English and History seem to ignore what was once called the English Civil War and its causes and effects almost entirely. That said, this week's class showed me what acute and subtle critics reside in the ranks, aided by a barnstorming lecture from one of my esteemed colleagues. I have to say that despite everything Milton's friends did to Ireland and my residual Catholicism, I fall harder for Paradise Lost's literary qualities and philosophical underpinning's with every passing year.

File:Paradise Lost 1.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The other text I taught this year was Moore and Lloyd's V for Vendetta, the graphic novel of a dystopian, fascist Britain which appeared fitfully throughout the 80s and was badly filmed a few years ago, spawning the fashion for Guy Fawkes masks amongst junior demonstrators indifferent to the irony of doing something plastic made by Chinese near-slaves for the profit of Warner Brothers (there's a whole module available on the legal complexities of comic book rights and Moore's ongoing war with Marvel and/or DC at any given time.

Graphic Novel Review: V for Vendetta – Snuggly Oranges

It's not a total leap from Milton to Moore: the older text informs V for Vendetta on several levels, from a protagonist's name to Moore's anti-patriarchal politics: where Milton's text mourns the Expulsion while guiltily celebrating the knowledge acquired by original sin, the graphic novel is a militant celebration of intellectual rebellion (and actual violent rebellion too, just like Milton). It's a superb text partly because it's seriously revolutionary: while the woke fanboys have picked up on the text's aesthetics, it's an intelligent argument for anarchy – the ideology, not just chaos. Part of Moore's continuous attempt to knock the hero off his pedestal, V behaves unspeakably cruelly towards his protegée Evey in order, he says, to release her from 'happiness…the most insidious prison'. His view is essentially a mix of Morris, Kropotkin and Gramsci. The book details his disillusionment with the contiguity of Law and Justice, and with the instruments of hegemony: the Church, sit-coms and soaps, the news, political institutions and the 'justice' system. The novel starts with V killing a group of rapist police officers; he then gleefully blows up the Houses of Parliament and the Old Bailey, but the core of the novel is his treatment of Evey, the teenage girl he rescues from the police. Gently rejecting her sexual advances, he breaks her Freudian conditioning, educates her in film, books, music and art (all banned under the new regime), before expelling her then subjecting her to physical and psychological torture until she is 'free' of all illusions about the nature of society. V violently brings down the tyranny, deliberately allowing himself to die in the process, insisting that while violence is necessary to bring about change, the perpetrators should have no place in the post-revolutionary society to come: people like Evey should take their places. It's also a lot of fun: Moore has a rich, dark sense of humour and is astonishingly well-read: you could spend hours tracking down every reference, from Enid Blyton (The Land of Do-As-You-Please comes from The Faraway Tree), Thomas Pynchon to The Road to Morocco, and he even got one of Bauhaus to write a cabaret song for it, incorporating the notation into the text. I've put together clips of all the music and songs reference in the novel: there are also loads of books and plays quoted or referred to).

Amongst all the militant, provocative texts I've taught recently, it's the most shocking to many of my students, more so every year. While many of them hail from societies which have had revolutions or civil wars within living memory, most (including me) have had no direct experience of such things, and have never had to address the philosophical justifications for violence – we've educated a generation to assume both that bombing wedding parties from a cubicle somewhere in Oxfordshire doesn't matter (or doesn't happen), and that affluent white societies are the primary victims of violence. Where I differ from most of my students though is that I remember a time when 'terrorism' wasn't a word applied by bureaucrats to any radical impulse (though extreme capitalism and state violence are still exempt), that got int he way of realpolitik, especially those espoused by brown people. I can remember decent English people recognising that there were indeed two (or more!) sides to the Troubles, and Western governments proudly supporting Islamist jihadis in Afghanistan…when convenient. My students are subject to so much silent surveillance, from the CCTV cameras that infest the university campus to the 'Prevent' training all academics undergo to equip them to Spot A Bad'Un And Dob Them In (they phrase it differently but it doesn't take a Foucauldian to spot what they're up to).

V for Vendetta works really well for getting this kind of discussion going because it's accessible without being simplistic or morally evasive. Moore and Lloyd are interested in the role of culture in hegemonic systems, and they care about emotion and the unquantifiable qualities of life: love, joy, autonomy: underneath the cold-eyed espousal of violent methods is a utopian impulse that I've long felt has been lacking on the left in particular. The Labour Party's infamous Controls On Immigration mug sounded the death knell for faith in a confident, altruistic socialism.

Immigration policy needs to be more than a campaign mug ...

Where Morris and a range of other 19th-century socialists believed that The People were capable of cultural, artistic and communal fulfilment (though the Perfectibility of Man is what conservatives say led communism to build gulags), New Labour and its acolytes adopted the classic conservative perspective which held that people were brutes, having rarely actually met any. Conservatives believe in Big Government to restrain our brutish impulses: the true cynicism of New Labour was to go one step further by harnessing those impulses by directing their imagined people's ire at immigrants, the fabled benefits cheats and the like. For Moore, Lloyd and other inheritors of Victorian anarchism, the moral was that all governments, even the well-meaning socialist ones, are based on distrust of the people's empathetic and organisational capabilities. Socialist governments justified their existence by claiming to be the practical expression of the people's determination to distribute goods and services equally, a view I generally adhere to, but the anarchist view holds that governments at best outsource our moral duty to each other and at worst end up arrogating all power and authority to themselves in the name of unjustified self-perpetuation. The difference between anarchism and libertarianism is that anarchists think we're innately good and will care for and respect each other once the initial shock of freedom has worn off and the bonds of surly obedience have been loosed; libertarians reject the idea of mutuality in toto and believe in every man or woman for his or herself.

I don't know. I'm hugely attracted to the principle of humanity's innate goodness, but the daily news suggests that we are selfish brutes: the way we're polluting ourselves and multiple other species to death suggests that we're incapable of behaving responsibly at all even when doom is staring us in the face. Then again, no current form of political organisation has found a way to address it either. I still believe in humanity's general altruism, though perhaps it's only manifested under particular and rare conditions, but I also think that an effective collective decision-making structure with the ability to get things done is necessary, and we may as well call that a government.

Well, this has taken a gloomier turn than I expected when I started mashing the keyboard. Good things have been happening. We hosted a talk by Jessica George on Weird Fiction the other night – she's an expert on Lovecraft and Machen, whose understanding of humanity's cosmic insignificance is, depending on how you look at it, even more depressing than my musings, or paradoxically liberating. It doesn't matter what we do to ourselves and our planet, HPL would feel: the universe is entirely indifferent. Which certainly puts my wrestling with Course Specification Templates in perspective.

I've done 12-hour days at work every day this week, so little time for relaxation - I've been cycling home, eating bad food out of the pan then going straight to bed, so the only leisure has been the Lego Masters final (good creations, bad judges) and a total literary anecdote to the struggle: E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia stories. Inconsequential, lightweight, snide and deliciously witty, they were just what I needed. A real contrast to next week's text: Fight Club.