Friday, 20 December 2019

Always winter, never Christmas

In her own Christmas address, the Queen referred to 1992 as an 'annus horribilis': part of one of her castles had caught fire, a downmarket tabloid published pictures of Sarah Ferguson sans brassiere, and several of her children's marriages failed.

The castle was rebuilt at public expense, Sarah's body is of far less concern than what her ex-husband did with his to whom, and Brenda's children appear still to be influential, rich, married and dissatisfied once more. 2019, however, has few saving graces. Unless I missed some bright spots while I lounged around at home nursing a broken collarbone (thanks, inattentive driver!), a year of political misery, homelessness, food banks, economic decline and political cynicism looks set to be followed by another recession and the willed isolation of a nation that prefers xenophobia to actually accepting that modern life is (as Blur didn't quite put it) complicated. A friend's father, for instance, has been made redundant as a direct result of Brexit: he is still all for 'getting Brexit done' in the same way that the white American peasantry was persuaded that white hunger was somehow superior to being black and hungry. There's absolutely no solace in 'I told you so', and schadenfreude is best enjoyed from a considerable distance, but here I am - a citizen of an EU state determined to stay on with my friends and family (and also, it turns out, not wanted in Irish university jobs that have come up) while being uncomfortably aware that for a year or two at least, my middle-class income and occupation will keep me insulated from the worst effects. Black humour will also help when turnips become the national dish…and currency.

So anyway, I've finished teaching for this decade with a Friday afternoon class on Chris Mullins's A Very British Coup. The module is Populist Texts, examining how popular culture takes on current affairs and social issues - we started with Black Panther and finished with this politician's conspiracy novel to discuss how art and issues affect each other. In retrospect, perhaps it was an overly optimistic choice: Harry Perkins actually gets elected, whereas the current moderate-to-serious left can't even get over that initial hurdle. Mullins's novel (adapted twice for TV) was published in 1982, a period when the Thatcher government went from dead-in-a-ditch to triumphant, thanks to the Argentinians. Winning the Falklands ironically led to their dictator being overthrown, while a Tory hegemony was established. A Very British Coup is many things, including a consolation to the suffering left: there's a kind of carrion comfort in assuming that the permanent state or Establishment are what's preventing you from winning rather than your own beliefs, strategies, or the electorate. We discussed why Mullins wrote a dystopian novel rather than another socialist utopian one, and why it ended in defeat - perhaps it was a product of its time, or a sales gamble, or a genuine belief. If I ever get the chance to write my book on politicians' fictions, I intend to ask him, and explore why so many MPs from both sides wrote conspiracy thrillers in the 80s and 90s (Helen Liddell's Elite sticks in the mind as being the last one, and the most baffling, but also a harbinger of New Labour and the Third Way).

I felt physically sick for a few days after the election result, which has never happened before. It wasn't surprise, and I'm generally far too insensitive to let things affect me at a gut level, but the knowledge that things are going to get immeasurably worse on all fronts and that those who'll suffer most voted for it in droves left me nauseous. My immediate response was to take solace in my students (we were looking at Watchmen that Friday, which counsels against trusting in super-men of any sort), friends and in coping mechanisms. I listened to the recent Trinity Wall Street recording of Philip Glass's Symphony No. 5 several times, especially this movement.

Also on my playlist at the moment is Donnacha Dennehy's Grá agus Bás and Herbert Howell's Cello Concerto – escapist I know, but I'm in the mood for solace. Once the new year starts I'll be militant for lost causes once more. Climate change and electoral reform will be my focus, I think. I've also retreated into books (surprise!), though not particularly challenging ones. I've just started AS Byatt's The Children's Book which balances a shockingly bad attempt to render Stoke-on-Trent's dialect as Standard Northern with an evocation of Edwardian radicalism which fascinates me. Arts and Crafts, William Morris, Guild Socialism, Rational Dress and bicycles (talking of which, I also assuaged the savage breast by buying a six-year old, heavily upgraded Boardman Elite AiR 9.0 - my first carbon fibre bike: it's no Moulton but it's wonderful). I've long thought (and indeed blogged when Ed Miliband lost his general election) that evoking the utopian optimism of the late Victorian socialists would be good for the Labour Party and its left/liberal fellow travellers.

Other things I've read recently include Gillian Cross's pointed but slightly shaky teen novel After Tomorrow (British refugees in France find themselves unwelcome), India Knight's anthology The Dirty Bits – For Girls (the introduction is perfect for my session on women, reading and Jilly Cooper); the first Tracy Beaker novel for Children's Literature - superb; Armistead Maupin's Babycakes, which allowed me to talk about serial novels and non-heterosexual plot structures, Terry Pratchett's Dodger which I found too laboured, Beloved again, which never fails to move and horrify me, Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection which I thought was fun but too self-conscious without going the full Auster that would have justified such self-consciousness, Jeff Noon's first crime novel Slow Motion Ghosts which I thought was magnificent and Brian Aldiss's debut, Non-Stop. I've rather avoided Aldiss, put off by his late career as a crusty gammon, but Non-Stop is brilliant - a compact novel stuffed full of interesting ideas, satirical gestures and a great twist. It came out in 1958 and presumably was one of the earliest in the generation ship genre. I've read lots of them and none of them beat his novel for economy and wit. Its sexual politics are very dated and the satire on Freudian psychology feels a tad old-hat but everything else holds up really well. Oh yes - I also read Perrotta's The Leftovers which was rather a good exploration of public and private grief in the wake of 9/11 but really didn't need the Rapture-like framing (or an extensive TV adaptation). 

I seem to have read quite a lot this year, partly due to being off sick for a few weeks. The texts that most stuck in my mind were Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, Stevie Davies's Impassioned Clay and Awakening, Melissa Harrison's All Among The Barley which I found problematic but was in retrospect too harsh about, Emily Dickinson's poetry – re-reading it for teaching just plunged me back into a wondrous world, Emerson's essays, Milkman (predictably), Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure, Kevin Barry's Night Boat to Tangier, Emma Dabiri's Don't Touch My Hair (extra marks for the Solange reference), Kate Charlesworth's joyous but also moving Sensible Footwear, Niall Griffiths's Broken Ghost (disclaimer: we're friends and I'm in the acknowledgements for no reason I can imagine) and Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth even though it needed pruning. I've definitely read more books by men than women this year but the ones that stayed with me are mostly by women. 

Musically, the ones I mentioned above were recent purchases, but I've also listened to a lot of Kate Bush, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Julia Kent's Temporal, Audiobooks' Now, In A Minute, the new Nick Cave, The National and Sleater-Kinney albums. Speech Debelle's Speech Therapy feels like a forgotten classic already; Pauline Oliveros, quite a lot of medieval music and polyphonic choral work and Chvrches also featured prominently.

So that's it for 2019. I'll be in the office on Monday, then I'm going to lie down in a darkened room for a few days hoping that it will all have been a fever-dream. Nollaig shona duit, Nadolig hapus i chi, Happy Christmas to you all. All I want from Santa is enough students to keep my course open. 

Friday, 13 December 2019

We're gonna need a new electorate…

Dick Tuck, I think it was, once gritted his teeth in the face of an electoral defeat and muttered that 'the people have spoken, the bastards'.

The same sentiment is raging around the liberal and leftwing corner of the world that I inhabit, with the added implication in some cases that what we need is a new electorate, not a new party or policy. I am in the happy position (if possible) of never having had any illusions about my own place in the political world, nor that of the Great British Public. Once in a blue moon something I passionately believe in becomes briefly fashionable and then goes away again, just like my lifelong attachment to v-neck ganseys and corduroy is occasionally mirrored in the fashion world and then goes away again for another decade or two. The confluence of weird cultural, social and political pressures that made me what I am – plus those regular pedagogical beatings suffered in headteachers' offices and the playground – also blessed me with the awareness that I will always be out of step with the majority. This doesn't necessarily make me feel any better, and it always carries the temptation to become either smug or a Vanguardist, but it does mean that blows like today's election results aren't freighted with an element of surprise.

There are two common responses to defeat on this scale: either the public are fools, or knaves - Steve Bell's cartoon responding to John Major's surprise victory in 1992 tends towards the foolish diagnosis. It's a Gramscian reaction, I suppose. Gramsci sat in a fascist prison cell in 1920-30s Italy and asked himself why the people repeatedly supported policies and parties which acted against their economic interest, despite the efforts of generations of Marxists. His answer in The Prison Notebooks was culture: that the combined forces of religion, politics, education, the arts, sport and all the non-economic aspects of our lives produced a version of 'reality' that persuaded the masses to act in the interests of a dominant elite and against their own. A crude – though not necessarily inaccurate – version of this is the argument that American conservatism has successfully persuaded poor Americans that 40 years of earnings decline is less important than abortion or immigration.

It's hard, this morning, not to take that line. I live in a poor, left-behind city. It is overwhelmingly working-class and has a large immigrant and first and second-generation population. Skilled jobs are increasingly rare and where they do exist, they're subsidised by a council suffering massive funding cuts, and by the European Union. The day after the EU referendum I was in leave-voting Abertawe/Swansea, where every new building bore a plaque with the EU flag marking where the money came from. I thought then, and think now, that none of the people voting Conservative or Leave will ever be the priority of an English Conservative administration. The Conservatives (much like New Labour) have idealised a working-class electorate that is racist, paranoid, selfish and bitter, thus bringing this electorate into being. They will throw them enough red meat to keep the votes flowing, while continuing to serve primarily the finance sector's insatiable demands for deregulation and an ever-smaller state. Britannia Unchained, the collection of essays by Raab and his cronies is essential reading here: it explicitly describes the British workforce as lazy and ignorant, and makes clear their belief in the abolition of the state beyond nuclear weapons and a legal system designed to protect capital. This is the world of V for Vendetta: the hedge-fund economy represented by Jacob-Rees Mogg and untethered from the rest of us will dictate policy, while an electorate that has proved it just wants things 'done' will be encouraged to look the other way by the most cynical policies Dominic Cummings (who at least is honest, in a weird way) can dream up.

The Conservative campaign made this clear: environmental collapse is upon us but a denialist party didn't bother making even the weakest statement in favour of prevention or adaptation. It treated the regulated media sector with total contempt, and the BBC responded like a beaten dog, failing in basic journalistic duties such as fact-checking. The private media did what it always does – monster a Labour Party that threatened its economic interests, while Labour ran a campaign of staggering naivety.

The Tory campaign won because it was simple. It ignored the pressing problems and blamed the rest – despite being in government for a decade – on easy targets that made no demands on an electorate that always wants to put off a reckoning. Foreigners; IRA-loving killjoys; 'liberal elites'. The genius of this is that there will always be such enemies. When Brexit is the disaster that it absolutely will be, the government will blame an EU conspiracy aided by Remainer enemies within. The world is a complicated place: Labour made the mistake of saying so, rather than pandering to the demands of an electorate that wants to be told that it has no responsibility, that everything's going to be great, that it's somebody else's fault.

Of course there are other reasons. The UK's kindergarten electoral system which prefers dramatic moments and confrontation to boring old compromise and negotiation; an entire political class which hasn't addressed deindustrialisation despite having generations in which to do so; a Labour Party balanced between right wing machine politicians with nothing inspiring or interesting to say and left wing ones who have all the answers as long as you don't start from here.

I'm left with an MP who took office having been exposed in the national press as a thief and a hypocrite. My students - some of whom voted for this outcome - are going to find that their university, their subject, their careers and their communities are not just beneath the notice of our new rulers, but the targets of scorn and hostility.

Are there any consolations? For me, yes. An Ireland peacefully united is inching closer; Scottish independence looks like really happening. Not much consolation for me, living in England and sharing the consequences with everyone else, but the self-inflicted dismemberment of the UK seems both overdue and good for the world – it's long been a rogue state, and deserves to wither away until it comes to terms with being a small, post-imperial polity with much to apologise for. However, this doesn't even start to make up for the knowledge that students, friends and neighbours don't have enough to eat now, let alone in six months' time. Being right shouldn't give anyone a warm glow, especially me.

If we thought 2010-19 was bad, buckle up and be kind to each other.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Is Widening Participation REALLY the enemy of progress?

They're wearing hats and gloves in hell this morning, for Radio Four has provoked me to stand up for my Vice-Chancellor. This is worse than when I found myself nodding in agreement with Linda Snell one dark day.

It all goes back to 4.30 a.m. yesterday, when I got up to go to a recording at my university of BBC Radio 4's alleged flagship news show, Today. 24 hours later, having got the date wrong and endured a day's mockery from my dear colleagues, I tried again.

As part of the show, Mishal Husain (whose journalism and presenting style I rather admire) interviewed the boss. Rather than explore the HE landscape, the university's role in a hard-hit city or the decade of wage suppression that everyone in HE except its leaders have endured, Husain (private school, Cambridge) decided to ask whether places like mine were essentially running a pyramid scheme by accepting money from students with poor A-level qualifications who were bound to fail. The VC then had about a minute and a half to unpick the assumptions and errors implicit in the question, and did a great job. I've had a couple of hours more and don't feel constrained to be so polite about it.

There are many hot takes on the bin-fire that is British higher education, but this was a new one. Given the elite universities' notorious failure to admit poor, provincial, working-class and especially minority ethnic students (at all, in the case of certain colleges), it's a brave move to accuse an institution with a 40% BME, 90% working-class intake of being the enemy of progress.

A quarter of Oxford colleges didn’t admit a single black student in at least one year between 2015 and 2017
Eight of the 29 colleges at Oxford admitted two or fewer black students between 2015 and 2017 (less than 1% of all UK students admitted to the college). This means that in at least one year those colleges can’t have admitted any black students. We don’t know what happened in each of the individual years between 2015 and 2017, so it’s possible there were more colleges who didn’t admit any black students in any given year.

The interesting question would be why and how underfunded, unfashionable places like mine are expected to repair the damage caused by structural and systematic racism and economic injustice. Instead Husain's question implied a direct, uncomplicated link between individual effort and academic success. My students come from multiply-deprived families, communities and locations. They have been failed by an compulsory education system that has never done well with ethnic minorities and has been privatised to such an extent that pernicious activities like 'off-rolling' drive a league-table culture at the expense of students. A-levels are a snapshot of achievement with their own problems (in my subject, the direct result of Gove's move towards a mechanical, boring curriculum has been a collapse in English Literature applicants) which to a large extent reflect privilege rather than potential, something a rigid qualifications-based HE entrance system largely fails to acknowledge. My colleagues at selective universities largely aren't racists excluding anyone they think smells of chip-fat: that's not how structural inequality perpetuates itself. Unequal access to HE is the end-product of a rotten system, not an individual failing.

Presumably Mishal Husain believes that attending a fee-paying school had no bearing on her own academic success and entrance to Cambridge: if so, her parents should ask for their money back. In the meantime, I'll stick to spotting the talent other institutions overlook. Also: state-educated students tend to do better at university – they haven't been educated beyond their natural abilities as many private school kids have been, and they're more independent.

Teaching mostly first-generation HE students is both a joy and a challenge. There are issues of cultural capital and actual capital, but they have usually seen more of life than their peers, and can be more driven. That's why so many of us choose to teach in places like mine (not me: I lucked into this and lightning doesn't strike twice) – we don't have a white saviour/missionary mentality but we see the difference we make and we don't have to cope with the entitlement of those who take education for granted.

Someone on Twitter described Husain's question as the product of a 'stay in your lane' mentality, and I'm sorry to say that I agree. The ruling class clearly believes that higher education should be reserved for the affluent middle and upper classes. The Morlocks should accept their roles in the service economy and take enough vocational training to work in an Amazon warehouse. I hate this. I've seen too many brilliant students who should be running companies, publishing novels, lobotomising government ministers or presenting BBC current affairs shows get dumped by the wayside for being too black, provincial, common or badly-networked. If History of Art is or Medicine is open to a cabinet minister's offspring (acknowledged or not), it should be good enough for my neighbours' kids.  If teaching Anne of Green Gables, Welsh literature, politicians' novels (my current research project) Jilly Cooper's Riders, American Psycho, The Book of Mormon and Hamlet (to select a few of my recent classes) goes some little way to tipping the scales back in the right direction, I'm happy.*

Anyway, that's the rant you get when I'm forced out of bed at 4.30 a.m. I'll go back to book-blogging and random nonsense again next time.

*Happiysh: I still want paying properly.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Know your price

Yesterday saw the first day of the UCU strike: staff at 60+ universities walking out – against their instincts – to highlight the enormous drop in wages over time, the repeated reductions in pension provision, the virus of casualisation and the obscene gender pay gap at all levels in universities. HE institutions have never been richer, but staff haven't had an above-inflation rise since 2008, which cumulatively means an 18% pay cut.  At the same time, senior managements have expanded enormously and their pay packets have ballooned beyond all reason.

For me, casualisation is the worst bit: the generation behind me is being treated appallingly. Even the lowest-paid, fractional posts are attracting applicants with PhDs, publications and multiple books with reputable publishers who have never held a permanent or full-time post even by their 30s. They are expected to produce the work of a professor back in the day while being paid less than their peers who didn't contract the 6 years of extra debt required to take an MA and a PhD, the minimum requirements to get any hourly-paid teaching. Heaven forfend that they might want to have a family, live in a house or buy the occasional avocado. The result will be social shrinkage: only those with extensive family wealth will be able to take on even a bursaried PhD and casual teaching, and the skills and insights of those from poorer backgrounds will be lost.

My university union branch voted to strike, but the turnout was so low that we didn't meet the government's new 51% turnout minimum. I think my colleagues are exhausted, depressed and insecure - despite our leaderships' massive salaries for strategic thinking, student numbers have plummeted and the future is not looking rosy.

With their usual tin-ear for mood, our VC decided that the first day of the strike was the perfect moment to circulate this message:
FREE Thank You film screenings As a thank you for the hard work of our staff this academic year and their ongoing contributions to the University’s success, the Vice-Chancellor invites you to two special FREE film screenings at the xxxxx Theatre. There is a showing of the award-winning Bohemian Rhapsody on Thursday 28 November at 5.30pm, while you can get in the mood for Christmas with festive favourite Elf on Wednesday 4 December at 5.30 pm.
Now I'm struggling to imagine the Renumeration Committee offering the VC a free cinema ticket as a reward for his hard work, and I'm struggling even harder to imagine him accepting it in lieu of his habitual £10,000 extra every year. If this email had started with the second clause (Claus?), 'The VC invites you…', my vicious little brain wouldn't be filled with images of Marie Antoinette bearing cake* and mortar-boarded sans-culottes dragging a guillotine into the quad – I might even have been touched even though I don't particularly want to see a film about a band that knowingly broke the artistic boycott of apartheid South Africa (and anyway, I'm still teaching past 5.30: the academic schedule is 9-9). Seriously: that one clause demonstrates an entire world-view in which those who do the actual work (not just lecturers) are tiny ant-like creatures beneath consideration.

But no. This is a leadership which has colluded with its counterparts across the country to depress our wages while regularly rewarding themselves enormous pay rises funded by student debt, and they dare to insult us with this rubbish. Rather than treating us a fungible assets to be sweated then disposed of, why not reward us for our 'hard work' and 'ongoing contributions' with actual cash either now or in our pensions. I once worked night shifts at British Gas (don't worry readers: nowhere near any actual gas infrastructure but if your address isn't listed on any gas providers' databases, that's my fault). We were paid £1.98 per hour and when the proletariat flagged a little, the fastest workers were publicly 'rewarded' with a Mars Bar at around 4 a.m., while the slowest workers were publicly shamed and fired each week. Thank heavens those days are gone, eh?

It's not even a matter of one out-of-touch fat cat: this communication must have gone through several hands and nobody thought it patronising or provocative. My colleagues work hard. There's a massive culture of overwork: my boss is doing 14 hour days coping with increasing administration and demands that he find ways to save our subjects, while my PhD students and hourly-paid colleagues work way more hours than they're paid for. A chance for one of a limited number of free tickets to a second-run film doesn't cut it.

If this is going to be a regular thing though, I have some more appropriate suggestions:
It's A Wonderful Life (starring the VC as Mr Potter)



The Lego Movie

Merry Christmas, one and all!

*Forget the cake: staff who work unpaid at open days were invited to use the water fountains at no charge.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Escaping into popular fiction

This has been an exhausting but exhilarating week, and next week promises to be more of the same. Lots of my colleagues have been doing Black History Month and Being Human events - psychogeographic walks, story-telling performances, masterclasses and the like – all of which are good for us as much as wider society: it's great to get out and talk to strangers about the things we and hopefully they are enthusiastic about.

I've also hit a run of good classes - today was Jilly Cooper's Riders, a novel which pretty much single-handedly encapsulates 1980s conservative feminism and is the perfect vehicle for all the cultural studies-influenced things we do here with popular fiction. For instance: we talk about how and why one could or should make room for a 900 page novel in one's life; about popular fiction as a vehicle for serious ideological and social perspectives, and how pop fic can be used to track social change.

In some ways Riders is fairly progressive: it's very positive about sex toys and women's sexual pleasure as an end in itself, but it's also deeply reactionary (posh people shouldn't be expected to conform to conventional sexual morality but admired for breaching it) and has aged extremely badly: it's attitudes towards older men having sex with younger women are echoed these days by Prince Andrew and virtually nobody else. It also contains two rape scenes, neither of which are taken particularly seriously and one of which is concluded with the rapist-hero making a knob gag. None of this, you may be unsurprised to learn, is mentioned in the breathless, cheery interviews Jilly gives whenever she publishes a new bonkbuster. Only snowflakes and academics ('hairy-legged' if they're female, 'bearded' and 'goaty' if they're male) care about this stuff. Oh, and teaching a book which praises Franco and whose German characters 'goose-step' and make Nazi salutes for a laugh is a bit uncomfortable in a class with more Spanish and German students than British ones.

Next week I'm teaching Armistead Maupin's Babycakes in American Literature - it's the fourth in his Tales of the City series and I picked it partly as an example of serial fiction, partly because it has a transatlantic plot, party because it's the volume in which Aids signals the end of the party, but mostly because it's a brilliant example of the wrenching you have to do to traditional realist fiction to include homosexual lives – when you can't tie everything up neatly with a heterosexual marriage and children, you have to wholly reconsider how novels work. Babycakes (like some of the others in the series) is funny, witty, chatty and moving, but Maupin struggles every time to convert stylish newspaper columns into a novel because he clearly knows that plots and resolutions are corny and artificial. Wilde knew that too, and employed irony and pastiche to signal it, but Maupin adds on plots in an unconvincing way – which is a shame because pretty much everything else about the series is perfect.

I'm staying in North America for the next class: Anne of Green Gables in Children's Literature, which I read it as a mix of colonial and postcolonial attitudes. Influenced by the other two children's novels I just read (Pixie O'Shaughnessy and Nancy Finds Herself), I see Anne as another Irish or Celtic subaltern whose romantic, impractical nature can infuse the Presbyterian Anglo-Scottish Canadian dominant culture with heart, while requiring her to submit to Anglo rationality and stolidity - both the other novels value the other-worldly ethereality and happy-go-lucky nature of the Irish and Welsh while accepting that those nations are helpless without English leadership, a very Arnoldian construction of Celticity (see also my paper on Celts in video games).

Once the two are united, Canada becomes a real place, eventually taking its place in the world by shedding the blood of its sons. In the sequels, Anne's hair gradually darkens and one of her sons dies in WW1. In real life, Montgomery was a leading supporter of Canadian involvement and one of the reasons she committed suicide in 1942 was guilt at her responsibility. I know this reading is a long way from the romantic comedy of popular perception, but it makes a lot of cultural sense to me. I'm also lucky that I'll be teaching it alongside my flame-haired PhD student, who will no doubt be responding to it in a more personal sense!

At the end of the week I'm teaching Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve but it's a long time since I read it and I can't remember what I thought then other than 'wow'. I'm sure I'll scare up some more detailed reckons by the time the class rolls by. There's so much going on that I'm opting out of keeping up with the election campaign's trail of lies, and the Trump Ukraine enquiry - exhaustion is no excuse for disavowing a citizen's duties but I get the distinct impression that the knowing employment of fake news tactics and extreme posturing is political tactic designed to leave us passive and incapable of coherent resistance. If so, it's definitely working. I'll still be voting though…

Friday, 15 November 2019

On not meeting Boris Johnson, and other stories

I've had a great week in terms of teaching: two Margaret Atwood novels either side of last weekend (The Handmaid's Tale and The Edible Woman), Northern Lights (every time I schedule a text, the gods of TV programming air an adaptation), and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit today, a classic novel for discussing the intersection of alternative sexualities and alternatives to phallocentric narrative style. I'm not sure my mostly overseas students got the Lancashire humour elements, but I hope they enjoyed this class and the other texts as much as I did. It's so enjoyable to re-read old favourites, especially when they stand up so well. I bought my copies of the Atwood novels in 1994 on the proceeds of the Sir Henry Jones Philosophy Prize (alongside some Calvin and Hobbes, not Calvin and Hobbes), and the Pullman in 2000, immediately buying everything else he'd written and thus considerably delaying the process of my PhD.

I do have a tendency towards completism in books and music – once I decide I like an author or a band I'll read everything they've written or recorded whether they're any good or not. I've learned nothing from owning the complete works of every band and solo act associated with New Order, from Freebass (very much not the sum of its parts) to The Other Two (wonderful), nor from the endless ranks of Trollope, Hardy and Keith Roberts (tip: Pavane is essential, the rest less so).

There hasn't been much time for non-course reading, other than the massive list of REF outputs I have to attach a subjective number to, but I did get through Kate Charlesworth's A Girl's Guide to Sensible Footwear, which I can't recommend highly enough. I've always liked her cartoons, and this graphic novel combining post-war lesbian history and her autobiography is beautifully drawn (especially her affectionate pastiches of her favourite childhood comics) and just so enormously moving. Teaching Winterson's novel today meant I've been thinking about narrative and how to wrench traditional patriarchal/hegemonic forms to make room for non-heterosexual lives, and Charlesworth does it with apparent ease. It's funny, it's sad (especially her relationship with her mother, and the swathe Aids cut through her social circle), it's hugely knowledgeable and subtle. If it has a fault it's its self-deprecation: she's an important artist. Not sure what's next: perhaps Dan Simmons's Hyperion, through I really should refresh my memory of John Barth's short stories, Noughts and Crosses and Riders for next week's classes.

Apart from work, the high point of the week was a performance of Còsi Fan Tutte - not a full staging, just non-costumed singers doing a bit of acting, and an orchestra using period instruments. I'm not a huge fan of the baroque instrument thing - it can get a bit precious - but the singers were astonishing. Even though I prefer the rougher music of the medieval and contemporary periods, I was in awe of what the human voice can do. I could have done without the surtitles though: it turns out that this thing of beauty was essentially three hours of Italian Lads' Banter (plot: older man demonstrates to naive young men that like all women, their betrothed are slags, and that happiness lies in loving them anyway). The trickster maid, Despina, was the best part.

The Prime Minister was here on Monday. Assured of a slavish welcome from the local rag, he turned the remembrance day ceremony nearby into a stop on the campaign trail, doing his serious face for as long as he could manage before moving 20 metres into the nearest pub to do his man of the people act. If I were the organisers of the parade I'd feel used, but clearly others feel differently. At least I resisted the temptation to pop along and read out choice quotations from his comic novel about suicide bombers, some of which is set in this area, and not in a nice way. His father Stanley also wrote appalling thrillers - no doubt public-school confidence explains their slapdash, lazy style.

The one thing about being extra-busy at the moment is that I'm not glued to coverage of the cheapest, nastiest election campaign in living memory. I'll encourage my students to vote, turn up on polling day and pull the duvet back over my head. I'm thoroughly depressed by the diminishing space available for serious and informed debate - instead it's fake meet-and-greets for the cameras and lies in the studio and on the front page. There was once a political party in the US called the Know-Nothings. When did this become a collective national aspiration? I may have failed to get a job in Ireland this year, but my citizenship means there'll be a seat for me on the airlift when you lot turn to cannibalism in about 2021.

Anyway, that's enough doom and gloom - I intend to be out on my bike this weekend, blowing away the cobwebs. See you next week,

Friday, 8 November 2019

Mugged in Cheltenham

Week Six in the Big Academia house and the inmates are getting restless. Assignments are due. Attendance is down. Eyes are bleary.

My colleagues decided not to go on strike this time. A majority of those who voted opted for strike action on pay and conditions but the turnout was shamefully low - 29%. No doubt those in the first-class suites upstairs will assume that we're all delighted with the 0.1% pay rise that followed 10 years of below-inflation settlements, but that's far from the truth. The casualisation of HE is the major issue - whole generations of cutting-edge researchers and teachers have never had a permanent or full-time job, and yet are expected to produce the same volume and quality of research (in some ways more) as the tenured generation. Also, many of my colleagues feel that it doesn't matter whether institutions that cater for the poor and provincial go on strike anyway. It only makes the newspapers and politicians' radars when their or their kids' colleagues strike. There are – as recent discussion of election and term dates demonstrated – only two universities which qualify for attention.

As it happens I visited another non-university yesterday, in a delightful Georgian spa resort. Different intake from mine (pretty much all-white, all middle-class) but facing the same funding, staffing and entry challenges, but providing excellent, distinctive and enjoyable modules. I was there to examine a PhD – a scary but important thing to do. After that, I immediately went and blew the fee on old books. I was looking for RS Thomas poetry and Left Book Club volumes but bought one bilingual edition of Welsh mythology and some old children's books with Celtic elements - next year's Association for Welsh Writing conference is about childhood, learning and education (I'm co-organising it) so I'm thinking of doing colonial-Celtic constructions of children, including Anne of Green Gables: clearly a wild Irish girl who has to submit to WASP values while softening their edges.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy which left me bereft of cash 

Pixie is a 'wild Irish tornado' who needs taming by her English classmates in Mrs Vaizey's Religious Tract Society novel from 1902

A fine translation of Wales's oldest manuscript

Classic boarding school didacticism. For a history of such novels, read You're A Brick, Angela!

Not what you're thinking: in Olive Dougan's novel Nancy goes to boarding school and learns to dispense with the Welsh side of her Welsh-English heritage, to become a proper human being. 
Just a pretty sign on a now-converted old pub.

I'm off to teach Atwood's Handmaid's Tale now, and on Monday it's her Edible Woman, about which I'm very excited. I taught Comet in Moominland and The Owl Service earlier this week – Moomins weren't quite so popular but those who read The Owl Service seemed appropriately disturbed. I still think it's one of the most complex, dark and disturbing teen novels ever written. You can watch the whole terrifying 1970s ITV adaptation here

Thanks to all that, I haven't read much outside course texts. I'm most of the way through The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and appreciating its ingenuity more than I'm enjoying it.  Not sure what will be next. I also waved farewell to my Canadian astrophysicist friend. He bequeathed me about a decade's supply of fine whiskies and some bookcases, so I intend to get hammered and try to reshelve everything this weekend. The Dewey system won't know what's hit it.

More next week.

Monday, 4 November 2019

In weary haste

Apologies for the slight delay in transmission - no blog last week because I've been so busy. Lots of new lectures to write, a PhD examination to prepare and various other more tedious things getting in the way of me coming up with any new opinions on anything worth sharing with you all. The more heated public discussions become the less I want to participate. Oh well, at least my dentist's appointment was cancelled!

Still, however exhausting teaching was, it's been fun. A Streetcar Named DesireHaroun and the Sea of Stories (up there with The Phantom Tollbooth in my view) and Caitlín Moran's How To Be A Woman all generated interest and opinion from the students (young Marlon Brando still brings a good many of the students to the yard). It was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest today (not enough people had read it to get a good discussion going but we did introduce them to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters), Comet in Moominland and The Owl Service tomorrow, and The Handmaid's Tale on Friday. The problem with The Owl Service is that while it's one of the most complex and disturbing adolescent novels ever written, Garner got his structuring mythical interpretation of the core Welsh myth from Robert Graves, whose Triple Goddess theory is both bizarre and deeply misogynist.

I did manage to read a couple of things apart from course texts this week. Ken MacLeod's Descent has an awful lot of fun merging near-future Scottish post-crash economics, close encounters of the third kind, genetics, religious exploration and surveillance culture to make a clever, witty and thought-provoking novel. John Le Carré's new one, Agent Running in the Field was a bit disappointing. Some nice characterisation, some satisfying rants, but the central twist is unintentionally obvious from the first few pages – a bit problematic when the narrator is meant to be an elite spy. I liked Michael Frayn's The Russian Interpreter – a 1966 comic novel about an inept English graduate student in Moscow getting tangled up in espionage – very much. It hasn't really dated at all and is very funny. My next book will be Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle because it sounds clever and funny. Just what I need.

In the meantime, tomorrow sees the departure of my friend Dean for ever. Exhausted by the relentless hostility and incompetence of British HE (not my institution this time), he's heading back to Canada for the first time in 20 years, determined never to darken the doors of a university ever again. I'll miss his sense of the outrageous, his idea of what constitutes a well-balanced whiskey and ginger, his habit of hate-reading the Financial Times at weekends, his dry sense of humour and scathing disregard for any astrophysics on a smaller scale than galaxy interactions, which is his speciality. Having shared an office with a Nobel winner, he's allowed to describe most of his field as 'parochial' and 'planet-chasers'! He'll be much missed.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Treading carefully with words

Note: first paragraph uses the N-word in the context of classroom discussion.

Hello from the end of a long, draining, but also exhilarating week. I've been teaching a lot: The Great Gatsby (takeaway: rich people have something resembling feelings too), The Just-So Stories (fascinating, and more complex than I remembered them, and Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory. Even typing the word makes me uncomfortable, and we started the class with a discussion of when and by whom the word can be used. My classes are ethnically diverse and people have a wide range of views about race, so a lively discussion always ensues. The first question was a bit of a zinger: do people sing along when the word is used in a hiphop song? Answer: no, and that includes the black students who generally believed that they could use the word because they'd reclaimed ownership of it: there was a sense that it was OK to experience the word used in art but not to employ it oneself unless it's clearly marked off with quotation marks, such as in the book's title, and even then people were reluctant in case repetition took away the sting. In case you're interested, I relied on a couple of journal articles to guide the conversation: Randall Kennedy's 'Who Can Say "Nigger"? And Other Considerations and Emily Bernard's 'Teaching the N-Word' – Kennedy is against fetishising the word by making it taboo, while stressing the multiple signifieds it represents, while Bernard's piece is a more reflective piece about the lived experience. The word's history and power is terrifying, and an Emory University professor was recently fired for using the word within quotation marks in conversation with a student: he was quoting what some racists had said about his support of African-American causes.

Gil Scott Heron's title announces his novel's purpose: he uses the word to denote African-Americans who conform to white American cultural standards and therefore maintain an oppressive system in exchange for material comforts: the Factory is the black university which produces
 quasi white folks and semithinkers whose total response is trained rather than felt. Black students in the 1970s will not be satisfied with Bullshit Degrees or Nigger Educations. 

The book is on my module because we wanted something which raised the big questions about the relationship between art and activism, and the ideological positions that range from 'art is separate' to 'art is nothing unless it is activist'. In these days of the apparently apolitical student, it does no harm to remind them that universities and especially students' unions used to be something more than a marketing department with some deportment training attached. The novel extends the examination of historically black colleges found in Ellison's Invisible Man and less directly, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time from the previous generation, and explores the rise and fall of student militance in the late 1960s, ending on a very ambiguous note. We took in Scott-Heron's music too, always a pleasure. We discussed the Frankfurt School's approach to popular culture, the Black Arts Movement appropriation of revolutionary energy (hence the presence of the Bill Hicks routine), hegemony, didacticism and the role of art in political education, which is how I ended up playing them snatches of The Lark Ascending and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as examples of art responding in very different ways to trauma.

You can tell from the text's presence on the module where I stand on this: I would never use the word independently or gratuitously, but I'm prepared – though not comfortable – to introduce it when used by those who've reclaimed it. We always start with an informed discussion of the word's history and establish a serious, thoughtful atmosphere, making sure that nobody has to say it and that its use isn't lighthearted. This is the second time I've taught this novel, and both times the students have more than risen to the occasion. It's been uncomfortable of course, especially for the BAME students whose emotional labour is obviously greater than that of the white students, but I think that they appreciate the intention and the atmosphere established. Also: it's a powerful book that justifies its use of the word.

So the teaching has been exhausting but also thrilling because it feels like we've been wrestling with the big questions about literature, form and content all week. I also played a minor role in a session on public speaking for the first-years, and observed a new colleague's teaching practice, learning a lot along the way. The older I get, the more I approve of vampirism. I've also spent the week reading an interesting PhD for examination at another university. I can't say anything about it for professional reasons, but doing this kind of thing does really make me feel like a part of a wider unseen community that does matter. There hasn't been much time for reading beyond the curriculum though and I was too exhausted for the deep stuff - I read the fourth Green Knowe novel, Stranger at… which was troubling and compelling (up there with Susan Cooper), a minor Pratchett (Mrs Bradshaw's Handbook) and I'm most of the way through Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger which is every bit as good as everyone says: a mixture of historical fiction and gothic melodrama which re-energises both those genres. I normally read her stuff the moment it comes out, so I don't know why I waited for so long with this one. Anyway, highly recommended.

After all that, I need some diversion, so tomorrow I'm off to see friends and colleagues acting in an am-dram country house mystery. It's not – officially - The Play That Goes Wrong, but I have hopes. And there's a raffle.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Sounds simple…

I seem to have been thinking about race and empire a lot recently, thanks to the way my teaching and reading have worked out. Earlier in the week I taught Treasure Island alongside an esteemed colleague, and later today it's James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.

Treasure Island is a curious beast - a tale of shenanigans and greed on the high seas, yet featuring not a single native: the Island is uninhabited. What you get instead is the story of white men's degradation: they're all British (or are they?: King George and Christianity are repeatedly invoked anyway) and their moral failings are bred at home – the story starts and finishes in England. The Squire talks too much, Dr Livesey is a bit judgmental, the Captain isn't decisive enough, Jim Hawkins is impulsive, Silver is an opportunist, Israel Hands is a murderer and O'Brien is 'a rank Irelander'. Blind Pew is simply an errand-boy for evil. The absence of any natives distinguishes TI from Robinson Crusoe and many of the other desert island stories, but I think it also critiques the Imperial narrative. These are not the brightest and best muscular Christians out to 'civilise' the globe: they're greedy adventurers out for ill-gotten gain, including our hero: one side is more willing to use violence than the other, but there's not a lot between them. As an advert for the British mission to the world, it's not great.

However, I do wonder whether there's a national hierarchy at play too. The Squire – representative of the decayed aristocracy so neatly skewered by Matthew Arnold as Barbarians – is Cornish. The doctor is (like McCoy of the Enterprise) probably Scottish, Silver and Israel Hands might be Jewish, O'Brien is, as Silver points out, foul because he is Irish, while Pew is surely an anglicisation of ap Huw> Puw and therefore Welsh. Treasure Island therefore can be read as an attack on the post-hoc myths of Empire, or a reinforcement of the need for English leadership of the nations of these islands: without Jim's pluck and good sense, the lesser types feckless, lazy, sneakiness will bring about ruin and decay.

Stay tuned for my similar lecture on Anne of Green Gables as Celtic Disciplinary Narrative, later in the same module. Seriously: fiery over-emotional red-head learns to behave under the tutelage of sombre Presbyterian folk, while softening their harder edges? She's Irish. Oh, and the French farm-worker is always referred to as a boy. Anglo-supremacism all the way. Before that though, I get to look at this all over again in next week's class on The Just-So Stories, Kipling's proto-Forsterian children's stories.

This afternoon's class is on The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's short letter and essay on the state of African-American conditions - it's angry, elegiac, passionate, uncompromising and clear-headed. Baldwin assesses the multiple routes to liberation: Christianity, Islam, integration into white cultural values, violent revolution and more, and concludes that militant resistance may be necessary as long it comes from a position of love: 'It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate'. I'm really hoping the students take to it.

Funnily enough, the SF novel I'm just coming to the end of is also partly about slavery, oppression and the spiritual damage wreaked on slaves, owners and their descendants: Paul McAuley's In The Mouth of the Whale has all the furniture of space opera - huge distances, generation ships, posthumans, simulated universes and AI, but comes down to an examination of the distorted societies and mentalities spawned by brutal oppression. Intriguingly, it's partly set in provincial south America, just like Macdonald's Brasyl: magical realism and some SF have a lot in common.

It's not all been grim musing on the evils we do each other: I've also been to a regional fencing committee meeting, done some actual fencing, and went to a concert last night called The Thrill of the New - the Schoenberg Five Pieces was as recent as 1909! Since the CBSO had its funding slashed its programmes have been extremely conservative, so I go along to anything that's even vaguely contemporary. I liked the Schoenberg, but the programme as a whole felt rather conservative: nothing electric or electronic, and nothing truly abstract or atonal. John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine is always a pleasure to hear, but it's not exactly a challenge. Widmann's Con Brio (not as good as his 180 beats per minute) and Kats-Chernin's Big Rhap were fun but resembled film scores, while Daniel Kidane's Woke paid tribute to Copland, Adams and Reich attractively but I couldn't detect much consonance between the subject matter and the music.

I liked the extract from Ades's Powder Her Face but couldn't see anything in Higdon's String Lake beyond pretty textures. The real missed opportunity was Steve Reich's Clapping Music. 

The audience got to clap the non-changing line while the musicians clapped the changing one. It was a great insight into the challenges of such a technical piece, but a crowd of 600 obviously can't keep up and the whole thing dissolved into mush. That would have been fine if the musicians had then performed the piece themselves – it's only 3 minutes long – but that didn't happen: we just moved on. What filled the time instead was a series of mini-lectures with Powerpoint slides on each piece.

As 'new' goes, this was disappointing: virtually all tonal pieces with nothing to scare the horses, scaffolded by a presentation (complete with lame gags) to make sure that the implied audience of nervous conservatives weren't put off by the occasional dissonance or odd time signature. It didn't imply much faith in the Great British Public's appetite for innovation, nor much confidence in contemporary music to have much to say to them. The playing was of course beautiful, because it's the CBSO, but it still strikes me as very odd that 'the new' can encompass a piece written 110 years ago. I find it hard to believe that Mozart and Beethoven's potential audiences were as nervous, or that they refused to listen to anything written within living memory. If this was pop, it would be the equivalent of crowds demanding that Ariana Grande only sing music hall numbers.

What would I put on? Well, I'm not sure my tastes are particularly interesting, up-to-date or adventurous, but I'd certainly include some Reich, but also some Meredith Monk, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Kate Whitley, Saariaho and Pauline Oliveros.

Don't have nightmares…

Friday, 11 October 2019

Peter Rabbit to the Frankfurt School

In haste today, as I'm teaching all afternoon (the Frankfurt School applied to Black Panther); got the Open Day talk (shout-out to the External Relations team for sending all staff last year's arrangements) to overhaul for tomorrow (BS Johnson v Jilly Cooper head to head) and an introduction to write for tomorrow's Birmingham Literature Festival gig - I'm chairing a discussion about new canons, connected to the BBC 100 Novels That Shaped Our World project – something that should produce at least a year's worth of arguments rich insights into the reading public's relationship to the novel after what's been a fairly complicated century or so's literary and cultural development.

I can't decide whether this week has been ridiculously busy or pretty ordinary: I've done a lot, but much of it was familiar and predictable (other than playing Where And When Have They Moved Today's Class Without Telling Anyone? a few times). Can it only be 4 days ago that I was ranting about Thoreau, Emerson, the Over-Soul and Whitman? Have I successfully promoted Team Potter (Beatrix) and persuaded the kids that Thomas is the servile jester for an oppressive, reactionary society that's coming back? If not, this is all you need:

I've been fencing, which was fun except that my friends active on the European circuit have had to adopt a new interpretation of what constitutes an attack which basically means I'm never allowed to score again. At least, that's my explanation. But at least my injured arm hasn't dropped off. I've also managed to read a couple of books. The first one was Ken MacLeod's Intrusion, which showcases the libertarian aspects of his left-libertarianism, and was clearly written in the aftermath of New Labour's authoritarian outrages. The plot is easy: a pregnant woman declines to take the miracle pill that tidies up her embryo's DNA while refusing to employ any of the theological get-out clauses. There's some really subtle exploration of Scottish islanders' Free Presbyterian values and the surveillance state stuff works well, but the Wellsian glimpses of a de-evolved future, while well done of themselves, detract from the moral force of the central ethical dilemma. I'm a fan of MacLeod's work, and the role SF has in pulling apart hegemonic claims, but this one just felt a tiny bit disjointed compared with his others. I also read Catherine O'Flynn's first children's novel, Lori and Max: short, snappy, very moving and a compelling narrative voice - Emil and the Detectives meets Tracy Beaker. It's published by a small Welsh independent press, Firefly Press - give them your money. Then I consumed bite-size chunks of the Daily Telegraph's collection of obituaries: Vol 4 - Rogues. To the Telegraph, anyone who voted Labour or disliked golf was a rogue, but it's like a potted guide to the mad, the bad and the unmannerly. Anton LaVey of the Church of Satan rubs shoulders with the Reverend Peter Gamble, whose paedophilia is excused in passing with the phrase "the physical element was limited"; the rest of the book consists of eccentrics, charlatans, dissipated aristocrats, con-men and foreigners (all rogues by fault of not being Englishmen). Hugely enjoyable. And now I'm half-way through The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman's latest in the Lyra Bellacqua series. He's pulled off the trick of moving his story-world from children's literature into adult fiction rather well, though I'm not entirely comfortable with the passing references to Lyra's body and sexuality - perhaps because an old man writing about a 20 year old's body feels a bit Philip Roth, perhaps because the character is somewhat fixed in my imagination as a teenager and therefore someone whose sexuality is none of our business. Serial fiction is tricky…

Apart from that, I think it works well - Pullman is still annoyed with anyone who'd make a convict of the soul and the imagination, and he seems pretty pissed off at Richard Dawkins and his Gradgrindian crew for their humourless rejection of metaphor and the numinous.

See you on the other side.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Beware of the Leopard

Another Friday rolls by and I feel both aged and exhilarated. Aged by the relentless series of organisational failures that have enraged students and thus their academic supporters, and exhilarated because you never feel more alive than when you're trying to guess where Timetabling have hidden your class today, whether it clashes with other compulsory classes and whether there will be enough tables and chairs (answers: in the cellar with no light and broken stairs, in a disused lavatory behind a door marked 'beware of the leopard'; yes it does, and no there aren't). How we've managed shrinking student numbers with inadequate rooms is a question for the Metaphysics department, if we still have one.

Well, we'll see who rusts first.

The actual teaching has been a delight: introductory lectures for American Literatures (room for 30 people, 39 students present); Children's Literature (room changed without notification), learning labs (campus, building, room and time changed within two hours of class starting, no notification) and later today (I assume), Populist Texts where we're taking a Cultural Studies approach to Black Panther because it's interesting and we're what the kids call 'woke', though I confess the grammatical horror makes me blanch. Which is ironic when we're talking about blackness.

The other delight of the week was the two-day marathon that is writing Academic Enhancement Plans: an 18 page document that involves navigating the world's worst database to cut and paste statistics into a Word document so that we can then add a short commentary and RAG rate them (i.e. use traffic light colours to denote bliss, indifference and horror), then send said statistics back to the people who already had them, and who show little actual interest in any of the prose-form things we say to them except when someone snitches to senior management about what I write here.*

Why we lack a system that can send the relevant person the relevant figures, already RAG rated so that we can do the important bit of saying how we'll fix the bad bits is clearly a question for my superiors but I will note that I missed two days of writing lectures and research (sorry, 'generating outputs') for which failure my colleagues and I will no doubt be roundly criticised by some other aspect of the Terror. Added to the general sense of pointlessness is the unavoidable fact that with recruitment at rock bottom, all the stats for my course are statistically insignificant.

That said, the major issue for my courses is BME attainment and turning from general awareness to cold hard facts is salutary: worse progression through the years and a lower chance of achieving a First or a 2.1. The reasons, of course, are complex and the classes are so small that individual situations make a huge difference to how they're doing, but the plain fact is that these students have been failed at school level, are more likely to be economically deprived, and we're failing to make up for this at university. My course is culturally open - analysis of texts and theoretical approaches reveals that we teach more books/poems/plays by and about people from ethnic minorities than pretty much anywhere else, and we've always highlighted postcolonial theory and related ideas even when we're looking at texts generated by the hegemony (I dream of offering a modules called The Brits Are At It Again which could cover pretty much every subject), but it's not the complete answer. I keep thinking about offering a discrete module on BME Literature and Theory (we have one called Women's Writing), which has some attractions in that it would highlight some amazing work, but I fear that unless it was compulsory, it would attract BME students while most others would avoid it. Also, the staff is all-white and while it's horrendous to think only BME students and staff could study or teach this material, white authority explaining black cultures is not a good look.

We offer enormous amounts of academic support, but I'm damned if I'll put on classes specifically for BME students as if they were a problem, which is how the Office for Students metric obsession wants us to think. Some years ago when I was a governor someone proposed monitoring black students' usage of the library so that we could contact them to encourage them to do more. Imagine the headlines if that got out: 'University Stalks Black Students'.

No doubt there are sensible and progressive ways to close the gap, and universities should be at the forefront of correcting social injustices, but it's a tricky one. Luckily we do have experts on hand, and a lot of bell hooks' work in the library so we'll get there. At least, I sometimes tell myself, we haven't avoided the issue entirely by simply not admitting more than the occasional token BME student, as certain other institutions seem to do. In my deepest fantasies, I get a reply from the head of learning and teaching to whom I appealed for help with this, back in the halcyon hours of March 6th 2018.

In other news, I've managed to read a couple of books in between the form-filling and the fever dreams of form-filling. I read Margaret Atwood's The Testaments in two sittings. The cover design is rather lovely, but more significantly, the green Handmaid seems like a deliberate assertion of difference from the TV series' now iconic design, as though Atwood is determined that the reader understand from the start that they're separate cultural projects. I have to say that I didn't find the sequel as richly rewarding as The Handmaid's Tale though most of the writing is as stylish as ever. For a realist novel, the resolution felt rather wishful: without wishing to give away spoilers, I'm not sure that media exposure of a regime's evils is enough now we're in an era where our rulers label everything inconvenient 'fake news', while generating actual fake news seemingly with every breath. What did convince me, at least in my current despondent frame of mind, is Atwood's refusal to imagine a popular uprising for justice and equality. Little sign of that happening anywhere. What I liked most was the return of Professor Peixoto and the other historians at the conference. It's the oft-overlooked framework to the central narrative in the original text, and one which locates Gilead's origins in forms of male arrogance and superiority that pop up everywhere. The professor's exegesis of Offred's and Lydia's testimonies are colonial and confident: he makes little jokes and establishes a gap between what women write (personal, unstable, untrustworthy, limited) and what men write (history, fact, judgement). In the end though, I think The Testaments is a bit too comforting, a bit too keen to help us believe that justice will be done in the end. I don't believe in the inevitability of progress, in divine purpose, or in the Marxist march of history. Things happen for reasons but there's no linear movement towards the right answers.

I have also acquired a second-hand Kindle to play with. I'm deeply conflicted about this because other than loading it with PDFs, it means I'm tied to Amazon to some extent. However, my house is literally stuffed with thousands of books and I'm struggling to carry enough volumes when I go on holiday, so I decided to try an e-reader for books I know I'll only ever read once, and for travelling. The physical experience is OK, but I am detecting a weird change in the way I read. Everything on the screen seems less substantial in a way, and I find myself more aware of a pressure to read more quickly rather than carefully. I don't quite understand why yet, but it's definitely real. It feels more like consuming something than engaging with it as I do with paper books. Perhaps it's the thrill of the new, perhaps something else. For the record, I read Katherine Arden's interesting Russian folk story-influenced bildungsroman The Bear and the Nightingale (enjoyable and evocative but could have done with a little more editing), Catherine O'Flynn's Lori and Max (her first children's novel, and one which worked really, really well) and Becky Chambers' The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet which I mentioned previously.

It's not the only device that's been on my mind this week: I somehow lost my mobile phone at work which is obviously an enormously expensive and bureaucratically tedious mistake to make, but one which made me realise quite how dependent I am on it psychologically. Losing access to email away from the office, instant news from a variety of sources and the power to comment instantaneously was both stressful to an embarrassing degree, but also liberating to some extent. I may have mentioned that I don't have an internet connection at home, partly through lethargy but partly because I know myself well enough to predict that I'd never be able to switch off either from work or idle, aimless browsing. Having a smartphone meant I could access the good and the bad whenever I wanted, without the temptation of spending my life staring at a large screen promising all human life all the time, inviting me to point out everyone else's mistakes too. Or as Randall Munroe puts it:

And now I must away to write the two lectures for Monday that I should have written if I hadn't spent  two whole days wrestling with stats that your average Raspberry Pi could have provided before it was even switched on. Enjoy your weekend.

* Hi Snitchy!

Friday, 27 September 2019

Freshers' Week Placeholder Post

It has been - even by Induction Week standards - a humdinger. We have students, though an amputee could count them on her finger. They are interesting, lively, funny, eccentric, nervous, sharp, wary and – as in every single year – fans of The Shawshank Redemption and the music of Queen. We glean this information from our initial ice-breaker session, during which we ask them which cultural artefacts they'd present to invading alien overlords to protect us from galactic cancellation. Apart from these two appalling, evergreen choices, they picked the novel, film and soundtrack of The Perks of Being A Wallflower (which I now own, thanks to my GTA, appalled that I've never seen it), Bladerunner, 'Moonlight Sonata', the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings. This year nobody picked Shakespeare, the Brontës or any other 'Classics': they clearly had the confidence not to recycle ideas of what's good for them derived from school curricula. I do my best to ruin this by mentioning Queen's decision to play in apartheid South Africa, but it never works. Between bouts of dyspeptic sarcasm, we use the list to embark on a Cultural Studies-influenced discussions of canonisation, cultural taste, power, hierarchies, the mirage of 'universal' art and gatekeepers. It's always really interesting and gets people talking.

Away from the classroom it's been even more farcical than usual. Our 2-year (!!!) process for altering courses and modules failed spectacularly and the electronic timetable resembles a game of Russian roulette played with those clown guns that put out a flag with a slightly flatulent note. Every time I persuade them to give me a lecture room fire regulations say is big enough for the class, they punish me by removing one of the seminar rooms, then change them all without telling me or the students. We've also specialised in holding orientation events without actually informing those meant to be oriented. Josef K may not have known the specific charges, nor the room number of time of his arraignment, but at least he was told where the court met. The usual horrors of modern academia haven't slowed down either – yesterday I received a parcel of 150 non-urgent letters to sign and return within 24 hours, in Induction Week, have a week to produce our Academic Enhancement Plans, because obviously my colleagues and I have nothing on in the first week or two of the new academic year (how I'm going to memorise the new acronyms is the least of the challenges). Colleagues have joined and left us within 2 weeks, and the near future is an endless vista of redundancy farewells.

Still, there are compensations. I'm teaching Children's Lit, American Lit, Populist Texts and academic skills this semester: far from my research but all interesting and giving me ways back to things I enjoyed as an undergrad. I'm currently knee-deep in Paul Dunbar, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay for American Lit. I've always wanted to teach Dickinson in particular and now I've got to decide what the hell to say about her work beyond 'wow'. A day later I'm doing Tank Engine Thomas Again, so you know, have opinions, will travel…

Reading and leisure have fallen by the wayside a little in the manic run-up to teaching starting, but I've managed a few things. I refereed a fencing competition very badly; went fencing myself for the first time since my collarbone was broken and only embarrassed myself as much as usual, and read a couple of books. They included the second and third of Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy, which I enjoyed a lot - they use an SF trope to take a sociological look at the power of narrative and story to define a society. Highly recommended. Ian McDonald's Brasyl was also thrilling - set in three times (18th C, 2006 and 2033) in Brazil, the novel mashes colonial history, religion and quantum physics up very satisfyingly indeed, though there is a touch of the 'breasted boobily to the stairs' man-writes-female-characters in there. I'm also on the last few pages of Sydney Owen's 1805 novel The Wild Irish Girl, an epistolary novel in the high romantic style which appeals to the English to treat the Irish as actual human beings with culture and feelings and is a very early example of the kind of nation-building exercise Benedict Anderson identifies in Imagined Communities. The dialogue is astonishingly highly-flown, the plot is thin: (dissolute young man is exiled to his father's Irish estate, falls in love with Glorvina the Irish princess, meets some Catholics without descending straight to hell, achieves spiritual and sexual synthesis between the two nations on an equal basis. All concerned are fluent in French, Latin, Italian and Irish poetry, there are in-story footnotes that last for pages and I'm enjoying it hugely. Perhaps the Brexit negotiators should get a copy each.

Time to go - a retirement party to attend and then a PhD to read. Enjoy your weekend.