Friday, 26 April 2019

Medieval studies, medieval attitudes

This week has mostly been consumed with rage about this advert, shamefully retweeted by University English on behalf of the British Library. 

Post-doctoral Internship - Medieval Manuscripts
Salary is £10.55 per hour (The London Living Wage)
Full Time
Contract Type:
The British Library is pleased to offer an Internship in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department for a post-doctoral student in History, Art History, Medieval Language or Literature or another relevant subject. 
The intern will utilise specialist knowledge of medieval manuscripts to support the curatorial team on a wide range of curatorial activities, including cataloguing medieval manuscripts, supporting delivery of seminars and visits, publicising the work of the Section and the collections on the Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and social media channels, responding to visitor enquiries, preparing labels and other interpretative material and supporting the digitisation of medieval manuscripts. 
The successful candidate will enjoy privileged access to the British Library’s world-class collections of medieval manuscripts. The post holder will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.  This internship will provide an opportunity to develop writing and presentation skills, to engage with a variety of audiences, and to gain experience of curatorial duties.
This position is open only to those who have recently completed or are about to submit a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.
How does this enrage me? Let me count the ways.
Firstly, the rate of pay. £10.55 may be the London Living Wage but it seems very low, whatever the qualifications and duties may be. An egg mayonnaise sandwich in the British Library costs £7, so the hourly rate is almost a sandwich and a half. The lucky winner of this post will presumably spend about the same again getting to and from work, and will have to find the price of a room in London, food, clothing, bills and so on out of his or her £13,000 pounds. 

The candidate must have a PhD: this means that s/he will have taken a BA, possibly and MA and then a PhD: 6-8 years of low or no earnings, no savings, no pension contributions, no NI. S/he will be roughly 25 years old at a minimum, and therefore several years behind friends who might have left school and immediately started working on the minimum wage or more. The unexceptionable dreams – a secure home, a family, spare pants – are deferred even further. To the British Library, however, none of this matters: it has no intention of sharing the costs of acquiring the high level skills needed for this job. 

It is a job: the work is mostly skilled and requires prior qualifications: the idea that someone with a modern PhD won't already have 'writing and presentation skills' already is a joke. There's no meaningful definition of 'post-doctoral student': PhDs require you to demonstrate to your peers that you have made an original contribution to the field. There's no higher qualification available – the use of the term here is simply a means to justify a low salary. 

The benefits are laughable: while the candidate may 'enjoy privileged access' to the British Library, I can't imagine s/he will have the energy to utilise this at weekends - it's a full-time job, so there won't be much time for browsing after work. 

Underlying all this is a simple refusal to acknowledge class privilege. The only people who will be able to take up this post (which looks like a great job) are those who have private means: my own students, virtually all first-generation HE entrants with no family money or funded PhDs are loaded with debt after their degrees and would never have the resources required to uproot themselves for a few months to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. No doubt the scheme's progenitors will speak of other forms of enrichment, and the networking opportunities available, but the whole structure depends on entrenched unfairness which will simply restrict (in this case) medieval studies to the same old small group of people. I simply note that the BL's director – a man unencumbered by a PhD*, but an alumnus of a very expensive private school and Oxford University (obviously) – scrapes by on £160,000. The canteen checkout holds no fears for him, especially as he has a second job as a non-exec director of Channel 4.  Perhaps there's a shortage of privileged white men, but it does seem that it's a buyer's market for desperate, fully-fledged medievalists, whereas the Roly Keatings of this world can name their prices.  

The sad thing is that there will be a queue of people applying for this post: we have an HE and public sector model which refuses to recognise the hidden costs of higher education, and wants to buy expertise on the cheap - this is why over 50% of university teachers are hourly-paid, temporary workers. Some will be able to coast through on private means; some will scrimp and save; others will remain invisible because they lack the means to subsidise one of the world's greatest institutions, thus depriving it of new perspectives and ideas. 

Of course, I can say this: I've lucked into a proper salaried job (though student application numbers suggest I shouldn't get too comfortable), surfing all the privileges that accrue to someone like me: the people who should be wielding the flaming torches are precisely those to insecure to speak up. Also, I may frequently clash with my own institution's management, but they have never stooped so low as this – while teaching opportunities are diminishing, PhD students are paid the standard rate here: c. £45 per hour, while the Graduate Teaching Assistants get 2-year contracts, take a PGC and a salary of about £24,000 per year. 

*OK, he has some honorary degrees but they require slightly less effort. 

Side note - as this is my weekly post, here's what I read this week:
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood. Disorientating, almost prose-poem of a modernist novel about pre-war Paris's queer society. Moments of stunning clarity and insight amongst dense, challenging, flights of fantasy. I'll definitely have to re-read it several times, but it's a short, astonishing text. 

James Bradley, Clade. I wasn't initially sure about this melding of the family saga with a story of eco-destruction, and I still think it threw in too many sub-plots (autistic scion discovers alien communication) but it's well written and the clear-eyed analysis of the way we're denying our way to a sterile, hostile world is utterly convincing. 

Susan Price, The Sterkarm Handshake. Shades of the later Outlander in this, but (despite Ian McEwan's stupid and snobbish comments about the genre), Price uses an SF trope – time travel in this case – to explore corporate colonialist attitudes towards agency and exploitation. It's also funny. 

Anna Burns, Milkman. Another one that's justified quick re-reading: there's a minimal plot and maximal first-person narration and it's wonderful to stand under this shower of thoughts, critiques and feelings and let them soak in. With the misery of Lyra McKee's murder providing space for previously-suppressed voices in the self-policed communities of Northern Ireland, Milkman is so timely. If you want more Northern Ireland/North of Ireland/Six Counties fiction recommendations, ask @DrMagennis, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field). If you get the taste for contemporary Irish experimental fiction, try Eimear McBride next. 

I've also just started Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure, a feminist, Welsh novel in English which shares something with the good McEwan of The Cement Garden-era, with Lloyd Jones's Y Dŵr and yet is highly distinctive: a claustrophobic setting with its own unexplained rules, a fabular tone and multiple (sometimes choric, overlapping) narrative voices. 

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Reading round-up.

Just a quick one about this week's reading.

1. Finished Richard Adams's Maia. Dreadful in almost every way, and for 1000+ pages. I finished it because I paid £1.99 for it. There were a few interesting disquisitions on the economics of slave empires but not enough to justify the other 997 pages of sexist – and ultimately deeply conservative – junk. The kind of book written one-handed, to be crude about it. However, if you're looking for something to read one-handed, this isn't it because Adams hasn't the courage to write straight-up porn. Weirdly, the narrative works hard to build a non-technological world that could be on another planet, or in the near-East at any point between Alexander and the fall of Byzantium, apart from a single reference to the Victorians.

2. Nick Hubble's The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question. Hubble suggests that the Modernist Question is essentially 'Who Am I', particularly in the context of twentieth-century masses:  the Proletarian response, he says, is 'who are we?' and what is the relationship between I and we. High modernist texts, to reduce Hubble's argument appallingly, is to worry about the fuzziness of the I amidst the encroachment of the we, and to retreat into style. The proletarian authors (and he redefines the term interestingly) take modernist techniques and use them to promote new ways of living based on intersubjective experience, i.e. encountering others and being changed by these understandings. He writes about Lewis Grassic Gibbons' complex A Scots Quair series and John Sommerfield's May Day at length, plus a good number of the classics of the proletarian genre, including Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live in passing. The close readings are superb, and not a jot of published critical material has escaped him. I did feel that some authors are missing however: Gwyn Thomas's early work just squeezes into the period in question and is strongly modernist and proletarian, but he seems to have escaped Hubble's otherwise panoramic gaze. There's also a lot of very interesting discussion of Empson's characterisation of proletarian literature as pastoral, in which middle class characters or readers learn about themselves through reading about industrial versions of the rude mechanicals – I wondered whether some consideration of proletarian literature about communities that just didn't have a middle-class perspective available – such as Lewis Jones's and Gwyn Thomas's Rhondda might have been a useful comparison. Anyway, it's a seriously impressive book that shines a new light on the field and unlike many good critical books, there's a paperback at £20.

3. Sarah Maria Griffin's Spare and Found Parts. A very interesting Irish feminist post-apocalypse homage to Frankenstein. There isn't enough attention paid to Irish SF, but perhaps this and Sarah Davis-Goff's forthcoming Last Ones Left Alive will help. I liked Spare and Found Parts a lot. Using Frankenstein as the basis of a teenage Bildungsroman isn't exactly subtle but it really works well. Ruined Dublin is evoked very well: anyone who knows the city will enjoy spotting what the plot does to their favourite bits.

4. Chris Mullin, The Friends of Harry Perkins. Less a novel, more an opportunity to make some fair points about Brexit and the Labour Party by a veteran ex-MP. The plot is perfunctory, the sub-plot (the death of a child) mawkish and lazy and the narrative expository. I read it as part of my politicians' fictions project. It's not the worst, but anyone hoping for a worthy sequel to his A Very British Coup will be disappointed.

I'm off for a few days' holiday ('from what?') I hear you cry. I'm taking the manuscript of a collection of essays on a Welsh author that I'm reviewing for UWP. Apart from that, I'm taking Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, James Bradley's eco-apocalypse Clade and Anna Burns's now-famous Milkman.

Finally, a quick thank-you to author and academic Donna Freitas: I put her teen techno-fear novel Unplugged on a course alongside Dave Eggers' interesting-but-dreadful The Circle and two of my students contacted her to ask some questions. She was generous enough to record a short video of her thoughts, which I thought was above-and-beyond. Restores one's faith in human nature.

Happy Easter to you all.

Hands Up For Wayne Hennessey

'Pob lwc, Wayne'
'Diolch yn fawr iawn…scheisse!'

Why am I mistranslating a famous scene from The Great Escape? In honour of Wayne Hennessey, the Wales and Crystal Palace goalkeeper who was recently found not guilty by the football authorities of deliberately making a Roman salute during a dinner. After initially claiming he was signalling the photographer, he later claimed total ignorance of the gesture's historic symbolism.

Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey in the background of a team photo.

'…stressing from the outset that he was unaware of what a Nazi salute actually was.
“Improbable as that may seem to those of us of an older generation, we do not reject that assertion as untrue,” noted the panel. “In fact, when cross-examined about this, Mr Hennessey displayed a very considerable – one might even say lamentable – degree of ignorance about anything to do with Hitler, fascism and the Nazi regime.
“Regrettable though it may be that anyone should be unaware of so important a part of our own and world history, we do not feel we should therefore find he was not telling the truth about this. All we would say (at the risk of sounding patronising) is that Mr Hennessey would be well advised to familiarise himself with events which continue to have great significance to those who live in a free country'. 
Rather than cynically doubt such a claim, let's applaud Mr Hennessey. Alone of all British people, he has managed to avoid every single history lesson (the curriculum has long been derided for being Tudors'n'Nazis), every single war film, entire TV channels dedicated to Nazi Murder Mysteries, Nazi Collaborators, Nazis: A Warning From History, Nazi Exiles, The Last Nazis, Nazi UFO, Nazi Hunters, Shot Down: Escaping Nazi Territory, Weird Nazi Obsessions (ironic, that one), The Nazi Hunt for Atlantis and Nazi Underpants (I only made up one of these) and much more besides. Perhaps Hennessey has been a member of the first team for so many years that he's never seen a television on a Saturday afternoon, traditionally the spot reserved for The Guns of Navarone or some naval adventure. Clearly he only ever played football in the playground, and never noticed his schoolmates' games, unless of course, growing up in North Wales, the enemy was always the Saes. Though if he wants to read novels about Nazi-occupied Wales, he can choose between Jan Morris's slyly ironic Our First Leader and Owen Sheers's Resistance.

Well done, Wayne. In a culture saturated with the single war Britain was on the right side of, one which fuels the bigotry of armchair generals like Nigel Farage, Mark François, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, he's managed to escape the entire cultural weight of this malignant obsession with a period which only ever gets presented more simplistically as time moves on, particularly with regard to British motivations and achievements. If only we'd all been so lucky.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Put not your trust in princes. Even those who make jam.

I met my reader the other day, and he asked me why, as someone with a full spectrum of facile opinions and a Labour Party card, I haven't joined the fray re: Jeremy Corbyn.*

The answer, of course, is cowardice. Well, cowardice plus a certain degree of exhaustion with the whole tired, tedious argument, plus some socialist history.

On the whole, I like Corbyn's ideological positions: anti-colonialism, international solidarity, Irish reunification, a strong welfare state and the viscera of running-dog capitalists spilling from their suspended corpses a degree of redistribution. The big disagreement I have with him is on Europe: for all its faults, it seems to me that the EU has provided more worker protection, cleaner air and calmer international politics than any British administration ever has or ever will.

I also tend to think that someone seeking power needs to develop an ideological perspective that can adapt to changing contexts, and that is capable of being communicated vibrantly and persuasively in the teeth of a hostile media environment. Spending time outside your echo chamber is also a good idea, something Corbyn and Tony Blair failed to do: Alastair Campbell's diary records an instance in which Blair flatly refused to believe the shockingly low UK average earnings statistics because he personally didn't know anyone earning less than £50,000 ('cognitive dissonance'). People are the products of their environments – neither you nor I nor Corbyn are sufficiently aware of our own shortcomings because we are rarely exposed to alternative perspectives on our ingrained belief systems, mostly because it's emotionally painful to do so. That said, I do think that those seeking power should constantly interrogate their beliefs and seek alternative views more than the rest of us. However seductive rigid faith is, being a True Believer leads to mental inflexibility and an eventual tendency to see disembowelling as the solution to every argument.

Most importantly of all though, my lodestar – as far as I have one – is Lewis Jones, the communist councillor, activist and author who was deported from the USSR (it could have been a lot worse: this was 1936 and plenty of British Communists in Russia were executed) for refusing to join in a standing ovation for Stalin, on the basis that real communists don't have individual heroes, they build progressive mass movements. Jones himself wouldn't survive a day in modern politics: his enthusiastic sex life would feed constant Daily Mail headlines to the exclusion of all his work on behalf of Spain and the unemployed, while his political doubts (which to me make him more admirable) would be seen as weakness. The Communist Party of the time was certainly torn: he inspired thousands of people, but kept going 'off message' when the Party line and the need for discipline conflicted with the empathy that fuelled his activism.

'Put not your faith in princes' (Psalms 146 3-5) is a good maxim: they, like all human beings, have feet of clay and the world is complicated. One of the most pernicious aspects of contemporary society is the lynch-mob mentality that ruthlessly punishes personal flaws, mistakes or even inconsistency. Nobody can be expected to live up to perfection, and idolising a politician, a sports star or a pop singer will only lead to disappointment and anger.

So there are aspects of Corbyn's politics I like and others I don't. As to his personality: I largely don't care either way. Dreadful people (hello, Lyndon Johnson, Eric Gill, Morrissey) have done great things, apparently lovely people have done terrible things (yes, Mother Teresa, I mean you). Sometimes the people with the right ideas have no clear path to enacting them, sometimes people with the wrong ideas have all the skills to put them in place (I'm terrified of Mike Pence: evil and serious). As far as the Labour Party is concerned, I see Corbyn's wing as a group of people who have old – and mostly still relevant – solutions to structural problems but little idea of how to communicate, nor of how to cope with a ridiculous electoral system, and the right of the party as a group of people with some good communications skills but who were left high and dry by the failure of Third Way politics because technocracy isn't a viable political position when the machinery breaks down. It's not 1973 any more, but nor is it 1997. Pragmatism without purpose is managerialism; purpose without pragmatism is the impotence of those sects which have spent decades honing their ideology (with many purges) ready for the revolution without ever once trying to actually, you know, do something.

In the end, I just don't think that socialists should have messiahs, even if they do have the right initials. Socialists believe that structures generate subjects, not vice versa.

Nor do I want to spend my time on social media being abused for being either a fascist CIA agent centrist-dad or an anti-semitic Marxist terrorism-loving traitor, which seem to be the only two positions available in any debate about Mr Corbyn. I don't think it's healthy or constructive to either be or to accuse others of being Corbynites or Corbynistas, particularly as those people insecure enough to insist on rigid definitions must surely end up accusing Corbyn of not being sufficiently Corbynite. At some point, he'll have to change his mind about something (I'm hoping it's EU membership): being able to do so without being called a traitor would be good for him, us and at the moment, this country. Identify a point on the continuum that is socialism as you see it, sure, but don't over-invest in any individual or announce that everyone else is a betrayer. If you can't support or critique someone calmly, you're not doing politics, you're doing religion, and not the nice bits either. And you're outsourcing your moral and ideological responsibilities.

Doxxing to the usual address, please.

*While on the subject, I notice some shock that the Paratroop Regiment used Corbyn's image for target practice. It makes a change from unarmed teenagers and aged Irish priests waving white handkerchiefs, I suppose. But surprise? Only if you haven't been paying attention.

PS. All these arguments about leadership apply to universities as well. My heart sank when someone from the Leadership Foundation for HE enthusiastically said to me 'your VC is a visionary'. Lord, save us from visionaries…

Monday, 1 April 2019

Guess who's back

Apologies for the break in transmission. The beginning of the year included massive amounts of teaching, marking and admin, helping with the very successful city literature festival (highlights: Liz Berry, Elvis McGonagall, Tracy Thorn) plus preparation for a job interview (this never happens) in the EU (which felt like planning a prison break). I didn't get it, but I didn't expect to. In any case, the suspense was somewhat lifted by another distraction - getting hit by a car on my cycle ride to work. Ironically, given my near-incessant moaning about selfish, aggressive and careless drivers, the guy who hit me wasn't any of these things: I came down a slight incline with low sun behind me and he couldn't see me as he pulled out of a junction. An unfortunate accident rather than anything more malicious. I broke my collarbone but my lovely, irreplaceable Moulton bike was largely OK, and my assailant paid for the repairs.

Since then I've been hanging around the house, sporadically reading in between extended bouts of self-pity. My friends have been wonderful - visitors most days, almost always bearing flowers or fine comestibles. I've read a lot of books (and only bought 2!) and largely avoided daytime TV. I won't be fencing or cycling for another 3-6 months but I'm hoping that I'll be able to wield an iron earlier than that. The first two weeks were terrible: shapeless sports gear made from artificial fibres – ugh.

Apart from 4 months doing a night-shift data-entry job with British Gas in 1996, this is the longest I've been out of education since 1980. I didn't miss the admin or the marking, but I did miss my students and colleagues a lot. I'm quite happy in my own company but staring at the same four walls for six weeks is quite long enough.

So here I am: picking up supervisions and union case work again, but otherwise meant to be writing a major grant bid and at long last turning my PhD dissertation into a book. Wish me luck.

(Look: managed to get through a whole blog post without mentioning the B word…).

Books read during my convalescence in no particular order:

Cynan Jones, The Dig: short, occasionally shocking naturalism. Definitely contains scenes of harm to animals.
Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: astonishingly good - KIberd clearly read Imagined Communities and ran with it.
Kate Atkinson, Transcription: cracking good story, decent twist, but not as formally inventive as her work usually is.
Gardner/Carroll, The Annotated Alice: you'll feel like you fell down a rabbit hole but it's very much worth reading as a companion to the raw text.
Adam Thorpe, Still: not sure why I hadn't read this one before. It's seriously long, but totally justified. A Joycean tour of the twentieth-century through a bitter failed film-maker's 60th-birthday monologue.
Bill Newton Dunn, The Devil Knew Not: bad novel, interesting in other ways – Dunn was a Tory MEP who was largely pro-Europe, unlike his son, the political editor of the Sun.
Mike Berners-Lee, How Bad Are Bananas - a decade old, but a useful guide to the carbon footprint of everyday life. Bananas: not very bad. Cheese: terrible. Which is a shame for me because I far prefer the latter.
Pratchett/Baxter, The Long Mars: the best of this collaborative SF series so far.
Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds: I really like Trollope's novels, but this was 800+ pages of mansplaining. A Trollope too far, I fear.
Henderson, Rotten Reviews Redux: an amusing round-up of scathing reviews of books that came to be seen as classics. Dip into it before appraisals and job interviews.
Elvis McGonagall, Viva Loch Lomond: I saw EG at the Literature Festival and laughed long and loud. Funny, political, witty poetry. Best experienced live, but the collection is good.
Michael Marshall Smith, Only Forward: decent SF thriller with a better concept than plot.
Keith Roberts, Anita: the cover design and blurb makes it look like exploitative sexy fantasy. It's actually a 1960s youth echo of Lolly Willowes.
Paul McAuley, Mind's Eye: a decent mix of SF and detective adventure plus a healthily cynical take on British attitudes towards the middle East.
Omar El Akkad, American War: post-invasion Iraq translated to a torn, post-oil US: not a novel idea but well done.
Tiffany Murray, Diamond Star Halo: an interesting tale of first love and fame which can't decide whether it's popular romance or literary fiction, to the detriment of both. Some wonderful characterisation.
Adam Roberts, By The Pricking Of Her Thumbs: an excellent future-detective whodunnit by Roberts set in a Britain largely abandoned for virtual existence, and his first sequel.
Paul McAuley, Into Everywhere: a big, clever space opera with a philosophical core.
Nancy Mitford, Pigeon Pie: short, snappy, witty 1930s roman à clef by one of the Mitford Sisters. A delight.
Nicholas Blake, The Deadly Joker. Possibly the worst novel Blake (C Day Lewis) wrote.
Robert Dickinson, The Tourist: a funny crime thriller set in a seedy and insular early 21st-century Britain visited by tourists on package holidays from the future. Any echoes of Brexit are entirely incidental.
Muriel Spark, Territorial Rights: I thought this was a very damp squib. Short, with some witty observations and witty lampoons of dreadful bourgeois middle-class types, but utterly sexless and occasionally in very poor taste, unredeemed by having much to say.
Paul McAuley, Whole Wide World: a very early attempt to novelise the then-new implications of the Web. Stands up rather well.
Christopher Brookmyre, Pandaemonium. A mash-up of 70s horror, Alan Warner's The Sopranos, Derry Girls and The Exorcist. A glorious romp.
Ken McLeod, The Corporation Wars: Syndicalist Robots (and uploaded racists) in Virtual Space. What's not to like?
Samantha Shannon, The Priory of the Orange Tree: semi-progressive politics, sexually-progressive and feminist, but still 850 pages of high fantasy, with a lot of early-modern Japanese international relations thrown in. Lots of nice touches but needed an editor.
Wodehouse, The World of Blandings: also 800 pages set in a fantasy world, with lots of plot devices familiar from his Jeeves and Wooster stories. Paper thin but beautifully-constructed and written with the lightest of touches. Contains the immortal 'it is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine'.
Richard Adams, Maia: not a rabbit to be seen. Mostly badly-written soft-porn fantasy with occasional serious and interesting discourses on the social and economic effects of privatisation and what came to be known 30 years later as neoliberalism. No, really!