Friday, 31 May 2019

Me neither.

What to write about this week? So much has happened, but most of it I either don't understand or haven't had the time to process, as my life is entirely taken up by marking and marking-related administration.

Amongst the things I'm glad I can't concentrate on are:
– The European elections. An utter disaster made worse by the British electoral system. At least Northern Ireland uses a proper system of proportional representation. The last 20 years has been an object lesson in how the British constitution – and its political class – are about as useful as the proverbial confectionery tea-receptacle whenever anything complicated happens. They deserve everything that's coming to them: it's just a shame that the suffering will be shared far and wide. My suggestion is that everyone who voted for Brexit be moved to the Isle of Man and given whatever political and trading arrangements they want. If after 10 years life there is paradise, we'll all adopt it. If not, we'll airlift out any survivors and carve Nigel Farage's, May's and Corbyn's faces on the cliffs of Dover as a stark warning to anyone who entertains passingly sympathetic thoughts about Britain or thinks it might be a nice place to live.

The Augar review of HE and FE funding and provision. Currently being hailed by journalists with short attention spans as a bold plan to reduce tuition fees while boosting university incomes. Actually a plan to make them pay a lot more over a longer period while reducing funding to universities, closing courses that don't suit Oxbridge arts' graduate ministers' idea of what the proles should be doing, and leading to the closure of the kind of universities that their kids won't be going to. Like mine. Not many countries have ever decided that future prosperity and happiness requires less education, but Britain's proudly joining 1970s Cambodia and the US, which is seeing its 8th year of university-entrant decline.

– Of interest only to my fellow academics, and something of a repeat, I'm also not understanding the way senior HEI executives define 'leadership'. My faculty is being abolished and my Dean has chosen to start a 'fresh chapter' in his life, after being subject to a vote of no confidence and a mysterious departure on 'extended leave'. No doubt the non-disclosure agreements are watertight and fully compliant with the Nolan principles of public standards, so I won't speculate on the reasons for all this, but I will just point out that the people who set up the structures now being abolished, and who chose their senior management, are conspicuously silent. 'Leadership' seems to be about taking credit when there's a press release to be sent out, not taking responsibility when things go wrong.

I'm well aware that university managements think of their staff as sanctimonious armchair revolutionaries who in fact operate solely to protect their vested interests, while university staff tend to picture vice-chancellors as people who occasionally pop in between first-class jaunts to dictatorships solely to negotiate their own pay rises and move everyone onto zero-hours contracts – and I'm not saying either position is entirely untrue – but the pernicious notion of 'leadership' has become a sick joke: HEI executives have absolved themselves of almost all responsibility while reaping huge rewards. No doubt I shall return to this subject like a dog to its own vomit, until the day I retire.

– The Conservative Party leadership election. It takes a special kind of solipsism to decide that a national crisis is the perfect time to overthrow an individual for failing to solve the Kobayashi Maru test.

Theresa May's awful personal and political characteristics aren't what has caused the Brexit negotiations' failures: it's an unwindable situation. Watching the denizens of various disgusting think tanks slither from under their rocks to announce that they alone can cut the Gordian knot is a sickening experience. If there's one thing I tell my students, it's that everything is more complicated than it looks, and that's what makes thinking fun. It's frankly unhelpful for the political class to wander round pretending that there's a simple solution to everything: 'Brexit means Brexit', 'Just leave', 'WTO terms', 'delivering what the people voted for' and so on. The referendum proved that you only get stupid answers if you get stupid questions. Now we're faced with a tiny, unrepresentative group of party members electing whichever slick bullshitter most closely aligns with their prejudices: 'Boris' with his hair and his lies, 'The Saj' with his fourth-hand Ayn Randisms, Dominic Raab with his Reddit-acquired distillation of Friedrich Hayek's wet dreams, Kit Malthouse (which I previously thought was PG Wodehouse's euphemism for a gentleman of hefty stature), Andrea Leadsom's manifesto for hedge-fund bros, Jeremy Hunt's millionaire, private-school interpretation of Samuel Smiles and even Rory Stewart's Toynbee Hall do-gooder Etonian gap-year Victorian muscular Christianity shtick. He reminds me of the furrowed-brow centurion in The Life of Brian who hands out the crucifixes but finds it all a bit awkward.

I know there are other candidates but they've blurred into one Oxford Junior Common Room 1985 election hustings and frankly I'd rather write another module specification template than think about them any more.

Anyway, it's not all work. I can't concentrate on anything particularly challenging when I'm marking, but I've managed to read a few books this week. I enjoyed Chris Beckett's Dark Eden, which uses the framework of an inbred community descended from marooned astronauts to examine the conditions from which war, toxic patriarchy and religion emerge – it's a very satisfying novel of ideas and written in the style of Hoban's Riddley Walker and Self's The Book of Dave. I've ordered the sequels. After a very entertaining presentation by Daryl Leeworthy at AWWE19, I bought Kingsley Amis's That Uncertain Feeling - another comic novel about male inadequacy in the face of female sexuality, with added barbed comments about Welsh culture. Some funny lines, but too programmatic and incapable of empathy for entire swathes of society. Rachael Kelly's big robotics/environmental collapse/noir-SF novel Edge of Heaven was very enjoyable: basically Bladerunner from the replicant's perspective. Finally I read a collection of SF short stories interspersed with commentary from scientists who'd hosted the writers, When It Changed (named after a Joanna Russ short story): some of the stories are good, some aren't, and I enjoyed detecting which scientists thought their authors understood the field.

This weekend's reading is Zadie Smith's Swing Time and Alison Plowden's In A Free Republic: Life in Cromwell's England. Both of them have been on my shelves for ages and I can't remember why I haven't already finished them. Plowden's take on the Commonwealth is more conservative than most of the histories I've enjoyed (such as Christopher Hill's work) but taking in other perspectives is certainly no bad thing. For the record, my view is: Revolution: much needed; Charles I's execution: fine; Cromwell: rapidly became a reactionary defender of the landed interest; murder of Catholics and Irish: psychopathic; suppression of the Diggers and Levellers: unacceptable; Protectorate: last gasp of an exhausted regime with no ideas beyond holding on to power; Restoration: defeat. Overall: a missed opportunity and reminiscent of Ireland 1916,  Iran in the 1970s and Egypt recently: progressive forces harnessed to overthrow illegitimate regimes, then murderously suppressed to ensure the domination of elites.

Finally, on the subject of books, I've just paid £84.99 for the CUP A History of 1930s British Literature. Each individual chapter is informative and interesting. I just can't help thinking, though, that if you're going to use the word 'British', you should probably mention that a) British literature of the 1930s included work in Welsh and Scots Gaelic and b) featured quite a lot of work in English from Wales and Scotland. (Northern Ireland isn't in Britain, so we'll have that argument another day). Ironically enough, there are more references in the index to 'xenophobia' than there are to Wales or Scotland. Lewis Jones and Lewis Grassic Gibbon are mentioned briefly by Nick Hubble; a chapter on 'Beyond Englishness: the Regional and Rural Novel' talks about some interesting texts but rather relegates two cultures to 'Other', while even Dylan Thomas gets one mention. Neither Gwyn Thomas; no Richard Llewellyn despite the enormous success of his neo-nazi romance How Green Was My Valley, no room at all for whole swathes of prominent and/or popular authors from 'the regions' outside England. It's not the fault of the chapter authors: it's an editorial failure. By contrast, I've just spent a similar amount of doubloons on Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill's Writing the General Strike: Literature, Culture, Politics, a much slimmer volume which managed to include chapters on Scottish modernism and working-class Welsh modernisms.

Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 24 May 2019

A tale of two resignations

Another year, another Conservative Prime Ministerial resignation. How different from the last. In 2016, Chancer Cameron, appalled that the rabble had disobeyed the prefects, put on his best 'I'm very disappointed in you' face, abandoned his promise to clear up the mess he'd made in the vain pursuit of internal party dominance, and strolled back into No. 10 whistling – clearly the cares of office weighed very lightly upon his shoulders.

Today we saw a very different performance: Theresa May's speech (here, from 25.00) largely blamed her party's members and Parliament (not unreasonably) for her inability to pass Britain's EU Withdrawal legislation. She ended by rushing back into the house in tears, overcome by emotion.

It would take someone with a heart of stone not to experience even a second's empathy and sorrow for the suffering she's clearly undergone in recent months.

Luckily, I am that person. My boundless reserves of human kindness were exhausted a few minutes into her speech when she dared to invoke the name of Sir Nicholas Winton (whom I knew passingly through fencing circles) in defence of her actions.

For many years the great humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton – who saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport – was my constituent in Maidenhead. At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice. He said, ‘Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’ He was right.

Theresa May sent vans round the streets bearing the message 'Go Home', split up British-Caribbean families seemingly on a whim and made sure that Lord Dubs amendment designed to rescue unaccompanied refugee children from squalid abandonment in the Calais camps was abolished after a pathetic 350 kids were saved.

I dread to think who will replace her, but she shouldn't be allowed to slip away with dignity: this was a vicious, self-serving and hypocritical attempt to gild a rotten lily.

Monday, 13 May 2019

A Weekend In Wales and Other Stories

Good Monday to you all.

I"m not thinking swiftly or deeply today - I've just come back from the annual conference of Cymdeithas Llên Saesneg Cymru/Association for Welsh Writing in English. It's always held in the University of Wales's shabby-chic stately home, Plas Gregynog near Newtown in Powys – all rolling hills, sheep and wildlife. This year's theme was 'Hearts and Minds: The Mental and Emotional Lives of Welsh Writing in English', though we actually covered plenty of material in Welsh too, as is becoming increasingly standard.

Given the theme, it's unsurprising that the material was emotionally challenging – by inviting people like Ian Rowland (author of the harrowing Blink, Jasmine Donahaye (in conversation with Cath Beard, whose reading and discussion of Donahaye's poem 'Motherlove' from 2006's Misappropriations led to a revelatory exploration of maternal OCD) and Jo Edge (who intends to post a recording of her keynote) to talk about personal and literary experiences of child abuse, OCD, postpartum depression and other conditions, the organisers ensured that the field fully engaged with the themes that are at the forefront of public consciousness at the moment (except for Brexit-induced depression: maybe next year). There were some thought-provoking tensions too: while the neurologist Andrew Larner discussed the patient as narrative-text in his medical and literary practice and suggested that medical training in discursive pattern-recognition allowed him to ascribe aspects of literary style to media conditions, historian Jo Edge's keynote the next day warned against the ahistorical and philosophically unreliable nature of retrospectively diagnosing historical or literary figures with specific medical diseases.

I found myself thinking about this a lot, not just in relation to mental health, but also to gender and sexuality. While the archaeology of identities leads to the temptation to claim authors, historical personages and fictional characters for contemporary identity positions to combat hegemonic silencing of marginal or subaltern subjects, there's also something unattractive about imposing our own cultural perspectives on societies that may not have conceived of human relations and identities in any way like our own. When it comes to actual people too, there's a danger of reducing their work to clues or symptoms. Cath – whose professional life merges literary criticism with women's mental health advocacy – noted that medical case histories emerged during the same late-Victorian period that produced the detective novel. Siriol McAvoy's discussion of Lynette Roberts' poetry and the way her work has been ascribed to her schizophrenia reminded me of my PhD student's attempt to force critics to consider Zelda Fitzgerald's work on its own merits, rather than as medical evidence. There were too many fascinating papers to list individually (follow #awwe19 to get a flavour): all I can say is that you know it's a good conference when you're faced with the dilemma of not being physically capable of going to all the sessions you want to. My usual method is to go to the postgrads' presentations, not solely to suck out all their clever new ideas, but because I always appreciated people coming to my terrible papers and bothering to ask a question. This year I didn't have too: everyone attracted a decent audience and the questions flowed like the seaweed gin (yes, that's a thing) that made the post-seminar evenings such a cheerful blur.

I was proud of my colleagues' sensitive, probing and informed engagement with these ideas, in papers, creatively and in conversation outside the formal bounds of the sessions. There were also a lot more gags than I'd have expected too. The whole thing will sink in gradually I suspect: I always come away from AWWE with more ideas than I know how to deal with, but this year's event was more challenging and striking than ever – plenty of delegates needed a bit of time out to during the weekend to process what was being said.

Away from the central themes, I loved seeing the parade of talented new scholars taking their place alongside the founders of the field, many of whom are starting to retire – many of them like my erstwhile co-author Lisa Sheppard, or Siriol McAvoy, publishing in Welsh and English with equal brilliance. Siriol launched her edited collection of essays on Lynette Roberts, hopefully starting a revival of interest, while Lisa took her place alongside the greats in the massive new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, also launched this weekend. It's £100 but it's also a once-in-a-generation book, and one which takes the bold step of covering Welsh-language and English-language work together in thematic chapters, establishing Welsh as a globally-significant medium. I gather that CUP had to be cajoled into commissioning the book, so I hope the news that the first print run sold out immediately – in part due to the Celtic solidarity of Irish scholars – has encouraged it to do more.

As always when returning from AWWE, I'm buzzing with ideas, physically exhausted and envious of the energy my friends and colleagues have. They seem to churn out good books whereas I'm struggling to get one going. Must try harder… I am contributing though: I'm organising next year's conference, with the help of a couple of very good people. It's on the broad themes of Childhood, Education and Learning in Welsh literature and culture. I'm hoping to attract some of the political decision-makers in Cardiff, teachers and educationalists, and to include some expertise from linguistically-similar places, such as Ireland. There will be strands on children's literature, language-learning, while adult learners won't be forgotten. In a country and literary culture packed with autodidacts, and one in which education has been a source of bitter struggle for centuries, a narrow focus would be inexcusable. The CfP won't be out for a while but if you're interested in contributing, do get in touch.

I bought the Cambridge History while there: the Welsh Books Council employ a young lady whose powers of menacing persuasion ensure that many of us leave with empty pockets. I also bought Stevie Davies's The Element of Water in the new Library of Wales edition, and was also given the two massive LoW short story volumes as part of the very generous society membership deal - ramming it all into my suitcase was tricky. As I already happen to have bought them, I'll donate them to the university library.

It didn't help that I also arrived with two novels to tide me over the three-day conference, both of which I did actually read. I suppose it's a testament either to my unsociability or the quality of the book that I sneaked away from one evening's revelry at midnight to read Barbara ComynsThe Vet's Daughter in one sitting, a wonderfully odd 1959 fable which coincidentally has a Welsh background. It reminded me of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes: both are stories of downtrodden, apparently-superfluous women who quietly discover supernatural alternatives to fading into the background, and both novels introduce the magical elements gently and calmly. I'm definitely going to read all of Comyn's work now. The other book I read was James Lovegrove's Redlaw, a violent urban fantasy thriller that had some strong elements but just wasn't written well enough to justify the gore. However, AWWE saw the launch of a far superior Gothic chiller, the Honno Classics edition of Hilda Vaughan's Harvest Home, edited by the excellent Diana Wallace.

Lots of books in the post today too. Two more Left Book Club editions, vol. 1 of Robin Page Arnot's Russian Revolution (1937) and Paul Frölich's Rosa Luxemburg biography. Both in good condition but sadly lacking owner's names inscribed, or any of the fliers and bookmarks I like finding – one of my friends once found a Senate guest ticket signed by the notorious Huey Long. I don't have anything that historic but you can build a cultural history from inscriptions and insertions: Cath Feely did exactly that by tracing the circulation of Das Kapital by identifying all the people who'd written their names on the flyleaves of their copies.

Apart from those two, I also acquired Irish SF novelist Rachael Kelly's Edge of Heaven, Simon Ings' The Smoke on Adam Roberts' recommendation, and Marina Lewycka's Two Caravans, her tragi-comedy about immigrant fruit-pickers. Maybe I'll put it on my literature of migration module ('"They Come Over Here"') if it ever runs again.

All of these will have to wait, however: I have a massive stack of dissertations to mark, an overdue book and several other pressing matters – there are tutorials to run and lots of union casework to attend to this week, sadly. It's good and bad news here too. In the good news, David Crystal is here this week – he was just retiring from Bangor and joining the star-lecturer circuit when I went there as an undergrad, so it will be great to meet him again (get your free ticket here). In the bad news (or perhaps it isn't), my Faculty is undergoing its second restructure in a year, or third in 4 years if you count its foundation. While the niceties of 'leadership' mean that nobody senior is publicly acknowledging that it's been a continuous bin-fire of mismanagement, bullying and incompetence, overseen by people who are now conspicuous by their absence (and hand-picked by the current bosses), I don't have any qualms in saying that the faculty's dismemberment is welcome and overdue. The only fear is that we'll be dumped into the wrong alternative. During the most recent review I suggested Humanities be reunited with our cognate disciplines in History and Social Sciences, a proposal singled out for rejection in the final announcement, but perhaps our chance will come again. If so, I promise not to follow the VC round campus wearing my Told You So t-shirt. What I dread is English being returned to our origins as an arm of the Education department: the people who told my HoD that his insistence on promoting basic literacy was 'pedantic'.

I almost forgot: check out Heno on S4C, 7.00 on May 14th to find the AWWE delegates doubling as a crowd scene for the Welsh Literature book launch. I'm the impossibly glamorous one the camera can't resist.

Friday, 3 May 2019

The weekly blah

There's almost been too much news to cope with this week, at least for a nerd like me. Attorney-General Barr's Congressional hearings (one evasive, one absented) were a treat, the local elections have given everyone something to be unhappy about bar the Greens and the Lib Dems, environmental apocalypse is upon us and it's the week before the dissertations are due in, which means I've seen students in every spiritual state from serene to shellshocked.

I would like to take a moment to thank a small group of students for their almost suicidal honesty: the third year who didn't realise there would be an assessment for his modules, the one who apologised for not being able to attend due to being on holiday, and the one who needed advice about which essay title to choose because he 'hadn't read the books'. The vast majority of my students are mature and responsible people who get all the help we can give. A small majority aren't, but pretend to be, and they get help too. What do with those who can't even fake engagement is the topic of my next pedagogical research article* but in the meantime I think I've earned the right to be amused even while I administer the necessary advice and support.

It's actually been a good week in the academic sphere: I've had really good consultations with students and I'm actually looking forward to reading their dissertations. My colleagues are back from the holidays and none of them have been hit by a car for almost 3 weeks, and we had our union AGM, during which someone volunteered to share my secretarial duties at last. Next week isn't going to be so enjoyable: despite the prospect of marking, we've been told to expect 'an announcement'. I don't imagine it will involve massages, research grants, candy-floss or brown paper parcels tied up with string. However, despite my institution's many faults, it isn't as bad as the British Library (which has temporarily withdrawn the 'post-doctoral studentship' I mentioned last week, or Edinburgh University, which advertised an 11 month part-time job featuring a two-month unpaid bit in the middle. How they imagine anyone can live in one of the world's most expensive cities for two months with no salary is beyond me. Neither can they have ever encountered the British unemployment benefit system, nor a landlord. They will, I strongly suspect, have reacted badly if the poor chump in post declined to answer emails, attend meetings or prepare classes during the two-month layoff. After some social media pressure yesterday the post was altered so that the salary was spread over the 11 months, but I still consider £13,000 very poor reward for teaching students at a prestigious, rich and selective university (or for doing any other kind of job in any field).

I watched Newsnight the other day (too paralytic to change channel) and a Daniel Hannan MP expostulated (from about 28 minutes) that the world had changed. 'I don't think [our kids] are ever going to have "a job" as we understood that word in the twentieth century. I think they're going to be constantly retraining, constantly reskilling, constantly freelancing'. The question I desperately wanted to hear asked in response is a simple one: why is that a good idea, either for society or for individuals? I don't really want my nuclear power plant staffed by people who drove trains or milked cows last year. Come to think of it, I don't want my cows milked by last year's nuclear physicists. I don't want students taught by people who've never had the chance to develop their teaching or research abilities because every contract has been a six-month, minimum wage one. I can see who it benefits: shareholders in industries which have automated skills out of the door and have no intention of investing in their workforces. For everybody else, it just helps the quality of life get that little bit worse. The model depends on the assumption that no jobs (other than CEO and perhaps hedge fund trader) really require any deep, evolving skill or security - they're just gigs, performed by walking fungible assets, as a friend was described by his boss at a very big investment bank, hastening his departure to a better employer, who have to fake competence for a brief period before moving on (this is known as the Cabinet Minister model).

Anyway, enough of this - you've heard it all from me before. In book news, I read Milkman and found it every bit as good as everyone said, and not nearly as 'difficult' as the chair of the Booker panel claimed. Burns removes proper nouns to defamiliarise the Northern Irish political/cultural landscape and stress the communal experience, but other than that it's a fairly straightforward anti-Bildungsroman about the psychological and social damage inflicted by generations of conflict. With some jokes, I should add. I also enjoyed Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure - it felt Ballardian in its isolated setting and clinical narration of horror. My bank holiday reading is The Seasoning, the English translation (presumably by her) of Manon Steffan Ros's novel Blasu. On a side note: various newspapers and magazine do round-ups of translated books, and they never, ever, look to Wales or Ireland despite the wealth of novels either being translated or crying out for an international audience. They'll pick up Irish novels in English, but anything in Welsh or Irish may as well not exist, whereas books in continental European languages automatically attract a degree of cool. Grrr…

The other books I got this week were:

  • Matthew Taunton, Red Britain: The Russian Revolution in Mid-Century Culture which seems highly highly persuasive but is fixated on England, even when discussing proletarian novels of the 1930s, many of which emerged from the mining and steel communities of Scotland and Wales - even the postwar critic and novelist Raymond Williams is treated as an honorary Englishman. 
  • Francis Barker, ed, 1936: The Sociology of Literature. Two thick volumes of conference proceedings from Essex University, 1978, packed with excellent material on literature and politics in the mid-1930s. 
  • Mark Schmitt, British White Trash: Figurations of Tainted Whiteness in the novels of Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths and John King. I've never heard of King, but I'm friendly with Niall and rate his books highly. I've taught some of them and it's high time more was written about them. 
  • Nigel West, The Blue List and Cuban Bluff: two more politician's novels. West (real name: Rupert Allason) was a particularly reactionary MP in the 80s and 90s who imagined himself as a spymaster and historian. His novels aren't very convincing, but then again a judge described him in court as 'profoundly and cynically dishonest…one of the most dishonest witnesses I have ever seen', a quote that doesn't make it into his Wikipedia page.. He's now flogging DVDs of his speeches as 'The Nigel West Lectures' at $24.95 a pop. Caveat emptor

So that's my bank holiday sorted…

*I'm never going to write a pedagogical research article.