Friday, 28 June 2019

Summer: not yet icumen in.

Normally at this point of the year it feels ass if things are slowing down a little. Not this time - between the second Faculty re-structure in 18 months with its concomitant organisational and union casework challenges, the slowly-dwindling repercussions of being off sick, the magic new timetabling system (much vaunted, not yet spotted in the wild), terrifying recruitment figures – non-recruitment would be more apt, workload challenges, external examining duties and research deadlines approaching, I'm exhausted and more than a little worried about the future.

Also, and on an astonishingly mundane level, my beloved Bridgestone Moulton bike is starting to show signs of age: it shouldn't be preying on my mind nearly as much as it is! At the moment I can't use the highest gear – the new chain (made up of two shorter ones) just won't engage with it, which is infuriating as I virtually never use any of the others. My local bike shop does its best but they haven't seen most of its odd-sized components before, and some of them are no longer made. Ideally I'd trade up to a Moulton NS Speed but I don't happen to have £16,000 plus change lying around and work's Cyclescheme doesn't quite stretch to it… I do have a boring normal road bike but that's playing up too. I don't know what I manage to do to them.

As for the rest of the week, it's been hectic but fun. My dramaturge friend Emi Garside popped up, so it was good to see her. I had two days at Swansea University, fitting in a little light external examining on their English and Welsh MA courses between walks along the beach, fine ice-creams and good company; I talked to students about resits and continuing projects, and I read some books. I enjoyed MT Hill's post-Brexit dystopian novel The Zero Bomb especially the vision of an illegal underground version of the NHS post-privatisation. Ben Aaronovitch's latest in the Rivers of London series, The October Man is set in Germany's wine country and was good fun - it's a novella that didn't add anything special to the overall series, but was very enjoyable nonetheless. After that I read Stevie Smith's 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper. It's been on my shelves for at least a decade, picked up for £1.99 from The Works. How I wish I'd read it as soon as I bought it. I didn't realise how much fun it was, nor how compelling the narrative voice is. The narrator is a businessman's secretary, Pompey, and the story is her jumbled thoughts on everything from the Jews for whom she feels some affection while also believing herself naturally superior (rather uncomfortable at this distance, though I suspect a fair representation of her class and time, and Pompey learns the error of her ways once she visits her German friends), the Nazis (against), suicide (for, in principle, and thinks it should be presented to children as a reasonable option), art, sex (very much for), marriage (rather undecided) and aunts (ambiguous). I moves between witty chat and genuinely profound. She performs constantly – as a family member, a friend, an employee – while knowing exactly how large is the gulf between how 'normal' people behave and how she wants to behave. The style is somewhere between Woolf, Flann O'Brien, Wodehouse and Daisy Ashford of The Young Visiters fame, and it's hard to tell how knowing or naive it really is. There are counter-Betjemanesque touches – like the image of the young woman lingering by the tennis courts in the hope that some young chap will propose to her – and Mansfieldesque ones when the Pompey takes a moment to examine her condition. I liked the line 'I do not like this riot of emotion. I do not like it at all'. Anyway - highly recommended.

Finally, I'm most of the way through Kate Atkinson's latest Jackson Brodie crime novel, Big Sky. Like all of the series, its power derives from knowingly flitting between literary fiction and detective fiction mode. I'm not sure the balance is quite right this time: the repeated reminders that the author and the characters are aware of what happens in crime thrillers are a bit laboured, especially when the plot – paedophilia and people trafficking on the Yorkshire coast – is so dark, contemporary and compelling. The bad men are nicely made, but the real triumph is Crystal, a damaged child who single-mindedly self-fashions herself into a trophy wife and becomes the moral core of the novel. Jackson himself, a great creation originally, seems to be a bit-part player to some extent, the vehicle for many self-deprecating jokes about his inability to connect with the younger generation (they all have mobile phones and don't talk to adults much, and you can't make them climb chimneys for a living) which sometimes shade into a sense that Atkinson herself is finding generational change a bit hard to take. That probably sounds harsher than I feel, but there is a problem here. The darker side of the novel is operating on the territory of David Peace's horrifying, political representation of South Yorkshire as a failed state, Red Riding Quartet and the best bits of it are equal to that series, but the jokes and cosier aspects keep detracting from the grimness.

Next up – if I finish the manuscript I'm reviewing – is Kevin Barry's new one, Night Boat To Tangier. Amongst the new books acquired this week are Levy and Mendlesohn's Children's Fantasy Literature, David Runciman's How Democracy Ends and philandering MP Alan Clark's 1960 Bargains At Special Prices in a beautiful 1967 Arrow cheap paperback edition. The BBC showed a version of it in 1964 but I doubt any tapes survive.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Embarrassment is not the worst thing to happen to a public institution

For a few years, I was one of my sport's child protection officers – advising on good practice and helping to investigate complaints. It was harrowing occasionally, and led to some fairly uncomfortable conversations and situations, but it was important work.

One of the cultural barriers to being effective was the tiny size of the field: pretty much everybody knew everybody else, while livelihoods – and sporting careers – depended on the outcome of complaints. The governing body was largely made up of big fish: influential people closely tied to a lot of those about whom complaints were made, invested in the appearance of harmony and continuity. There was a lot of resistance to setting up open structures which encouraged referrals: more than once a senior person said that a newspaper report about a coach being suspended or arrested would damage the sport as a whole. Our argument was that denial would lead to the death of the sport: what parent would entrust their children to an organisation which claimed there wasn't a problem when every sport manifestly did have a problem? We watched some sports' governing bodies confront their inner demons and thrive because new entrants respected their honesty and determination to do better; others hushed everything up and lost the confidence of their participants.

Eventually the culture changed: go to any fencing event now and you'll find a welfare officer and discreetly circulated details about how to talk to somebody, and most people now think the structures are impartial and trustworthy. The bureaucracy can be daunting and – to the generation which talks about snowflakes – paranoid, but it clearly works.

All this came to mind while observing the latest academic merry-go-round, in which senior managers disappear mysteriously take months of leave, 'resign' to seek 'new opportunities' with the best wishes of senior management, then pop up somewhere else, sometimes in more senior positions. As the months go by, the personal, structural and economic damage they've wreaked will emerge but no blame will ever be attached to them, to those who appointed them, or to those who put in place manifestly inappropriate structures that enabled incompetent, corrupt and sometimes criminal behaviour. In a system which privileges institutional power and leadership prestige, there's no benefit to transparency or honesty: the institution doesn't want regulators poking their noses in, and it wants the departing individual to go quietly, so it's non-disclosure agreements all round, a bland-to-positive reference that doesn't even hint at any disquiet, and everybody's free to 'go forward' without recriminations or reflection. Some credit cards are withdrawn, there might be a short period of enhanced auditing, but there's no serious critique of the social or cultural context which led to a series of poor decisions. Restructures and job losses (not of those responsible, obvs) will follow to solve the immediate challenge and references might quietly be made to bad apples. The barrel will remain unchanged. Horses will remain unscared and the niceties will be observed at agreeable conference dinners. The departing individual will wreak further havoc in his or her next institution and nothing will change. Some union representatives might be rude enough to refer to unfortunate events but confidentiality will be invoked as a reason not to respond.

This is, of course, entirely hypothetical.

Anyway, it's otherwise been a ridiculously busy week - more progression and results boards, resit meetings with students, a bit of research planning (not any actual research of course) and preparing for my own external examining visit elsewhere. I did manage to fit in some relaxation: caught up with some friends I hadn't seen in 20 years at a wedding reception, and saw Stereolab on Sunday, fulfilling a long-held dream. They didn't disappoint.

I finished Manon Steffan Ros's Blasu, which took a while to grab me. The structure is very obvious: interlinked characters across several generations in a village whose secrets and traumas are expressed by their relationships with food. Each chapter moves between characters' perspectives, and each is prefaced by a recipe. I got the point but it felt a little programmatic, and the central secret wasn't hard to work out. However, where the novel really earned all the prizes and acclaim was the slow unfolding of character and subtle enmeshing of these often complex, damaged people as the plot unfurled – from being a bit distracted by the self-conscious structure I ended up being deeply moved.

In total contrast, I also read Shada, Gareth Roberts' novelisation of Douglas Adams's abortive Doctor Who scripts from the late-70s. Hilarious, witty and the perfect mash-up of Dirk Gently with the Whoniverse. Not sure what book's next: something lightweight, that's for sure. I also finally got round to listening to the new Clinic album, Wheeltappers and Shunters, and an interesting collection of choral music called Supersize Polyphony: it is as unsubtle as the name suggests. If you've already got some von Bingen or anyone else's recording of Tallis's 'Spem in Alium', you really don't need this release.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

A few book non-recommendations

It's been a hectic week or so since my last substantial post. Two unexpected days in Ireland for a wake/funeral, and all the admin associated with the end of term: sample scripts, moderation, moderation forms, module statistics, module statistics pre-board response forms, organising resits, the formal boards, appraisal planning, workload planning: it all mounts up and much of it is necessary, if not efficient.

Next year promises to be efficient without necessarily being progressive: the move to compulsory online marking means I won't be chasing people for scripts, photocopying them, filling padded envelopes and posting them to external examiners to puzzle over gnomic crabbed comments: everything will be instantly visible in some low-rent typeface on a computer screen. I know there are a lot of arguments (starting with the environmental) for online marking, but I think my department's current compromise (handwritten marginal comments, typed substantial feedback on a coversheet) strike a happy medium between organic artisanal response and ease of comprehension. It bodes ill for me too: having decided not to have an internet connection at home so that I don't live on my favourite sites 24 hours a day (Moulton Bikes, Librarything, – and The Guardian, obviously, because I'm a stereotypical bleeding-heart liberal) and because I wanted a complete separation between work and home, I'll now have to stare at a screen, in the office, for even longer. I think this means I'm old.

Anyway, it wasn't all work last week: I managed to read a couple of books at least. One of them was Zadie Smith's Swing Time. Having left it on the shelf for a couple of years, I took my second-hand copy on the flight to Ireland with me. Thoroughly engrossed, I read it there and back, finishing it in the air on the return leg. Or rather, not finishing it. Some absolute rotter had removed the last page! It's not exactly a murder mystery, and there's no whodunnit to be revealed in the closing lines, but it left me utterly bereft and helpless. Thank heavens for Twitter and the numerous kind people who sent me photos of the missing paragraphs while I was on the train home: closure was achieved. Though not for the central protagonist. I heartily recommend it. Can't believe Madonna didn't sue though.

I also read and enjoyed Alison Plowden's zippy In A Free Republic: Life in Cromwell's England - lots of good detail and useful quotations from letters and diaries (mostly Royalist) but weirdly unedited: chapter titles had little to do with the content, and pages could swing between examinations of the Rump Parliament to details of common dietary or skin complaints. After that I read Gary Shteyngart's  Lake Success, which I thought was much less successful than his Super Sad Love Story: it tried to be a Travels With Charley/Tom Sawyer/On The Road encountering-the-real-America, plus The Big Short and Bonfire of the Vanities and American Psycho all at once, while simultaneously signalling its author's and protagonist's hyper-awareness of this literary tradition (the central character, an awful hedge-fund trader who has a mid-life crisis and travels across the US seeking his lost love, his spiritual progress measured in the number of women prepared to give him a redemptive shag, recalls his university creative writing class assignment, which featured a banker seeking redemption through rediscovering his lost love). It pulls its punches: you can't critique the damage caused by and inner emptiness of the 0.1% and make sure that your hero lives happily ever after without changing his fundamental views or behaviours at all, despite having gone on a literal and metaphorical journey. He ends up with $100 million in the bank and a strong relationship with his ex-wife and autistic son. The son - convincingly on the extreme end of the spectrum for most of the novel – miraculously turns out to be highly-functioning, loving and intellectually-gifted by the end. It's almost as if Shteyngart is deliberately parodying bad writing. But he isn't, unless I've completely missed the point, which is always possible.

(As a side-note, I automatically don't read anything described as The Great American Novel: size and significance don't correlate, and any attempt to represent a large and complex polity is pretty much bound to be a form of cultural imperialism, usually of the macho variety. I'd far rather read a lot of short novels covering less ground with less confidence written by people who aren't rich white men who went to Harvard and think that gives them a panoramic view of the country).

I'm obviously alone in this view though: my paperback copy is stuffed with august reviewers' declarations that Lake Success is a work of satirical and comic genius. I thought it was fatally wounded by sentiment and smugness. Not sure what I'll read next. Probably a Course Specification Template or two.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Jeremy Cut-Me-Own-Throat Hunt, Entrepreneur

I’d be the first prime minister who has been an entrepreneur – creating hundreds of jobs in a way that goes to the heart of what we as a party stand for.

So said Jeremy Hunt, many times in the past weeks as he runs for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

Oh yeah? My image of an entrepreneur is someone who comes from nowhere and makes their fortune with a good idea, struggling against the entrenched interests of the establishment.

Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt emerged neither from a slum nor a ghetto. He did not scrabble. Rather, he is the product of entirely of aristocratic breeding and state-funded privilege. Little Jeremy was not found in a box: he is the son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, who went on to share several major companies once he got off his boat, and Lady Meriel Hunt. Young Jeremy attended Charterhouse, which currently costs £40,000 per year and brings with it an enormous amount of social capital: not the typical background of an entrepreneur. Who paid the fees? Well, we did. Some indirectly through Daddy's Navy salary, and, I suspect, directly via the Continuity of Education Allowance that pays for services' kids to go to private schools.

Either way, Jeremy's head start in life was entirely funded by those of us who do not have access to an elite school, nor to the social and cultural networks that are the unspoken side-benefits of attending such places.

Where did Jeremy go next? Well, despite coming across as slightly limited in the cerebral region, his hothouse education landed him a place at Magdalen College Oxford. Luckily for the country, pater didn't have to scrape his pennies together to fund this: Jezza is another of those Tories who benefited from a free university education and subsequently kicked away the ladder. Active in the Conservative association, Jeremy rubbed shoulders with a wider set of rich kids, and went into management consultancy. All this, therefore, is underpinned not by the free market, but by the efforts of the state, paid for by us.

Wait: the entrepreneurial stuff must be coming, right?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. He did set up a couple of companies that went bust, and a PR company, and then hit gold with Hotcourses: a website which aggregates university course details for potential students. Sounds perfectly legit, until you wonder where the raw material comes from? The reality is that state-funded institutions make their data available for free - and then pay to advertise on the site. One of its major customers is the British Council, i.e. another arm of the British Government. He sold it for £15m and went in to some very fishy-looking property deals. Oh, and the 'hundreds of jobs'? 300. In four countries.

Enterprising, yes. Not exactly entrepreneurial though: a career built on scraping other people's work, paid for many times over by the taxpayer, and arrived at after the rest of us generously funded the kind of education and access we could never dream of. Not exactly a model for the masses.