Monday, 29 July 2019

Welcome to Birmingham.

A friend asked me to take some pictures of the rebuilt Birmingham New Street station for a book project. I have Views about the place: as far as I can see they just stuck a new shopping centre on top of the same constricted, dark, confusing and un-expanded 1960s station. It's as if Screwtape or Crowley (who designed the M25 as a satanic sigil) got his hands on the blueprint and decided to have some fun.

Anyway, I went along and took some shots of the exterior and its surroundings. Here are some of my favourites – the rest are here.

The shiny new facade next to a 70s concrete building

One of the nods towards softening the surfaces around NS

Not all of the New Street area has been gentrified.

The famous Electric Cinema, continuously operating since 1909

waiting for the bus home from graduation

The signal box - one of my favourite brutalist buildings - now listed

Colourising - a cheap bit of kitsch I couldn't resist

Sauron's Eye is watching you

Side and top view of a tram

The light at the end of this tunnel is thankfully not a train

One of my favourite car parks. 

Detail from same

Packing up at the market

New Street façade 

Friday, 26 July 2019

Welcome to Hell

Well, last week's post insisted that nothing happened. This week everything has happened, though not necessarily to me. The Tour de France and Ireland's corking start to the Test match against some no-hope newcomers called Ingerland or something has anaesthetised me to some extent from the pain of a heatwave and the installation of the Johnson administration.

Maybe I'm getting old (44 last week) but I look at this shower and don't see statesmen and women: I see a bunch of overwhelmingly male, white, privately-educated Oxbridge graduates who've honed their one-liners at the Oxford Union debating society, done a couple of years in the cellars of a think-tank, strolled into parliament where they've deployed precisely the same kind of I-speak-your-weight Hayekian nonsense that got the young gentlemen rolling in the aisles back in the day. I really mean this: perusing the various books, speeches and tweets of this crowd, you get the sense that they have never met anyone outside their own circle worth considering, and there isn't a reflective bone in their collective bodies. What you get instead is the self-regard of a group that thinks – like the various Spiked magazine alumni infesting the body politic – that a good policy is the one that sounds most out of step with public opinion or good sense, one that, to use a phrase currently in vogue in the colonies, 'owns the libs'.

Priti Patel (one of several ministers returned indecently quickly after being justly sacked for disgraceful behaviour) with her obsessional regard for capital punishment; Sajid Javid and his proud boast that he's only read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (the film of the book is his favourite movie too); ministers for the environment, housing, welfare, Europe and so on distinguished only by their hostility towards their charges. Actually, that's not fair: Robert Jenrick, the Housing minister, owns two multi-million pound London homes and lives on an estate. A country estate, but still, it gives him an insight into the lives of others I'm sure. I'm not one to sentimentalise the past, but I'm already mentally rehabilitating Gauke, Hammond and Co: while their policies were vile, they at least didn't behave like governing a major country is a student prank. Douglas Adams nailed them spectacularly in Max Quordlepleen's monologue in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980):
“And thirdly,” he said, “thirdly a party of Young Conservatives from Sirius B, are they here?”
A party of smartly dressed young dogs stopped throwing rolls at each other and started throwing rolls at the stage. They yapped and barked unintelligibly.
“Yes,” said Max, “well this is all your fault, you realize that?”
While we're on the Hitchhikers' analogies, they also remind me of the advertising-executive contingent on the Golgafrincham B-ark, the useless section of a species sent off to found a colony on earth where they can't bother anyone, and from whom we're all descended. Gavin Williamson isn't an ad executive though: he's the Number 2 who declares war on some trees, just in case.

As you can probably tell, I'm not taking this at all well. The installation of a bunch of ultra-rightwing liars and cheats (including Grant Shapps, whom I personally thought I'd dispensed with last time, as the Guardian reported and euphemism his lies as 'overly-firm denial') is not a good background to resit marking, course admin and dealing with student complaints. I'm old now. The thought of saddling up once more and hounding these crooks and shysters just exhausts me, and there are so many of them.

I haven't even had much time for reading this week, only struggling through John Barth's proto-postmodern The End of the Road. I'm fine with the style, but the protagonist is so unpleasant that even while admiring the way he's put together, he's hard to spend any time with. The sexual politics have really, really not aged well either. I'm not sure what's next - I had planned to read or re-read some texts I've put on next year's syllabus, but rearrangement of the teaching duties mean I won't be teaching them. I've got some Carol Ann Duffy to catch up on ready for a conference I'm contributing to in September, but I might resort to closing my eyes and picking at random from the Room of Unread Books. This isn't an exaggeration for comic effect either: I literally have a room full of unread books, plus more in several locations. I haven't bought any books this week though, so I'm winning through. I just have to live to 109 to get through the ones I already own.

Enjoy your weekend. I was going to savour Ireland's defeat of England but they've just collapsed to 38 all out and lost the match. Just the last stages of the Tour de France to keep me going.

Friday, 19 July 2019

In which absolutely nothing happens

Pretty much nothing to say this week. I've just marked re-submitted essays and attempted to wrestle with the fresh new tortures added to our virtual learning environments and electronic course management tools. The students, many of whom need to confirm their timetables to plan work commitments, keep contacting me to ask when classes will run. I have no idea, and no idea when either party will know. All I hear is that one faculty identified 12,000 timetable clashes thanks to the whizzy new system that promised personalised timetables for all staff and students, with no clashes. God alone knows what happens when staff with caring responsibilities and flexible working requirements start asking for their legal rights to be recognised. So as far as next year goes, I mostly know what I'll be teaching, just not when or with whom. Situation normal, AFU.

Outside, of course, the world still burns and the New Idiocracy is about to take over, but we're all just passengers on this flaming jetliner of doom, so there's not much point rehearsing the usual anxieties. I've distracted myself by refereeing the Much Wenlock Olympian Games fencing competition last weekend (it went very well: no complaints about my decisions and no technical failures) and by turning 44. My bikes came back from repair with mixed results: the Moulton is running like a dream but the boring Forme road bike is still playing up. I've read a book or two, but not as much as I'd like: Wodehouse's Uncle Fred In The Springtime was like a greatest hits of his top-dimwits-in-trouble plots, and I'm currently halfway through Sam Byers' Perfidious Albion, which is a funny satire about Brexit with quite a lot of thinly-disguised contemporary figures prominently featured. It's a bit like JG Ballard's later novels with more gags. I particularly liked the Theory Dudes, a bunch of bros who prefer to uncover the hidden fascism in iced buns etc. than address violence on the streets.

I do seem to have acquired a lot more books than I've read this week - all the pent-up orders from my week away. They include Geraint Goodwin's The White Farm and Other Stories; Andrew Tolson's slim The Limits of Masculinity; Kath Filmer-Davies's Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth; Crawling Through Thorns, Welsh Boys Too and Fishboys of Vernazza by John Sam Jones (in all my years attending Welsh Lit conferences, I don't recall anyone discussing these intriguing novels and short stories about gay Welsh life, and he seems to have no online presence); Lucie McKnight Hardie's disturbing Welsh coming-of-age novel Water Shall Refuse Them; Red Love and Love of Worker Bees by Soviet commissar and ambassador Alexandra Kollontai; the new collection of Malory Towers stories by Lucy Mangan, Narinder Dhami, Patrice Lawrence and Rebecca Westcott; some excellent old Penguin editions from a colleague, including James Thurber's Is Sex Necessary?, and Armistead Maupin's Babycakes, the fourth of the Tales of the City series. I've taught earlier ones, but wanted to teach the volume that covers the early years of the AIDS crisis. Turns out I'm not teaching American Lit after all, so I'll just read it for fun.

In the absence of any opinions with which to detain you, enjoy your weekend and tune in for another exciting episode of Lists of Books and Minor Complaints.

Friday, 12 July 2019

A Week in the Stacks

This is the end of a week at Gladstone's Library in Penarlâg/Hawarden - one of the few (only?) prime ministerial equivalents of a Presidential library of which there are many in the US. One can only imagine what will be in the Trump Library: tweets and subpoenas plus – one can only hope – illiterate letters to Fox News anchors written on toilet paper and smuggled out from his cell.

Gladstone's Library is rather magnificent. The core collections are his own theology, history and literature holdings, held in a lovely Edwardian-neoMedieval complex which looks like it was plucked from the banks of the River Isis and dropped in this border village. Gladstone himself was clearly a character: one of his books bears the comment 'this generally worthless volume', while the church ceiling has a patch where he impatiently decided that he could repair it better than anyone else, before giving up in the face of the scale of the task. There's a slightly feudal - and border - air to the village too: the Gladstones still occupy the local mansion and estate (which you can't even glimpse) and have endowed anything that isn't moving.

It's been a wonderful week. I've just sat here in beautiful surroundings, working away on turning my PhD into a book, and spoken to virtually nobody. Those I have spoken to have been interesting and lovely. It's going to be hard to leave, but the resit marking waits for no man. I'll be back, and next time I'll book well enough in advance to get a room here rather than in the b-and-b, good as that was.

Focussed on work as I have been, I've really only read critical texts: John Jenkins's PhD on masculinity in Valleys novels (which I examined and like a lot); Emma Smith's Masculinity in Welsh Writing in English, Harri Garrod Roberts's Embodying Identity: Representations of the Body in Welsh Literature, and William Germano's From Dissertation to Book - all highly recommended. I did zip through a battered old Penguin copy of Wodehouse's Uncle Fred in the Springtime at the weekend, and I've almost finished Stevie Davies's Awakening: a superb neoVictorian evocation of the impact of Darwinism on nonconformist belief, taking in sisterly relations, female desire and Anglo-Welsh relations along the way. It's subtle, unflashy and rather wonderful.

Some random pictures from the last few days:

Friday, 5 July 2019

This week's whinge

Thanks to the gods of the research budget (they play with us for their sport), I'm away all next week – sitting in the Gladstone Library trying to get on with turning my ancient and pedestrian PhD dissertation into a book. This should be a little more advanced, but my six-week sabbatical this semester was almost as badly impacted as my collar-bone was when I got hit by a car: this week away should help me catch up a little.

Sadly the Gladstone's accommodation is fully booked so I'm in a b-and-b across the road and won't be able to stay in the library in the evening, but it will still be good. I'm hoping to take a bike for those balmy evenings, but they're both in for repair at the moment and I'm not sure they'll be ready in time. One of the difficulties about having a rare one is that the bike shop lacks the specialist tools. What you gain in geek-points, you lose in practicality. And money.

This week has mostly been about course admin - trying to set up next year's modules without knowing what the timetable is or who's available to teach - and counselling students ahead of the resubmission day next week. Students fail for a wide variety of reasons and I have an awful lot of sympathy for most of them (and most seize the opportunity to have another go with good grace and effort), but some do try one's patience. Sending me a draft for comment that is clearly and crudely plagiarised seems rather cheeky, as does airily admitting that one hasn't read the text being written about. This is now Slide 1 of my Hamlet lecture.

Anyway, enough of that. On with the apologies. A week or two I expressed my frustration that certain very senior and entirely imaginary colleagues had wreaked havoc, behaved unethically, and failed upwards to other institutions under cover of NDAs, pay-offs and good references. I am assured by one who certainly knows that this is not the case - a relief, and evidence that perhaps I am sometimes too cynical. There's still the issue of what happened to effective oversight and accounting, but I'm happy to correct the record. And to my readers in the posh seats: just rattle your jewellery. (And while you're here, ask yourselves this: despite posters all over the place referring to the 'digital campus', why can't a course leader contact every student on a course, or in a particular year on a course, in one go?). 

I've found a bit of time for other things. Sunday saw me doing refreshing my welfare officer and child protection qualifications for fencing - mostly quite repetitive, but there's a new emphasis – or panic around – social media. Perhaps understandably, governing bodies, like the law, struggle to keep up with the scary new possibilities raised by the plethora of platforms especially in the hands of the young and enthusiastic, and those with sinister intent. Thankfully the current training doesn't try to be exhaustive: keeping it simple and thinking ethically are the key aspects. 

Books: only a couple this week. Stephen Baxter's H-Bomb Girl was entertaining, witty and convincingly situation in early-60s Liverpool, and well worth the 99p I paid for it in The Works. The new Kevin Barry novel Night Boat to Tangier is great - a very consciously Beckettian piece about two witty, charming, dapper, washed-up Irish psychopaths. Full-on Corkonian Hiberno-English dialogue, absolutely minimal narration, struggles to generate female characters with the same rich interiority – the women are wives, mothers, daughters, copers and escapees, but lack agency (though as the Beckett influence is strong, almost nobody has much agency). I'm currently most of the way through Peter Ackroyd's The Death of King Arthur. It's a long time since I read Malory, but I think he's managed to reproduce the structural jumpiness, Arthur's savagery (his Herod-style massacre of the infants, for instance) and the uninterest in character development rather well, despite – or perhaps because – cutting two-thirds of the story out. I'd forgotten too how close to the surface the Celtic-style ritualism is in Malory's very Anglo-Norman text.