Thursday, 29 August 2019

For Britain, See England

I am trying to write my conference paper on Carol Ann Duffy and the Four Nations, honestly, but this Cambridge University summer course caught my eye.

What did authors in Britain write about in the decade immediately following the First World War? How did they reflect upon those complex, often troubled years, 1919-1930? What did they think about sexuality and censorship; about relations between women and men; about the decline of empire; about the hopes for peace? What can we learn from them now?
• After the First World War: T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922); Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928); Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet (1930)
• Nation vs. Nature: D. H. Lawrence, The Captain's Doll (1923); D. H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers (poems, 1923)
• The Social System: Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)
• Sexuality and Censorship: Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)
• Ends of Empire: E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)

Thinking of myself as – in part – a 1930s and Welsh literature specialist, I was intrigued by a 1920s Britain course. So much happened: the aftermath of WW1 (there's always a lag between events and literary responses); the Irish War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War and Free State; the Depression; mass unemployment in the coal-belts of Scotland, Wales and England; the impact of suffrage; the first Labour government and the Zinoviev letter. In Wales, we see the foundation of the Urdd, Eric Gill moving from Ditchling to Capel-y-ffin, the Arthur Machen craze, Kate Roberts gets going; the foundation of Plaid Cymru, Hunger Marches, Dorothy Edwards's Rhapsody and Winter Sonata, Aneurin Bevan is first elected… you get the idea. I'm pretty sure that things happened in Scotland and Ireland, and people wrote about them too. Welsh, Scottish and Irish/Northern Irish authors might even have written about things that happened elsewhere.

What's my point? This Cambridge course incorporates an anglicised American (TS Eliot) and Helen Zinna Smith, an Australian living in England. It pops out of south-east England for a quick look at DH Lawrence (though not his Nottinghamshire mining novels), but manages not to include a single Welsh, Scottish, Irish or Northern Irish author. This syllabus includes more authors from 52 Tavistock Square, London, than there are from the other nations of the British Isles. My gripe is partly about nomenclature: don't say Britain if you really mean England, and partly conceptual. These islands have long, complex intertwined histories and cultures - the complications are what makes the literature of the time so enthralling. It just seems so terribly old-fashioned to assume that the view from Bloomsbury is definitive. A Welsh-speaking miner-poet or Scottish baroness or a Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington is simply not going to have the same view as afforded the inhabitants of fashionable, moneyed North London or indeed from East Coker. Promoting the continued cultural exclusion of everything unfamiliar to white privileged south-easterners is the intellectual version of treating Downton Abbey as representative of British society.

No doubt these lectures will be fascinating and intellectually coherent in isolation, but as a whole they promote a deeply reactionary image of Britain, England and of literary studies as the valorisation of highly partial perspectives without reflecting on their partiality at all. The unspoken implication is that the study of authors from or living in one corner of England is universal, whereas the literatures produced in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, whether in English or not, are parochial. At a time when the UK is once again faced with dismemberment (not something I have a problem with), it behoves those with cultural capital to wonder whether exclusionary practices like these might have something to do with the Scots and the Welsh feeling unwanted.

What's the answer? Come to a deeply unfashionable university like mine which makes the effort to encompass a range of voices, not just those already sanctioned by dubious authority.

*Title of this post echoes the 1888 Britannica entry for Wales which infamously read 'For Wales, see England'.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Back, not necessarily by public demand

You find me much refreshed by my sojourn on the west coast of Ireland - goats were crowned on towers, the Black Atlantic was swum, sun burned, rain fell, photographs were taken and many books were read.

Duelling birds

At the horse fair


Mandatory annual shot of a horse queuing for a burger

King Puck himself

A reveller in the rain

Darkness falls over Puck Fair

The banner is accurate, but cruelly unnecessary

Theresa and Boris, winners of the Fancy Dress

One of the more elaborate roadside shrines - Dingle

An fear marbh - the dead man (Blaskets)

Old and new ways - cross glimpsed through an ogham stone
 As for books, I read two Carol Ann Duffy collections (Sincerity and The Bees) which I found moving in some places and bland in others. Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? was a funny read: the writing is wonderful but the underlying premise (one woman has too much sensibility to marry wisely, one is too crudely sexual; they both have to learn to love the right men, who have few virtues beyond patience and Being Right) really hasn't aged well. I read at least one Trollope every year and will carry on, but some of them really try one's patience. Tom Hillenbrand's Drone State is a German near-future surveillance thriller set in the darker corners of the EU. Good fun and some sharp commentary on any state's tendency to do whatever technology allows without moral qualms, but doesn't really bear up to close scrutiny. David Nicholls' Sweet Sorrow was a bit of a disappointment. I know that his books are always sensitive, funny stories of people learning to find their roles in life and love as they grow up, but this one felt even more formulaic than usual. The Romeo and Juliet-performance setting was mechanical but he does have some good insights into the play, and the teenage lads' dialogue is spot on. Worth reading, but I think the formula is played-out rather. I struggled a bit with A L Kennedy's Serious Sweet. Interesting structure (two troubled, traumatised people find their way towards each other through the course of an awful day, during which their pasts are excavated via flashbacks) but I clearly lack the imagined reader's sympathy for the characters required to fully appreciate it. Gavin Corbett's Green Glowing Skull was a blast. Its protagonist is also rather unsympathetic (a 40-something, aimless Irish emigré to New York) but the absurdist plot, picaresque adventures and Milligan/O'Brien-style events just worked brilliantly.

Finally, I read two big novels: Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and AS Byatt's The Whistling Woman. Reading them consecutively was an interesting experience. Sort-of consecutively, I should say: I read the first 250 pages of A Whistling Woman before my holiday, and decided there wasn't enough left to justify packing it. I finished the Atkinson on the way back, then dived back into the Byatt. Both novels are lengthy examinations of social and cultural change throughout the 20th century, focussed on individuals and their families who had a ringside seat. In Atkinson's novel, it's Teddy, an upper-middle class man for whom WW2 provided meaning and existential enrichment otherwise denied him. HIs experiences as a bomber pilot make him a node in a series of philosophical and moral questions which shape his life (or not, without wishing to ruin the twist): the ripples of his experiences are traced through the generations that follow him. The structure is ingenious without being particularly experimental, and the underlying assumption that ordinary people's behaviours are informed by moral depth and even the worst people's behaviour should be understood as the product of complex pressures is a good one even if it isn't innovative. It's a long book which entirely justifies its length, even for someone like me who has very little interest in the seemingly endless British fascination with WW2 (you managed to be on the right side once in a couple of millennia. Well done). So then I went back to A Whistling Woman. I like Byatt, and say that having read several books of hers that aren't the wonderful Possession. AWW is another family-saga-over-the-20th-century, the latest in a series of novels following the Potter family. They're harder to empathise with than Atkinson's characters: they're even posher, they're always at the forefront of whatever Byatt thinks is historically significant, and they all seem to excel at whatever they do. They're basically the family who always asks to see the manager.

AWW meets the 60s: Frederica is becoming a media star despite her suspicion that both she and TV are bright but superficial. Her mathematician boyfriend is losing his faith (something I thought the intellectual wing of the British middle classes did in the 1880s); an idealistic northern university is being wracked by hopelessly confused student unrest, while a nearby hippy commune is becoming a cult. Essentially, it's a novel about clashing grand narratives, with examinations of patriarchs and fatherless figures thrown in. I enjoyed it, but despite being on similar territory to the Atkinson (whose title is a bit of a give-away), it felt a little indulgent. The Atkinson was about fairly ordinary people in a society being remodelled by war and the horrors (and opportunities) offered by upheaval; the Byatt is much more self-consciously intellectual, but also much more interested in the individual than it is in social structures. Both authors are also very self-consciously literary: writers abound in both (a very funny Richmal Crompton parody and lots of Milton and Oxford English curriculum references in A God in Ruins, while writing is a recurrent theme in AWW: Lewis Carroll, Milton again and Shakespeare loom large).

It's fun spotting the literary parallels and references, and both novels are satisfying reads in that old-fashioned sense, but I found the Byatt a bit too like Iris Murdoch's most self-absorbed novels: posh people in intellectual and moral quandaries while the rude mechanicals follow their brutish instincts. It's very funny though - Byatt's suspicion of the counterculture manifests in wicked parodies of Tolkien, Tolkien fans, teenage Maoists and opportunistic Swinging Sixties types. Where it gets much more serious is its examination of the gap between the possibilities opened up for and by women in the 60s and the underlying misogyny of even supportive men. Motherhood – and its refusal – is a key issue, though ASB plumps for motherhood on the whole. The other compelling aspect is Byatt's constant battle for meaning: the Church mirrors the self-help group that becomes a cult; the University (troubled by the -ologies and by the dubious histories of its most rigorous thinkers) has an anti-University which specialises in woolly nonsense; humanities people pair up with scientists; learning and TV dance around each other. Byatt draws clear lines between Reality and Nonsense, without quite adopting entirely reactionary positions: Atkinson sees the dissolution of rules as an opportunity for both selfishness and altruism, in which kindness is the principal virtue. Byatt needs her world to make sense; Atkinson is much more open to the random stuff that constitutes life.

I suppose the power of these two novels is that I'm still thinking about them, despite Green Glowing Skull for instance being more formally experimental. Byatt and Atkinson use interesting structures and pour everything they know into these texts, sometimes too much, but this leads to a partial abandonment of realism - deliberate or not I'm not sure.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Au revoir, mes enfants

I am going on holiday. To Ireland of course, packing Factor 50 and a thick pair of gloves for use on the same day, if experience teaches anything. I hope to defy Judge Dredd by swimming in the Black Atlantic, take some photographs, read a lot of books, admire the goat on the tower and write my upcoming conference paper on Carol Ann Duffy's period as poet laureate (why yes, holidays are for doing the work you don't get time for otherwise). This evening is set aside for the pleasurable task of deciding which 20 novels make it into the suitcase – every year I intend to buy an e-reader and every year my pointless scruples about Amazon get in the way.

The last day at work finished on a slightly sour note: I went to a presentation on employee engagement, which featured a lot of warm words, some rather misleading graphs, the proud announcement that we now have an employee engagement 'branding and logo', and the astonishing assertion that a university can be ethical, caring, empowering and engaging while – as is being discussed – 'outsourcing' entire sections of the staff. Apparently you can fire the lowest-paid employees, contract a company to employ them and make a profit for itself, save money and adhere to your 'values'. I wondered out loud whether any senior management posts were being 'outsourced', which was deemed an unhelpful contribution.

Other universities, such as Birmingham and some London colleges have gone down this route. It means that you have a two-tier workforce: managers and academics on semi-secure contracts and decent salaries, and an army of the lowest paid, doing the worst jobs, stripped of any legal, moral or communal ties with their workplace. What always happens is that the former employer declares that working and contractual conditions won't be affected. They always are, at which point the university/hospital/school declares that its hands are tied because it doesn't employ these people.

My university has Fair Trade status: I don't see how this is commensurate with washing one's hands of the most insecure group of colleagues. Why should the people who cook our meals, patrol the grounds, keep the computers running and empty the bins be deemed external to the ancient ideal of the community of learning? This move has gone down very badly at other institutions and I hope that if it happens here, everyone from Professors and Executive Directors down will be on strike in solidarity. I can dream I suppose: the cause of this nasty little plan is that, like every university, we're struggling financially and like those in the vanguard of the sector, it's those given least who will be expected to give most.

Sorry, that's a gloomy way to end the academic year, but it profoundly depresses me. Universities should have the confidence of a millennia's existence and aim for the moral and social heights, rather than take on the most discredited, vicious and short-termist aspects of more recent organisational models just because the sea has become choppier. Idealism is only meaningful when there's a cost - there's nothing more nauseating than a highly-paid 'leader' explaining to those on the minimum wage that sacrifices have to be made, and oh look, it's them. Again. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Back in a couple of weeks.