Friday, 27 September 2019

Freshers' Week Placeholder Post

It has been - even by Induction Week standards - a humdinger. We have students, though an amputee could count them on her finger. They are interesting, lively, funny, eccentric, nervous, sharp, wary and – as in every single year – fans of The Shawshank Redemption and the music of Queen. We glean this information from our initial ice-breaker session, during which we ask them which cultural artefacts they'd present to invading alien overlords to protect us from galactic cancellation. Apart from these two appalling, evergreen choices, they picked the novel, film and soundtrack of The Perks of Being A Wallflower (which I now own, thanks to my GTA, appalled that I've never seen it), Bladerunner, 'Moonlight Sonata', the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings. This year nobody picked Shakespeare, the Brontës or any other 'Classics': they clearly had the confidence not to recycle ideas of what's good for them derived from school curricula. I do my best to ruin this by mentioning Queen's decision to play in apartheid South Africa, but it never works. Between bouts of dyspeptic sarcasm, we use the list to embark on a Cultural Studies-influenced discussions of canonisation, cultural taste, power, hierarchies, the mirage of 'universal' art and gatekeepers. It's always really interesting and gets people talking.

Away from the classroom it's been even more farcical than usual. Our 2-year (!!!) process for altering courses and modules failed spectacularly and the electronic timetable resembles a game of Russian roulette played with those clown guns that put out a flag with a slightly flatulent note. Every time I persuade them to give me a lecture room fire regulations say is big enough for the class, they punish me by removing one of the seminar rooms, then change them all without telling me or the students. We've also specialised in holding orientation events without actually informing those meant to be oriented. Josef K may not have known the specific charges, nor the room number of time of his arraignment, but at least he was told where the court met. The usual horrors of modern academia haven't slowed down either – yesterday I received a parcel of 150 non-urgent letters to sign and return within 24 hours, in Induction Week, have a week to produce our Academic Enhancement Plans, because obviously my colleagues and I have nothing on in the first week or two of the new academic year (how I'm going to memorise the new acronyms is the least of the challenges). Colleagues have joined and left us within 2 weeks, and the near future is an endless vista of redundancy farewells.

Still, there are compensations. I'm teaching Children's Lit, American Lit, Populist Texts and academic skills this semester: far from my research but all interesting and giving me ways back to things I enjoyed as an undergrad. I'm currently knee-deep in Paul Dunbar, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay for American Lit. I've always wanted to teach Dickinson in particular and now I've got to decide what the hell to say about her work beyond 'wow'. A day later I'm doing Tank Engine Thomas Again, so you know, have opinions, will travel…

Reading and leisure have fallen by the wayside a little in the manic run-up to teaching starting, but I've managed a few things. I refereed a fencing competition very badly; went fencing myself for the first time since my collarbone was broken and only embarrassed myself as much as usual, and read a couple of books. They included the second and third of Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy, which I enjoyed a lot - they use an SF trope to take a sociological look at the power of narrative and story to define a society. Highly recommended. Ian McDonald's Brasyl was also thrilling - set in three times (18th C, 2006 and 2033) in Brazil, the novel mashes colonial history, religion and quantum physics up very satisfyingly indeed, though there is a touch of the 'breasted boobily to the stairs' man-writes-female-characters in there. I'm also on the last few pages of Sydney Owen's 1805 novel The Wild Irish Girl, an epistolary novel in the high romantic style which appeals to the English to treat the Irish as actual human beings with culture and feelings and is a very early example of the kind of nation-building exercise Benedict Anderson identifies in Imagined Communities. The dialogue is astonishingly highly-flown, the plot is thin: (dissolute young man is exiled to his father's Irish estate, falls in love with Glorvina the Irish princess, meets some Catholics without descending straight to hell, achieves spiritual and sexual synthesis between the two nations on an equal basis. All concerned are fluent in French, Latin, Italian and Irish poetry, there are in-story footnotes that last for pages and I'm enjoying it hugely. Perhaps the Brexit negotiators should get a copy each.

Time to go - a retirement party to attend and then a PhD to read. Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Vroom vroom

Good morning. It's late September and the temperature here is 22 Celsius. That's not right. Today is also the date of the short Climate Strike, which I will be joining even though I'm cynical about the whole thing.

I'm 44, with no children, no car and I fly only in unavoidable situations (certainly no more than once every few years and never for leisure). I cycle most places and get the train everywhere else, so my carbon footprint isn't as high as the average porky white European – but it's still enormous compared with the vast mass of humanity which is brown, poor, non-European and dying right now thanks to people like me demanding more stuff right now. I used to console myself that I'd be dead before things got really bad - all the new research suggests that that's a forlorn hope as well as a selfish one.

I work in a university which installed a CHP plant on one campus some time ago then seemed to give up - not one of our new buildings has the highest BREEAM rating, not even the brand new School of Architecture and the Built Environment. Not a ground-source heat pump or solar panel to be seen, though we are in bed with two particularly damaging car makers. But still, the VC asked for volunteers for a committee to think about these things (it's never met) and encouraged us to re-use the cardboard sleeves on our non-recyclable coffee cups. Bicycle parking spaces have been reduced, there's no covered or secure storage, and no changing facilities. I should say that I'm at odds with a lot of my trades union comrades too - the lack of and potential loss of parking spaces is a huge issue here, because it's hard to think of a society that isn't designed around individual metal boxes transporting individuals long distances.

That's why I'm cynical about work-approved strikes: it lets employers look benevolent and woke while doing absolutely nothing - the appropriation and enfeebling of youthful energy that should be applied much more uncompromisingly. Well over 90% of my students commute from within 30km of the university: my suggestion of a ride-sharing app went nowhere. There are train lines between our campuses, but there's no sign we'll negotiate free or cheap travel and lay on an electric bus for the last mile; the VC and his team have a shiny Jaguar limo and driver which runs on liquefied animals. Business travel is still seen as a perk rather than a shame. When I was on the Board of Governors, several people turned up late to one meeting, all citing traffic. I asked if they'd driven, and they seemed a bit insulted by my observation that they too constituted the aforesaid traffic.

My cycle to work takes about 20 minutes, along flat, smooth roads, past a private school, an FE college, a primary school and a state grammar school. This morning I counted SUVs instead of swearing at them: 90 off-road vehicles, all pumping out poison for the purpose of making parents feel protective and/or powerful. I'd like my employer, schools and other employers to start banning particularly poisonous vehicles from their grounds - we need to start treating these things like weapons. There's a place for 4x4s: on farms, just as knives belong in kitchens rather than on the streets. More whimsically, I'd promote visible shame by adding coloured, foul-smelling dye to exhaust systems so that we can all see just what each vehicle is doing to us all. Even better, we could do this and route the exhaust through the passenger cabin before it makes its way outside. A few years ago I read Keith Brasher's book on the evolution of the SUV into a popular choice for the non-farming/mountain ranger market (several American carmakers are getting rid of their saloon ranges because drivers only want SUVs). It wasn't an accident: they identified a group of paranoid, selfish and inadequate people and designed a vehicle that would specifically appeal to them: the oversized, over-powered, physically dominant 4x4, marketed to appeal to parents keen on safety (not that of the people they run over, of course) and sociopath who wanted to literally look down on everyone. Who knew that would encompass 50% of Americans?

I know this sounds nasty but we've tried nudging people. Governments and polluters have worked really hard to make sure we do nothing. The Australian, American and Brazilian governments are the most obvious liars and cheats, but the British government did nothing, for example, when Volkswagen was caught deliberately cheating on emissions tests. VW, by the way, says it's sorry, but I can't help noticing that it had a major push to sell more SUVs this summer, with its 'SUV event'. Check out this ad, which uses 'confidence' where one might otherwise use the word 'aggression'.

There's also the added wrinkle of class justice: one astute working-class student observed that I was trying to stop them having all the luxuries that people of my class and age took for granted, and although it's not true of me personally (all my childhood holidays consisted of us sitting in a broken-down 4th-hand car in the Irish rain on the way to another meal of cabbage and boiled potatoes) it's hard to deny, especially when my retired colleagues leave at a decent age on the kind of pensions I can only envy.

That nasty genius Philip Larkin had something to say about intergenerational justice:

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Talking of which, I spent yesterday with (most of) my colleagues taking a course on suicide and self-harm prevention. With the near-abolition of dedicated, in-house, easily accessible mental health support (for staff, too), we're all being encouraged to know the signs and how to address emergencies - something I'm entirely supportive of, despite knowing that the structural and social causes of anxiety in the  institution and outside it will not be addressed in any meaningful way. I've done my years of youth sport volunteering, including spotting self-harm and eating disorders, hearing disclosures of abuse and neglect, and it's profoundly depressing that I get to use all that training every week as part of my working life too. We've built a society that functions as a gigantic anxiety engine, then handed over the soap-boxes to people who call the kids and anyone else with a better idea 'snowflakes'. Maybe Douglas Adams was right, we shouldn't have come down from the trees.

So I'll be outside later, but not with any high hopes at all. The narcissistic wing of my generation will be laughing at us from behind the tinted windows of the gigantic bourgemobiles they think they somehow 'deserve', and lots of the kids will later be picked up from school and taken home in SUVs - later they'll probably do the recycling and think they're doing their bit.

And on that bitter note, I'll leave you to it. All the students are back next week, so I'm off to practice my optimistic smile.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Duffed up - Carol Ann Duffy and more

OK, so I'm back from my Carol Ann Duffy and the Laureateship conference. With a cold and lots to think about. I was pretty shocked to discover that there hasn't been one before: whatever you think about her poetry (and it's fair to say there's a wide range of views), she's been prominent for forty years and has been Poet Laureate for a decade. Also: the London Review Of Books has ignored her: one review in 1995, a collective review of 3 women poets a few years later, and a blog post. That's really poor. As poets go, she's big. And yet so little critical attention paid to her writing and advocacy. Luckily Mari Hughes-Edwards, the energetic organiser, has a book out soon, and others are also producing criticism.

Last week was exhausting and challenging. Writing about such a sensitive thing as a Laureate - royally-appointed, freighted with expectations - at a time when the country she's meant to represent is falling (deservedly) apart, coloured my own paper considerably. Endlessly refreshing various live blogs tracking the collapse of Britain's ramshackle constitutional arrangements in real time made me look at her recent and older work in a new light. What is this 'country', this 'nation' she talks about? Who are the 'we' that crops up in her poetry and in My Country (Caradoc Evans used My People with savage irony - I'm not sure Duffy does the same), the 'verbatim' play she produced with Rufus Norris. How are the Scots, the English, the Welsh, the Irish and rural people represented in her work? Given she's produced so much poetry over the decades, in so many styles and addressing so many topics, it would be a fool's errand to suggest there's a singular or coherent Duffy: it's a label attached to an evolving set of interests and practices.

That said, I traced a consistent pro-unionist, anglocentric thread, suggesting that Duffy's invocations of Scottishness (Wales and NI rarely appear) are somewhat touristic, and that her frequent recourse to the provincial, the pastoral or bucolic to denote authenticity or real-ness inadvertently chimes with Nigel Farage's infamous claim to represent the 'real' people - My Country is a prime example. Not for the first time, the countryside is presented as a reservoir of realness, while the city is a place of unstable change, in which people reinvent themselves or lose touch with reality. In Duffy's case, this manifests itself too in a total distrust of politicians, who are seen as manipulators of language and of people. This worries me: defining anyone as 'real' means others are 'unreal'; if you root your 'authentic' people in the countryside you're excluding an awful lot of people; if you assume that people are easily manipulated you're assuming that they're passive recipients of power and discourse rather than participants; if you claim that those on the periphery are somehow immune to media discourse (how?) then you're endorsing ideas that perhaps should be challenged. I also thought that it was a bit unfair for a poet, of all people, to criticise others for using language manipulatively! Demarcation, I suppose…

I don't think that Carol Ann Duffy caused Brexit, despite my somewhat provocative phrasing during the conference (the first comment in response to my paper was 'you've crossed a line') and I accept that subtler readings of her work are available, but I do think that whereas writers and critics in Welsh, Gaelic and Irish, or writers of English from Wales, Ireland/NI and Scotland think about identity all the time, English writers have rarely had to consider the assumptions underlying their constructions of nation, country and state. Duffy has had to do this in public to some extent: the Scottish Referendum and the EU Referendum required poetic responses, and her 'Shore to Shore' tour showed us a poetry community shocked to a core by a 'people' whose liberal-leftish convictions turned out to be wishful projections on the part of the poet. 'Shore to Shore' became a kind of therapy for an small imagined nation of nice pro-European people distributed across the landmass, while My Country staged – in troubling ways – a confrontation between Britannia and 'the regions', silently judged by a metropolitan audience unrepresented on stage.

To be talking about all this in the British Academy last week was thrilling and scary – as I spoke, a demonstration passed by outside the window, on the way up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Will there be many more poets laureate? I don't know: it's a complicated appointment – royal, political, British but also (which I didn't know) meant to cover the Commonwealth. Wales and Scotland have their own national poets; the island of Ireland has something equivalent in all but name. Is the poet laureate essentially England's national poet? I think Duffy has done a good job in some ways, especially symbolically. Tony Blair apparently, apocryphally, declined to appoint her because her bisexual socialist ways might scare the Daily Mail horses. This biography (including her Irish, Scottish and Midlands connections) is important, but also I think misleading: we see modernity in her origins and beliefs, and therefore read it into her poetry when – as I've suggested above – there are other interpretations available, particularly from a Four Nations perspective and especially when looking at the work produced in response to public events (I think 'The Crown' is metonymic to the point of evasiveness). Certainly Katie Ailes's tour of Duffy's somewhat touristic representations of Scotland demonstrate this: too much heather and shortbread. At one point on the 'Shore To Shore' tour Duffy exclaimed 'Je Suis Haggis': funny, but also rather reductive of a complex and changing culture. It's the kind of thing you can say if you live in Scotland, engaging daily in its conversations. To crack this kind of gag from outside is questionable, at least.

Anyway, that was my view, and it sparked considerable debate (and an argument with a man from the BBC who objected to me describing it as the bourgeois voice of the imperial centre). Scary, but also fun. Thankfully however, everyone else's papers were much better. Mari's examinations of Duffy's use of spiritual and religious language was superb, though I would add that Duffy's representation of Catholicism is actually of Irish Catholicism in England, which is distinct from Catholicism in general, from Irish Catholicism, and from English Catholicism, in form, tone, cultural and content. You can thank several violent Irish nuns and monks in my past for that insight. Angelica Michelis's gave a stunning reading of Duffy's concept of 'foreigners' (and added some really important observations on the gaps in my own approach), while Katie's Scotland material was almost effortlessly innovative. The other speakers on my panel were Niamh Downing (Sheffield Hallam but not on the website) and Özlem Özturk and even through my nervous terror I learned an enormous amount and came away realising that I needed to re-read Duffy's work again, more slowly and more carefully. Emma Deeks talked the next day about teaching Duffy's work and again, I realised that beyond the obvious topics around 'Mrs Schofield's GCSE' (the poet's witty response to an external examiner denouncing her work as promoting knife crime), it speaks to adolescents in profound ways, whatever snobbery is attached to 'GCSE poets'. David Alderton's painstaking elucidation of Duffy's poetic practice as it relates to sexualities was a master-class in applied Raymond Williams/cultural materialism, while Alice Entwistle's examination of Rapture: sex, text and inter text was simply a virtuoso performance. I've literally never heard such a wide-ranging, precise, detailed close reading of anything. Simply amazing. Apart from anything else, her description of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (they aren't) as the filthiest verses ever written has really made me evaluate that poet (though I reckon Gwerful Mechain still edges it).

I went into this conference exhausted, worried and slightly ill. I came out of it even more ill and exhausted, better-informed, full of questions and having had my understanding of Duffy's poetry and practice radically altered. All this, and a number of creative events too, including the Art Does Not Get You A Job network launch - something I'd encourage you all to get involved with. It was scary and also exciting to be off my usual territory of Welsh/Celtic literatures and I'm sure my clodhopping brutality wasn't entirely welcome, but I loved the exposure to new ideas and approaches and found myself still thinking about things days later.

Apart from the conference, 'tis all go. Numerous university systems have failed to function, so I'm trying to pacify rightly annoyed students; preparations for next term are advancing (a bit); graduation is looming; we've had a staff conference on the OfS's next set of metrics and on improving outcomes for underperforming students; I've a PhD to read ready to examine in a few weeks' time, and all sorts of bits and pieces.

Other highlights of last week include going to an Irish centre to watch Kerry v Dublin in the All-Ireland (Gaelic) Football final. I confess to preferring hurling, but the match was a thriller throughout – I'm just sorry that, as I'm refereeing the Shropshire Open fencing on Saturday, I'm going to miss the replay in which Kerry will definitely win. The very next day, it was off to Stratford for a performance of the rarely-performed Venice Preserved, by Thomas Otway. While it had a few uneven qualities, it was a rip-roaring production (though a bit derivative, especially the V for Vendetta masks that are now a terrible cliché) and the script certainly doesn't explain why it's on so seldom – it's a mix of comedy, tragedy and revenge tragedy, although all the unhappiness could have been avoided if the dad (played, I realised the next day, by Les Dennis!) had accepted that children, including daughters, grow up and out. I assume that it was put on as a result of Brexit - it's another story of corrupt old men and younger populists manipulating the people with little thought for the public good. The ominous ending reminds me of the onrushing war at the end of Hamlet and the transmission of the blood feud to the next generation in Malfi.

I've also managed to do some reading apart from multiple volumes of Duffy's work. Curiously, after a few months of reading books mostly by women, I've hit a patch of apocalyptic books by men, exploring the social and cultural effects of isolation and disaster. Perhaps Brexit is weighing down on my unconscious. The only one by a woman I've read this week is Becky Chambers' The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet which won a lot of awards. I'm fully on board with the praise for its Sad Puppy-annoying evocation of a plurisexual, plurispecies universe in which humans are simply slightly annoying latecomers, but found the actual writing a tad leaden. Having been a bit disappointed by Robert McCrum's In The Secret State, I picked up his The Fabulous Englishman with low expectations, but found myself moved by this story of a conflicted, inadequate, failed author and his entanglement with some Cold War Czechs with real problems. The territory (curdled masculinity, creative failure) was more familiar perhaps than Chambers's work but the structure, narrative and sentence construction betrayed a lot of care and thought. Then I read M John Harrison's Empty Space, the sequel to Light and Nova Swing. I'm a huge fan of Harrison, thanks years ago to my friend Adam. His work emerges from the 'inner space' carved out by Ballard and Moorcock, redefining science fiction away from 'outer space' to the realms of the psyche – Harrison's work is as much literary fiction in the best sense as it is science fiction (also in the best sense), and Empty Space is a triumph with a great cat and like great literature of any genre, it makes you work. After that, I read the second of Chris Beckett's Dark Eden trilogy, which explores the results of social and cultural isolation amongst a small group of in-bred colonists – it's programmatic but driven by intellectual curiosity and sociological complexity, plus interesting linguistic quirkiness. Funnily enough, I'm halfway through Robert Harris's The Second Sleep, a reliable middle-brow author's move back on to speculative fiction terrain after Fatherland all those years ago. This time what appears to be a medievalist The Name of the Rose story (naive young priest uncovers horrors while tidying up after a parish priest's death) turns out to be a mix of Riddley Walker and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Harris has clearly been reading these and discussions of how fragile contemporary infrastructures are and projected his findings into a post-apocalypse England. Whether it's Brexit, environmental collapse or antibiotic resistance that collapsed our society is left unstated, but the fall of Rome is also added to the mix.

Next up: Emma Dabiri's Don't Touch My Hair.

PS. Almost forgot: I read The Warehouse by Rob Hart: a good novel about the soul-sapping, anti-democratic, economy-crushing behaviour of a company that definitely isn't Amazon (it definitely is). I bought my copy from Waterstone's. In person.