Friday, 20 December 2019

Always winter, never Christmas

In her own Christmas address, the Queen referred to 1992 as an 'annus horribilis': part of one of her castles had caught fire, a downmarket tabloid published pictures of Sarah Ferguson sans brassiere, and several of her children's marriages failed.

The castle was rebuilt at public expense, Sarah's body is of far less concern than what her ex-husband did with his to whom, and Brenda's children appear still to be influential, rich, married and dissatisfied once more. 2019, however, has few saving graces. Unless I missed some bright spots while I lounged around at home nursing a broken collarbone (thanks, inattentive driver!), a year of political misery, homelessness, food banks, economic decline and political cynicism looks set to be followed by another recession and the willed isolation of a nation that prefers xenophobia to actually accepting that modern life is (as Blur didn't quite put it) complicated. A friend's father, for instance, has been made redundant as a direct result of Brexit: he is still all for 'getting Brexit done' in the same way that the white American peasantry was persuaded that white hunger was somehow superior to being black and hungry. There's absolutely no solace in 'I told you so', and schadenfreude is best enjoyed from a considerable distance, but here I am - a citizen of an EU state determined to stay on with my friends and family (and also, it turns out, not wanted in Irish university jobs that have come up) while being uncomfortably aware that for a year or two at least, my middle-class income and occupation will keep me insulated from the worst effects. Black humour will also help when turnips become the national dish…and currency.

So anyway, I've finished teaching for this decade with a Friday afternoon class on Chris Mullins's A Very British Coup. The module is Populist Texts, examining how popular culture takes on current affairs and social issues - we started with Black Panther and finished with this politician's conspiracy novel to discuss how art and issues affect each other. In retrospect, perhaps it was an overly optimistic choice: Harry Perkins actually gets elected, whereas the current moderate-to-serious left can't even get over that initial hurdle. Mullins's novel (adapted twice for TV) was published in 1982, a period when the Thatcher government went from dead-in-a-ditch to triumphant, thanks to the Argentinians. Winning the Falklands ironically led to their dictator being overthrown, while a Tory hegemony was established. A Very British Coup is many things, including a consolation to the suffering left: there's a kind of carrion comfort in assuming that the permanent state or Establishment are what's preventing you from winning rather than your own beliefs, strategies, or the electorate. We discussed why Mullins wrote a dystopian novel rather than another socialist utopian one, and why it ended in defeat - perhaps it was a product of its time, or a sales gamble, or a genuine belief. If I ever get the chance to write my book on politicians' fictions, I intend to ask him, and explore why so many MPs from both sides wrote conspiracy thrillers in the 80s and 90s (Helen Liddell's Elite sticks in the mind as being the last one, and the most baffling, but also a harbinger of New Labour and the Third Way).

I felt physically sick for a few days after the election result, which has never happened before. It wasn't surprise, and I'm generally far too insensitive to let things affect me at a gut level, but the knowledge that things are going to get immeasurably worse on all fronts and that those who'll suffer most voted for it in droves left me nauseous. My immediate response was to take solace in my students (we were looking at Watchmen that Friday, which counsels against trusting in super-men of any sort), friends and in coping mechanisms. I listened to the recent Trinity Wall Street recording of Philip Glass's Symphony No. 5 several times, especially this movement.

Also on my playlist at the moment is Donnacha Dennehy's Grá agus Bás and Herbert Howell's Cello Concerto – escapist I know, but I'm in the mood for solace. Once the new year starts I'll be militant for lost causes once more. Climate change and electoral reform will be my focus, I think. I've also retreated into books (surprise!), though not particularly challenging ones. I've just started AS Byatt's The Children's Book which balances a shockingly bad attempt to render Stoke-on-Trent's dialect as Standard Northern with an evocation of Edwardian radicalism which fascinates me. Arts and Crafts, William Morris, Guild Socialism, Rational Dress and bicycles (talking of which, I also assuaged the savage breast by buying a six-year old, heavily upgraded Boardman Elite AiR 9.0 - my first carbon fibre bike: it's no Moulton but it's wonderful). I've long thought (and indeed blogged when Ed Miliband lost his general election) that evoking the utopian optimism of the late Victorian socialists would be good for the Labour Party and its left/liberal fellow travellers.

Other things I've read recently include Gillian Cross's pointed but slightly shaky teen novel After Tomorrow (British refugees in France find themselves unwelcome), India Knight's anthology The Dirty Bits – For Girls (the introduction is perfect for my session on women, reading and Jilly Cooper); the first Tracy Beaker novel for Children's Literature - superb; Armistead Maupin's Babycakes, which allowed me to talk about serial novels and non-heterosexual plot structures, Terry Pratchett's Dodger which I found too laboured, Beloved again, which never fails to move and horrify me, Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection which I thought was fun but too self-conscious without going the full Auster that would have justified such self-consciousness, Jeff Noon's first crime novel Slow Motion Ghosts which I thought was magnificent and Brian Aldiss's debut, Non-Stop. I've rather avoided Aldiss, put off by his late career as a crusty gammon, but Non-Stop is brilliant - a compact novel stuffed full of interesting ideas, satirical gestures and a great twist. It came out in 1958 and presumably was one of the earliest in the generation ship genre. I've read lots of them and none of them beat his novel for economy and wit. Its sexual politics are very dated and the satire on Freudian psychology feels a tad old-hat but everything else holds up really well. Oh yes - I also read Perrotta's The Leftovers which was rather a good exploration of public and private grief in the wake of 9/11 but really didn't need the Rapture-like framing (or an extensive TV adaptation). 

I seem to have read quite a lot this year, partly due to being off sick for a few weeks. The texts that most stuck in my mind were Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, Stevie Davies's Impassioned Clay and Awakening, Melissa Harrison's All Among The Barley which I found problematic but was in retrospect too harsh about, Emily Dickinson's poetry – re-reading it for teaching just plunged me back into a wondrous world, Emerson's essays, Milkman (predictably), Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure, Kevin Barry's Night Boat to Tangier, Emma Dabiri's Don't Touch My Hair (extra marks for the Solange reference), Kate Charlesworth's joyous but also moving Sensible Footwear, Niall Griffiths's Broken Ghost (disclaimer: we're friends and I'm in the acknowledgements for no reason I can imagine) and Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth even though it needed pruning. I've definitely read more books by men than women this year but the ones that stayed with me are mostly by women. 

Musically, the ones I mentioned above were recent purchases, but I've also listened to a lot of Kate Bush, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Julia Kent's Temporal, Audiobooks' Now, In A Minute, the new Nick Cave, The National and Sleater-Kinney albums. Speech Debelle's Speech Therapy feels like a forgotten classic already; Pauline Oliveros, quite a lot of medieval music and polyphonic choral work and Chvrches also featured prominently.

So that's it for 2019. I'll be in the office on Monday, then I'm going to lie down in a darkened room for a few days hoping that it will all have been a fever-dream. Nollaig shona duit, Nadolig hapus i chi, Happy Christmas to you all. All I want from Santa is enough students to keep my course open. 

Friday, 13 December 2019

We're gonna need a new electorate…

Dick Tuck, I think it was, once gritted his teeth in the face of an electoral defeat and muttered that 'the people have spoken, the bastards'.

The same sentiment is raging around the liberal and leftwing corner of the world that I inhabit, with the added implication in some cases that what we need is a new electorate, not a new party or policy. I am in the happy position (if possible) of never having had any illusions about my own place in the political world, nor that of the Great British Public. Once in a blue moon something I passionately believe in becomes briefly fashionable and then goes away again, just like my lifelong attachment to v-neck ganseys and corduroy is occasionally mirrored in the fashion world and then goes away again for another decade or two. The confluence of weird cultural, social and political pressures that made me what I am – plus those regular pedagogical beatings suffered in headteachers' offices and the playground – also blessed me with the awareness that I will always be out of step with the majority. This doesn't necessarily make me feel any better, and it always carries the temptation to become either smug or a Vanguardist, but it does mean that blows like today's election results aren't freighted with an element of surprise.

There are two common responses to defeat on this scale: either the public are fools, or knaves - Steve Bell's cartoon responding to John Major's surprise victory in 1992 tends towards the foolish diagnosis. It's a Gramscian reaction, I suppose. Gramsci sat in a fascist prison cell in 1920-30s Italy and asked himself why the people repeatedly supported policies and parties which acted against their economic interest, despite the efforts of generations of Marxists. His answer in The Prison Notebooks was culture: that the combined forces of religion, politics, education, the arts, sport and all the non-economic aspects of our lives produced a version of 'reality' that persuaded the masses to act in the interests of a dominant elite and against their own. A crude – though not necessarily inaccurate – version of this is the argument that American conservatism has successfully persuaded poor Americans that 40 years of earnings decline is less important than abortion or immigration.

It's hard, this morning, not to take that line. I live in a poor, left-behind city. It is overwhelmingly working-class and has a large immigrant and first and second-generation population. Skilled jobs are increasingly rare and where they do exist, they're subsidised by a council suffering massive funding cuts, and by the European Union. The day after the EU referendum I was in leave-voting Abertawe/Swansea, where every new building bore a plaque with the EU flag marking where the money came from. I thought then, and think now, that none of the people voting Conservative or Leave will ever be the priority of an English Conservative administration. The Conservatives (much like New Labour) have idealised a working-class electorate that is racist, paranoid, selfish and bitter, thus bringing this electorate into being. They will throw them enough red meat to keep the votes flowing, while continuing to serve primarily the finance sector's insatiable demands for deregulation and an ever-smaller state. Britannia Unchained, the collection of essays by Raab and his cronies is essential reading here: it explicitly describes the British workforce as lazy and ignorant, and makes clear their belief in the abolition of the state beyond nuclear weapons and a legal system designed to protect capital. This is the world of V for Vendetta: the hedge-fund economy represented by Jacob-Rees Mogg and untethered from the rest of us will dictate policy, while an electorate that has proved it just wants things 'done' will be encouraged to look the other way by the most cynical policies Dominic Cummings (who at least is honest, in a weird way) can dream up.

The Conservative campaign made this clear: environmental collapse is upon us but a denialist party didn't bother making even the weakest statement in favour of prevention or adaptation. It treated the regulated media sector with total contempt, and the BBC responded like a beaten dog, failing in basic journalistic duties such as fact-checking. The private media did what it always does – monster a Labour Party that threatened its economic interests, while Labour ran a campaign of staggering naivety.

The Tory campaign won because it was simple. It ignored the pressing problems and blamed the rest – despite being in government for a decade – on easy targets that made no demands on an electorate that always wants to put off a reckoning. Foreigners; IRA-loving killjoys; 'liberal elites'. The genius of this is that there will always be such enemies. When Brexit is the disaster that it absolutely will be, the government will blame an EU conspiracy aided by Remainer enemies within. The world is a complicated place: Labour made the mistake of saying so, rather than pandering to the demands of an electorate that wants to be told that it has no responsibility, that everything's going to be great, that it's somebody else's fault.

Of course there are other reasons. The UK's kindergarten electoral system which prefers dramatic moments and confrontation to boring old compromise and negotiation; an entire political class which hasn't addressed deindustrialisation despite having generations in which to do so; a Labour Party balanced between right wing machine politicians with nothing inspiring or interesting to say and left wing ones who have all the answers as long as you don't start from here.

I'm left with an MP who took office having been exposed in the national press as a thief and a hypocrite. My students - some of whom voted for this outcome - are going to find that their university, their subject, their careers and their communities are not just beneath the notice of our new rulers, but the targets of scorn and hostility.

Are there any consolations? For me, yes. An Ireland peacefully united is inching closer; Scottish independence looks like really happening. Not much consolation for me, living in England and sharing the consequences with everyone else, but the self-inflicted dismemberment of the UK seems both overdue and good for the world – it's long been a rogue state, and deserves to wither away until it comes to terms with being a small, post-imperial polity with much to apologise for. However, this doesn't even start to make up for the knowledge that students, friends and neighbours don't have enough to eat now, let alone in six months' time. Being right shouldn't give anyone a warm glow, especially me.

If we thought 2010-19 was bad, buckle up and be kind to each other.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Is Widening Participation REALLY the enemy of progress?

They're wearing hats and gloves in hell this morning, for Radio Four has provoked me to stand up for my Vice-Chancellor. This is worse than when I found myself nodding in agreement with Linda Snell one dark day.

It all goes back to 4.30 a.m. yesterday, when I got up to go to a recording at my university of BBC Radio 4's alleged flagship news show, Today. 24 hours later, having got the date wrong and endured a day's mockery from my dear colleagues, I tried again.

As part of the show, Mishal Husain (whose journalism and presenting style I rather admire) interviewed the boss. Rather than explore the HE landscape, the university's role in a hard-hit city or the decade of wage suppression that everyone in HE except its leaders have endured, Husain (private school, Cambridge) decided to ask whether places like mine were essentially running a pyramid scheme by accepting money from students with poor A-level qualifications who were bound to fail. The VC then had about a minute and a half to unpick the assumptions and errors implicit in the question, and did a great job. I've had a couple of hours more and don't feel constrained to be so polite about it.

There are many hot takes on the bin-fire that is British higher education, but this was a new one. Given the elite universities' notorious failure to admit poor, provincial, working-class and especially minority ethnic students (at all, in the case of certain colleges), it's a brave move to accuse an institution with a 40% BME, 90% working-class intake of being the enemy of progress.

A quarter of Oxford colleges didn’t admit a single black student in at least one year between 2015 and 2017
Eight of the 29 colleges at Oxford admitted two or fewer black students between 2015 and 2017 (less than 1% of all UK students admitted to the college). This means that in at least one year those colleges can’t have admitted any black students. We don’t know what happened in each of the individual years between 2015 and 2017, so it’s possible there were more colleges who didn’t admit any black students in any given year.

The interesting question would be why and how underfunded, unfashionable places like mine are expected to repair the damage caused by structural and systematic racism and economic injustice. Instead Husain's question implied a direct, uncomplicated link between individual effort and academic success. My students come from multiply-deprived families, communities and locations. They have been failed by an compulsory education system that has never done well with ethnic minorities and has been privatised to such an extent that pernicious activities like 'off-rolling' drive a league-table culture at the expense of students. A-levels are a snapshot of achievement with their own problems (in my subject, the direct result of Gove's move towards a mechanical, boring curriculum has been a collapse in English Literature applicants) which to a large extent reflect privilege rather than potential, something a rigid qualifications-based HE entrance system largely fails to acknowledge. My colleagues at selective universities largely aren't racists excluding anyone they think smells of chip-fat: that's not how structural inequality perpetuates itself. Unequal access to HE is the end-product of a rotten system, not an individual failing.

Presumably Mishal Husain believes that attending a fee-paying school had no bearing on her own academic success and entrance to Cambridge: if so, her parents should ask for their money back. In the meantime, I'll stick to spotting the talent other institutions overlook. Also: state-educated students tend to do better at university – they haven't been educated beyond their natural abilities as many private school kids have been, and they're more independent.

Teaching mostly first-generation HE students is both a joy and a challenge. There are issues of cultural capital and actual capital, but they have usually seen more of life than their peers, and can be more driven. That's why so many of us choose to teach in places like mine (not me: I lucked into this and lightning doesn't strike twice) – we don't have a white saviour/missionary mentality but we see the difference we make and we don't have to cope with the entitlement of those who take education for granted.

Someone on Twitter described Husain's question as the product of a 'stay in your lane' mentality, and I'm sorry to say that I agree. The ruling class clearly believes that higher education should be reserved for the affluent middle and upper classes. The Morlocks should accept their roles in the service economy and take enough vocational training to work in an Amazon warehouse. I hate this. I've seen too many brilliant students who should be running companies, publishing novels, lobotomising government ministers or presenting BBC current affairs shows get dumped by the wayside for being too black, provincial, common or badly-networked. If History of Art is or Medicine is open to a cabinet minister's offspring (acknowledged or not), it should be good enough for my neighbours' kids.  If teaching Anne of Green Gables, Welsh literature, politicians' novels (my current research project) Jilly Cooper's Riders, American Psycho, The Book of Mormon and Hamlet (to select a few of my recent classes) goes some little way to tipping the scales back in the right direction, I'm happy.*

Anyway, that's the rant you get when I'm forced out of bed at 4.30 a.m. I'll go back to book-blogging and random nonsense again next time.

*Happiysh: I still want paying properly.