Friday, 28 February 2020

Get your hot takes here!

I notice from the readership stats on this blog that if I only write about books, I get 20% of the usual rate of clicks. People, I've devoted my life to literature: reading it, talking about it, thinking about it (if I have to). The stats are so low that literally more people have read my journal articles. That hurts.

If you don't want my book thoughts, what do you want? Here's this week's topics:

  • In response to a query about their sustainability plan, my university tells me that the security staff needed a brand new SUV because a)
    an electric vehicle was not suitable due to limitations on battery life versus mileage and the times required to recharge 
and b)
    Security personnel wear bulky PPE clothing and as a result required a MPV to accommodate their physical needs.
'MPV' is a weaselly way to ignore the problems with SUVs, which include their heightened danger to pedestrians, found quite often on urban university campuses. We had a sustainability coordinator but she was only seconded for a few weeks and has now got another job. So that's how pressing climate change, pollution and congestion is taken here. This kind of response isn't serious - it's openly trolling anyone who's concerned. I suggest that their next vehicle be chosen from one of these options to ensure that the epidemic of violent crime sweeping our estate is stamped out:

mad max fury road

What else?

  • My teeth hurt. A lot. The dentist is very clear about whose fault this is (mine), and brooks no arguments about structural disempowerment. The next few weeks will be filled with a lot of pain, physical and financial. 

  • I went to a concert: the CBSO playing Foulds' April, England, Vaughan Williams' London Symphony and Lise Berthaud playing William Walton's Viola Concerto. The Foulds was an enjoyable short blast, the London was very familiar and yet more stuffed with ideas and interesting figures than I remember, and the Walton was a revelation. I'm a sucker for the viola anyway, and Berthaud's tone was astonishingly rich, while the CBSO played with more precision and balance than I've heard in ages. Truly it was as a balm. 
  • I've been obsessed with Hamlet all week - I'm teaching the second class on it on Monday, and we're focusing on its sexual and gendered dynamics, having taken a New Historicist approach last week. The more time I spend with it, the more complex I find it. 
  • I hosted the regular meeting of the West Midlands Region Fencing committee. It was every bit as exciting as you might imagine (no decisions are made by trial by combat, something of a missed opportunity, I feel). 
  • I've done a lot of union casework, almost all representing senior figures. All I'll say is that representatives don't get to choose their cases, and intellectual brilliance is not always inextricably linked to emotional intelligence or indeed accurate understanding of what life is like for everybody else. More seriously, it's solid proof that even a professorship is now an insecure and temporary post subject to the whims of a management that finds it hard to look beyond a spreadsheet.
  • I was more saddened by the death of David Roback than I expected. I'm not particularly sentimental, and I'm not sure I'd have been able to name him spontaneously, but I've loved the music of Mazzy Star since their first album back in 1993 and hoped they would record more albums. 'Into Dust' is my alarm clock music, and familiarity has never degraded my admiration for how much emotion can be packed into such a skeletal arrangement.  
I hope that's the kind of 'content' you're looking for, because there's plenty more where that came from. However, in case you are the individual who'd like to know what I've read this week:
  • Sally Nicholls, Season of Secrets. A very moving book about a young girl whose bereavement is assuaged by becoming enmeshed in the myths of the Green Man and the Holly King. The writing is limpid, the plot simple and the effect deeply emotional. A bit of a gem. 
  • Country Girls by Edna O'Brien. I can see why the censors hated it in 1950s/60s Ireland but it's every bit as good as everyone says – the first in a trilogy about a pair of Irish girls moving from country isolation into adulthood, urban sophistication and their own sexual identity. 
  • Sarah Davis-Goff's Last Ones Left Alive was a very enjoyable Irish feminist take on the zombie apocalypse novel. More horrific than my usual tastes but a bracing read. 
  • Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout. Famous for her William novels (which my grandmother bought as they came out in the 1920s - I still have her collection), she regretted that her novels for adults were overshadowed by the juvenile writing, but this one is a delight – a very sharp, ironic and wry tale of contrasting matriarchs and their families: a mix of EM Forster, Trollope and Compton-Burnett. Highly recommended. 
Here's the Walton:

and some Mazzy Star:

Try not to catch coronavirus racist paranoia this weekend. It's quite catching, I notice. 

Friday, 21 February 2020

Just books for once

I'm busy beyond reason this week so won't detain you for long. I also am very conscious that I've moaned a lot, so I promise not to this time. All my friends at other universities are on strike and while it's a terrible thing to have to do, I do feel a bit left out. My branch only managed a 29% turnout, well below the legal minimum required. In case the boss class is reading this, it's because we're exhausted, not because we love you.

So: non-moaning activities. Well, I've been stuck deep inside Hamlet all week, preparing for a couple of weeks devoted to it. I bought Emma Smith's new book on Shakespeare's plays, highly recommended by many people, though it feels unfinished to me - lots of introductory ideas or big picture assertions, but too short and snappy. I loved the idea that Othello is a comedy that goes wrong though, and her view of Hamlet as primarily a nostalgic work is a useful counter to the many readings that see it as the Birth of Modernity, but I don't share her identification with the aristocracy. She says it ends apocalyptically, with the royal family dead and foreign Fortinbras grabbing the throne. Greek dramatic tradition says that it's only a tragedy if important people suffer – nobody cares if the bin man pops his clogs early – and so technically Hamlet is a tragedy. We don't have to be tied to this though: as far as the ordinary Danes are concerned, one inbred toff is likely to be as bad as another. Old Hamlet admits he committed terrible crimes, but there's no evidence that Claudius has or will. Perhaps he'll be a better king. Maybe he'll be better than young Hamlet, who is paralysed by indecision. Certainly Fortinbras hasn't done anyone any harm, and the idea that a foreigner might be less destructive than a native is a poke in the eye for the Elizabethan ancestors of the Brexiters, who were soon to acquire a Scottish king.

Anyway, here's my favourite Hamlet adaptation. You can thank me later.

I've also been reading, and weirdly for me, it's been ten days of male authors: two of Gilbert Adair's Evadne Mount crime pastiches, which were highly entertaining and clearly a labour of love. Well worth reading if you adore 1930s Golden Age crime thrillers. Michael Lewis's The Fifth Risk is a scary account of the Trump government's version of Michael Gove's 'we've had enough of experts' but also a love letter to career bureaucrats and the necessity of good government – much needed in this climate. I enjoyed Jonathan Lethem's As She Climbed Across The Table for the prose but did find myself wondering if we needed yet another semi-postmodernist novel about young male intellectuals' emotional inadequacies, however well-written. It is very funny, but you do need to have read way too much psychoanalytic critical theory to get to that point. Larry Niven's Ringworld also suffers badly from the passage of time: it's sexual dynamics are pretty retro to say the least, but the scientific imagination and plotting are impressive. I finally got round to Tom Wolfe's New Journalistic account of the encounters between limousine liberals and the Black Panthers, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. As an exercise in style, superb, but as a critique of 1960s liberation movements, shallow and privileged. Only someone untouched by racial and sexual discrimination could casually satirise the efforts of both the oppressed and their well-meaning allies to do something about it. Certainly there were fame-chasers, charlatans and rip-off artists on all sides, but Wolfe lacks any generosity of spirit. Nobody, in his view, acts from good faith. It's very funny, and a lot of egos certainly needed puncturing, but Wolfe entirely lacks empathy for those on the receiving end of Jim Crow and all the horrors of COINTELPRO. It's just a racket for him. Next up: Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls, Sarah Davis's Goff's Last Ones Left Alive (an Irish feminist dystopian novel) and yet another Austen retelling: Janice Hadlow's The Other Bennet Sister (Mary, in this case). Kitty never gets a look-in. I'm also still reading Robert Frost, but confess to having had quite enough talk of ploughing.

I've read more than usual, I suppose - largely because I've spent what seems like days on delayed, diverted trains or on replacement buses. All in the name of moral duty - I went to a baptism a long way off and am now a godfather, the benighted child's parents having nowhere else to turn. I'm not sure I'm entirely equipped to oversee anyone's spiritual growth, but I've read Émile, so what could possibly go wrong?

Friday, 14 February 2020

Corporately-sponsored Random Acts of Kindness?

Aristotle defined kindness (in Rhetoric) as:
helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.
In slightly more contemporary terms, he downplays the utilitarian argument (though any kind act hopefully actually helps the recipient) and argues that the motive for kindness is of prior importance: any hint of self-interest renders an act unkind.

Kant might help us here: the conditions for kindness have to include free will and an understanding that your action is one that you would like to be applied universally (i.e. you wouldn't mind being on the receiving end yourself). Kindness is one of his 'imperfect duties': beyond the basic expectations of humanity, but falling short or failing is acceptable because perfect kindness is an impossibility. Moving beyond that, Kant insists that you absolutely must not treat other people as a means to an end. I can't remember off the top of my head whether he discusses kindness per se, but he does say that a world without charity might be more efficient, but would certainly be unbearable. He also talked about cruelty to animals: it desensitises the individual, making their duty to develop compassionate sensibility towards other humans less likely, and therefore breaking the categorical imperative. 

Much has been written about neoliberalism in the last couple of decades, some of it by me and definitions are hard to establish, but the core of it, it seems to me, is the replacement of Aristotelian and Kantian emphases on disinterested empathetic behaviour with a model of human relations derived from financial models. The self becomes a product to be carefully designed and then marketed; interactions with other human beings are to be considered transactional; any encounter can be accounted for in terms of profit and loss. It can be summed up in the poetic epigraph to the paper linked to above:

As nature's ties decay, 
As duty, love and honour fail to sway
Fictitious bonds, the bonds of wealth and law,
Still gather strength, and force unwilling awe.
Hence all obedience bows to these alone. 
Oliver Goldsmith, 'The Traveller' (1764), 349–54.

I've also written occasionally on this blog about the overlooked need for kindness in all spheres. I've been the recipient of kindness from colleagues, students and strangers so many times. I might even, accidentally, have been kind myself in moments of weakness. Within a neoliberalised world, one in which we've unconsciously internalised its values, consciously adopted them or – perhaps most often – been forced into neoliberalised relations by a hegemonic system, the unexpected, random nature of kindness is something I value more and more. Being brought to tears by a cake that magically appears on your desk after a bad day, a stranger going out of their way to return your lost property (which happens to me about twice a month), or a kind word out of the blue are what make a spiritual difference amidst a social structure deliberately designed to maximise exploitation and inequality. 

So you can probably imagine my reaction to my university's decision to hold a Random Acts of Kindness Week. An institution with an enormous gender and racial pay gap, one which reserves real-terms pay rises for senior management only, one which has actively promoted climate-damaging activities, one which promotes neuro-linguistic programming as a management tool amongst its many contributions to unkindness, has decided that Organised Kindness is a thing. In basic semantic terms, it's a contradiction: awareness of an defined event renders any act committed within it un-random. In Aristotelian and Kantian terms, it's a contradiction too: consciousness of doing a kind act or the hope of a 'freebie or prize'  renders it Utilitarian rather than altruistic. Not just the individual acts either: the whole event is a Utilitarian plot, because it's a cheap attempt at generating some good PR.

Still, it might relieve some of the crushing pressures of the neoliberalised university, perhaps? Well, here's the kicker. The Random Acts of Kindness Week is sponsored – drum roll – by Sodexo. 

Some highlights:

Sodexo (formerly Sodexo) runs private prisons, cleaning services, probations services, school food, military catering contracts, childcare voucher systems and much much more. It's one of those companies that specialises in feeding off the public sector, promising 'efficiencies', by which they mean lower pay, vicious anti-union campaigns, horsemeat in your lasagne, ATM-style probation and rehabilitation and structural sexual and racial inequality. They sidle up to institutions like universities and promise to make all their 'problems' (i.e. cleaners wanting an hourly wage they can actually live on) go away. 

The idea of acts of kindness being 'sponsored' in any way both revolts and baffles me, and suggests that my university's extremely highly-paid management, already talking about contracting cleaning services out to save even more money (and coincidentally solving the gender pay gap by taking the lowest-paid women off the books) has lost all moral compass. The idea of offering incentives for acts of kindness indicates that (as Liz Morrish and Helen Sauntson's excellent book demonstrates) university managements have fully internalised the worst aspects of neoliberalism, and have abandoned critical thought and notions of the public good in favour of the mantra of efficiency. 

I know that I'll be criticised internally for being a killjoy or a carper, but the point of being an academic in a university is to retain a sense of critical autonomy. Those at the top have constructed a perfect system, for them: cash, respect, privacy, baubles, autonomy and power flow up, while precarity, fear and surveillance flow down. Tone-deaf efforts like this simply emphasise the distance between us and them: thinking that some corporately-sponsored warm words and 'freebies' will heal the wounds of a vicious system demonstrate how divorced they are from the rest of us. Defining a space for and promoting 'random acts of kindness' with corporate sponsorship is an act of power which directly contradicts the philosophical values of altruism, whether you're an Aristotelian, a Kantian or something else. It puts kindness under a neoliberalism tractor beam, defining it as a transactional good which can be measured, confined and financialised – everything that kindness isn't. 

The vampires are circling and all the fat-cats can say is 'bite me'. Be kind: but do it spontaneously, and don't expect prizes. 

Thursday, 6 February 2020

A Few Of My Favourite Things

I'll give you a day off from my gloomy, bitter prognostications. Eeyore is in his stable. Instead, a quick list of good things that have happened over the last few days.

I saw Sandi Toksvig performing live. Thoughtful, interesting, funny and an expert comedian in terms of structuring her act, engaging the crowd and shifting gear. I've got to admire someone who gets a full-Brexit crowd on their feet to conduct Beethoven's Ninth, while omitting to mention that it's also the EU anthem. The added benefit of ending your show like this is that you've also engineered your own standing ovation. Actually, it wasn't a full-Brexit crowd: all the demographics of her long career from kids' TV to Bake-Off via QI and The News Quiz were there - you could tell who was who from which jokes or points they responded to.

Later in the week I went to a a masterclass by my retired colleague Gaby on the wonderful Goth Girl and In-Jokes which was predictably magnificent, a real antidote to the baby talk about literature often doled out to school kids. That was followed by a lecture by Michael Rosen, organised by my colleague Josiane as part of the city's literature festival. Another triumph: Rosen is wise, witty, profound, hugely knowledgeable and intelligent and a supreme communicator. Within five minutes he had a crowd of schoolchildren laughing about and understanding fort/da and French narratology. If only I could do the same… He did a deconstruction of Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are (which he loves), eventually uncovering its hidden tale of parental absence and lovelessness. He used his astonishingly expressive face to extend – and sometimes subvert – what he was saying, and his bond with the children was really moving. If you ever get the chance to see him in action, do, if only for his explanation of why camping holidays in the rain with his parents were prescribed by Marx. I took some pictures - you can see them here.

Michael Rosen

After that, despite battling a heavy cold, I went to several other literature festival events: a well-attended talk by Jefny Ashcroft and artist Joy Baines about a mysterious portrait of 'Miss Brown, a Jamaican Nurse', novelist Kerry Hadley-Pryce's discussion of psychogeography in the Black Country, Rob Francis's poetry-writing masterclass, Daisy Black's Mappa Mundi stories, and Alan McGee, the former boss of Creation Records. You can see some pictures here.

Jefny Ashcroft, Joy Baines, 'Miss Brown'. 

Kerry Hadley-Pryce

Rob Francis

Daisy Black

The only exception to the general wonder and vitality was McGee. Clearly more comfortable talking about the 'units' he shifted (record sales and lines of coke), he was amazingly unreflective for a man who's written an autobiography. There was a smidgen of regret for the excess, but he made no connection between his own hedonism and his own son's long-term addictions. He had little insight into why the music his label promoted suddenly became so popular, and no interest in wondering why it was so laddish. Having got through 40 minutes without mentioning a single female musician I asked him. He pointed out that there were women in a couple of his bands, but eventually just said 'it was a different time'. So much for Riot Grrl, Lush, Stereolab, Melys and a host of other female-fronted bands that Creation didn't sign. I should say that I have a massive record collection with 90s indie at the core, so there's an awful lot of Creation's output on my shelves. Top Tips: Super Furry Animals, The Telescopes, Teenage Fanclub and Idha's underrated albums Melody Inn and Troublemaker. My other musical discovery this week has been Ann Southam, the Canadian minimalist. Hannah Peel played a marimba arrangement of her Glass Houses on Radio 3 and I was entranced.

I've managed to read a couple of books too. Pynchon's hippy-noir crime thriller Inherent Vice was fun and evoked 1970s California's strange melange of libertarian good vibes and heavy-handed authoritarianism but didn't feel like an essential addition to his oeuvre. The Manson background adds a little menace and there are a lot of good gags though. Angela Brazil's mid-40s Three Terms at Uplands was pretty bad. Coming at the end of the Queen of the School Stories career, the plot is so basic (girl is slightly misunderstood at boarding school; gets into very minor scrapes; is eventually accepted) that it was barely worth reading. It felt like someone going through the motions. Finally I read Irrepressible, an American biography of Jessica Mitford, the sister who ran away to the Spanish Civil War with Churchill's nephew, emigrated to the US, joined the CP, fought for equal rights, hosted the Black Panthers, infuriated the funeral trade and ended up drunkenly recording albums with Maya Angelou.

It's a good read - well-informed and more interested in Mitford's political activism than the legend of the Baron's Terrible Daughters that so captivates British biographers. Next up: the first two of Gilbert Adair's meta detective thriller pastiches, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and A Mysterious Affair of Style

I'm off to Amsterdam for a meeting in a few minutes. Absolutely no time to look round one of the world's greatest cities, which is very sad, but at least I get to take the train all the way there, and experience the welcome now afforded to EU passport holders on the way back in to the UK. See you next week, if I'm not refused entry…