Friday, 27 March 2020

Et In Arcadia Ego

Looking around me, this seems to be the order of the day - here's Johann Schütz's version of the popular classical theme:

I've heard it mistranslated as 'And I am in Arcadia' and thought of as a joyful scene or perspective, but it's actually 'Even in Arcadia, I am there' – the tomb in the background suggests that 'I' is Death. Looking around me, the sun shining, people in shorts going for careful walks, barbecue smoke drifting in, many of us seem to have made this slightly tense accommodation with death in springtime. We should be admiring lambs and daffodils (and we are): death is a wintry spectre. Yet here we are, weirdly enduring a sort of holiday with mortality. 

It's not an unknown approach. The 1950s and 60s saw the rise in Britain of the Cosy Catastrophe novel, perhaps most famously encapsulated by John Wyndham in The Day of the Triffids and other works. Something terrible causes mass death and total social and governmental collapse, but a small group of sensible people – usually led by a resourceful gentleman and an emotionally-grounded woman he rescues – use their skills to head off somewhere defensible to rebuild, making hard choices along the way but assured of success. 

It's an interesting mélange of the famed Stiff Upper Lip and Cold War paranoia, plus a degree of resistance to the collectivist spirit that produced the Welfare State and the NHS post-1945. There's a much more recent American version too, of which James Howard Kunstler's World Made By Hand series is a good example. Drawing on the long history of individualist paranoias prevalent on the far right (such as Ahern's terrible The Survivalist series to which I own my in-depth knowledge of guns and ammo), the newer version is far less openly fascist (Kunstler is clearly conservative but no authoritarian) but no less worrying. In them, catastrophe reinforces the hero's conviction that modern life has become too complicated on every level for its own good. Civilisation collapses and rugged individuals use their huntin' shootin' and fishin' skills to fashion a new, simplified Amish-like life for themselves, untrammelled by the previous worries about, say, women's liberation, sexual identity, suspiciously commie leanings or the pressures of urban life. Survivors' social structures return to feudalism or barter, Providence is once more acknowledged and the pioneer spirit wins through. It's Thoreau's entrancing, infuriating, incoherent Walden (a book that changed my life, despite subsequent revelations about its veracity, its poverty tourism and its inherent self-absorption) but with a reactionary and Calvinist spin and lacking the transcendentalist driver. Thoreau may have been the American Savonarola, but he didn't revel in catastrophe for self-congratulatory kicks. No democrat himself, Thoreau famously and perhaps patronisingly asserted that 'the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation' (something every gig-economy non-employee worker might nod their heads at) but unlike the Cosy Catastrophe crew, he didn't fantasise about disaster sweeping them off the stage to leave room for the Real Men. 

Ironically, like all apocalyptic texts, it's the kind of book that can only be produced by a sophisticated urban population and a pretty smug minority within it which needs the tang of disaster to enliven a comfortable existence. I don't know whether it's any less healthy than the more popular genre of disaster fiction, in which there's only temporary or no hope of survival - eco-catastrophe is huge in young adult fiction at the moment. There's a debate about whether such literature spurs people to action or persuades them that there's nothin we can do other than settle in for the ride, and I'm undecided, Walden is probably why I've never driven a car, hardly ever fly and don't have children (though my face and personality may also have had some bearing on the latter). Thoreau certainly had a cold-eyed view of catastrophe: castigating those who couldn't enjoy walking on a beach littered with the bodies of shipwrecked Irish refugees, he asserted that 'it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still' with death so close. 

People are currently playing Pandemic and watching disaster movies, but once the death toll mounts I suspect we'll increasingly be turning to Mary Poppins and Friends re-runs. I'm currently watching old series of Doctor Who as an antidote to the news. Like many people, I'm also making light of the situation - slightly enjoying making do with less access to ingredients, enjoying the empty roads for cycling, feeling slightly pleased with myself at adapting to changed working conditions fairly well, coming up with witty quips on Twitter and the like, but such cheerfulness depends on the unspoken assumption that it will all be over soon, and that I won't be closely impacted. In the meantime, lots of friends and family have lost their incomes, contracted the disease (mildly, thankfully) and are in far worse conditions than me. Finding any pleasure in all this is – to use a dreadful phrase – a mark of privilege of which nobody should be proud. 

That's not to say we shouldn't make the best of it, while looking out for others. As well as the Who marathon, I'm still reading. The last of the Green Knowe series was a suitable ending to a magnificent children's series. Following Beckett's account of the decline of the CPGB, I also read Geoff Andrews official history of the last 30 years of the Party, End Games and New Times, which I heartily recommend. For a revolutionary organisation, the CP was deeply conservative and really struggled - in interesting ways - with the 60s and the Youthquake. Sometimes it or factions within it got things badly wrong (long hair and The Beatles = bad), sometimes surprisingly right, often in ways nobody noticed despite the party's influence in old-style mass political organisation. Right now I'm eking out John Crowley's long, so-far wonderful and almost indescribable low fantasy novel Little, Big in which an odd, rural family on the edge of faerie negotiate identity and destiny in a space slightly apart from but not unaffected by (or opposed to) galloping American modernity. If anything it slightly resembles Gormenghast but without the poisonous atmosphere, but it's far less cartoon-like - the characterisation has real complexity and depth, and there isn't a magic sword to be seen. 

If you're in the mood for a really evocative account of life under the looming threat of catastrophe though, I can't recommend Comet in Moominland highly enough. 
“Moomintroll thought how frightened the earth must be feeling with that great ball of fire coming nearer and nearer to her. Then he thought about how much he loved everything; the forest and the sea, the rain and the wind, the sunshine, the grass and the moss, and how impossible it would be to live without them all, and this made him feel very sad.”

Hope you're all OK out there. We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when…

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Dispatches from the bunker

I'm still in the office, though the atmosphere is increasingly weird. I'm actually used to the solitude – I tend to come in during the holidays unless physically locked out, so the emptiness and silence is fine, but the palpable jitteriness is novel. Some people are simply worried about the illness itself, or about infecting older or unwell people. Others are worried about their jobs and finances, especially those on part-time, short-term or zero-hours contracts. Mostly, in the corporatised university, these are teaching staff, security guards, cleaners and caterers. Thankfully, management (despite their very revealing adoption of military strategy terminology like Gold Command) is making all the right noises about this, though the tunes aren't reaching all ears: communication is still a problem. There is also the long term issue. So many universities are on very thin financial ice, and long ago ran their reserves down to the legal minimum. The immediate financial hit will be enormous, and recruitment next year is likely to be apocalyptic for many departments or entire universities. One institution has already warned staff that their jobs are threatened, which seems callous and opportunistic.

The people I'm most worried about are the students with mental health issues, especially those with anxiety-related illnesses, of which there are a lot. Late capitalism has deliberately produced a population which is financially insecure, precariously-employed, unsupported by the state and dumped out of the minimal obligations which used to exist between employers and their staff. To that we've added exciting new ways to stress people out via social media, privatised schools, fiddled constantly with educational policy until it resembles a game show where the losers are taken out and shot, binned a lot of the healthcare system, literally set the world on fire, fled Europe's international association of grown-up countries, then announced that anyone who can't deal with the above is a snowflake. My students are drawn from the general population and share all these worries, plus they'll graduate with £50,000+ of debt. Now they're terrified of a rampaging disease and many aren't coping well. It makes me ill just watching them trying to cope with it.

As for me, I'll be OK in the short-term. I'm naturally quite solitary and have an entire room of unread books, though sadly they're mostly ones I bought to make myself look much more high-minded than I really am (past me had some pretty optimistic and inaccurate ideas about my intellectual and moral development). I may not be entertained, but I'll get through this more educated. By next week I'll have the entire works of Henry James, Skelton and Dunbar committed to memory. Then you'll be sorry. It might be difficult work-wise though. While I have a collection of antiquated computers at home, I don't actually have an internet connection. My natural idleness and slight obsessiveness means that I've always done long hours at work because home-working would pretty much immediately become weeks without sleep while I followed the internet crumbs down every available rabbit hole. I do 1-12 hours at work most days, come home and don't want to look at another screen, so I chose not to install it at home: that may have to change. In the meantime, online teaching will require breaking in to work or war-driving until I find an insecure connection outside someone's house. I'm spending the next couple of days shuttling back and forth between home and work on my bike, moving books, computers and papers around until I know I've got enough to get on with. I'll be able to finally turn my PhD into a book, and then – oh joy – 500 politicians' novels to read. Oliver Letwin's just published a truly horrendous hybrid in which interweaving chapters of fiction and analysis come together to form one big Jeremiad about disaster planning. Timely, except it doesn't consider pandemics and demonstrates literally not one iota of understanding about how actual real people think or behave either individually or collectively. It's like he's never actually met a human being. The only thing worse than his lack of psychological insight is his grasp of the rudiments of fiction. (Yes, Dr Letwin's the Old Etonian who championed the poll tax, suggested that only black poor people riot, and was filmed dumping his constituents' letters in a park bin).

I've been on a bit of a tear in terms of reading recently - the more stressful or busy things are, the more I read. Yesterday I read a couple more children's books with a view to adding them to the eponymous module: the last two in Lucy Boston's largely wonderful Green Knowe series, and Jenn Swann Downey's romp (with philosophical and moral depth) The Ninja Librarians: The Sword in the Stacks. Books plus swords: consider me satisfied. I also enjoyed over the last few days Bella Bathurst's Special, Eric Ambler's Cause For Alarm and Uncommon Danger, Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and Francis Beckett's The Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party. Despite the claims of some people featured in Beckett's book (some of whom I know), it's a thoughtful and kind-hearted history. Despite the absolutely monstrous behaviour of the Party and/or some of its members at times, he finds the best in them, while not forbearing to identify the ideological, social and strategic howlers they committed. For my part, while I have a huge amount of affection for the hard left, I've always been saddened by the CP's failure to distance itself from so-called Communist regimes that clearly behaved appallingly (I've always seen the Soviet Union as a thinly-disguised Russian Nationalist enterprise), and by the serious left's preference for sectarian ideological purity over, you know, doing something. Monty Python's 'People's Front of Judaea' sketch might have been posh public school types laughing at the serious kids, but there's a lot of truth in it.

A genuinely democratic Communist Party free to criticise the Soviet Union in 1936, 1956 or 1968 and adapt its programme to local conditions might have been the salvation of this country. Instead, it and its splinter groups became squabbling sects of interest only to a security state which bolstered its own power and funding by inventing a threat that never really existed.

Why Be Happy…? wasn't exactly a joyful read, but it was moving and so hugely intelligent. I've read and taught the 'original' or fictional version of Winterson's story, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and must now teach the two novels in tandem. The later autobiography is a lot shorter on laughs and witty evasions, and feels much less shaped in literary terms, which is probably not true: Winterson is an expert on form and expression, so every word will be deliberately chosen for literary effect. I'm not one for memoir usually, but Winterson is an exception: brutally honest about the way her damaged behaviour led to dreadful treatment of herself and others, and a depth of wisdom and empathy – even for those who treated her most badly – that most of us could never aspire to. In contrast, Bella Bathurst's Special had no light in it at all. That's not to say it's a bad book: it isn't - well-structured, purposeful, and very persuasive characterisation. It's just emotionally so raw. Special is about a group of boarding school girls trapped together in a hostel at the fag-end of term, barely cared for by a pair of disillusioned, exhausted teachers. Every one of them is screwed up in some way, and their relationships are brutally exploitative. Empathy, care, concern, love and friendship are fleeting – these girls are too damaged in various ways to cope with their own concerns, let alone those of others. I read it pretty compulsively, but did breathe a sigh of relief when I got to the end. For a more emotionally-rounded tale of girls on the loose, try Alan Warner's The Sopranos. Finally, the Ambler's. He's an interesting author - very much on the left in the 1930s (and embarrassed later by his naivety about Stalin), he introduced a new seriousness to the crime thriller genre: his plots often feature decent, naive young people being caught up in the darkening political weather of that period. In that sense, they're good reads for now: ordinary people doing extraordinary things for the public good, sometimes against their instincts. Not sure what to tackle next. I've read too much apocalyptic fiction, from The Decameron to Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year to Station Eleven to want to go back to it immediately. I think I'll alternate light fiction with history, plus of course the politicians' excrescences.

Despite my misanthropic aspect, I will miss my colleagues and students, and like many people, my friends are essentially workmates, aside from those dispersed around the country. I'm hoping we'll be allowed to meet up for walks and things so we don't lose touch entirely. My life is gradually closing down - no more fencing, my poor cousin's wedding is postponed, family is out of reach in several countries (perhaps a good thing), concerts are off, and even meetings are cancelled. Meetings! The lifeblood of the modern university! My closest relationships depend on public transport, so if that shuts down things will be unutterably worse. I've still got my bikes though, so hopefully I'll be able to get out and about for shopping and leisure.

The other problem with home working is that my house is a dump. I spent every penny on a place I could afford and have studiously avoided getting a new kitchen, bathroom, carpets, furniture etc, and diverted the money into books, records, bicycles, cholesterol and tweed. Now I'll have to stare at the consequences of my idiocy for weeks, and perhaps months. Still, I've got it so easy compared with pretty much everyone else.

So there we are. We've had floods, fires, Brexit, a Tory government, locusts, Trump and now a pandemic. I'll try to whistle in the dark here and on Twitter, but I can't tell when or how often I'll want or be able to post. What a relief, some of you might say. Twitter isn't just a binfire of anxiety to me: I'm enjoying the (sometimes) black humour and the cameraderie of my little corner of it. Academics With Cats is a joy, and the teasing as people post pictures of their home-working spaces. We're all discovering the joys and otherwise of online learning too, while wary that the Edtech Commandos will stage a coup. I wonder what popular/ephemeral culture did during the Spanish Flu of 1918. Presumably plenty of them ironised their way to the grave as well.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Free the Warwick One

Animals, as you might expect from an account calling itself The Plashing Vole, are complex cultural creations. Beyond the physical reality of a bag of flesh that differs from our own shapes, the animal gets sorted into categories that differ over time and between cultures. We give them to our children so they can learn about birth, sex, nurturing and death. We let kids cuddle bears, while knowing full well what would happen if they tried that in real life. We project our own desires and fears onto them. We rely on them for labour, emotional support and dinner (and hope that that vector isn't suddenly and fatally reversed). We send them into space (and leave them there) and we buy them clothes, when we're not devoting massive scientific resources to discovering more efficient ways to destroy the ones we don't designate as cute. Our social media seem to be divided between sex and animals doing things that reinforce our fantasies about animals' purposes, behaviour and relationship to us (in the darker corners, this becomes a Venn diagram with way too much overlap).

I was thinking about this partly because like all reasonable and sane people, I like cat videos on Twitter, especially the #academicswithcats hashtag.* One of the stars of British academic cat Twitter is Rolf the Campus Cat at Warwick University, an 'ambassacat' with a remit to improve 'student wellbeing'.

Rolf is undoubtedly a resourceful, characterful beast, and Warwick has increasingly harnessed his talents to promote the institution as a warm, friendly, relatable and quirky place just like so many corporate organisations which employ someone to 'banter' on social media with their counterparts at other companies (there's even @universitycats to collate every neoliberalised HE moggy). Warwick particularly needs this because it's been seen as the capitalist Darth Vader of HE ever since it was founded: EP Thompson's Warwick University Ltd. has been reprinted several times since 1971 and is well worth a read. So Rolf serves a number of purposes, principally softening the edges of a distinctly hard-edged institutions. I don't know if Thomas Docherty's mindfulness and wellbeing was improved by Rolf visiting his office while he was persecuted for having a sarcastic face, but I doubt it. Likewise the students: is a machine that could have been designed to produce anxiety and precarity less harmful because a handsome killing machine is around to demand treats?

Rolf popped into my feed this morning looking cute in an economist's office and I realised that this was only possible if Rolf, the economist and the cat's media team had all crossed a picket line: UCU members at Warwick are on strike. Rolf is either a scab, or an undercover UCU agent using his AAA collar to identify scabs, the people who will take advantage of any gains made by their striking colleagues while betraying them all. Looking through Rolf's Twitter account, it's pretty clear that this most undirectable of animals somehow missed all the picket lines surrounding his home and place of work. The actual cat isn't a scab, but the simulation of him is clearly part of a sophisticated machine dedicated to spreading charm and diverting his public's attention away from the hard realities (and yes, The Cat Shepherd is complicit in the deaths of his delicious, tender charges, cute as he is) My UCU counterparts over there should be turning Rolf, if he isn't already our undercover operative: fit him with a bugging device and send him into the VC's office.

So Rolf is two or three things at once: an animal, but also a cultural and social construct (a political animal, if you will), or perhaps in Baudrillardian terms, Rolf isn't a cat but a simulation of one. Promoting strikebreaking and spreading the message of 'business as usual' is propaganda: it seems unlikely that impoverishing academic and support staff will really promote 'student wellbeing' in any meaningful way, but it gets Warwick uni a lot of free publicity. Rolf certainly fulfils all the marketers' mantras about quirkiness: Brown and McCabe's Brand Mascots and other marketing animals is a very instructive book on this subject. People have been culturally conditioned like cats, the thinking goes, so they won't be thinking straight when they cross a picket line or wonder why their jobs are being outsourced. The values and feelings they have for Rolf will be transferred to the institution that gives him a home and cuddles. Nobody will go to Warwick because of Rolf, but their choice might be swayed by the sense that it's a warm and caring place to be despite all the evidence that sexual predators are given an easier time than the women they harassed. A university is a complex place that's difficult for any entrant to understand: Rolf's function is to sweep away the stressful process of cogitation and choice, replacing them with warm feelings and a character that can't be analysed or dissected. Even better, one black cat can be replaced with another if it starts demanding more snacks, or a secure contract. Perhaps it's already Rolf 2.0…

My place used to have convenient animals available for adoption, but we pulled back. For several years a peregrine nested on a windowsill high up on our tallest building. Perhaps management felt that the signifier was too polysemous. Peregrines are beautiful, stunning creatures, but a ruthless killer perched above the crowd is a metaphor that even the most mulish union activist could grasp. On the other hand, we mere staff might have had some fun with the idea of a highly-skilled but desperately endangered species living permanently on the ledge. My institution's name offers another animal possibility but none of its referent's qualities are particularly cuddly, so I don't think we'll be going there either.

Our peregrine (sadly departed) is therefore unlikely to become an iconic brand mascot because it's too edgy: Guthrie (writing about religion) pointed out quite a long time ago that animals, anthropomorphised 'spokes-critters' or whatever you want to call them tend to appear during recessions and other hard times. Staff demonstrating outside? Cat pictures. Petting zoos during exam periods are designed to temporarily assuage anxiety by encouraging humans to spend time with nonjudgemental animals which exist within a less complicated social structure, though I can't help seeing them as indentured labourers at best. Rabbits are twitched up at the best of times - spending their time being mauled by distressed people can't be helpful.

I don't hate Rolf. I like him. I feel for him, a celebrity forced to perform for the cameras day in day out, his natural instincts repressed. To some extent I identify with him: I run my department's social media accounts and carefully separate my more critical views from the promotional duties undertaken on there, consciousness fully divided.

Free the Warwick One!

*I don't intend to relitigate the Cats v Dogs debate, partly because one Guardian reader settled it by pointing out that while there are plenty of police dogs, there's no such thing as a police cat. Libertarian individualists they might be, but cats aren't coppers' narcs, unlike dogs.

Friday, 6 March 2020

The Weekly Drivel

So last week I said that I'd read and enjoyed Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout, one of the novels for adults that she felt was overlooked in favour of the William series (which is wonderful, to be fair). My copy is one of the beautifully understated volumes published by Persephone Books, who specialise in forgotten English twentieth-century middlebrow women writers, always include a very good introduction – yes, I am the person who reads the introductions, though not always first – all packaged up in cool, elegant covers. The bespoke bookmarks for each volume are a lovely touch.

Reading Family Roundabout led me to the book next to it in the Room of Unreads, another Persephone classic, Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (1938). It's a glorious romp: Miss Pettigrew is a depressed, lonely spinster on the verge of entering the workhouse when she accidentally gets entangled with some very fast Bright Young Things who spend their time sleeping with inappropriate young men, drinking cocktails, attending Night Clubs and sniffing cocaine. Miss Pettigrew, at the end of her tether, suddenly realises that she doesn't have to be a tedious old moralist about all this and gives in to temptation after temptation proffered by the hipsters, who detect in her something admirable. In return, Miss Pettigrew gives them the benefit of her experience (especially about which men might be reliable over the long term) and they treat her as some kind of oracle, with happy results all round. It's enormously funny, quite satirical and has a heart of gold. There are also, sadly, some very interwar features that haven't aged well: foreigners and Jews are very much not part of the joke.

Watson wrote several rural-romance style novels to good reviews and sales, but really struggled to get Pettigrew published - the publishers thought it would scare off her imagined readership of old ladies: she persisted and it was an international hit. I loved it – it takes such joy in reversing the expected response of someone from the older generation meeting the kids at their most hedonistic – Miss Pettigrew's epiphany is a salutary lesson to anyone who finds themselves reaching for words like 'snowflake'.

By contrast, I also read the latest Rivers of London book, False Value. Highly enjoyable, good plot, decent satire of the tech billionaire class, stuffed with Hitchhiker's Guide gags but not as tense and scary as the author clearly thinks. If your narrator has to tell your readers that the final encounter with the forces of darkness felt a bit evil, you probably haven't quite pulled off the atmosphere. Next up: Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her belated non-fiction version of her semi-autobiographical debut novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. If that's confusing, blame Winterson, who's made a career out of brilliantly blurring generic boundaries of all sorts.

I'll also be reading Francis Beckett's The Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party. The CP was a funny beast: founded by people influenced by the humane traditions of Methodism, Guild Socialism, Chartism and countless other precursors, run on Stalinist lines even when Stalin did things like murder its General Secretary's partner, massively popular in particular times and places, enormously progressive in some ways (such as feminism) and deeply conservative in others (solidly opposed to the Beatles and long hair, which is why it was largely irrelevant to the popular perception of The Sixties, which of course wasn't the one most people experienced), at once oppressive and liberatory. CP lifers ('red diaper babies', as American hereditary communists referred to themselves) are at the forefront of so many good causes, yet the party stumbled from crisis to crisis, losing support at every step. Policy changed at the whim of Moscow, factions split off constantly whenever deviation was spotted, Tankies and Trots faced off, Euro-communists were suspected of betraying The Cause…and yet peace and picnics and joy were all part of membership: it was as much a community as a party, perhaps more. I remember attending a conference on CP culture (speaking about Lewis Jones, novelist, councillor, seditionary and a man who insulted Stalin to his face and survived) at which every faction and impulse was represented. It was kind of a wake: nostalgic, regretful, baffling, but also the kind of wake at which the various survivors accuse each other of murdering the body they're gathered around.

For a comic, but also very moving take on being a 'red diaper baby', try Alexei Sayle's memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework ('a pack of lies, according to his mum') or Michael Rosen, who writes and speaks beautifully about his Jewish Communist upbringing.

Anyway, that's all I've got to say this week. Politics is utterly depressing. Neither I nor anybody else has anything useful to say about Coronavirus, and all my current trades union representation work is serving to remind me that there's absolutely no correlation between intellectual and emotional intelligence – and I don't just mean management! At least the sun is shining.