Thursday, 26 November 2020

We also serve who sit and blog

 I'm only in semi-lockdown: face-to-face teaching is still happening in reduced circumstances for a little longer but compared with my former 10 hours per day in the office, life is changed utterly. Has it meant that I've written those books? Got those grant applications written? Tidied the garden? 

No, of course it hasn't. Nor have I horsed through nearly so many books as I expected. There's been a lot of sleeping, compulsive slacking and - weirdly - I wake up every morning with my hands gripping the uprights of my bedhead like a prisoner begging for parole. Go figure. 

However, I'm not alone. I've been slowly browsing Montaigne's essays. It's a shame he was born and died in the 16th century: he'd have been a superb social media content provider. Perhaps even an influencer! Here he is on idleness in isolation: 

When I lately retired to my own house, with a resolution, as much as possibly I could, to avoid all manner of concern in affairs, and to spend in privacy and repose the little remainder of time I have to live, I fancied I could not more oblige my mind than to suffer it at full leisure to entertain and divert itself, which I now hoped it might henceforth do, as being by time become more settled and mature; but I find – “Variam semper dant otia mentem,” [“Leisure ever creates varied thought.”—Lucan] that, quite contrary, it is like a horse that has broke from his rider, who voluntarily runs into a much more violent career than any horseman would put him to, and creates me so many chimaeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without order or design, that, the better at leisure to contemplate their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of itself.

If that's not the birth of a blogger, I don't know what is. The Essays are fascinating - often very short, quite aphoristic, often charming in their sense of self-doubt (one essay is titled 'What Do I Know?', which might rule him out of contention as a purveyor of hot takes on 24-hour news channels), and only occasionally a bit 'you what mate?', but very personal, in a break with the literary conventions of the day. I remember the essays being mentioned in my undergraduate degree, but I never got round to reading them (see above, or blame my tutors' obsession with us reading every single word of Henryson and Dunbar, upon whose work I have not built a career - sorry, Scotland). In contrast to me, Montaigne retired to his agreeable tower in the Dordogne, stocked with a sizeable (for those times) library of 1500 books and industriously wrote his essays. 

Amongst them is chapter 38, Of Solitude. Written during a period of plagues and wars, Montaigne has a sharp eye for the motives of the public office-holder in such times: 

let us boldly appeal to those who are in public affairs; let them lay their hands upon their hearts, and then say whether, on the contrary, they do not rather aspire to titles and offices and that tumult of the world to make their private advantage at the public expense.

Between the American election, the Grenfell Tower enquiry and the daily revelation of pandemic-related corruption on an almost incomprehensible scale, it's hard to imagine many public figures passing this test. But the danger, says Montaigne, is to ourselves: avarice and corruption are contagious - only a fool doesn't offer a bribe if everyone else is doing it. How would you get anything done otherwise? We're all isolated or semi-isolated for health reasons, but Montaigne - who voluntarily withdrew from public life for a number of years - insists that the wise man withdrawn because he isn't strong enough to resist the inner temptation to join the crowd and become corrupt otherwise (a point taken up in The Miners' Next Step, a syndicalist classic from South Wales which warned a hundred years ago that the workers' representatives, once wined and dined by the class enemy, would inevitably lose sight of their purpose). Even if you hide yourself away, says Michel, you're left with your own strengths and weaknesses, played out on a domestic rather than a public stage. 

Now the end, I take it, is all one, to live at more leisure and at one’s ease: but men do not always take the right way. They often think they have totally taken leave of all business, when they have only exchanged one employment for another: there is little less trouble in governing a private family than a whole kingdom. Wherever the mind is perplexed, it is in an entire disorder, and domestic employments are not less troublesome for being less important. Moreover, for having shaken off the court and the exchange, we have not taken leave of the principal vexations of life:

“Ratio et prudentia curas, Non locus effusi late maris arbiter, aufert;” [“Reason and prudence, not a place with a commanding view of the great ocean, banish care.”—Horace, Ep., i. 2.]

ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and inordinate desires, do not leave us because we forsake our native country

I wondered during the first lockdown whether we would all decide to be kinder, gentler, less selfish people having experienced clean air and quiet streets: the rush to buy yet more SUVs and re-fill the verges with litter swiftly disabused me of that notion, yet I can't say I'm a better person for it either. The same things and people annoy me; I have 'left undone the things that I ought to have done, and done the things that I ought not to have done' (to steal from the splitters' prayer-book). Perhaps the idea of turning enforced idleness into an opportunity for spiritual renewal is rightly the precinct of the wellness cranks and hucksters: life's too fraught for most of us, so perhaps we shouldn't feel too guilty about turning to biscuits and box-sets instead of writing that novel or copying the Sistine Chapel on your living room ceiling (though that would be cool). Michel considers gardening and prayer as potential hobbies but rejects them both. He's not really convinced that his preference - reading and writing - is any better. It's morally and physically injurious: 

“This plodding occupation of bookes is as painfull as any other, and as great an enemie unto health, which ought principally to be considered. And a man should not suffer him selfe to be inveagled by the pleasure he takes in them.”

The answer, he says, is to avoid being sucked into a kind of competitive virtue - don't believe that everyone else is designing vaccines or achieving enlightenment via yoga in their spare rooms. Other people might be claiming to read only the Great Works, but Montaigne is brave enough to admit that sometimes you just need to relax with some trash:

I for my part care for no other books, but either such as are pleasant and easy, to amuse me, or those that comfort and instruct me how to regulate my life and death…Wiser men, having great force and vigour of soul, may propose to themselves a rest wholly spiritual but for me, who have a very ordinary soul, it is very necessary to support myself with bodily conveniences

We definitely shouldn't go as far as Montaigne: while his counsel of self-reliance sounds great, there's a disturbing quality to his extreme definition of independence that in our day would end up in foil-covered windows and bags of excreta: 

Wives, children, and goods must be had, and especially health, by him that can get it; but we are not so to set our hearts upon them that our happiness must have its dependence upon them; we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat.

Cope with absence and loss, fine - but it's a radical isolation that insists community is a luxury rather than a necessity (one suspects he doesn't count the staff). Montaigne sees solitude as the justified reward of the public servant who has given his all and has nothing more to add to society: a time to recover, but also to prepare for death, something he feels is overlooked in our activity. We've probably done plenty of that this year, though the powerful seem happier contemplating the deaths of countless others in pursuit of abstract ends than valuing each one. 

That's probably enough. But next time you hear Johnson or Rees-Mogg coming out with a Latin tag, remember what Montaigne says about this kind of performance, in 'Of The Art of Conference':

…we see so many silly souls amongst the learned, and more than those of the better sort… Knowledge is a thing of great weight, they faint under it: their understanding has neither vigour nor dexterity enough to set forth and distribute, to employ or make use of this rich and powerful matter… the weak ones, says Socrates, corrupt the dignity of philosophy in the handling, it appears useless and vicious, when lodged in an ill-contrived mind. They spoil and make fools of themselves: 

“Humani qualis simulator simius oris, 
 Quern puer arridens pretioso stamine serum 
 Velavit, nudasque nates ac terga reliquit, 
 Ludibrium mensis.” 

 [“Just like an ape, simulator of the human face, whom a wanton boy has dizened up in rich silks above, but left the lower parts bare, for a laughing-stock for the tables.” —Claudian, in Eutrop., i 303.]

Neither is it enough for those who govern and command us, and have all the world in their hands, to have a common understanding, and to be able to do the same that we can; they are very much below us, if they be not infinitely above us: as they promise more, so they are to perform more.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Always Winter, Never Christmas

 I'm way too tired to do any blogging this week. Too tired to have any opinions, despite quite a lot going on in the world, from Trump to Cummings to England finally beating Ireland at soccer for the first time since I was 10 (1985). Well done you! 

My students and colleagues are all exhausted - the sheer extra effort involved in writing then recording and editing lectures, then doing face-to-face classes while simultaneously trying to get the online crowd involved, and the sheer time and effort required to get anything done via live chat (most students won't talk online) is very sapping. Many of the students are struggling to engage – either they're coming down with the coronavirus themselves, caring for others, or just plain stressed out by the situation: large numbers aren't reading the primary texts, attending classes, watching the recorded lectures nor joining the online classes. It really feels like we're making even more effort than usual with less and less purpose. For the first time ever we haven't recruited a full slate of module and course representatives, such is the mood amongst the students. I've always liked Mr Tumnus's line in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe about life under the Witch: 'It's always winter, and never Christmas'. If Britain's looking for a new motto, that seems to sum things up nicely. 

I'm spending the weekend marking - I don't even know which half of Universities Minister Donelan's sentence in her confused and dishonest letter to VCs to adhere to: should I pass everyone to ensure 'good outcomes' or mark rigorously to ensure that 'standards are protected' (the accompanying letter to students helpfully gives a direct link to the universities' complaints procedure, but somehow forgot to include contact details for the Minister or indeed any way to give the government any feedback on its own performance). If our students do well we're threatened with intervention on the grounds of grade inflation; if they don't achieve high grades we're punished for failing them. Ironically, it's unfashionable ex-polys like mine that mark most harshly, afraid of playing into the hands of the Daily Mail: it was a Russell Group university that changed all of a friend's entirely justified grading on the grounds - as was explained to her by the head of department - that 'XXXXX University students get 2.1s and 1sts'. You can't upset the customers. The latest wheeze is to judge universities by their students' salaries after graduation: so if you educate a local population of poor people who want to serve their community in low-paid but important jobs like nursing social care or teaching, you're a Bad University. If on the other hand you have the kind of Business School that churns out asset-strippers and hedge-funders, or have a conveyor belt from the lab to British Aerospace's weapons design unit, you're a Good University. 

Some of the international students have admitted defeat and gone home, including a group of the final Erasmus cohort. It's always been an enormous pleasure to have them in class, and it's desperate to think that their last experience of Britain before it enters political self-isolation is of a miserable, sick country with no idea what it's doing or what it's for. If Britain thinks it will have friends in the next generation of Europeans, it's deluded. 

I've always liked teaching face-to-face and still do, but the absurdity of trying to make myself and the students intelligible while wearing masks for lecturing really struck me this week. Mind you, it could be worse: the posh universities are fencing their students in and deploying riot police squads. Not a great look for next year's brochures. By contrast I switched on the TV the other day to see my own VC looming out of the screen on BBC news, making a string of salient and coherent points. Things have got to be bad when we find common ground. (Don't worry, it'll all be over by Christmas). 

Ah, enough of this. It's been a tough week. As I've only managed to read half a book other than those for teaching (this week: Riders, Anne of Green Gables, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Barthes's The Pleasures of Text and Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist. The half-book I read is Ian McDonald's early Out On Blue Six, a slightly manic but enormously enjoyable early work bought because I liked his Brasyl and The Dervish House very much. 

Oh, and I have new neighbours. Noisy Adult Baby neighbour has been replaced by a lovely family with an actual baby. The walls are very thin, so I wake every three hours when it needs feeding. Before long I'm going to develop some kind of Pavlovian response to its crying. Anyway, it's been a while since I posted any photos so here are some cheery ones from my annual Welsh conference at Gregynog in 2016. I will never tire of taking pictures of sheep. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Reasons to be Cheerful, part 1 (in a series of 1)

 Yet again I find myself posting around midnight - partly because it seems to be the only free time I have at the moment, and partly because if blogging isn't for solitary weirdos to bash out their reckons in the small hours, what is it for? 

The other reason is – naturally – coronavirus. If this were a normal year I'd be at, or hosting, an election night party. Over recent years I've hosted bashes for all the worst events: multiple Conservative victories, the loss of the Scottish independence referendum, the EU vote and Trump's first victory. In my defence, I did call all these results correctly, but as it turns out, being right doesn't make you happy (every academic's motto). Maybe I'm going to break that run, but I think Biden is going to win handsomely this time - the popular vote is in the bag and even in the rotten electoral system they have, the new Democrats will be spread widely enough to tip the balance. I can't see the surgeon voters coming from new Trump supporters. 

So the pandemic has at least prevented company-loving misery from drinking all my whiskey and vomiting in my orchids (you know who you are). 

While I do enjoy the endless speculation and weirdness of a US election, I do resent the rest of the world's dependence on the outcomes: an egalitarian society wouldn't live in hope or fear of one local political event, and equally none of the rest of us should rely on the US for inspiration, support or anything else. it just encourages them. All the Scandinavian countries had their global moments and gracefully withdrew without throwing their toys out of the pram: it's about time the UK and the US did the same. All this stuff about being democratic examples to the world is pure hypocrisy: there isn't a dictatorship in the world that doesn't depend on American or British support, weapons or finance. It's craven and embarrassing to be so addicted to the ins and outs of a distant place which doesn't care a whit for the rest of the world and yet it's  so important and so fascinating, albeit in the same way that a particularly big car crash is fascinating. One involving an oil tanker, a coach load of heavily-armed kids and convoy of clown cars. 

The best election night I had was in 2008 - I went alone to see Sigur Ros play live in the local gig venue which was utterly wonderful, and bumped into that year's cohort of (much-missed) Dutch students who invited me to their election party – either they had different ideas of coolness or it was pity, but a good time was had by all. Or by me, anyway. 

I won't be staying up tonight - I've a very full day of teaching and meetings, but I'm looking forward to talking to my several American friends and colleagues, to this year's students. including one or two Americans, and to my relatives in the Ozarks and California. I do think Trump will lose, but it worries me that he has three months of squatting in the White House and burning everything down, from the evidence to the forests. Will Biden be a radical, reforming president? Of course not - he's right of centre by European standards, but while civil, thoughtful and calm conduct in office should be a low bar, recent history across the world suggests that we shouldn't take it for granted. Don't get your hopes up – Obama's administration was surprisingly light on meaningful activity and did some terrible things – but at least we can look forwards to a few years of waking up and not experiencing a sense of dread when you look at your phone. 

If you're still feeling nervous, here's a bit of the Sigur Ros magic to transport you back to that magical day when Hope was the order of the day, and some classic Americana to cheer and admonish. We've been starved of the stuff recently, after all. Normal Eeyoreish angst will resume on Friday. 

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