Monday, 25 April 2016

Great Men I Have Met part 73

I've spent a lot of time in airless rooms with alpha males this week. First was author Adam Thorpe, the very fine author of novels including Ulverton, Still, Flight, Hodd and On Silbury Hill. He's also a very impressive poet. 

He gave a great reading and talk about how and what he writes, to an appreciative crowd which sadly didn't include a single creative writing student, and only one undergraduate. Oh well: I got to go for dinner with Adam and his wife on my own and had a lovely night. Coming soon: Francis O'Gorman, author of Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History, Tracey Hill on the invention of Dick Whittington and Owen Martel

Then I went to a Labour Party fundraiser starring Jeremy Corbyn, who was lovely: a sharp speaker, quite a wit, a man who cares about (amongst other things) arts policy and mental health care. Intriguingly, loads of people couldn't keep their hands off him. Rest of the photos are here or you can click on these to enlarge. 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Keep your Spirits up

If you haven't read The Spirit Level, which laid out in stark statistical detail the facts about inequality (including the revelation that inequality is bad for the winners as well as the losers) you really should. If you prefer your forensic analysis on screen, go and see The Divide, the movie of the book. I'm going to try arranging a screening at my university if local cinemas aren't showing it.

It certainly promises to be very different from Anomalisa, the film I saw last night (odd, very funny, very dark).

I have one more meeting today then I'm free for the weekend – other than a local Labour Party dinner with Jeremy Corbyn as the guest speaker. It promises to be very interesting. My local MP is a shadow minister and is working diligently and intelligently on a range of serious things: I don't think you could call him a Corbynite but clearly he's refusing to get involved in any of the sectarian bickering. The neighbouring Labour MPs, however, are behaving rather differently…

Monday, 18 April 2016

“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”

I could mine Hamlet for quotes for ever, but one line has never been my motto: 'Brevity is the soul of wit' (see my Twitter feed if you don't believe me). Why Hamlet this morning? Well, because I went on a school trip to see it at the RSC in Stratford on Saturday. Students and colleagues all saw the matinée performance directed by Simon Godwin and starring Papa Essiedu in the title role.

The setting was still 'Denmark' but clearly in the present, and the rotten state was African: virtually the entire cast was African or of African origin, as were the music, accents, materials, furniture and politics. Over-elaborate military uniforms were the order of the day for Claudius and his subalterns, or shiny silk suits and brightly patterned fabrics.

The acting was superb without exception. Essiedu played Hamlet as sulky, sarcastic, sexually twisted and slyly mocking. Tanya Moodie was superb as Gertrude: a touch of Winnie Mandela about her, regal, morally adrift but determined to hang on to power. Cyril Nri had a tough job as Polonius: foolish old man or obsequious courtier who knows how to survive shifting power. The scenes with his daughter Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) are often played as evidence that he's a droning old bore, but this time his paternalistic advice seemed genuine and heartfelt. Simpson was just wonderful as Ophelia: it's a problematic part, moving from carefree teen to maddened victim but she made it comprehensible and moving. The other interesting casting choices were a pair of white actors as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane. They started out as Hamlet's old university mates, looking like a pair of Inter-railers, then very convincingly got sucked into his uncle's machinations initially out of concern but before long due to self-interest.

Visually it looked superb: all the light and heat of a tense African capital, though I was less convinced by the overly-complicated stage set, all moving panels and clever mechanics which seemed a bit distracting. The rather obvious paintings and graffiti used to convey Hamlet's madness also seemed a bit unnecessary too. My clever friend Hilary suggested that Basquiat was the model, and she's much cleverer than me.

However, I did have one problem with the production. I can imagine it working brilliantly in an African capital with an African audience because the African setting could easily be interpreted as a political intervention. I did feel slightly uncomfortable sitting in an almost all-white crowd in the heart of the UK watching a play about superstition and political decay set in Africa. I confess that I don't know what Denmark signified to Shakespeare's audience, but popular stereotypes of Africa as a place of political violence and superstition were fully reinforced by this play's staging. It's not the casting: this cast was just brilliant and would have been brilliant wherever and whenever the play was set. Maybe I'm just an over-sensitive liberal or putting too much emphasis on the difference between the cast and the audience but it did feel slightly like conspiracy and superstition were being exoticism rather than recognised as a fundamental part of European culture.

That aside: it was a wonderful performance. Highly recommended.

The other thing I did this weekend was co-host a meeting to propose a Literature Festival in this city. Well over 50 people turned up so it looks like it's happening. What, where and who is yet to be decided but these are merely details. Now we just have to form a committee (oh god, another committee) and find some money. It's going to be in January because a) there aren't any other literary festivals in the winter and b) there's nothing else to do. The plan is to have a small number of well-known people but to really make it a festival of local literary activity: workshops and so on rather than just sitting there listening to visitors from the world of Literature. We don't want to imply that Literature isn't going on here, or is the preserve of other kinds of people. We shall see…

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

I've got my eye on you

I read a while ago that CCTV simply displaces crime into areas without CCTV (another way the sharp-elbowed move on their problems), that the presence of CCTV discourages people from intervening to help, and that most CCTV isn't monitored anyway. It's not much use in discouraging the world-altering crimes either, like pension mis-selling, LIBOR fiddling and tax evasion. And yet the UK is the world leader in surveillance: estimates are hard to come by but there are getting on for 750,000 in London alone: one for every 10 Londoners.

So I decided that I'd spend a week photographing every CCTV camera I spot on my divagations: the flâneur or flâneuse doesn't get much time alone these days. Here are the cameras covering my 3/4 mile walk from home to work: the vast majority are in the last 200 yards from the boundary of the university to my office. Apologies for the quality: I used my ageing phone for convenience. Anyone care to bet how many I'll see in a week?

On an anonymous corner near the park

Office block

Hotel car park


By the ring road

Edge of the university

Car park by the university

University entrance

A breeding pair of cameras in the corridor outside the library

In the quad

In the quad again 
Another in the quad

Yet another in the quad

Another one in the quad

And another one in the quad

In my building's entrance

By the lift, floor 2. 
I make that 18 cameras in an 11 minute walk, 14 of them owned by the university. Do I feel safer? Not really. I already felt safe because crime is low (and falling), lead pipes have been replaced throughout the city, and I tend to assume that my students and colleagues are unlikely to rob or beat me (though the campus was extremely dodgy during the theory wars. I hear that the French department used to wield chaussettes loaded with billiard balls.

I joke, but I really hate surveillance culture, particularly this distanced electronic version. It assumes that without the Panopticon, we would rapidly descend into the bad sort of anarchy, that we deserve to be watched, but that we don't deserve the presence of actual human security. One of the things my management has done recently is open up the electronic security barriers during the day, so that anyone can walk in. It's caused considerable disquiet, but I support it: we're part of the community and should be radically open. I'd love to adopt the American custom of 'auditing', in which everyone can come to lectures: the privilege of being a registered student is in the assessment and conferment of a qualification.

If you treat people like the enemy, such as building high-security gated communities, those inside actually develop deeper fears while those outside resent their exclusion. You can read Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on this: he says that the Fall began when the rich stopped providing public services (out of altruism or simple fear of the mob) and started building higher walls and hiring more goons to protect their obscene luxuries. Anyone walking around Mayfair or Chelsea will know what he means. You can also read JG Ballard's later novels about the effects of voluntarily ghettoising yourself: in Millennium People, Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights the bourgeoisie attempt to seal themselves of in consumerist utopian bubbles, and rapidly degenerate. He knows whereof he speaks: he spent time in a Japanese concentration camp as a child.

You're very welcome to join in: count the ones you see and post your photos on Twitter with the hashtag #cctvweek.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

This and that

A brief one today: it's been a hard few days and it's getting busier. Since I last blogged I finished reading a PhD dissertation, which I'm examining on Monday, and ploughed through the validation documents of a Greek university I'm visiting for 36 hours later this week (no time for tourism).

I've been to the annual conference of the Welsh Writing in English Association, which was as always wonderful, exhausting and simultaneously refreshing (illicit flasks of espresso martinis furnished by esteemed delegates really help those evening sessions fly past). I was co-organiser last time, so this year I relaxed: chaired a keynote and took the minutes at the AGM but didn't present anything. I'll do a proper write-up of AWWE16 once next week is out of the way. This week so far has been meetings (yay, Estates Sub-Committee) and lectures. I did my Rousseau/Werther/Precepts/Romanticism/Subjectivism/ lecture this afternoon which felt good from where I was standing but who knows what anyone else thought. Opinion was strongly divided over whether Werther was a) an idiot emo stalker whose death was good riddance or b) a satirical creation designed to mock the Romantics. Option c) a heroic representative of principled idealism and manly sensibility who was part of the great wave of liberation movements received precisely zero votes. But it was great playing Mozart ('not as bad as Young Werther' was one opinion), Beethoven and Massenet, discussing the Enlightenment and the Romantic turn, showing pictures of Strawberry Hill and Sir John Soane's Museum, and comparing the prefaces of Werther and Clarissa to examine the designs texts have on readers, then talking about Northanger Abbey, the Augustans and all sorts of things. One of the most enjoyable sessions I've had in ages.

Tomorrow it's a lecture on the Sonnet mastery of which I promote as the equivalent of the footballer's Baby Bentley: Renaissance Alpha males' must have accessory, though we then discuss women's takes by looking at Edna St Vincent Millay and Wendy Cope.

What's had to give amongst all this is my uncle Brendan's funeral on Monday, which is just awful. He had a hard life and died too young. If I was teaching a class I'd ask a colleague to cover it, but a PhD viva can't be rearranged: it wouldn't be fair to the candidate or the external examiner.

In the meantime: a few pictures (click to enlarge) from Gregynog, where my conference was held. The rest are mostly of ridiculously hot academics and sheep.

Guest speaker Niall Griffiths and Petri, a Finnish Phd student who spoke about Niall's work. They're watching a bat circling us.

A diving thrush

Monday, 21 March 2016

Paying in kind(ness)

At the end of last week I wrote a fairly incoherent piece which boiled down to this: academics, students and managers need to be a little bit nicer to each other (it seemed to strike a chord out there and Music for Deckchairs even flattered me out of all proportion with this). Despite the rhetoric of (1980s) business which has infected the academy (certainly there's no sign of Google-style relaxation zones, massages and cereal bars at my place, though there is the pervasive surveillance and fiscal secrecy) we are one of the few professions which has a long and mostly proud tradition of collegiality – the clue's in the adjective. Here in Britain the government is systematically targeting the professions to reduce to the status of a proletariat and render them vulnerable to the vicissitudes (sorry, efficiencies) of the market: nurses, doctors, teachers and even lawyers have been undermined. Academics have only been left until because we don't matter so much, though universities certainly do. 

So anyway, having established the necessity for nurturing an ethic of kindness in the Republic of Letters, what are the barriers and how do we get around them? This is only a partial and idiosyncratic list in no particular order, but it's based on what I see around here and elsewhere. I should say at this point that most of what I say is drawn from my experience as a union representative and university governor: I've been very lucky in my colleagues.

A few years ago a friend of mine got a job in a very prestigious university's very prestigious English department, having previously been a senior lecturer in two other institutions. Within a few weeks she was physically removed from her office and walked – by the head of department – to a hall to oversee a day's worth of examinations. Why her? Well, it turned out that there was a high-powered speaker coming to do some research seminars and the HoD didn't want the bright young things to miss out. Entirely coincidentally, it turned out that all the Bright Young Things were posh young white men, each of whom was treated like Little Lord Fauntleroy by their equally posh, white male Gods amongst the professoriate.

Invigilation, it seems, is one of those menial jobs which is best left to women or other such losers, not the stars of the future. Other menial jobs include: first year lectures (not important, apparently); advising and counselling students; survey modules; study skills; visiting schools, attending meetings; organising and attending events; boring committee work; simply being available. You may have your own list and I invite you to add them using the comments facility. It's not solely stereotypically female work, but previous generations have a term for it: Department Mother. If you don't know who your department mother is, it's probably you and it doesn't matter what your job title is: I know plenty of Head of School Dept Mums. Sexist terminology aside, it's important work and you should be congratulated for doing it. More than that, you should be rewarded and promoted for doing it. When students and colleagues leave, they remember the person who was always there, who bought them a coffee or loaned them that book they lost, took pleasure in their successes, commiserated with them for their struggles, read their draft papers and gave them a generous reference that didn't mention The Case of the Vanishing Milk or the time they nominated you for the Positive Environment Working Group Sub-Committee C. At least I think they will. Roses inexplicably fail to pile up outside my door. Though as my old mother always said, your reward will be in heaven.

The question is, should we Herbivores – I regret the use of 'plodder' in my previous post and now substitute a taxonomy of Herbivores v Carnivores (it could be far, far worse) – bask in the expectation of eternal life, and is it good for us, our colleagues, our students and our institutions, let alone The College Invisible? I would suggest it isn't. If you spend your time being Department Mother, you're letting rather a lot of other people – the carnivores – be the Department Absent Father and yes, it is a patriarchal structure. They 'work from home' and hold cursory 'office hours' of 0758-0807 every third Thursday. They churn out the grant applications and projects and keynotes and books and make it look effortless because they've informally outsourced lots of the work of being a good academic citizen to we herbivores. It's not that we can't do the same thing, it's that we've allowed ourselves to become enablers of privilege. I refuse to believe that I and my friends, getting out a decent chapter now and then are constitutionally incapable of producing more and better research, or writing better lectures, or leading inspiration tutorials. Instead, I believe that we have been taken advantage of as a group. We have clung to co-operative values in a system which deforms co-operation.

The situation is of course rather more grey than this black-and-white construction implies: outside the very rarefied atmospheres of élite institutions nobody escapes the quotidian work, but some are better at avoiding it than others. Their work isn't not done: it's done by others and it's rarely acknowledged that their successes are due at least in part to the efforts of others. It reminds me, in fact, of Selma James's campaign for Wages For Housework. The underlying discourse is not generated by the Carnivores but by wider social pressures. The individualism which emerged from the Renaissance and Protestant capitalism in the 15th-17th centuries privileged the Individual Genius who rises above the herd to Achieve Greatness. It's a doctrine familiar from Trump to Carnegie, but from academia to pig-breeding, Obama's assertion applies: the Individual Genius relies on the work done by his or her entire society.
if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.) 
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. 
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
 Most of our carnivorous colleagues know this. They support the sentiment. But the system encourages them to behave as though it wasn't true. Research evaluation frameworks, sabbaticals, promotion criteria, appraisals, funding applications, the class structures of academia, the tacit division of work between Genius and Menial: all conspire to encourage the division of the Achiever sheep from the Nurturing goats.

As far as I can see, there are social and systemic solutions to this. At a personal level, we must develop and promote empathy as a core constituent of what it means to be a good academic citizen. Ask yourself how you felt as a first-year student, as a new PhD candidate, as an hourly-paid lecturer, junior research fellow or freshly-spawned head of department. If you didn't like how it felt, don't perpetuate the structures and behaviours which made life hard. Distribute 'plum' modules or year-groups around the department rather than treat them as rewards for instance, or (and I'm a big fan of this one) discourage the idea that teaching first-years or research skills or whatever are somehow less important than a module based on your book. Make sure your students are invited to events even if you strongly suspect they won't turn up: a few will. Treat everyone as a community of intellectuals and try to understand the academic and social landscape from their perspective even if their perspective is partial (whose isn't) or just plain wrong. Have high expectations of everyone but comprehend their starting points. Identify the Department Mother and formally or informally share their burdens. If you can't bear teaching and see it as detracting from your magnum opus: fake it. The Academy is nothing if not a collective effort and if you can't hack it, sod off. On which contradictorily rude note, I suggest that what we need to look at is the idea of Slow Scholarship. I didn't invent it: I only heard of it yesterday, but Alison Phipps has pointed me towards a very persuasive paper about it as a feminist space for resistance, while the ever-reliable Thesis Whisperer and Liz Thackray have been thinking about it as praxis for ages

A few years ago a Professor of Education gave a lecture in which she said that all students should be treated as tabulae rasa; that whatever their cultural contexts and experiences, they should be treated absolutely identically. It struck me as the worst kind of nonsense, derived from the spurious claims of 'equality of opportunity' and meritocracy that has replaced intellectual enquiry in the political classes. I think I would make a plea for the very opposite when we think about our colleagues, our successors and our students. They aren't stupid and they aren't identical. They have needs, desires and aspirations which should be examined, elucidated and in most cases nurtured. One of the reasons I'm a raving Red subversive is that I follow William Morris and the utopian socialists' belief that we all have enormous potential, potential which is stifled by the discourses of consumerism, acquisition and above all competition. Where Morris postulated revolution we have the struggle to reform our institutions and the social structures that construct them, but I also think that we have agency. Our institutions are not physical, nor the property of sectional interests but Imaginary Communities in Anderson's sense. We make them and remake them with every thing we do, every remark we make. Whether it's refusing to sit on all-male panels, surprising someone with the offer of a co-written paper   simply because you know they're working on interesting things, or going off-piste in a class because something tangential but intelligent has come up in conversation, we can subtly remould the institution under the radar.

We should, however, be remoulding the institution above the radar too. Rotating heads of department (not paid extra here: they get 50! hours) so those poor dumb animals get to have some fun too. Demand that managers still do some teaching. Replace your executive with a Senate. Democratise your departments whether the students want to be or not (one of my departments recently invited students to participate in the hiring process: none came). Unionise, always unionise. Talk, to the point of tedium, about exactly how big the sex and class and race gaps are between students, Herbivores, Carnivores and management. If you're a Herbivore, tell your colleagues about the interesting things you're doing and the interesting things you want to do. Take on a big scary job that might actually involve wielding power. Finally – and this is not something I've managed to do yet – learn to say NO  and Yes: No to that final straw, or to that task that attaches itself to you because you're the only reliable one, or the only one who reliably takes things on. Yes to the new, the weird, the opportunities that normally get grabbed by the Carnivores. If you are Carnivore, take on a class you'd normally avoid. Ask your herbivorous colleagues how you can help and what they get out of the stuff you'd forgotten needed doing. Colleagues are for life, not just for breakfast…

In all things, behave as though we're this close to Paradise. We have a special social space which is hugely privileged, and which can be a model for society. If you behave like a Utopian, you'll wake up in Utopia.

'…talking of Michelangelo'

So we hosted two very exciting novelists last week in an art gallery!,  reading from and talking about their work. Hosted by poet, novelist and creative writer Paul McDonald, the first was James Hannah, author of the elegiac but also very witty The A-Z of You and Me, who explained how necessary it was to be funny about impending death. Coming from a family of medics black humour has always been part of the conversation so I didn't need persuading, but the audience was enthralled.

This is how we always dress for literary occasions
The headline act was Catherine O'Flynn, who made a huge splash with her debut novel What Was Lost back in 2008. Her latest piece is Mr Lynch's Holiday, an exploration of emigré Irish identity and the ways in which we come to terms with our parents' agency and autonomy just as we realise that 'kidulthood' just isn't enough to cope with the demands of contemporary life (something I thought about recently while reading Margery Allingham's Coroner's Pidgin, in which the fun-loving Bright Young Things of the 1930s have to cope – or not – with killing and being killed in WW2).

As well as reading from their works, Catherine and James discussed their habits as authors, the ways in which they consciously structured their texts, the challenge of being funny through multiple drafts, the notion of the 'difficult second novel' (Catherine says she only writes a novel when provoked by interesting thoughts, which seems reasonable) and much else besides.

Many thanks to Wolverhampton Art Gallery for hosting the event: the Georgian room looked lovely, the beer was cold and we look forward to many more similar events with them.

The audience gathers

Audience members react to Catherine O'Flynn

Catherine O'Flynn

Catherine O'Flynn amidst a literary salon 

Sometimes it got a bit hairy

Dr Colbert introduces the guests

Catherine O'Flynn reads from Mr Lynch's Holiday

Catherine O'Flynn receives tumultuous applause

Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah

James Hannah reads from The A-Z of You and Me

James Hannah reading from The A-Z of You and Me

Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah

Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah

James Hannah gets passionate

It all gets a bit spooky for James Hannah


One audience member recoils from the filth purveyed by our visiting authors

Our genial host, Dr Paul McDonald

Paul McDonald and Catherine O'Flynn