Tuesday, 24 February 2015

All hail Eimear McBride

Last week we had the enormous pleasure of Eimear McBride visiting us. I put her debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing on a first-year course last year and was stunned by how strongly the students responded to this experimental, poetic, harrowing novel.

This year, Eimear kindly took a class with the second group of students to study the novel, reading beautifully from the text, discussing the process of writing, editing and (eventually) publishing it. She took their questions seriously and answered them in depth. I particularly liked the way she insisted – with considerable grace and no trace of ego – on her right and that of other women to engage in modernist fiction and 'high' literature, often portrayed as a boys' club. Joyce, she told us, did women beautifully but left room for the interior voice of women in the modernist tradition, a task Eimear fulfilled with astonishing success. Her novel's linguistic style, she said, is 'about the point before consciousness, about experience before language tells you how to feel about it' – just what modernism tried to do. Her return to modernism, she says, is fuelled by a distaste for the distancing irony of postmodernism, an attitude shared by my friend and our writer in residence Niall Griffiths. Asked to recommend other forgotten modernist authors, she recommended Dorothy Nelson's In Night's City, which I've now ordered. She also put in a word for Edna O'Brien - rightly so.

We talked about the experience of being reviewed, and the way misogynist attitudes can crop up in even the most appreciative assessments: James Woods' review in the New Yorker was positive and perceptive, but still described the rape of the 13 year-old central protagonist by her uncle as the start of
a sexual relationship with her uncle, an affair … a sexual encounter
Interestingly, she said that Australian reviewers and audiences are interested in the (largely self-destructive) sex, whereas British ones talk about style. What that says about both cultures, I couldn't possibly say, but Eimear is very clear about the need to address uncomfortable material and to find a style to suit: 'If you don't want to offend or write what you're compelled to write, don't bother. There are enough bad writers out there'. Invited by the students to name the worst book she'd read recently, she politely declined in case someone (who, me?) tweeted the name. Let's just say she's an exacting and discerning reader who thinks life is too short for adults to read children's fiction.

Irish reviewers have also been positive. Anne Enright in the Guardian called her a 'genius', which Eimear said would only be a problem if she believed it were true (it is) and was a deliberate attempt to end the critical reluctance to apply the term to women. One un-named reviewer accused her of being a 'court jester' to the English (the same treatment given to Caradoc Evans and Brinsley McNamara) but the rest were positive. Eimear has strong views about ghettoising work by sex, nationality or genre: her books, she says, are in the prize-winners' section in the shops. Retort of the day, I thought: she's won 5 literary prizes for this novel no publisher would touch until Galley Beggar took it after a chance meeting. She also had this to say on the subject: 'Novelists who accept the post of representative of a particular group tend to turn out to be shit'. Biographical readings also get short shrift: this is a novel, not a misery memoir.

Eimear McBride signing a student's copy of her book

In the evening, Eimear gave a public reading and Q+A session to a paying crowd at the compact and bijou Arena Theatre (thank you!), which was also a triumph thanks to her and my colleague leading the conversation. On the subject of being a writer of 'women's issues', Eimear was very clear. Modernism may have been a boys' club, but it had to make room. She is a writer, not a purveyor of women's writing, but her novel makes space for a female character for whom sex is not a route to love but a way to make choices again and again, whatever the consequences. Asked again about prizes, she said this: 'I like winning prizes but the writing is all that matters. Fuck the rest of it': the creative writing students were left under no illusions: write because you're compelled to write, not because it's cool to say you're a writer, or because you want to be famous.

Eimear talking about her novel
I already had an autographed copy of A Girl which I've kept pristine, so I asked Eimear to sign my battered, heavily annotated teaching copy ('a bit stalkerish', she said). I got her to write 'all your theories are completely wrong, and she laughed!

Then we went to dinner and had a brilliant night. It's not all work, work, work. Thanks to Eimear, my colleagues, the students and guests. If you're sad you missed out, here's a short interview we recorded with her.


Just a brief one, and definitely no pictures.

Blogger's owners Google has announced that sexually explicit blogs will be forcibly made 'private' - available only to individuals the author personally invites to view.

As you may have noticed, Plashing Vole largely eschews sexual material you're one of those discerning souls who flushes at the thought of a well-applied preposition or a neatly-turned phrase. You I welcome. In short, there's nothing 'blue' to be seen here, though a look through the search terms used by people who land on Vole implies that a lot of people are a) sick and b) very disappointed quite quickly.

As perhaps the least sexy author and blog in cyberspace, I protest. Google, Apple (another deeply prudish company) and various other tech corporations are happy to spy on us, spy on us for governments, avoid their taxes, promote a politics which disempowers the citizen in favour of oppressive states and oppressive, unaccountable corporations, and yet they fear the expression of sexual appetites. Reaching back to my days reading Freudian literary theory, I seem to remember an argument that the exchange of money is a fetishised transference of the exchange of libidinal energy – if that's true, Google is the horniest beast in existence.

I don't view pornography for a range of reasons personal, political, social and sensible (for a start, I only use the web at work, and shared offices aren't the ideal setting for a session with the Kleenex; besides, I like my job). But I do want to stick up for my invisible comrades in the blogosphere. Firstly, explicit material is not necessarily pornographic. There are millions of people out there discussing their sexual development and appetites in constructive ways. Human sexuality is a wondrous (bonkers) landscape and take it from this ex-Catholic: not talking about it produces damaged people and societies. I want the gay Saudi or Nebraskan kid to find out that there are people like her or him, and that anyone who feels a bit odd at home has a community of people exploring the same feeling.

Not all sex blogging is pornographic. A large amount of it, frankly, is. I'm largely opposed to pornography but accept that there's at least the potential for 'ethical' porn. My guess is that it's more likely to be found on blogs than on the corporate pages of commercial producers. I'd far rather hear about Hilda and Cyril's wife-swapping parties in Tunbridge Wells than some violent rape-fantasy produced by the Gb in Los Angeles in conveyor-belt fashion. Artistically, too, let's hear it for awful mobile-phone footage and the glories of DIY home decor and (don't blame me; Boing Boing thinks it's cool) Indifferent Cats in Amateur Porn (link is harmless but please, people, shut your bedroom door).

Most of all, I'm bothered that Google is going to be the ultimate arbiter of what's unacceptable. A tiny elite group of mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-heterosexual elitists is now going to decide what can and can't be written about and shown in one of the few uncommercialised spaces on the web. Yes,  you might say, Blogger is a commercial service, freely available on the understanding that content and metadata become Google's profit-making data. It's a pseudo-public space rather than a public one, and it has the right to dictate what goes on under its roof. I suspect Google will claim that this is an issue of public protection, but it doesn't stand up. A Tory MP last year appealed to the Prime Minister to ensure that children are prevented from seeing sexual material. From the party which hates the Nanny State, this is a bit cheeky: how about he do some actual parenting? I don't think children are going to read blogs about shoe fetishes. They'll google the obvious things or view stuff their mates pass on.

I don't think this washes any more. There is no public equivalent of the blogosphere for those who don't have the resources to host their own sites, and without the visibility the comes from being on a major site, you may as well not exist. Yes, there are compromises (WordPress even tracks bloggers through a hidden feature in the typeface) but we should demand at least a clear and accountable process for determining what is and isn't acceptable. My guess is that the ideological and cultural position occupied by Google's censors will disproportionately hit blogs dealing with homosexuality, trans-gender sexualities and other 'minority' positions on the sexual continuum.
I have a sneaking suspicion that big-boobed-babes of the kind purveyed for heterosexual men by Playboy and its multiple imitators will somehow remain visible (bloggers making money from erotic material are banned: you can find corporate porn via Google any time you like).

I don't mind my government passing laws about this stuff even when they're wrong, because I can vote them out if enough people agree with me, but Google et al. are informed by only two things: profit and their own private perspectives on what's 'icky'. That's not good enough when their service is fast becoming a utility.

The old saw about 'first they came for X, and I said nothing because I was not X' applies here. However disgusting you might find them, it's time to stand up for the perverts, not only because someday Google might decide that you're one too, but as a matter of principle.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Fencing photography on a budget

I'm desperate to tell you about brilliant author Eimear Mcbride's visit to the university, but I haven't time yet to edit all the photos and video - a few more days.

Instead, I wanted to show you a few of my favourite photos from last weekend's British Junior and Cadet British championships: all weapons, age groups from U14 to U20s. As usual I wandered around with my camera when duties allowed. There are a lot of people taking pictures (some of them on iPhones and iPads, which won't come out well) so I thought I'd give a few hints about how to get some decent shots. (Click on all these to enlarge, and see the whole set here).

Fencing halls are the bane of the photographer. The pistes on which the fencers perform are very close together. The fencers and referees very disobligingly move up and down, while other fencers, coaches and parents get in the way. The photographer can't get as close as s/he would like, and the angles are hard. It's OK if you can afford a massively fast long lens, but I haven't got £4000 spare, and anyway, people would be walking in front of you all the time.

Shall we dance?
The lighting is always, always terrible in sports halls: artificial and low. Add to that the incredible speed of the action and things get hard. Autofocus struggles to find the piece of the action you want amidst all the movement, so you're always struggling with the tension between getting enough light for a visible photo and missing the action. A full-frame camera and very fast professional lens will do it for you, but for the rest of us there's a trade-off.

My camera is an ageing Nikon D7000 - very good when new but not a full-frame, so it doesn't have a high-end sensor (which is what really matters, not megapixels). Under most conditions, it's pretty good but sports photography is hard - if you have a D3 or D4 you're thinking of replacing, let me know). For fencing, I use an incredibly cheap but brilliant lens: the f/1.8 50mm, which I think cost me £80. Another £150 would get me an f/1.2 which is very tempting, but for now this will do. 50mm lenses are incredibly sharp - the quality is superb because there are no moving parts, just lots of glass. The drawback is the fixed width: you can't focus in and out. Instead, you have to move until you've framed the shot you like, or be prepared to crop heavily. The strength is the aperture: you get loads of light with a 1.8 so you can up the speed and ISO settings. For fencing, I have it set on 1/1000th of a second, ISO 800. Never, ever leave your camera on automatic.

How to choose your shot: watch your fencers. See where on the piste they like to mix it up and focus on it. Then switch autofocus off: if you don't you'll miss the shot you want while it hunts for perfect focus.

The curse of autofocus: what would have been a great shot ruined because the focus settled on the background

Then wait for the fencers to move into your shot. As you can see from my photos, 1.8 gives you an incredibly narrow depth of field: there's a central point of absolute focus and a lot of the shot is out of focus. It's a lovely effect, but not one I'd choose all the time - it's one of the things which would be solved by investing the price of a used car on a lens (if you'd like to buy me one, get in touch).

What should you look for? Go for the badly-behaved and/or technically deficient fencers, especially at foil or epee. The best fencers are calm, controlled and undramatic. A slight movement at the right moment gets results with the minimum of fuss. But that's rubbish for photography. What you want is great big moments of acrobatic, balletic skill. Thankfully, lots of British fencers rely on athleticism rather than brains or timing: lots of their coaches will be looking at these photos and wincing!

Another victory

Note the score: he then lost 15-14

An armourer, viewed from above


Defeat and consolation

Disgusted with herself

Hit scored, but disgraceful technique

I like the symmetry here: hits, score, position.

It's hard to get a sense of movement in a still photo, though it can be done. I didn't have a monopod or tripod with me this time, but if I had, I'd have played with slow speeds and pans to capture movement. There are two types of shot I particularly like: the moments when blades bend when landing on an opponent or are parried, which require high-speed and luck, and the moment a fencer celebrates or despairs: when fencers have their masks on it's hard to convey personality but the seconds after a match ends are good for this.

I didn't take too many shots of defeat this weekend: the fencers are young and probably wouldn't appreciate it, though one mother framed a shot I took of her daughter on her knees in front of the victor as an aide-memoire to never let it happen again!

In some age groups the size difference is enormous

The final tip: digital cameras are great. I couldn't imagine using film: every shot costing money with no guarantee that you got it right. With digital you can fire off 50 shots in 10 seconds, knowing that you'll keep only one or two of them. What a luxury.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A dose of the old-time religion does you good

Last night I went to my local theatre for an evening with Polly Toynbee and David Walker, promoting their new book Cameron's Coup, basically a summary of all the evil things the Tories and their Lib Dem sidekicks have done to us all over the past few years.

The audience was as you'd expect: Guardian-reading academics, social workers and teachers: those of us with the time, energy and enthusiasm to still be angry. In short: Toynbee and Walker were in friendly territory. Perhaps too friendly: aside from a smattering of SWP-style critiques, her shady past as an early adopter of the SDP (thus allowing Thatcher's reign) was largely overlooked. There was some discussion of the Guardian's endorsement of the Lib Dems in 2010, but she made it clear that it was the editor's sole decision, made in the teeth of opposition from the staff, and based on civil liberties grounds – which is understandable given New Labour's total contempt for such things.

I mostly enjoyed it. The first half of the evening was devoted to a fusillade of statistics and facts which we probably could have done without. Everyone in the audience was highly informed and often faced the realities every day. I'd have preferred Toynbee and Walker to focus on fewer things in more detail, throw in material related to the location of each night's talk, or to give more analysis than fact, as that's their super-power. Once that was over though, things improved hugely. They took questions from the floor and relaxed hugely, giving informed, witty, thoughtful answers to a range of questions: the breadth of their shared knowledge was astounding.

I also enjoyed it because I was sitting next to one of my students - a hugely likeable chap who for some reason is a damned Tory, and was reviewing the gig for the local hard-right paper. Given that the event was solely devoted to Tory-bashing and gingering us up for the election, I teased him about potentially being converted to socialism - sadly it didn't happen, and Toynbee never looked in his direction when he had his hand up so he never got the opportunity to ask what I'm sure would have been an interesting and challenging question. But at least he had to listen to someone other than me explaining just what these bastards have done to us all!

I didn't ask a question either, but if I'd had the chance, I'd have asked about the Tories' motivations. As far as I can tell, some of them genuinely believe that what they're doing is good for the country: Gove, Letwin and some others. They're massively wrong and perhaps even more dangerous than the others, whom I strongly suspect don't have this public service ideal. I remember a newly-elected Kenyan government minister replying to a question about corruption with the words 'now it's our turn to eat'. Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but I think there are a lot of Tories who take this line: the public good is far less important than the disposal of state assets and alteration of laws and policies to benefit themselves, their class and their global allies. I think Osborne's one of them. Cameron is half-way between: he's PM because the job appealed to him as a bit of a jape but he's also from a class which had a public service ideal, but his personal fortune is derived from tax evasion. Hunt, Shapps and others seem like nothing more than looters in the service of the global super-rich. My own MP is rarely spotted outside the rich suburbs where his core vote lies, and when he does emerge it's to dine with arms dealers or tour the Syrian Golan Heights in the company of the Israeli occupiers, and he's certainly acquired some extra chins since 2010, so he's certainly taken his turn to eat.

They do, like me, see this government as highly successful. Yes, the deficit is up, Sure Start centres have closed, the poor are poorer and the rich richer, but what people forget is that none of these things are 'collateral damage' cause by 'tough choices'. Occasionally the cleverer Tories fake a note of regret ('this hurts me more than it hurts you'), but the Tory project was always to shrink the state and abolish social protection. As Naomi Klein predicted, they took advantage of a crisis – this is the Pinochet manoeuvre – to impose their fantasies, without warning or a mandate. The only vaguely humorous aspect of this is that the crisis was one of neoliberal capitalism's making (despite their partly-successful attempts to blame it on the last Labour government) and their solution was more neoliberal capitalism. The crying shame is that enough people swallowed this to vote them in, however marginally.

Will the event change the course of the election? I doubt it, and so did the speakers: as Toynbee pointed out, people read the papers and columnists with whom they agree. Perhaps a few more people in the audience will help deliver leaflets in this marginal constituency, but the point was really for like-minded people to huddle together in mutual outrage at the vile things done to us.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Visual Guide to Modern Britain

Perhaps this is a little reductive, but given the confluence of sexual predators such as Jimmy Saville, Tory-donating tax avoiders and the Conservative Party's 'Black and White Ball' (lots included pheasant shooting, Swiss holidays, shoe-shopping excursions with the Home Secretary and a run with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions), it seems accurate enough. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Harper Lee v Chilcot: who'll publish first?

I'm marking. It's not really #markinghell in terms of quality, merely in terms of volume. I have to say that the proportion of cheats and idlers has been in decline over the past few years – there are always people who struggle but in the piles on my desk right now, they're honest strugglers who've clearly tried their best. Unlike, for instance, the senior manager who rejected our MA proposal with the biggest load of unreflective nonsense I've seen in quite some time. D– for that. I can't go into details, but let's just say that reading the feedback (hand-scrawled then scanned for distribution) I wasn't angry. I was embarrassed on their behalf.

Anyway, I'd better get on with the marking. At this rate, not only will Harper Lee's second novel be out but the Chilcot Report will be published before I finish. I'm a bit dubious about Go Set a Watchaman the To Kill A Mockingbird sequel. The stories of a manuscript just being 'discovered' sound a little suspicious, and the press statement from Lee reads as though drafted by a PR operative. The feminist website Jezebel is much more hostile: they reckon that publication is coming suspiciously quickly after the death of Lee's sister and attorney, who was famously protective, and may be the result of machinations by her new attorney (ironic, given TKAM's idealisation of honourable lawyers). I'm not so sure: that seems to deny Lee agency and autonomy because she's old:
…leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart. 
Tonja Carter, Harper Lee's attorney since Alice Lee retired at the age of 100, acknowledges that the author—who was left forgetful and nearly blind and deaf after a stroke in 2007—often doesn't understand the contracts that she signs. "Lee has a history of signing whatever's put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter's advice," Gawker reported last July. But now Alice—her Atticus—is gone and an unhealthy and unstable Lee must alone face the publishers, interviewers and literary agents that she's spent her entire life avoiding.
The novel was written back in the 50s, so if it's legitimate, it's was produced at the height of Lee's powers. It may be an apprentice work, and there are thousands of authors who wrote only one truly great book, but that's one more than me, so I wouldn't begrudge Harper Lee an 'ordinary' one.
Instead of being grouchy about this book, be wary of the hype machine. This novel was written at least half a century ago. A lot of literary and cultural water has flowed under the bridge since then. Readers' expectations are different, style and language has changed. It may or may not be a great novel, but it will be a period piece and should be read on those terms.

Despite being a professional literature academic, I don't actually have much to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it several times as a child and saw the film adaptation once or twice. I'm not sure I appreciated it fully then – it was given to us to demonstrate that racism is bad, but I'd never heard of actual racism the first couple of times I read it, so I imbibed the intellectual lesson (very successfully: still not a racist) and I'd little conscious experience or knowledge of the United States at that point either. Nor was I sufficiently developed as a reader to have much sense of style. I guess in some ways this is beside the point: many of the texts we discover as a child become untouchable and unreal: reading them as an adult is unsettling for precisely those reasons. Instead of a cherished but impressionistic memory, we're confronted with actual words existing within a hugely changed interpretive community. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me in advance that racism was wrong. Going back to it now would require a whole new set of criteria for analysis derived from my own experiences, cultural context and my education and I'm not sure I want to disturb my dim but positive memories. I have done so with other childhood texts: I wrote a conference paper on Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels a few years back and found the experience fulfilling but also quite difficult: re-reading revealed so many dark or disagreeable aspects of the texts which my young self couldn't have understood. I don't think that cherished texts should be left untouched in the golden halls of memory but at the same time, I'm happy for other people to do the revisionist work!

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Back in harness

Afternoon all. I'm back after a very debilitating bout of chapter-writing, followed by an equally unpleasant but less depressing bout of flu. Not man-flu but the real thing. Dizziness, sweating, aching, weakness, massive headaches, the lot. It's the first time I've had a day off since I had an operation ten years ago, and I wasted it wallowing in my own filth doing nothing more than uttering the occasional depressed groan and wondering where the decorator was.

The only time I felt worse – and more at the mercy of humanity – was about 15 years ago when I caught something really, really nasty while living at home with the folks. They'd gone away on holiday so there was nobody about. After a couple of days' shivering and delirium, I decided I needed a doctor. Rather than phone one, I thought I'd get down to the surgery under my own steam. So I got up, put a coat on over my pyjamas and staggered a mile and a half along a main road to a bus stop, with occasional cars helpfully beeping when I wandered into the wrong lane. I got to the surgery and received a big bag of very impressive drugs (steroids: my medic parents weren't very keen on those when they found out later) and staggered back to the bus stop. I remember seeing a chap with a dog a few hundred yards away walking towards me. A while later, I woke up, face down on the road. The chap with the dog was now a few hundred yards past me, having decided that an unconscious person outside a doctor's surgery was none of his concern. Clearly he'd taken to heart Mrs Thatcher's maxim that 'There is no such thing as society'. Thankfully he wasn't representative of local humanity: when the bus arrived the driver was so concerned that he insisted on departing from the normal route to take me all the way home and my faith in humanity was restored.

So anyway, I'm back now. I got my half of the chapter written and sent off to my co-writer to fix. I thought it was awful, but I'm sure she can fix it. 3000 words for all of Welsh working-class fiction in English is just not enough - so much had to be missed out or summarised that I'll get letters from those excluded and those included… argh. Now it's on with the marking. And outrage. I'm well enough now to get my outrage back and there are so many tempting target. Saudi Arabia (obviously). Chris Broad for telling those on the minimum wage to 'stay humble'. The education colleague who suggested that English Lit students who don't read the texts should be given 'the film' or 'a synopsis' (death's too good for him).

But chiefly on my mind today is George RR Martin. I'm supervising an undergraduate dissertation on Game of Thrones, which means I've had to read them all (I know, feel my dedication) and I'm not happy about it. I read literally thousands on fantasy novels when I was a lonely and charmless teen. They're what made me a lonely and charmless adult. Martin's work was amongst those I didn't stick with even as a tasteless, undiscriminating youth. Being 39 and better read hasn't improved my feelings towards him. Admittedly, I quite liked Tyrion (greedy lecherous bookish dwarf nobody likes) but that's just because it's nice seeing someone like you in the pages. As to the rest: Tolkien-esque 'what fresh devilry is this' dialogue with the occasional 'fuck' thrown in to make it look modern. Yes, he bumps off a major character now and then, but there's way too much rape, gender and race essentialism and tedious sub-plotting for my taste. That, and the fact that the series adheres to absolutely every word of Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland, particularly the bit that says all meals in fantasy novels are 'stew'. Martin likes stew, swords, 'boiled leather' clothes and rape. Lots and lots of rape. People talking about rape. People threatening rape. People raping. People being raped. Rape, we understand from Game of Thrones, is a bad thing. However, it's also a standard means of punishment, revenge, introduction: people relate to women virtually entirely via their bodies in these novels and it goes beyond, I think, the story of this particular faux-medieval society. It's so pervasive that it has to be Martin's world-view. He's not a rape-supporter. He might well see himself as a feminist: there are many prominent and strong women in these novels. But at a deeper level, their stories are about their bodies: what they do with them, what is done to them.

After a while, it gets a bit repetitive. And by 'a while', I mean one volume of the seven (so far).

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Synergising our core products

I'm still deep in writing gloom, as I'm sure my co-writer will be overjoyed to learn. In the meantime, I suspect Weird Al Yankovic has been hiding behind the curtains during university meetings:

Monday, 19 January 2015

Yet more good news for Celtic Romanticist Travel Scholars

At some point I'll return to using Plashing Vole as a dart board for my arrows of opinion (perhaps having grown a beard for a few weeks I was the anti-Samson), but for now, here's another opportunity for all you budding scholars of Romantic travel writing:

The AHRC-funded ‘Curious Travellers’  project is pleased to advertise a fully-funded PhD, to start 1st October 2015, exploring any aspect of C18th and Romantic-period tours to Wales and Scotland.  The post will be based in the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS) in Aberystwyth, and will run for three years.  We invite applicants to offer ideas from a broad spectrum of possible research topics within the main subject of 'The Welsh and Scottish Tour 1760-1820'. Suggestions might include (but are not restricted to): 
Perceptions of Wales and the Welsh/ Scotland and the Scots in written tours, published and unpublished; the experience of female travellers; antiquarian recoveries of early Britain; the writings of Thomas Pennant;  correspondence and knowledge networks; encounters with Welsh/Gaelic literature or song; natural history writing in the tours; enlightenment science and domestic travel; topographical art and artists. A candidate interested in the visual art aspects of the project would have the possibility of working closely with the topographical art collections in the national libraries and museums of Wales and Scotland.  
The successful candidate will work alongside a team of researchers currently engaged in the AHRC-funded project “Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant and the Welsh and Scottish Tour (1760-1820)”, jointly run by CAWCS and the University of Glasgow, and led by Dr Mary-Ann Constantine and Professor Nigel Leask.  The deadline for applications is 30 April 2015: for further information about the project and details of the award please contact mary-ann.constantine@cymru.ac.uk

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Attention Welsh literature scholars!

Friends, if you've written anything in either of Wales's languages that might fall into these categories, please submit something. We're really keen to give scholars – whether professional academics or not – due recognition for excellent work. Despite us spending all our time writing 'impact case studies' and talking about REF points, there aren't many opportunities for good work simply to be applauded and rewarded by our peers. So if you or someone you know has written something good, get in touch. 

I'm especially keen on this one because Wynn was one of my PhD examiners - without him I wouldn't have a career, such as it is. Mind you, without him and a small band of colleagues, there wouldn't be a field of Welsh Writing in English at all.

DEADLINE EXTENDED UNTIL 31 JANUARY 2015 M. Wynn Thomas Prize 2015The M. Wynn Thomas Prize is offered to celebrate outstanding scholarly work in the field of Welsh writing in English. There are two prize categories: the ‘Open’ category and the ‘New Scholars’ category. Essays submitted may be unpublished or published, in English or in Welsh. Published essays should be from 2013/14. Topics may include all aspects of Welsh writing in English as well as the inter-relationship of Welsh writing in English with cognate areas (Welsh Studies, history, cultural studies, film/media studies, translation studies, performance/theatre studies, digital humanities, comparative literature etc.). The judging panel for the 2015 Prize will be Dr Matthew Jarvis (Aberystwyth University/University of Wales Trinity Saint David), Dr Aidan Byrne (University of Wolverhampton) and Dr Alyce von Rothkirch (Swansea University).
 The prize is awarded for a piece of substantial scholarship that is engagingly written. We encourage submissions that are ground-breaking in terms of subject-matter and/or methodology/disciplinarity. Essays that grapple with new ideas in an intelligent and conceptualised way are preferred. It is awarded at the annual conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English, which takes place around Easter every year in Gregynog Hall (near Newtown).
 Prize categories:‘Open’ Category
Essays in this category will be ca. 6,000-8,000 words long, of the highest scholarly quality and either already published in, or of a standard appropriate to an international, peer-reviewed journal. Authors may be academics or scholars who are not affiliated with an HE institution.
Prize: £150 and a full set of the Library of Wales series of books published by Parthian.
 ‘New Scholars’ Category
Essays in this category will be ca. 4,000-7,000 words long and of highly developed scholarly quality appropriate to the author’s level of (postgraduate) study. Authors may be postgraduate students or students who have recently graduated.
Prize: £150 and a full set of the Library of Wales series of books published by Parthian.
 Deadline:Essays must be submitted by email or by post by 31 JANUARY 2015.
Contact Alyce von Rothkirch for more information and to submit your essays:Dr Alyce von RothkirchDACE, Swansea UniversitySingleton Park
Swansea SA2 8PP

Friday, 9 January 2015

Happy New Year.

Good morning readers. It feels like a very long time since I put digits to keyboard, and so much has happened both in the world and personally.

I went off to the family home on Christmas Eve, conscious that I have a book chapter deadline looming but also exhausted. Three of my siblings were there, with partners and a child each, plus my dear old mum. I'm sure that we did lots of pleasant and restful things, but my overwhelming memory of the break is of crying children and long, painful trips to the bathroom as we all succumbed to some disgusting bug. I would like to thank the plumber who placed the sink and loo so close together in one bathroom. That saved me from unpleasant choices on more than one occasion. Apologies to those who did the cleaning up – I was in far too weak a condition to make more than a token effort.

Still, the time wasn't entirely wasted. I got to know some of my nephews and nieces (we don't all live in the same country), caught up with some of the siblings and read some good books. In particular, Rachel Trezise's short story collection Fresh Apples, Lewis Davies's Work, Sex and Rugby (though the protagonist has remarkably little enthusiasm for any of those activities), Ron Berry's Flame and Slag, Derrida's Spectres of Marx and Katie Gramich's Mapping the Territory: Critical Approaches to Welsh Fiction in English. Finally, Arthur Ransome's We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea. As you can probably tell, all except the latter were for both enjoyment and work: my chapter is a co-written reassessment of working-class Welsh fiction for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Fiction. My working plan is to suggest that contemporary post-indstrial Welsh anglophone fiction is haunted (hence Spectres of Marx) by Welsh-language culture, industrial collective culture, socialism, the dignity of labour and that it's marked by absurdist nihilism and Gothic tropes. However, I'm going to also claim that the 'classic' 1930s texts (Lewis Jones, Gwyn Thomas, Richard Llewellyn etc.) are also Gothic – that even the apparently orthodox texts can't be read straight because they use twisted sex, death and dark humour to subvert any sense of optimism. Anyway, it's work in progress. I'll think of something better along the way, or get my colleague to fix it.

It's been quite a good week on the academic front: very enjoyable classes in both my English and Media/Cultural Studies modules. I also had a bit of contact with the public: a documentary to which I contributed was broadcast on BBC Radio Wales about the centenary of Caradoc Evans's shocking My People, which sold very well in England and went down very badly in Wales for its dark and bitter assault on the hypocritical and repressive Nonconformist hegemony. The day after, the Times Higher published a piece I co-wrote about politicians' fictions. The plan is to write a paper or two each on specific aspects, then co-write a book if there's any interest from publishers. I'm quite pleased with the week's media - it's not just about being a media whore: academia is now obsessed with 'impact' and public engagement, partly for ignoble reasons and partly because (and this is the bit I agree with) research without dissemination and conversation is little more than a hobby. I'm under no illusions about where my interests rank on the Great Scale of Important Stuff, but I'd like to think that I can help people see things in a new and unexpected light occasionally.

Outside my little bubble, the world has taken one step closer to the abyss with the Charlie Hebdo murders. There just isn't any optimism or hope to be gained from any of this unless you're a) one of the murderers or b) a fascist. We shouldn't need to say it but apparently we do: being tasteless and deliberately offensive isn't a capital offence.

As far as I can see, the murderers have ensured that French people of colour and Muslims will suffer even more than they already do. Perhaps they are simply morons, or perhaps they've learned from some of the far-right and far-left micro-sects which tried to provoke repression from the state to radicalise the oppressed, which is a slightly more cynical way to be a moron. Even as a thorough-going atheist I know that France's official secularism has become a weapon in a programme of state and cultural oppression. Like the UK, France resents the products of its own Empire, and shovels its ethnic minorities into vile ghettos (les banlieues). Housing is poor, employment prospects dire, educational levels are low. Again like the UK, France insists that these people conform to a set of imposed values it fails to apply to itself, while making no concession to the deforming effects of colonialisation. No wonder resentment festers.

Enter Charlie Hebdo. I read it now and then when I was much more engaged in French culture. It always struck me as posturing as a liberated, leftwing  publication, but too often – like Private Eye – its targets were the weak and voiceless: the secularist values which I completely endorse were used to promote childish attacks on the religion of a scorned and maltreated minority. It reminds me of the fuss over The Interview: yes North Korea is a vile state and free speech is important, but I'd have been more impressed if Hollywood made a comedy about assassinating the President of the US or another powerful state. North Korea deserves our scorn, certainly, but it's an isolated state which only harms its own people. In both the Charlie Hebdo and The Interview cases, we've seen a flood of new-found defenders of free speech who remained conspicuously silent when the UK police used anti-terrorism laws to seize journalists' records, who saw nothing offensive about policemen spying on law-abiding activists and went so far as to have children with their targets, who had nothing to say about the Snowden revelations and in the case of Nigel Farage, said that 'a line has been crossed' when some teenagers made a satirical game about him. In short, their definition of free speech has a whiff of racism, repressiveness and opportunism about it. They're stoutly defending the right to annoy their (largely undefended, peaceful, marginalised) perceived enemies while blithely cheering on states  like ours and our allies who have achieved a system of total surveillance. Hearing various Tories, UKIPpers, and Front National types bloviate this week, it seems clear to me that they aren't seriously promoting the principle of free speech, they're cynically generating more enemies in pursuit of defending white male capitalist hegemony.

If free speech is so important to these rightwing defenders, let's see some serious action over Saudi Arabia, which seems to me to be the worst country in the world if you're a democrat, female, gay, socialist, non-Wahhabi, from an minority branch of Islam or indeed have any opinions at all. I'm rather tired of opportunists making principled speeches when there's no room for disagreement – such as these vile murders – but never applying said principles where it's diplomatically or financially tricky.

Let's treat these murderers as common criminals. Let's resist the temptation to treat them as representative of Islam and let's not give their supporters the chance to define them as heroes or martyrs. Let's defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to be as puerile as it likes, without dignifying it by joining in (this is why I supported the Guardian's decision not to reprint its anti-Islamic cartoons). Let's hold all these defenders of freedom to their words when Charlie or some other publication prints something rude about the things they care about.

But just for the avoidance of doubt: none of the above excuses or justifies the murder or journalists or anyone else. Any believer who can't shrug off a joke – however unfunny – has missed the point, as the furore around Evans's My People demonstrates. Efforts were made to ban it in Wales because it punctured the dominant narrative about a respectable God-fearing and virtuous people. Yet the chapels survive and Wales carries on. So will France and so will Islam. And so will this jaded atheist lefty. Happy new year!

PS. I know from watching Twitter over the last couple of days that the unfocussed and wishy-washy thoughts expressed above will infuriate many people, from hardline secularist left-wingers to those opportunist racists on the right, and lots of people in between. I don't apologise. The events are so recent and so complex that anyone who does have a comprehensive analysis, a plan of action and an absolutist position on freedom of speech, security measures and immigration/integration etc. should be feared and distrusted. I'm not especially coherent at the best of times, and particularly not when awful things happen, but I know enough to recognise when the forces of reaction (whether religiously-inspired murderers, tabloid newspapers, politicians or state agencies) spy an opportunity to further their own ends. So perhaps this is one of those times when a little cautious and wooly thinking might serve us all better than decisive action.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Memo to all staff: Graduation Deportation Protocol

To: all staff.
From: university security and ceremony directorate
Subject: Graduation Ceremony protocol.

Colleagues, like every university, we have a formal procession at graduation. The students take their seats in the Grand Theatre and we staff march there in pairs from the ivory tower in all our finery, escorted by a chap of military bearing carrying a great heavy mace. The traffic stops as the townsfolk pause to admire us and (hopefully) aspire to one day join us.

Next year, thanks to the Home Secretary and her leadership aspirations, some alterations will have to be made to the pomp and circumstance.
Theresa May to 'kick out foreign graduates' in new immigration plans

  • We will still parade through the streets, but we'll be accompanied by a phalanx of G4S security personnel (Mubenga Division), resplendent in their ceremonial body armour and steel toe-caps. The billy-clubs and handcuffs will be merely symbolic detail and the Mace of Office will be adapted to include a spring-loaded net to ensure full attendance. 
  • Outside the Theatre, gleaming black transport will await our honoured overseas graduates, complete with blacked-out windows on each bespoke, individual cell. 
  • Each bright young student will hear their names called and walk on stage to collect their degree certificates from the Vice-Chancellor. Enclosed in the scroll will be a heavy parchment copy of the student's extradition order, personally electronically signed by the Home Secretary wishing the lucky graduate a safe and speedy trip out of the country. 
  • Before they leave the stage, an accountant in gold-trimmed robes will formally offer each student a card reader to settle any tuition fees and deportation costs while an appropriate song plays to cover the sounds of any churlish and undignified protests. 
  • Staff are reminded that weeping is undignified and that higher education funding is now dependent on informing the authorities on any student or colleague suspected of a) being foreign b) holding unauthorised opinions. (Please note: annual appraisal will now take place in the basement. Please ensure that you bring a signed copy of your Extremism Disavowal form CTCH-22 and warm clothes).
  • As the beaming, freshly-minted graduate leaves the stage, the Mubenga Corps will offer them a congratulatory headlock and escort them into the airport-bound black maria. On arrival any survivors will be given celebratory 'bumps' by their guards of honour and waved off to start a new life using their new-found skills somewhere else.

We trust these minor tweaks to the annual ceremonies meet your approval.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

On Proportion.

I guess we shouldn't look to celebrities for a reasoned examination of the facts, but this caught my eye:
Madonna has described the leak of several new songs as “artistic rape” and “a form of terrorism”
So I thought I'd provide Madonna and anybody else upset by the unofficial leak of some pieces of pop music with a handy checklist of what does constitute rape and terrorism.

Madonna: has neither experience terrorism nor rape through music leaks
So here goes.

Things that are rape:
1. Penetrative or non-penetrative sexual contact without the full, conscious and informed consent of all parties.

Things that are terrorism:
1. Acts of violence against civilians in pursuit of political, ideological, religious or territorial aims. Examples might include September 11th, attacks on civilians by Republican, Loyalist and British Army units in the Troubles,  the murder of hundreds of Pakistani children by the Taliban, the Australian hostage outrage, or the US and British military's murder of civilians in Iraq (and lots of other places, Like this:

Things that are neither rape nor terrorism:
1. The unauthorised release of pop music.
2. Leaked emails from a media company.
3. Things which mildly inconvenience famous people.

Perhaps this is overly flippant but words like 'rape' and 'terrorism' have to be used carefully or they'll lose all impact. Madonna's appropriation of the terms isn't witty or justified: it degrades the true horror of these acts.

Phillippe de Champaigne, Vanitas

Kings used to have fools to remind them that the ego can lead us into monstrousness. Some of the Roman emperors had a slave in their trains during triumphal processions whose only job was to walk behind him whispering 'remember that thou art mortal'.  Now we're a sophisticated society, celebrities have dispensed with such things and have entourages to encourage their narcissism. Perhaps we should provide a fool or a memory-slave at public expense to anyone whose ego appears to need swift spiritual kick to the head that alters their reality forever.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Light relief.

No depressing or negative post today. Though if you want to follow the ramifications of Stefan Grimm's demise, I'll point you towards Melonie Fullick's excellent piece, which explores the nature of workplace bullying in an academic environment (and yes it does happen, rather more than you'd think) and the institutional systems that encourage it.

So anyway, happier – though utterly exhausting – stuff. Well, last week was ridiculously busy but also very enjoyable. I had that Niall Griffiths in the back of my class so that we could talk about his novel, A Great Big Shining Star, and then his professorial inaugural. Then I went down to the University of Gloucestershire to deliver a lecture on the place of myth – and retellings of Welsh myth in particular – in our postmodern, media-saturated society. 

I have no idea what the students thought, but I enjoyed it. We started with the Enlightenment and its abjection of the irrational, which was often Othered as female ('old wives' tales') or primitive (peasants' stories, Celtic barbarism etc.), then touched on the alienation of urban capitalism and its discontents (Goblin Market, The Waste Land and other texts), talked about Jung (according to this bullshit quiz I'm the Sage: 'incredibly intelligent but you risk over analyzing until you're incapable of actually making a decision', when I'm actually just a highly-skilled procrastinator) and Freud – particularly the notion of the 'uncanny', about The Owl Service novel and TV series;

about the marginalisation of the weird into genre fiction (Machen, Lovecraft, fantasy novels) or into 'high culture' (such as Yeats and the rest of the Celtic Twilight), about postmodern social structures and practises allowing the non-rational and uncanny to re-emerge, particularly in computer games and decent science fiction like Paul McAuley's Fairyland, and about the decentring of the self making the flat characterisation and absent motivations of mythological protagonists comprehensible again. I seem to remember William Morris's wallpaper and poetry made an appearance, as did prog rock record sleeves. And some other stuff.

All in all, it was hugely enjoyable. They did also grab me for a couple of short video conversation which I find so painful that I can't bring myself to post. I have the voice of a bronchitic duck and the chins of a walrus that's let itself go. Ugh. Though I am going to force my colleagues to undergo the same experience. 

After that, the weekend was gloriously relaxing. Saw two Hollywood films and enjoyed them with a few reservations (Hunger Games and The Hobbit) then it's back into this week. I've just done a lecture on one of my favourite novels, Jackie Kay's Trumpet. To be recommended (the novel, not my lecture). 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bought and sold?

A while back, I sat in the audience while a friend gave his professorial inaugural address (the closest I'll ever get to one). A business studies scholar, his final assertion was that Business Schools should be 'about', rather than 'for' business. Critical distance is essential: without dispassionate critique, neither businesses, the systems that generate them nor the public good are served. The evidence to the contrary is clear for all to see in the great recession: a global finance system populated by MBA-holding elites, advised by academic consultants from the most prestigious universities, and yet not one of them saw the contradictions inherent in the system. Here's a striking discussion from the documentary Inside Job:

A couple of things reminded me of this today. One was seeing that Warwick University's Business School has a satellite unit in the Shard. No doubt to their management and neoliberal staff this looks like a prestigious address close to those with money to burn consulting them. To me it looks like a public declaration of love and fealty to the money rather than a critical and independent perspective. It also looks like willy-waving competitiveness of the kind only the silliest institutions engage in.

The other conflict of interest that caught my eye today was the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Education Journalism Awards. This afternoon, I taught a Media Ethics class about PR: its origins, its methods, its motives and the ethical context of public relations. It boils down to one thing: money. Public Relations operatives are answerable to their employers and the law. Anything not illegal is therefore permitted in pursuit of profit, with the caveat that one should not get caught.

As Nick Davies' Flat Earth News demonstrated several years ago, PR success is measured in news column inches. If you can get your promotional activity reported as news, you've won. It's relatively easy now: journalists are time-poor, resource-poor and under pressure. They are hosed down daily by a shower of easy 'stories' which are actually adverts. One of the jobs of journalism is to filter out the PR guff. And yet: I watched Twitter tonight as reputable journalists from the Times Higher Education Supplement – people whose work I respect – celebrated winning awards from an organisation whose job it is to fool them. The EJA Awards themselves are a PR stunt to make the industry look more reputable, and it's working. They also attempt to close the distance between journalism and PR copy, which is disingenuous to say the very least.

As far as I can see, a journalist waving a CIPR award is a journalist who doesn't mind being tamed: the trophy may as well be a collar with a bell on it, plus a tag with 'If found, please return to CIPR'. They're being used to dignify a dubious organisation and they've lost critical distance in the same way that Warwick has sold out to finance capitalism and that economist sold himself to the corporations. How can we trust an article by a journalist who has accepted such an award? How confident can we be that they'll apply their critical judgement to material that crosses their desks?

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm in the process of writing a commissioned article for the THES. I wonder if this blog post will magically lead to its withdrawal…