Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Slight return

Apologies for the break in service folks. It's been a hell of a couple of weeks: exam boards, marking, a funeral over in Ireland, individual casework for the 19 professors faced with redundancy, meetings with management and so on and so on. Last and (in management's eyes, least), I have an hour-long conference paper to write, for delivery in two days' time. In those two days: long, long department meetings and what's set to be a very confrontational meeting of the board of governors. 

Panic is of course setting in. I'm starting to feel like poor old Doctor Faustus, though at least he had some fun before payback time:

O gentlemen, hear me with patience, and tremble not at my speeches! 
Though my heart pant and quiver to remember that I have been a student here these thirty years,
O, would I had never seen Wittenberg, never read book!
God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it: for
the vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost
eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood:
the date is expired; this is the time, and he will fetch me.
O Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn'd perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.

The appropriate music, of course, is Madder Rose's Panic On. Not that I ever need an excuse to play unjustly-forgotten indie.


See you on the other side of Friday…

Friday, 19 June 2015

You're Fired. Enjoy your summer.

Hi all. It's Friday afternoon and it's been a mixed week, to put it politely.

Last weekend was rather glorious: a trip to The Globe for a matinee performance of As You Like It with my students (and ex-students, and their kids) and colleagues. I have to confess to having a heart of stone when it comes to Shakespearian comedy, despite being well aware (before you all write in) that comedy = happy endings in those days. However, this performance was a triumph. It was already ahead of last year's Antony and Cleopatra because lightning and thunder were conspicuously absent. All the coincidences and unconvincing doubling were played up and the knob gags and so on were done like panto, which I thought really worked. The actors from star to bit part were seriously impressive, doing everything from saucy bits to tenderness so well: I could even see a few people wiping away tears as the couples got hitched and Rosalind was reunited with her father (sorry to ruin the ending for you). I definitely wasn't one of them. Not at all.

So that was good: fine theatre, Greek food with friends, catching up with our graduates and then driving home past Walsall Stadium in the rain where – I found out later – Elton John was performing to the more tasteless of some other friends. I wasn't sure whom to feel sorriest for: them for preferring Elton John to – for example – rolling around in shattered glass, or Elton John for going from private jets and global fame to standing in the rain next to a motorway in the shabbiest, tiniest football stadia for miles. It's no dignified way to end a career.

After that, the week nosedived quite significantly. There were high points - presenting a preliminary version of the politicians' novels project to our staff conference and seeing other colleagues' research (one paper on Victorian prisoners was called Pros and Cons: I do love a good pun), and meeting our external examiners, who think we do a marvellous job. If only our management would say the same. Sadly, however, and with some truly wonderful exceptions, it's beginning to feel like there's nothing we can say or do which would persuade them not to treat us as some kind of incomprehensible enemy. There's an awful lot I can't say in public, but it's been one of those weeks in which jobs.ac.uk has been refreshed constantly.

My own worries aside, most of the week was taken up by preparing for and representing my professorial colleagues, 19 of whom have been shortlisted for redundancy. Why 19? Because 20 triggers a range of legal responsibilities which might impede management's (ahem) 'determined' style. It's been a long time since this institution felt or behaved like a collegiate body united by a set of educational values. Instead we get corporate platitudes and a 'leadership' (they love that word, and attend seminars on what it means) which derives its tactics and sense of self-worth from episodes of The Apprentice.



This time some of the professors are in line for the sack and others are up for bonus payments (as are lots of the senior management team, who consume lots of carrots but never catch sight of a stick). I have bored a lot of them with my views on this, and intend to carry on (what's the point of being a governor otherwise?) but I may as well rehearse the arguments here. Why stop at boring those around me when I can do it to The Internet?

In the corporate world, ordinary employees receive a salary for doing their jobs well, and get sacked for not doing them well (or, thanks to the Tories, for pretty much any non-existent infringement). The senior executives get massive salaries but can't be expected to do their jobs well without even more massive bonus payments. These are supposedly performance-linked, which has led to – inter alia – the banking crash. If you're offered a bonus for hitting targets, you're going to suggest short-term ones which are easy to fix rather than ones which are good for the organisation. Nor, if you're a bonus recipient, should you ever mention your sneaking suspicion that success is rarely attributable to individuals.

However, if you temporarily forget that corporate stupidity affects the wider economy and society, you might just about justify this on free-market capitalist grounds. My problem is that academia has been invaded by these corporate blackmailers, in person or in spirit. Fewer and fewer senior educational managers are academics, and those who are have sold out to the discourse of leadership and reward. It's below-inflation pay settlements for the workforce, and retainers and performance bonuses for themselves. These are, of course, in case they take their talent elsewhere. Personally I would invite anyone making such veiled threats to try their luck, but I'm heavily outnumbered on the board and the decisions are made in private sub-committees by people who speak the same language.

What is success in relation to a Higher Education institution? Is it increased recruitment? We could pack them in - but we might not be able to serve their needs successfully. Is is 'student satisfaction'? We have the National Student Survey, invoked in hushed terms at every meeting. We could ace that: just give everyone high grades and replace the library with a corporately-branded coffee area (this is why in the US the American Football coach is more highly-paid than the vice-chancellor). Is it attainment? We can fiddle with the grading algorithm like all the other universities. For every Key Performance Indicator, there's a way to fiddle the result so that someone gets a fat cheque at the end, as though any achievement – meaningful or not – is the result of one go-getting Leader.

So far, so seedily familiar. That boat has sailed. We all expect academic executives to behave (dress, speak) like those they see as their peers in the private sector. Whenever I say anything like this to them you can see the eyes roll as they wonder if I've just arrived from a WEA class circa 1937. But even though I'm not and never expect to be a professor, I want to weep at this extension of corporate amorality from administration to education (and oh yes, my appraisal includes the category 'appearance' but not 'intellect'):



In fact it's worse: the executives find ways to blame everybody for failure, while jealously guarding the rewards of success. With the professors, they're getting both carrot and stick. Nobody here doubts that some the profs may be exhausted, burned out or distracted (some might even just be plain lazy), but the management's decision to arbitrarily select a couple of appraisal points without any critical judgement smacks of contempt. It implies that professors are educational colossi, striding across the pedagogical landscape without any involvement with the rest of the place. It suggests that their achievements are the result of heroic solo labour, and their failures are purely personal. Never mind that the benchmarks are artificial, that research funding is not distributed fairly either here or in the sector as a whole, that other duties other than grant income or REF-able research is valuable and essential. Never mind that giving a Prof all the time needed for those papers requires everyone else to do their teaching and pastoral work, and diverts resources from collective effort to the Heroic model.

No: let's treat them as isolated demigods, masters of their own fates, regardless of local or wider conditions: educational, financial or emotional.

I'm reminded of a cheap TV show from some years back: Pets Win Prizes. This is what bothers me most about the Night of the Long Professorial Knives. Despite the protestations of fair play and impartial criteria, it seems to me that the twin approaches of the sack for some and cash rewards for others is the final power-play by an administration (not just here) that has got above itself. In theory – very much in theory, sadly – the Professors are the academic conscience of a university, particular one that isn't run by the academic staff. Their reputations and body of work enables them to contribute to the fundamental values and direction of the institution, informed by long experience and critical abilities. The title of 'professor' contains within itself a statement that what they do is more than a job: they profess a set of beliefs or values which transcend their formal terms of employment.

All this goes out of the window once the professor is left wondering whether the next phone call is to had her the price of a good holiday or summon her to an exit interview. Who will challenge (constructively or not) anything that happens when their are such serious consequences? You'd have to be hard as nails to resist the tide in this way or – like me – resigned to finding fulfilment in my small but steady academic niche rather than in the warm glow of management's regard. It's not good enough. My colleagues and I are summarily dismissed as union hacks: we would say this, wouldn't we? We no longer have any impact because the academic staff, like all the others, are no longer colleagues of the executive but work for it and should just shut up. This is why some of the executive refers to 'the university' when they mean themselves. I was always under the impression that 'the university' includes students, academics, support staff, the executive and all sorts of other people. The point of having a confident, self-critical and autonomous professoriate is that they can keep a check on the executive's schemes without being dismissed – as I and my UCU colleagues are – of being the 'usual suspects'. They might not always live up to this role, but they never will if they can be fired at will or be handed tips by an avuncular VC.

Last night, I went to Symphony Hall to see Andris Nelsons' last performance as conductor or the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Between the pieces, members of the orchestra spoke movingly of their relationship with him, and afterwards Nelsons gave a lovely speech about them, and the value of music and the arts to society. It was blindingly obvious that to him, the old model of the conductor as some sort of musical Mussolini bending the orchestral peons to his will was completely outdated. Instead, Nelsons built on the existing skills of the orchestra and introduced them to new ways of seeing music, to new repertoires, to new horizons. With collective goodwill, both he and the members of the CBSO part company improved by the experience.

I think it's time university executives shook off the embarrassing management models of Enron and Lehman Brothers. Universities have been around a hell of a lot longer than these corporate monsters, and contain enough collective wisdom to succeed on their own terms. These fads come and go, and we should rise above them. Let's learn from the orchestra, the convent, the commune rather than fall for every airport self-help huckster breezing through.

Last night was a transcendent experience. This morning I sat next to a dignified and professional man as he begged for his job, his livelihood and his personal and professional pride, watched across the table by a man in a suit who kept saying that he didn't have time for this. For all the abstract points I've outlined above, this is what it comes down too: sleek bonus-seeking sharks forcing honest people to justify their existence in the most reductive terms.

Progress, eh? Anyway, I'm off to a funeral, which in this context seems about the right way to end the week.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

These Smiling Rogues

Last weekend I went to see King Lear at the New Vic Theatre in Stoke. It was as always an excellent performance and I recommend you all see it.



The play got me thinking, too, about alternative settings to its medieval, pre-Christian royal court. The plot, you remember, centres on an old spoiled king deciding that he's going to hand the job to his daughters' husbands, based on who flatters him most. He intends to retain all the trappings of authority without all the work.

Being an academic in a neoliberal educational paradigm, the scene unfolded before my eyes.

Enter LEAR played by The Spirit of Humanist Education, or perhaps it may be Andrew McGettigan, tired and confused.

'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death.

Not entirely unworldly, he hints at some kind of quantitative assessment of intangible concepts, which we may as well call REF.

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

His Daughters, GONERIL played by Entrepreneurial Managerialism and REGAN played by Ye Modern Real World. They make professions of love but their discourse is rather unconvincingly over the top.

I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare

Only CORDELIA understands that love (or as we may call it, education for the public good) cannot be measured and will not survive the new regime, but fooled by the sharp-suited executives of the New University, she is expelled for her honesty. She is played by Marina Warner

Meanwhile, we have the sub-plot of the two brothers, EDGAR the loving son and his illegitimate half-brother EDMUND. EDMUND appears to care for his father and the fuddy-duddy establishment, but is actually a cold-hearted individualist free-marketeer intent on destroying it from within.

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th' legitimate. Fine word- 'legitimate'!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th' legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

He is played by David Willetts, AC Grayling or perhaps by Michael Gove. EDGAR, outlawed through Edmund's wiles, is cast out into the cold for his honesty and care, where he becomes POOR TOM weeping and gesticulating over the world's evils. He is, naturally, played by Thomas Docherty

Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led
through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o'er
bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow and
halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud
of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch'd
bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five
wits! Tom 's acold. O, do de, do de, do de. Bless thee from
whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking! Do poor Tom some charity,
whom the foul fiend vexes.

His ally is the FOOL: beaten, abused and despised for reminding the rulers of their follies, he is played by the Universities and Colleges Union. 

When thou clovest thy crown i'
th' middle and gav'st away both parts, thou bor'st thine ass on
thy back o'er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown
when thou gav'st thy golden one away. If I speak like myself in
this, let him be whipp'd that first finds it so.
[Sings] Fools had ne'er less grace in a year,
For wise men are grown foppish;
They know not how their wits to wear,
Their manners are so apish.


And so our tragedy unfolds. LEAR hands over the care of his campus to these cold-eyed asset-strippers while assuming that they'll have its best interests at heart. He is sadly mistaken. GONERIL and REGAN have no interest in the trappings of old-school scholarship and proceed to deny him the comforts of the academy: Lear has been an old fool, but they intend to tame him, perhaps with Performance Management Plans or a Bonus Scheme. 

Idle old man,
That still would manage those authorities
That he hath given away! Now, by my life,
Old fools are babes again, and must be us'd
With checks as flatteries, when they are seen abus'd.

For poor old LEAR, thinking his values still have some sway despite selling his realm to managerial forces, will insist on baubles like research time, ethical values and decent staffing levels. This does not go down well – the new rulers don't like dissent or 'inefficiency':

a hundred knights; yes, that on every dream,
Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike,
He may enguard his dotage with their pow'rs
And hold our lives in mercy.

These troublemaking loiterers have to go, and a Compulsory Redundancy Scheme is initiated.

GONERIL: What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
REGAN: What need one?

LEAR's arguments are as convincing to them as ours on tuition fees and non-STEM subjects are to the BIS. 

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.

And so LEAR is cast out upon the blasted heath, accompanied only by a faithful FOOL and Poor Tom. Reduced to nothing, LEAR strips off his garments and rages against the indifferent market. 

Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this! O! O! 'tis foul!

Gradually LEAR begins to understand the folly he has committed, having been reduced to rags and madness and we think there may be a happy ending. The sisters GONERIL and REGAN are revealed to be poisonous betrayers of the realm and kill each other (having disagreed over who will get the bonus, namely EDMUND, representative of illegitimate poor and false values). But it is too late. CORDELIA is DEAD. Poor Tom is restored to his father's good grace just as Thomas Docherty was reinstated, but life will never be the same again. LEAR takes up the Vice-Chancellor's office once more, but quickly passes on: he is out of time. 

And so our revels are ended. We humble players commend our allegory to those in the pit and in the circle and pray that a moral has been drawn.  


Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Treasure Trove

I went up to the loft for the first time yesterday, aided by a trusty fellow explorer. The previous occupants muttered that it was full of 'stuff' but didn't offer to take their belongings with them.

It is indeed full, and full of stuff. Several binbags of lampshades. At least forty terrible pictures, some reproductions. The usual collections of suitcases, raffia tourist souvenirs and wicker junk. A broken captain's chair, an Edwardian towel rack and a beautiful and no doubt lethal 1940s heater. Multiple boxes of terrible Christmas items and boxes and boxes of religious iconography. One of my predecessors was a retired Catholic priest and judging by the contents of the loft, one with a liberal interpretation of those commandments relating to property.

Several crates of ecclesiastical brass junk

A cuckoo clock so cheap that it's not clear whether it's made of wood or plastic, but still has a plaque engraved by the givers to mark Christmas


Some of the highlights include:

A Gas Oven moneybox containing a Victorian penny, a George V florin and a shilling. 

Several clocks, some large and elegant, some terrible. 
Fully working 3 ft telescope
A Beck Model 22 Microscope with Zeiss eyepieces. It works perfectly.
And a selection of specimen slides, all neatly labelled in 1945
…including Penis (monkey) and Human prostate

And finally the piéce de résistance: an actual church chalice, with a box and a little flask for consecrated wine. 
That's right. I own a chalice now (and a church lectern). Black Masses will be on Sunday evenings (midnight, obviously).

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Bye Uppal, Hi Marris

Now I know what some of you are thinking. 'Vole', you're thinking, 'we all know that Paul Uppal was a devious, evasive, unpleasant character who had a very distant relationship with concepts such as honour, honesty, truth and the public good, was rarely glimpsed in the constituency and left no trace on public life other than a quite unpleasant symbolic skid mark, but tell us this: did you only doggedly track his undistinguished abuse of office because he was a Tory, and are you going to let his Labour replacement get away with all sorts of shenanigans?'

I'm very glad you asked me that, imaginary correspondent. The answer, of course, is no. I am a Labour Party member and I voted and campaigned for Rob Marris. I think he's a fundamentally decent man and he worked hard for the constituency when he was an MP. However, he much more rightwing than me and had a troubling history of total, slavish devotion to anything the New Labour administration did, including voting for the Iraq war. In fact my first interaction with Rob was enthusiastically writing to him after Blair made a speech explaining that Iraq was being invaded to promote democracy and women's rights. 'Brilliant', I wrote. When do we start bombing Riyadh?'. His reply was unamused and sadly unenlightening. I still don't know why Hussein's dictatorship had to be replaced at the cost of nearly a million lives so far whereas Saudi Arabia's much harsher one is supplied with as much money and weapons as it wants.

So in the spirit of continuing to harass my MP with idealistic bourgeois criticism, let's have a look at Rob Marris's first speech since losing his seat in 2005 shall we?

It doesn't start well. After the compulsory and perfunctory tribute to Paul Uppal, he has this to say:
I thank the voters … for electing me this year for the third time, and I have to say that it was a lot easier than it was five years ago, when I had the millstone of Gordon Brown around my neck.
Pretty graceless. But continue, Mr Marris.
The first myth of the two that I shall delineate is the Labour myth on the economy, which is that there was no problem with the economy when the world economic meltdown occurred in 2008 and that all our economic problems thereafter were due solely to world factors… Some of my colleagues may recall the Labour slogan for the 2001 general election, which was “an end to boom and bust”… That was brought forward by Messrs Brown and Balls. It was economic nonsense on none of my election material. It continued with the nonsense of the private finance initiative, which was a sleight of hand to disguise Government borrowing and, sadly, a sleight of hand that continued under the coalition Government.
The Labour Government continued with the nonsense of light-touch regulation and a Treasury Minister, one Ed Balls, boasting that Labour had become the financial capital of the world because we did not have the millstone of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act
Now as it happens, I agree with an awful lot of what Mr Marris says in these sections and in the whole speech, but there's an awful whiff of 'who will bell the cat?' about it. In that story, the mice all agree that a lot fewer of them will die if they put a bell on the cat - but there are no volunteers to do the deed. Some of us in the Labour Party – including more prominent people than me, and a lot of MPs – offered a critique of New Labour's neoliberalism before, during and after the Blair and Brown years. Mr Marris was an MP from 2001-2010, a member of the Trade and Industry Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee. He says he 'made all the points I have just made to my then Labour colleagues' 'before the world economic meltdown'.

Oh yeah?

Not in public he didn't. Nor in Parliament unless he whispered them in dark corners. He voted through pretty much everything put in front of him by Blair, Brown and Balls, though he does deserve considerable credit for opposing the rise in tuition fees to £3000. He's very strongly for ID Cards and mass surveillance, crack-downs on immigration, against stronger gambling regulation.

Or is he? We just don't know. Perhaps he's happier in opposition and feels free to say what he thinks. Certainly this graceless – though accurate – attack on the absent Brown and Balls (I note that Mr Blair's role goes unmentioned) suggest either that he's off the leash or that he's quite happy to speak ill of the dead, a worm turned. I hope that he'll rediscover a set of political principles which guide him more strongly than the Whips' office.

In the meantime, I'll be watching and commenting. The difference between Marris and Uppal is that I was never convinced that Uppal acted in a spirit of good faith, whereas I do think that however wrong he'll be sometimes, Marris's motivation is the public interest. I've been blogging for a good while now and while I'm not egocentric enough to think that I represent anyone or am representative of much of the wider community, nor do I think that my MP should be taking political direction from me, but I do feel some sense of duty to provide a degree of scrutiny without regard for party loyalty. The real enemy is the Conservative Party, but I'm steeped in the syndicalist tradition which feared that political representatives would lose touch with their roots and citizens, seduced by the rituals, comforts and attractions of political life. The advent of social media like this is a means by which that distance can be bridged.

I think I'm actually quite lucky to have an MP like Rob Marris, which is why I worked for his election campaign in a very lowly fashion, but I'd urge you to keep an eye on what your MP is doing. Write to her or him, and help them see more of life than they otherwise might from the Westminster bubble. I might be a crank, but I'm sure you aren't.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Poetry night in the Black Country

Last night I went to a joint poetry reading in our fine Arena Theatre, by my colleague (and PhD supervisor many years ago) Rosie Miles and Liz Berry, who has won lots of prizes and the praise – as Rosie pointed out – of both the Morning Star and the Daily Mail. You can buy Rosie's beautifully designed pamphlet Cuts direct from the publisher here and Liz's collection Black Country (live, her pronounced Dudley accent adds an extra layer of poetic sound to the words on the page) from all good book shops and probably lots of nasty tax-evading bad ones too. Here she is reading at the John Rylands Library:



Despite having a stinking cold which made leave early, missing most of Liz's set, it was a really good evening. Seriously good poetry, and an appreciative crowd. Congratulations to the one English literature student who made it to the event.

I took some photos (the rest are here: click on these ones for enlarged ones):
















The book jacket made for Rosie as part of an art project


Rosie's William Morris DMs: standard poetic issue

Monday, 1 June 2015

And now, the news according to Mrs May

So one of the big announcements from government is that TV shows may now be vetted in advance to make sure nobody says anything subversive. Presumably some retired spooks now working for Serco, Atos et al. ('This office will require the whole time of not a few overseers, and those no vulgar men…we may easily foresee what kind of licencers we are to expect hereafter, either ignorant, imperious, and remisse, or basely pecuniary') will be contracted to watch everything about to be shown in case uncomfortable opinions are expressed. Not all uncomfortable opinions mind, just 'extremist' ones. What does 'extremist' cover? Well put it like this: Ayn Rand's descendants won't have to worry much. We're talking about extremists with brown skin and non-Christian views. For now. Then it'll be animal rights activists. After that, trades unionists. And after that, who knows?

We've been here before. From 1988-94, after a long period in which Northern Ireland broadcast material was banned in various legitimate and illegitimate ways, the Conservative Government decided that Sinn Féin – a legal political party which contested elections in Northern Ireland – was 'extremist' and should be denied the oxygen of publicity. Having failed to ban it, they hit on the wheeze of forcing broadcasters to dub their spokesmen's voices: you could hear their exact words, and see their mouths move, but not hear their actual voices: those were provided by actors (except during election campaigns). I know this sounds like the policy of someone on all the drugs but it really happened. If I'd been in charge of the news I'd have trolled the government royally by dubbing Gerry Adams with a Margaret Thatcher impersonator (or more subtly, a Gerry Adams impersonator) but they lacked the gumption.



which led to Chris Morris and Steve Coogan's parody (thanks to Andrew Bailey / @scopperil for reminding me of it):



It wasn't just news either - documentaries, dramas and even a Pogues song about the (innocent) Birmingham Six was banned because it expressed 'general disagreement with the way in which the British government responds to, and the courts deal with, the terrorist threat in the UK'. That's right, disagreement.

Fast forward twenty years and here we are again: a politician proclaiming 'British values' of (as usual) fair play etc. etc. etc. while announcing the kind of powers usually associated with the most authoritarian regimes, as even Tory MP Sajid Javid asserted.

It may not surprise you to learn that we've been here before: but not on such a scale since, um, 1643. That's right: Theresa May's big plan to silence 'extremists' is a re-hash of the Licensing Order, which the Commonwealth of Britain brought in once it realised that those old monarchs were onto something back in the day. Beset by Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists Quakers and others on the left, and by Royalists on the right, all printing Broadsides in secret, Cromwell's government decided that the stability of the state depended on the ability to pre-authorise newspapers.  Instead of publishing what you wanted and then facing the wrath of the courts afterwards, you were meant to hand in your draft for the government to approve.

Whereas divers good Orders have bin lately made by both Houses of Parliament, for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and government. Which orders (notwithstanding the diligence of the Company of Stationers, to put them in full execution) have taken little or no effect… 
It is therefore Ordered by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, That no Order or Declaration of both, or either House of Parliament shall be printed by any, but by order of one or both the said Houses: Nor other Book, Pamphlet, paper, nor part of any such Book, Pamphlet, or paper, shall from henceforth be printed, bound, stitched or put to sale by any person or persons whatsoever, unlesse the same be first approved of and licensed under the hands of such person or persons as both, or either of the said Houses shall appoint for the licensing of the same, and entred in the Register Book of the Company of Stationers, according to Ancient custom, and the Printer therof to put his name thereto.
The Guardian might recognise too some of the thinking behind the Order, having had its computers smashed up by MI5 (which appears not to know about cloud computing):
the Gentleman Usher of the House of Peers, the Sergeant of the Commons House and their deputies, together with the persons formerly appointed by the Committee of the House of Commons for Examinations, are hereby Authorized and required, from time to time, to make diligent search in all places where they shall think meete, for all unlicensed Printing Presses, and all Presses any way imployed in the printing of scandalous or un licensed Papers, Pamphlets, Books, or any Copies of Books belonging to the said Company, or any members thereof, without their approbation and consents, and to seize and carry away such printing Presses Letters, together with the Nut, Spindle, and other materialls of every such irregular Printer, which they find so misimployed, unto the Common Hall of said Company, there to be defaced and made unserviceable according to Ancient Custom
Poet and high-ranking government functionary John Milton was not impressed. No liberal, he nevertheless felt that true freedom resided in the full expression of all views (except perhaps those of Catholics because Catholicism is itself tyrannical) as long as the publishers and authors were ready to face legal trial, torture and/or execution afterwards. All this is expressed in Areopagitica (1644):

A

SPEECH

OF

Mr. JOHN MILTON

For the Liberty of UNLICENC'D PRINTING,
To the PARLAMENT of ENGLAND.

No society is perfect, he argues, and a society which suppresses opposition is one which can never be reformed:
For this is not the liberty which wee can hope, that no grievance ever should arise in the Commonwealth, that let no man in this World expect; but when complaints are freely heard, deeply consider'd and speedily reform'd, then is the utmost bound of civill liberty attain'd, that wise men looke for.
 There's more we can learn, he says, from the circulation of ideas, even if they're wrong (clearly an early dialectician, our John): a licensing scheme will only reinforce what's already thought to be true
it will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindring and cropping the discovery that might bee yet further made both in religious and civill Wisdome.
unlesse warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life.
Milton's keen to demonstrate that while he opposes Licencing, he's no fan of 'licence' either, and takes the reader on a learned tour of Classical censorship. Philosophers weren't received particularly well by the Greeks and Romans at times, he says, though the Romans were quite happy for saucy material like Catullus's poems to circulate. While poets might have been banished, he says,
Books were neither banisht nor call'd in.
…at least until the Republic became the Empire as you Star Wars fans will understand. Under early Christian rule, censorship was only fitful: a lot of the time books were denounced as heretical but there were few attempts at censorship or proscription until the Popes achieved tyrannical status:
engrossing what they pleas'd of Politicall rule into their owne hands, extended their dominion over mens eyes, as they had before over their judgements, burning and prohibiting to be read, what they fancied not
until eventually
their last invention was to ordain that no Book, pamphlet, or paper should be Printed (as if St. Peter had bequeath'd them the keys of the Presse also out of Paradise) unlesse it were approv'd and licenc't under the hands of 2 or 3 glutton Friers.
Like the Popes and Bishops, Theresa May no doubt feels that censorship isn't a problem as long as it's conducted for the right purpose: I read recently of a new government in the 1970s bringing back censorship. Challenged about it, the minister replied that under the old regime, bad people were condemning good books for bad reasons: under the new government, good people were condemning bad books for good reasons. Milton was way ahead of them.
But some will say, What though the inventors were bad, the thing for all that may be good? It may be so… I am of those who beleeve, it will be a harder alchymy then Lullius ever knew, to sublimat any good use out of such an invention.
Milton then launches into a long and learned defence of reading books in general, drawing mostly on the early Church Fathers. St Paul, he said, would quote from the heathen Greek poets, whereas Julian the Apostate banned Christians from reading non-Christian texts. In modern terms, it's the equivalent of May telling us that hearing the arguments of those we fear or disagree with will hurt us. It assumes that only people like us have access to truth, and yet we're so weak that just being exposed to falsehood will destroy society as we know it.

In fact, says John, banning the works of the Greeks just made the Christians dumber and more vulnerable:
So great an injury they then held it to be depriv'd of Hellenick learning; and thought it a persecution more undermining, and secretly decaying the Church, thenthe open cruelty of Decius or Dioclesian.
Instead, he says, learn from the vision of Dionysius Alexandrinos, to whom God appeared in a vision after a priest accused him of defiling himself by reading pagan books:
Read any books what ever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter. To this revelation he assented the sooner, as he confesses, because it was answerable to that of the Apostle to the Thessalonians, Prove all things, hold fast that which is good. And he might have added another remarkable saying of the same Author; To the pure, all things are pure, not only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge whether of good or evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defil'd.
We, however, are considered not sufficient to judge aright the words of Anjem Choudhury or whomever is nominated Demon of the Week.

Theresa May thinks we're so stupid that we need protection, while others think we should only read 'improving' material: my parents, never fiction readers, would rip books out of my hands when I was growing up, convinced on the flimsiest evidence that most of it was corrupting. If only they, the Tories and their equally authoritarian Labour counterparts had read Areopagitica:
bad books… to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.
If only I'd thought of that argument back in the day.

For Milton, true freedom resides in the exercise of the independent intellect.

God committs the managing so great a trust, without particular Law or prescription, wholly to the demeanour of every grown man…God uses not to captivat under a perpetuall childhood of prescription, but trusts him with the gift of reason to be his own chooser; there were but little work left for preaching, if law and compulsion should grow so fast upon those things which hertoforewere govern'd only by exhortation.
It's a key theme of the Protestant Reformation: sweep away the Latin Bible explicated only by priests and bishops to their own advantage - read it yourself, at home, and draw your own conclusions. Four hundred years later, clearly we're considered far too untrustworthy to experience uncensored speech.

Furthermore, how can we tell what is seditious or un-British speech (how I hate this appropriation of Britishness)? May assumes that it's easy: she'll have some experts with a list. Milton thinks this in utter nonsense: good and evil often look alike superficially, he says: Adam and Eve ate of the fruit because it looked good:
Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involv'd and interwoven with the knowledge of evill
Adam, he says, learned what's good by doing evil. We aren't going to get that chance. Instead, we're to be preserved in a state of what Milton calls an 'excrementall whiteness': untested, unthinking, never exposed to a single unsettling thought
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd vertue, unexercis'd & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary. That vertue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evill, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank vertue, not a pure; her whitenesse is but an excrementall whitenesse
May thinks that if we hear bad thoughts, we'll all run off and join Isis. Not right-thinking people of course: in common with all moral panics, she's only concerned for the weak-minded mob who might be infected. Really? says Milton: you'd better ban the Bible too – it's full of filth and heresy.
for that oftimes relates blasphemy not nicely, it describes the carnall sense of wicked men not unelegantly, it brings in holiest men passionately murmuring against providence through all the arguments of Epicurus: in other great disputes it answers dubiously and darkly to the common reader
If we ban exposure to bad books, he says, it's the end of learning too because the boffins aren't exempt:
books, & those in great abundance which are likeliest to taint both life and doctrine, cannot be suppresstwithout the fall of learning, and of all ability in disputation, and that these books of either sort are most and soonest catching to the learned, from whom to the common people whatever is hereticall or dissolute may quickly be convey'd, and that evillmanners are as perfectly learnt without books a thousand other ways which cannot be stopt, and evill doctrine not with books can propagate, except a teacher guide, which he might also doe without writing, and so beyond prohibiting, I am not able to unfold, how this cautelous enterprise of licencing can be exempted from the number of vain and impossible attempts.
No doubt lots of us are thinking that May's censorship of TV is ludicrous anyway: it'll stop the rigorous public examination of ideas on the freely available airwaves, while millions watch Youtube clips, Vines, discussion boards and the like far from public view, and free from any kind of informed challenge. Milton's there too: pre-licencing print media is like
the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his Parkgate
What's the effect of banning speech? It makes the speaker cool. It gives him or her cachet. 'The man they tried to ban'. Rather than ridiculing a bad argument, we're conferring martyr status on any old demagogue. Imagine George Galloway's reaction if he was banned from the airwaves! He'd love it, and so would his fans, proved right again that the System is scared of him. Again, Milton knows:
instead of suppressing sects and schisms, it raises them and invests them with a reputation: The punishing of wits enhaunces their autority, saith the Vicount St. Albans, and a forbidd'n writing is thought to be a certain spark of truth that flies up in the faces of them who seeke to tread it out.
I've detained you long enough (as no Home Secretary ever said). Milton goes on to expound many, many more arguments against this pernicious system, all of which are relevant to this latest version. I'll leave you with one more. A society, he says, which assumes that all the good ideas have already been discovered, is a dying society. To wilfully close one's ears to different and new perspectives is to be intellectually dead.
Henceforth let no man care to learn, or care to be more then worldly wise; for certainly in higher matters to be ignorant and slothfull, to be a common stedfast dunce will be the only pleasant life, and only in request.
Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopoliz'd and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the Land, to mark and licence it like our broad cloath, and our wooll packs. What is it but a servitude like that impos'd by the Philistines, not to be allow'd the sharpning of our own axes and coulters, but we must repair from all quarters to twenty licencing forges. 
Where would our own society be if this course had been adopted long-term? We might never have overthrown the monarchy (sadly temporarily). Slavery would be legal, democracy would not. Capital punishment would be rife, and education a hollow shell. Human rights would be a fantasy…oh wait, that's coming too.
Would Milton be allowed on the news under the Tories' new law? I doubt it.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

It's warm inside the bubble. Let's never leave it.

Morning all.

Despite the general gloom (a viciously rightwing government intent on grinding our faces into the dirt, environmental collapse, all the marking, deadlines etc. etc.), it's actually been a rather lovely few days for those of us here in Vole Towers.

Quite a lot of the weekend was spent in my favourite city, Manchester. If it wasn't for their football teams' blend of arrogance and entitlement, it would be the best place on earth. Fine food was eaten, beautiful beers were consumed in fine independent establishments like the Port Street Beer House, arty gifts were bought and we saw Ride, reformed and in amazing form at the Manchester Albert Hall, a venue suspended in decaying beauty. The same goes for the crowd actually. The band looked trim and barely aged, and the audience had unearthed all its shoe gazing and baggy clobber for the occasion: t-shirts from back in the day and a fine collection of Italian leisure wear last glimpsed on the terraces in 1991, worn by (mostly) chaps whose jowls, hairlines and paunches hadn't stayed quite so pristine. I sang along to all the songs, as did most of those present, and the band soaked up the adoration. By the time they name checked their favourite Manchester bands we were eating out of their hands.

Back at work, we hosted a talk by Narinder Dhami, author of 200-300 childrens' books (so far), ranging from novelisations of Bend It Like Beckham to her 'Bindi Babes' series and crossing genres from light comedy to (in her new novel 13 Hours) thrillers. With her mother and sister in the audience, she read extracts from the new novel, talked about basing characters and events on her childhood, avoiding 'issues'  writing, the work involved in being a prolific author, how to get published and stay current, her relationship with fans and the writing process itself. Afterwards we went for dinner and I spent a long time chatting with her husband about our mutual favourite subjects: leftwing literature and photography. It sure beats moaning about marking.

I took a few photos:









I spent the rest of the sunny evening on grass



Friday, 22 May 2015

Leaving them all behind

So, after a week of marking and funerals and sibling birthdays, we have a long weekend ahead of us. As it's raining, I'm going to Manchester where at least that's normal. I'm off to see Ride, one of the first bands I really fell for (see also Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Tindersticks, Elastica and REM).

Being deprived of music until I got to university in 1993, I caught the tail-end of shoe gazing, just as Britpop killed off all the genuine indie bands. Britpop added ambition, cocaine, Union flags, football laddishness and fun. Not all of these things were conducive to good music, though looking at my enormous collection of coloured vinyl 7" singles, I clearly wasn't a very discerning listener. I just bought everything NME told me to, and passively accepted whatever the staff of Cob Records foisted on me (unsaleable stuff by their bands mostly). They'd openly mock what I asked to buy, and they were largely right. Nobody needs more than one Cecil or Northern Uproar single.

Not that I'd deny my youthful taste in music. The point of being young is that however derivative a band's sound is, it's new to the young. Once I'd bought all the new bands' music I could, I found the albums they'd been listening to. Without the (literally) thousands of Gomez and Helen Love and Starsailor singles I bought, I'd never have found My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, Stereolab, Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Joni Mitchell, Galaxie 500, Low, Datblygu, Tystion, Fflaps, Keith Jarrett, Kate Bush, Scott Walker, Steve Reich, Field Mice, Huggy Bear, Catchers, David Wrench, Bikini Kill and all the others (all links to favourite songs).

So, Ride. Good hair. Introspection. Enigmatic artwork and designs. Mumbling. Softness followed by jarring LOUDNESS. Britpop wiped them out for not being ambitious enough but they seemed fairly big and outgoing to me.* I also liked that wave of one-word bands: Pulp, Salad, Ride, Blur, Lush, Verve and so on. My favourite Ride album is Nowhere: here's 'Vapour Trail'.



I also love this melancholic American cover version:



I've also had a soft spot for 'Twisterella', 'Leave Them All Behind' and 'Chrome Waves' from Going Blank Again.







All their albums have a place in my heart, but Carnival of Light is special - the sound of a band with the vision and cash for a sprawling, cosmic piece of work. Once you've got a children's choir on board, you're off and away:



Finally there's the song and album that broke them up. 'Black Nite Crash' is a riffing monster. I love it.



I think what was lost with Britpop was a sense that the music itself was important. So many Britpop bands (and almost all the ones that followed) seem happy to be the soundtrack to a football goals highlights package or adverts. The British indie scene was often smug, precious and introverted, but there was a commitment to a culture that went beyond commodity entertainment. Yes, Ride had a prog element, but however imperfectly, they made art rather than stuff that eventually got them a judge's seat on Britain's Got Talent.

So anyway - off to Manchester for a loud night's shoegazing. Enjoy your bank-holiday weekend.

*also the drugs. I read a very amusing interview with them in which the singer was obsessed with whether the tongues of his trainers could be seen peeking out from his trousers. In retrospect, it seems likely he'd refreshed himself over-liberally.

Friday, 15 May 2015

On tour with the Nightingales

Yesterday I went to the Grapes in Stafford to see my friends The Nightingales do a warm-up for their tour, supported by The Courtesy Group and deliberately unfunny comic legend Ted Chippington. I took some photos (the rest are here), though the lighting was dire (I hate using flash) and I reached the limit of what this camera will do (if anybody wants to offload a used full-frame Nikon at a mutually acceptable price, let's talk).

The gig was fun. It was a small venue, packed with men of a certain age. The commemorative prophylactics sold by The Nightingales (£2) were optimistic at best, redundant at worst. I suspect the band slippers sold rather better. The 'Gales have a new guitarist for whom this was his first gig - if there were nerves during their trademark 60-minute no-stopping set, they didn't show. The sound, too, was great: every note and syllable audible. Not always a good thing, but the new album is a joy. Typical of the 'Gales, their manager texted to ask me to bring a stapler, and when I got there he borrowed a couple of quid from me. I guess that makes me a patron of the arts. I want the stapler back though. Limited edition, that.

I'd never seen The Courtesy Group either. The shirts worried me slightly – props make me wonder why bands want to distract from the music – but they were fascinating: a mix of pop hooks with Black Country punk poetry (quite similar to this classic) and Beefheart raw sound. They persuaded me to buy their 2009 CD, Tradesman's Entrance.

Click on these to enlarge.

Al Hutchins, The Courtesy Group

Andreas Schmid (bass), Robert Lloyd, The Nightingales

Andreas Schmid, The Nightingales

Audience member

Hidehiko Nagai, The Courtesy Group

Robert Lloyd, Jim Smith, The Nightingales

Jim Smith, The Nightingales

Robert Lloyd, The Nightingales

Ted Chippington: this is funny because a lot of his jokes start with 'I was walking down the road'

Fliss Kitson, The Nightingales