Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The view from the Metropolis

Sometimes I despair even of my beloved Guardian. I was annoyed a few years ago when it declared gastro-pubs 'over', before one had even opened here in the Land of Pork Scratchings. Yesterday's (otherwise positive) review of the Super Furry Animals' gig similarly got me.

Especially this bit.
The reunion marks the 15th anniversary of their Welsh-language album Mwng, and a mid-set four-song slab of its experimental accordion jazz and Pink Floydish echoes feels an indulgence.
OK. So a band whose members speak Welsh as a first language, singing some of their Welsh-language songs in Wales to a Welsh audience on the anniversary of those songs' first release is 'an indulgence'. I see. Or rather I don't, because I don't assume that I am the intended audience for absolutely everything because I'm from London.

Luckily the Super Furry Animals have a song for that and it's not in Welsh so the reviewer will understand it perfectly.



Meanwhile, have a track or two from that 'indulgent' album.





Election Advice From A Proven Winner

I won an election this week. A real, old-fashioned two-horse race with no prospect of coalitions, confidence-and-supply, deals, minority administrations or any of the shenanigans currently being attempted by the participants in the other – and frankly minor – election being held this week.

Yes, dear readers, I was re-elected by a landslide, on an admittedly low turnout, as the academic member of the Board of Governors. In return for my muted protests against the corporatisation of higher education, I get the key to the velvet-padded Executive Conveniences and a prime seat on the Juggernaut of Educational Decline.*

(This space is reserved for an illustrative clip from The Simpsons' 'Homer and Delilah' if one ever turns up)

In return, the Executive and my fellow governors receive my patented blend of cosseted idealism and weary sarcasm, with which they cope with considerable grace and forbearance.

Having triumphed as a Tribune of the People once more, do I have any advice to proffer my Westminster colleagues? Well as it happens, I do!

Firstly: accept that the closer you get to Power, the further away you are. Was it Yes Minister which described the levers of government as made of rubber? Decisions are either made in an inner sanctum and presented as a fait accompli, or dissolved beyond recognition. Most of the things you want to do are pointless anyway. In a globalised capitalist system, the most you can do is throw some sand into the gear. Not that there's anything wrong with doing that.

Secondly: as much as people moan, they like a vile, negative campaign. I recommended that Ed Miliband take a leaf from William Morris's book and promote the sunny uplands of the Socialist Future. Socialism is inherently optimistic because it believes that people are essentially good and look out for each other. Ed had a go, but the rest of the grim-faed pragmatists in the Party joined the Tories by raging on about immigrants, scroungers, the Scottish Traitors and so, endlessly, on. Result? A core vote tie which I'm fully expecting to turn into a stronger-than-expected Tory result. Negative campaigning works.

Thirdly: never meet the public. The late Dick Tuck once quipped 'The people have spoken, the bastards'. When Sid Vicious was asked what the man in the street thought of his music, his response was pungent: 'I've met the man in the street. He's a c…'. This is the key to the 2015 Westminster election, and one I took to heart. Beyond writing a paragraph-long manifesto (no nukes on campus, no illegal wars, be kind to animals and students, I will aspire to abolish marking and Bad Things under my long-term pedagogical plan, stick with me so I can finish the job), I studiously avoided meeting my electorate. I skipped meetings, left work under cover of darkness and pretended to be David Mitchell whenever anyone tried to speak to me.**

Similarly, my junior colleagues have done their very best to avoid meeting any voter who hasn't been fully vetted.




It's not just the Tories of course: I met Ed Balls, who appeared at the tram station to pose for photos with Labour activists, then left. Political content: zero. The thinking appears to be – rightly when it comes to both them and me – that the more people you meet, the more people vote against you. Instead, you organise what photographers call a goat-fuck so that while the event looks like a cynical pretence of engagement there, it looks like a massive crowd on television.

The same event from the preferred angle.

Which is what matters. It is, as Baudrillard might say, a 'simulation' of symbolic exchange. The concomitant strategy is to avoid all public hustings and debates: the Prime Minister ducked TV debates, Radio 4's long-standing Election Call, the Citizens' debates a couple of days ago and many other events. Across the country, Tory candidates – including mine – have decided not to appear, to the extent that it now looks like a strategic decision. Imagine being in Tory HQ and issuing this advice. 'It turns out that people who meet you vote for the other candidate. Hide, and appeal to their worst side via staged events about immigrants and Jocks'. What a triumph of democracy. Still, it worked for me and will probably work for them.

As the Guardian reports, one woman dragooned into a faux-rally held at her workplace appears to have been threatened for asking a real question rather than holding a placard and grinning inanely while a politician makes a speech consisting of disconnected nouns, the occasional imperative, the word 'passionate' and a swipe at Perfidious Caledonia and its hordes of heroin-munching, Irn-Bru-injecting, er, citizens of the World's Greatest Democracy.


Rolled-up sleeves? I'm just an honest worker doing a fair day's work for a fair day's pay just like you guv. And doesn't George Osborne look uncomfortable surrounded by his own supporters (what a diverse and representative bunch of people they are too)?

Still, one of the advantages of an election campaign is that I can update my list of Companies That Don't Need My Custom Because They Support The Tories In Crushing Workers' Rights and Pay. Banks's/Marstons' Beer: goodbye. I'm unlikely to buy a JCB or Rolls-Royce soon either.

'I drove one of these, until those footballer chaps at West Villa made them a bit chavvy. Carry on, oiks'

Always, always wear high-vis jackets. It doesn't make you look like one of the entitled plutocrats Kevin McCloud subtly denigrates on Grand Designs at all.

'I'll have the platinum hip bath next to the eternity pool yah'
Organise a compliant media. It helps if almost all of them are owned offshore by non-dom tax evaders with little concern for the importance of the Fourth Estate and absolutely no sense of shame. Yes, the Mail, Telegraph, Times and Sun, I'm looking at you.


On the left, Reason 2 reads 'Stop SNP running the country'. On the right: 'Why it's time to vote SNP'. Let's just hope that nobody has access to social media, eh? Oh. As to the broadcast media, that looks after itself. Do all the sofa shows, if you have to do a serious one just recite the list of catchphrases and look, just don't worry about it: the few reporters on Newsnight, Today and the others who weren't in the Bullingdon or Oxford University Conservative Association with us are fixated by the same bubble stuff we like anyway yah? Get them on the campaign bus and threaten to leave them in Stoke or Rochdale or whereversville if they try to cut up rough OK?

Never apologise, never explain. Whether it's cutting taxes on the rich while beggaring the poor, tripling tuition fees, deregulating the banks, making absolute, racist and hypocritical promises to cut immigration with 'no ifs, no buts', just keep robotically demonising your opponents. Harp on about their broken promises while ignoring your own. Above all, never, ever suggest that governing a country is a complicated business which requires adaptation in changing circumstances. If the public doesn't crucify you, the newspapers will (unless they're your newspapers, obviously). This tactic worked very well for me. I made no specific promises, mumbled something about being responsive to the electorate, then went back to my desk. Most people don't vote. Those who do, appear to be the ones doing quite nicely thank you. Pander to their prejudices. Ridicule anyone who tries to engage the poor, young, sick and marginalised, like poor Ed Miliband having actual serious arguments with Russell Brand.

So in summary: take off your jacket; stage events behind closed doors; bash the Scots; launch a pre-emptive campaign against parliamentary democracy in case your opponents might be able to get a majority together; sell fear; blame the poor; say anything but say it with absolute confidence. 'Long-term economic plan'. 'I'm going to win a majority'. Whatever. But be ready to say it over and over and over and over and over and over and over. People don't want ideas. They want reductive mantras. What do we want? Reductive Mantras. Don't Let Them Sell Off Our Reductive Mantras. Long-Term Economic Mantras. Reductive Mantras: Winning Here. British Reductive Mantras For British Workers. End The Tax on Reductive Mantras. Stop Driving Away Reductive Mantra Creators. A Reductive Mantra On Every Table.

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling.

If you can scam some crowds and fake your virtue,   
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, 
If neither foes nor silly hacks can reach you,   
If rich men count with you, but not the poor; 
If you can fill the unforgiving minute  
With sixty seconds’ worth of waffle run, 
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
And—which is more—you’ll be PM, my son.
So there you have it. If you can't see the sound good sense in my election-winning guide, you must be some kind of subversive lefty whinger. Your name's already on a list. See you on May 8th.

*Not really. We're actually rather democratic when it comes to the jakes. I'm not joking about the Educational Decline though.
** Sort of true. We share a birthday, opinions, style and looks to such an extent that nobody noticed I had his photo on my ID card for several years. People used to shout his name at me in the street. I once had lunch with an ex of his. She kept calling me David. I wondered if this was a good sign or a bad one. Bad, as it turned out.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Just stuff going round my head

It's been an interesting week, for me at least. Varied, anyway. The election campaign rumbles away in the background and I'm getting nervous that the Tories will somehow scrape back in. All these 'shy Tories' as the pollsters call them, too ashamed to admit that they're selfish racists. Though who knows, maybe they're shy UKIPpers these days…

I'm not sure why everyone's calling it the dullest election campaign in generations. It's not the first coalition government to be tested at the polls but it is the first election in a while since the outcome is virtually certain to be another coalition, formal or informal. Boring? No. Cynical? Absolutely. The parade of faked public meetings is deeply depressing, as is the signposting of speeches through the media. I don't think the media have been particularly good or interesting this time either. Sure, the papers have fallen in line with their favoured parties, but there's been a distinct lack of incisive analysis and critique.

The Telegraph has been particularly disgraceful. Having sold its editorial integrity to HSBC, I suppose it's easier to sell it to the next bidder. In particular, making Tory 'open letters' front page news was spectacularly craven. Even worse, the 'small business' letter turned out to be an embarrassing fiasco. If the Telegraph couldn't even be bothered to count the number of real names, check the solvency and trading status of these companies or even whether the companies were aware their names had been put to the letter (one was signed by a waiter on behalf of his company: he happened to be a Tory candidate too), it doesn't deserve the name 'newspaper'.

TV and radio have also been largely poor. Cameron sabotaged the debates by refusing to appear which is cowardly but a standard response by incumbents. It seemed bad then but I don't know if there's been any long-lasting damage. There's rumbling from his own side about disengagement of course (his 'pumped up' speech reminded me of a slightly drunk squire cheering on his nag at a point-to-point) but this campaign seems to consist of a series of tea-cup storms which last no more than a day.

My own broadcast media choices have been disappointing. The Today show is its usual blustering, hectoring but ignorant self only more so, Newsnight is desperate to appear alternative but ultimately comes across as gimmicky, while the pair of them seem to be wholly dependent on the talking points – and weltanschauang – of Conservative Central Office. Certain presenters are openly rightwing (Humphrys, Evan Davies) and the media pool is culturally disposed towards an elitist status quo, having attended the same (private) schools and universities as those they're meant to be reporting upon, but there's also a deeper structural condition which renders the media an essential part of hegemonic control. The discourse used is instructive: not on the election but indicative of the mindset is what I heard on Moneybox recently: 'Is your cleaner stealing from you?'. Heaven forfend that a cleaner might listen to Radio Four rather than be employed by listeners…

Is it, as an email I just received claims, 'the Digital Election'? It's not clear. Certainly billboards seem a bit passé now we can all circulate them on Twitter or photoshop them then circulate them. And yet… most social media are closed circles. We choose our contacts who tend to be just like us, then reinforce our cohesion by passing around links, photos, jokes and so on. It gives us, I suspect, an inflated sense of our importance. My Twitter feed looks like the vanguard of the socialist revolution but I rather suspect that my contacts are not representative of the proletariat.

What is useful though is the swift debunking and circulation of stories. When the Sun supported the Tories in England and the SNP in Scotland the first time (1992) virtually nobody would have noticed because the mass media wouldn't have paid much attention. Now the pictures can be put together and circulated in seconds to expose the pretensions of a print media which hasn't quite realised the extent of its decline. But the more powerless it is, the more vicious it gets. Compare the Sun's announcement with the vitriol applied to Miliband talking to Russell Brand.



Now I'm fairly allergic to Brand for all the obvious reasons plus several others, but this was a master-stroke by Miliband. Brand's followers outweigh almost all of the tabloids, and Miliband avoided the obvious trap of becoming the magician's assistant as Brand went off on one of his conspiracist rants. Instead, Ed took Brand seriously enough to challenge his arguments where necessary. Like many of his recent appearances on unorthodox or apparently lightweight outlets, Miliband has successfully countered the (allegedly negative) perception of him an an unworldly wonk. Personally I'd like the individual with his finger on the nuclear button to be nerdy rather obsessed with his haircut or GQ ranking, but that's just me…

Cameron's campaign hasn't been disastrous, just deeply tedious: another day, another even more cynical and hackneyed device from the toolkit. National security, perfidious Scots, the Red Menace, the Appeal to the Pocketbook. Tired, tired tired.

In my area it's been a bit of a phoney war. The sitting Tory MP in this marginal has been invisible. Extremely well-funded by various shady outfits, it's unlikely that he's doing nothing at all, but his core vote strategy seems to rely on appearing on Sikh media (a racist strategy that assumes there's a Sikh bloc vote whereas my assumption is that Sikhs vote on a range of issues just like everyone else) and concentrating on the rich white, ageing suburbs where 'his' voters may be tempted to go UKIP. I've been leafleting for the Labour party and have seen almost no evidence of a Tory ground campaign and absolutely no indication of a Liberal presence. UKIP too have been pretty invisible - I guess they're relying on Farage's media omnipresence.

Away from politics (thankfully?) I've had a funny week. On Tuesday I went to London for the relaunch of our School of Art, at the House of Lords. I went down early to spend the afternoon lunching with my aunt, visiting various book shops and strolling round bits of London I don't know well. I enjoyed the complex ironies of the Ministry of Justice being on the site of Jeremy Bentham's house. He'd have approved of their electronic Panopticon but very much not approved of their erosion of human rights.

The event was kind of interesting. It was on the Terrace overlooking the Thames, which was personally thrilling. Only because I'm working on politicians' novels and in Mary Hamilton's 1931  Murder in the House of Commons two MPs find the body of a blackmailing prostitute on that very terrace. Thinking their party leader murdered her, they tip the body over the wall into the river and set about covering it up. You are, it transpires, meant to approve of their actions. The other joy was meeting the editor of the Express and Star, the local newspaper whose columnist variously reproduced my work without acknowledgement and tried to get me sacked. A nice chap, the editor expressed (ironic?) bafflement at my suggestion that the paper – which employed Enoch Powell for years and only employs hard-right commentators – could be perceived as rightwing. We got along very well and even had a photo taken as a memento of our detente.

What else is going on? Difficult, draining union casework, though I contributed to one victory this week: maternity leave for students is no longer considered Leave of Absence. It sounds dull, but there's a limit to LoA in terms of length and number of times you can have it, so mothers were being discriminated against and leaving without completing their degrees. I don't know why it wasn't sorted earlier but I have to say that management really took this seriously and moved very fast once we raised the issue.

Apart from all that, we had the launch of our inaugural Arts Festival yesterday, and I'm doing some interesting reading. I'm currently stuck into Andrea Wulff's The Founding Gardeners which is a fascinating exploration of the way the Founding Fathers expressed their American and Republican values through horticultural symbolism, though I'm a bit shocked by the casual references (so far) to the slaves who did the actual work. I'm reading Daniel G Williams's Wales Unchained: Literature, Politics and Identity in the American Century which follows his Black Skin, Blue Books: African-Americans and Wales 1845-1945: Daniel's really cornered the market in widening perceptions of  Welsh cultural experience. Also for review (in Planet this time) and doing the same thing in a sense, I've just got Jasmine Donahaye's The Greatest Need, her biography of Lily Tobias, 'a Welsh Jew in Palestine'. Jasmine's a force of nature, so I'm looking forward to this.

What I should be doing, of course, is my own research. The politicians' writing project continues and I need to present something next month. I'm working on a conference paper comparing Caradoc Evans's My People to Brinsley McNamara's The Valley of the Squinting Windows and a couple of other things are in progress too. But they'll all have to fit round the Positive Environment Working Group, the Digital Campus 2020 Academic Reference Group, the Faculty Reward Committee, the Media Review Committee and so on… we played with post-it notes today. Which was nice.

Anyway: I'm off to see The Ladykillers tonight: Graham Linehan's stage version, though not this original production:

Monday, 27 April 2015

And now, some music

Escaping the misery of the election, my union casework, the discovery that the Teachers' Pension Scheme appears to think I've made no contributions since 2008 and the realisation that even if they do find them I need to work until 2049 to qualify for a full pension at the tender age of, er, 74, I went off to Symphony Hall for an evening's music last week.

On the bill was Elgar's Cockaigne, his Cello Concerto, Frank Bridge's Lament for Strings and Tippett's Second Symphony.

As always, the CBSO played wonderfully, though there were moments in the Cello Concerto when the conductor allowed the orchestra to drown out the soloist, Alban Gerhardt. All I can say about Cockaigne is: just say no, kids.



I suppose it's a lovely Edwardian period piece, but it's not that far removed from what we used to call 'light classical'. However, it was useful in the sense that programming it alongside the Cello Concerto really showed how Elgar made the leap into the musical elite. Viewed slightly differently, you could see the two pieces as demonstrating the impact of modernism, World War One and other traumatic experiences on classical music. Cockaigne is cheerful, nice, hummable stuff: if it were a play we'd call it 'well-made'. The Cello Concerto isn't exactly serialist – the orchestral parts are pretty conventional – but the counterpoint between them and the soloist does destabilise the prettiness previously inherent in British classical music up to this point (Vaughan Williams' work also makes this leap, despite the efforts of Classic FM to hide the fact). The Cello Concerto is passionate, raw and sometimes anguished.




Rather wonderfully, Gardner played an encore - Bach 's Cello Suite No. 6 and therefore amongst my favourite pieces of music ever.



Hearing it live was wonderful: Gardner's phrasing really brought out the repetition and variations which proved – to me at least – that the suites were designed to develop a cellist's skills. It's both passionate and hypnotic, which to me is the essence of JS Bach's work.

After the interval came Frank Bridge's Lament for Strings. I've a soft spot for the overlooked Bridge, but this piece was unknown to me. It's actually a lament for a young girl drowned in the Titanic disaster, whom Bridge probably read about in the newspapers. Only 5 minutes long, it rather passed me by, though further hearings have revealed a subtlety I missed at the concert hall.



I went to this concert for the Cello Concerto, which is one of my favourite pieces, but the Tippett Symphony was a revelation: I like some of his work but didn't know this one. It's still good-mannered in that English way, but new, dissonant ideas are clearly coming through in this 1950s work. It also reminded me, somehow, of Copland and even Charles Ives.



Anyway, no doubt I'll be back to political moaning soon. Not tomorrow though: I'm off to the House of Lords to take my rightful place on the red benches for a work thing. If they let me in.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Broken Contracts with Paul Uppal

Well, it seems like a little public reminder prompted Paul Uppal to pay his internet bill and get his website up and running once more. I think I share the relief and joy expressed by those partaking in this morning's spontaneous parade through the streets, including banners reading 'Thank You Paul', '#Uppalfandom' and 'At Last We Can Read "Paul Welcomes The Autumn Statement" Once More'. No doubt Paul will contact me with his thanks for spotting this oversight when he has a little more time on his hands. Like May 8th.

Sadly, although the site is up once more, it seems that Paul's crack team of spotty private-school interns have lost the passwords for the site and his Twitter feed. 'Recent News' seems to have stopped months ago:


while Paul's two Twitter accounts are similarly bare:

His main account, @pauluppalwsw has managed to retweet someone else in the past few days, but managed a single new tweet in a month!

In more serious news, I discussed Uppal's flyer 'A Contract Between Paul UPPAL and the people of Wolverhampton South West only yesterday. This pompous little document appeared to make legally enforceable commitments on his behalf. Amongst them was this:
I will publish all details of my expenses as an MP on my website.I will continue to publish all details of my expenses on my website so that you can see how much money I have spent and on what. It is important that you are able to trust me as your MP so I promise never to behave in a way that will make you question my integrity. 

Um. It may be a little late for that. I note that he doesn't mention monies he receives (such as the United and Cecil Group: clearly anonymous donations from shady people none of your business) but at least he now has a website once more. Acting on a tip-off from @bruno_di_gradi, I had a look at PaulUppal.co.uk in search of his expenses. Under 'about', there's a section marked 'Expenses'. Let's have a look shall we?


Now my English isn't perhaps up to the kind of close analysis required at this level, but I can't help that there's some kind of gap between a 'contract' reading 'I will publish all details of my expenses as an MP on my website' and a weblink.

But anyway, let's click on the link. Does it take us to 'Paul's expenses on the IPSA website'?

It does not.


Well OK, that's a bit odd, not to say paranoid, but I'll go with it. Let's click the next link. Does it lead to Mr Uppal's expenses?

It does not. It just goes to IPSA's not very good homepage.


How many stages does it take to get to Paul's expenses? 12.

I think this tells us how much faith to put into his 'Contract'.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

On the campaign trail with Paul Uppal

Everybody else is doing such a good job covering the travails of that spivvy Mr Shapps that I thought I'd turn my attention to my local mini-Shapps, Mr Paul Uppal.

I received his campaign literature yesterday. It's a curious document in many ways - very interesting rhetorical devices have been used, amongst other things. Curiously, the word 'Conservative' appears very sparsely: once as 'Conservatives', once in the phrase 'Vote Conservative' and once in an email address. It's almost as if he doesn't want to stress which party he represents.


Now isn't that an odd choice of device: the legalistic terminology of contracts? My admittedly amateur understanding of the term involves an agreement to create legal obligations which may be enforced via the courts. Given the flexible nature of an MP's duties, it seems unlikely that a contractual relationship can be established between an MP and his or her constituents. What remedies are available in the event of Mr Uppal breaching his legal commitments? When are we going to sign the papers?

Leaving aside the rather dubious use of the word 'contract', lets have a look at what Mr Uppal promises he'll do if elected.

1. To stand up for our local community.

Wow. I have no idea how he's defining 'stand up for' or 'our local community'. It feels more like the kind of bland rubbish I associate with, er, politicians' promises.

2. I will not make personal attacks on my political opponents.

Fine. Good on him. Not sure it's legally enforceable though.

3. I will hold regular advice surgeries across the constituency.

Er… like all MPs already do? He's not exactly going the extra mile here. Let's not forget too that for quite a long time, Paul only held meetings by appointment, to avoid awkward conversations with people he didn't like. Still, he's raising the bar…on himself.

4. I will publish all details of my expenses as an MP on my website.

Gosh! It's a new dawn for openness. No MPs do this! (er: virtually all of them do, since all that unpleasantness).

5. I will hold regular meetings with our local community leaders.

I like this one. Well, not exactly like, more 'admire the rat-like cunning'. I suppose it avoids committing to meeting any of we mere mortals, but essentially it leaves the meaning of 'community leaders' very obscure. Whenever a 'community leader' from Northern Ireland appears on screen, it usually denotes an unelected ex-terrorist who literally knows where the bodies are buried and is being bought off with grants for 'community cohesion' or whatever. While guns are relatively rare round here, 'community leaders' are not. I rather suspect Paul means he'll meet religious groups and Tory fronts, anyone who'll give him a decent photo op rather than genuinely representative members of the community…like elected officials.

6. I will be open and honest about public spending. I believe in complete transparency when it comes to public spending. As a candidate none of my campaign literature has been paid for by tax payers. As your MP I will always be honest and let you know how public spending is being used to better our area.

Now we're getting to the good stuff. Has Paul been 'open and honest' about public spending? I have to say that he hasn't. For instance he has consistently voted in Parliament for cuts to council funding, then consistently campaigned against cuts to council spending. Paul has claimed to have revitalised the local economy, including getting the Jaguar Land Rover plant nearby. Presumably for reasons of space, he never mentions that local councils provided millions of pounds in investment to secure the factory. That seems rather dishonest to me.

We should congratulate Paul of course for not spending public money on his campaign material. Well done, Paul, for not breaking the law. Has anyone, ever, used public funds for an election campaign? As far as 'contracts' go, a commitment not to commit a crime is not exactly the most ambitious one I've ever seen.

But while we're on the subject of openness and honesty, let's take a minute to contemplate the sources of Paul's election funding. Who are they? What is the United and Cecil Club? (Hint: it collects cash from people who don't want their names associated with political donations, then passes it on to candidates. This disgusting practice is – naturally – perfectly legal).

7. I will stand up for our local services.

A flat lie. As I mentioned earlier, he votes through cuts in London then batters the council for making them. If ever you wanted a definition of cynicism, that is it.

8. I will continue to stand up for local residents.

The third use of 'stand up'. I still don't know what it means.

On the back of the leaflet is 'About Paul Uppal'. It mentions his attendance at local schools, but doesn't mention his degree in Politics (classification: unknown - he won't tell anyone for some reason). It says he 'used to run his own small business': the voters don't need to know that Pinehurst Securities is a multi-million pound property speculation business. It claims he 'secured over £163m of investment in our local area' - sadly there's no footnote explaining how this figure was arrived at.

However, I'm sure that Paul's website (address included on the leaflet) will offer a lot more clarity and detail. Let's go there.

Oh dear.


You know what, readers? I did contact Michael, wondering whether some technical error had disabled a candidate's website. I didn't really expect a reply, being just a nosy stranger, but I got one!

Technical errors hadn't ruined Paul's website. Rather embarrassingly, Mr Uppal has forgotten to pay his bill. Worse than that, Michael's company has
'been unable to reach Paul Uppal or his team for some time'. 

In fact, says Michael,
'If you see him on the campaign trail give him a sharp prod from me'. 

Well it's unlikely that we'll see such an august figure as Paul Uppal actually campaigning (photo-ops well away from the great unwashed are more his style) but I'm happy to leave this post as a little reminder to our Paul of the importance of managing one's finances effectively and 'complete transparency'.

So in sum: his 'contract' is a load of old bollocks and we can't look through his commitments to sound finance because he can't even manage to pay his website hosts. Yet Paul wants us to re-elect him and his party to stop Labour 'wrecking' the economy.

Toodle-pip.

Friday, 17 April 2015

The new old weird: The Duke of Burgundy

Rather than watch the Leaders' Debate Minus Cameron and Clegg last night, I went to see The Duke of Burgundy.



One of the central protagonists is played by the star of Borgen, which was enough for me. Beyond that, I had no idea what to expect. By the end, I wasn't sure what I'd seen. It was like going back to the early 90s and seeing a Jarman or Greenaway film for the first time. Plot: minimal. Car chases: none. Resolution: minimal. Not even a gunfight on a train roof, for crying out loud.

The trailer makes it more action-packed and saucy than it really is. The film follows the relationship between two women, one of whom wishes to be dominated in increasingly bizarre ways (one-handed viewers may be disappointed to learn that virtually none of this is portrayed visually).



The other character, Cynthia (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) is increasingly uncomfortable in the role, complaining that she prefers her comfortable pyjamas to the corsetry provided by her partner, which needs 'an instruction manual'.





All this is played out amidst the faded grandeur of Empire-era Hungary (interior design fans will find the film far more exciting than those looking for a bit of girl-on-girl): it's autumn, the leaves are falling on the stonework, the sun is low and intense. The protagonists are entomologists attached to an Institute, though the way lecture attendance is boosted by mannequins hints at a degree of performativity. Every single entomologist is female and the sexual tension between them crackles: the claustrophobic, out-of-time atmosphere is redolent of Alan Moore's deliberately transgressive Lost Girls. I did wonder about the politics of an all-female cast but a male author-director.



The entomology stuff provides the symbolic backbone of the film: butterflies are everywhere, used to represent the life-cycle of the relationship, of aging, of mortality, of sexual pleasure and sexual pain.



The film is deeply repetitive: the same scenes play out again and again, though our understanding of them changes each time. We don't know whether we're seeing the start, middle or end of a relationship, nor do we know whether they achieve happiness (or whether it matters). The music too is claustrophobic: bits of post-rock mixed with the faux-innocence of St. Etienne or Belle and Sebastian gone wrong - if ever a film cried out for a hauntological reading, it's The Duke of Burgundy.

Sometimes my colleagues and I contemplate starting a scheme whereby students are encouraged (compelled?) to experience cultural forms that they've never been exposed to - without assessment or context, just purely experience. This might be the first candidate. It's visually and aurally ravishing, while remaining elusive: linear and reductive meanings are refused, while multiple interpretations seem to be encouraged.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Ed Balls!

Ed Balls was in town just now, catching a tram. It was – like all contemporary political events – a non-event, but still enjoyable.

He has very blue eyes.

I'm not sure why the spin-doctors are advising Labour campaigners to dress like Mormons these days. Perhaps they're more welcome on people's door steps than politicians these days.








Cracking Allegory, Gromit!

One of the Tory attack lines on Ed Miliband is that he's a geek, or a nerd (as though these debased terms were somehow insulting). He looks a bit funny they say, so obviously is incapable of understanding the PSBR or negotiating trade deals. It's got to the point where EM makes self-deprecating jokes about looking like Wallace of & Gromit fame.



Victor Quartermain
I like him, and the reference. I'm far more leftwing than Miliband, but he seems like a decent and humane man with a set of principles that have endured throughout his political career. As for Wallace: he's a decent and humane man with a set of principles and a dog which have endured throughout etc. etc. And let's not forget that in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the violent bullying of a gun-toting, arrogant aristocrat goads Wallace's transformation into a powerful, angry beast who lays waste to all around him before living happily ever after. Having lied to and treated with contempt the locals, Victor is driven out of public life.



I wonder if there's a political fable relating to the current election campaign available in that somehow?


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What I did on my holidays…

This year, I co-organised the Association for Welsh Writing in English conference alongside Prof Diana Wallace of the University of South Wales, with the theme The Country and the City  With Raymond Williams in mind, and recognising challenging new work by urban and post-bucolic authors such as Rachel Tresize and Niall Griffiths, the conference tried to explore themes such as green deserts, the countryside as crime scene, urban Welsh-language culture and much more besides. As usual, we held it at Gregynog, a sprawling and (shall we say 'authentic'?) Victorian stately home (you can't drink the water thanks to the historic lead pipes, but that means you don't have to shave: just splash on some tap water and hey presto! instant depilation) in the rolling hills of Powys. It's a beautiful place, festooned with quality art and surrounded by woods, formal gardens and wildlife. For someone trapped in the mean streets, it's hard to sleep what with the incessant racket of owls, woodpeckers, wrens, buzzards, herons, pheasants and new-born lambs. There's absolutely no mobile coverage, so the only tweeting is of the avian variety, while the wi-fi is much like David Cameron's religious belief (no, not 'conveniently present only in front of conducive audiences'). It's hell being an academic, I tell you. 

Lucky Bryn Jones
Daffodils at Gregynog


Tree-creeper
Keynote speakers were Prof Helen Fulton from Bristol University who traced Arthurian myths about Carleon from Geoffrey of Monmouth  to the contemporary era; Dinah Jones whose mixed-media Welsh-language documentary on controversial author Caradoc Evans is broadcast on S4C on April 12th, playwright and film director Ed Thomas (whose Ceredigion crime drama was made twice, in Welsh as Y Gwyll and Hinterland in English with critical and financial success) and Christopher Meredith  whose poems and novels often explore than porous borders between urban and rural, Welsh and English, prose and poetry. 

Christopher Meredith
Ed Thomas
I recorded short interviews with Ed and Chris, which are well worth watching: they aren't just funny, they're wise and loquacious too. 



With speakers from as far afield as Wolverhampton, Brazil (Ugo Rivetti) and Japan (Prof Yasuo Kawabata, who recently re-translated Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Dr Shintaro Kawabata), the 27th AWWE conference lived up to its reputation as a cutting-edge, ambitious event which manages to attract renowned scholars (such as Sally Roberts Jones  who published her first poem in 1952 and read new work on the first night before closing the conference with a superbly provocative paper on the contested definitions of Welsh Writing in English: ‘a bloodsport’ as she put it) while giving new scholars a chance to establish themselves. Aberystwyth student Jamie Harris (a Wolverhampton Grammar School alumnus) won the M Wynn Thomas Prize for new scholars for his article on Iain Sinclair as a Welsh author, while eighteenth-century specialist Heather Williams of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies won the Open category for her bravura article on Iolo Morgannwg from the perspective of Translation Studies. 

Sally Roberts Jones: 'here's a poem I wrote in this room in 1961'


As a competition judge I can honestly say that the field is in for exciting times, and it’s great to see the border between Wales’s English and Welsh-language cultures and scholarly communities becoming a little more porous: Rhiannon Heledd Williams (who is USW's entire Welsh department) was particularly good on this. You can see them in conversation with me these short videos:



Alongside fascinating presentations (I came away with a massive reading list), we hosted a wine reception sponsored by Honno Books  the last independent women’s press, to mark the publication of Lily Tobias’s My Mother’s House and Jasmine Donahaye’s biography of the author: Jasmine’s speech was impassioned and inspiring on the need to restore not just Tobias’s prominence, but that of other female authors excluded from the major publishing series of our time (42 books so far, 7 by women: pathetic). 

Sally Roberts Jones and Jane Aaron listen to Jasmine Donahaye's passionate speech
The panel on Caradoc Evans also produced fireworks as M Wynn Thomas pronounced him ‘a writer of genius…narrow genius’ while author and academic Mary-Ann Constantine talked candidly about how he struggled to read his work which she found alienating as well as compelling. The Welsh Books Council provided a bookshop, which did no good at all for my bank balance, and the convivial atmosphere gained even more energy from the presence of a lively school prom in the building on the first night… Nobody told me that until I turned up, which was a bit naughty. I announced it to the assembled scholars by pointing out that it would of course be entirely unethical to press prospectuses on drunken sixth-formers who may not finished filling in their UCAS forms…

Gregynog 
I couldn't possibly list all the excellent presenters and the work they discussed. I went to several covering the works I did on my PhD and learned so much, while others gave me loads of ideas for future work. I can tell you that I'm going to have to spend the rest of what might be laughingly called my career stamping on the fingers of the bright young things clambering up the academic ladder behind me: they are ridiculously bright and seem to have read everything (often in two languages despite being barely out of school. God how I fear the young. 

AWWE: a window on the world
A Gregynog ceiling
I had to miss a lot of sessions because we had to run parallel panels for the whole conference, but when the wifi worked, Twitter was telling me good things. I'm running @plashingvole and @awwetweets. It's a nightmare trying to separate bitter nasty Vole from thoughtful intellectual AWWE, just like real life (see all the tweets Storified here by @dyddgu and see the rest of my photos here). I can quite understand Grant Shapps's problems with his multiple identities (have you seen his Newsnight car crash? And to think he's a senior figure in one of the world's oldest and most successful political parties). 
I can thoroughly recommend organising a conference (or attending one). It takes a lot of work and organising academics is like herding cats but when you can gather together the brightest minds of a generation or two, sparks fly, ideas are refined, new books are imagined and new directions are identified. Talking of which, the British Comparative Literature Association’s 2016 conference will be held at The Dark Place. Get writing.

Before I say anything else: lots of people made AWWE happen. Diana is a genius at putting the right people and subjects together, and nothing disturbed her preternatural calm. Sarah Morse of the Learned Society of Wales knows everybody, looks after the money and knows the exact location of all the bodies. Matt Jarvis and Kirsti Bohata keep the society going in so many ways. The senior professors who founded the association lend gravitas, provide institutional memory and continuity, foster new talent and are so very kind to all: the new scholars provide fresh blood while making the after-hours sessions in the bar unforgettable. I've learned more about honey-badgers and obscure PS1 games than I ever thought possible. It was also great to meet one new scholar who lives near me, one who used to live on my street, and lots of Twitter friends in the flesh (sorry for the face and personality everybody, I'm much better online). The Gregynog staff are unfailingly patient and kind too. In comparison, all I did was maintain a couple of spreadsheets. 

As for me: a few days off. Then it's on with the work. Our Star Trek, Who and Foucault has been accepted for a journal as long as we shorten it (bah), we're awaiting the full feedback on a chapter I co-wrote for the Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Fiction but the word is good, I've got to write a conference paper on Caradoc Evans and Brinsley MacNamara for July, and I've two more joint papers to write with a couple of very esteemed academics in the cultural studies and critical management fields respectively, so I'd better sharpen the crayons. And of course there's the Politicians' Fictions event I'll be doing at the Cheltenham Festival in October (the Irish family were most disappointed that it's not the same thing as the horse-racing event). Working title currently 'Legs and Legislation: Politicians' Fictions and the Crisis of Democracy', given the preponderance of stockings-and-high-heels combinations on the dustjackets. 

Happy Eostre to you all. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Random shots from the V&A

Having missed out on the school trip to the Coronation Street studios on Monday, I accompanied some Cultural Studies students to the Hayward Gallery and the V&A yesterday. At the Hayward we saw the History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain exhibition, which was probably the first time many of my students have experienced conceptual art. Some raced through and nipped off to McDonald's, some were transfixed, others were confused (which is a perfectly fair reaction). I was intrigued, though slightly disappointed that some ethnic minority cultures and general leisure activities weren't included by the artists. (Also, one of the joys of a trip to London with students is seeing it through their eyes: this time the massive economic gap was obvious. I don't think they'd seen so many Rolls Royces and similar limos in their lives).

Then we went to the V&A for the Staying Power exhibition of black photographers' work. Small, but stunning, and much more accessible to the students than the more conceptual work. I took a few random photos.


Yinka Shonibare's photographic set echoing The Rake's Progress with a black protagonist





'In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo







And talking of Michelangelo… (from the Cast Room)





Netsuke of a badger wrapped in a lotus leaf


Detail from an Eastern tile

Shiva Stamping on the Dwarf of Ignorance (my favourite for the new university logo)

A propitious cow