Friday, 31 August 2012

The Zipless F…ootball game

I like quite a few sports. Fencing, GAA, soccer, ice hockey, darts, cricket, snooker, kabbadi, rugby league, handball… anything combining speed, skill and violence (though I'll accept that snooker's violence is more on the psychological level rather than the baize).

But I'm becoming utterly fatigued by major sport. It's too relentless. I'm not allowed to forget about soccer for the summer: the off-season months are filled with speculation, transfer rumours, meaningless tournaments and marketing opportunities. Other sports are becoming cheapened in the pursuit of more of your money: Rugby League's teams all acquired stupid names like the Stoke Silverfish or Essex Ebola Viruses. Cricket's been infested with 20/20, which is essentially the crystal meth compared with the real thing's complex smoky Islay malt. Formula 1 is, to me, the essence of non-sport: high-speed advertising with added pollution and no possibility for the fans to get anywhere near participating other than buying similarly advertising-festooned clothing. And don't get me started on the Red Bull Air Race. Not a sport. Just a promotional device in search of an audience.

Most of all, I hate the portability of sport. All the rich sports are now playable anywhere without regard for origins or audience. Take American Football. Like baseball, it's long been confined to continental North America, with outposts in countries American troops have occupied, like Japan. This weekend, Navy are playing Notre Dame in… Dublin. That's right, the capital of Ireland. The home of hurling and football (Gaelic), of Lansdowne Road for the rugby fans and even of a couple of soccer teams. But not, historically, a hotbed of American Football.

Who's going to be in the stands? Americans. 35,000 of them flying in from, well, America to watch some other Americans play American football. Why? It's a promotional gimmick. No doubt the NFL and College organisations think (wrongly) that they might spark interest in the 'sport', but mostly it's a cynical - and very clever - Irish gimmick: get the Yanks over, stuff them full of Guinness and blarney, unearth a few ancestors and hope they invest in the country, or at least come on holiday again. You can locate the cultural level of this event simply by glancing at the billing. It's the Emerald Isle Classic. Three words to make you vomit: the sickening sentiment of 'Emerald Isle' which takes us back to the 19th century, and the arrogant appropriation of the word 'classic'. Surely it's up to the fans to decide afterwards whether or not the game was a 'classic'?

This isn't sport. Sports have origins, histories and obsessive fans who passionately support one side or the other for sometimes very tenuous reasons like geographical accident. How will any stray Irish spectators decide between Navy or Notre Dame? Perhaps Notre Dame's Catholic origins and 'Fighting Irish' nickname will sway them, but it's a bit weak. Despite my personal opinion that American Football shares all the excitement of a prostate exam, I can't help feeling sorry for the sport and its fans. Thousands of Americans are having their support hijacked to generate cash for hoteliers and unscrupulous ticket agents, while their beloved sport is rendered meaningless. It's a sham. It's a commodity: the game's on because those teams took the cash. If the organisers had been able to get a couple of boxers, Premiership soccer teams, Aussie Rules sides or top canoeists, they'd have done so if the money was right.

Rather than the visceral physical and emotional experience of seeing a meaningful match of interest only to the teams and their supporters, this kind of peripatetic mega-even takes on both more and less significance. The purely local, Navy v Notre Dame, may have history and purpose within the sport's structure. Perhaps there's a long-standing rivalry there - but in Ireland, this weekend, that's entirely meaningless. The game is the equivalent of a UFO landing, addressing a couple of trees and leaving in a huff - there's no attempt to add American Football to the Irish sporting landscape in any permanent way: even the 'garrison' sports of soccer and rugby made more effort than this.

The game 'means' nothing culturally, and yet everything economically and politically. It announces that Ireland is open to the world (e.g. it has hotels up to American standards and doesn't ask too many questions about taxation and employment laws), and that American Football is similarly 'global', despite the evidence that it really, really isn't. The event's little different from hosting the International Convention of Sanitary Engineers, underneath the glitter and hype.

What does the match say to American Football fans? It tells them that their participation is merely ancillary. They can come along for the ride, but the game itself is simply a tool in a global PR exercise. And for Irish sports fans? It rejects their own sporting affiliations and histories. It prostitutes itself to them by assuming that fandom is easily transferable between sports and countries and cultures. Forget that fact that GAA is played by battered amateurs who'll be teaching, or roofing or selling insurance back in their home counties on Monday morning, and watch multimillionaire drugged-up freaks smash each other to pieces before variously spending their downtime raping, murdering, endorsing products or organising dogfights.

I don't really have any objection to the game itself - it's got a history and a genuine fanbase. My objection is to the way all of this is ignored in the pursuit of other goals, largely capitalist globalisation. To be of any use, the sport has to be stripped of meaning, made shiny and smooth, tamed for TV and made available to advertisers and sponsors - mostly be removing what makes it unique and replacing these features with other narratives entirely. This applies equally to the 'Ireland' visible to the visiting fans: not a living, breathing, complicated place with a culture of its own, but a plastic stew of ancestors, golf, Celticism, leprechauns and romance (and for businessmen, a Romantic fairyland of low corporate taxes).

This game is the equivalent of Erica Jong's 'zipless fuck', the no-strings, emotion-free encounter which appeared (wrongly) to be the high point of women's liberation. 'Come on in', it says. 'Pick a side, any side, and Bingo! You're a Football Fan'.

Sport - like any cultural activity - shouldn't be this easy. If it is, you're being sold a pup.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A strange unearthly beauty

Isao Hashimoto took the acknowledged data on nuclear detonation and turned it into an computer game simulation. It works visually because it reminds us that while we haven't been paying attention, nearly 3000 thousand nuclear bombs have exploded on this planet. We fetishise Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but any alien observer would have concluded that we spent 1955-1992 at least in a state of global thermonuclear warfare. Hashimoto's use of computer graphics neatly encapsulates the layer of techno-disassociation we use to avoid thinking about it. The discourse of nuclear war is carefully scientific: yields, collateral damage, MAD, kilotons and so on, while the distance between decision and impact is more than geographical: it's moral too.

The way Hashimoto's use of beeps turns the animation into a strangely beautiful piece of music - a Death Disco - which calls to mind the fascination high and low culture has for massive destruction. Oppenheimer's response to the first test was to recite a line from the Bhagavad Gita: 'I am Vishnu, Destroyer of Worlds', in awe at what he'd unleashed.

This is why I'm still a member of CND.

London Met: it couldn't happen here… could it?

London Met university has lost its state licence to sponsor visa applications by non-EU students: under the system, the government waived its duty to scrutinise applications on the understanding that the university would do the work, a scheme disguised as a streamlined service to students and institutions. Essentially, this means it can't recruit any more, and every single one of its current 3000 extra-EU students will be deported, because Borders Agency checks revealed that 25% of them had no leave to remain here, an unspecified proportion do not have sufficiently good English to manage a course, and the university hasn't been tracking lecture attendance.

The fear is that the university system is being exploited as a soft way to immigrate into the UK - sign up for a course, then melt away. I suspect it's not that much of a problem, especially at university level. These students are paying £13,000 per year for their degrees, and there are cheaper ways to get here. No doubt there's some abuse, but not too much.

The universities are in a difficult position: overseas students' fees subsidise those of the home students, though of course the new regime in which the home student takes on a lifetime of debt may alter the ratios a little. I don't suppose there's a university that looks too closely at their overseas recruitment procedures. We all know that in early September, we welcome hundreds of students with IELTS Level 6 English proficiency courses who can hardly string a sentence together. Someone's passing these tests, and it's not always the student sitting in front of us. Usually they're quite intelligent enough to pick up enough English to get through the course, and there's no benefit to prying too closely. Quite frankly, we need the money, and the recruitment agents have no incentive to fail people at their end.

More widely, I resent being turned into either a salesman for an educational 'product', or into a border guard. London Met wouldn't have this problem if the state took its own responsibilities seriously. Visa sponsorship (which applies in limited numbers to staff too: I've twice had to pressure the university on behalf of colleagues faced with deportation) was sold to universities as a way of making international recruitment easier in the pursuit of UK Degrees Plc. Then the tabloid sensibilities of the anti-immigration lobby took over and we're suddenly expected to police these students - to track their visa status and march them into our offices if they've missed a lecture. It's a classic case of market forces meeting neoliberal, outsourcing state ideology.

My home and EU students don't have to attend lectures compulsorily. It would be better for most of them if they did, but they have to be given the chance to work independently, or to fail. My own lecturers made this clear in lecture 1, first year: turn up, or don't turn up, they said - managing your own development is part of being an adult. I try to understand the myriad causes behind non-attendance, and tailor my support according to the student's position. Someone juggling jobs, children and study gets support. Someone too stoned to attend who suddenly demands all my time when panic sets in gets rather less sympathy. But in neither case do I feel the hand of the state on my shoulder. I deeply resent being told that my class registers (which I keep so that I can spot patterns of attendance/non-attendance) form part of the security state's defence against the Foreign Hordes (especially as the UK's history is largely one of ignoring everybody else's borders).

There's fault on all sides. There are some fraudulent enrolments. There are corrupt recruitment agents, paid on commission and running a neat sideline in forging test scores or providing skilled linguists to pass tests, and there are universities forced to marketise and which therefore have no incentive to look to closely, allied with a natural and admirable reluctance to become an outsourced arm of the state's shambolic immigration agencies.

In any case, this crackdown won't work: those hardworking students who turn up to lectures will politely, if resentfully, leave the country when the letter comes - careers and educations wrecked. Those who were gaming the system will have already disappeared. The result will be injustice to individuals and a worldwide recognition that the British approach consists of hypocrisy, high-handedness and willingness to pander to newspaper headlines. It'll look like something has been done, but it won't be the right thing, on closer inspection. Where will all those potential students go? Elsewhere, and we'll be all the poorer for it.

(PS: I don't have much sympathy for LMU as an institution: this is the university which wants to outsource most of its activities and transfer its staff to some dodgy subsidiary company).

RIP the Proto-Mensch

So, Sir Rhodes Boyson is dead.

For you young folk, the Tories didn't always have professional trolls like Louise Mensch to amuse and vex us. They had pop-eyed loonies like Sir Richard Body, of whom the exasperated John Major said that 'whenever I see him approaching, I hear the sound of white coats flapping'; the sadly still elected Bill Cash who substitutes intelligence for hideous sports coats and finally Sir Rhodes Boyson, a living, breathing embodiment of the bigotry, selfishness, know-nothing attitude, small-mindedness and viciousness at the heart of the Conservative Party.

Thankfully, he was too divorced from humour and popular culture to spot a wind-up, and so I present to you his finest moment:

And unlike Mensch, he had staying power.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

These people are the official representatives of one of America's great parties

Before we begin, an historical footnote: the Republican Party was founded in 1864 and soon joined by Abraham Lincoln to unite the disparate anti-Confederate, anti-Slavery forces in American politics.

Today, delegates to the Republican Party's National Convention behave like this:

An attendee to the US Republican party convention was removed from the conference after allegedly throwing nuts at a black camerawoman from CNN, saying "this is how we feed animals".

and like this - towards members of their own party, apparently for being, well, Latina:

Not to worry you, but the gap between the candidates is currently 1%. I'm not that bothered that Mitt Romney wears special religious underpants and believes that Jesus visited America. I am bothered that his party hates women, believes weird things about their biology, promotes the most vicious forms of capitalism, thinks it's OK that a Presidential candidate keeps his millions in the Cayman Islands, Switzerland etc - he wants to run the government, not contribute to its maintenance - and believes that electing representatives whose faces contort with racial hatred is apparently fine.

(Puerto Rico was seized by the US at the end of the Spanish-American war. It's a dependent territory, essentially an offshore possession in which citizens can't vote for the Presidency but do have an elected governor).

Oh Nick. Nick Nick Nick

It's almost comical how Nick Clegg gets it wrong even when he gets it right. This time, he's proposed a 'time-limited wealth tax' on the mega-rich (which includes him of course: he's a multi-millionaire, while the median wage in this country is £26,000).

Obviously everybody other than the Tories have made one simple point: Clegg voted to cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p on earnings above £150,000, so proposing a new wealth tax seems a bit odd.

However, despite this stupid and regressive tax cut, Nicky's on to something here. The reason hedge fund traders, Mitt Romney (apparently it's OK to run for President of the US while keeping your millions in various other countries) and every rich bastard you've ever heard of avoids paying most of their taxes is quite simple: they don't pay income tax like you or I. I have a salary and savings account and an ISA. I pay tax via PAYE, so no chance to avoid it there even if I wanted to. My savings account is taxed each year automatically (I think the government took £12 last year) and my almost empty ISA is tax-free.

Up in the realms of serious money, there's none of this nonsense. Rather than take salaries, these people acquire cash through 'capital gains' (taxed much lower), investment income, dividends and various other mechanisms. They don't buy houses: opaque offshore trusts and companies buy their houses for them. They are 'non-doms', like the owner of the Daily Mail, who built a (predictably) appallingly reactionary £20m mansion in Wiltshire yet is officially domiciled in France, and therefore avoids all taxes on it and all his other financial dealings. There are entire streets and blocks in central London worth £billions which have no individual owners, just Cayman Island companies

So the Lib Dem idea of a wealth tax is actually a good one. It doesn't discriminate between income and gains, but taxes the lot. It's easy to hide a salary behind a 'service company' (as lots of civil servants and BBC executives have been doing - it avoids income tax and national insurance) but it's harder to hide a mansion, and if extended slightly, taxes the offshore companies used to hide ownership. No cheque in the post? Send in the bailiffs.

I'd forget the 'time-limited' aspect of his plan, reinstate the 50p rate (even Thatcher had a 65p upper band) and tax all financial transactions, particularly the speculative kinds which bankrupted the world. I'd also abolish all benefits for people with jobs. I know that sounds a little rightwing, but hear me out: it's actually a progressive socialist policy. Providing benefits for the working poor isn't good for them: it's a subsidy for the greedy and evil corporations which employ them on such low wages. It raises their profits, which go to shareholders who hide the money away from the taxman. So we pay for the benefits while those who profit don't share the burden. If we stopped paying benefits but massively increased the minimum wage, the employees would still be needed to do the work, but some of the profits would be diverted to their salaries. They'd spend the money on necessities and the economy would improve, while the state's expenditure would drop. All it needs is for us to decide that profit margins can and should be lower. The executives and shareholders have fed off us like leeches for a hundred years: time for them to adapt to changed circumstances.

Poor old Nick. Even when he comes up with a good idea, it's laughed out of court.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Back for the dog days of summer

Hello everybody. How I've missed you all. I had a few days in south-western Ireland, soaking up the rain and cursing Michael Gove, The Rose of Tralee and many other cultural and political excreta. It was of course extremely relaxing. No phone, no Twitter, no blogging, no laptop, no camera. Just me, the rain, a daily newspaper, good company, enormous mounds of fine food, some books and a bit of primal scream therapy. And magnificent mountains and swimming in the Atlantic of course. Thankfully nobody mistook me for this poor chap while I humped my enormous carcass through the waves.

It was a very successful week for books: I didn't buy any and I read Paul Mason's 2010 dissection of the economic crash, Meltdown, which holds up pretty well and is beautifully written, Keith Brooke's SF thriller Alt. Human and John Carey's magnificent The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among The Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (link is to a very interesting Jonathan Rose essay on the book and working-class autodidacticism). How I wish I'd come across it years ago - it beautifully summarises loads of the points I made in the early chapters of my PhD, only with much greater erudition and range. I don't think I've ever turned down so many page corners on a single book. Carey's thesis is that even the 'progressive' intellectuals of the period were simultaneously horrified by and fascinated by the non-existent 'masses', invented by the snobbish as a way to differentiate themselves and justify their own existence. Lots of them, from H. G. Wells to W. B. Yeats, seriously proposed to eliminate (i.e. kill) the working classes, while their horror of the suburbs masked a deeper fear of democracy and mass education. Wells comes out of it slightly better than others - his 'scientific' writing is barely distinguishable from Nietzsche, Hitler and some of the Stalinists, while his earlier fiction is full of sympathy for the downtrodden 'clerkly' classes. We're all scum, they felt: genetic failures whose bare literacy only serves to mistakenly persuade us we're better than animals. Rather than wasting time giving us hopes and dreams, we should toil like beasts to give the artistic aristocracy the lives they - as the only sensitive souls on the planet - deserve. Art has to be difficult, otherwise the rest of us might like it, and we can't have that!

Best of all is Carey's rehabilitation of Arnold Bennett, the wildly popular Stoke-born novelist and short story writer whose literary reputation was damned by Virginia Woolf in 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown'. Using Bennett as the antithesis of the kind of modernist fiction she and her generation were writing, Woolf damns Bennett as a kind of descriptive, shopping-list writer, substituting the strangeness of consciousness for visual and factual detail - Carey painstakingly demolishes Woolf's critique through close reading of Bennett's novels, and suggests that Woolf's perspective is the product of upper-middle class snobbishness: servants appear in Woolf's work, he points out, whereas servants' feelings are the preserve of Mr Bennett.

It's not a perfect book - there are significant omissions: Arnold, Marx and more, but it's thought-provoking and a great way to raise the big questions about industrial society, the role of Literature and its connection to social structures.

How has the world fared in my absence? The Hegemon appears still to be standing and we've reached our (reduced) quota of new students, some of whom may have previously read a book. Graduation beckons in a few days, the emotional border of each year's past and future. The government is still in disarray, my apple-mint plant has thrived in the absence of my incompetent care, the office still reeks of organisational failure and my armpits, and my ironing pile is undiminished. I have papers to write, lectures to prepare and even some enthusiasm to get on with it. I didn't - shamefully - get round to reading the self-help book my 'occupational psychologist' left me, but no doubt this failure is explicable due to some deep-seated psychological cause. A few books have arrived: Will Paynter's 1972 autobiography My Generation (given he was a 1930s Communist, International Brigadier and trades unionist, any Who references are entirely coincidental) and two Jeff Noon books I mistakenly thought I had: Falling Out of Cars and Pixel Juice.

Time for a swim. No massive Atlantic waves to buoy me up, but avoiding harpoons should be motivation enough.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Bucket and spade packed

I know it might seem cruel to disappear again so soon after my return from the Olympics, but the sad truth is that Vole needs a little rest, so I've packed my budgie smugglers and I'm off for a few days' recuperation somewhere cold and wet. I'm travelling light this time - no camera, just a few books and clothes. Sadly there's no room for the self-help book my 'educational consultant' foisted on me, but sacrifices have to be made.

This seems like an opportune moment to go on my travels: no Olympics, no Paralympics, no Leveson, and just before we hold our graduation ceremonies. I can recharge my anti-tan (my summer look is roughly that of a stained, aged bed sheet)

I've also just had a farewell lunch with my friend Jim, who turned down an expensive MA at Oxford in favour of Amsterdam - tuition in English, Dutch lessons included, help finding work and tuition fees of €1500 instead of £4000+. I can't help thinking he's taking a route many others will follow. But don't tell anyone… we need those fees!

See you on the other side (i.e. after the bank holiday). 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Julian Assange: a summary for dimwits

1. Julian Assange is wanted in Sweden for questioning in relation to allegations of sexual assault. He has not been charged. He has not been 'incarcerated' for aeons as Wikileaks keeps saying - most sex crime suspects are banged up on remand, not bailed to a massive mansion in the countryside before diving into the Ecuadorian Embassy.

2. Julian Assange is innocent unless charged and proven guilty. There's nothing progressive about celebrating a man's refusal to assist an inquiry by the police force of a country which is much, much more equitable and liberal than the UK.

3. The UK and US are definitely infuriated by Wikileaks' activities, and no doubt the US would love to spirit him away from Sweden to somewhere like Texas. This doesn't mean he should seek sanctuary in Ecuador - a largely admirable country though ironically lacking a free press - but that he should face the music in Sweden and our progressive comrades in that country should help resist any US extradition proceedings should that come to pass. I don't see anything wrong with asking the Swedes to guarantee Assange won't be extradited to the US. While we're on the subject, I'm rather confused by the British government's hostility to Assange - after all, when General Pinochet came to stay, hands dripping with the blood of thousands, it protected him from extradition to Spain, in one of the most shameful episodes of political history.

4. Confusing Assange with Wikileaks, and assuming that his sexual conduct must automatically be as stainless as his position on big power duplicity, is a distortion of progressive politics which leads to the dead-end of conspiracy theories.

5. The new element - Ecuador's diplomatic rights - is genuinely worrying. If the UK decides that it can violate international law by entering an Embassy in pursuit of Assange, then there are no more rules in this arena: why should the Chinese not retrieve dissidents sheltering in Western embassies, or the authorities of any other repressive country? It doesn't matter whether it's Assange or the most sainted individual: this aspect of the case is really worrying.

6. The whole affair has unmasked a lot of so-called leftists who think the alleged victims' rights are far less important than their hero's worries. If your politics depends on you downgrading sexual assault and vilifying women when it's politically convenient, you need to take a long hard look at yourself. Of course there's a long history of this kind of vicious masculinist Stalinism: Gerry Healy (Workers' Revolutionary Party, bankrolled by the Iraqi and Libyan reactionary regimes) was a serial rapist, violent thug and hypocrite, yet his cult's members rarely wavered from the argument that all criticism was CIA or KGB-inspired propaganda. Healy and his friend Ken Livingstone claimed it was all MI5-inspired. Sound familiar?

7. Socialists don't need heroes. We understand that individuals are flawed, weak and often contradictory. Instead, we believe in the Cloud: the collective wisdom of the intelligent human race. We know that ideas survive individual and generational failure, defeat and death. We believe that a massive never-ending argument, while not always efficient, will guide us towards humane, workable relations between us all. Hero-worship is a dead end, the fantasy of those determined to bring about the apocalypse/class-war/race war or whatever regardless of prevailing conditions.

8. Automatically adopting positions because you don't like those on the 'other' side is what Lenin called 'infantile leftism' (though it applies to the right as well). 'My enemy's enemy is my friend' is a vicious, destructive mantra. What kept billions of people poor and oppressed during the Cold War? The West's deliberate support for any regime - Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Pinochet's Chile, Iraq etc etc - which promised to be anti-Communist. The same goes for the Soviet Union's puppet states - Ethiopia, Angola and Romania. This kind of mindless, obedient politics is the exact opposite of true, humanist communism. It's weird having to point this stuff out because it seems so obvious, but clearly not, given the continued tolerance of Kissinger, George Galloway and most of the Tory Party.

Assange is a diversion. Wikileaks is a noble enterprise, but he is - like us - weak and complicated. By all means resist American/UK efforts to demonise him, but understand that canonising him is simply the mirror of demonisation, and doing so plays their game.

The Letters of Destiny

Actually, most of you A-level students don't get letters, do you? You go into school on the offchance there's a Mail or Telegraph photographer hunting for pretty blondes to photograph. They give you young people a day's grace before the columnists put the boot in by declaring that exams are 'dumbed down'. It seems rather unfair, but that's the media - it both has cake and gorges on it.

All very different to my A-level results day. Having spent the final years of my schooling at an unpleasant and academically awful monastery boarding school, and been pretty lazy, I didn't greet the morn with any enthusiasm at all. I phoned up for the results and got the headmaster, a vicious bully whose subsequent death is the only one I've ever actually celebrated. As expected, a good result in English, an OK one in French (would have been better if I'd managed to pay attention to the exam requirements and answered questions in each section) and a poor one in Latin. I'd never wanted to take it, but I was the last person in the school and moral pressure was put on me. Between hating the subject and a nice but useless teacher, even being the only person in the class didn't help.

Not a problem though - I had an escape route planned: I'd passed a competitive audition (despite a forcible haircut while being held down by prefects the day before) to get on to Trinity College Dublin's prestigious Drama and Theatre Course. 400 applicants, 8 places. God alone knows why I - or they - thought I was competent or cut out for a career on stage, but there we are. Sadly, not to be: when the parents caught wind of the lack of 'serious' study on the course (i.e. nothing they could willingly acknowledge in polite company), that was the end of it - and funding for an Irish course would have entirely dependent on their generosity (not a notable feature of family life thus far).

So off I went to Clearing. I spoke to a very kindly Scots gent at Bangor University who didn't seem to care two hoots that I couldn't string a sentence together in Latin, and the offer was made. I'd never heard of Bangor before and - this being Pre-Internet - had no resources with which to familiarise myself. All I knew was that it was far enough away from home and school to be ideal. So I turned up in late September to find myself in a veritable Paradise: sea, mountains, an instant community (of other Clearing flotsam) many of whom are still very close friends, a wonderful course, exposure to a new language, a student newspaper to write for, demonstrations to attend, as many books as I could stuff through my eyes, the world's greatest record shop (Cob, sadly recently closed due to my departure) and above all, not a single person I'd ever met before. I was free. Free to reinvent myself: new clothes, new hair, new tastes, new friends, new attitudes, new politics (well, more applied versions of the public-school Marxism I'd acquired), new foods, new ideas. I joined multiple clubs and societies and wildly plumped for courses I'd never suspected existed - particularly Philosophy, which changed my life.

Kids: it was wonderful. It never felt like I ever did any work, because it was all such fun. Away from the predictions and low expectations of family and school, I was liberated, and I blossomed in a quiet, shy kind of way. Prizes, first-class degree (actually, I expected a 2.2 and dreaded a 3rd) and postgraduate study.

Things have changed since 1993. New students are burdened with massive debts, and often can't afford to leave home for university. HE has become a tool for career development, which is sad in many ways: I didn't give a moment's thought to the future until I graduated, and benefitted from such carelessness, because I could follow my heart to some extent. It's changed in other ways too: my students have to work much harder than I ever had to. All I had to do was inhale some books and pass exams at the end of the year. Only the 3rd year exams counted other than one at the end of 2nd year. No dissertations, no modules, no credits building up. So in many ways, if you come to The Hegemon and suffer my teaching, you're way ahead of me: you'll be forced to pay attention right from the start, to take everything seriously. In other ways, you'll lose out: it's harder to take risks when your degree and your future depends on every single grade. But don't let that stop you: my colleagues are all great and you can get round me easily enough.

Without Clearing, I'd never have arrived here in the Dark Place, working at the Hegemon. What greater reward could there possibly be?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Countdown to Zero

Two annoying things caught my eye over the last twelve hours. Firstly, Newsnight's report on exploitative corporations using 'zero hours' contracts to condemn supposed workers to servitude. It's not really news, of course: companies have been doing this for ages. I know many people on such contracts. One works at Pizza Hut, where you'll be called in on the off chance that there will be enough customers to need you. The staff wait around - unpaid - just in case. You can't go home, or hold down another job, because you might be required.

The other piece of news was the announcement that London Metropolitan University is to outsource all activities other than teaching and the Vice-Chancellor's office: cleaning, library provision, IT support, catering… the lot. We all know what this means: fewer, less-qualified staff, de-unionisation, worse working conditions, shiny presentation while substance declines, and a rejection of the humanist ideal of the university as a mutual, collegiate pursuit. Cutbacks in resources as profit margins become more important - we've seen it all on the railways and other privatised sectors. It's rather revealing that the Vice-Chancellor's office isn't to be outsourced either - clearly some things are an efficiency too far. It's the equivalent of Nike's board making billions by outsourcing the actual shoemaking to Chinese slaves.

What links these stories? Simple: the fact that treating your staff as decent human beings requiring decent working conditions is anathema even in supposedly humane institutions. I'm used to assuming that things are far worse 'out there' in the cut-throat world of call centres, cleaning companies and so on. It's a false assumption. Universities are massive organisations under pressure to cut costs everywhere except in the realm of Vice-Chancellerian salaries (though our new one did promise 'restraint'). Universities are microcosms of the outside world, and we run a distinct class system here. This was very apparent during our last joint strike with the support staff. Most of the academics came out on strike, as did most of the Unison members. That left an awful lot of the worst-paid employees, mostly catering and cleaning staff. There's historically been a problem in the union movement about recruiting the least-skilled employees, which is a whole other annoying debate, but the major cause here is that the worst-paid are also the most vulnerable. They can't afford to miss a day's pay even at minimum wage, and they're most open to management pressure and abuse.

Zero hours contracts are not restricted to the obvious scum like McDonald's and Pizza Hut. The Hegemon, my own university, employs large numbers of people on these contracts. Cleaners, security staff, sports centre staff, caterers (most of whom are sent home, unpaid, for the summer holidays) even the Muslim chaplain, as though spiritual needs can be calculated on a shift pattern. Library staff (formerly a highly-skilled profession) are on a similar deal: they don't get enough hours to make a living but they have enough on their contract to make a second job difficult to manage. When this was imposed, a large number of them left, particularly women.

Zero hours contracts have two purposes: they're financially efficient for the employer, and they maintain the employee in a state of dependence and fear. It's a means of ensuring a cowed and obedient proletariat. If they could do it to academics, they would. Workers on zero hours can't plan a budget, a working week, or longer-term things like savings, mortgages or raising a family. It's a trap, quite simply. But it's efficient - for the employer, while the employee becomes a disposable asset.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, utopian socialists saw in mechanisation the promise of freedom from work, a society based on leisure and learning in which the oppressed masses could discover their higher abilities freed from drudgery (not Marx, he believed in the nobility of labour). It was a beguiling, but naive dream. The future of capitalism was never going to be benefits shared equally. The logic of the market is that worse conditions for the workers lead to higher profits for the owners. The shame of it is that this is now the logic of education. As an academic, it's important that we stand by our exploited colleagues, rather than hope some of the crumbs drop into our mouths. I intend to campaign here against zero hours contracts. Anyone else?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Welcome to the hovel… please wipe your feet when you leave

As it's A-level results day and some of you may be going to university shortly, I thought I'd indulge in a spot of nostalgia for the best - and worst - aspect of student life: the Shared House. I'm an expert in this: I lived in 6 or so (mouldy bathrooms tend to blur into one after a few years) over the decade I was a student.

The first one was a big old former bed-and-breakfast rented by the university for those of us who arrived through the Clearing process (I'm not proud), to the disgust of the vicious Housing Officer ('you're lucky you've got anywhere… you don't deserve this). Artexed from floor to ceiling, it was a monument to bad taste, and yet strangely cosy. I shared a room with David, who took down the gold lamé curtains to turn them into a shirt. I should have guessed at this point that he was destined for a career in the priesthood, if you get my meaning. I once returned home to discover that the house's party girl had not only become a fundamentalist Christian (and somehow a virgin once more), but was holding a prayer meeting in my room. Other highlights were the lad who'd leave the room if tampon adverts appeared on TV and once fired an air rifle at next door's noisy kids, and our rather unenvironmental solution to the overworked central heating: switching on the gas rings and opening the oven door. The awful housing officer also accused us, mystifyingly, of removing the bits of stained glass from round the front door. As student houses go though, it wasn't too bad: warm, dry, bathrooms fairly decent when not drenched in one colleague's purple hair dye. The doors were a bit problematic: various people would drunkenly lock themselves out of their rooms and the bolder amongst us would dismantle (or 'break') them to regain access before piecing the asbestos fire retardant panel back together with sellotape and covering the damage with posters.

The next house was both danker and more fun. Shared with several goths, rats and a tarantula, it featured a garden which resembled a glass recycling bank thanks to several generations of student parties, a minuscule kitchen, and a living room which had no outside window, meaning that it was permanently lit with a 60w bulb. One wall served as a Wall of Shame on which I posted pictures of people I didn't like (this was 1994, I hadn't yet discovered the internet) and the Stygian gloom hid vast numbers of ashtrays filled to the brim with old joints ready to be mined for unsmoked nuggets of cheap weed. The goths were very lovely people, mostly postgrads, all vegetarians and dedicated stoners. They found us younger drinkers hilarious, and we returned the compliment. The floating population was a microcosm of post-Withnail student life: drug dealers, strangers to washing up, space cadets, a psychotic Swede who was once memorably persuaded that the nuclear attack 3-minute warning had just been given (he'd been playing X-Wing for a week solid and never had many social skills in the first place) and various other oddities. Key amenities included a pub which tolerated us, a curry house run by friendly Swedish Bangladeshis (I occasionally helped with homework in return for Bindi Bhajis), a real ale emporium and Kwik Save, provider of Broken Biscuits. My room was in the attic: skylight affording views of the harbour and mountains, incredibly dangerous stairs, a trapdoor and friendly mice to whom I'd give biscuits. Being 5'8", I could just about stand up in the middle of the roofspace, but that was about it. I was happy there.

I left that establishment for a smaller and yet infinitely stranger house, courtesy of a friend who'd inherited enough money to indulge her psychological problems. She had a George Orwell fixation (with tattoos and first editions to match), and a taste for massive, very old men with whom she'd have very, very loud sex, the screams penetrating the paper-thin walls without hindrance, to the extent that I'd go for a walk, whatever time of night it was. It wasn't just screams which penetrated the walls: whenever anyone had a shower, the water would come through my wall until it looked like some kind of Feature. Not a problem in winter, of course: through some kind of oversight, the concrete pre-fab house had no heating of any sort, and so the shower water would freeze in a sheet on my side of the wall, leaving anything leaning against it stuck hard. Romantic encounters were off the agenda, of course: night attire for consisted of a full set of clothes, a dressing gown, my German army sleeping bag, two duvets and all the towels I owned piled on top.

Back I went to the previous house, and thence for the last term of my BA to the cheapest hall of residence, which charged £28 p.w. and was frankly paradise. It was indistinguishable from the hospital room Alex has in A Clockwork Orange, which was filmed at a university built around the same time, though once my burgeoning book and record collection was installed, space was at a premium. I do remember proudly having a bottle of Bristol Cream sherry on the windowsill, which passed for sophisticated to my malnourished and confused brain. Life in halls was a bit odd, coming to it late: my fellow inmates were heavily conditioned and simple exchanges ('hello, I'm your new neighbour') were beyond their capabilities. But most of the furniture of student life was there:  milk bottles with names and level marks drawn on them, holed saucepans, and underpants draped over the corridor radiators all featured heavily.

After graduation, I spent a few months chez parents, working a nightshift at British Gas (I worked as badly as they paid me), before returning to do an MA. For a few months, I commuted before getting a place with my friends James and Matthew. I had the entire loft space of a place on the High Street. On first viewing, it was lovely: a washing machine in the house, a TV with satellite dish, a dishwasher (!). By the time we moved in, they'd all gone: the story got round that the landlady possessed exactly one set of these things, and moved them around on viewing days to lure in the foolish. Anyway, I used to arrive mid-week to exactly the same sight: my friends unconscious from drink on the floor of my room, with a Smiths record (always) spinning on my record player. In the summer months, the ritual was slightly different: they would hang my speakers out of the window and lie drunkenly unconscious on the flat roof. I once appeared to find them in this prone position insensible to the torrential rain and thunder.

From thence, we moved twice more, though I've forgotten the order. The darkest period was our foray into Upper Bangor, nearest the university. One guy already lived there, and he clearly had psychological problems. He took against Matthew for no apparent reason and started vandalising his stuff - first kitchen equipment, then his car. Then things belonging to James and I - which is why a sizeable number of my records have knife scratches on them. At one point he stole James's credit card details and sent Matthew's parent's neighbours gay porn with crudely forged 'coming out' notes attached   - poor Matthew dropped out of university and we left the house. Why nothing further was done, I can't remember. The other house was… my old one of trapdoor fame. Sadly the fire department had condemned the loft room, so I used it as my library/study (which was fine except my housemates would work up there then leave the skylights open in rainstorms, wrecking my books), while renting the ground floor room. I shared with two Irish guys: one from Ennis, charming until he turned violently criminal, the other an easy-going but astonishingly smelly IRA fan from Galway. Neither saw any reason to share paying the bills with me, and they got into a series of more or less amusing scrapes with the law and university authorities. I've always assumed the economic crash had them at its heart. But my main memory of that period in the house is computer-mediated exhaustion. I'd made the mistake of buying myself a very bad computer (TIME, IIRC) and getting quite keen on Civilization II. Unfortunately, so did my friend Richard, who would regularly play on my machine for 2-3 days without leaving, even when I begged for sleep or the opportunity to do some work. We did have some fun though… cutting 3000 index cards in half and addressing them all to the local Lib Dem Freepost address was a bit naughty but amusing at the time.

My final student house was here in The Dark Place. A typical Victorian terraced house, I turned my room into a Cave of Books for ten years and let the flotsam and jetsam of overseas and postgraduate students roil around me. I moved in while the couple already installed had a massive and violent fight which I later discovered was about processor specifications. Cat had the ability to program with one hand, have a roll-up in her mouth, and one-handedly roll up its successor in her spare hand. When her volatile Scottish boyfriend needed to take a transatlantic flight, they tried to practice not smoking for the 6 hours or so - almost the unhappiest hours of my life. Rab hated most things - the poor, the homeless, Windows, and one day, the frying pan, which he smashed to pieces on the kitchen floor because his egg was undercooked. A kettle followed it to the great Kitchenware Store in the Sky. Other memorable incidents included the housemate who developed paranoid schizophrenia, which ended up in a bit of a scuffle with a knife, the time a bullet was fired through my neighbour's house, a gunfight on the street outside and the time when I was so tired and floating free of reality in the final few weeks of my PhD that I sat and watched the woman across the road set fire to her husband's car without thinking it at all strange or concerning. It just felt like a late night TV show. It wasn't a bad house, but I didn't like the weird landlord's habit of letting his Rottweiler in at random times, and eventually I got sick of sharing, so ended up in my current flat - cold, noisy but wonderfully solitudinous.

So if you're going to university this year, embrace student housing. Landlords are usually bastards. The houses are often cold and damp. The mattresses are stained and rotten. The kitchens are deathtraps. But they're always better than some corporate hall of residence where you pay massive amounts for bland safety. At least in shared houses you learn who you like, who to hate, what the limits of your tolerance are, how to distinguish between mouldy-fine and mouldy-dangerous food/feet/genitals/clothes and all the other life lessons you won't find in a book. Trust me. You'll love it.

Update: I managed to forget a whole other student house. It was in many ways the perfect one for an English Literature postgrad. Two floors above a bookshop owned by my landlord. Directly opposite a bar, with a pub next door. 50 yards from Threshers' off-licence (their damned 3 for £10 bottles of wine usually meant the weekend started on Wednesday - and it was featured in a Shakespeare play. Well, sort of. The Dean's house is featured in Henry IV Part I, as the site of a nefarious meeting. Our rather lovely flat incorporated the one remaining chimney and wall from the Dean's lodge. I'd like to claim that history and literature oozed from the walls, but it didn't. Mould and hangovers were all that ran down those walls.

OK, last few Olympic fencing photos.

Thibus (FRA) v Jeon (KOR), women's foil
I've probably bored you all senseless with these, but here are the very last ones. The whole set's here, for your delectation. You can click on these ones to enlarge them.

Ota (JPN) v Baldini (ITA)

Ota (JPN) v Cassara (ITA) multiple exposure

Ota (JPN) v Cassara (ITA) multiple exposure

Piasecki (NOR) v Jung (KOR)

Piasecki (NOR) v Jung (KOR)

Piasecki (NOR) v Jung (KOR)
Vezzali (ITA) v Korobeynik (RUS), women's team foil final

Vezzali (ITA) v Korobeynik (RUS)

Vezzali (ITA) v Korobeynik (RUS)

Vezzali (ITA) wins the women's team foil gold medal

Vougiouka (RUS) v Williams (GBR), women's sabre

A surfeit of Olympic fencing photographs

Yes, only 26 to go - the whole set is here, click these ones to embiggen.

Richard Kruse of GBR leaps into action

Le Pechoux (FRA) v Halsted (GBR)

Le Pechoux (FRA) v Kruse (GBR) 

Lefort (FRA) v Davis (GBR)

Limardo-Gascon (VEN) v  Piasecki (NOR), gold medal match

Limardo-Gascon celebrates the winning hit of the men's epee gold medal match

Limardo-Gascon celebrating taking the men's epee gold medal
Limardo-Gascon (VEN) scores the winning hit at men's epee.

Limardo-Gascon (Venezuela), men's epee gold medallist

Limardo-Gascon (VEN) celebrates winning men's epee gold. 

Miyake (JPN) v Avola (ITA), men's team foil final

Miyake (JPN) v Avola (ITA)

Miyake (JPN) v Baldini (ITA)

The Olympic Gold Medal in my very own hands

Yet more Olympic fencing pictures

All 730+ here, click these ones to enlarge.

Peter Joppich celebrates winning bronze by beating the Americans

Joppich (GER) v Imboden (USA)

Joppich (GER) v Meinhardt (USA)

Joppich and Wessels celebrate beating the Americans for bronze

Jung (KOR) v Kelsey (USA)
Kim (KOR) v Velakaya (RUS) 
Kim (KOR) v Zagunis (USA)

Kim (KOR) v Zagunis (USA)

Kim (KOR) v Zagunis (USA)

Kim v Marzocca DSC

Kleibrink (GER) v Imboden (USA)

Kleibrink (GER) v Massialas (USA)

Kleibrink (GER) v Massialas (USA)

Kleibrink (GER) v Meinhardt (USA)

More Olympic glory

Some more of my favourite photographs from the Olympic Fencing. All the rest are here… but there are an awful lot of them. Click these ones to enlarge. 

Guyart (FRA) v Jung Gil (Kor)

Guyart (FRA) v Jung Gil (Kor) 
Guyart (FRA) v Jung Gil (Kor)

Guyart (FRA) v Nam Hun

Guyart (FRA) v Nam Hun

Guyart (FRA) v Oh Ha Na (KOR

Guyart (FRA) v Oh Ha Na (KOR

Italian women's foil team celebrate gold medal 

Italian men's foil team celebrate gold medal

Di Francis (ITA) v Deriglazov (RUS)

Di Francis whips a flick hit into Shanaeva's shoulder

Di Francis (ITA) v Shanaeva (RUS)

Defeated Swiss fencer

Errigo (ITA) v Deriglazov (RUS) Multiple exposure 
Errigo (ITA) v Korobeynik (RUS)