Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Back in harness

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Synergising our core products

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

Monday, 19 January 2015

Yet more good news for Celtic Romanticist Travel Scholars

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

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

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Attention Welsh literature scholars!

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

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

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

Friday, 9 January 2015

Happy New Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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