Friday, 28 October 2016

In no particular order

This has been a whirlwind week of literal and intellectual travel, hence my relative absence. A week ago almost to the hour – a treat partly to mark the successful despatch of my extended paper on Doctor Who, Star Trek and Foucault – I was changing trains on the way to Dublin, rather impressively leaving my case far behind me. Once I reached that city I spent a grudging hour in Brown Thomas buying enough clothes for the weekend and wincing as the reality of the pound's slump hit home. Two hours later I was exposed to an entire Munster rugby match in a fine pub as a mark of respect to recently deceased Anthony 'Axel' Foley, after which I kindly donated my passport to Sheehan's stock of Stuff Dropped By Idiots. Other fine pubs visited included the Palace on Fleet Street, which was new to me. I particularly enjoyed drinking pints of Beamish so close to the Guinness brewery. I nip through Dublin several times a year but it felt different this time, between Foley's death and Brexit: Ireland is seemingly torn between worry and despair when considering the neighbours. Everyone has relatives in the UK and so much of the economy depends on it. Then of course there's the prospect of braying thieving British bankers moving en masse: Dublin can't accommodate them and the country has already been bankrupted by its own finance system, while the regulatory system swings between incompetence and corruption. The prospect of hordes more of these vampires descending on Ireland fills me with horror.

The other trip of the week was to Leicester (which was lovely) to meet the Justice League of Academia, a small group of internationally-acclaimed scholars – and me – who have developed cogent and moving critiques of the neoliberal academy from various standpoints, and suffered for it in the process (perhaps were the Academic-Team: sentenced for crimes against management we didn't, or did, commit). The afternoon was pitched somewhere between therapy and consciousness raising for me: being in the presence of such inspiring colleagues was wonderful, and it reminded me that the duty of the academic is loyalty to the principles of the academy: beyond the institutional frameworks there's a set of ethical principles to students, colleagues, intellectual integrity and society which are so easily occluded amongst the day-to-day practice of working in the machine. It was also enormous fun – they're a witty and warm bunch.

It wasn't all work: my super-power is to find a bookshop within seconds of arriving in a strange town. I was after more Nicholas Blake, and my usual Left Book Club volumes. No joy there, but I bought a pile of CP Snow novels for my politicians' writing research (he was a Leicester man), a couple of lovely Penguin editions and a pristine copy of Malcolm Muggeridge's grouchy The Thirties, complete with a huffy disclaimer by Stephen Spender:

The 'Services' edition is from 1945, part of the ultra-cheap, slim volumes Penguin produces for the Armed Forces Libraries and designed to slip into the pockets of battledress. This one was in a naval library: I like the idea of a sailor reading 'A Room of One's Own' in a hammock below-decks. 

Muggeridge doesn't suggest that Spender smelled of wee: he claims that Spender claimed that he'd spy on the Francoists during the Spanish Civil War. Spender's now considered second-rate compared with his 30s peers like Auden and Day Lewis. He lived too long, sat on too many committees and ended up working for the CIA, probably wittingly and was once described as 'a minor poet and a major luncher'. One of my colleagues shared an uncomfortably silent taxi ride with him towards the end of his life (this sparked an Awkward Celebrity Taxi Share competition in the office: the other winner was Leonard Bernstein). 

Other than these breakouts, I've spent the week doing admin (obviously), attending meetings and squeezing in some research where gaps appear. I read Adam Roberts' ambitious latest novel, The Thing Itself which turns Kant's concept of das Ding-an-Sich into a weird SF thriller, complete with pastiches of various literary texts, including Molly Bloom's soliloquy. It works as a literary novel, it works as a thriller and you wouldn't go too far wrong using it as a Kant primer. I also read Nicholas Blake's The Private Wound – set in Co. Clare, 1939 – which manages to avoid most of the usual rural Irish clichés (Blake/Lewis was Anglo-Irish) while using some key ones very knowingly as plot points. I've almost finished his The Beast Must Die which has an intriguing premise – grieving crime novelist father narrating how he tracks down and tries to murder the man who fatally ran over his son – but is a little uneven in tone (though everyone else seems to think it's his best one). 

My work reading is split into pain and pleasure at the moment. I've just finished Christopher Harvie's The Centre of Things, a 1991 history of political fiction: Harvie's a historian but his literary sensibility is well developed, particularly on structure. Amongst the central points is that the development of Parliamentary fiction mirrors and contributes to the centrifugal force of unionism in the long nineteenth-century: writing about politics and power automatically became writing about Westminster, just as the publishing industry became dominated by the metropolis. Harvie is admirably well-read across a range of genres and gives full attention to political fictions from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. He's also amusingly opinionated in ways that we journal article toilers can't be: Bragg, Drabble and Co. are 'liberal herbivores' incapable of responding adequately to the crises of the late 70s, while Archer's novels are 'hack-work' found 'in the supermarket dump-bucket. Women and political writing don't get much attention but he makes the unarguable point that 'the position of women in orthodox political fiction can only be summed up in one word: prone'. Having now read all the novels by female politicians, I can say with some authority that very little has changed since 1991. 

The reading pain is having to read Dominic Sandbrook's The Great British Dream Factory, his post-war cultural 'history'. I've read some of his other books and thought them rather too slick, metropolitan and male – and uninterested in historiography, which is unacceptable these days. Also, I'm allergic to the Banal Nationalism of 'Great British' anything and yes, that include Bake Off. However, I'm chairing a conversation between him and an actual cultural historian in a couple of weeks and need to familiarise myself with the new work.  Wish me luck…

Friday, 14 October 2016

A stab in the dark

I've read a couple of detective novels recently, part of my effort to familiarise myself with popular 1930s-40s culture as well as the Literature. Crime and detective fiction isn't really my thing: I'm not interested in them per se, I don't like gore and I distrust the glamorisation of crime. I am interested in how popular fiction reflects social and cultural concerns though, and crime novels do that in spades. I've read a boatload of Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Wimsey character gets more interesting with every novel, I'm a good way in to Allingham's Campion novels which start as parodies of Wimsey but rapidly become strange, disturbing and often dependent on social mores and infractions that at this distance are hard to comprehend even when they're not upsetting (in Police at the Funeral, the family shame that occasions murder is mixed-race ancestry).

The ones I read this week are Cameron McCabe's The Face on the Cutting Room Floor and Nicholas Blake's 1949 The Head of a Traveller. McCabe's novel features a first person narrative by the central protagonist, a film-editor called Cameron McCabe. He and the investigating policeman have grown up in North America and speak in a clipped, slangy Hollywood argot despite living and working in London. Atmospherically, it's very good: life in a film studio, jazz, nightclubs, sports cars, assignations and the famous London fog. It's recently been republished as a lost classic, largely because of the confluence of author and narrator, and because the mystery is cleared up two-thirds into the book. The rest is an analysis by another minor character of the literary qualities of McCabe's account, situated within the parameters of the crime genre. McCabe himself was actually Ernst Bornemann, a refugee from Germany who learned English in double-quick time, was a film editor, a jazz critic, later a TV director, author and eventually academic sexologist back in Germany and Austria.

An interesting history, certainly, and the book is a serious achievement for someone who didn't speak English two years before he published it, but I'm not sure it's a 'classic': the plot is confused and the dialogue is way too pleased with itself without really working. The faux-scholarly apparatus is little more than showing-off and there's very little to connect the crimes with their society other than the claim that urban life leads to alienated behaviour, which you know if you've read Henry James, Patrick Hamilton, TS Eliot, James Hanley and an awful lot of other authors. I'm glad I read it but don't think it bears the weight of praise heaped upon it.

The Head of a Traveller is interesting too. Nicholas Blake is actually the poet C Day Lewis, who claimed to have started writing his Nigel Strangeways novels to pay for a new roof: there's a distinct air of genre snobbery hanging about this and it's hard to tell whether he was double-bluffing to avoid losing face in his poetic circles or if he really did look down on a sizeable chunk of his life's work: judging by his facility with the 'rules' of golden age fiction I think he probably did enjoy crime fiction. Certainly Head of a Traveller attempts to dignify the crime genre by being infused with intertextual references – mostly to poetry – and through the key characters: a wonderful poet whose decade-long writer's block is cured by a murder on his country estate, a failed artist and his damaged but more talented sculptor daughter Mara, and the detective himself, torn between solving the crime and aiding the production of  Robert Seaton's great work. Being a poet himself, using a poet and other creative artists as characters are bound to make us reflect on the relationship between society and the production of art (and the thin line between crafting literature and criminal schemes). The novel poses the question of whether the law and morality are outweighed by artistic merit and production, though the ending rather fudges the answer but seems to imply that a little light murder shouldn't be held against

There's also a strong Gothic streak running through it which distinguishes it from mainstream crime fiction: the titular head turns up everywhere, dark deeds are done at midnight and the household includes a speechless dwarf of uncertain origin who may be demonic or innocent.

I enjoyed it enormously until about 150 pages in, when the detective hero casually cures the damaged sculptor of her traumas by explaining that her problems (which include talking about her sexuality openly) stem from failing to admit that she'd enjoyed being raped by the dead man when she was fifteen. Having cleared this up he leaves her happier, but worried that he has ended a promising artistic career because, it is implied, suffering is the sacrifice artists make to produce great work.

I finished the novel and appreciated it on a structural level, but enjoyment had disappeared entirely: either Lewis really held this shallow and warped understanding of psychology and sexuality, he was simply a misogynist, or he didn't feel it was worth developing a more intelligent plot device.

Still, it could be worse: I've got to read a Jeffrey Archer novel for research purposes next…

Monday, 10 October 2016

These New Puritans.

And how many sources confirmed your story?

Last week I read this piece in the New Statesman, by professional journalist Andrew Gimson, who also wrote a biography of Boris Johnson.
Long ago, when he went to Brussels as a correspondent, his rivals accused him of embroidering his news stories for the Daily Telegraph in a way that was not strictly true. This was intensely annoying for them, especially when they were hauled out of bed to follow up reports that turned out to be inaccurate. They were not prepared to accept the defence that Johnson had made these imaginative embellishments in order to dramatise a deeper truth – namely, that Jacques Delors, the then president of the European Commission, was grabbing power at the expense of the nation states.
Gimson's wider thesis is that the Conservative party and wider society are now riven not on left-right lines, but between fun-loving types like Boris Johnson and Puritans, amongst whom he counts Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.

The quotation above is designed to make the point that while the Puritans insist on mere facts, there is a deeper level of truth which can be accessed by buccaneering free-wheelers like Mr Johnson.

I agree with Mr Gimson. There is certainly a place for those who generate imaginative narratives about the way the world works in order to dramatise their philosophical, cultural and political perspectives. It's called fiction, and it's what I make my living teaching and researching.

Mr Johnson wasn't publishing fiction at this point (though I have read his comic novel about suicide bombers, Seventy-Two Virgins and his book of cautionary verse). He was writing for the news pages about specific events and decision made by actual people in a real organisation for credible newspapers whose readers had an expectation of accuracy. And yet he cheerfully concocted stories from soup to nuts, or as Gimson has it, 'imaginative embellishments'.

This marks me out as a Puritan, clearly. But the story isn't really about Boris Johnson. Yes, his blatant lies contributed to the public's trust in the EU decaying to the point of Brexit. The wider story however is that Andrew Gimson and the New Statesman have succumbed to the disease of 'truthiness'. An early example was the exchange between journalist Ron Suskind and George W. Bush's spokesman back in 2004.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Sadly we expect our politicians to lie to us these days. What's really poisoned the public sphere is the total collapse of the dividing wall between 'news' and 'opinion': if Boris's tall tales were on the opinion pages we'd all have giggled at his exaggerations. Instead they were on the supposedly factual news pages and therefore gained illegitimate credibility.

The New Statesman knows that Johnson's claims about straight bananas, standardised condom sizes and banned sausages were lies, because it recently printed a piece dedicated to linking these lies with the referendum result. Now, however, they're happy to print without comment a defence of such behaviour which entirely rejects the notion of basic factual truth, on the grounds that it's boring or short-sighted.

Why should I ever believe anything Mr Gimson or the New Statesman (I'm a subscriber) prints in future? I have to assume that any claims they make are informed by a desire to access a 'deeper truth' which – crucially for this discussion of media ethics – must remain untestable and even invisible to the reader. We all know that journalism is necessarily incomplete and can never be impartial, but this is a new low: a journalist and a news magazine proclaiming that it's OK to lie, and uncool to object.

(I sent the NS a short letter on this subject: it went unprinted).

Friday, 7 October 2016


The end of the academic year is always bittersweet. There's always the violence-inducing and inaccurate comments from friends and family: 'looking forward to a three month holiday then?', but there is the sweet release of marking your last essay. I love teaching and find 99% of the students I teach to be delightful people with whom I am happy to socialise outside class when we bump into each other. Then marking comes along and the pressure to get through 150 essays on a limited range of topics within a very short space of time turns me into a misanthropic git of the worst sort. The usual safety valve – gleefully circulating the most outrageous howlers – is no longer the done thing, so you trudge through it, gradually losing your own humanity and running the risk of forgetting theirs.

Then summer comes and your attention turns to rewriting last years bad lectures, designing new courses and now and then reading a new book. I graduated 20 years ago so it's probably time I stopped reading out lectures delivered to me back then.* Before you know it, term starts again and all is forgiven: I find that I've actually missed the classroom and the company of the returning students, as well as looking forward to the new starters who will laugh at my jokes for at least one week. The next load of marking is far beyond the horizon and all's well with the world.

It's a bit different this semester. I'm technically on sabbatical, though I'm still course leader which makes things a bit tricky. It means that as I'm still around in the offices I see all the students I'd like to teach without actually doing any teaching, and I feel bereft. Other people are having those odd conversations, pointing them in interesting directions that I may not know about, and giving great lectures. It's all gravy for the students but I've a bad case of FOMO.**

Meanwhile in the outside world, things are getting very nasty indeed. The government wants to get rid of all their overseas-trained doctors: so that's goodbye to my post-retirement age da who still works 7 days a week in the NHS because there aren't enough doctors. Then Amber Rudd, who has a very shady record in business including – and this makes my head spin – directorships of dubious companies located for taxable purposes in the Bahamas, has decided that she wants to exclude foreign students from the country unless they're attending 'quality' courses at 'quality' universities, whatever 'quality' means and ignoring the fact that overseas students' fees keep an awful lot of universities afloat, never mind the manifest cultural benefits of international education. She also wants British Jobs For British Workers, despite her party employing an Australian tax evader to run its anti-immigration election campaign, and a Canadian to be Governor of the Bank of England. Her colleagues meanwhile have decided that universities are going to be ranked 'gold', 'silver' and 'bronze', like the egg and spoon race at your local school. And then, to add xenophobic insult to moronic injury, the government has decided to sack EU academics working in British universities – the ones who actually understand trade law, diplomacy, international relations etc. etc. – from giving them advice on the Brexit process because they might be spies. Never mind: no doubt she's met a cab driver who reckons he knows how to sort it out.

How long before Jo Johnson and Mrs May tell me that I can only teach literature from England by English people which celebrates how wonderful England is? The Collected Works of Melanie Phillips, Richard Littlejohn and Boris Johnson (poetry collection and comic novel about suicide bombers, both of which I have unfortunately read).

What am I trying to say? That the experience of teaching lots of young and not so young people from all over the world is a joyous one. Hopefully they benefit from my work and their encounters with their classmates, and I know I certainly do. But all the pleasures and gains feel like nothing compared to the murk of xenophobic, paranoiac, philistine nastiness emanating from our elected representatives. I want to contribute to making the world a better place but they're making it smaller, meaner and more hostile.

Enjoy your weekend.

*To avoid a tedious exchange of letters with my local paper, head of department and the QAA, this is a joke. Nobody would claim ownership of the puns which constitute 80% of my lectures.
**The young people inform me that this stands for Fear Of Missing Out. Given that my life thus far resembles that of an agoraphobic Trappist, there's a lot of Out to Fear Missing.