Friday, 22 September 2017

Feeling sic…

I wrote to the London Review of Books with a correction but it wasn't printed, so you can have the doubtful benefit. I'm still unsure whether I'm being pedantic, paranoid, or postcolonial. Also: the author is Marina Warner, one of the greatest minds of her generation, so I feel a little conflicted about that too. Hey ho…

In the midst of a very interesting review of Thomas Laqueur's The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, I found these three words:
Jesu Grist (sic)
The subject was Dr William Price, the doctor, Druid, political activist and all-round Romantic polymath powerhouse who illegally cremated his son and spurred on the legalisation of the practice. An accomplished wind-up merchant and anticlericalism, he named his son Iesu Grist.

So what is the 'sic' all about? If it refers to 'Jesu', it's wrong. Price was a Welsh-speaker, and Welsh only uses 'j' in loanwords. The boy was called Iesu: not a misspelling of Jesus. If 'sic' refers to 'Grist', that's wrong too: Grist is standard Welsh for Christ.

The mistake, and the compounding addition of 'sic' suggests either Warner or the LRB (I'm hoping it's the LRB) has a rather anglocentric notion of culture in which a prominent intellectual's correct – if provocative – use of his native language can only be understood as an English mistake by an eccentric from the wild Celtic fringes.

Say it ain't so…

Friday, 15 September 2017

Lesbian Bastard Heroes and Other Stories.

I have had an eventful week, to put it mildly. A week ago I was decorating a village hall, carrying chairs and checking camera angles for my friends' wedding in an idyllic English village in the heart of Brexit country. My main job was photographer, but I'm now an expert at bunting hanging, guest corralling and taxi-marshalling. The happy couple were beautiful, the rector was organised and thoughtful (even this atheist appreciated her sermon) and the draught porter was Murphy's. Oh, and I came home with a sack of cheese left over from the reception, which was a bit of a result.

I could have done with a couple of days' rest after that, but the pre-term panic is well and truly ON! Rather than write lectures (including the MA module on Ballard I've suddenly inherited), I've been wrestling with a new VLE and trying – after six months of work, to get the powers that be to give students the correct course guides so that they actually know what they're meant to be studying in two weeks' time. We've had a day-conference on 'widening excellence', a 'roadshow' from the VC which consists of buttered words and sharp steel, and before we even start inducting the new students there's a staff conference and graduation to look forward to. On the plus side, the department has a new Graduate Teaching Assistant. Having taken a First Class degree this year, she's getting used to seeing what her former teachers are like behind the curtain. Only one keyboard has been punched to death in her presence this week (not by me, I hasten to add).

The other highlight of the week was tearing a calf muscle while fencing. My first injury in almost 25 years: it's painful, and I can only hobble about. Given I commute by bicycle, it's making life rather difficult. Age is a terrible leveller, my children.

It's not all drudgery. I'm enjoying catching up on all the texts I'm teaching this year (including lots of Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe, Doctorow, Eggers, Atwood, Valerie Solanas, Winterson – in the course of which I found Esther Saxey's journal article with the superb title 'Lesbian Bastard Heroes' – Gerard Winstanley, Ballard, Monica Ali, Jackie Kay, Jilly Cooper, Gil Scott-Heron) and I have an interesting PhD to examine in early November. Oh, and I'm compering an interesting event at the Birmingham Literature Festival on working-class writing, including Catherine O'Flynn, one of my favourite novelists. I'm just not sure when my research is going to get done. I'm still working on my politicians' novels project, but the discovery that Robert Kilroy-Silk has produced three of them has rather taken the pleasure out of it. It just struck me that he's exactly the kind of politico who thinks he has talents in every field, so I looked him up on WorldCat and there he is: a mid-eighties novel called The Ceremony of Innocence which doesn't sound entirely savoury, and three more recent e-books which sounded even worse than Peter Hain's, Norman Tebbit's and Boris Johnson's output (and having read all of them, I promise that's very, very bad indeed).

One's a Condition-of-England one that attacks 'political correctness' and another one makes the case for father-daughter incest. If you don't know who RKS is, or what he's like, this Guardian article tells you far, far more than you might ever need to know.
Eye-poppingly unsavoury novels…Kilroy-Silk is beholden to no one as he writes novels that he self-publishes on Amazon's Kindle. He's published three since the spring and each seethes with rage at political correctness in modern British society – with their unsavoury racism, glum sexist stereotypes, borderline homophobic jibes and digs against Islam, they reek of an outsider judging a world he doesn't want to understand… 
Closure ends (spoiler alert!) with the wretched stereotype of an obese lesbian social worker being murdered by a vengeful father who leaves her strangled corpse tied up amid dildos to make it look like a perverted autoerotic asphyxiation. After, of course, having arranged that the children have been kidnapped from their adoptive parents and whisked away to Cyprus.
Which rather takes us back to 'Lesbian bastard heroes' I suppose. Anyway, welcome to my world. Enjoy your weekend.

Monday, 4 September 2017

This post was brought to you by…

Last night I texted someone to say 'even Portishead have licensed a track for advertising now'. My friends are used to such retro naïveté and some of them even summon up the energy either to take me to task ('bands can't rely on sales income any more') or to tease me ('another band off your list').

I am a stuffy puritan about these things though. I never download illegally despite reservations about copyright law and music labels because I want artists to make a living directly from their art. When they licence their music for adverts my feeling is that they've subordinated their own art to a product. I therefore stop buying their music. If they don't value it enough, and have another income stream, they don't need me, and I can't be sure that their music isn't produced with an eye to attracting further revenue streams. Funnily enough, there's a cultural hierarchy of these things. Most people don't care if pop bands sell their music; some people mind that BP and cigarette companies sponsored classical concerts and art exhibitions, while there was an outcry when Fay Weldon wrote a book sponsored by – and heavily featuring – tasteless jeweller to the oligarchs Bulgari.

Why yes, people have accused me being a pompous revanchist git before. Thanks for asking.

Why am I going on about this now? Because I spotted a tweet from WonkHE announcing a 'partnership' with Hotcourses, one of those businesses which repackages public information, adds what it considers 'value' and makes a lot of money. I don't like it much, and liked it even less when it was owned by Jeremy Hunt MP. I do like WonkHE though. Despite its overwhelming maleness, Englishness and preoccupation with the Russell Group, it's a lively and interesting arena for Higher Education policy discussions. It's particularly useful to me because it often features views I might otherwise miss in my neomarxist bubble.

I hadn't thought about WonkHE's funding model at all previously. I tended to treat it as a service rather than a business. I didn't notice that it had any 'sponsors' at all, which means either I'm dumb or they're very discreet.

Perhaps the fact that I like the site lulled me into a state of acceptance, because I'm normally very wary of such things. Having spent years teaching students about the social media model, I know that if a service is free, you are the product. This is why I don't have Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp or anything other than this blog and Twitter. I pay for a Flickr account, and I keep all identifiable details off Twitter. Obviously all the data is still very profitable to them, and it takes about 30 seconds to deduce my identity but I don't make it easy, and I'm gradually adopting ad-blockers and the like to my electronic presence to reduce my exposure even further. Next step: TOR or EpicBrowser (both blocked on my university network).

My problem with WonkHE is the same one I now have with Portishead. Now I know they have a lot of funders, I have to start assuming that everything they produce is shaped – however remotely – by their commercial instincts: just look at what happened when Google didn't like the conclusions reached by some academics it funded. WonkHE will gain access to data from their sponsors, but that data will have been collected and shaped to further particular ends. Likewise, while WonkHE won't be selling reader data to their sponsors, it will be helping those sponsors understand me, my colleagues and my context for their own purposes. It won't feel like a community any more. I'd have been happy to pay a subscription – as I do for The Guardian, LibraryThing and Flickr – to keep a valuable arena open, but now I feel a bit used.

This is of course a function of my privileged position as an academic. Universities are complex things, behaving in multiple – often contradictory – ways at the same time. They're charities, businesses, liberation movements, social justice vehicles and corporate service providers all at once. It's frustrating and wonderful at the same time. One of the key advantages though is that almost everyone in HE understands that we have multiple responsibilities. There's this magical notion that intellectual purity and honesty outweighs immediate, local or commercial concerns: while 'truth' is accepted as a social construct these days, commitment to open and fearless enquiry is at the heart of what we do, and my particular employers have sometimes stood up for these principles even when they've been deeply frustrated with the consequences.

The result is that when my students attend a lecture, or someone reads a journal article I've written, they know that there are no hidden motives or justifications for what I've asked them to consider and what I've said, nor are my thoughts consciously shaped by the interests and perspectives of my employers or anyone else: I'm beholden only to my students and my sense of professional duty. No publishers have sponsored my reading list. I can't any longer assume that this is the case for WonkHE: while individual articles will no doubt be rigorous and honest, each additional sponsor will have some effect on what is presented and how it's framed.

I should apologise to WonkHE: they aren't doing anything worse than thousands of household names (in fact they're a lot better than most) and they wandered into my field of view just as I was getting on the highest of horses. Objecting to one organisation's adoption of tactics refined by much nastier companies (and Portishead) with barely a squeak of resistance from the public is totally pompous, quixotic and certainly ineffectual, but here I am. I can do no other. Other than fall off this horse and do myself a nasty injury.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

"You can't beat the West Coast, Mrs"

Well, I'm back. I was in Co. Kerry, Ireland for the famous Killorglin Mid-Kerry Puck Fair.• It rained a lot and I read some books (Three Guineas, The Nigger Factory, Tales of the City, Sheila Wingfield's Collected Works (thanks, Canon!), The Just City, Brick Lane, Fight Club, The Wretched of the Earth and Little Brother, ate far too well, saw a play about Jimmy Gralton, went to the Vermeer and Co. exhibition, and took some photos. In other words: perfect. Below – a few of my favourite shots. The rest are here.


At the fireworks

Also at the fireworks

Despite being called 'Chilled Cans' and being held up by scaffolding inside, this place insists on pouring Guinness properly even with 10,000 people waiting. Unlike every single pub in the UK. 

Tork Waterfall, Killarney

The Skelligs from near Waterville

I return to the cheery news that our faculty management, which has never been less than profligate when it comes to its own pursuits, has decided to cut costs by withdrawing the sweaty but free cheese sandwich it gave staff who came in on Saturdays to run Open Days. As a symbol of mean-spirited and misdirected economy in HE, said sandwich really takes the biscuit.

•It's only a Mid-Kerry festival according to a man from Castlemaine. He also told us his mother's house rules for Puck. 1. Don't vomit on the sofa. 2. Don't bring back any Beaufort girls. We didn't get to learn what she had against them.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Bye for now

Right, it's time to put my feet up.

I'm off on my holidays, by which I mean going somewhere else to prepare next semester's lectures and read a PhD thesis. But at least there will be a goat up a tower for symbolism. And rain.

See you all in a couple of weeks. Unless Donald and Jong-un manage to spark an all-out nuclear onslaught.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Back to reality

I don't spend all my time agonising over the state of academia. I also punch printers.

University of Darkplace
Network Printer Instructions

1.     Press Print
2.  Choose ‘Follow-You Printer’
3.     Walk to printer
4.     Touch ID card to sensor
5.     Read ‘No Jobs Received’
6.     Curse the day the printer salesman sold machine to gullible IT services rubes. Curse his/her parents, children, pets and pot-plants
7.     Walk back to office
8.     Email documents to Head of Department
9.     HoD walks to printer.
10.  HoD returns with documents. Apologise profusely and pretend that this will never happen again. You both know this is a damned lie. 
11.  Phone IT Services more out of habit than hope.
12.  Repeat thrice daily.

For more information, please re-read.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Full disclosure

The BBC salaries report has prompted me to do something I've had in mind for quite some time. I read a while ago that (now ex-)Google employee Erica Baker found the limits of her employer's openness when she circulated a spreadsheet with her salary on it, inviting others to join in.

All companies like to be secretive about salaries. This is partly because those in the magic circle get inflated salaries and bonus payments which are often way out of line with those awarded to the workforce, and partly because employees sharing their salaries leads to muttering in the ranks. This is certainly the case in HE. My VC's last recorded pay rise was of the order of 20%, in pursuit of the 'industry average': in my 8 years as a full-time academic I have never had a pay rise that exceeded inflation. In my four years as an elected staff governor, pay was never discussed in detail and I was excluded from the Renumeration Committee that decides on senior salaries, performance bonuses, and the university's stance on the the national pay award for teaching staff. The only fact I managed to establish was that senior management salaries are calculated after a confidential survey of management salaries across the sector, meaning that as long as they all stick together, there's never a chance of a below-inflation rise or a cut.

So here it is: my salary.

£48, 327.

I am 42, and have had a full-time academic job since 2008, when I was 32. At the moment I'm a Senior Lecturer and a Course Leader (i.e. I do all the validation and organisation for a couple of degrees but I don't manage people). Before that I took a long time to do an MA and a PhD, and taught as an hourly-paid lecturer in six different subject areas for 8 years. When things were tough, I did some supply teaching, which is why I admire teachers so much and feel so guilty about my behaviour in school. Well, some of it anyway. I also had a £6000 annual scholarship to do my PhD.

If you think 32 is late, the generations of academics behind me have it far worse. Being on a selection panel for an entry-level lecturing job was shaming: every single applicant had achieved more in terms of research, while doing huge amounts of teaching, while never having had a full-time job, a permanent job, or even a full-year job.

Salaries are not as transparent as they look either. Some academics negotiate, while others aren't aware it's possible, and there are ethnic and gendered aspects to this. I was once sitting next to a colleague who was offered a proper contract after working with us for years. To his enormous credit, the associate dean on the end of the phone talked her into accepting a higher salary than was technically on offer. I was also lucky: I'd taught for years in so many areas before the possibility of a part-time job came up that I quaveringly asked whether my length of service might justify making me a senior lecturer, and the panel agreed. I doubt this would ever happen now.

How do I feel about my salary? I feel rich. The average UK salary last year was £27,600. I live in a very poor area, so the gap is far wider. I have benefitted from being middle-class, white and male: lacking any one of these characteristics would result in a sharp drop: lacking all three dramatically reduces earning potential.

I do have other feelings about my salary, and they're mostly comparative. I work in a sector where managements work very hard to make sure that academic salaries fall behind while their own converge with industry. That annoys me. I feel that the long years of earning little or nothing (and therefore not contributing to a pension) and having no job security simply to acquire the qualifications and experience needed should be reflected in academic salaries. I'm also aware that this is my peak salary: the elevator stopped long ago, and insecurity is once more afield. I work hard to remind myself that my salary is way in excess of my neighbours and what most of my students will get, and that I don't even have a family to support. I mitigate the guilt by happily paying every tax I can, and by making sure that those earning less than me never buy the coffees: that's how it was when I had no money, and I'm just passing it on.

I also feel that I work hard for my salary. I have contracted hours, and they're officially exceeded by a significant amount every year, and unofficially exceeded by even more. Then there's the emotional labour involved in this kind of work: we don't just teach and write, we provide intellectual, cultural and emotional support to students and colleagues in ways that can't be quantified. The strong bonds between us means that there's a culture of overwork which is never acknowledged. It's true, however, that within a neoliberalised social system, being a lecturer in English Literature and a researcher in Welsh literatures is a luxury good. It shouldn't be, but it is.

So there we are. That's what I earn. I'm lucky to work in a sector with a national pay bargaining unit, and resigned to the ever-widening gap between my colleagues and our overseers. I'm conscious of the class, racial and gender bonus included in my salary. I don't aspire to riches, simply to security. I spend my money on books and train travel, and lust over extremely expensive bikes that I'll never be able to afford. I'd happily pay more tax and see a more level salary landscape, but I also think that there are a lot of people taking home a lot more tax for doing less useful work.

Don't feel you have to share your salary too - but do add your observations in the comments.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Ye Olde Annual 'Three Month Holiday' Post: special Adonis Edition

Every year, teachers and university lecturers are chaffed by friends and loved ones about their 'three month holiday'. Extrapolating from the sudden presence of children on the streets for 5-6 weeks, and dimly remembered long hazy undergraduate summers spent snorting marijuana and seeing Barclay James Harvest at the 100 Club (sub: check details?), they're under the impression that educators simply down tools in about mid-April, swan off to their agreeable second homes in Tuscany/the Hamptons, and read Iris Murdoch novels or translate Das Kapital into Serbian free verse.

This year, we have the added joy of an ermine-clad lord weighing in. You remember Andrew Adonis, don't you? That wonderful night in 1997 when after months of stump speeches and solid campaigning  he overturned a massive Tory majority in the constituency of…

Oh wait.

That was Stephen Twigg. Andrew Adonis was one of those white men in suits who went to a boarding school, then Oxford, did a short stint as a research fellow – having written a D.Phil on Politics and Aristocracy – and after a few years on the FT and the Observer, fortuitously found himself doing Politics amongst the Aristocracy courtesy of being made a Baron and a government minister by his fellow private-school/Oxford chum Tony Blair. It's almost as though sex, class and whiteness open the door to power and privilege…

So having never troubled himself to get elected to anything other than Oxford City Council, Andrew found himself in charge of education policy and landed with a permanent vote in the British legislature until he dies, and £300 per day just for turning up. Turning up, that is, on a schedule that makes his imagined university look positively Stakhanovite: roughly 130-145 days per year. Still, nice work if you can get it. But not the kind of lifestyle that entitles Andy to make comments like this:

My colleagues around the country have been slightly riled by this: the very best is a long, detailed exposition by Christina de Bellaigue, who knows the Oxford system inside out. Andy was a Junior Research Fellow in Oxford in the late 80s. Oxford wasn't representative of the HE section then (or now); a JRF was an untypical position with quite low formal expectations; HE was nowhere near as bureaucratised then as it is now; student numbers were much, much lower. And as Jonathan Healey of Oxford University points out, Dr Adonis's outputs were not exactly multi-volume works, despite being employed primarily as a research specialist.

One was a book based on his dissertation; the others are rather ephemeral – and not all peer-reviewed – to the point at which my research committee, at my not-even-in-the-league-tables HE institution, would be tutting and making pointed remarks about REF-ability.

Poor Baron Lord Doctor Adonis or however he's titled seems to have missed the expansion and bureaucratisation of higher education, despite having been the Father of Fees and the Minister for Academic Mayhem under New Labour. Many better academics than me are pointing out on Twitter that the '3 month holiday' is the period in which we: a) write new lectures for next year; b) get research done (the stuff that feeds into teaching and attracts funding, the only thing promotion and hiring panels give a stuff about; c; go through the results of every single student in the institution to work out whether they've passed or graduated this year; d) do the marking; e) do the resit marking; f) counsel students who've failed or just want to see us (79 appointments over the last month for me); present at conferences to make sure we're still current; examine other universities' courses to make sure they're up to scratch; attend administrative committees; sit on progression and results boards (2 in August in my case) and so on ad infinitum. And let's spare a thought for my colleagues on courses like nursing and medicine: while Andrew coped with 8 week terms, mine are 15 weeks long (with marking and prep in between) and health courses just carry on. Spare a thought too for all those hourly-paid and 10-month contract academics who produce the amazing new work required just to get a foot in the door, while not being paid for a single hour outside the classroom. No holiday pay, no pension, no lab space, no research hours, no payment for helping students outside the class: and still they get the books written. Like me, they will be judged on the quality of their research output, regardless of their working conditions or institutional structures. Was Lord Adonis measured and monitored in this way? I very much suspect not.

Although anecdotes aren't data, I thought I'd share my working situation with you. I'm pretty ordinary: I'm a course leader (which doesn't bring cash with it, just 150 hours to design and administer the whole damn thing). My contract theoretically divides 1597 hours p.a. between teaching, research, scholarly activity, administration and the rest. I counted up almost everything I do and found myself doing 2200 hours, and sent it off to the faculty committee so that they could take away some duties and make my workload conform to contract. Instead, they left every single duty on the sheet, but invented lower hourly tariffs. This year, they have decided that I can write a book – while being permanently present in my shared office of 14 people, and available to students at all times – in 30 hours. The fact is that all universities rely on academics and support staff putting in enormous amounts of unpaid and unrecorded labour simply because some of it pleasant and much of it will benefit the students that we care about. What's shocking is that they're happy to record some of it: while they've fiddled my workload data to falsify the stats, they've cheerfully left it significantly over the contracted hours because they know that I and my colleagues are too conscientious to leave work undone.

Despite my contract saying I'm entitled to 4 working weeks of 'unbroken' leave, boards are scheduled throughout August, and faculty events throughout September. Today I attended a research seminar and wrote a conference proposal; yesterday I assisted with a student writing skills event and wrote another proposal. The day before, I went to the Faculty Learning and Teaching Conference. Last week I attended two conferences and marked a lot of resits (more to come). I'm off next week to attend the board of another HEI in my role as an external examiner for two courses: before I get there I have to read all the essays submitted for 12 modules, if they ever arrive, then write a report about the teaching, the curriculum, the feedback and the courses' suitability. Then there are the PhD students who don't go away for three months either. We have a new VLE launching in September: before then, I've got to learn how to use it, transfer everything from the old one, and design new teaching methods utilising its whizzy new features – and that's in addition to writing an entirely new module (15 new lectures on 20 new texts, 15 new seminar designs, assembling primary materials), sorting rooming out and organising my subject's Welcome Week activities. I have a PhD to examine. We also have the Course Committee findings to address, an external examiner's report to which to respond, some troubling Equalities and Diversity committee statistics to look into, two literature festivals to help organise, the Estates Committee meetings to attend, school outreach events to do, journal articles to write, book research to do, grant applications to write and union members to advise – often about workload worries, unironically. Then there are the students, who work long, long hours in their own jobs and rely on us to be available to see them at any time – and we do, because we like them and want them to do well. Our teaching hours, by the way, are 9-9.

I get to work at 8 a.m. on many days, and leave 12 hours later. My boss is usually there before me and usually still there after I go home. My management's response – from their private offices and company limos – is to announce a crackdown because we're never there, and that those who choose to do their research at home are swinging the lead.

What's most pernicious about my managers and Andrew Adonis is their implication that academia is about 'product'. While he's a little disingenuous about his own output, he clearly only values what's tangible. He – and they – refuse to value the intangible work done. How can I demonstrate that I have made students think about new things in new ways? That I have in some small way changed their lives, my life, or my field of inquiry? Sure, there are cards and emails but I'm damned if I'll produce those as evidence. I could produce a paper a month and a new module per semester (actually I'll be introducing a new one in every semester for the next three years) but volume and quality are not the same thing, despite the efforts of REF, TEF and university managers – many of whom collect performance-related pay and credit when the metrics go in their favour, but are conspicuous by their absence when there's blame to be assigned.

I know, I know: plenty of people do longer hours in harder jobs for less pay, with more domineering and even less honest management surveillance. And yet I hope you understand why people go red and even cry when you say 'three-month holiday' to them with that cheesy grin. And to be very very clear: my students are not having a three-month holiday. All of them have jobs. More than I'd like are working full-time hours (i.e. 40 hours) while studying full-time too. During the summer break a lot of them work even more hours because they have families to support or huge debts. I continually nag them to take actual holidays for their own health, but for many it's just not possible. Surprisingly few of them have holiday homes in Chiantishire…

Lord Adonis is very much not one of them.

Postscript: Lord Adonis is also going to town on all those massively overpaid Vice-Chancellors and university executives. He is entirely right to do so and I support him on this every step of the way.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Mandatory Harry Potter Post

Twenty years since we first heard the words 'butterbeer', 'Slytherin', 'Quidditch' and 'Sorting Hat'. How time flies. As do young witches.

At the risk of annoying those who believe people should read only age-appropriate books, I picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone towards the end of 1997, at the age of 22. I was between degrees, working the night-shift at a British Gas data entry centre (there are many horror stories), I was ill one week and I'd read every book in the house. My youngest sister (I'm the oldest of six) tossed me a brightly-coloured book and explained that she'd only bothered with a couple of chapters because she hated reading – since then I've tried to disguise her every Christmas and birthday present as a book just to wind her up. By the way, I should thank her: that first impression, first edition paperback is worth a healthy sum now.

As a reading experience, bearing in mind I was delirious with 'flu, I enjoyed it. Having read all my sisters' Blyton boarding school novels, all of Alan Garner (still the best), the Narnia series, The Dark is Rising (never, ever watch the film), The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseThe Worst Witch, The Secret Garden, The Box of Delights, Jennings and pretty much every children's book written, it was all very familiar, but well done. Certainly the writing was occasionally clunky, and the structure fairly plodding, but I thought it was a superior bricolage with some additional interesting things. Yes, they're liberal-bourgeois wish-fulfilment, but I'm bourgeois and liberal, and rather feel that there's not enough of it about. So despite subsequently doing a Welsh literature MA and PhD, I kept an eye on children's literature, and carried on reading the Potter novels. Come 2000 I got my first teaching gig on a module about families in literature: I did what I think may have been the world's first academic lecture on Harry Potter: one of the things I did was pass round a big pile of the books I thought had most influenced The Philosopher's Stone.

The two things I thought Rowling did increasingly well as the series appeared were comedy, and the shifting, uncertain nature of teenage friendships: how they're made and how they're lost. I thought, and still think, that she does loss and depression – particularly Ron Weasley's secret inadequacies – very well. I also liked her increasing taste for satire: the Ministry of Magic moves from being a classic British shambling bureaucracy to an oppressive surveillance culture modelled on the post-Iraq War/9/11 security state, Dolores Umbridge, the sadist in frills, is a comic but also chilling masterpiece, while Rita Skeeter is a pitch-perfect parody of the Daily Mail's columnists (a comic version of Sophie Stones from Jackie Kay's Trumpet).

Halfway between Miss Mapp and Theresa May

Other arguments made against the Potter novels are fairly predictable: derivative, clunky, middle-class, fantasy, Satanic (yes, oft-banned in US states and various other places), over-extended (I'd agree: the more books anyone sells, the longer they get because nobody wants to take a blue pencil to The Money) and lacking in social realism. All true to some extent, but they're also well-pitched for their audience, they address subjects such as death with a sensitive touch, they promote a degree of liberalism that's often lacking – just have a look at C. S. Lewis – and there are far worse-written books out there. They got boys and girls reading over the course of years, and they made literature central to popular culture for a good few years. I have a sneaky feeling that the primary-colours moral lessons contained in the series, alongside Terry Pratchett's later works, may be responsible for young peoples' increasing interest in egalitarian socialism.

I don't know that I'll ever read them again unless I find myself teaching them – I have no children to read to, but I am mystified by the strength of feeling Rowling and her works arouse. It's almost as if their popularity has meant that they and she have achieved the status of straw men or public property. In reality, they're page-turners written by someone who isn't and shouldn't be expected to be perfect, right all the time, a Delphic oracle or the Devil Incarnate. The novels and their author are interesting, thoughtful, flawed, warm products of their contexts and cultural environment. They make some people happy and they annoy other people. They answered a need for a particular type of fiction at just the right time. That's all.

Finally, if you're a Potterphobe reading this, THE BOOKS AREN'T FOR YOU. They're for children. How easily this is forgotten in the rush to praise or condemn. Twenty years has passed: we can all relax and assess the actual texts at leisure.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The best I can say is, it's been another week.

I've (almost) nothing to say this week. Personally, it's been one of banal but necessary administrative labour the details of which I won't burden you, and one of social horror out there. This morning I watched a billionaire with a number of palaces make polite conversation with those burned out of their homes by capitalist greed, while yesterday the political figurehead of said capitalist greed took time out of her self-interested negotiations with the representatives of 17th-century Planter Bigotry to visit Grenfell without meeting any of her victims. What more is there to say?

Back here, it's results week: some of the students are thrilled, some are OK, some are resigned and others are very unhappy, and I'm hearing from all of them. Most of those who've failed or marginally passed have clearly worked hard, while a small minority fail because through lack of effort, and an even smaller minority cheat, but the key thing at this point is to encourage personal responsibility while not being a dick about it. We talk to those who come to see us about their academic practice and support them through the resit process, and we worry about those who for various reasons don't come to see us. I usually point out, too, that we submit work to journals and publishers and rarely get things accepted first time round.*

I'm keeping up culturally too: last night I went to a poetry reading organised by a PhD student and one of my ex-students, featuring their own work plus their favourite regional poets. It was really good - a range of styles and subject matter, and uniformly good delivery which isn't always the case. Sadly only one English student came along, and not a single Creative Writing student or teacher. No doubt they all had good reasons but it's a bit disheartening for the artists.

Except for the one on fan fiction-erotica and neoliberalism I wrote with one of my PhD students. Straight in! With the added joy of slightly freaking out the reviewers and editor. You quote one story about humans mating with anthropomorphised cats…

Friday, 9 June 2017

Musical and Political Twists

What an odd 18 hours or so. My emotions – so far as I have any – are mixed. The joy is easy: my arch-nemesis Paul Uppal lost resoundingly. His campaign to return as Tory MP relied on keeping utterly silent about his record and his distasteful business activities while hiding behind Theresa May's coattails. Faced with three excellent young women running for the Lib Dems, the Greens and Labour, he avoided almost all public appearances, and turned a 400-vote loss in 2015 into a 2000-vote one in 2017. Next time he might think twice about campaigning by covering a £70,000 SUV with his posters and driving through one of the country's most deprived areas. He was venal, dishonest and self-interested. Let's hope that he will slide back into the obscurity he so richly deserves.

I'm also hugely impressed by my students. After indulging in the usual academic's lament ('you're so apathetic, you've got no politics or beliefs', as my UG tutor constantly told us) for years, I've been hearing my students plan and discuss and read political material and register to vote. I think most of them voted Labour, but it's more important that having been on the receiving end for so long, they're riled up. It's a shame they won't get the immediate reward of a decent minimum wage and the abolition of tuition fees, but as long as they stay enthused, we can help mitigate the damage of Brexit and the decades of neglect to which they've been subjected.

I also had two friends standing for Parliament, neither of whom won: Julia Buckley for Labour in Ludlow, who didn't win but did achieve the best placing for Labour in nearly 50 years, and Daniel Williams for Plaid in Neath. Labour won by a massive amount and the Tories nearly doubled their vote to 20%, squeezing Daniel out, which I'm very sad about.

Nationally I'm confused. It was glorious to see places like Canterbury turn Labour, and Labour's result is far better than expected, but other aspects confuse and sadden me. I still find it almost impossible to comprehend why Welsh and Scottish people would vote for the Conservative Party, and I don't really understand how Scots could move their votes from the separatist SNP to the Unionist Tories so decisively in several constituencies. The ideological gulf just seems so wide. I was also hugely disappointed that Amber Rudd just about survived, alongside various other excrescences. But most shocking – though not surprising – is May's decision to form a government with the DUP. A party which took less than 1% of the UK vote is now dictating British political policy. Despite May's howling about Corbyn's links to Irish Republicanism, she's in bed with a party that has consorted with and encouraged sectarian terrorism since its foundation. Its leader held a meeting with the Ulster Defence Association's commander only last week.

They oppose women's reproductive rights, firmly believe that homosexuality is a sin and should be illegal, and believe that the earth is six thousand years old. They also designed a renewable energy incentive that was so badly (or carefully) written that £500m was paid out to their friends. They refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Irish language, they accepted a secret donation of nearly £500,000 to spend on Brexit adverts…in London, and they believe that the Pope is the Anti-Christ.

Live footage of Offoster negotiating legislative priorities with the DUP
You're all going to need a DUP name now. I've bagged Ofpaisley.

The DUP's idea of Utopia is that depicted in the current adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale: unremittingly brutal, hostile to joy, self-expression, women, ethnic and sexual minorities, imperialist and sectarian. Theresa May will shortly find that she has a new name: Offoster.

So I'm torn: pleased that a radical agenda can attract votes, saddened that it hasn't attracted enough to take power. I wish Plaid, the Greens and the SNP had done better, and I wish that this country would grow up and adopt a proportional electoral system that reflects the obvious complexity of voters' beliefs: there should be more Greens, nationalists and – sadly – UKIP MPs. Instead, we have Conservative and Labour MPs elected with literally a couple or tens of votes more than all the other parties in their constituencies combined. Nowhere is this more outrageous than Northern Ireland, where parties shamelessly collude to make sure that 'protestant areas' get a protestant MP and 'Catholic' ones get a Catholic representative regardless of political beliefs. Look at Jim Wells:
Many complaints about Sinn Fein canvassing in Rathfriland yesterday. They are not welcome in this unionist town- particularly on a Sunday.
So much for the idea that individuals have a right to hear a variety of views then make their own political decisions (and Rathfriland is 40% Catholic). One of my friends campaigned for the Workers' Party in Belfast in the 70s, shortly after it spun off from the Official IRA and ran on a socialist, cross-community ticket. He tramped 'Protestant' Streets in the company of 'Machine-Gun Tommy' for protection, and was surprised to get a warm welcome from people sick of being taken for granted because of where they lived or which chapel they attended.

For now, I'm going to enjoy the crestfallen misery of the Conservatives, and worry about the new regime next week.

Yesterday wasn't all politics. In 2008, I went to see Sigur Ros the night Obama was elected, and ended up partying with some Dutch students as we watched history unfold. I now associate ethereal music with political success. So last night a few of us went to the Arena Theatre for Powerplant, a percussion-electronica-visuals musical performance. I knew that some Steve Reich pieces were on the programme, but nothing prepared me for one of the best and most mind-bending performances I've ever seen. Joby Burgess mixes various percussion instruments with live-looping and samples to produce immersive, hypnotic performances. The first piece was a drums-only version of weird visionary Conlon Nancarrow's Piece for Tape: Nancarrow's music is so fiendishly complicated and fast that he ended up writing for mechanical player-piano, because humans couldn't manage it: the invention of tape loops and sampling brought it into the realms of the possible.

Here's a few seconds of Burgess's version, plus another bit of classic Nancarrow.

Here's Burgess's percussion plus taped piano performance of de Wardener's 'Im Dorfe', essentially sampled and warped from a Schubert phrase used in The Piano Teacher:

Burgess also played this astonishing piece by Gabriel Prokofiev, written for 3 Nigerian Fanta bottles and sampler: apparently Nigerian bottles have striations, and the musician consumes some of the Fanta to change the pitch during the performance.

Burgess also 'played' Steve Reich's 'My Name Is', which I hadn't heard of. He recorded several audience members including a distinguished member of my party saying 'My Name Is (their name)' and looped it in phases, moving in and out of comprehensibility. Having to extract meaning from a babble of my managers' voices was eerily reminiscent of being at meetings. It was amazing though, and wonderful to think that those sampled people made a piece of amazing art that can never be reproduced. It's gone for ever.

There was also a piece called 'Temazcal' by Javier Alvarez, a sampled piece about music censorship by Nicole Lizée called 'The Filthy Fifteen', then two classics given amazing twists. He performed Arvo Pärt's 'Fratres' (usually drums and choir) using drums and a Canna Sonora, or Aluminium Harp, a weird friction-operated metal contraption. Sadly there's no recording but the effect was astonishing, moving and ethereal. Here's a different bit of music played on this odd instrument.

Burgess finished by playing Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint' on the xylosynth - amazing performance, but I admit to hating the sound of that instrument. Try the marimba/vibraphone and (original) electric guitar versions instead. If you liked The Orb's classic 'Little Fluffy Clouds' you'll recognise this piece.

So, mind blown, I went home for a night of anxious election coverage. I was not disappointed.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Incidental music

No insights into my working life or current affairs coverage this week, Vole fans! All I've done is mark essays and clean my house. Guess which one is most fun… Still, I'm down to my last 54 2500-word portfolios. Argh.

So as a placeholder: some music I've come across recently or returned to.

Phil Niblock's Works for Hurdy-Gurdy. I think I heard an extract on Radio 3 a few weeks ago and was hooked. Half-way between classical drone and kosmische, played on medieval instruments. If it wasn't such an effort I'd source some quality mushrooms for the full effect. This is one I can't play in the office while people are around – I think it might fray some nerves.

I've also got out my old Chumbawamba albums. Years before the awful hit they had, they played my SU as part of their pretty much permanent tour of anarchist squats and grubby student dives. Musically they're no great shakes and they're even more didactic than one of my more boring lectures, but I like their anarcho-syndicalist politics and they have a way with a tune. I also liked their adoption of postmodern remix and appropriation tactics: I bought their Jesus H. Christ album under the counter: made entirely of unapproved samples, it would have tied them up in court cases for decades. You can download it from various places or buy the 'official' (but still legally-problematic) version, Shhh

Which as I'm now in a crusty-rap-rock frame of mind leads me straight to Blaggers ITA, which might be the very first thing I ever bought on CD.

Which leads naturally to Tystion:

Back in the present, I've fallen for the new Thomas Adès album, particularly Polaris, and Charlotte Bray's At The Speed of Stillness. 

See you next week.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Collaborations Don't Work

It's Friday afternoon and I'm in the office, marking dissertations (some good, some bad and some ugly). On my colleague's desk is a review copy of the Cambridge History of British Working Class Fiction, which includes a chapter co-written by me and a distinguished academic from Cardiff Uni. Slightly annoying that his copy has appeared and mine hasn't, but never mind.

People in the humanities are a bit wary of jointly-written articles, because unlike science it's not traditional and therefore the REF Gods might look down on it. The thing is though, I really enjoy working with other people. They're usually clever than me and it takes much more determination to delay or disappoint somebody else. I'm so lazy that I'd rather do the work on time and up to scratch than deal with the guilt that I habitually let wash over me when my solo work is late or rubbish.

As well as the chapter on Welsh working-class fiction, I've written some other things with other people in the past couple of years:

1. Journal article on Doctor Who, Star Trek and Foucauldian technologies of the self (forthcoming in the Journal of Popular Television) with a colleague.
2. A chapter on jazz in contemporary fiction in this book with a different colleague.
3. A journal article on media representations of the Co-op Bank crash with a critical management scholar from another university (under review).
4. A journal article on neoliberalism and pornographic fan fiction with one of my PhD students (under review for a Journal of Popular Culture special issue).

Two of these were my idea, and I've also been asked to help with another colleague's work on new religious movements' use of social media, plus my ongoing politicians' novels project has room for collaboration. If we hadn't worked together, none of these pieces would exist, or at least not in the present form. I've learned from my colleagues and hopefully they've learned something from me – proper punctuation placement, if nothing else. Between us we've probably done a better job than we would have individually, and my intellectual scope has been widened (an alternative reading is that there's no solid core to my research, but that's an argument for another day).

All together now: 'collaborations don't work'…

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

All of a muddle.

It feels like a long time since I put fingers to keyboard for blogging purpose – it's certainly been an aeon since I managed 4 posts a day. Which is probably a good thing for all concerned. Recently the slowdown has been down to sheer pressure of work. I've fallen into marking like a drunk in quicksand. The more I flounder, the more it sucks me down. Iv'e done my online forums, and now I'm marking dissertations. After that it's the second-year Shakespeare/Renaissance essays, and after that it's the motherlode: 108,000 words of first-year drama essays. Great students, but marking really is a chore however good the work is.

There have been brighter spots. I went to two conferences the other week; one on Dissent Studies at Keele University and the other my annual Welsh Writing in English one, always held at the beautiful Neuadd Gregynog in Powys. The Keele gig was fun because it was multidisciplinary: I co-presented a paper on media coverage of the Co-operative Bank's travails, while others spoke about Jonathan Lethem's novels, legal matters, politics and a host of other perspectives. The keynote speaker was meant to be 60s agitator Tariq Ali, but he was too ill to attend. Instead we got a superb talk by cultural studies powerhouse Jeremy Gilbert.

AWWE a couple of days later was one of the best I've been at. We had to have three parallel sessions rather than two for some of the event, there were launches of good books such as Bethan Jenkins's Between England and Wales: Anglophone Welsh Writing of the 18th Century, and the wine flowed. M Wynn Thomas's keynote was a passionate account of the field's genesis and his disappointment that WWiE hasn't been afforded the intellectual respect other subject areas have garnered. None of his books get reviewed in the London literary press, for instance, reflecting a metropolitan uninterest in things Welsh. For the record, my review of his last-but-one book The Nations of Wales should appear in the open-access International Journal of Welsh Writing in English fairly soon. I don't want to give away too many spoilers but basically: it's a genuinely brilliant book. Wynn expanded on his topic with a fire that this generally gentle man rarely unleashes: he excoriated British historians and literary scholars capable only of reading English-language work, and identified a whole load of unexplored research areas for future scholars.

Other highlights included having a few beers with Jamie, whose PhD I examined a couple of weeks ago - all friends now! There were too many appealing sessions to justify sneaking off for a wander in the countryside, and I had to skip friends' talks to attend equally attractive ones. I tried to go to as many postgrad papers as possible – partly to be encouraging and partly to feed off their healthy fresh young blood. I was particularly pleased to hear people talking about the subjects of my PhD (Lewis Jones, Richard Llewellyn and Gwyn Thomas) in ways I hadn't thought about. We also had a compelling  – and visceral – keynote by Jasmine Donahaye about the existence (or not) of creative non-fiction, starting with her account of running over a cat and soon reaching her abbatoir views. Psephologist Roger Scully gave a fascinating account of changing Welsh political landscapes, though he wouldn't be drawn on whether our distinguished colleague Daniel Williams would win Neath for Plaid Cymru. The final keynote was Jon Anderson, the human geographer at the heart of the Literary Atlas Wales project, which is soon to launch. It provided some of the weekend's controversies, particularly the decision to choose only English-language texts. The other spat was Andy Webb's account of Owen Sheers' Pink Mist, which he saw as signalling its Welshness covertly and marginally: he saw the stage play as even more universalist, stripping any Welsh and anti-war material away to make it a Support Our Boys drama. Mr Sheers was following all this on Twitter and was, it's fair to say, less than impressed.

Since that weekend I've also been part of the hiring process for our very first Chair in English (white smoke has yet to emerge) which was interesting but probably not suitable material for a public forum, and done lots of the things that appear in clumps at this time of year: PhD progress reviews, external examiner work and so on. But above it all is the marking.

Wynn says farewell to Alyce von Rothkirch, who is returning to Germany and will be missed

Still, it keeps my mind off the outside world: mass murders at pop concerts and the most breathtakingly sinister and cynical election campaign I've experienced. The Tories in particular seem to be running on a Norsefire agenda of cracking down on democracy per se. Watch this space though: I'm actually running to ground secretive local Tory candidate Paul Uppal tomorrow at a very rare hustings. Your suggestions for questions are very welcome.