Wednesday, 26 April 2017

What a long strange trip it's been (this week)

A strange few days since I got back from the US. Jetlag of course, but it turns out that all the things I thought were hallucinations actually happened. First a general election announcement, then my youngest sister got married, and yesterday I found what at first I thought was a dead body on the pavement, during my cycle to work.

The election: the Prime Minister's language is starting to frighten me. It implies less commitment to the checks and balances of parliamentary democracy than any British politician I can think of. Certainly even Winston Churchill thought twice about indulging his dictatorial leanings during World  War Two. Mrs May is putting me strongly in mind of the Norsefire Party, the Tory successor that established a dictatorship based on faith and flag in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. I also think that the electorate – which appears to like being on the receiving end of a punishment beating – will give her carte blanche to do what she wants. Several of my friends are standing for parliament this time but all for Plaid Cymru in Wales so I won't have the pleasure of voting for them.

Two years ago I tramped the streets leafleting and canvassing for a Labour candidate who beat the Tory incumbent. I learned a lot while doing so, and was pleased to help achieve a result against the national tide. Now he's decided not to run, pleading age and exhaustion, and frustration with being in opposition. Not a factionalism, he's also exasperated with Jeremy Corbyn's day-to-day competence as a political leader. I fear this means another seat will be won by a Tory. Rumour has it that the previous incumbent, Paul Uppal, will be that Tory. A disaster for the city but a return to the glory days of political spite for me: Uppal was stupendously rich, lazy, dishonest, secretive, inaccessible, paranoid and none too bright. A self-satirising politician in fact, though I'll do my bit (as I did back then).

What else? My sister's wedding was probably only of interest to friends and family but if you want to see pictures of other people's relatives (and of cheese), try here. There was a petting zoo for the kids which attracted the attention of 6 buzzards, though sadly they didn't launch any actual raids. She's the 5th and last of my siblings to marry. That just leaves me…and I've already got an EU passport so there's no reason for me to get hitched.

And so to yesterday's slice of life, a mix of deep tragedy and low comedy. A few years ago I walked into a group comprising a man waving a knife at two women and a little girl and felt compelled to get involved; this time I was cycling to work when I spotted what seemed to be a dead body on the pavement outside a school. I have no idea how long she'd been there, but on closer inspection she was breathing but totally unresponsive. I called an ambulance and then flagged down a passing car which turned out to be an unmarked police car containing two officers who knew the woman by name: she is a local sex worker with multiple dependencies to whom they'd given aid several times in recent days. I've had very mixed experiences with the police in the past, but these ones were very good - slightly exasperated but caring and not judgmental. It was very depressing to hear that they were surprised I'd stopped to help: they're used to people just walking past. They were also quite funny. It was so cold that eventually I sat in their car for a bit. One said 'I guess you're wondering why the car stinks of cannabis', to which I replied 'Oh, so that's what it smells like!' and we all laughed.

I stopped to help for a number of reasons really. Human dignity is the main one: nobody should be ignored in that condition, however inconvenient it is. It also, I think, comes from being a cyclist and pedestrian I suppose. Everyone has their own geography or sense of spatiality which is partly moral and partly communal. A driver is cocooned from events outside the vehicle by speed and metal; they're removed from the ordinary pace of the community, which becomes part of the blur. Moving slowly means that everywhere on my journey to work feels like part of my territory, a space of which I am a part and for which I share responsibility.

I should say that there's nothing special about someone stopping to help, and that my patch of the city may be poor and a little bit scruffy, but it's a good place to live. Or would be, if it weren't for my noisy neighbour. I'd think twice about checking whether he's still breathing.

What else has been going on? I've done the first read-through of a very interesting and thought-provoking PhD I'm examining shortly. I actually had to buy more post-it notes, and now there are more comments than pages. I've read excellent undergraduate dissertation drafts, and we had presentations for my first-year drama module. I was stunned by the ambition and sophistication I saw. Multiple groups performed long, difficult scenes (beyond what the assignment asked the for) and I don't mind admitting that they packed an emotional punch that left me and the rest of the audience gasping.

I also went to a hustings for the regional mayoral elections that didn't leave anyone gasping. All very sensible and good-humoured but distinctly underwhelming. When a candidate's pitch includes a call for a 'task and finish group' and you can't tell UKIP, the Lib Dems, Labour, a Tory and a Green apart without a microphone you get a good idea of why turnouts are so low. I've also attended a meeting with management in support of a colleague in my union rep role and had the rare opportunity to witness a happy ending: everyone round the table was sensible, constructive and thoughtful rather than defensive or confrontational. This is not a common occurrence, and there's an enormous storm coming on other matters. But for now, I'm going to enjoy the moment.

The other highlight of the week was seeing bleak contemporary folksters The Unthanks singing the songs of Molly Drake, mother of the wonderful Nick Drake. I already love The Unthanks' work, and was intrigued to hear this music, recorded at home for enjoyment rather than for the public and discovered only a few years ago. I liked them: folkish, jazz-inflected songs with a Betjemanesque, 1930s tea-party air – musically exactly what you might expect of someone growing up in the interwar/wartime upper-middle classes yet with a dash of contemplative introspection as she processed personal experiences through song. The friend I took with me misheard the invitation and thought we were getting Nick Cave's mother's music. Now that I'd pay to hear.

There's so much else going on but I fear I've delighted you long enough. TTFN.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Austin Rover

So I went to Austin, Texas for a few days, to attend the Britain in the World conference. Yes, I did travel United (and Flybe) and yes, it was pretty terrible. But no, I wasn't assaulted in any way by the cabin crew or security. The first flight I was booked for didn't actually exist, the transatlantic flight was delayed by an hour because the first officer's microphone was stuck, US immigration was distinctly lacking in bonhomie, and on the way back I had a seven hour wait at Houston (boy the charms of that place wear off after about twenty minutes) and the final Flybe flight had to return to the gate because…they'd forgotten to load the luggage. They forgot to unload it at our destination too. That last flight had all the charm of Huis Clos performed by the dishevelled and aggressive survivors of a particularly low-rent stag weekend too. Not that I'm a misanthropist at all…

Plus I hate flying for cowardly and environmental reasons. I have – for what it's worth – shovelled some offsetting money in the direction of ClimateCare. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I don't (can't) drive, cycle or get the train pretty much everywhere and don't have children. 

Anyway, Austin and the conference. It was interesting being a literary scholar amongst almost exclusively historians. They do things very differently - there wasn't much concern for theoretical approaches, and the papers were much more tightly focussed and descriptive than the kind of thing I do. Being a full-scale British Studies event though, the panels ranged around the world and back to the fifteenth-century. The joy of being an academic tourist meant that I could sit back and enjoy them without having to record every detail. I did like the panels on colonialism, emotions and culture - in particular there was one on flag-draped superheroes by Lawrence Abrams which was witty and very insightful, and gave me a couple of ideas for future work. Jennifer Warburton of Kansas U did one that juxtaposed official British doctrine on Protestantism with the pragmatic approach eventually taken when the Empire captured hordes of Catholics, and there was a wonderful session on popular culture: the London musical of Gone With The Wind (a flop involving a live horse), Martin Farr of Newcastle on Oh! What a Lovely War and Kevin Flanagan from Pittsburgh (his office is in the mind-boggling Cathedral of Learning!) doing a stunning presentation on Goodtimes Entertainments series of world war 2 'documentaries', which mostly seemed to involve setting newsreel footage to covers of Beatles tracks - such as Hitler at Berchtesgarten set to 'Fool on the Hill'.  

Amongst their other work is this, by Ken Russell - Ringo Starr was also involved. 

Two of the best things at the whole conference were the round table discussions. One was on the fraught subject of Brexit: some of the pro-Trump academics (yes, you read that correctly) saw Brexit as a huge opportunity but most were rather shell-shocked. Some interesting views from the anglosphere were presented: if the Brits think that New Zealand is going to save them they've another think coming. It was down to me and my colleague to put the view from the Celtic nations and the left however: with some honourable exceptions, 'British Studies' appeared to mean 'English Studies'. The other great session was 'Teaching Controversial Subjects', something my colleagues and I have long experience of: I'm currently teaching Jennifer Haley's The Nether and next semester we're reading Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory. The range of material discussed and the kinds of cohorts involved was enormous. I picked up loads of new ideas about how to introduce and discuss tricky things without disengaging students or being paraded through the streets and publicly burned.

I think my panel went quite well, though the audience for Welsh matters was disappointingly small. I discussed Lewis Jones's work as both the end of the proletarian tradition and a missed opportunity for new forms of working-class writing; my colleagues talked about the 1950s Welsh Republican Movement, and this history of Welsh industrial relations in the post-war period. The discussion afterwards was lively, which was heartening. 

Other impressions of Austin: not as weird as it claims. And how could it be, with the Texas state legislature and all that comes with it, right in the middle of town? The relentless searing heat got to me, and the obscene consumption - (delicious) food and massive trucks mostly. I went to Denny's (wonderful) and various other places to try all the foods you can't get here. Grits: gritty wallpaper paste with no discernible flavour. Biscuits and gravy: neither biscuit nor gravy, but a scone with (quite tasty) white sauce. Collard greens: an absolute winner - good spiciness. The Austinites were utterly lovely. The bars are magnificent and the million-plus bats under the bridge are an amazing sight. So much so that I went down twice in the (forlorn) hope of getting some decent pictures. I also loved the classic car/hot rod scene. The stereotypes were sort-of marginal: I didn't see any guns being openly carried but there were plenty of signs restricting entry to various places with guns, so they must be around. Religion is also present but not pervasive, and there wasn't anything like the military-and-flag obsession you see on TV. Austin is pretty liberal though. Finally, I'll just point out that I only had to travel 5300 miles to watch a Stoke City match on free-to-air TV…at 7.00 a.m.. Thanks, Premier League and Sky!

Was it all worth it? Yes, I think so. I learned a lot, engaged with ideas and subjects outside my usual field, and joined in some interesting debates, while having a few days in a totally different culture. But next time it's going to be somewhere I can reach by train and boat!

Some of my favourite photos. The rest are here

Texas State Capitol

Sunset over Lake Travis

Lake Travis again

Release the bats!