Monday, 16 April 2018

When HR goes bad…plus some book talk.

Good afternoon from what is surely the only university that simultaneously threatens the entire teaching staff of c. 750 people with disciplinary action (for declining to sign something they say doesn't need our consent anyway).
we have a duty of care to ensure staff are aware that such actions may place them at risk of formal action under the University’s disciplinary procedure. We must stress that this is not an option which we wish to adopt and we would do so extremely reluctantly and as a last resort.
The tl;dr version of this: 'now look what you made me do'. 

'I'm from HR. I just want what's best for you'

The invocation of 'duty of care' is simply humbug or cant of the worst sort. As you can probably imagine, that combined with a frankly moronic program of redundancies and restructuring has resulted in a dull ache of resentment rather than my normal sense of dedicated service to academia this Monday. Which is a shame because I've seen a lot of students who needed care and attention today of the sort that I can't expect to receive from my employers. 

However, enough of that. There are exciting things happening this week that I've played a small part in making happen. Tomorrow I'm teaching The Nether, a tense, scary, morally complex play about online paedophile fantasy spaces. The best first-year English Literature student work last year was about this play: rather than presenting an analysis, two groups performed scenes so effectively that people in the audience cried. In the evening, Kate Lister, aka @WhoresofYore is coming to give a public lecture on 'A Nasty Word for a Nasty Thing: a brief history of C**t'. Kate's pretty much the model academic: socially-engaged, hugely learned and a brilliant communicator. Then a couple of days later we have acclaimed author and critical scholar Adam Roberts coming to give another public lecture on science fiction and current affairs - Thursday, in the Art Gallery, 6.00 p.m.

I've also been reading a fair amount. I've whipped through Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series which was OK, though almost entirely lacking in characterisation and I can't help reading Gurgi as a comic manifestation of the Magical Negro trope, the Jar-Jar Binks of children's mythological retellings. The three witches were good though and Alexander is very witty. 

I'm also part-way through Daniel Kalder's Dictator Literature, which I thought might be useful, or even a model for, my work on politicians' fiction. It isn't. It's actually dreadful. You know a book is bad when it tries to get the audience on side by making snide comments about academics, but Kalder's work is essentially 400 pages of him being snide. He traces - in detail, the research has certainly been done - the logocentricity of a range of twentieth-century dictators and demagogues, but instead of using all this to ask about the complicated cultural contexts of these figures, he uses it to ridicule them as individuals and to point out that virtually none of them could write very well. Which is OK, but you've got to be an excellent writer to criticise others, and he isn't. It's hardly ground-breaking or daring to point out that Lenin and co. were often dense writers, or thinkers rather than street revolutionaries, and Kalder's style is that of the Pub Bore. What could have been an interesting book about why these people were so wedded to the manifesto, the newspaper and the novel is instead a bloated tract that demonstrates how superior its author is to all these men. Kalder thinks their work should have warned people what dreadful rulers they would be. On that basis, I've learned that Daniel Kalder shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a lever of power. 

I also leafed through Salisbury's The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-70: a rather lovely coffee table book which reminded me how many great artists, such as Paul Nash, designed book covers, and I much I dislike the bucolic side of 1950s book designs. Give me the Dutch-influenced postwar graphic designers any day. I'm working my way through Tony Harrison's Collected Poems too, one a day though I did cheat by reading V first. The other book I recently finished is Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies which has been on my shelf collecting awards since it came out. My immediate reaction, after inhaling it pretty much over one weekend, is that it's brilliant. Taut plot, strong sense of location and culture, dialogue absolutely spot on – a triumph. A week later, all those things are still true but I'm struck by the feeling that there is now a formula identifiable for these novels: a Celtic location seen from the centre as bucolic/touristy/untroubled by modernity – dialogue and sometimes narrative rich in dialect and scattered with words from the native language – interconnected tales of the 'hidden', i.e. working or non-working population – some crime and grime – suffused in a Celtico-religious soup either for contrast or explanation – with a dark wit. McInerney's novel is set in the urban Cork underclass. The dialogue and some of the narration draws on Cork English with the occasional Irish word thrown in. The cast each have their own plot but they intersect to devastating effect, and the evil effects of twentieth-century Irish Catholicism form the superstructure for events. It's also very funny. 

I say this not as critique but as an observation. These novelists – James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths, Richard Evans, Rachel Tresize and Lisa McInerney to name just a few, and let's not forget Y Gwyll/Hinterland and the various Scottish murder serials – are far better and much more interesting authors than the multiple purveyors of sensitive tales of the north London bourgeoisie who tend to dominate the literary pages of the newspapers and periodicals I read. I also think that there's a market for the Celtic anti-pastoralia, perhaps because publishers and their idealised audiences holiday in West Cork or Pembrokeshire, while pretty much any novel about the Birmingham or Newcastle underclass gets little more than admiring reviews: just ask Anthony Cartwright or Lisa Blower. They just aren't 'other' enough for these supposed audiences and readers can't thrill at the idea of their Dudley holiday home being burned down by nationalist smackheads. 'Celts' are still suffused with mysticism in the English imagination for better or worse, and Celtic Dirty Realism gives them a good dose of the Celtic while adding a good dose of Insider Realism to give the readers a decent jolt. 

Anyway, that's enough for now. Maybe I'll be in a better mood next week.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Why can't we all just get along? A book review

I'm back in the office - have been for a couple of days, after popping over to see the mother and assorted siblings and their children over Easter. I took Good Friday off as promised and went on a long and hilly bike ride, then slumped into utter inactivity once the Saturday Vigil was over (it was a trap: a 2h45m trap).

It was a good opportunity to catch up with some reading though. The best thing I read was Dark Territory, the translation of Jerry Hunter's 2017 novel Y Fro Dywyll.

Ranging from Wrecsam to Naseby to Drogheda to New England and beyond around the 'English' Civil War, it follows Rhisiart Dafydd through multiple identities starting with his Protestant radicalisation as a boy through his service in the Parliamentarian Army, subsequent work as an agent of John Powel, before his encounter with a Welsh Calvinist settlement in America and the gradual realisation that fundamentalism is not just socially destructive but a means of repressing the complexity of the self (a message also glimpsed in the Buffy episodes 'What's My Line?' 1 and 2). In the case of Dark Territory, we see the constant dialectic between sects and visionaries in the early period of the Commonwealth mutate into mutual hostility followed by brutal violence, culminating in the darkest practices of this group of Calvinists, who take the doctrine of 'election' to a horrifying conclusion.

The novel is partly about Welsh identity within a British-English hegemony and within the Christian tradition, and partly a spiritual Bildungsroman, but it's pretty obviously meant as an allegory for Islamist radicalism. Useful, I suppose, to remind us that most religions have these periods of violent repression, but thankfully it's not overdone. Hunter's conclusions are good liberal ones, with an added suggestion that masculinity is closely tied to the search for fundamentalist purity: men, it seems to imply, privilege certainty over mutual respect and openness, unless softened by women. Oddly, a similar – though less nuanced – conclusion is reached in Boris Johnson's Seventy Two Virgins, a 'comedy' about suicide bombers which suggests that more sex would reduce the pool of young Muslims ready to blow people up. Certainly Rhisiart Dafydd learns through hard experience – committing atrocities, losing loved ones – that exclusivity and certainty are the weapons of idealistic young men and dangerous old ones.

I liked Dark Territory very much. It's beautifully and viscerally written (translation: Patrick Ford), carefully-researched and intellectually wide-ranging. Hunter takes seriously the various spiritual and intellectual perspectives found in the Civil War period while subjecting them all to a critical analysis, wrapped up in a compelling narrative. I did find it rather one-eyed when it came to men and women though: while one or two women offer alternative perspectives to the men in their lives, they're relatively marginal. Wives and children die in the plague, widows fear for their babies, a sister nurtures her orphaned brother, and camp followers (though carefully not presented as 'whores') are massacred in the process of Rhisiart's journey to enlightenment. What they are not are thinkers or protagonists to any serious extent. Nor are the native Americans Rhisiart meets: carefully constructed as nice people carefully differentiated by tribal group, they help him in his quest and remind the reader that pat distinctions between Civilised and Barbarian are unsustainable despite the efforts of the fundamentalists, while also suggesting to English readers that the Welsh and Irish might have been analogous. Purpose served, they disappear until, at the end, we're told that they wiped out most of the early English settlements.

I struggled with Hunter's previous novel, Ebargofiant, which wasn't translated into English – the challenging language and literary style combined to defeat me almost completely (my fault, not Hunter's), so I'm delighted that Y Lolfa translated this one. I just wish it would get some reviews and attention in the English-language press. Last week the Guardian ran a piece on translated literature people shouldn't miss: not a single one was originally in Welsh, Scots Gaelic or Irish.
The possibilities aren’t (strictly speaking) infinite, but this month’s remit takes in everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the latest releases from pioneering translated fiction publishers such as And Other Stories and Peirene Press. So: all the classics, and all of French, German, Portuguese, Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian or Russian literature … You get the idea.
You can go for massive, immortal classics such as The Aeneid, The Ramayana, Don Quixote and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain – or you can go for a slice of modern life from Dorthe Nors, Xiaolu Guo, Orhan Pamuk and Haruki Murakami.

Mostly wonderful stuff, but without classic and contemporary work from the rest of the archipelago, Anglophones are really missing out on some wonderful literature.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Escape is at hand

Today's my last day in the office before I take an Easter break, which is no doubt a relief for all concerned. I've had the place to myself for most of the week: colleagues are taking the opportunity to get some research done at home or hopefully just having a rest before gearing up to fight the mass redundancies announced. It's been a long hard term made worse by the bumbling brutishness of our management. According to Philip Larkin, 'holidays evolved from the medieval pilgrimage, and are essentially a kind of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one's daily life'. Maybe, Philip, maybe.

I tend not to work from home: I prefer to do long hours here so there's a real separation between home life and work, which is difficult psychologically because thinking and talking about literature are both my work and my hobby. I also come into the office to do my writing despite sharing it with 13 other people because if I stayed at home I'd just lie in bed staring at the wall or do endless ironing. The house is a foetid tip, but I actually enjoy ironing very much. I've avoided getting an internet connection because I'd never leave the house again. Good for humanity at large perhaps, not so great for me, even though I reckon I'd be able to correct almost everybody being WOTI (Wrong On The Internet) within hours.

Duty Calls

So here I am, eyes looking my last at the dividers between the desks, the bars on the windows (yes, really), the myriad unwashed mugs, piles of unread London Review of Books and the reproachful wall of Tory Novels that constitute my research project. I have two other conference papers to write (domestic space in Welsh literature; representations of Wales in computer games) in the next few weeks, but my marking is up to date and all the angry emails to management have been sent, no doubt to be added to the Sacking File. I've seen a few students this week and read dissertation drafts, so my conscience is as clear as any cradle-Catholic's conscience ever is. Tomorrow, unless it snows, I shall go for a bike ride to commemorate the Passion. Unless you're my mother, in which case be assured that I'll be at a Good Friday service.

Enjoy your Easter everybody. And remember, it's Brexit in a year's time, so enjoy your last real chocolate eggs. In 2019 they'll be made of antiobiotic-flavoured, plutonium-fed American cockroach eyes, iced with the bitter tears of regret. That's what deregulated Freedom tastes like.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Reasons (not) to be cheerful

I imagine you are as bored of my anguished rants about the twists and turns of Higher Education as I am, and I fully planned to turn to lighter or at least more intellectual themes for today's blog post. Instead, it's yet another howl of primal fury.

That was before I attended a series of Faculty meetings this week and received one of the Vice-Chancellor's chatty circulars. The Faculty meetings gave us the cheery news that rather than expand to 4000 students as originally planned when it was formed, we were going to shrink and lose 24 colleagues, particularly targeting senior researchers. Departments would be merged and each expanded department would boast a single Reader and a Professor each. Of course, this is only a 'consultation', despite the Dean announcing that courses would be suspended 'at Easter', which made it feel like more of a coffin-measuring appointment than anything I think of as a consultation. It's also not particularly consultative to inform the whole university that post cut in my faculty will be replaced by new jobs in other faculties.

It's not all doom and gloom though: while many colleagues are being fired, we are being promised a cafe in another building. I'm reminded of The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy, which features a planetary economy destroyed by the proliferation of shoe-shops. I can't help feeling that the solution to declining recruitment and absolutely incompetent, hostile and clueless management really isn't a reduction in the number of seconds away from a latte a student should be.

It feels like a fever dream now, but it's only 3 months since my department acquired its first professor, a Chair no less, and less than that since I watched my boss spend the entire marking period wrestling with REF and TEF reports. In them we demonstrated at great length and in great detail how world-class our research is, how it feeds directly into teaching, how we nurture early-career research and how our work impacts the world around us.

All this may as well go straight into the bin. Pretty soon we're going to have to explain to students why popular modules won't run; why non-specialists are teaching the remaining modules; why their surviving teachers' workloads are even heavier; why good researchers will never be promoted, and why there's no more capacity for them to do a PhD with us, and why people who have fulfilled their side of the deal – more research outputs, fresh new modules, better student support – are paying the price for structural problems and executive failure.

I also look forward to explaining the Vice-Chancellor's gnomic assertion that for our 'footprint' to expand, it first has to contract. I might also fill in some of the gaps in his cheery assertion that everything's fine by pointing to the new campus on which construction has stopped and which is going to cost many extra millions of pounds which could be spent on improving teaching provision. (In other good news, Faculty managers will be keeping their jobs under the proposed plan).

This is of course the self-satirising university: we bought a (derelict, contaminated) brewery and now we are very publicly failing to host a piss-up in it.

We are of course not alone. While executive pay in Higher Education has increased way out of proportion to staff pay, library investment or anything else in the sector other than fee income, things are far from rosy. You're wearyingly familiar with the USS Pension strike, driven by HE executives' desire to divert cash from old age to plate-glass prestige projects and their bonuses, but jobs are being lost all over the place: the OU is being demolished, Liverpool is cutting 200+ posts, Manchester is firing a load of academics, as are Aberystwyth, Southampton and a number of others.

If you're bored with this, and you should be, imagine my depths of tedium. My whole so-called career has been one of permanent crisis. Governments and executives (since when did universities even have executives?) have abandoned any concept of education beyond Mammonisation and much as New Labour imagined the working classes as greedy racists rather than meeting any, the HE sector has decided to cater to imaginary students whom they think of as selfish, grasping, anti-intellectual and unprincipled. The things we measure, the things we're judged on and the ways we're encouraged to behave all point to this concept of Homo Studenticus as a figure waving a receipt, filling in a survey and demanding 'customer satisfaction'.

I recently heard about a university which required its executives to produce research and do a minimum amount of teaching. I bet it's a happier and saner place than most. Apart from a delightful trip to Swansea yesterday, my week has been spent being threatened – and in some cases lied to – by managers, being told that some of my colleagues will be fired, and consoling colleagues and students in distress, some of whom have been shouted at and belittled by management. In one case, an HR executive shouted 'Who are you going to trust? Your employer or your union?' at a bunch of people threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to accept prejudicial new job descriptions. The laughter, as you can probably imagine, was distinctly hollow.

Still, I'm sure there's an online 'resilience' course I can take.

Friday, 16 March 2018

A Tedious Theatre?

My friends in the refined universities are all on strike and having a great time - they're losing a lot of money but they're reconnecting with each other and with their students - kind of funny how you never see your colleagues until you all decide not to do any work – and the rather pathetic machinations of their employers and the pension scheme are being exposed faster than a flasher's undercarriage.

But I've gone on about the USS pension strike enough recently, though I'll doubtlessly return to it before long. Instead, a bit of culture for you. And a moan, obviously. I can't leave you without your weekly fix.

Last semester we taught The Duchess of Malfi as part of our Shakespeare and the English Renaissance module. Volpone was received very badly indeed one year, so I've tried to include a revenge tragedy each year to widen the students' sense of what was available on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage. We did Webster's The White Devil for a couple of years, and now it's his Duchess. I'm not sure I did it full justice in my lecture, but despite absolutely hating horror and murder films, TV and books, I have a soft spot for the revenge plays for their dramatisation of a violent, paranoiac culture and society, and while we have Hamlet on the course it helps to have its cousins there for comparison.

This week, the RSC put Malfi on at Stratford, and arranged heavily discounted travel-and-ticket packages supported by the Arts Council, with coaches going from certain economically-deprived towns and cities (and Oxford and Warwick). One coach, open to university and school students, went from our other campus where the drama students live, so I duly signed up and advertised it to the English Lit group. Cometh the hour, cometh the coach. Cometh, however, me, our departmental Graduate Teaching Assistant and her partner. No English students. No drama students. No school kids, teachers, or dogs.

How did this happen? Certainly all my students have jobs and a large number have children or other caring responsibilities. Money is also tight. The scheme wasn't widely publicised – nobody from the RSC contacted my department and we'd have moved heaven and earth to make it a success – and there isn't a culture of theatre-going in this area. That said, I work really hard to make cultural opportunities available and even harder to make them attractive, varied and exciting. Eimear McBride is on the first-year syllabus and she came to talk to the students.

The Making A Scene module includes theatre trips, brings in professional actors for students to direct, includes various sorts of drama training and studies a really interesting, non-standard range of plays. Basically, we work really hard to make literary studies enjoyable, challenging, exciting and vital, particularly as those who come straight from A-levels seem so exhausted and disillusioned. And yet we can't get a critical mass of people who want to try new things. Excluding those who just couldn't attend, a large group of people who studied this play with us, or who will do so next year, decided that they didn't need to experience it live on stage. Clearly that's a failure on my part and I don't really know what is to be done.

The three of us had a great time at the RSC. This production used an ultra-modern, stark setting. The live music was particularly affecting, and Joan Iyiola and Nicholas Tennant were particularly mesmerising as The Duchess and Bosola.

The early acts really brought out the Duchess's emotional and sexual needs in ways I didn't focus on in my teaching, and cut the material that encourages you to understand events as products of a corrupted society (as does Hamlet), while the second half concentrated on the horror. A cow's carcass was stabbed straight after the interval and the enormous quantities of blood slowly filled the stage over the course of the remaining hour – so much that the front rows were given blankets to protect their clothes. The actors then proceeded to dial down the acting and up the hamming, rolling around in the pool until everybody was soaked in the claret. It was certainly viscerally horrific, but I wasn't sure how dramatically successful this element was. It brings up the play's problem: how do you convincingly play someone who gets strangled or stabbed and then keeps waking up do deliver final lines? The RSC production decided to amp up the symbolism and the horror rather than attempt realism, which I think was probably a good idea, but something still didn't quite work in the last acts. Respect for having live dead children in the cast though.

As I keep telling my students, even seeing a bad production gives you things to think about. This wasn't a bad production, but a mixed one and it's made me rethink how I'll approach teaching Malfi next year.

Not a lot else has happened this week. I lectured on Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem again, which gave me a chance to wax lyrical about travellers, free festivals, the Criminal Justice Bill, the Battle of the Beanfield, the Green Man and the constructed nature of national identity, and I deleted 6000+ emails, which felt like a real achievement. A little light union casework, some peer observation, writing a PhD examiners' report and a bit of dissertation supervision. Other than that, I've gone to work, got home late, fallen asleep in my cycling gear then hauled my stinking carcass off to bed. Oh - and met an academic publisher foolish enough to take my politicians' novels idea seriously. I might actually have to write the damn thing now.

This afternoon has ended the week well though. I read this Guardian appreciation of Joni Mitchell and have played album after album of her work today. I actually cannot remember who introduced me to her stuff – I now have a (very few) friends who like her but I started listening to her work in the 90s and I'm sure my usual sources of new music at that point (Radio 3, John Peel, NME and the Evening Session) didn't rate her much and I distinctly remember the Cob Records staff mocking me roundly for buying The Hissing of Summer Lawns alongside some Anhrefn and Broadcast singles. Whoever it was: thanks. I like the weird tunings, the huge range of musical styles across her albums, the refusal to become comfortable or predictable (like Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Joanna Newsom and Scott Walker), the narrative songs and the grown-up attitudes.

Here are some of my favourite Joni tracks:

And while I'm in a 60s/70s mood, and reminded of the Malfi line 'like diamonds we are cut with our own dust', here's Joan Baez's 'Diamonds and Rust', about the aftermath of her relationship with Bob Dylan. Coming from the folk tradition she doesn't often write her own music, but in my opinion this song is easily as good as anything he ever did. It's packed with subtle, beautiful literary and artistic references, with the rueful affection of a valued, broken relationship and a couplet that just can't be topped for expressing the tension between being fully part of a couple while realising intellectually (and with rueful hindsight) that even in the most romantic moment you can't fully know your other.

Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there

I managed to see her play about ten years ago: now she's retiring and I'll miss her.

Friday, 9 March 2018

How I Learned to Love the Academy, or, Grounds for Optimism

One of the things that I find difficult is focus, particularly around work. I am, as you may have noticed, intensely interested in politics, structures, power and cultures: these things inform some of my research and provide the framework through which I view macro- and micro events.

I'm from a largely middle-class family with some history of higher education: as far as I can tell, my paternal grandfather was the first to attend university, taking a medical degree from University College Dublin in the 1930s. Both my parents took medical degrees, and all my five siblings have degrees (from much more prestigious institutions than the ones I went to and work at, they unfailingly remind me). Despite being the one with the worst school record of all (4% in a maths exam was a particular highlight), I'm the only one to pursue an academic life. Finding out at 18 that reading books and talking about them could be a way of life rather than an invitation to another playground beating was quite a revelation. The point being that encountering the idea of the academy has been enormously influential on me. I went to Coleg Prifysgol Gogledd Cymru/University College of North Wales in 1993 - by the time I graduated it was Coleg Prifysgol Cymru/University of Wales, Bangor and now it's Prifysgol Bangor University. It was small, buzzing with intellectual and social life, and quietly proud of its democratic origins, funded by subscriptions from slate quarriers.

Behind the scenes, no doubt, it was torn by all the tensions inherent in higher education: financial worries, political pressures, recruitment concerns, the balance between intellectual and skills development and all the other things that come with being a polymorphous institution. None of this was visible to students: I went to lectures and tutorials, read books, edited the student newspaper, stood for election (mostly unsuccessfully), went on demonstrations, partied, played sports, ran out of money, lived in terrible houses, met people from all over the world and from every background and generally had a great time. My tutors varied widely in personality and approach, but they were intellectually ambitious and caring at the same time. I came out of it, in short, a better person than I'd gone in. Did I know what I wanted to do next? Not at all. Going to university wasn't really a conscious choice, more an expectation, and leaving it seemed like being expelled from paradise. The problem was, I'd been turned into an idealist. I'd experienced the ideal of the university in what seemed to be its purest form: a community that fought its internal battles passionately and no doubt viciously, but always in the service of a higher purpose: the creation of a better world for everyone through intellectual labour.

I did an MA at Bangor and then a PhD at my current workplace, an post-92 HEI whose adherence to the polytechnic ideal of widening participation to the working class and the excluded proved equally attractive to me. I'm not only still here because I'm unemployable, I'm also still here because I believe that fine minds aren't solely the product of the comfortable suburbs.

The point is, and I'm sorry it's taken me several paragraphs to get this far, is that universities in all their variety are special places. They're full of people – students and staff – who engage in the common pursuit of knowledge and ways of thinking that transcend their immediate context. I have a contract (much-abused) with one chartered institution to teach a specific set of students and engage in particular research, managed by a group of people with medieval titles. They can hire and fire, and they can – and do – practice particular styles of management and discipline within a local culture. All of us, however, explicitly and with varying degrees of commitment, acknowledge that there are deeper connections and responsibilities which go beyond the immediate. I work for my students, for the wider intellectual community, for my colleagues within and without this and other HEIs, and for society. It's an enormous privilege not to have to serve burgers or hoe turnips, a privilege I'm conscious of. I think I understood some of this as a student because it was made clear by my tutors, and I hope that my students get some of this from me.

While my experiences have placed me firmly on the political left, none of these principles are inherently left wing : some of the doughtiest supporters of the university as a space protected from the chill winds of reductive atheism, capitalism or state interference have been conservatives, such as Cardinal Newman and Michael Oakeshott (and for a very interesting and different take, which rejects Newman as outdated, see this piece by Mark Leach). Last night I went to a launch for a very expensive book, Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. Written, edited and supported by some of my friends, it traces the poisoning of the Higher Education ideal by marketisation and the idea that the sole purpose (expect for the children of the 1%) of HE is to fit young people for soul-destroying, insecure and badly-paid work, while telling them that they're 'investing' in themselves. Within the wider neoliberal social framework imposed by a government with no majority (building on the work of a Labour government which capitulated to the Invisible Hand), Hall and Winn's contributors consider whether universities as an autonomous sector of society can be rescued, and if so, by whom.

One of the problems, they say, is a leadership module of Big White Usually-Male Saviours, and several chapters look at alternative structures such as Co-operative Universities. In the case of the Birmingham Autonomous University, they say it's time to burn down the tainted institutions and start again. I can attest to this saviour mentality, having been a university governor for some years and an employee for longer. I went to a training course for HE leaders, and on arriving the programme director said 'Oh, you're from XXX: your VC is a visionary'. My heart sank. Visionaries run a gamut from Jim Jones to Joanna Southcott, with only the occasional Rosa Luxemburg and they're never good at challenging structural issues. They can bring energy and new ideas, but cultures and economic conditions rarely change in response to a single person's direction. In Weberian terms, I'd far rather live in a bureaucratic system than a charismatic one.

My view and always has been that universities should be vehicles for social justice and enlightenment, and that a university is a collection of groups united hopefully by an intention to understand and improve our lot. Although Liz Morrish has a wittier formulation:
Clark Kerr … said a university is a series of fiefdoms united by a common heating system
In that case, my HEI is united by bafflement at the (non)functioning of the heating system.

The contemporary university, however, is the sometimes-willing captive of its management. Our students and colleagues sometimes forget that they are the university and that managers should be implementing the carefully-considered policies set by academics, students and service department staff. Certainly my faculty and institution managers often behave as though students and staff are their minions, serving their visions. I have a lot of sympathy for them in many ways: it's almost impossible to work out where the money is coming from with no economic and political stability, but I do feel that we're becoming like the banks before they crashed: captured by their highly-enumerated senior executives, few of whom have ever published a paper or taught a class recently or at all, and captured by a mindset of metrics and income often through no fault of their own, in an atmosphere of doom and gloom. The neoliberal turn has produced universities run like businesses in which managers talk about 'business cases' and 'customers'; these universities produce students who think like customers and staff who are encouraged only to think of 'skills' and 'employability: a reactive institution and culture which has been described as the 'sub-prime university'.

At the launch last night my only contribution was to suggest that those of us who believe in universities as a public good need to recapture a sense of utopianism. There's no reason any subject shouldn't reach for the stars, whether it's astronomy, English or fashion design. Fashion is on my mind because on the other side of the glass wall from last night's launch, students were industriously designing lingerie: it felt rather like an episode of Father Ted. The joy of the current USS Strike is that students, academic staff and all the service department colleagues in the USS scheme are discovering the joys of being members of a community. Shorn of the disciplinary surveillance of the subprime-U, they've discovered that they're all on the same side. They've gone through the small print of the pensions assault, uncovered scandal, corruption, greed and plain bad maths, and communicated these things wittily and effectively to people who are discovering they aren't, in fact, customers but colleagues. It's been wonderful. Oxford University staff overcame the dirty tricks of their VC to reassert academic leadership of the institution, alumni everywhere are putting pressure on managers and Universities UK has been exposed as rotten to the core.

My view is that this provides an opportunity to end the discourse of decline. We have so much of which to be proud, and we are bursting with ideas. The public – apart from my brother, apparently – seems to understand that it's a good idea to teach critical thinking, to research things that aren't obviously and immediately profitable, that not everything should be run like a KFC and that the 'nice' bits of HE shouldn't just be reserved for the nice white children of the 1%. Last night Liz Morrish praised Birmingham City University for the bravery involved in setting up a BA in Black Studies (imagine the 'business case' for that, and the parents wondering how that will get you a job). We need to support and follow them. Every time a minister attacks degrees in Medieval Literature or whatever, we need to challenge them long and loud. We need to encourage our students to take the weird path, and we need to provide managers with the backbone required to buck the market. I can't remember who said it last night, but it was suggested that we should encourage the view that a Vice-Chancellorship isn't a reward: it's a burden. In the more civilised universities, course leaderships and department headships are rotated because it's understood that bureaucracy is a necessary evil that takes us away from students and research, and nobody should shoulder that load alone for too long. I've long thought it should work like that here, and now I'm very attracted to the idea that the VC should have her 5 years and then return to the ranks of researchers and teachers. A visiting senior scholar told me recently that at his institution, anyone in senior management with an academic profile has to do a minimum number of hours in a classroom per year, and make a REF return. It's a long time since most faculty and executive managers ran a seminar or submitted a journal article: they've long forgotten what it's like to do either, let alone both (while writing a TEF report…) and it's time they rediscovered those joys.

Above all, we need to take heart from the knowledge that we don't work for HEFCE, the OfS, the director of finance or the marketing department: we work for civilisation. That sounds massively pompous - because it is - but it's still true. The old slogan still applies: Another World Is Possible.

Because, in the spare time between tweeting GIFs about UniversitiesUK, I'm still a literature academic, I had a rummage through my memory for literary representations of universities. I'm not altogether in favour of campus novels: it's a bit too solipsistic, but I've accumulated a number of them across the years. I have to say: we're not universally adored out there. The posher, older universities are universally derided as the archaic playgrounds of bitter contemptuous snobs with no connection to the 'real world' (Porterhouse BlueLucky Jim); places like mine are laughed at for letting the (often over-sexed) proletariat rabble in (Sharpe's Wilt or Jacobson's Coming From Behind) or for aspiring to be like the old places (one aspect of John Wain's A Winter in the Hills which is actually a quietly wonderful novel). Spirits curdle, murders are committed, blood feuds emerge from petty differences and – almost universally – young women are sexual prey. Campuses provide authors with microcosmic cultures in which proximity exacerbates the worst aspects of wider society: Sayers' Gaudy Night is a classic of its claustrophobic kind: the academic Gormenghast. Alison Lurie's novels play it for laughs until you realise you're crying, while Donna Tartt's The Secret History reinforced all the suspicions about universities being carnivalesque spaces for a self-appointed élite (I hated it because I got the sense that Tartt secretly loved the monsters she'd created: I like Brideshead Revisited more as I get older because it feels less and less like Waugh wants us to celebrate rather than understand his cast). I loved May Sarton's The Small Room for its dated innocence and seriousness: an entire university is ripped apart over an accusation of undergraduate plagiarism, and John Williams's Stoner for its air of quiet dignity and simultaneous desperation. I hated Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning because it spoiled a good campus crime thriller with a pathological obsession with breasts: not a female character appeared on the page without the narrator giving you an update on the size, shape and movement of said glands. Oh, and it reproduced the same female-academics-as-hairy-predatory-lesbians trope which appears in Gaudy Night and Jilly Cooper's Riders.

Universities like mine don't usually get a look-in: campus novels tend to be about the kind of place that has cloisters, but I'll give an honourable mention to Frank Parkin's The Mind and Body Shop which, despite some knockabout xenophobia, uncannily predicted the modern university down to the high-street outlets and the VC clad in a tracksuit covered in sponsors' brands, doing workouts in the office he's converted to a gym.
The Vice-Chancellor of a large English college in Liverpool is remonstrating with the hapless Professor Douglas Hambro of the Philosophy Department: ""If you're still in the red at the end of Trinity term. . .you'll go the same way as Classics and Math and English."" In the modern university, all subjects have to earn their keep (there are coin-operated turnstiles in lecture rooms), and professors are supposed to act as hacks for foreign countries--one of Hambro's venal colleagues, Counselor Hedda Hagstrom, is doing research on a grant from OPEC to prove that children's IQ's are raised by leaded gas emissions.

Beyond the obvious novelistic attractions of the campus as a setting, the better ones are a good corrective: they remind us that we are privileged, and that we have responsibilities to the society that has given us – very reluctantly in the case of recent administrations – to use our time and power wisely, and to open the gates with pleasure rather than resentment. They also teach us not to take ourselves too seriously…

Friday, 2 March 2018

On being slightly, temporarily, Twitter-famous

OK, I need to define my terms first. Being Twitter-famous means, as far as I can see, having a spike in retweets of something you've said rather than being actually famous (which I wouldn't want), and being picked up by 'news' outlets that privilege cutting-and-pasting (also here and here) over doing their own journalism. The second and final phase of being temporarily popular is a wave of pornographic twitter-bots following you. The current giveaway is 'cosplay', and I feel sorry for the original cos-players, who seem like a harmless bunch. I industriously block any account that's either fake, commercial or insincere: currently about 16000. I think that if this was the Counter-Reformation I'd have consigned enormous numbers of people to eternal hellfire in the blink of an eye.

I seem to have accidentally and temporarily become Twitter-famous for doing two things: posting three satirical gifs to illustrate the posh universities' Vice-Chancellors' attitudes towards their staff, who spent the week taking noisy, exciting and witty industrial action against swingeing cuts in their pensions.

One used the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally to illustrate the VC's reaction to USS finding a new way to rip off even retired employees, another took The Hunt for Red October as a metaphor for academics' ability to parse small print (it seemed funny at the time), and the third likened VCs crying poverty to Scrooge McDuck's plutocratic ways, though I could have used this one:

I guess the Frankfurt School would consider such lazy and snide repurposing of commercial art to be degenerate mass culture, but I prefer to thing of it as postmodern remix culture. And definitely not 'goofing off'. What I have learned this week is that a modicum of wit gets a message a long way – whether it has any meaningful effect is another matter entirely.

The other bit of tweeting that nearly broke my phone was simple outrage. I read the Public Appointments Commissioner's report on the Office for Students recruitment process. It turns out that Toby Young got a phone call from the Minister for Universities telling him to apply; that is disgusting social media history wasn't examined; that the social media of all the candidates for the student post were examined; that 133 students applied and none of them got the job; that special advisers to the Prime Minister rejected all the qualified candidates because they had histories of being involved in student representation (I know…) and/or of disagreeing with Conservative Party policy; that the eventual student representative appointed didn't apply for the job: she was found (how? nobody knows) and had her social media deleted on her first day: we know literally nothing about her beyond her name; that the Department of Education deliberately tried to hide evidence from the inquiry.

As a thoroughgoing study in corruption, the Office for Students is a case study in what happens when cynicism meets incompetence. It's the kind of thing dropped in the edits of an episode of The Thick of It. The Office for Students, which launched this week with no apparent shame, is meant to be a kind of watchdog in the Higher Education sector. It is in fact a device to promote privatisation, to deprofessionalise academics, to turn students from scholars to customers, and to abolish the autonomy of universities as any kind of counterweight to the neoliberal model.

What links these two odd events in my week? Well, the public outrage at the Toby Young story and the widespread support from students, newspapers, the public and even some Vice-Chancellors for the striking lecturers. While many of us, inside and out, have reservations about HE in practice, people are supportive of education as a site of critique and resistance, and (except for my brother) view striking academics not as greedy individualists, but as representatives of a worldview that can't be reduced to profit and loss. While a number of very famous institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge have been caught trying to rip off their employees while hiding behind the skirts of Universities UK, it's been heartening to see other senior education leaders defending the principles of autonomous education and the financial structures required to keep them viable.

This was certainly not the case when my own university and sister institutions in the Teachers' Pension Scheme took industrial action. My institution's leaders – despite landing eye-watering pay rises themselves – have never spoken in favour of staff getting pay rises above inflation (now a full decade) or of protecting employee pensions. Some speak of keeping the institution viable; others crudely talk about us as fungible assets to be sweated. Our strike had no effect: ex-polys lack the cultural capital that gets us onto the front pages of broadsheet newspapers, and ministers' children are unlikely to be inconvenienced and the ministers themselves rarely angle for the post-retirement mastership of any institution that doesn't have a High Table. (One day I'll give you my full Why Do Even Good Progressive People In The Establishment Only Ever Take Sinecures At Oxbridge Colleges Yes I'm Looking At You Will Hutton And Rowan Williams rant. It's not pretty).

If that sounds sour, it's not meant to be: the majority of academics at pre-92 universities are progressive, caring people who fully uphold the values of egalitarian liberalism, and many of them in medieval sandstone buildings have worse terms and conditions than we denizens of the concrete academy. I've been massively impressed by their sacrifices, wit and ingenuity in the snow this week and I hope they succeed.

Of course, I have done plenty of actual work this week. As soon as I'd finished outlining the sorry tale of a man chosen on obscure grounds by a mysterious process run by unpleasant characters to do a job he was utterly unqualified for, leading to shame and dishonour, I taught Macbeth to those few first-years who find the idea of a drama module taught in a theatre with working actors and directors as well as academics at all interesting (OK, now I'm sounding sour, and rightly so). I enjoyed it, anyway. I've also had a meeting with my new research mentor, whose first question was 'what are you submitting to REF 2027?' Oh god oh god oh god. It turns out that I've agreed to rebuild the Great Library of Alexandria solely with my own outputs. I did also send off two conference paper proposals though: one on Celtic representation in video games (planning to use Billig's Banal Nationalism to explore that, alongside an argument that Celticism is used to represent an ineffable mush of spirituality that's viewed as cute but outdated, and that all Celts are basically used as interchangeable Others, other than Drippy) and another on food and kitchens in contemporary Welsh literature. If the audience is good I might bake them some Welsh cakes.

I've also been down to London to do my External Examining at an East London branch of the Open University. It's a tiny place attached to an FE college, catering to the most deprived and put-upon students in the country and it's brilliant: the course is superb and the students do astonishingly well. As I listen to the list of hardships the students face ('deported', 'homeless', 'sister recently murdered') and overcome, it's hard to feel any sympathy for the VCs, their pornstar martinis and business-class mind-sets.

The rest of the week has been spent reading a PhD on Tolkien, Pullman, eco-labyrinthicity and Christianity, still reading Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, and staring out at the snow. Despite a couple of slides yesterday, cycling in it was wonderful: still and silent, just the sound of my Kojak tyres crunching through fresh powder and the wind whistling around me. Despite the ice, it's been safe too: drivers are being ultra-cautious. The best news of the last week or so has been my colleague Daisy Black's elevation: she's been chosen as a BBC New Generation Thinker, and will be positively infesting the airwaves with her views on medieval culture for the next year or so.

And on that note, I think I'd better go: it's snowing heavily and the wind's getting up. The office supplies consist of 6 biscuits, a jar of olives, a bottle of Chartreuse, some wine and some tobacco: an interesting cocktail but not really a balanced diet. Instead, I'm going home with this PhD dissertation. I'll ignore the ironing and cleaning, light the fire and settle in. But not before feeding last night's baking to the birds. It turns out that if you buy one of those bread mix packets designed for bread machines, then leave it in a cupboard for almost three years, the yeast dies and you get an inedible rugby ball-shaped object capable of breaking a toe. If I judge the trajectory right, I can bounce it off my noisy neighbour's head on the way to feeding my feathery friends.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Strike for a Kingdom

Well, I let a whole ten days or so slide with out blogging. I'm not sure whether I'm lazy, overworked, or an emblem of a generation tiring of semi-long-form social media in the era of snarky one-liners (if you haven't seen my Twitter feed, it is indeed mostly snarky one-liners designed to bring about fully-automated luxury communism by lunchtime). It might be all three. Being the Voice of a Generation is tiring, especially when you're trying to fit it around marking and episodically head-butting the desk when some lanyard-wearing gimp emails you another set of time-wasting things to do that aren't going to help him, you or the students.

Anyway, now that's off my chest, let's talk about all my friends at posh universities. By posh, I mean those universities with a staff room and whose pension scheme has more syllables than mine: the Universities' Superannuation Scheme. I'm in the Teachers' Pension Scheme because I'm from Scumbag College and won't have a Volvo or a labrador to feed in my old age.

My own pension scheme was reduced to a serving of gruel and a boot up the arse some time ago (and despite being 42, I've only 8 years of contributions because university teaching has been casualised), but it's relatively safe, being government-backed rather than 'invested' on the stock market, overseen by some massively overpaid VCs who turned out to be taking home up to an extra £90,000 to help the USS decline. Will their own pensions be hit? Of course not: VCs and other executives hit the limit years before, and get massive payments in lieu of pension contributions.

Academics at pre-92 universities tend to be paid a little less, but they had a better pension scheme. Then the USS board (stuffed with the same VCs and their cronies whose pay has risen 56% in a decade while teachers' pay has been eroded by inflation) announced that the scheme is bust and pensions have to be cut by £10,000 per year. Small beer for the VCs of course: mine got a £27,000 pay rise in a single year not long ago and has never once expressed concern for the decade of earnings loss suffered by his employees, but a lot for someone who probably didn't get a permanent, pension-contributing job until they hit their thirties.

On top of that, it turns out that the fund isn't in deficit: USS has fiddled the statistics. Why would they do that? Because Oxford, Cambridge and UCL, being hugely rich, decided that they'd rather not lend their superior credit rating to the national pension scheme, thus throwing their own employees and those of all the pre-92 universities overboard in the process. They want to get out and what the élite universities want, élite universities get. Will a government stuffed with Oxbridge graduates refuse? Of course not? Will the regulator refuse? Given that the Office for Students is headed by Nicola Dandridge, formerly chief lobbyist for Universities UK, I think it's safe to say that they won't rest until teachers have all the perks and benefits of your average Amazon worker.  

Will they get away with it? There's a big strike starting this week, and a few VCs are protesting, but most of them are claiming that it's nothing to do with them guv: despite being members of the USS board and of Universities UK, they claim it's out of their hands. Having routed money away from investing in staff and students, they're cannibalising their employees' retirement fund to pay for their grace-and-favour mansions, chauffeurs and bonuses. Do they care that pensions aren't bonuses, but deferred pay? They do not. Do they care that a generation of bright young things will opt for some less useful job away from academia? Not a jot.

What does the strike mean for USS staff? On a very basic level, it means losing 14 days' pay, and the concomitant loss of pension contributions (and universities regularly take a day's pay when staff stage two-hour strikes, because they're deeply unpleasant people: Leeds and other universities are planning to fine staff who simply do the hours stipulated on their contracts - my own university is even more punitive when we strike: they take 1/260th from our annual salaries rather than 1/365th). Most people with a household budget would struggle with losing two weeks of salary, and given that 50% of the people who teach you or your children at university are on hourly-paid and/or precarious salaries, it's a big loss. Most branches have a hardship fund, and I'll be donating. More than the financial loss, academics are torn and saddened by the need to deny students the education, support and care that they provide every single day. If you've studied, or been an academic, you'll know that emails arrive at 2 a.m, that students come for help at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., that marking deadlines mean that friends and family get locked out at weekends, references get written at short notice and drafts read on Sunday nights. Decent academics put in way more work than their employers care to notice, and this labour is often emotional labour. None of my better-dressed colleagues want to withdraw any of this, but they need to demonstrate to their chauffeur-driven suits that they aren't fungible assets, and they need to show students that another world is possible.

Across the country, academics from 61 universities aren't simply putting their feet up: on those strike days they'll be holding alternative lectures and seminars, teach-outs and rallies to examine the mean-spirited, ideologically-driven ideology that led to them treating their former colleagues like assets to be sweated. To those parents protesting that their children are being deprived of the education they paid for,  experiencing a strike and finding out the causes are precisely the kinds of educational experiences that will stand them in good stead.

Academics are professionals, and part of being a professional is recognising that you have a duty to a set of principles rather than a local organisational manifestation of these principles. Lawyers have a duty to the law rather than a client or the state; doctors have an oath that outweighs the time clock or a manager's demands; academics have a duty to the pursuit of knowledge. The ideological sea in which we've swum for decades has been one of deprofessionalisation in all areas of human activity. because independent centres of resistance have to be crushed if Lord Ashcroft, Richard Branson, Tim Cook and the Carillion directors are to be guaranteed that extra olive in their martinis. The proletarianisation of all professions is a concerted effort by neoliberals to turn work into nothing more than the exchange of products for wages, with no voice and no principles. Working-class colleagues have a far harder time than me and my academic friends, but without the security of a decent pension, academics won't ever be able to challenge the juggernaut of the piecework labour model that's rolling over us all. This week it's university lecturers. Doctors and lawyers – through the withdrawal of legal aid – have already been through the mill. Who's next?

I'm not on strike next week, but I'll be supporting those who are, and I won't be crossing any picket lines. If you're thinking that academics have it easy and are lucky to be able to strike, think about this: it's because we clung to our right to unionise, despite repeated attacks on those rights. Try doing the same. Here's a guide to how to support your lecturers:

Now go away. It's 7.21 p.m., I'm still in the office and there's still work to do.

*The title of this blog refers to a seriously good novel written by Menna Gallie. Her husband was a professor of philosophy at several universities: another of her books, Man's Desiring, is a funny, moving campus novel based on Keele, where she lived while her husband taught there.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

I've got piles…

I for one definitely didn't spend four hours moving books around last night because several piles fell over in the middle of the previous night, covering themselves and most of my bedroom in Linen and Sandalwood oil from the bottle onto which they collapsed, and waking me up from a dream in which I was having to do a practical criticism exam on the works of Baroness Orczy, with the Baroness in the room. I've read the first of her Scarlet Pimpernel novels, and that was enough.

By shelving, I mean that the books I've read get moved onto shelves in alphabetical order while the piles of unread books next to the cases of unread books in the Room of Unread Books get higher and more unstable. Currently my vinyl and CD collections share the dining room with Ben Aaronovitch-Jilly Cooper (I'm very sad that with the death of my Positions module, Riders will no longer be taught here), Victoria Coren-EL James (before you say anything, I'm supervising a PhD on fan fiction) are in the drawing room with the Left Book Club collection (as yet incomplete), typography, art and architecture selections plus the bound set of London Review of Books.

Henry James-Philip Ziegler are in the spare bedroom alongside several piles of unread fiction and a case of biographies and autobiographies, the box room contains three double-shelved cases and piles of unread fiction and non-fiction, while the bedroom holds books I'm reading right now, a bookcase of poetry and various uniform edition rows, and there are a couple of random piles. Cookery books are in the kitchen, naturally, and for some reason Fire and Fury is on the washing machine. There are no books in the bathroom, though I'm reliably informed that cheaply-glued paperbacks hold together if exposed to the steam. Around the piles of books are a nest of rags to sleep on, a plastic bag for clothes and a bucket for ablutions. Oh, and a couple of bikes. Imagine 221b Baker Street but lacking the cocaine, the amanuensis, or the genius. I do have a violin though.

At work, we get one cupboard for books: in mine are my holdings of Welsh literature, triple-shelved, and a few things I'm teaching. Next to it, behind my Moulton bicycle is an enormous pile of Tory Novels (mostly Tory, mostly novels) which form one of my current research projects (thanks colleagues).

Mine is actually blue and has drop bars and various refinements

The desk is also rather piled high with either books I'm using at the moment or ones which have just come in. Only today I picked up Kit de Waal's My Name Is Leon: Kit is coming to the university on Monday, and Joe Dunthorne's The Adulterants. I've long been a fan: Submarine was funny and moving, Wild Abandon raised the bar considerably, and like Margaret Atwood, he's an even better poet than novelist (shame that neither of them will sell the movie rights of their poems to HBO). And finally, we have a Reading Room with some huge, beautiful glass-fronted bookcases. I've appropriated 4 of them for all my critical theory texts. In return, they are available to students, at least two of whom will shortly be hunted down like dogs for apparently sending them away on a long, long journey.

Other things I've picked up recently include Danny Morrison's story of same-sex love amidst the Troubles, On The Back of the Swallow, GR Mitchison's 1934 speculative fiction The First Workers' Government or New Times for Henry Dubb with an introduction by Stafford Cripps – both for the politicians' fictions project – Simon Morden's The Lost Art which had plenty of good ideas but a fairly thin plot, Jeff Noon's new one A Man of Shadows and Will Self's Phone. I've been teaching A View From the Bridge and Foucault this week, so I read them, finished Nicholas Blake's A Tangled Web (as usual with him, taut structure, literate, vampirically misogynist) and am still reading Religion and the Decline of Magic. Between manic bouts of marking, that is. We've all really felt under the cosh recently, and despite the official mantra of 'Students First', colleagues have been struggling to write Teaching Excellence Framework documents at the same time as teaching and meeting marking documents. As a reward, we all received a notice from the VC's office practically begging us to take a very little money and run, which is reassuring. Still, the Literature Festival turned out to have been a success: 6200 visitors to 98 events. I'm going to work on more successful children's events next year. I think I'll need a costume and a song.

Actually, this isn't far removed from the desperate, craven methods we're using to unsuccessfully persuade students to complete the NSS. I threatened to drown the department dog last week…

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Amongst the literati

I'm going home early tonight (it's 7 p.m., which is early for me) and I have the joy of a long Award Validation Meeting on another campus tomorrow, before dashing back to welcome a trio of Northern Irish loyalist friends for the weekend, in a reversal of last week's Derry Girls. When I stayed with them they hung a Union flag in my bedroom, informed me that I was the first Catholic to enter the house,  and took me to an RUC bar to sing karaoke. They made me sing 'The Sash', and declined to join in with my rendition of 'The Fields of Athenry'. It was a great weekend and I'm going to enjoy flying a tricolour and teasing them for their rather hypocritical acquisition of Irish passports since the Brexit vote…

So anyway, I'm still marking massive piles of essays, and recovering from the second Literature Festival we held in this city. 97 events across 26 venues, with loads of contributions from my colleagues. For me, the fun kicked off early when the university authorities got cold feet about hosting a debate on Rivers of Blood 50 Years On. They didn't much fancy attracting the Powellites, and the academic historian on the panel dropped out rather than share a stage with one of the more objectionable UKIP MEPs. Then the Labour MP and another anti-racist campaigner dropped out. Cue a flurry of calls and emails from management, the council, the local newspaper which organised the whole thing (and which the university doesn't like to upset), and meetings to recast the panel (now all-male and covering the political spectrum from rabid right to moderate), set the tone and arrange security. After all that, the SWP decided to stage a demonstration outside, which terrified people who don't know that when they're not covering up rape accusations, these red-blooded revolutionaries have all the fervour of a self-warming sock and couldn't fill a phone box with slavering militants. Once the West Mids Police had phoned me asking for the names of these revolutionary comrades, I started to enjoy the irony. Despite the SWP's many awful characteristics, their local members always turn out to support industrial action and social ills. So there I was, refusing to name people who were demonstrating an event I wasn't involved in, organised by a paper whose star columnist tried to get me sacked, all in the name of free speech.

Thankfully being detained at a different event, I didn't have to witness the clash of intellects, but I'm assured that the demonstration was very polite (how many dangerous subversives own a collapsible gazebo?) and the debate was actually rather dull, partly because the paper's editor refused to let the UKIP MEP try any grandstanding. Still it was quite a stressful few days.

Away from the Battle of Civilisations, LitFest II was enormously successful. We haven't quite cracked the kids' events yet, and a few events didn't attract many punters, but last year's collective audience of c. 2300 became one of 6200 or so. Loads of my colleagues and some students contributed, and lots more attended events. I went along and introduced Lynsey Hanley, who writes about council estates, housing policy, social class and mobility, in conversation with my colleague from a similar background.

Nicola Allen, Lynsey Hanley

Then it was off to Niall Griffiths, the scabrous novelist and intellectual who delights in teasing the prim: his new novel is partly set here, and examines what he sees as England's failure to define itself. The EU, he says, asked England to find an identity, and it couldn't, unlike Wales and Scotland. One of the things I like about Niall's work is that working-class and underclass people (thieves, drug-dealers, prostitutes) get the chance to talk about the big issues rather than being treated as a mute, brutish mob.

Niall Griffiths

Niall's right too: the star of the next thing I went to was Don Powell, drummer of Slade. The crowd was packed with fans who booed mentions of bent managers and cheered early songs' chart successes. They asked interesting questions and Powell reeled off anecdotes and observations with enormous charm. You'd never know that he's been a rock star for 50 years, with the cash from 'that song' as he called it providing him with luxury unimaginable round here. You wouldn't actually know that he'd ever left the area. He even organised a round of applause for his old roadie from the 60s, whom they used to pay £10 a week.
A Slade fan's lonely struggle

Don Powell, ex-Slade

After that, it was off to Cummings Up For Air, a semi-comedic Jonathan Meades-style monologue and series of films about the more deservedly obscure parts of the Black Country - one of the best things on.

Cummings Up For Air

Then a collective reading by my colleagues Kelly Hadley-Pryce and Rob Francis, alongside poet Luke Kennard and novelist Anthony Cartwright, whose novels I really rate. Day 2 started for me with How To Get Away With Murder, a panel discussion between three very different crime novelists and my colleague Gaby, who never lets anybody get away with anything. I don't read contemporary crime to any great extent, and I was fascinated more by the discussion of craft and planning than by the various vile deeds enunciated. The authors were very generous and reflective, which made for an enjoyable hour. Then it was off to Arts Foundry, run by Louise Palfreyman, and featuring creative writing contributions by several local authors, including two of my students, who revealed sides of their personalities hitherto unglimpsed in essays and seminars!

Kerry Hadley-Pryce
Not LitFest but nearby. I liked the idea of Enduring Memorials promised on the side of a building being demolished

An unappreciative LitFest audience
Lousie Palfreyman and Storm Mann
Dreadful light, but I liked the way her hair and the inner surfaces of the sculpture chimed.

Exhausted but not defeated, I headed off to Will Self in conversation with our new professor of English. I like Self's earlier work and am behind on the recent trilogy, but I'm quite an admirer of his, mostly for these two total destructions of morons on Radio 5 and Newsnight. You never quite know what you'll get, but Self was on tremendous form this time: witty, warm, hugely entertaining and almost flirting with the sold-out audience. The things he said fell into two categories: witty bollocks and obviously true. No, three categories: the observation that people with google maps see the world differently from Before felt like something from Grumpy Old Men, and I can't help remembering that we had maps then. Some of them, like Roman maps, were every bit as reductive as those on our phones, simply showing the roads between places. In the 'witty bollocks' category came Self's sterling defence of modernist fiction: 'postmodernism is an architectural style, it has nothing to do with literature. Only me and Eimear McBride are getting it right'. He also cheerfully accepted that 'literary fiction' is dead: 'it's a conservatoire form; even I've got Netflix'. He has a new series on Radio 4 in which he takes the bus to unfashionable places. It might sound like the product of eating too much cheese before bed, but it's very good.

A Selfie with Self
Good hair in Will's World. 

Finally, I went to Tim J Jarvis's experimental poetry/music experience. Cut-up poetry in the dark, accompanied by experimental drone music by his colleague. As you can probably imagine, just my kind of thing. Not everyone's though: a fan told Tim that 'I enjoyed it, but my wife left'.


Tim J Jarvis
Not a bad way to end a literature festival I guess. And now for home. You can see more photos here.