Friday, 30 May 2014

The King and the Animals: a tale of university folk

Long, long ago, an eternal winter had fallen upon The Hegemon. Ruled by a cruel Queen, the animals who lived there shivered under the lash, and any who dared disagree with her were lashed into silenced. Nothing she touched turned to gold. Rather she and her henchmen managed to despoil and degrade what had been a happy and harmonious place. One day, having deceived the Gods of Hefce who gave her gold, the Empress of Hegemon announced that hundreds of the animals would have to be culled to make up the shortfall. Cowed and resentful, the survivors retreated to their burrows and nests, fearful that they too would never see spring.

And then, out of the blue, the wicked Queen was gone. In her place was a new ruler. The snow melted, the clouds lifted, the grass waxed green and the animals emerged from their hiding places to sniff the fresh air and nibble on the tender young shoots. The King seemed wise and friendly. Gone was the lash and the cold stare that would freeze young animals into stone. Instead, he was seen strolling about The Hegemon, talking to the kits and encouraging the fauna to speak bravely and boldly. And The Hegemon did prosper.

But alas! Honeyed words soon turned to blows. The animals looked at their hungry cubs and threadbare homes, at the labour tripled by the absence of their fallen comrades, and begged of the King a little more fodder from his bulging granaries, such as had not been granted for many a year. At this the King grew angry and the animals did perceive that though he wore a glove of velvet, his fist was made of iron. They resolved to resist, and withdrew their labour from the King's field, a little at a time, but he waxed imperious: for every short rest they took, he would punish them by removing their fodder for a whole day. Even the neighbouring kingdoms had not been so vindictive, so cruel, so vengeful. It mattered not to the King of The Hegemon that his subjects loved him no longer. The animals returned to his fields and mines, broken and saddened, but victory was not enough for him. The creatures had to be humiliated, lest they ever again were tempted to resist his might.

And yet… hardened to the beatings under successive rulers, the doughty creatures of the air, the forests and the soil. They were many and Kings were few. In every hidden pool, glade, burrow and nest the gathered, sharing their nuts and their strength. Soon they would pour hence to test the King's resolve in the Halls of Justice, and in the meantime, the King's harvest would rot in the fields.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink.

Amongst other things over the long weekend, including breaking my vintage bike, seeing my mum and getting a sore throat, I read a book. More specifically, I read the translation of Lloyd Jones's Y Dŵr, simply called Water.

Lloyd Jones from Wales Literature Exchange | Cyfn on Vimeo.

I've met Jones at a conference on Welsh literature. He gave a reading from his novel Mr Vogel which I enjoyed so much that I bought it and Mr Cassini on the spot, and I was right to do so because he's a talented and interesting man (and very funny in the flesh too).

That said, I was disappointed by Water. I can't say much about the language because it's in translation and an awful lot is lost when going between such different ones as Welsh and English. I could just about struggle through the original but I fear I'd still struggle with the nuance. According to the various blurbs from eminent critics on the back, it's a sensitive and poetic text which will endure for decades.

Perhaps. Not in English though. Water is the tale of a failing family on a farm up a Welsh cwm in 2089 or so as global warming renders their lives impossible. Society has entirely broken down: institutions, cities, social structures, the seasons, communities have all gone. The family is the last to go, and with them, Welsh culture and the language. Various attempts are made to survive: murder, conscious myth-making (Mari's failed attempts to stave off disaster through storytelling suggest that literature isn't going to help much in the future), farming, but none work.

I think the major problem with Water was its familiarity. There's not a lot of speculative fiction in Welsh beyond Wythnos Yng Nghymru Fydd (A Week in Future Wales) so perhaps it seemed like a daring and distinctive thing to do, but stripped of that context, it's one of many dystopian novels washing around: if we restrict it to just sea-level rise stories, there's Baxter's Flood (another failure), Maggie Gee's The Flood, SD Crockett's After the Snow (set in Wales), Alex Scarrow's awful Afterlight novels, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities, Sharp North and Blown Away by Patrick Cave, Julie Bertagna's Exodus etc. ad infinitum (or ad deluvium)

You could say there's a flood of this stuff. We're awash with it. So new entries have to be good. Lloyd Jones's novel doesn't make it because it tries to do two things and doesn't quite manage either. He tries to record the death of a specifically Welsh culture - lots of Mabinogi and other legendary and literary references, songs etc, and he tries to trace the fall of a technological society. He does the first fairly well, though it feels shoe-horned in (especially the Cantre'r Gwaelod material, which could have been used brilliantly), and the second badly. The trick with these things is to either be highly specific or leave it all in the background and concentrate on your foreground narrative. Jones swings between the two, and the detail is unconvincing to say the least. 2089 is basically indistinguishable from 2009, until disaster strikes, which would be OK if he hadn't been so specific about iPods and the like: are we meant to believe that nothing, from primary schools to phones, changed in that time?

That leads to the second arm of the novel: social commentary. Over and over again characters or the narrator blame the catastrophe on our obsession with online or virtual reality. The interesting bits of the novel (such as the attempt to stay alive by reinventing the farm as a place of spurious pilgrimage) are overshadowed by the rather embarrassing author's attempts to warn us all to Put Down The iPad. If you're going to write a realist novel, you've got to stay with it: undercutting the narrative with heavy-handed Jeremiads or moral panics about not liking Facebook is hugely disappointing. Jones's core family echoed the dusty, exhausted nomads of Children of Men or the Flight into Egypt in really interesting ways: a novel of total defeat is rare and fascinating, but to reduce The Answer to 'Twitter Is Bad' just felt like a cop-out.

And then we get to the end: the young father stands up in the boat and is shot dead without ceremony. His hoped-for rescuers turn out to be ruthless invaders. They take the baby away for processing: either he'll be killed or trained up as a soldier. They are – embarrassingly – Chinese, come to take over the world now the decadent white folk have wiped themselves off the face of the earth and drowned their countries into the bargain. Yes, those cruelly efficient and inscrutable people have overrun the planet. Seriously - the last pages make Water a Yellow Peril novel. Oh for Gwyneth Jones's grown-up Bold As Love series. In the final novels, England (this is set post-UK) is decadent, doomed and damned. Like Lloyd Jones's scenario, the Chinese are on the move – but Gwyneth Jones isn't interest in racist stereotyping: her heroes spend a lot of effort persuading the degraded remains of the military to accept Chinese annexation rather than resisting it. Entirely uninterested in nationalism, Jones prefers to promote human survival as far more important than local political and ethnic differences.

Perhaps Lloyd J's Welshness is the key here. Cultural annihilation has been hovering above Welsh-language communities since the Saxons turned up, whereas it may be easier for an English author such as Gwyneth Jones to accept that empires have their turns and cultures with a critical mass won't be entirely effaced. I don't know - I can't quite work it out. But I remain unsettled by the unexpected appearance of the Chinese, and the way they're characterised here. There are cruel and selfish Welsh and English people in Water, but they have backgrounds and motivations with little differentiation between them: the Chinese are simply coldly organised to kill and exploit.

Hmm… not sure yet what to think.

Friday, 23 May 2014

'The bright day is done, and we are for the dark'

Yesterday, I went to see Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe in London, the open-air theatre designed to recreate the Elizabethan/Jacobean original as close as possible. There's a pit, in which the poor stood, exposed to the elements. The stage has a partial roof, while those of us lacking solidarity with the poor sit on hard wooden benches under a thatched roof (cushions can be hired). The play – one I'd never seen before – is a story of Roman power politics and sexual obsession.

Yesterday, my final-year and first-year students played the part of the proletariat  (some of them: not a single one of those who took the Shakespeare module bothered to come: clearly my teaching put them off Shakespeare for ever), or the 'rude mechanicals', standing under London's skies as the actors did their best…and worst. A shame it wasn't Lear, with its storm, because less than 500 metres away, this was happening:

Thunder rattled the building, lightning strafed the stage, the standing audience was drenched to the bone, and the actors carried on, though the lines about the weather attracted rueful laughter from audience and cast alike. Even worse, the man playing Mark Antony was ill and a stand-in had to be found at late notice. Haggard from staying up all night learning his lines, he performed with a copy of the (shortened) script in hand, and getting soggier by the minute. He performed valiantly – rather than just read as the others acted around him, he did his level best to put life into unfamiliar words.

Rather less professional was the actor playing Cleopatra. Having endured the worst of the weather and circumstances, she returned the audience's laughter by mugging to them even in the sombre scenes, turning tragedy to farce and, I thought, letting down her colleagues. For instance, near the end Mark Antony's near-lifeless body is pulled into her chamber: this time she played 'how heavy weighs my lord' for laughs as she tugged on the rope, giving in to the laughter occasioned by Mark dropping his script (he wasn't entirely innocent: he pointedly dropped it at the moment of his death). A good actor holds the audience in their hands, can turn humour to pathos and back again if s/he tries - Cleopatra gave up trying. It wasn't all her fault: as Mark's body was dragged sadly off stage, my attention was drawn to the pigeons at my eye-level having sex on the stage roof…

What a day: traffic accidents meant we turned up almost too late to get in, multiple colleagues had dropped out, and some gits tried to rob the coach driver while he waited for us – and yet we had a great day. All the disasters befalling the theatre and audience reminded us that live performance is a gamble: spectators are unpredictable, actors have artistic choices to make, the elements conspire against us, and yet we triumph.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Nigel, meet Pierre…

Here's 'Third Swan' by King Creosote and John Hopkins, from their collaboration Diamond Mine. I bought the album after hearing it repeatedly for months. It's the classic grower, and this is one of the more upbeat tracks on this melancholic, atmospheric piece of work.

Don't, by the way, buy albums by King Creosote or John Hopkins: KC's other work is so generically jangly-Scottish-indie that even I was bored to tears, and I own the complete works of 18 Wheeler, the BMX Bandits and Spare Snare (plus every side-project touched by Teenage Fanclub members). As for Jon Hopkins, well, he has an album called The Art of Chill 2. Enough said.

All this is helping distract me – or soothe me – from the marking. Not that it's bad, it's just that 40 essays on the same question can be a little wearing. Other distractions include the political car-crash that is UKIP (or should that be 'national car-crash' given that so many of you are voting for the English Poujade?). Does this remind you of anyone?
Poujadism, however, lives on. Anti-tax, anti-Semitic and anti-establishment … blend of gruff nationalism, direct action and arcadian nostalgia…
The curse of many extremist parties—bickering, indiscipline and lack of experience—was one reason for the failure. Another was more personal to Mr Poujade: he was a man of protest, not policy. Unlike other politicians…who have campaigned against vested interests, national decline and the abandonment of the traditional values of ordinary people, Mr Poujade had no serious remedies to offer.
He also had a gift for colourful, often coarse, phrases: he would take the side, he said, of “des petits, des matraqués, des spoliés, des laminés, des humiliés” (the little man, the downtrodden, the trashed, the ripped off, the humiliated) against “the vampire state”. He could play an audience brilliantly, pandering to every prejudice, and his followers could disrupt meetings. But, all in all, he was neither a thinker nor a strategist, merely a demagogue.

Although of course unlike Poujade, Nigel Farage isn't one of the petits: he's a hugely rich man whose former job – commodities broker – contributed to the despoliation of the social structure he and other conservatives purport to cherish: it's the central contradiction in free-market conservatism. You can of course take one side or the other, but Nigel appears not to notice any contradiction. He tried to hold a carnival in Croydon today which was a bit of a damp squib when the steel band realised they'd been hoodwinked and packed up: Nigel cancelled his appearance and local UKIP types declared Croydon unsafe and 'depraved'.

Perhaps next time he should book Half A Shilling:

Sadly, the British voters don't seem likely to consign Nigel to Poujade's fate
He ended his days promoting Jerusalem artichokes as an alternative to fossil fuels.
And of course Farage doesn't see any reason to need alternatives to fossil fuels.

The other distraction is the hacking trial. Yes, it's still going on. Rebekah Brooks' lawyer claimed today that it was impossible for her to have a fair trial thanks to 'sexism' – this from the former editor of The Sun – and 'negative media coverage' (ditto). I have a horrible feeling that the sheer complexity of the trial may result in some undeserved acquittals. Still, we can expect one of the Murdoch press's regular protests about being soft on criminals, can't we? Can't we?

Friday, 16 May 2014

A Musical Interlude

The marking mountain isn't getting much lower, so obviously I'm looking for distraction and procrastination activities. One of those is looking up the hidden pasts of my musician friends The Nightingales (you've just missed their UK and Ireland tour, but there's a European one planned for later in the year).

Browsing for dodgy BBC live session bootlegs, I came across Robert Lloyd and the Four Seasons: the 'Gales lead singer's attempt at pop stardom in the halcyon pre-Britpop days of indie. One of the guitarists on the album is Craig Gannon, the 'Fifth Smith'. The purists reckon RL+TNFS were a bit poppy and the album was over-produced, but I like it. The lyrics still have the bike-chain viciousness of the Nightingales, but coated in sugary hooks.

By way of comparison, here's the Nightingales' Dumb and Drummer - after thirty years, they've made a video!

Last night rather than carry on marking, I went to the local arts centre for an Non-English open music night. Everyone got 10 minutes on the decks (some losers had MP3s, ugh) to play whatever we wanted. This suited me perfectly: I have over 20,000 LPs, 10"s and 7" in my flat, two minutes walk from the venue. My friends brought along some Dutch riot girl, German pop and various other delights, but I went for an all-Welsh lineup:

First: some Y Cyrff, a couple of whom became Catatonia later on.

Then some electro by a recent discovery, Dau Cefn:

(better recording here). After that, some krautrock-psychedelia by my old friends Ectogram. The track I played isn't available online, but here's a representative sample:

and finally some symphonic pop by Rheinallt H Rowlands, whom I never saw live sadly:

I shall definitely be going back. Obviously such a night is designed for obscurantist one-upmanship. I'll be bringing along Ectogram's 'Spitsbergen' single, which was indeed No. 1 in Spitzbergen, some Georgian folk music and some Chechen rebel songs. That'll show them. It's just a shame that the Angry Samoans aren't actually, well, Samoans.

Finally, for giggles, here's Rocking With Rita, the Fuzzbox/Robert Lloyd/Ted Chippington non-hit single.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

I like to ride my bicycle

…but more than that, I like to watch athletes ride their bicycles, before I go for a slap-up feed. Last night I went along to the women's Grand Prix and men's Classic held in Stoke. I missed all but the last lap of the women's event (thanks to work) but saw all the men's race. It was a beautiful sunny evening, the circuit included lots of tight corners and short climbs, so there lots of opportunities to take pictures in between drooling over stunning – and stunningly expensive – bikes and fellow spectators' cameras. There was a decent crowd ranging from passers-by to the local Coppis and Hinaults (well, they had the kit…).

Here are some of my favourite shots: click to enlarge. The whole set is here.

Women's race celebration

I like the expression on the guy in the middle

I tried a few of these blurred shots, but they're not easy without a tripod

Look out for the dog, which really makes this picture and a couple more

The pain starts to show as the race draws to a close

Pointed looks in the peloton

More pained expressions

Local heroes

Jon Mould aims for the line, having lapped almost every rider early on

This breaks all the rules but it somehow works
Jon Mould, race winner

Monday, 12 May 2014

You poor creatures

Thoroughly demoralised by the dissertation I've just marked, I'm probably in the wrong frame of mind to brighten your day with an inspiring blog post. Sometimes you just have to accept that you can't pass on to everyone the core values of academia: honesty, respect and the simple joy of applied thought. Here's hoping that the next one in the pile will be better. (I just peeked: it is).

I was idly considering the REF exercise yesterday. In case you don't know it, the Research Excellence Framework is the mechanism by which individuals' and universities' research output is graded. It's a mechanical, easily manipulated system which is entirely rigged to funnel what little remaining funds are available to the Russell Group universities while appearing to provide a level playing field. It distorts the kind of research we do, takes over the lives of those charged with administering the process in-house, and rarely seems to benefit those who actually do the research.

It put me in mind of Kazuo Ishiguro's disturbing, elegiac 2005 novel Never Let Me Go in some ways. In NLMG, we meet a very talented group of somewhat disturbed children sequestered in Hailsham, a remote boarding school, one of a network around the country. Encouraged to develop their creative skills, they dream of a future in which they are appreciated for their achievements. Gradually, however, the reader (and eventually the characters) realise that they have no such bright horizons. We learn that they are clones, called 'donors', and that they have a very limited life-span. They are, in fact, specially bred as living organ banks, and will 'donate' their vitals one by one until they are 'complete', i.e. dead, while the lives of the recipients are extended ad infinitum.

Some of them fervently, heartbreakingly believe that deferrals will be made for any donor who can demonstrate exceptional artistic talent because it showed that they were capable of genuine love, a hope cruelly fostered by well-meaning carers. The donors' error is to believe in a bourgeois notion of individual meritocracy when in fact they are the proletariat in a medical economy. In reality, the children are considered non-human, capably merely of simulating human qualities.

If that doesn't work as a metaphor for our education system, our economic system and the REF, I don't know what would. We educate our children to paint and sing and play, then send the vast majority off to work in call centres or serve coffee at a minimum wage, the better to enrich the recipients of these donations. Closer to home, we scholars in the less-prestigious institutions persuade ourselves that participation in REF will lead to elevation to the Russell Group, or more selflessly, to recognition that world-class work is being done here too. Like the poor children of Never Let Me Go, we donate our work time after time after time in the hope that we will be spared, and time after time we 'complete': our efforts go unread, unappreciated, our research funding is diverted and cut, and time after time we're exhorted to sacrifice even more, because next time we might earn our reprieve. We argue that our work is so important, so meaningful, that we are so transformed by it simply for its innate qualities that we deserve exemption.

Kath and Tommy, in love, track down their old teachers to show them Tommy's art in the hope of persuading them to spare him. As Madame puts it:
Because of course…your art will reveal your inner selves! That's it, isn't it? Because your art will display your souls! … Poor creatures. What did we do to you? With all our schemes and plans?
Madame's partner Emily chimes in with the truth:
It's something for them to dream about, a little fantasy. What harm is there?…It gives me no pleasure to disappoint you. But there it is … even back when Hailsham was considered a shining beacon, an example of how we might move to a more humane and better way of doing things, even then, it wasn't true. A wishful rumour. That's all it ever was. 
Like the Hailsham kids, we are fooling ourselves. We're the proletarians in this system, the cannon fodder in an education class war, spared a few hours and a pot of paint to keep us on the treadmill. Yet we know that certain influential corners of academia look down on our work, a view shared and encouraged by a government which has no interest in research that doesn't turn an immediate profit, or that challenges their narrow world-view. REF is the Hailsham mirage, the white lie to give us hope.

Kath asks the pair why the children's art was collected at all.
Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we're just going to give donations anyway, then die, whys all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?
The question can be asked of our globalised, capitalist economy. Why, in a system which is designed to reward the rentier class and exploit the workers, should we bother educating the workers and employing their teachers? It isn't, says Emily, out of altruism: it's to make the organ recipients feel better, to disguise the mechanisation of humanity.
…it made it easy for the rest of them…they could all carry on without a care … We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all. "There, look!" we could say. "Look at this art! How dare you claim these children are anything less than human?
In Ishiguro's world, Hailsham was a response to a much crueller, harsher cloning regime, in which society hid away the children and preferred not to talk about them - but the kinder system was swept away when a man tried to produce 'enhanced' clones:
It reminded people, reminded them of a fear they'd always had. It's one thing to create students, such as yourselves, for the donation programme. But a generation of created children who'd take their place in society? Children demonstrably superior to the rest of us? Oh no.

Let's not forget the Labour education secretary Charles Clarke who described historians as 'medieval seekers after truth' who are 'good to have as an adornment to society'. As postgraduate work becomes the preserve of rich kids at socially-élite universities, humanities research in particular is becoming a hobby or a superficial cultural marketing device with little social substance. Down here amongst the large, modern universities we're encouraged to spatter some paint on canvas, but deep down, we know that the game's rigged: we'll be allowed enough crayons to persuade ourselves that we matter but aside from a few handpicked exceptions who'll be plucked out, our working class students and dedicated staff will be ruthlessly exploited while the HEFCE-funded port passes round High Table as it always has.

This is the underlying fear of our rulers: that the masses will want the lives – educationally and otherwise – of the élites. REF, and the current university system is part of the mechanism of control. It looks like a nice way to enfold us all in progress, but it is in fact a thinly disguised means of reifying the status quo. Anyone who objects goes the same way as one of Hailsham's guardians, Lucy Wainwright.
…she began to have these ideas. She thought you students had to be made more aware. More aware of what lay ahead of you, who you were, what you were for. She believed you should be given as full a picture as possible. That to do anything less would be somehow to cheat you … but what she was wanting to do, it was too theoretical… Lucy Wainwright was idealistic, nothing wrong with that. But she had no grasp of practicalities.
'No grasp of practicalities': the mantra of the hard men and women of the governing classes, chanted as they make their money and pull up the ladder behind them.

And if that sounds bitter, it's meant to.

Friday, 9 May 2014

No parlour Inglese?

As this picture I took and Tweeted on Wednesday has attracted some local press attention and a lively debate online, I thought I'd post it here and say what I think in more than 140 words. It's in the window of a tattoo shop, New Romantic Ink, 20 yards from my flat.

On Twitter, I called it racist, discriminatory and just plain dumb. Dumb's easy: although reading and speaking skills don't always go together (I can read Latin and Welsh but can't speak them to any standard), it seems unlikely that anyone who can't speak English will be able to read the sign, so it's a little self-defeating.

Discriminatory? Yes: most of the world's population is excluded from this shop. Racist? I think it is. The owners of the shop and their friends contacted me on Twitter to accuse me of lacking the 'bollocks' to come in and talk about it, but they also explained to me and the local paper that an Iranian customer who spoke no English had issued death threats (despite not speaking English?) over a disagreement, and that forms need to be completed by customers. The man was arrested, which seems perfectly fair to me.

I do think the sign is racist though. Apart from the hostile phrasing ('don't even bother'), the owners have responded to one awful and frightening event by making a link between linguistic ability and behaviour. It feels to me like the the inability to speak English is a coded way of excluding foreigners, and the exclusion of all non-English speakers because one person behaved appallingly clearly roots that behaviour in cultural/racial/linguistic difference without regard for personal responsibility or the enormous variation in human behaviours. It implies, too, that English-speakers can behave however they like in the shop – and as we all know, people with BNP and EDL tattoos are charming gentlemen one and all.

I hope the customer who threatened the staff at New Romantic Ink is subjected to the full force of the law. But I hope too that the shop's staff learn to differentiate between one arsehole and the many billions of people whose custom they've turned down. It reminded me far too much of the famous 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish' signs formerly displayed in British shops and boarding houses.

I'm pretty certain, too,  that a tattoo shop owner would object to a ban on people with tattoos in other places.

PS. Reading the newspaper article, I wonder how much my friend Paul Uppal had to grit his teeth before agreeing with me!

Update: I had a conversation with the owners on BBC Radio the other day. It was all very cordial and thoughtful, though I (and the presenter) wasn't entirely convinced that the sign going up minutes after an altercation with a threatening Iranian customer was entirely coincidental.

The sign has now been replaced with this one, which made me laugh quite a lot. Genuinely funny.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

'Girls Seem To Go In For That Sort Of Thing'

One of the books I read over the weekend was Dorothy L Sayers' 1928 The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club, the fourth in her Lord Peter Wimsey detective thrillers. I'm not a fan of crime fiction in general, other than the occasional David Peace novel, but my interests in interwar fiction and popular modernisms led me to Sayers and I have to say I rather enjoy her work, despite the dubious plots and her conservative attitudes to pretty much anything. She has a brisk writing style and a sharp sense of humour, which goes a long way for me.

One exchange caught my eye in particular in the course of reading The Unpleasantness. Lord Peter, who purports to be a silly ass in public, discusses reading with his brother-in-law Parker, a stolid Detective Inspector who has at some point become an Evangelical Christian, while the search the room of a young lady suspected (wrongly) of murder.
'Books, you know, Charles, are like lobstershells. We surround ourselves with 'em, and then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidences of our earlier stages of development'. 

Perhaps so – though I have so many unread ones that my shelves are evidence of aspiration rather than achievement. The policeman agrees with him:
'I've got rows of schoolboy stuff at home – never touch it now, of course. And W. J. Locke – read everything he wrote, once upon a time. And Le Queux, and Conan Doyle, and all that stuff'
So Charles Parker has a sentimental side. Locke is largely forgotten now and probably not in print: he wrote sentimental novels and plays which sold sensationally. He's not entirely disappeared though: lots of his work was filmed, including Ladies in Lavender as recently as 2004 starring Judi Dench (spoiler: it's terrible). William Le Queux was a reactionary purveyor of Imperialist jingo and war stories. Racist, xenophobic and massively popular - just the thing a young policeman might read in the 1890s/1910s. His spy and military stories made him highly influential in foreign policy and military circles as they banged the drum for more weapons and more war.

Thankfully, Sayers suggests, Parker has grown up a little, perhaps because the Great War was so horrific (the novel is packed with men wrecked by their time in the trenches, and Wimsey fervently wishes Armistice Day could be marked by quiet reflection rather than mass public events). Wimsey remarks that Parker now reads theology.
'And what else?"
'Well, I read Hardy a good bit/ And when I'm not too tired I have a go at Henry James'.
So it seems that Inspector Parker is a man for self-improvement. I assume he reads Hardy's novels rather than poems, but Sayers is definitely establishing a hierarchy of literature. Hardy is the author of  rural rhythms and entrapments, innocents enmeshed in the plots of sophisticated social superiors who should know better. Is she teasing Parker or James with the suggestion that The Master's work can't be done without a clear head? Is Parker over-reaching himself or becoming a little pretentious? Lord Peter has a clear view:
'The refined self-examinations of the infinitely-sophisticated'
Perhaps only an hereditary Lord is sufficiently exalted to look down on Henry James as some kind of fraudulent social-climber: there's certainly an air of distaste implied, as though it's all very well for people like James to gaze at their navels in this way, but it's not really on for policemen and gentlemen, who should just get on and do their duty.

Then they look through the shelves of their suspect:
'Dorothy Richardson – Virginia Woolf – EBC JonesMay Sinclair – Katherine Mansfield – the modern female writers are well-represented, aren't they? Galsworthy. Yes. No J. D. Beresford – no Wells – no Bennett. Dear me, quite a row of D. H. Lawrence. I wonder if she reads him very often'.
He pulled down Women in Love at random, and slapped the pages open and shut.
'…Compton Mackenzie – Storm Jameson – yes – I see'. 
There are also some introductory chemistry textbooks (has she been concocting poisons?), some non-fiction and detective novels.
'Louis Berman, eh? The Personal Equation. And here's Why We Behave Like Human Beings. And Julian Huxley's essays. A determined effort at self-education, what?'
'Girls seem to go in for that sort of thing nowadays'
'Yes – hardly nice, is it? Hallo!… Austin Freeman, Austin Freeman, Austin Freeman  – bless me, she must have ordered him in wholesale. Through the Wall – that's a good 'tec story, Charles – all about the third degree – Isabel Ostrander – three Edgar Wallaces – the girl's been indulging in an orgy of crime!'
And as Wimsey holds a copy of A Silent Witness, the fictional pair discuss whether readers get their criminal plans from crime fiction. Which is all very funny and self-reflexive. But aside from that, we get rather a neat (though obvious) pen-portrait of our suspect, Ann Dorland. She's the personal assistant of the fabulously rich deceased: poor herself, highly intelligent yet wasted and (it turns out) a bit of a 'sex maniac' according to the doctor who set her up. All she needs – and gets in the end – is a solid kind of chap to ground her in reality.

What does the reader learn from Ann's bookshelves? It's a mixed bag of the familiar and daringly modern(ist). Dorothy Richardson is the least read of the experimental novelists, but she basically invented the stream-of-consciousness novel (though she didn't like the terms 'stream of consciousness' or 'novel') being applied to her work) and was the prototype for a Bloomsbury Writer: bisexual, affair with HG Wells (apparently compulsory in those days) and enormously experimental. Read Pilgrimage. Woolf I'll assume you know about. EBC Jones was a modernist novelist and critic with a similarly complex intellectual and social life in the Bloomsbury milieu, but I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any of her work. May Sinclair was a novelist, critic, suffragist, philosopher and poet: she was the first person to use 'stream of consciousness' in literary contexts, though she got the phrase from William James, Henry's philosopher brother. Also bisexual, she knew and/or was admired by pretty much every European and American writer and critic you can think of. Try Uncanny Stories. Katherine Mansfield is much more well-known, and one of my very favourite authors: I particularly love 'Bliss'.

So we work out that Ann's tastes run to highly intellectual, challenging female authors who challenge convention on the page, on the streets and in bed. As Wimsey notes, she reads John Galsworthy, the popular critic of Victorian repression, but nothing by the Grand Men of the Edwardian left, particularly Arnold Bennett, whom Woolf rejected so brutally in 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown' as incapable of writing work which reflected the modernist sensibility, whoever kindly their intentions. JD Beresford was a writer (chiefly of science fiction) and spiritualist whom I haven't read, though I do know his daughter Elizabeth wrote The Wombles. Miss Dorland also reads Compton MacKenzie (middlebrow but rather radical) and Storm Jameson (she's another of my favourite leftwing interwar authors), but her true character is revealed by her devotion to D H Lawrence, notorious purveyor of often-banned filth: Wimsey's excitement marks his recognition that Ann is indeed a sexually forward woman who reads books which are perhaps not quite suitable for a lady. There's a kind of dialogue going on between her books: experimental fiction, political fiction, suffragist authors, bisexual 'modern' authors, self-help texts (Berman was a quack experimental doctor whose work on glands is taken up by the chattering classes in The Unpleasantness while Julian Huxley – brother of Aldous –  was an evolutionary biologist and leading Eugenicist when it was popular on the left: Wells, the Webbs and Marie Stopes  were keen supporters) and a kind of literary subconscious manifested in the presence of crime fiction (Austin Freeman wrote detective novels relying on scientific enquiry to solve the cases), self-help stuff and the more popular authors. I've never read Cleveland Moffett's Through The Wall, Isabel Ostrander or the massively prolific Edgar Wallace, but can't help wondering how sincere Lord Peter is being. It's as though Ann's situation has left her torn between self-improvement, aspirational identification with the feminist avant-garde and their libertarian lives – she aspires to be a painter even though she's awful – and the cruder life of crime fiction.

There's an extra twist though: all this is in a crime novel (and Sayers enjoys having her characters criticise other crime novels). It strikes me that as it came out in 1928, Sayers is introducing her readers to some texts they may never have heard of – Richardson and Sinclair, at least, while locating Ann very carefully. Sayers isn't encouraging her readers to rush out and buy these books (Women in Love was first published privately after The Rainbow was banned for several years), but I think contemporary readers are meant to understand what these texts are, and what kind of person reads them. Sayers seems to be having it both ways in a playful kind of way: mixing up high and low culture references, breaking the curtain between fiction and literary criticism in interesting ways, while making sure that Ann remains a curiosity: falsely accused, yet broken and transgressive in some ways. It's an interesting state: The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club is conservative politically and in literary terms, yet it makes some accommodation with progressive society, at least in part through its representation of fiction and reading tastes.


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Hay there!

So I spent my bank holiday weekend a long, long way from the massive pile of marking. Instead, I went to Hay on Wye in Wales for three days of walking in beautiful countryside and buying books. In case you don't know Hay / Y Gelli, it's a gorgeous small town with 40 or so books shops, set in the Wye valley. It is pretty much paradise. Even the 21 mile bus journey from Hereford is magnificent, through the Golden Valley, past the multiple apple orchards and bucolic villages. Highly recommended. Good walks, mostly nowhere near roads, and fine pubs or cafés at the end of each one.

I was quite parsimonious with the books. I bought a couple of 1930s cheap editions of Dorothy L Sayers books, some Ursula K LeGuin, a walking guide to the Welsh border and Adam Roberts' history of SF.

I also got to play with my new (old) 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. The detail available is just amazing, though it really needs a tripod - these close-ups were taken handheld. If you don't like insects, best not to look at some of these pictures. If you do: click to enlarge or see the whole lot here.

There are so many bluebell woods in the area that the relentless blue became monotonous!

Hay, with its semi-ruined castle in the centre

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Vaginas. And Gyles Brandreth.

Good morning all. This is dissertation week so I've spent my time reassuring students, then tearing my hair out as the bureaucracy loses a significant number. You'd have thought that insisting on a stupid submission date, they'd then expect large numbers of people to be queuing and have systems in place to deal with it… rather than closing early and losing track of so many important pieces of work. Thankfully they've all now turned up and the process of marking can begin. Right now, 40 dissertations are spread out on my floor awaiting distribution and attention.

Thankfully, it's not all chores. Yesterday Emma Rees came to talk about her book The Vagina: a Literary and Cultural History, which she originally wanted to call Vulvanomics because it covers the economic ecosystem of female genitalia too. She didn't want to use 'vagina' in the title because that's only a part of the general area, and some of her talk was about the etymological history of the various words used in science and the vernacular to describe it, from Grose's "c**t: a nasty word for a nasty thing' (1788) to Woman's Hour's reluctance to even allow the phrase 'the c word'. We saw some appalling adverts (click to enlarge):

read some 14th-century French fabliaux, talked about the Kilpeck Sheela and discussed vagina dentatae in films and popular culture. Lots of students turned up (some of them sober) as well as staff colleagues and the discussion was lively (and funny). I was really pleased that quite a few male students turned up: though there should definitely be space for women-only discussion, I think it's important that everybody engages with these ideas, particularly as men are responsible for many of the discourses surrounding women's bodies.

Lots of us bought copies of Emma's excellent book and then we went to the pub, and later for curry with Emma and her lovely husband - one of the best nights out I've had for ages.

What else has happened this week? Well, I've added to my pile of novels by politicians considerably. I'm planning to write a paper on the aesthetics of the politician's novel, because amazingly, it doesn't seem to have been done (write in to prove me wrong). Here's my original list of candidates: I've added a lot more to my spreadsheet since then. I'm not convinced the process of reading these novels will be entirely enjoyable, judging by the reviews of many but I think there's at least a paper in the phenomenon, the notion of politician as 'brand', the media context and most importantly, the link between being a politician and the kind of fiction they write – mostly political thrillers.

At the moment, I'm trying to decide how to sub-divide the works. I'm going to exclude professional authors who became politicians (goodbye PD James (author of the worst novel I've read in years, Death Comes To Pemberley), Ruth Rendell and John Buchan, but perhaps also Douglas Hurd) but I may include non-elected people in the fuzzy halo of politics: spy chief Stella Rimington, Michael Dobbs (his House of Cards trilogy is awful, though the UK and recent US adaptations are much better), Alastair Campbell and a few others.

I think I'll give a pre-history of writing by politicians but declare an official start with the professionalisation of politics: perhaps from the date of salaried MPs (1911), or from universal suffrage (1928). I haven't yet decided whether to exclude novels written before the author was elected or appointed (doing so would reduce my Louise Mensch reading list considerably).

This week, I got copies of Brian Sedgemore's Power Failure (sounds like a prog-rock band) and Mr Secretary of State, Chris Mullin's The Year of the Fire Monkey and Gyles Brandreth's Who Is Nick Saint? (suspiciously absent from his bibliography: he's currently flogging a series called The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries. The Labour novels are usually suspicious about the 'deep state', which is always opposed to Labour and to socialism, whereas Tory ones are about individuals behaving heroically or awfully - matching the parties' supposed ideologies. I've got about 65 novels (at a minimum) and a few collections of poetry so far: more suggestions gratefully received. In particular: does anyone know of fiction or poetry by SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs and assembly members? I'd be astonished if there isn't any, given the intellectual nature of Welsh-language culture and its entwinement with politics, but I can't find any. (Also shocking: there has never been a female Plaid MP, though the current leader is the brilliant Leanne Wood). There are plenty of Sinn Féin authors, from Gerry Adams in the present day to several of the 1918 Dail Éireann representatives, like Piaras Béaslaí.

Anyway, that's all just thinking aloud. Now it's time to go and put on my bow tie for the student-organised Teaching Awards! I've been nominated as 'Outstanding' and 'Inspirational'. Which just goes to show what a sophisticated sense of humour my students have. Toodle-pip!