Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Momentary cultural interruptions

OK, I've been pretty slack on the blogging front for some time now, though in my defence I have moved house while doing extra teaching and work-related stuff. This week I'm reading a colleague's manuscript on Hindu-derived new religious movements (it's fascinating ethnography) and trying to read Game of Thrones. Not by choice: I read the first two as a teenager and hated them, even though I had absolutely no standards at all. (Confession time: I was a member of the Tolkien Society for a couple of years – and obviously very very lonely). Re-acquainting myself with these turgid volumes isn't a pleasure at all, but I'm supervising an undergraduate dissertation on them and I'm pretty certain my student will produce something good so that will keep me going.

I'm really breaking the blog silence because amongst all the madness (such as two solid days sterilising my flat in the no doubt vain hope of getting my deposit back from my appalling landlord) I've had a couple of glorious cultural experiences. Last Saturday we went with a bunch of students and colleagues to see John Webster's The White Devil at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. In case you've missed him, Webster gets a cameo in Shakespeare in Love as a rather nasty little boy only interested in the murderous bits. It's not entirely inaccurate: Webster's work is consistently interested in the dark, curdled antics of foreigners, Catholics, women and aristocrats. It's a degraded world in which principles have been replaced by malign motives – all played out on stage. It's not like the decorous world of Greek theatre in which all the gore is off stage: Webster and his fellow authors of revenge tragedies have it out in front. Nobody is pure, or innocent. I have to say that even though I never watch horror or crime films, I do love the poisonous, violent revenge tragedies however dodgy the plotting can be. Shakespeare's way too dainty and thoughtful – sometimes you just need a dose of uncomplicated nastiness! That's what got Jacobean bums on seats.

The moral decay of The White Devil's Italian setting was beautifully captured in the RSC's modern-dress version. Louche aristocrats lounged around in standard-issue oligarch summer clothes (white suits, Ray-Bans) while organising the murder of their brothers, sisters, wives and rivals. Nobody escapes: even the innocent child who is the last one standing kicks the corpse of the assassins and laughs - clearly the next generation has learned nothing.

The only dramatic choice I questioned was re-casting Flaminio the pander as Flaminia: it added a distracting and unconvincing lesbian frisson, though the actor's performance was excellent. Turning a prime corrupter into a woman meant losing some of the sense that females in this world were deeply insecure and left with few options other than to gravitate towards powerful men and to do down rivals in order to survive. Women don't get a good press in this play, but turning Flaminio into Flaminia made them even more the authors of their own degradation.

The production itself was stunning. A live band provided threatening, creepy music (often Massive Attack). The cast was large. A bare stage and electronic projections re-imagined Renaissance Rome as a vaguely contemporary set of social spaces: a women's prison, a nightclub, the oligarch's mansion. Blood was – of course – everywhere. Laughs were raised at least from my colleagues from gags about the Wild Irish playing football with their enemies' heads. I think the students enjoyed it once their ears tuned into the rhyming couplets and language, and I certainly did: I've read the play for undergraduate study but never seen it performed.

The second highlight of the week came yesterday, when Scott McCracken of Keele University came to tell us about his huge project to produce a complete works of Dorothy Richardson of whom Virginia Woolf wrote 'If she is right, then I am wrong'. He says we're no longer allowed to call her 'unjustly neglected', though most of us in the room had read none or only a little of her work. Why not? Well, she produced a 13-novel series called Pilgrimage entirely in what everyone else called 'stream of consciousness', a phrase Richardson hated.

We talked about all sorts of things, from the watery metaphors continually applied to experimental modernists, Richardson's handwriting and use of spacing to convey meaning – or open the text to readers' meanings – her representation of time and how it derived from Bergson, her incredible cultural network, HG Wells's sex life, Ricoeur's concepts of mimesis, the evolution of modernisms, the influence of cinema on literary representation, the problems of choosing a typeface and most interestingly, the question of whether Richardson was an essentialist or a dialectician when it comes to identity formation. Very lazily, I'd assumed that the stream of consciousness was anti-essentialist: that the self is a thing in constant progress. Scott's point, however, is that Richardson's style represents a search for a Romantic inner, stable self. So obviously I need to read her again and more…

Friday, 21 November 2014

Not drowning but waving.

What a week. I am quite literally bruised, but also exhilarated. Some great things have happened. I did my usual load of teaching, and the classes went really well – lots of talkative people. I particularly liked the Chinese student who said the most annoying thing about moving to the UK was discovering that the Chinese President has a Twitter feed and Facebook page, while banning those services in China. She also said that Chinese TV is all cooking and 'talent' shows too, so nobody should feel superior.

On Tuesday I visited Newham College's University Centre, which is accredited by the Open University. I'm the external examiner there - EE's are the method by which universities know their standards are kept high. We all offer different things, but the idea is that we're equally testing. Our own English Lit external told us that the students who get First class degrees would achieve the same at her own Russell Group establishment – any other league tables, reviews, newspaper pieces and marketing claims are meaningless besides EE reports. NUC, I can tell you, is a gem. It's tiny and relatively new, so the students luxuriate in small classes. The modules are innovative, rigorous and fascinating, and the staff are intellectual, uproariously amusing, opinionated, caring and very progressive (so are their children, I discovered). The recent graduates I met are also lovely – sparky, clever and questioning. The first one I met told me all about her dissertation on food culture and Baudrillard: she's a fan of my colleague William's book on the philosopher. If that was a set-up, it was a damn good one. Weirdest of all, I met the management and the staff and they all said very complimentary things about each other. Those people are actually happy! I never knew management and academics could peacefully co-exist. Perhaps it'll catch on!

If I lived down there, I'd happily take a course at NUC. They also don't stint on the cake.

After a happy morning, I wandered off to meet my sister, my latest niece and her toddler brother. I hadn't met the baby yet. True to form, she cried from the moment she was placed in my arms, and stopped as soon as I handed her back. I have the same effect on students come to think of it. My nephew and I bonded over shared addictions to posh cheese and haggis (not in the same course) and the family's cat was even more pleased to see me than anyone else because it gets ignored amongst the chaos of small children.

I did something really touristy on the way back. Instead of taking the tube back into central London, I walked down to the Cutty Sark and took a boat back to London Bridge. Night was falling and the city looked magical from Canary Wharf (which I think of as one big financial crime scene), under Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London into the heart of the city in just half an hour, for £6. I'd love to do the full cruise down the river, and I'm never going to get the underground on that route again. Then it was on to a train home, during which I finished a piece for the Times Higher on politicians' novels ('why do politicians kill?')

The next day was moving day. I spent the morning with my rather underpowered but nice movers carrying 60 massive boxes of books and records down three flights of stairs to the lorry - I'm still covered in cuts and bruises. By the time I left to go to a meeting, I was shattered. We founded an MA course in the afternoon and I took my Media Ethics class later on, while I tried not to think about how they were throwing the vinyl around. Then the evening descended into farce: I expected to let myself into the house and find the flat keys and new house keys there. At this point I discovered that the 'spare' keys weren't anything of the sort. Even with the help of a neighbour who helped me over a couple of locked gates, none of the keys got me in. The movers' phones weren't ringing. I had to call a locksmith, who got the front door open in 5 seconds with a piece of plastic (£85). No keys can be found. More to the point, no furniture either. I start to wonder whether the movers have crashed their lorry when along they came - they'd had to dismantle all 15 bookcases to get them out of the flat, which took ages, and their phone batteries had died. Naturally I felt like an impoverished idiot, but hugely relieved. They took the last lorry load home with them and I went off to sleep in my bare, echoing flat…the sleep of the truly wrecked. My belongings are going to remain packed until the house is painted top to bottom over the next couple of months.

But not for long - the next day I had to meet a decorator who turned out to be a former Cultural Studies lecturer, so we chose paints according to the semiotic method. My missing furniture turned up, then I hared back to the university to record an interview with Jon Gower who came up from Cardiff to talk about Caradoc Evans: it's the 100th anniversary of My People, Evans's scandalous short story collection. The programme is going out on Radio Wales in early January. I'm not sure why Jon asked me, given the eminence of the other contributors, but it was fantastically enjoyable. The panel will talk about Evans's Welsh reputation: My People attacked (in English!) what he saw as the dead hand of nonconformist liberalism and rural Wales's Gothic darkness, so my job was to talk about him in the context of anglophone literature, his reputation outside Wales, and the literary nature of his work. I suggested that he was part of the post-Victorian Angry Young Men movement, alongside Lytton Strachey and Edmund Gosse, similar to Joyce, Brinsley MacNamara and Lawrence, influenced by Hardy and Zola, an influence on Gwyn Thomas and akin to Steinbeck and Faulkner in that all three loved but were compelled to attack the societies which spawned their work. No doubt this will all sound appallingly pretentious in the broadcast, and it doesn't help that my voice sounds like the quacking of a bronchitic duck.

Jon's one of the world's renaissance characters. I made the mistake of asking him what he has on after the radio piece. The answer? 7 fiction and non-fiction books in two languages, a couple of TV documentaries, and he's running a very good publishing firm. He gave me a tip about another (unpublished) politician-thriller writer and a personal introduction, and a list of Welsh-language science fiction titles I'd missed for another thing I have in mind. The man is a whirlwind of activity, but one given solidity by sheer intellect. I'm never going to claim to be busy again.

So that's the end of the week. All I have to do this weekend is attend The White Devil with some students and colleagues, and clean my flat to such levels of perfection that even this landlord – a lying cheating devil of such wickedness that Beelzebub would be compelled to say 'steady on old chap' – can't retain my deposit. What are the chances of that?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

This week…

Review a play and a PhD proposal and a journal article.
Write a piece for the THES
Write a piece for the university magazine.
Departmental meetings.
Fencing regional committee meeting.
Seminar on higher education with visiting Nigerian senior academic managers (this was enormously rewarding but a lot of extra work)
Design an MA
Paint new house
Pack up old house
Clean old flat to ensure that grasping landlord gimp has no excuse to steal my deposit
Move house.

I won't even have time to form opinions about anything, let alone blog. In the meantime, have some Havergal Brian.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

News from Nowhere

Last Saturday, I went to Stoke-on-Trent's Potteries Museum and Art Gallery for the annual Stephen Hagger Lecture (very sadly I was the youngest there by a good twenty years, and too many of them were from the National Trust wing of Morris fans). This year's lecturer was Fiona MacCarthy, design historian and biographer of Edward Burne-Jones, Eric Gill and William Morris, whose life and influence was her subject for the day. What links these three men and those around them is a commitment to art as a way of life: from the production of goods they evolved a philosophy of community, economics and politics – especially Morris. Stoke is the perfect venue for a lecture on William Morris. The industry which sustained the city was pottery: thousands of highly skilled workers producing globally-renowned items of astonishing beauty, and yet the city is a depressing sump of deprivation and unemployment now, and always was ugly: talk about alienation in action.

Morris, by GF Watts

Morris is perhaps best known as a designer of hugely expensive wallpaper and furniture: the current revival of interest in Victorian Gothic has placed him front and centre. However, he was also an accomplished novelist, typographer, poet, songwriter and revolutionary socialist activist. From his aesthetic interest in the medieval period evolved a conviction that industrial society and production led to degradation of the spirit. From Marx, he learned that alienated work beggared us not only economically but spiritually. He learned every skill from the basics, even making his own dyes for wallpapers and tapestries, and when Morris and Co. was founded, ran the company along egalitarian lines.

Morris seems to have been a force of nature - constantly trying new things, full of energy and also enormous fun: his friend Burne-Jones's cartoons of him are affectionate as well as satirical:

Basically, he was a big fat jolly man who couldn't sit still: his death was ascribed to a doctor as due to 'simply being William Morris and having done the work of most ten men'.

I don't know if Morris's aesthetic appeals to you. I find the wallpaper beautiful but too busy, but the late period 'Arts and Crafts' furniture is really to my taste, and I'd love some of the ceramics designed by his associate William de Morgan.

a de Morgan pot

Morris developed a conviction that beautiful things must be useful things - his followers became the kind of sandalled vegetarian liberals that Orwell hated so much. The contradiction for Morris, of course, is that producing hand-made work ethically cost a fortune, so his customers were only what he called the 'swinish rich'. At least – unlike now – Morris's workers were making a decent living from selling expensive goods to these scum: in our day the shareholders profit while goods are made by slaves in sweatshops.

While I can't afford Morris furniture, glass, wallpaper or ceramics (and in the antiques context their cultural meaning is very different from what he intended), I can read his books and poetry, and I have a cheap facsimile of his astonishing version of Chaucer's work. His novel News From Nowhere is perhaps the most accessible.

News from Nowhere

It's a Utopian fantasy set in a Britain which underwent a socialist revolution in 1952. Classes, law, finance, private property and cities have been abandoned and the people live in agrarian, peaceful, small villages (we tend to part company here: I grew up in the countryside and it's more Cold Comfort Farm than communist paradise). The details are less important than Morris's underlying assumption that human nature is essentially altruistic. Our faults, he says, are those of industrial, capitalist urbanism. It produces competition, hatred, violence, oppression and (not incidentally, aesthetic ugliness).
it is the allowing of machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays. And, again, that leads me to my last claim, which is that the material surroundings of my life should be pleasant, generous, and beautiful; that I know is a large claim, but this I will say about it, that if it cannot be satisfied, if every civilised community cannot provide such surroundings for all its members, I do not want the world to go on
Reforming work will lead to beauty both internal and external, open to all. In this common weal, beauty is a condition of justice, and vice versa: the inhabitants, we're told, could not be happy knowing that fellow citizens are in prison, or trapped in loveless relations: mutuality is the key to social harmony (in contrast to the current Justice Secretary, who is scrapping the Human Rights Act and has banned sending books to prisoners). This was also the basis of his Socialist League

Simply the design of the membership card brings me to the real point of this rambling post. Art and labour brought together. The card is simply beautiful. It proclaims the unity of politics, life and art and above all it is optimistic. Like News From Nowhere, it assumes that the socialist future will transform people's lives for the better. When did we stop believing this? It's still there in Atlee's 1951 Festival of Britain (yes, the Tories took power in 1950 but the Festival was planned under the pioneering 1945-50 Labour government that founded the NHS and did so much more). After that? Not so much. Our supposed leaders are ashamed of the word socialist and whatever they do believe in, it isn't founded in optimism. Nor does it believe in a future which unifies love, life, joy, work, art and politics. Neither Labour nor the multiple far-left splinter groups offer anything positive. We spend our time accepting the ideological boundaries of neoliberalism and finding ways to mitigate the damage it does. I can't imagine the Milibands, Clegg, the SWP leadership or any of the others being able to understand the emotional or spiritual aspects of socialism that are integral to Morris's version.

Stunted by 'politics', they've lost us because they no longer have anything positive to offer beyond technocratic fixes. There's no way of life embodied in modern politics. There is in rightwing politics, but it too consists of joylessness: the Tories and UKIP spend their time saying 'no' to things – foreigners, human rights, the poor, community, altruism. That's OK: beyond Major's lazy fantasy of old maids cycling to communion, capitalist politics has always been about material acquisition. But it's not true of us. The left has forgotten that Marx, for all his talk of materialism, was funny, cultured and engaged with more than just economics - that's why his work is shot through with Shakespeare. Economics was part of his philosophy of life, rather than the other way round. Once the economics was sorted, he thought, our social, spiritual and philosophical ones would be too: happiness was the end, not simply material comfort. Morris knew this, and acted on it.

So why have we ended up with a political culture which would rather have us fulminating against 'scroungers', immigrants, Europe and each other, or competing over who can inflict most austerity to win votes rather than a labour movement which has a positive vision of how life could be. Last week the government gleefully announced that it would rather let African migrants drown than address the causes of their desperation. Every dead African is a vote reclaimed from UKIP, or so it hopes.

When did we forget that politics could be a vehicle for aspiration and happiness rather than a game of beggar-thy-neighbour? I believe, like Morris, that my fellow citizens are essentially altruistic and well-meaning, that given reform of our industrial, political and social structures this altruism could be liberated to achieve a better society. This is why I teach, and why I teach in an unfashionable ex-polytechnic in an unfashionable town (that and being essentially unemployable otherwise). The lesson of Morris is that all are capable of blossoming under and deserve justice and beauty – it's a socialism of humanity rather than just of economics: this isn't the 'art will civilise the brutish lumpenproletariat' argument of people like Matthew Arnold. It's the idea that intellectual and emotional freedom means nothing if it's reserved for the powerful or the 'swinish rich'. Hence Jeremy Deller's Venice Biennale painting:

It's called 'We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold' as was inspired by Roman Abramovich mooring his mega-yacht in the middle of Venice, obscuring the views adored by Morris's hero Ruskin, without a thought for others. So here's WM, hurling Eclipse (the world's second largest yacht: two helicopter pads, two swimming pools etc.) out of the way. Morris really does seem to be having a moment.

I'd give up if I wasn't an optimist. I just wish there was a political party I could vote for that feels the same way. Suggestions on a postcard?