Monday, 25 April 2016

Great Men I Have Met part 73

I've spent a lot of time in airless rooms with alpha males this week. First was author Adam Thorpe, the very fine author of novels including Ulverton, Still, Flight, Hodd and On Silbury Hill. He's also a very impressive poet. 

He gave a great reading and talk about how and what he writes, to an appreciative crowd which sadly didn't include a single creative writing student, and only one undergraduate. Oh well: I got to go for dinner with Adam and his wife on my own and had a lovely night. Coming soon: Francis O'Gorman, author of Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History, Tracey Hill on the invention of Dick Whittington and Owen Martel

Then I went to a Labour Party fundraiser starring Jeremy Corbyn, who was lovely: a sharp speaker, quite a wit, a man who cares about (amongst other things) arts policy and mental health care. Intriguingly, loads of people couldn't keep their hands off him. Rest of the photos are here or you can click on these to enlarge. 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Keep your Spirits up

If you haven't read The Spirit Level, which laid out in stark statistical detail the facts about inequality (including the revelation that inequality is bad for the winners as well as the losers) you really should. If you prefer your forensic analysis on screen, go and see The Divide, the movie of the book. I'm going to try arranging a screening at my university if local cinemas aren't showing it.

It certainly promises to be very different from Anomalisa, the film I saw last night (odd, very funny, very dark).

I have one more meeting today then I'm free for the weekend – other than a local Labour Party dinner with Jeremy Corbyn as the guest speaker. It promises to be very interesting. My local MP is a shadow minister and is working diligently and intelligently on a range of serious things: I don't think you could call him a Corbynite but clearly he's refusing to get involved in any of the sectarian bickering. The neighbouring Labour MPs, however, are behaving rather differently…

Monday, 18 April 2016

“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”

I could mine Hamlet for quotes for ever, but one line has never been my motto: 'Brevity is the soul of wit' (see my Twitter feed if you don't believe me). Why Hamlet this morning? Well, because I went on a school trip to see it at the RSC in Stratford on Saturday. Students and colleagues all saw the matinée performance directed by Simon Godwin and starring Papa Essiedu in the title role.

The setting was still 'Denmark' but clearly in the present, and the rotten state was African: virtually the entire cast was African or of African origin, as were the music, accents, materials, furniture and politics. Over-elaborate military uniforms were the order of the day for Claudius and his subalterns, or shiny silk suits and brightly patterned fabrics.

The acting was superb without exception. Essiedu played Hamlet as sulky, sarcastic, sexually twisted and slyly mocking. Tanya Moodie was superb as Gertrude: a touch of Winnie Mandela about her, regal, morally adrift but determined to hang on to power. Cyril Nri had a tough job as Polonius: foolish old man or obsequious courtier who knows how to survive shifting power. The scenes with his daughter Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) are often played as evidence that he's a droning old bore, but this time his paternalistic advice seemed genuine and heartfelt. Simpson was just wonderful as Ophelia: it's a problematic part, moving from carefree teen to maddened victim but she made it comprehensible and moving. The other interesting casting choices were a pair of white actors as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane. They started out as Hamlet's old university mates, looking like a pair of Inter-railers, then very convincingly got sucked into his uncle's machinations initially out of concern but before long due to self-interest.

Visually it looked superb: all the light and heat of a tense African capital, though I was less convinced by the overly-complicated stage set, all moving panels and clever mechanics which seemed a bit distracting. The rather obvious paintings and graffiti used to convey Hamlet's madness also seemed a bit unnecessary too. My clever friend Hilary suggested that Basquiat was the model, and she's much cleverer than me.

However, I did have one problem with the production. I can imagine it working brilliantly in an African capital with an African audience because the African setting could easily be interpreted as a political intervention. I did feel slightly uncomfortable sitting in an almost all-white crowd in the heart of the UK watching a play about superstition and political decay set in Africa. I confess that I don't know what Denmark signified to Shakespeare's audience, but popular stereotypes of Africa as a place of political violence and superstition were fully reinforced by this play's staging. It's not the casting: this cast was just brilliant and would have been brilliant wherever and whenever the play was set. Maybe I'm just an over-sensitive liberal or putting too much emphasis on the difference between the cast and the audience but it did feel slightly like conspiracy and superstition were being exoticism rather than recognised as a fundamental part of European culture.

That aside: it was a wonderful performance. Highly recommended.

The other thing I did this weekend was co-host a meeting to propose a Literature Festival in this city. Well over 50 people turned up so it looks like it's happening. What, where and who is yet to be decided but these are merely details. Now we just have to form a committee (oh god, another committee) and find some money. It's going to be in January because a) there aren't any other literary festivals in the winter and b) there's nothing else to do. The plan is to have a small number of well-known people but to really make it a festival of local literary activity: workshops and so on rather than just sitting there listening to visitors from the world of Literature. We don't want to imply that Literature isn't going on here, or is the preserve of other kinds of people. We shall see…

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

I've got my eye on you

I read a while ago that CCTV simply displaces crime into areas without CCTV (another way the sharp-elbowed move on their problems), that the presence of CCTV discourages people from intervening to help, and that most CCTV isn't monitored anyway. It's not much use in discouraging the world-altering crimes either, like pension mis-selling, LIBOR fiddling and tax evasion. And yet the UK is the world leader in surveillance: estimates are hard to come by but there are getting on for 750,000 in London alone: one for every 10 Londoners.

So I decided that I'd spend a week photographing every CCTV camera I spot on my divagations: the flâneur or flâneuse doesn't get much time alone these days. Here are the cameras covering my 3/4 mile walk from home to work: the vast majority are in the last 200 yards from the boundary of the university to my office. Apologies for the quality: I used my ageing phone for convenience. Anyone care to bet how many I'll see in a week?

On an anonymous corner near the park

Office block

Hotel car park


By the ring road

Edge of the university

Car park by the university

University entrance

A breeding pair of cameras in the corridor outside the library

In the quad

In the quad again 
Another in the quad

Yet another in the quad

Another one in the quad

And another one in the quad

In my building's entrance

By the lift, floor 2. 
I make that 18 cameras in an 11 minute walk, 14 of them owned by the university. Do I feel safer? Not really. I already felt safe because crime is low (and falling), lead pipes have been replaced throughout the city, and I tend to assume that my students and colleagues are unlikely to rob or beat me (though the campus was extremely dodgy during the theory wars. I hear that the French department used to wield chaussettes loaded with billiard balls.

I joke, but I really hate surveillance culture, particularly this distanced electronic version. It assumes that without the Panopticon, we would rapidly descend into the bad sort of anarchy, that we deserve to be watched, but that we don't deserve the presence of actual human security. One of the things my management has done recently is open up the electronic security barriers during the day, so that anyone can walk in. It's caused considerable disquiet, but I support it: we're part of the community and should be radically open. I'd love to adopt the American custom of 'auditing', in which everyone can come to lectures: the privilege of being a registered student is in the assessment and conferment of a qualification.

If you treat people like the enemy, such as building high-security gated communities, those inside actually develop deeper fears while those outside resent their exclusion. You can read Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on this: he says that the Fall began when the rich stopped providing public services (out of altruism or simple fear of the mob) and started building higher walls and hiring more goons to protect their obscene luxuries. Anyone walking around Mayfair or Chelsea will know what he means. You can also read JG Ballard's later novels about the effects of voluntarily ghettoising yourself: in Millennium People, Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights the bourgeoisie attempt to seal themselves of in consumerist utopian bubbles, and rapidly degenerate. He knows whereof he speaks: he spent time in a Japanese concentration camp as a child.

You're very welcome to join in: count the ones you see and post your photos on Twitter with the hashtag #cctvweek.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

This and that

A brief one today: it's been a hard few days and it's getting busier. Since I last blogged I finished reading a PhD dissertation, which I'm examining on Monday, and ploughed through the validation documents of a Greek university I'm visiting for 36 hours later this week (no time for tourism).

I've been to the annual conference of the Welsh Writing in English Association, which was as always wonderful, exhausting and simultaneously refreshing (illicit flasks of espresso martinis furnished by esteemed delegates really help those evening sessions fly past). I was co-organiser last time, so this year I relaxed: chaired a keynote and took the minutes at the AGM but didn't present anything. I'll do a proper write-up of AWWE16 once next week is out of the way. This week so far has been meetings (yay, Estates Sub-Committee) and lectures. I did my Rousseau/Werther/Precepts/Romanticism/Subjectivism/ lecture this afternoon which felt good from where I was standing but who knows what anyone else thought. Opinion was strongly divided over whether Werther was a) an idiot emo stalker whose death was good riddance or b) a satirical creation designed to mock the Romantics. Option c) a heroic representative of principled idealism and manly sensibility who was part of the great wave of liberation movements received precisely zero votes. But it was great playing Mozart ('not as bad as Young Werther' was one opinion), Beethoven and Massenet, discussing the Enlightenment and the Romantic turn, showing pictures of Strawberry Hill and Sir John Soane's Museum, and comparing the prefaces of Werther and Clarissa to examine the designs texts have on readers, then talking about Northanger Abbey, the Augustans and all sorts of things. One of the most enjoyable sessions I've had in ages.

Tomorrow it's a lecture on the Sonnet mastery of which I promote as the equivalent of the footballer's Baby Bentley: Renaissance Alpha males' must have accessory, though we then discuss women's takes by looking at Edna St Vincent Millay and Wendy Cope.

What's had to give amongst all this is my uncle Brendan's funeral on Monday, which is just awful. He had a hard life and died too young. If I was teaching a class I'd ask a colleague to cover it, but a PhD viva can't be rearranged: it wouldn't be fair to the candidate or the external examiner.

In the meantime: a few pictures (click to enlarge) from Gregynog, where my conference was held. The rest are mostly of ridiculously hot academics and sheep.

Guest speaker Niall Griffiths and Petri, a Finnish Phd student who spoke about Niall's work. They're watching a bat circling us.

A diving thrush