Saturday, 24 January 2015

Visions of a university

I've just finished John Williams' Stoner, a truly brilliant novel. The protagonist, William Stoner, leads an apparently unexceptional life, much of it occupied with his work as a lecturer at a small university in the states.

Of course no life is really unexceptional; yet, at the same time, all lives have a mundanity, a prosaic-ness that art very rarely manages to capture - as soon as a life appears in a novel, for instance, it inevitably loses its mundanity and becomes something special through the act of being observed. This problem seems to me to be one of the major obstacles that novelists face when they try and write truthfully - J.M. Coetzee manages it brilliantly and here too Williams' story of this ordinary life is a triumph of truthful story-telling.

The story also holds a special resonance for me, given that much of my life is occupied with my work as a lecturer in a small university.

The quotes below are all from Stoner:

... Masters, holding aloft a hard-boiled egg from the free lunch as if it were a crystal ball, said, 'Have you gentlemen ever considered the question of the true nature of the University? Mr Stoner? Mr Finch?'
    Smiling, they shook there heads.
    'I'll bet you haven't. Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free weill and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful, They're just around the corner, in the next corridor; they're in the next book, the one you haven't read, or in the next stack, the one you haven't got. But you'll get to it someday. And when you do - when you do...'
    'And you, Finch. What's your idea?' He held up his hand. 'You'll protest you haven' thought of it. But you have. Beneath that bluff and hearty exterior there works a simple mind. To you, the institution is an instrument of good - to the world at large, of course, and just incidentally to yourself. You see it as a kind of spiritual sulphur-and-molasses  that you administer every fall to get the little bastards through another winter; and you're the kindly old doctor who benignly pats their heads and pockets their fees.'
   Finch laughed again and shook his head. 'I swear, Dave, when you get going -'
   Masters put the rest of the egg in his mouth, chewed contentedly for a moment, and took a long swallow of beer. 'But you're both wrong,' he said. 'It is an asylum or - what do they call them now? - a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incomptent. Look at the three of us - we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don't we? We know well...'
    '... We're all poor Toms, and we're a-cold.... And so providence, or society, or fate, or whatever name you want to give it, has created this hovel for us, so that we can go in out of the storm. it's for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that's just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn't give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive. And we shall survive - because we have to...
   '... But bad as we are, we're better that those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world. We do no harm, we say wheat we want, and we get paid for it; and that's a triumph of natural virtue, or pretty damn close to it.' (p.31)

Some remarks: I like this vision of a university! In particular, I like the explicit unworldliness of this idea of a university. It seems to me that a  university really should be a place outside the main stream of the world, a world where the struggle to survive imposes such dramaticrestrictions on conduct, on thought and on experience. I'm thinking of a world that encompasses the daily grind of the poor labourer through to the efficiencies and strategic-planning of corporate business.

Sadly, of course, I write this as universities (at least in the UK) move ever closer to business models, where the discourse of higher education explicitly treats students as consumers, universities as 'service-providers' and all the rest of it. There is some value in this kind of approach, of course - in the more classical set-up of universities (as described in Stoner) students laboured largely according to the whimsy of their somewhat-God-like lecturers, and if you got a bad one, God help you....

These days, professors do not wield the sort of absolute power that they once held and, in many ways, that is a good thing. The price of this change, though, is that academics now operate in a world of endless checks and balances, limited in their movements by a succession of evaluations and check-lists. It's not just the bad lecturers that are hamstrung, then - where once an inspirational professor could take her students on a journey of learning and discovery that could genuinely change lives, now one fears that such a journey would inevitably transgress the limitations the bureaucracy imposes and be swiftly curtailed.

One might argue the merits of the respective approaches to university life... What worries me about our current state is that the bureaucratic limitations I describe strike at the heart of this "unworldliness" described so beautifully in the quote above. And if (as I think I believe) this "unworldliness" is really at the heart of what a university should be, then this current obsession with evaluation and regulation may destroy the essence of the very thing it tries to preserve.

One more quote of an entirely different flavour; this one is self-explanatory.

He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the o Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living. (p.40)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

.... but Scotland votes NO

I'm pissed off about the result of the Scottish referendum. A glorious opportunity to truly change the rotten political system in the UK and it has been spurned. The clones in Westminster are well pleased, and the rest of us are stuck on the same old treadmill.

I mentioned in the last post that I think the press coverage has been poor. On an issue as open as this one it is ludicrous that all but one paper (the Sunday Express I think) has supported the NO campaign. Here's a bit of journalism that particularly pissed me off...

Over the course of the campaign a slew of articles outlined which celebrities were backing the NO campaign - David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Richard Branson (there was a video interview with the last on the front page of the BBC explaining why NO would be a catastrophe). My immediate reaction to hearing super-rich celebrities telling me what to think about politics is What the fuck would you know? As if Mick Jagger has the first notion of what life is like for an ordinary Scottish person.

This response didn't appear in the press of course. Just the usual fawning to these legends of music and business and God knows what else. In contrast, Andy Murry came out in favour of YES right at the end of the campaign  - apparently too late for it to be covered by the press which means I saw a total of ZERO celebrity endorsements for the YES campaign covered in the press.

And now, in the aftermath of the vote, this ridiculous article by Russel Fuller appears in the press explaining why Murray's support for a YES was a mistake and is going to make his life more difficult. The justification for this position seems a little confused but it seems that the big worry might be that middle England might not be as keen on him at Wimbledon. Which - obviously - should cause any man to eschew any political priniciples he might have and sell his soul to ensure the nodding approval of the strawberries-and-cream set.

What irks me is that there is absolutely no equivalent on the other side. Nobody has written any articles suggesting that Richard Branson should shut the fuck up with his moaning and just stick to being super rich without lecturing the rest of us how to live our lives. No, apparently, Richard's insights into the life of the ordinary Briton are always worth a listen... But woe betide the poor bastard who points in the opposite direction.

To compound the issue, Murray is having to cope with a storm of disgusting abuse from Scottish loyalists because of his comments. I have heard of no equivalent on the other side for this either (edit: actually, turns out there has been abuse from both sides)... In light of this, one wonders why a tennis journalist feels the need to stick the knife in too - I guess to make damn sure Murray does what the establishment wants him to do next time.

If I was Murray I'd stick to the saltire from here on and make damn sure there are no more pictures of me wrapped in the Union Jack.

Which last point, leads me to an addendum: the pictures of NO campaign revellers wrapped in the Union Jack truly sickens me. That symbol of imperialism and empire could never be acceptable, and I wonder at people who (apparently) are so dead to history that they can align themselves with it. It's a sorry day for Britain.

Postscript: 4 days after the Scottish referendum, the BBC reported again on Andy Murray supporting independence. Their article is entitled Murray regrets vote tweet fallout. The Guardian reported on the same issue with an article entitled Murray: no regrets over 'yes' support. An amusing divergence of headlines! My reading would be that the BBC are just desperate for Murray to regret something, anything... and they've lead accordingly. Talk about the news being moulded to suit an agenda...

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Scotland should vote YES

I've been rather bemused by the lead-up to the Scottish referendum. Until yesterday, every single comment piece I'd read had urged Scotland to vote NO. Plus there's been a bunch of stories about celebrities making the same pleas - Mick Jagger springs to mind.

The thing is, my instinct says that Scotland should vote YES! Why would anyone stay saddled with the fuckers in Westminster any longer than they absolutely had to? I know there are a load of warnings about dire economic consequences - but this sort of nonsense is tripped out whenever the establishment wants to make vague, unquantifiable threats in order to do something it wants to do (cf. Gordon Brown bailing out the banks). I'm pretty sure that 90% of the people making these threats know less about economics than I do - and that's not much.

So, then, yesterday happened and I read this. George Monbiot, you little ripper. Someone, finally, saying exactly what I was thinking. And, to back it up, Billy Bragg - legend - with one of the shortest and most recommended comments I've seen to a Guardian article: "Amen".

So, in summary, George Monbiot and Billy Bragg think Scotland should vote YES. A lot of Westminster public schoolboys think they should vote NO. Pretty straightforward decision then...

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Two postscripts: (1) Of course the bemusement I mention at the start is simply a function of me forgetting that the media in the UK are by-and-large, an establishment machine. Which make me all the sadder for The Guardian. A fine paper in many ways but whenever it comes to the crunch they show their true incurably conservative colours. Their worst misdemeanour was backing the war in Iraq when Tony Blair started tubthumping -- for that they will never be forgiven. Again, here, when it comes to making a decision their editorial line is in meek submission to the nation's political masters - vote No Scotland! Truly pathetic.

(2) Charlie Brooker. I have read one other good article on the Scotland issue. It was good because it made me laugh. Unfortunately it also ended up suggesting Scotland should vote NO -- like all the rest of 'em...

Monday, 14 July 2014

Wisdom from Kazantzakis

From Nikos Kazantzakis' The Fratricides:
Father Yanaros watched her as she climbed and disappeared from sight. For a moment, he forgot himself. "What strength," he murmured, "what life, what youth! Why do I demand virtue and honor of such a body? Let her get it out of her system first; let her eat up the world and become satiated and have her mouth fill with ashes! Then, virtue and goodness will appear from the ruins."
I reproduce this quote as a recommendation to those of a religious persuasion. I do not understand why, but many religious leaders seem to spend an almighty amount of time proscribing various activities and behaviours, simply because they associate too much with the body. They'd be much better off letting life run its course.

*                              *                                *

Somewhat related perhaps... I read today that Ian Thorpe, the Australian swimming legend, has revealed in an interview that he is gay. Growing up in Australia in the 90's, I remember Ian Thorpe as an Australian champion of the first order. I've read since of his various struggles with depression and alcohol. I hope that this revelation will allow him to find some happiness. And, for what it's worth, he will always be a legend as far as I'm concerned.

(I.T. made one particularly striking remark in the article I read: in his dark times he had felt embarrassed to admit to feeling depressed, knowing as he did that the life he was leading was the stuff of many people's dreams. There is definitely an issue in modern life about people being allowed to be unhappy. Even (especially?) when `they have everything.' I've had friends who've also struggled with such an admission, feeling guilty because they had no good reason to feel unhappy, they just were... The simple act of saying "I'm unhappy" can be immensely liberating.)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

English Integration

David Blunkett was on the radio a couple of days ago, carrying on from where he left off as home secretary. i.e. he was spouting a load of nonsense that skirted awfully close to plain old racism.

This time his victims were the Roma residents of Sheffield. He was sounding off about them congregating in large numbers, he made some rather cryptic remarks about them not living in a village any more and needing to use toilets, and he finished by predicting some kind of conflagration if `something isn't done'.

The key word in this largely incoherent rant was the word integrate -  woe betide the immigrant who does not integrate, for they shall not be welcome.

Two responses: let me note first that there are quite a few Roma people living round my neighbourhood in Bristol, some of their kids go to my son's school, one old man busks outside our local greengrocers etc etc. We do not seem particularly close to a conflagration. I'll go further - I rather enjoy having them about - brings a bit of colour init.

Secondly, on `integration'. What does it actually mean? Who's integrating into what in this county? An anecdote: We moved house about three years ago, just round the corner. As we were  visiting the house to see if we'd like to move in I had a brief conversation with the woman who is now my neighbour. It was a 3 sentence conversation and it's still our longest - her opening gambit was ``ooh, you'll like it round here. People keep themselves to themselves". I remember thinking to myself  ``Brilliant. So I can live here for years and make no friends. A perfect English neighbourhood.''

Three years on, living in the same house, it turns out we have made a couple of friends. Only a couple, mind. We live in a cul de sac, which would be perfect community material you might think, yet more than half of the people who live here I've never said more than ``Good afternoon" to... and some I've never sighted. We've had a street party for the last two years and about 2/3 of the people have stayed away.

So this is England - the country where people keep themselves to themselves. Where our home is our castle. Where we don't bloody well integrate. So what exactly is Blunkett's problem? Perhaps it's that the Roma are a little too willing to speak to those around them? Are they over-integrated? Enlighten us please David, because thus far you aint making much sense...

*    *   *
Actually David Blunkett has turned up in my life a couple of times in the last week. We watched an old episode of Gavin and Stacey, in which Nessa muses on the glory years with John Prescott - reminiscing about `Dave Blunkett and his bitch coming round for dinner'. Hilarious! I only hope he didn't bore her rigid with his after dinner rants on immigration.

Friday, 11 October 2013

A man after my own heart

I just read about a tweet from the comedian Kevin Bridges. I generally make a policy of giving twitter the cold shoulder, but this warmed the cockles of my heart. (A warm cockle is better than a cold shoulder, surely?)

Sunday, 16 June 2013

What I did on the week-end...

A great day, great atmosphere, great people..... But I have never been so cold in all my life.