Monday, 30 November 2015

Don't bomb Syria

I cannot believe that we are headed for another military adventure in the Middle East. The blood hasn't dried in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now we head out again.

I sent the following letter to my MP today. God knows if it will help.

Dear Wayne David,

I am one of your constituents - I live in Llanbradach. I am writing to

I listen to the radio incredulous that we are being led into yet
another military adventure in the Middle East, so soon after Iraq,
Afghanistan and Libya. Military action can only lead to yet more blood
shed, more bereavement, more widows and orphans, more anger and
resentment and chaos. Please, I beg of you, do all you can to ensure
that the proposed military action does not go ahead.

Yours sincerely,

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Two things I learnt from a year in Costa Rica

At the start of 2014, I moved with my family to Costa Rica. A year later we moved back to the UK after a memorable 12 months. I learnt a lot of things in that time, but here are two that seem particularly important.

On immigration. This move to Costa Rica was EASY: I had a nice job lined up in a good university; I caught a plane straight there with my family; I had my papers all sorted; I had some money in the bank to ease the travails of moving; I was healthy as was all my family; we'd had plenty of time to prepare; I'd been learning Spanish but the university let me teach in English for the first six months; my wage might have been low by Western standards but it was pretty nice compared to your average tico; Costa Rica is a stunningly beautiful place with great food, great beaches, great weather; a bunch of people at the university went out of their way to welcome us, make us feel at home, look after us, and give us advice.... But despite all that, this easy move was HARD.

Which is hardly surprising, because moving across the world to a new place is inevitably damn difficult. We had a load of times when we felt lonely, disconnected and abandoned; when we just wanted to flee screaming back to where we came from.

So now imagine what it must be like for those without all those advantages. People bang on endlessly in this country about all the immigrants swamping the country. It's bollox from start to finish of course. But even if it weren't, how bad must things be where they're coming from that they're prepared to move across the globe to some alien new land, where they will be received with suspicion, rejection and blame for all of the ills of the place where they find themselves?

A little empathy would go a long way.

On housing. Our housing in Costa Rica was a tale of two halves: for the first six months we were in a tiny two-bedroom flat with a piece of concrete outside and some razor wire; for the second six months we had a big flat with a magnificent garden.

What's interesting is that the two-halves experience of housing also made for a two-halves experience of parenting. In the first six months I shouted at my kids a lot. They were continually making noise in my ear just when I needed some calm; there was nowhere for me to go to avoid them; there was nowhere for them to go to avoid me. I ended up being a very angry daddy.

And I didn't even realise what had been happening until we'd spent our first month in the nice new flat. A whole month had gone by and I'd hardly needed to raise my voice. If things got hairy I just walked out the door into the garden, or kicked them both out and told them to play football for half an hour. Suddenly I was a good dad!

It made me realise just how much the state of our housing affects our quality of life. I want to be a good dad more than just about anything else in the world... but I just couldn't do it in that first place (and it wasn't even that bad; lots of Costa Ricans have it much worse). It made me realise anew that when governments and councils and powers-that-be short-change people on basic needs like housing, the effects are not just the physical discomfort of a shit place to live, but the damage of fundamental family relationships.

I have in my head a classic stereotype of a working-class mother screaming at her kids as she pushes a buggy down the road; I'm walking by in my middle-class bubble trying to be sympathetic but secretly, snobbily, disapproving. Well for six months, I was that mother. I don't want to blame all my bad parenting on living in a shit flat, but I know for a fact that it didn't bloody help. If I was a better person, my parenting would still have been OK... But unfortunately I've got to start from where I'm at, and it turns out that I find it hard to parent if I can't get away from my kids every now and then. Who'd've thunk it?

Sunday, 5 April 2015

From Heinlein's "Door into Summer"

The following quote is from Robert Heinlein's Door into Summer:

I thanked him and left with a really warm feeling. Mr. Doughty reminded me of a paymaster I used to have in the Army. Paymasters come in only two sizes: one sort shows you where the book says that you can't have what you've got coming to you; the second sort digs through the book until he finds a paragraph that lets you have what you need even if you don't rate it. (p. 85)
My new work place seems to have a few too many paymasters of the former kind...

(Incidentally, while Door into Summer is an enjoyable bit of fluff, it really doesn't compare to Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress which I rate as possibly the best sci-fi book I've ever read.) 

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)