Sunday, 26 July 2015

Beating the bounds: misreading Iain Sinclair

My sense of Iain Sinclair’s recent book, London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), is determined by a misreading on my part. In a scene where Sinclair recalls giving a reading in a ‘bamboo bar’, one of the punters, a ‘heavy presence, tieless in a loose designer suit that gave off sparks as he moved’ (38), gets a bit confrontational at the Q&A sessions. Grabbing the microphone, he lays into Sinclair:

History, he said, was pigs’ bollocks dipped in sherbert. But if you want to listen to … Arthur Morrison, A Child of the Jago, Tales of Mean Streets, Arnold Circus, Charles Dickens, furniture sweatshops, bagels and … blah blah blah: OK fine. Each to his own. But these are not, my friend, the realities of the moment. You know fuck all about that. About the rewrite of territory, the rescue of the old shitheaps, for which he was responsible: a player, an investor, he put his money where his mouth was. And his tongue was blistered with diamonds. (38)

A couple of things threw me. One was the double ellipsis, the gaps: what did this signify? A halting in the punter’s discourse? A shift of speaker? The problem here is that Sinclair begins to ventriloquise the other man, or vice versa; ‘he said’ appears right at the beginning of the scene, but who said what becomes a little unclear. And this is where I misread, as after ‘blah blah blah’, it sounded like Sinclair was putting down the heckler. ‘But these are not, my friend, the realities of the moment. You know fuck all about that. About the rewrite of territory’: you know fuck all. Wow, I thought, this is something new, Sinclair giving the punter a verbal kiss-off. But wait, no, that can’t be right. It’s not until ‘tongue blistered with diamonds’ that we return to Sinclair speaking, with a far more oblique put-down. It’s the punter telling Sinclair that history is bunk, that money talks (blah blah blah), that London is being purposefully re-written into a different future. Yes, now that is much more likely.

The question is: why did I mis-read the scene so violently? Sinclair telling someone that they know fuck all? How likely is that? (The italics might even be seen as diacritical indicators by Sinclair that ‘this is not me speaking’.) And the answer I came up with is: because I wanted him to say that, wanted him to be angry, wanted him to directly tell the representative of a boorish, know-nothing exploitative capital to fuck off.

Which he never does, of course. But I (would like to) think that he would like to.

In my 2007 book on Sinclair, I called the last chapter ‘Driven to the margins’, which was largely about London Orbital (2002). Since then, his major books, except for Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), have elucidated a connection with London which, if not quite attenuated, then expressed the desire or need to tread new territory. Edge of the Orison (2005) re-traced John Clare’s ‘Journey Out of Essex’ and, with the central role of Anna Sinclair and family history, seemed to me to be an extension of the walking/researching/narrating method, treading on directly personal ground in a way not seen in previous books. (It will be interesting to see what Sinclair’s next collaboration with Andrew Kötting, By Our Selves, which also recapitulates Clare’s journey on foot, does with the same primary event.) Ghost Milk (2011) was about the coming London Olympics and the ‘grands projets’ of all such vastly expensive stage-sets; he visits the rotting stadia in the Athens Olympic park as a past that might haunt London’s future. And in American Smoke (2014), Sinclair takes off for the States in search of the writers and writing (particularly poetry) that remain fundamental to his Modernist poetics and world-view, a true ‘lighting out for the territory’.

So London Overground feels like a deliberate return to London, after the pointed tomfoolery of Swandown (2012), where Sinclair’s cerebral discourse acts as a foil to Kötting’s physical cinema of running, jumping and standing still (or piloting a pedalo up English waterways). It narrates a walk that Sinclair takes with Kötting, who is a somewhat different companion to other such as the photographer Marc Atkins or film-maker and author Chris Petit, who were crucial to earlier books. Kötting, who Sinclair has described as a ‘New Age stormtrooper’, is presented in London Overground as a man of physical appetite and activity: pissing in bushes, measuring the miles in terms of pit-stops to refuel, yarning about youthful sexual conquests around London. If not quite Sancho Panza to Sinclair’s Quixote, Kötting represents a different principle of physicality to Sinclair’s, which is always in service of the story (of the books themselves and of literature per se). Kötting’s own body revolts over the 30-odd mile tramp, his feet ‘squelching’ by the end (and in a coda to the book, this broken-down physicality is re-doubled in a shocking account of the motorbike accident Kötting suffered in 2013, where he suffered significant injuries). But his body is present in a way that Sinclair’s own rarely is in his texts. Instead, we are presented with Sinclair's voice.

This voice, or perhaps style, is one that characterises my experience of Sinclair’s texts as much as the territories and terrains they traverse. It’s not surprising that some of the writers and artists that are considered in London Overground have very strong and distinct styles: JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Leon Kossoff, Samuel Beckett. These are distinctive voices of which, like Sinclair, you only have to read a sentence or two to know who is writing.

The circuit (key Sinclair word all the way back to Lud Heat (1975)) that Sinclair and Kötting enact haunts the ‘Ginger Line’ in a similar fashion to the method of London Orbital, where Sinclair and others traced the ‘acoustic footsteps’ of the motorway. The Overground Line is of course much further in, a circle/ circuit that begins in Haggerston and takes in Shadwell, Denmark Hill, Clapham Junction, Shepherd’s Bush, Camden Town, and back to Haggerston. It’s interesting to note how Sinclair confesses that he does not know some of the ground particularly well, that it connects only marginally with his own personal history or recurrent interests.

But there is recapitulation here, deliberately so. When Sinclair describes Kossoff’s ‘method of choosing a number of privileged viewpoints, and returning to them, time after time’ (240) might be describing his own. In another passage, the journey takes on rather more epic clothing:

Enough miles have been covered in this half-day’s walk to call up a discussion about circularity, the Homeric voyage of adventure and return, against the grander reach of the diurnal cycle, an eternal and unchanging figure. Night chasing day chasing night. The abacus of the stars. The eye of heaven orbiting under the dish of the ocean, as Charles Olson says in the Maximus Poems [….] The drawing together of the circle is our faith in that model of the universe. And our love of it. (124)

This then positions London Overground as nostos, a return to home, beating the bounds of Sinclair’s own territory. (‘Beating the bounds’ was a phrase that appeared in my head as I was reading London Overground, and then, on page 72, it appears: ‘A rectangle filled with a unique signature of self: the beating of the bounds’. Did I tune in to Sinclair’s voice or call this phrase up?)

The text is not filled with nostalgia, however, so much as a sense of loss. For all Kötting’s antic presence, the book feels like a lament. This is why, when Sinclair and Kötting call on the venerable (and wonderful) actor Freddie Jones – now starring, completely unknown to me, in Emmerdale – the references to Jones’ performance as King Lear started to make a different sense. (Freddie and his son Toby appear in By Our Selves.) The wintry feel of London Overground – the walk takes place on a cold February day – brought to mind not the wine-dark seas of Homeric nostoi, nor sun-baked La Mancha, but rather Lear’s wanderings around a lost kingdom, lucidly mad, suffering revelation. Sinclair in London Overground is a Winter King, traversing a kingdom split in two, accompanied by a Fool who speaks truth.

As I wrote about in another blog, I’ve recently been listening a lot to the Sleaford Mods, whose angry, aggressive and expletive-filled albums seem to express not only the tenor of the times but also something about myself and the problems of a working-class person entering academia (not least in terms of the voice). The anger, the fuck off-ness of the Sleaford Mods is bracing and invigorating, which is probably why I wanted Sinclair to say the same thing. Where Laura Oldfield Ford, whose Savage Messiah (2011) seems to intersect with the Sleaford Mods’ punk sensibility, has a strong sense of articulating exclusion and deprivation and the fraying fabric of working-class urban lives, that’s not what Sinclair does, and it would be unfair to criticise him for not doing so.

But in a time of ideologically-enforced economic austerity, where a prospective Labour leadership candidate who opposes this is attacked by the establishment as a kind of fifth columnist leading the party to ‘disaster’, and where anger seems to have no purchase on political agency (as Mark Fisher wrote about the Sleaford Mods’ last album), the politics of beating the bounds is more urgent than ever. I like and admire Sinclair’s work a lot (enough to have written a book about him), and the politics of his non-fiction are clear, but in London Overground I missed the savagery and the satire of the early novels, of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) and Downriver (1990) in particular. In completing the circuit, once again, I wonder where we can go next.

Friday, 19 June 2015

What Men Don't See: All That Outer Space Allows

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while. It’s the final book of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet, and where the other books are novella length, this one is longer, a short novel. It’s a curious text, in some ways: a recapitulation, a revision, an inversion, an alternate history of the Apollo programme that is more an alternate history of science fiction, and ultimately, an alternate history of the Apollo Quartet itself.

The main character is Ginny Eckhardt, the wife of Walden Eckhardt who is, as the novel opens, a test pilot at Edwards AFB in the mid-60s. Ginny is not only a pilot’s, and then when Eckhardt is accepted into NASA, an astronaut’s wife, but is also a science fiction author, writing under the name V.G. Parker (Virginia Parker, her birth name). The rather brilliant conceit of All That Outer Space Allows is that sf is a genre written and read by women: its most famous authors are women (Ginny is pen-pals with ‘Ursula, Judith and Doris’), the editors of Galaxy and Astounding are women, its readers and correspondents are mainly women. The gender politics of this alternate scenario mean that sf had still less cultural capital in the 1950s and 1960s than it had in our world: disregarded as a ‘women’s genre’ (like romance fiction, or the melodrama that the novel’s title overtly refers to) sf is something of a social secret for Ginny. Frowned upon by her ‘flyboy’ husband, who inhabits a retrograde patriarchal machismo, her writing is kept hidden, like the copies of sf magazines she stashes in her cupboard.

This allows Sales to make some play with the idea of performance and role-playing; we first see Ginny in a plaid shirt and slacks, which is both her writing attire and a symbol of the ‘real’ Ginny masked by the enacting of the role of ‘wife’ that she must do to support Walden’s career. Later in the novel, Sales suggests that Ginny no longer needs that hidden persona symbolised by the clothes, that Ginny is able to bring public and private personas together, but the details of her career – after some success in the late 60s and early 70s, she drifts away from sf – indicate otherwise. The importance of clothes is connected to a crucial theme in the novel, to do with gender and women’s lives under patriarchy: that of seeing and being seen.

At the beginning of the novel, Ginny watches a plume of smoke hanging over Edwards AFB, and fears that it is her husband who has crashed, perhaps fatally. This isn’t so; an officer comes to seek out Ginny’s neighbour with the news that the pilot has been injured, but is in the hospital. She invites him in for an iced tea while he waits, and after an awkward interlude, wonders whether she has overstepped the bounds of social propriety, but he soon leaves, wanting to wait outside in the car for the neighbour ‘so I don’t miss her’. In an unassuming way, this introduces a recurrent motif in the narrative: men not seeing women, both physically and literally. When Walden takes Ginny on a tour around the Houston MSC, he runs off to check on a missed appointment. Abandoned to her own devices (another recurrent motif) Ginny is taken into the suiting room by Dee, a female technician. Searching for her, Walden pokes his head around the door, scans the room, scowls, and departs, only later coming back to locate her. He has physically not seen his wife. Other details compound this motif: when she has lost an item in the house, he ‘happily’ joins in the search, but ‘never’ finds it, and Ginny often comes across the object in a place he has already looked.

This idea is literalised through a short story Ginny publishes, given in full in the novel, called ‘The Spaceships Men Don’t See’. Like the title of the novel itself, this is a playful intertextual allusion, this time to James Tiptree Jr/ Alice B. Sheldon’s famous story ‘The Women Men Don’t See’; in a mocked up Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction entry for VG Parker, it is suggested that Ginny’s story gains more visibility retrospectively, after readers make the intertextual connection to the Tiptree story. There is a curious and playful fiddling with chronology here, where Ginny’s story anticipates the more famous (and ‘real’) Tiptree’s, which then refers back to and legitimates it in some way. This playfulness has the effect of stitching Ginny’s story into the history of actual science fiction written by women throughout the twentieth century, and in that sense, we can see All That Outer Space Allows as a parallel project to Sales’ SF Mistressworks project, which explicitly challenges the gendered language of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. In both, Sales attempts to make visible the unseen history of sf by women.

All That Outer Space Allows does not only re-write, through an alternate history scenario, the gendered history of science fiction; it also re-writes the gendered history of the Apollo Quartet itself. It has become ever clearer, in each successive book, how an underlying tension between Sales’ admiration for and investment in the Apollo programme (one I share) and a critique of the patriarchal masculinity and codes of ‘heroic’ endeavour are being worked out. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book in the Quartet, the pathological Cold War antagonisms underpinning the Space Race are embodied in Colonel Vance Peterson, one of the astronauts marooned on the Moon after World War III; All That Outer Space Allows explicitly re-writes this in gender terms, as when Ginny begins writing the novella ‘Hard Vacuum’, her last significant sf publication, the opening paragraphs are given in the text itself:

Some days, when it feels like the end of the world yet again, Vanessa Peterson goes out onto the surface and gazes up at what they have lost.

This is, of course, the opening of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, with ‘Vanessa’ substituted for ‘Vance’. Several other moments in All That Outer Space Allows suggest that Ginny is the ‘author’ of narratives that approximate The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself (where a mission to Mars uncovers an alien ftl drive) and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (where one of the two narratives proposes an Korean War ongoing into the mid-1960s, and a NASA astronaut programme populated by women).

This is very interesting and I admire the playfulness as well as the serious intent, the implication of Sales’ own writing in the patriarchal imperatives of sf (and the Apollo programme). Cannily, he doesn’t spare himself. However, I get the sense that Ginny is, in part, a version of Sales-the-sf-author, as presented in the novel. Throughout the narrative, it is suggested that Ginny writes sf in part because the patriarchal structures of the post-war USA means that she cannot and will not be allowed to go into space herself; it’s a kind of displacement activity that stands in for all the exclusions suffered by women in a patriarchal social and cultural circumstance. But this displacement is also one assigned to Sales-the-sf-author in the end matter. In ‘About the Author’, he writes: ‘Ian Sales wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, but sadly wasn’t born in the USA or USSR. So he writes about them instead.’ How should we take this? A confession? A performance? A cryptic clue that Ginny’s ambivalence is his own? A message that Sales’ re-imagining of the Apollo project is in some ways an appropriation, a means of playing out or re-negotiating a fantasy investment in it?

I don’t think that we can take the Quartet as a mea culpa; Sales has no need to apologise for NASA’s (and by extension post-war United States’) ideological exclusions and oppressions, and his own cultural work (in the SF Mistressworks project as well as the Quartet) should leave the reader in no doubt as to his politics. It is, however, a critique, and ultimately this turns into a kind of auto-critique, and for All That Outer Space Allows this becomes a formal principle, one of the boldest manoeuvres in the text.

All of the previous novellas in the Quartet have offered a formal extension (and by the time of And Will The Great Ocean, perhaps formal difficulty) to the political and thematic revisions offered in each text. Adrift has a Glossary and Chronology section at the end, offering an alternative series of Apollo missions; The Eye With Which… also incorporates these, but also has a dual time-frame, where the narrative intercuts the protagonist finding the alien artefact on Mars and then, years later, journeying on an ftl ship to the stars; and Then Will The Great Ocean… has two different alternate histories placed side by side in a kind of narrative interlocution. As I noted in a previous review, I found this the most awkward and problematic, though not really because we are given two time-lines. But in All That Outer Space Allows Sales goes further still, and begins to deconstruct the narrative from within.

The first such moment takes place in chapter 1, on p.17. Ginny muses that it was ‘so strange that his parents should name [Walden Eckhardt] after a book subtitle “Life in the Woods” … ’. And then we have this:

They didn’t, of course; I did. I named him Walden for Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 polemic. There is a scene in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows – the title of this novel is not a coincidence: the movie is a favourite, and in broad stroke, both All That Heaven Allows and All That Outer Space Allows tell similar stories: an unconventional woman who attempts to break free of conventional life …

After a paragraph and a half, we segue back into Ginny’s point of view. This technique recurs throughout the novel, wrenching the reader out of the immersive experience of reading Ginny’s story into something else entirely. And notice how halting it becomes, the syntax and flow as though unsure of itself, jumping from Thoreau to Sirk, interrupted by dashes, by colons (twice), by ellipsis marks. What I think is going on here, as well as Sales demonstrating that (of course) this is a fiction, is a kind of crisis in the parameters of his own project, a point at which narrative can no longer be written, where the cultural work of revision and re-scripting comes to a halt because it is narrative.

As Sales points out, partly through these ‘authorial’ disruptions, Apollo was always embedded in a range of different narratives, from official documents, jargon and acronyms (some of which are directly reproduced in All That Outer Space Allows) to the Life magazine news-management of NASA’s image to the memoirs of astronauts and their wives, many of which appear in the novel’s bibliography. To re-write Apollo, particularly in the way Sales does so (through exhaustive research and citation) is, in part, to be complicit in Apollo and its narratives.

If it is ‘no coincidence’ that All That Outer Space Allows refers to the Sirk film, it is also no coincidence that each of the chapter titles refers to a part of the process of an Apollo mission: ‘Liftoff’, ‘First Stage Separation’, ‘Lunar Orbit Insertion’. The personal (Ginny’s story, or even Sales’ investment) is mapped onto the procedural and public. The last chapter is ‘“We have touchdown”’, and is then a kind of closure; but the Eagle landing was never the end of the story, of course. Armstrong and Aldrin (and Collins) still had to get back. The end of All That Outer Space Allows is then a closure that is not a closure, because the novel has refused those gestures all the way through (as, in other ways, the other books of the Quartet had also done).

The deliberate disjunctions and disruptions will make All That Outer Space Allows a problematic, even difficult read, for some, I would guess. I really admire the ambition and boldness behind these manoeuvres, though, a willingness to take formal risks, even if (as with Then Will The Great Ocean…) they don’t quite pay off. All That Outer Space Allows foregrounds the acts of writing and reading, of narration and reception, and provoked me into asking ‘why is he doing this? What is the purpose?’ In a few months which will see the publication of Ben Johncock’s The Last Pilot and in which a tv version of The Astronaut Wives Club has just aired in the States, the figure of the test pilot’s/ astronaut’s wife has herself suddenly become a lot more visible. Ian Sales’ All That Outer Space Allows is provocative in more than one way: about Apollo, about science fiction, about the Quartet, about its own narration and story, and I like that very much. It’s a worthy conclusion to the Quartet, albeit one which refuses the idea of closure even as it ends.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Landscape and (science) (fiction) (fantasy)

A week or two ago I went down (or is that up?) to Cambridge for a one-day conference called TheAlchemical Landscape, an event organised by Evie Salmon and James Riley of the Counter-cultural Research group there. It was mentioned in a Guardian article by Robert Macfarlane about the ‘eerie’ quality of much contemporary writing about the English landscape, an article which enumerated a considerable amount of texts I’ve been interested in lately, from JA Baker’s The Peregrine (now quite widely cited in this regard) to Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. It was noted at the conference by Alastair Reid that there was a strong Essex connection at the conference, and in particular he noted that several Essex boys had (like myself) drifted onto ‘Celtic’ territories and pre-occupations. Whether Wales and Welsh is Celtic or not I’ll leave for another time, but the re-imagination of Essex and the Essex landscape in the work of Justin Hopper (in Public Record), in Robert Macfarlane’s Silt, in Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary:Working Lives project, in the work of Ken Worpole and Jules Pretty indicates that the county of my birth, which I once thought a place where nothing much happened, has become the site of a re-contestation of what living in a particular place might mean.

I gave a talk about Alan Garner and his novels Thursbitch and Boneland. Garner proposes a form of ‘sentient landscape’ in both novels, in which the land is deeply implicated (through and across time) with imagination, ritual, death and loss. Both novels range across history. Thursbitch connects events of the 1750s with the present day, siting this connection in a ‘valley of the demon’ where the landscape is immanent with strange powers. Boneland also has a double narrative. Colin Whisterfield, grown up from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), now a Professor of Astrophysics associated with the nearby Jodrell Bank, lives alone and attempts to recover his lost memory, caused by the traumatic separation from his sister that happens in the earlier two books; an unnamed Neolithic male, through ritual and cave-painting, tries to bring forth other beings into the world upon the loss of his female partner and child. I find both novels fascinating, but Boneland in particular, with its connection of science (fiction) with myth and ritual, and its symbolic use of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, seems to fit in with recurrent images and tropes in the ‘eerie’ forms identified by Macfarlane. 

In particular, I’m thinking of the connection between the Neolithic and television science fiction that has a particular investment in landscape: the HTV children’s series Children of the Stones  (1977) and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass (1979), the latter using both radio telescope dishes (built specifically for the programme) and stone circles as key visual motifs. Kneale, of course, has a long history of bringing together sf and Gothic / ‘eerie’ elements, in the Quatermass narratives and in The Stone Tape. Boneland seems to me to be strongly in this tradition, moving away from the more strictly fantasy elements you find in the Weirdstone or Moon of Gomrath.

Last week we visited Jodrell Bank, and it was an extraordinary place, out in the middle of the Cheshire plain. The Lovell telescope pointed straight up behind us, we used the ‘whispering dishes’ (acoustic mirrors, something I’ve long been fascinated by) to speak to each other across space; in the radio silence, I envied the people who worked with the telescope, looking out into the skies. (In fact, I’m considering buying our own optical telescope, as we live in in the North Wales countryside with unpolluted skies.) Garner implies, of course, that what Colin Whisterfield does at Jodrell Bank is simply a technological version of what the Neolithic man enacts in his cave paintings: rituals in which sky and land come together in a spatio-temporal conjunction, enabling the watcher (or shaman) to see. The visionary aspect of Garner’s work, in multiple ways, also connects him to what Macfarlane identifies as the ‘eerie’ mode, but also to the more esoteric forms of writing about the British landscape, from Alfred Watkins to John Michell. I come at this partly, of course, through my own Sinclairian interests; I didn’t quite give enough weight the extent of his embeddedness in that mode when I wrote a book about his work, though.

What Garner also investigates is male trauma. When Alastair Reid mentioned ‘Essex boys’ he also put his finger on the strong gendering of the presenters and audience at The Alchemical Landscape, most of which were (white) men. In my own paper, I half-consciously revisited some of the emphasis on masculinity and trauma that I was working through in my most recent book on Contemporary Masculinities, as well as re-igniting my interests in the relation between literature/film/culture and place, and in particularly the spaces of Essex and of North Wales. For Garner, the conjunction of land and sky involves an articulation of masculine fertility (particularly in Thursbitch), where the symbol of the Bull, as constellation, ‘demon’ and sacrifice, is central. 

The connection between science fiction (or science fantasy, I suppose) and (eerie) landscape presents itself in the coming together of two of my recurrent interests. I noticed that Macfarlane didn’t mention Simon Reynolds and his work on hauntology in contemporary music (and although Macfarlane does mention Mark Fisher, it’s not in relation to K-Punk), nor Ghost Box. As Reynolds and Fisher identify, The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group and Belbury Poly also work with this imaginary, combining uncanny folk with early electronic music. Belbury Poly’s name, of course, refers to CS Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, a novel at the science fantasy/ planetary romance end of the ‘eerie landscape’ mode, which reads the ‘occupation’ of the English landscape by malign forces in an overtly theological (and Grail legend-inflected) mode. I recently wrote a bit about this novel in a large collection of articles about the occult. But the figuring of occult or ancient forces in the landscape, a recurrent motif in the work that I’ve mentioned so far (and which Macfarlane identifies, particularly in the ghost stories of MR James) can signify a much more material occupation.

One other place we’ve been to over the past few weeks is Lake Vyrnwy in mid-Wales. Like the more famous (and more recent) case of Capel Celyn, the drowned village north-west of Lake Bala, Vyrnwy is a man-made lake, created at the behest of the Corporation of Liverpool, which displaced a village in the name of providing Liverpool with fresh water. Lake Vyrnwy was constructed in the late 19th century, and so does not figure in the cause of Welsh nationalism as does Capel Celyn. But when we visited the dam, built of massively imposing slate, reared up like the walls of a prison. The water of the lake was black. Both my wife Deniz and I felt deeply uncomfortable in this place, not just because we are incomers to Wales (though I have lived there for 15 years now, and Deniz over 20). There felt something malignant at Vyrnwy, something wrong. For all the RSPB softening of this English imposition on Welsh lands and its marketing as a leisure destination, we could not look on this black lake as something other than a symbol of power, of displacement, even of ‘evil’. We felt the political decision to fill this valley with water for Liverpool as an act of occupation, something monstrous, a desecration of sorts. After a quick cup of tea, we left in a hurry, the inky shadows of the lake at our backs.   

Macfarlane is right, of course, to point out the centrality of the ‘eerie landscape mode’ to a renewed contestation of England and Englishness. He writes:

A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle.


It is unfortunate, then, that the example he uses of Garner is The Owl Service, which is deeply invested in the particularities of the Welsh landscape and of the Welsh literary tradition, notably the Mabinogion. (At The Alchemical Landscape, Sharron Kraus spoke movingly about how the landscape of mid-Wales inspires her music; Macfarlane could also have mentioned the music of The Lowland Hundred, also Aberystwyth-based, whose singer is the erstwhile Sinclair scholar (and son of Essex) Paul Newland.) As an incomer to Wales, I am deeply aware of the political implications of being an ‘Essex boy’ in this land, and do not seek to appropriate it as more meaningful from the one I left at age 18. Indeed, I keep returning to the images and histories of Essex, as much as I am interested in investigating the stories and myths and landscapes of the Vale of Llangollen. But I am worried by this use of ‘English landscape’, even if it marks a mode of writing, art, film and music which contests official histories and spaces. Mafarlane also cites Paul Kingsnorth, whose The Wake surely points out the contested constructions of what ‘English’ is or might be. The English are themselves incomers, one of the waves of settlement that has marked the history of the British Isles over thousands of years, and the landscape reflects its multiple occupations, from Neolithic standing stones to the architecture of the Industrial Revolution to roads and new housing developments. It is my own experience of uprootedness rather than belonging, displacement rather than dwelling, which is surely characteristic of life in the British Isles, and I suppose that the mode of the ‘eerie’, with its haunted subjects and landscapes, reflects that unbelonging.  

Sunday, 22 February 2015

In the company of wolves and lions

In a scene in Zizu Corder’s novel Lionboy (2003), which is currently bedtime reading for my daughter Isobel, young Charlie Ashanti, who can speak to all felines, releases a pride of lions from captivity in a circus. He has made a bargain with them: in order to find his kidnapped parents, he arranges their escape and they accompany him on a journey (via the Orient Express) to Venice, where his parents have been taken, and thence to the lions’ ultimate freedom in Morocco. Riding on the back of the Young Lion in a night-time Paris, Charlie realises that he is in the company of lions, not cats. They are tractable, but he is not in control. He cannot order them, as the liontamer in the circus had done. He suddenly becomes aware of his own vulnerability in the presence of their power, their capacity for violence, their otherness. This moment is occasioned by the seeming fate of his enemy and pursuer, one Rafi (a London street-kid who has connived in the kidnapping of Charlie’s parents), who is ambushed by three lionesses and dumped into a Parisian canal. Charlie is aghast at their straightforward capacity for violent action. In one sense a relatively crude means by which to lever open the ethical ambiguities of Charlie’s situation, this moment is also illuminating in its revelation of his terrifying proximity to unbiddable power. Riding with the lions is a dangerous (if not fatal) game.

I don’t watch much television, but I’ve been captivated by the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantels’ Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In episode 5, Archbishop Cranmer (Will Keen) asks Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) how he manages to deal with the capricious will of King Henry VIII. You must anticipate his desires, says Cromwell. The problem is when he changes his mind, and that can leave you ‘out there’ and vulnerable. Speaking to the Ambassador Chapuys (Mathieu Amalric), Cromwell declares that ‘Princes do not think like other men’: King Henry is volatile, capricious, even unstable. Predicting or managing such a being is the means by which Cromwell ascends the ladder to become Henry’s ‘right hand’, but is also a fatal game. He, like Charlie Ashanti, is also dealing with lions, riding them but with the certain knowledge of a fall to come. When Henry is pitched off his horse at a jousting tournament in episode 5, and is feared dead, Cromwell must calculate whether to rally to the king’s side or to make plans to flee ‘before they close the ports’, upon which he would be a dead man and his family placed in the hands of the lions. He goes to the king and is central in reviving him, knowing the alternative is certain death (and the prospect of civil war between English Catholic and Protestant factions). But as the series nears its end, the shadows of Cromwell’s eventual fate grower longer and darker. In ascending the ladder of power, and becoming Henry’s instrument, he has made powerful enemies. Though he plots the fall of others, sooner or later he will fall subject to similar machinations, and will go to the block.

I’ve been interested in how proto-class issues are flagged up. One of Cromwell’s enemies, Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss) consistently refers to Cromwell’s lowly birth and upbringing in Putney. Just as Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Price) suffered insults as to his own birth (a ‘butcher’s boy’), Cromwell is a blacksmith’s son, and his rise is resented by the aristocracy, most notably in the form of the Earl of Norfolk, who is played with relish by Bernard Hill as a brutal, thuggish man, who works with Cromwell but makes little attempt to hide his contempt for him. One of the markers of class is language: sharing a ferry across the Thames, Gardiner is affronted when Cromwell enquires whether the Bishop ‘has women’: this is ‘Putney talk’, Gardiner says contemptuously, while Cromwell smiles at his enemy’s priggish disdain. At other times in the series, however, it is revealed that Cromwell uses bawdy or obscenity strategically, for deliberate effect. Where, in Norfolk’s case, obscene language is a marker of violent brutality – he says that Cromwell should go to the Lady (formerly Princess) Mary and ‘beat her fucking head against the wall until it’s a soft as a baked apple’ – for Cromwell, it’s an indicator that he is able to use a range of resources, including linguistic, to effect his desired ends. In episode 5, he talks to Chapuys about the dissolution of the monasteries. While, for Henry, this is simply a means of boosting the Exchequer, Cromwell has a personally-urgent ethical animus against the institutions. Inveighing against their corruption and in particular the (sexual) exploitation of novices by older monks, he tells Chapuys that monks ‘feeling each other’s bollocks’ undermines the Ambassador’s arguments about protecting the monasteries and their religious role in the fabric of England.

Everything Cromwell does, it seems, is deliberate, even swearing. Everything is calculated, one of a series of manoeuvres that either furthers his (or the King’s) intentions, or serves to protect them (or him). His dress is also finely calibrated and its changes over the episodes reveal his self-presentation as a man of power. Always dressed in black, Cromwell at first looks like the lawyer he is, sober and solid; in a scene with Lady Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) she notices that he has begun to wear grey velvet as a sign not only of prosperity, but of enhanced status in the hierarchy at court. In the latter episodes, as Henry’s right hand, Cromwell’s cloak is faced with luxuriant fur, the neck of his tunic even adorned with it. Cromwell appears more magnificently attired, as befits the holder of high office, but he also seems encased within it, the heavy garments weighing on him like an armour, an armour that will ultimately afford him no protection. Henry’s own dress displays his peacock masculinity and the power of Kingship to unmistakeable effect, magnifying Damian Lewis’s physicality (Rylance is, by contrast, a rather small, if wiry man).

Mystery surrounds elements of Cromwell’s own past – had he killed a man before he went to Europe as a youth? – but in Wolf Hall he’s not only a master strategist and politician, he’s also a master actor, knowing which lines to use to effect, knowing how to modulate his performance to suit court conventions, a performer as well as Henry’s ‘serpent’. Cromwell’s containment suggests a remarkable self-possession, but while he can disregard or return the threats of aristocratic players in the power games (such as the Boleyn family: ‘you’ve made a mistake to threaten me’ he tells one of them), when he is dressed down in public by Henry in episode 5, we next see him sitting alone, drinking wine from a goblet to steady himself, his hands shaking uncontrollably. The performance threatens to evaporate in the full beam of Henry’s anger, his volatility. In part this is the strategist wrong-footed, Cromwell finding himself ‘out there’; but as his aristocratic enemies exult in during a Privy Council meeting soon after, it is a ‘check’ for the commoner, the man of ambition. It is a moment when the performance will not serve, a moment when he crosses his arms before him (psychologically motivated by a flashback to a pain-filled childhood scene, but also a symbolic warding off of the predator), a moment when Cromwell the man is revealed. For Cromwell is not only a master politician and performer: we see him, in the first episode, as a loving father; as someone admired and revered by sons and retainers; and as a sexually attractive man, whose reticence marks his difference from the lustful monks or wanton Henry. We rarely see Cromwell unbuttoned: even in bed, covers and furs are piled high. But the series suggests that there is someone vulnerable, all-too-human, beneath the performance as ‘Cromwell’.

For someone like myself, who comes from a working-class background and whose life has been a matter of assimilating into the codes and behaviours of a social and cultural structure that I remain always part-outside of, Cromwell is a tantalising figure. While in academia I’ve encountered few with King Henry’s capriciousness (and thankfully none with his power), enacting or inhabiting a social or institutional performance is always haunted by a sense of doom, that a fatal mis-step lies close ahead. I know many academics struggle with a sense of inadequacy (that they will be exposed as a fraud or charlatan); I’m hardly alone here. But the question that is implied by Cromwell’s ascendancy (and materialised in the moment of near-panic when Henry is presumed to have died) is: if you’re riding the lion, how do you get off? When have you achieved what you wanted to, and retire from the ring? I’ve yet to work this particular thing out.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Open Minds, Open Hearts: Paddington's London

from www.telegraph.co.uk
The last time I wrote a blog was the last time I saw a film at the cinema. That was Interstellar, which I saw with my step-daughter Sophie; this week I went to see Paddington with my other daughter, Isobel. There’s something about cinema-going that piques my interest in a different way to watching a dvd, though most of what I see at the cinema are children’s films. Perhaps it’s the ‘event’ mode of spectatorship, or the physical space of the cinema itself, or perhaps it’s because I don’t watch enough films at home; or perhaps because I see the films with members of my family. The cinema makes me think and respond in a different kind of way.

Of course, watching films at the cinema for me becomes re-inscribed into patterns of conceptual and intellectual work, the thinking about cultural production that makes up this blog and, ultimately, articles and books published in more traditional forms. In parallel fashion, Jonathan Beller’s brilliant book, The Cinematic Mode of Production (2006) analyses how spectatorship itself becomes subject to regimes of capitalist exploitation and domination, another means by which capital can extract value and labour from what has previously been experienced as ‘free’ time. Not that I lament my inability to ‘enjoy’ films without ‘thinking’ about them: I’m not sure I can do that about anything any more, and the gains make up for any ‘innocence’ lost. And I do enjoy them, have fun; I enjoyed Paddington, at the same time as it made me think.

I’ve never read a Paddington book, though for someone of my generation, the paper-like animation of the FilmFair series that began its run in 1975 is the definitive bear. (I remember Isobel, very small, wrinkling up her nose in imitation of the stop-motion Paddington eating a marmalade sandwich.) With Michael Hordern’s voice-over, there’s something comfortingly domestic about the 1970s animated Paddington. The exteriors (of Paddington station, of the Underground) seem less roomy than the inside of no.32, where the Browns live. It’s also very definitely English, inhabiting a cosy post-war world of ticket inspectors, irascible neighbours and grand department stores, where Paddington’s winning bear-ness allows him to escape unscathed from the chaos that he inevitably and accidentally causes. In some ways, it’s a stuffy, white, bourgeois world, inhabited by a very bourgeois Brown family, whose live-in housekeeper, Mrs Bird, provides a bit of lower-class bottom. (‘She knows everything,’ says daughter Judy Brown to Paddington in the second episode of the animated series.)

The film of Paddington is located in a very different kind of London. Sure, there are nods to indexical landmarks (the London Eye, the Natural History Museum), journeys encompassing black cabs and the new open-back Routemaster buses, but this is a London identified most overtly with Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, and in particular with a multi-racial, multi-cultural sensibility most clearly presented in the calypso band that Paddington wanders past (in a running joke about diegetic and extra-diegetic sound) several times in the film, whose songs celebrate that all kinds of people, from all over the world, can call themselves Londoners. Paddington is then a London film, but of a particular kind: a utopia of accepted difference, a family where a bear from Darkest Peru can find himself at home, a post-imperial world-city in which the legacies of colonialism are negotiated, both positively and negatively.

Offsetting the calypso band, and Paddington’s trajectory from newly-arrived migrant, ignored by the bustling commuter crowds at Paddington, to Londoner, is the role played by Nicole Kidman. As Millicent, the amoral taxidermist working for the Natural History Museum, Kidman does a nice turn as a Cruella-style villain, blonde-bobbed and buttoned-up. Her pursuit of Paddington is motivated by a backstory in which her father, the geographer Montgomery Clyde, ‘discovered’ Paddington’s Uncle and Aunt living in Peru, and in effect taught them English (as well as a love of marmalade); upon returning to London, the Guild of Geographers refuses to accept Clyde’s evidence of talking bears with a ‘specimen’ (i.e. a dead bear). When Clyde refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the bears, he is expelled from the Guild and spends the rest of his life running a petting zoo. Millicent mis-reads this gesture as a failure to complete the ‘mission’, and her desire to kill and mount Paddington is a perverse desire to redeem her father in some way; what Millicent cannot see is the ethical weight of her father’s choice. In effect, through Millicent, the film of Paddington offers a critique of the implication of British science, and in particular scientific institutions such as the Natural History Museum, with Imperialism.  

Museums have long fascinated me. Back when I wrote about Literature and Science in a book, I read Pyenson and Sheets-Pyenson’s Servants of Nature about the development of scientific institutions in the 19th century, and how they acted as centripetal machines of knowledge-gathering, whereby the Imperial ‘margins’ (possessions) were the sites of ‘exploration’ and observation but where the collation, systematisation and organisation of that knowledge could only take place at the Imperial centre, London. Tony Bennett, in a brilliant article called ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, also discussed (in Foucauldian terms) how the very spaces of museums themselves, in developing from ‘cabinets of curiosity’ (spectacular displays of exotic objects and fauna) to large halls ordered by means of taxonomy or chronology, also served as a disciplinary mechanism for the regulation of crowd behaviour. Crowds, Bennett argued, came to see the objects on display but also to watch the crowd itself, a kind of auto-spectatorship. By turning the crowd’s gaze back upon itself, the museum manages and regulates behaviour to move in orderly fashion: through signage, maps, queues. Museums are not neutral spaces.

Museums are time machines, of course, allowing us to ‘see’ time from the Paleolithic to the present in ordered displays. (It is no coincidence that H.G. Wells, in The Time Machine, has the Traveller visit the Palace of Green Porcelain in the far future, situated in South Kensington.) More recently, museums have a curious connection to masculinity and fatherhood. As I’ve just suggested, in Paddington, Millicent’s own damaged relationship with her father is the motive cause behind her pursuit of the young bear. In the Night at the Museum films (a third is now on release), Ben Stiller plays a divorced father whose relationship with his young son is made difficult by his own economic failure (particularly in comparison with his ex-wife’s new partner, a bond trader). The magical events in the American Museum of Natural History enable father and son to re-establish a close bond.

The same happens in Paddington. Mr Brown, seen by his son and daughter as ‘boring and annoying’, is the last to accept Paddington, and actively seeks to avoid having to deal with the bear (or, by implication, the failures in his relationships with his wife and children). Mr Brown works in risk management, an index of his own limitation as father and as ‘Londoner’: but rather than this being a version of the neglectful go-getting Father familiar from Peter Banning in Hook to Lord Business in The Lego Movie, Paddington rather nicely reveals that it is Mr Brown’s own fear for his family’s well-being that emotionally constrains him. It is not that Mr Brown is a bad father, having lost touch with his ‘inner child’; rather, it is the very condition of fatherhood itself which produces his deficiencies, the felt need to enact a version of masculinity which is safe, boring and at the same time both over-solicitous and emotionally neglectful. If the Brown family ‘need’ Paddington, then Mr Brown needs him most of all, in opening out the family to accident, to chaos, to life, once more. It is in the Natural History Museum, where the Browns go en famille to rescue the young bear from Millicent, that Mr Brown recovers a form of ‘heroic’ fatherhood, desirable to his wife and admirable to his children.

In such benighted times when Nigel Farage can be declared ‘The Times Briton of the Year’, Paddington offers a kind of utopian message in its timeless dream of a London open to all. (The time-frames of the Clyde expedition seem very odd. Paddington is clearly set in the present day, and Millicent is a woman in her 40s. Her father’s expedition to Peru seems to take place in the 1940s or 1950s, with caricature Guildsmen sporting Victorian-era whiskers; Millicent stands and watches her father’s debarring from the Guild at age 7 or 8. If at a push, this was 40 years ago (considering Kidman’s age and looks), then this makes Montgomery Clyde’s return to London the mid-1970s, rather than the 1940s. Either some decades have got lost, or Millicent looks very good at age 75 or so. Time machines indeed.) Paddington’s message is one of acceptance of the other, a celebration of multiplicity and a refusal that white, bourgeois Englishness is all there is to a city like London. Paddington is first and foremost a migrant, and Paddington a celebration of the positive effects of migration. (In a very small aside, the film suggests that Mr Gruber, the antiques-shop owner, arrived in London via the kindertransport trains.) Closed minds and closed hearts, locked doors and risk-averse souls, the film asserts, are no proper form of family or communal life. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Christopher Nolan and the locked-room mystery: Interstellar

from pinster.ru
On Friday I managed to go to see Interstellar, at the cinema, a rarity for me these days. And it was a mighty long experience, so much so that I misjudged the starting time of the film and the amount of parking I needed and was haunted during the film by the promise of a ticket upon the return to the car. (I was lucky.) Quite appropriately, while I was watching the film I was also still in the past (why did I think the film started earlier?) and rehearsing the future (this film is going to cost me £50. But it might not…). This didn’t impair my enjoyment of the movie, though. Although I understand and agree with many of the criticisms of the film – though I have to say its liberties with science don’t bother me – I liked its scale, Matthew McConaughey (Coop) and Anne Hathaway (Brand) in the central roles, the use of the robots, and in particular the ‘realistic’ look of the spaceship interiors. Some of the effects sequences were quite exciting, such as the re-docking with the spinning Endurance or the ‘escape’ from the black hole (though not as exciting as Gravity).

The narrative does have major weaknesses. The visits to the two exo-planets seemed mechanically differentiated: we’ll kill a crew member on this one! Oh, here’s a villain on this one! (I was particularly irritated by Matt Damon’s character, who was obviously going to turn out to be wrong ‘un, and the plot didn’t disappoint.) The ending, where Coop flies off to ‘save’ Brand on the third exo-planet, using a local ship that surely would not have the fuel to get there, waved off by his 120-year-old daughter, was silly. But the core of the film is time, not outer space, and the really crucial space of the film is not the through-the-wormhole other galaxy to be explored, but Murph’s (Coop’s daughter’s) bedroom.

In some ways, Interstellar reminded me strongly of Inception (a far better sf film, I would say). Both films are emotionally located in the Father’s loss, of both wife and children, and a desire to restore or heal that trauma; both films return to an interior space which holds the key to the film’s enigma; both films attempt to subvert or complicate Hollywood continuity narrative through time-dilation motifs (caused by the subconscious ‘levels’ in Inception, and by proximity to the black hole and relativistic effects in Interstellar); and both feature Michael Caine as a benign old mage who effects the male protagonist’s re-entry into narrative time. In Inception, this is Cobb’s (Leonardo di Caprio) trajectory towards re-establishing a future with his children through completing the Fischer mission; in Interstellar, this is Coop’s escape from the entropic Earth suffering from slow-motion ecological catastrophe, and the stasis of being a farmer, looking down at the dirt instead of up to the stars.

Both films are locked-room mysteries, by which I mean that the solution to the narrative enigma – what is Fischer’s secret, held in the subconscious ‘safe’, in Inception; what is the solution to Professor Brand’s gravity equations in Interstellar – is contained within the finite set of interior narrative elements rather than coming from outside. For Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and his father (Pete Postlethwaite), for Cobb and his children, and for Coop and Murph (Mackenzie Foy/ Jessica Chastain) this is to do with the healing of emotional estrangement, a resolution of the parent/child relationship. The time-paradox ‘solution’ in Interstellar isn’t so much about the transmission of the binary code that will unlock Brand’s equation, but the fact that it is Coop who is able to do so. The ‘infinite’ rooms that Coop is translated into after entering the black hole are a figure for his emotional imprisonment, his need to return to that space and time to try to undo, or repair what has been done. Murph feels the same need to return to that room, and it is her realisation that it is her father who is the ‘ghost’ transmitting information from somewhere else that impels her towards the mathematical solution. In a sense, in Interstellar the physical trajectory of the narrative (Coop’s journey outward to the stars) is countermanded or superseded by the emotional trajectory of the return to the room. It is the latter that provides the key to the former. Although, as Ian Sales in his blog on Interstellarnotes, Brand’s rationale for going to the third exo-planet (where her lover has landed) – ‘love is the only thing which transcends time and space’ is ‘cringeworthy’ vapouring of the highest order – it does express the underlying emotional plot, and the impetus behind both Inception and Interstellar.

This is banal enough, I agree. But I am reminded of the moment in Vonnegut’s Timequake in which Kilgore Trout stands upon a beach with Vonnegut and others towards the end of the novel, and asks Vonnegut to pick out two stars from the sky. ‘Now then’, he says, ‘whatever heavenly bodies those two gints represent, it is certain that the Universe has become so rarefied that for light to go from one to the other would take thousands or millions of years. Ting-a-ling? But now I ask you to look precisely at one, and then precisely at the other.’ When Vonnegut confirms he has done so, Trout continues: ‘Even if you’d taken an hour [to look at them], something would have passed between where those two heavenly bodies used to be, at, conservatively speaking, a million times the speed of light.’ ‘What was it?’ Vonnegut asks. ‘Your awareness,’ replies Trout. ‘That new quality in the Universe, which exists only because there are human beings. Physicists must from now on, when pondering the Cosmos, factor in not only energy and matter and time, but something new and beautiful, which is human awareness.’ He then concludes: ‘I have thought of a better word than awareness. … Let us call it soul.’

Unashamedly humanist, Timequake inserts the cosmological into the realm of human consciousness and human emotion. True, by calling it ‘soul’, Vonnegut explicitly nods to metaphysics, to the spiritual, even. This is a gesture found throughout cosmological sf, of course, from Olaf Stapledon through 2001 to Interstellar. Where the human narrative of the film of 2001 ‘ends’ with another locked room, the strange out-of-time apartment where Bowman finds himself and where he is translated into the Star Child, there seems to be no ‘God’ in Interstellar: the time-loop structure places the human as the Other, the means by which human beings can, by their bootstraps, life themselves off the Earth and into the stars.

Interstellar and Inception ultimately return to find the solution to their narrative conundrums in the most tricky of locked spaces to open, the ‘heart’. Nolan, in these two films, reveals the humanism (if not outright sentimentality) at the core of his sf work. Rather than the solution to Interstellar’s locked room being an orang-utan and a chimney, it is instead a message from (human) parent to (abandoned/ neglected) child: I love you.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Over-Investment Ethical Trap

It would be difficult to overstate just how angry and heart-sick I am as I write. I've long been guilty of over-investing in work, not just in critical activity and writing but in the satisfactions of teaching, of feeling that you're helping students to understand and investigate the world and our culture, and of doing your best for and by them; when I was Examinations Officer, for instance, or in advising PhD students, or simply chatting to students about things. This over-investment has had serious personal side-effects, but has acted as a kind of alibi for the time I've spent dealing with the river of thoughts that flows through my head, believing that by turning them outwards that they might mean something, not just to me. This blog is an example of that, I suppose.

It's not uncommon, I would think, among academics. The lines between home and work life, between everyday activity and critical activity, become blurred; to the extent that it is difficult to switch off, or to avoid feelings of guilt when you don't use that spare hour to read or write or be productive somehow. Work colonises your 'own' time, and it's fine to begin with because you want to do it, you want to explore, you want to know things, figure stuff out. And tell people about what you think or have learned.

But of course this gets turned against you. I've internalised the work imperative to an extent that I've over-invested, ethically, in what I do. That extends to my place of work too. I expect the university to behave in certain ways. I'm an idealist, I suppose. I've left institutions in the past because I could no longer put up with the way they were run, the decisions that were being made. I've been lucky to find other jobs. This is now catching up with me.

The union I belong to, the UCU, recently balloted its members on strike action over proposed changes (i.e. diminishment) of pension provision in the USS scheme, which covers most of the older universities. (The post-1992 universities, whose staff are on the Teachers Pension Scheme, as I once was, already pushed through these changes. Strike action by the UCU was not effective.) With a large turn-out, the members voted with a large mandate for strike action, which in this instance has taken the form of a boycott of assessment (marking coursework, but also things like PhD panels). This comes into force this week. As a response, my own university has considered 'partial performance' to constitute a total withdrawal of labour, and so have threatened to dock 100% of pay for those deemed to be on strike. The logical response for union members, faced with such a threat, I would say, is to withdraw their labour entirely. This is, I have just read in an email from the UCU, now the union's stated position, if such a threat is carried through.

This won't happen. There are mortgages to pay, families to keep. The UCU isn't the NUM in 1984. The union have found themselves caught in another trap: previous one-day strikes on pay have been ineffective, so they have gone straight to the most effective action short of a strike, a marking boycott; but this has provoked a response that will, in my opinion, cause the collapse of the action in short order. In the run-up to Christmas, even well-paid academics cannot afford to have their salaries stopped entirely for months.

My university, Lancaster, is one of several who have taken this particularly hard line. Others include 1964 universities such as UEA, York and Sussex. Lancaster, with a relatively new Vice Chancellor, has presumed to elevate itself to 'world class' status, wishing its staff to produce higher-quality research, to bid for ever-larger grant incomes (from shrinking pots). Yet it acts in a way far from the 'world class' research and teaching centre it presumes to be, in a brutal crushing of dissent, in a contemptuous disregard for its staff, in threatening behaviour that reflects the worst excesses of neo-liberal capitalism. This 'university', and others like it, have forfeited their ethical right to use that term.

In a couple of weeks, an afternoon event on 1964 is taking place on the Lancaster campus, which I've organised. 1964 was the year of the foundation of the institution, and the event was designed not only to reflect the cultural and political events of that year, but also the (utopian) impulses towards a more open access to education that informed the formation of the then 'new' universities. This week's events show that, for all the 50th 'Jubilee' celebrations, there has been a radical break between the informing principles of 1964 and the neo-liberal, austerity-state grimness of 2014. I'm also prey to over-investment in the 1960s, and have struggled to forge a means to revisit that decade's optimistic and progressive energies without falling into nostalgia. But in 1964, on American campuses, particularly Berkeley and its Free Speech movement, what the university was, how it operated, was already being contested. I have posted this before and make no apologies for doing so again:


Do I think that UCU members will have the political will to place their bodies on the levers and prevent the operation of the machine? No. But what this week exposes is that the ethical over-investment in the 'university', my place of work, is a delusion. The institution is a firm, and the staff are a bunch of employees, albeit ones who thought that they were, and their relation to work was, somehow different. It's time the motes fell from our eyes.