Murder at Anglia Ruskin: John Harvey's Gone to Ground 
Saturday, January 19, 2008, 01:19 PM
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Slightly irked by a recent article in Spiked (see previous post). After criticising a ban on Google and Wikpedia by a Professor of Media Studies at Brighton University Patrick West commented that this was ‘a mickey mouse position if there ever was one’.

This kind of prejudice – and West cheerfully asserts later in the article that ‘personally I’m in favour of elitism’ – reminded me of the recent publicity given to an A Level blacklist of supposedly ‘soft’ subjects which universities such as Cambridge look on less favourably than traditional subjects such as Maths and English. (It’s fine to take one of these blacklisted subjects, but no more.)

I can’t completely distance myself from (some of) the implicit prejudices at work in this list – I’d be instinctively more impressed by English, Maths, Latin than by English, Sports studies, Art. And at least Cambridge and co were being honest.

But I do think such prejudices help maintain private school/middle class domination in Russell Group Universities because pupils from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to be encouraged to take mostly traditional subjects.

And the values attached to subjects are surely shifting and relative. 100 years ago English would have been seen as a very soft option whereas now it is respected. Today Media Studies is perceived in a similar way when it seems (so far as I can judge) quite as demanding as English.

Given the prejudices against both newer subjects and the newer universities they are associated with, it was good to read John Harvey’s thriller Gone to Ground recently. There are lots of Oxbridge murder mysteries but in Gone to Ground the murder victim was a lecturer in film at my own Department at Anglia Ruskin University.

The only other books I’ve read set at Anglia are Tom Sharp’s Wilt novels (when the University was still CCAT). These depicted the lecturers as frustrated low achievers. But John Harvey’s murder victim represented a pleasing advance on this negative stereotype of the poly lecturer – instead he was a self absorbed, pretentious, intellectual workaholic - a stereotypical old university style academic in fact.

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Marxism Today? Civilization IV and Spiked 
Monday, January 7, 2008, 08:14 AM
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I haven’t had a particularly cultured Christmas. When not eating and drinking I’ve mostly been surfing mindlessly on the internet or playing computer games. By far my favourite computer game is Sid Meier’s excellent Civilization IV, an addiction which dates right back to 1991 when the original Civ I appeared.

This empire building strategy game requires the player to take charge of an emergent nation and nurture it from the Stone Age to the Space Age, trying to make sure it dominates the AI players in the game through its culture, technology or (most fun option) military might.

Essentially ruling your civ is meant to mimic life. Thus theatres make your people happy, war makes them grumpy (unless you win quickly) and overcrowding makes them ill. You also have to choose how you govern - there is a complex array of ‘civics’ from which to choose. Some are more expensive than others and some make your people unhappy.

Because all civics have concrete effects the game necessarily has an implicit ideology. Interestingly in the original Civ you weren’t allowed to go to war on a whim if you were a democracy. That rule has been changed, presumably to keep up with reality.

I’ve always been intrigued by one element of this (American) game. Throughout its manifestations Communism has always been an excellent civic to choose. You might expect Communism either to be economically unproductive or make people miserable but it does neither. Environmentalism, by contrast, is a lousy civic in my experience.

Perhaps the game designers have been reading Spiked, a supposedly Marxist publication with a contempt for environmentalism. I think I found my way onto this online publication via reading Frank Furedi whose pieces (in the THES) I always find congenial. Spiked, edited by Brendan O’Neil, l is a curious publication. Although it is an offshoot of the defunct Living Marxism, Spiked often reads like the (conservative) Spectator and many of its favourite targets - nanny statism, censorship and ecofascism – are positions associated with the left.

I’m in two minds about Spiked. I like its maverick approach and lively style. But although, taken individually, its articles are refreshingly independent, taken collectively Spiked soon becomes predictable. Everyone who writes for it seems to have exactly the same extremely clearly defined views on topics as complex and diverse as the environment, abortion, euthanasia, censorship and humanitarian intervention.

But it’s worth a look ...

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The Anglia Stratford Trip 
Saturday, December 22, 2007, 07:48 AM
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It's been a busy month. Alex had hardly come back from his week in Japan before I was off to St Andrews for two days (to examine a PhD). After a one night stopover back home in Cambridge it was off to Stratford for the annual Anglia Ruskin theatre trip.

I get anxious when I'm away from home. Will Alex give Susannah (7) liqueur chocolates for her school packed lunch again? Judging by the condoms he thoughtfully placed in my wallet (calculated to fall out at most embarrassing juncture) Alex gets anxious too.

The trip was a great success. David Slinger was a memorably grotesque Richard II in a production which brought out the play's wit and black humour more than its pathos. I particularly enjoyed seeing Henry IV (both parts) - Geoffrey Streatfeild's fetching Hal was a great hit with our (mostly female) party.

Watching the fake death of Falstaff made me wonder whether there were any links between these plays and Walt Disney's Jungle Book. The fat bear Baloo is a Falstaffian figure who encourages Mowgli into a life of irresponsibility, hedonism and excess. Like Falstaff he distracts Mowgli from his true heritage, encouraging him to enjoy a carefree jungle life rather than embrace his destiny in the man village. The most striking point of contact comes when Baloo (again like Falstaff) pretends to be dead following a pivotal battle near the end of the film.

Back to the play - I'm normally rather sceptical about Hal but Streatfeild convincingly projected a character motivated by moral integrity rather than Machiavellian cunning. For the first time I actually looked forward to his rejection of Falstaff - the justice of it pleased.

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Mr Solmes from Clarissa/ Soames Forsyte 
Sunday, December 9, 2007, 08:14 AM
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As most of the characters in The Forsyte Saga share the same surname everyone has to be identified by his or her Christian name. However Galsworthy’s most unappealing character doesn’t seem suited to this intimacy which is perhaps why his given name sounds more like a second surname, Soames.

I wonder whether Galsworthy had Richardson’s Clarissa in mind when he fixed on this particular name. Clarissa is driven to seek Lovelace’s protection when her family puts intolerable pressure on her to marry the repulsive Mr Solmes. Irene is actually married to her Soames but is intent on escape from a similar atmosphere of claustrophobic repression

Soames and Solmes are united by their ability to inspire repulsion in each novel’s refined heroine. Both are grasping men, obsessed by material wealth. Both are rejected in favour of more dashing, creative (and socially transgressive) men. However Soames’ marital rape of Irene of course associates him with the other man in Clarissa’s life, Lovelace.

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Reinventing the Renaissance: Jo-Ann Goodwin's Sweet Gum 
Saturday, November 24, 2007, 10:51 AM
We are by now quite used to a range of quirky modern – and postmodern – appropriations of canonical literature. Shakespeare, in particular, has been memorably updated in, for example, Baz Luhrmann’s iconic Romeo + Juliet and Michael Almereyda’s impressive millennial Hamlet.

Spenser’s Fairie Queene doesn’t seem like such an obvious candidate for reinvention, particularly not as a gritty urban thriller about a particularly unpleasant serial killer.

But this is the premise behind Jo-Ann Goodwin’s Sweet Gum – the title is itself a quotation from Spenser’s description of the Garden of Adonis and every chapter opens with a Spenserian epigraph.

The novel works brilliantly well even if you don’t know Spenser’s poem. It’s as gripping and (horribly) absorbing as anything by the best and nastiest mainstream thriller writers - Val McDermid is the parallel which springs to mind. Sweet Gum is also immensely stylish but in a totally unforced and unselfconscious way.

But the Faerie Queene allusions definitely add an extra layer of interest. Goodwin seems to respond to the implicit tensions in Spenser’s poems, the odd parallels between virtuous and wicked characters, the moral uncertainties surrounding what should be a clear cut battle between good and evil.

Although the hero, Eugene, is an avatar of Spenser’s Knight of Temperance, Guyon, he is also a rather successful drug dealer. And while it is perfectly appropriate that Sir Artegal, Knight of Justice, should be reincarnated as DCI Arthur Gale, it is more surprising – and disquieting – that Artegal’s trusty sidekick Talus appears in Sweet Gum as a gangster’s bodyguard. And beautiful Gloria Acrasiafi is simultaneously Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself, and the evil enchantress Acrasia.

One of the novel’s nastiest characters (in a competitive field) is Eugene’s little nephew Nero, who is by turns associated with Ruddymane, one of Error’s monstrous brood, and the Blatant Beast who, as Spenser tells us at the end of the poem, is still at large in the world today …

But the best thing about Sweet Gum is the warm glow of smugness you feel when you spot the obscure allusions. I knew reading The Faerie Queene right through as an undergraduate would come in useful some day.

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