Holiday Reading 2011: Marks out of 10 
Sunday, July 31, 2011, 02:29 PM
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Christopher Priest, Fugue for a Darkening Island Priest is one of my favourite writers, and skidmarx (over on Harry’s Place) prompted me to catch up with this early work. It’s decidedly edgy, as its premise is that a limited nuclear war in Africa causes huge numbers of refugees to flee to Europe, leading to clashes with the UK’s increasingly far-right government. My edition included a (rather uncomfortable) introduction by the author, explaining how he has updated it in response to recent charges of racism. Fugue fits into the cosy catastrophe sub-genre of British sf, exemplified by John Christopher and John Wyndham. It’s very bleak – fascinating, but less accomplished than Priest’s later works. It resonates with today’s debates about immigration and Islamophobia – and by making its central character an internally displaced British refugee it brings the problems faced by those in faraway conflict zones seem closer to home. 7.5/10.

Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates Another recommendation from the same thread on Harry’s Place, this time from Philiph35. This is a very entertaining sf/fantasy romp set in a near future world where time travel has just become a reality. A young academic, Brendan Doyle, who is an expert on the Romantics, is hired to act as guide to a party of wealthy tourists who plan to go back in time to hear Coleridge lecture on Milton’s Areopagitica. Needless to say, all does not go according to plan, and Doyle gets mixed up in all sorts of adventures involving sinister underworld figures, black magicians, Egyptian gods, beautiful women, and a replicant of Lord Byron. My one criticism of this jolly book was that it was perhaps overly complicated – but just remember that no one’s going to examine you on the precise ins and outs of the plot in a month’s time, and enjoy. 7.5/10.

John Harding, Florence and Giles My sister recommended this recent novel, a psychological chiller set in late nineteenth-century New England. Its narrator, 12 year old Florence, is an orphan, who lives in a large house with her little brother. The novel charts the strange events which take place following the arrival of a mysterious governess whose behaviour makes Florence suspect her motives. I wasn’t sure about the way the book was written – Florence affects a peculiar, obtrusively ‘inventive’ style – but it was certainly a gripping read. By chance it fitted in with some of the ideas I’ve been charting in my study of allusion and the uncanny. The book invokes names and plot elements from James’ The Turn of the Screw, but with subtle changes. Flora and Miles become Florence and Giles, for example. These tiny shifts are like those which typify the uncanny – in an uncanny story, such as this one, events and characters are almost, but not quite, entirely normal, just as Florence and Giles is almost, but not quite, the same story as Henry James’s. A great American Gothic page turner. 8/10.

Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine Joss recommended this. It was certainly a compelling polemic, and even though her analysis seemed rather selective and one-sided, it’s a clever thesis, and one which ‘works’ for events which postdate the book’s publication. Briefly, its argument is that corporatism and repressive, authoritarian policies go hand in hand, and that, far from promoting freedom and democracy, laissez-faire policies are associated with brutal clampdowns on freedom as well as extreme inequality. She also argues that crises are exploited because they are good times to introduce radical reforms. At the beginning of the book I was making sceptical comments in the margin, but by the end of it I was feeling rather bludgeoned into submission by the sheer weight of data – her methods thus have rather the same effect as those she criticises in the book! I’m not sure I’m quite in tune with its agenda – when it touched on issues I knew more about I became aware of (what I thought were) gaps and distortions – but the events and injustices she describes deserve attention even if you think they might have different causes or solutions. 8/10.

Jo Nesbo, The Leopard Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian crime writer, who has written a highly successful series of novels featuring the maverick, alcoholic police detective, Harry Hole. He’s sometimes compared with Stieg Larsson, but Nesbo is a far less obviously political writer – the nearest UK equivalent might be Mark Billingham. The novels are superbly paced and plotted – each one, if anything, better than the last. [8.5/10]

Tony Blair, A Journey This was a present from Alex – I’m still reading it in fact, and so far it’s excellent. He is, as one might expect, a very disarming narrator, and does candour most convincingly. It’s a highly enjoyable book – I found myself laughing out loud during the chapter on Northern Ireland – and also found his analysis of that issue genuinely thought-provoking.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead I’m not very good at getting round to reading serious contemporary novels, as I’m more drawn to older books or to modern genre fiction. But Gilead is superb – subtle, moving and original. The narrator, John Ames, is a minister who has married late in life, after losing his first wife (and baby daughter) in childbirth as a young man. He is worried he may not live long, and the novel is a kind of extended letter written to his seven year old son. Many details stick in the memory. For example, when describing his childhood relationship with his much older brother, Ames briefly notes that originally there had been four more siblings between the two boys, but all died in an epidemic, and, while he can’t remember them, his older brother and parents can of course all look back to a time when the quiet house was full of laughing children. The main focus of the novel is the return to town of Ames’s godson, a youngish ne’er do well, who, Ames fears, may be growing too close to his own (much younger) second wife and son. I definitely plan to read Housekeeping, Robinson’s first novel. [9/10]

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Anonymity and Peer Review 
Saturday, July 2, 2011, 09:06 PM
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I thought Julia Swindells raised some very interesting points in her recent letter to the THE. She argues that anonymous peer review may encourage academics to allow personal grievances or partisan spite to sway their judgment when evaluating an article or a book proposal for publication.

This is certainly a potential problem, but I still think, on balance, anonymous peer review is probably best. It’s important for publishers to get an honest opinion. Generally reviewers take no pleasure in writing a bad review, either pre- or post-publication (though most academics will have the odd counterexample etched in their memory) so anonymity can enable a franker evaluation.

Reviewers may have personal reasons to be hostile, and might feel inhibited from demonstrating this hostility if they know their identity will be revealed. On the other hand, if a reviewer knows that the piece under review was written by a highly influential scholar (or by his/her graduate student) there may be an equally distorting reluctance to criticise.

Editors have an important role to play. Ideally they should be able to filter out unfavourable reviews which arise from ideological differences, and build up a clear picture of all potential reviewers’ profiles. It’s important to be aware who is generous to a fault – and who is always grudging.

It would also be useful if reviewers were offered more feedback. If I peer review a manuscript or article I am not always made aware what the piece’s eventual fate was or if the other reviewer agreed with me. I’d very much like to see any other submitted reviews and know what the eventual decision was. It would be useful if academics had the same opportunities to refine and reflect on what we do as peer reviewers that we do when marking students’ work.

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More on the UCU and the EUMC Working Definition of antisemitism 
Sunday, June 26, 2011, 05:54 PM
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Although the UCU repudiation of the EUMC Working Definition on antisemitism is rather old news now, I thought I’d post something I wrote about it at the time, yet in the end condensed to a much shorter letter to send to the THES:

All forms of discrimination are complex, and each has its own special characteristics which may mutate over time. Sometimes it is difficult to be sure whether words or actions are discriminatory or not. A lot depends on the overall context. Certain sorts of compliment might be welcomed in a romantic setting, but would seem decidedly sexist in a professional environment.

In some cases there seem to be tensions between different groups. In trying to prevent discrimination against one community, another may feel intimidated. This can be seen in the recent debates over homophobic posters proclaiming a ‘Gay Free Zone’ in the East End. Gay rights campaigners suspected that their concerns were being brushed aside in order to protect Muslim sensitivities. Muslims, on the other hand, felt that anxieties about the posters were being used to whip up Islamophobia. Both sides could point to evidence to back up their case.

Members of minority groups are generally going to be more sensitive to the forms discrimination against them can take. Recently I read someone point out that a charge of ‘narcissism’ was often levelled against homosexuals. I have since spotted examples of this word being used quite gratuitously in just this context, something I had previously never noticed. It is surely a good thing for us all to become more aware of these more subtle ways in which prejudice manifests itself.

For those wishing to recognize and avoid anti-Semitism, the Working Definition produced by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) is a useful tool. It includes manifestations of anti-Semitism which hardly need to be pointed out, for example ‘calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion’. But it also includes more subtle forms of anti-Semitism, many of these linked to anti-zionism, such as ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’. It should surely be possible, for example, to criticise Israel’s policy towards Gaza in the strongest terms without needing to invoke the Warsaw Ghetto.

The working definition notes that, with all these possible diagnostic criteria, the overall context must be taken into account when making a judgement. One probably isn’t going to fret too much about the ‘overall context’ of a call to genocide. But it is true that some of the criteria are calculated to help identify rather less threatening cases, including the accidental use of an antisemitic trope, which – just like a single chance use of the epithet ‘narcissistic’ to describe a homosexual – should probably be overlooked. But where there is a whole cluster of subtle innuendos in a single article the Working Definition can help pinpoint a real problem. For in order to be truly useful any guidelines for helping identify prejudice must go beyond the obvious. For example, burning a mosque is pretty clearly Islamophobic, but what about criticising Halal slaughter? Here, as with antisemitic tropes, there would be a need to look at the overall context. The issue of Halal food is certainly often manipulated by anti-Muslim bigots – but that fact shouldn’t be used to close down debate about animal welfare.

There is a similar tension, potentially, between antisemitic discourse and criticism of Israel. Given the inevitable intersection between hostility towards Israel and antisemitism it is of course going to be hard to police the boundary between fair criticism and racism. These debates notoriously attract those with extreme views – ranging from those who think antisemitism and anti-Israel feeling are pretty much synonymous, to those who believe they don’t overlap at all. The Working Definition may well help resolve such differences, but it isn’t like a piece of litmus paper which will automatically tell you whether a person or a statement is or is not antisemitic. It is hard to think of meaningful guidelines for any ‘ism’ or ‘phobia’ which wouldn’t generate debate about how exactly they should be applied in a given case.

Given its value as a tool for combatting discrimination, it might seem rather odd that the University and College Union should have decided to repudiate the Working Definition, particularly since the union has never acknowledged or adopted it. This motion has been passed by the UCU Congress in Harrogate.

“Congress notes with concern that the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’, while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status, is being used by bodies such as the NUS and local student unions in relation to activities on campus.
Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.
1. that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints)
2. that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved
3. that UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.”

It seems quite bizarre for the union to proscribe any consideration of the Working Definition, to dismiss the whole document, and to resolve to disassociate itself from the definition in any relevant public discussion. And is this really a priority for members when Higher and Further Education are being faced with unprecedented cuts and a radical overhaul of fees?

It is interesting to look at, to use the Working Definition’s phrase, the ‘overall context’ of this motion. The UCU has a longstanding preoccupation with the academic boycott of Israel, even though it has received legal advice that such a boycott might well be discriminatory and illegal.

Many members have resigned over this matter, and others have expressed great disquiet. The UCU has refused to deal with members’ concerns, and in 2009 voted down a motion to investigate these resignations. Last year it invited a speaker, Bongani Masuku, to speak at a seminar to discuss a boycott of Israel, even though the South African Human Rights Commission had deemed that his statements amounted to hate speech against South Africa’s Jewish community. Clearly the union has not itself been inhibited to any worrying degree by the Working Definition. Given this overall context, it is not surprising that more members are being driven to resign.

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The Bedouin (Mill Road, Cambridge) 
Saturday, May 28, 2011, 04:44 PM
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It seems several years since the Bedouin restaurant on Mill Road first appeared. Mysteriously, it always seemed to be closed, and there was no menu on display. We peered in from time to time but, like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, it seemed that no one ever came in or went out. Now, finally, it’s open for business, and we decided to give it a try.

The atmosphere is cosy and welcoming with rugs on the wall, low tables, Bedouin-theme paintings and Bedouin (I assume) music playing. Service was extremely friendly, though slightly disorganised, and we were immediately made to feel welcome.

The comparatively short seasonal menu contained plenty of tempting choices. For my first course I had the bastilla – pastry parcels stuffed with saffron cooked chicken, pigeon breast, onion and toasted almonds, dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. These were delicious – though (not that this bothered me) quite oily. Then I chose the Tadjine Zaytoun - slow cooked lamb with onion, ginger, cinnamon, green olives, coriander, preserved lemon, carrots and potatoes.

The food was generally rather sweeter and more aromatic than other Middle Eastern/North African food I’ve tried – and very appetising. Alex recommended the chicken with couscous, and my daughter loved the lamb meatballs in a delicately spiced tomato sauce and (more unusually) finished with a lightly cooked free range egg. Pastries and coffees were very good too, and the whole meal cost £114.00 for four – including wine and soft drinks. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
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Feminism Explained (via Quiet Riot Girl) 
Saturday, May 21, 2011, 05:36 PM
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I enjoyed watching this video over at Quiet Riot Girl’s slightly edgy blog. Like other such satirical pieces it contained a few sharp points and several unfair ones. It also highlights some continuities in the feminist tradition. The female character’s ironic apparent disdain for women can be traced right back to Mary Wollstonecraft who expressed irritation at her sex’s silliness, which she also ascribes to false consciousness.

“The grand source of female folly and vice has ever appeared to me to arise from narrowness of mind. Pleasure is the business of a woman's life, according to the present modification of society, and while it continues to be so, little can be expected from such weak beings. Exalted by their inferiority (this sounds like a contradiction) they constantly demand homage as women.”

She would have agreed with the cartoon feminist that women ‘need to become less feminine’.

The cartoon stacks the cards against feminism by making the feminist so rigid, insisting that all women should work outside the home, and, most unfairly, so greedy – her real concern is that her big salary as head of a feminist organisation should be protected.

The cartoon feminist is challenged for caring more about the problems of American women than the more serious concerns of women living under oppressive regimes. I was a bit ambivalent about that point – I don’t like that kind of feminist either. However I think their numbers are exaggerated, and more consistent feminists overlooked by people who – just don’t like feminists.

This exchange was my favourite.

Her: We need more women to study science and math.
Him: What did you study?
Her: English.

It’s true that no one seems to fret that most students studying English and Art History are women. If women are being held back from some subjects might the same not be true of men?

I’m never quite sure where to align myself on the feminist spectrum – I was surprised, but not in a bad way, to be listed on the ‘feminist’ category of a colleague’s blogroll. I find Quiet Riot Girl’s take on some aspects of feminism quite funny and persuasive – and she seems to identify as an anti-feminist. On the other hand I loathe people who use the term feminazi – but more often than not I'm not too keen on the woman being criticised either (unless it happens to be me.) Perhaps, to borrow a useful if convoluted formula from another debate, I’m an anti-anti-feminist.

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