Bob's politics meme 
Wednesday, December 29, 2010, 10:11 AM
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I’m fond of quizzes, lists and top tens so I enjoyed responding to Bob from Brockley’s politics meme – to identify five good influences on the left, five bad influences, and five ideas which aren’t influential enough. And here is Flesh is Grass’s list. This was quite difficult (and, as was the case with Bob, some of my points were more serious and heartfelt than others) but not so difficult as Norm’s fiendish Boxing Day Quiz.
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Some books - and a game - for the holidays 
Friday, December 24, 2010, 04:44 PM
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I thought I’d combine a round up of some books I enjoyed in 2010 (not counting ones I’ve blogged about already) with the materials for a game to play over Christmas if you’re snowed in with bookish friends.The game is a literary variant on Call My Bluff. Each round consists of someone reading out details of a book - title, author, date and a brief plot summary/description. Then everyone else has to write down on a piece of paper a convincing first sentence for such a book . Then whichever person read out the details to begin with (you take it in turns to do this) reads out all the 'first sentences' including the real one, and everyone votes for the one they think is authentic. Points are given both for guessing right and for fooling people. The ‘reader’ gets a point if no one guesses correctly.

1. Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Country (1944). Set in the Channel Islands in the middle of the nineteenth century, this novel’s focus is on two sisters, dark-haired intense Marianne and gentle, blonde Marguerite, who both fall in love with the same man. The plot is reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, and the descriptions of the natural world reminded me of Daphne du Maurier.

‘Sophie Le Patourel was reading aloud to her two daughters from the Book of Ruth, as they lay prostrate upon their backboards, digesting their dinners and improving their deportment.’

2. Dorothy Whipple, High Wages (1930). This very absorbing book tells the story of Jane, who begins her working life as a draper’s assistant in the north of England, but is full of ideas for improving the business, and ambitions to rise in her career. I noticed on the Persephone Press website that Whipple is their bestselling author – and (although High Wages isn’t her very best work) with good reason.

‘Jane Carter had come to Tidsley on her half-day off to look at the shops, but she looked mostly at the sky.’

3. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (2010). (Occasionally I manage to read something a bit more up to date!) Patty and Walter seem like a happy and successful middle aged, middle class couple – politically correct and socially responsible. But cracks are beginning to disrupt the smooth surface of their marriage. I enjoyed many aspects of Freedom but found the political/environmental elements rather bludgeoning.

‘The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.'

4. Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 (2008) Police officer Leo Demidov is a loyal supporter of Stalin’s regime, but he begins to question the system after watching the brutal interrogation of an innocent man, and becoming aware that the true facts about a child’s death are being covered up. This is a good thriller, but it was as an evocation of the paranoia and arbitrary cruelty of life in Stalin’s Russia that I felt Child 44 worked best.

‘Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself.’

5. Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966) A bleakly absorbing sf novel, the source for the film Soylent Green. It’s 1999 and the earth is seriously overcrowded. Living space is at a premium, only an elite few can afford decent food, and water is rationed. Andy Rusch, rather like Denisov in Child 44, is a policeman who gradually realizes that there’s something terribly wrong about the regime he’s serving.

‘The August sun struck in through the open window and burned on Andrew Rusch’s bare legs until discomfort dragged him awake from the depths of heavy sleep.’

6. John Wyndham, Plan for Chaos (2009). This is a posthumous novel, written around the same time as Day of the Triffids in the 1950s. It’s certainly not his best work, but it’s an intriguing curiosity which introduces some themes Wyndham would explore further in his later work. Johnny Farthing is a magazine photographer who notices that three young women, all of whom died in mysterious circumstances in different parts of the world, are identical to one another. Still more worryingly, they are also identical to his fiancée Freda. Gradually he uncovers a sinister plot which involves him in perilous adventures.

‘Lois looked up from the switchboard as I went by.’

7. Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938). Actually, I didn’t enjoy this one hugely, but it was quite interesting. It’s set in a future world which has made it a crime to think or act as an individual – even the word ‘I’ is outlawed - but the hero, Equality 7-2521, is determined to break the mould. Other writers have presented more appealing and humane visions of nonconformity. Rand's hero seems less a nonconformist, more a kind of Nietzschean superman whose superior height and good looks are emphasised as much as his intelligence and independent-mindedness.

‘It is a sin to write this.’

8. Kate Saunders, Beswitched (2010). Much more fun! I bought this for my daughter, but ended up reading it too. The heroine, Flora, is a sulky modern teen who resents the fact her parents are sending her to boarding school. On her way to the school she suddenly finds herself mysteriously transported back in time to the 1930s. Saunders' depiction of a Noughties girl in a 1930s school is quite subtle. Flora finds some things hard but excels at others. Sometimes she chafes at the constrictions but is also aware of unexpected freedoms. A very charming, thoughtful, funny book.

‘”At least look at the picture!” Flora’s dad begged.’

I think confident inconsequentiality is the key to doing well at this game - not using too much detail from the plot summary.

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Mill Road Top Ten: Local Shops for Local People 
Monday, December 13, 2010, 11:56 AM
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1. Black Cat Café: This lively café has really brightened up the ‘Parade’ end of Mill Road since it was founded in 2005. Excellent (and improved) coffee, tempting breakfast options, and lunch time salads and paninis are all great – but it’s the wonderful (and unusual) cakes which steal the show. These range from traditional crowd pleasers, such as chocolate brownies, to more unusual flavours such as rhubarb and rosemary or lemon and basil.

2. Andrew Northrop Butchers: This is a very friendly shop which offers a good balance of standard lines and fancier options – most weekends they advertise something a bit different, such as Gloucester Old Spot pork, Wagyu beef or Salt Marsh lamb.

3.Bacchanalia: This shop specialises in unusual beers (which I don’t like) but also has an outstanding, though comparatively small, selection of wines. These have clearly been chosen pretty expertly, and they always represent excellent value. Helpful staff.

4. Urban Larder: This new addition to Mill Road sells local cheeses, meat, honey, chocolates and cakes as well as cards and crafts, and also has a small café area.

5. The Sea Tree: Another welcome new addition – Mill Road probably can’t support a specialist fish mongers, but the Sea Tree sells traditional fish and chips as well as fresh fish and shellfish in a bright modern setting.

6. Al-Amin Stores: Al Amin store sells all the basic groceries, but also more specialist ingredients for Asian/Caribbean cooking as well as fresh curries to take away. Always very friendly.

7. Meze Bar 196: There are other good Turkish/North African restaurants on Mill Road but this is my favourite even though (because it’s very small) it perhaps doesn’t have the most lively atmosphere. Both the meze and the main courses (such as kebabs) are delicious – everything seems fresh and authentic.

8. Limoncello: This popular delicatessen offers a range of Italian salamis, cheeses, a huge range of olives and excellent bread. There is also a small bar area for coffee and snacks.

9. Amnesty Bookshop: An excellent selection of second hand books, including academic and specialist items as well as a good children’s section.

10. Tesco: I was in the (?)minority of local residents who was quite keen on the idea of a small Tesco store opening on Mill Road and even signed a petition in favour of the plan. And I must say that it is a very convenient addition, even though I’m not going to stop going to all the other shops in the area on its account. And rather than make any of the more ‘local’ shops (some great, some not) close down, some excellent new shops have in fact sprung up near it. So it may go at the bottom of my top ten (not that I’ve ordered everything precisely) but I’d certainly not want to be without it.

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Greek Tragedy and The X Factor 
Wednesday, December 1, 2010, 10:01 AM
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Recently I rather enjoyed reading a piece on Socialist Unity (this doesn’t happen all that often) about The X Factor. It mapped the programme onto Aristotle’s observations on tragedy, noting the ingredients it shares with great drama, such as a hero, a villain and comic relief. By chance, similar parallels came into my own mind a few weeks ago when I was giving a lecture on Euripides’ Medea. I compared Greek tragedy to The X Factor, casting the judges as the lofty Olympian gods, the contestants as the hapless, suffering mortals, and Dermot O’Leary, the compere, as the chorus, someone who shares the hopes and fears of the audience and acts as a kind of bridge between stage and real world.

Not all choruses fit this rather bland and neutral pattern though – the terrifying Furies form the chorus of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, for example. However that play features yet another point of contact with The X Factor in its final scene of judgement over Orestes, I mean Orestes, in that the persuasive words of the three divine judges (Athena, Apollo and the Furies themselves) are the cue for a citizens’ vote which must decide the protagonist’s fate.

I found it hard to go along with the full gloomy analysis of The X Factor offered by John Wight on Socialist Unity though – the conclusion seemed a tad overstated. “Like the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, the X Factor acts as both a distraction and a temporary palliative, reinforcing the perversion of human happiness as a by product of extreme wealth and fame.“ For a more relaxed take on The X Factor, see David Bowden’s piece in Spiked.

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The march against cuts in Higher and Further Education 
Wednesday, November 10, 2010, 09:54 AM
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Cross-posted at Harry's Place

Today lecturers and students will march in London to protest against the slashing of government funding for Higher and Further Education and the huge rise in fees for future students. The response to these cuts has been fairly muted, even though these changes will mean that the UK will have the most expensive (state) universities in the world. Most reporters have focused on the fact fees will triple, yet as Stefan Collini points out in an excellent recent article in the LRB, this is by no means the only alarming aspect of the proposed changes:

“The single most radical recommendation in the report, by quite a long way, is the almost complete withdrawal of the present annual block grant that government makes to universities to underwrite their teaching, currently around £3.9 billion. This is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.”

As Collini goes on to demonstrate, we are being offered a vision of education as no more than an engine of economic growth, of a country in which universities are there to service the needs of employers rather than promote scholarship, enquiry and new knowledge for their own sake.

Wealthier students perhaps won’t be put off studying what they enjoy at the optimal institution for their tastes and abilities. But students from less comfortable backgrounds, without a cushion of financial support, may be driven to the apparent safety of more vocational courses, or feel they have to stay near home even if their local university doesn’t offer quite the right course for them.

Certain aspects of the Browne review do seem designed to try to encourage young students not to be put off going to university. Loan repayments won’t be triggered until graduate earnings reach £21,000, and more will be done to support part-time students. Yet it has been suggested that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more debt averse, and that widening participation in HE may be checked and indeed reversed. Of particular concern is the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowances which target younger students (16-19) from poorer backgrounds.

I felt uneasy about one point in Collini's thought-provoking LRB piece – note particularly the transition which I’ve put in bold:

“In the past two or three decades there has been a huge educational enfranchisement of sections of the population that had hitherto been shut out from the benefits of post-school education, and that has been a great democratic good which present financial or other difficulties should not lead us to discount. But this does not mean that all these people are, or should be, going straight from school to study traditional, intensively taught undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts and sciences as full-time students at residential universities. There is a wholly legitimate place in a diversified higher education system for all kinds of part-time, work-related, vocationally oriented, career-break courses, but the social value of the institutions that primarily provide such courses should be recognised and properly rewarded without forcing them to try to ape ‘traditional’ universities when the odds – in terms of resources, reputation and so on – are so stacked against them.”

There seems to be an assumption here that students from the sections of society who have been reaped most advantage from widening participation should now be the ones to lower their sights and expectations. And (on a more personal note perhaps!) I don’t care for the implication that less ‘traditional’ universities, and those who work at them, should have to lower their own expectations either.

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