Saturday, 30 May 2009

Revolting students

Two historical images of student life today.

I found this description of eighteenth-century Oxford in Richard Mabey’s biography of Gilbert White: ‘Lectures were rarities. The university library (the Bodleian) was open for only six hours a day. Some of the books were even chained to the shelves. Tutorials, and even examinations, were often little more than exchanges of stock questions and responses, or disputations upon a few standard problems in grammar or logic. Sometimes, if a tutor failed to turn up, debates were carried out with a blank stone wall.’

I think I read somewhere else that some Oxford courses around this time did not even bother with exams. They had a residency requirement: you just had to be in Oxford for three years and they gave you a degree. One occasionally encounters students today who would benefit from a similar arrangement.

I also found this revealing comment about the revolutionary ferment of 1968 in a near-contemporary account: ‘Plateglass universities hardly rate as centres of radicalism. Debating societies have not flourished … committed politicians on the staffs, and there are many at local and national level, say that apathy, not activity, characterises their students both at election time and between elections. There have of course been protest marches at all the new universities, focusing on Vietnam and Rhodesia. But equally there have been protests at East Anglia over war toys, at York over the censorship of The War Game, and at Kent over the banning of Radio Caroline. The coinage is a little devalued when the activity of protest seems more important than its object.’ (Source: Michael Beloff, The Plateglass Universities (1970))

If there are any revolting students reading this, may I suggest that they organise a union sit-in about the disgraceful defenestration of the lovely Mo Dutta from Radio 2? Saturday mornings won’t be the same again.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Many objects remain unnoticed simply because it never occurs to us to look their way. Most people turn their backs on garbage cans, the dirt underfoot, the waste they leave behind. Films have no such inhibitions; on the contrary, what we ordinarily prefer to ignore proves attractive to them precisely because of this common neglect.’ – Siegfried Kracauer

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Motorway twitters

A late developer as usual, I have thus far resisted the clamour for me to join Demi Moore and Stephen Fry on Twitter. But I am intrigued by the possibilities this new microblog opens up for gnomic poems on the quotidian. So I’ve done a little poem about motorways, the lines made up of twitters (tweets?) of 140 characters or less. This is the best I could do before I got bored – it’s harder than it looks, you know.

Here I am on the tarmac; it is true it bears no message. But on the road, what material for semiology! (Thank you, Roland Barthes)

I flew over a motorway once. It looked beautiful, bathed in sodium light with the car headlights like stair-rods and the catseyes blinking.

Those catseyes aren’t really there for the cars: they’re stars, shoehorned into rows by some celestial surveyor with an eye for beauty and order.

Before you sneer at that sweaty sales rep in the middle lane, just remember that he too has a soul and a shortage of cup-holders.

The hawks hovering gimlet-eyed above the verges aren’t looking for mice. They’re I-Spy geeks, ticking off the flyovers like trainspotters.

A foil ashtray, a flooded toilet and a plastic-stick tea stirrer. Not even Rilke could make poetry out of a service station.

Love isn’t a bursting heart. It’s the woman in the Esso shop, ringing home to ask if they need any milk and firelighters.

Anyone else like to have a go?

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The revolution is not a banana

In my ongoing search on the internet for free articles of mine to recycle on this blog (‘a luxurious task, this cobbling up of ancient toil,’ as Ronald Blythe puts it), I found this site where you can access for free an article I wrote for History Workshop Journal on Berlin:

I now think this article is a bit of a mess, to be honest, but fans of the film Goodbye Lenin may find some of the more evocative details of GDR life interesting. I particularly like the idea of the Berlin wall being ground down to make roads, and the graffito that was seen in East Berlin in the weeks after the fall of the wall: ‘The revolution is not a banana’. In these fractious political times, I feel that this is something on which we can all agree.


Not only am I not the Joe Moran who is the Brad Pitt of the Cornish Coast (All My Googlegangers, 17 March), I am also not the Joe Moran who is, according to the Sunday Times rich list, the 63rd richest person in Ireland, with an estimated personal fortune of £125m. I am happy to clear up the understandable confusion on both points.

And more UnReithian TV (see post for 7 March):

Ghost Hunting with Girls Aloud (ITV2)

My Weapon is a Dog (BBC3)

Mundane quote of the day: ‘The newspaper, incapable of seizing the insignificance of the everyday, is only able to render its value apprehensible by declaring it sensational. Incapable of following the movement of the everyday insofar as it is inapparent, the newspaper seizes upon it in the dramatic form of a trial.’ – Maurice Blanchot

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Sod off day

For reasons into which it is too complicated to go, I’ve been reading a lot about the IMF crisis at the end of 1976. As the pound went into freefall on the money markets (O dear, dead days, beyond recall!), Britain applied for a loan from the IMF, conditional on them slashing public spending. In his autobiography, Denis Healey, who was Chancellor at the time, writes about how much he used to look forward to ‘sod off day’*: the day when he had paid off the loan in full and could finally tell the IMF to get lost.

The reason I mention this is because I have my own version of ‘sod off day’. If you are an academic your life is overshadowed by something called the Research Assessment Exercise, which takes place every few years. This all started back in the 1980s. In a process that the sociologist A.H. Halsey calls the ‘Decline of Donnish Dominion’, universities stopped being autonomous scholarly guilds and became subject to external control over their teaching and research, mainly through more organised competition for funding. A great irony of the Thatcher era was that universities were encouraged to embrace the market while finding themselves the victims of what the political scientist Andrew Gamble calls ‘one of the last great experiments in central planning’.

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), and now its successor, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), have created a formal hierarchy of publications. They value the peer-reviewed journal and scholarly monograph over more marginal or non-scholarly publications. Professional status is now the slave of research assessment conducted by specialist panels that judge work solely by the lights of their own disciplines. In other words, blogs count for zilch.

You need four ‘REF-able’ publications to be in it. I only have two publications at the moment and so the REF has me in its vice-like grip, a particularly painful armlock-cum-Chinese burn like the kind the school bullies used to give.

‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?’ asked Philip Larkin. Beats me. It seems to be a universal human trait to create these little bubbles of meaning within which we drive ourselves demented, self-inflicted tyrannies created out of our skewed expectations of what other people want. I suppose it all makes work for the working man to do.

So I am looking forward to the moment when I have four things published and can tell the REF to sod off. With one bound I will be free. The REF can bugger off, get lost, take a running jump over a cliff. The REF, as they say round these parts, can ‘do one’. Sod off day will have arrived.

I’ll let you know when (if) it happens. The cyberspace drinks will be on me.

*I suspect this day has been cleaned up for publication.

Mundane quote for the day:

Cuddling the new telephone directory
After I found your name in it
Was going too far.

It’s a safe bet you’re not hugging a phone book,
Wherever you are.

- Wendy Cope

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Shyness isn't nice

A book I meant to write but now probably never will is a cultural history of shyness – partly because I’ve just read another good book about it: Christopher Lane’s Am I Normal? Lane’s bugbear is the way that modern psychiatry is caught in a Faustian pact with the drug companies, so that that it now attributes mundane, everyday conditions like shyness to chemical imbalances in our brains. ‘The logical, perhaps inevitable, consequence of the biomedical turn in psychiatry,’ he argues, ‘is a growing consensus that traits once attributed to mavericks, sceptics, or mere introverts are psychiatric disorders that drugs should eliminate.’

According to Lane, the first scientific discussion of shyness is found in Charles Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin wanted to come up with an evolutionary cause for shyness in response to religious authors like Thomas Burgess, who claimed that God had designed shyness so that ‘the soul might have sovereign power of displaying in the cheeks the various internal emotions of the moral feelings’. Burgess approved of this, believing it could ‘serve as a check on ourselves, and as a sign to others, that we are violating rules which ought to be held sacred’. Darwin disagreed, arguing that blushing makes the person ‘suffer and the beholder uncomfortable, without being of the least moral service to either of them’. He thought it strange that the inferred opinion of others could excite such strong emotions – ‘why should the thought that others are thinking about us affect our capillary circulation?’

Freud’s answer to this was that emotions can’t be reduced to biology: our minds have blind spots, irrational detours, short circuits. Freud saw social anxiety ‘less as a tension resulting from blocked energy than as a conundrum borne out of our stalled and unpredictable transition from biology to culture’. The agent of our woes ‘is not society or other people but an internalized variant of them distorted beyond recognition’.

‘Shyness is nice,’ sang Morrissey in the Smiths’ song ‘Ask’. I don’t like to contradict the bard of Whalley Range, but shyness isn’t nice. I’m with Freud on this one: shyness is a pain and no bloody use, evolutionary or otherwise, to anyone (admittedly, this doesn’t scan quite as well). So if someone offered me a pill to cure shyness, I’d have to think about it. I have also been told that cocaine is a pretty universal cure for shyness, but that it has the unpleasant side effect of turning you into a complete tosser.*

But on the whole I agree with Lane. You can’t simply medicalise your problems away. Shyness may not be nice, but you have to get over it. As Hamm says in Beckett’s Endgame, ‘You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!’

*As well as being naughty and illegal. Just say no, kids.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to its vomit.’ - Samuel Beckett

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The questions everyone is asking

You may have seen the new TV ads for Ask Jeeves, the internet search engine which invites you to ask it a question so that it can trawl the web for answers. According to the ads, Ask Jeeves now has improved answering capabilities - although, in my experience, it is not quite as infallible as Bertie Wooster’s famous valet. If you start to type a question into Ask Jeeves, like ‘how is’ or ‘what are’, it offers you some ‘suggested searches’. These are presumably the most popular searches, either for all time or just for that day. Either way, these are the questions everyone is asking. Here are some of the suggestions it offered me:

Why is the sky blue?
Why is Hotmail not working?
Why is the sea salty?
Why is a yawn so contagious?
Why do women have smaller feet than men?
Why can I not log into Hotmail?
Who is the Stig?
Who am I?
Who lived in my house?
Whose telephone number is this?
What benefits am I entitled to?
What is a blog?
What is the meaning of life?
How much is my car worth?
Where can I see pictures of celebrities?
Where can I check my Hotmail emails?
Where can I buy wallpaper?
Whose fence is it?
Whose phone number is it?
What is a geek?
What is a prime number?
What are Nigella seeds?
What are the continents?
Who are the Big Brother winners so far?
Who are you?
Who are the 25 members of the EU?
Who are the villains in Spiderman 4?
Who are Atomic Kitten?
How is pasta made?
How is acid rain formed?
How are shadows formed?
Where is Emmerdale filmed?
Where is the nearest Primark store?
Where are your kidneys?
Why is teamwork important?
Why are pretzels shaped so weird?
Why are we here?

As a peek into the collective consciousness of 21st-century homo sapiens, these questions suggest that we alternate seamlessly between mundane musings, existential dread and an unlikely obsession with one unfortunate email provider. I can only marvel at our restlessly inquisitive species and its endless search for the fruits of knowledge. As ever in life, though, there are more questions than answers.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

The English motorway system

This is my first film feature, a sort of trailer for my roads book. Hope you like it. Please imagine the soundtrack as 'The English Motorway System' by Black Box Recorder, which I can't include for copyright reasons. Please also ignore all the stuff at the end after the final credits - these are outtakes that I can't seem to get rid of.

An ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Crossing the road: a brief history

How’s this for sticking it to The Man (well, Cambridge University Press anyway): the architect Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a pioneer in the ‘shared-space’ movement in urban design, has made my article from Historical Journal, ‘Crossing the Road in Britain,’ available for free on his website. You can view it at Thanks, Ben. This piece managed to find its way into print despite one of the academic reviewers saying that 'the only good thing about this article is the title'. Here is some random stuff that didn’t make it into the piece:

Before the First World War, a lethal-looking ‘pedestrian catcher’ was attached to the front of some British cars, aiming to sweep up pedestrians instead of running them over, but it was too cumbersome to catch on.

The authors of How to Drive a Motorcar, first published in 1914, advised motorists who encountered pedestrians in the road to meet them with ‘the commanding eye’.

In the early 1970s, the Green Cross Code was promoted with the famously impenetrable acronym, SPLINK, based on the random selection of words from the code (safe, pavement, look, if, near and keep). A TV ad showed a group of youngsters crossing the road successfully and shouting the acronym at the top of their voices, perhaps in the forlorn hope that this would make it easier to remember. Jon Pertwee, who had just stopped playing Doctor Who, then said hopefully to the camera: ‘Now we can all remember the Green Cross Code: SPLINK!’

More successful was a series of ads featuring the Green Cross Man, played by Dave Prowse, who surveyed traffic troublespots from his high-rise control centre and then used his wristwatch to teleport himself to them. When Prowse got the role of Darth Vader in the ‘Star Wars’ saga, though, he became unavailable for traffic duty. He had one last hurrah in 1981 appearing alongside the Green Cross Droid, a robot with a pulsating green cross on his chest and a rotating head, a shameless rip-off of R2D2.

The best-known recent national campaign has been the ‘hedgehogs’ series of TV ads for young children, set to the tune of well-known songs like ‘Staying Alive’: ‘Well you can tell by the way I cross the road / That I’ve learnt all my Green Cross Code’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Tragedy, like its partner comedy, depends on an acknowledgement of the flawed, botched nature of human life – although in tragedy one has to be hauled through hell to arrive at this recognition, so obdurate and tenacious is human self-delusion. Comedy embraces roughness and imperfection from the outset, and has no illusions about pious ideals. Against such grandiose follies, it pits the lowly, persistent, indestructible stuff of everyday life.’ – Terry Eagleton

PS Offer watch (see post for 25 February below): ‘Once we have a solid offer, we need to sell it in plain words, directly to the voters’ (Hazel Blears, Observer, 3 May 2009)

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Tales of a new town

Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall Festival ( is holding an event in Skelmersdale on 20 May called Tales of a New Town, ‘an evening of poetry and prose and storytelling from the people of Skem which charts their experiences and celebrates living outside the city’. I’m interested in when these ‘new’ places acquire a history – a bathetic, weirdly unsettling history that evades the secure meanings of the heritage industry or the easy consolations of nostalgia. So here is a brief history of the new town in bullet points.

· ‘Basildon will become a city which people from all over the world will want to visit, where all classes of the community can meet freely together on equal terms and enjoy common cultural and recreational facilities. Basildon will not be a place that is ugly, grimy and full of paving stones like many large modern towns. It will be something which the people deserve; the best possible town that modern knowledge, commerce, science and civilisation can produce’ – Lewis Silkin, Minister of Planning, 1948 (what did he have against paving stones?)

· The Queen opened the new Stevenage town centre in April 1959. For several years afterwards its all-pedestrian shopping centre was one of the most photographed places in Britain.

· Milton Keynes’s famous ‘concrete cows’ (actually made of waste materials and fibreglass), which graze in a field beside the railway line at Bancroft, were donated to a local college in 1978 by Liz Leyh, a departing American artist-in-residence. These cows have assumed a mythological status which is quite disproportionate to their modest, makeshift origins. They have been beheaded, kidnapped by students, painted with zebra and pyjama stripes, daubed with obscene graffiti and mounted by homemade papier-mâché bulls. Although they were not officially commissioned, they have been widely misrepresented as a misguided attempt by the authorities to imbue the new town with a spuriously bucolic effect.

· ‘Here, in the new town, boredom is pregnant with desires, frustrated frenzies, unrealised possibilities. A magnificent life is waiting just around the corner, and far, far away. It is waiting like the cake is waiting when there’s butter, milk, flour and sugar. This is the realm of freedom. It is an empty realm. Here man’s magnificent power over nature has left him alone with himself, powerless. It is the boredom of youth without a future.’ - Henri Lefebre, ‘Notes on the New Town’

· New towns came to be seen as stalled works-in-progress which had failed to live up to the ambitions of their planners because they phased development, so land was left vacant while the population caught up with the projections. It was this idea of Milton Keynes as a vast housing estate with few central amenities that contributed to its mythic reputation in the 1970s.

· Milton Keynes conducted famous poster campaigns in London in the early 1980s which drew on fears of economic recession (‘Your company could be the next to go – to Milton Keynes’) or which pictured the city as an idyll while describing problems more associated with the inner city (‘Bumper to Bumper in Milton Keynes’, ‘Inner city rot’, ‘Concrete jungle’ and ‘The East End’). It was the first new town to use television advertising. Its most famous commercial depicted a crowd of children releasing red balloons from Milton Keynes bowl and ended with the caption, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes.’ The new towns seemed to specialize in promotional campaigns during these years: Basingstoke renamed itself Amazingstoke, and the Scottish town of Cumbernauld sponsored a television commercial which asked: ‘What’s it called? What’s it called? Cumbernauld!’

· New towns are often marginal seats. One of the most memorable images of the 1992 election was the sitting Conservative MP, David Amess, grinning manically as he was unexpectedly re-elected. On the BBC election night broadcast, the Labour spokesman, Frank Dobson, tried to put on a brave face by uttering the famous words: ‘I don’t think even in Basildon they think the world is built on Basildon.’

· Milton Keynes is famously laid out in an Americanized grid system of 1km squares, with the main roads (identified by the letters H or V, for horizontal or vertical, and a number) located along the gridlines, and distributor and access roads within the squares. In fact, the reality is more complex than the image: it is actually a ‘lazy grid’ that takes account of topographical features and the layout of already existing towns and villages. Milton Keynes’s road layout has been depicted as ‘LA, Bucks’, a maze of freeways in which the priorities of transit take precedence over habitation and community. A Christmas card on sale in the 1990s depicted three wise men in front of a Milton Keynes road sign, with one of them saying: ‘I am sure I saw a star somewhere.’ When the Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama undertook a four-month residency in the town in 2001, he chose to photograph it as a blur through glass drenched with water, as if through a car window in the rain.

· The landscape feature most associated with new towns is the roundabout. In 2002, BB Print Digital, a company based in the Midlands new town of Redditch, produced a freebie calendar for its clients, Roundabouts of Redditch, which achieved unlikely cult status after being featured on a late-night Channel 4 talk show, V Graham Norton. Inundated with orders, the company went on to produce calendars of roundabouts in other new towns like Croydon, Swindon and, of course, Milton Keynes. The caption writers for the Milton Keynes 2004 calendar invited the viewer to laugh at their painstaking attention to roundabouts which were, by implication, all the same: the Bottledump roundabout was ‘quite a cutie’, the Denbigh Hall Drive roundabout a ‘cheeky little blighter’, and the Two Sisters roundabout ‘breathtaking’.

· When Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes – they have since been renamed the MK Dons – the local newspaper encouraged fans on the terraces to chant ‘concrete cows, la la la’ and ‘we’ve got more roundabouts than you’. They were also urged to ‘moo’ their approval when Wimbledon scored. Unaccountably, this failed to catch on.