Saturday, 26 October 2013

So much confetti

‘If God were as poetic as Whistler once wished,’ Alistair Cooke wrote, ‘and if He had devised a solar system that lighted parts of the globe only at the seasons that showed His best handiwork, the rest of the world would be dark in October while New England enjoyed its hour, just as England would light up for the few magic weeks in late March and early April for its incomparable spring.’ The New England fall and the English spring were, according to Cooke, ‘the unique earthly expression of two moods of the human spirit’. Maybe, but English autumns aren’t too shifty either – not in the Champions League like New England, perhaps, but definitely vying for a UEFA cup place.

The American literature professor Jay Parini has written that academic life is renewed with the fall of autumn leaves, ‘shredding the previous year's failures and tossing them out of the window like so much confetti’. These days it isn’t quite true, because our semesters begin well before the sunlight fades and the leaves begin to lose their chlorophyll.

But now the garden at the back of our building is a shrivelled wet blanket of yellow and brown, and thankfully no one seems to be in a hurry to sweep it away. Nowadays, falling leaves tend to be seen as a mere nuisance, from those ‘leaves on the line’ that harass the modern rail commuter to the back-garden tree litter that is supposed to be swept away by those new high-powered leaf blowers.

This is surely part of a more general recoil from the tangible and the real. According to a survey from the Woodland Trust this summer, eight out of ten people in Britain are now unable to identify an ash leaf, and only half can recognise the nation’s most celebrated tree, the oak.

We should reacquaint ourselves with falling leaves, and the sweet little melancholy annual death that is autumn. And by ‘we’, I really mean ‘me’. ‘Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?’ as Thoreau writes in Walden. ‘Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?’

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Skegness student experience

One of the phrases you hear all the time in universities nowadays is ‘the student experience’. It’s an incantation only rivalled in ubiquity by the ‘£9K offer’ – which puts me in mind of nothing so much as those cashiers at railway station newsagents who, when you are buying a newspaper or magazine, also try to interest you in a bumper pack of Maltesers, a giant Yorkie bar or a ‘meal deal’. The literary theorist Thomas Docherty has this to say about the former phrase:

‘The story of “the student experience” begins not in the cloisters of Oxbridge, nor on the leafy campus of Sussex or Keele. It begins, in fact, in the period of a certain kind of scarcity of resources in the lead up, during and after the Second World War; and it can be said properly  to begin in a relatively small seaside resort town on the east coast of England: Skegness. Skegness is where Billy Butlin opened his first holiday camp, with a novel kind of business model. The idea … was one where you paid an initial global sum as an entry-price to the attractions, and then got access to an entire raft, or a “suite” as it is now called in business jargon, of facilities. The model was one where, by paying a fee upfront, you were entitled to what would ostensibly look like “free” access to all the facilities.’ – Thomas Docherty, For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), p. 58.

Maybe I should buy a red coat and start practising my jazz hands.

‘It’s all very well sneering at universities, and students with those awful scarves and flat-heeled shoes, but really and truly, it would be wonderful to have a bit of kosher education: I mean, to know what’s up there in the sky: just up above you, like the blue over the umbrella, and find out whatever’s phoney about our culture, and anything in it that may be glorious and real.’ – Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners (1959)

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Broadcasting House

I was on Loose Ends on Radio 4 yesterday evening. If anyone fancies a listen it is here:

Loose Ends comes from Broadcasting House in Portland Place. The old bit of the building looks a bit like an ocean liner on the point of setting sail, like the Chartered Accountancy building at the start of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. How I have wished, on the three occasions I have been there, that it would sail away down Upper Regent Street and save me from the torture of having to be interviewed on the radio.

As you are taken into the studio, you wonder fleetingly whether this might be the same room in which a BBC announcer told the nation in hushed tones that ‘the King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close’, or perhaps where General de Gaulle, just before his famous broadcast of 18 June 1940, was asked by the engineer to say something to check the sound level, and responded in a booming voice, ‘La France!’. Of course, it is just as likely to be the place where Dave Lee Travis patented his famous ‘quack quack oops’ sound effect.

After the broadcast, you are taken downstairs and have time to glance at the Eric Gill statue, ‘The Sower’, in the Art Deco reception. The metaphor adheres to the literal sense of the word ‘broadcast’, which radio borrowed from the farmer’s term for scattering seeds over a wide surface. As the sower casts seed, so does broadcasting cast its carrier waves over the land to anyone who wants to hear them. And so, as you are decanted on to a busy and unbothered London street, you wonder if anyone in the wide world was listening.