What I’m reading this month – Jan 19

Christmas holidays are indeed a good time for reading. Not simply because, as I intimated in my previous post, we tend to give and receive books at Christmas (and I mean “we” both in the general, possibly optimistic sense about people and in the very specific what-our-family-does sense) but also because we have time to read. I am a university lecturer, and reading is really part of my job, yet I know I don’t do enough of it professionally. Colleagues who drop by my office when I’m sitting in my corner chair, reading, have an indulgent grin on their faces, like they’ve caught me dreaming out the window or playing solitaire on the computer. At any rate, that’s not the kind of reading I’ve been packing on this last week nor this week we’re currently in. It’s a special, protected space to read eclectically and unapologetically.

Something of His Art by Horatio Clare (a very lovely cover)My wife read my suggestion of new books at Christmas as an instruction. This is not how it was intended, but it gave her a good opportunity to tease. I do expect she had this plotted already anyway, given how hard it seemed to be to track it down in time for Christmas. The book she’d picked for me is Something of His Art by Horatio Clare. He’s not someone I knew hitherto, though he seems to occupy a Robert Macfarlanesque space in the British popular imagination. The conceit is simple: he walks the supposed route J. S. Bach walked when he left Arnstadt to listen to and learn from the organist Dieterich Buxtehude, 250 miles away. He is accompanied by a radio producer and sound recordist, and he muses about art and artist along the journey.

I can see why she picked this book for me: it ticks all the boxes. It’s about long-distance walking, central-eastern Germany, music, and radio. It also has a gorgeous cover – the publishers were most certainly thinking of Christmas. Who knows how these timings go? We have pretty good imaginations anyway, but with my wife’s increasing insights into the publishing world, she can imagine the marketing machinery pretty well. Clare’s other book from this year is a diary account of his diagnosis with seasonal depression. It’s been getting very good reviews, but it might not be the cheeriest gift to offer someone under the tree at Christmas. Oh, but look – he did a series for Radio Three! And he ends up in Lübeck, which is where they make that nice marzipan. Okay, give it a pretty cover and we’re set. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Dec 18

Perhaps it’s the increased use of lamps in the evening, or the anticipation of Christmas with the prospect of new books to give and receive, but December seems a time for reading. It was late December last year that I wrote about what I’d been reading – significant books with insights into a particularly unsettled time for me. Things look different for me this year, and yet I still have the impulse to share. Textual analysts will note that, by sticking “this month” up top and adding an actual date, there may be the promise of another such post next month and the month after that. We live in hope.

Since this is a determinedly non-ac blog, I won’t make note here of the various books and articles I’m reading for work. The titles are too long, and they’re not often something that gets a wide readership excited. If I come across a corker, I promise to let you know. Instead, a children’s book, a novel, and a memoir. Continue reading

Meet your heroes, Part II

Okay, so understanding how rubbish I am at a) remembering to get selfies with important people that I happen to meet and b) keeping this blog reasonably updated, let me tell you about the celebrity I met and got a picture taken with this summer.

Yes, I know it is October. This happened in August, and I did have the presence of mind to use the damn phone and get the picture. In my defence, the wifi at Calgary Airport was terrible, and then I was back in Nanaimo with my parents, my brother, my good friends from high school. None of which I’d seen, save for my folks, in eight years. So I was maximising time. (And then I was back home with my family, whom I hadn’t seen in a week and a half. And then, and then…)

Who cares? You want to know the story. That is Bruce Cockburn next to me in the picture. Though I love Colin Linden, I have to confess that Bruce is a much bigger hero of mine, and I think Colin feels the same way, so we’re good. (Linden, for the uninitiated, has been a long-time mando and slide-guitar sideman for Bruce, besides producing many of his more recent records and even sliding the dials for him on tour from time to time.)

I was hovering in the little concrete bunker that Calgary’s state of the art airport reserves for regional hops with WestJet. Mine was to Nanaimo, and the next one over was to Regina. I leaned against a post, watched an adorable puppy make friends with two little kids as well as basically everybody in the vicinity. Then this guy shuffled past with a walking stick and the case for a small stringed instrument over his shoulder. From his profile, I was pretty sure I recognised him, but I thought, with absolutely no authority whatsoever, “Bruce Cockburn doesn’t walk with a cane.” This is a stupid thought: the man’s vital, sure, but he’s still ageing. And I’ve never really seen him walk anywhere besides back and forth on the stage to change guitars. So how would I know?

Continue reading

Meet your heroes

On the streets of Cardiff, a week and a half ago, I actualised a long-held dream.

I was cycling in the sunshine, just past the Hilton hotel on my way through the city centre for some jumbo oats when I spotted a familiar figure – short, barrel-shaped, smartly dressed in black with round sunglasses, curly hair, and a black fedora.

Colin Linden playing guitar at Toronto PartiGras

“Colin Linden” by Kasra Ganjavi, found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC 2.0

“Colin Linden?” I said.

“Yes, yes it is,” he replied with a grin.

“Holy shit!” Continue reading

Short Reflections on the Strike: Never More Proud

There was a lot of revelry following our final day of picketing. That’s why this final diary is a day late.

Fourteen days of strike action, spread over four weeks. I honestly did not think we were going to have the effect we’ve had. Colleagues who’ve been in this racket a while say they didn’t expect members to go the distance, to in fact increase their support as the days went on. They didn’t expect they’d still be here at the end.

They said they’ve never been more proud to be union members and to be academic staff at Cardiff University.

When I resolved to write diaries on this blog for every day of striking, I scratched some ideas for themes in my notebook. I had ten – maybe nine (some were waffly). If we’re still going, I’ll cook up some more then. I’m glad I saw it through, just like I’m glad I saw the strike through.

It will be odd being back on the clock on Monday, but there’s no shortage of tasks. The task that’s at the forefront for most of us, however, is how to capitalise on the fellowship we’ve fostered. To keep the relations up and, as necessary, to keep the pressure up. Because though our strike is currently over, our dispute is not resolved. So, watch this space, I guess.

And yes, we did Bohemian Rhapsody with nowt to accompany but my meagre ukulele:

Short Reflections on the Strike: Some Wins

Crikey, these are getting ragged.

It’s late.

We had a gloriously sunny day on the picket line.

My wife made the most amazing sole meuniere with blood orange – okay, it was plaice, but it was still really good. Just before we sat down to eat, I saw word that my employer will spread out strike deductions over three months and not be a stickler on penalising action short of a strike.

After making and then fighting fires on the comms front, I have been learning the chords to Bohemian Rhapsody on the ukulele so that I can accompany my union members at our mass rally for the final day of striking tomorrow. Friends, if you thought my job was weird when I was on the clock, you should see me when I’m off it.

Yes, friends, this will be me tomorrow. Something to see, for sure.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Managing Multiple Interests

It can be difficult for a union – inherently a uniting organisation – to adequately represent the views of a diverse group of people. It is still the case that, though we might all be linked by the same industry, we have bespoke needs that can, at times, actually conflict.

I felt this keenly when I was on the CBC picket line in 2005. Then, I was a casualised broadcast journalist. Working on call, not even a regular short contract, sometimes a news reporter, sometimes a current affairs chase producer. For three weeks one summer, I arranged interview content for a classical music programme during the local chamber music festival. I had been trained in archiving scripts so that someone was capable of backfilling our usual archivist when she was ill or on holidays; this soon incorporated a bespoke set of records to keep during the federal election, documenting how much time each party received and what issues were covered.

Flexible? C’était moi.

What was an asset to our employer – and, let’s be honest, to myself, because it meant I could work more and, like, eat more – was a liability to the union. When we were locked out, union stalwarts were very concerned about having their jobs replaced by these flexible, casualised workers who could just be slotted in anywhere. It was a threat to the long-term solidity that the union stood for.

Only problem was, we flexible, casualised workers were protected by the same union and were on the same damn picket line! “Hey! Like, we can hear you, you know?”

Creative picketers during CBC lockout 2005

Photo by Hadeel Al-Shalchi

I have mentioned the creative theatricality of the picket line in previous posts. It was in many ways an awesome initiative to be a part of. But the people who were being most creative – organising costumes, recording podcasts, writing song lyrics to support the union and afflict the managers – were the very ones being cast as a lurking threat by our union reps. A difficult circle to square.

I had worries of the same ruptures when this current strike was imminent. I had an individualised gasp when I heard we’d be out for 14 days; it was part of a collective gasp, that is certain. And some of the very articulate precarious workers in academia were expressing their ambivalence in very public ways. Twitter and blog posts became forums for describing the income insecurity: when you don’t have a steady guarantee of a paycheque, how can you afford to sacrifice 14 days of the small certain offerings you have? People worried that strike action would embitter their superiors to them – those with the power to renew contracts or write reference letters for future jobs. Student evaluations of our teaching would suffer, and these are a form of currency in job applications.

Some of those who expressed such views were then attacked by union loyalists as undermining the effort before it had even begun. This was unfortunate, though perhaps to be expected with the way debate happens on social media.

Fortunately, the union took notice. And although the direct issue before us is that of pensions, the union has opened a front on casualisation. Other initiatives are also afoot, so that even as we resolve this dispute, we press for change in the whole operation of higher education.

As I’ve said before, if it was just about pensions, we wouldn’t be doing this. Especially in light of yesterday’s rejection of the offer, I must emphasise that this is about honest and transparent information, dignity and respect in communication and relations, and protection of the values we believe the university stands for.

In these things, we can be and surely are united.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Reject

This will be a very short reflection. It’s been a long day, and I need to rest.

It was just last night, while I was reading bedtime stories to the kids, that news came down the wire that our employers, Universities UK, and our union, UCU, had worked out a proposed deal. I must emphasise “proposed”, though they used the term “agreement”. This was also the spirit in the news story at breakfast today on BBC Radio 4.

This is unfortunate, because it was not a good enough offer for the majority of the membership. But of course, we’re not consulted until it has already been put out in public as “an agreement”, which we are then put in the position of rejecting. “Proposal” gives it what it is: a foray by the negotiators, and a pretty poor one considering the depth of feeling.

Put simply: the assumptions that were used to say our pension was “in deficit” or “in crisis” have been answered and refuted already. We’re academics: reading and interpreting numbers like these is our job. Their numbers didn’t work.

Moreover, they had not done their consultations in an entirely fulsome manner. Some responding institutions gave the opinion of just a single person. Colleges at Cambridge and Oxford were counted as institutions in their own right. This was not broad and meaningful.

Despite that, they offered a proposal that tried some sort of half-way measure, as though these flaws which had been recognised as flaws were nonetheless given reality by their making it so. And to rub salt in the wounds, they wanted the union to encourage teaching staff to make up lectures missed during the strike despite the fact that we would be docked pay for those missed strike days.

Striking Cardiff UCU members at the Senedd

Photo from Jonathan Marsh

Our message was to reject. That was our message in Cardiff, and we sent our representative to London to relay that message to the national committee. So did at least 46 others, though I think that number might be even higher. In a way, it doesn’t matter: it was “overwhelming”. The members reject it. This is not the deal to pull us off the streets.

Now it gets hard: we have to describe not only why we’re striking but why we rejected this chance to get back to work. But we got great support from politicians that we met at the Senedd. And we affirmed each other. This afternoon, I met with students at a teach-out session where we talked about communication, about isolation through individualisation and the inequalities present in our system. They support us, but we need to communicate with them, and work (when we’re back at our desks; probably Monday) to protect and support them.

This still matters. So we continue.

Short Reflections on the Strike: It’s like Thunder! Lightning!

Lyrics to UCU strike version of Jolene

Lyrics adapted from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” by Carina Girvan

I do mean “our”. More people have been coming forward with lyrics they’ve adapted. I’ve had calls to learn “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Shout”.  At our rally on Thursday, I heard some folk behind me singing new words to Cher’s “Believe”, and though I had no form to give to the verses, once I figured out what key they were singing in, I could back them up on the chorus. Today, a few of us jumped in on a rewritten “Jolene”, and we all got organised for that British pub classic, “Wonderwall”.
Lyrics to UCU strike version of Wonderwall

Lyrics adapted from Noel Gallagher’s “Wonderwall” by Nicky Priaulx and Steve Davies

It’s great fun, even if “UUK” doesn’t scan so well most of the time (though watch this space: I’ve been tinkering with Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”…) It’s grim to be away from our classes and our research. It sucks not to reply to student e-mails. We’ve had sharp cold, mild snow, and drippy rain. And we’re losing money on the days we’re out. So it’s not a party.
But we can find spots of joy nonetheless. A good fiery speech gets us going. A visit from a politician plugs us in to the wider conversations, by which our dispute will eventually be resolved. But singing together – that is what gladdens our hearts and gives us something to remember at the end of the day.
I’ve always wanted to properly work out a cover of “Knock on Wood”, the disco classic. The music, on the ukulele, is a doddle. But I’ve never quite committed the time. Marching at the Thursday rally, I absently strummed out the chords. A colleague from the journalism school hummed, “I don’t want to lose the pension…” We could see there was something there, but we had to get on to the fiery speeches and politician visits, so we left it.
Over the weekend, I picked it up again. In fact, the lyrics fit over extremely well. Except for the title and landing line in the chorus, of course. The person in the song feels really lucky, whereas we don’t. Maybe lucky to have the pension we have, but it is in the process of being taken away. I tried “Strike for Good”, which I liked in the sense of a positive message (for the good) but couldn’t really use because it sounds like we want to keep on striking forever. Unambiguously not the case. “Strike to Win” is a compromise. Doesn’t rhyme, but then, “wood” doesn’t rhyme with anything else in the original lyric. Still a bit weak, a bit hard to sing forcefully. But it went over well all the same.
 
Strike To Win
I don’t want to lose the pension that I got
Cause if I did, I would surely lose a lot 
Cause our pension is better than any stocks I know 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win
 
I ain’t superstitious about ’em – don’t wanna take no chance 
Your defined contributions don’t lead me to romance 
Cause our pension is better than any stocks I know 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win
 
It’s no secret about it – we’re experts on this stuff 
So see to it (see to it) that we retire with enough 
If we had a decent pension, it would mean so much 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win

 

Short Reflections on the Strike: Strong Women

It’s a short post today: I’m going to see Belle and Sebastian at the Welsh Millennium Centre tonight – fab to have a date with my wife in the midst of this more tiresome business. So I’m fitting this in between comms work, a shower and shave, and feeding the bairns.

Crocuses in Alexandra Garden during our UCU rally on International Women's Day

Crocuses in Alexandra Garden during our UCU rally on International Women’s Day. Photo by Jenny Kitzinger.

Fortunately, the message I wanted to share is simple. Today is International Women’s Day, and there have been some clever analyses of both the pension issue and the precarity issue from a women-focused lens. It was great, then, to have strong women speaking at our Cardiff UCU rally today.

We had female politicians, female academics, and female union organisers address us with strong messages. The men who spoke also highlighted the courageous example of women who have fought in the past and present for justice.

All of this was great, and right. It was also not exceptional, and that is what gives me cheer.

We’ve had strong voices from women all through our pickets and rallies. They have been outspoken and outstanding on committees, on leadership, as picket supervisors, and as the stalwarts who just turn up, hoist a placard, and hand out leaflets.

I would not make a blithe “post-feminist” argument. There is so much work still to be done. I’m just glad that women are here and are doing that work, and I will stand beside them throughout and argue for fairness.