What I’m reading this month – Feb 19

Cover of Penguin Modern Classic version of Lucky Jim by Kingsley AmisI used to think it funny, all the novels written about novelists. Life must be pretty fascinating, hey? But I believe it’s an admixture of the impulse to write what you know and the desire to have a character capable of making the observations and feeling the feelings you want and articulating them in ways you appreciate. At any rate, when I was younger and certain that I would myself be a novelist, these books were great. A double articulation, as the sociologists might say, representing a way of living that I recognised and also educating me and shaping me to cultivate that very way of living. Deep calls unto deep et cetera.

I’m in a different line of work, now, with a different set of aspirations. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn now – often by accident – to books about university lecturers. It’s a set of micro-politics I recognise, and it illustrates the inner reflections and motivations of people I might become or people I might have to work with to continue becoming what I want to become.

I caught a bit of his before Christmas with Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, which was definitely about a set I knew, though it was also redolent of its time. I didn’t enjoy it much, mostly because I thought Wilson was so satirical as to remove any scrap of pity or interest we might have in literally any of the characters. In Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis writes about a similar world in a more or less similar time, and he is similarly detached and ironic about his own creations. But not to the same degree, and there are a few characters that he is clearly siding with. Even the protagonist – the eponymous Jim who, we are told, is lucky, though we see little evidence of it – is coming across as heroic. We meet him as a reprobate, something of a waster, but Amis suggests enough puzzles and deeper currents to draw us closer to him. As a result, he gains our sympathy in a way no one in Wilson’s world ever does. Continue reading

Learn something new

It’s a new year, and we’re supposed to be improving ourselves. The news tells me about studies that allow me to eat a hamburger a week whilst saving the planet and my own health. The host of the open mic at my local has been on ginger beer this January. And our national politicians have learned to put fractious party politics and petty point-scoring aside to work together for the national interest.

Uhm, anyway…

I thought I’d get enough laurels for posting my “what I’m reading” blog on schedule at the beginning of the month, but maybe I need to do better than that. I made a killer batch of Seville marmalade (what, already? Well, I didn’t force the oranges to grow so quickly. Yes, I was shocked to see them at the greengrocer already on January like the third. But since they’re there, I do.) However, that is most certainly “something old”, and resolving to make marmalade this year is like resolving to breathe. No points awarded.

Whiteboard with a weekly schema for improving courses - stats, German, and bike repairI have therefore taken it upon myself to learn something new. Even put my super duper office whiteboard to work on getting myself organised. Its job since September or so has been to hold my monthly to-do list – not the daily one that fills up scratch pads on my very cluttered desk but the medium-term deadlines that I need to actually monitor but not necessarily actually complete before I go home each day. Now, its bottom half has a new purpose: to keep track of my progress on improvements.

The first one was easy. I’d already digitally committed myself to it. Edinburgh University (my alma mater… <sigh>) has a MOOC on statistics, and I clicked the “yeah, alright” button some time in November. I in fact clicked that same button last year, much more enthusiastically. I’m a quals guy by training, and it is commensurately what I train others in as part of my job. But ignorance repays no one, and this MOOC looked like the right thing to give me some baseline familiarity. I was very enthusiastic in saying “yeah, alright” last year.

You can see where this is going. Continue reading

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.