And didn't Paul Weller send his son to Eton?*

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 27 April 2008 1 comments

There was a good Guardian article about a month ago on the strange and curious phenomenon that is David Cameron's taste in music. Or rather, David Cameron's alleged taste in music, because I can see why national newspapers might not want to get into a "did not, you liar!" slanging match with politicians over something like this, but I know I'm not the only person in the country who finds it a little bit difficult to believe that the leader of the Conservative party spent his teenage Tory years listening to the Jam, the Clash and the Smiths.

Anyway, it's a neatly-written article with some great turns of phrase - "the modern frenzy of political cross-dressing," "the Bono school of messianic non-politics," and Paul Weller referring to Boris Johnson as "that div who's running for mayor" - although I wish John Harris hadn't swatted the Morrissey issue that soon. "When it comes to Cameron's supposedly beloved Smiths," he says, "younger readers might want to factor out Morrissey's recent strange views about immigration and his all-round post-Smiths embrace of a crabby kind of small-C conservatism, and think instead about the themes [...] that implicitly put the Smiths at 90 degrees to their time." And you think, well, all right, but we Younger Readers don't have an image of the Morrissey of twenty years ago shining bright enough to blot that out, do we?

Not that I disagree, entirely. It's easy enough to see why the Smiths deserved their reputation in the 80s. But it's a little trickier to work out why we're meant to keep on claiming a man as a hero of the left after he wrapped himself in a Union Jack onstage at Finsbury Park, used the word 'flooded' in reference to immigration, and claimed that England had been 'thrown away' as a result. And if you weren't there for the 80s - or if you were there, but you didn't get out of single digits until the end of the decade - it's difficult to appreciate just how he could have mattered enough to make whatever he says now irrelevant, let alone mattered enough to have legions of not-yet-disaffected-enough fans leaping to support him in the latest war with NME, shouting "Out of context!" and "He wouldn't have said that!" louder than the man himself. (I read the interview, and not only did he indeed say that, but the only conceivable context in which it would have been excusable is an unquoted interviewer saying "Morrissey, I will give you this biscuit in return for your best Enoch Powell impression." David Cameron can have him for all I care.)

But then, our heroes wouldn't be our heroes if we let them disappoint us. And they'd never make it onto that pedestal without a younger generation that Just Doesn't Get It, either. Those of us whose teenage years were measured out in apolitical Britpop might be immune from the soul-gnawing feeling of watching Morrissey degenerate into a talking version of the Daily Mail, but hey, at least they had him back when he was good enough to make whatever he said later into something they could 'factor out'. Who did we have, Oasis?

Still, I don't think David Cameron et al's claims to love the anti-Thatcher music of the 80s ('well, I just liked the tune!') have anything to do with forces so pure as nostalgic hero-worship, or indeed the kind of musical cluelessness that John Harris suggests (albeit in the tone of a confused shrug) in the Guardian piece. Just a wild stab in the dark here, but I suspect the Tories are claiming such things as part of a wider effort to grab the massive disaffected-former-idealist voting bloc. Still feel the odd twinge of loyalty to your younger self, even though your Clash LPs are gathering dust in the attic and the Telegraph seems to make so much sense these days? It's okay! David Cameron's just like you! And so's Morrissey, so don't feel guilty!

But anyway, the reason I'm writing about all this a month later is because of (the excellent) Johann Hari's interview with (the still un-jaded) Billy Bragg, who summed up the whole thing in the best way possible:

As an earnest man, Bragg has a twitching nose for phoniness. That morning, he appeared on Andrew Marr’s morning programme, and Shadow Chancellor George Osborne told him he loved his music. “Him and Cameron claim they loved the Jam and the Clash,” he says. “It’s all lies. I can spot a Tears For Fears fan a mile off. I bet they spent the eighties singing along to ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World.’”

- Speaking of which, is that true? I was sure it was someone else who sent their kids there and Shouldn't Have Done, but someone swore blind to me recently that it was Paul Weller. It wasn't, was it? Was it?

Future shock

Posted by September Blue 3 comments

At one point in my search for a new place to live, I was standing in the middle of town trying to remember where the letting agents' office was. I'd already walked down the street where I remember it being five years ago, but it didn't seem to be there, and maybe they'd moved, and I only had an hour left before the second half of my split shift, and asking for directions is (naturally, always) an admission of defeat, so I solved the problem by - get this - finding a WiFi hotspot and Googling their name on my iPod Touch. It's one short step from this to tricorders and hyperspace travel.

Anyway, I found the letting agents and got a new place and moved into it this weekend, nearly killing my brother in the process (I don't think I've seen him too exhausted to move or speak since he was a toddler, seriously). I'm now in the coffee place across the street, taking advantage of their free WiFi and easy-listening indie-light acoustic background music with my new laptop and drinking a caramel latte.

Finding the letting agents via nifty technology felt like I was living in the future. Drinking overpriced lattes while updating my blog in a coffee shop across the road from my little urban flat feels like I'm living in my future. And it's not so bad.

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Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 23 April 2008 0 comments

In expectation of having a few Internet-less weeks at my new place (but at least the cafe across the street has free WiFi!), I've been trying to download some things to watch on my laptop while I'm waiting. However:

"Estimated Download Time: 193d, 13h."

By the time I get to watch Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the machines will not only have actually risen, but will have set up a basic social democratic society with a complicated income tax system, instituted a series of controversial immigration laws, gone into several intense yet inexplicable national crazes over ultimately insignificant pop culture icons, allowed the housing market to reach idiotic levels of mortgage inflation, turned on each other during the ensuing credit crunch and recession, sent all the toasters off to Siberia, turned most inhabitable parts of the earth into a war zone, calmed down, made truces, and gone back to watching TV and grumbling about how much they'd cared about stuff Back In The Old Days.

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Posted by September Blue Sunday, 20 April 2008 2 comments

List of things that are not working this Sunday morning:

  • Student e-mail servers
  • WebCT
  • Intranet anything
  • On-campus internet access (which has, luckily for my sanity, now been restored)
  • Library catalogues
  • Library systems
  • Printing systems
  • Photocopying systems
  • All the tills and systems at the sports facilities, apparently; it's difficult to tell from all the distressed wailing, but they're certainly Not Happy about something over there
  • The big flat-screen monitors that give students various bright-coloured and blinky bits of information
  • The 'systems currently having problems' status page. (Helpful.)

And because it's a Sunday morning, the campus is not exactly crawling with technicians or helpful-looking senior people or indeed anybody who knows what the hell's going on. Reducing weekend mornings to a skeleton staff probably looked like a great decision from a budgeting perspective for a university anxious to set up various new projects for attracting new students; the reality, it turns out, is a constant stream of the students we've already got winding their way into the library, to be greeted by a staff of underpaid, disaffected minions whose best guess on the whole matter is "I dunno. EMP grenade?"

O Captain, my Captain

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 17 April 2008 2 comments

If you haven't yet read what Sisyphus has to say on the subject of how undergrads' education is affected when they're taught by those of us with eighteen jobs, no money, and a complete absence of job security in whatever teaching position(s) we've got, then you should. A sample:

Students don’t want rigor or quality even if they know that’s what they should want. It takes not only time and effort and experience as a teacher to push them to what they really can achieve rather than what they want to get away with ---- not only these qualities but also a certain sense of security, a willingness to be tough, to be respected rather than loved. And that’s not going to happen if next quarter’s employment rests on getting great evaluations and next year’s rests on getting out another article and 50 more applications out this month.

She's right, and it's something I've been thinking about a bit recently, trying to shuffle my teaching and my various other jobs around so that all of them get done to a passable standard. And 'passable' would be the word. I'm not saying that my students are getting completely screwed over, but they're not getting the same kind of deal that they used to, either. And there is nothing like working alongside this year's new TAs to have this brought home to you, believe me.

(Here, I'll go a little way towards defending myself by pointing out that some teaching-related corners could do with cutting once in a while. There's definitely a law of diminishing returns when it comes to teaching prep, and after a certain point, spending even more time preparing for your class can actually work against you; I know I've fallen into the 'damn it, I spent ages reading all this vaguely relevant secondary material, and if you eighteen-year-old first-years aren't going to come up with the same insights all by yourselves, you'll just have to sit here and listen while I lecture at you for three-quarters of a discussion class!' trap, back in the past. There's a happy medium. As for whether I'm currently hitting that medium, though, well... maybe. Possibly. No.)

But at least my teaching's getting done, to a point that's definitely a lot more... pointy... than some of my other stuff. If I cut too many corners on teaching, it'll have an immediate effect on my students; if I cut too many corners on job applications or working on publications or getting my damn PhD thesis hardbound and handed over to Registry, then that only affects me, and the effects won't become visible for a while. And it's the same way with the rewards: teaching can pay off instantly with a good, talkative class, and lets me actually feel like I'm doing fairly well at some part of academia; applying for jobs and working on publications and looking at my PhD ever ever again, on the other hand, is just misery-inducing. So when I do have spare time, it's... not exactly going towards advancing my research profile, if you see what I mean.

Anyway, I seem to have got off-track. Where I wanted to go with this is a conversation I had a few weeks ago with one of my friends, a TA who's nearly finished her PhD. Because there are some weighty staff shortages in her department, and because she's really good at (and enthusiastic about) teaching a particular part of her field that's notoriously difficult for students to get a grip on - let's say, French theory, although it's not - my friend's ended up with quite the teaching load. Quite the teaching load. Lectures, classes and sciencey-related lab things in large number. She's been happy with this so far, but now that she's close to done with her thesis - and now that her funding's close to gone - she's thinking about some other plans.

So, my friend speaks to her head of department, after he e-mails to let her know that she'll be given the same teaching load for the next academic year too. Says, well, you know I love teaching, but my funding's running out, and this won't cover my rent. So, here's an idea. You were vaguely talking about hiring a teaching fellow for next year if I left, right? Why don't you hire me at pro-rata teaching fellow pay for, well, let's call this part-time?

Splutters, worried-looking frowns, &c. Listen, he says, I know you're a great teacher, and I agree with you - the workload you've got here is easily what I'd class as 0.5 part-time for a teaching fellow. But I really don't think we can afford that at the moment. The students love you, though, and we don't have anybody who can teach the [French theory] stuff, definitely not as well as you can... how about you stay on your current pay for next semester, and we'll maybe think again the semester after that?

No deal, she says. Sorry, and you know I do love teaching, but on that workload I can't fit in enough hours elsewhere to get paid enough to live off when it's all added up.

Please, he says.

Sorry, she says.

An aggrieved sigh. Think about your students, he says.

No, she says. Your students.

She's my current TA hero for saying it, but it's a bleak, bleak world where such is the case.

How the light gets in

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 15 April 2008 4 comments

My mobile phone is dead. The unopened bottle of Diet Coke it was sharing a bag with developed a crack the length of half my little finger, and emptied its whole contents into the keypad of my thankfully-cheap phone. It's drying out at the moment, but I don't have high hopes for the fried-looking SIM card.

Meanwhile, a much more impressive crack has appeared in the plaster ceiling of my bedroom, spreading through a wall from the smaller-but-no-less-worrying crack that my landlord dealt with by Polyfilla-ing over a couple of weeks ago. It spreads from one side of the room to the other, branching out and twisting back in on itself like some evil mangrove tree of serious structural defects. My bed is right below it. I'm sleeping on the sofa.

But, whatever. At least if I am out of contact and squished flat, I won't have to finish marking these essays.

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Dear Landlord:

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 10 April 2008 4 comments

I can accept your decision to kick me out and sell my flat. It is, after all, your flat, to sell or not as you like. I can also accept your decision to announce this three days after telling me I could stay for an extra six months. Plans change; things happen.

I can accept your urgency to sell the flat as soon as is humanly possible, and the starry-eyed optimism with which you are now loping after the housing market. The effect of this is that the next few weeks of my life are going to be dotted with estate agents and viewers, who'll need access to my flat at all times, and that you're expecting me to keep the flat in 'showable' condition during those weeks. Mostly I can accept this because I know it won't be happening - you aren't bringing anyone round without giving me the 24 hours notice I'm legally entitled to ask for, for one thing, and for another the flat is going to look rather chaotic for the next few weeks, what with boxes and suitcases everywhere. Because I have to pack. Because you are kicking me out. See how this works? Ner. Anyway, I can rise above my grievances and accept the situation (mostly).

I can accept that your offer to 'make up for the inconvenience' by offering me reduced rent for the extra month you wanted me to stay was - how to put this generously? - something of a bribe, since some rent is better than no rent. I conclude this based on the fact that when I replied to you to say, hey, thanks, but I need to be out by the end of April because of the lease on my next flat which I was very lucky to find at this notice by the way, I won't be able to take you up on that offer, so instead, will you maybe let me store some boxes and cases here for a few days rent-free after I leave, just so that I don't have to do the whole move in an entire afternoon? - your answer was no. Thanks! But I accept this, anyway, since it's not like I have much choice.

And I can accept that when you came round to fix a worryingly huge crack in the ceiling yesterday - the kind of crack that is spreading day by day and is now edging down the wall, might I add - you did it by Polyfilla-ing over it in a really obvious way. I would not accept this if I was still going to be living here when the ceiling fell in, but I won't be, so, hey, your ceiling, your problem.



While you were here, you ate the last of my cheese biscuits. The cheese biscuits I desperately needed at 2am when I was still up writing a lecture. And that I couldn't have. Because you ate them.

And with this, a line has been drawn.

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Kid, I think I've met sixteen of your older brothers.

Posted by September Blue Monday, 7 April 2008 0 comments

Standing in a Marks & Spencer queue, divided by a row of hanging sweets and chocolates from the rest of the shop. Behind that row, a toddler is going into meltdown. "I want I want my MUMMY I WANT MY MUMMY MUMMY MUMMY MU-"

A weary adult voice: "Mummy's buying our food just now. She'll be back in a minute."

"MAKE MUMMY COME BACK I WANT MUMMY NOW!" Tears, kicking, unmistakeable flump sound of small child collapsing into floppy-limbed resistance on shop floor. The blonde woman in front of me rolls her eyes.

"She hasn't gone away," says the adult voice patiently. "She's just over there." (Blonde woman goes from rolling her eyes to cringing.) "She'll be back in a minute."


"Yes, I know, but -"


"No, you need to wait here now. Mummy will be right back."

There follows a shriek I cannot transcribe in any alphabet known to humanity.

"All right!" the blonde woman in front of me shouts. "Let him come over here."

Stampede of tiny feet, appearance of small, blurry person in dungarees and a baseball cap flinging himself at his mother's lower limbs. "MUMMY!"

"Sweetheart, you only had to wait -"

Through tears: "I LOVE YOU MUMMY!"

A general ripple of 'awwww' spreads through the queue. Blonde woman smiles despite herself. "All right, baby. I love you too, you know that? Mummy loves you very much."

Toddler stops crying immediately, detaches himself from his mother, and disappears into the neighbouring stands. His mother, who's still in the process of rearranging her shopping so that she can reach down to stroke his head, looks confused. "Um, baby? Where are you - sweetheart?"

From somewhere among the rolls and bagels, a casual-sounding voice accompanies the sound of running toddler feet: "THAT'S COOL!"

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Yes, I'm sure they Have A Plan.

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 5 April 2008 2 comments

Best thing written so far about the new season of Battlestar Galactica:

[The WGA strike] gave Battlestar Galactica writers the chance to rethink and rewrite the entire second half of their final season, according to showrunner Ron Moore, saving us from episodes with titles called "Oh Jesus, Can I Have Five More Minutes? No? Okay, Then, This Time Around Starbuck Is A Cylon, Whatever."
I haven't seen it yet - it's waiting as a reward for when I've finished this job application - so NOBODY TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. Unless it involves Lee Adama's fifty-eighth dark night of the soul, in which case warn me, because good Lord that got old a while ago. Not that I won't watch it anyway, mind. Pfft. Obviously.

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"You can't write and now you're homeless!"

Posted by September Blue Friday, 4 April 2008 4 comments

The rejection from the journal arrived on the same day as the formal notice from my landlords, giving me two months to take myself and all my stuff to yet another home. We'll draw a veil over my first response to this, and just say that I've calmed down now.

On the first thing: there are not words to express how much I hate moving, except maybe to say that I hate it even more than all the people who've helped me move in the past and have sworn on their ancestor's blood that they will never, ever, ever, help me move again. I love the theory of moving, of being able to detach myself from somewhere as soon as the crack in the bathroom ceiling starts looking troubling and start again new somewhere else, but I have so much stuff now that the practice makes me want to die. I want moving to be like the end of Breakfast At Tiffany's, where I'd call up someone to pack all my stuff into a taxi as quickly as he could and meet me on the way to an airport; instead, it's like some twisted version of the twelve labours of Hercules, where I have to not only clean the Aegean stables but take them apart to reassemble somewhere else. So damn it, landlords.

On the second thing: okay, 'rejection'. It's a revise-and-resubmit. And it seems to be fairly good, as far as revise-and-resubmits go? Maybe? There were words like 'brilliant' in there, and more than one of them, and more than once. One reviewer recommended accepting it with minor corrections, and the other thought it needed heftier revisions to add more stuff about X, Y and Z, but loved most of P and Q, and some of R, and parts of S, and thought it would definitely be probably the kind of thing the journal wanted with those changes made. Also, 'brilliant'. They seriously said that.

But it remains a 'no'.

But it is not necessarily a now-and-forever 'no'.

And for all the nightmare stories I've ever heard about anonymous peer review, nobody ever mentioned that this would be the first point in my post-PhD job hunt misery that I might feel my kicked-around academic ego start struggling back to its feet.