Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Rise of the Supervillain and the Fall of the Jesus Christ Superstars

It’s a perverse quirk of human nature that the more we perceive someone to be immoral, a reject or an underdog, the more intensely we are drawn to them. Movie reviews talk about the bad guys, like the Joker, in Batman films way more than Batman. We obsess over a vampire or serial killer in a horror film, but we rarely remember the hero. And we see the same phenomenon mirrored in real life. The pop star who treats women like animals but tops the charts every week. The corrupt, bad boy footballer that all the kids idolise. The pantomime villain in the reality TV show who wins the viewer vote. But why do we root for these people when society tells us we should find them repulsive? 

Those of us who are sensitive to the faults of our humanity realise that when we are instructed to dislike someone or something and this instruction is vehemently enforced, particularly by someone who we consider to be superior to ourselves, then we are inclined to rebel and do the complete opposite (think girls from strict homes who grow up to be lap dancers, Catholics who grow up to be Satanists) or the taboo object/person becomes forbidden fruit that is attractive to us and we develop an overwhelming desire for it (think celibate priests who become paedophiles, how we desire fresh cream cakes even though we know they will make us fat). Right now the media is feeding us a daily diet of evil ‘supervillains’ and we are repeatedly instructed to disagree with them and find them repulsive - think Trump, Milo and Farage for starters. We obsess daily over these forbidden fruit supervillains to such an extent that repeated exposure is highly likely to trigger the attraction effect in some of those who are exposed to it (by fostering sympathy and generating an underdog that the public begins to rally behind) or we are likely to see a rebellious reaction, or a combination of the two. And we have already seen these responses play out in public forums. The more that the BBC pushed the remain vote, the more I suspected we would have a Brexit vote. The more that social media humiliated Trump, the more I suspected he would win the presidency. Humans are predictably rebellious creatures, we don’t like being told what to do. So is it any surprise that the supervillains are seeing a surge in popularity?

Those who were appalled to see the public rallying behind ‘the abhorrent’ should be quietly taken aside and made aware that these events and the changing public sentiment may have arisen as a direct response to their own actions. I wonder whether the popularity of these supervillains would have grown to such heights had they not been nurtured by the media spotlight, had we not been bombarded with constant outcry, outrage and protest through news reports and social media. I experienced the U-turn effect of this bombardment for myself a couple of weeks ago when I spotted a planned protest on Twitter and audibly uttered the words ‘oh FFS, not another protest’. The protest itself didn’t aggravate me and I generally agreed with the purpose of the march, but it was one of several taking place that week so I was becoming numb to them and, to be honest, a little irritated by the constant, exhausting barrage of outrage. Then I saw a news report on TV in which an incensed protester grabbed a reporter’s microphone and started preaching into it “people MUST ___, everyone MUST ___, if you don’t support ___ then you are EVIL!!”. Whoah, wait a second my dear. I wholeheartedly agree with you, but who the hell are you to dictate to me what I should and shouldn’t think? My hackles were raised and I viewed the protest in an entirely different light. These people were dictating to me what I should and shouldn’t believe and what I can and can’t say and I was annoyed by the tone of their aggressive, self-righteous preaching. When they started ranting about the evils of fascism, I burst out laughing. Pot and kettle? The next night I switched on the news and saw something that I knew would piss that female protestor off and I smiled to myself. For the first time I sided with the supposed 'enemy’ against someone who I was supposed to sympathise with, simply because my brain went ‘no, fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me to’. I was rooting for the supervillain.

Now this was just one ranting woman in a sea of protestors that made me feel this way, but I wonder whether this isolated incident is playing out on a grand scale amongst the general public who are exposed to the media’s constant ridicule and condemnation of the supervillains. Take Hollywood and the Jesus Christ Superstars, for example. We love celebrities when they prance around on screen or knock out a decent album because that’s what we are paying them to do. Katy Perry makes great music, J. K. Rowling writes great books and Meryl Streep makes great movies, but when they start evangelising at award ceremonies about how other people should live their lives, what they should and shouldn’t say, and, even worse, passing judgement on what they can and can’t think like some kind of award-clutching, superstar embodiment of Jesus Christ, then things quickly turn sour. I’m interested to hear their thoughts on how the lowly populace should live their lives and they are perfectly entitled to voice them (who knows, they might even identify solutions to endemic social problems that could revolutionise how we all live) however I suspect that they know fuck all about what it’s like to live on an inner-city council estate - to worry about housing, job security, who you are living amongst and the safety of those you love - and once I get the faintest whiff that they are looking down their noses at these people and telling them, with complete ignorance of the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis, that their concerns are misguided or offensive whereas, on the contrary, they are more entitled to make a moral judgement since they are socially mobile, richer, younger or more highly educated than the average council-house dweller, then they morph into the ranting woman in the protest and my hackles are raised again. J. K. Rowling, for instance, preaches in such a nauseatingly self-righteous ‘pissing on the peasants from my ivory tower’ way and with such painful disregard for how the real world functions that I struggle at times to separate her from the trolls that she dismissively bats away…

And I know I’m not the only person starting to feel like this. There is an increasing groundswell of anti-Jesus Christ Superstar sentiment on social media directed towards big stars who have stopped being the jaunty puppets that we pay them to be and taken on the role of political mouthpiece. Please, now more than ever, we need you to be jesters to make us smile, singers to cheer us up, writers to take us away from reality, not a dictatorial moral thought police. Even the BAFTA audience this year looked like the residents from the Capitol in The Hunger Games, nodding sympathetically in unison in a collective moral masturbationary exercise in the hope that their unblemished souls will endear them to their peers, fans, ticket sales, book sales….The gulf between these Jesus Christ Superstars and ‘the ordinary people’ is widening at a rapid rate of knots and this rate it will swallow entire careers whole… 

Perry, Rowling, Streep, ranting protest woman - you are entitled to voice your opinions and I will defend your right to do so to the death, but please, please wake up and realise that you are feeding the very monsters that you are aiming to defeat. Each time you cast yourself as morally superior and speak down to the ordinary people beneath you in an arrogant tone, dismissing their concerns and casting out judgements, you alienate increasing numbers of ordinary people and drive them away from you and towards those who oppose you, regardless, I believe, of whether they consider your opinions to be more or less ethically sound than those of the supervillains that they gravitate towards. This is how conversions of loyalty are forced and oppositions gain power, for instance I agreed with the ethics of the ranty protestor but I cheered on the supervillain in order to see her defeated (never underestimate the fragility of a woman’s principles when faced with someone that she takes an instant dislike to). And the louder that you vilify and humiliate those that you oppose, the greater you risk creating a rejected underdog towards whom the people will express empathy since they perceive the underdog to be suffering the same humiliation and rejection that you heap upon them too. 

These are the underlying mechanics that are driving the rise of the supervillains and they will continue to gain popularity under the media spotlight and the barrage of your constant outrage and condemnation. After all, we’re only human and we can’t help how we respond to instruction, unlike your divine, virtuous selves…

Friday, 6 January 2017

In Defence of Men in Academia

On the first day of my first conference as a first-year postgraduate, a male academic invited me back to his room. This academic was married, twenty years my senior and I barely knew anything about him. I gracefully declined at first but then, upon discovering that it was a time-honoured whisky party to which a select number of delegates were invited each year and two of my colleagues had also received the same invitation, I accepted. It was a fabulous night and the whisky party became a regular event at the same conference each year thereafter. The host is now one of my closest friends, I have met and stayed with his wife and children and we continue to meet up as often as possible to treat ourselves to good food, good wine and a good old gossip.

I was fortunate to meet such a delightful male academic at a conference, but yes, I’ve also had uncomfortable experiences with men at conferences. I’ve been stalked from seminar room to seminar room, hounded on social media and, because my politeness is a hazard to my safety, I’ve left conferences clutching phone numbers and email addresses that I’ve promptly binned. It’s an unsettling feeling to say the least (especially when you’re both confined to the same small venue for days on end) and it ruins any enjoyment of the conference. In fact a particularly bad experience can even cause you to question whether you wish to continue pursuing a career in the field. 

In response to this unacceptable and evidently common behaviour at conferences – and for some unfortunate folk for whom this is a day-to-day struggle in their own university departments - there has been an emerging groundswell amongst both female and male academics to scrutinise the behaviour of male colleagues, to pummel them into the dirt the very second they put a foot wrong and to hound those who exhibit behaviours not considered to be acceptable. Now if you’ve got Dr. Wandering Hands or Prof. A Women Should Not Have A Profession in your department then a proactive approach is entirely justified; I agreed that we should call them out and challenge them to account for their behaviour because these cretins can stunt the career progression of a female academic and cause serious and long-lasting damage to that individual’s confidence and motivation to continue teaching and researching in their subject.

But thankfully, I have not witnessed this type of behaviour in the men in my own department. There are 32 male academics and 27 female academics in my department and each one of them is a pleasure to work with. I’m judging them by our daily water cooler conversations of course and I have no idea whether they have anyone stripped and hogtied on their basement floor, but over the ten years that I have worked within my department I have not experienced one moment of malicious misogyny or harassment. I’m sure that if I pored obsessively over every daily conversation I could single-out one throwaway sexist gag or a lazy misconception that would have the averagely-incensed feminist burning the building down, but if a comment is made then it is not driven by malicious intent and I am sure that the source would be devastated to discover that he/she had upset anyone. On the whole our staff are mutually supportive of each other and our more confident, aggressively competitive and ambitious members of the department tend to be female (which is by no means a criticism, on the contrary it has contributed significantly to the success of the department). 

A couple of years ago the department was called to a meeting to discuss harassment in the workplace. It wasn’t prompted by or directed at anyone in particular, just a friendly chat with a professional on how the male members of the department should behave around women and how they could offer support and encouragement to their female colleagues. The meeting was very cordial and we all agreed that we shared the same desire to support everyone equally and we would strive to ensure that no-one felt disadvantaged, but, by God, things felt awkward afterwards. Some male members of staff, particularly the older members of the department who had known their female colleagues for many years, became so over-sensitised to causing offence that the simplest actions and conversations were painfully awkward and stilted. Colleagues that regularly dealt out mutually received and well-meaning banter began apologising after making the most innocent of comments, they overcompensated to the point of sounding patronising when genuinely attempting to be supportive and they didn’t know whether it was acceptable to enquire about family issues, illnesses or, in one case, congratulate a member of the department on her pregnancy. Far from clipping the wings of Dr. Wandering Hands or Prof. A Women Should Not Have A Profession, the advice that these individuals received caused confusion, it completely killed the relaxed atmosphere in the department and it turned the loveliest of people into socially bungling, terrified bundles of nerves.

I realise that I am lucky to work with a respectful group of people who do not require close scrutiny and criticism of their behaviour while other departments and universities are in desperate need of close attention and direction in order to make their working relationships bearable, however some women in academia take a disproportionately aggressive approach and they produce exceptionally venomous material that is directed towards male academics in general. This approach sits very uncomfortably with me and, if I am honest, their indefensible generalisations make me question whether the issue is as prevalent as they claim or whether they hold university positions or carry out research that relies heavily upon misogyny and harassment existing in the workplace, to which a successful eradication of these behaviours would put them out of a job. If I was a man I would take great offence upon hearing these generalised attacks however it must be extremely difficult to engage with this material as a male, hence I suspect why I am increasingly encountering women working in university departments who, like me, feel sympathy towards our male colleagues who endure criticism by virtue of assumptions made about their gender rather than from their observed behaviour. 

To those women in academia who are currently rampaging through university departments and sticking both barrels into the gullet of every man they see, I would offer this note of caution: know your enemy.  By all means aim for the bad guys and I will buy you all the ammo that you need to take them down, but please don’t take the scattergun approach because you’re taking good people down with them. In my experience, the good guys outnumber the bad and for every creepy guy who follows you around the room at a conference trying to give you his mobile number, there is a guy who would like to invite you to a whisky party because he admires your work and he would like to talk to you about it. Or there is a male member of staff who feels socially awkward at the best of times and he would like to engage more with his colleagues, but he’s afraid to speak up in case he plays the game incorrectly and says the wrong thing. Or there is an older male member of staff who has the deepest respect for the women that he works with, but he’s afraid to congratulate an administrator on her pregnancy in case he is considered to be speaking out of turn. Certainly there are monsters who target women in all walks of life and we must raise awareness and strive to keep each other safe, we must ensure that no-one is disadvantaged due to their gender and we must seek to punish those of any gender who behave abysmally towards their colleagues, but we should also guard against demonising a whole swathe of men based upon generalised conjecture and thereby behaving precisely like the same tyrannical, presumptive and intolerant monsters that we are fighting against.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

To All The Kids Who Think They're Not Good Enough For University (And The Teachers Who Agree)

Xylophones have a lot to answer for in terms of my educational development. 

I was obsessed with the xylophone when I was a child. I didn’t possess the confidence to sing, I wouldn’t be seen dead with a tambourine and the recorder required far too much effort, so the xylophone was the perfect choice to satisfy the minimum energy required to make a substantially disruptive noise in my primary school assemblies. It was during one of these assemblies that the local vicar, who was tasked with directing our cacophonous shambles of a school band, noticed the wild enthusiasm with which I bashed the xylophone bars and asked me whether I had ever considered playing the piano. I was completely enamoured with the idea and promptly began pestering my parents for a piano and piano lessons. My mum was a housewife and my dad worked shifts in a foundry so this wasn’t something that they could easily afford, but they eventually caved against my persistent nagging and approached my class teacher at a parents’ evening to ask whether the school had any provision for music lessons. The teacher consulted with Mrs. Guest, my strict and rather rotund and red-faced headmistress, to ask whether piano lessons could be arranged and Mrs. Guest’s answer was sharp and to the point: children from my council estate 'did not do things like learning to play the piano' and it was ridiculous of my parents to encourage a child like me to aspire to do such things. 

My parents accepted this response and broke the bad news to me. I was devastated. However the school vicar was not going to allow me give up on my dreams that easily. He arranged for me to have piano lessons from an elderly lady who lived locally (she charged very little for lessons because she lived alone and enjoyed the company of visitors) and my parents bought me a second-hand piano which we shoehorned into my tiny bedroom in our two-bed council house. When I passed my Grade 3 piano, my mother confided in me that she was pleased that I had persevered with my lessons because my parents had thought (hoped, I would imagine) that my musical ambitions were a passing phase. She also told me what Mrs. Guest had said to them when they had enquired about piano lessons.

My headmistress’s comments were like a red rag to a bull – how dare she say that my friends and I shouldn’t aspire to achieve our dreams just because we live in a deprived area! I tell people now that I rattled through my piano grades so that I could entertain the masses, teach a new generation of pianists and learn a skill that would enhance my cognitive development, but my main, if not sole, motivation was to prove my headmistress wrong. I have a distinction in Grade 8 piano. Fuck you Mrs. Guest. 

Growing up on a council estate in Birmingham, I encountered the ‘children who shouldn’t aspire’ attitude numerous times throughout my school life. My high school hit the very bottom of the league tables while I was in my final GCSE year and it was widely expected amongst both the staff and students alike that the girls would fail their GCSEs and banging out a dozen babies while sitting on the dole and the boys would fail their GCSEs and become career criminals, winding up in trouble with the police or locked up. One teacher even told my class that we should start planning a family early because infant mortality was high in the area due to its deprived nature, so there was a good chance that some of our babies would die…

It was when the children on the estate challenged these preconceptions that things got really interesting. My best friend at high school desperately wanted to be a lawyer and she needed A-Levels in order to apply to university, so we bravely asked our teachers if it would be possible to study for an A-Level together. No kids in my school had ever taken an A-Level let alone applied to university before so the teachers thought that we were crazy and completely out of our depth. Nevertheless they agreed to let us sit A-Level English Literature on the condition that we did the required reading ourselves, with some guidance from a business teacher who had experience in teaching A-Level courses. I took the class solely to support my friend and I had no intention of applying for university myself – after all, my parents certainly couldn’t afford the fees - but when I began accompanying my friend to various university open days I liked what I saw and started thinking seriously about whether I wanted to pursue the same educational path… 

I enrolled on a series of A-Level evening classes at a nearby college and cobbled together a mishmash of grades that made me a pretty poor candidate for a red brick university, but I bit the bullet and applied to the University of Birmingham. The admissions tutor was tethered firmly by the entry requirement grades, but after a short interview he surprised me by saying that he would make an exception in my case because ‘I had a something about me’. Throughout the entire first year of my undergraduate course I felt as though I had broken into the place or stolen a legitimate student’s identity and I suffered great anxieties about whether I was ‘good enough’. Some students had come from well-performing schools where they had been rigorously trained to perform to a high standard, but there were also a few students from less privileged backgrounds in or around Birmingham who had similar educational experiences to mine. By the end of my first year, it was clear that some of the high performing students were struggling to function outside a controlled, classroom environment. They could absorb and regurgitate information but they could not think for themselves and many of them started to drop out of the course as a result. On the other hand, those of us who had been previously cast adrift with our educational development and who were frequently required to think for ourselves were thriving in this environment and most of our group achieved a 2:1 or higher. This ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ arrived with a dismal set of A-Level grades and graduated with a high first class degree (the only first in my year), winning a series of prestigious scholarships, moving quickly onto an MPhil and finally completing a PhD. I suspect that the ‘something’ about me that the admissions tutor had spotted was the same ‘something’ that each one of us in the less educationally privileged group of students possessed; namely the ability to think for ourselves and to cope when left alone to conduct research and develop our own arguments, independently of direction from a teacher or classroom environment. 

But it’s not just the hidden abilities of the ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ to achieve academic qualifications that I wanted to address, it’s their experience of the university environment too. I am now on the senior professional management team of the same university department in which I was a student and I have day-to-day dealings with students that started out exactly like me. I see the same hesitations and anxieties in them that I had when I first arrived. So where do these anxieties come from? If I was to turn back the clock and speak to every child who wants to go to university but has concerns about how they will be perceived then I would tell them this: don't be put off by thoughts of inadequacy based on perceptions of higher education that you might have in your head. I spent years passing by the red brick wall of the University of Birmingham and believing that the Hogwarts-like building in the distance was full of pompous professors who wouldn’t give disadvantaged students a second glance and wouldn't know real struggle and hard work if it bit them on the ass. But once I stepped inside the red brick wall as an undergraduate student I quickly realised that my university is nowhere near the snooty bastion of pomp and ceremony that I expected it to be and any feelings of inadequacy had completely dissolved by the time I reached graduation. Most people that I encounter on campus are lovely, down-to-earth people who have a lot of time for students from all backgrounds and I regularly speak to colleagues and students who have had similar educational experiences to mine (I currently work with a very talented doctoral researcher who grew up on murder mile in Hackney!). Now I’m one of those people behind that red brick wall and let me assure you, I’m very much still in touch with that little girl who played the xylophone in school assemblies and I know what it’s like to dream big, work hard and have real monsters stand in your way. I am no monster and neither are my colleagues - you have no need to be afraid of us. If you’re still unsure then book onto an open day and speak to some of the staff and students about what it’s like to study at their institution. Hopefully just taking the first physical step inside the wall and engaging with the people behind it will eliminate a great deal of your fears. And take it from me; do not be intimidated by class perceptions or how someone looks, behaves or speaks in a higher education environment because these things are certainly no indicator of intellectual ability. I have seen pipe-smoking, plum-mouthed professors struggle to open a door or operate the simplest mobile phone. Intelligence doesn’t have a face, tone of voice or tweed suit.

I would also like to address the kids who feel that they are being pushed into higher education when it really isn’t their thing. Parents and educational authorities alike can be guilty of this. We freely encourage every child to fulfil their educational potential but we struggle to admit that some children just don’t possess the capacity for academic study. There are always going to be things that children – and adults too, for that matter - are good at and things that we are bad at. For instance, I can play the piano very well but there are lots of other things that I’m absolutely hopeless at - I can’t swim, I can’t play the guitar (despite trying to teach myself hundreds of times) and I can’t run long distances without collapsing in a sweaty heap. I accept that I do well in some things but I’m awful in others. Likewise academic ability is something that you either possess or you don’t and some school leavers are just not cut out for higher education in the same way that I’m not cut out to swim the channel. Simple as. There is no shame in accepting that you are not academically minded and many students leave school without qualifications and develop specialised and valuable practical skills that allow them to take up practical roles and become experts in their craft. These practical roles tend to be undervalued due to our obsession with pushing all students down the path of higher education, even when the student feels that it isn’t a good fit for them. As a graduate I find this obsession with the pursuit of higher education at the expense of practical skills difficult to understand because university education is *not* the be-all-and-end-all that some people talk it up to be, it is not a guaranteed open door to a dream job and it certainly doesn’t make you any more superior to the next person. I have witnessed how the professors in my department are genuinely grateful when an IT person arrives to fix their computer or a maintenance person comes to fix a light or repaint their office. No matter how academically qualified you are you will always depend upon and value those around you with practical skills.

In addition to the academically minded and the practically minded, there is a third type of school leaver that educational bodies need to be aware of: the chancer. Thinking back to the student cohort at my school, there were a number of kids who exhibited a genuine flair for study or practical skills, but alongside these students there were also out-and-out chancers who wanted a piece of the same opportunities and achievements without putting in any effort or hard work whatsoever. They had no interest in gaining qualifications or skills, but they were acutely interested in avoiding employment. And coming from a disadvantaged background gave them a claim to preferential treatment and the free pass that they were looking for. Dangers arise when admitting these free-pass-grabbing students to a higher education institution just to tick a quota box or feel like you’re helping the disadvantaged in some patronising and self-righteous way. If every single school leaver, regardless of academic ability, demands equal access to higher education then we will end up with a quagmire of students who blindly dredge their way through a course of education that they care very little about, dragging the genuinely capable students down with their indifference and leaving with the same copycat qualifications. Employers will struggle to differentiate between a job application from a genuinely capable student and a chancer and eventually the qualifications that they both possess will become worthless. If we give trophies to everyone who runs a race then how are we going to pick out the ones that we should train to be Olympians? As gratifying as it would have been to see everyone in my high school class achieve a university place and prove the Mrs. Guests of the world wrong, I’m also a realist and I’m well aware that amongst the genuine students seeking help there are also chancers looking to take advantage of freely available opportunities and milk them for all they're worth. If a student from a disadvantaged background pleads for special treatment and expects to be handed a qualification on a plate with no application of hard work or effort whatsoever then there is a very good chance that they will fail. And educators should not feel guilty or responsible when that happens. It's tough, but that’s life. 

To my former teachers and those teachers who still advocate the Mrs. Guest approach to educational privilege, I would say this: resist predicting the growth potential of students based entirely upon their parent’s occupation or whether a student comes from an impoverished or affluent area because, at best, you’re going to show your age. Gone are the days when library access was restricted to wealthy schools and knowledge was largely passed down from parent to child; we are living in the age of Google where children are growing up with access to more information at their fingertips than ever before. Young people are taking control of their own educational development and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to restrict knowledge to a social class or geographical location. With instant access to an extensive world of knowledge, it is a child’s personal motivation and inner drive that will determine what they do with it. My undergraduate university experience taught me that battery-farming students in a well-performing school is no guaranteed indicator of success and ‘children that shouldn’t aspire’ can be just as capable, if not more capable, than the children that are naturally expected to succeed. I would suggest that children who work independently to achieve something that they desperately want for themselves are often the ones that are best equipped to persevere with a course of study, to be intensely self-motivated and survive the challenging times that all students face. A tough skin and dogged determination cannot be taught in a classroom and yet these are essential tools when pursuing a university education. And please stop pushing all school leavers into academic study at the expense of practical skills. We should be celebrating and empowering those who are gifted with practical skills rather than viewing them as somehow incapable of higher education. I would much prefer to live in a world filled with people that can build houses than a world full of people who ruminate on how to build a house…

My final point is directed to those who, like me, have followed an unconventional route through higher education and still work within it. Talk to the kids out there who show academic potential and express an interest in applying to university but have had their confidence knocked by poor educators or feel somehow inadequate at the thought of attending university alongside the privileged kids. Tell them about the scholarships and resources that are available to help them to gain access to courses (I am living proof that these work) and give them the confidence that they need to go to open days and submit applications. And, most importantly, show them that there are no monsters behind the red brick wall and many of us in university departments are just like them. Who knows, they might just end up running the place…

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My Great-Grandfather and the Peaky Blinders

I was around ten years old when I first heard my grandfather mention the words ‘peaky blinder’ and it was my father who, after much enquiring on my part, reluctantly explained what - or who - my grandfather was referring to. I wasn’t a delicate-natured child by any means, but the thought of someone’s eyes being slashed with razor blades would have kept me awake for more than a few nights had it not been for the warm affection that my grandfather had for these individuals and his reassurance that I wouldn’t come to any harm had I encountered one of these suspicious characters on the street.

I stumbled across mention of the peaky blinders purely by chance. At the age of six I expressed an overwhelming desire to learn to play the piano and my parents were unsure where this aspiration had come from since most of my family were musically illiterate and they had no interest whatsoever in playing a musical instrument. Four years and many piano lessons later, I overhead my father mention in conversation with a neighbour that my great-grandfather, James Aloysious (known as Curly), was very musical and he played the piano and the mandolin. My father mused that perhaps I had picked up an idle musical gene from him. Then, in conversation with my aunt, she told me how she would sit on my great-grandfather's lap and put her tiny hands over his large hands while he played the piano. She remembered how beaten up his hands were from the fights.  I questioned my aunt about this strange comment and asked for more information about my great-grandfather and when she showed me a photograph of my great-grandfather I was surprised to see that James Aloysious was the absolute spitting image of my father.

I felt a close connection with James and pestered my father to tell me more about James’s life. And the more that I discovered about him, the more I found him to be a fascinating individual. James lived in Harborne, he was ex-army and he was a bare knuckle fighter at Smethwick market. Every Sunday morning he would walk from Harborne to Smethwick to fight and when he returned home he would give his wife Florie all the silver from the win money that he had earned and the copper he kept as beer money. He seemed to make a fair living out of it.

Many of these stories that my father told me involved shady characters such as the mysterious Italian Mr Mansini who found my grandfather a job when he came out of the army ‘because he was Curly’s son’. It seemed that James and his family were well looked after because they were in with the right crowd and knew the right people, although the company that James kept seemed to be very dubious indeed. For instance, James played the mandolin in the Green Man pub in Harborne and one evening there was a huge fight between his group of friends and the police. It seemed to have been some kind of sting operation targeting them all. James took out three policemen, he smashed his mandolin over the head of one policeman (thereby ending his musical career) and he threw another policeman through the front window of the pub into the horse road. The police took him to Steel House Lane police station where he ‘fell down the steps of the police station’ (beaten up) and my great-grandmother claimed that he was never the same again afterwards.

James certainly seemed to have lived a violent life, but the most memorable – and disturbing - thing that my grandfather told me about him was this; if James was going to the pub or going out for the day with his family then he would wear his ‘ordinary cap’, but if went out of the house wearing his ‘working cap’ then my great-grandmother would stay awake and wait up all night in the front window until he came home because she knew that there was going to be trouble. When I asked about the significance of the caps, my father explained that the ‘working cap’ had razor blades in the rim which came in handy if there was ever a fight.

I remember this conversation well because I was not only shocked by the thought of slashing someone's face with razor blades, but my father is a calm and gentle man and he is not predisposed to glorifying violence, so this was something that he would not normally have discussed with me at that age. But although James’ group of friends and their activities were very violent, it was somehow acceptable for my father and grandfather to talk openly about them because the group had ‘principals’ - they had a strong family-like bond, they would watch out for one another and one another's families and they were very firmly ‘on our side’. I took comfort in knowing that, due to my surname, I would have enjoyed the same protection and I would have been accepted into this extended family. (Interestingly, my auntie tells me that James’ death was quite a talking point. The story goes that a gypsy came into the Green Man pub and started reading palms. James paid her to read his palm, but she took one look at his hand, refused and left the pub straight away.  James died only days afterwards).

On the flip side of my family coin there is my great-grandfather on my mother’s side: Sam Richards. Sam’s portrait hung in my grandparent’s front room for many years and he looked like a lovely man wearing a sharp business suit, well slicked hair and a kindly smile. Sam started out as a boxer, then he became a book maker and freemason and he owned a boxing ring in Selly Oak.  Although he was deep in dodgy book-making dealings, he presented a business-like front to his activities and he clearly had the police under his influence. The police would tip him off before a raid and when passing on their regular beat they would bang on the wall of the house whenever he needed to clear the house (which most often involved sending my grandmother down to the bottom of the garden with the betting slips in her dolls pram). Sam made a great deal of money, he bought a lot of local property and he contributed to the community by buying shoes for the local orphans. He certainly didn’t hide the fact that business was very lucrative and he once caused a stir by buying my grandmother a silver handled umbrella (which she subsequently left on a bus).

Sam Richards (centre)
My mother recalls that the words ‘peaky blinders’ were banded around the household when she was a child and she was aware that Sam mixed with both well-heeled and shady groups and individuals who looked out for his business, but I had the feeling that the James Aloysiouses of that world were on Sam Richard’s payroll rather than sat drinking with him in the pub. In fact it is a running family joke that my father’s family were on the rough-and-ready side of the Birmingham gangs, whereas my mother’s family were much more discreet with their dealings and ‘higher up the food chain’.

I have portraits and photographs of James and Sam, I have paraphernalia from their lives, I remember visiting family living in their old terraced housing with tiny rooms and open fires, I remember how my grandparents spoke about their lives and I grew up in a community in Birmingham that could also be a violent place to live at times but it also valued strong generational links forged between large, gang-like families that looked out for each other. Things haven’t really changed much in that respect. Loyalty and family names still carry a great deal of weight around here. And seeing how closely I physically resemble James and hearing how similar our characters are (even down to our piano playing!), things haven’t really changed that much within my own family either.

So, as you may well imagine, hearing about a TV series focusing on the blinders felt as though someone was making a documentary about a close friend or relative and I watched the first episode of the first series of Peaky Blinders with mixed emotions and expectations. A writer who was unfamiliar with the true spirit of these individuals could be tempted to ridicule the blinders and/or cast them as heartless gangsters. However I wasn’t disappointed, in fact a great deal of content made me smile because it cut very close to home. Pretty bang-on in some cases. I’m pleased that the series didn't shy away from the brutal, frenetic violence that these men were predisposed towards because that was certainly the case from the stories that I heard (and I still see it around me in Birmingham communities these days), but it also highlighted the strong allegiances, friendships and family ties between the gang members and by portraying the central characters as both hero and villain it gave the viewer the uneasy experience of both fearing and admiring them, which was the exact same uncomfortable feeling that I grappled with upon learning about my family connections with the blinders as a child.

Perhaps the fondness that I have for James, Sam and their friends is borne out of a realisation that although they were violent men who sailed on the wrong side of the law, they also had strong family values, they were loyal to those who were loyal to them and they would protect their friends and loved ones at all costs - values that most modern-day, law-abiding people would do well to aspire to.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Building the Future, Burying the Past? The Modernisation of a University Library

Last week I was informed that The University of Birmingham will be demolishing its main library and building a new one. As a current member of the University, I have been aware of a furore surrounding the demolishing of the grand redbrick building in favour of a modern alternative for a while as I was invited to sign an online petition set up in opposition to its demise. The plans for the development look very interesting and I look forward to seeing how they are executed, however there appears to be dissent among the ranks about the message that accompanies this move.

When it was pointed out that the new library looks smaller than the present one on the plans, the justification for any downsizing was ‘because students don’t really use books these days’. Ouch. Chicken and egg, anyone? Was that the death knell for the written word I just heard? Libraries and book shops across the country should take heed.

There appear to be two issues that are raising concern: the library building and the books within...

The Books

Hopefully the redevelopment will take place without the loss of any books and with the addition of extra facilities. But as a former student I worry that the redevelopment will be an excuse to lose one or two volumes that are considered outdated, given that apparently students ‘don’t really use books these days’. Please please please, University developers, don’t throw out the books and replace them with huge computer screens and online resources. I agree that technology is essential for futureproofing, but holding onto these dusty books is futureproofing in itself, if not a step further.

What developers need to realise is that we might be in the age of digital downloads but all the cool kids collect vinyl. How many teenagers do you see in the street wearing huge earphones? Why are China selling mobile phones to teenagers that *just* make phone calls? It’s handy to have books on my Kindle but I prefer to display them on my bookshelves. I store all my music on iTunes but I still buy CDs because I like the artwork. However you feel about the intrinsic value of the written word, if the University wants to futureproof its business then it must keep its books for people like me who will always prefer a balance and to guard against a turn in the popularity tide back to hard-copy resources. Besides, technology can all too easily go the way of the minidisc player...

The Building

Faux modernisation is happening a lot these days and I hope that the University is not setting itself up for a cataclysmic fall if it chooses to follow suit. Many institutions have recently sought to ‘modernise’ their business by ripping out anything that smells dusty, painting everything white and scattering some uncomfortable funky chairs around at the expense of unique and irreplaceable historical aspects that makes them distinctive from their competitors. Take the Church of England, for example. It is continually falling over itself to update and modernise and as a result we have three kinds of churches: the dusty old churches and mighty cathedrals that have survived redevelopment, the dated retro churches from the first exploratory steps into redevelopment and the ultramodern futuristic churches currently in redevelopment. Now put yourself in the position of a bride-to-be. The ultramodern churches are very pretty to look at and would look nice in the wedding album photos, the retro churches would make you look like you’re getting married in the 70s with their tacky kitsch interiors, but the absolute make-your-friends-insanely-jealous setting would be in an old, untouched, crumbly church or cathedral. I was a wedding organist for 15 years and let me tell you with authority...*everyone* wants to get married in old churches and cathedrals. Ultramodern is second best, but bear in mind that the retro churches were once the ultramodern churches. New developments date very quickly, hence it can only really be termed ‘faux modernisation’...

The added problem for a University is that the average student, to whom these funky modernisations are ultimately aimed at, encounters this kind of environment on a daily basis. They see it everywhere. It’s nothing new. The older professors might be impressed by the changes but I doubt your average 19/20 year old will even stop to pop his earphones out. And the danger with modernisation is that if it’s not absolute top-end spec then it invariably becomes tacky and dated very quickly, just like the retro churches. Ill-advised ‘cool architecture’ can be as cringe-inducing as watching your dad dance.

But the base-line here is that ‘funky architecture’ is not what you expect of a redbrick University. A newly-labelled Comprehensive perhaps, but not a redbrick sitting on top of a goldmine of history. Thinking back to my expectations on my first day at University, I expected to walk onto the set of Harry Potter when I stepped inside the University gates. And it didn’t disappoint! Walking into the main hall of the University was like walking into a big cathedral, it certainly had the ‘wow factor’. I expected Hogwarts and how massively disappointed would I have been if it had resembled an Apple store?! There was a real sense of history and belonging, which was fostered in part by the visual history evident around campus - predominately the buildings, such as the library. I fell hook-line-and-sinker for this sense of history, so the University should be ensnaring other prospective students using the same method, not trying to suppress it at every turn! And there is an important business aspect to this too; any member of a group will tell you that group cohesion is better achieved when there is a unique, unifying element that is specific to the group and separates the group members from outsiders, whether that be what they wear, how they speak or what they believe. This is how armies and gangs are united. This is the way that human nature works. Each University has its own history, its own ‘unique element’ that students expect to buy into. By removing this ‘unique element’ and replacing it with a ‘ten-a-penny McDonalds element’ the group will quickly lose its sense of belonging. And that, as it has been pointed out to me, is corporate suicide...

This might all be a panic over nothing and the old library will segue painlessly into the new with no bother whatsoever. I have every confidence that this will be the case. But for other Universities planning similar redevelopments the concerns raised must be addressed. Decisions made within Universities with regard to the future of the written word should not be taken lightly as they will influence generational waves of students and thereby send ripples out into the wider society. And there is no system backup, once these hard-copy resources are lost we may never recover them again...


So the nightmare came true. The replacement looks like an out-of-town JD Sports superstore...or a Primark, at best...

Friday, 12 November 2010

Something for Dave

On Friday afternoon I was set with the challenge of writing some song lyrics by Dave Stewart on Twitter. Having been encouraged by Dave to take up song-writing in an earlier episode, I decided that it was time that I took his encouragement seriously and tried my hand once again at putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). So somewhere amidst the chaos of that afternoon I found a few minutes to sit and write something meaningful that I hoped would inspire Dave to write a melody pulling my hastily scribbled words together. I was in a particularly reflective mood on Friday afternoon so I decided to write something inspired by my good friend Kerry, who died suddenly and unexpectedly recently at the age of 31, leaving behind a one-year old daughter and a lot of shocked family and friends. Kerry was a huge music fan and music played a large part in her life, so it seemed fitting to write a song filled with my memories of her.

I woke up this morning to the start of another working week and a cold, frosty, dreary Monday morning and when I checked my emails I made the staggering discovery that Dave had not only written a melody to my lyrics but that he had recorded a rough outline of the track and sent it to me! Wow, that’ll teach me to never go to sleep again! Needless to say, I have been listening to the recording throughout the day and I’ve had a fixed grin on my face for the past 12 hours. It’s an excellent tune – mellow and soulful, yet full of optimism and guaranteed to make you smile - and I’d love to hear the finished result when it has been moulded by the hands of such an accomplished and gifted musician. I’m extremely flattered, delighted by Dave’s interpretation of my sentiments and now very motivated to take this song-writing lark seriously from hereon out!

Here are the lyrics that I submitted. Every line has a story behind it and the last verse in particular really chokes me up each time I reread it. Kerry was the eternal optimist and, as the last chorus implies, I finally took her advice on the last day I spent with her...

Cold hands
Are warm
In the heat of a winter’s day
And I trust
Your faith
When you turn to me and say

Put your best dress on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Wear your hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Put your best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And if the dark clouds come
Then we’ll blow them all away

You hate it when I play the clown
But I saw
Your smile
The day the circus came to town

Put your best dress on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Wear your hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Put your best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And though we’re miles apart
I am never far away

High chair
The night the party died at nine
And I heard
You call,
But your voice wasn’t on the line

I’ll put my best suit on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
I’ll wear my hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
I’ll put my best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And I won’t cry no tears
Because we’ll dance again someday…

Friday, 8 October 2010

And Vinyly: Live On From Beyond The Groove

If you ever worry about how to continue the legacy of your awesomeness after you have shuffled off this mortal coil, then I may well have found the perfect send-off for you.

UK-based company And Vinyly will press your cremated ashes into a vinyl recording playing a track of your choice, a vocal message or simply your own silent pops and crackles for your friends and family to remember you by.

The basic package (£3000) includes a 30 disc pressing of your record, plus an 'R.I.V.' artwork record cover with your name, date of birth and date of death. There are additional services available including backing tracks, ‘bespook’ music, the opportunity to have your record distributed worldwide and FUNerals: a musical send-off led by a team of event organisers. And if you still want to be buried after you cough, And Vinyly accepts cremated body parts in addition to whole cremated bodies.

Feeling a bit peaky? More details here:

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Reasons to Study Theology and Religion at University

University Theology and Religion Departments. Ok, ok, I’ll give you a second to snigger to yourselves and imagine lots of strange-looking, tweed clad men smoking pipes in the corner of a lecture room. But surprisingly Theology and Religious Studies has become pretty cool of late. I suppose we have Dan Brown and the conspiracy theorists to thank for that. Just try going into your local pub and starting a conversation with the locals about God, heaven, what happens to bad guys when they die, how the universe began etc and before long you will have folk standing on the tables and ranting at each other. I’ve seen close ‘theology is booooring’ friends come to blows during these discussions and loved-up married couples at each others throats. It’s great sport if you’re bored one evening...

Besides, anyone who says that Theology and Religion is uncool has me to answer to. I have a BA and PhD in Theology from The University of Birmingham and I’m far from a weirdo! And, horror of horrors, I’m not at all religious. I have an interest in the area, but that doesn’t mean that I subscribe to everything that I study in the same way that studying World War II doesn’t make you a Nazi SS officer. But the academic study of theology and religion has taken a bullet recently as cuts in higher education have led to reports of staff reductions and the planned closure of some Religious Studies departments. Recently my colleagues and I were (willingly) forced to rally round and attempt to save Sheffield University staff from losing their Biblical Studies department. The support on the Internet for Sheffield BS Department was overwhelming; a Facebook group was started, many BS bloggers blogged their disgust on the matter and a number of emails were sent to the Vice Chancellor. Thankfully, in this case, the department was saved.

Biblical Studies appears to be a soft target for cost cutting and yes, while it’s not exactly carrying out cutting-edge research into cancer fighting treatments, it is a real, tangible subject area with a dynamic publication rate and a huge scholarly base. Besides, I worry that if we keep beating the beast long enough, it’s going to die. Biblical Studies, and maybe Theology in general at this rate, will cease to be taught and it will become one of those weird and arcane sounding subject areas that were taught in the Universities of the Italian Renaissance. So why should we continue to promote the teaching of Theology and Religion in Universities? To begin with, let’s address some misnomers about the subject...

Is the study of theology boring? 

No. Not all theologians are dusty professors or geeky, nose-in-bible students. Yes, there are one or two stereotypes haunting the corridors, but by and large things are far from what you might expect. The modern theology student is indistinguishable from his/her fellow student studying in other academic disciplines and Theology lecturers are as friendly and approachable as the next professor. I graduated with a PhD in Theology three years ago, so do I consider myself to be dusty and outdated? Hell no. Would I spend six years studying a subject that I found boring? Hell no. Did I enjoy my studies at The University of Birmingham and explore University life to the full as much as I would have experienced it in any other department? Hell yes!

Is the study of theology relevant? 

Could it *be* any more relevant?! Switch on a prime-time news programme and count how many times the words ‘faith’, ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ are mentioned. It is an in-your-face-daily hot topic. And it’s not just a local issue, it’s a global issue. A basic understanding of religion and religions is indispensable knowledge for anyone functioning within a contemporary, multicultural society and an awareness of cultural sensitivities is an essential tool, particularly for the modern businessman or businesswoman who may communicate with unfamiliar cultures and needs to avoid making any offensive, deal-breaking gaffs.

Should theology still be taught within Universities? 

Yes! Why would any academic institution that prides itself on training the next generation of serious thinkers and intellectuals bloody its own nose by eliminating one of its most cerebral subject areas? And particularly now that there is a monster on the horizon that is threatening academia in general...

Any self-respecting cultural commentator will agree that teenagers are becoming increasingly brainwashed by the Glee-factor. ‘Making it’ isn’t about being the best in your field or making headway in research anymore. It’s not even about switching on your brain in the morning. It’s about getting that big break in showbiz, belting out a ballad for Simon Cowell or street dancing on reality TV. Or when academic study is absolutely unavoidable, teens are attracted to subjects that might - *might*- lead on to a big break in the TV, movie, fashion or beauty industry. No matter how you feel about Theology and Religion as a research area, you must admit that the rise of new, numbskull, ‘leave your brain at the door’ degrees (especially the ‘Heath and Beauty’–esque/new media degrees) give you an urge to scratch out your own eyes....

In a society where our kids are being encouraged to shun traditional academic study and instead ‘follow their dreams’ (most often blindly down the drain) surely any academic subject – regardless of its specific content – should be encouraged and supported to the hilt rather than having its wings clipped?! Being a student of Theology says to the world 'hello, I have a brain and I know how to use it. And not just for storing information and learning patterns, but for thinking critically and creatively too'. We need to keep our kids brains ticking over…at all costs!

There is so much more to say. I could go on to sing the praises (excuse the pun) of the interdisciplinary aspect of theological research, or expound on the benefits of true critical thinking, or reminisce on how lovely the folk at Birmingham were to me during my studies, but I’ll stop here before I get ranty (and for the record, I don't belong to any religious faith so I do not have an axe to grind in that sense). But don’t just take my word for it…

This blog post is a shout-out to all the theologians out there. A show of unity between academics and students alike contributed to the survival of the University of Sheffield’s Biblical Studies department when it was threatened with closure. It was a warning shot over the bow, if you like, for any predatory cost-cutters swinging the axe over other theology departments within the UK. Since the vultures are once again circulating over theology departments across the country, now is your opportunity to tell the blogosphere - and any budding theology students out there - why the study of theology is a worthwhile exercise and why it should remain firmly within the Academy. Please scroll down and post below your reasoning, observations, anecdotes, links and pithy sales patter that you reel out at open days (!) explaining why you feel that theology is a valuable academic subject. You can be a serious academic, a student or a keen amateur in the field. Submissions can be anonymous or please add your name if you would like to be credited. Hopefully a united discussion will provide the rationale for return fire the next time an academic institution hovers precariously over the ‘delete theology’ button…