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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The legacy of slavery

I was very puzzled the other day to receive an email from my union addressed to "..all UCU members who have self-identified as black or minority ethnic on their membership form." Shurely shome mishtake as the Private Eye Bill Deedes parody would have it. 

But then I recalled my no doubt infuriating and perverse habit of  refusing to tick any box which would define my ethnicity as "white..." (neither an ethnicity in any meaningful sense nor an accurate description of my skin tone). Faced with that invitation I routinely choose "other" and write "Anglo-Scottish-Irish" which is an accurate description of the ethnie(s) I have some reason to identify with. 

It's easy to dismiss this as the childish word-game of a privileged middle-aged, middle-class, white dude. But hey, if identities are socially constructed why  do I have to accept the box that someone else wants to put me in? I want the same freedom to identity construct that everyone else has. And why shouldn't I have it?

So by a perverse unintended consequence of bureaucratic stipulation I have become, for administrative purposes, part of an ethnic minority and apparently entitled to attend the conference for black members in November.

The more I thought about this the more intrigued I became. The UCU email has a footnote that elucidates the use of the word 'black'. The first part states: "UCU uses the word 'black' in a political sense to refer to people who are descended, through one or both parents, from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia (the middle-East to China) and Latin America." 

Bingo! My case is cast iron. My 5th great-grandmother Rebecca Delap was born in 1730 in Antigua and you can't get much more Caribbean than that. I did wonder however whether it mattered that Rebecca's father, Francis Delap (1690-1766) whose remains, as far as I know  still rest in Antigua, owned several large sugar plantations, was a slave owner and quite possibly a slave trader. That might be something I should keep to myself should I attend.

Then I read further and all hope disappeared. The UCU footnote goes on to say that 'black' "...refers to those from a visible minority who have a shared experience of oppression. The word is used to foster a sense of solidarity and empowerment." Ah. I doubt a somewhat freckled Celtic skin, that tends towards red in strong sunlight, is, in context, really visible enough. And despite the undoubtedly oppressive experience of growing up in Coventry in the 1960s and 70s I'm not sure that this is quite the sort of oppression that the drafter of the UCU footnote has in mind.

So, that's something else I can cross off my calendar. Just as well really since I instinctively dislike most forms of identity politics. But, at least for administrative purposes I remain, until reclassified, a marginalized minority.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017


I'm not often so repelled by reading something that I want to write about it. Last weekend I was a bit ill and couldn't face reading anything too demanding so I searched my bookshelves for something diverting and what I came up with was Peter Levi's memoir The Flutes of Autumn

If I'd been fitter the very title, not to mention the art work,  might have given me cause to reconsider, but all my senses were a bit blunted. I have to confess I knew very little about Levi except that he had been a Jesuit priest, a poet and a prodigious scribbler. I think I was also aware  he had married Cyril Connolly's widow.

I can  now say that I have precisely two points of sympathetic connection with the man. Firstly he was brought up in suburban Ruislip and it turns out that when I lived there in the early '90s I passed his family home every Saturday  on my way to the supermarket. By that time Ruislip was even more ghastly than he describes it.  Secondly he was on friendly terms with Richard Hughes who I think is  the most underrated English novelists of the 20th century. In all other respects Levi seems like an alien to me. Worse, I couldn't help feel repulsed by the man. 

To me he embodiies the kind of effete, dilettante, Oxford preciousness that was still common in the 1980s. You know, the sort of person that falls into an orgasmic reverie about a decaying oak tree or an ancient ditch and has definite opinions about enigmatic fragments of ancient Greek texts. I think I last  witnessed an example in All Souls about 15 year ago, but then I don't get out  much and there still may be resistant pockets hanging around.

Monday, 9 October 2017

A family with the wrong members in control

That was how Orwell described the British state. Of course people who actually want to be in control are almost by definition the ones you should keep away from the levers of power. 

It seems to me symbolic of the mess we are in that we are about to spend  £3.5 billion (which in reality means at least twice that) on the renovation of the Palace of Westminster in order to preserve its current dysfunctional state including the preservation of a debating chamber that deliberately does not have enough seats for all of the elected representatives.

Of course those wrong family members will come up with some asinine bullshit about how this is actually a good thing, secure in the confidence that they can blag their way through and pull the wool over the eyes of the proles again.

Getting the turkeys to vote for Christmas is a tried and tested British political strategy. I should think that the rest of the EU will be glad to see the back of us.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Tom Petty RIP

So long
Thomas Earl Petty.

You were a
And a

Keith's mum bought
Your first album
In '77.

She was an
American girl;
Fooled again.
Didn't like it.

And now it's

E. J. Zimmerman 11 ¾

Monday, 25 September 2017

Jennifer Rostock on the AfD

A satirical song by Berlin group Jennifer Rostock about AfD voters. Made for last year's Landtagswahlen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Very amusing, but perhaps not quite as amusing as it was...

Symbolic violence and the art of the random citation

It is almost always nice to be cited: in fact in the era of evaluation by metrics it is in fact always nice to be cited. Nevertheless sometimes one wonders what one has done to deserve the honour. Take for instance the following paragraph from page 95 of Gillian Evans' 'Social class and the cultural turn: Anthropology, sociology and the post-industrial politics of the 21st century Britain'  The Sociological Review Monographs, 2017, 65, 1, 88-104 where I pop up as an authority right at the tail end.

"The problem, however, precisely because the research in Distinction is not ethnographic, is that the use of the social survey method has the unintended consequence of elaborating upon the project of the legitimization of Bourgeois Culture, and of lending to the set of social fields in which this process of legitimization plays out, the discipline of sociology (as evidenced in the social survey method) as another kind of bourgeois aesthetic, whose gaze on the world cannot help but act out in practice the symbolic violence of a scheme of class-ification, which renders invisible the sociality and rich cultural life of the French working classes. In other words, because of the problem of method in Distinction, the problem of bourgeois-ification in France is made worse, and, as a result, the political power of the analysis is diminished. Furthermore, this same problem has been imported to Britain, because of the attempt in British sociology to apply to the British case Bourdieu’s method of measuring social class as sets of Cultural capitals (Bennett et al., 2009). As a consequence, the symbolic violence of the social survey method is, ironically, undermining of the sociological attempt to revitalize, for good political reasons, the study of social class in Britain (Mills, 2014)."

Now I'm no anthropologists, as Dr Evans appears to be, and most of the meaning of the above seems to me to be impenetrably obscure - what kind of doing is 'elaborating upon the project of legitimization'? is it like modulation in jazz improvisation? Well, whatever.

 But my question is this. Why am I being cited here at all? I've written nothing whatever about symbolic violence though given the author's apparent beliefs about social surveys it's conceivable she might think I've committed a bit of it from time to time. 

Is the claim that all 'class-ification' or just that arising out of social surveys is bad? If it is the former how can any observational method, ethnographic or otherwise, abstract from the warp and weft of social reality "the sociality and rich cultural life of the French working classes" without some kind of of provisional classificatory scheme to tell us what is to count as sociality and richness? And if it is the latter, what is it exactly that is particularly symbolically violent about the way in which social surveys make use of classifications?

Perhaps this is all about some sort of turf war that I'm completely unaware of. At the very least, if it is some kind of playground High Noon,  I'd like to know whether my capacity for symbolic violence has been enlisted on the side of the guys with the white or the black hats.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

O brave new world, That has such people in 't!

As some of you may know I have a hobby project which uses data on the first generation of LCC Junior County Scholars. These people were born about 1881 and it is possible to trace their career histories through to 1939 - which for many was getting close to  retirement age. For good measure it is also possible to study their marriages, fertility, mortality and residential histories and make comparisons with their parents, their siblings, their primary school peers (in some cases) and a randomly sampled control group.

The process of assembling the data throws up many fascinating (and distracting) stories. Take for instance Arthur Robert Laird born in Dulwich on the 28th July, 1881. He seemed to have lived an unexceptional life. His scholarship marks were in the mid range and after leaving Wilson's Grammar School in Camberwell he became a clerk in the LCC School Board Office. In 1917 he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps where he served for the duration as a corporal clerk.  In 1939 he was still an LCC clerical officer though he had moved out west to the bucolic sounding Ivy Cottage in Epsom and Ewell.

Just another rather dull life, or was it? The first intriguing thing about Arthur Laird is that his father, Robert William Laird, describes himself on the census returns as a lithographic artist. This probably means that he was  a commercial printer and I can find no trace of Robert's 'art' in any public collection. But to my surprise  a number of collections hold works by Arthur Robert Laird  among others Southwark's Cuming Museum, the V&A (who get his death date wrong), the British Museum, the National Gallery of Canada,  Manchester Art Gallery, Princeton University Library, and Georgetown University Library. Several of his works have recently been sold at  auction by Bonhams (see here and here).

It turns out that Arthur, though he earned his living as a humble clerk had another life as a printmaker. After leaving school he continued his studies at the Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts and at the Westminster School of Art where he studied under Harold Gilman and Walter Sickert. He was a member of the Senefelder Club - named after the creator of the lithographic printing technique - and the Society of Graphic Arists and the co-founder of the South London Art Group. During his life he exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Academy and in the US.

Not such at dull life after all.