Sunday, 29 January 2012

On Democracy and Sinking Ships

The word govern comes from the Latin and Greek stem which means ‘steer a ship’. The image of the ship of state is ancient. In book 6 of his Republic, when arguing against rule by the masses, or direct democracy, Plato develops the metaphor.  

The argument is that ordinary people spend their time fighting over the right way to run the country/ship, when they should be listening unquestioningly to the opinion of the true navigator/captain, an elite trained philosopher-king who knows what is best for his inferiors. 

The answer to this oligarchic nonsense, of course, is not to trust the captain (as the survivors of the wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia could tell you), but to educate and trust the majority. This is where an adequate state-funded education system might be thought to come in handy. 

‘Ordinary’ people can do much better than their ‘captains’. When the cruise liner Oceanos, named after the Greek divine personification of the sea, sank off the South African coast in 1991, the captain fled. It was the ship’s entertainers—musicians and magicians--who got everyone off to safety. 

I personally have sinking ships to thank for realising that self-appointed captains, whether of ships, universities, industries or states, are not to be trusted. In fact, it was sinking ships that meant I ended up as an academic in the (now) sinking ship of state-funded Higher Education.

In 1983 I took a job with Ocean Transport & Trading plc, having acquired huge debts as an undergraduate even in the days of full fees and maintenance grants. The debts resulted from my expensive habit of spending long evenings in public houses, forgetting where I had chained my bike, and ordering taxis home.  I was sent to learn the art of shipping management with the tug boat companies operating in the docks of Cardiff, Newport and Liverpool--Cory Ship Towage and Rea Shipping.  

My Damascene moment came in Merseyside docks. I didn’t actually rebel enough to hand in my notice and go off to do a doctorate in Classics until I read some old files recording accidents. Towage is dangerous—just last August a crewman died in the Thames off Greenwich pier when the tug Chieftain went down. But in 1983 I was naive despite my student Leftism. I was appalled to read of the absolutely pitiful sums of money that the tugboat company had customarily paid to widows and bereft children to ‘compensate’ for the lost lives of their breadwinning menfolk. 

I had already got into some trouble with the Management, who asked ‘whose side I was on’ when I agreed with the Transport and General Workers Union in Cardiff. The TGWU argued (successfully) that the company should finance adequate ear defenders for men working in the engine room.  

The union representative was a trenchant tugboat captain who took his responsibility to the men he was paid to manage seriously. I don’t know whether his insistence was true that he had only learned to channel his native wits into articulate argumentation after enrolling for a part-time degree in History with the Open University. 

But I do remember telling him that the Athenian direct democracy had executed six of the generals who left many hundred fellow sailors  to die by failing to pick up the citizen-crews of the 25 ships wrecked in the battle of Arginusae in 406 BCE. ‘Quite right, too’, he responded. 

Leaders are supposed to protect and encourage the education of the people they lead. Vice-Chancellors and Politicians take note!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Badgers versus Cows: A Modern Fable

The state-funded Arts and Humanities undergraduate is not the only species endangered by the current government’s insistence that everything must create revenue. Another familiar inhabitant of our landscape facing extinction because it is unprofitable is the common British badger (meles meles).  

Badgers are blamed for wrecking the profit margins of cattle farmers. Badgers, allegedly, spread bovine TB (although this is scientifically disputed, and the cattle may be infecting the badgers).  As any University Manager could assure you, a caged cow which produces profitable milk is preferable to a stripey member of the weasel family which has roamed freely and enhanced British life since the last Ice Age. So this week David Cameron endorsed a controversial 'pilot' badger cull in order to keep his farming voters sweet. 

We are assured that the heroic defence of the Bovine Lactation Business will not entail the actual torture of badgers by the laying of traps:  I heard on Farming Today that specially trained and highly skilled marksmen, excitingly, will use firearms to perform a finely judged reconfiguration of the badger portfolio. 

Now I am neither an animal rights extremist nor in any sense an enemy of the cow. But the European badger is an ancient and historic animal which has been evolving separately since  the end of the Pliocene (some 2.4 million years ago), contributes a great deal to biosphere in terms of moving seeds around, and does nobody any harm. In fact, by predating on rabbits, it helps to keep the numbers of another foe of the British farmer under control. 

I feel the same about state-funded Arts and Humanities undergraduates. Some of them enhance the country by acquiring intellectual skills and cultural values, and they cost remarkably little to maintain in comparison with state spending on e.g. defence. The very existence of people being trained intellectually because that is inherently sensible, rather than  because it generates income for sharks (more animal fable) in the education business, helps to maintain humane values and keep the country sane. 

As it happens, badgers share several characteristics with undergraduates: they are nocturnal, emerge in the evenings to look for food and sex; they can be promiscuous and carry on mating sessions for several hours. They are highly social, often overnight in each other’s setts, and tolerate large amounts of mess and discarded bedding at the entrances. Some badgers stay with their parents as adults, especially if food is short, while others live and forage independently. They are partial to peanut butter and custard cream biscuits. The basic number of communicative sounds or 'words' they use is 16 (bark, chirp, chitter, churr, cluck, coo, growl, grunt, hiss, kecker, purr, snarl, snort, squeak, wail and yelp), which is about the same as many first-year students.

The British Badger Trust’s manifesto is to ‘promote and enhance the welfare, conservation and protection of badgers, their setts and their habitats for the public benefit.’  It costs £24 a year to support, and I am about to join, partly out of guilt because I killed one in my car two years ago. Perhaps we need to found a similar organisation in support of the state-funded university student, with free custard creams for all.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

On Markets and a Quandary

The good news is that at Royal Holloway the Senior Management’s latest business plan has brought the definite proposed Classics redundancies down to ‘only’ two, from an original seven, and they are not to be implemented until 2014. Campaigning hard and publicly works. The bad news is that what is happening there is merely symptomatic of a much larger national problem. Any university in the country which doesn’t want to present itself as second-rate is now charging £9,000 for a year’s fees for an undergraduate degree. 

The members of my personal focus group of teenagers make two points loudly. First, they will not consider university if they have to shoulder all the debt themselves. No surprise there. Second--and I had not anticipated this, despite being personally convinced that the state should provide Higher Education to its young citizens--the teenagers are telling me that they don’t find the prospect of a certificate from a ‘for-profit provider’, even an old one with a blue chip reputation, as attractive as one from an institution which is somehow endorsed and supported by the public. 

That is, they think that getting a degree which was partly funded by their fellow citizens was a better, more prestigious and satisfying achievement than buying one from a private enterprise. They don’t feel they have to be graduates from the new, devalued model university to get on in life.

But this is a problem which touches me personally.

Like many other parents of secondary-school children, I am faced with a serious financial problem. I want them to have their mental powers developed at tertiary level, but if we are to stay in the UK I am going to have to find some hardcore money: 2 children x 3 years x £9000 = £54,000. I have not inherited any wealth, and am too old to begin a career in prostitution. 

The only mild talent I have is writing non-fiction, but the problem here is that I believe that all research and scholarship should be accessible to the widest possible public free of charge. A couple of years ago I resolved never to sign any more book contracts which sold the fruits of my (then publicly funded) research to private publishing firms. My intention was and is to explore publishing entire books free online which could be printed off if people wanted them. But I live in a world where everything is allowed to be dictated by markets rather than the principle of attaining the common good.

If I am not to put my own children at a serious disadvantage, I need to make money to pay university fees by 2017. I have always refused to get a literary agent, since I take a dim view of academics whose main goal is to nurture a personality cult. But educating one’s children is something else. 

Several years ago a well-respected agent approached me, and I did not respond. But yesterday I finally changed my mind. I am going to try to suggest that books sell better if they are also available free online (which is widely if covertly acknowledged in the publishing business). If I get lucky and make more than my children’s university fees, I will use the dosh to found the new management-free and fee-free People’s University. I’ll report back here next week.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

On Laundry

In classical literature, doing the laundry (women’s work) is presented by male authors as an innocuous, indeed aesthetically pleasing activity. Nubile girls like Nausicaa in the Odyssey do the laundry when they are feeling amorous; in the Iliad,  the ‘wives and lovely daughters' of Troy, in times of peace, used to wash their fine linen at the springs outside the city walls.

I don’t agree with Homer that doing the laundry is pretty. I find folding clothes so mind-numbingly boring that I can only do it after two large glasses of claret. I was proud when my own lovely daughters, at the ages of 4 and 5, shouted ‘What’s that?’ when they saw an ironing board in a shop. They had never laid eyes on one before.

But laundry means something much uglier and more political to me.  It is not just that one of the most graphic metaphors for the way the super-rich avoid paying taxes on their grimy millions is ‘money laundering’. I first joined a trade union, which was then named the National Union of Public Employees, when I worked for a few months in 1978 in the laundry of a mental hospital.

Cell Barnes in St. Albans, originally founded as a 'colony for mental defectives', was demolished in 1998. But twenty years earlier, much of its unspeakably filthy linen was processed in a laundry equipped with steam presses so dangerous that burns and crushing injuries were a daily occurrence. Since most of the labour used by the hospital was provided unofficially by its own mental ‘defectives’, who were paid only pocket money to spend at the sweet shop, nobody ever complained.  

Worse, conditions were so unhygienic that in 1973 there had been a dangerous infestation, affecting hundreds of patients, of a disease caused by a vicious intestinal parasite called  Trichuris trichuria. Its eggs had incubated from faeces in the part of the laundry where dirty sheets waited to be washed. 

I discovered this by accident, but found it confirmed years later in the British Medical Journal. At the time the whole thing had been hushed-up since the Management didn’t want their literally and metaphorically ‘dirty linen washed in public’, as Managements never do.

Yet David Cameron, the accumulation of whose own inherited fortune exposed his banker and stockbroker forefathers to the terrifying physical danger of depositing cash in their bank accounts, has found a new soft target. Last Thursday he pledged to wage ‘war’ on what he perceives as the ‘excessive health and safety culture’ damaging the British economy. Health and safety regulations are to be cut by half and a cap imposed on legal claims worth less than £25,000 (a paltry sum, obviously, to Mr Cameron, but twice most laundry workers’ annual wages). 

The website of the Health and Safety Executive has a long list of the horrific medical conditions suffered by laundry workers, who tend to be women and often new immigrants, at These include incurable musculoskeletal disorders as well as direct traumas. This is compulsory reading for anyone tempted to sympathise with Cameron’s dislike of rules designed to protect the lives of the British workforce.