TWENTY (GREAT!) BRITISH SONGS: A (NON-CANONICAL!) SELECTION

My colleagues in ‘20th century English Literature’ (first-year) and myself have decided to use one spare week that we programmed after the unit on British Poetry for songs. I opened a Forum for students to contribute songs that they found interesting because of the lyrics but since the messages are trickling rather than pouring down (don’t ask me why…) I have spent around, em, six? very intense hours working fast on my own selection.

It is supposed to be a) representative of main trends in current ‘interesting’ British pop and rock (no Taio Cruz nor Cheryl Cole here…), b) offer an attractive list of songs with well-written lyrics, or, at least, lyrics far beyond the usual romantic trash ‘I love you-I need you-I want you.’ So here they are:

Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
Amy McDonald, “This is the Life”
Amy Winehouse, “Rehab”
Artic Monkeys, “Fluorescent Adolescence”
Bloc Party, “Banquet”
Coldplay, “Viva la Vida”
Dido, “Thank You”
The Editors, “Smokers at the Hospital Doors”
Elbow, “One Day Like This”
Florence and the Machine, “Shake it Out”
Franz Ferdinand, “Walk Away”
Idlewild, “No Emotion”
James Blunt, “I’ll Be Your Man”
Kasabian, “Where Did All The Love Go?”
Kaiser Chiefs, “I Predict a Riot”
Keane, “Somewhere Only We Know”
Lily Allen, “Smile”
Manic Street Preachers, “Motorcycle Emptiness”
Mumford and Sons, “I Will Wait”
Muse, “Uprise”

I don’t like ALL of them, though some are among my personal favourites. In some cases, I have chosen a song that might be not so good but that has better lyrics than hits by the same artists. I have excluded, as you can see, hip-hop and, generally, any form of rapping, let students enjoy that on their own. Not my cup of tea… as I don’t like being preached at.

Personally, I have always preferred British to American music, at all levels, though, very incongruously my favourite band is American (the awesome Interpol!). Actually, I can very well say that British pop and rock played a great role in my decision to take a degree in English, as I’m sure was the case with many of my contemporaries and is still the case with, I assume, some students. When an ex-student sent me a picture of graffiti scribbled on a loo door here at UAB I almost fainted with pleasure: ‘Ian Curtis me posee’. Yes, indeed, he still does.

In my profound stupidity, I thought that at some point in the degree someone would lecture on the lyrics that mattered to me so much as a student. Nobody did. And, so, eventually, I wrote myself a few papers on music (Marilyn Manson, Linkin Park, Kylie Minogue, music videos, etc.) and managed to introduce a few songs in class with the excuse of the lyrics and their being, em, a form of poetical writing. I have always wanted to teach an elective subject but at the rate I’m going, what with Harry Potter, and Gender Studies in the next two years, and who knows what else, I’m not sure this will ever happen.

Actually, one of the factors stopping me is that as I age pop and rock music has come to play a lesser and lesser role in my life. I haven’t totally disconnected and the work I’ve done for the selection has showed me that I need very much to reconnect. Partly this disconnection has to do with my losing the ability to enjoy music as I work (I need monastic silence now). Also with the fact that keeping up to date as regards good pop and rock is somehow even harder that keeping up to date with good fiction (see my last post). Music is gone from TV, except for the trashy MTV, which I do watch now and then. There used to be an excellent music TV channel, Fly Music, a few years ago (2005-8), focused on the best of indie. That, however, went, replaced by… Disney Channel. I-Cat FM, my favourite radio channel has become an internet channel, and I simply don’t listen to the radio on the internet (Fly Music is now also there). I’m not a Spotify person, either. And, well, downloading illegally, which everyone does, works only partly for me, as I belong to the generation that used to buy LPs and treasure them as objects (even for their covers). An .mp3 file is, for me, a disposable item, rather than a treasured possession and it has the very negative effect of making it all seem too homogeneous and equally disposable. And, well, as I argued last week in relation to fiction, gone are the times when I’d risk whatever money CDs cost now. So, it’s hard to keep up.

So… We’ll see how students react to my choices. And which choices they finally make in the Forum. I’m worried indeed that the generational gap will work against me, generating scepticism on their side or even protectiveness of the territory. Or maybe I’m projecting here, I remember being truly annoyed when I saw one of my ex-students wearing a Joy Division T-shirt. Hei, that’s ‘mine’, I complained. She smiled and told me, ‘don’t be old-fashioned… Music has now no age.’ But does it?

Just to finish: do listen to the songs, they are amazing. One must admire very much a culture capable of producing them in such great numbers.

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THE 2013 GRANTA LIST: THE CRYSTAL BALL (AND WHAT TO DO WITH IT?)

Granta is a British literary magazine (and publisher) that earned much notoriety, and kudos, back in 1983 for publishing a list of 20 ‘young’ British novelists (under 40) assumed to become soon literary stars. Granta got many of the names right, and the first list remains still today a monument to literary clairvoyance: it boasted among the chosen would-be-stars Martin Amis, William Boyd, Maggie Gee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Adam Mars-Jones, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Buchi Emecheta, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain, Christopher Priest… Granta’s crystal ball also worked very well for the 1993 list, though they cheated a little by including a certain amount of overlapping, a debatable practice maintained since then. Nonetheless, names as important today as Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips, Will Self, Iain Banks, Louis de Bernières, A. L. Kennedy, Alan Hollinghurst and Jeanette Winterson were included in it. 2003 brought a third list, again stunning, including Monica Ali, Rachel Cusk, Hari Kunzru, Toby Litt, David Mitchell, Andrew O’Hagan, Alan Warner, Sarah Waters…

Presumably the fourth list, just published this week, will work as well as the previous ones. Adam Thirwell and Zadie Smith were already present in 2003 (before they had even published a novel…) but I simply have no idea at all who the rest are: Naomi Alderman, Tahmima Anam, Ned Beauman, Jenni Fagan, Adam Foulds, Xiaolu Guo, Sarah Hall, Steven Hall, Joanna Kavenna, Benjamin Markovits, Nadifa Mohamed, Helen Oyeyemi, Ross Raisin, Sunjeev Sahota, Taiye Selasi, Kamila Shamsie, David Szalay and Evie Wyld.

My own ignorance worries me, as I’m familiar with 90% of the names in the three previous lists and may have read 75% of those writers. Is this a sign that I personally have lost touch with developments in British Literature?? Or is it a sign that the newest in British Literature is lost among lots of noise?… Oh, yes, by the way, the list is, for the first time, dominated by women. Kamila Shamsie seems to be the most controversial choice because she’s Pakistani-born and not yet a British citizen.

Borrowing shamelessly from The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/15/granta-list-british-novelists/print) I learn that the 20 names, selected from a long list of 150, complete “an extremely international list: the writers’ backgrounds –and storytelling interests– include China, Nigeria, Ghana, the US, Bangladesh and Pakistan.” I also learn that “Ned Beauman’s inclusion will not surprise fans of the precociously playful, genre-bending author of The Teleportation Accident; and Adam Foulds has impressed readers with novels including A Quickening Maze, about the poet John Clare.” Ah, well… of course, of course. One of the judges highlights that these young writers “are less wedded to nationality than writers have ever been before.”

Writers that were excluded but should perhaps be in the list include Jon McGregor, Joe Dunthorne, Peter Hobbes, Nick Laird… Those not eligible (too old) include China Miéville, Mohsin Hamid, Rana Dasgupta, Hisham Matar and Scarlett Thomas. It makes perfect sense to me that the list reflects the demographic variety of 21st century Britain, also that British fiction is no longer confined to the territory of Britain. This has been going on actually for quite a while, maybe even for the last ten years, with the Granta list arguably working as a turning point in the consolidation of the cosmopolitan British novel. This is why, in a way, whether the writers included are British or not is somehow a moot point.

I do not, however, what to do with all this information. I have the same feeling as with the Man Booker Prize: the names won’t stay with me, I don’t feel motivated to buy the novels. I should maybe blame Amazon.co.uk for my lethargy, as every time I check the readers’ opinions about a book I might like, I find negative comments. Usually complaining about the overblown hype, the pretentiousness of the writing… and wondering why the book has been praised at all.

The Teleportation Accident, which sounds like the kind of novel I would enjoy, has 7 readers granting it only 2 stars. One defines it as ‘all style, no substance’, another calls it ‘overwritten and fake.’ The highest-rated reviewer (he gives it 3 stars) confesses that “I’m genuinely not sure whether to say it’s a marvel or a misfire.” Before the crisis, I would have risked the 9 pounds it costs but, now, being the proud owner of an e-book reader with which I’m reading plenty of freely available classics, I hesitate…Um that must be why I’m losing touch…

PS: Check the Wikipedia entry for Granta, and see if you recognise any of the 2010 list of ‘Young Spanish Language Novelists’… before you decide whether the problem is that we care less and less for writers at a time when there are more new ones than ever.

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GOODBYE, MAGGIE: CONSIDERING THE LEGACY OF MARGARET THATCHER

Not even on the day of her flamboyant funeral have the Spanish media managed to pronounce Margaret Thatcher’s surname correctly: it’s ‘zatcha’ (more or less), not ‘tacher’. I suppose that the visual similarities with the word ‘teacher’ to our boorish, monolingual Spanish eyes are responsible for the habitual mispronunciation but this is nonetheless annoying. It’s so easy to check the internet for the correct kind of pronunciation…

Having got this matter off my chest, I can now properly begin today’s entry. Maggie is dead and the song ‘Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead’ has topped the charts in Britain. She deserves that and much more in the way of hard-earned public contempt but, feminist me, I can’t help wondering whether a male politician would have elicited the same kind of open hatred and resentment. Then, writing also as a feminist, I must stress that I can by no means show respect for the deceased Iron Lady, a woman who was the quintessence of female complicity with patriarchy and who did absolutely nothing to empower other women. No wonder she was represented as a ruthless, rude man in the once famous puppet show Spitting Image.

Thatcher pulled Britain out of the deep recession of the 1970s with methods that, on the whole, put her country back in the front line, where it still totters. She almost failed at the beginning, which is why she needed the big media push that the pathetic Falkland War gave her. Then she managed to sell to many working-class people (not up in Scotland) the idea that the UK could be like the USA, a land of opportunities in which social mobility would increase enormously and everyone would have properties and money. Many bought this, to their later regret; many others were pushed aside by the opening up of an impassable gulf between poor and rich as she sold most public services. Now it’s hard to believe that she could take in so many, but I was in London in 1986-87 (as an au pair girl), at her prime, and you could breath in the streets this dream of affluence for all, that soon turned into a nightmare. Today certain neighbourhoods of London boast a poverty rate I have never seen in Spain; others, riches that are hard to imagine in Madrid or Barcelona.

They say now that we must remember Thatcher for her contribution to the end of the Cold War, eased by her close friendship with American President Ronald Reagan –another victim of Alzheimer’s disease– and the first and last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Perhaps, but tell that to the people who saw a great deal of the impeccable British welfare state dismantled by this woman in the name of political liberalism, decades before this doctrine hit us with the 2007 crisis. I can’t remember who said this (was it Martin Amis?) but possibly Thatcher’s main contribution in the end was her providing the dispossessed with a common, recognizable enemy and, particularly, the more progressive elements in the intellectual establishment. Literature, cinema and other arts flourished under Thatcher as suddenly many found themselves with a socio-political message to preach against her cruel economic laissez faire.

Possibly Angela Merkel is as harmful a politician as Maggie Thatcher was, and yet another example of how right-wing women who reach power are more patriarchal than the vast majority of men. It’s hard to say which one of these two women is causing more personal suffering, as Merkel’s hard-hearted economic policies are affecting practically all of Europe while Thatcher’s influence was limited to Britain. Yet, it’s easy to see that Merkel runs much better her PR. Thatcher’s helmet hairdo, her outdated body language, bad dress sense, masculinised voice and harsh manners did not endear her to many. Merkel’s more down-to-earth personal appearance and conduct have managed not to generate the animosity that old Maggie inspired, though, again, I’d insist she might be the more dangerous of the two.

The witch is dead, long live the witch…

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TO ‘LA BUTANERA’ (AND THOSE CONFUSED WOMEN WHO THINK THAT ALL TYPES OF FEMINISM ARE FINE)

On 8th March, International Women’s Day, a group of women at my Facultat, led I believe by Prof. Teresa Camps, decided to decorate a very visible wall in one of the main corridors with four photos (about 50 x 50 cms) of the same series. The black and white photos show a young white woman, blond, stylish short hair, naked from the waist up… carrying on her shoulders one of those orange gas bottles used for domestic consumption.

The ‘butanera’ (yes, the gas-bottle delivery woman according to WordReference) has breasts you cannot miss: perky, prominent nipples, champagne-glass sized flesh as the French like… much on show –in short. I found myself staring at the photos in the company of three male students who were a) puzzled that a group of feminists had considered that the photos represent the Facultat’s working women, b) puzzled that these images were not considered sexist, c) not puzzled at all about the sexual attractive of those magnificent boobs. Soon I found myself again staring at the photos in the company of another female degree Coordinator like myself, wondering again why the walls had been decorated with the said tits and not with, my suggestion, a selection of photos of prominent female Coordinators (fully dressed).

I emailed the Dean, another woman, to complain about the images on the grounds that, um, the series of portraits does not represent anyone female remotely connected with the Facultat’s women, whether teachers or students, and, well, men were, surely, having a good laugh at our expense. The Dean soon replied telling me that she would not judge the quality of the photos as she trusted they were the right choice, and was I aware that this was the idea of a feminist colleague of high reputation in the world of art? (Yes, I was) Well, excuse me, Madame Dean: since when are women’s feminist ideas free from criticism by other feminists?

Every day I pass the darn photos I tell myself I have to do something about them… Not a vandalic act, for God’s sake, but something more constructive. What I really would like to do is to hang below a similar series depicting a) four shots of a beautiful male’s buttocks, with the model also holding a gas bottle (just to compensate for the visual pleasure that male heterosexuals and lesbians are deriving from the ‘butanera’), b) four shots of the real individuals who deliver the gas bottles and who happen to be, mostly NON-WHITE MEN from Pakistan (see how an feminist art project can manage to be subtly androphobic and racist). I don’t have the resources to do this, nor would I like to answer questions about where I got the beautiful male, so my second option is producing a poster explaining why the photos are wrong and planting it below the photos. I could even pretend this is part of the series (would this be regarded as vandalism??).

In the meantime, I put up with the fabulous tits of the ‘butanera’ every day, hoping one day they’ll come down (he, he…). To the Dean I can only say this: when I asked a male colleague ‘so, what do you think about the ‘butanera’?’ he replied with a smile, ‘what? Is she carrying a gas bottle?’ So much for the obvious feminist message…

PS: Yes, I’m royally ignoring the umpteenth students’ strike and the intolerant barricades that have prevented me from reaching my classroom today. Why waste words again?

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ON OUR STUDENTS’ AVERAGE COMMAND OF ENGLISH (AND WHAT THE AUTHORITIES THINK THEY SHOULD KNOW)

As La Vanguardia, among other newspapers, published this week only one third of all new students in Catalan universities possess a sufficient command of English (that is to say, B2 or First Certificate; see www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20130406/54372064211/universitarios-acceden-sin-nivel-minimo-ingles.html). The local government’s Department of Economy and Knowledge (‘Coneixement’), which also runs Catalan universities, is planning to make First Certificate or similar compulsory for graduates from next academic year onwards. Consider some figures: In my own university, UAB, 43,5% of all new students speak English below the B1 level that secondary school is supposed to guarantee; at any rate, only 22,59% know English at First Certificate levels. 7,32% fall below the A1 level (I think all these are roughly also the figures for the Department of English). This is, just consider, after 10 years learning English at school…

The diverse attempts to make language certificates compulsory (2001, 2008) have clashed, of course, with the inevitable dead end: most students cannot afford, either at school or university levels, the cost of studying English (I bet I know which class are the happy possessors of a First Certificate at UAB’s first year). The Generalitat intends apparently to make available for free an online English course to guarantee all students a chance to obtain First Certificate. Yet, I very much doubt that the online course solves this pressing problem. My doubts extend to the current fashion among Catalan universities: teaching BAs in English, partly or totally. Well, we have a VERY LONG experience doing that, an experience that our university does not appreciate sufficiently I believe, and what it shows is that the key issue here is not what we offer students but what they’re prepared to do.

I think that a language is something one learns, and not something one is taught. This applies to any discipline, matter, etc but much more so to learning a language, which is something that requires constant, dedicated practice. This is not available during the school years, when Spanish children are trapped in a kind of linguistic limbo with overcrowded classrooms and teachers too focused on the text books, too little on practising (logically, given the numbers). Leaving aside the deeply ingrained Spanish resistance to speaking English properly, grounded on reverse cultural snobbishness and on an embarrassment born of the very alienness of English pronunciation, the fact is that here in Spain, to make matters even worse, learning English has always been presented as something that should be easy, a kind of game. It’s not: it’s very hard work.

In my pre-Erasmus times, back in the mid 1980s, many students in the Catalan English Departments would spend summers or even a year, as I did, working in Britain to learn the language. I myself became for twelve months an au-pair girl, tired of quarrelling with my tight-fisted working-class father over the fees of the language school I attended to obtain a Proficiency Certificate. I took the exam in London at the end of a gruelling working experience that, since the Erasmus programme started, fewer students have been willing to undertake. It was, however, not only the cheapest way but also the ONLY way in which I could acquire the command of English that I needed and that not even my university teachers were providing me with.

Something I discovered back then was that many students from other European countries took a year off in England before they started university to improve their English (mainly students from places like Scandinavia where, happily for them, film and TV dubbing are unknown). I think this is a very good idea, although I hate to think how it benefitted (and benefits) the British economy. Or American if you choose somewhere else (Scotland, Australia, Ireland… just mind the accent!!). Still, worth a try.

Spending time abroad working may sound off-putting to many students, who, besides, as I know first hand, may be besides quite angry or embittered at the idea that they need to work their way into English while more privileged peers take lessons at the British Council back home. Yet, considering the problems that online courses present, this might be still a realistic solution for working-class students. A year abroad before you start your BA will not hurt, just the opposite. Taking time off in the middle of your degree, as I did, is not the done thing any more because of Erasmus (and I think I was lucky that Erasmus came too late for me, for I could not have afforded it at all –actually I don’t even include the year abroad as an au-pair in my CV, another not done thing).

Now, the question is whether, given our sad, sad times that year abroad I’m recommending would become in the end just a preparation for an eventual post-graduate migration…

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ENJOYING IAIN (M.) BANKS TO THE LAST: A SAD ANNOUNCEMENT

I was planning to make something special of my posting number 200 but the unexpected has taken me over. Completely.

Today I have sent an abstract for a paper on Iain M. Banks’s The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), a novel I have discussed here (see 1-XI-2012, LET’S SUBLIME: A POLITICAL READING FOR THE HYDROGEN SONATA). The paper is for the 16th Culture and Power International conference on Cultural Studies, to be celebrated in Murcia this time with the theme ‘Space’ (http://www.cultureandpower.org/). I have decided to develop what I wrote here as a paper and to consider in more depth how Banks’s very Scottish sense of humour has altered the parameters of space opera. On this very same day a colleague has emailed me to announce that Iain M. Banks has made it official: he has terminal cancer (see his personal statement at http://friends.banksophilia.com/).

Banks, who is only 59, explains that he is “expected to live for ‘several months’ and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.” He has just asked his “my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry – but we find ghoulish humour helps).” As he takes final journeys and says goodbye to friends and family, “my heroic publishers are doing all they can to bring the publication date of my new novel forward by as much as four months, to give me a better chance of being around when it hits the shelves.” I don’t know what to think of this part of the announcement, shocked as I am by the idea that I’ll be considering what Banks means by the Sublime in his last SF novel, as he faces death. There’s a grim chance that I present my paper (in October) as he lies dying. A very grim chance. I do hope that ‘ghoulish humour’ helps us all, writer and fans.

Yet, I know what’s coming now: on the fan front, the greediness to buy it all (is The Quarry SF or mainstream?); on the academic front, a flood of publications, conferences… you name it!! It is a kind of macabre, advanced necrophilia that is really making me shudder to the point that for a while I have even considered withdrawing the darned abstract. Now I think that this would be wrong for that paper will be my homage to the man I have been calling my favourite writer for many years now. Actually, as I prepared the abstract this morning, amidst nausea caused by stomach flu, I was thinking of re-reading all of Banks’s SF novels again –call that a nauseous intuition of the end.

I met Banks once years ago and he signed my copy of The Wasp Factory, always, indeed, a little treasure for me. A big, charming fellow, when I told him that I had just taught his novel his reaction was a candid: “Why?” I liked him very much for that. I must confess, as I think it’s obvious, that I have never enjoyed his mainstream fiction as much as his first-rate science fiction. I need, though, to thank him for all his books and for brightening many, many hours of my life (I have done so already in the guest book of the website I have mentioned). I never thought I could be made so sad by the (inevitable) death of someone who is not an actual friend. This is the mystery of Literature: how we connect with people we may never meet and with the imaginary persons they make up.

I’ll miss buying your new books regularly, Mr. Banks, but I will not miss you, as I’ll make sure you keep me company until I myself sublime… Thanks, thanks, thanks.