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Butor at Belle Vue

The long history of Belle Vue Gardens in Manchester is being celebrated this month, and it seems timely to note its appearance, under the name of Pleasance Gardens,  in Michel Butor’s Manchester-inspired 1956 novel L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time).

Butor’s view of Manchester (Bleston in the novel) was, it must be admitted, largely negative.  He loathed the climate, and the food, and seems to have been deeply unhappy in the city, where he arrived to take up the post of lecteur in the French department at the University in 1952.

He seems to have taken to Belle Vue, however.   Pleasance Gardens, along with the various peripatetic fairs which rotated around the periphery of the city, on the areas of waste land, represent a mobile and open element in a closed, even carceral city, and a window on different kinds of community than those indigenous to Bleston.  The narrator sees the friends he knows in a different light in these places, which may be in Bleston but are not fully part of it and don’t share its malaise.

blestonbelle vue

Pleasance Gardens appears on the frontispiece map, in the bottom left-hand corner, its shape not dissimilar to that of the real Belle Vue.   Butor took from the real city of Manchester the geography and architecture that interested him and that fitted with his narrative preoccupations, and ignored or altered the rest.  The descriptions include a great deal of precision and detail – however, the historians of Belle Vue will have to judge where the fictional version departs from its model.

He describes the entrance to the Gardens:

The monumental entrance-gates whose two square towers, adorned with grimy stucco, are crowned … with two enormous yellow half-moons fixed to lightning conductors, and are joined by two iron rods bearing an inscription in red-painted letters beaded with electric bulbs then gleaming softly pink: ‘Pleasance Gardens’.

The big folding door which is armoured as if to protect a safe, and only opens on great occasions and for important processions, whereas we, the daily crowd, have to make our way in by one of the six wicket-gates on the right (those on the left are for the way out) with their turnstiles and ticket collectors’

The earthenware topped table which displayed, on a larger scale and in greater detail, with fresh colours and crude lettering, that green quarter circle with its apex pointing towards the town centre…

The tickets themselves are described in detail:

the slip of grey cardboard covered with printed lettering: On one side in tall capitals PLEASANCE GARDENS, and then in smaller letters: Valid for one visitor, Sunday, December 2nd.  And on the other side: REMEMBER that this garden is intended for recreation, not for disorderly behaviour; please keep your dignity in all circumstances’

On this winter visit:

There was scarcely anybody in the big, cheap restaurants or in the billiard-rooms; avenues, all round, bore black and white arrows directing one to the bear-pit, the stadium, the switch-back, the aviaries, the exit and the monkey-house.

We walked in silence past roundabouts with metal aeroplanes and wooden horses, … and past the station for the miniature railway where three children sat shivering in an open truck waiting to start; and past the lake, which was empty because its concrete bottom was being cleaned’.

Posters everywhere echoed: ‘Come back for the New Year, come and see the fireworks’.

A later visit, in summer, followed one of the fires that feature so frequently in the novel.  Belle Vue was devastated by fire in 1958, and whether this account was inspired by a real event I do not know – it may well be that whilst Manchester was plagued by an unusually large number of arson attacks over the period that Butor was there, he extrapolated from that to a fire at Pleasance Gardens, purely for narrative purposes.

In the open air cafe that is set up there in summer in the middle of the zoological section, among the wolves’ and foxes’ cages and the ragged-winged cranes’ enclosure, the duck-ponds and the seals’ basins with their white-painted concrete islands.  I could see, above the stationary booths of this mammoth fairground, eerily outlined in the faint luminous haze, the tops of the calcined posts of the Scenic Railway, with a few beams still fixed to them like gibbets or like the branch-stumps that project from the peeled trunks of trees struck by lightning; and I listened to the noise of the demolition-workers’ axes’

If Butor generally warmed to the Gardens, his portrayal of the animals in the Zoo is less enthusiastic – he speaks of the cries of the animals and birds mingling with the noise of demolition, of melancholy zebras and wretched wild beasts, and of their howls during the firework display.  Perhaps their imprisonment chimed uncomfortably with his own sense of being trapped in the city.

http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/nostalgia/way-were-belle-vue—1209695

http://manchesterhistory.net/bellevue/menu.html

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2013 – the best bits. And some of the other bits.

 

It has been a funny old year.  Funny peculiar, though not without the odd moment of mirth and merriment along the way.

 

I came back from one secondment to my regular job in January, and went off on the next secondment in December.  This new one is a major change – working for HEFCE, based at home when not attending meetings in various exotic parts of the UK (oh, OK then, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester, Dorking…).  It’s a fantastic opportunity, and challenges the way I organise my life as well as requiring me to acquire new knowledge and new skills.

 

I graduated, again.  Did the whole gown and mortar board thing which I hadn’t been fussed about when I was 21 and graduating for the first time. And then, with barely a pause, on to the doctorate.  Studying part-time, it’s going to be a long haul, with who knows what possibilities at the end of it, but I’m loving it.

 

In February, a beloved friend and colleague died, and we – his family, friends, colleagues, students – grieved but also worked together to put on an amazing event in his honour, the 24 Hour Inspire.  We raised money for local cancer charities, and have raised more since, through an art exhibition, plant and cake sales and various 10k runs/marathon bike rides, etc.   And we’re now planning the 24 Hour Inspire 2014, and the publication of Tim’s diary.  He will continue to inspire.

 

Culturally, my high points in 2013 have been:

 

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Showroom, talking about Americanah, and Half of a Yellow Sun
  • Peter Hill premiering newly discovered/completed Messiaen at the Upper Chapel (and playing Bach, Berg and Schoenberg too)
  • Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes in the City, playing Mingus at Sheffield Jazz
  • Tramlines – the Enid in the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Jones Revue and Selecter at Devonshire Green. (And more, but those were the absolute top bits).
  • The 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on life, the universe and everything, including Ed Daw’s blues piano, Rachel Falconer on poetry and birds, Jenny Saul on implicit bias, Claire McGourlay on the Innocence Project, and personal narratives from Brendan Stone and Elena Rodriguez-Falcon.  Plus John Cockburn’s rendition of (What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding, and my favourite Beatles B-side, Things we Said Today, and more busking from Mike Weir, Graham McElearney and Eugenia Chung.  And more, lots more.
  • Fabulous Beethoven quartets/quintet from the Elias at the Upper Chapel
  • A magical Winter’s Tale at the Crucible
  • Two awesome Britten operas (Peter Grimes and Death in Venice) from Opera North at Leeds Grand
  • New (to me) authors enjoyed this year: Maggie O’Farrell, Louise Doughty, Lucy Caldwell, C J Sansom, Alison Moore, Edward St Aubyn, Rebecca Solnit, Wilkie Collins,  Jonathan Franzen
  • Wonderful new books from authors I’ve enjoyed before: Stephen King’s Dr Sleep and Joyland, Lynn Shepherd’s A Treacherous Likeness, Jon McGregor‘s This isn’t the Sort of Thing…., Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy
  • Finally finished Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe.  Allons-y, to La Prisonniere!
  • I’ve learned to love Marvel superheroes (Avengers AssembleThorIron ManAgents of Shield!), and have thrilled to The Walking Dead, Orphan Black (virtuoso performance(s) from Tatiana Maslany), Utopia and, of course, Dr Who.
  • Speaking of which, not only an absolutely stonking 50th anniversary episode, but also a fascinating and very touching drama about the show’s early days, with David Bradley as William Hartnell, the sweet and funny The Five-ish Doctors, with Peter Davison, Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker sending themselves and everyone else up with great affection, and Matthew Sweet’s Culture Show special.  And the Christmas episode
  • Other cracking telly – Broadchurch, Homeland, Misfits, The Fall, Southcliffe, The Guilty, The Americans…  And from across the Channel, not only another masterclass in French profanity from Spiral, but the wonderful The Returned
  • And other top films – Joss Whedon’s Much Ado, Lore, The Hobbit Pts 1 & 2, Lincoln, and Patience (after Sebald).

 

About the blog itself.  It’s been less focused on my areas of research recently, and that will continue to be the case, as I’m working on the PhD.  The odd digression will find its place here – as Tim used to say, tangents are there to be gone off on, and the blog is a good way of nailing those (to mix my metaphors somewhat) and stopping them from distracting me for too long.  I shall be continuing to go on about all sorts of other things that pique my interest.  In particular the blog will continue to be a place where refugee stories are foregrounded, as a riposte to the mean and dishonest coverage which those stories tend to receive.

 

Over the last year, my posting has been somewhat erratic.  I note that I didn’t write anything between March and June (I made up for it in June, however, with a Refugee Week blog-blitz, as well as a piece about Last Year at Marienbad which I still intend to follow up.  That hiatus may have had something to do with being in the final stages of my degree – finishing off my dissertation, and a last batch of essays and presentations.

 

There are so many fantastic bloggers out there, too many to do justice to.  We lost one this year, as the great Norman Geras passed away.  But I’ll continue to enjoy, and to share/reblog That’s How the Light Gets In, Nowt Much to Say, and Futile Democracy, amongst others.  For my research interests, I will no doubt continue to find lots to think about and follow up in blogs from Decayetude and Vertigo.

 

So, thanks to the aforementioned bloggers, to the various people with whom I’ve shared the cultural delights enumerated above, to friends and family who’ve supported me in my ventures and refrained (mostly) from telling me I’m mad to try to do so many things.

 

Thing is, I have a history of depression.  I know that the best way for me to fight that, to avoid sliding back into that dark pit, is to do lots of stuff I care about.  So, not just the job – which I care about, passionately – and my wonderful family, but research, writing, ensuring that we do Tim proud via the charity, and so on.   I am very aware that there’s a tipping point, that if I do too much stuff I care about, given that I also have to do stuff that I have to do, just because I have to do it, the anxiety of having so much going on can itself lead to sleepless nights, which make me less able to cope, thus leading to more worrying and so on and on… It’s all about balance, and about having support when I need it.  So, to all of you who, whether you know it or not, provide that support, and help me to keep that balance, a heartfelt thanks.

 

In particular, over this last year, I’d like to thank:

 

For unstinting support and encouragement through the part-time degree and especially as I reached the final stages – tutors Sophie Belot and Annie Rouxeville, and classmate Liz Perry.  And a special thanks to Chris Turgoose for ensuring that my graduation gown stayed put via an ingenious arrangement of string and safety pins.

 

For support and encouragement to go on to the PhD – the aforementioned Sophie, Annie, and Liz, plus Rachel Falconer, Helen Finch, and my supervisors Amanda Crawley Jackson and Richard Steadman-Jones

 

For their contributions to the work of Inspiration for Life, and the 24 Hour Inspire, and their support in commemorating and celebrating Tim – Tracy Hilton, Ruth Arnold, Vanessa Toulmin, Chris Sexton, John Cockburn, Lee Thompson, Matt Mears and David Mowbray

 

My family, of course, without whom…

 

And, finally, Tim.   I’d have loved to share this year’s triumphs and tribulations with him.

 

Have a wonderful 2014 all of you.

 

fireworks

 

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Farewell to Norman Geras, 1943-2013

As I only knew Norman Geras – Norm – through his blog, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to him on my own.  He was one of the writers who inspired me to use this form to write about whatever mattered to me, and he was kind enough to invite me to complete one of his profiles.

I cannot speak of his life, except as revealed through the many entries on Normblog, and now through the obituaries that have started to appear.  A life of conviction and passion, of family and friendship, of music and books and film, of cricket…  His very last entry was a list not of books that you must or should read, but of ‘books you might enjoy’ – no browbeating or pressure, just the suggestions of a friend, who wants to share their pleasure with other people.

He also used his blog for a series called Figures from a Dark Time.  This was a response to those who argue that we all go on too much about the Holocaust, that it’s all been said often enough.  Each entry was composed of testimonies of individuals who were engulfed by that darkness, some who survived, many who did not, and some too who risked everything to help those who needed it.   He wrote ‘contre l’oubli’, restoring to some few of those individuals their names and their stories.

atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale

Shalom, Norm.

 

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‘The Space Between’ CARA Exhibition for Refugee Week

Originally posted on Refugee Archives and History Group:

‘The Space Between’ Exhibition for Refugee Week

CARA_the_Space_BetweenCARA is delighted to invite you to our photographic art exhibition ‘The Space Between’, taking place at The Rag Factory from the 17th-22nd June, as part of Refugee Week.  The exhibition has been commissioned by Birkbeck College and will feature images that explore the experiences of women refugee academics.

We will be holding lunch-time talks by women refugees during weekdays who will speak about their experiences leaving everything behind and starting again in an entirely new culture.  We will celebrate the contributions of refugees to British culture and challenge caricatures of refugees as people who just ‘take’.

For more information visit www.academic-refugees.org/the-space-between
Facebook: www.facebook.com/events/403910276388189

Please disseminate to friends and colleagues.

See also:

CARA presents ‘The Space Between’, a week long photographic exhibition to mark Refugee Week which provides women refugee academics who hail from Iraq to Palestine, Burma to Burundi…

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Events: From Spitalfields to Green Lanes: mapping the refugee experience in London

Originally posted on Refugee Archives and History Group:

From Spitalfields to Green Lanes: mapping the refugee experience in London

London through the eyes of its communities (a talk and viewing of original documents)

London is widely known for its cultural diversity. Where, why and when did the different refugee and migrant communities settle here? Using written and audio-visual material from LMA collections, this talk will present stories from some of London’s diverse communities, focusing on their experiences of coming to London and making ‘the monster city’ their home.

Date 20/06/2013
Time From 17:30 to 19:00
Venue London Metropolitan Archives
40 Northampton Road
London
EC1R 0HB
London
Organiser 020 7332 3851
http://newtolondon.eventbrite.co.uk/
marta.lomza@cityoflondon.gov.uk
Category Conference/seminar/lecture
Price Free

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Reflections on the 24 Hour Inspire

How can I capture that 24 hours of inspiration that we shared last week?  I don’t want to forget anything, or anyone, who made it what it was.  I don’t want the sense of possibilities, of beginnings, of connections to be dulled by the everyday concerns that have had to now re-enter our lives.  I don’t want the elation to ebb away, because what happened really, profoundly, matters.  It has to be the start of something, and I believe it can be.

What follows is not a coherent account of the event – I’m not sure that I could provide that – but various sources that, taken together, I believe give a sense of what it was about, in all its rich variety.   I’ve drawn this from my own opening and closing words at the event, from emails, tweets, other bloggers.  There will be lots more to come, and whilst we want to continue celebrating and enjoying the event itself, we want to start asking where we go from here.  What’s next?

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These are edited versions of my opening and closing words at the 24 Hour Inspire.

17.00 Thursday 28 February

Good evening everyone, and welcome to the 24 Hour Inspire, 24 hours of lectures presented by the charity Inspiration for Life, of which I am the Chair.    This event has been made possible by the generosity and enthusiasm of colleagues in all parts of the University, not just our speakers but also the buskers who’ll be entertaining you in the foyer, the wonderful people who’ve baked cakes for us to sell, the University services which have been made available to us without cost, and all the volunteers who will be here throughout the event to make sure it all runs smoothly.

Inspiration for Life was set up by Dr Tim Richardson, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer last June, to promote lifelong learning and the public understanding of science, and to raise funds for cancer charities.  This is our first major event – when we started planning it we hoped that Tim would still be with us, but sadly he died on 5 February.  His family, friends and colleagues want this event to be a tribute to him, and a celebration of his life.

You may recall that back  in November 2011, Tim did 24 hours of lectures solo, to raise funds for Children in Need.  Tim’s heroic achievement is the inspiration for tonight’s event.  Tonight we have 42 speakers, from across and beyond the University presenting a wonderfully diverse range of talks, going through the night and up to 5 pm tomorrow.   We’re raising funds for two charities in particular, Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity and Rotherham Hospice:

https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/inspirationforlife

http://www.justgiving.com/forTimRichardson

17.00 Friday 1 March

It’s been an amazing 24 hours.  We’ve raised funds for our charities, and we’ll be announcing the totals early next week.   The 24HrInspire hashtag has been all over the twittersphere, and the buzz has reached far further afield than we could ever have imagined – an email from Iran reached me last night, from someone who was a PhD in Sheffield, and who read about the event on the University website.  He translated this into Persian and has been circulating and web-blogging it amongst his colleagues and friends.  I won’t read his email in full, as I don’t think I could do so without losing it [see below for the full text] – but just one short quote: ‘When I imagine that in the middle of the night people have been gathered in the Hicks Building and sharing their ideas about various subjects, I believe that Dr Richardson’s dream to inspire people has come true’.

How wonderful that someone who wasn’t even here could sum up what’s happened so perfectly.  We’ve been entertained, informed and moved, we’ve eaten a lot of cake, and we’ve seen some eminent physicists in their pyjamas.  What more could you ask?  I think I can speak for everyone and say that we’ve been inspired.

As I said at the beginning – 24 hours ago, when I was a lot more coherent than I’m able to be now, as well as more fragrant, probably – this has all been for Tim.   Inspiration for Life is his vision, and we will do everything we can  to make it a reality.  He would have loved it all – the talks and the music, and above all the sense of the University not just as an institution or an organisation, but as a community coming together to do something wonderful.  This is just the start, and we will go on to do all sorts of things in the future, and in everything we do, we’ll be raising a glass to Tim, to say thanks, to say cheers, to say hello.

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Blog by Chris Sexton, Director of Corporate Information & Computing Services, who gave the event tremendous support throughout

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Storify Twitter feed from the #24HrInspire hashtag (thanks to Chris Sexton)

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Email from Iran, 28 February 2013

Dear Catherine,

I have been PhD Student at the University of Sheffield from 2003 to 2006. I saw the news about 24 hours of nonstop lectures on the University Website, which I believe is being held right now.  I wish I was there to attend this inspiring event. However, my thought is with you all in Hicks Building, one of the first buildings that I visited at the university during my study time and I have a very clear picture of it in my mind.

Although I am not there at this moment, I have done a very small contribution to this event by translating the news of this remarkable event into Persian and sending it to a number of mailing lists in Iran and uploading it on a weblog to share this story with my colleagues and friends here.
I believe what Dr. Richardson has done is a wonderful and profoundly inspirational initiative, which I am sure will be a source of hope and courage for many people for a very long time. When I imagine that in the middle of the night people have been gathered in the Hicks Building and sharing their ideas about various subjects, I believe that Dr. Richardson’s dream to inspire people has come true.

Yazdan Mansourian, PhD, Associate Professor

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2012 – the best bits

2012, for me, has been the year of the blog.  The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced.  I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude.  And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views.    On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of  the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and  Diane Magras.  To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!

The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out.   But my own experience has been entirely positive.  Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff.  I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all  otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew.  This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.

So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:

  • John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
  • Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic  Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
  • TV : Homeland -  plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen.   Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics.  Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising.  The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!).  Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
  • I’ve been reading Proust.  A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond.   I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described.   There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough.  I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
  • New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
  • First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of  – Hans Fallada, Alexander BaronHaruki Murakami  and Wilkie Collins.
  • Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak  House, but I need not have worried.   Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
  • Theatre -  Geoffrey Streatfeild in both  Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
  • Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green.   Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
  • Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.

2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally.  The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk.  And that justice seems finally to be within reach now.  Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.

And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life.  The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson,  was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning.  We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.

So – onward to 2013.

No resolutions as such.  But anticipations and aspirations -

  • Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
  • Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
  • Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff.  Lots and lots.
  • Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
  • Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
  • Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
  • Continuing to be an utter geek
  • Listening to as much music as possible,  with as eclectic a range as possible
  • Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
  • Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing.  Going on and on.
  • Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend

Phew!  No pressure then.

Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life  in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits.   Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.

 

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Isles of Wonder

Cover of "The Progressive Patriot: A Sear...

Cover via Amazon

There’s a conversation that’s been going on, here and there, across the blogosphere, since Danny Boyle blew our minds and melted our cynical hearts at the Olympics Opening Ceremony.  It’s not a new conversation for most of us, but it’s suddenly become more intense, more personal.

We – those of us who are having this conversation now, rather tentatively, almost apologetically – are generally of the left; our disposition is likely to be cosmopolitan and internationalist, and we’re likely to be sharply critical of current and previous government policies at home and abroad.  We’re highly unlikely to have celebrated the recent royal wedding, or the Jubilee, or to own or wear any clothing featuring our national flag.   We probably agree that the national anthem is a dirge even if we disagree about what – if anything – should replace it.

But we found ourselves recently coming over, as Mike Press put it, ‘a little bit Continental, even almost disarmingly American’, in the way we responded to that opening ceremony and the display of sporting excellence that followed.   Steve Sarson echoed this – ‘It was like I’d turned into an American, or something’.

A bona fide American, Kate Elmer of the ‘Yankee in Yorkshire’ blog,  mused earlier this year that ‘when I speak to English friends and colleagues about The Olympics they reluctantly agree that “Yes, I suppose this will be a rather large event won’t it?”  Some of them hope to attend events.  Most of them hope to keep their heads down until the whole thing goes away.’  Just the other week she wrote that: ‘I have never seen the British get so excited about their own success.  I have never seen them so patriotic.  The Jubilee didn’t do it.  The Royal Wedding didn’t do it.  The Olympics did.  It’s not an “In Your Face, World!” kind of pride.  It’s bone deep.  It’s real, true, forever love – the kind many of them perhaps thought might have been lost.  Every medal, every waving flag, every play of the national anthem has them physically on their feet and emotionally on their knees.’

Blake Morrison in the Independent was part of this too: ‘I didn’t expect to feel excited.  And as the opening ceremony grew closer, and the stories of mismanagement multiplied, I feared the worst.  I was wrong.  Most of us were wrong.  The last two weeks have been amazing.  I’m embarrassed to admit how many times my eyes have welled up.  And even more embarrassed that the cause has usually been a British medal’.

So our conversation has been about what happened to us and what it means for our perception of who we are.   There are two main threads to that, I think.  One is about the mood that prevailed – summed up in the opening ceremony – replacing our ‘seemingly eternal cynicism and negativity’ with the sensation that we are better than that, that we can be warm and open and welcoming, joyous and positive.    The other is about that tug of pride that we felt in the depiction of our ‘Isles of Wonder’, and in the performance of ‘our’ medallists.  The first is something we want to celebrate and nurture, the second, as another friend of mine said, is ‘complicated’.

It’s not a new conversation. Billy Bragg’s book The Progressive Patriot is an eclectic invocation of the history, literature and music of his homeland – one feels Danny Boyle must have read it – and a response to the BNP’s gain of a dozen seats on Barking & Dagenham Council in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.  It’s an attempt to identify the narrative that explains ‘how we all came to be here together in this place, and how successive generations of those who were initially excluded from society came to feel that this was where they belonged … to reconcile patriotism with the radical tradition’.

That’s not straightforward, and it goes against a strain of radicalism that discards, as Gustave Hervé said in 1907, ‘a flag along whose folds are blazoned in letters of gold the records of so many butcheries’, that distinguishes the affection and loyalty we may feel for the place we were born or grew up, from love ‘for such countries of privilege and iniquity as are the great nations of today’.  Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks incurred the wrath of US patriots when she said, almost 100 years later, ‘I don’t understand the necessity for patriotism. Why do you have to be a patriot? About what? This land is our land? Why? You can like where you live and like your life, but as for loving the whole country… I don’t see why people care about patriotism.”

I agree.  With both of them.  And yet, and yet…   I  feel that tug of love without embarrassment or complications for another country, because of the place it holds in my childhood memories and because being there shaped how I see the world.   I’ve put Ghana’s flag on my desktop and my Facebook profile – I would never dream of doing that with the Union Jack.  I’d fail Tebbitt’s notorious cricket test if the England football team were to come up against the Black Stars.   So why is it OK for me to be gung-ho about Ghana, and not about the country where I was born, where I’ve lived the majority of my life, where my children have been born and raised?

What do we mean when we talk about pride?  What do we mean, come to that, when we talk about Britain?  Kenan Malik‘s response to the Olympics was sceptical.  He asked ‘What is the Britain in which we are supposed to have pride? The Britain of immigration and diversity, a diversity celebrated in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony and that has resulted in the gold medals of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Nicola Adams and countless others? Or the Britain that is suspicious of immigrants and immigration, and whose politicians continually seek to limit it and to preserve ‘British jobs for British workers’? The Britain that went all out to stage one of the best Olympic Games in recent memory? Or the Britain of austerity and public spending cuts? The Britain of the Levellers, the Pankhursts and Red Clydeside? Or the Britain of Knox, Rhodes and Rothermere?’   Easy answers spring to mind, but he’s right, my Britain may not be your Britain.

And yet, and yet.   I think there’s something going on here.  I don’t want to wrap myself in the flag any more than I did a month ago.  I’m the same person that I was before, but along with many others, I thought I’d had a ‘glimpse of another kind of Britain’, of a ‘soft and civic’  patriotism that maybe I could be OK with.   Jonathan Freedland said that  ‘It will slip from view as time passes, but we are not condemned to forget it. We don’t have to be like the long-ago poet who once wrote: “Did you exist? Or did I dream a dream?”’

So, do we treat Boyle’s vision of the Isles of Wonder as a requiem for what we value about our country, or a celebration?  Or even, perhaps, a warning and a call to action? Do we allow our ‘normal state of being’ to be reinstalled in the British psyche, without protest, without attempting to hold on to what we briefly experienced?  As Billy asks in his blog, ‘Has the euphoria of the past two weeks has caused a seismic shift in the meta-narrative of Britishness? …Can a new spirit of engaged and transformational patriotism emerge from this experience? One that seeks to build a fairer, more inclusive tomorrow, rather than constantly rehashing a narrow vision of the past?’

We could just say, well, we got a bit carried away there, but it’s ok now, we’re ourselves again. But with the Paralympics just around the corner, what if we get a bit carried away all over again?  What if we actually rather like it?  I think we need to talk.

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This is my country

I’m not given to patriotic outpourings.  I have difficulty saying I’m ‘proud’ to be British – I’m too aware of our colonial history to feel that in any simple way it is a matter of pride.   But I’ve always resented the appropriation of patriotism by the racists of the National Front, the BNP and EDL, and whilst flags and royal weddings and the like don’t move me terribly I do feel lucky to live here, and I love my homeland.

I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the Olympics that would move me, any more than that wedding did.   I was wrong.   Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony celebrated my Britain, my home, in all its glorious diversity, in a way I hadn’t for a moment expected.  It was a delight – I was laughing with pleasure, and with tears in my eyes.   And last night I was moved by our own Jess’s triumph in the heptathlon – a Sheffield lass, after our own Arctic Monkeys had greeted the nation with a cry of ‘Y’alreight?’ – and by Mo Farah‘s triumph in the 10000m.

2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony (11).jpg

And so the whole thing, which I’d expected to be a massive bore, has turned out to be instead a massive, bonkers celebration of this marvellous, mixed up country, where the multiculturalism which a Tory idiot and the Daily Mail derided has brought us medals beyond all expectations, where the successes of a Yorkshire girl with a Jamaican dad, and a Somali refugee have been celebrated across all the boundaries that sometimes divide us.

Last night Mo was asked if he’d rather be running for Somalia.  His answer is powerful in its simplicity and confidence: “Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud. I’m very proud.”

That’s not a pride that requires disparaging or disqualifying anyone, it’s not a pride that is based on being white or being able to trace centuries of ancestors on British soil.  It’s not about believing that we as a nation have always been heroic or just, or that our policies at home or abroad are right now.

I’m proud that over centuries we’ve kept our doors open to people who’ve needed to find refuge here, from French Huguenots to Russian and European Jews, to victims of more recent conflicts and oppression.  That’s the Britain I love, and celebrate – whilst at the same time wishing we were more welcoming, less mean-spirited (see my series of posts for Refugee Week, and if you would, sponsor me to run for Refugee Action in a few weeks time!).   Our diversity is our strength, and I love and celebrate that too.

Danny Boyle’s vision for the opening ceremony was summed up in Tim Berners-Lee‘s gift of the internet to the world, a gift, as he said, that is for everyone.  That celebration of ‘the creativity, exuberance and, above all, the generosity of the British people’ had ‘a golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of a better world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. We can build Jerusalem. And it will be for everyone.’

Idealistic, naive – perhaps.  But that’s my country.  And I’m proud.

http://www.london2012.com/mm/Document/Documents/Publications/01/30/43/40/OPENINGCEREMONYGUIDE_English.pdf

http://olympicopeningceremony.tumblr.com/tagged/music

http://www.justgiving.com/Catherine-Annabel0

http://action.hopenothate.org.uk/page/s/this-is-my-country

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