The End of Days

After a splendid Christmas, I am returning to the normal world in an even more apocalyptic frame of mind than usual. I am an unapologetic fan of Christmas in all its tinselly sparkly silly-games naffness. Those of a Scroogular bent, who mutter darkly about consumerism and outdated religious celebrations and so forth miss out on the fact that while all this is reasonably true, none of it is the point. The point is having a big meal with people you love and giving them presents. As you can see, the Christmas spirit is still alive in me (outliving my resolutions, which vanished inside a box of After Eights last night).

Anyway, despite these lingering festive feelings, I can’t help but be alerted to the clear signs of the apocalypse that have occurred in recent weeks. I’m not talking about the mass deaths of birds in Falkoeping and Arkansas, though this is undoubtedly a bit weird, but about two other signs: firstly, the closure of Prospero’s Books in Crouch End. Crouch End losing its proper bookshop is like the ravens fleeing the Tower of London: an obvious portent of doom. The manager cites a massive rent hike and competition from Amazon as the main reasons for closure. I am considering a move to Hay-on-Wye, or, far better, Wigtown in Galloway, where they have a more acceptable bookshop-to-head-of-population ratio.

The second Sign is the news that universities will be awarding marks to students who show ‘corporate skills’. This alone is enough to have me leaving a glass of sherry and some biscuits each night for when the Messiah comes down the chimney, blowing his referee-whistle to indicate the End of Days. I think very soon the day will come when the concept of a degree will be entirely divorced from that of education, shifting into the realm of qualification. It will prove not that the student in question has learned anything about English Literature, or Anthropology, or whatever, but will just show that they are reasonably well-trained candidates for future employment, given their presentation skills, their knowledge of Team Building, or whatever other bollocks forces its way on to the curriculum.

Rather than any attempts at repentance, I have decided to spend the world’s last hours reading the stack of interesting books I got for Christmas, including The Great Empires of the Ancient World. What always strikes me about these civilisations is the paradox in the way we think about them. We call them ‘ancient’, though it’s the Sumerians and the Parthians and the Minoans who were the young worlds, the very newest. Their remnants may be decaying gently in museums and galleries, but ours is more truly the ancient, crumbling civilisation.

Tuition fees

I’m now on to my second big political disappointment in five years. The first was with the radical left. The second is with the unradical centre.

Back in 2005 I went up to Scotland for the Gleneagles demonstrations and came back invoking plagues on both their houses. I saw the police deliberately provoking protestors, kettling, hiding their identifying numbers, intimidating people, afraid to let the protest come anywhere near the people at which it was aimed – but I also saw protestors staging sit-ins in the road in the middle of marches, leaving people further back standing around for hours; and protestors blockading roads that the police had already closed, preventing coaches full of other protestors getting through. Plans were blasted all over the internet and yet people expressed surprise that the police always seemed to be one step ahead of them. They seemed more interested in making sure that everyone knew how outraged they were about everything than in actually finding an effective way of fighting for change.

So I came back from Scotland on the day the bombs went off in London (not a good day to travel) and went back to my books. Shortly afterwards I accidentally started going out with a Lib Dem and met a lot of other nice ones as a result – people whose politics came quite close to my own. Since Labour swerved up on to the central reservation I thought the LDs might be taking over the left ground. I kept my distance, as temperamentally I’m not really a joiner-inner of things, but I was happy to vote Lib Dem: the luxury of being a minor party is idealism, and I liked a lot of the ideals: free higher education, no ID cards, no war.

Then the crazy election we had flung the LDs into the unenviable position of Tory Fig Leaf. I went along with that because I didn’t see any alternative – Labour clearly weren’t that interested in a coalition and a Tory minority government would only have meant another election, and as both Labour and the Lib Dems ran out of money at the last, another one would have got the Tories in with a majority. (Here are the different parties’ finances at the time.)

I wasn’t expecting that the Lib Dems would throw their ideals out of the window. I think this new deal on tuition fees is a lot fairer than things we’ve had in the past, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the LDs claimed to be against the principle of students paying for their education. Their argument – ‘we didn’t win the election, so we have to go along with this’ is false logic. If that’s what you believe, it shouldn’t change just because you haven’t won an election.

The fundamental thing that none of the parties address is that it was a stupid idea of Labour to say 50% of school leavers should go to university. This is clearly ridiculous. University should be for academic subjects, and for those bits of vocational training like medicine or architecture that have always been delivered in this way. It was unbelievably arrogant of Labour to suggest that degrees make people more valuable; they don’t. Skills make people valuable, and a lot of skills can and should be learned in work, in apprenticeships and day-release schemes, not on expensive, unsuitable university courses. The simple rules of scarcity dictate that if you increase the number of people going to university you devalue the degrees they get at the end of it. I find it completely breathtaking that the government failed to see that an increase in students would just lead to a glut of graduates in the job market.

Because we have too many students, the government cannot pay for them all to go to university. The students have to pay for themselves, and because there are more of them, the degrees they incur debt to attain are devalued. People who choose not to get into debt by going to university are made to feel less valuable in comparison, which is also nonsense, as there are many many high-paid, worthwhile and enormously valuable careers that simply don’t need a Bachelor of Arts qualification. It creates class boundaries by dividing people into have-degrees and have-nots. University should be just one of many options for school leavers looking to better themselves.

But by far the most damaging and insiduous effect of making students pay for their education is that it normalises debt. People my age and younger now think it is perfectly normal to have at least ten or fifteen grand sitting over their heads, and it makes you cavalier about taking on more debt. Why not run up a credit card or two, when you’ve already got three years of fees to pay for? What’s the difference? The government is now saying most people will never pay off these debts, as though this is a good thing that people will live their whole lives in debt. Is that a healthy way to live? How would that make you feel about yourself?

The one good thing about all this is that it seems to have radicalised a whole generation. I remember going to vote while I was at university at the on-campus polling station, only to find that I was the second person to have bothered doing so by two in the afternoon. A lot of my friends didn’t vote and had no political opinions whatsoever. Now we see the brilliant sight of students disrupting the Turner Prize award ceremony, and they’re occupying everything, and out on the streets everywhere. This can only be a good thing for democracy. My old politics tutor at Bath always used to say that voter apathy is the first step towards totalitarianism; it doesn’t seem to be a problem now.

I feel slightly uncomfortable about joining them as I don’t really think half of them should be students anyway. It would feel hypocritical of me to march alongside people when for a lot of them I honestly don’t think their best interests are served by going to university. We’ve been sold a false promise that a degree is the answer to all things in this society. That’s bollocks. Education is the answer, and opportunities: but these should come in many different forms, and without life-long, debt-filled strings attached.

Reading: slow and difficult

A lot of stuff has been written about slow reading lately, and more generally lamenting the loss of concentration the modern world has apparently inflicted upon our fractured brains. My supervisor at Bath Spa University, Greg Garrard, has written about his decision to shorten the reading lists on his courses to allow his students a level of deeper reading – although he admits a lot of students will take this as an opportunity for deeper slacking. I remember when I was taking the un-shortened Twentieth Century European Novel and Twentieth Century American Novel I spent a good few months where every Sunday (it was always a Sunday) I had to barricade myself in my bedroom, away from my housemates, and dispatch at least one novel, sometimes two. But then I also remember spending a good deal of that year hanging around in the late lamented Secession Books or watching the bookshop’s band play in the various cellar establishments of Bath.

In the introduction to the new edition of Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers John Lechte writes about the way people don’t tend to read complex philosophical works so much as they read other books about complex philosophical works – books that make the original texts easier to digest. People don’t have the patience or the time for difficult reading, it seems, though he argues that books such as his own should be seen as guides rather than as replacements. (I really love Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers. It’s perfect for those moments when you can’t quite remember who says what.)

I remember towards the beginning of my second year in Bath, going to a party above the bookshop and chatting to someone about how I hadn’t felt particularly challenged so far at university – that I could bullshit my way through it as much as I could at school. I was talking to an ex-lecturer from Sydney who was then working back in graphic design. She listened very sympathetically but then told me I had basically got it all wrong – that university wasn’t a place where learning happened to you, but more like a space in which you could learn, if you wanted to. Somewhere where I could take off in whatever direction I chose.

This was something of a lightbulb moment. I can’t say that I instantly applied myself from then on, but I did start to work a lot more – taking myself off on sallies up the Further Reading lists, or on entirely off-piste reading lists of my own construction. One of these led to Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov and thus to my undergraduate dissertation, and on to my MA. That aspect of my BA I had most disliked to begin with – the space – I eventually found the most rewarding.

My MA was largely lacking in such ‘space’. The list of books that had to be read right now was always ridiculously long and constantly lengthening, and I was lucky: I’d read War and Peace and Dostoevsky etc before I started, and was therefore more fortunate than some of my colleagues who first learned of certain character deaths in class. I think a lot of the ‘difficult reading’ suffered for the speed with which it was consumed: I’m now fairly convinced I completely misunderstood The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproduction, for example. Difficult reading also requires reinforcement, literal re-vision, or I find it simply drops out of my head. But what this sort of study lacked in space it made up for with intensity. When you’re constantly mainlining books things start happening to your head – walls fall off, strange illuminating connections are made. It’s intoxicating. But I know I dropped a lot of balls – reading back over my notebooks, I see the beginnings of ideas, connections tentatively made, which were abandoned because the next week we’d moved on to something else.  This sort of reading is addictive, though – I’m still under its sway, always extending my Amazon wishlist, always conscious of the endless stuff out there to be stuffed in.

The enormous weight of books – all flashing their blurbs, all whispering that they must be read – doesn’t make slow reading easy, even if you take the distractibility of the modern mind out of the equation. Another of my former lecturers, Sarah J Young from SSEES, wrote recently about the problems of re-reading books: the frustration of going back over old ground versus the fresh insights gained. What’s a better use of time – close, savouring reading of one thing, forsaking all others, or the speedy consumption of the all-others? My feeling is blend of both will always be the practical solution, though it will always be unsatisfactory. During the brief spell towards the end of my A-levels when I actually began to work quite hard, I used to daydream of a secret room hidden somewhere in the Barbican, near school, where time would stand still while you caught up with your reading or, better yet, took a nap. Short of such a room for either purpose, the answer to the problem of reading will always be a frustrating compromise.