“Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.”

Arts & Letters Daily sent me to this piece, by Mark Bauerlein, about the study of literature in American universities. It made particular sense of way that the descent into wokeness was not one single process, but a series of processes.

Quote, from near the end:

Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature. Once the professors could no longer insist, “You absolutely must read Dryden, Pope, and Swift — they are the essence of wit and discernment”; when they lost the confidence to say that nothing reveals the social complexity of the colonial situation better than Nostromo; if they couldn’t assure anyone that Hawthorne’s sentences showed the American language in its most exquisite form, they lost the competition for majors. Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.

Meanwhile, outside of universities, the internet has made it massively easier to study literature, and also have a life beyond and beside that, not least because it’s now so much easier to get hold of whatever books you want.

I’m sure, if it’s taught inspiringly, that it’s much more fun to study literature in the face-to-face company of like-minded enthusiasts. But it’s not essential, the way it is if you want to become something like a structural engineer. And if you do want to meet up with fellow enthusiasts, the internet is good at arranging that also. I have organised monthly meetings for nearly half of my life and the admin for this got a lot easier when email, and then the internet, kicked in.

My spell checker says “enrollment” in the above quote ought to be “enrolment”, but I’ve left it as was.

Lots of people watch the FA Cup Final

Today I watched the FA Cup Final on television, in which Leicester City defeated Chelsea by the momentous margin of one-nil. The one was good, though.

But the reason I watched it was because it had a whiff of more than football about it, because there were, for the first time in ages at a football match, twenty thousand odd people actually in Wembley Stadium, watching it and of course shouting:

The victorious Leicester players there, in confusing brown, acknowledge the cheers of their fans, in confusing blue. Confusing, because the Chelsea players wore blue.

The commentators keep trying to persuade themselves that the FA Cup is what it was, when, for reasons to do with European qualification, it is not what it was. There used to be a European Cup Winners Cup, which you could only be in if you won your local Cup. Not any more. Now, you can be in the Consolation European League just by coming fifth or third or whatever in your local league. The FA Cup has accordingly lost its unique place in English life, and the commentators bang on more and more about its glorious past, which is a sure sign that its present is less glorious.

I seem to remember one year when Liverpool or Man U, or some such club ducked out of it, to play in some game in South America which they reckoned counted for more. “The Cup” was never the same after that.

Nevertheless, this one was a little bit special.

People gathering normally

Last Thursday, late afternoon, this comforting scene was to be observed (and photoed) by me, on the other side of Victoria Street from me and a short walk from Buckingham Palace. Human beings, without muzzles on, enjoying each other’s company and drinking drinks:

Will normality ever fully return? I’ll believe what I see. But seeing that was definitely something.

An exercise lesson on Zoom

I can remember when e-mail became a necessity for me. I got a phone call from someone who asked: “What’s your email?” and I said “I don’t do email”. It was the way she then said “Oh” that made me realise that something had happened.

There hasn’t been a single moment like this for me with Zoom, but it has become made clear to me that making easy and regular use of Zoom has now become part of everyday life for all civilised people. Stage 4 lung cancer means you get cut some slack on these sorts of things, or you do by the people who are treating you. Nevertheless, I got, and get, the message.

And today I got an exercise lesson on Zoom from an exercise coach at the Royal Marsden. For some reason or other, the audio aspect wasn’t perfect, there being a slight delay, like the Royal Marsden was in India. But the job got done very satisfactorily nevertheless, and it’s hard to see how this could have been done by any other means than me being at the Marsden in person. Like all good teachers, he wasn’t content with showing me what he wanted me to do. He wanted also to see me doing it. Not only did Zoom enable him to show me what exercises he wanted me to do, he was also able to see that I was doing them the way I should be doing them.

All of which will be very old news to almost everyone reading this. I am well aware that when it comes to Zoom I am the ultimate late adopter, just as I was with email. Nevertheless, this posting is definite Zoom information for you, even if you’ve been using Zoom for the last two years minimum. And the information is that everyone is now using Zoom, the proof of this being that I am now using it.

Happy Easter!

I hope you are having one.

I definitely am, and I will tell you (a big part of) why. This, on YouTube, from Steve Baker MP, no less.

Just over two minutes long, so not a big chunk out of your life it you follow the above link and watch it all.

I’ll surely have more to say about this by way of thanks. But, busy day for me today, and I could hardly postpone at least noticing this here.

Ask, and you shall receive. This exploiting my impending death to achieve a dose of upward social mobility thing is really working out well.

Funerial thoughts

Strange day. I spent a lot of it planning my own funeral, which will, as is traditional, be an event at which I will be present but not paying any attention, if you get my meaning.

The thing is, it’s no good saying: Look, I don’t care, do whatever you like. If you say that, you are liable to cause endless arguments and at the very least uncertainties among your loved ones about “What he would have wanted”. So, you have to say what you want, even if you aren’t actually that bothered.

Plus, although I say I’m not bothered, I can imagine plenty of scenarios which even the thought of would bother me, so a period of introspection was called for. Just saying “Do whatever you want” would be very selfish, in a bad way. Saying exactly what I want is selfish in a good way.

Apparently David Bowie (the old blog seems to be back working again without any
Screen of the Red Death
) had a very private cremation, followed by a more public ceremony at which celebs took it in turns saying how great he was. But not being that great myself, I figure the people present at my funeral ceremony would appreciate knowing that this is the actual funeral. If they suspect that the real funeral, the one I was actually burnt at, was earlier, they might not want to be at the later pretend funeral. So, just the one event for me, and everyone will see me being fed into the incinerator room. It’s what I would have wanted.

And now, my Designated Best Friend is in my front room, chucking superfluous paper into supermarket bags:

Since that photo was photoed, three SIX more entire bags of totally obsolete bumph have accumulated.

In other funerial news, earlier today GodDaughter2, the one who has just finished learning how to sing, accepted the job of being in charge of my pathologically huge classical CD collection, when I am dead and burnt. So, if you love classical CDs, and even if you hardly now know me, leave a comment that this is a list you’d like to be on. Don’t wait for me to die before expressing such interest. Think of my beloved CDs not as inanimate objects but as a colossal pack of puppies each of which I am seeking a good home for. If I can die knowing that my CDs will be well cared for and listened to, rather than just thrown into about three skips, well, … that’s what I would have wanted and meanwhile do now want. GD2 herself leads too mobile a life just now to be wanting such responsibilities, and in any case CDs are, for her, absurdly twentieth century and completely superfluous to requirements. But if you, like me, feel differently, then like I say, get in touch, now.

A good day. Good not merely because it was pleasurable, but because I got some difficult and important things decided and done. And because other such things were done for me, by various loved ones. The least these people should be getting from me is a description of what I would have wanted, even if it is a bit of an effort to work out what that might be.

Thoughts on giving away the ending … or not giving it away

I am a lazy person. And I just sent an email to my niece Roz Watkins, who writes of crime fiction. Some of this email was personal and private, but a couple of bits seem to me to be worth recycling here, to save me the bother of having to think of something else to put here today:

I do so very much admire the writing you have been doing. The reason I don’t write about it more admiringly, and more often, is that in my part of the internet, we don’t fret about giving away endings! For instance, I am now reading a book about human evolution, to what extent human mental habits are genetically evolved, what sex differences are and are not, and so on. When writing about this book, I do not hesitate to quote any of the author’s conclusions that strike me as interesting. But if I reviewed a book of yours by discussing the convincingness of who finally turns out to have done the deed, naming the murderer, well, … that’s not allowed! So I need to learn a whole different way of writing about books like yours. Basically, I guess, you concentrate on the state of affairs at the beginning, and from then on keep it vague.

And, I realise that writing about famous books from the past is also not like writing about your books when they have only just come out. I’m not going to be denounced if I discuss the details of how Mr Darcy finally marries Elizabeth Bennet, because almost everyone who cares already knows what happened. If you don’t know how Pride and Prejudice ends and don’t want to until you’ve read it for the first time, then it’s up to you to avoid being told.

I think that the Pride and Prejudice point there is an especially good one. Great works of literature, almost by definition, are things we are allowed to discuss all aspects of, including the endings, without being accused of giving anything away. If I tell you the ending of Roz’s latest Meg Dalton book (that’s her lead detective), I’m breaking the rules. But if I reveal that Hamlet dies at the end of Hamlet, that’s okay. If you did not know this and wanted to be surprised by how Hamlet ends, that is entirely your problem. Which means that works of Great Literature become like some of the great facts of our culture, not that different from real events or real arguments about real events. We can freely discuss all aspect of the great works of literature with one another, definitely including the endings. And thorough discussions of great facts, especially how these facts turned out or ended, are, for me, one of life’s great pleasures.

This is one of the reasons I do like (some) great literature. It enables me to have thorough conversations with strangers. I think the social benefits of shared cultural objects are often missed. See also, sport and celebrities. It’s the universality of these experiences that bind us together as a society, however we may disagree about many other things, and for that matter about sport or celebrities.

Great literature is books that are celebrity books.

Dragons on the road map

Guy Herbert:

It’s the sort of #roadmap that has “Here be dragons” written all over it, isn’t it?

Yes. My part of Twitter is all: The politicians are tyrannising over us. I wonder. What if they are just scared? Of course, the second does not rule out the first.

The Brian Micklethwait Archive goes public

Just over a month ago I learned that I will die rather sooner than I had been supposing, and I asked, by way of being cheered up, for people to say nice things, preferably in public, about my various writings and doings over the years.

The most impressive consequence of this rather vulgar entreaty has so far been the Brian Micklethwait Archive.

It is in the nature of this Archive in my honour that if I had constructed it myself it would be an absurdity, which wouldn’t outlast me any more than this blog will. In contrast, the fact that Rob Fisher, a far younger man than me, has embarked upon this project is a source of profound gratitude and satisfaction to me. If I die soon, this will be a big reason for me nevertheless to die in a state of moderate contentment. Posthumous reputations, such as I now crave on a scale way beyond what I merely deserve, do not establish themselves. They have to be established. I want to be remembered as a writer, yet I do not have so much as one book to my name. This Archive that Rob is gathering up, by cherry picking from my many bits of writing over the years, will make a big difference to whatever continuing impact and influence I may have after I have died.

Rob is in charge of this Archive, not me. It needs to be something he is happy to go on polishing and adding to in the months and years to come, so it must be as he wishes it, rather than as I might have wished it. And I waited until he made it public before drawing attention to it, here, myself. Now I feel that I can without upsetting whatever announcements Rob had in mind to be doing.

Great Men don’t need to advertise themselves. Their achievements speak for themselves. Lesser men like me need to beat their own drums. And it makes all the difference when someone else joins in.

A couple more quota crowd scenes

I plan on spending my afternoon and evening today concentrating entirely on … something else, so here, it’s quota photo time, just to get it out of the way and out of my head.

Which happens to mean a couple more crowd scenes. To add to the collection.

First up, on the South Bank, and in particular on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall:

Photoed, I’m pretty sure, from a balcony near the top of the Royal Festival Hall. A bit wonky, but I like it as it is. Wouldn’t want to be cropping those cranes in the distance. Which are gone now, I assume. The only crane cluster left in London that I can think of off hand is the one in Battersea.

And here is another crowd scene, this time from way back in 2004:

Which, I think, makes it somewhat more interesting. (Photoed down from the Westminster Bridge approach, south end. I was near to the Lion statue.)

Following on from Alastair’s comments on this posting, about the stabilisation of casual fashion during the last two decades or so, I think we see in that photo the last casual fashion switch, which concerns the tucking-in of shirts. I still do this, under my always worn (because it’s full of vital stuff like wallet, handkerchiefs, purse, etc.) jacket. I still, always, tuck my shirt in, no matter how casual I’m being. But very few others were still doing this, even back in 2004. I’m looking in particular at the three guys in blue shirts, bottom left, one of whom is holding hands with the orange hair lady. One shirt tucked in, two not. Behind them, a guy in a white shirt, and a jacket, the way I still do, but that’s already rare. Note how two of the blue shirt guys at the front have small man bags instead of jackets.

I could go on, but like I say, I have other matters to attend to now.