Rants

It’s a small thing to ask …

It is a small thing to ask, isn’t it, a decent caffè macchiato?

You would have thought so! But oh, how you can be setting yourself up for disappointment when you order one (at least here in the UK).

So, folks, as everyone knows, you do use a proper thick china espresso cup of the traditional shape (there’s a reason it’s traditional). Warmed, yes: but you don’t scald the cup first with boiling water. You most certainly don’t use some fancy “artisanal blend”, since they are mostly crap and too bitter and only suited to  flavouring those milky drinks that the British seem to love (for straight espressos or macchiatos, they will be beaten hands down by Illy or Mokarabia or the other good Italian brands). You don’t make a mini-cappuccino: “macchiato” means “marked” or “stained”, not “drowned” — so two or three teaspoons of silky foamed milk is enough. And yes, for heaven’s sake, learn to make decently textured milk: filling the cup with wet bubbles is just evil. Do supply a proper coffee spoon so we can scrape the last remnants  of crema from the cup (wooden sticks? no!!!). And do, without being asked, add an elegantly sized small glass of water (not a paper cup, not a half pint mug, not lukewarm, not lemon-flavoured, …).

Now, that wasn’t too difficult, was it?

Encore #17: Larkin was right …

The old always think the world is going to the dogs. I try to resist. Sometimes, though, it is difficult. 

Going, gone (Nov 23, 2011)

The main road west from Cambridge used to go down the main street of the market town of St. Neots before crossing the river. But there has long since been a bypass, and it is quite a while since I’ve chosen to turn off it to take the old route. But I wanted a coffee, so today I stopped in the town and went to a scruffy and run-down branch of Caffè Nero on the large market square.

Their espresso wasn’t very good, but that’s probably only to be expected. What I hadn’t really bargained for was just how depressing the view out to the square is now. Even on a bright autumn morning, it looked as scruffy and run down as the coffee shop. This was never a very wealthy place: but there was once some small domestic grace to the surrounding mostly nineteenth century buildings. But now many of them are quite disfigured with the gross shop-fronts of cheap stores, and others look miserably unkempt. There’s a particularly vile effort by the HBSC bank, which gives a special meaning to “private affluence and public squalor” — only an institution with utter contempt for its customers and their community could plonk such a frontage onto a main street. Where once even small-town branches of banks were solid imposing edifices in miniature, with hints of the classical orders here and a vaulted ceiling there, signifying permanence and  reliability, now they are seem to take pride in having all the visual class of a here-today, gone-tomorrow betting shop. How appropriate.

And the square itself (like so many other urban spaces in England) seems to have been repaved on the cheap, with the kind of gimcrack blockwork that always seems, a few years in, to settle into random waves of undulation. The bleakly open space cries out for more trees to surround it, and inviting wooden seats. But no, on non-market days it is just the inevitable carpark.

Next to coffee shop, still on the square, a horrible looking cafe is plastered outside with pictures of greasy food. I walk a little further down the road before driving on. It is a visual mess. Even Marks and Spencer manages a particularly inappropriate shout of a shop-front, as sad-looking charity shops cringe nearby. Could anyone feel proud or even fond of this street as it now is?

A couple of hundred yards away there are lovely water-meadows by the bridge over the river, and some fancy residential developments. On the outskirts of town the other side, as the road leaves towards Cambridge, there is a lot more quite expensive-looking new housing (though heaven knows how it will seem a few years hence). But the town centre itself is in such a sorry state.

“Most things are never meant,” wrote Larkin when he foresaw something of this in ‘Going, going’. And we — I mean my generation, for it is we who were in charge — surely didn’t mean this, for the hearts of old country towns like St. Neots (or the larger next town,  Bedford) to become such shabby, ugly, run-down places. But it has happened apace, all over the country, and on our watch.

Philip Larkin reads ‘Going, going’.

The all-you-can-eat book buffet

One of the fixtures of the Cambridge year is the annual Cambridge University Press booksale. It lasts for a week or ten days in January, with the shelves continually being replenished as they empty. The Press sell off oodles of “damaged” books (where, very often, the only damage is caused by a neat red stamp on the verso of the title page, marking the book as “DAMAGED”). The going rate for a few years has been £3 for any paperback, and £7 for a hardback. The range of titles is extraordinary. And you can pick up some delightful bargains — important but inessential work-related books that it would be really rather nice to have but which you would never have forked out the full price for, or interesting finds that are intriguing enough to take a chance on. So far this year, I’ve picked up a few pleasing purchases, including a copy of Linsky’s The Evolution of Principia Mathematica which I’ll want to dip into (but could never have warranted spending £100 on), and a paperback of David Wyn Jones’s The Life of Haydn which is proving to be fascinating and highly readable.

But — O tempora o mores! — truffling through the sale shelves just isn’t the enjoyable experience it used to be. In the past the rule was that you could only buy ten books at a time (or was it a ten a day? I think so). There were busy times, but it was mostly other readers young and old you were bumping into, and you would have occasional friendly book chats to people as you browsed, swapping recommendations, and (by the sad standard of academics) a quietly Fun Time was had by all.

Now the rules have changed. You can buy as many books as you can cart away. So various second-hand booksellers come with bags and bags, boxes and boxes, and stand around like vultures, pouncing as soon as the staff bring out more stock as shelves empty, immediately grabbing great armfuls, not quite coming to blows but certainly jostling for space. And just as, when at a buffet, people heaping enormous stacks of food onto their plates simply puts you right off your lunch, this too is off-putting — the rapaciousness on display by people who want to turn a quick buck rather than find some interesting (and perhaps previously unaffordable) books to read themselves. Greed is never a good look.

I know that the Press want to get rid of a lot of stock in their sale. But it’s rather sad that in the process of increasing the number of books they get rid of (if that’s what’s happening) the genuinely enjoyable atmosphere seems to have gone.

Update Others have expressed disquiet too: new arrangements have been announced, with early morning until 10.30 and afternoons after 3.30 as “quiet times”. Hopefully this will help.

Another update The new arrangements have indeed made for a much more congenial experience, the couple of times I’ve dropped by since.

Stefan Collini writes again about the attack on universities

In the latest London Review of Books, Stefan Collini writes again from the heart and with critical incisiveness about the privatisation disasters befalling British universities. Here’s his peroration:

Future historians, pondering changes in British society from the 1980s onwards, will struggle to account for the following curious fact. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record (frequently posting gigantic losses, mostly failing to match overseas competitors, scarcely benefiting the weaker groups in society), and although such arm’s length public institutions as museums and galleries, the BBC and the universities have by and large a very good record (universally acknowledged creativity, streets ahead of most of their international peers, positive forces for human development and social cohesion), nonetheless over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the second set of institutions to change so that they more closely resemble the first. Some of those historians may even wonder why at the time there was so little concerted protest at this deeply implausible programme. But they will at least record that, alongside its many other achievements, the coalition government took the decisive steps in helping to turn some first-rate universities into third-rate companies. If you still think the time for criticism is over, perhaps you’d better think again.

Read the article, weep, … and then if you are still in a UK academic job get a grip and do something!

Coffee culture

When I was a lad, a long while since, the usual English alternative to tea seemed to be a beverage known as ‘milky coffee’. Black coffee was suspiciously foreign or downright louche — and indeed had to be drunk as a bohemian pose rather than for enjoyment since the coffee itself seemed almostly universally awful and (the cost of beans being as it then was) very weak.

Now of course, we have a sophisticated coffee culture here. Sort of.

Well, you can get a fairly decent espresso macchiato in Caffè Nero (if you gently nudge the barista to doing it properly — the clue is in the name, guys: mark with a just bit of steamed milk/foam, but don’t try to fill the espresso cup to overflowing!). But I couldn’t help but notice that today what is usually the majority choice was universal: everyone else in the busy place had either a huge cappuccino (surely three times the size of anything you’d get in Italy) or a giant mug of latte. Fifty-something years on, milky coffee still rules, OK?

Going, gone

The main road west from Cambridge used to go down the main street of the market town of St. Neots. But there has long since been a bypass, and it is quite a while since I’ve turned off to take the old route. But I wanted a coffee, so today I stopped in the town and went to a scruffy and run-down branch of Caffè Nero on the large market square.

Their espresso is best passed over in silence, but that’s probably only to be expected. What I hadn’t really bargained for was just how depressing the view out to the square is now. Even on a bright autumn morning, it looked as scruffy and run down as the coffee shop. This was never a very wealthy place: but there was once some small domestic grace to the surrounding mostly nineteenth century buildings. But now many of them are quite disfigured with the gross shop-fronts of cheap stores, and others look unkempt. There’s a particularly vile effort by the HBSC bank, which gives a special meaning to “private affluence and public squalor” — only an institution with utter contempt for its customers and their community could plonk such a frontage onto a main street. Where once even small-town branches of banks were solid imposing edifices in miniature, with hints of the classical orders here and a vaulted ceiling there, now they are seem to take pride in having all the visual class of a here-today, gone-tomorrow betting shop. How appropriate.

And the square itself (like so many other urban spaces in England) seems to have been repaved on the cheap, with the kind of gimcrack blockwork that always seems, a few years in, to settle into random waves of undulation. The bleakly open space cries out for more trees to surround it, and inviting wooden seats. But no, on non-market days it is just the inevitable carpark.

Next to coffee shop, still on the square, a horrible looking cafe is plastered outside with pictures of greasy food. I walk a little further down the road before driving on. It is a visual mess. Even Marks and Spencer manages a particularly inappropriate shout of a shop-front, as sad-looking charity shops cringe nearby. Could anyone feel proud or even fond of this street as it now is?

A couple of hundred yards away there are lovely water-meadows by the bridge over the river, and fancy residential developments. On the outskirts of town the other side, as the road leaves towards Cambridge, there is a lot more quite expensive-looking new housing (though heaven knows how it will seem a few years hence). But the town centre itself is in a sorry state. “Most things are never meant,” wrote Larkin when he foresaw something of this in ‘Going, going’. And we — I mean my generation, for it is we who were in charge — surely didn’t mean this, for the hearts of old country towns like St. Neots (or the larger next town,  Bedford) to become such shabby, ugly, run-down places. But it has happened apace, all over the country, and on our watch.

He that toucheth pitch …

The story so far. The Observer run a piece entitled ‘Academic fury over order to study the big society’ which starts off

Academics will study the “big society” as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a “significant” amount of its funding on the prime minister’s vision for the country, after a government “clarification” of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.

Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government’s national objectives …

Cue a great deal of angry comment about the dirigiste ambitions of our paymasters (not to mention comparisons with Stalinist direction of research in the eastern block).

Cue in turn a vigorous if not entirely literate rebuttal from the AHRC:

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) unconditionally and absolutely refutes the allegations reported in the Observer … We did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the ‘Big Society’, and we were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support for this initiative.

Ok, suppose that they’ve not been coerced. Still, off their own bat, they seem to have rather enthusiastically gone along with talk of the Big Society. Far from keeping at arms length from the passing whims of a making-it-up-as-they-go-along government, the AHRC’s Delivery Plan 2011-15 repeatedly refers to the Big Society (you can search the PDF). Thus …

The contribution of AHRC plans to the ‘Big Society’ agenda are described in section 2 …

In line with the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda … the AHRC will continue to support …

And so on. Their website also hosts a document called ‘Connected Communities OR “Building the Big Society”’ quite explicitly headlining quotes from Cameron.

A spokesman rather pathetically says that the delivery plan had referred to the Big Society ‘to help policymakers understand the concept of Connected Communities’. Really? And are we really to believe that the connected communities project would be looking just the same if Labour were still in power?

I’ve not myself had direct dealings with AHRC apparatchiks (except for a storm in a teacup over some past remarks on this blog, which didn’t impress me). But those I know who are rather closer to such things, at one level or another, have often expressed exasperation or contempt. I’ve heard few good words. And the recent chatter on facebook and twitter and in comment threads suggests that, very widely, the AHRC is indeed held in pretty low esteem.

Now that might, for all I really know, be all terribly unfair (I’ve better things to do than spend a lot of time thinking about the AHRC, the REF, and the likes). Maybe the AHRC really are trying to make the best of a bad job, without undue pandering to their political masters. Maybe. Let’s be really charitable (humour me!). But still, how can the AHRC apparatchiks not know how very low — unfairly or otherwise — their standing is among the academics whose interests (or at least, the interests of whose subjects) they are supposed to serve? And if they do know, how can they not have realized that spattering talk about the Big Society through their documents would only serve — unfairly or otherwise — to confirm the prejudices of all those who already are primed to regard them as toadying third-raters with brains addled by management-speak? Only by being politically dim to a rather staggering degree.

So even taking the most charitable line (which to be honest I don’t), this doesn’t bode too well for us.

PS: I’ve just noted that the always estimable Iain Pears has added his thoughtful two-pennyworth on all this.

Not even close

Given the choice, I prefer hearing a good string quartet play to almost any other concert-going.

When we lived in Sheffield, we were spoilt by being able to go to see the Lindsays in their prime (and we also got to see other quartets visiting the series of concerts they organized, from the likes of the Tokyo Quartet, down to new young ensembles just starting out). Coming to Cambridge we missed all that a great deal. We tried early on going to see the Endellion, the quartet in residence here, but really didn’t enjoy the experience. But perhaps we were disposed to find fault and find them over-rated. And perhaps we were too swayed, as well, by the marked differences between the Sheffield occasions and the Cambridge concert in ways that were no fault of the quartet — the much less intimate setting of the concert hall here, the seeming stiffness of the antique audience.

Well, a number of years further on, with various people encouraging us to give them another chance, we went to hear the Endellion again last night. The audience was as stiff  as before. And as for the music? … “lacklustre”, said Mrs LogicMatters. You can tell she is kinder than I am.

They played the Haydn Op 33, no. 1, lacklustre indeed at the outset, and only just about getting into it by the last movement. Then Shostakovich’s 8th quartet (which is a quite startling piece, and admittedly their best effort of the night — but Mrs LM had heard the Takacs Quartet play this quartet while we were in NZ, and she thought them in an entirely different class). Then after the interval the First Rasumovsky. Sigh. This was really pretty thin and unconvincing stuff (especially from the leader), with even the aching slow movement quite failing to grip the soul. If they’d been a recording they’d have been switched off long before the end.

Or is this unfair? I’ve just been listening again to the Vegh Quartet playing the Beethoven; heart-stopping eloquence. And within reach I have stunning recordings by the Busch Quartet and the Hungarian Quartet too, and equally fine and emotionally gripping newer recordings by the Lindsays in two versions and the Takacs (not to mention three or four other pretty good versions). So is it that, those paradigms having become so  familiar, I have just become primed to expect almost impossibly much from a live concert? (Does the easy availability of the best performances of the last seventy or more years tend to spoil our ability to enjoy anything but the extraordinary?)

No, I really don’t think it is that at all. We have been, for example, to concerts by young quartets who perhaps have quite a way to go, yet which have been just wonderful — where you are swept along for a couple of hours by their vision of the music, by their intense desire to communicate with their audience, by the sense of a shared journey. But last night was not even close to that.

The Endellion remained at a distance, then bowed stiffly in their tail coats, and walked off-stage just leaving me deeply disappointed.

Flattery will get you nowhere: I want cash

I’ve just been asked to report on an application for a substantial grant from a rather wealthy grant-awarding body. “We will greatly value your expert opinion” etc. etc. Huh. I’m sure you will. Value it so much you aren’t offering a penny for what would be most of a day’s work to do properly.

I gave my usual six word response: “No proper fee, no proper report”.

Of course, if the proposal had been bang on topics that I currently am tolerably up to speed on and from someone whose work I already know well and admire, I’d no doubt have done the job (it would have been a very much quicker task, and might help keep up activity in areas I really care about). But then, if that’s other people’s policy too for selecting when they are prepared to write reports, grant awarding bodies are getting a pretty skewed set of  views on proposals. I’d have thought they would have wanted reports written with a bit of distance. They should be prepared to pay decent fees to get them.

Pseuds vs academic bureaucrats

Let me come clean. By my lights, the University of Middlesex philosophy department appears to be a fount of appallingly pretentious pseudery and intellectual garbage of the worst kind. Don’t take my word for it; have a browse through the links here.

Still, that’s not why it is proposed that the department be closed down. It hasn’t anything to do with reputation, supposed research quality (a good score on the last RAE), student numbers, or the like. Indeed, philosophy is the top-rated subject in the university.  No, as a letter from members of the department says,

The Dean explained that the decision to terminate recruitment and close the programmes was ‘simply financial’, and based on the fact that the University believes that it may be able to generate more revenue if it shifts its resources to other subjects – from ‘Band D’ to ‘Band C’ students.   …  In a meeting with Philosophy staff, the Dean acknowledged the excellent research reputation of Philosophy at Middlesex, but said that it made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University.

So now you know. It indeed seems the ‘latest example of mindless behavior by out-of-control academic bureaucrats’ (to borrow the words of Leiter Report, where you’ll find more info), acting in such a way to destroy the very sense of a university as a self-governing academic community.

Sides have to be taken. In this fight I’m with the Bullshit Brigade.

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