Well – that’s it then. Thirty posts in the thirty days of November. I’ll be honest, I’ve probably enjoyed this series more than any previous one. We’ve covered a lot of ground over the past month : politics, surgery, book and TV reviews, unbelievably large animals and unbelievably cute kittens, my dad, my kids, and a few other things besides. There’s been some poetry, some satire, some serious comment and lots of less serious stuff. There’s rarely been a day when inspiration has been hard to come by, and there have been a few likes and comments along the way that have been encouraging and reassuring. At the end of every November daily post challenge, I invariably commit to continue regular posting as we move into December. And equally invariably, I fall out of the habit again. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. I have no doubt that some of you will already be fed up of me clogging up your Twitter feed and Facebook timeline. Whichever way it goes in the future, there will definitely be a short break now (at least for a couple of days) as I tackle the backlog of maintenance jobs that need to be sorted and (more importantly) as we put the decorations up around the house ready for Christmas. Thanks for reading this month; and see you again soon! In the meantime, a repeat of last year’s image that signed off the November 2017 blogathon, and that I suspect sums up the feelings of you, dear Reader, on this November 30th!
This is one of my favourite days of the year. I get to spend the morning welcoming applicants to study medicine at Bristol to their interviews. It’s a great reminder for me of why I love working in HE, and it’s a massive privilege to be able to meet so many incredible, (mostly) young, highly motivated individuals as they set out on a journey that will hopefully lead to them qualifying as doctors in 6 or 7 years’ time. Getting a place at medical school is an incredibly competitive process – we received 3,700 applications for our 251 places in this round, and we will interview about 900 of those applicants as we decide who to make offers to. And this remains the case in the face of what looks like a concerted campaign to undermine the UK higher education sector.
There has been a slow drip-feed of stories over recent months that has created something akin to a hostile environment for universities. Initially, the focus was on Vice-Chancellors’ pay, and one or two outlier salaries were held up as evidence of a rotten system as a whole. This was closely followed by a succession of almost wholly unsubstantiated claims of a crisis of free speech on our campuses; with rumour and anecdote taking the place of actual evidence, to create a narrative that ‘no-platforming’, safe spaces, and ‘snowflake students’, were preventing the robust discussion of contentious ideas. Next came the double-whammy of concerns about value-for-money and claims that white boys going to new universities would end up worse off than their peers who went straight into the world of work at 18. The Augur review of tuition fees is due to report later in December, and is widely trailed as recommending a reduction in fees for subjects like English, Drama, and History; with fee levels capped for medicine, engineering and sciences. This conflation of ‘value for money’ with graduate earnings is simplistic and unhelpful. The ‘worth’ of a degree is not something that can be calculated in purely financial terms. Most recently, unconditional offers (at entry to University) and so-called grade inflation (at graduation) have come into the sights of those seeking a stick to further beat the sector with. The headlines are again dominated by claims of universities lowering standards to allow students in in the first place, and then allowing those students to leave with an undeservedly high award at the end of the course.
What has been remarkable about all of these issues is the lack of detailed empirical evidence underpinning the challenges that have been made; and the uncritical reporting of them in the mainstream media. To be clear, I’m not saying that everything is perfect in the sector; but nor is it anywhere near as dysfunctional as the current narrative might suggest. UK HE is hugely beneficial to the country, and to those towns and cities which have thriving universities. As we teeter on the edge of a departure from the European Union, and in a world that seems to be becoming less certain and more fragmented, institutions that bring people together from across the Home Nations, and the international community, deserve to be supported and reinforced.
There’s story in today’s Guardian newspaper that’s of particular interest to us farmers*. It concerns an unusually large Holstein Friesian steer, a neutered male cow that currently stands at just shy of 2 metres tall and weighs in at 1,400kg (or 220 stone in old money). He goes by the name of Knickers and lives on a farm to the south of Perth in Western Australia. If, like me, your first thought was that’s a lot of good steak to be standing around in a field, Knickers has only survived because he’s now too big to be processed through an abattoir. In this case. size not only matters, but it’s a matter of life and death.
Knickers’ story got me wondering about other abnormally large animals that have cropped up from time to time. First to catch my eye was Ludo, a very large Maine Coons cat who lives alongside his owners in West Yorkshire. Ludo is a monster moggy. Regular readers will know that we’ve recently welcomed our own kitten into our home. Flo is gorgeous and very petite, but she does have concrete boots when it comes to jumping down off the furniture. I’d be very worried that Ludo would come straight through the ceiling if she were to jump off the bed!
However, neither Knickers nor Ludo are in the same league as Darius when it comes to unusual hugeness. Darius is a Continental rabbit – and he’s enormous, weighing in at around 4 stone and measuring around 1.5 metres in length. Darius and his son Jeff (who’s a bit smaller but still growing) eat their way through 2000 carrots a year, and a bale of hay a WEEK. I can’t begin to imagine the volume of droppings that they produce!
I’ve tried really hard not to devote too much of this blog to the soap opera that has become Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Hot air, posturing and bare-faced lies have blighted any attempt at a sensible discussion about the UK’s future relationship with the EU since the 2016 referendum was first mooted. Whilst May and Corbyn have not been the worst offenders in this regard, nor have they been blameless. Each has made statements that stretch the truth and have served to confuse and obfuscate rather than clarify and crystallise the choices facing the country through this critically important process. From May’s recent crass description of EU workers coming to the UK as “queue-jumpers”, to Corbyn’s meaningless and wholly unsubstantiated claims for a “jobs-first Brexit”, they have both played the role of small-minded, party-focused, tinpot apparatchiks, when the country was crying out for strategic leadership.
Now, with the EU having signed off on a Withdrawal Agreement and framework for a future relationship with the UK that they have made clear is the final, fixed offer, May faces the seemingly impossible task of persuading enough MPs to support her ‘deal’ in a vote in the House of Commons in mid December. Somewhat bizarrely, she has embarked on a two week tour of the UK to ‘sell’ the deal, presumably in the hope that public opinion will be brought to bear on those MPs who are minded to defeat the proposal either because it’s too Brexity, or because it’s not Brexity enough, or because they never wanted any Brexit in the first place. The irony is that May’s deal seems to have achieved more in uniting the competing factions than any other proposal so far since the referendum result in 2016. Unfortunately for May, all the factions are united in opposition to it.
Which brings us to the proposal that May and Corbyn will be offered a prime time TV slot to debate their respective positions on the Withdrawal Agreement and future framework as it stands. I can’t imagine a greater TV turnoff than a head-to-head between these two political pygmies. The past two and a bit years’ of Prime Minister’s Question Time encounters between the two has generated all the chemistry and dramatic tension of a wet Wednesday afternoon just outside Ousefleet. It’s not as if we don’t already know how the debate will proceed. May will bang on about a deal that ensures strength and stability (despite all the evidence that we will be poorer as a country, less significant in terms of our place on the world stage, and with a widening of the gap between the rich and the ‘just about managing’ that May made such a fuss about in her ill-fated post-Brexit election campaign). Corbyn will spin his own vision of a unicorn-filled future in which the UK will be outside the EU but will retain all the EU market access and employment protections that our current membership affords. They’ll both agree that their vision respects the will of the 37% of the electorate who voted to leave the EU in 2016 (conveniently ignoring the fact that all recent polling suggests that the slim majority in favour of leaving then, has had serious second thoughts having properly understood the implications.
However, these aren’t even my strongest objections to the TV debate proposal. Even more worryingly, it’s being seriously suggested that this charade of popular politics might replace Strictly Come Dancing, Dr Who and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in the prime time Sunday scheduling. Frankly, nobody voted for that in the referendum.
A new week begins
Once more unto the breach, dear;
Traffic choked M4
Cars, like ideas, move slow
Looking to break free
As the sun rises
Our hopes too dare to emerge
From gridlocked torpor
Slowly the way clears
The week ahead opens up
Hinting at promise
At about this time last year, I wrote about the psychological warfare that was being waged against me by my wife and daughter in pursuit of their goal of securing agreement to us buying a dog. It was a carefully orchestrated campaign, and one that led to a final, grudging acknowledgement that a dog might be a good thing for us to own at some future point.
Fast forward twelve months, and I am delighted to confirm that my resolve has held firm. We still don’t have a dog. We are though, some four months into a house share with a far more manipulative addition to the family.
Flo (or Florence to give her her full name) is a British Blue, a short hair breed that loses very little hair and so meets the dual test for any four legged incomer to this house : maximum cuteness and minimum stimulation of allergic reaction!
It’s fair to say that Flo pretty much now rules our house in a way that I would have thought unthinkable when we first brought her home. She spent the first two hours with us hiding under the sideboard in the living room but she has definitely found her feet since. There is literally nowhere that is now out of bounds to her.
I’ll be honest, I never considered myself to the sort of person who’d end up with part-ownership of a cat. Having been allergic to fur since childhood, even spending time in a house where there’s a cat usually leads to much sneezing and wheezing. I’d looked on cats as being somewhat aloof. However, I’m increasingly coning around to the idea that you don’t really ever own a cat. Rather, the cat becomes the centre of the home, deigning to all you to share her space – but always on her terms. Jean Cocteau describes this co-existence perfectly : “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.”
However, it is H.P. Lovecraft who perhaps best sums up what it is to share your life with a cat : “In its flawless grace and superior self-sufficiency I have seen a symbol of the perfect beauty and bland impersonality of the universe itself, objectively considered, and in its air of silent mystery there resides for me all the wonder and fascination of the unknown.”
In case it’s not already abundantly clear, I’m smitten with our kitten!
The Irish Republic has rarely featured as prominently in the mainstream British media as it has in recent months. Plans for a soft Brexit seem set to founder on the challenges posed by the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland; and the historic referendum on changes to the law relating to abortion was the dominant news story of the late-May Bank Holiday.
Today, the Democratic Unionist Party’s annual conference will be addressed by Boris Johnson, having spent last evening listening to Philip Hammond on why the current Withdrawal Agreement is the best that can be achieved by negotiation.
It was in this context that I came to read Fergal Keane’s Wounds : a memoir of war and love. Having long admired Keane’s forensic approach to broadcast journalism, most notably in his coverage of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 as the BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent, I was intrigued to see how he would tackle a subject that was – literally – much closer to home.
American sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”2. Keane reflects this philosophy perfectly in Wounds, his account of events leading to the Irish Uprising in 1916, the battle for independence and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, and the subsequent civil war and political settlement underpinning the Republic of Ireland as it is today. Keane employs his journalistic skills to excellent effect. Meticulous research and reference to contemporary source materials lends an academic rigour to the writing. But the text is brought to life as Keane draws on his own family history in north Kerry to see the events through the eyes of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.
I came to the book from a position of woeful ignorance about the history of the island of Ireland, and the series of events leading to the Uprising and eventual secession of the Republic from the UK. This book makes clear that what little I thought I knew was hopelessly simplistic and anodyne.
The caricature of English oppressors lording it over an impoverished native population is comprehensively demolished by Keane. He paints a picture of the north Kerry of his grandmother that is so much more complex and nuanced. Certainly, there are ‘old English’ families receiving an income from Irish tenant farmers on estates that were given to English ancestor-invaders several hundred years before. But these landlords are not all hostile to the interests of their tenants, nor are they uniformly against the principle of a greater say for the people of Ireland in their day-to-day governance. Similarly, some of those who fought most doggedly to preserve British rule were themselves born and raised in Ireland. As Keane writes in his prologue : “This is the story of my grandmother who was a rebel, and her brother and how they took up guns to fight the British Empire. And it is the story of another Irishman… who fought against them because he believed it was his duty to uphold the law of his country.” Towards the end of the book, he concludes that : “There was no absolute telling how the mood of the times and the circumstances of family, the generational shifts and, possibly, resentments could change the way in which young men and women saw the world.”
A recurrent theme throughout the book is the genuine conflict that existed across communities, between families, within individual combatants, throughout the skirmishes and battles that characterised the guerrilla campaigns of first the war of independence and then the civil war in the south of Ireland. Keane links the fight for freedom from UK rule in the period after 1916, directly to the Troubles that claimed so many lives in the lead up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998 : “The Provisional [IRA]’s claims of legitimate violence were rooted in the violence of [those] who had no electoral mandate for revolution when they struck in 1916 against a government they declared to be illegitimate.” In this context, the peace process that reached a conclusion in 1998 brought to an end a conflict that had begun 80 years earlier. And this is why questions over the border between north and south as part of the political soap-opera that is the Brexit process have such deep meaning in Northern Ireland and the Republic. In contemplating the possible return of a hard border between the UK and theRepublic, Keane observes : “Nobody thought the war would start again. But so much of our island history is about how unforeseen consequences play out over the long run that I cannot say violence will never return.”
Wounds is a thoughtful, accessible and above all intensely compassionate account of a period of history that has profoundly influenced the last 100 years of politics in the UK. I highly recommend it as a primer for anybody seeking a deeper understanding of the modern history of the island of Ireland, and a better appreciation of why any potential dilution of the Good Friday Agreement is the cause of such alarm.
(Mills, C. W.: 1959, The sociological imagination, Oxford University Press, London)