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!
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
There is a really interesting long read in today’s Guardian. The article examines how we have weaponised our leisure time in a way that would have been unthinkable to our grandparents (and probably even our parents). Competition and the clamour for public approbation of our sporting, baking, reading, photographic or other (insert hobby here) activities is linked to a decline in the meaning that we find in our professional lives. The argument runs that if you are in a bullshit job (and – to a greater or lesser extent – most of us are), then one way to find meaning in your life is through the things that you do in your leisure time. The ability to share our achievements, exploits, creations, finish times on a whole range of social media platforms serves to both reinforce this sense of meaning, but also increases the pressure that we feel to be better/faster/more creative. Rather than leisure time being a time to rest and recover, we use our hobbies and other discretionary activity as a way to increase our sense of personal worth and value.
There’s a lot in the article that I can identify with. When I’m running (and I’ll be back soon – see blogs passim) I do user a tracker and upload my data to Strava. I like to monitor my progress, but not in comparison to others. I keep my stats to track my own progress – when I run at parkrun or any other run, I’m running with other people, not against them. My competition is the clock. To be honest, it’s the same with this blog. I do like to see whether people are reading, and it’s always interesting to compare which posts attract more or less reader attention. But – to take the daily blogpost through November as an example – what really matters to me is the discipline of completing the challenge. Completing it as a ‘public’ diary rather than simply jotting down some thoughts in an exercise book is part of the way that I hold myself to account.
There’s an interesting section in the Guardian piece about the ways that some people are using YouTube guides and audiobooks to fast-track their social time – listening to audio-books at 1.5x speed, or fast forwarding through on-line videos. This is presented as being something new. I’m less sure about that, though. I still vaguely remember the Readers Digest booklets that were a regular arrival at my grandparents’ house, containing abridged versions of various books. Perhaps in some respects, at least, whilst the technology has undoubtedly changed, the desire to squeeze the most benefit possible from our leisure time is not so different to that experienced by earlier generations.
I happened upon this story on the BBC news website today. It’s a really interesting case study in the benefits and perils of social media. Twitter in particular has a tendency to be incredibly supportive/funny/informative/challenging, and negative/insulting/abusive/ vindictive – all at the same time. It tends not to be a platform that encourages nuance and subtlety – the requirement for brevity (even after the increase in the character limit to 280) often leads to the sacrifice of balance on the altar of impact. But it can also be a brilliant introduction to wider discussions, either through the use of threads of tweets, or the inclusion of links to other websites or blogs where more complex arguments are developed in greater detail. This is the approach that is deployed by some of my favourite users of Twitter, including @davidallengreen and @BarristerSecret.
The former has been a consistently reliable and balanced commentator on the legal and political processes surrounding Brexit, and the unavoidable legalities that EU Treaties and the Article 50 requirements place on the UK government and the EU. He has consistently (and without bias or favour) pointed out the inaccuracies and impossibilities of positions put forward by Leavers, Remainers and (occasionally) even the EU itself. His predictions of the complexity of the withdrawal process and the dangers of thinking that it would either speedy or straightforward have been consistently proved right.
@BarristerSecret is a practising barrister who works extensively in the criminal justice arena and who highlights the absurdity of cuts to the courts and wider criminal justice system, and the appalling impact that austerity has had on justice for both victims and those accused of committing crimes. In addition, Tweets from the Secret Barrister are an essential go-to whenever the popular press picks up on an apparently lenient sentence or some other alleged calumny by either a judge or lawyer in a criminal case. The patient explanation of sentencing guidelines and their application in cases that attract tabloid fury, provide an invaluable insight into the constraints within which judges work, and the (often) unintended consequences of poorly conceived, politically motivated guidance.
Twitter can also be spectacularly entertaining. This beauty comes from Brian Bilston, my favourite pop poet, and coincides with the launch of the latest series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. It seems a suitable way to sign off today’s post!
Sometimes, I start writing entries on this blog with no real plan for where it might take me. Today is one of those days, but it’s been a fascinating journey, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too…
Traffic lights as we know them are 95 years old today. The patent for three position traffic lights was awarded in the US to Garrett Morgan on this day in 1923. The first traffic light system had been installed in London in 1868, but it was Morgan who came up with the idea of adding the amber light to better control traffic at busy junctions. Morgan sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for £40,000 (equivalent to about £500,000 in today’s money).
Morgan’s is a fascinating life, straight out of the American Dream handbook, made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was the black son of former slaves. Born in Kentucky in the final quarter of the 19th Century, he moved north to Ohio searching for work and took jobs as a handyman and then sewing machine repairman, before opening his own repair shop. Such was his success, that he expanded into clothing stores and then a newspaper – the Cleveland Call and Post, one of the most prominent of the black newspapers in the US.
The Call and Post featured prominently the Scottsboro case in 1931, which led to Supreme Court rulings on the conduct of criminal trials that remain in place to this day. The case was highly racially charged, involving an allegation of rape by two white women against 9 African American teenagers in the state of Alabama. The case is now widely cited as an example of a dreadful miscarriage of justice.
The Call and Post was facing bankruptcy and dissolution in 1998, but was saved from the brink by boxing promoter Don King. King is one of the most flamboyant and controversial characters in world boxing. He promoted the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila – two of the three bouts contested by Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier; and more recently, he was responsible for charting the meteoric rise of Mike Tyson, before an equally dramatic decline in his protogees fortunes. King himself has twice been charged with manslaughter – on the first occasion he was acquitted when the court accepted that he was seeking to prevent the victim from robbing him. The second case was much less justifiable, and King spent nearly four years in prison as a result.
More recently, King landed himself in hot water when he used the n word while introducing Donald Trump at a presidential campaign event at a Black church in Cleveland in 2016. It’s perhaps unfortunate that there isn’t a system of warning lights for Republican speakers at political rallies. It would save them all a lot of unnecessary trouble!