Mending wall

The opening work of New England poet Robert Frost’s volume North of Boston, Mending Wall is a sophisticated, rational man’s mischief with the psychological necessity an obsolete wall commands for his primitive neighbour.

Mending Wall

Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
He is all pine and I am apple-orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

I very much enjoyed reading this collection of the poem’s critics. From it you learn that Robert Frost considered Mending Wall “a poem that was spoiled by being applied”. Lawrence Raab:

“When President John F. Kennedy inspected the Berlin Wall he quoted the poem’s first line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” His audience knew what he meant and how the quotation applied. And on the other side of that particular wall, we can find another example of how the poem has been used. Returning from a visit to Russia late in his life, Frost said, “The Russians reprinted ‘Mending Wall’ over there, and left that first line off.” He added wryly, “I don’t see how they got the poem started.” What the Russians needed, and so took, was the poem’s other detachable statement: “Good fences make good neighbors.” They applied what they wanted. “I could’ve done better for them, probably,” Frost said, “for the generality, by saying:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
Something there is that does.

“Why didn’t I say that?” Frost asked rhetorically. “I didn’t mean that. I meant to leave that until later in the poem. I left it there.”

“Mending Wall” famously contains these two apparently conflicting statements. One begins the poem, the other ends it, and both are repeated twice. Which are we supposed to believe? What does Frost mean? “The secret of what it means I keep,” he said. Of course he was being cagey, but not without reason.

At a reading given at the Library of Congress in 1962 Frost told this anecdote:

In England, two or three years ago, Graham Greene said to me, “The most difficult thing I find in recent literature is your having said that good fences make good neighbors.”

And I said, “I wish you knew more about it, without my helping you.”

We laughed, and I left it that way.”

“Influential left-wing ideas” (or issues, or initiatives)

Bob From Brockley asked about what I (among others) thought were the most influential left-wing ideas, as a follow-on from what I thought was a dispiriting discussion about influential left-wing individuals.

People report they are finding this difficult. Without a doubt it’s harder to examine the influence of ideas on populations of individuals than the influence of prominant (or perhaps more often, dominant) individuals on populations. But ‘vector’, the metaphor for infection or pollination which is now widely used to talk about the spread of ideas, is a good metaphor because a vector isn’t a single organism with intent, but a phenomenon in a context.

The good influences mentioned so far include (Bob’s) social justice; internationalism; the one-state solution; open source; strangers into citizens and (Sarah’s) statism; LGCT rights; minimum wage; secularism; the blogosphere.

Mine follow. They’re scant I’m afraid. There’s some overlap with Bob, but at least one interesting point of departure.

Good influences

Internationalism. The kind of coordination of effort and redistribution of resources and know-how which holds that tackling climate change is important because some people, whose lives are as important as ours, reside in low-lying Bangladesh. This depends on a sense that “that could be me”, and empathy, which I think of as an essentially left-wing disposition. The kind of coordination which sends international peace-keeping forces to underwrite Ivory Coast democracy and peace in the Balkans. And at the grass-roots, organisations like Fairtrade, Labour Behind the Label and the rainforest preservation initiatives whose idea of sustainability includes the wellbeing of local human communities.

Equality. It’s good that talk of social mobility, which implies decline as well as gain, has been replaced to some extent by a commitment to arrest and reverse the gap between the middle and the poor. Wilkinson and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’ has changed the political right and recalibrated the left by claiming that inequality harms the wealthy as well as the poor. On the other hand, the Equality Act (now threatened by the Coalition on the pretext of removing burdens on business) was conceived to support equality of opportunity by outlawing discrimination.

Openness. Open government: the Freedom of Information Act. Open source: Moodle not BlackBoard; OpenOffice not Microsoft Office; Ubuntu not Mac OS; Audacity not GarageBand. The open web: Twitter not Facebook; Gutenberg and CreativeCommons, not Amazon.

The following two are on a different scale from the three above. Better to think of them as initiatives rather than ideas.

Mutualism and cooperatives. Workers’ stake in decision-making about the businesses which employ them. N.b. I (and I think Bob too) mean for the commercial sector, rather than this weird New Labour and latterly Conservative mutualisation of what were formerly state-run public services.

The nanny state. I know that the smoking ban passed through the legistature on an employment law technicality, but for many, smokers and non-smokers alike, it’s a good thing if we are supported to overcome the parts of us which a) hurt us, and b)  draw heavily on a shared NHS pot. The nanny state also belongs in the ‘not influential enough’ section below. I hope for more nannying over our diets and physical activity. I also hope for a better name for this, and feel ambivalent about its alternative, libertarian paternalism.

Not influential enough

Conservation. Conservation is the un-self-interested investment in unknown future others. It stands against consumption, against individualism and for kindness. It cares, preserves, doesn’t take for granted, doesn’t squander, and hands over in good order. It treats the world as an inheritance. Sound left-wing to you? Me neither – even though it should be a principal tenet of the left. This is why I remain, despite their many and troubling failings, more Green than Labour.

Opposing the consumption of animal. In recent decades, the desire for cheap animal protein in a capitalist system has precipitated a race to the bottom in terms of animal welfare. As a general rule, animals are bred to maximise feed conversion at the expense of their health, pumped with pharmaceuticals at the expense of our health. Their deaths are never good, often not achieved quickly, and the sick ones are rarely euthanased because it’s too expensive. The animals’ shit makes us ill. Animal farming is for the most part environmentally degrading and takes up an enormous amount of land at the expense of other food crops – i.e. we do not need to eat animal to thrive. The most acute and prevalent suffering in the world is that of farmed animals. There can be no left-wing position that supports this disgusting, self-harming state of affairs.

Related to openness, the free flow of ideas embodied in the open access movement, enabled by CreativeCommons which fractured the binary all or nothing approach to authors’ rights, and allowed them to decide how they wanted to make their work available.  There is a growing number of reputable non-commercial publication channels such as the Open Humanities Press (another major vector of left-wing thinking and amplifying some of the individuals I know Bob feels have too much influence on the left – but, those individuals aside, a model of how academic publishing should be). Now there is nothing to stop the world’s scholars publishing gratis and libre open access, and offering their ideas to a hungry world. However most continue to publish commercially for readers of means, often without self-archiving.

I’m beginning to become resentful (I think it may be partly due to a bout of inter-festive dejection) so let us proceed to:

Initiatives I appreciate when I’m feeling realist in a right-wing world

  • Micro-credit
  • Regulation of the money markets
  • Philanthropy

All for now – thanks Bob. Like him I doubt I can rouse anybody to this, but I’d be very interested to hear from Stroppy, Papanomicron, Barkingside21 and let’s bother Mod some more. And, remembering that Marko did this last year in a fashion, I read his again.

Update: here’s Weggis – think observation rather than aspiration.

In pictures: Barkingside snowday

I don’t remember snow mounting up so quickly here. Matt and I walked up to Claybury Park to see the sights.

Fullwell Avenue empty in the snow

No cars - they were all stuck at Fullwell Cross

Tropical tree, British hearth, pagan lights, Barkingside

Tropical tree, British hearth, pagan lights, Barkingside

 

Tailback as buses are defeated on Tomswood Hill

Orchard at the edge of Claybury Park

The orchard at the Tomswood Hill edge of Claybury Park

Me

Me

The little lights of Barkingside from Tomswood Hill, Claybury Park

The little lights of Barkingside from Tomswood Hill, Claybury Park

Then we followed the shrieks of excitement to the top of Pancake Hill and a family whose father’s shoes we retrieved after they flew off at high speed lent us their plastic sheets and I had my first taste of what we’d seen last year. Very exciting.

Christmas lights on Atherton Road

Christmas lights on Atherton Road

Snowman on Fullwell Avenue

Snowman, Fullwell Avenue. One of several giants this year.

Christmas lights on Fullwell Avenue

Christmas lights on Fullwell Avenue

Another giant snowman

Another giant snowman, Fullwell Avenue

Footnotes. A group of malevolent older boys aimed unwanted snowballs at the sledgers from the top of the hill. When we approached they retreated a little and then threw more snowballs at us with intent, and when we got sarcastic with them  one began to scream, until his voice cracked, that Matt was a fat ginger cunt who should take a look at himself and cut his hair. On the way up Fullwell Avenue, a car having trouble turning on the ice evoked pure rage on the part of an oncoming driver who rolled down his window and called the other drive a fucking Paki. Red mist came upon me. I wish such people would go and leave Barkingside to the friendly people who speak other languages and go out as a family to make huge snowballs and huger snowmen.

World War

There’s a bloodless world war going on over Wikileaks (background from Modernity – search for Wikileaks). US government sympathisers are trying to run Wikileaks off the web. A hackers group called Anonymous is responding by attacking the various companies complicit in this. As of now, Amazon is coming down (and sometimes back up) across Europe.

Comment on the conflict from these academics (by the way, in the proposed English funding regime for higher education, these thinkers would not get state funding for teaching about this social side of the Web):

Nothing sensible from me at this time, except I am glad Wikileaks exists, and that I find it provoking that Wikileaks vigilantes have done more damage to capitalist enterprise in a week than anti-capitalists have achieved in the last year.

Update: I hear on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that Amazon say their downtime was due to a hardware fault.

Jay Rayner is not a hypocrite about meat

Today I read Jay Rayner:

“I do so love animals, especially dead, sliced up and roasted ones, their very life blood oozing out of them to the rim of my plate;”

Jay Rayner is contemptuous of what he assumes to be the hypocrisy of people who like their animal cooked all the way through before they sink their teeth in. He believes that these people are attempting to deny that they are eating animal at all, and this bothers him:

“Those of us who eat meat should face up to what it once was: a living creature that bled if it was pricked and can bleed still.”

If like Oscar Wilde you understand that hypocrisy is a compliment that vice pays to virtue, you’ll also understand how natural it is that anybody who has begun to engage with what animals experience in the run up to their unnecessary slaughter should actively try to forget what they are eating. You’ll also conclude that Jay Rayner has no conscience with regard to animals.

Then again, given that he insists “Snobbery is good. Snobbery is terrific. Snobbery is what makes the world move forward” and yet simultaneously favours factory farming over free range, maybe all this appalling, hurtful baiting is more about the struggle between Jay Rayner’s carnivorous tendency and his own conscience than it is about meat eaters who try to forget that they are eating the slaughtered dead.

The vote for fees was a vote for cuts

campaign against tuition fees - not overThe government will at some stage publish a white paper on the future of higher education, but by that time the critical decisions will have been made. One such was yesterday’s Parliamentary vote for a staggering rise in the cap on annual tuition fees to £9k, providing a new source of revenue to universities and simultaneously providing the basis for withdrawing public funding from all but the most expensive courses to run. The logic is that in this new market, institutions will compete on quality. But I think the general ignorance about pedagogy will impede this, and things you can count (price, provision in hours or things, say, as distinct from learning itself) will become proxies for quality. I predict that higher learning will suffer, that society will be impoverished as a result, and ultimately that this marketisation will contribute to our losing ground by whatever metric you choose, including our global competitiveness, innovativeness, and GDP.

I hope the Lords spit it out, as they look like they might the day after tomorrow. It’s a topsy turvy world when you hope for a Lords vote against the commons.

On the 9th, intending to protest in Parliament Square, a colleague and I met with student union people at Charing Cross and took a route through Trafalgar Square under Admiralty Arch and into Parliament Square via Horseguards Rd. Finding some of the demonstrators as intimidating as the police, I didn’t want to be there, but I had promised myself to turn up. Society is unfair and becoming more so, and polite protest, while necessary, is inadequate for the times. Because of the inertia of the status quo it’s not possible to change things from the ground up without the kind of direct action that disrupts their normal day-to-day running. It’s also necessary to catch media attention, and the established media reflects us well in its prurience so the temptation, particularly for less creative demonstrators, is to do something tabloid. Although ultimately there needs to be a plan – and I hate the division of labour by which some people limit themselves to critique and never progress to the hard work of planning viable alternatives – sometimes at the beginning it is permitted to say simply No.

When the police let us out of Trafalgar Square demonstrators began to move at a canter to outrun their attempts to contain us further along. The young men pushing me from behind nearly felled and trampled me in pursuit of their stupid rite of passage. Twice we dodged through police lines as they were forming, arms spread and open handed, to stop us proceeding. As one officer yelled at his colleagues to strengthen the line he raised his right arm to gesture and I ducked under it while my friend went to his left. We reached Parliament Square and stood around.

Placards in front of Big Ben

It wasn’t very cold but fires were soon started. I disown the burning of our wooden benches as part of this direct action, and if I had been close enough I’d have either stopped it or taken photographic evidence to submit to the police.

College Green was fenced off but the fences were quickly dismantled and we made our way onto the grass trying not to trample our lavender and our small box plants. After half an hour or so my friend and I decided to investigate the perimeter of the police line. It was porous – we found we could leave Parliament Square and so we went for a short toilet break in the Westminster Arms which turned into a pint, which turned into the rest of the afternoon – they had rolling news on Sky and the BBC, and conveniently we couldn’t get back. We also coincidentally met with some acquaintances of mine from work, so it was too easy to remain for the rest of the evening watching the boxes and discussing what was going on. I felt guilty and relieved watching the mounted police charge into the crowd. People were bleeding. A police officer had fallen from his panicking horse which had trampled him in the stomach while trying to get away. Live by the sword, die by the sword (he didn’t die). Marko has an eyewitness account of the policing which commends the discipline of most individual police officers and condemns the policing strategy on the day. Journalist Shiv Malik was injured by police, requiring 5 stitches. The police were taking their breaks and looking after injured colleagues outside the pub, and I thought of my father in sin.

If I get into a frank conversation about fees and cuts I usually find myself frustrated or marginalised because of my tic about requiring more realism on the far left. Radicals who are only against things, and vaguely, and even more vaguely for things, are profoundly unimpressive. Plastic. A balance between realism, idealism and practice is what’s required, so if there’s nobody else interested in the ‘How’ questions, then I’ll ask those. I expect better responses than I get. Most people clearly find the questions boring. ‘How’ questions are feel-bad questions, because they uncover our intellectual apathy and consequent ignorance. Maybe this is not unrelated to our predicament.

Even the ‘What’ questions prove hard to answer. Thursday night’s Newsnight nicely encapsulated the range of misinformation being spread from some of the most prominent student demonstrators on the one hand to the Conservative architects of the new policy, on the other. Of course I side with the students – but isn’t it the case that being full of ideals and thin on facts was a good way to end up at a Nuremberg Rally?

So, when the LSE occupiers protest that their younger siblings “can’t afford to go to university”, that’s a basic misunderstanding of how the fees will be administrated. What is proposed is undeniably an easy debt to service. It is time-bound, earnings-linked, and will not effect the debtor’s credit rating. The FSE tell us there’s no basis for arguing that poor students will be less likely to attend university. It should be obvious that the meritocratic tariffs for being accepted on a university course are far, far more exclusive of poorer students than these debts will be. No, this is a matter of principle: should higher education be entirely publicly funded, or not? Should David Willetts, author of a book called The Pinch about how the baby boomers have “stolen their children’s future”, be able to require students to take on £50k of personal debt to fund the higher education their parents could get for free – and then, as he did on Newsnight, tell us unblinkingly that higher education is still tax-payer funded? (Fucking hell. I mean fucking hell.) And should a government that is hell-bent on reducing our national debt be permitted to displace it to individual citizens by requiring school-leavers and other prospective students to get into half a lifetime of personal debt?

Harder questions – questions which should have been addressed prior to the Browne Review which looked only at funding. What is higher learning today? What is it for? Again, what is higher learning, beyond simple provision followed by examination by somewhere with degree-awarding powers? How, in fact, does it relate to the idea of a university? How does it relate to the health of a public? Why should we fund it publicly? Who should be enitled to attend? And what proportion of us? Who are the beneficiaries, and to what extent? How do we reconcile a meritocratic public system with the cold hard fact of growing inequality which means that the achieving sixth formers who gain university places tend to be the privileged and self-assured ones?

I’m inclined to think little of bloggers who only ask questions without attempting to answer them, but I have to stop there. For now.

I commend my MP Lee Scott (Ilford North) for defying his whip, resigning as Parliamentary aide, and abstaining. I only wish he could have voted against the motion, as he announced he would a fortnight ago – but at any rate, he was one of the few MPs who made a sacrifice yesterday evening and he deserves credit for that. Principles and the views of his constituents above his own prospects – good for him. Lee Scott is a Conservative MP.

Looking forward, if I were a student union official I would be organising with the other institutions in the group mine was in (e.g. the Russell Group, or the 94 Group) to use completion of the National Student Survey, which is voluntarily completed by students but which feeds into league tables and is very high stakes for a university’s reputation, as a point of negotiation with senior management.

See also earlier posts:

I plan to demonstrate again, and this time I will make sure I’m actually there, with heavy duty gloves, contact lenses, pillows and a hard hat.

Together we can turn the university into a factory / to do before the 9th December 2010

poster from Middlesex Philosophy campaign

The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance spin-off False Economy has launched just in time to document The Higher Education funding bill which proposes to uncap tuition fees and comes before Parliament on 9th December.

Between now and 9th:

“MPs will return from their constituencies on Monday. On Tuesday there will be another meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs to try and thrash out an agreement. On Wednesday, the students will again be demonstrating and thus pushing the story onto the front pages again, there will be Prime Minsters Questions and the Institute of Fiscal Studies will release its analysis of the government’s plans. In the evening, a Lib Dem will have to tackle Question Time on the BBC. On Thursday there will be more demonstrations and the vote.”

Two good letters on which to base yours, one in The Times and the other at the Campaign for the Public University, where there are many other good things.

As usual William Cullerne Bown is an excellent source of reading on this. He’s made a timeline in Dipity which indicates that if things go ahead the Charity Commission will be examining universities’ charity status the day after Boxing Day. And we may be contravening the Creative Commons terms of everything we use that was licenced as Non Commercial (I only just negotiated with my institution to make certain stuff I produce available to the HE community on the basis that it was licenced as Non Commercial.)

For arguments, follow Humanities and Social Sciences Matter and Defend the Arts and Humanities.

Anthony Barnett sums up very well what the government proposals entail and imply (as far as I know – I can’t find the text of the bill):

“On education my response is that I don’t think Clegg understands what is happening, or if he does he is a completely dishonourable cynic. He is obsessed with the issue of what the students are liable for, as well he might be for this is where he made his pledge. My point is that the very steep increase in fees and loans is combined with a withdrawal of state funding as well. I know one major London department that has lost the whole of its grant. Henceforth it has to fund itself entirely from its student income. It must therefore compete for student applications. It will be forced to drop specialist areas, that may well be the seed corn of the future, if this means employing staff who don’t attract lots of students, whatever the staff’s judgment about the international future of their field. This is the marketisation of higher education, turning what is taught into a commodity and forcing out the eccentric, the different, the original and the traditional but unpopular, all of which a university should strive to preserve for society because this is an essential part of what a university must try to be: a place of universal learning.

Second, still on universities, while withdrawing direct state funding, the government is recycling it through students in the form of large loans, which the banks will charge interest on but which the government will guarantee. Leaving aside the increase in government debt this will entail (ah ha), this ensures that private capital gets a slice of what remains a state sponsored policy. This is the second way in which higher education funding is being marketised.  My point is not that graduates should not pay a contribution (I’d prefer a graduate tax, but then, of course, the banks can’t charge interest). It is that the larger values of society and scholarship are also being amputated and they are a vital part of what defines us as a society. As we lose these limbs, the Coalition is in effect, whether Nick understands it or not, seeking to ensure that the market colonises our minds and, finally, our sense of what is possible.”

Lib Dem Greg Mulholland is urging a postponement of the vote on 9th pending a better-thought-out white paper on reform in 2011. The withdrawal of public funding then also needs to be postponed, and it should be.

On False Economy, they are gathering opposition to the cuts and some alternatives to the cuts. Though if the truth be told – and not unrelated to our predicament – they’re a little light on the alternatives.