The Repair Shop and Money for Nothing – BBC public service broadcasting at its best

Two programmes I really admire are Money for Nothing and The Repair Shop, both on BBC One. I’m not sure how to apportion credit, but Field Kean Films produces Money for Nothing and Ricochet produces The Repair Shop.

Steven Fletcher works on a toy battleship in The Repair Shop

Revealing a transformed armchair

Leanne reveals a transformed armchair to EJ in Money for Nothing

Money for Nothing is a about upcycling as social entrepreneurship. It always begins with Sarah Moore (sometimes Jay Blades or EJ Osborne) waylaying people at the boot of their car, intercepting objects they’re about to dispose of at their municipal tip. They can be lengths of fabric, old filing cabinets, chairs, sewage pipe, old wooden bowling balls – you name it. We find out the object’s story before she takes it away to a specialist artisan in her network, including Zoe Murphy who designs patterns in Margate, Jay Blades who makes furniture and may still be based in Wolverhampton, Bex Simon who’s a Guildford blacksmith, Rob Shaer who works with wood in Walthamstow, Chinelo who designs garments in Canning Town, and Anthony Devine who upholsters in Manchester. After negotiating a budget (materials and labour) for transforming the object into something saleable, she goes away again leaving the artisan with creative licence. Sarah works on one of the objects herself. Arthur Smith narrates satirically.

Each programme follows the decisions and subsequent work on three objects, nicely paced so by the time the last is intercepted at the tip we’re half way through the tranformation of the first. When each is completed, Sarah arrives with her van and there’s a dramatic reveal. She pays the artisan, takes the object away and markets it to vendors with premises or web shops. Then she returns to the original owner with an iPad to show them the transformation and, if the object has sold, she gives them all the profit which I’ve see range from a fiver to £200.

Money for nothing - Jay Blades passes profit to original owner

I find this format absolutely ingenious. All of the money seems to come from and go to the right places. Viewers see a demonstration of entrepreneurship (another word for initiative in one’s livelihood) as Sarah coordinates adding value to what was going to be landfilled or dismembered. While she is presumably paid by the BBC licence fee, the artisans’ work is paid for by people with the income to freely buy valuable bespoke pieces. Viewers watch respect and creative vision shown to junk everyone else had given up on. The original owner is delighted to be doorstepped with money conjured from nothing, and and more often than not a charity is the ultimate beneficiary. By intercepting objects from the tip the programme is saving local authorities (that’s tax payers) money on landfill tax and recycling. Viewers learn that almost nothing needs to go to the tip if you have access to skilled labour. And in a society which increasingly valorises science, technology, engineering and maths and diminishes the arts, viewers learn how inspiring and valuable the livelihoods of artisans can be.

On a similar theme but with a different perspective, The Repair Shop begins with people  bringing broken family treasures to a spacious workshop in the Weald and Downland Living Museum where Jay Blades triages them on a table and interviews their owners about the object’s history – this part is a combination of Antique’s Roadshow and Supervet. Each object is then allocated to one or more specialists for conservation and restoration. Steven Fletcher is a clockmaker, Suzie Fletcher works with leather. Lucia Scalisi conserves paintings, Kirstin Ramsay specialises in ceramics, William Kirk restores heirlooms, and Brenton West is a silversmith. They each work in sight of each other at their own station in the workshop. Like Money for Nothing there are three items, ranging from broken plates with grandparents’ portraits, an old aviator jacket from a relative gunned down in World War II, a battered silver purse owned by a beloved grandmother, a pouffe, and all manner of old clockwork including a copper rain gauge and a barometer that inks the air pressure onto a roll of graph paper. We follow the dilemmas and progress of the artisans as they dunk gunky clockwork in vats of cleaner, stabilise and repair fragile materials, steam clean ceramics, conserve flaking leather, create missing wheatsheafs for porcelain clock cases, and painstakingly match paint. As with Money for Nothing, the objects are staggered so each is at a different stage. Finally the owner returns, sometimes with their kids, and the restored object is unveiled for the next generation to inherit.

About to unveil a restored heirloom at The Repair Shop

This programme moves me deeply. Like Money for Nothing it’s a format that rescues objects that appear to be beyond salvage, and lays bare the painstaking work of artisans past and present. The exquisite acts of restoration surface the intense love people have for their deceased family members; their yearning to save these pieces brings a generation-spanning perspective to every episode which is unfailingly moving. Unlike Money for Nothing there is no discussion of the value of these items, because they are destined to be treasured in the family and not be sold. The BBC has funded the restoration so that viewers can learn British history, and how things used to be made, and how they can be made anew. We learn the history of amateur climate science, world wars, and how everyday lives were led. We also learn techniques – that you need to apply shellac with a soft brush, what kind of stitch you need for which fabric, how to mix the right glue for the job, and how to apply it, test it, and what to do when it’s dried. You can see how to clean anything, stabilise anything, and that it’s fine to wear two pairs of spectacles at once.

Badly damaged leather pouffe

Before I finish this, I want to talk about Brexit, a hugely divisive era which threatens to impoverish this society and throw us back on our reserves. Right wing Brexit supporters look forward to this because they believe that younger people today lack grit and initiative. They think they are in need of a salutary dose of adversity to bring out their mettle. Necessity is the mother of invention, they think. I don’t see things that way, but I see these two programmes appeal across the political spectrum for reasons which transcend politics. In Money for Nothing there is no moralising at all, but I see the inheritance of a financial crisis expressed as a sort of providential scavenging (environmentalists bring their own subtexts). In the enormous popular appeal of the The Repair Shop I see another sort of prudence embraced by a society that has become interested, late in the day, in conserving the last relics of the British Empire – its science, the glory it took in its victories, the artefacts it manufactured with its spending power.

I find it poignant that these objects are usually deposited by people whose families had a long enough history in this country to have benefited – if by default – from its extractive capitalism in other lands, and were able to accrue a few treasures to pass on. I can’t help noticing that all the energy in this programme is dedicated to easing their pain. And yet those objects may be restored by an artisan whose forebears could conceivably have experienced the degradations of the Empire.

Money for Nothing deploys vision, skill and graft to convert junk discarded by older people into profit which it then returns to them – which I find symbolic of austerity and perhaps of a gentle education. In the Repair Shop, heirlooms of immense emotional significance become labours of love carried out by sensitive and empathetic strangers. Very deftly and tacitly, these programmes look to me like social cohesion.

Tricycle Theatre and the UKJFF – no quiet for quiet

Even from this one article I can think of several possible angles to take on the decision by the board of Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre not to host the UK Jewish Film Festival unless the organisers refused funding from the Israeli Embassy cultural department and accepted instead an equivalent amount from the theatre itself.

 The first is that the Tricycle acted very late. It had come under pressure last year, from a group which openly seeks an end to Israel’s existence, and you get the impression it craved a quiet life. Although the films of the UKJFF are famously open minded about Israel’s conflicts, Israel’s boycotters, seemingly always short of creative ideas or recreational outlets, have taken to wrecking anything that could conceivably be linked to Israel. So I’m guessing the Tricycle decided to jettison Israeli Embassy funding, create a bit of distance, buy itself some quiet. It doesn’t seem to have much zeal for boycotting Israel, but it did so anyway. If this speculation is right, then that is a milestone in the boycott campaign.

The second is that if the Tricycle were set on excluding Jews, I don’t think it would have offered to shell out from its own pocket. Linda Grant says “I’m happy to press war crimes charges against politicians and generals, but not punish ballerinas and actors because you can’t get at the powerful”. The Tricycle is not punishing Israeli film makers with exclusion – it is attempting to substitute for an Israeli Embassy funder. So I can’t see that there’s any antisemitic intent here. As for antisemitic effects, that’s another matter (update: Nick Cohen on the racist nature of discriminatory double standards). But it doesn’t have to be antisemitic to be plain wrong.

The third is that refusing Israeli funding is indeed a measure towards ‘neutrality’. But, reading the statement, the neutrality they seem to be referring to is between opposing British partisans, not between Israel and Hamas. Because if the Tricycle were to accept Israeli funds, there would be a tornado of rage from British anti-Israel activists which would bring a response in kind from the supporters of Israel, and there would be an almightly fight all over the festival, driving away the tender punters and draining the energies of the director and board.

Another is that the Tricycle cannot be neutral in the actual conflict by refusing to take Israeli Embassy money when Hamas has no intention of giving it money. The Israeli Embassy is not even in the same league as Hamas. We clearly need to revisit who Hamas are – even if you think that Israel’s strategy is ill-fated, Hamas are a self-declaredly implacable and legitimate enemy. Who will actually cheer the Tricycle’s decision? My prediction is Israel-eliminationists, pro-Hamas activists, Islamists, Arab nationalists and those who are combinations of each. You can judge a controversial action by what the people who like it stand for.

Another is that the ‘plague on both their houses’ approach of not “accepting funding from any party to the conflict” makes me ache for a Hamas that did actually want to fund the kind of arts which theatres like the Tricycle host. What a genuine bridge to understanding that could be. Then the Tricycle could fund both, and the supporters of each would flock to watch. As militant Islamists, I doubt Hamas likes artists because artists tend to be resolutely independent-minded. Israel, on the other hand, is a hothouse for critical films about Israel.

Another is that it’s a big development for boycotting Israel to be considered ‘neutrality’ when it has always been the acceptable front of a longstanding campaign to end Israel’s actual existence. Is the Tricycle’s decision a sign that the boycott is changing its identity to something more constructive? Perhaps but I am a long way from being convinced.

Another is that there is something penetrating about the equal treatment of Israel and Hamas, because it is a neat way to expose differences and inequalities. So when the BBC reports equally, it throws into relief the discrepancies between Gaza and Israel – the number of deaths, the affluence, or the amount of firepower, or the protections available to ordinary residents. When the Tricycle boycotts both Israel and Hamas, you realise that Hamas doesn’t like the arts at all although – as we now know – it has plenty of spare cash.

Another is that the Tricycle caused a self-boycott on the part of UKJFF, because its quest for a quiet life on the home front was interpreted by the Jewish organisers as a wedge to part Jews from the world’s only Jewish state. A few things about this. Though my knowledge about UK Jewry is slim, I know that it is normal for most Jews to have family ties to Israel – that’s the way the cookie crumbled for European Jews after the Holocaust. I also know that in countries where antisemitism is waxing – France, for example – Jews are more susceptible to come-hithers from Israel. I haven’t mentioned the (more positive) spiritual and emotional connection between Jews and Israel, but I understand it’s pretty strong. Under the circumstances, I doubt that attempts to pry apart Jews and Israel will have much success – although without these pressures I’m certain that Israel would come to feel more and more distinct. It is after all, its own place, and it has never given much support to Jews who live outside Israel. And for the moment it has an awful government. But for now, for many Jews, if even at the back of their mind, Israel is their insurance against a resurgence of expulsions, statelessness and physical attacks.

Another is that I hope I’ve exposed as a black joke Nicholas Hytner’s comment that it’s the UKJFF who, though they have always been funded by the Israeli Embassy “have unwisely politicised a celebration of Jewish culture”.

The UK Jewish Film Festival will take place, but keep an eye out for the new venues.

Update 9th August

It’s looking worse and worse for the Tricycle. Adam Wagner of 1 Crown Office Row barristers’ chambers examines has a UK Human Rights blogpost examining whether the Tricycle Theatre has broken the law. He draws attention to the Tricycle’s self-description as an organisation that “views the world through a variety of lenses, bringing unheard voices into the mainstream” (ringing hollow right now). he also sheds light on the tiny amount (should have realised it would be tiny if the Tricycle were offering to cover it) which was probably also a tiny proportion of the overall funding. Nick Cohen points out that the Israeli Embassy did not impose any conditions on the donation. He also points out that the money the Tricycle proposed to substitute for the Israeli money comes from the UK state, which has gone to war in Iraq with drastic loss of human life. The double standards on Israel are unjustifiable. We need to get to the bottom of why only Israel? It is not far-fetched to suppose that at the heart of this is latent unintentional bias against Jews.

Update 16th August

Despite 500 artistic signatories to a letter defending The Tricycle against allegations of antisemitism, the theatre decided to revoke the conditions on the UK Jewish Film Festival. This was a happy outcome, but one which for me was marred by worry that it didn’t represent any change of heart on the part of the Trike. On Twitter the campaign to boycott the theatre – including @TalOfer and @BoycottTricycle – was elated. They should be proud of a well-organised campaign, but they seemed to care more about touting the decision as their victory than celebrating it as an victory of anti-discrimination activism. Maybe they were right – other funders had begun to pull out of the Trike, so maybe it had no choice. In which case, the new decision is not enlightened but forced. Better forced than nothing, but I’m left with a feeling of disquiet and questions about the Trike’s motives. Could they have been persuaded, or was money and the most strident voices the only thing that talked? Are they still susceptible to this antisemitic variety of anti-Zionism which singles out Israel alone for special penalties? The anti-Zionists are livid and mystified, and determined to be the loudest voices and the biggest sticks. For its part the Tricycle’s and UKJFF’s joint statement did nothing to illuminate the situation, or really explain its take on reconciliation. It needed to be clearer about its principles in order for the decision not to be seen by the increasing number of people with antisemitic instincts as a capitulation to Jewish power. As Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles remarked on Twitter, “The Jewish film festival ban/un-ban by Tricycle Theatre” has been a disaster from beginning to end. I wonder if there is still space for reason, persuasion, empathy, and compassion.

The Spirit of ’45

Matt and I went to see Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45 this evening. It is a series of excerpts from interviews with activists and trade unionists on different themes cut with photographs and footage of the post-war years of social democracy until Thatcher ended it. What I found convincing were the grievances of the interviewees, many of whom had watched loved ones die meaninglessly due to reckless profiteering in the mines or lack of adequate housing. Others had had brutal encounters with the police, who I thought were represented with restraint here but nevertheless as the enforcers of the rich and powerful that they have been and sometimes still are. Julian Tudor Hart, the GP who revolutionised blood pressure management (and on whose book I founded my PhD) was utterly convincing – it was great to see him. I wonder if David Widgery, the East End GP who wrote the very good memoir Some Lives would have been in it had he still been alive. I can probably tolerate John Rees if he sticks to the point – and he was well-edited here – didn’t seem at all malevolent.

Everybody in the film was white – reminding me of trade union support for the colour bar in the ’60s – and largely male. They were also practically all retired, but Loach successfully made a virtue of the fact that retired people carry the torch – they have stories to tell of how things used to be in the bad old days before the NHS. But it’s a real shame that Loach is not a reflective man because this film misses an opportunity. Others have observed with incredulity his omission to tackle the gap between the triumph of nationalisation and the rise of neo-Liberalism represented by Thatcher. That gap is precisely what the labour movement needs to get to grips with, because that is where the ground was lost. Loach prefers to point the finger at Thatcher. It is well known that Thatcher was voted in by disaffected Labour voters.

Personally it isn’t inspiration I lack – I’m entirely convinced by socialism. The film went too little into means or reasons. And it passed over how repellent the organisations in the backgrounds of some of the interviewees are. John Rees and the Socialist Workers Party, for example, and Ken Loach’s own anti-Jewish proclivities so common on the far left. These people don’t want me on their side, and I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them. Nor do I trust these workers of the far left’s imagination – they are as deluded and venal as anybody else, and I dislike seeing workers glorified. If, as one of the interviewees suggested, older people were to begin to explain what happened during the period of nationalisation after World War 2 ended, most would probably say that nationalisation was ultimately stymied by the trades unions of the time. I’ve read enough of Kynaston’s Austerity Britain to grasp that the prospect of nationalism divided the workers – most notably the mine workers – before it was established, and once in place many observed new inefficiences. As Rees says, nationalisation simply replaced a private elite with a state one. Clearly socialism could not have got off the ground in the UK without the successive devastations of depression and war. So the sense of self-righteousness, natural goodness and entitlement of the masses inculcated by parts of the left can only erode our moral fibre, and is certainly no defence against a political right which would pit migrant workers against established ones, men against women, dark skinned against light skinned. Flattering the masses is silly.

But nobody else made a film about  this, and a film about this is necessary to keep the memory alive not so much of socialism, but of what socialism hopes to keep at bay. Does this mean that Loach is the best we have? If so the organised socialist left is destined to remain out in the cold for a good deal longer. And for all Loach’s anti-Labour message, they are the people I see in my own borough, quietly and unglamorously getting on with what they can, for their communities, far from Miliband etc. Meanwhile the further left eddies.

Fire Gospel

The exploits of the Quranburners make uncomfortable reading.

These were inflammatory islamophobic acts, rather than acts against religion in general, and they deserve contempt. In this climate, they need to be investigated for incitement. But it’s an unfree land where public scenes against religion are outlawed – the burning of a book is surely too pathetic to be considered incitement in itself – or if it isn’t then I worry the time approaches when a number of very ordinary things are considered grounds for punishment – wearing niqab as incitement against Frenchness, for example. That would never happen, not in liberty egality fraternity France. Oh, it just did.

And a society where the burning of Quran could be taken as a pretext for the murder of United Nations workers is a society infested with the kind of people that make anti-Muslim bigots feel like expressing themselves with Qurans. The wedge drivers need each other. And so it goes on.

Personally I think that to hold stunt provocateur Pastor Terry Jones responsible for the murders can only appease the actual murderers. Contemptible islamophobe, yes – murderer, no. The actual murderers responded to the burning of a book with a killing spree as if a burnt book was worth several lives. The atrocity belongs wholly to them. They’re not Islam, but a small group of thugs who need to be marginalised. Raffaello Pantuchi argues that Terry Jones’ story of an army of jihadi terrorists is just that – a story.

Personally I think it is ridiculous to hold the Quran responsible for the murders. As Goldie Looking Chain once stated, “Guns don’t kill people – rappers do”.

Rosie Bell writes on this with reference to John Stuart Mill and how stupid The Observer was to publicise the British version as if it was public interest. Meanwhile it is important to reserve the right to disrespect holy books.

All this was happening around the time I plucked my first loan from the shelves of our newly refurbished, miraculously unclosed, Fullwell Cross public library. It was a slim, commissioned satire called The Fire Gospel whose author Michel Faber is better known for the currently-serialised ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ (already on loan).

Calculating and pathetic Aramaic scholar Theo Griepenkerl returns to the US with some unknown papyrus scrolls he’s looted from the wreckage of a bomb blast in contemporary Mosul. They turn out to be a fifth gospel written by a contemporary of Jesus’ called Malchus. Malchus is a pious and grotty windbag whose correspondence is reminiscent of a column in the local newspaper of a small and parochial town. Theo Griepenkerl finds a publisher.

The trouble is, in its innocent details – the drug-taking, the struggle to hoist the newly-nailed Jesus upright on the cross because although small in stature he is large in girth, the un-iconic, carnal nature of death (instead of uttering the final dignified words “It is finished” he instead whimpers for somebody to please finish him), Malchus being under the cross when the dying Jesus’ bowels and bladder open – this gospel possesses extraordinary power to ruin Christian faith.

Amazon reviews are Theo’s first intimation of trouble to come. On his book tour he is kidnapped – not by slighted Christians but by an Ickey millenarian and a Muslim anti-Zionist who believes that the debunking of Christianity Malchus’ gospel represents will empower the Jews and enslave the world. (I hadn’t gone looking for that, I can tell you – I’d gone looking for ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. Zeitgeist.)

Some reviewers feel that Fire Gospel is rather thin. I loved the caricature of the academic, Malchus was hilarious, the Christian disarray was sketched very deftly, as were the Amazon reviews and the bonkers intrusions of daytime television. Despite Malchus’ telling, replete with inappropriate details, the death of Jesus still manages to appall. Over the course of the book, in a turn that would be revelatory except for being written as farce, this unscrupulous but ultimately harmless academic fails to notice how much he is coming to resemble Malchus’ revised and compromised Jesus.

It was a book of laughs and groans, which brings me back to the beginning – Salman Rushdie and Theo Van Gogh would probably agree that if you can’t see any humour in the social role of religious texts you may well end up in a society where you’re not allowed to disrespect holy books at all.


being under the cross when the dying Jesus’ bowels and bladder opened

The dangerously narrow outlook of the Browne Review

Lord Browne was born in Germany as it struggled to its knees after the second world war, in advance of an unprecedented swing towards redistributing wealth into public institutions across the developed world. Yesterday his Independent Review of Higher Education and Student Finance was published. It began by saying some very inspiring things, such as:

“Higher education matters. It helps to create the knowledge, skills and values that underpin a civilised society. Higher education institutions (HEIs) generate and diffuse ideas, safeguard knowledge, catalyse innovation, inspire creativity, enliven culture, stimulate regional economies and strengthen civil society. They bridge the past and future; the local and the global.”

Then on to uncapping tuition fees. Tuition fees encourage individualism and are presented as a quality-enhancing measure when it’s clear that tomorrow’s students will be paying more for less. Chimerica and the credit crisis tell us that debt repayments with interest are income for the lender – essentially these fees privatise our national debt. However, deferred and indexed to graduate incomes as they are, it would be wrong to allow the matter of fee repayments to divert attention from a much more radical thing about the Browne Review – its recommendation that Britain stops or drastically cuts public funding for students to enrol on arts, social sciences and humanities courses.

Lord Browne’s Wikipedia entry lists his interests as 17th- and 18th-century illustrated Italian books, pre-Columbian art, contemporary art, music, opera and the theatre, and yet the Browne Review envisions undergraduate learning exclusively as fodder for “high performing, high value added sectors” of a competitive economy. This basically means science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses. This is a dangerously narrow outlook, particularly when it ignore the arts, humanities and social sciences. From p25:

“There is a critical role for public investment even if students are investing more. There are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, science and engineering that are important to the well being of our society and to our economy. The costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all of the costs, there is a risk that they would choose to study cheaper courses instead. In our proposals, there will be scope for Government to withdraw public investment through HEFCE from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create.”

This is crazy. Fine art graduates, for example, are proven contributors to the economy and highly employable. The Browne report has undertaken to protect employers from having to share the costs of university tuition with the graduates they employ, ostensibly so that they can pay higher salaries. However, according to the University and College Union, “[a] medic[al] degree yields on average nearly ten times the extra lifetime earnings of an arts degree, with the premium provided by the latter making a decision to study based on purely financial terms marginal”.

If we want to play this game of instrumentalising learning for employment, then here is what we could say fine art graduates are for:

  1. They have attitudes and skills that are conducive to innovation
    • Many fine arts graduates describe themselves as boundary spanners, brokers across disciplines
    • They demonstrate the traits of lifelong learners, including frequent use of informal and formal training throughout their working lives
    • They single out their own consumption of art as a stimulus for their own work
  2. Artistic labour impacts on innovation in the way that it is organised – project work and portfolio working are the norm
    • Artistic labour impacts on innovation in the way that it is organised – project work and portfolio working are the norm
    • ‘Crossover’ takes place throughout artists’ working lives, bringing opportunities to learn new skills and flexibility
  3. Artistic labour impacts on innovation through its contribution to the widespread ‘culturalisation’ of activities (whereby cultural ideas are becoming desired as part of traditionally non-cultural goods and services)

As a colleague who teaches fiction and creative writing, sometimes in Creole, yesterday observed to me of her students “They do it for the love, not the money”. Arts graduates, whose courses tend to cost less than STEM courses and whose rich contribution to society receives little remuneration compared to their STEM counterparts, will have to shoulder a debt which is a much higher proportion of their income than their STEM counterparts. This is not progressive.

Martha Nussbaum recently published a book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities (and you can catch her – and me catching her – at the British Academy on 16th December). From its opening:

“The profit motive suggests to many concerned leaders that science and technology are of crucial importance for the future health of their nations. We should have no objection to good scientific and technical education, and I shall not suggest that nations should stop trying to improve in this regard. My concern is that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry, abilities crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture, capable of constructively addressing the world’s most pressing problems.

These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and approach the world’s problems as a “citizen of the world”, and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

When practised at best, moreover, these other disciplines are infused with what we might call the spirit of the humanities: by searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we live in.”


Bonus links: Chris Bertram. There’s money around – doctors know it, untaxed businesses know it. I dream of seeing higher earners campaigning insistently for their own pay to be cut. I dream of a less pusillanimous response from university managers.

Update – Steve Smith, President of the university heads representative body Universities UK wrote to university heads on Friday as follows (my bolds and links):

To: Principal

Subject: Message from Steve Smith Universities UK

Dear Colleague

I wanted to write personally to each of you to let you know what we’ve been doing today since the launch of the Browne Review and to inform you of the key lines we have been following in all the interviews we have undertaken.

The first point to stress is that we have been concentrating on the CSR more than Browne over the last few weeks, because the potential cuts have been getting worse and worse. You can see from para 6.2 on page 47 of Browne what awaits us in the Spending Review next week. Browne explicitly says that HEFCE will have T[eacing] funding of £700m; the current sum is £3.9bn. This implies a cut of around £3.2bn of state funding. I hope many of you picked up the clear warnings in my Cranfield speech about this potential level of cuts. We have never broken any embargoes on confidential figures, nor have we leaked to the press, but Browne’s figures confirm our worst fears. Cuts in the order of £1bn for research also appear to be proposed.

In that light, our primary response to Browne has been framed by trying to do all we can to replace as much of this lost funding as possible, and to do it in a way that matches increased graduate contributions to decreasing HEFCE funding. We fear that this may not be possible, and that 2011/12 could see major cuts imposed before any income from Browne (or a replacement) comes in.

In everything we’ve said and done with the press, and in all the briefings, we have insisted that Browne has to be seen in the light of what is coming on 20 October, and that it is one way of replacing in a large part the removal of band C and D HEFCE funding, though we are extremely aware of the differential impact on universities. We have always (as far as I can remember) said that we are open to other ways of filling this massive gap, and that we would judge all proposals against the principles agreed unanimously by the UUK Board in May 2010 (see page 10 of our second submission to Browne). There are 9 of these, and Browne and other proposals need to be assessed in terms of these principles, and that is precisely the points we are making. This does not mean that every member will approve of Browne, but we have to evaluate Browne against other proposed ways of how to deal with the massive CSR cut coming our way.

The biggest worry is simple to state: if Browne fails to get through the Commons, or gets un-picked, or gets accepted but only after major changes are made, we will simply not be able to replace the unprecedented reductions in state funding that are coming in the Spending Review. My judgement is that UUK’s primary role is to protect the level of investment in universities. I am trying to do that, and that is what is in my mind every time I speak to the media or to politicians of all parties.

Do let me know if any of this reasoning is wrong in your view. I know there are lots of very different views (and several of you have e mailed or phoned me with what are, taken together, literally incompatible responses).

I hope this gives you a clear view of how we see things today. There remains is a terrible danger of the valley of death becoming a reality for all institutions, and avoiding that is our core concern.

With best wishes


Professor Steve Smith

President, Universities UK

Update 2 – a positive response to Browne which is supportive of the idea of markets, accepting of the idea of failing universities closing or merging (rather than turning round), and does not address the issue of removing T-funding from arts, humanities and social sciences. BenSix feels that students will continue to register on these courses because a) you need a degree to get a decent job these days and b) it is easier to pass these kinds of course. I know what he means on the latter count (would say it is also harder to excel at them) but I think that allowing this to happen will lead to serious problems.


A belated birthday present from Matt, last Friday we boarded the  Calendonian Sleeper from Euston to Glasgow, departing at 23:15.

Lying on my front in the top bunk of a moving train took me back, right back, to the movements my dad must have made to get me to sleep against his chest. I couldn’t sleep, and listened to Elbow’s Seldom-Seen Kid, Spiritualized’s Amazing Grace, Apparat’s Walls, and Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual.

When we arrived, the roads around Central Station were so quiet that you could stand in them to take pictures. From the top of West George Street, we could see snow on the hills to the north and the south. I’m not sure what we did to deserve this but the air was mild and the skies clear.

We dropped off our bags and set out looking for breakfast. We walked to the West End – nothing. It was early. We ended up in Starbucks. Starbucks sells Fairtrade coffee and a vegan sandwich. You could do worse. We were there for about an hour in easy chairs, reading the paper.

Then I got out my splitter, hitched myself to Matt and we listened to an audio walking tour I’d downloaded. It started in George Square where the birds find the monuments friendly.

On the way I looked up, saw this:

We suspended the tour at the Cathedral and lost ourselves in the Necropolis.

Late in the afternoon we had lunch at Stereo, part of a family of vegan restaurants in Glasgow. I’d defend these places to the hilt – they are wonderful – but my calzone dough wasn’t cooked.

From there to our hotel and a shower. I booked tickets for Four Deaths at the Centre for Contemporary Art. We fell asleep. Both of us are dog tired most of the time.

I racked my brain over Four Deaths. Four performance artists from Slovenia’s Via Negativa enviously fabricated and enacted death upon their overbearing predecessors and literally cleared the stage for their own creative lives. Update: it was the literary critic Harold Bloom who first came up with this idea of the ‘anxiety of influence‘ – the worry that predecessors have already used up all the original ideas, leading to repossess the patriarchs by retelling their stories in sequels, prequels, or alternative outcomes. Four deaths performs the anxiety of influence.

We were part of an intimately involved audience. Drunk Matt decided we would sit in the front row. Pina Bausch’s performer took my chin in her hand, gazed deep into my face for a long time and pronounced “Frieda Kahlo” before moving on through the audience to finger a Chaplin, Reifenstahl, and others. These days I assiduously pull out the fearsome quantities of hair between my eyebrows, but it wasn’t always the way, I am blessed with very thick shiny black eyebrows and she’s not the first to find a similarity.

After that we were ravenous and ate in Pizza Express, where I had a customised Bosco (i.e. no artechokes instead of mozzarella). Then, on a friend’s recommendation, we went to a pub called the Black Sparrow, where we sat in a little eyrie up against the elaboratedly moulded ceiling and watched the party-goers. We didn’t stay out much longer.

The next day we listened to the portions of audio tour which took us to the Museum of Modern Art.

There I watched some video art from Videonale 12, racking my brains again over Hapless, Helpless and Hopeless by Rob Kennedy and Peter Dowling, 34 minutes pieced together from commercials, and Tom Dale’s Shot Through. Then when I read the accompanying book, I realised that the racking had arrived me in more or less the intended place. Nobody said you didn’t have to work at this art thing – my tendency is to overmystify it if anything.

Next I looked at Multi-Story, an exhibition about Glasgow Housing Association’s Red Road flats. Soon to be demolished, they house the city’s asylum seekers as well as local tenants. Matt was downstairs, where he’d seen something dull about the Palestinian territories. In my spheres you’re never more than hours away from a reference to the Palestinians. For me, particular attachment to a notional Palestinian cause (mostly about our giving, our protest; rarely about what it is to be democrat or a citizen in the circumstances of volatile politics) is a marker of convergent thinking among this intellectual set of people. It’s the first I ever noticed, which is why I feel so suspicious about it and disappointed by it. While we were there, news broke that three people, who may have had applications for asylum refused, tied themselves together and jumped to their deaths. It was the first I’d heard of the Red Road flats, and it remained in mind when I stood looking up at the smashed and open windows of the Gorbals flats later that day.

We ate at Stereo’s sister, 78. The chips were translucent with fat.

I didn’t want to go to the Kelvingrove Museum, but it was lovely. Suddenly a gigantic organ sounded, the beginning of a 30 minute recital which reverberated the whole building. I saw a wonderful portrait of Gorbals children by the photographer Joseph MacKenzie. There was an exhibition of colourists known as the Glasgow Boys, and a room dedicated to the work of Charles Rennie MacIntosh.

Then we walked some miles to the Clyde. The sun was warm!

We crossed to south of the Clyde to see the Gorbals where my Grandpa grew up. Since the ’30s the insanitary tenements he’d have known have been replaced by colossal high rises, now themselves condemned to imminent demolition.

Crossing back across the Clyde we found ourself near Stereo’s second sister, Mono. We had (vegan) cheesecake, beers over the paper and, after a lengthy, soundcheck Second Hand Marching Band crowded onto the stage and faced off against the audience, which they practically outnumbered. I had a little dance. To my great regret we had to leave part way through Aidan Moffat’s set, missing Burnt Island entirely.

Onto the Sleeper and straight to bed, rocked and jiggled to sleep by mama train, rudely deposited at the beginning of the working week around 07:40. I went to work.

Glasgow is a cracking city and if for some reason I was run out of London, it’s where I’d set up home.

A Serious Man

You know how when you were tiny you’d go to the cinema and they’d show a short before the feature? A Serious Man, the new Coen brothers film, has a little short prefixed to it about a shtetl couple and a macabre encounter. After it, the film seems like an non-sequitur. But in the light of the film, you wonder if what occurred in the short was the origin of a curse, or of a consequence, or, then again, nothing of consequence. The film, it turns out, is about existing: significance, purpose, reaction, consequence, insignificance, meaninglessness, and unenlightenment.

Larry Gopnik, a physics lecturer, spends the film reacting to events. The only time he initiates an action, his reward is prematurely punctured by the arrival of a police car. In contrast his son, Danny, is insouciantly assertive. After his bar mitzvah the gnomic rabbi neglects to make any sort of moral intervention, and Danny, uninterrupted, contemplates delaying the repayment of a debt on the off chance that his creditor may be killed by a tornado. But this film is so heavy with religion and we have been so well primed that we wonder if the tornado might do for Danny instead. Perhaps the most masterful masterly thing the Coen brothers achieved in this film was to slip so much death into it without anybody noticing – a bit like life.

I could write a lot about A Serious Man but Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review says everything else, and in fact that review is damn near as perfect as the film.

Porgy and Bess at the Royal Festival Hall

First ever night at the opera – the Cape Town Opera production was gorgeously and very moving; what was disappointing was that you can’t sing along (not done, and too far from the dot matrix display of the lyrics).

The story of Porgy and Bess is one of disadvantage, damage, hedonism and hard knocks. Crippled Porgy is an island of inner resourcefulness; around him nature and humankind fuse into an encompassing hostile environment which besets the community on Catfish Row. God is there, fortune is there, but inner qualities – principles, strength of character – are the only resources these people have to draw on.

Background to the production at The Independent, The Times, The Scotsman and The Guardian.

My favourite song is the mourning of Clara and Jake, ‘Clara, Clara, don’t you be downhearted‘ (be patient for the singing to begin).

Clara, Clara, don’t you be downhearted

Clara, Clara, don’t you be sad and lonesome

Jesus is walking on the water

Rise up and follow him home.

Oh lord, oh my Jesus

Rise up and follow him home, follow him home.

Jake, Jake, don’t you be downhearted

Jake, Jake, don’t you be sad and lonesome

Jesus is walking on the water

Rise up and follow him home.

Oh lord, oh my Jesus

Rise up and follow him home, follow him home.