My local convenience
store is always busy, the queue for the check-out snaking back into the aisles.
It’s a shop for poor people, of whom there are many in English south coast
seaside towns. I don’t stand out very much: I’m old, male, pale and overweight.
I don’t have a posh accent though even when I dress down my clothes are better
than the standard cotton- and wool-free issue in a queue where you will also search
in vain for colours which aren’t drab or, in the case of the trainers, white.
Even the young migrants and refugees seem to get the message; they dress pretty
much the same though clear skin and groomed hair does often mark them out. As
does the fact that they are rarely overweight.
I can see from my
position in the queue that poor people buy white bread, frozen pizzas, alcohol
and tobacco. On the last two, they take a considerable tax hit. They take
another hit when they buy the lottery tickets and scratch cards prominently
displayed, another tax on the poor to provide a pot called Lottery Funding..
A recent business trip
found me in one of those cupboards which pass as London hotel rooms, this one
located conveniently for Euston station. I had a few hours to myself and wandered
down through Bloomsbury and into the Contemporary Ceramics Centre, opposite the
British Museum, which is the shopfront of the Craft Potters Association. I’ve
liked studio pottery since the 1970s when I lived in Devon and every village had
a craft potter. It was a cheap outing to visit the Free Admission studios and
come away with a modestly priced pot. Nowadays, I go to the Ceramics Centre
when I need a nice present for someone and, sometimes, just to treat myself. I
checked and the Centre does not seem to attract Lottery funding; it’s just the national
retail outlet for serious, self-employed studio potters with a prestige
location opposite the British Museum.
Then I went round the
corner to the London Review of Books
shop where I like to browse and have tea and cake in the small café which is
really too cramped to be a pleasure -
London rents again and a bit of a challenge for the overweight. The clientele is
very well-dressed here, stylishly so, and they are thin.
I don’t hold it
against the shop that when a couple of years ago I walked in proferring Sale or
Return copies of my then-new book, The
Best I Can Do (2016), the nice young man at the counter after handling a
copy very gingerly, and without opening it, declared “It’s not really our sort
Click on Image to Magnify
I had failed to realise
that things have changed etc since the 1970s when I walked my first book into
London bookshops and they happily relieved me of stacks of them:
Browsing in the shop, I
saw a copy of The White Review which
looked rather nice at £12.99 for a couple of hundred pages and I thought I
would be interested to read the opening round table discussion “On
Universities”, a subject to which I return from time to time even though twenty
years ago I quit universities for self-employment. I’d already come across a
couple of favourable references to the magazine so I bought it, something to
read later in my hotel cupboard.
On the back flap, the
magazine claims to be a “space for a new generation to express itself,
unconstrained by form, subject or genre” though not, of course, by generation.
Then I went to the page of editorial details and found the little icon which
tells you that it is Lottery funded through Arts Council England. It’s something
the poor are paying for.
I headed to the
Roundtable discussion “On Universities” What will the new generation have to
say about them, I wonder?
Around the table, four
people are talking about pensions. They are excited because recently they have
been on strike, actually handing out leaflets on picket lines. About pensions.
Their pensions. Their employers plan to replace what are called Final Salary or
Defined Benefit pensions with pensions which are a function of contributions
made but where the final value of the pension cannot be guaranteed. This has
led them to strike.
Now I cannot think of a
case of a teachers’ union or a university teachers’ union in this country
striking over anything other than money. It’s one reason why I think that
teachers and lecturers are a fairly materialistic bunch, which is not much more
than to say that they generally have
middle class values focused around things like home ownership, schools which will give their children a leg up in the world, foreign holidays, lottery-subsidised theatre tickets - and
Many years ago as a university lecturer with strong leftist views I
would not join the Association of University Teachers. To my way of thinking, I
had a pleasant, taxpayer-funded job which had no great social utility but
which left me with a lot of time to read, think and write – things which
interested me, as did teaching though I rather doubted that anyone benefited
much from that. To have joined an organisation dedicated to improving my own
pay, to strike even - well, I would have needed a much stronger sense of entitlement than I possessed.
I have to declare that,
despite this, I am now in receipt of a Defined Benefit pension, paid by the
Universities Superannuation Scheme, and have been a beneficiary since I took
early retirement at fifty. Equally, I can honestly say that I had no idea
before that age of just how privileged I was. Thinking about my pension was not
something I did. Now it seems that the new
generation thinks about pensions from the very beginning, and feels they have to.
I want to tell two
There were lots of
university jobs available in the 1960s and 1970s because of university expansion.
Salaries were modest but I think there were plenty of applicants. I was sitting
in a circle one day and a political comrade was telling us that he had just
been interviewed for a job at LSE. He was scornful. They kept going on about
pensions, he said. They even told me that there was a widow’s pension. Pause. I told them I didn’t yet have a
widow in prospect. Laughter.
Between graduation aged
21 in 1968 and a university lecturer appointment in 1978 which became long
term, I did one thing and then I did another. They did not add up to a career path. I had to go back to a Record of Work to complete the following chronological list of things done: two years as Ph D student in
Philosophy, a grant supplemented by some teaching; one year as university
temporary lecturer in philosophy; one year in Paris on a Leverhulme European
studentship; one year as a Liberal Studies lecturer in a technical college; a
few months as a British Film Institute research fellow in television studies; a
few months being ill (hepatitis); working
as a waiter for a summer; one year teaching history and social studies
in a comprehensive school; nine months as a youth and community worker; nine
months writing and completing an M Phil dissertation, partly funded by
part-time university teaching of political theory; a year as a senior lecturer in
Communication Studies - the salary from that when added to my partner's big enough to secure us our first mortgage, aged thirty.
In this period, I also edited one book (Counter Course, Penguin Education 1972),
wrote another (the Language, Truth and
Politics of 1975) and published a small research monograph (Television and the February 1974 General
One of the generally
recognised positive features of not settling straight into a defined career
path (and lots of people didn’t), was that every time you changed job you could
TAKE OUT YOUR PENSION, all that money they had taken off you against your will
and which you could now reclaim and use to pay down debts or go on holiday. It
was wonderful. It’s only now, coming across the thinking of the new generation
in The White Review, that I realise I
should have been thinking of myself as belonging to some Precariat, not knowing
where my next meal was coming from. I should have been afraid for the future
and angry in the present. I am not quite convinced. I was young and making the
most of it and I hope there are people still doing that. But let’s briefly look at what
else the Roundtable can come up with “On Universities”.
The discussion goes off
into a series of complaints about the marketization of higher education, the
casualisation of labour, students as consumers, failures of diversity and
equality policies, and quite a lot about sexual harassment. There is nothing
about the curriculum, where maybe they think Problem Solved, and really only
Beaumont tries to integrate the discussion into something resembling a theoretical discourse (in Beaumont’s case, broadly Marxist). Yaqoob takes the role of hands-on union representative.
I found the content
unremarkable and conformist, except in interesting remarks made by Capildeo. Capildeo
challenges the religious language of “vocation” but also says
about sexual harassment that, in contrast to some other approaches,“a straight down the line witch hunt would be a progressive move”. In a context where Twitter is spoken of in positive terms - something quite new to me - (“It’s that thing of following the right people” -
Charman), I hope that Capildeo is simply being provocative.
Two academics from
Cambridge (Charman and Yaqoob), one from UCL (Beaumont), and Capildeo from Leeds didn’t come across overall as
a strong university challenge team. Disappointing. I think the poor deserve
better for their lottery tax.