Meet the new normal, same as the old normal

We are being told that the present state of chassis is #notnormal, and that we should not normalize it. Zoe Williams in the Guardian talks of what is now being accepted as `normal’, whether under Trump or after the Brexit vote, and lays the blame where it belongs:

Normalising is not anything the rightwing extremists do, and they do not try: they don’t look for acceptable labels for themselves. It is the mainstream that twists itself into conciliatory pretzel knots finding nicer words for “fascist”, such as “alt-right”.

Democrats try to find the fault within themselves: ask not whether a racist hates; ask what made the racist so angry in the first place. Once we have found the right member of the liberal elite to pin it on, the hate maybe won’t sound so frightening.

The reason things seem `normal’ or `normalized’ is that they have been treated as normal for years, certainly within higher education. For example,

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Gestures

Following lobbying from members of the University of Bath asking that the university provide funded studentships for refugees from Syria, the senior management team has laid out a response under the title `Partnership, not gesture: Jordan commitment‘. The substance of the management plan is outlined below, with a response.

Following our discussions in Amman two weeks ago we now undertake to make a range of brand new commitments in Jordan to build that resilience:

1. Working with a local University in Amman with a focus on STEM we will support the training of faculty to doctoral level in areas such as engineering and mathematical innovation, essential for the development of resilient systems.

Laudable though this contribution to Jordanian Higher Education might be, it is not a proposal to offer any chance of higher education to Syrian, or other, refugees. There is an additional impediment: according to a report on the status of Syrian students who have sought refuge in Jordan, Jordanian universities require Syrian students to produce documentation on their previous studies:

students reported to us that although in some cases documentary requirements have been eased, some Jordanian universities continue to require documentation. Since many Syrian refugee students were forced to leave home without this paper work, failure to waive these requirements creates an effective bar to accessing higher education in Jordan.

For obvious reasons the Syrian embassy in Jordan is not helpful to Syrian refugees looking for copies of their educational qualifications, so in practice Syrian refugees find it almost impossible to enter a Jordanian university.

2. We will commit to partner with the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan to conduct research in areas of national priority.

Again, this is a laudable proposal, although it does require some detail. For example, is this to be funded by the University of Bath, or does it depend on external funding? If the latter, it is simply a strategic internationalization decision, and not an act of generosity or solidarity by the university. In neither case is it an offer of assistance to refugees fleeing war in Syria: it is cooperation on work of national importance to Jordan.

3. We have now launched a Study Centre in partnership with the Amman Baccalaureate School where we will deliver our MA in Education. We will teach the teachers to provide future leadership in education.

This is not a `brand new commitment’: the `new study centre’ was opened at the end of January by Princess Sarvath, an honorary graduate of the University of Bath.

4. We will strengthen our partnership with the British Institute in Amman to develop research which can inform how governments, NGOs and other parties might more effectively respond to the long-term impacts of the crisis.

Neither is this.

5. And we will provide scholarships on our postgraduate MA Education programme in Amman to refugees displaced by the crisis. These scholarships will complement work being undertaken by the British Council, whose EU-funded LASER (Language, Academic skills and E-learning Resources) Project is developing English language skills with refugees and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon.

This is a very limited offer. The MA in Education programme is open to `qualified educators‘. This translates into a requirement that students on the programme be `qualified teachers‘. At best, this is an offer of scholarships (of what value?) to refugees who already hold a teaching qualification: it offers nothing to those who hold a qualification in any other discipline, and nothing to those who have not started or completed a qualification.

These are all new initiatives for the University. Together, they form a multi-layered commitment to Jordan in its vital stabilisation efforts in this deeply troubled region.

On a charitable reading, some of these initiatives are new `for the University’. They are not, however, a response to the humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing Syria: they were in place long before the issue of aiding people fleeing war was even raised. Indeed, the word `Syrian’ does not appear in the proposals, and there is absolutely no proposal to offer assistance to Syrian refugees in the United Kingdom.

Our community started out with a call for support for refugees. We are going far beyond what was sought.

It is true that `our community started out with a call for support for refugees’. This plan is not a response to that call but the passing off of existing initiatives as aid for refugees. It does not go `far beyond what was sought’; it is not even movement in the same direction.


Things I have learned about Brazil in the last two weeks

I have now been in the middle of Sao Paulo state for just over a fortnight. Lessons learned:

  1. It is hot, like Africa hot, like you could fry Sally O’Brien on an egg if you had a stone hot.
  2. There are two big black cats around here that look as if their mammies were interfered with by jaguars.
  3. Brazilians eat a lot of meat. Round here Desperate Dan would be considered a perfumed ponce for having that effeminate pastry nonsense.
  4. Sliced, grilled cow hump is very tasty.
  5. Do not cross the woman with the machete who chops the ends off the unripe coconut so that you can drink the coconut water. She has a machete and she chops the ends off coconuts to make a crust.
  6. There is at least one person here who believes a chap can put coconut water in whisky and remain a gentleman. Such a man probably cheats at billiards.
  7. Everybody knows somebody who has been to Dublin, except for the people who have been there themselves.
  8. Brazilian academics will cheerfully go on strike for three months in pursuit of an above inflation pay claim.
  9. Brazilian academics have had their pensions slashed: they can no longer retire on full pay after thirty five years service.
  10. I might need to do a t-test on my sample size, but there is only one vegetarian in Sao Paulo state. Or all of Brazil, quite probably.

What I said to Human Resources

Inspired by Steve Wharton’s response to a threatening letter from our employer, my own response follows. For background, the University and College Union is undertaking action short of a strike (ASOS) in defence of the USS pension scheme in the pre-92 universities in the UK. Some employers, including the University of Bath, have chosen to deduct 25% of pay from those taking part in the action, as well as threatening to attach individuals to any claims for damages brought by students who might sue the university.

  1. The 25% deduction is a figure which bears no relation to the amount of time actually spent on assessment, as can be confirmed from departmental workload models. The number is misleading to the point of dishonesty and is clearly part of an attempt to intimidate and threaten staff taking lawful industrial action.
  2. The threat to attach individuals to any action taken against the university is Taff Vale by the back door, and a return to the management practices of the nineteenth century. I expect little better from the senior management team, but it should know better than to be so obvious.
  3. The communication with staff has been signed by the `Executive commitee’, a non-existent body. Formal authority lies with the Vice-Chancellor, acting on advice from other senior staff. Communications should be signed by the holder of a university office, and not in the name of a body with no standing.

Linebaugh, Taylor and Roddick for engineers

This is a set of brief notes which I issued to engineering students on a now defunct degree, as part of a class on the social context of engineering. This is converted from a LaTeX file which accounts for the lack of direct links to references.

Chips and ships …

At the end of the eighteenth century, workers in the naval shipyards of London were paid, if they were lucky, twice a year. Their wages were subject to various deductions for on-site services (the resident surgeon was paid from the men’s wages) and for disciplinary offences (football, cricket, absence from roll calls). Furthermore, wages were often not paid at all—in 1767, wages were fifteen months behind—and since sacked workers did not receive their back pay, there was little incentive to strike (The material on the London shipyards is taken from Linebaugh, 2003).

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What does it cost to fire somebody in the UK?

Take-home message: firing people is very cheap.

It is claimed now and again that making it easier to fire people makes it easier to hire them. The logic is that employers do not hire staff because they are worried about the cost of laying them off if business does not go as well as they expect. So an employer’s reasoning is that they would like to expand their business by hiring more people, but the possible costs associated with `making them redundant’ (actually, `dismissing by reason of redundancy’) put them off.

It is easy enough to find out what it costs to dismiss someone by reason of redundancy in the UK. If someone has worked for an employer for less than two years, they have no right to a redundancy payment. After two years service, they have a right to a redundancy payment of one week’s pay per full year worked which is halved for each year worked under age 22. That `week’s pay’ is capped at £464.

So if business has not gone as well as expected and you have to fire someone less than two years after you hired them, it costs nothing.

If business has gone well for a bit, and you have to fire minimum wage staff who have worked for just over two years, it costs £495.20 for the adults, and £201.20 for the under twenties.

In other words, you can fire someone at no cost whatsoever in the first two years. After that, it can cost the same as filling the tank of a big car twice.


Modena City Ramblers for beginners

If a man were looking for a musical niche in which to contend for hegemony, starting an Italian communist Pogues tribute band might seem like a smart way to limit the competition, especially in Emilia Romagna. The Modena City Ramblers, however, have lasted twenty years on the strength of their music, long ago transcending their starting point, and turned out a string of fine albums featuring top-notch collaborators, including Bob Geldof and Billy Bragg. They also put on the kind of show where people jump up and down with their fists in the air. That kind of fist.

The band started in Modena, one of those quietly prosperous Italian cities where skilled workers produce the engineering that makes Italy famous to petrolheads everywhere, factory farmers find a use for every bit of a pig, and everybody, but everybody, voted communist. A friend of mine from the area was an electoral scrutineer in 1992, after the Communist Party had split. One breakaway group was running in an electoral alliance whose logo featured a tiny hammer and sickle. I am told that of the four hundred or so people who voted at that polling station, all voted left, and almost all put their X precisely on the hammer and sickle.

Around the same time, the Ramblers were learning to play Irish music and picking up a taste for the more raucous side of it, though not at the expense of musicianship. They began writing leftie lyrics to Irish tunes, so that anyone acquainted with rebel songs or ballads will be able to sing along, and adding elements from Italian left-wing singer-songwriters such as Francesco Guccini. The result is dynamite.

Their first album, Riportando Tutto a Casa (Bringing It All Back Home, check out the cover) was released in 1994 and included a Pogues-inspired epic about a bunch of Modenese Communists going to Rome for the funeral of Enrico Berlinguer, a rewrite of The Great Song of Indifference, a cranked-up raucous Bicchiere dell’Addio (Parting Glass) featuring Geldof, and their now-definitive version of Bella Ciao. The tone was set, and Combat Folk, as they soon began to call it, was launched.

The next album, La Grande Famiglia (The Big Family), was more of the same, Italian left-wing rebel songs set to Irish tunes, mixed with work dealing with more local politics. The band made a nod to the local singer-songwriter Francesco Guccini, covering La Locomotiva (The Locomotive), an epic about an anarchist railwayman who loses the head and tries to ram the first class special to Bologna. Sicily, a recurring theme in the band’s work, makes an appearance in La Banda del Sogno Interotto (The Band of Broken Dreams) about a group of Palermitans who try to maintain some dignity in a culture that conspires against it.

Around this time I saw them for the first time, at a centro sociale (big politically-conscious squat) in Rome, where they played a benefit for, as I discovered after getting in, The Committee for the Self-Determination of the People of Ireland. They had not long released their third album Terra e Libertà (Land and Freedom) and the final element of their sound, the non-European and especially South American, was in place. The tracks included Cent’anni di Solitudine (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Transamerika (Che Guevara’s road trip), a couple of Balkan inspired songs, Marcia Balcania (Balkan March) and Danza Infernale (Infernal Dance), and Radio Tindouf showcasing an increasing interest in North Africa.

After a live album, Raccolti (Collection), the band released three studio albums similar to Terra e Libertà: a developing `world music’ sound based on global, and Italian, political concerns. The songs are never worthy but usually jump-up-and-downable with a punk attitude integrated with a serious interest in the music and cultures. The next major turn was Appunti Partigiani (Partisan Notes), a collection of songs rooted in the partisan and anti-fascist traditions, including Billy Bragg on Woody Guthrie’s All You Fascists.

The next album, Dopo il Lungo Inverno (After the Long Winter), recorded after changes in the line-up, is one of their weaker efforts, and the next, Bella Ciao Combat Folk for the Masses, was an attempt to reach an international market, with a number of songs in English. Unfortunately, like many bands who have tried to reach an English-speaking audience, they are simply not at home in the language, the songs sound wrong, and the album cannot be counted a success.

Recent recordings have seen a return to form and the latest double CD Niente di Nuovo Sul Fronte Occidentale (All Quiet on the Western Front) is a triumph. The basic elements that made them a great band are all present and correct: bouncy rockers (Occupy Wall Street), immigration (Fiori D’arancio e Baci di Caffè; Orange Flowers and Coffee Kisses), the South (Tarantella di Tarantò) the dirtier episodes of Italy’s past, in Il Giorno Che il Cielo Cadde su Bologna (The Day the Sky Fell on Bologna, about the 1980 Fascist bombing of the train station) and the legends of the left, Due Magliette Rosse (Two Shirts of Red, the Italian tennis team’s act of defiance playing in Chile in 1976).

The live act is as solid as ever. Check their website and make a trip to see them if you’re in Italy. Best, if you can manage it, is to see them at a Festa, organized by one of the political parties. You pay less to get in, and the audience isn’t shy about hopping around with a fist up.

Most of the band’s work is worth hearing, but these are some personal favorites.

From their first album, Un Giorno Di Pioggia (A Rainy Day), a love song to Ireland, and its might in deeds of precipitation:

È in un giorno di pioggia che ti ho conosciuta,
il vento dell’ovest rideva gentile
e in un giorno di pioggia ho imparato ad amarti
mi hai preso per mano portandomi via.

It was one rainy day that I first came to know you
The wind from the West softly smiled
On a soft rainy day I learned to love you
You took my hand and you led me away.

Also from their first album, the story of a group of Modenese communists taking the train to Rome for the funeral of Compagno Berlinguer, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, killed by a stroke while he gave a speech during the 1984 European election campaign. A million people attended his funeral, and in the elections the PCI, for the only time in its history, took the largest share of the vote. (Somebody had been listening to The Death Bed of Cu Chulainn.)

From the second album, La Locomotiva tells the story of a railwayman who, inspired by the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century, decides to ram the train full of bosses on the way to Bologna.

The band have always had an interest in southern Italy, and especially in Sicily. I Cento Passi (The Hundred Steps) is based on the story of Peppino Impastato, the son of a mafioso, who became a radical left anti-Mafia campaigner in his home town, until he was murdered by them. The `hundred steps’ of the title refers to the distance from the family home to the house of a man murdered by the mob. The start of the video is a scene from the film of the same name where Peppino walks his brother down the street.

“Sei andato a scuola, sai contare?”
“si so contare”
“E sai camminare?”
“so camminare”
“E contare e camminare insieme lo sai fare?”
“credo di sì”
“Allora forza, conta e cammina.. 1,2,3,4..”

“You’ve been to school, can you count?”
“I can count.”
“And can you walk?”
“I can walk.”
“Can you walk and count at the same time?”
“I reckon so.”
“Right so, count and walk … 1,2,3,4”

Another great crowd pleaser, Transamerika, from the album Terra e Libertà. The song is about Che Guevara setting off with his mate for a boys’ road trip on a dubious motorcycle.

Sei partito alla grande con Alberto e con la moto
siam venuti tutti quanti a salutarvi
con un augurio, un abbraccio, una risata e una bottiglia
e le ragazze una lacrima ed un bacio

You left us all in style with Alberto and the bike
We came one and all to wave you off
With a `good luck’, and a hug, with a bottle and a smile,
And all the girls with a tear and a kiss.

From the most recent album, Due Magliette Rosse, is the story of Adriano Panatta and Paolo Bertolucci who played for Italy in the 1976 Davis Cup final against Chile. The final was held in Santiago, and the Italian left asked that the team boycott the Pinochet regime. Enrico Berlinguer made contact with the players and told them to go, and deny the Fascists their victory. In their doubles match, Panatta and Bertolucci played in red shirts.

Due magliette rosse nello stadio della morte,
Due magliette rosse come sangue nelle fosse,
Per le donne di Santiago, e la loro libertà,
Sfidavano il potere con grande dignità.

Two shirts of red in the stadium of death,
Two shirts of red for when the ditches bled.
For the women of Santiago, and for their liberty,
They stood up to power with pride and dignity.

Bella Ciao is the great song of the Italian left, and the Modena City Ramblers have made it their own. They end each gig with it, to a sea of bouncing fists.