Saturday, 26 March 2016

I'm writing this while chasing the dragon

Someone close to me lost their job not too long ago. In fact they were sacked. The job involved early starts and late finishes; a lot of travel; the remuneration didn’t match the skills and requirements for the post. Ultimately all this got too much and led to mental health problems and the job ending. Given I’m an academic, you might be presuming this was another academic. In fact it wasn’t – it was someone in a fairly hum-drum job in a private sector engineering company.

I write this because us academics are at it again – apparently academia makes us heroin addicts. There are two points I want to make – first on academic exceptionalism; and secondly on the damage this discourse does.

The reason I recounted the story above is to demonstrate that the damage that work does is not unique to academia, as many seem to think it is. In a low-productivity, low-wage, economy like that of the UK or US, stress and long hours are the norm for most workers. And that stress is worse – it’s the grinding, drudgery stress that the work of Michael Marmot showed slowly kills you. As academics we are far more likely to experience the fight-or-flight stress that actually helps you do your job better.

So, this genre of complaining frustrates me because it makes academia seem exceptional and does not fully acknowledge we are in a much wider economy that needs much broader reform to make it a better place to work, for everyone.

It also frustrates me because of the patterns it recreates in our labour and the damage this does. When I was a doctoral researcher my supervisors made me take leave, made me work normal hours because that is the right way to work. I completed my thesis on time. Their advice is still important to me now as I work to ensure my weekends are free for me to do my own activities and that I can keep up to my six hours of fitness training a week.

Some of the doctoral researchers in my Faculty put a funny sign on the door of their office about stress. This depressed me greatly – they shouldn’t feel stressed at this stage. Yet it seems normal for doctoral students to expect to work weekends, to burst into tears in the office, to take on far too much because that is what they think is expected of them. While we complain about the working practices of the academy, we recreate them in our apprentices and don’t teach them better coping strategies or support them in working with, and against, the institution to excel.

So, in this basic way this “openness” to the stresses of the job causes more damage – it creates patterns people then think they are expected to recreate. But it also prevents a lot of positive action. One thing I find interesting is the way “academia” or “the university” is nominalised within this discourse – it gains agency which it simply does not have: “academia” creates metrics we have to meet; “the university” is now an audit regime controlling our lives. No – a university, one institution, the one you work for, in your labour relations, creates these things. And that, for me, should be our focus for action.  

Thinking in this way – bottom-up – produces a space for change for organised labour, and also institutional processes, such as Athena SWAN. Universities, as employees, have specific statutory duties, primarily around health and safety. If your work is making you mentally unwell, the university has a duty of care to support you. If it does not do this, it is breaking the law and can be sued – this is the everyday casework of our union officers. We also need to explicitly recognise that we work in large, multi-million pound institutions that employ hundreds or thousands of staff. Thus, if something does not get done because we did not have time to do it, it is not our fault. It is, ultimately, the Vice-Chancellor’s fault. In reality it is the fault of the institution. The whole point of large bureaucracies is they should be structured so that if something goes wrong, there’s another bit of the bureaucracy ready to take over. We need to stop feeling guilty and damaging our mental health. It is not our fault.

As managers (I’m now taking line management roles) we also need to manage better – recognise that our staff have families and other pressures and give them the slack to do what they want to do. We need to recognise the excellence of our staff and stop talking about how “we all cope in this situation” and say “we all work really hard, perform excellently, and look at all the brilliant stuff we manage to do”. We also need to recognise the expertise and skill of all our staff, get away from the stupid division between “admin” and “academia”, and recognise the professional skills to support us in excelling at our academic roles.

After, yet another, horribly negative “anonymous academic” piece in the Guardian, I emailed them and asked if they would like a positive one. After an email was exchanged I never heard anything again. It seems we want to share the stories of the damage the bogeyman of “academia” does, but we don’t want to share the ways to cope, the ways to make things better. If you share the positive stories, you’re pilloried for being a slave to the neoliberal university, or for not fully recognising your privilege. But many of us are not superstars, we’re just trying to create better ways of working in better institutions.
edit/ After 48 hours this post has had over 900 hits which has been quite a surprise. So I feel I should embellish it with this, which was made for me by Pat Lockley as part of our banter on teh Twitterz.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Trapped - "at least the locals got a payout for appearing as extras"

Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

Apologies - my mum's final update on Trapped has been rather delayed. But here goes:

I found a map of Iceland (dated 2007) in a charity shop, presumably bought by someone who was about to lose all their savings in a bank and they were thinking of going over there to draw them out in cash. Anyway, I can confirm that it is a long way from Reykjavik - overland there is a lot of white stuff and the coastline is just lots of fjords…not easy terrain for the cops, or indeed for someone trying to find their savings in a bank. 

Well, what can I say?  Does the snow ever melt? Did I think that our hero’s father-in-law was a pyromaniac? No, no more than he did. But was he going to throw the key in the sea? He probably realised that it wasn’t worth it as someone would be bound to dredge it up, but now it would have his fingerprints on it, not his father-in-law’s. 

As for the poor little kid: father is a psychopath and rapist, mother is a mad knife murderer, but worse than all of that, he has red hair. And there was no evidence that the teachers had any better understanding of bullying at the end of this sorry tale than at the beginning. The teenagers looked happy, I suppose, but then they will grow up and become as depressed as the adults. 

I noticed that the house that he is building is looking more and more like the house behind Bates’ Motel in Psycho. And as he turned to go up the steps to go to live in it (in-laws now thinking at last he is going to go and live in his own house instead of kipping here all the time. What more do we have to do to get him out?)

I realised that from behind he doesn’t look like Orson Welles, but like the bear in We’re going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen. At the end of that book the bear has to return to his cave alone, and his shoulders droop and he looks really depressed. So it was all very sad really, despite the yokels having done better than the smart guys in Reykjavik. 

I guess I am rather sad that it is finished. But at least the locals got a payout for appearing as extras. 

Saturday, 12 March 2016


Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

My mum is sending my weekly emails summarising the plot and offering a review, with a certain je ne sais quoi, of the Icelandic drame Trapped. I've posted the previous three after asking her permission. This is the first one she sent me after I said I'd be making them public.



(or is this series really an elaborate “knocking copy” advert from rival firms?)

There is something in the air in that small port. However smart you are in the big city, when you arrive there you become as dim-witted as the locals. This particularly applies to policemen, who develop an alarming facility to lose bodies  - dead or alive – sometimes in spectacular fashion.

Our local hero – who each week resembles more closely a middle-aged Orson Welles – appears to be patching up his marriage, which up to now has looked as dead as …well, the torso or the local mayor… by luring his estranged wife to his own house which he is building himself (no mean feat when you consider the hours he works) which has no central heating in the middle of winter. I am no house builder, but really, if you have got the outside walls up and the interior ones, wouldn’t you then put the central heating in, rather than a few shelves and cupboards? Then, oh my god, there they are taking their clothes off, getting into bed, and we assume having sex. But hold on, your breath would show coming out of your mouth if there was no heating, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t have your head out from under the blankets, let alone your shoulders. Oh, just let it go Lesley…

More puzzling to me is the body shape of our local hero. He works night and day AND IS NEVER SEEN EATING A SANDWICH, LET ALONE A MEAL. To get into the shape he is you would be stuffing doughnuts and junk food down you as if there was no tomorrow, wouldn’t you? He rarely drinks either. Last night I observed him holding a cup of coffee a couple of times, but the mugs were put down without him taking a sip, let alone a slurp. He sipped one cup of coffee, once. YOU WATCH, next week I’m right. 

So, he doesn’t eat, rarely drinks and rarely sleeps. Is this going to develop into some sort of zombie horror?

Now, the credits – I’ve worked it out. Ever since the banking crash, the Icelanders are desperate for income. The film company is multi-national, including the financing. Someone local asked the finance guys whether the local extras would get paid. Yes, says the outsider, if their name appears in the credits then they get a payment. “I’ll give you a list of their names,” says a local. And he hands over the electoral register. 

Oh, and what’s happened to the kids?  Even the teenagers seem to have disappeared.

That’s all for now folks!


Thursday, 10 March 2016

Trapped - "As I was taught on my social work training course: ARSONISTS ARE VERY DANGEROUS PEOPLE"

Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

This is my mum's review of eipsode three of Trapped, the Icelandic drama on BBC4.

"At least they found the body – sorry, torso – just before the crack squad arrives from Rejkavik.  I haven’t followed Icelandic economics since the banks crashed, and clearly I should have - it’s all to do with building a large port, I think…and there is something about the clash of cultures (which The Bridge did, but rather better) which I am trying to understand.   

I continue to have sympathy for those officials in Reykjavik: there they are, taking panicky phone calls from this lot of hicks demanding a doctor (and more) when anyone can see that if you try to put a helicopter up in those weather conditions all aboard will die. Just to save some old eccentric who deliberately set off an avalanche which engulfed him, well, serves him right. He has lived there all his life, so presumably knew the risks. 

Do you think that if you get your name in the credits you get some sort of financial reward, even if it is only a voucher to spend at Iceland? But do they have Iceland stores in Iceland?

On this philosophical note I will end this email,

All the best,


Wednesday, 9 March 2016

This is the hyperlinked text of a talk I gave at the annual Built Environment Forum for Scotland Conference in Edinburgh on 9 March. 

And the excellent Graham Ogilvie drew this as I was speaking: 

In the first draft of this talk I aimed to be provocative but conciliatory. However, in the end this version is just provocative; in fact I would go as far to say it is combative and it’s a good job I have to run off and catch the train to Stirling as soon as I finished otherwise I’d probably need bullet-proof armour to get out the room. What I am going to suggest is that the main trouble with heritage protection is that it is an example of middle class self-interest. People do not protect heritage for some transcendent, higher reason, but because it is in their own class interest.

In my research with Professor Hastings at the University of Glasgow we demonstrated that the middle classes are particularly good at getting resources from public services because they take advantage of four different mechanisms. Firstly, they join groups that policy-makers listen to, often because they have statutory duties; the classic example being the Community Council. Secondly, they are just much more likely to engage in policy-making on an individual and group basis. What is more, when they do engage they are more likely to get what they want which is a further incentive to engage. Thirdly, they have greater access to people with the necessary expertise, and also the ability to understand complex technical language, to have influence in policy-making. Finally, policy-makers just make policy to suit the middle classes; because they vote more, but also because they know the middle classes are likely to complain if policy is not made to suit them and their demands.

You are now probably bristling and thinking “I’m not middle class!” or the more sociological question of “what does he mean by middle class?” There is a lot of evidence behind this talk that is available free to access; but also the greatest revelation of this research for me is quite how middle class I am, and then using these mechanisms to get what I want.

Let’s apply this model of middle class influence to heritage. On the first mechanism, heritage groups are archetypal of this type of activity. Many started off as small groups of the great-and-the-good who used their influence to protect heritage – such as civic amenity associations – and then have gradually become a formal part of development processes and people who expect to be listened to.

We just need to look at the most controversial development decisions recently to see evidence of the second mechanism. I could reel off a list of controversial planning applications in well-to-do neighbourhoods in Edinburgh, but this would be unfair to my fellow citizens of this city. But it’s rather telling that the controversy over the proposed demolition of the Red Road flats in 2014 was largely one of the lack of taste in demolishing people’s homes during the Commonwealth Games ceremony, not uproar that we have housed people so poorly that the only sensible thing to do is to demolish their homes after 40 years.

In terms of the third mechanism – I lived in a listed building. It is listed because it is a unique collection of early nineteenth century industrial buildings, with a restrained classical fa├žade, with dressed stone and proportional fenestration to the road elevation. Do I need to say any more? Most people don’t even know what fenestration means – it sounds more like something you’d see your doctor about rather than windows. Further, far fewer people who know someone to contact to tell them what fenestration is so they can get listed building consent and planning permission to do something about their windows. As the story of the Tinker’s Heart movingly showed, you are in a system that actively excludes people who can’t “talk heritage”.

Now the fourth mechanism. “Ah” you’re probably thinking, “look at the Royal High School! The St James Centre! Caltongate! There is no way he can say development policies are suited the interests of middle-class people!” Yes I am. Because the evidence is fairly obvious. As Dr Madgin suggested, we value places based on judgements of taste that come from a specific cultural background. When we afford an untouched neighbourhood of working class council housing the same level of protection because of its social value as we afford Edinburgh’s New Town, then I’ll accept that policy is not made in the interests of the middle classes. But it seems we struggle to even have a reasoned discussion on this. The only suggestion is that we merely continue to expand existing protection systems, slowly allowing different kinds of heritage – industrial, working class, associated with a specific minority group – because we expand the definitional envelope of what should be protected very marginally. We need a discussion about whether we have the right envelope at all.

Why is this all class interested? At its most basic, itprotects house prices which are the largest asset for most people. But all this social capital – the links to people of influence; and cultural capital – the valorisation of certain aesthetics and the language used to describe them, puts middle class people in positions of power and influence. And they, you, we, are not going to give up that lightly.

So now I’ve revealed myself as the, self-described “envy-driven author trying to pass off as an intellectual” I’ll don my flak jacket and tin helmet and beat a hasty retreat. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Trapped - "At least the children turned up safe and sound"

Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

My mum's review of episode two was briefer, but still amusing:

Well, if you were the Chinese would you invest in building a massive port in that area? Old madmen going out setting off avalanches…police who can’t even store crucial evidence properly, or indeed keep files in alphabetical order, and who question suspects in a public bar about a murder…you wouldn’t believe it. I guess it’s their version of Midsommer Murders. At least the children turned up safe & sound, though that was a miracle. 

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Trapped - "everybody in Iceland is earning a living off this film"

Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

We've not been watching Trapped - we're keeping our viewing time for Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Gothan, Spin, and The Night Manager. But my mum is watching Trapped and for the past few weeks I've arrived to work on Monday morning to a rather amusing synopsis/review of the previous episode.

She's given me permission to put them on this blog. Apologies for the departure from academic subjects, but they are quite funny. 

Episode 1 - where my mum is the first person to point out everyone in Iceland is credited in Trapped

Dear Peter,

As you missed it, I thought I would summarise it for you, so that you can catch up quickly.

It’s cold and snowy in Iceland. Starts off 7 Years Ago and we see a young couple go into a disused building, have sex (even though it is always cold and snowing, clearly they are used to it) but he sets the building alight and she dies.  

Cut to present day.   Stolid local copper in the local small port, living with his mum & dad and two children – wife has left him. (Quiz question:  who was the last copper in a network series who didn’t have a broken marriage? Alistair knows the answer) Two fishermen on their boat. What have we here?  Dragging up a heavy load, clearly not a fish. A headless, armless, and legless corpse. Why didn’t they just throw it back in? Anyway, just as local copper is shown it, he sees a big ferry from Denmark come into the port. He goes on board and says to the captain “None of you can leave here until we have spoken to everyone on board.”  (How does an Icelandic copper speak to a Danish captain?  In English. That throws the English viewer, looking for the sub-titles, but they both speak in perfect English, better than me)

What do they do with the carcass while they wait for forensics from Reykjavik to arrive? Put it in the frozen food factory, despite the protests of the owner. (Note – do not buy any fish at Iceland)

The weather gets worse. The city coppers from Reykjavik say they are going to catch the next flight out, but of course all flights are grounded because of the blizzard. You can bet your bottom dollar (which is what the Icelandic bankers were doing in 2008) that they were well pleased that their hick cousins were continuing the investigation. Hick cousin manages to arrest the prime suspect (Lithuanian people trafficker who has a black African woman & her 13 year old sister in his camper van – they would have been easy to hide in Iceland) having followed him in the blizzard then run after him on his own when the camper van slid off the road. Takes Lithuanian back to the police station. Locks him up in a cell without a toilet in it. Leaves him overnight with a sole female copper to guard him. She manages to keep him in there, giving him a plastic bottle to pee in, whereas her male colleague, taking over from her, lets him out to go to the toilet and is over-powered by him. What a surprise. So main suspect escapes. We weren’t shown what his colleagues said to their male colleague when they realised what he had done. (“Oh it could have happened to any of us”  I think not)

Well, I won’t bore you with the plot details of the copper’s wife, who turns up with her lover, or the children. Suffice to say that the teachers in Iceland do not recognise bullying when it is going on in front of them (“Stop teasing him”) so the murders and inability of the police to solve them, let alone keep the main evidence (yes, the carcass is stolen from Iceland at the end of the second episode) are the main focus for yours truly. The children are also out in the blizzard by the end of Episode 2, though. You would think that when the weather started in like that you would just hunker down and stay indoors, wouldn’t you? Oh, and the young man who had had sex with the young girl and had burned down the building he is back…doesn’t look a well-balanced individual and the locals are all suspicious of him.  In fact his name is in the frame for stealing the carcass. Perhaps he is going to barbecue it, he’s good with fires. 

As the credits roll you realise that everybody in Iceland is earning a living off this film. I’ve never seen so many names with no function attached to them on credits in a lifetime of film viewing. Well, I guess they’ve got to earn an honest crust somehow, can’t go into banking (toxic) and the job at the food freezing warehouse is looking a bit risky. I can’t wait for the Reykjavik police crew to arrive. I wonder what they will say!