Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Struck

We're officially fucked. Teachers in our university have now voted to go back to the work. After 7 months of industrial action and 4 months of strike, they resumed teaching yesterday. They had been threatened with a 30% pay-cut, and most of my camarades are blaming this for their caving-in. I can't say for sure, not having been in their meeting (not invited) but if it's really that, it's a bit bloody low. Due to the independent status of French universities, teaching staff can strike without any significant cut in pay for long periods as long as they fulfill certain provisos- attendance at university, continuation of research, office hours etc. (Beautiful thing about university systems, even independent-ish ones- they couldn't give a shit about teaching as long as research keeps bringing in the cash). Minister for Higher Education Valérie Pécresse is trying to attack these rights with great difficulty. But she's trying to attack a whole lot of university rights, and in a lot of her other nasty little plots she's succeeding. Anyway, from this month teachers at Tours would be taking this pay-cut in order to carry on industrial action, and clearly there were just too many members of staff in the meeting who will only support industrial action if it doesn't affect how long they spend at the beach this summer. Maybe I'm being ungenerous- maybe they are trying to give students a chance to catch up on this lost semester. I'm guessing the same pressure is being put on teachers across the country as only between 6 and 10 faculties are still bloquées, down from 50 at the climax of the strike. University presidencies have panicked at the thought that the exam-diploma-job machine might grind to a halt and put the boot into what is now the weakest part of the strike- the teachers. It's the worst possible time to cave in. We were in a fight to automatically give people a pass mark for the semester, and we might just have won it. They couldn't make everybody repeat the year, and as long as exams were properly blocked, they would have been forced to pass everyone. Why strike all year then stop striking two weeks before the end of the already lengthened semester? It just doesn't make sense. I've passed the term. Not altogether honestly, but that's not really my fault. But my French friends are currently trying to learn a semester's syllabus in two weeks, having had about three weeks of class since Christmas. Usually they would already be on holiday. It's so unfair. I'm actually wasting valuable dissertation time worrying about their plight. This has effectively decimated the student side of the movement as well- no one can attend meetings or demonstrations now that they're suddenly under such exam pressure. The LRU or Pécresse reforms are set to go through now anyway, and have already been passed in the National Assembly. No one really still thinks we're going to have any kind of significant victory there. My major criticism of the movement all along (apart from that we didn't go far enough in our actions) was the lack of communication between staff and students. I think we got more and more divided, at least in Tours. We all started out in November fighting the masterisation of the CAPES and gradually we developed different priorities. Students went on to make demands for better benefits, grants, etc, whereas staff became caught up on the job losses and status changes alone. Students were generally a lot more radical in thoughts and actions as well, although there were certainly some very 'engagé' staff... Now basically the presidency has capitalised on this division. Even students who didn't particularly support strike action are completely against going back to school at this point, because it's such a travesty of a semester that it's completely worthless as an academic marker, and therefore represents nothing but a demonstration of power by university bosses and the government. I've been so excited all term to be part of such a huge movement- it seemed like in this country things actually got done, and the people had some kind of power. Now I'm completely deflated and miserable. No one takes my suggestions for bringing the great French tradition of boss-napping into the university. And no one seems to realise how badly they might be fucked- when students lose their power, the road is open for French universities to become English universities. If we lose the fight over masterisation, the next fight will be over marketisation.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Let no man tear asunder?

I went to a beautiful wedding last year. My friends had been together since secondary school, their kid was old enough to carry a bunch of flowers very nicely and young enough to be extremely cute. M and I were dolled up to the nines, hanging on the arms of handsome young men and drinking extra hard to mark the special occasion. When the lights dimmed and the bride and groom started to dance we clutched hands and held back tears. At some point before we had to start worrying about last trains back to civilisation (why can’t people tie the knot somewhere easily accessible, like East London?), I’m sure I gazed at my date through my beer goggles and indulged in a brief fantasy in which he figured as a minor character behind mounds of white tulle, giant cakes, and everybody knowing that it’s my special day... Afterwards M and I were too starry-eyed to indulge in our usual benevolent character assassinations of everyone present. (We never say anything vicious about anyone, but we are fond of feeling deeply sorry for people’s manifold faults, and blaming any untoward behaviour on their secret sorrow/ insecurity/ as-yet undiagnosed mental health problems.) ‘It was just... magical,’ we sighed. ‘The bride was stunning.’ (She was.) ‘The whole thing was... perfect.’ That’s the problem with criticising marriage- weddings. They really are lovely. On the other hand, I went to a Catholic church service on Good Friday. A man in a purple dress, flanked by a bunch of suspiciously innocent-looking pre-adolescent boys, chanted in Latin about the events leading up to Jesus’ alleged crucifixion for three hours. It was lovely. I was secretly disappointed that the friend who had dragged me there couldn’t come back for the grand finale on Easter Sunday, so we could find out what happened next. (Like watching The Matrix and Matrix Reloaded and not Matrix Revolutions- is he alive? is he dead? are they going to save the world at the end? Actually I never bothered watching the last Matrix film, but I’m sure it all turned out just as happily for humanity as the New Testament did.) My somewhat heavily made point is: just because it’s beautiful and moving doesn’t mean it’s not deeply sick and wrong. People aren’t idiots. You want to fool them into accepting an exploitative and enslaving institution, you got to put on a bit of the old razzle-dazzle. I’m pushing on now into my mid-twenties, and while that couple was not the first of my set to tie the knot, they had a child young and came from a very Caflic background. Now more and more of my friends are settling into couples, and I’m shocked and disturbed that no small number of them are contemplating marriage in one way or another. As M said recently (rose-tinted wedding-y glow now wholly worn off) ‘Even the feminists are getting married!’ We shared some smug pity over the sad plight of our clueless acquaintances over a cup of tea. So why on earth are people doing this? I don’t buy the ‘We want to share our love with everybody’ crap. No, you want to conform. In a big white dress. You want a party, have a party. Buy champagne. You want a wedding dress, buy a wedding dress. I have one. I have even worn it in public (on Halloween). You want a ‘special day’, wear the wedding dress in the street. Everybody will look at you, and probably think you look ‘glowing’. Where do the ceremony, ring, vows and licence fee come into sharing your love? I have regular parties to share my love. When I find a man that knows how to share his love in the same way, I’m gonna hang on to him. Double parties! ‘It’s not about the party, we want to commit to each other forever and getting married seems like the best way.’ When I was a teenager, I remember being very impressed that Fat Boy Slim and Zoe Ball just wandered down to their local registry office, clutching cowboy hats and a bottle of whisky, and pulled in a couple of strangers off the street to witness their marriage. ‘That’s real love- that’s not just for show- they’re only doing it for each other,’ Well, committing is not something you do for five minutes in front of someone with a really big desk. Committing is something you do every day, and all the time it’s because you choose to do it. It’s hard, I can tell you as someone who did it for a bit and then decided I wasn’t up to the task. Doesn’t anybody ever think for a minute about this? Why the fuck have women (and men) been getting married for thousands of years? Uh, duh- because they weren’t allowed to have sex, live together or have children unless they did. Why not? because keeping people in small family units managed and controlled by the ruling powers was an important part of the feudal system, which remained useful to said ( albeit slightly different) ruling powers after industrialisation.
“The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” James Connolly
Marriage is an essential part of –and symbol for- the patriarchal system. Once, the only women who worked were spinsters, widows and the very poor. Even now, women’s jobs –often lower-paid and more casual- are among the first to go in the recession. Keep people locked into couples, where one has greater earning capacity, physical strength and social status than the other, and you have greater control over your workforce. If you need to, for example during a world war, you can get the women out too. In times of recession, send her back home and you know the family unit will still (probably) eat. (Taking your husband’s name is also still a sign that he has a higher status than you.) Then there’s the problem of the church. Yes, the wedding has been taken out of the church- the registry office ceremony loses all the ‘Who brings this woman to be married to this man?’ cant, and even in Church of England marriages the bride can now opt (as Victoria Beckham did) to cut out the promising to obey your husband bit. But choosing to get married at all seems to me like picking and choosing the bits you want from organised religion. ‘I don’t believe in God, but the ceremony He came up with (or didn’t) as honed and ritualised by generations of religious nut-jobs and tyrants, is just what I need to fix my life up. Just take His name out, won’t you?’ This is acknowledging the church’s cultural hegemony without accepting that other forms of almost identical manipulation are replacing it. In a world without God, why hang on to His ideas? Suckers! Black slaves in America were not allowed any kind of formal marriage ceremony. Instead, to be allowed to live together in a couple, they were often made to ‘jump the broomstick’, a basic (and self-explanatory) rite. Props required- one broomstick, or other suitable pole. The happy couple held hands and jumped over a broomstick on the ground together. I don’t know the origins of this ‘ceremony’, but it served to satisfy slave-owners’ moral qualms about men and women living together and having sex with each other, without giving them any status as Christians, which would imply rather too much shared humanity with their owners to be quite safe. (Jumping the broomstick is apparently still common as a jolly end to American, or at least African- American, marriages. But that’s by the by.) I would propose that when we read about sleb and royal marriages, when we’re conned into spending thousands we don’t have on imitations, even when we daringly run away to Vegas and tell the friends and family afterwards, we are still just jumping the broomstick for our masters. ‘But we’re not marrying for them, we’re marrying for us!’ Mmmm, love. Great stuff. I love a bit of love. I keep trying to tell myself it makes the world go round. But why do we still –even the feminists!- modify our ideas of love to fit in with what They want from young couples? (Sorry, keep meaning to stop capitalising that ‘T’ but can’t help myself). Marriage has far clearer advantages for the system than it does for the individuals concerned. It preserves class boundaries. Often it preserves gender roles which themselves preserve class boundaries. It locks people into their situation by law, and also by social opinion and peer pressure. It’s inextricably linked with a whole set of social mores and dictated behaviour that we might otherwise rebel against. I’m not saying anything against choosing a life partner, buying a house, and generally settling down eternally. Hell, have kids if that’s what’s gonna make you happy! Whether marriage is still synonymous with a woman’s oppression by her husband is no longer clear. I would tend to say no, as a general rule. Of course there are far too many horrific cases of abuse and violence, and less well-documented cases of mental and spiritual domination, mostly by men towards women although also the other way, but I don’t know if there’s a great deal of difference here between married and ‘common-law’ cohabitations. What marriage does still always entail, on the other hand, is an apparently voluntary nod by two ‘free’ individuals to the power of the state, the Church, the press, and what I am thus reluctantly forced to term ‘the ruling classes’. I repeat. Why the fuck? Afterthought The gay marriage question is of course not a question. I fully support everyone’s right to have an equal access to a completely harmful and stupid thing, much as I support freedom of religion, freedom to read the Evening Standard and freedom to hold an opinion that differs from my own. (You’re all wrong, by the way.) The answer is the same as Bill Hicks’ on the subject of gay people in the army: ‘Anyone dumb enough to want to be in the military should be allowed in.’

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Writers

Jo has written an excellent list of '25 writers who have influenced me'. As she points out, it's pretty difficult to choose them, although I could easily have borrowed twenty of the ones she chose. Here are some of the ones that always make me think 'I must write more myself, and will definitely start as soon as I finish this essay/academic year/sandwich'. Non-exhaustive list. Every good book I read influences me in one way or another... just not necessarily to write.
  1. Maya Angelou
  2. Margaret Atwood
  3. Charles Baudelaire
  4. William Blake
  5. Anne Brontë
  6. John le Carré
  7. Charles Dickens
  8. Franz Fanon
  9. Gustave Flaubert
  10. Thomas Hardy
  11. Seamus Heaney
  12. Cynthia Heimel
  13. Joseph Heller
  14. Herman Hesse
  15. Michel Houellebecq
  16. Christopher Isherwood
  17. Doris Lessing
  18. Toni Morrison
  19. Vladimir Nabokov
  20. Zora Neale Hurston
  21. Thomas Pynchon
  22. F Scott Fitzgerald
  23. Robert Service
  24. Muriel Spark
  25. Oscar Wilde
I separated childrens authors because I think they have a different kind of influence over you as a child (especially a child with no tv!) and as a grown-up, but here are some from whom I'll always take inspiration.
  1. Joan Aiken
  2. Bernard Ashley
  3. J M Barrie
  4. Antonia Forest
  5. Judith Kerr
  6. Roger McGough
  7. AA Milne
  8. Antoine de Saint- Exupéry
  9. Jean Ure
  10. Benjamin Zephaniah

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Held to ransom

Students demonstrating... students waiting...
It's not just me that's fed up. Although I have two fighting cats in the flat at the moment, and one of them (the bad one) just tore my hand to shreds. I have also done something to my sleeping patterns to which my body has taken great offence. It is therefore retaliating by giving me nightmares, preventing me from getting up in the morning, and generally behaving like a very mad old person's body. Headaches. (Cats also screaming a lot). Swollen glands. I told my body that it was logical, if I needed to be on a picket line at 7am and at a nightclub until gone four, to simply stay up all night. I was nice about it. I offered it tea. It remained unconvinced. I showed it the sunrise in a Unesco World Heritage Site. It made one of my eyes start twitching. Poor, poor me. But there's worse problems round here at the moment. My fellow students, here and in at least 24 other French universities, are in the centre of a power game between the government, faculty administration and teaching staff. It's driving me crazy, and as an Erasmus student, a UK fee-payer and pretty much a dilettante, I'm probably going to get away with attending next-to-no classes, taking no exams, and not receiving any credit for the second semester. For my camarades at Université François Rabelais the outlook is grim. Some students have attended around 6 weeks of some classes. With at least half of the departments of English and French on indefinite strike since January or February, some teachers have not taught at all this semester. The 'rules', here and for most French faculties, state that students must have attended at least three quarters of the 12-week semester to receive credit. Now the swine have extended the teaching semester until the end of May in the hope that they can catch this up, but to what avail? Teachers still aren't teaching, and why should they when the government took advantage of the two weeks' Easter break to push the LRU (Pécresse reforms) even further forward. Exams have been 'scheduled' for early June. Resits for September. Teachers may set exams, or then again they may not. There's a rumour that striking staff will set us blank examination papers. Which they may or may not mark. After which they may or may not release the grades to us and to the administration. At least the teachers are still fighting. A couple have had arrests and court dates after demonstrations. Two went to hospital after clashes with the police last month. And they're fighting for us too, working to get the year validated for all the anxious students waiting to know if they're going to graduate or not. Lucky the teachers are fighting for us, because they seem to hold a little more power than the students in the movement, who are now being attacked on all sides. The president of the university has moved on to tactics against students which amount, quite simply, to strike-breaking. In Monday's General Assembly students voted to continue the blocade of the Lettres et Langues building. After 7 months of action and very little success, its very important to keep up what little pressure we can. The next morning I came in at 7am to help man the pickets. Unfortunately by 10ish I had to urgently go to bed, and during the day's meeting a little later the president invited the police into the building to disperse strikers. 'I have always kept the university open to democratic debate,' he reminds us, smugly, in a general email. Guillaume Cingal, head of English, probably disagrees. After he sent an email to all English students to reassure them that the department would fight to get everyone a pass-mark for the semester he found his right to email his students had been taken away. He has now learnt to use Facebook. On the same day a motion was proposed by Minister Damien Meslot to fine students involved in blocades 1000€. It's all becoming nightmarish. The government has not hesitated to become involved in the 'validation' row. Obviously, students who have spent the year defending the rights of future generations still balk at the thought of not passing their degree. People have already had to cancel holidays, work placements, summer jobs. Everyone's paying an extra month's rent to keep up with the changed timetable. Many can't get their places confirmed for courses in September until they get this year's results. We're being blackmailed. The demands being made of us by the government and the President of the university have no relevance to our academic abilities and knowledge. They amount to
'Stop playing strike now children, or we'll take away something you really need. And don't forget youth unemployment is back up to 23%! Better behave, 'cos you're going to need that degree in today's France!'
It's patronising, and it's dangerous. We're not in Year 9! Most students are here to learn, and this semester we've certainly learnt a lot, even not all of it was on the timetable... But I'm a foreign student, and a lazy bastard, and if I were to take the exams normally tomorrow I would scrape a (pretty low) pass mark in every class. What the hell does M. le President think we've been doing for the last three months? Sunbathing? No, we have been studying the courses at home like adults. And sunbathing a little bit. At least marching in nice short-sleeved t-shirts to get our arms brown. And in general, how much of what one learns at university is actually taught in class? (Talking Lettres et Langues still here, not medicine). If I hear the words 'academic reputation' one more time I'm going to hit someone over the head with a book. Yes, M. le President, defend the academic reputation of an institution you're watching go to the dogs. I don't hear you mouthing off about academic reputation in the face of a thousand academics losing their jobs, or the dumbing-down of a teacher-training degree! Well, I'm a bit sick of it all. The government's taking a gamble on education, and we're the chips. It's not a fun position to be in. I was so happy to come to university in France, where education is not a market, but watching it become one is depressing me even more. Especially now, where the student movement to save the university system is in crisis, the universities themselves are in chaos, and the summer holidays (best time to push through dodgy changes in education law) are approaching far too quickly.