Higher Education: Deeper Than Data

The data-driven nature of the regulation, representation and marketing of Higher Education in the UK and beyond is a well documented phenomenon, about which many of us currently working in the sector often lament.  Higher education seems to have become driven by statistics, ratings and rankings – the National Student Survey (NSS) results, for example, were out this week, and have seen universities and departments take to their Twitter streams to extol their respective virtues.  We already know about the various league tables, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which is explicitly linked to the results of the NSS, and so on.  There aren’t really many arguments I can relay here that are not already well-known and discussed, whether online, on social media, in the press and behind closed doors within university departments themselves.

But one thing in particular got me thinking this week.  The UCU began sharing a web link, which enables anyone to type in the name of a university, and their vague relationship to that institution (past student, future student, concerned parent…) to find out some basic employment-related data.  The online tool then reveals the percentage of temporary teaching contracts within that university and male-to-female average earnings (which, invariably, reveals that HE uses a lot of temporary contracts and that the gender pay gap is still dire in HE).  This got me thinking, as, yes, clearly it’s very important for such information to be made public, for average earnings and the security of staff contracts to be public knowledge, for universities to be accountable, and especially welcome is the notion that parents and potential students should be aware of how staff are treated within various institutions.  Indeed, however shiny a prospectus may seem, and however well a particular course is marketed, the academics teaching it are more than a significant factor in how a student may experience their university life.

But, is there not a case to be made regarding the use of bald statistics alone?  They can give us indicators – how happy students were on a particular course, how quickly coursework was returned, how much women are paid when compared to men.  Yet, for a sector which is so driven by culture, cultures within universities and departments, work cultures, learning cultures – reflection upon and creation of culture – should we not look more deeply?  Cultures vary between universities and departments, and in themselves they create different sets of expectations within their own communities, which may, ultimately, lead students to answer questions in different ways.  Universities which have, seemingly, according to this basic data, higher levels of permanent staff contracts may be hiding other things.  How secure do ‘permanent’ staff feel?  Is a low level of temporary staff necessarily a good thing in a sector in which staff need to take research leave?  And although I would be the last person to in any way justify any kind of gender pay gap (pay should be equal and opportunities so much more readily and equally open to female academics) but the statistics can only give us rough indicators of a culture.  What is daily life like in university departments?  How are women treated (and colleagues more widely), encouraged and supported?  What roles are they given on a day-to-day basis?  And to come back to that idea of culture – what is the working culture like?

Having worked in and for various universities throughout my career, I can attest to the different nature of cultures – and I am lucky enough to find myself currently working in an institution which seems to me to be at the healthier end of the spectrum.  In a sector driven so wildly by average scores, data and competition, however, it is easy for the academics to find themselves on the harsh edge of an institution which sees itself as marketing a product, rather than providing transformative education and inspiring genuine cultural change.  When that happens, when competition for students and funding is fierce, when staffing is low, and redundancies likely – what is it like to work in those institutions?  What kinds of culture are young people, embarking on their degree study, really entering?  If it’s one of exploitation, bullying and workplace violence, what will the HE sector really teach our young people?  If academic staff members are treated as merely marketable and disposable resources, what will we be able to pass on to younger students about their own rights and inherent value in the workplace?  How will we influence their expectations, and then how will they answer the questions which inform the very data which is now driving our HE sector?  I have no answers to these questions – just a wish for us to scrape beneath the surface, to think about the cultural and social value of our universities, and to look to protect those cultures, for universities to be fully accountable for those cultures – and to consider more than the basic marketability of staff and degrees – for the good of all who work and study in them.

June 16th, 2016

I have for the last few days been ruminating on a blog post about the UK’s current referendum on EU membership, and the horrifyingly destructive standard of its associated debate; about our creaking political system and its readily apparent failure to create a sphere in which meaningful, representative and rational conversations can be had. And then a Member of Parliament was murdered in the street.

That this unspeakably shocking event somehow does not, however, come as a surprise is testament to the parlous state of our national public discourse – and rather overtakes, for now, any other concerns.

We have allowed venom and spite to infect and pervert the ways in which we speak to each other about ideas and people. This has been happening for some time, on both left and right, and it is born of frustration, fear and, in some cases, brute strategy. It is a pyrrhic and paranoid form of politics which necessarily leads to nullity.

The EU Referendum is not the cause of this situation; it has, though, become its clearest expression. Both sides – all sides – are guilty of pandering to the paucity of the age; both sides – all sides – must pull back and remember that, though we may disagree, we must not doubt the sincerity of the other’s convictions.

Nevertheless, convictions, like assassinations and like rhetoric, are political acts – and acts can be evil. It is the responsibility of each of us to fight not those with whom we disagree (that is what debate is for), but the sorts of political act which do damage to our shared polity, our increasingly fragile community.

Remain in the EU or leave it; adhere to Corbynism or to Cameroonery. Do whatever you must, but principles are only worth fighting for insofar as they contribute to a climate in which we as individuals might all live peaceably.

Let us all measure our aims and our methods by their capacity also to achieve these wider goals. Let’s aim for mutual respect, not endemic suspicion; for informed scepticism, not knee-jerk cynicism. Jo Cox’s husband has written a dignified, open-hearted statement in which he urges us all to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her”. Which of us would object to that? So let’s begin.

“Only One Sexist Comment”

kuenssbergOkay, so yes, Laura Kuenssberg is exhibiting political bias.  That’s one problem for and about the BBC for sure.  But, so are many journalists. When Nick Robinson was attacked by Scottish Nationalists for his Indyref reporting, there were several petitions which didn’t attract many signatures.  One on change.org gained 19,000, although it didn’t reach its target, compared to the speedily reached 35,000 on the now removed 38 Degrees petition calling for Laura Kuenssberg’s sacking.  And the Robinson petition asked for his suspension, not for him to lose his job and whole career. Go figure.

The question is, what is the appropriate level of response to this bias? And it is not insignificant that we’re having this conversation about the BBCs first female political editor.

This morning, blogs and news sources are sharing this link to the comments on the removed petition – stating that only one comment was sexist, and therefore it shouldn’t have been taken down.

Aside from the more extreme defamatory language used about Kuenssberg, especially on Twitter,  a quick skim of these comments (I haven’t included all of them) reveals more than one sexist, gender biased statement, such as:

‘She almost spits and gurns whilst attacking them. She was at it again last night!’

‘She is entirely bias towards the Tory Party, Cameron in particular I think they may have had or are having a thing. There is definitely something there’

‘The bias this woman shows on repeat is repugnant.’

‘Laura is not a political commentator. But she can be a very good gossip columnist’

‘this woman is an insult to the general populace’s intelligence and spouts utter drivel.’

‘She sucks badly’

‘The woman is an utter disgrace’

‘She’s a Jewish extremist.’ (Oh, so a bit of anti-semitism in there too.)

‘She’s a Scottish cow who should keep her name out of UK politics.’

‘mad woman’

‘Like a whippet curled up in the lap of George Osborne. He feeds her a Corbyn bone and she gnaws at it savagely.’

‘She is a self centred witch’

‘daddy donates to red tories..’

‘Look at that mouth. It matches the rhetoric.’

‘VILE EVIL COLLABORATOR WITCH!!!’

‘she’s rubbish – bring back Nick Robinson’ (Who also has a politically biased opinion … but is safely male?)

‘If she were an ex-, you’d have taken out a restraining order – her Twitter feed reads like a stalker obsessed with Corbyn.’

So only one sexist comment, then?

We should have a zero tolerance approach to any form of sexist language. Here we have the continual reference to ‘this woman’ (would you say ‘this man’?), the comments on her physical appearance, her father, clear sexual innuendo and the old favourite, comparing her to a witch (witch-hunt anyone?). It’s the same effect as calling girls and women ‘bossy’.  The language is based in negative gender assumptions, and it creates a negative discourse.

It’s a very significant issue that we think we can talk about women in this way (and defend others talking about women in this way).  Arguably, this is actually a bigger, more destructive and socially ingrained problem than one person’s reporting of one politician.  Because if we let this way of speaking continue, about any woman, whatever her perspective, it harms all women, for a long time, and shapes the language we use about women in all contexts.  Check yourself!  And the language you use and support.

In Memoriam: Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Whenever I heard someone ask Paul Murphy, the Birmingham-based and Belfast-born songwriter and storyteller whose death has sadly been announced today, what he did beyond music, he would respond simply: “I’m an educator.”

This answer was typical of Paul’s thoughtful and humane approach to every experience, concept and individual. He had an unerringly generous eye for the human condition, and understood that everyone is special in a way particular to them – that everyone has a story and a value. He was eternally curious about people and ideas, and implacably committed to social justice. Most importantly, he made this into art of quite remarkable emotional scope and reach: in his songs he was able to make an audience laugh and cry within the space of a verse.

Indeed, to see Paul perform was to become part of a community, however temporary. This is what he did – he connected. Though he received much deserved exposure for his role as frontman of The Destroyers, there was something alchemical in the intimacy of his solo work. Paul was able to hold an audience, but would never manipulate one: he was always in dialogue with people, exchanging ideas and emotions with them.

Anna, whose thoughts inform this piece as much as mine, has also written some words about Paul on Facebook which I think really capture something  important about the man, and I’d like to share them here:

I’m so saddened to hear of the loss of dear Paul Murphy. Such a beautiful man, with the most generous and open hearted spirit. He cared about people and he cared about the world, and making people and the world better. It was impossible to feel alone or forgotten in his company. He will be greatly missed. Bless you Paul, I’m so glad to have known you xxx

When Anna says that it was impossible to feel alone with Paul, she nails exactly his special gift not so much for making people feel special, which sounds confected, but for helping them appreciate their own value, for nurturing and encouraging them. This is why his death has prompted such an outpouring amongst all who knew him: the word ‘inspiration’ is included in almost every tribute because Paul was inexhaustably engaged in understanding people; for him everything and everyone was fascinating and worthy of closer inspection – and in that space of learning would be the key to unlocking both their and his further potential. This is a rare gift which he gave again and again to his audiences, to Birmingham’s musical community, and, to go by their remarks about him online today, to his students. It seems impossible that we can repay such bottomless generosity.

Except that, perhaps, we can – by taking him as a role model. One of the last conversations I ever had with Paul was about labour rights and immigration, and the injustice of blaming those newest to our land for its ills and wage deflation; Paul was sharing issues of political importance on social media until the very end; his Songwriter’s Cafe project provided a glorious and crucial platform for emerging and established talents alike to practice their craft. We can all be more open-hearted and more capacious in our sympathies, more creative and more curious; we can all take from the important sadness we feel for his passing a resolution that at least a portion of what he offered us will continue through us.

Anna and I would not claim to have known Paul as well as some; we spent memorable evenings with him, enjoyed parties in his company. Given how saddened we are by his passing – and we have both cried today – we can only imagine the grief of his family and closest friends. We are a small part of a much broader and deeper community of loss, which has been brought together by love and respect for this astonishing, incisive, humble man.

Knowing you, Paul, was a privilege and an education. May we all learn and grow always, as you inspired us to do.

“People Don’t Change”: Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara-A Little LifeI’m not sure I can recall off-hand a reading experience quite so odd as the one I had whilst making my way through Hanya Yanagahira’s A Little Life. The last of 2015’s Booker-shortlisted novels I had to read, in many ways this novel is, excepting Marlon James’s winner, the most memorable: 720 pages long, it is a bizarre mix of bildungsroman, misery memoir, Franzen-ish lit, and family saga. It begins with four friends in college, and makes its way to their 50s and 60s in simultaneously dilatory and episodic fashion, slowly writing each of them out of their own story until the last word is given to a character who has always been on the outside of their cohort. It is a novel with often unreadably detailed descriptions of self-harm and sex abuse, which in reality spends a much larger part of its time on pure math and modern art. It should be a thorough mess, and yet it is entirely immersive. I’m not at all sure it works, but I was never bored by it.

This discombobulation is, for the novel’s most vocal cheerleaders, its point:

To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering.

Jude is the novel’s central character, the member of that opening quartet who is, at first, the quietest and most mysterious – but whose story soon comes to dominate the others’. Indeed, ‘dominate’ is the only possible word: such is the extent of Jude’s suffering that its devastating effects both on his body and his psyche come to make greater and greater demands upon those closest to him. Found, abandoned a baby, by a group of monks, Jude is sexually abused at their school for boys before escaping with Brother Luke, the only member of the fraternity who has shown his kindness; Luke proceeds to pimp Jude out to other men, ultimately also taking the nine-year-old boy as his own lover; years later, Luke hangs himself in a hotel bathroom adjacent to Jude’s bed when the police finally make their raid. After further abuse by the counsellors and care home staff charged with his safe-keeping, Jude breaks out on his own and becomes a male prostitute; one night he is found by Dr Traylor, who promptly locks Jude in his basement for months on end and subjects him to sexualised beatings; when Traylor finally lets Jude free, it is only to chase him down the road in a car and repeatedly run over him, breaking Jude’s back.

The point of A Little Life is that it is impossible – utterly and entirely – to get over that sort of abuse. The likelihood of that sort of abuse actually happening is not addressed. In this, it short-circuits the routinely redemptive, and mostly mimetic, promise of the novel as a form, which insists people can change and grow over an allotted time, defeating their personal demons and growing stronger through trauma. This happens to no one in Yanagahira’s book – everything more or less stays the same. So, too, does the setting: from the day Jude meets his new college buddies (the angelic social worker who takes charge of Jude’s case following the Traylor incident manages to encourage Jude to apply to university right before dying of a terrible cancer), it is impossible to locate the novel’s events in time. We appear to be in an eternal present, where everyone always has a cellphone and no one ever discusses politics. This, more or less, is the reason A Little Life fails to impress its detractors:

In proper melodramatic manner, Jude goes from the pits straight to, if not the top, the upper middle class. The ghastly litany of his childhood sufferings is at least coherent. Jude, an adult player in a melodramatic lifestyle novel, in which the point is to observe the way the passing of time affects the cast of characters, is static.

That’s from Christopher Lorentzen’s entertainingly vicious review of the novel in the London Review of Books. He also cites the review from which my first quotation was taken, Garth Greenwell’s in The Atlantic. Their readings are two sides of the same coin: Greenwell supposes that Yanagihara’s project is to queer the Great American Novel; Lorentzen that this may well be the case but that you can’t ignore the demands of the form in which you choose to write. I think Lorentzen over-emphasises the novel’s focus on the abuse and self-harm – it takes up but a fraction, albeit an indelible one, of the whole novel. But I also think that Greenwell forgives the novel’s trespasses in an attempt to prove his theory: that, in his words, Yanagihara’s “characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities” may help him prove his point, but is very much part of the novel’s strange weightlessness, its sense of unreality.

The novel’s less partisan reviewers have accepted this whilst arguing that its immersiveness, the intensity with which I, too, found the novel gripped me, allows it to go astray in other ways: “The novel is brilliantly redeemed by Yanahigara’s insistence on Jude’s right to suffer,” suggests Alex Preston at the end of a review in the Guardian which seems negative until its final moments; likewise, Jon Michaud is ambivalent in the New Yorker, arguing that, “Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.” Why the need for this special pleading? Implicit in the need to argue for the novel is an acceptance that there is an awful lot of room for improvement in this young writer’s work -Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life was written in just eighteen months following the surprise success of her first. In a weird way, the reception of the book reminds of the rapture that greeted James Frey’s now much-maligned A Million Little Pieces: people sort of know it’s wrong, but it’s just so readable (Brigid Delaney offers excellent chattering-class evidence of this in the Guardian).

I also think, though, that it’s because the novel contains so much material. It is full of stuff – about gender and race and poverty and consumerism – and in its almost naive insistence that it can and should be able to talk about everything without having to pause to explain itself I think it makes a connection that is unusually personal with its reader. At one point, Jude – who understand how lucky he is to have been literally adopted by the upper middle class of an improbably liberal and wealthy enclave of New York City that is so detached from the world beyond, and so shocked when that world intrudes, that the novel’s society sometimes reads science fictionally – sighs that he is wasting his talent in corporate law, and perhaps should have remained a poorly-paid public attorney. We gasp that A Little Life has the chutzpah not just to short circuit the pleasures of the bildungsroman but court our frustration at its central character’s apparent lack of gratitude for his improperly fortunate lot in later life (at this stage, he has partnered off with the impossible good-looking Willem, a movie-star actor and a member of the opening quartet, which is rounded off by a lauded international artist and a star architect).

The novel can be seen to boil down simply to a parable about us all, about the impossibility of finding meaning: “He wants you to tell him that his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life.” [p. 563]  It barely matters that Jude’s rags-to-riches story is implausible, his abuse improbable and his self-harm gratuitous; what matters is that, in experiencing both extremes, his remains ultimately “a little life”, rendered meaningful not by his suffering or his success, but by friendship. Near the end of the book, Willem – Jude’s only love, remember, and the only person with whom he can even come close to consummating an adult relationship – dies in a horrid car crash. Before he does, however, he opines: “‘I know my life’s meaningful because’ – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ‘because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.'” [p. 688]  That’s it. 720 pages, and the novel has so apparently tiny an ambition for us all.

That Janus-faced quality – the huge girth for the bathetic moral, the graphic violence for the coy context – is both the novel’s project and its great frustration. This brings us back to Lorentezen and Greenwell, of course: so which of them is right? Is the novel a trainwreck or a masterpiece? I think, perhaps like Jude, it is neither one extreme nor the other, but something contingent and cobbled-together. I think it may well become a classic cult novel. I’m certainly still turning it over in my head, and it reveals new sides to itself each time – surely one sign of a rich text.

But, on that ever-present other hand, it’s also the sign of a confused one – and the prose style, rarely incompetent but regularly hammy and distended, doesn’t help. I keep worrying away at something: that Lorentzen and I share a favourite character from the novel in the shape of JB, the out-spoken artist of the quartet of friends who gives lone voice to any of the novel’s politics or contexts (he gives Jude the nickname ‘Postman’, because he is post-racial, post-sexual … post-everything). “He’s temporarily ushered out of the narrative,” writes Lorentzen, “after he says to Jude: ‘You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? … Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.’ JB’s also the one hooked on crystal meth. What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?” The person, perhaps, who is addicted instead to this faintly false, wilfully trippy, trance-like novel. And, ultimately, I’m not sure literature should act like meth.

 

Sherlock: Everyone Always Lets Him Do Whatever He Wants

abominable bride

Lestrade laughed loudly.

“You don’t like being beaten any more than the rest of us do,” said he. “A man can’t expect always to have it his own way, can he, Dr. Watson?” (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”)

The seasonal special episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock began with a ‘Previously On’ sequence that was also a statement of intent. These montages of scenes from previous episodes are usually made up of snippets with heavy significant to an overall plot, arranged in such a way that they provide a condensed grounding in whatever on-going story points will be addressed in the coming episode; here, however, they made no such attempt to add up to a coherent narrative primer, but rather appeared to offer a “greatest hits” compilation of the show’s most memorable images or phrases. Almost immediately, indeed, the special began to echo the first of these motifs: in retelling Sherlock and John’s first meeting but doing it in the Victorian garb we are more accustomed to seeing the great detective and his amanuensis don, Moffat and Gattis deliver a series of winks to the viewer that explicitly call back not so much to the original stories (although there are those, too) but to the clips included in the opening sequence.

In other words, Sherlock was coming clean: it is primarily interested in referring to itself.

The Victorian 221B has beneath it a cafe like the one in 2015 and it’s called Speedwell’s not Speedy’s; nineteenth-century Sherlock’s big, billowy coat has a red-stitched buttonhole, too; and the moustachioed John’s limp is psychosomatic, eventually disappearing just like the clean-shaven version’s. Compare this with how the opening scenes of the episode treat the Arthur Conan Doyle canon: “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” has just been published, but somehow Sherlock has also read The Hound of the Baskervilles, written ten years later; Moriarty has died at Reichenbach, but Dr Watson still resides at Baker Street. That later on five orange pips are delivered to a Sir Eustace living at an Abbey Grange-ish house, and Holmes and Watson travel there in poses taken straight from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” is of a piece with Sherlock‘s now time-honoured tendency to mash up the original stories into new shapes; that the show doesn’t even try to make some internal sense of its Victorian setting (of which more anon) – and yet is utterly obsessed with its contiguity with the twenty-first-century milieu it has over three series conjured – says much, however, about the situation in which this show now finds itself.

In fact, I rather weary of writing about Sherlock for much this reason: from its very first episode, it was a victory of style over substance, and despite having other avenues to explore it has often opted to chase the tail of its own worst tendencies, gradually becoming more and more self-interested and less and less convincing. The lot of a viewer attempting to assess and understand the show as a storytelling artefact, then, is not a happy one; and the sadness of this sad – so sad – sad, sad situation is only further compounded by the quirks of Steven Moffat, who – perhaps more than his co-creator, Mark Gattiss, himself hardly innocent – more or less revels in negative fan commentary. This is primarily because, as Maureen Kincaid Speller has put it in in her own piece on this episode, Moffat enjoys adopting a persona that suggests “anything I might know, he will know better.” If we are fully to engage with this self-interested text, then, let us indulge in its own game and self-refer:

On one level, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a thoroughly modern SMS addict, firing off 160-character messages almost constantly; on another, his addiction teaches us something about his character, as well as his milieu – that he is distant and distanced, preferring communication at one remove and which has the additional benefit of forcing the elision of all but the most necessary information; but yet further, the SMS is a the modern telegram – priced by the space it takes up, delivered practically immediately, perfect for the issuing of diktats and summonses. This depth of reference makes Sherlock a complex and clever drama, aware of the power its source material bestows, rather than desperate to ditch it. [July 2010]

Elsewhere, there’s much to enjoy, although the dialogue is not as sharp as in the series opener. Cumberbatch and Freeman remain splendid in the main roles, and the central mystery is decidedly more difficult and engaging than in ‘Study in Pink’ (though that ain’t saying a lot). The action sequences aren’t bad, either. But the episode also feels not quite as tight as the premiere, and that silly Chinaman stuff undermines the whole edifice. (Oh, there’s an indeterminately ethnic swordsman at the start, too.) If Sherlock is to maintain its credibility as an anti-period piece, it needs to be more like ‘The Yellow Face‘, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion – rather than condescension – for the denizens of a multicultural England. [August 2010]

So this is a joyous fangasm of a writing effort, and the enthusiasm of the execution mostly makes up for its failures. (Did Sherlock really spot a gay man by sight? Must the only women on show be bitter, soppy or useless? And isn’t that cliffhanger a massive cheek – and cheat – after just three episodes, and an indeterminate period of time before the next episode is even written, much less filmed or scheduled?) It would be curmudgeonly not to admit that this Sherlock has been something of a triumph; but, like its titular character, it is not yet a heroic one. As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future. [August 2010]

Sherlock’s crush on Sherlock is at the root of the show’s problems: the show’s addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock’s less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock’s journey from sociopath to ‘good man’, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler’s from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show’s sixth episode, where we were at the close of its third: “As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.” [January 2012]

I am not invested in an idea of what Sherlock should be, or in the idea that it should follow the same plot-heavy pattern of the original stories. I’m happy to countenance Moffat’s vision of his show, which is that, “it is not a detective show. It is a show about a detective.” But Moffat then went on to say: “It is a show that celebrates a clever man. So we make the show look complex.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, Sherlock doesn’t celebrate Sherlock: it suggests his high intellect is not so much a virtue as a mental illness; at its moment of crescendo, indeed, ‘His Last Vow’ allows no intellectual escape for its clever man, but instead asks him to fall back on the worst behaviours of his supposed condition.  Secondly, there’s that issue of appearance: why go to the effort of making a show look complex if it is complex already? [January 2014]

I have had five years of writing about Sherlock, then, and yet have so little new to say. I’ve been more charitable towards the show than many, and have wanted it to succeed; but I think you can detect – ho, ho – the slow erosion of that faith across my assessment of the show as it has gone on; certainly by its third series I had given up much hope. What’s startling, though, is how much of the show’s troubles were there from the off – or, rather, from its first broadcast episode. Unusually, Sherlock‘s unaired pilot has been made widely available, most notably on the first series DVD, and in that episode Cumberbatch’s performance is slightly softer, perhaps callower – his character was hardened between that and the broadcast version of Study in Pink, and that hardening has continued ever onwards, presumably because the show’s success justifies writing its bugs large as features. This results in a Sherlock denied a celebration of his intellect (“Must be difficult, being the slow little brother”), but who remains bizarrely lionised by all for dimmer and more dubious reasons.

Indeed, by The Abominable Bride, it is Sherlock who is truly abominable: sneering “You’ll do” at Watson on their first meeting, quipping that he has found the murderer of a dismembered country squire but is “still looking for the legs,” and, of course, being rude to Mrs Hudson. The show is both aware and not of its protagonist’s ickier qualities. It has Watson demand he hold himself to a higher standard – but because, through John’s stories, he’s become a figure that millions look up to. It has him say, quite obviously unfairly, that Watson never understands a word anyone says – and yet has Watson’s wife, Mary, smirk conspiratorially at the “joke”, because everyone on this show must first love Sherlock. It is strange to see a show at the height of its popular success lack quite so much confidence that it treats its lead with such kid gloves.

Most pertinently, the whole episode actually takes place inside Sherlock’s head. I didn’t object to this per se, perhaps because it was clear to me from around the ten-minute mark that this is where we were headed. But as a metaphor for what this show has become it is unbeatable: we are in Sherlock’s imagination; that’s how irrelevant all other considerations have become, how marginal every other character. All of them are – and at least for the Victorian Watson, in his last appearance, happily – simply grist for Sherlock’s self-obsessed mill. In part, this is in the show’s DNA – from episode one, it has been the halting, and increasingly unrewarding, story of how a good man might become a great one – and yet that lack of confidence to shake up the formula has led to a self-defeatingly circular route to that end-point, as if Sherlock must get worse before he gets better. There is an attempt at fixing this near the episode’s end – “there’s always two of us,” says Watson in Sherlock’s dream, in one of the moments that seemed to me at last and again to grok the power of the source material – but even this is marred first by the preceding absurd over-play and sad misinterpretation of the Moriarty relationship (“I am your weakness!” he bellows, entirely missing the fact that Moriarty is what transforms Sherlock Holmes into a heroic figure), and second by the sort of slash-fic fan-service that is beginning to eat the show whole (“On your knees, professor”). There are hopes here for a Sherlock in series four more aware of his faults, but the show’s own instincts seem to remain less self-critical, more hesitant.

The entire episode is, as well as a plotless amble into the self-professedly fascinating subconscious of its title character, a metafictional play on whom we consider Holmes to be – is he the Victorian or the modern, the actual human being or the story, his own self-image or how he is experienced by others? This is an interesting route to take when adapting a character already so widely adapted as Sherlock Holmes, but it’s not enough to carry episodes which increasingly lack a central mystery. In this episode, alas, the investigation is not just imaginary but thoroughly fumbled thematically. Helena Coggan, she of the publishing contract at 15 for those of you not paying attention at the back, has a good description of this: “a man walking through a row of mute women in blue Klan outfits and musing that men will really have to give in to women eventually because it is ‘a war we cannot win’, because if they do not, women will physically actually murder men they dislike.” That is, feminism is having your own back because your husband asked you patronisingly at breakfast whether you were going to spend your day at the milliner. Coggan laudably wishes, as I’ve often tried, to give the creators of Sherlock the benefit of the doubt (“Disparaging a show is very easy when you have not had to write, agonise over, cast, set up, fund and film a show yourself”); but, again like me, she struggles. (The only additional commentary I can add to the cloth-eared, cack-handed cultish denouement, by the way, is that it reminded me of the same finale in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), and that it may therefore, as in the episode’s final shot of Cumberbatch, Brett-like, looking out from his window over Baker Street, have been the show again puling itself out of shape to whack out a knowing riff – there is, in Sherlock, nothing new under the sun indeed.)

It is becoming increasingly difficult, then, to argue anything other than that Sherlock is a show fatally flawed under the hood. Conceptually, it simply seems to be broken, back-firing at every turn. On the surface, it is beautiful as ever to look at – its performances, particularly and always Freeman, are excellent, its production values top-notch, and its sheer surface fizz, the amount of stuff it fires out at its audience, is remarkable – but its story engine, its internal combustion of plot and theme, is simply not sparking. I’m currently editing for Strange Horizons a review of Telotte and Duchovnay’s Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as a Cult Text by Raz Greenberg, and I hope I’ll be forgiven if I quote from its quotation prior to the review’s publication: “cult film cuts across all generic types, it is a form that, in another kinship to the sf world, has tended to privilege the audience and the peculiar nature of the audience experience, in effect, to be marked by a level of self-awareness” (Telotte and Duchovnay, p. 9). Sherlock is a mass-market success – The Abominable Bride took five million dollars in box office when it was released in Chinese and Korean cinemas last weekend, a fact which also suggests that five years of writing about this show is five years wasted – but it comes from, and has retained, a cult aesthetic. It is, then, self-aware to the point of self-regard. But objects in a mirror might be closer than they appear, and, on the evidence of The Abominable BrideSherlock is crashing.

“Just A Body Needing To Be Clothed and Fed”: Sunjeev Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways”

The Year of the RunawaysVery late in Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, Avtar, a young Indian man whose preceding twelve months of illegal work and dodging immigration officials in England we have followed for more than four hundred pages, calls home.

He could see her frowning. “Anyway, what have you been up to? Anything fun?”

He opened his mouth but no words came out. He had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say to her. (p. 436)

If it aims for anything, The Year of the Runaways intends to ensure that, were we on the other end of the telephone line to Avtar, he would be able to share – and we would be able to understand. It is as evocative, engaging, and convincing a depiction of the immigrant experience as I have read. By this, I mean it is not about second- or third-generation communities seeking fused identities, as in Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and that likewise it is not a piece of over-dramatised pedagogy like Rose Tremain’s worthy but thickly-egged The Road Home. It most reminds me of the sections in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names in which its protagonist arrives and begins to build a life in America; but Sahota’s characters are adults, not children, and each of them is stressing not the need for assimilation but the temporary nature of their arrangements: stay a few years, earn a lot of money; marry an Indian man so he can gain a visa, and do good by sacrificing just a year of matrimony.

Of course, these best laid plans go inevitably awry: the student finds it difficult to pass his exams, and thus retain his visa, whilst also working the two jobs he needs to barely pay off the loan sharks who funded his transit from India; the British-born wife realises all too quickly that “just a year” is time enough for everything to change; and still others, such as the high-caste Randeep, with whose sister Avtar is in love, have as the end-point of their endeavour residency in Britain – and the opportunity permanently to bring their families with them.

All this takes place in 2003, when marriage and student visas were easier to come by; but the variegated humanity of so-called “economic migrants” is of acute current interest. Randeep is mockingly referred to as “prince” by other denizens of the packed house he and Avtar share with nine other illegal workers at the novel’s opening; he will eventually become homeless, and be turned away from a gurdwara that might once have coveted his place in their congregation. Another of the house’s residents, Tochi, is of a low caste – whenever his attempts to hide his roots fail he is failingly ejected from Indian communities both immigrant and British-born – and yet makes far more money, is a cannier earner and saver, than the more middling – and more widely accepted – student, Avtar. In this way, the reader is shown how the immigrant experience can be flattening – it forces all who go through it into certain shapes, regardless of their past experiences or positions; but also, and most importantly, the novel stresses the characters’ continuity of personality and perception: that is, it teaches us to consider the immigrant’s individuality whilst also emphasising the degrading competition in which they are engaged. In a year in which the British press has dealt up dehumanising copy by the column-foot, this is a timely literary effort.

The novel’s key theme is duty. Very early on, Randeep and Avtar discuss what drove them to leave their native country:

“He said it’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.” Randeep turned to Avtar. “Do you think that’s true?”

“I think he’s a sentimental creep. We come here for the same reason our people do anything. Duty. We’re doing our duty. And it’s shit.” (p. 7)

From Randeep’s duty to his family to Avtar’s to his creditors; from the religious piety of Narinder, Randeep’s visa wife to Tochi’s orphaned responsibility to himself, The Year of the Runaways breaks down each character’s set of obligations and forces upon each unpalatable choices. No individual emerges from the impossible dilemmas they are set, and even good intentions have little chance of turning out for the better – Narinder’s choice to marry Randeep is powered by a previous refusal to marry another Indian migrant, who was later found dead on the side of a Russian road, and yet things do not go well for either of them. The novel describes a series of practical challenges requiring utilitarian solutions – and doesn’t pretend that anything is perfect.

Indeed, The Year of the Runaways rather insists on the unsatisfactory nature of any response to the complex factors that drive migration and the black and grey economies which depend on it. It is the reader’s duty, indeed, to come to understand this – to empathise with and advocate for individuals simply trying to make a good fist of slim hands. This is a novel with modest hopes. “Happiness is a pretty precarious state, Randeep,” Narinder says in the perhaps too-neat epilogue. “I’m content. That’s more than enough. That’s more than most.” (p. 462)

If the national – indeed, international – conversation around migrants and migration were of a higher quality, we might not need a novel like this. As it is, a call to understand migrants on their own terms is a radical enough thing to do, and The Year of the Runaways – well researched, delicately written and humane – feels like an important novel. It has a breadth of emotional vision, an imagination, that lends it a calm wisdom. On the other hand, it is almost quaintly straight-forward – its twelve-month structure split into four seasonal parts, no less – and feels almost old-fashioned in its strict third person limited style, its linear narrative with its polite flashbacks, and its social realist perspective. Its interest arises from its complicated ethics and its refusal to talk down to its readers (there are no translations of its frequent Punjabi phrases, for example). But I can’t help but feel that its place on the Booker shortlist is as much an expression of how bad our novels and our nation have been at talking about the things this novel talks about as it is of its considerable, but often conventional, qualities.