Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Douglas Bader's legs

When I was at junior school, all the pupils had to belong to a house. Like many things in life, it was imposed from above and was therefore compulsory. I knew of no fellow pupil courageous enough to take the issue up directly with the Headmaster, Mr Coath. To an impressionable youngster brought up on Sooty and Sweep, Mr Coath looked like a less-than-benign David Nixon, but with a terrible dynamic. He was also known for his diabolically skilful use of 'plimsoll fear', which legend has it, could be extraordinarily persuasive. Each house had a colour, red, green, blue and yellow. They were also named after some famous derring-doer types like: Leonard Cheshire who against all the odds and under hostile fire, set up a care home charity in 1948 (Red); Douglas Bader notable for his magnificent portrayal of actor Kenneth More in the 1956 film Reach for the Sky and his ability to play golf lying down (Blue); Robert Falcon Scott who had an icy landmass named after him (Green) and Francis Chichester who sailed in boats (Yellow). I was in Scott.

False legs, false hope or false consciousness?

The three handed Harry Corbett in his heyday
On the odd occasion, one of these adventurist types would be invited to the school to give an 'inspiring' talk. I recall one such event. My good self, one amongst many impressionable youngsters probably dressed in a pair of grey demoniacs (long grey shorts that itched like billio in the crotchal regions), sat patiently in rows on the cold, highly polished parquet flooring of the school hall. Douglas Bader (irritatingly dressed in civvies and not a smart 1941 RAF uniform or his golfing plus twos) was ushered into the hall by a nominally fawning headmaster. The usual covert side-of-mouth chitter-chatter from the floor was this afternoon unusually subdued. Indeed, several of us nearly had to seek medical attention after the event from the school nurse for strained ear drums. We had potentially damaged them we were told, because of our concerted but vain attempts to discern from the attenuated hubbub, the sound of Douglas Bader's legs clanking as he ascended the steps up to the rostrum. Yes, the prevailing view among gullible seven to eleven year olds was that those legs of his were made out of metal (probably tin). It was a silly notion as it was clear that they were expertly hewn Long John Silver-like, from two solid pieces of lignum vitae, the unyielding stuff from rainforests afar.

An Odyssean journey?

Aah... Bisto?
I can't recall any of his words but I remember being a bit miffed that the name that represented our house would never make it to such an event as the berk had misplaced himself somewhere in the icy wastes of Antarctica. If he had, we'd probably have sat just as quietly trying to detect the sound of his legs fizzing as they thawed out in front of a three bar fire. Mind you, I don't recall Francis Chichester ever making it to Meadowcroft Junior School either. I and my peers were rather prone to classical flights of fancy and we'd probably have filled our ears with beeswax and tied ourselves to the climbing frame in the hall in order to avoid the beautiful yet malignant songs of the Homeric sirens beckoning us to consume watery gravey like Odysseus and his ship mates.

Competition - early years intervention

To be frank, having your school house named after these famous adventurers rarely if ever instilled the sense of adventure in young and impressionable school types I'm sure our 'betters' believed it would. Battle lines were almost invariably drawn along lines of colour... "red's better than green..."  "... that's bollocks... there's more blue on this planet than red OR green put together" was the clincher. I find it interesting how this artificial division created and imbued within such young impressionable clipped ears a competitive spirit, probably intended, played out to its fullest in the annual sports day. I'm not a fan of sports days nor am I a fan of competition in any form in the education sector or anywhere else for that matter. I have a poor record in egg and spoon races and competition has a poor record historically.

Competition in the workplace

Historical musings aside, most people accept if begrudgingly the concept of competition for jobs. It's a hard fact of life. You compete against other people for the privilege of being employed and thus exploited by your employer. However, this form of competition is largely external to the process of surplus value creation - it's something you do before the boss gets his or her hooks into you. How sad it is then when this form of competition is introduced into the workplace, particularly in a university where collegiality is seen as a fundamental and much cherished principle.(1)

Academics ahoy!

I learned last week that former colleagues in my old haunting ground at the University of Salford - Manchester, in the department school? college? of English, Sociology, Politics and Contemporary History are having to re-apply for their jobs (those staff below professors). Twenty two academics have been told that they must compete for sixteen jobs. More widely, it was reported in last week's Weatherfield Gazette (2) that sixty five academics are at risk. The UCU branch leadership view the process of pitching one colleague against another in this manner as 'abhorrent'. I agree.

Collegiality holed on the reef of competition?

In an Olympic year, could this be a fairer way 
of deciding who keeps their job?
I pondered my time as an undergraduate and postgraduate at Salford. I'd received the finest instruction, a first class education and excellent advice by staff members in ESPaCH, being taught by some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated academics and professionals in their fields. Crescent House then had a cafe/restaurant on the fifth floor which was eminently conducive to heated arguments and debate at lunchtime. It was a lovely environment for learning. Contrary to myths expounded in the courtroom, I have nothing but praise for my years at Salford and nothing but the highest praise for those staff I came into contact with. Yet my mental wanderings have led me to one or two conclusions which I think might have some relevance to staff at Salford, and in particular those staff whose future employment status will now be determined, like the winner of my school egg and spoon race, by the simple mechanism of competition. These musings are not meant as a criticism of my own union but a reflection on a strategy to save these jobs.

No Lenin

I'm a great believer in organised collective action. The Arab Spring and the wonderful OCCUPY protests around the world are inspirational. Yet where are the protests at Salford? Protests are relatively simple to organise. Even I've managed one or two in the past and I'm no Lenin. But with the help of other kindred spirits I find that the odd demo can be convened with very little effort. For example, as a member of a dedicated university anti-war group, we organised three coaches to send anti-war protesters to London in February 2003 from Salford University. Small groups made their own banners and placards. I recall I booked all three on my credit card. I, with other anti-cuts students and staff, was involved in organising the magnificent SUDE protests at against job cuts again at Salford in 2008-09. For example, we wore masks and carried a coffin across the A666 outside Dr Graves' office, stopping rush-hour traffic. I raise this not to blow my own trumpet but to show that it's actually quite an easy thing to do.

Why protest?

Imagine a world without protest. Imagine the conditions we would be forced to live in and the policies we would be forced to accept if there was no such thing as protest. Protests arise because of the inadequacies or lack of democracy. Mass demonstrations raise matters publicly and inspire others to join in or follow suit. At Salford such public demonstrations of anger at job cuts would act as a pole of attraction for other staff and students. Quite often the press and media show some interest. Are they effective? Judge for yourself the words of one Adrian Graves, current Registrar at the University, who sent this email to the former Harloe, which we covered in an earlier blog:

'...isn't it supremely ironic though, that Gary Duke is so sensitive about his own reputation that he has organised a campaign amongst students to defend it  - having carried out a sustained campaign himself over six months aimed expressly at damaging the reputation of six or seven people and the university itself - through the anonymous publication and distribution of three scurrilous pamphlets within and without the university, through speeches at well publicized demonstrations and meetings subsequently published as video on the internet, a sustained press campaign in the local and HE sector press nationally and through lobbying MPs, local government councilors, and other influencers: Sorry - steam coming out of ears.


Reputational sensitivity - how can we measure it?

If we were trying to measure reputational sensitivity among university employees, might we not use the initiation of libel proceedings as a key indicator? The meaning of this email is clear to any reasonable person - the esteemed Dr Graves frowned upon my SUDE activities. He seemed to have a particular problem with a little device I used which involved thinking up something called an idea, attaching this idea to a series of words which I then strung together into something called sentences which I orally projected through something called a face-based-sound-augmenter to crowds of miffed staff and students. Clearly protesting and speaking out against job cuts is not yet against the law. But in light of the above email, I'm even prouder to have played a small part in this wonderfully vibrant campaign to save jobs and to campaign for a decent education for students at Salford. The campaign galvanised the campus unions, drew in students, the Student Union, and created the foundations for the reinvigorated UCU branch we have today.

Where is the mass opposition today?

Yet as far as I'm aware, since then we have had no public protest, no activity led by students and staff to halt the savaging of hundreds of jobs. It's as if having begun to build a strong union on the back of large public protests, that public protest and public opposition on the streets is no longer deemed necessary by the union branch executive and therefore must be safely channelled into bureaucratic strategies to save and secure jobs. The trouble is, such strategies have clearly not produced the desired results as we witness yet another round of job cuts.

The inexorable consequence of not feeding academics or are they merely potential Frankenstein burners? 
(word of warning, burning Frankensteins is not lawful and potentially an act of harassment, 
bullying, and victimisation if committed in the workplace)
The importance of light lunches should not be overestimated

Salford UCU are good at putting on light lunches and to be frank, light lunches are nice. But a hurriedly grabbed sandwich is no substitute for direct collective action. I'd just like to state at this juncture, that  I have no wish to be cast as some chap called William Critical. I want my union to be strong and effective. So, as a member of Salford UCU I'd like to propose a 'three point plan' which I think could be adopted quite easily and quite quickly by the UCU branch. Alternatively, as I thought it up in the pub on Sunday evening I might call it a 'three pint plan'.

Three Point Pint Plan

It goes something like this.
  1. Immediately initiate a ballot for strike action. The rationale: do those staff being told to re-apply for their jobs feel that this is a voluntary process? In my opinion it's compulsory redundancy and something I warned against at the last EGM.
  2. Stop fannying around and simply tell members and other staff to refuse to participate in this process. This way, an essentially non-voluntary process will quickly become a compulsory process. Staff will at least know where they stand, and the union can thus engage in what unions do - taking strike action to protect and secure jobs.
  3. Call a public meeting, invite all staff and students. Publicise this meeting as widely as possible. Use this meeting as the base for the launch of a campaign of regular staff-student protests outside the recently re-vamped Ole Fire Station. Propaganda and publicity is essential in helping to build a grass-roots movement. It will force the Student Union to stop abstaining at University Council meetings over job cuts. Importantly it must be publicly and directly supported by all the unions. Such a tactic will also draw into activity members and non-members and help revitalise the UCU branch.

I sensed at the last EGM a feeling that those members who attended (so many they were crammed into every seat and every step of the lecture theatre) wanted more than just a light lunch and rhetoric - they want action. The vote for strike action was unanimous. Not one abstainer. It should  be abundantly clear even to the most exasperated plug-plotter, that staff have had enough and are up for a fight.  History tells us that when the unions take on the bosses, more people join unions, borne out by the evidence that the branch has increased its membership since the magnificent national strike action of November 2011.

A role model or a model aeroplane?

If Douglas Bader could play golf, drive a car, dance, fly a Hawker Hurricane in the Battle of Britain, get shot down over German Occupied France in 1941, escape from a series of prisoner of war camps, end up working in the oil industry and appear at my school with a pair of wooden legs, then the UCU president Chris Sheehy can surely translate her fiery words into positive and immediate collective action. Although no one can guarantee that direct action and a strike will win, I can guarantee that if no ballot is called, the union and its members will lose.

Notes and References

*Another word for opinion
(1)This is the view of the Salford UCU and it's a view this writer agrees with.
(2) This is a comedic device. It's actually called the Salford Advertiser which arrived through my letter box on the 29th March 2012
(3) Email from Graves to Harloe dated 30 May 2009:

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1 comment:

  1. I remember Douglas Bader coming to the school . I have a vague memory of Sir Peter Scott coming too.
    There were playground rhymes that boosted the rivalry between the rivalry "houses" Reds reds wet their beds was I recall along with blues blues always lose or blues blues eat their poos
    Wonder who the the current playground poet laureate is?