Category: Work

Kenix and Sociology

Today an extract from a book ‘Clampdown’ by Rhian E. Jones was published on The Quietus. The piece is about representations of class and gender and Britpop, in part in reference to my/our old band, Kenickie. This has led to a flurry of people following me on Twitter (I’m not talking Lady Gaga levels but everything is relative) and people saying a lot of nice things about the band. This has rather bowled me over. Strange to be getting credit for something you did such a long time ago, but also lovely to know that the band meant something to other people (we were never massive but the people that cared, really cared).  The Quietus piece (and Rhian’s book) brought together a lot of things that I have thought about over the years but have not tried to write about for a long time.

Many moons ago, but post-band, I started studying Sociology at Goldsmiths. I was keen to keep the band thing separate from this new endeavour. I was never ashamed of the band, far from it, but I was only 23 and tired of being referred to as someone who used to be something. One of the appealing things about going to university was to try my hand at something completely different and where I would fail or succeed on my own merits and be known on my own terms.

I loved going to university – so much so that I never left. I felt that an unused part of my brain had switched on. The way I was seeing the world was changing but I kept the band stuff tucked away somewhere. Reading Bev Skeggs’ work changed that. Bev is a dynamo of a woman who later became my PhD supervisor but at this point I hadn’t met her, just her books. Her writing – particularly ‘Formations of class and gender’ and her discussion of ‘respectability’ – made me reflect again on the band, our representation and experience (also my family history but that’s not for here). This was all stewing away. Meanwhile, I started doing a course taught by Les Back, another all time favourite sociologist who also later became my PhD supervisor (Back + Skeggs = sociology dream-team). The course was on globalisation and culture and had a strong musical component. One day, the discussion in class turned to the music industry and I was biting my lip. I didn’t want to put myself forward as an expert or bring up my own experience. After class, I went up to Les’s room to photocopy a book on neo-nazi music and everything came out in a jumble, about the band and all of the things that I was thinking about. Les listened (he is good at that) and then suggested that I write a piece for Street Signs, the magazine for the Centre of Urban and Community Research (CUCR) at Goldsmiths. I went away and wrote it that night. Here is it (Street Signs, last pages).

It was the first thing that I ever wrote that wasn’t a sociology essay and since then I have tried to keep this other stream of writing going, alongside the more straightforwardly academic stuff. When I first read an article by Rhian on a similar subject, I got in touch and sent her the article, which she then quoted in her book (and the Quietus piece).

This is not exactly as I would have written it now, but that is hardly the point. It is grounded in those early days of making the links between my own experience of the world and the books that I was reading.

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‘More dust in our houses, less dust in our brains!’

I have been warned about January in Glasgow, the dark and the associated blues.  After a joyous ringing in of the New Year – out of tune bagpipes notwithstanding – with friends old and new, an animal in our household perishing on New Year’s day set rather a grim tone for the month. Happy to get back to work in theory and full of new year resolve – stuff to do, stuff to write – the actuality was a shock to the system (no sparkly lights, no day time movies, no selection box items, what was I even writing about again?)

So, while my creaking brain gets back into gear at work by day, I am also setting about combating the January blues with films, by night. My friend helpfully sent a list of the films that look good at the GYFF. I have already booked tickets for what I am expecting to be The Most Exciting Cinema Event of my Life and am eagerly awaiting the programme from the Glasgow Film Festival.

Before all of that kicks off though, we have rather slim cinema pickings here, so I was pleased to be asked along by a friend to a screening of ‘Scuola Senza Fine’, showing at Transmission Gallery as part of their season ‘A Future at our backs!’ The film chronicles the experiences of a group of Italian women who had taken part in an initiative called the ‘150 hours’ course where employers funded courses for auto and steel workers (150 hours every three years with the workers putting in the same amount of hours from their free time, more here). This was later extended to women who were not employed by the factories, such as the group in the film. This group took the course and, reluctant to go back to their old lives, set up a load of new seminars. The film is remarkable and inspiring. First and foremost, it brought back to me the radical power of learning. These women were overflowing with thoughts as they set about making sense of their own lives, lives that involved an awful lot of graft and suffering. It portrays friendship and feminism and joy and kitchen dancing.

‘More dust in our houses, less dust in our brains’ is a phrase that came from women’s participation in the 150 hours project. A fitting motto for January.

periodic table

The lecture is being given in a chemistry building. To get to the hall, I walk past safety-goggled and white coat clad women hotly debating their results, rooms with warnings on the doors and special showers in the corridors, a reminder of all the stuff that goes on in the university that is far removed from my little section of it. Inside the lecture theatre, to the left of where I will stand, is a periodic table. There is no stick for pointing at it, which is a shame. Besides, with my Dual Award Science GCSE from 18 years ago, I am perhaps not best placed to talk chemistry. Luckily, it’s an Urban Studies course, the students range from architects to public policy students to those doing research degrees. It is the first teaching I have done in Glasgow and so I want to get it right. Despite having tested everything the day before, the technology fails me. Or I fail it. My video of the Battle of Cable Street is without sound and then embarrassingly segues into pro-Oswald Mosley propaganda. And every time I say ‘Doreen Massey’ (which is quite a bit) the fire alarm goes off. Still, after a break of six months it is good to be talking about cities and ideas with students again.

C. Wright Mills on a Motorbike

I’m elbow deep in writing lectures. Masters courses are taught intensively here, over a couple of weeks, and so all of my term’s teaching is coming at once. While sat at my messy desk full of all the books that I would like to talk about, I had a chat with my friend Anamik on the phone. The chat turned to lecturing, how to do it well and the use of visuals (‘It’s got to be C Wright Mills on the motorbike… There’s also a good one of Adorno in headphones’).

One of the turning points in my sociological career was as a first year undergraduate in a dry as old bones methods course. Les Back came in to talk about the Sociological Imagination and put up the aforementioned slide of C. Wright Mills on a motorbike. It wasn’t just the image, it was a combination of the image and the ideas and the enthusiasm with which they were communicated. This was a sociology that I wanted to be part of.

Here is Mills describing the sociological imagination: ‘…the capacity to shift from one perspective to another – from the political to the psychological; from the examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerationsof an oil industry to contemporary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self and to see the relations between the two.’ 1973 (1959)

The lecture meant that I signed up for Les’s option course and he eventually became my PhD supervisor. I won’t be talking about Mills next week but I suppose my Jerry Springer Final Thought is that it’s worth thinking about the teachers you admire when you are thinking about how to teach.

Mills on a motorbike, making sociology look cool for 50 years

plectrums

As a seventeen year old bass player, I once walked into a guitar shop. I was on a mission to buy some plectrums for my band but wasn’t quite sure which to go for, for my guitar playing mates. Luckily, as I perused the selection the man working in the shop was there to spring to my aid. ‘PLECTRUMS’ he intoned, slowly and loudly. ‘You draw them across the strings of the guitar’ (he mimed what this would entail). I looked at him and then looked at the local newspaper that was in front of him which (I’m not making this up) was open at a page with my band on it. ‘I know’, I said ‘that’s me’ and pointed at the picture.

I have a longstanding aversion to guitar shops.

This episode sprang into my head as I was walking from town to the university today. The thought was a culmination of a few factors. Firstly, I had gone to town to pay in a cheque and also popped by the exhibition 21 Revolutions: two decades of changing minds at Glasgow Women’s Library at the CCA. 21 contemporary women artists have responded to items from the archive of the library including fanzines, badges, book covers, magazines and a suffragette card game called ‘Panko’. There are also exhibits from the archive itself.  Running in parallel to the show at the CCA are writers’ responses to the archive which are available to read at the Glasgow Women’s Library. I signed up for library membership then and there. The exhibition intensified a creeping sense of gratitude towards the second wave of feminism that I was feeling yesterday after watching a documentary on iplayer about marriage.

Secondly, I was thinking about the book manuscript I read, also yesterday, by Rhian E Jones. The book is coming out next year and traces issues of music, gender and class, representation and politics from the early nineties until now. It’s a strange experience to read about your own time (and band) set within this frame. Reading it made me think a. This is a very good book b. I want to listen to some early Manic Street Preachers c. This confirms some of my suspicions about class, gender and British music.

When I was being patronised while buying plectrums in Sunderland in the 1990s, I’m sure I thought that in the future the charts would be full of women like us in bands. I can remember thinking drums were the final frontier. Once we had a load of female drummers that would be it, job done. It hasn’t exactly panned out like that. I don’t want to say too much about Rhian’s book, since it’s not out yet, but she traces the links between politics and pop music in order to interpret why we are where we are, in terms of class, gender and representation and the wider grim political situation we find ourselves in. The book made me angry and a bit nostalgic, but probably nostalgic for something that was never fully realised.

Both the exhibition and the book serve as reminders to Give A Damn, as the toucan below urges.

Advice giver, Ciara Phillips 2012, 21 Revolutions: Two Decades of Changing Minds at Glasgow Women’s Library

meeting

LAVUE

The meeting is in an architecture school (LAVUE) by the Seine, right next to the périphérique, the road that circles Paris. Unlike London, the centre of Paris is bounded and the périphérique works as a physical and psychological border for many who live within it. I’ve been coming to Paris a couple of times a year for the last two years since beginning work on a research project focussed on the middle classes in Paris and London. This trip is my last Paris trip of the project.

The purpose of the meeting is to put together our London and Paris findings. We also need to work out how we are going to turn this into a book. The book will be written by all nine of the research team and so this takes a bit of thinking about.

The collaborative process has not been without its ups and downs. We have driven around both cities in minibuses showing each other our case studies (five per city) trying to agree on field sites- one minibus had to be abandoned in a Waitrose car park in Balham. And then there was the issue of what the middle classes are. The French idea of the middle classes refers to a much narrower band of people than the British. Having dispensed with their aristocracy, the French have a different kind of boundary at the top end of the middle class category. After working together for a couple of years and safe now in the knowledge that our project worked out well, this meeting goes smoothly. I think we are going to write a good book.

Around the edges of the meeting various things happen.
1. I visit Pierre Bourdieu’s grave with Michaela, a research team member now writing partner and close collaborator. We have to go the main office of Père Lachaise to find out his location.
2. A waitress cuts up my fish for me like I am a small child after I inexpertly brandish a knife at a piece of sole in a way that she finds alarming.
3. I accidentally take two colleagues to a bar that has a toilet plastered in hardcore pornography.

Beyond the meetings and walking about the city, something that is noticeable is the number of street homeless people. By our hotel a woman was sleeping in a doorway with three children tucked up in blankets around her. I have never seen this on previous visits. At first I thought this was because we were staying in a different area but walking around, homelessness is way more visible than it has been over the last couple of years. There are small camps of one to three adults as well as these family groups. When I raise the issue with my Parisian colleagues they confirm that street homelessness has increased and point out that many homeless organisations have had their funding cut. I’ve done some preliminary digging around but can’t find much about it, apart from a right wing piece in the Washington Post blaming immigration and bemoaning the inconvenience of picture postcard Paris being spoiled and this article on homeless children from Afghanistan. Any suggestions for reading would be appreciated.

new term

The student walks into my office.

‘Hello?’

‘Where is Out?’

‘Sorry?’

‘Where is Out?’

‘Oh, around the corner to your right.’

She disappears.

I always like the beginning of the summer in the university, when the students first leave. It’s a time for getting your head down and writing. There are no queues for coffee and the library is quiet. Academic staff retreat into their offices or their houses, go to conferences and go on holiday. Meanwhile, new carpets are put in and walls are painted. This isn’t the ideal time to start working in a university as everyone else is finishing things up while you are trying to get started.

Some time around August I always start to look forward to the new term. This has been especially true this year, in a new place.

Now the students are starting to come back – it’s Freshers week – and the leaves are starting to turn. Crossing the campus, everyone is recruiting, Christians, Socialist Workers, Pizza Hut. You can’t get anywhere in a hurry. There are new lectures to write, seminars to go to and, for me, a whole new national education system to get my head around.

The start of a new term is a bonus new year, a time for new shoes and new ideas. It’s time to stop hanging onto the coat-tails of summer, wishing for better weather and begrudging the suntans of others (Scottish summer has lived up to its reputation), and to get involved with the autumn.