Public Life in a Provincial Town

After 8 years, the imminent departure from Swindon by the end of the summer now looms on the horizon. This blog has been very much shaped by the experience of living in this non-University town, and while here, living in a very Respectable Street, I’ve written a book, acquired a second child, lost a second parent, been promoted, got a new job, but not quite turned 50.

Swindon, of course, has a certain sort of reputation as ‘a dump’, which is not quite fair, and even if it is, given the representative significance of Swindon in the history of British society, it’s no more of a dump than the rest of the country. Aroundaboutz, of course, in the surrounding countryside populated by plenty of Generals and Majors, there are all sorts of attractions, if you like White Horses and stones circles and if you can survive on a Farmboy’s Wages. And it’s not too far away from the Towers of London, if you fancy a day trip. But that’s still underselling Swindon itself, which has quite a few treasures all of its own. It’s a good place to visit if you like railway museums, odd art deco treasures, or want to trace the origins of the NHS. In the time I have lived here, one can trace the diminution of the public realm under the pressure of austerity, felt in the absence of Sure Start centres, libraries, bus services, and nurseries that were the elements of our daily life when we first moved here. But actually, a life here isn’t just the privatised experience of a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage. There are things worth getting out and about for. You could even spend half a day on a self-made Diana Dors walking tour, culminating perhaps at Swindon’s very own answer to the Statue of Liberty.

So should you ever find yourself stuck here and in need of entertainment, or indeed if you find yourself Making Plans to pass close by, here is my personal guide to the best 10 things that public life in Swindon offers to you:

1). Top of the list is the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. A quite extraordinary place, mainly for the art collection (not to the mention the crocodile or the Mummy).

2). Town Gardens. A place for kids to play, the site of the best annual(ish) South Asian festival I’ve ever been to, and a place where sometimes, if you look carefully, you can catch a glimpse of the Mayor of Simpleton wandering around.

3). No public sphere is possible, as old uncle Habermas reminds us, without a thriving commercial life to sustain it. The Swindon Designer Outlet shopping centre might not sound much, but even if you don’t like shopping, go there – it’s in the remaining part of the Great Western railways works, so it’s like walking through a portal into the historical geography of the town.

4). And, still with Habermas, you need coffee shops too – visit Baila, a little slice of cosmopolitanism in Old Town. At nighttime, it might well be true that Life Begins at the Hop, but it should end here, in a Crowded Room full of discerning gin drinkers. By day, it’s a haven for home-workers happy to listen to acid jazz and not-so-obvious Motown.

5). Los Gatos, or just ‘the Spanish’, a small slice of authentic British ex-pat Tapas in Wiltshire, this was the ONLY nice place when we moved here, but now it is like a trusted old friend you know will always be there when other things disappoint. Great coffee.

6). The Arts Centre. Swindon has a proper, big theatre, The Wyvern, which is also worth a visit (especially for Jon Richardson’s ‘returning home’ gigs), but the Arts Centre is another little hidden gem, a place to see Am-Dram performances of The Crucible or watch Mark Thomas or see foreign films or listen to Thea Gilmore.

7). Swindon is a very sporty town, with a disappointing football team embedded in the community in all sorts of commendable ways, Speedway, and best of all, Ice Hockey. Go Wildcats! It’s just like Canada.

8). There are various things to do at Coate Water park, but the best one is to take a ride on the miniature railway – because it’s Swindon, so you have to find a way of riding on a steam train.

9). The Old Town Railway Path. Yes, yes, I know, it turns out that almost everything on the list is related to railways, but if you need a walk, this is great – this is another bit of historical geography, a disused railway cutting that overlooks the ‘The Front Garden’ between Swindon and the M4, now the site of a major new housing development, and gives you a view in the distance of the Science Museum‘s large-object store at Wroughton, and if you like Rock, you can even see some exposed Upper Jurassic geological formations (apparently). Certainly a place to get your Senses Working Overtime.

10). Oh, and then there is the musical heritage – you don’t even have to come here to experience any of this, but all of it makes so much more sense if you’ve lived here. This is Pop.

 

 

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A selective résumé

SB

I picked up this great story about a Princeton professor, Johannes Haushofer from Facebook (thanks Sue), who has posted his CV of Failures. It’s an idea prompted by Melanie Stefan. I have to admit that I have been thinking along these lines recently, not because I’m overcome by a great sense of failure, or an urge to ‘fail better’ even, but just because I have got to that stage of life where it occurs to me that the things I work on, research, and publish about don’t quite ‘scan’ directly from a linear set of projects funded, grants awarded, previous books written,. They only really make sense in relation also to the shadow world of failed bids, rejected papers, cancelled courses. I’ve reflected on this sort of thing before, provoked by Ivan Vladislavic’s lovely idea of a loss library. As for a CV of my own failures, well, that would be too long.

 

Songs from South Africa

DSCF4685I have just returned home from a couple of weeks in Cape Town, not a holiday, but a research-trip related to the Leverhulme project on The Urbanization of Responsibility. An exercise in ‘learning from another region’, that’s how I would characterise it. Anyway, one of the things that happens when I am in South Africa is that I find myself needing to buy something, anything, to listen to, while working and/or driving. As a result, over the years, I have collected an odd assortment of CDs, which have become indelibly connected to South Africa by virtue of being the only thing I had to listen to for weeks or even months on end. So here is my Top 10 “Random songs that I have collected on trips to South Africa”, in no particular order, and with nothing else in common at all:

1). H.W.C. – Liz Phair.

2). Free Nelson Mandela – Special AKA.

3). Rudy – Supertramp.

4). Get on the Good Foot – James Brown.

5). Big Jet Plane – Primal Scream.

6). Nkalakatha – Mandoza.

7). Mr. Soul – Buffulo Springfield.

8). Sindiza Ngecadilacs – Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks.

9). No More Lonely Nights – The Heads.

10). Ndlovu Iyangena – Tokolo.

On Stoddart

CCCCI was saddened to hear of the death of the geographer David Stoddart. The Guardian has an obituary, written by Peter Haggett, and The Independent has one by Tam Dalyell, with whom Stoddart campaigned to save Aldabra from being used as a military base; and there is an appreciation on the Berkeley Geography Department website.

Stoddart is the main influence on me becoming a Geographer, or at least on remaining in Geography long enough to become one. I am the last-but-one Geography undergraduate he admitted before leaving Cambridge, and no-one had applied to his College for a couple of years before me. Later on, it occurred to me that this might have been why I got in – I assume he wasn’t going to look too hard at the stray application that did turn up (I only applied to that College because they offered the best accommodation deal). As my Director of Studies, I was taught by Stoddart for a year, in his office in the Department of Geography (he had effectively ceased to actually visit the College some time ago). He wasn’t actually around when my first term started, he arrived a couple of weeks later, having been away in California, securing the Chair to which he moved at the end of 1987.

For a year, I had one-on-one supervisions with Stoddart, because there weren’t any other Geographers for whom he was responsible (This wasn’t, in my experience otherwise, a normal situation at all; supervisions normally had two or three people in them). In these meetings, I learnt various things. I learnt how to nurse a large glass beaker full of sherry through an hour-long meeting in which someone else was ding a lot of the talking without ending up totally trashed (not a skill that has been called on much since then). Above all, I learnt that Geography was an intellectual vocation. Stoddart’s outward demeanour was, as I recall, rather hearty, but his teaching was focussed on ideas, ideas, and ideas. His supervisions were interrupted by phone calls from Joseph Needham, and full of discussions, by Stoddart, of Darwin. His model of teaching was to send you off to read something for next time, and then when next time came round, you would find yourself talking about something else entirely. As a matter of principle, he didn’t set essays; so I didn’t write any in my first year as an undergraduate, until exams in the summer. This was a model of Geography as reading, like a personalised version of Geography as ‘Greats’ (I tended not to invest so heavily in Stoddart’s predilection for romping around salt marshes in the cold of November).

UntitledStoddart had me read Paul Wheatley’s Pivot of the Four Quarters in my first term, and Clarence Glacken’s Traces of the Rhodian Shore over the Christmas break (let’s not dwell on whether I understood anything going on in these kinds of books). Perhaps most importantly, he pointed me in the direction of David Harvey’s work. Getting me to read Harvey was his strategy to keep me from switching from Geography at the end of my first year. I went to University with the intention of studying Economics, and only started with Geography because if you already had an A-Level in Economics, you did not need to do the first-year Economics course. I thought doing Geography would be a good way of learning a few more facts about desertification and drought before focussing on proper, complex ideas about how the world really worked (which is what doing Economics at school had seemed to have been about). When I first met him, at a meet-and-greet event in the Spring before going to University, I had told Stoddart that I liked Keynes (he had asked me who my intellectual hero was, and I didn’t think it wise to say ‘Charles M. Schulz’), and that I had an interest in knowing more about Marxism (probably because of reading too much of the NME). So when I started, when he did arrive back, he told me to read Harvey, specifically, ‘Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science‘. This essay was almost designed to convert callow just-out-of-school Geographers into critical social scientists. It worked on me. When I later ordered Harvey’s Limits to Capital for the College library, the request was forwarded to the Economics fellow for approval, who declined it on the grounds that this book was already held at the University’s Economics library. Stoddart was furious at this, and insisted on it being ordered as core Geography reading.

By the end of my first year, actually much earlier, I had settled on staying with Geography (helped by the realisation that Economics was really just abstracted applied algebra). This was because I had discovered a whole world of social theory, a world full of Marxism and feminism and Giddens, a world in which it turned out that everyone was talking about politics and power. And I had discovered this world in no small part because Stoddart encouraged me in that direction, and also because he demonstrated to me through his own work and teaching style that Geography was the place to stay if you were really interested in pursuing ideas.

Favourite Thinkers VII: Iris Marion Young

Picture 092Noticing, rather belatedly I now realise, that the last book by Iris Marion Young had been published got me reflecting on the different encounters I have had with her work over the years, making me feel old, and slow, but also making me realise that sometimes thinkers act as helpful companions. I have always found, on reading Young, that she had got somewhere I wanted to be well before I arrived there, but I have also found this kind of affirming – she is one of the thinkers who always reassured me that I wasn’t completely on the wrong track. So I have been reconstructing ‘my life with Iris’, which does, oddly, include one occasion when I met her in person.

I think my first encounter was in late 1989 – I was in my first term as a graduate student, and this was the moment of postmodernism in geography: Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies had been published earlier that year, shortly before I took my Finals as an undergraduate; the week I started as a graduate student, David Harvey’s much awaited (by me anyway) The Condition of Postmodernity was published (this is the last book I read before getting glasses; actually, I started it without glasses, but was wearing glasses by the time I finished). Shortly after this, I was leant an advance copy of the collection Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson (which might just be one of the most influential books, in a more or less unacknowledged way, in geography of the last 25 years or so). This was a revelation – it opened a door into a world where though ‘postmodernism’ was still used as a term, people were talking about more serious things in more serious ways – deconstruction, phenomenology, post-structuralism. I’m not sure that I ever took discussions of ‘postmodernism’ in geography terribly seriously again, all a bit too Rorty-lite as they were, after reading this book, which included essays by Young, Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway. I remember around that time reading Young’s ‘Throwing like a girl’ in a reading group that some of us had set up , and remember too that  the argument in it resonated because, well, I’m a boy who never could throw quite well enough – a slightly different subject-position, as we all learnt to say about that time, from the one primarily intended by Young’s analysis of gendered embodiment.

What particularly sticks in my mind as a turning-point, intellectually, for me is coming across a copy of Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference in a bookshop in 1990. In October to be precise – more or less systematically, I put the date in the front of books when I get them. Around this time, I was trying to start ethnographic research which somehow was meant to keep together various things I was interested in – space, gender, money, urbanism, culture, language, all sorts really. I gave this up, for various reasons, but partly it was because Young’s book impressed upon me the sense that there were a set of theoretical traditions it might be fun to engage with in greater depth than discussions about ‘postmodernism’ seemed to allow. So, alongside Robert Young’s White Mythologies, Justice and the Politics and Difference set me off in the direction of doing a reading-based dissertation all about deconstruction, discourse theory, Foucault, Ricoeur, postcolonialism Said, Spivak. (The two Youngs, Iris and Robert, also strike me now as exemplary figures whose work gets subjected to a certain style of reading in geography – finding someone talking about ‘spatial’ or ‘geographical’ things, but then finding them not quite up to scratch, not materialist enough perhaps, lacking an adequately sophisticated grasp of the wobbliness of spatiality, that sort of thing. Sometimes, most of the time perhaps, there are more interesting things to talk about than space, spatiality, and the like).

Picture 041Over time, I came to work out just how smart Young’s use of Derrida, Levinas, Irigary to re-read notions of public space in more affective registers was – I ended up writing about this in my book, Culture and Democracy (pages 60 to 65 if you’re really interested), but really didn’t have much to say on these issues that Young had not already got to in developing the notion of communicative democracy, in Inclusion and Democracy for example.  I’m not sure whether one should admit it, but sometimes, in a field like mine, ‘critical exegesis’ is shaped primarily by the commitments of the fan. 

Young’s response to David Harvey’s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference is also a key reference point for another thought I now take almost for granted. Reading this in Antipode in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1998, what I took away was the insistence on thinking of universal notions of justice or rights as, well, discursive, that is, in terms of claims. That is, I think, a much more political understanding of universality than one finds in most other places, but also a more redeemably ‘universal’ notion of universality because of its concern with the to-ing and fro-ing of claim-making.  More generally, it was, for me at least, a precursor to thinking about claims as an important register for thinking about practices of representation or responsibility, or democracy more generally, an idea I have tried to articulate myself, but which other people like my former colleague Mike Saward or John Parkinson have smarter versions of than me.

When I started work at Bristol, in the early 2000s, I tried to teach Young alongside more obvious geographical literature on justice, by Harvey, David Smith and so on – not least, I think by then I was working out that her work did rather different things with a Rawlsian line of thought than you got in geography, where Rawls was either summarily dismissed as ‘liberal’ (an accusation that I have come to think reflects more negatively on the person making it than on the person so accused), or taken as providing a universal model to be applied to empirical situations.

In 2003, during the long Easter weekend in Durban, when most of the country seems to close down completely, I actually met Iris Young, visiting as a guest of Raphael Kadt, then editor of the journal Theoria – a few of us, Di Scott, Jenny Robinson, Murray Low, spent an afternoon in the garden of Gill Hart’s house in Musgrave, drinking wine and eating nibbles. I admit to having been more than a little bit star-struck.

IMG_4846Then in the late summer of 2003, Marion Werner, who had been a Masters student at Bristol that year, left a copy of Dissent in my pigeon-hole, pointing me in the direction of an essay by Young on a social connection model of responsibility in relation to labour solidarity campaigns. This was another ‘Wow’ moment, and I have spent the last decade shamefully ripping-off Young’s model of political responsibility in various research and writing projects. When I started at the OU, later that same year, I did my best to get Young’s account of responsibility adopted as the framework for the course on globalisation that we were making then. Later, in 2004 or 2005 we approached her to do an audio interview for the OU globalisation course, but she was unable to do so, because she was by then already dealing with her illness, from which she died in 2006. Her influence does, though, resonate across that course and various pieces of work by myself and others who engaged with it at that time. Her influence is reflected in the idea that structures that course – globalisation is a process that is realised through demands and responses that different actors make on each other. The responsibility theme also provided an important reference point for the project on ethical consumption that I worked on at this time too – Young’s ideas on the distribution of responsibility across extended fields of action provide the intellectual ballast at the front and end of the book from this project.

Most recently, in writing about justice and responsibility and ethics in geography, I have tried to be more explicit than before about what it is that Young’s work brings to the debates that geographers engage with, or at least draw from. Her concept of political responsibility comes into better focus if you triangulate it, for example, with Cohen’s work on justice and Pogge’s working up of the idea of a global basic structure. I also noticed around the time of writing these pieces that Young, like one or two other thinkers I was reading, made more or less explicit reference to Pettit’s account of republican freedom as non-domination in working up her account of responsibility – one day, if I have time, I’d like to delve deeper into that relationship in the case of Young’s ideas and others. I think, in particular, what is of most value is the theme of shared responsibility that Young develops across all the work on the idea of justice and responsibility over the last decade or so of her life: this is a lot smarter than the standard move of simply asserting that one needs to think in terms of collective responsibility rather than individual responsibility (which kind of closes down problems of effective agency in its knock-down simplicity). By bringing into view differential capacities to act responsibly, it is a resolutely political but not moralising notion of responsibility. And if you can’t find something of ‘geographical’ value in this work, something which does not need simply to be corrected, then you just aren’t trying.

Media archaeology II

A while back now, I wrote a few posts about the family ‘stuff’ I was finding myself having to go through. Some of this stuff opens windows on quite personal and intimate histories, some of it more public ones. One of my favourite excavations has been the discovery of some more or less random pages from TV and radio guides from 1966. In a cupboard in my mother’s house was a bunch of framed pictures, including one of my two older sisters when they were toddlers. The frame of this picture was broken, and when I took it apart, behind the photograph, the paper used to pack the photo into the frame was old editions of the Radio Times and TV World (a predecessor of TV Times I guess). They are from Spring 1966, shortly after my parents and sisters returned to the UK after their African adventures – the TV World is actually for the old ATV region, and the Radio Times is the Midlands and East Anglia edition. 

These yellowing pages reveal a lost world of British public culture, when The Fugitive was the exciting new US import on ITV, Sheila Hancock starred in a show as “one of life’s most entertaining victims”, Captain Pugwash was a cartoon strip in The Radio Times, and you could order an Asbestos Garage from £43. 7s. from the back of the same publication.  Easter Monday’s schedule on ITV that year was all sport: international swimming, from Llanelly; motor racing, from Goodwood, obviously; racing from Newcastle; and show jumping from Hickstead (with commentary by Raymond Brooks-Ward, who I had never associated with ITV, in so far as I think about his career much at all). The BBC was about to broadcast the first of eight, yes eight, nightly programmes reconstructing the ‘Irish Rebellion’ of 1916.

The Letters pages of both publications are testaments to the critical capacities of engaged, active audiences – a brilliant debate about whether or not the plotlines of Softly, Softly were too vague and lacking in satisfactory clarity by the end of each episode, or for that very reason best compared to Kafka’s novels. Or a complaint about the contrast between the national news on BBC radio, presented apparently in “a serious, sensible, and factual manner”, and regional news stories which “are treated in a simpering, pseudo-cosy style”. Pseudo-cosy, what a great concept.

The Radio Times for the 16th-22nd April also contained a half page advert for BBC books and records to accompany its Further Education programmes (Adventurous Cooking, Laws of Disorder) – a peak into the pre-history of The Open University, when the BBC was already pioneering the use of multi-media platforms for adult education. 

Over at TV World in the same week, the letters were all about how best to make custard pies that flop – part of a discussion with the TV World cookery expert. This is from an age before Tiswas.