The Bare Necessities

Here we go again… The return of lockdown brings some very familiar feelings: relief that what seemed like pessimism in early December (stocking up on cat food and soya milk in anticipation of possible Brexit disruption, deciding to stick with entirely electronic reading lists although students were asking about hard copies of stuff in the library) has left me in a better position than I might have been, frustration and uncertainty about how to modify teaching plans again. This term should have been easier (and maybe still will be) as we’ve all got better at the different elements of online learning, not least by working out which ones aren’t worth bothering with. However, someone somewhere was obviously feeling optimistic at a critical moment, and so we’re currently scheduled to have less recorded and asynchronous stuff and more face-to-face time in any given module – although the latter will now be online for most if not all the term. A more precautionary approach would have been to assume that we’d be lucky if we could just carry on in the way we have been, but no… Continue Reading »

It’s that time of year when I feel even more directionless and dispirited than usual; obviously, as resolutions go, “be less crap and stop feeling sorry for yourself” sets the bar simultaneously too high and too low. I’m honestly not sure whether I should be planning to devote a bit more time and energy to this blog, or swearing off it for at least a couple of months. Continue Reading »

As I remarked in the run-down of my favourite posts of 2020 by other people, it’s now traditional at this time of year to bemoan the continuing, apparently inexorable decline of blogging, and to wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. Page views are down another 20% or so on last year – though the optimistic perspective here is that this represents a slowing of the decline in absolute terms, and the number of visitors is more or less the same (and might even be slightly higher, if this end-of-year review gets some traction…). Writing posts has at times felt almost impossible, as I struggled with the joys of Long COVID – but less impossible than any proper academic writing, so the result has been a reasonable level of production here, while my ‘to do’ list for the professional stuff gets ever longer. And this year, more than ever before, the pleasure of reading old posts is the rediscovery of things I genuinely have no recollection of writing… Continue Reading »

The Masterplan

I think it’s only appropriate to round off my blogging year – apart from the usual annual review, and unless something else strikes me in the meantime – with a final reflection on teaching inspired by my jazz composition course, which has been the one unquestionably positive experience in this basically rubbish year. This time it’s not about online learning and teaching, but a more general thought about managing seminars; and it’s inspired not by the tutor, but by conversation with other students on the discussion thread where we posted our homework exercises for comment (stifles deep sigh at total failure to get any sort of online discussion going in any of my modules this past term…). Continue Reading »

Blogs of the Year 2020

One of the things I always do in the Christmas vacation is catch up on the year’s music that I’ve missed. Partly it’s a matter of having a little bit more leisure to try out the unfamiliar, that might throw me off my stride or drive me up the wall, rather than sticking to things that I know will relax me or offer a suitable background for lecture prep or marking. Partly, though, it’s because of the End of Year lists – not so much those of the mainstream press, but something like The Spill, for its random eclecticism and the fact that I know that if contributor X likes something then it is at least worth a listen. It’s how the Spotify algorithm ought to work: a selection of people from across the globe with very different tastes, just presenting what they thought was great. Especially this year, when my involvement in composition classes means I’ve been listening to much more jazz and much less of anything else, this is invaluable in giving me a sense of what else is out there. (And I now have some new marking music – strong recommendation for the latest album from Ulrike Haage, not to mention her soundtrack to the recent Berlin 1945 series).)

And that is what I aim to do with this post every year: Continue Reading »

The Glorious Land

Fascinating times on the Twitter yesterday, after I posted a remark about the incoherent racism of the “indigenous population of Britain” component of the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory and attracted a lot of very angry people with English flags in their handles. One suspects they’ve been conducting broad searches for the key terms ‘indigenous population’ and ‘racist’, since none of them looked like the sort of accounts who would normally be looking for random thoughts on Thucydides and jazz composition.

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Mr X

Portrait of Thucydides, on a Stollwerck card

It’s the most chocolaty time of the year, so it seems like an appropriate time to get round to writing about the latest addition to my incredible small but interesting collection of Thucydideana: a chocolate card! Continue Reading »

Losing My Religion

A crucial element of Thucydides’ depiction of the plague in Athens is that it appears as, so to speak, a heuristic crisis: it is an event that no one can make any sense of. It’s not that fifth-century Athenians were unfamiliar with epidemics, in myth, literature and reality, but all of those had an explanation in terms of their inherited concepts and assumptions. In this situation, however, every explanation falls short – belief in the fulfilment of oracular prophecy or other supernatural explanation, rumours of enemy action, even the more recently developed ideas of the doctors. Whatever the actual nature of the disease – and this point holds true even if we follow the idea that there wasn’t actually a single plague, but a multitude of more common diseases, perceived as a single baffling phenomenon – Thucydides shows how its unfathomable and irresistible nature then became the dominant influence on behaviour, sweeping away the traditional institutions of religion, law and social norms by revealing that everything was actually random and unpredictable. Why pray when it doesn’t help? Why deny yourself pleasure when you might die tomorrow? Why obey the law when you probably won’t get caught? Why strive for virtue when it doesn’t bring any reward? Why worry about what the neighbours think when they might be dead tomorrow? Continue Reading »

Bad Company

In 1924, the Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža was travelling on a night train from Riga to Moscow, and fell into conversation with a Lithuanian schoolteacher of German heritage who was reading Oswald Spengler’s Prussianism and Socialism. She had, she said, become interested in him when he held a lecture in Riga the previous year at the invitation of the Courlandic German Bund.

“But everyone was disappointed with the gentleman. He is a boring, elderly professor with illusions of grandeur, who earned a pretty fee with his lecture. The Courlandic German Bund had to pay for his trip in a sleeping car, first class, all the way from Munich to Riga and back, and on top of that even the door receipts, and then he came, read from his papers for half an hour, and at the banquet did not speak a single word with anyone the whole evening. A disagreeable, opinionated fool!”

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Working in a Coalmine

My email inbox this morning contained one of the oddest invitations I’ve received in a long time – odd, to the degree that I’ve just spent ten minutes trying to check whether it’s actually an elaborate bit of phishing, or a practical joke on the part of whoever suggested my name. The message offers the opportunity to become a Detailed Assessor for the Australian Research Council – to write extensive peer review reports on, say, 5-20 applications per year, term unspecified. This is of the order of being asked to pay £20 to secure my fabulous First Prize of unscheduled pancreas removal. Continue Reading »