Tuesday, 14 February 2017

What Difference Does It Make?

'All men have secrets and here is mine, so let it be known'.

So opened The Smiths' third single, 'What Difference Does it Make?'. To these ears an astonishing clarion call and a fine addition to the canon, although compared against the first two singles undeniably not as strong. Still,  it was an unbridled and unfettered joy to journey to the record shop to purchase, as were all The Smiths releases, at least  until 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore'. Morrissey apparently later disassociated himself with it somewhat as he was not keen on the lyrics. The lyrics in fact, allude to a secret. Perhaps even less well known are the secrets of the University of Westminster, notwithstanding the sterling efforts of our Archival Services to rectify this occlusion. To further help remedy this the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, of which Westminster Law School is a part, has announced a festival that seeks to unlock some of these secrets. 

The University of Westminster has somehow always been different. Our predecessors created a place where the public could explore new ideas, view new inventions and learn new skills, and our University Values today reflect this very public aspect of our mission. The first moving images, the first photography studio, Pepper's Ghost; the Regent Street Polytechnic was famous for making such marvels accessible to all. Similarly, our work rehabilitating servicemen injured during World War One is but one historical example of  commitment to  making a difference and having a real world impact.  The Difference Festival hopefully will showcase some of the ways in which we are different, and make a difference. There are lots of events, all free and open to all, that can be booked, including a rare chance to visit the cinema and hear our Compton Organ being played, so please visit the website and sign up. Morrissey's perhaps rhetorical question is certainly relevant to all academics today as we consider why we do what we do and how we do it.   The University of Westminster more than most has a history and ethos that allows us to respond with some positivity to his question.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

I offer up to you this tribute: Billy Bragg and my dad

My dad died in 2000. I've blogged about him before, particularly around the great work of the Stroke Association who provided my dad with great support after his first stroke, and also after I met Edwyn Collins shortly after his own stroke. It's Fathers' Day today. I think about my dad all the time, but particularly on day's like these. I've taken to posting a link to Billy Bragg's Tank Park Salute every year - its become a sort of small, personal act of remembrance. Its a wonderful song, and makes me quite emotional just thinking about it. An excerpt from the lyrics appears below, and a video of Billy performing this appears in the link above. 

'You were so tall
How could you fall?

Some photographs of a summer's day
A little boy's lifetime away
Is all I've left of everything we've done
Like a pale moon in a sunny sky
Death gazes down as I pass by
To remind me that I'm but my father's son

I offer up to you
This tribute
I offer up to you
This tank park salute'
(from Billy Bragg: Tank Park Salute)

I've met Billy a few times, and he has always been kind and generous. Billy Bragg concerts have been a bit of a constant throughout my adult life - perhaps I will at some point write a piece for my Tickets of Distinction (my other blog, celebrating some of the gigs I have been to over the years) blog about one or two of these, but here I want to concentrate on one meeting, in 2010, at Latitude Festival. Tank Park Salute is of course a tribute to Billy's late father, Dennis. I met Billy by chance outside the poetry tent, and in the course of our conversation I told him about what the song meant to me. Billy was brilliant, and asked me for a hug. In the photo below, pre-hug, Noah, my son, is also telling Billy about how I picked up one of his plectrums at a Red Wedge gig.  

Billy only went up in my estimation that day, and I still remain in awe of his songwriting - Tank Park Salute is a wonderful tribute to his father and a lovely touchstone for lots of us, including this heartbreaking story from Neil Hughes's blog about his daughter. A couple of years ago I met the poet Mike Garry, eager readers may remember some of my previous posts about him
Mike had written a poem as a tribute to his mum, entitled What me mam taught me, which I thought was beautiful. Mike is a firm believer in the power of the word and that we all have poetry in us. we talked a lot about our fathers, both had had strokes, and Mike encouraged me to write a poem about my dad. I've written fragments but its not finished but maybe next year for fathers day I'll publish it. In the meantime, for my lovely dad, I offer up to you, this tribute. x

Friday, 10 June 2016

1966 and all that

I remember seeing this emblazoned on posters around London during EURO '96, and on the eve of EURO 2016 our thoughts turn to not thirty years of hurt, but now 50 years since our last major footballing success. Outside of the triumph at Wembley, 1966 was an important year for all sorts of other reasons. I'm currently reading Jon Savage's book 1966. I am a great admirer of Savage's work, England's Dreaming for example is by far the best account of punk that has been written and Savage's contextual awareness in all his work, Teenage being another fine example, is astounding. Savage describes 1966 as 'the year that the decade exploded', and the first chapter begins; 
'1966 was a year of noise and tumult, of brightly coloured patterns clashing with black and white politics, of furious forward motion and an outraged, awakening reaction. There was a sense that anything was possible to those who dared, a willingness to strive toward toward the seemingly unattainable. There remains an overwhelming urgency that marks the music and movies of that year, counterbalanced by traces of loss, disconnection and deep melancholy'.
I can't vouch for the whole book yet - I have been striving to read the book (which is divided into months) in such a way as to get a sense of the year in real time, 50 years on, so am only up to June, but what the book has illustrated so far is that 1966 is significant on many fronts. At the Centre for Law, Society and Popular Culture we are currently considering using 1966 as our theme for Centre events for the next academic year. We have previously used themes for our Film Matters series, and thought that 1966 might work as the motif for a series of events given its significance.  
In terms of the cinema, Roman Polanski's Cul De Sac received its world premiere at our Cinema in 1966 and we are hoping to show that. Other key films released that year included Blow Up, The Battle of Algiers and Au Hasard Balthazar all of which are currently being considered for screenings. Outside of the cinema but still within visual media we have already pencilled in a screening of Cathy Come Home, introduced by Professor Peter Robson (former Chair of Shelter) and chaired by Dr Russell Orr to mark the 50th anniversary of its BBC debut.
Musically, key albums released in 1966 include The Beatles' Revolver, The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, and Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (Centre Member Ken Foster was even at the infamous 'Judas' Dylan concert at the  Manchester Free Trade Hall!). We have previously run Vinyl and Wine events at the Centre where members of the Centre take it in turns to play an album of their choice and might refine this concept for those three albums above. Interestingly there is a far more eclectic soundtrack provided by Jon Savage to accompany the book, the Ace Records' spotify playlist of which is available here.  

Other events are being considered too, perhaps including some celebration of the important House of Lords Practice statement on Judicial Precedent, or even recognising 12 July as the date Tony Macaulay signed his publishing contract that ultimately led to the case of Schroeder v Macaulay. On as more macabre note, 1966 was also the year of the the sentencing of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady (The Moors Murders), and Harry Roberts (The Shepherds Bush Murders), both of which have featured heavily in popular culture.  Any more suggestions and ideas welcome, and keep an eye on the Centre website for news on developments. 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Just Like Honey?

This week I have been pre-occupied by bees. On Wednesday I went to a mesmeric live performance of Be: One at Sonos Studios in Shoreditch. This is part of a Wolfgang Buttress project  which seems to have developed far beyond what he even imagined at its inception - indeed at the Q&A that preceded the performance he seemed barely able to comprehend that a project he started with bee expert Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University has led to a booking at Glastonbury  this year and culminates (or maybe it will develop even further, who knows!) with an installation of The Hive at Kew Gardens this summer.
Be One at Sonos Studios, 11 May 2016
The performance itself was magnificent - I bought the album earlier in the year via the brilliant crew at Caught by the River (CBTR) website and the album can be purchased via that link. CBTR was formed by Heavenly's Jeff Barrett and his friends, and to me the man is a touchstone for quality and has barely put a foot wrong over a distinguished career  - Be One is no exception. The album is a beauty, an intensely moving and immersive attempt to harness 40,000 bees, with their very specific communication modes including their 'begging signals', 'tooting' and 'quacking'. Their sound is amplified and complemented by some superb musicians including members of Spiritualised in what Buttress calls 'a dialogue between bee and human'.
Coincidentally, on a research visit to South Africa last year, along with my colleague Steve Greenfield, I was taken to a hive outside Potchefstroom near Johannesburg. Again this was a fascinating experience, and the rituals surrounding beekeeping, and the sound of the bees  as we opened the hive, was amazing. This got me thinking about keeping bees myself, and I couldn't fail to notice the higher levels of bee awareness that were emerging, see the work of the Honey Club for example. Some more research revealed that bees had been introduced to Regent Street for the first time by the Crown Estates in 2009 and this got me thinking about my University, the University of Westminster and perhaps one of the crown jewels of Regent Street, and bees.
As an urban Polytechnic, it appears we have never taught classes on beekeeping. This perhaps  is one of the few practically oriented courses we have not taught, as a view of our history would indicate. Those wishing to delve more deeply into this should look no further than the excellent series of publications published as part of the University History Project. Only this week our esteemable archivists tweeted that Vidal Sassoon studied hairdressing at our predecessor, the Regent Street Polytechnic.  We have apparently experimented with keeping bees at the University, but sadly it appears our efforts up at our Chiswick Sports Ground were met with vandalism and, so far, despite some interest in placing hives on flat roofs and spaces at our various buildings in the West End and beyond, we have had little success. I'm hoping that we can further explore the possibility of using the otherwise overlooked rooftop at Westminster Law School for this and will report back if this comes to fruition. One of my favourite photos of the Law School actually involves students pictured on the roof performing gymnastics, sometime around 1929, an activity now precluded by health and safety considerations, see below.

For now though, whilst this has got me thinking about bees in song and bees in popular culture (the more 1980s popular music literate will have picked up on the reference in the title to this blog) I'll sign off with an excerpt from an earlier performance of Be: One, a link to the whole album on spotify,spotify:artist:06kHjoBIuDUNyFBNBMoAC2 and, with a sense of circularity, the video for Just Like Honey.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Do you believe in magic? The re-emergence of the Regent Street Cinema

This month marked the long awaited rebirth of our wonderful cinema,  now renamed the Regent Street Cinema. For a long time for staff at the University it was known as The Old Cinema, and has had various names over the years, as will be clear when the book about this, The Magic Screen, is published in June 2015.  I was lucky enough to be involved with the book, and also have had some small involvement with the Cinema over the years in various guises, see for example some previous blog posts here and our exhibition Classified.  The last few years have seen things really develop apace - a lot of the credit for this must go to our Vice Chancellor - not only has he seen the Cinema as an important project in its own right but has really seen fit to celebrate our heritage, including fully supporting the Archive and our excellent archivists. This was something which had previously been under-acknowledged and utilised and they do some brilliant work -  see for example their excellent online exhibition on World War One and the Polytechnic and recent exhibition of gig posters. They have of course also been heavily involved in the Cinema redevelopment. The Cinema itself is a beauty ands hopefully lots of people will come to visit it. Obviously opening a single screen cinema in the West End, and one that whilst it is a commercial cinema also is heavily linked into the University's educational ethos, which undoubtedly makes it a challenge to programme. That said, the initial programme has been superb - eclectic and imaginative in equal measure, and credit must go to the cinema director, Shira MacLeod for this.

The opening night saw the premiere of Lambert and Stamp for example, with Terence Stamp giving a Q&A and in the days since the programme has constantly surprised. I was lucky enough to Chair a Q&A on excellent new film Bypass. Its a hard hitting and great film, and provoked a vehement discussion. There is certainly a political element to it, and the team behind it were very keen to ensure it was released before the election. As it happened we screened this a week after the election, and the Q&A commenced almost exactly a week after the polls had closed.

Bypass; theatrical poster
We were privileged to have Samm Haillay, the Producer; David Procter, the Director of Photography, and Noel McLaughlin, a media academic and massive supporter of the film in attendance, and the first question, based upon this post election scenario, elicited some passionate audience responses. In fact, we did not have much time for any of the other questions I had prepared (including some classics on genre bending, finance and a discussion of Director Duane Hopkin's father's statement that 'academics don't live in the real world, they are either mentally or sexually frustrated' that I was going to put to David and Noel, the 2 academics on the panel) and as much of the discussion was taken up with audience and panel thoughts on how the film fitted into this and some debate around who the audience for the film was and whether it could reach further. The consensus was that it was an important and passionate film that deserved, and needed, to be seen. The point was also made that it was beautifully shot and it was a privilege to have David in attendance although time constraints meant we could not drill down on this during the Q&A, but luckily we eventually found somewhere to carry on the discussion afterwards, nothwithstanding the big queue at the Social.

I'll post on the Cinema again as its journey continues, and really hope that as many people as possible get to visit this historic space and see some of the brilliant films we are screening. Also, try and catch Bypass  - whilst I read it as a film about hope, Samm wanted it to be seen as a call to arms, and reflecting on it again I can see this as a clarion call and a touchstone for a different sort of hope. I'll end this as the film does, with the quite marvellous Soldier On by Richard Hawley and with a thought for the late Chris Collins, to whom the film is dedicated.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

We are, astronomical, fans of alcohol: World War One and the deadly foe of drink

‘You are, astronomical, fans of alcohol’ 
(British Sea Power: Waving Flags)

1916 poster (courtesy IWM). Campaigns such as this helped reduce
alcohol consumption during World War One

Alcohol is deeply embedded in British culture and there have been numerous state, and other, responses to its control and regulation. However, as Philip Kolvin has noted in a key text in licensing law, ‘over the last half millennium, the political response to our national trait has been ever changing and contradictory’. Currently the provision of alcohol is largely governed by the Licensing Act 2003, but during World War One alcohol became a hot political topic. In particular, a key Government concern was that the war effort might be hampered by the abuse of alcohol. Shortly before War broke out the Licensing Act 1908 had in fact sought to regulate alcohol consumption but was not without its critics and large scale protests.  David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been a key figure in support of the 1908 Act, saw drink as particular problem once the war commenced;

‘We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink’ David Lloyd George quoted in Beer, The Story of the Pint
Lloyd George had actually started a campaign for people to take the pledge during the War, something that even King George V acceded to, stating that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal household until the war was over.  Voluntary measures such as this were deemed to be insufficient however and a series of regulatory measures were enacted, these included the reduction in licensing hours and introduction of no-treating orders. The Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Act 1914 received its royal assent at the end of August 1914. There had been many attempts at reducing drinking hours before 1914 but these really took root during World War One with the 1914 Act drastically curtailed drinking hours, allowing public houses to be open for a maximum of six hours per day and introducing a compulsory afternoon break in the areas of the country where it was operationalised. These restrictions largely persisted until passing of the Licensing Act 1988 first began the process of loosening these restrictions.

Another measure the Government introduced was the No Treating Order, introduced in October 1915. This meant that any drink ordered had to be paid for by the person to be supplied with the drink – effectively it was an ‘anti-round buying’ measure. The tradition of buying drinks for a group in rounds was a well established and popular one, although the Spectator felt this measure would ‘free hundreds of thousands of men from an expensive and senseless social tyranny’! The Government adopted other measures too, including the establishment of a central Liquor Control board with wide powers to regulate supply of liquor and trying to buy up a number of local breweries and constantly extending amounts of duty payable and attempting price control. These measures often were met with resentment, and sometimes satire as witnessed by Ernie Mayne the popular music hall performer, recording the song ‘Lloyd George’s Beer’, as can be heard here.

This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of blogs about the effect of World War 1 on law and popular culture, following a previous blog on the Polytechnic, law, popular culture and WW1, and one on thankful villages. Future ones will include pieces on censorship, court martials, spiritualism and intellectual property amongst other things, and if any readers have any ideas or would like to write a guest post, please get in touch. With luck, we will collate these and draw upon them and later provide the basis for some future developments at the Centre for the Study of Law, Society and Popular Culture.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Law, poetry and popular culture - to instruct and delight

Some months ago I blogged about poetry - in particular how poetry could be used to help stroke victims and included some recollections about my dad, who suffered two strokes. In that blog I talked about the fantastic work that Mancunian wordsmith Mike Garry does in this area. I returned to some of Mike's other work in a later post for my other blog Tickets of Distinction, entitled 'Manic on the Streets of Manchester',  which included some mid 1990s photos of yours truly among tales of Anthony H Wilson, the Manic Street Preachers and The Hacienda. I had been discussing various ideas with Mike during 2014, and in  December 2014 we were delighted to announce that Mike had agreed to join our Centre for the Study of Law, Society and Popular Culture as a Writer in Residence.

First and foremost we are really excited to have an artist of Mike's calibre agreeing to come and work with us - we think this is the first time a Law School in the UK has created a link of this type (although would be interested to hear about others), and are really looking forward to seeing how this develops. Initial plans include work with Creative Writing students, some work with the archives, and we hope to announce the first of some public events run out of the Law School soon, but we have lots of ideas as to how this might develop.

When we first mooted Mike joining the Centre we started to look at the history of poetry at the University of Westminster, and also the link between law and poetry. Gibbons wrote, uncontroversially, that law is inconceivable without language, and Rachel Cohen for our own Entertainment and Sports Law Journal wrote, in a piece about incomprehensibility in music contracts, that despite Gibbon's claim; '...legal language has long been criticised for its idiosyncratic ambiguity'. This is a fair point - as a law student on a left leaning persuasion I came to law seeing it as a form of bourgeois mystification so Cohen's point certainly resonated with me. Even today much of what lawyers do is based around the ambiguities of language and nuances of interpretation. I started to do a little digging around law and poetry. I was aware from my work on Law and Film of some interest in this from the Law and literature movement, and a quick search through back issues of the journal Law and Literature sees reference made to Ovid, Larkin and Shelley (Percy not Pete) among others. I was more interested, however, in the power of poetry outside of the law rather than the approaches that appeared to have been taken in Law and Literature. During my (at this stage admittedly fairly basic) research I found this really nice  piece by Frank Pommersheim, a US Scholar, on 'Poetry, Law, & Poetry: Some Notes Towards a Unified Theory'. There were a few things in here that I really liked. He talks about how 'Poetry and law are both reports on human experience; reports from different angles with different means'. He goes on to set the two up as a series of binary oppositions...

'poetry is your mother; law your father'

'poetry wounds; law kills'

'poetry is blood, law is water'

'One brings union, the other disunion'

Now these are provocative and contestable statements and ones that, perhaps, Mike's work with us will cast some light upon. More importantly than that however, I think Mike's work with us will help us appreciate the scope, and power, of words. In terms of the University of Westminster's poetry pedigree - its fair to say its impressive and Mike's addition to our ranks only adds to this. The ever dependable Anna McNally in the Archives found lots of details of the history of poetry at Westminster for me. Ezra Pound apparently gave a series of lectures at the Polytechnic between 1909 and 1910, and the Archives hold a number of prospectuses along with other related documents on this. Other notable poets with links to the University include David Gascoyne, Menghistu Lemma, George Barker and Clive Sansom. My personal favourite that Anna referred me to is Louise Bagley who, whilst not specifically a poet,  was appointed Head of the School of Elocution at the Polytechnic, as we then were, in 1913. Even the idea of elocution seems faintly anachronistic today, but Louise Bagley was apparently a pioneer in 'the difficult art of expression through the medium of the voice'. She had a brilliant idea for a  course of 24 lectures in 1917 entitled 'Poets and Poetry of Today', the fee for which was 8/6 for the whole course or 1s for a single lecture! I love this idea, and we are hoping Mike will do something similar in terms of poetry for the public as part of his role, although we would hope to make this free and open access.

Anyway, Louise Bagley appears to have been extraordinarily well thought of. As her obituary in the Polytechnic magazine in August 1926 noted; 'Let those who try to follow in her footsteps  see to it that her work does not die, but lives'. In some small way the arrival of Mike Garry, a poet who acknowledges and celebrates the power of the word, helps ensure that her work and ethos does not die, but is reflected in the activities of the University in the twenty first century, and we are excited about the journey ahead.