Buggered, especially off

Ever since I read the LSE’s official statement in The Guardian regarding my blog, I’ve been intrigued by what they meant by its ‘potentially defamatory’ content. Apparently there is supposed to be something in this blog that defames someone. It was never clear to me what this could have been. I now know. The magical sentence comes from the ‘talking to prospective students‘ entry. It reads:

the only reason they asked me [to give the Open Day speech] is that everyone reasonable already has buggered off on their respective Easter vacations.

This is what the LSE regards as ‘potentially defamatory’ and worthy of an investigation by a special committee. Interesting. The key word here is of course ‘buggered off.’ A tricky word to use, especially for us foreigners. According to The Free Dictionary:

bugger off, chiefly British slang, to leave someone alone; to go away; to run away.

Clearly the expression is informal and colloquial but it is not — in contrast to the same verb without the ‘off’ — considered as rude or in itself offensive. Not surprisingly the expression is common on the BBC. Compare for example Hugh Laurie in Blackadder:

Why, only the other day Prime Minister Pitt called me an idle scrounger. It wasn’t until ages later that I thought how clever it could have been to have said, “Oh bugger off, you old fart!”

What the LSE is objecting to is surely not the expression itself but instead the fact that it was used in reference to its staff. The implication is that members of the LSE faculty don’t ‘bugger off’ on vacation. Perhaps instead they ‘depart determinedly to their second homes in France’?

My crime, as always, is a lack of respect. I’m not treating people in authority with the respect they feel they deserve. Respect is a difficult thing to earn and, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t come with a job title. For example: convening a special committee to investigate the meaning of ‘buggered off’ might not be the best way to earn it.

Is this how low the threshold is for free speech at the LSE?

Wikipedia, as always, has an interesting article:

Bugger is an expletive used in vernacular British English, Australian English, New Zealand English and Sri Lankan English. When used in context it still retains its original meaning, implying sodomy. However it is now more generally used to imply dissatisfaction (bugger, I’ve missed the bus [i.e. Shit!, I’ve missed the bus], also cf. Unlucky Alf, a character in The Fast Show, who says ‘bugger’ every time something happens to him) or used to describe someone whose behaviour is in some way displeasing (the bugger has given me the wrong change). The word is also used amongst friends in an affectionate way (you old bugger) and is used as a noun in Welsh English vernacular to imply that one is very fond of something (I’m a bugger for Welsh cakes). It can also imply a negative tendency (He’s a bugger for losing his keys) [i.e He loses his keys often]. A colloquial phrase in the north of England to denote an unexpected (and possibly unwanted) occurrence is “Bugger me, here’s my bus”. The word is generally used in place of a more serious expletive.

The phrase bugger off means to run away; when used as a command it means “go away” [”piss off”] or “leave me alone”, which is generally considered one of the more offensive usage contexts. Bugger all means “Nothing”. The Bugger Factor is another phrase to describe the phenomenon of Sod’s Law or Murphy’s Law.

It is famously alleged that the last words of King George V were “bugger Bognor“, in response to a suggestion that he might recover from his illness and visit Bognor Regis.

As with most other expletives its continued use has reduced its shock value and offensiveness, to the extent the Toyota car company in Australia and New Zealand ran a popular series of advertisements where “Bugger!” was the only spoken word. The term is generally not used in the United States, but it is recognised, although inoffensive there. It is also used in Canada more frequently than in the United States but with less stigma than in other parts of the world.

The word is derived from the French word Boulgre, derived from “Bulgarian” (meaning the Bogomils of Bulgaria), who Catholic propagandists said were practicing ‘buggery‘. Writings by Puritan authors such as Cotton Mather refer to “buggery” when talking about bestiality among their congregations.

In Victorian and Edwardian England, bugger was often used as an identity label; for example, “a bugger”, meaning an active homosexual.

My 15 minutes

I started this blog in January 2006. For the first couple of weeks of its existence it had about 10 visitors per day. Then I began blogging about my employer, the London School of Economics, and about what it’s like to work and study at an elite university. Suddenly interest in the blog erupted. One day, May 4, the blog had over 5000 visitors.

My great fortune was that the blog was banned — first by the convenor of my department and then by the director of the LSE itself. As they both made clear, I was not allowed to speak about the School in an unauthorised manner or ’serious consequences’ would ensue. After some reflection I decided to keep the blog up. It was an easy choice in the end since the statues of the LSE guarantee the right to the freedom of expression. The controversy eventually hit the papers — first the LSE student newspaper, then the Guardian and the Times Higher Education Supplement. Hence all the visitors to the page. See the sidebar for more information.

With some very few exceptions none of my colleagues was ready to publicly support my right to free speech. Instead the LSE students rallied to my support, signing petitions and writing encouraging emails. Ironically these divergent reactions only proved what I had been saying all along — that its students are LSE’s greatest asset.

This story is now over. The LSE authorities decided not to pursue the issue in the end. Very wise on their part. Yet the conclusion is less than satisfactory: the initial reprimand I was given has not been retracted and I can’t help thinking I’m owed an apology. Still it is of course a victory. The powers-that-be have backed off, I’m still blogging and I intend to go on doing so. Hopefully everyone — including the LSE director — has now understood the importance of some set of rules which governs internet use by students and staff.

The number of visitors to the blog has gone back down — not to 10 a day but to about 100. It’s calmer that way. Much as I like being read, I hate the controversy. In the next couple of months I plan to write a book about blogging and freedom of speech in democratic societies. That’ll be my revenge — a nice academic kind of revenge, with footnotes and all!

But I’m moving on. We’re pulling up our stakes and leaving for Taiwan in a couple of weeks. I’ll come back to London for sure but not to the LSE. Enough is enough. The world is a large place and there is much to see and do.

Football

I hear some kind of big sporting event just got under way. Grown men kicking balls around, that kind of stuff. Everyone seems to be very excited about it for some reason. No, I’m not a football fan, but ok, I do watch the occasional game. How can you not?

Like the medieval carnival, the football World Cup gives us an opportunity to temporarily forget about our regular lives. People drink too much and dress in strange, colourful, clothes; school kids and office slaves get time off to watch the matches. A generally festive mood prevails. We all deserve a break; it’s been a long, cold, spring.

For male academics football provides a great opportunity to feel matey and blokey about themselves; we temporarily abandon our regular pretentiousness and pretend instead to be Wayne Rooney. For a change we know what to talk about with cab drivers and electricians. It’s all very condescending and self-congratulatory.

henke larsson

The big make-believe is of course that the world still is made up of nation-states that fight with each other on an international arena. That there is a world where we dress in national colours, sing national anthems, display our most famous national characteristics — methodical Germans, argumentative Italians, fun-loving Brazilians. The world of the World Cup is the world of the stamp collector, of politics as it used to be before the state was undermined by the forces of globalisation. In the World Cup all battles are just and we all unreservedly support our soldiers.

Apathy

I just realised I’m only one of two people in my department who actually is on strike! There are some other union members but they have chosen not to take part. The convenor of the government department is distributing our exams to other colleagues to mark and they apparently see no problem whatsoever in doing our share. There is a name for people like you!

Come to think of it, I was only one of three government department academics who initially signed on to the petition against the war in Iraq and one of the few who signed on to the recent Living Wage Campaign. Surprising, isn’t it? These are not radical, far-out or marginal causes, and I am by no means an activist or politico. In fact I’m not even proper left-wing, just occasionally morally motivated.

Signing petitions isn’t accomplishing much of course but why are government department academics quicker than others to draw this conclusion? Maybe they feel that holding political opinions is beneath an academic politologist? Maybe they know too much about the issues and can’t make up their minds? Judging by the names on various petitions, there is more staff with political convictions in the departments of economics and accounting. Who would have thought?!

There is a political science theory which says that apathy is good for democracy. Allegedly it is an expression of confidence in the political system. Judging by this theory, my colleagues really have a lot of confidence in the existing order of things.

Our house — rented

We are off to Taiwan next academic year and would like to rent out our house. It’s a lovely, colourful, house, perfect for three people, two couples or six undergraduates (see below). Largish, classic Victorian, terrace. Features include:

  • new kitchen with brand new dish-washer, fridge-freezer — and washing machine and dryer.
  • wooden floors, very Swedified.
  • art deco fireplaces.
  • fairly large garden with plum, apple and fig trees.
  • located off Green Lanes in north London, close to outstanding multicultural shopping — Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Russian — and a large Sainsbury’s.
  • first-rate communications (29, 141 and 341 buses — the latter taking you door-to-door to the LSE); ten minutes to tube (Manor House or Turnpike Lane on the Piccadilly line).
  • great neighbours: one elderly Italian couple and a nice Jamaican lady with her son. Our street is very quiet, especially when we are not around.
  • furnished, but it includes next to none of our own junk. Back yard with big wood pile — possibly to be converted into conservatory.
  • reasonably priced.

June 27 update: Too late! We have now found someone to rent the house. They are very nice and will take great care of it. We hope they’ll be happy here.

front, facing the street:

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front room, downstairs:

This is the room intended as a front room for entertaining guests etc. We use it as a dining room. It’s great for our big family but also great when guests come around. The IKEA table actually seats 10 people.

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Below you can see one of the two art deco fireplaces. They are original, but not original to the house. Diane put this one in one Christmas amidst much mortar dust, banging on walls and swearing.

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bird
big bird

office, downstairs:

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There really is no way to show this room in a good light. It’s completely filled with our Taiwan-bound boxes and with assorted PhD dissertation paraphernalia. On a good day it functions like an office.

the kitchen:

This is the kitchen, containing washing-machine, dryer, dish-washer, fridge-freezer and a cooker. All of the stuff except the dryer is brand-new.

sink
sink

We took out the wall facing the garden and put in a French window. It’s great in the summer when you can open it up. It looks nice in the winter too.

sink

This is the sink and the cooker. We put this in before we knew we were leaving. If we had planned to rent out the house, we would probably have chosen a more conservative theme. Apologies if you are conservative in the sink and cooker department.

sink

hallway, downstairs & upstairs:

We put in the floortiles, inspired by art deco houses we’ve seen. The ground floor has undertile heaters. They are great in the autumn.

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front room, upstairs:

This room is really intended as a master bedroom but we decided to use it as a living room. It makes more sense, it’s the biggest room in the house. We watch TV here and write stuff on the computer. The walls used to be grey but we just repainted it yellow, same colour as down-stairs. Some people claim yellow walls make you fight more, we never noticed that.

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parents’ bedroom, upstairs:

This is the room directly above the office. It’s a small room, but very romantic since we put the uplighters in. They are great when children wake up in the night and need medicine or water etc. This colour purple is very Italian says Diane who claims her Italian grandparents had it in their bedroom.

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back room, upstairs:

We took down the ceiling in this room and put in two skylights. It’s made the room fun and very light. This used to be the childrens’ room and we built a quadruple bunkbed in which we stacked the children in order of age. It was like a gigantic climbing frame. Lot’s of fun, but mainly for fairly small kids. The older ours got, the more private space they needed. The climbing-frame-bed got a bit annoying in the end.

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the garden:

The garden is not enormous but it’s a nice place to sit in the summer. There is a plum, an apple and a fig tree. They are all growing like crazy. The rose bush is enormous too but only flowers for a few days and is pretty boring afterwards.

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our street:

This is what our street looks like from the front-room upstairs. Since they closed off the street to through-traffic it’s been very quiet.

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Green Lanes, Harringay:

This is the famous Green Lanes, Harringay, just 100 meters away from our house. This is the multicultural heart of North London with 24 hour vegetable and baklava shopping:

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Zen and the art of package delivery

We sent 20 boxes with DHL to Sweden as part of the process of dismantling our London home. Nothing expensive, just our old memorabilia — drawings by the kids, letters from family and friends, things we wrote as teenagers, photos of old girlfriends, gifts from people now dead.

DHL managed to deliver 1 box but lost the other 19. Despite repeated phone calls no one can locate their whereabouts. No one knows, no one cares. Everyone is looking at computer screens and no bar codes match. The only thing worse than an incompetent state-run company is an incompetent privately-run company.

Old memorabilia like this has a strange status. I haven’t looked at any of it for years and I probably never will look at it again. Still I lug this stuff around with me wherever I go. Why? Surely it’s a way of providing a paper trail; a means of giving account of one’s life if I one day had to. Going from one country to another for the last 25 years, this pile of junk provides me with a sense of continuity. For better or worse, this stuff is me.

I was in Thailand when the buddha statues of Bamiyan were distroyed by the Taliban. I was very distraught and remember arguing that Unesco should have a rapid action force that could save cultural monuments in danger. Why should only human beings be saved? I used to think I would have given my life for those Buddhas.

The Thais of course were completely unimpressed. ‘It shows the ephemeral quality of all things, including stone statues. That is the teaching of the Buddha.’ OK, I remember thinking, now I know I’m not a Buddhist.

Perhaps DHL is trying to teach us something profound? Maybe this is their way of bringing us closer to enlightenment? It’s a Zen riddle: if those boxes are me and the boxes are lost, then where am I? Perhaps DHL no longer delivers boxes but instead only final release from human suffering?

Marking

I really hate marking. There is something particularly loathsome about reading piles and piles of exam scripts. Last year I read over 300 and I’ll do it again this year. It’s too much like real work, like the kind of work normal people do — like working in Tescos or answering phones.

I’m supposed to write up a motivation for why I mark a particular answer a particular way, and I do, but often it’s impossible to come up with something much to say about it. Most exam answers are good, ok, fine; it’s 63 for an MSc student and 58 for an undergrad. I don’t know why, but I feel I know a 63 when I see one. What more can I say?

I read three exams an hour — 20 minutes for each one. Afterwards I need a two hour breather to clear my head. To judge inspires dread. Coming up with reasons and motivations for one exam after another, for over 300 exams, just grinds you down in the end. It makes you wonder how God will feel the day after the Day of Judgement. He’ll probably need to take a breather too.

This is what all students should know: don’t forget the audience for your exam script is a overtired teacher on the verge of throwing up. Have pity on this poor creature: don’t hesitate, repeat yourself or deviate from the subject. Yes, and write legibly!

The scale we use is nominally from 1 to 100, but for some reason all students cluster in a very small spectrum. For MSc students it tends to be from 62 to 66. What we should do is to scrap all this accursed marking, identify the few really outstanding students and the few duds, and then randomly assign everyone else a mark between 62 and 66. It would save a lot of time and headache.

It would be interesting to read some study on the psychology of marking. I mean, why is it that we arrive at a particular mark rather than another? Of course we claim that it’s all about the knowledge and analytical skills of the student concerned, but that’s an empirical claim that might be false. It could just as well be the handwriting or the sentence structure. Why do we decide that someone is smart and someone is not? I don’t think anyone really knows.

The union is trying to convince us not to do any marking until the strike is over but I don’t think anyone does it that way. We all know that we’ll have to do the work in the end and we mark on the sly just to avoid ruining our vacations. For now we’re witholding our marks. That way we can remain loyal both to the union and to the students. The paperwork should be easy enough to sort out once the strike is over.

On strike

As a new union member I now find myself on strike. It’s terrible to have to inconvenience students but what can I do? You can’t ask the union to stand up for you if you don’t stand up for the union.

Going on strike during exam time is of course our only opportunity to exert any pressure. At what other time of the year would anyone miss our services? A striking tube train driver would be missed in a minute but if it wasn’t for the exams striking academics wouldn’t be missed for 500 years.

There is a wide-spread perception in this country that academics are lazy, that they are perpetual students who can’t give up their self-indulgent life-style. The oppressive seriousness of an institution like the LSE is clearly designed to counter this vicious rumour.

But I don’t know any lazy academics. Like people in other creative occupations, we are always working and never working. I get up at 4 every morning to write; most of the time I’m stressed out about some obstruse argument I can’t get my head around; there are emails to respond to 24/7. How do you measure such activities and how do you remunerate someone for them?

Routledge clearly think they know. I just got the first royalties for a book — The Mechanics of Modernity — which I worked on for some six years. Routledge is paying me exactly 345 pounds! And royalties will decrease sharply after this. That’s less than a penny per hour.

But in contrast to other authors I have a regular salary. I used to make 22,000 pounds per year when I first got to the LSE ten years ago. With a PhD student wife and lot’s of little kids it was very difficult to make ends meet. Our first daughter slept in a heap of clothes for months since we couldn’t afford to buy her a cot; we always felt ashamed of our shabby buggies when we went back to Sweden (even kids drive Volvos over there).

I now make more than double my original salary — �50,650, including my Summer School course — and I’m probably not worth much more. I’m paid in time rather than money. I’m the only father I know who will look back on his life and regret he spent such a lot of time with his children when they were young.

The real problem is not that established academics are underpaid, it’s that young academics are seriously underpaid and that the London allowance is far too low. If a strike can do something about that it’s a just cause.

10,000 and counting

This blog just had its 10,000th visitor! Amazing result in just one month. There are 32,605 hits altogether (clicks on individual pages) and my Open Day speech has been read by some 1,965 people. Two individual computers at the LSE has clocked up over 600 hits each.

Btw, the Davies vs. Ringmar poll just closed. The Guardian article ended Davies, 94 – Ringmar, 396.

The Facebook list has 281 signatures.

China syndrome

If you wonder why I’m banging on about freedom of speech on the internet, check out today’s news:

A Chinese Internet writer was sentenced to jail for 12 years on Tuesday for “subversion of state power” after backing a movement by exiled dissidents to hold free elections, his lawyer said. Yang Tianshui, 45, who has been in custody since last December, did not plan to appeal, a protest against a trial he felt was illegal, his lawyer, Li Jianqiang, said. “We expected the result, but we are still dissatisfied because he is innocent,” Li told Reuters.

Unless we live by our own rules, how can we ever criticise the Chinese authorities? How can various LSE experts travel around the world preaching freedom of speech unless the institution itself embraces it fully?

Speaking of China, Jessamine Garden talks about me. Chinese characters required. (No, I don’t understand it, but it looks great!)

终于有个有良心的出来批判LSE!!

收 到Amar的信,government专业的讲师Eric Singmar在LSE的openday上对着想申请LSE的学生说,我们的老师都忙着发表文章,课其实是Ph.D准备的,由他们代劳,还不如申请 Metropolitan,至少你能多见你的老师几面,而且”researches are less heavily emphasized”and” lesser institution”。他进一步指出 “What I do know is that the in-class student experience often differs very little between the LSE and a place such as the London Metropolitan University.”

他声明选择来 LSE完全是因为有出色的学生和cosmopolitan的组成结构。这一点说的太中肯了!但他声明他没有compare LSE to Chinese institutions,他说不希望LSE成为Chinese authority那样压制言论自由。Gosh!!