Notes from a rural pub

My daughter was playing badminton in an under-16 county match. I have spent enough time being the parent-on-the tramline, getting frustrated and trying not to coach her and interfere. After five of six years of badminton tournaments, I tend to make sure she is OK and then go and find a coffee shop and do some writing or reading. A couple of weeks ago I ended up in Costa in an artificial retail park somewhere near Ipswich (it could have been anywhere, a soulless and meaningless place). A few days later I received a bill from Euro Car Parks Limited for £90 for breaking some parking rule on ‘private’ land. Yet another for-fuck-sake moment, another site for exploitation and I hear David Harvey on YouTube telling me about accumulation by dispossession and rents.

But that’s not what I want to go on about, though it would be worthy of a post. No, what I want to talk about is the pub I went to in small-town Suffolk, not so far from Bury St Edmunds – where you can smell the boiling beet at this time of year. Like sweet public mash potato.

I didn’t want to go to a pub actually. My preference was for a safe sterile manufactured faux continental coffee shop. But the nearest one of those was in Bury St Edmunds about 4 miles away. I thought it was unnecessarily a bit far for a coffee and generic soullessness. When just 0.7 miles from the Badminton venue was a pub.

When I say small town, I guess this was a big village really. It has a secondary school, a Londis and within that, Google Maps tells me, is a Post Office. There are few new housing developments and a former council estate. The pub was a country pub, a village kind of pub, a rural pub. I knew these hostelries from my youth.

I have spent many years walking into pubs and bars on my own, but I have not done that much of it in the last 15 years, just occasionally though. But from the age of 15 to 26 I was a public house flaneur, not truly a flaneur. I would usually enter the pub as flaneur, after a few drinks I was voyeur, and then, often or not, I would strike up a conversation. A few drinks, community and conviviality, and I would be in conversation with someone or other. My brand of philosophy is forged amongst the wisdom and observation of ale drinkers on bar stools. True public philosophers, almost in the Socratic tradition.

I was more anxious today. I am out of practice. I am no longer familiar with the country pub, or indeed any pub, as I once was. As I drove into the carpark, I was trying to work out who would be in there. It is difficult to tell, everyone has newish cars these days because of the lease-buy credit racket and legislation that make it difficult to run old cars.

I felt awkward walking into the pub, what was it going to be like? Who would be in there? If it was a rural pub of my youth, it would be a mixture: could be landowning farmers, horsey types, the rural middle class. Young couples out for a quiet drink out of town. Blokes playing darts and dominoes. People at the bar. This is what I imagined.

This pub was more like a community centre with Sunday lunch-dining for families. I went into the community centre side of the pub. A father and his 8-(or so)-year-old son (weekend access arrangement?), playing pool eating chips with cheese melted on top. An older gent who seemingly came regularly for his Sunday lunch. A youngish man who put the England football match on the flat screen TV and then went off for a smoke.

I ordered a coffee and chips ‘n’ cheese. The women at the bar was very charming, very friendly and welcoming without any pretence. She was to have an important role in the pub as I will come to explain. The coffee tasted of cooking fat. A few more people arrived; alone, in couples and in groups, they had fairly strong Suffolk accents. It wasn’t the socially diverse rural pub that I remembered from my youth, but working class, with no pretence and no aspirations. That is, no aspirations to be anything other than who they were. I was a voyeur, with the cover of reading Will Davies’ new book Nervous States, looking at social media (the big psychodrama of the EU Withdrawal Agreement) and looking up at the flat screen as England played Croatia.

I considered my middle-class habitus – it must be so fucking obvious – I spend most of my life now at college dinners and engaged in academic conversation within the academy. I don’t know if I can relate to these people anymore. I spend so much time explaining to the liberal middle class about the limitations of rationality and politeness and what drove things like the Brexit vote was a resurgence of affectivity, the need for people to fulfil and to act upon their emotions and not to be afraid of their feelings. I was feeling really awkward in the situation. These weren’t the mores I was accustomed to. I wondered if I could every be part of this community.

It is poignant that I am reading Will Davies’ Nervous States.

As I say part of the pub has the characteristics of a community centre, where people can come along and have a drink and not feel too inhibited about who they are. I think I presented myself as something of an anomaly and curiosity in this setting. Who sits in a pub and reads a book, they might have thought? One of them was curious enough to ask me while we were urinating just before I left. “Out walking, are you?” Another man caught my eye in the pub and asked about my well-being out of friendliness and curiosity.

The main drama unfolded. The older guy was brought his roast dinner, which he began to eat at a low table by the fireplace. A middle-aged man at the bar was provoking him, clearly not trying to be friendly but not really trying to be unfriendly. It was just an ongoing: “Grandad, grandad, grandad …” baiting him. It was harassment, but also in a kind of covert and invasive way. ‘Grandad’ was getting increasingly agitated by it and protested.

The barwoman was excellent, in the way that women are often expected to be in these kinds of situation. She recognised that David, who was baiting grandad, needed attention. She knew that if she engaged with him, no matter how irritating and unpleasant he was, he would leave grandad alone. Again, this is something that women are often expected to do in order to diffuse domestic tensions. Men are likely to use force, not necessarily physical force, but confrontation. The barwoman used emotional labour, but I can’t imagine that she would get anything more than minimum wage for handling a difficult situation with such skill and intelligence. David, though, continued to harass grandad. Grandad eventually asked for his dinner to be wrapped up, so he could take it home. He was clearly distressed.

This was an everyday drama, there was nothing unusual about this in this pub.

Thirty to forty years ago I was spending a lot of time in pubs, many rural pubs. What struck me today was the class homogeneity, the middle class no longer want to be around a struggling emotionally unrestrained working class? The pub is in poor shape, it is basic. Much infrastructure remains from the past, but it is tired. Things have been replaced by cheap oddments. It’s all done on a budget. No lines of pumps with exotic ales, but a basic offering. The people are not looking toward good jobs and opportunities to enhance their lives. They are hanging on, holding on, creating and carving out a community and some form of relaxation amongst a very limited number of things to look forward to. It is really a stark monument to forty years of economic and social policy which has meant decline for so many (increased consumption and debt is not a healthy and sustainable way out of poverty). The devastation of pubs through Wetherspoonification; corporate welfare, through in-work benefits; the free market which has left behind a clear stratification of haves and have nots; and the all-round destruction of inclusive and diverse public life.

For so many people the last forty years, in terms of work opportunities, standards of living, quality of health and education, it must have felt like they have been going backward. I will give it its due, the New Labour government did try and mitigate for this decline – what was criminal is that it didn’t tackle the underlying causes.

If you really want to understand Brexit, then you should visit a pub like this. There must be thousands across the UK. Go in there, sit there and sense what is going on and wonder why we got to this.

Upon the rejection of a research article, nightmare and hope

I have a number of research strands going on at the moment. There is my research into mathematics teachers’ professional development – this goes back to my interests as a teacher and head of department and was followed up with my PhD research at the University of Nottingham. I also have an interest in learning processes in mathematics education, particular around school students engaged in rich tasks and problem solving. This relates, also, to my experiences as a teacher and again was something I looked at obliquely in my PhD research. The professional development I evaluated was to support teachers in implementing approaches that promoted the learning of problem-solving skills.

And then of course – those of you who have been reading my blogposts will know – I have got increasingly interested in political economy and public spending. This a result of my professional development research. I recognised, as part of this research, there are significant constraints and limitations on teachers in having access to good quality professional development. I followed the money, and power, and identified the source of these limitations. You really only have to look at Marx and Keynes to begin to comprehend the basis of decisions about the funding of the public sector. It is not based on a rationality of equity.

I am not going to mention my work on geodemographics here with Tim Mullen-Furness. That’s for another day.

While my research has grown to be diverse, I look up and down my inquiry trail. For a number of reasons, I find myself looking deeply, again, into professional development research particularly in respect to mathematics teachers. In part, this is prompted by the death of my PhD supervisor, Malcolm Swan. Sadly gone too soon. But also by the unexpected rejection of a research article. I submitted a theoretical/ empirical paper to a journal early in 2016. It came back in late summer with the ‘accept subject to major revisions’ tab. I duly revised and wrote a report about my changes and resubmitted. This was last September.

The night before last (these things always seem to come late at night and I always foolishly look at them) I received an email from the editor rejecting the paper. I had expected the reviewers to judge my paper based on the original reviews. But they had looked at it afresh. And rejected the blighter.

‘They have bloody well moved the goal posts’ I thought to myself angrily, as I laid a wake with insomnia. Insomnia directly related to my decision to look at and contemplate the email from the editor. In those dark hours, one can grow irrational. I do. I always have. I enter a dark terrain, like a bad acid trip. I began to consider that this single event may have a catastrophic effect on my progression from probation to tenure. Foolish and irrational, I know, over such a relatively small setback.

But it has focussed my mind on the overall purpose of my research and the direction in which it is going. While I have been merrily skipping on, on to new ground, it has taken me back. It has made me review my core interest. That of professional learning.

I need to thank my resplendent colleague Rupert Higham for his generous mentoring yesterday morning. He has inspired and encouraged me, as has done in the past, to steer my course as I feel appropriate. I must follow my water. He helped me make sense of myself.

In spite of the journal editor and reviewers’ final response to my piece. I recognise that I have been trying to bung my theoretical act onto an empirical stage. I am not anti empirical, its just that I am a thinker and schemer. Those dark terrains, the bad acid trips are the dark side of my imagination. The positive side of my imagination, the hope and vision that my overdosed imagination has given me has always outweighed the negative. As I have got older I can manage and ride out the extreme imagined fear knowing that experiences and people (and a good night’s sleep) can restore my positive frame.

The experience of this, in the last couple of days and the shocking events in Manchester, have, oddly, resulted in me being buoyant today. There are so many challenges in the world, on an unthinkable scale. But today I see my place, the way in which I can contribute, the way in which I can use my imagination to see a better world and contribute to some solutions.


The politics of mental illness: from R D Laing, The Frankfurt School to Mark Fisher and Capitalist Realism

I recall reading R D Laing’s The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise almost 25 years ago. Laing was a radical psychiatrist, part of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s. Anti-psychiatry viewed a patient’s illness not just as the patient’s but as part of sick society. His was a bold attempt to get inside the minds of those with a mental illness and to recognise the politics of the experience of mental illness.

There is no such ‘condition’ as ‘schizophrenia’, but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event. The political event, occurring in the civic order of society, imposes definitions and consequences on the labelled person. (Laing, 1967, p. 100)

Much more recently  I read The Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. The Frankfurt School, from shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century until the latter part of the century, fused Marx’s political economy with Freud’s psychoanalysis. Their critical theory offered an analysis of the development of popular culture and its impact on individual psyche. The twentieth century was the century of mass communication, broadcasting and consumerism. What Theodor Adorno, a key thinker in the Frankfurt School, recognised was that the potent combination of mass communication and consumerism was used to not only suppress any revolutionary zeal of the proletariat, but also to enhance capitalism by creating consumers, pandering to base needs and creating superficial and relocated desires leading to consumerism. Adam Curtis’s, The Century of the Self, presents a stunning visual representation of the effects of the acquisition of psychoanalysis by advertisers and their capacity to use this to control our behaviour. It translates human alienation that arises from subjugation and subordination to capitalism to a desire for consumption of unnecessary products. Capitalism becomes an imperial power in the mind of the individual.

The Grand Hotel Abyss is a fine read, it takes you through the lives of individuals involved in the Frankfurt School as they navigate through the latter parts of the First World War, the Wiemar republic, the Third Reich, exile to California and the liberation movements in the US and Europe in the 1960s.

I was just finishing reading it, when I heard about the death of Mark Fisher. Mark Fisher was a critic, theorist and activist. I was alerted to his short book (90 or so pages) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by people I follow on Twitter. Intrigued, I downloaded it to my e-reader. It was within the first few pages that I found that Capitalist Realism is both extension and critique of ideas of the Frankfurt School. I can probably best explain what I mean by saying that the Frankfurt School is located in modernity, while Fisher takes something of a postmodern turn. Modernity was a dominant identifiable cultural philosophical movement emerging in con text of mass production and mass consumption. It is concerned with structures, overarching theory and in many ways mechanistic explanations of the relationships between phenomena and experiences.

Postmodernity is the paradigm shift. As society becomes fragmented, communications and broadcasts fragment to provide individualised experience, as liberalism becomes a dominant political ideal, as communities become diverse and heterogeneous. Thought and experience become fragmented. Philosophy cannot rely on the more monolithic modernistic structures. Lyotard, in the The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, heralded the end of grand narratives.

What Fisher does in such a concise and powerful way is weave together Marxist political economy and psychoanalysis while acknowledging the postmodern fragmentation, contradictions and ironies. This provides a powerful critique of mental health as a deeply political and politicised experience. In modernity our desires were controlled and manipulated. The postmodern condition is so much more insidious, sure our desires are controlled, but by images and narratives that we create for ourselves, that we construct from the narratives that are presented to us through the media and reinforced by neoliberal structures and organisations which discipline and normalise our actions through performativity and targets.

We are never away from these personalised constructs, it is our own thinking that disciplines and punishes and keeps us alienated from direct and real experience. We persistently live in a fictive world created by capitalist media. When our mental and physical health is under threat the external narratives that we internalise start to unravel. We become politically active. But more often than not we punish and discipline ourselves because we no longer think or behave ‘normally’. More often than not our mental health conditions are medicalised, we are subdued by chemicals and our senses and reactions are dulled until we submit to the reformation of a personal fiction that is within the limits of normality. That we are restored to being an individualised component in a self-governing capitalist system.

An important point Fisher makes is that the postmodern mental control and self-disciplining experience is with us 24/7. In modernity, we would go to work do as we were told and then go home. For Fisher we are constantly self-regulating and self-directed. Work and production continue because we are under the impression that we are autonomous. We are not.

Currently we are seeing an adjustment to world orders and authority. It is as if this shake up of old truths, a crisis of capitalism and a collapse of postmodern fragmentary narratives, open things up so we can see what Lacan called the Real. There are great dangers as well as great possibilities in the future. R D Laing, The Frankfurt School and Mark Fisher have left us with some important insights from which we can proceed. Importantly we should recognise the politics of mental health.

I understand that Mark Fisher died with little money and intestate. There is a campaign by Mark’s friends to raise some money so that Mark’s wife and child can have a little time to grieve and come to terms with his tragic death.