Why even a soft Brexit gives the oil oligarchs what they want

Dr Frederick Guy, Senior Lecturer in Management, explains how Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will hamper efforts to combat climate change and bolster the power of Putin and other major fossil fuel exporters.

Putin – whose name I use here as shorthand for the entire oligarchy of not just Russia but all major fossil fuel exporters – wants to prevent the emergence of international institutions which would be able to bring climate change under control. That is because the control of climate change would require destroying the oil and gas business, and with it his wealth and power.

To this end, two of the central objectives of the oil oligarchs have been the installation of a US government which is hostile to international cooperation in general and cooperation on climate in particular; and the fragmentation of the European Union. Trump, and Brexit; more broadly, a science-denying Republican party, and resurgent nationalism in every European country and region.

Even soft Brexit will be enough for Putin
I will explain below why these two political objectives, in the US and in the EU, are necessary – and, unfortunately, probably sufficient – for Putin’s ends. But first let me just say that, for Putin’s purposes, any Brexit will do, Hard, No Deal … or the softest of soft, as long as Britain withdraws from the political institutions of the EU.

In Britain, where anti-Brexit arguments have focused on the damage to the UK economy and the threat to peace in Ireland, a very soft Brexit is alluring: some kind of Norway ++ which keeps the UK essentially in both the Single Market and the Customs Union, but removes it from the political institutions of the EU. In British politics such an outcome would of course be a sorry face-saving compromise, letting politicians claim to have left the EU while retaining the economic advantages of membership (at some considerable cost in the form of lost voice in making the economic rules). For Putin, though, it would be a great victory, because what threatens Putin is a coherent West- and Central European voice on climate policy. The more he can fragment the EU – through the withdrawal of a big actor like Britain, and the discord which follows – the better off he is.

We can’t know how large a factor Putin has been in the political successes of Trump and Brexit. Obviously, there’s a lot more behind the surge of nationalism around the world than such plutocratic manipulation. Yet propaganda does work – ask Goebbels, ask Maddison Avenue, ask any company or political party that invests in public relations or advertising. And just the fact that Putin has made such obvious efforts to influence domestic politics in so many countries, raises the question of why he would do so.

Geopolitics in the anthropocene
I am writing here about the power of the oligarchs of oil: about the politics of plutocracy, and also about geo-politics.

The oligarchs of oil are just one segment of the larger plutocracy which afflicts our age. The oil oligarchs present us with a different set of problems than other oligarchs, however; our diagnosis of these problems is hindered if we think of plutocracy, or of capitalism, as one undifferentiated thing.

The other most prominent members of the plutocratic class have fortunes based on locking down parts of the digitized network economy (Amazon, Google, Microsoft,  privatized telephone networks, and so on), or on the extravagant protections now offered intellectual property (notable in pharma, biotechnology, and certain profitable corners of publishing). We might add to this list fortunes from the world of finance, but finance needs something to finance, and it is the monopoly sectors of the “real” economy – both in natural resources like oil and in information resources – which nourish finance. So let us speak simply of oil oligarchs and information oligarchs.

The two groups of oligarchs have a common interest in preventing the public from taking away their unearned hoards of wealth. The information oligarchs fear laws that would restore both our digital networks and our funds of accumulated knowledge to their proper state as a commons without monopolist tollgates – in short, that we will make their products free. The fossil fuel oligarchs fear that we will simply stop using their products. If justice ever comes for the information oligarchs it will be a piecemeal and prolonged set of battles, leaving the principals humbled but probably well heeled. The oil oligarchs, on the other hand, have their backs against the wall: they know that the health of the biosphere requires that their euthanasia – to borrow a technical economic term from Keynes – comes soon.

We can also think of what Putin and his ilk do in terms of state power – they act not merely as wealthy and influential individuals but as rulers – and thus of geo-politics. At first blush, we might think in terms of traditional Great Power or superpower rivalries. Putin’s politics, however, are about oil. And the geo-politics of oil is no longer primarily about control of the oil supply, but about the right to keep selling it. Any effective climate policy will sharply reduce demand for fossil fuels, which will mean, even if it is not all left in the ground, that both the quantity sold and the price will fall – shredding colossal oil fortunes.

If it seems far-fetched to reduce the policy objectives of a large state, once a superpower and still possessed of a huge nuclear arsenal, to permission to sell a single product, just look at the dependence of Russia on fuel (oil, gas, coal) exports. In 2017 – the latest year for which the World Bank provides these figures – Russia’s net exports of fuel amounted to 13% of GDP – an astonishing level for a country of that size. The only countries with higher levels of dependence on oil exports are states, like the Gulf monarchies, which produce little else (see Figure 1). Leaving the oil in the ground would not destroy Russia – if anything, it would free the country from the influence of oil, which entrenches corruption and despotism, and crowds out most other economic initiative – but it would destroy Russia’s oligarchy.

Figure 1

This is why the interests of the Russian state and the House of Saud, despite their quarrel over dominance in Syria and the Gulf, align at the global level: they need to block the emergence of institutions of international governance capable of dealing with the problem of climate change.

Governing climate change
The governance problem is well known: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions requires deep changes to our material way of life; attendant social changes; and vast investments in new clean technologies and clean infrastructure. Moreover, we have dallied so long that, in order to have any realistic hope of preventing very dangerous climate change, we need to decarbonize fast (Figure 2) – meaning that the process will be more expensive, more socially disruptive, and more politically difficult than it would have been had action been taken when the problem was first understood some decades ago.

Figure 2. Past delays mean that rapid decarbonization is necessary for climate stabilization. Graph from http://folk.uio.no/roberan

What nation will undertake such changes without the assurance that other nations will do so as well? Technically, this is what we call a “collective action problem”, a prisoner’s dilemma game with many players, blown up to the global level. Agreements are made – in Porto Alegre, Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris – but there is nobody to enforce them, and greenhouse gasses continue to accumulate.

Dealing with climate change of course requires action at every level, from the global down to individual and community choices about how to live and what to consume. But without an overall grip on the collective action problem between countries, there won’t be effective national policies in most countries. And without effective national policies, the efforts of individuals and local communities will be weakened by the knowledge that others are taking no action, and so will not add up to enough.

For the past quarter century we have had climate agreements which have no teeth. There is no prospect of having an actual global government to enforce the agreements. How, then, do collective action problems get solved at a global level? Some say it only happens in periods of history when single hegemonic power – notably, Britain from the defeat of Napoleon until the mid-1800s, and the USA in the decades after World War II – had the weight to enforce international rules of trade and finance (rules used, of course, to the hegemon’s advantage); the same might serve for rules about greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no single dominant world power to play that role today.

Our best hope – is it shocking that it has come to a point where this is something more to hope for than to fear? – is that a small number of very large powers would act in concert as leaders, and enforcers, of international agreements to cut greenhouse gasses. The method of enforcement could be a combination of threatened withdrawal of access to export markets, and conditions placed on foreign investment.

What countries could exercise such power? In Figure 3a I plot the GDP and the greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s 25 largest economies – again, treating the EU as one country. Note that I have used ratio (logarithmic) scales, so the differences between the larger and smaller countries are compressed on the graph, but even so three big ones stand out in both GDP and emissions: China, the USA, and the EU. Big as they are, if these three giant economies decarbonized, it would not be enough to stop global warming. But all other countries depend on access to these three big markets, and investment from them. Individually, none is globally hegemonic; together, they could fill that role.

Figure 3

Figure 3b plots the same information, but with the EU split up. This leaves the US, China, and then a large mass of mid-sized emitters: six of the 25 biggest CO2 emitters are members of the EU. It is within in the mass of mid-size CO2 emitters that the collective action problem becomes overwhelming, each saying “after you”, each proposing actions that will shift costs to others. It is a recipe for non-action, for fatal delay, and that is why Putin needs to make the EU ineffective as a political unit. If you add to that the effective side-lining of the USA – its de facto alliance with Putin and the House of Saud – this configuration leaves no plausible leader, no plausible enforcer, for climate policy.

It may seem a faint hope any of that those three powers – China, the EU, and the USA – will actually choose to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it is, but other hopes are fainter still. And, if it were really such a far-fetched possibility, I do not think that the petro-powers, together with fossil fuel interests in the industrial countries themselves, would be doing so much to prevent it. Their support for both Trump and Brexit – any Brexit – is a central part of that effort to prevent the US and EU from taking decisive action on climate change.

What this should say to you if you are looking forward to any sort of Brexit, whether it be the ice bath of No Deal or the warm shower of Norway++, is that Putin will thank you for it, and that your great grandchildren, if they are among humanity’s survivors, will curse you.

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , , , ,

Get Talking – our mentoring scheme for prospective and past students

Starting university is an exciting time, but we know it can be daunting too. Lots of students have questions about the years ahead, whether they’re joining university straight from school or going back to education after a break. Speaking to someone who’s been through it all before can be reassuring, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a mentoring scheme where former Birkbeck students are matched with those thinking about starting their studies for a coffee and a chat. It’s an opportunity for prospective students to ask questions or share any concerns they have about studying in the evening, and for mentors to share their experiences of studying at the College, and anything they wish they’d known before starting their courses.

If you’re interested in taking part in Get Talking, either as a mentor or a mentee, please get in touch.

Why I wanted to take part in Birkbeck’s Get Talking mentoring scheme
Eleanor Tough, current BSc Psychology student

I initially signed up for the Get Talking scheme because I felt quite overwhelmed at the notion of beginning my degree at Birkbeck and felt it would be beneficial to speak with someone who had experience at the university.

I sent an email to the Get Talking team and was put in contact with a graduate who had completed the same course that I was enrolled onto. After exchanging emails, my mentor and I met up face-to-face. During this meeting, we chatted about how I was feeling, why I had chosen my degree and the potential career prospects I hope to explore when I graduate.

My mentor described her own experiences and was able to fully answer questions that I had, about the experience she had at Birkbeck and how achieving her master’s degree had impacted on her own career.

I also received very valuable advice on how to structure my studying around working full-time and how to make the best use of the support services at the university. This helped me to engage with the full range of services provided at Birkbeck and has absolutely influenced the way in which I manage my own time, current career and personal life.

My highlights at Birkbeck are the course itself, the diverse range of people I have met through studying, the impressive facilities of the university and the support and positive environment that Birkbeck provides.

Why I volunteer as a mentor for Birkbeck’s Get Talking mentoring scheme
Richard Harrison, MA Arts Policy and Management graduate

I have volunteered for the Get Talking scheme over the last few years because I enjoy being able to support people who are thinking about embarking on a course of study at Birkbeck, particularly those who are new to higher education. University study is a challenge but also one of the most fantastic things a person can do, and I feel privileged to support people as they consider starting on this journey.

It is a real privilege to be able to support someone in making such a significant decision, and if that decision can be a little bit better informed by alumni like me sharing our experiences, that is hopefully useful to Birkbeck’s prospective students.

In meetings we tend to cover the practical aspects of university study, including how alright it is to feel quite overwhelmed in the first term! (This settles down after the Christmas break.)  I am sometimes asked about my experience as a student.  We are provided with excellent training by the Alumni Office, and are given resources to direct mentees to particular areas of the College for further advice, so when needed, I will share those resources so that my mentees can feel fully informed about the journey ahead of them.

Birkbeck is an incredible institution. It is full of passionate experts who impart their knowledge and share their love of their subjects readily.  I remember feeling thrilled to be studying again, and intellectually stimulated and challenged.  That is, in part, why I volunteer for programmes like Get Talking, so that others can access and feel most prepared for this life-changing experience.

 

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , ,

University Mental Health Day: managing student stress

Being a student can be stressful. This University Mental Health Day, Head of Birkbeck’s Counselling Service Charlotte Williams looks at the causes and impacts of mental distress on students, practical tips to manage stress, and where to turn if you need help.

What are the main causes of student stress?

Stress to some degree is a normal part of life, it is only when the amount of stress we are experiencing exceeds our capacity and resources to manage that we can run into difficulty and find ourselves using unhelpful defence mechanisms to try to manage and find ourselves in a vicious cycle of stress.

Many factors cause stress to students including the demands of juggling their studies alongside work and family responsibilities;  relationship difficulties; housing problems;  financial concern;, loss and bereavement; transitions and achieving their academic goals, essay writing, public speaking, exams. However what causes stress really is a subjective matter, what causes one person intense stress can be managed relatively effortlessly by another. It is important to be aware of things that stress you in particular and prepare to take care of yourselves at times of increased stress triggers.

Be aware of the first signs of stress in yourself and make a conscious effort to get on top of it and stop the cycle of stress getting a hold. Often when we are stressed we revert to old coping mechanisms some of which may be outdated and not helpful long term such as drinking alcohol, smoking, drinking more caffeine, eating sugary foods, staying up late, isolating ourselves, ruminating, avoiding matters, obsessing. When the cycle of stress gets a hold we need to break into it and make a conscious effort  to resist falling back on unhealthy coping mechanisms and make conscious choices to do things that may help. What helps will differ for individuals but here are some of the key things that can help manage stress.

What 3 practical things should a student consider doing to manage their stress if suffering?

Exercise:

A meta-analysis (Cooney et Al, 2013) showed that exercise is as effective in treating depressive symptoms, as talking therapies or antidepressants. Another comprehensive study adds to previous evidence suggesting exercise is not just good for reducing symptoms of depression, but may also prevent it.’ (NHS, 2018). Birkbeck University Counselling Service, in conjunction with the YMCA has developed a MIND BODY MATTERS scheme and offers 8 week free gym passes including personal trainer to students suffering from mild to moderate depression or anxiety. Exercise helps to rebalance the physiological system when stressed and boost natural endorphins to improve mood.

Sleep:

Maintaining a sleep routine is of paramount importance to mental health and managing stress. Taking time to relax before you go to sleep can help the quality of your sleep. Try to go to sleep at the same time and wake at the same time each day – 7-8 hours is the recommended amount of sleep but of course this differs for each individual needs. Take a bath to wind down or watch something gentle on television like a nature or holiday programme rather than something that stimulates anxiety such as horror or thriller. If you study in the same room you sleep in, cover your books and desk with a sheet or a screen at around 9.00 each night and take some time to rest before sleep. For more tips on sleep read our self-help leaflet entitled Sleeping Problems.

Food and Drink:

If possible avoid self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, it’s a vicious cycle which will make you feel worse in the end. Also try to avoid relying on caffeine to keep you going If you are stressed and tired you need to rest, eat well and exercise at suitable times. Use herbal teas to calm and soothe such as camomile before bed; mint if your digestive system is upset and lemon in the morning to wake and refresh you. Avoid sugary carbohydrates – they will pick you up temporarily but you will soon crash – try to eat a balanced diet – some protein, carbohydrate and vegetables each day at regular intervals and carry nuts and seeds for a boost of your energy dips whilst on the go.

Manage your Mind

When we are stressed our minds sometimes behave in ways that hinder rather than help. Rather than ruminating over the problem, catastrophizing about the future or critically analysing your latest attempts,  take time out to focus your mind on something relaxing and positive. There are lots of apps and websites that offer mindfulness exercises and distraction techniques and links to those can be accessed from the Counselling Service Website Further Resources section. Alternately take a break, go visit a friend and tell them about the problems you are facing and then tell them about the good things in your life, ask them to help you to gain some perspective. Sharing difficulties can help: however going over and over them often doesn’t and is likely to tire your friends so ask them to listen first and then help you to get a different angle on things or a plan going forwards.

Manage your Behaviour

Our behaviour can also be affected by stress, some people avoid the problem, others tackle it manically never taking a moment for fun or rest. Avoidance increases our anxiety about something so breakdown the problem, set a plan and approach the issue step by step reminding yourself of similar situations where you have coped. If you behave in the opposite way make sure you take time out to  visit a friend, go to the cinema, or read a novel to give yourself a break.

Who can a student suffering from stress turn to for help/advice?

If you have tried all of this and just can’t seem to get a grip on the cycle of stress alone it’s fine to ask for help. The Counselling Service runs a workshop each turn entitled Stress Less and a self-help leaflet on managing stress is available for free download. You can also write to the counselling service and ask to meet with one of the counsellors to talk things through and think together about how to manage and move forwards. It may also be worth visiting your G.P to check that the symptoms you are experiencing are indeed stress related and there are no underlying issues.

Share
. Reply . Category: College

Banksy comes to Port Talbot

Amanda Roderick, MA History of Art student at Birkbeck, discusses Season’s Greetings, the Banksy piece that appeared on a garage wall in Port Talbot late last year, and the wider context of a crisis in arts funding. 

This is possibly the first time that Port Talbot has made news on Birkbeck’s blog – although I note that included amongst Birkbeck’s impressive alumni is one Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Party Prime Minster and MP for Aberavon in the 1920’s. Politics and connection to place are important in this story.

Last December, one week before Christmas, a striking image of what appeared to be a small boy enjoying the snow was discovered on a garage wall in Port Talbot. The site, a lane behind a row of early nineteenth century terraces in an area called Taibach (means ‘small house’ in Welsh), is sandwiched between the M4 and Tata Steelworks. Recognised and then confirmed as Banksy’s work within hours on his website and titled Seasons Greetings, it had his typical combination of hard-edged social commentary mixed with humour. In this instance, a small boy playfully sticking out his tongue with arms outstretched catching snow is bundled up for winter with coat, hat and scarf, complete with sledge at his feet. Only by turning the corner can the observer have a different reading – the flakes are not snow falling from the sky but ash blowing over the boy from what is either a burning bin or chimney. Subverting messages, questioning authority and creating political site-responsive work, is all familiar territory for Banksy. He’d played on Christmas before: in August 2005, he painted a series of images on the Palestinian side of the West Bank barrier erected by Israel, returning again in December 2007 with new images for ‘Santa’s Ghetto’ in Bethlehem.

Port Talbot is my home town. The site of the Banksy is on the street I grew up in, its lane is the route my sister and I took as a shortcut to school every day, where we played in the evenings, learnt to ride our bikes – and interestingly where bonfires were a regular occurrence. Visiting the Banksy was the Boxing Day walk for many families – mine included – and the security staff in place there (paid for by the actor Michael Sheen who is also from Port Talbot) informed us that in the days leading up to Christmas alone, there had been around 2,000 visitors to this small lane, causing traffic chaos and security issues (the number of visitors apparently rose to a grand total of over 10,000). The guard also confirmed the stories of various attempts at vandalism and concerns that the work would be damaged, stolen or destroyed by those wishing to own a small piece. Life, news and the art world have moved on since then of course; the work has been purchased for an ‘undisclosed six figure sum’ which will be paid to the owner of the garage, a local man. John Brandler, art dealer, street art expert and collector of Banksy’s work, was the buyer; he, promised that it would remain in Port Talbot for two to three years but insisted it be relocated somewhere else in the town for protection: ‘The piece has a relevance with the surroundings. It is important for me to keep it in the town as art is very often specific to a place, especially street art. The piece conveys what Banksy is about – it has a social message and it doesn’t matter where you are. It is about global pollution. We are creating an environment in the planet that will wipe us out.’ He makes very pertinent points, importantly highlighting pollution – the dangerously high levels of pollution must be recognised as amongst the most damaging in the UK. It cannot however be attributed the steelworks alone. The fact that a motorway cuts through densely populated areas must also be considered. Apparently somehow ‘improving’ in recent years, in 1983 it was reported that the town was the most polluted place in Wales and the most polluted in the United Kingdom outside London – only Marylebone Road and Camden had higher levels. There is also no doubt about the level of support, enthusiasm and pride in the town. Cottage industries have popped up selling merchandise; Banksy’s work on mugs, key-rings, t-shirts and bags, with one man having the image tattooed across his chest! Questions have therefore arisen around ownership, copyright, intellectual property – and what it will mean if/when the work is placed in another environment or different context of a gallery/public venue. All are provocations which of course is what Banksy wants.

It’s worth pointing out that Port Talbot was already on the cultural map before the new Banksy appeared. The school mentioned earlier was also the primary school Anthony Hopkins attended and for a time, the young Richard Burton lived a few hundred metres away in that same street, also attending the comprehensive school in the town. Michael Sheen’s 2011 promenade performance The Passion, produced by The National Theatre Wales, used a biblical account to tell a contemporary story of the town’s social history and the destruction of homes there to build the M4. Significantly, the two largest cultural events to take place in Port Talbot over the last decade – Sheen’s performance and the appearance of the Banksy – existed outside of any fixed or ‘physical’ venue and attracted audience numbers estimated in the tens of thousands, proving there is a need for what the arts can bring – and that engagement with the arts is a natural instinct and could not be stronger. This is despite the town not having any arts venue at all and very little provision for such activity – but lots of potential. Bristol, Banksy’s hometown, is a city where street art has been used to regenerate an area but there are examples closer to home in Cardiff and Swansea where the street art group Pure Evil has already been commissioned.

One new home being suggested for the Banksy work once it’s removed from the garage wall is the site of an old police station centrally based opposite Port Talbot Railway Station. Recently developed by social housing group Pobl (translates as ‘people’ in Welsh) the £4m development has flats on the top three floors and would provide the visibility, space, protection and accessibility required with its large glass windows facing onto the street, on the ground floor. Brandler has said he would be prepared to show some of his personal Banksy collection there, adding that he was also interested in developing education and participation opportunities with groups in and around the town, proposing a ‘street art school together with a cafe run by people who were homeless or unemployed’. At a time when the Welsh Government is undertaking a consultation process regarding the site of proposed new modern art gallery in Wales, Port Talbot council must surely be hoping this boosts its chances. For now, Port Talbot joins the list of international locations and institutions in providing a home to prized Banksy work. It follows a flurry of Banksy news in recent weeks. His fake £10 banknote depicting Diana, Princess of Wales named Di-faced Tenner, joined the British Museums collection of coins, medals and other currency in February 2019; Love is in the Bin, the self shredding work memorably auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 2018 and a poignant artwork on the fire door at the Bataclan theatre in Paris thought to be Banksy’s homage to the 90 victims who died in a terrorist attack on the venue in November 2015 has been stolen.

As I write this, three new murals have appeared on walls in Port Talbot, which are not Banksy’s. They depict Lego mini-figures, all referencing the Banksy piece: its sale and removal and its critique of pollution. The artist responsible, who goes under the name Ame72 and is also known as ‘the Lego guy’, has confirmed that the three pieces are his work. For Brandler, this is exactly what is needed; ‘By using the Banksy to bring other interesting pieces into the town, I want to make Port Talbot the go-to place for street art in the UK’. He continues; ‘Ame72 is an up-and-coming artist, well known and well-respected within that sphere and the first one to come to the town – he would not have come here without the Banksy. I want to bring Blek Le [a French graffiti artist that inspired Banksy], Pure Evil and Damien Hirst. Internationally known artists will come if we give them Banksy. This is just the starting point; the more you have got, the more people will come’

Ame72 Lego Mural, Feb 2019. Taibach Rugby Club, Commercial Rd, Port Talbot.

There is a very important backstory here however and Brandler through his patronage perhaps unintentionally foregrounds the crisis that now looms. The danger for Port Talbot is that all the excitement generated by the media will fade and, as with other areas across Wales, these rare moments of inspiration and opportunity are rarely appreciated and acted upon by the Local Authority and Welsh Government. Without the philanthropy we have witnessed here, it is difficult to envisage how artists and small regional arts organisations will thrive and survive as public funding rapidly dwindles. The UK is fast approaching the US model of reliance on private and charitable funding – a strong tradition there, its infrastructures are built up over many generations where money is usually raised by wealthy Board members and Trustees. The encouragement of similar ‘business’ models in Wales has been a brutal transition into a different kind of dependency and one not easy to achieve, especially in the poorer regions or inner cities of Wales and England. Here there can often be little or no track record, resources or economic success related to individual giving and corporate sponsorship.  An arts venue in Port Talbot off the back of the Banksy would be hugely beneficial but the reality is that any new or ‘redeveloped’ space for showing or producing art, would come with unaffordable rents, overheads and often insufficient budget allocation to pay its artists and staff properly. It would, like, increasingly, the NHS and many school classrooms, be reliant on volunteers for many front of house staffing and operating responsibilities.

Secondly, there is a question as to whether urban graffiti is the only kind of art that can now be truly accessible, affordable and popular in some areas. It does not require a building but will it always need to be covered with ugly protective screens and fencing (as is the Port Talbot Banksy). What of the emerging, local artists, the art students and grassroot collectives? How and where will they make their art, who will pay to see it, buy – and how will it be collected, maintained and archived for the future?

Banksy has been labelled a Situationist, and ‘part graffiti artist, part windup prankster’. In Port Talbot he has created a timely metaphor to shine a light on the town and through his art, re-opened and reignited excitement and creative discussion amongst its inhabitants across class and generation – appealing to all those who identify with notions of self-expression and the spirit of rebellion that he represents. He has also reminded us, in case we needed it, of the dereliction of duty towards arts and culture (and other public services) by the current government ideology of austerity – the repercussions of which are manifested in cost-cutting exercises by regional authorities across Britain. How this impacts the next generation of artists and museum visitors and collections we will see. The final word goes to London-based Welshman, Iain Sinclair who refers to Banksy in his thoughts and writings on an urban walk through Hackney;

There is now a fascinating interzone where a guerrilla street artist like the character known as Banksy is collected and patronized by Hollywood stars. Stencils and strategic cartoons are either destroyed as acts of public vandalism or endorsed by changing hands for huge amounts of money. And you have to argue over the fabric of the city as to whether this is the art the authorities want to sponsor (as they have done in St Leonards-on-Sea, by immediately sealing a Banksy paint job under perspex); or whether, in some way, these interventions should remain an encrypted secret. We live in a society avid for gathering up anything that seems to have spirit; anything that is dangerous can be captured and converted into a form of energy. Which is also wealth, money and credit.

All images and John Brandler quotes courtesy of Wales Online & BBC Wales.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts

Changing Titles – arriving at ‘Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind’

MA Creative Writing alumna Deirdre Shanahan, discusses how her degree helped her refine her skills in fiction writing and bring her characters to life, as her debut novel Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind is published. 

The reality of publishing a novel came forcibly to me in Oxford Street when I was Xmas shopping.  I had an email from my publisher saying they felt the title suggested the novel to be sci-fi. Having lived with the title for years and never thinking of it in this way, I was surprised but since the novel was not sci-fi or anything like it, I knew the publishers were speaking from a sense of how it would appear to any potential reader. They asked if I could think of another title. Changing felt as though it would be quite a wrench but I did not want to confuse potential readers – I didn’t want to lose any! So I accepted their professional judgement. Assuming I would not be able to come up with any other title, I  finally thought of about a half a dozen others and thankfully the one I liked most was agreed upon –  ‘Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind.’ I am grateful the publishers alerted me to the possibility of confusion over titles, and for lots of reasons I like the final choice probably more than its original. I like the idea of- ‘caravan,’ from the Persian and all it suggests of journey and movement; a trail of people following one another and the way we have adopted it. I also like the other stolid words – from Old English,  clearly stating what I think are some of the themes.  The combination of these two languages,  what they suggest  in  a blend of culture and traditions – how we negotiate between differences is  a central focus of the novel.

Having to re-adjust to look at my own words in a public context, after all, is what publishing means. I knew this, having published short stories both here and in the USA, but not in terms of a novel. The MA in Creative Writing’s workshops provided a forum to share work and develop skills in fiction. We gave and received constructive criticism and learnt to appreciate and accept other genres, other kinds of writing.

Although I had written this novel and undertaken some drafts before the MA, I did not know what I had in terms of a sustaining narrative or characters and whether the novel overall would work- would it hold a reader. Would these people I had created be of interest to anyone else?  I was able to discover all this and more – discuss challenges, characters, constructing a narrative. Through the MA workshops, I was able to refine what I had already achieved.  Of course only a small part of the novel could be work-shopped but from the feedback I was better equipped and able to gauge how much I had achieved and how I needed to work on the rest.

The novel is about Eva an Irish traveller who returns to Ireland to try to reconnect with her daughter Caitlin who she left there years before. She takes her son Torin  as he is implicated in a stabbing and we follow the engtanglement of Torin and Caitlin as they try to negotiate their relationship in the  aftermath of  Eva’s actions. The novel looks at notions of family and flight, belonging and secrets and their unravelling, notions of displacement between rural and city environments. It is about the turmoil and dissonance that can occur when there is a rupture between living in one of the two places and having to form a new life elsewhere.

Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind will be published May 2019 with paperback and hardback available from Bluemoose Books.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts

The deep historically rooted misperceptions revealed by Brexit

Dr Jessica Reinisch, Reader in Modern European History, discusses the ahistorical narrative around the UK and its European neighbours that is shaping Brexit. 

History has been part of the Brexit madness from the start. It’s hardly news that thinking about things that happened in the past is often directly shaped by perceived priorities in the present, but something rather more one-sided has been going on with history under Brexit. From the small group of Eurosceptic historians around David Abulafia and their problematic claims about Britain’s past, to the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski’s wilful ignorance of the role of Marshall Aid in post-war Britain: history has never been far away from the Brexit politics of today.

Since the UK referendum campaigns, politicians have tried to bolster their support of ‘Leave’ with claims about history and arguments about the present in the light of the past. Some academic historians and a range of history buffs have been eager to oblige these efforts. For them, what Abulafia called “a historical perspective” involves rifling through the past for evidence that the Brexit project is valid, desirable, perhaps even inevitable. As their once marginalised opinions have become mainstream and their confidence has grown, Brexit-supporting historians have set the pace of historical debate, if we can call it that – or rather the proclamation of more or less uncontextualized (or simply false) statements about the past, followed by an often bewildered chorus of disquiet from historians at large.

The claims put forward by the ‘Historians for Britain’ were quickly rebuffed by historians across the UK, who presented plenty of evidence that undermined the supposed exceptionality and benevolence of the British path and its immutable separation from the rest of Europe. “Britain’s past”, they pointed out, was “neither so exalted nor so unique.” In a more recent piece in the New Statesman, Richard Evans, never one to run from a good fight, lists a catalogue of examples where today’s Brexiteers have manipulated and distorted the past to fit their political agenda. But these efforts notwithstanding, the politics of Brexit has spawned what Simon Jenkins has fittingly called “yah-boo history: binary storytelling charged with fake emotion, sucked dry of fact or balance.” Jenkins’ comment made reference to Labour’s John McDonnell, though as Richard Evans shows, the Tory Brexiteers’ list of abuses of history is rather more substantial and significant.

The problem isn’t so much that apparently everyone feels entitled to serendipitously dip into the past for findings to support whatever they believe in; it is rather that much of this history is so very un- and anti-historical. History has become a caricature of parochial dreams, nostalgias and made-up analogies to prop up binary political choices. At stake is the nature, direction and meaning of British history and Britain’s place in the world. But just as important is the question of whether history can really be scaled down to an apparently singular ‘British’ vs ‘European’ position.

It is high time for historians to restore complexity and take seriously the variety of geographical and historical vantage points which can bring to light very different timelines and priorities. The contributions to a roundtable debate, published by Contemporary European History, have tried to do just that. It asked 19 historians of Europe working within very different national and historiographical traditions to reflect on the historical significance and contexts that gave rise to Brexit and within which it should be understood. The result is a palette of pertinent historical contexts in which Brexit has made an appearance and can be analysed. As a result, some of the certainties appearing in the Brexiteers’ version of history suddenly seem much less certain.

The upshot of this roundtable cannot be easily reduced to a political headline, and that is precisely the point. Serious history rarely works that way. As the contributors show, the prospect of Brexit has revealed deep historically-rooted misperceptions between the UK and its European neighbours; Brexit in this sense is a process of stripping away dusty historical delusions about national paths and those of neighbouring countries. The essays demonstrate that Brexit has to be understood in the context of a long history of British claims about the uniqueness of the UK’s past. Europeans at times recognised British history as a model to be emulated. But they periodically also challenged the applicability of the British yardstick to their own national exceptionalisms, or pointed to an equally long history of connections between the UK, the British Empire and the European continent. The present debates about British history and its place in Europe and the world alter readings of the past, in some cases significantly. History is, once more, being rewritten in the light of Brexit.

This article first appeared on the Cambridge Core blog

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , ,

Chevening scholars give their tips for a successful interview

The Chevening scholarship scheme is aimed at developing future leaders worldwide, with a competitive selection process for the prestigious scholarship, with thousands of hopefuls from over 100 countries submitting an application each year.

In 2018 Birkbeck welcomed a record number of Chevening scholars. As the interview period for Chevening is about to open, we asked current scholars to reminisce about their experience.

For Panamanian student Esther Alvarado De Leon, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management student, the interview is the most important part of the application process; and preparation is paramount. “My first time applying, I got into reserve list after the interview. I am sure that was because I didn’t have a plan for the interview. My second time applying was amazing! I had a short term and a long term plan. I knew what I wanted them to take from my interview and it felt a lot different, I believed in what I was saying.”

Aleksei Mikhalev, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management student, from Russia, also recommends taking as much time as possible to prepare .“I received an email about choosing me for Chevening interview in February 2018, but I booked my interview date on the middle of April. Therefore I had almost two months for preparation. I spent that time structuring my thoughts, polishing my speaking and presentation skills.”

Familiarise yourself again with your essays about leadership, networking and life goals included in your original application.  “You have been chosen because of what you have written, so it is very probable that they will ask you similar questions,” says Sergio Mendoza, an MA Investigative Reporting student from Bolivia. Your interview responses must be coherent with the points made in your application, but the interview is also an opportunity to develop these, and to show your enthusiasm for your future studies. “The main three questions you should be ready to answer on the interview are why you chose the UK; why did you choose these universities; and what do you plan to do after studies?” says Aleksei.

Is one of the lecturers on your chosen program a renowned expert in their field? Can you link a module with your future plans as a leader? In an interview that lasted almost an hour Filipino student Rogelio explained why he applied to Birkbeck’s Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict MSc. This had involved researching the programme academics’ work and also linking the course content with his future goals as a writer and cultural worker.

How will your studies help you to achieve your goals? Be specific about your plans. What career do you wish to embark on after your study in the UK? How will you’re the knowledge and skills you will acquire strengthen your position as a leader and help you benefit others in your country and community?

“Think where you want to be in 2, 5 and 10 years,” advises Esther. “Where do you see yourself applying the knowledge you will gain during your studies in the UK?”

“Chevening is a program for future leaders and being a leader means having a clear plan for your future and about changing the world around you. You have to show the Chevening commission that you already know what to do, you have a plan how to help your country, but you need some resources, such as networking and knowledge” says Aleksei.

Our scholars all agree; practice, practice, practice; run mock interviews with friends, family, in front of the mirror. But more than anything, say our scholars, believe in yourself and show your passion.

The Chevening programme is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner universities such as Birkbeck.

Share
. Read all 7 comments . Category: College . Tags:

At the heart of unions

Trade unions have been and continue to be crucial for improving conditions in the workplace and union learning reps (ULRs) have a special role in promoting and supporting the learning needs of members. As part of #heartunions week, Sophie Swain from Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement department talks about the 10% fee discount for union members at Birkbeck and the launch of a new outreach programme for trade union members interested in studying at undergraduate level.

A long-established partnership with the TUC’s unionlearn has enabled union members who wish to study at Birkbeck to receive a 10% discount on their fees, and last year over 700 students took up the discount. The Access and Engagement department are now underpinning this opportunity with targeted outreach activities for union members to support them in their journey to higher education. In line with the department’s mission to support non-traditional students including those who have low prior attainment or who have been out of education for a number of years, this outreach work will focus on those without an existing undergraduate degree or who are returning to university to gain the skills and knowledge needed to progress into a new line of work.

This new initiative has been developed as a timely response to challenges facing London’s workforce, in recognition of the need to adapt to changes in the workplace. Research by the Centre for London (2018) estimates that up to a third of London’s jobs are at risk of automation, which has a disproportionate impact on low and medium-skilled workers. For these workers, higher education study can be a way of preparing themselves for the changes by equipping them with new skills, knowledge and career prospects. Lifelong learning is at the heart of Birkbeck’s ethos, and for almost 200 years we have offered students access to higher education at whatever stage in life, regardless of previous experience.

Trade unions play a vital role in supporting the learning of their members. In a survey of Union Learning Fund learners undertaken by the University of Exeter in 2018, 7 out of 10 reported that without union support, they would not have taken up the opportunity. This study also highlights the importance of information, advice and guidance when supporting learners: for those without any qualifications, 79% said that they would not have taken part without union support. Therefore, we’re building relationships with trade union learning reps (ULRs) to enable them to inform prospective students about opportunities available to them at Birkbeck.

The Access and Engagement department are calling on colleagues from across the college to collaborate on planned initiatives to support current students from a trade union background, as well as anyone who is interested in delivering informal learning activities to trade union members. We would also encourage admissions staff to share details of the discount and outreach work with their applicants, to ensure that those who might benefit can take advantage of the offer. To get in touch and find out more, please email union-learning@bbk.ac.uk.

 

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: ,

A new kind of research guide

As part of LGBT History Month, Birkbeck alumna Norena Shopland writes about why it was important to develop an LGBT glossary as part of Queering Glamorgan, a research guide to sources for the study of Welsh LGBT History.

Over the last fifteen years or so I have been researching lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, allies and events, in relation to Wales. In that time I have curated a number of exhibitions, given numerous talks/workshops and written the first book, Forbidden Lives, on Welsh LGBT history and in all my work I have tried to add new material into the public domain whenever I can. But how does one find people who have lived forbidden or hidden lives? Particularly when the written record is often so sparse, and because most of the terminology we use today is modern, much of which was not used earlier than the mid-twentieth century.

A number of heritage organisations have tried to tackle this by providing research guides to aid those looking for hidden people, but most provide only summaries of resources available with limited glossaries. In addition, due to the legal status of male homosexuality, existing guides and glossaries have concentrated on the male experience, with minimal attention paid to women or gender diversity.

Using these guides was, I found, a very frustrating experience and in the end I realised that I needed to compile my own glossary – an exercise that proved surprisingly fruitful, and I was able to recover over 3,000 pieces of information – 80% of which has not been published outside original sources.

The glossary was then married with work being carried out by Dr Daryl Leeworthy, who had extensively examined the archival record in Wales for LGBT content – and Queering Glamorgan was published as a free download by Glamorgan Archives, funded by the Welsh Government. Glamorgan Archives is noted for its excellent work on the history of sexual orientation and gender diversity, and most of the examples used in the guide come from their archival content.

For this blog, I just want to reference the glossary part of the guide.

Some of the frustrations I experienced when using existing guides was the lack of timelines, which could result in time wasted using terminology not in existence for the period being examined, and cautionary notes about some terminology. For example, whilst most guides list ‘gross indecency’ as a possible search term, few mention that this could also apply to heterosexual cases, and even bestiality. Therefore in our guide we added, where possible, both timelines and cautionary notes.

One of the challenges with using a standard glossary for research is its very nature as a list of words or phrases. But individuals, whether they are journalists, diarists, letter writers or those filling out forms which end up in archives, do not all use the same words or phrases. Their individualistic styles of writing may therefore be missed if using a set list. What the glossary in Queering Glamorgan does is provide a theme of collected words and phrases which can be married in numerous ways in a ‘pick-and-mix’ style. This allows for individualistic writing, but also provides a broader sweep if for any reason an OCR reader has failed to pick up other terminology.

One theme of the glossary is to look, not at what people are, but what they were doing. For example, cross-dressing and cross-living were used extensively as a means to live in same-sex relationships, or as a transgender person. To locate these people in the historic record the researcher can try ‘woman in male clothes’, ‘female in boy’s costume’, ‘girl in male attire’, etc.

It is hoped that the innovative selection method in Queering Glamorgan will aid researchers to find more hidden LGBT people in the archival record. Particularly as it can be used anywhere in the world for English and Welsh language material (and the basic principle allows it to be translated into any other language).

As for the future, Glamorgan Archives and I are exploring rolling out this methodology for other areas of research.  Others are also considering its uses for themselves – in the few months since publication it has been downloaded over six hundred times– and been described in reviews as ‘pioneering’ and ‘revolutionising research methodology’ – not bad for a research guide.

Try it for yourself: Queering Glamorgan can be downloaded here.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy

The importance of attending Law firm Open Days

Oliver Chinyere, LLM Qualifying Law student, gives an insight into the Open Days on offer at Law firms for students considering legal careers. 

For those interested in entering the legal profession as solicitors after studying at Birkbeck, an Open Day gives law students an opportunity to peek inside what their future may hold. Open Days offer exceptional advantages by giving students an intimate look at the firm’s office, employees and culture. In November, I was fortunate enough to attend Accept, Clifford Chance’s LGBT-focused Open Day.

For any student seeking a training contract, it’s important that you attend an Open Day at whatever firm you’re interested in to meet and hear directly from existing employees. Although I wasn’t able to stay for the full slate of programming, I found the event incredibly beneficial for several reasons. Not only was I able to meet and network directly with people from a similar background to myself but was able to secure tips which will prove handy during the application process should I choose to proceed. Clifford Chance’s recruitment team actually ran a session full of helpful tips on how to make your application stand out.

For anyone embarking on a new career and entering a new workplace, understanding the office culture is critical to determining whether or not you see a space for yourself there. In addition to hearing from existing employees who convey what led them to the firm, we heard from alumni who had moved on from the firm to other roles. A good indication of any potential place of employment is the number of former employees who still speak highly of their experience and how it influenced the next steps in their career!

Another benefit is the ability to poke and prod and really dig beneath the surface. At Accept, we were able to hear directly from Regional Managing Partner, Michael Bates and ask him questions. In fact, I would argue that one of the chief benefits of attending Open Days is your ability to be candid, ask questions and gather the information you need to make your decision! Becoming a lawyer is all about elucidating the facts so it’s excellent practice.

In summary, attending Open Days are a great way to see what your future job and company may entail. It’s an opportunity every Birkbeck law student interested in pursuing a career as a solicitor should aim to embark on, especially if you plan on applying for a training contract. If you’re looking for more resources, LawCareers.net provides a helpful timeline of events tailored to ‘non-law’ students (or those looking for a career change). They also provide a helpful list of training contract deadlines.

Share
. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , ,