Category Archives: University

The Forum

Nearly ten years ago I started working in a university library, in the film and music department. My office was on the lower ground floor, and my desk was by an internal window, which looked out on an internal corridor, which looked out on a tiny external window, which looked out on the bank underneath the bridge that people walked over to get into the library. Which is to say that I had daylight, but it was third-hand and weak. Opposite that bridge was a string of grotty, dingy campus shops. I dreamed of working in a modern library, with big windows and light and air and space.

On Wednesday the Queen opened that modern library, in the same building that I worked in nearly a decade ago. My desk, my office, my internal window and my external window, have long since gone. There’s a glass-walled courtyard, an open-plan entrance, twice as much space for people to study in… it’s been quite a transformation.

This new modern library is part of a development that’s been christened the Forum, because it’s intended to be an open, public space at the centre of the university campus. It’s taken five years or more of planning and construction from the first whispers I heard about building a roof from the library to the shops. Four and a half years ago I helped make a video that kick-started the fundraising campaign that has paid for this development, and on Wednesday I took photographs of it being opened.

I’ve moved job several times since I started working in the library, across several departments. I’ve not worked in the library for four years or more, but I’ve paid close attention to all the building works and developments, kept in touch with people I used to work with. I know that the last two and a half years of serious construction has been difficult for both staff and students at times. But I also know, from the smiles I see on pretty much everyone’s faces inside the Forum, from all the Facebook and Twitter comments we’ve received about it, from all the conversations I’ve had since Wednesday, that people think it’s been worth it.

The Forum is a weird, inside-outside space, part airport terminal, part shopping centre, and part library. Some people have said the shop feels like a duty-free store. There is oodles of technology and commerce stuffed into it, learning labs and an auditorium and coffee shops and banks, but I don’t care about that. I care about the library spaces, the study spaces, the public spaces. Inside 24 hours, students were using it like we’d hoped, plugging in laptops, spreading out books, performing impromptu pieces of theatre, meeting, talking, sharing, planning.

In some ways the Forum signifies the professionalisation of support services at the university, help desks and queuing systems and interview rooms and one-stop-shops. Some people will doubtless see that as a bad thing, as if doing things in a modern way was somehow regressive. Some people think we should have spent all the money on books, or staff, or something else (as if we’ve not invested in those things too; sometimes you need big projects to give the impetus to get little projects done, too). I’ve already taken hundreds of photos of it, given spontaneous tours to postgraduates, been interviewed by students on how I feel about it, had meetings in there, arranged to meet people for lunch in there. Buildings are important. They help people live. Great buildings help people live in a great way. I’m proud to work at a place that recognises this.

On selling out and privilege in music

Nearly 8 years ago I wrote a column for Stylus about the concept of selling out and how it was, by and large, a dangerous, damaging idea in the weird little milieu we call indie or indierock or alternative rock or alternative music or whatever. For the most part, I still stand by what I wrote back then – that the idea of ‘selling out’ as a pejorative concept seems to me like yet another ideological state apparatus designed to keep the people in their place and maintain the status quo. That module of Marxist cultural theory in my first term at university still rings in my ears.

Two brothers, by the name of Abner and Harper Willis, who are a band and go by the name of Two Lights, have written an article themselves about how much money they (or their parents, more accurately) have spent in order to try and become successful musicians. Their outgoings include $25,000 on gear, $18,000 on “living in New York City” (because they couldn’t possibly live in their hometown in Maine and be rock stars there), $1,000 on “a guy to send email blasts to databases of hip music blogs”, and $25,000 on “lost earnings” (Harper turns down writing assignments worth $400 per week because he spends 20 hours a week on ‘band-related work’; I’ve thought about this, and I can only assume he’s writing rich college kids’ essays for them at a rate of about $400 per 2,000 words, rather than pitching features, reviews, or stories at actual newspapers or magazines).

Oh, and there was $30,000 on piano, guitar, and voice lessons, too. Their estimated grand total is $109,000 dollars, and they’re still not famous despite all this hardship.

On one hand, you could see their “treat it all as a business” ethos as not a million miles away from Black Flag or Fugazi’s DIY approach to their careers. In fact, let me just remind you of something Steve Albini wrote ages ago about the evils of major record labels and the deals they offer new bands.

On the other hand, you could be wishing these whinging, privileged, burdened-by-entitlement arseholes would DIE IN A FIRE and take their shitty music with them, because it’s disgusting to moan at how much money you’ve had to spend trying to be famous in the middle of an interminable economic downturn that is losing hundreds of thousands of people their jobs and obliterating the economies of countries all around the world. Not getting to hang out with models as often as you’d imagined, or being given riders as flash as the ones in your dreams, is not a complaint that should be tolerated in any civilized society.

I don’t recall Ian Brown moaning about how he had to apply for a loan (to buy a cooker for his flat) so he could spend the money travelling around Europe on tour, or Orbital whining about how they had to record Chime into their dad’s tape recorder rather than get Pater to pay for it to be done properly at Abbey Road.

As a friend of mine said, “these people have always existed, especially in NYC. I used to make good $$$ playing session bass in their shitty bands.” Occasionally one of them lucks out, and we end up with Beastie Boys or The Strokes or Vampire Weekend, and they squeeze a great album or two or five out. Some kids, whether they’re rich or not, will always see minor hindrances in a relativist way and assume them to be enormous, insurmountable and unfair obstacles placed directly and deliberately in front of their dreams, whether it’s not being as famous as Maroon 5 yet or a lift not working properly so you have to take the library stairs with an armful of books.

If I’ve got no objection to people “selling out” (musicians have to pay mortgages just as much as marketing people or stock brokers or nurses or civil servants, and everyone deserves fair pay for making art for the rest of us), why do I object so viscerally to Two Lights and their ilk’s expenditure? Is it the crassness of their sense of entitlement? The fact that their music is such generic, mediocre piffle? Perhaps if you don’t have everything paid for already you have to work that much harder in order to pay your rent and make a success of it, and as a result of working harder you simply become better at your art.

If there’s anything good about Abner and Harper’s navel-gazing about their own pseudo-plight, it’s that it goes a little way towards explaining to people how musicians like The Beta Band can get into so much debt that they see no alternative but to split up. I know of bands who’ve had strings of hit singles and albums, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and still the backstage areas of the venues they play are hollow, exhaustion-filled wastelands after gigs; still after each album they need to make another as soon as possible because they couldn’t afford not to. I know of yet more musicians who work dayjobs alongside making music all the time, even many records down the line; if they’re lucky it’s music related work, and they can produce other peoples’ records, or arrange music for films or TV. If they’re not, it’s carpet-laying or telesales or teaching or any other job that normal human beings do.

Because musicians aren’t Extraordinary Golden Gods. They’re just human beings who make music.

Rites of passage

Adam’s massive television filled his entire desk; this suggested, to me, that he wasn’t that interested in, you know, studying, at his desk. Which is what the desk was for. The TV was probably only 28” across the diagonal, but this was 1998, and flat-panel plasma, LCD, and LED TVs were either prohibitively expensive or else didn’t really exist yet, so Adam’s massive television was an old-fashioned cathode ray tube, and thus deep. It was black, as I recall. I think Adam was from Scunthorpe. I cannot remember his surname for the life of me. He owned a pair of Versace jeans. I suspected they were knock-offs. I had never heard of Stone Island clothes until I met Adam. I have still never seen anyone wearing anything badged with Stone Island who looks as though they could legitimately afford it.

There was a little guy called Dave, who was a Brummie, I think. I remember little about him except that he liked a drink – I recall one incident where he downed a pint of lager in one go, brought it straight back up into his glass, and then drank it again, because, to all intents and purposes, it appeared to be unaltered apart from having lost a little fizz.

Then there was a guy called Jon or something who was from Croydon, or somewhere, in the room next to me. He’d play bad house music very loud. His name wasn’t Jon. I don’t know what it was. He’d go home at weekends. I think he had an old MG back there, probably working on fixing it up with his dad. He didn’t seem to deal very well with being away from home. I think he had a girlfriend back there, too.

Dan was Welsh but not so as you’d notice. He knew who Tricky was, I think, so I felt like I had more in common with him than any of the others. Brummie Dave owned a copy of Urban Hymns but only because everyone did back then. Dan could have gone one of two ways. He went the other way, and I don’t think I really spoke to him after the first six weeks.

That’s four. Plus me makes five. Our flat had six bedrooms and a kitchen. The sixth flatmate was definitely called John. His surname began with a P. I can’t remember it now. I once, in a fit of pique, called him “the worst person I have ever met”. He was prone to yelling things like “let’s fucken ‘ave it” and “you fucken cunt” very loudly, and downing pints of strong lager. In the first week, when everyone else put up posters and photos to stamp some personality on their blank halls of residence walls, John stuck up several dozen pieces of A4 paper upon which he had scribbled the phrase “YOU FUCKING CUNT”. I wasn’t convinced that this was a psychologically beneficial thing for him to do. I also suspected it indicated that he might be an absolute raving sociopath. I have a feeling he was doing Sports Studies with Management, or something.

In my first week I spent £250 on a minidisc walkman, theorising that if I spent my evenings in the computer room, messing about on the internet and listening to music, rather than getting hammered in the crappy nightclubs in town, it would soon prove to be a sound investment. Messing about on the internet and listening to music became a bit of a theme, obviously.

One night, about five weeks into term, I’d stayed in to read some poetry for my English class the next day, while everyone else in the flat had gone to one of the nightclubs in town. Visage, I think it was called. I never set foot in it in three years there. They got back late, drunk, and went into the kitchen, with a couple of other lads from adjacent flats. Northampton was not a great university. The entry requirements were not high. I had an A at A Level and this made people ask me what the fuck I was doing there. I didn’t know; I only had the one A though.

Some Asian guys passed the kitchen window, and some shouting and idiotic, racially charged bravado led to one of the guys from an adjacent flat punching his way through the double-glazed window, presumably in an effort to demonstrate his masculinity and idiotic racist “superiority” to one of the Asian guys outside. As the only sober person there it was up to me to call an ambulance and pick shards of broken glass out of the moron’s hand and wrap a clean pillowcase around it to stem the bleeding. This wasn’t the first incident where I’d thought I should probably move out of the flat as soon as possible. In fact, there had been lots, and lots, over the course of six weeks or so, to the point where I thought I was going mad, and felt like a pariah, and suspected I might actually be some kind of weird gibbering freakazoid who no one liked and who had no social skills. I ran to Student Services the next day and begged to be moved to a different flat. They moved me. It was better. I’ll write about Chico and Ginger Nick and Biggles and the guy whose name I can’t remember who kept all his dirty dishes underneath his bed some other time.

Having known and been friends with almost literally everyone at the school I’d done GCSEs and A Levels at, having played on the football team a few times and been ‘principal student’, and been student rep on the board of governors, and having been in every school play, and just generally been a big fish in a small pond, going away to university and suddenly becoming a lonely freak surrounded by football hooligans was a humbling and confidence rattling experience. I “should” have been president of the students’ union, editor of the student paper, etc. etc., but instead I withdrew from any kind of participation at all, apart from with a small circle of (admittedly pretty wonderful) people, who also probably “should” have all been president of the students’ union and editor of the student paper, too, but who, instead, found themselves lost and isolated at in a weird bit of the country that didn’t know if it was a suburb of London or a part of the midlands or an outlier of East Anglia.

There were good times, too; the midnight drive to London with a stolen gnome; Oliver’s opening words to me after our first seminar together, still frighteningly prescient (“I bet you’ve got a fucking wicked stereo”); parties with Jewish Ben and Emily and everyone else, real people, nice people, at the hall of residence across the way; a certain sense of belonging when our lecturers battered us with Marxist cultural theory in the opening weeks of term in an effort to make people who thought the course would be a “doss” drop out at an alarming rate; lots and lots of laughter with Olly and James and Cat and Ben; hours spent trawling record shops; listening to records with Magnus at his house where he had a wife, and, after 10 months of university, a baby too(!); Friday afternoons spent reading The Guardian in The Charles Bradlaugh pub with a few pints of Guinness; late nights listening to music and talking shit with like-minded people in halls – well, one like-minded person. Etc, etc.

I spent Wednesday this week on an epic all-day photoshoot for work, taking pictures of students for the profiles that we put in the prospectus. The vast majority of them were recommended because of how much they participate – in Community Action, in the Guild, in RAG activities, in societies, in training and employment and study abroad opportunities, in student media, in starting their own magazines or companies. They all, every one, love the university they’re at. I love the university they’re at more than the one I went to study at myself. Which isn’t really surprising, given that I didn’t participate at all, felt no sense of community, of ownership, of identity, of belonging to the place. Experiences like Wednesday give me a little pang of regret, make me wish I could have my time at university over again, pick somewhere different, be someone different. But it doesn’t last long.

It’s not Adam or Dave or Dan or John’s fault; it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the way things happened. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing at university, for the most part; I didn’t really understand that you get back what you put in. I didn’t know how to put anything in, and at the time I didn’t want to and probably couldn’t have anyway even if the inclination had been there. I’m lucky that I got from there to where I am now, which is a very nice place indeed for the time being. Sometimes I wonder what Adam and Dave and Dan and John are doing. But not very often.

On living next to lunatics at university

During my second year in Northampton I lived behind the police station and swimming baths, in a cul-de sac called Connaught Street, which is part of an area called The Mounts. Historically The Mounts was an area of housing for the town’s many factory workers – on the corner between the police station and the Chronicle & Echo building is The Charles Bradlaugh, a pub named after Northampton’s most infamous politician (thrown down the steps of the Houses of Parliament for refusing to swear allegiance to the queen or god or something; I forget, but he was vaguely insurrectionary according to my lawyer friend James) and which used to be a shoe factory (hence Northampton Town being nicknamed The Cobblers, as if you didn’t know). The Mounts, by the time I lived there (1999-2000) was largely populated by students and Asians; anyone, in effect, who didn’t object to being squeezed into tiny houses which had piss-all garden and offered views of nothing more attractive than kitchen work top manufacturers (there was an Asian supermarket/cash & carry round the corner which sold the most amazing bananas, spices and ghee – we learnt to cook that year). A couple of times, walking back from campus or a pub or wherever, the local kids would shout “Hey white man!” at me, which, as I was generally pissed and listening to my walkman, would take on a seriously surreal edge.

One evening, James, Olly and I were watching a film in our living room (which was the ‘master bedroom’ – as it was the largest room in the house we decreed it would be unfair for anyone to have it as a bedroom and thus used it as communal space: for the first two months we had a mattress in there but no sofa; many happy hours were spent lazed across the mattress, with two lamps on in the corners, some techno or postrock laying whilst we discussed whatever pointless crap it is that underachieving students discuss) and the neighbourhood kids decided to take action against our 50/60-something white, male neighbour. Action? These kids, who were none of them older than 12 (at the very most), decided to light fireworks and throw them at this chap’s house. Overly dramatic? I’m not sure. The kids were shouting ‘racist!’ as they were chucking the fireworks, and accusing him of trying to run them over with his Lada. Over the previous month or so this chap had seemingly piled all his belongings into the back of his car, and also his caravan, until they were both full-to-bursting, and then shipped them all off to boot-sales and the like. We asked him about it one morning as he was loading his crockery into the passenger seat, and he claimed he’d made £3,000 out of selling his stuff. I can’t remember if he was planning on leaving the country or buying a new house or whether he was just a lunatic. I tend to favour the latter. The idea that he might have been trying to murder the local Asian toddlers with his Russian automobile is not that far-fetched though. At one point his car was full of hubcaps and sink units. And of course, the next day they were gone.

Please remember that this was when we lived behind the police station. You could have thrown a stone from our front door and it would have landed in the station car park next to the panda cars. It was barely 40 yards away. And these kids were throwing fireworks at a guy’s house. And we cheered them on, frankly, because our neighbour was a lunatic. Over the course of the next month or so he slowly took apart his caravan too, presumably to sell the constituent parts, until all that was left was a 7” by 15” piece of plywood with an axel. And he wasn’t even our immediate neighbour; they were much worse.

Initially we thought their back bedroom was a factory of some kind, because of the amount of unpleasant 18th century industrial crap in there; paint pots, piles of lumber, axes, old vertical drills, lathes, boxes of undefined stuff stacked up to head-height and above, filling every available inch, the windows grimy and thick with filth. But this was the residence of a married couple and their teenage daughter, not some Dickensian workhouse. The garden, such as it was, was piled high with rotting planks of wood, sodden barrels, two rusted tin baths, a proper old wooden washbasin (David Dickinson would have swooned to see such potential antique riches) and various other assorted bits of nauseous crap. One day we decided to try and see if the inside of their house was as bad as the garden and back bedroom, and so Olly leant out of the bathroom window at a precarious angle in order to facilitate a view of their dining room. At first we thought it was normal; the walls above shoulder-height were common-or-garden dining room walls; a couple of framed photographs, magnolia paintjob, nothing exceptional. Then Olly leant a bit further so he could see the lower half of the room, including the dining table. And the room was rammed full of shit. Stacks of newspapers, old fruit boxes, piles of unwashed crockery, god only knows what else, crammed into corners, dumped on top of tables, balanced on chairs, seemingly thrown on the floor. At first we thought maybe they were due a tidy up, but after weeks and then months had passed, after we’d pressed our noses to their grimy (Dizzee has nothing on these people) kitchen window and seen the bowls of rotting fruit and unwashed saucepans and filth-encrusted butter knives and pools of rotting potato peel, we realised that this was how they chose to live. We were students; four blokes living together, drinking, fixing oily bicycles in the kitchen, failing to wash up, cooking elaborate things that required numerous saucepans and various utensils, and this supposedly normal family next door made us look like puritan germ-killing fetishists.

University was a wonderful time.