Category Archives: Assorted Curiosities

Which are you? Liberator or oppressor?

We in Western democracies value our freedoms highly; people have died to secure them, people have died defending them. We cry foul when one sovereign nation impinges on the democratic process of another, nations have gone to war to defend the freedoms of others, populations have risen up against their oppressors. Though many rarely use their right to vote, hard-fought and dearly won, they denounce any attempt to curtail it. We pretty much all agree that people are free to do whatever they want to their bodies, they have an inalienable right to personal freedom – we are all born free and equal in dignity and rights. Wear what you want, do what you want with your hair, get tattoos, augment your body, join a political movement, join a socially accepted sky-god cult, take drugs, binge-watch Game of Thrones, engage in relationships with consenting adults… Okay, some of these we are still working on, but you get my drift.


How to Survive a PhD

I hate the word ‘listicle’, I hate the idea of ‘listicles’, but a ‘listicle’ is, I admit, a convenient and effective way of conveying information. Listicles are, however, rarely used to convey useful information; they seem to inhabit a region of overly positive and superficially thoughtful word-vomit. But here I hope to offer some advice on how to undertake a PhD, and presenting it as a list seems the most effective manner. There is no hierarchy to this list; if anything, no.5 is the most important thing to remember at all times, but it wouldn’t make chronological sense to put it at no.1. My experiences are based in undertaking a PhD in History, and so the advice here may not be immediately applicable to the Sciences, but I feel the general principles apply to all.

1. Choose your supervisor carefully

This person will be the most important individual in your life for the next few years, so choose wisely. It’s all well and good to want to work with the best person, but it is more important to work with the best person for you. I know many a PhD student who struggled with their PhD because of conflicts with their supervisor. It is a very important working relationship, and every one is unique. I, for example, had a very critical and thorough supervisor who challenged my ideas, which I enjoyed because that’s just the way I work, while I know of other students whom the very same supervisor made cry because of ‘harsh criticism’ (I found the criticism constructive, not harsh). I know of another supervisor who has a very hands-off approach, and so some students happily work away while others feel adrift and unguided. It is critical that you speak to your (potential) supervisor about how you work and what you need, because it is all about you and your work.

2. Find a work habit that works for you

Tied to no.1 is work habits. Some lists will tell you ‘treat it like a job, work 9-5’. This did not work for me. I tried, but just didn’t. This might be more viable for the Sciences, but in the Humanities, it seems unreasonable. I worked fairly random hours. I would go in to the office for 9am and stay for as long as possible, but I wasn’t always working on my PhD. I might have read adjacent material, caught up on teaching related work, worked on translations, read comics, watched YouTube, chatted with people, stepped out for an unreasonable amount of coffee… I might not have arrived home until 10 at night, and I might not have worked on my PhD, but I was still productive. I might not have worked on my PhD for a week, but when I got back to it, I was fresh and, more importantly, interested. I needed to do other things almost to remind myself of how fun and interesting my topic was. This is how I worked; it seemed to verge on madness to some. I know people who schedule every minute of every hour of the day, but I see this as incredibly inflexible – what if inspiration strikes at 11 at night? Or at 3am? What if you just can’t think between 11am and 3pm? Find what works for you, and just work. I wrote from Day 1, some don’t write until the final year. You will see listicles saying ‘nothing you write from the first year will make it to the final cut’; I did have work that survived unscathed from Year 1 in the final text. Everyone is different, find the best way to work for you.

3. Admin, get used to it

One thing they never tell you is how much admin is involved in the PhD. It feels like bullshit, but it actually isn’t. You may think that all admin is down to a pencil-pusher, somewhere in the recesses of University Administration, who needs a box ticked and a file filled, and they will put your academic life on hold until certain requirements are fulfilled. But this isn’t really the case; I mean, I think there is too much admin, but some of it does serve a reasonable purpose. Admin is basically a way for everyone to cover their arse: here is on paper something you agreed is factually accurate, so if anything happens, we all know where we stand. Now, I am of the opinion that one should never give Admin more than they need: a student came to me once confessing a health issue which impeded their work so I had to fill out a form for an extension. I simply said that the student needed an extension. Admin happily filed it away. I later learned that another lecturer had included the reasons why the student needed an extension in great detail. I felt this was a bit weird: Admin, unless they specifically ask, does not need to know anything, especially about students. This is a specific scenario as it is within my remit as lecturer to grant extensions, I was simply informing them of the situation. It is somewhat different when you are a PhD student, but don’t feel like you have to be defensive. Just tell them, “this is the situation, this is the consequence”; never apologise (unless you actually have something to apologise for!) and cut to the chase. Do the paperwork in a timely fashion because it will take Admin longer than you think to process your paperwork. And you might have to remind them from time to time.

4. Teach

If you don’t understand something you can’t teach it. And, if your students don’t understand, it’s not them, it’s you. You are, for all intents and purposes, the expert in the room, so if someone doesn’t understand, it’s probably your fault. Teaching helped me to understand how to explain things better in my thesis, how to engage with my audience and keep them on-board for 120,000+ words. After all, what is the point of all that research if people don’t understand it? Teaching may be a pain, it may not be your thing, it may seem like a waste of valuable time, but you can learn from it. Teaching is a two-way street: you can learn from your students, you can see how people interpret things, or how you might refine your method to deliver information more effectively. Plus, for me, it was a nice distraction from the thesis!

5. You are not alone

You are not alone; you are never alone. You may feel alone, but you are not. A PhD can be an isolated and isolating experience, but know that everyone feels the same way. We all work away in our own quiet little corner of research, which might make you feel like you are working alone, but this isn’t really the case. You are working in a community of people who are working on unique projects; you are not, strictly speaking, alone. You may think to yourself, “oh that person really has it together, why don’t I?”, but believe me, they don’t. I found out after I had submitted that some people saw me as the has-it-together type, but I really wasn’t – I just seemed like it. Depression is rife among postgrads. We have a terrible habit of not talking to one another about this, but self-medication is a serious problem. And by ‘self-medication’ I mean alcohol. Postgrads drink a lot, and it seems to me to be a result of the stresses they endure. Not that anyone ever really admits this. Depression, anxiety, and stress seem woven into the PhD process. It’s like an open secret that nobody talks about, and worse, nobody warns you about. Universities seem to celebrate how well they treat their undergrads and offer counselling services, but hardly anything is said of the postgrad experience – I can’t help but wonder if it is because they are afraid that potential applicants will discover how difficult it can be and how many fail to reach the end. I often felt isolated during my PhD, but I slowly learned to deal with it through societies and friends and teaching, and I found others often felt the same way I did. You are not alone, you are never alone. Reach out and talk to someone, they are probably feeling as alone as you are, and you might be able to help each other through.

I have many friends who have been embittered by the PhD process and have fled academia; I know people who stopped because it all became too much. I don’t mean to dissuade you from considering undertaking a PhD – I really enjoyed mine, all things considered – but you have to go in with your eyes open. The University wants your money, professors are under pressure to sign students up; the system is tinged with a capitalist deceit, but go in with your eyes open and you can achieve your goals. In spite of all of the negatives, I really do feel like I have contributed to my field, I have aided in the better understanding of our history. I found the work fulfilling, and I don’t know what else I really could have done.

The listicle has its limitations, but I hope that this one is, in some small way, useful. But, the most important thing to remember is:

You are not alone, you are never alone; talk to someone.

The Tedium of Skyrim

I recently finished one of the main quest lines in Skyrim. I say ‘one of’ as there is some confusion as to whether the dragon plot or the civil war plot is supposed to be the main quest. I had finished all the side quests, thoroughly explored the DLC, built houses, adopted kids, defeated the dragons, spared Paarthurnax… but totally forgot about the civil war. I only realised I hadn’t finished the game when I was bored one night and decided to revisit Skyrim with new character. It was only because the game opens with your character about to be executed for being associated with the rebel Stormcloaks that I remember I had never finished that plot. So I loaded up my old character and decided to join the rebellion.

Dear gods, it was boring. My character was basically a god, and I crushed all opposition before me. Which is to be expected in a game like this, it is the nature of an open world game. Sure the main quest is in that direction, but over there is a ruin and necromancers and somehow they have picked a fight with a dragon and oh my god is that a fricking giant and a mammoth…?? You spend so much time doing the side-quests that, by the time you return to the main one(s), you are basically a god. And, of course, victory was meaningless. Just like when you defeat the dragons.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much I like about Skyrim. It is gorgeous. I study medieval history, and I want to use the game as an educational tool to show my students Norse architecture. The detail and design are brilliant. I quite liked the Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood (Hail Sithis!) quest lines. The world felt more full and detailed than previous games. Yet, as a game, it felt hollow. Maybe that is why I never completed it: I just didn’t care.

I began my adventures into Tamriel in 2002 with Morrowind and its expansions. It was startling. You are left abandoned in the world with little direction. I, honest to god, wandered around Seyda Neen baffled by this weird game where men fell out of the sky and people got annoyed when I stole things. As I moved out into the wide world beyond, I enjoyed the efforts to create distinctive architectures and cultures for the various peoples in the game, the alien landscapes and mushroom houses. I haven’t played that game in years, but I remember struggling against cliff racers, the super creepy last of the Dwemer, traipsing around the Ashlands, and, way too far into the game, discovering you could ride the stilt-striders. The quests were hard to find and hard to finish (did you find the Two Lamps?). The final climax of the game had a weight to it, or at least it did for me: my character was too weak to fight all who stood before her, so I ended up leaping to the final section, dashing around and avoiding fighting as much as possible, in a desperate attempt to defeat the evil within the Red Mountain. I was small, out numbered, and had no health potions left. It was epic. I still remember this.

Oblivion was amazing. The graphics were such a leap forward. The story was epic in scale. Cities were being destroyed terrifying monsters were invading the land. The Dark Brotherhood quests were brilliant. Fighting in the arena was brutal. Sure, by the end, your character is god-like, but Bethesda still managed make you feel small, to make the climax epic, by making it a showdown between two gods while you run around under their feet. I loved that twist: you aren’t really the hero, Martin is. You just get him to where he needs to be. And then the Shivering Isles comes along and makes you an actual god. Where Oblivion itself had strayed into a more ‘realistic’ or ‘normal’ depiction of the world, the Shivering Isles was beautifully bizarre. There was just something about Oblivion that made it feel like a lot of thought went into the game and what one could do in a game (I mean, who doesn’t remember that painting?).

Skyrim felt normal. And that is the major flaw, I think. It is humdrum, realistic. Somehow a world filled with dragons and magic and dark gods is dull. Sure, some quest lines are fun, there are some nice touches of world-building here and there, but where is the story, what is the point of saving this world? Maybe I am just suffering from nostalgia, but Skyrim just didn’t grab me the way its predecessors did. I forgave the old games a fair amount because of the limitations of the technology; or maybe I just expected less of them. But now games are so complex and detailed, the lack of detail in Skyrim is jarring. I could have kitted the whole Stormcloak force out in dragon armour, but that is not an option. The amount of gold I stole from that annoying Belethor chap should have bankrupted him. I dumped so much magical materials and weapons into the shops of Whiterun that every guard should have been decked out in far better armour. Why was my character never made Jarl or King? I really expected the story to go that way, that my character would become a ruler of some kind, she was clearly better. ‘Better than who?’ you might ask. Literally everyone. She was a god. She sucks the souls out of dragons. She has a pet dragon and is followed by the ghost of a dead assassin. Her voice is a weapon. She has been to heaven and back. To hell with Talos, why aren’t the Nords worshipping her? Why was she not made de facto ruler of Skyrim? That would have been a fun twist, stabbing yer man in the back and taking the high-kingship for yourself. Or imagine the moral force of the Dragonborn herself swearing alligence to the Empire? Or making a third faction based around the cult of the Dragonborn, binding the dragons to your will, sweeping out of Skyrim and uniting Tamriel like a new Reman Cyrodiil or Tiber Septim.

Morrowind was hard. You got lost all the time. Surviving was a struggle. There were quests you might never discover if you didn’t speak to the right person. You cure a plague, change the face of the land. In Oblivion, sure you were an awesome warrior, but you weren’t the hero of the story. And sure, you became a god, but only in the Shivering Isles. You close the gates to Oblivion, you help invoke a god-avatar. There is a sense of investment in the worlds. I have finished both games twice. Beginning a new character in Skyrim, my first thought was ‘why?’. There is no challenge, the story has no bite, no consequence. There are still dragons at the end, the civil war has basically zero consequences. My character, basically a god, is still treated casually by commoner and jarl alike.

Bethesda made a beautiful world, but gave me no reason to care about it.

Reflections on St Patrick’s Day

This Saint Patrick’s Day, in a world where weak-willed politicians looking for an economic leg up court flaxen-haired fascists rather than stand up against tyrannical behaviour, I thought it might be informative to reflect on Patrick, since his day is so widely celebrated.

Patrick, patron saint of the Irish, was a slave. He was ripped from his family, his home, his way of life and forced to live on an isolated mountain to tend sheep in a land where he knew nothing of the culture or language. He escaped his servitude after six years and eventually made his way home.

Patrick was born into a wealthy background. His family owned an estate and had servants. His father was a senior member of the local council and his grandfather held an important position in the church. Patrick gave all of this up and undertook a life of hardship.

Patrick was an emigrant. He left his homeland to serve in another where he was constantly under threat and had to hire bodyguards.

Patrick challenged authority. When the warriors of a distant king took some of his converts as slaves, Patrick wrote to that king demanding their return. When this failed, he wrote a public letter demanding the excommunication of those warriors if they did not do as he demanded.

The Irish, a nation of migrants and refugees, took Patrick with them wherever they went in the world. St Patrick’s Day is a global phenomenon born of the tragedy of Irish history. The curious irony of St Patrick’s Day is that it is an expression of both persecution and community. A diaspora scattered to distant lands clung to ancient traditions and invented new ones to create and reinforce their sense of identity. Their perseverance and success fueled the celebration of the symbol of their identity.

Patrick, the slave who became the saint of emigrants and refugees, is celebrated on shores he never knew existed. The children of the nation that calls him patron are scattered to every corner of the earth. I hope they remember their history and their homeland on this day above all others, in a world where so many minorities are persecuted, where migrants are vilified, and refugees callously turned away. I hope they reflect on how their identity was wrought in the hardships so many now suffer and on the fact that Patrick has more in common with the family being turned away at the border than those who raise a pint of Guinness in his name.

Like tears in the rain…

I have been thinking a lot lately about history and memory, dear Reader. It has all been inspired by a handful of texts which do not have very much in common at first glance. Since the New Year, I have been reading Art Spiegelman’s brilliant and heartbreaking Maus, the defiant Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, the derisible The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, and Lance Parkin’s Magic Words (a biography of Alan Moore), and I went to see T2 Trainspotting with some friends. An eclectic mix, you might think, but they all in some way deal with memory and nostalgia.

Maus is, in part, the story of a man coming to terms with his difficult relationship with his father who is telling him the story of how he survived the Holocaust. The father’s memory is not perfect, which the author notes, and he destroys the diaries of his wife before his son has the chance to read them, eliminating her valuable perspective from the narrative. Persepolis is one step less removed from the reader, being the recollection of a woman who lived through the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath. The Case for Christ contains a chapter where the author feebly attempts to interrogate the authenticity of the initial reporting of the life of Christ (the rest are not great either, but this one is most relevant to the present discussion). Magic Words is a very carefully researched book where the author has found versions of events that conflict with Moore’s memories, even instances where Moore has contradicted himself. All of this coalesced around a very telling moment in T2, a movie in which a former heroin addict returns to his hometown and the friends he betrayed to escape his fate, where one character notes how two other characters, and British culture in general, revels in the past, while she and her people look to the future. This struck a chord with me.

Historians tread a very fine line when dealing with historical texts. I tell my students to always be aware of the bias inherent in their sources, to never trust authors or authority. I think that they think I mean, ‘watch out, they might be lying!’ (which is very likely), but what I actually mean is, ‘don’t for one second think what you are reading is True’. Now, I am not saying that, for example, Bede lied to us… apart from those cases where he clearly obfuscated the facts because they didn’t suit his version of events… and those times where he made errors because his understanding of history and politics was less robust than ours… added to the fact that ‘history’ meant something different to him and his work was designed to reveal God;s plan and act as a moral guide for the reader… but he drew from the memories of his teachers and superiors and from his own experiences, experiences radically shaped by the fact that he spent his entire life as a monk. There is nothing wrong with this, it is inescapable: he and his writing were products of his environment and life. Now, historians are (or at least should be) attuned to this intrinsic feature of the texts which we study; we obsess over placing them in their context, in understanding not only the author but the world they were born into. And I think that people broadly undertake a similar process in day-to-day life when they interact with the recent past. But when it comes to our own lives, somehow we forget.

We know that politicians lie, but not the one I voted for. We know the media is biased, but not the one I watch. We know that people believe strange and crazy things, but my beliefs are not to be questioned. But more than that, we are loath to put others in their appropriate context. People don’t take the time to understand why others don’t respond to situations as they would.

During the Arab Spring, I was amazed at Western commentators saying things like ‘democracy isn’t part of Muslim culture’, and how quick they were to see the revolution as failure. How quick we are to forget the difficult and violent birth of modern democracy in the West and that it more often under threat not from outside forces but internal belligerents. When people denounce the Iranian desire to defend their sovereignty how quick they are to forget how often Iran has been invaded or its government overthrown by other nations (not that I am defending the Iranian government, I am just saying it is worth understanding their position). People baffled by Brexit overlook that nationalism, while feared as the root of fascism in Europe, is wedded to the concept of democracy in the UK (again, I think Brexit is a terrible idea, but we have to see where the other side is coming from). I recall seeing a documentary about the American fascination with medieval fairs and dressing up like knights and wenches because men were more chivalrous and whatnot, forgetting the fact that life then was short and cruel if you were anything other than a nobleman (emphasis on the ‘man’). Our memory is short and fickle, and this is nowhere better underlined than in the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. When, exactly, is this period of history that the American people supposed to harken back to? Because, until very recently, vast swathes of the American people had no voice in their own nation because of the colour of their skin or the nature of their genitalia. Technologically and scientifically, we live in a sci-fi future most sci-fi authors from fifty years ago couldn’t have dreamed up on their best day. Sure, we are wrecking the planet, but at least we now recognise that fact and are trying to fix it, and we no longer put lead in paint or advertise cigarettes to kids. American could be great, but not ‘again’ – but isn’t that the point of America, to always try to become better than what it was yesterday? And the UK cannot leave Europe any more than it could move to the moon. And why would it want to? It enjoys bothering the French and Germans far too much.

‘How on earth did we go from comics and movies to Brexit and American populism?’, you might be wondering, dear Reader. Humans are prisoners of history, we can only understand the present by calling on past experiences, and we try to discern the future based on established patterns. Which is not just folly, it is madness. The world is too complex, there are an infinite number of variables. But to do nothing, to surrender history and forget memory would be not folly in the extreme, but ethically criminal. The texts I noted at the beginning of this essay (which, much to my surprise, is a lot longer and more despondent in tone than I had expected it would be) are all making claim to authenticity, though not in the same way. Maus and T2, for example, are very aware of their fragile narrative, of how tenuous memory is, while Persepolis and The Case for Christ make decisive claims (one is a sincere and honest comic, the other is comically arrogant and verges on deceitful). The biography of Moore walks the line between the two, where the author contrasts Moore’s memory of events with whatever other sources he can find, often showing Moore’s memory to be inaccurate but yet somehow true. All reflect on the past of a certain character or character: the author themself, a historical figure, fictional individuals. All try to evoke a past which no longer exists, whether it is Auschwitz during the Second World Was or Northampton in the Eighties, but T2 explores the nostalgia, or rather the despair, of such memories. Many of the characters of T2 seem to miss the ‘good old days’, which, if you have seen the original movie, were objectively awful.

And that is the trap we are all caught in: we mythologise our own past. Everything was better when we were younger, probably because we didn’t have to pay taxes. If we took five minutes to reflect on the past we would see that it was mostly awful for most people until very recently, and the present still sucks for a lot of people. But it remains a distant land to us, an alien space that we came from but can never truly return to. Spiegelman briefly touches on this despair of memory in a panel where he draws himself working away at his desk which sits atop a pile of emaciated bodies, victims of the Holocaust. We all live because of the sacrifice of untold generations who fought wars so we wouldn’t have to, who ploughed fields from dawn to dusk to provide a better future for their children, who marched and were beaten for daring to ask for equality, who demand that their bodies be respected and held sovereign. For this reason, and many more, we should always reflect on our own biases, on how we understand history and the manner in which it unfurls.

In the end, we answer only to ourselves, and we should live with dignity and extend to others the respect we would expect from them. But we don’t, we are petty and fearful. We ought to be true and good, but that is so very difficult and the world is so very trying. We should look forward to the challenging future, but we comfort ourselves with inaccurate nostalgia and downright fantasy.

In the end, Maus, Persepolis, and T2 have one more key feature in common: hope. Spiegelman is evidence that his parents survived unimaginable horror; Satrapi escaped Iran and found freedom; the most tragic characters of T2 break their downward spiral and change their course.

In the end, our personal memories are lost to time and it is unlikely that we will be remembered by history (the fact that the considerable efforts of a huge number of people are forgotten is a tragedy in itself), and the best we can hope for is to live on in the memories of others. Be someone worth remembering, preferably for a good reason.

In the end, I hope I am.