On Cities, Solidarity, Loss, and Hope | Emma Bolland

I used to dream of a university. I used to look at the older men queuing in the bus shelter in Mersey Square Stockport in the 1950s and see each one as a lecturer and imagine a subject for them: that one’s Chemistry, that one’s History, etc. They were middle-aged workers going home. I had to ignore their clothes but their faces offered no resistance to this exercise. Now I dream of there not being a university. — Peter Riley [1]

Day Eight of the UCU strike: Art School standing strong.

 
On 25 November 2019, members of the University and College Union (UCU) at sixty universities across the UK began an eight-day strike. In Sheffield, we stood in the cold and rain, and talked of what the reality of ‘university’ had become, and of the possibilities of what ‘university’ could be. Several weeks before, I had booked an upstairs room at The Rutland Arms (a pub long frequented by students and staff of the art school) for the second launch of a book I had edited: the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities Sheffield anthology. [2] In putting the book together, I had thought of ‘city’ as a concept to be contested, complicated, as an idea to be kept in flux, not least in the idea of city as anthology. In the introduction to the Sheffield anthology I wrote: ‘How do you write a city? How do you read it? What is the space of it inside the boundaries of the page? […] The texts produced are not the sum of it. Nor are they all of its parts. [3]

Linda Kemp reading ‘…ideas become dangerous again…’

On 26 November 2019, the contributors performing at The Rutland were Linda Kemp, Rachel Smith, Brian Lewis, Pete Green, and Sharon Kivland. The evening was charged. Some of us—both readers and audience—had been on the picket line that day (at both of the cities’ Universities), and a battered, soggy placard, eroded by a day of relentless rain, had been pinned to the wall. Some of us were mourning the loss of the poet and activist Sean Bonney, who had died just earlier that month. [4] The readings were all extraordinary. Linda Kemp—dedicating her reading to Sean’s memory—read her long poem ‘…ideas become dangerous again…’ in which ‘Politics is writing / and there is no like about it,,’ and there is ‘the desire to construct a passionate everyday life’. [5]

Brian Lewis reading ‘Local Distribution’

That day, on the picket line, I had become aware of the conceptual space of ‘university’ as contested as if for the first time. Or rather, aware not just in an intellectual, neutral way, but in a visceral, passionate way. Aged 57, I had only a few weeks before taken possession of my first ever staff card, first ever staff email (both temporary, fragile, conditional). After an adult life spent on the fringes of academia—a lifetime of unpredictable and recurrent madness had kept a younger me in and out of different kinds of institutions, unable to get ‘proper work’—I had previously been ‘reduced’ to visiting, speaking, appearing, ‘passing’ as an academic. People were often surprised to find I was not a proper one, making assumptions based on—what? A stern face? An intellectual turn? The night before the strike I was terrified, crying. Just two weeks after starting some proper, longed-for teaching I would be on the picket line, a visible ingrate. But to not be—to cross that line—would be inconceivable. To stand on the picket line, to experience the disappointment of having (some) colleagues, managers, students walk into the building—some without a backwards glance, some with discomfort and shame written on their faces—was to consider the stripping away of passion, the wearing down of hope experienced by the tenured, long-term staff who now stood firm on the line, to consider that the decision that they took to strike was a much harder one than mine. The university that they had joined had changed. The space for enquiry, for thoughtful, discursive, reciprocal pedagogy, had been engineered into a space where workloads crushed them, took them away from their students, and where the students were seen by management merely as units by which income was accrued. At my university the dispute was about just this: working conditions that were destroying any meaningful manifestation of teaching and learning, coupled with the Sisyphean toil of REF, TEF, and other punitive acronyms. What was the space we now stood outside of? What was it we were fighting for? What was the space of our protest? In his contribution to the Sheffield anthology, an account of the rescuing of the contents of a library, Brian Lewis writes that

The spaces of the city are always coming into use, or falling out of use. [I think of] the new work made possible by and in those spaces, what did we do without them, what will we do when they’re gone. The links are broken, the histories wiped. It must be acknowledged, there must be a record. The spaces of the city did not appear or disappear by themselves, they did not find or lose their mark on the map without a fight. It was not for nothing. [6]

Rachel Smith reading ‘Lines That Echo’

The picket line, cold and wet as it was, was also a space for hope, for noting not just those colleagues and students who crossed it, but also those who stood strong, all across the university. It was a space for friendship: I met not just academics from my department to whom I had not before spoken, but also those from other departments and disciplines: biosciences, languages, the business school. It was a space for transformative pedagogy, speaking to twenty-year-old students who had never experienced a picket line, didn’t know what an industrial dispute even was, didn’t know that their lecturers were paid for only twenty minutes to mark a three-thousand word essay, didn’t know that lecturers often worked fifty- and sixty-hour weeks, giving up their evenings and weekends to try and stay on top of their workloads, hearing those students say they supported us, and to see some of them join us on the line. To explain to casual and zero-hours staff that yes, they could join the union, that for them membership was free, and that yes, they could strike, and be supported: to have them take the card from your hand. It was a space for celebration: to wave at the bus drivers, taxi drivers, postal workers who beeped their horns in support. To stand up to those jeering ‘greedy lazy commies’ from across the street, and realise how quickly one is seen as ‘other’ when one stands up, placard in hand, to smile with renewed determination. To thank the passers-by who, unbidden, dropped giant bags of sweets into the strike fund bucket, brought hot drinks, bacon sandwiches. To thank the café over the road who let us use their loos and warm up (big up to Hygge, who were endlessly welcoming, and who also offer a free piece of fruit with every drink purchased). It was a space where there was possibility.

Pete Green

All these considerations persisted into the evening, both in the performances, and into the discussions that continued until closing time. Ideas of labour, ideas of education, ideas of community, resistance, and comradeship. As the university is destroyed, where might the spaces of meaningful pedagogy and enquiry be? Rachel Smith’s performance of ‘Lines that Echo’—reading and drawing into the text as she read—proposed that ‘still the library remains a stopping point on any line’, [7] and Pete Green’s ‘Pulp’ imagines a future city in which the people repurposed their communal spaces after all the public libraries have been closed, in which a pub is also a transformative space.

               Bar staff go among the tables, set down pencils,
                                        notepaper. The lights fall low.
                               Walls revolve, reveal banks of bookcases unseen
                        since the joint converted. Deprived
               eyes fall on spines and titles, lap up possibilities.
                                        A tenor sax fugues jazz.
                               Thirsting for print, the guests make for the shelves,
                        furtiveness half forgotten, seizing
               on samizdat anthologies, a transgressive history
                                        of needlecraft, the atlases
                               they only heard rumours of… [8]

Sharon Kivland reading from ‘Reisemalheurs’

We sat in the top room of The Rutland Arms, performances over, and talked of labour, of how our withdrawal thereof had suddenly made it visible (whatever the outcome of the strike) to management, to students. Sharon Kivland had travelled from London that day, and had got up at three o’clock in the morning to get the night bus to St Pancras station. She spoke of her fellow passengers on that bus, of the labour that is hidden from us, the night workers, largely people of colour, largely immigrants, exploited, paid peanuts, without whom the daytime world could not exist. We talked of what a university might be. What if it could be free again? What if anyone could go, regardless of prior qualifications? What if students could move freely between disciplines, study for as long or as short as they wanted? What if there were no grades, no awards? What if the purpose of learning was learning and life? Sharon had ended the performances (after an earlier reading of her contribution ‘Reisemalheurs’ which considers, via Freud, the anxieties of travelling between cities), [9] with a reading from Sean Bonney’s recent collection Our Death. [10] I can’t now remember the poem, only the feeling with which her reading filled the room: the feeling that even though something had died, we would, somehow, carry on. Later, when we were drunk with alcohol and with comradeship, she reminded us that for centuries people had come together as we had done in cities all over the world, gathering in small rooms just like the one at The Rutland, talking about what could be, about a struggle towards.

Onwards, comrades. Emma Bolland, 2020, X.

 

 

The Sheffield anthology, edited by Emma Bolland, was published in 2019 as part of Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s ‘Cities’ series, which includes titles from Bristol, Manchester, Santiago, and Paris, with Pittsburgh, Boston, Birmingham and Amsterdam due in 2020. The contributors to Sheffield are: Helen Blejerman, Angelina D’Roza, Daniel Eltringham, Tim Etchells, Louise Finney, Rachel Genn, Pete Green, Linda Kemp, Sharon Kivland, Joanne Lee, Elise Legal, Brian Lewis, A. B. G. Murray, and Rachel Smith. You can buy the book here: https://www.dostoyevskywannabe.com/cities/sheffield

Emma Bolland is an artist and writer who works experimentally with literatures, translations, script and screenwriting, performance, drawing, and the moving image. This includes an investigation of the problematics and ambiguities of an expanded understanding of translation—between languages and language codes, and between modes of writing, reading and speaking. She is a co-editor at Gordian Projects, a small press operating at the intersection of artist’s book, art writing, and archive, and a Specialist Visiting Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University for the MFA/MA/BA Fine Art.

 

  1. Peter Riley, ‘Untitled’, in XIV PIECES, Sheffield: Longbarrow Press, 2012.
  2. Emma Bolland (ed.), Sheffield, Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019. The first launch of the book was held as part of the Off the Shelf literary festival in October 2019, with readings from Helen Blejerman, Angelina D’Roza, Louise Finney, Rachel Genn, Pete Green, Joanne Lee, and Brian Lewis.
  3. Emma Bolland, ‘FOREWORD; or, an Incomplete A-Z of Sheffield’, in Sheffield, Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019, pp. 9–11.
  4. Sean Bonney (1969–2019) was a poet and activist who performed his work at protests, in occupations, in seminar rooms, on picket lines, in the back rooms of pubs and at international poetry festivals. His poetry has been translated into several languages.
  5. Linda Kemp, ‘…ideas become dangerous again…’, in Sheffield, pp. 131–40.
  6. Brian Lewis, ‘Local Distribution’, in Sheffield, pp. 185–95.
  7. Rachel Smith, ‘Lines that Echo’, in Sheffield, pp. 223–33.
  8. Pete Green, ‘Pulp’, in Sheffield, pp. 113–28.
  9. Sharon Kivland ‘Reisemalheurs’, in Sheffield, pp. 143–157.
  10. Sean Bonney, Our Death, Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2019.

 



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