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 
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.  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. 
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.  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’. 
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. 
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.
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’,  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… 
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),  with a reading from Sean Bonney’s recent collection Our Death.  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.
- Peter Riley, ‘Untitled’, in XIV PIECES, Sheffield: Longbarrow Press, 2012.
- 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.
- Emma Bolland, ‘FOREWORD; or, an Incomplete A-Z of Sheffield’, in Sheffield, Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019, pp. 9–11.
- 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.
- Linda Kemp, ‘…ideas become dangerous again…’, in Sheffield, pp. 131–40.
- Brian Lewis, ‘Local Distribution’, in Sheffield, pp. 185–95.
- Rachel Smith, ‘Lines that Echo’, in Sheffield, pp. 223–33.
- Pete Green, ‘Pulp’, in Sheffield, pp. 113–28.
- Sharon Kivland ‘Reisemalheurs’, in Sheffield, pp. 143–157.
- Sean Bonney, Our Death, Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2019.
I point at sinister and say to Brown
there’s ones like you, stewing in sex…
But Hell’s not prised for Brown’s gathered elect.
And you, old man, do you rise or go down?
Death and the Gallant, Chris Jones
What shape does the devil take? What is the colour of evil? How much ‘dark matter’ does it take to weigh us down? In the ‘Doom’ painting (a name often given to depictions of the last judgement), dated to 1380 and filling the entire Chancel Arch in St Andrew’s church in Pickworth, a ‘swim of souls’ (Jones, ibid.) ascending into heaven are counterbalanced by a suffocating net of the damned, hauled hopeless into the gaping maw of Hell. The landscape of heaven sitting to the right hand of Christ is a noncommittal pastoral. How does one depict that hazy notion of Nirvana? The environs of evil, both figuratively and literally speaking, are on the other hand, even in their abraded, ‘desecrated’ state, vividly drawn with cauldrons, flames and leering demons of unequivocal iconography. Evil is easily described and given shape. We see it clearly, located in our particular visions of ‘the other’, formed in the image of that which is not us.
… Brown works the whitewash,
and just for good measure, cuts Mary’s face.
The word ‘blasphemous’ comes to us from the Greek: blapsis = evil + phēmē = speech. To be blasphemous is to speak (and I include the word of ‘image’ here) evil. Within the institutional structures of faith, the malevolent utterance is defined in relation to that which is sacred; or, more importantly, those linguistic or visual devices adopted to serve such definitions, and in some interpretations, will constitute a sin that is beyond redemption. The new Protestantism of the Reformation had to differentiate itself from that which it now positioned as the other – Catholicism – by adopting the word as its definitive tool. It became the faith of scripture, of language, and thus the Catholic emphasis on the visual, the figurative representation of doctrine through painting and statuary, had to be condemned as idolatrous and blasphemous in the extreme. Particular attention was paid to the head, the face and ultimately the gaze. The common iconoclastic belief was that evil could enter in through the eyes, by implication suggesting that evil was therefore emitted from the eyes of the idol, evoking primitive anxieties regarding the sorcerous, hypnotic stare. Statues were not merely smashed, they were beheaded; faces not simply painted over – first, their eyes were gouged out. The paradox is that whilst the paintings and statues were condemned as superstitious, superstitious actions were required to properly destroy them.
Snow falls on fire. Saved and damned lie buried
under snow. Christ and his colours
The pre-Reformation supplicant would have sat (or more commonly stood) within a space ablaze with colour. Paintings, statues, decorative ornament flooding their visual field with an unruly display that has more in common with the murals and paintings of a Latin American Day of the Dead or Mardi Gras, than with the spare anti-iconographic aesthetic that we now identify with the Anglican Church. Even in its abraded and faded state, the paintings at Pickworth were shocking and seductive, the smallest trace of pigment conjuring their original saturated viscerality. On our secular September pilgrimage, the Romantic decay of the images and the place allowed us to be lost in wonder – at times I was speechless at these extraordinary sights, flooded with gratitude and emotion at the privilege of standing beneath them – whilst distancing ourselves from the implications of the doctrine for our personal and political selves. Fading chevrons glancing along the stones, the elusive half-shy face of the Madonna peeping sweetly from the interior gloom: my eyes pricked at such things. We stood, enraptured, outside of history – we, who most certainly would have been amongst the damned.
Some of the ideas regarding the nature of blasphemy were first explored in Bolland’s essay Somebody’s Heaven, Somebody’s Hell, written to accompany her exhibition Nightwood, and presented at East Street Arts’ ‘Thought For Food’ meal sharing and seminar series. The essay grew out of an ‘in conversation event’ with the writer David Peace, where Peace and Bolland discussed the mythologies of violent and sexual crime in relation to their own respective practices. The essay has been newly posted on Bolland’s blog and can be read here.
Death and the Gallant appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. This is the second blog post focusing on the pre-Reformation wall art of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire churches (visited by Bolland, Lewis and Jones on 19 September 2014); the first post, by Brian Lewis, appears here. The third and final blog post and podcast, documenting the visit to Corby Glen, appears here. Listen to Chris Jones and Emma Bolland discuss ‘The Last Judgement’ and the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St Andrew’s, Pickworth, Lincs, 19 Sept 2014):