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Why I didn’t shake Edward Acton’s hand

The grad season is upon us: the time for sweaty palms, nervous, tipsy grins and synthetic wizard robes. Thousands of third year students graduated last week amidst cheers and storms of applause celebrating three years of (mostly) hard graft. Like the rest, I was pleased that it was all over and happy that I could finally get my hands on a tangible recognition of all that work. There was one small hurdle though: the small matter of a certain pompous ceremony. I’m not sure there are many people who relish standing in a billowing Harry Potter gown in front of 800 people, but looking like a prat was lower on my agenda than it might otherwise have been. Sure, I was worried that I might stack it up the stairs or walk off the stage by the wrong exit, but more than anything I was rehearsing what I was going to say to the man I would have to refuse to shake hands with before collecting my certificate. Unfortunately for me, my ceremony was presided over by Edward Acton, the outgoing Vice Chancellor of UEA who will be replaced by David Richardson this coming September. In the run-up to this day, I’d gladly, and perhaps misguidedly, trilled that I would refuse to shake the hand of a man who had overseen such a shocking and deplorable track record of management during the course of my university career. Now, I had to stick to my guns and actually do it.

lair of edward acton

Here’s the back story: spurred by the climate of austerity, UEA management has jumped on the bandwagon and embraced the ConDem government’s decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9000 a year. Meanwhile, funding for the arts has been slashed dramatically, and diverted to more revenue-intensive schools (i.e. the ones that make them money, like the business school). The closure of the School of Music is possibly the most deplorable and reprehensible act of Acton’s management stint (in my time at least), and epitomises the attitude of managers high up in the university – if it doesn’t make money, cut it. It’s merely a symptom of a wider trend of marketisation and commodification of higher education, forced by free market government policy and liberalism. The recent decision to hike accommodation fees for new students beginning in 2014/15 smacks of further attempts to squeeze yet more money out of already heavily indebted students. Acton’s period as VC of the university has seen a liberalised approach that seeks to increase income from students and cut supposedly ‘unnecessary’ expenditure. One such example of this is the way in which university management keeps some staff members on temporary contracts, rather than granting longer-term permanent contracts with the associated benefits (read expenditure) such as sick pay, holiday, and pensions. Some people may remember the UCU strike that threatened to jeopardise this whole glorious week of pomp and rigour – third year students would not have been able to graduate if lecturers wouldn’t mark scripts. They were striking over a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2008, as the university hadn’t raised wages in line with inflation. In the end, they settled for a 2% pay rise, which although a small victory, did not satisfy many of their demands, and is certainly not sustainable into the future.


I’m not a naturally confrontational person (though I’m sure there will be many raised eyebrows at that statement) and the thought of saying to his face that I thought he was a twat (obviously more eloquently) was giving me the kind of butterflies you wouldn’t believe. There I was, standing in the hushed and silent corridor with my political convictions and better instincts wrestling uneasily in my guts, while the surnames being read out on the list were marching steadily towards G and I was inching closer to the stage. Finally it was decision time: there he was, looking like a medieval birdman, resplendent in squishy orange, and suddenly I was walking up the stairs and determinedly keeping my hands clasped, jaw set, avoiding the outstretched hand. He looked flustered and embarrassed when he realised that I wasn’t going to shake it “due to his deplorable management of the last three years” but it was over almost before it began and he had 180 other graduands to attend to. My heart was going like the clappers as I collected my certificate and walked my jelly legs back down the aisle, but I was pleased I hadn’t flaked out on my own morals. The speech that closed the ceremony seemed to seal the deal – Philip Lowe, veteran multi-disciplinarian who received an honorary degree from ENV, spoke of lateral thinking and staying true to ones’ beliefs. It seemed to confirm everything, and I went off feeling enlarged with self-righteousness to drink as much free champagne as I could without bubbles coming out of my nose.


Fight Night 2014

This is me smashing it on Fight Night. Very artfully shot and put together by Al Simmons 


Edward Acton’s Lair

Edward Acton's Lair

“Block Grant? Pay lecturers in line with inflation? I’m sorry, we don’t have any money for that”


Unanimous win for Ella 'the Terror' Gilbert, fighting from the Red n Black corner.

Unanimous win for Ella ‘the Terror’ Gilbert, fighting from the Red n Black corner.

Sex: the universal taboo

Sex is a taboo across the world, and was until very recently a significant taboo in the UK. The 1960s and the Summer of Love began to change peoples’ perceptions of sex and sexuality, but our Victorian, prudish sensibility still holds out in some places today. Despite the atmosphere of the heady love-laden days of the 60s, sex was off the mainstream agenda until the end of the second wave of feminism in the 1980s, and even then, it was a radical conversation topic.


But, like cheese hedgehogs and aspic, most people now seem happy to leave sexual taboos in the 1970s, where they belong. Older people are embracing sexuality outside of traditional institutions like marriage, statistics show, with a 2011 study exhibiting the lowest numbers ever of over 85s who believe sex outside of marriage to be ‘living in sin.’

The departure from sexual taboos in the UK is partly to do with increasing secularism. Modern taboos about sex are associated with religion in places,such as the Philippines, Nigeria, and Egypt. Regardless of which religion we are talking about, it seems that wherever faith is strong, sex outside of structures like heterosexual marriage is considered wrong.

Sexual encounters between young couples must be kept under wraps in the Middle East, and you have to be particularly clandestine if you are homosexual. A rise in the number of ‘temporary marriages,’ which are not state-sanctioned and can last for short periods of time, attests to changing attitudes and a desire for more sexual freedom.

Sexual frustration as a result of continued suppression of men and womens’ sexuality leads to aggression – an Egyptian journalist, Ali al-Gundi, was arrested and threatened with a beating for having an unopened condom in his pocket when driving home with his girlfriend late at night. Alongside trends of modernisation and/or Westernisation in the Middle East, there are also trends of conservatism.

Many women are opting to cover themselves more fully in public, sometimes in response to increasingly overtly sexualised Western trends and imports, further exacerbating the cultural divide between men and women. Gundi says “oppression brings out perversion in people,” alluding to men’s fear of the “feelings women provoke” in the absence of acceptable interaction. It may be true that all this sexual tension leads to violence – many young men cannot afford to get married, after all, and it is often young male police officers that will arrest couples for suspected sexual activity.

Homosexuality is even more taboo than sex alone in many countries. In the Philippines, gay men have to posit themselves as camp caricatures, acting up to stereotypes in order to be accepted in society. Their sexuality itself, however, is not discussed; to contemplate the idea of gay sex is anathema in such a Catholic country, where only six months ago a bill proposing sex education and reproductive health awareness was shouted down by the church. It is something that tears many religious homosexuals apart – it can be hard to reconcile one’s faith with one’s sexuality in cultures where religion is very traditional and conservative, whether it’s Christianity, Islam or anything else. The issue is especially poignant with the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics on Friday and amidst a sustained campaign to highlight the homophobia of the Putin administration, as featured in last week’s edition.

Religion and sexuality are not mutually exclusive – indeed, even conservative clerics accept the notion of pleasurable sex within marriage, and there have always been periods of relative religious liberalism – it is all up to interpretation. Perhaps the progressive trends shown in recent years – the legalisation of gay marriage, increased debate about the rights of women over their bodies, abortion and sexual abuse, will continue to shape our perceptions of the ultimate taboo, in the UK and across the world.

The only war is the class war

Another article under one of my many pseudonyms.


It would be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t know that Nelson Mandela died at the beginning of December, particularly with the timely (or not?) release of the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.


Most people are probably also sick of hearing about it – or at least the sycophantic brand of news the established media has been pushing. Although he was of course an admirable figurehead, their doe-eyed representation of Madiba merely serves to reinforce the status quo of capitalist monopoly in South Africa, and across the world. It is apparent even in the way politicians clamoured to praise Mandela and his work, despite in some cases having previously opposed him, in some cases vehemently. David Cameron, who was quick to jump on the ‘we-heart-Mandela’ bandwagon, was in his student days part of a Conservative organisation that campaigned to have Mandela hanged.

Of course Nelson Mandela was a great man – an icon of freedom and justice in an unjust system. Mandela achieved a great many things, bringing issues of state oppression to the fore and contributing significantly to the fall of Apartheid; a horrific, immoral and corrupt system of segregation. He led the movement that facilitated vast improvements for many black South Africans, and greatly changed conditions in the country. However, he stirred controversy in his later years, and many people felt his years in prison left him disconnected from the struggle. More important, though, is the dismissal of the reasons Mandela began to condone violent tactics. The rose-tinted portrayal of Madiba as a “pacifist” is akin to the South African (and other) government’s labelling of him as a “terrorist” in the 1970s and 1980s. Both strategies seek to de-radicalise and neutralise his political acts, and to strip them of their political worth. For the same reasons, no-one outside of the political left ever mentions his socialism – despite the obvious effect his political ideology had on him. By omitting this key fact, and by discrediting Mandela by linguistically taking the teeth out of his activism, the true reasons why he and the ANC were forced to use violent means are masked.

Mandela was famously “not a violent man”, but condoned acts of violence against property in protest against the structural violence (institutionalised oppression and suppression, subjugation and dismissal of citizens by the state, which keeps people in poverty) committed against poor, black South Africans, which amounted to outright class warfare. The state was responsible for acts of physical violence against opposition activists, and against ordinary people who were often unarmed, such as in Sharpville in 1960. Years of imperialism had left a rich, white elite who feared losing their privileged lifestyles, and therefore sought to reinforce the status quo with disgusting, discriminatory and repressive policies.

Apartheid was not just about race; it was about class too. Poor black people in places like Soweto wanted their fair share of the country’s burgeoning wealth. They were angry and the ANC gave them a voice. State oppression, and both physical and structural violence escalated as the elites grew more and more afraid, and the ANC recognised that fear. Violence became the way people expressed their rage at decades and centuries of subjugation.

The ANC’s Freedom Charter, which advocated “national liberation of the largest and most oppressed group — the African people”, was declared an illegal Communist document in the 1950s, and the organisation was forced underground in 1961. Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was formed when the ANC was banned, promising to “hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom”. Differently to the state, MK activists never killed civilians, targeting instead key government buildings in acts of sabotage, whilst also engaging in acts of peaceful civil disobedience. Although the ANC began as a revolutionary organisation, with democratic power it has become less radical and more pro-Capitalist, so much so that current President Jacob Zuma was booed at Mandela’s memorial service.

It has been frequently said that the ANC did not address key problems; nationalist rhetoric changed things superficially, uniting people around a flag while failing to tackle some of the root causes of inequality. The ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ (BEE) program reinforced capitalistic inequity by putting a few black figureheads, like millionaire Kenny Kunene, in charge of private companies, while allowing the majority of poor South Africans to remain in poverty. It is apparent that vast inequality and class warfare still exists today: in the privatisation of key resources like water and the country’s substantial mineral wealth; high poverty and unemployment rates; one of the world’s highest incidences of rape and low female literacy rates; and events like the Marikana massacre that happened just six months ago. Miners striking in Marikana were engaging in peaceful means of resistance against low wages and poor conditions, but were met with the worst violence since Sharpville: many workers were shot in the back, 44 people were killed, and many more were injured.

It is clear that the revolution is far from complete. Mandela, along with a great number of other activists, may have contributed to the downfall of Apartheid, but the rise of the ANC in government has not created real change for poor people. What Madiba achieved was incredible, but we cannot forget how much there is left to change; across the world as well as in South Africa. We should not be fooled by the media and politicians telling us that the fight is over, because that is what they want you to believe – it is not. La Lucha Sigue.