A Non-Eyewitness Account of a Plane Crash

SFO Crash“Being there” doesn’t help you to decipher an event. If anything, quite the contrary. I just slept through a plane crash. And, waking up, I probably have a much less clear view of what has happened (and what is happening) than someone halfway around the world with a decent Internet connection.

I’m flying from Vancouver to Madrid by a rather circuitous route (via San Francisco and Frankfurt). My plane left Vancouver at 6am, which meant a 4am taxi from my house. As last night I was at a friend’s birthday party, and I didn’t start packing until around 2am, I’d hardly had much sleep. No problem: all the easier to sleep on the plane.

So I dozed for most of the flight to California. And then, on arrival with six hours to kill in SFO, I settled into a chair in the terminal to sleep some more. A little later, I woke briefly to overhear two airport employees striding rapidly nearby, one asking the other if he’d heard about the crash. I took little notice and closed my eyes again.

A while later, I woke up, gathered my things and headed to grab a sandwich and find my gate. Once there, I was sitting by a power outlet and plugging in my computer when another passenger nearby asked me if I’d heard about the crash. I looked at him (still) a little groggily and he went on to say that it hadn’t been announced here at the airport, but it was on the news already. The wi-fi was unreliable where I was, so I found a seat elsewhere in the terminal and went online.

Now, a few hours later, I’m getting a sense of what’s going on. On the Internet, I’m told that an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777, coming in from Seoul, crashed on arrival, catching fire and losing its tail. Amazingly enough, the news reports suggest no fatalities. Which is all the more extraordinary as the pictures on the websites suggest one rather broken plane.

Inside the terminal, we see and hear very little of this. There’s only one television in the vicinity, and while it’s drawn quite a crowd, most people are sitting at their gates, lining up at the bars and restaurants, and/or drifting aimlessly around. Aimless because nobody has a flight to catch, as the airport is shut down, with no aircraft movements in or out. (I’m told that my own plane was diverted to Oakland.) There are periodic announcements on the public address system. Our next update is in fifteen minutes.

SFO International Terminal

For several hours, the announcements were very vague indeed. They told us of an incident, and apologized for the inconvenience. It was a while before the word “crash” was used, and it was used only once. We’ve been informed that the first-class lounge is closed, because of the “viewing possibilities” that it offered. For otherwise, from the terminal itself nothing can be seen. Supposedly the accident led to a plume of smoke, but it’s hard to distinguish where that might be given the low cloud that has been hovering on the hills surrounding much of the airport.

There’s no panic, little conversation, not even much in the way of increased cellphone traffic that one would expect to tell friends and relatives that flights have been cancelled, connections missed, delays inevitable. There are occasional groups of airport or airline workers with security badges murmuring into walkie talkies.

A voice on the PA has admitted that “many of you will be learning more from CNN than we know ourselves.”

For a while, the only, almost subliminal, indication of something out of the ordinary seemed to be the constant sound of an alarm, never answered, somewhere nearby. It was a minor irritation more than anything else, like a car alarm going off unattended on a neighbouring street. Eventually I realized that it was merely the warning marking the approaching end of the moving walkway. Now even that sound has been turned off.

In the meantime, we wait, and try to get information over a frustratingly patchy wi-fi connection. All United wide-body flights have just been cancelled. I hear that there are refreshments available by Gate 95. Here in the terminal at least, that’s the main event right now.

Update: The BBC is now reporting that at least one person died.

Herb Blau

Herb Blau

I did my MA in English, in the 1990s, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The English Department occupied a couple of floors in an undistinguished 1970s concrete tower block called Curtin Hall. Though the building offered nice enough views over Lake Michigan from the upper stories, for the most part it comprised a series of windowless corridors and linoleum floors lit by fluorescent lights, lined with identikit pine doors leading to faculty and grad student offices. Many of my classes took place in the same non-descript seminar room at the end of one of these corridors. I believe that the room number was Curtin 466.

The only distinguishing feature of Curtin 466, which might draw your attention if class discussion seemed to be going nowhere in particular, was a dent in one of the walls, near the door. It was a fairly deep dent, which had broken the surface of the wall, revealing the hollowness within, and it was about the size and shape of a human fist. Rumor had it that the dent’s author was none other than one of the department’s more distinguished professors: Herb Blau. It was said that, perhaps in precisely one of those lulls, to invigorate things he had punched the wall with his bare hand.

I have no idea if that story was true, but it might well have been. For Herb, who died on Friday at the age of 87, wasn’t someone to let the little matter of a plasterboard wall get in the way of a robust exchange of ideas. And despite first appearances–by the time I knew him, he was already close to retirement age; short, balding, mild-mannered–he would soon remind you that his training was on and around the stage. He was a performer, or rather, he wanted to point out that we are all always called upon to perform when the spotlight, perhaps suddenly, comes our way. The only doubt is whether we are going to be up to the task. In class, he liked to draw attention to one of us in a quick instant that showed the way in which he was constantly thinking like a director: he put us on stage and challenged us to respond.

I took a course with him in that same seminar room with the fist-sized dent in the wall that could be read as a promise or threat of what we might expect in the Herb Blau classroom. The course was on fashion, slightly incongruously as I suspect that neither Herb nor I, in our different ways, have ever been accused of being particularly fashionable. But Herb was interested in fashion as performance, as a system of display that we could never simply evade. He was keen on the intricate play of gazes and (admiring or condescending) looks that constitutes a fashion system. We read an eclectic mix of texts, on topics from Renaissance cross-dressing to Coco Chanel, from Pirandello to pop.

Herb had an oblique relationship to academic fashion, too. I gleaned that he was very important in a field, performance studies, that he had in some ways invented. Indeed, he often told us directly or indirectly, through anecdote or declaration, of his own importance. But we young bucks were perhaps tempted to see Herb as something of a holdover or anachronism, in part precisely because of his stories of hanging out with Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. In what was still the heyday of high theory, the notion of performance or performativity was associated with figures such as the poststructuralist feminist Judith Butler and a whole other series of references from Louis Althusser to Michel Foucault. Herb, though he read voraciously and was no foe of Theory, was perhaps too eclectic, or even too grounded, to be hip.

But Herb grew on you, and I grew to be a little less superficial in my judgments. He was extraordinarily generous with his advice and time, and in talking to him you realized that he had been watching and listening to you carefully: sympathetically but not uncritically. I remember when he dissected some of the questions I had asked in the regular department seminar where we hosted visiting speakers. He reminded me that I had, after all, been performing, and that his was above all a consummate eye (and ear) for performance. And that by pointing this out, and so by revealing that there was something hollow in every academic fad or fashion, he wasn’t necessarily denigrating it. After all, Herb had long been in the business of performance; he wasn’t one to oppose it to some simple notion of authenticity.

As with the seminar-room wall, Herb would puncture performances; he would leave his mark and offer a glimpse of the mechanics and subterfuges that hold up the structures (social and cultural as well as architectural) that we inhabit. But he would also therefore give us a sense of the complexity of those structures, and perhaps leave us with admiration (however grudging) for all that had gone into the construction of something that we otherwise might take for granted. Ultimately, Herb’s critiques, his provocations and even his self-dramatizations were aimed at one end: to get us to think, and so to learn; to keep us on our toes, so that we could reach higher.

I saw Herb just a few months ago, after an interval of many years. I was giving a talk at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he moved not long after I left Milwaukee, and where his wife Kathy Woodward directs the Simpson Centre for the Humanities. He was visibly older and frailer than he had been a decade previously, but he was undimmed and astute as ever. My talk was on affect, violence, and death. Afterwards, in the question-and-answer session, he made the point that we are all dying in front of each other, all the time. He looked unwaveringly at me and said: “As I watch, you are inching towards death.” I wondered how to respond, realizing that Herb had done it again: he had put me on the spot; he’d made me think, made me struggle to find words; and he’d reminded me of that dent in the seminar room, of that mark of decay and ruination that we all carry with us.

Herb Blau has now finished that movement towards death that we call life. But I can’t imagine him wanting to rest in peace; and he certainly wouldn’t want us to do so. I take his legacy as, in part, an injunction to recognize the challenge, the inevitability but also unpredictability, of the performances demanded of us even in the most non-descript of surroundings. For we can always enliven them with a well-thrown (and well-thought) punch.

Margaret Thatcher, Scholarship Girl

form_photo_1hI was only nine when Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, but I was among the first beneficiaries of her largesse. For one of her government’s earliest acts was to create the “Assisted Places” scheme, by which public funds were used to provide private education to a privileged few. As a result, under the Tories the state paid for my attendance at one of the country’s most academically elite secondary schools, which currently charges £10,545 a year in fees. As an added bonus, it even paid for my bus pass, with which I could roam the city. So much for “rolling back the frontiers of the state.” Thatcher was happy to use public money not only to subsidize private enterprises, such as the school, but also to lavish it on individuals such as myself if they were reckoned to be suitably deserving. At the same time, the 1980 Education Act cut funds to schools (and pupils) in the public sector.

Thatcher had first made her name as Education Secretary, so her interest in the issue was unsurprising. Long before she became the “iron lady,” she was Thatcher the “milk snatcher” when, in 1971, she undid the 1946 Free Milk Act and removed the right to free school milk from children over the age of seven. Consistently, then, she was against the principles of universal provision enshrined in the Welfare State. But again, she was not against state spending per se. She was in favor of what in today’s buzzword would be called “targeted” spending: the few would benefit at the expense of the many. But note that the “few” in question here were not those who were already elite: the point is that this is a form of class engineering; the “able” or “deserving” few were to be pulled from their surroundings and given a ladder to join the elite. Better: the effect of the Assisted Places scheme was to give those who were culturally but not economically privileged (the children of teachers, single parents, or in my case the clergy) the chance to entrench or even improve their middle-class status on a working-class salary. Only 7% of those who benefitted from the scheme were children of manual laborers.

And yet (ironically for someone who, as Education Secretary, created more comprehensive schools than anyone before or since) Thatcher did effectively reintroduce the category of the “scholarship boy” (or girl). This is the person that Pierre Bourdieu would call an “oblate”: who identifies with the educational institution rather than with his or her class, because it is the institution that has enabled him or her to gain or maintain their class position. The scholarship subverts class loyalty without subverting class. It enables class mobility apparently under the guise of “merit” alone, but on terms structured by entrenched hierarchies of both economic and cultural capital. It is social mobility without social change. Or as Raymond Williams long ago put it, what he called “the ladder version of society” both “weakens the principle of common benefit, which ought to be an absolute value” and also “sweetens the poison of hierarchy, in particular by offering the hierarchy of merit as a thing different in kind from the hierarchy of money or of birth” (Culture and Society 331). And yet it is precisely this vision of so-called “meritocracy” that the Labour government that eventually succeeded that of Thatcher (and her epigones) fully embraced–even though, in another apparent irony, one of its first acts on gaining power in 1997 was to abolish the Assisted Places scheme.

But the ideology of merit cannot so easily dispel the reality of class. Thatcher, a scholarship girl herself who famously made her way from a flat above a grocer’s shop in Grantham to Oxford and then married into money, always suffered from the condescension of those whose privilege could come to seem natural precisely because it was not so obviously dependent on any one institution. In some ways this woman who was so keen on asking whether a putative ally was “one of us” was always keenly aware that she was not “one of them,” if by “them” we mean both the grandees whose control of the Conservative Party she had so surprisingly usurped and indeed the men (and women) on the Labour benches whose sense of belonging was so much more secure. Thatcher was constantly derided for her provincialism and/or suburban allegiances, whether they were expressed in her choice of clothes (Marks and Spencer blouses!) or her accent and voice (hence the elocution lessons). In short, she stood out for her lack of cultural capital, her perceived inauthenticity; for the fact that she was neither to the manor nor the miner born. And it was precisely on this basis that she could articulate her populist revolt: against the “Establishment”; against the post-war consensus that had seemed to exclude an entire class of those who no longer believed in class, who felt their dreams of social mobility frustrated by entrenched privilege.

At root, however, she no longer thought (if she ever had done) that the educational system was sufficient to make real her dream of a world in which there were merely “men and women.” She preferred council house sales and privatization, the vision of a property- and share-owing democracy, as a more efficient vehicle to change the “society” that she wouldn’t or couldn’t bring herself to believe in. No wonder that the New Left, many of whom were scholarship boys and girls themselves (from Richard Hoggart to Stuart Hall), not-so-secretly admired and envied her ability to articulate what they saw as a “hegemonic” bloc that waged war (almost) as much against the elite as against organized labor. It helped that the establishment obligingly played into her hands: by snubbing her nomination for an honorary degree, for instance, Oxford University no doubt boosted Thatcher’s credibility among the many who never had a chance to go to Oxford in the first place, if not among her own front bench who were (as always) almost exclusively Oxford and Cambridge men themselves.

So Thatcher’s class war was double-sided, as populist insurgencies have to be: she was ruthless on the poor and the working class, but she was also serious, I think, about confronting those she had come to know, but never to like, as a scholarship girl at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, Somerville College, Oxford, and ultimately in the House of Commons. No wonder she was never particularly keen on the House of Lords, either as Prime Minister (when her government frequently suffered defeat in the upper house) or as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire.

But in the end it was the grandees who brought her down. It was after all Geoffrey Howe (not Arthur Scargill) who, with his resignation speech, put the nail in her political coffin and forced her to resign. And perhaps here we also see her greatest political failure more generally. By the time New Labour came to power, its leaders had taken on the mantra of meritocracy but also effortlessly felt at home with the guardians of cultural capital. None more so than the Right Honourable Anthony Blair (Fettes and St Johns College, Oxford). And after a brief hiccup in the personages of John Major and William Hague, the current Tory party, stuffed with members of the Bullingdon Club, has returned to form. Which is why it’s hard to imagine another Margaret Thatcher coming along any time soon: now that the chances for scholarships have disappeared, in part because the idea of the school or university as “ladder” rather than simply requirement has effectively disappeared, an entire structure of feeling has gone with it, too. Among those who can imagine themselves rich and can read the right magazines to appear cultured, deference is the order of the day; among those who know that they have been excluded more viciously than ever, thanks largely to the legacy of Thatcherism’s attack on universal provision, the only reasonable affect left is anger.

Meanwhile, my old school claims now to offer “need-blind” admissions, boasting of a war-chest it has accumulated from constant fund-raising and appeals, often to former pupils like me. A few years ago its website used to feature a list of the postcodes from which its pupils came (and the numbers in each case), as a testament to the wide geographical swathe of Northwest Britain from which it could recruit. But I pointed out that the list was drastically skewed to the leafy suburbs of affluent South Manchester: over a hundred pupils commuted in from each of SK8, WA14, and above all (my own former postcode) WA15. I suggested then that the test of a truly need-blind admission policy would be if there were proportionately equal representation from the postcodes (and so the dilapidated council estates) that immediately surround the school itself, located in the inner suburbs: M12, M13, M14, and M15; at the time, there were no pupils at all from M12 or M15, and only a handful from M13 or M14. I said I would contribute money for their appeal when there were as many children admitted from M14 as from WA14. Strangely, that list of pupils by postcode has now disappeared from the school’s site.

Derek

On a weeknight last year, my friend Alec and I found ourselves at the bar of Vancouver’s newly renovated Hotel Georgia. This small bar, in an out of the way corner, is quiet at the best of times and downright sleepy on a Tuesday night. It is a good place to talk and hear yourself think; it has no televisions, no piped music. We had some cocktails and vowed we would be back.

A week or so later we did indeed return, and once again sat up at the bar where we briefly chatted to the bartender about the cocktail scene in Vancouver, asking him for suggestions of any other places he thought we might like in the city. He mentioned a couple of names and we went back to our own conversation. But just as we were leaving, the barman presented us with a sheet of hotel notepaper. This turned out to be a list of fifteen bars and restaurants titled, with something of a flourish, “Derek’s Top Picks.” We thanked him and knew we had a mission.

Over the following months, we gradually made our way around all the establishments listed. When I proposed one of Derek’s picks as a place to meet, I would explain that “It’s on the list.”

We discovered that the list was fairly eclectic. Some places were high-end restaurants, others were dedicated cocktail lounges, while still others had few if any pretensions. Some were busy and full of hipsters; others were quiet and laid-back. Some specialized in classic cocktails, others advertised their creativeness with new recipes and bold combinations of flavours. But they all, without exception, made us some great drinks.

We often sat up at the bar and chatted to the barstaff. At first, we’d try to explain our mission and the fact that Derek had recommended them; everyone knew him, and bartenders often said they felt honoured to be included among his top picks. But we soon discovered we had no need to offer excuses. Cocktails are back in fashion these days, and a city like Vancouver has a vibrant community of increasingly knowledgeable mixers and consumers.

Finally, we finished our mission. We had tried all fifteen of Derek’s top picks. We had a hard time ranking them, but some favourites included The Diamond (all wood and brick on a second-floor in Gastown), the Clough Club (which we went past a couple of times before noticing its understated façade), and the Keefer Bar (if it weren’t for the live music that chased us away). But it was time to report back.

We made our way to the Hotel Georgia and asked after Derek. The guy serving at the bar said that Derek had moved on; he was no longer with the hotel. He was not exactly sure where he was now. We exchanged a few words about this somewhat strange circumstance, but left it at that. It was only when the bartender had to go elsewhere for a minute or two that the other punter sitting at the bar turned to us and said “They don’t want to say it, but Derek is dead. Nobody knows exactly how or why, but some say it was suicide.”

And so it turns out. Derek Vanderheide, the 36-year old bar manager at the 1927 Lobby Lounge, had died back in March, while we were still following the route set out in Derek’s Top Picks.

Naturally enough, there is now a cocktail in his honour: a mix of bourbon, rum, orgeat syrup, bitters, and Herbsaint anise liquor. But for Alec and myself, the legacy of our very brief encounter with Derek is his list, his knowledge of the local bar scene, and his passion for cocktails, which prompted us to experience the city in new ways.

prize!

As I arrived at work this morning, someone I didn’t know shouted my name from across the street, and then came running over. He wanted to give me a bottle of Prosecco, for my talk last month on “From Access to Interactivity” at “Access 2011.” Many thanks to the librarians. Fine people!

And then this afternoon, the folk from the Modern Language Association were in touch. I’ve won a prize! Well sort of: an honorable mention. For “an outstanding book published in English or Spanish in the field of Latin American and Spanish literatures and cultures.”

Here’s what they say:

A study that moves elegantly and daringly from political theory to cultural analysis, Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America puts Latin America on the map as a complex region in which hegemony, habit, and affect are constantly being contested and renegotiated in response to the vitality of the multitude. Jon Beasley-Murray does this through a series of engaging discussions of contemporary theorists who dialogue directly with Latin American test cases highlighting the relation between Peronist populism, hegemony theory, and the limits of civil society. With clarity, intellectual rigor, and conceptual sophistication, Beasley-Murray seeks to challenge the dominant critical paradigms of the cultural-studies-oriented humanities and social sciences.

I think I may be drinking that Prosecco tonight.

Kermode

I learn from “Thinking Blue Guitars” (and now also from obituaries such as The Guardian‘s) that the distinguished British literary critic Frank Kermode is dead.

Years ago, as a student at King’s, I wrote a dissertation on “Cambridge English.” My aim was to undertake a Bourdieusian analysis of the university’s English Faculty, to see the disputes that had marked it in terms of the clash between different forms of capital and prestige.

It was a fun project, and along the way I tried to contact a number of people connected with significant episodes in the Faculty’s history. I wrote, for instance, to L. C. Knights, one of the last surviving members of the Scrutiny group, and though he was too ill to travel or correspond at length, he did send me a couple of nice letters written on a mechanical typewriter, with his own somewhat shaky ink corrections.

And I phoned Frank Kermode, who was happy enough to talk to an (over-)eager young undergraduate such as myself, and invited me round to dinner. I drove up from London to Cambridge, to meet him at his house on a leafy lane somewhere out near Homerton.

I don’t remember much about that evening, except that dinner was roast chicken followed by port with an apple accompaniment, and that Sir Frank (newly knighted) was extraordinarily generous with his time and his conversation. We talked about the impact of Theory on Cambridge, the so-called Structuralism affair with Colin MacCabe (though Kermode emphasized that MacCabe was never, in fact, fired or, as Wikipedia currently has it, denied tenure), about figures such as Raymond Williams and Christopher Ricks, and in general about the rather turbulent period from the 1970s to the (then) present of the early 1990s. For our chat was right around the time of the campaign, led largely by the more reactionary elements within the English Faculty, to deny Jacques Derrida an honorary doctorate.

What I remember most was a comment towards the end of this long discussion about the various feuds and fights that had occupied the sundry members of the English department almost from its origin. Ultimately, Kermode observed, all of this was of little consequence. Somewhat surprised, I asked what did matter, then? Oh, he replied, as far as the university was concerned the Humanities as a whole were almost irrelevant. We were like paddlers in the shallows. The immense sea of resources and attention belonged to the Sciences.

I don’t think that this sense of marginalization concerned Kermode particularly. It was merely a reminder of how little was at stake in academic politics, and an attempt to dampen down my youthful impulse to see all this in terms of heroic narratives involving (pro-Theory) angels battling (anti-Theory) demons.

I also wonder now whether both his sense of perspective and his choice of aquatic metaphor were inspired by his experience in World War Two, when he served in the Navy in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, and was on the Hood off Iceland, shortly before it was sunk by the Bismark. Such memories might also have made him regard the shallows as sometimes a rather better place to be than the deep sea.

Meanwhile, if anything characterizes Kermode’s own criticism, it is surely its restraint and delicacy but also its astuteness, its almost deceptive modesty as Kermode tenaciously pursues some subtle textual point.

Gibraltar

GibraltarThe Wednesday quotation, part X: I have just, rather belatedly, learned of George Sassoon’s death.

I met George a number of times, many years ago, on the Isle of Mull. On the first occasion, it was the morning after what had evidently been a long night in which he had set out to disprove, by direct and copious scientific experimentation with himself as the guinea pig, the notion that whisky and oysters were a combination fatal to the human frame. He wrote the Island’s telephone directory, which included an entry for his cow. He would talk of tram parties in Vienna with Erich Von Daniken.

Despite increasing illness from a slow-moving cancer, George Sassoon remained interested in many aspects of life. He liked to attend conferences on extra-terrestrial activity, and wrote a number of articles on the subject.

He was also a keen student of international affairs, advocating a solution to the problem of Gibraltar that involved offering Spain a reciprocal enclave in southern England – perhaps Dover or Folkestone – which would become a centre for bullfighting and other facets of Spanish life. (“George Sassoon”. Daily Telegraph [March 17, 2006])