Sunday, September 03, 2017

Robert Sheppard: My 'Leaving Rap' for my retirement 'do'

Leaving Rap

As soon as I handed in my notice I seemed to forget instantly why I’d done it. Was it the various petty things that had begun to rile me, in the way that things do, perhaps the longer you’ve stayed somewhere? I wasn’t sure.

I was still in this state when a colleague told me about a survey he had just read: the surveyors had compared the life expectancy of academics who retired at 60 with those who had retired at 65. They found that the latter group contained a higher proportion of people who pegged out at 70 than the former. It was then I remembered a piece of advice given to a colleague from my previous place of employment; his father, who worked in the administration of Guinness’ Brewery in Dublin, said to him, bluntly: ‘It’s the years between 60 and 65 that kill you.’

(I improvised around that theme up to this point, and then said) I’m 61! (and began to read)

Those working till 68 will be experiencing a soft genocide against which you must fight, as life expectancy rolls back.

It is time to look back over the 21 years I’ve been here. Despite the tension between the practice of teaching and the practice of research, which can’t really be resolved unless Edge Hill has a sabbatical system, and which means that teaching impedes research and (it is often forgotten) that research impedes teaching under such conditions, I’ve done all my best work while at Edge Hill:

the poetry, the literary criticism, the poetry organising and editing; the supervision of PhDs, the (too) long Programme Leadership of the MA, the development of BA poetry writing classes, the pedagogy of poetics and creative writing, the external examining and all of that:

much of which I will continue as an Emeritus Professor at Edge Hill (but at my own pace) and I will be around for continuing supervisions and events.

But of course, none of this is possible without some marvellous individual students, many of whom have gone on to do good work themselves,

and to students generally, who have never been exclusively the consumerist monadic egos that they have been taught to pretend to be, by various agencies.

Generally depressed by the Brexit result which has left many of them bereft of a cleanly conceptualisable future, young people have discovered that they are not just individual consumers but that they form an electorate, surprisingly left-leaning, that wishes to scrap tuition fees and loans and even to erase standing student debt. They’ve even been gifted two elections to try this power out, and they’ve got a taste for it.

That makes this moment a potentially interesting one that could stall the growing pitting of student against staff and suggests a more collaborative future for HE

As I put it in a recent poem about ‘one of those days in sovereign global Britain’

(you didn’t think you were going to get away without this, did you?)

There are no students in this poem yet their standing debt
Has nurtured a collective electorate that forms beyond
The ‘envies’ of petit bourgeois consumerism
This semantic field is manured with usurers’ tears

but today I want to thank all of you for coming

for gifts

and I want to say that it is the people that makes work work

and I want to perform a little semi-poetic litany


Thanks, thanks to

A for appointing me in 1996 as Course Tutor of the MA in Writing Studies, suspecting that a migrant from FE would know how to teach, and that a UEA MA might suffice, and for her calm leadership in interesting times

B for his sardonic humour and his ability to win numerous New Statesman competitions

C for his 'wheezes' and our shared love of Frank Sinatra (Sinatra knew how to retire), and for the rational approach to our two-person Creative Writing show

D for being the Man with the News, the spindoctor of those Education lit classes I taught for many years (but also the man who started the MA in 1989)

E for sharing and showing the ropes of the MA, even if she did lead me by the ear across the room in front of the students to demonstrate Peter Brooks’ Empty Space

F for being a fine theoretically-minded colleague, and for possessing the only pair of human legs to be featured on the Antiques Roadshow and who used to stand in her retro 1960s mini-skirt in front of the first years to lecture on semiotics and demand, What do I Signify?

G for a fund of rich lunchtime anecdotes on any subject from animal rights (but I recall his ‘hat of shame’, his animal fur hat) to trains frozen to the tracks in winter near Southport, and for the axiom: There’s no virtue in hard work, which I have taken to heart (as did he)

H for suggesting where we should move to in Liverpool: a hundred yards from her house! And her continuing neighbourly friendship

I for continually popping hilarious cartoons in my pigeonhole and for his vigilant trade-unionist eye

J for sharing hysterical high-kicks before teaching the first years, and for continued (but far too distant) support and friendship

K for sharing hysterical high-kicks before teaching the first years, and for being our first PhD candidate last century

L for sharing hysterical high-kicks before teaching the first years, and for spreading poetics as a pedagogy (and for lots more as a close friend of many years, and one link between this post I am now leaving and my previous one in FE, at the college where he was a student)

M for continuing the two-person show during ongoing understaffing of Creative Writing, and as a close friend with whom I share a lot of bewilderment and laughs, particularly in teaching the MA, and supervising PhDs, together

N with whom I ‘took the engagements’ frequently and occasionally to excess, who is greatly missed, and with whom I shared my literary criticism when we were meant to be rehearsing some songs

O for his maniacal laughter, his fragrant hair, his frequent goading of me, and for his incisively crafted poems

P with whom I’ve shared the supervision of the longest running PhD in the world, with tremendous humour, and for co-organising the one conference I dared to, on the anthology, in 1999

Q for hosting my talk for GenSex which had such an obscene title that it couldn’t be advertised publicly, and for being the second link between this post I am leaving and my previous one in FE, at the college where she was a student also

R, whose surname I could never pronounce, who led the MA opposite, as it were, with an efficiency that shamed my shambling Sheppard show

Comrade S for his leadership when it was needed and for his light, sardonic humour when that was needed (i.e., always!)

T (for example)

I am speechless on the T

(No, I’m not; how could I leave without resurrecting our team building awayday when we were invited to express ourselves freely about the bumper fun activities at the end in One Word, and M said ‘Scissors’ and I said ‘Time (as in a waste of)’ (technically 6 words); but I was wrong: this was also the day I saved the Creative Writing MA from integrating into the super MA he was devising; I used a string of arguments, none of which I believed….)  

U for his quiet ‘thoughtful’ (I’m using the Dean’s word here) leadership in even more interesting times, and for his following me along the escape route; in case you’re interested, the entrance is under that perspex DNA sculpture in the Rose Garden: the tunnel comes out just beyond the hedge in St Helens Road. From there it’s across country to Town Green station as fast as you can go…

V, who has been here longer than I have and has always been a gentle presence, from our first conversations in Sages in 1996 about where to live, to her steady presence now as associate head, particularly dealing with my illness earlier this year

W who has been here nearly as long, and who wittily and animatedly keeps Edge Hill on edge and on its toes, and introduces his unique interests with enthusiasm (particularly, as far as I’ve been concerned, on the MA)

and X (who took one of my lit poetry classes as a student) for her humour (I keep repeating this about people, I know, but it’s important) and for personal warmth

Y, for her annual comment that she’d been ‘writing over the summer’, and for her eventually giving in and taking the MA; colleagues aren’t usually good students, but she was as amiable as her writing is excellent

Z for his compendious knowledge and for his surprising marital connection with my schooldays

AA for her guidance in the ever-baffling world of research, where metrics now means something other than the fixed rhythm of some poems

BB who is my only Edge Hill link with my University Years at UEA: another sardonic voice (note how that term recurs also, a survival strategy); he was also an excellent personal tutor to Stephen Sheppard

CC, whose father in law appeared at our party: What is this music? Van Morrison. I shall return to the other room and listen to Erik Satie

DD, here for such a short while that I’ve forgotten his surname, for his ability to be so drunk and yet still upright as he was led from that same party and squeezed onto a train by EE

EE himself for being Swiss when he was on time and organised, Italian when he was late or bewildered, and German when he was justifiably annoyed with the rest of the world: a true international man of mystery

FF for her (I’m going to have to say it again) humour and leadership (Rodge and I didn’t even need to unroll the Kim Jong-Un joke we’ve been harbouring all year)

GG for having a grandmother who supplies an aphorism for nearly every situation in all our lives, and who offers it on call

HH who can make Rodge blush uncontrollably with his Grinder anecdotes (I’m still thinking about those thick veins)

II whose seriousness, I have to report, is a front: only he knows what ‘womb-lightning’ is, and how and where and why and who it strikes, and for his co-leadership of many poetry activities, including our co-editing of Atlantic Drift (that’s a shameless plug: it’s out on Saturday!), but my great thanks for thinking up a certain symposium earlier this year

JJ who is the first of all the Mohicans in this team  

Patricia for bringing work home with her so that we would actually discuss the progress of our students’ writing out drinking on a Saturday night

KK, the sound rich witch of the ash tree forest, who has taken over the reins of the Poetry and Poetics Research Group, ensuring it faces futurity


LL, who has the dubious honour of being my last teaching colleague on this long list, and who must come round to look at my Bob Cobbing archive soon (thus I end by looking forward and not looking back)

and thank you thank you thank you (to all the rest)...