Black slavery and rural Britain

This summer I went to two places in Britain that had unexpected connections with eighteenth and nineteenth-century slavery. Since it’s Black History Month, I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about what these places tell us about the impact of the slave trade on Britain.

The first place I want to talk about is Ullapool, a small village in the far north-west of Scotland. The current village was founded as a herring port in 1788, although there’d been a settlement around there much earlier.

Street in Ullapool

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Do Oxbridge students earn more (and how would we know)?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am mildly obsessed with the UK government’s LEO (Longitudinal Education Outcomes) statistical set, which provides vast amounts of easily manipulable statistical data. The set measures what the UK government increasingly considers the key educational outcome of a university education: how much graduates earn. But this is not the post I originally set out to write, and the reason why interests me, and hopefully you.

Sundial with chronophage ("time-eating" grasshopper.
Like the Corpus Christi College Cambridge chronophage, the LEO dataset eats time. (image by Rror from

I wanted to check one of the basic assumptions being made about discrimination in university education (especially racial discrimination): that Oxford and Cambridge graduates earn more than those from other universities and so any discrimination in their intake causes major economic disadvantage right from the start of a career.

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Not teaching after all

A few weeks ago, I was on holiday telling some relatives about the hourly-paid lecturing work I’d be starting in October. The day I came back from holiday I found a really good quote I was going to use in the first seminar. The day after that I got an e-mail telling me that I wasn’t going to be teaching the unit.

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Boethius and Brexit

A few days ago, on holiday in Scotland, I was rereading the sixth-century author Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. My family have been reading and talking a lot about the increasing likelihood of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, so inevitably my reading of it was influenced by that. In my worry about the hardest of Brexits, was I reacting as a philosopher should?

Wheel of Fortune
Philosophy shows Boethius Fortune and her wheel

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Respect my priestly authority

Hincmar of Rheims contemplating Louis the Stammerer

This is going to be quite a roughly-written post, playing with some ideas on the manliness of medieval priests. So obviously, let’s start with chimpanzee politics. Frans de Waal who researches the topic says that alpha chimpanzees aren’t necessarily the strongest and meanest. Instead, they’re the ones able to build coalitions (because a group of chimpanzees can defeat and even kill a single chimpanzee) and these coalition-building males can have surprisingly long reigns in the top spot. Think of that as the start of personal authority in the prehuman world: an individual’s qualities as meaning others (including other males) willing to accept his decisions.

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The long dark night of the soul in hospital

Note: I recently had to spend four night in hospital with a leg infection (cellulitis). I wrote this towards the end of my stay, when I was recovering, and it’s pretty much unedited from then. It seemed important to try and pin these feelings down, so I could learn from them in the future.

It is always darkest mentally in the hospital ward not just before dawn, but at 2.30 am, when several strangers are snoring or coughing within earshot. That is if they’re not plaintively asking for help, but not using the call bell. Or gasping in pain because the blood pressure monitor hurts them, or their foot with the broken bones has moved just the wrong way.

I’m writing this at 3.30 am in the ward, which is not a good time, but is at least an hour nearer the point when there are other people around to talk to and things happening that will distract you from the thoughts in your head.

It’s my fourth night in hospital with a bad case of cellulitis and it’s a reasonable night because I got some sleep early on and I’m well enough to regulate my mood and remind myself that a few days of poor sleep won’t harm me. My first two nights were the hardest – not with pain (I didn’t have much when not walking), but with the stress of unfamiliar surroundings. It wasn’t the kind of illness that left me lethargic and dozing. And even physical pain would have distracted me from mental pain.

Instead, especially the first night, I lay there with the ancient terror of depressives in my head. Things are never going to get better. This is how it will be for ever, or it will get worse. The first couple of days the women in the ward with me were aged 77, 89 and 99 (we had to give our dates of birth repeatedly to nurses). I’m 53: to my literally feverish mind, I was looking at forty years of pain and decline and aloneness. That was if I lived. I’d heard the phrase “signs of sepsis” used of my case when I was admitted and I knew that could kill. Was it better dying now, my only child aged sixteen, or end with dementia like the 89-year-old? And since I had only one child, would there be any family to visit me in hospital when I got old and ill again, or to provide care support at home so I wasn’t trapped in hospital?

Those weren’t my only thoughts, of course; even I’m not so morbid. But I’m not sure the doctors and nurses always understand that the swings in their statements from “you’ll be discharged tomorrow”, to “we’re keeping you in for at least two nights more” are the triggers of depressive thoughts for me. There might never be an end to this. And that’s compounded when you’re told that you can’t go home because your heart rate is too high. So you’re forcing yourself to try and stay calm when your vital signs are being taken (and I’m disappointed every time I “fail” the test), but since they don’t know what your normal heart rate is and neither do you, could you be trapped here for ever till it gets down to some supposedly ideal state where it’s never been?

I’ve mentally got through my long dark night of the hospital soul, I hope, but tonight someone else had it, at the nursing station at 2.30 am, unable to sleep, wanting to phone her son so she could leave. The nurses persuaded her to go back to bed. I prayed silently for her and later offered her some earplugs, as she’d offered me cough sweets when I’d needed some. This is not an intensive care ward for the desperately ill: all of us will probably get out safely and back to normal life. But some nights it’s hard to believe that.



The problems of English education 4: should you change subject?

ntu graduation

Graduation at Nottingham Trent University – image from

It’s become apparent to many university staff that one of the great hopes of the current government is to use LEO (Longitudinal Education Outcomes) statistical data to influence prospective students’ choice of courses. Specifically, they want to encourage students to switch subjects to those that on average produce higher-earning graduates. This is seen, for example, in the suggestion that this data should be incorporated into subject teaching (TEF) assessments, even though there is no  good evidence that how high a salary you earn as a graduate is connected to how well you were taught.

This is obviously worrying for those who teach subjects whose graduates (on average) earn less in the long-run (including historical subjects). I don’t think it’s possible to put the genie back in the bottle and ignore LEO data, but I think there are more useful analyses of it that can be made. That’s because too many discussions about subject choice start from the assumption that a seventeen-year-old prospective student can decide when investigating universities that they want to study medicine at Oxbridge rather than Media Studies at Poppleton University. Any realistic view of switching subject has to start from a more basic question: what subjects is the student actually good at and enjoys studying?

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