Fighting the multi-headed hydra: Strike diary 14

I last wrote on the final day of our strike action to save our pensions. Since then, I have been on ‘action short of a strike’. What that means is open to debate, but I have simply decided to work 35 hours per week, as per my contract. I have also decided that weekends are weekends and vacations are vacations. This sounds absurd doesn’t it? Being on action short of a strike means that I’m working the way I’m supposed to be working. But such is the culture of overwork in academia that even this takes effort and commitment. It is, however, liberating. I feel I may continue working like this beyond the period of industrial action.

A copy of the Farnese Hercules at Chirk Castle, North Wales. Photo taken this Monday – yes it was snowing.

Much has happened in our industrial dispute over the last three weeks. Two weeks ago, late on a Friday afternoon, we were informed that our employers (UUK, Universities UK) had made an offer. That offer consisted mainly in promising the constitution of a joint panel of experts who would work on future plans for our pensions. In the opinion of many (me included), that offer was extremely vague but somewhat promising. Our Cardiff union branch, like many others, passed a motion to ask the employers to ‘revise and resubmit’ (to use a phrase that is familiar to anyone who has published in an academic journal) their offer. Unfortunately, and for reasons that remain unclear, these motions were ignored by the union leadership, and we are now faced with a vote on whether we want to accept the UUK proposal or not. I have voted ‘no’.

The issue is that, whatever the result of the vote, we don’t know what comes next. This is very unnerving. What is clear, on the other hand, is that our fight is not solely against our employers; it is also against a legal system that seems entirely in favour of ‘de-risking’ pensions, that is, moving risk away from employers and onto individual employees. I use quotation marks for ‘de-risking’ because to me this seems a most risky strategy: some employees will make ‘good’ investment choices (and note the quotation marks here too because a profitable investment is not necessarily an ethical one); others will not.

Heracles fighting the Hydra. Source: Wikipedia.

What has become clear to me, then, is that we are fighting a multi-headed monster, like the Hydra that Heracles/Hercules defeated. Ancient authors, however, debated as to whether the Hydra truly had many heads. Here is what Pausanias, the second-century CE author of a sort of travelling guide, the Description of Greece, had to say:

By the source of the Amymone [a river in Argolis], there grows a plane tree under which, they say, the Hydra, was born. I’m convinced that this beast was different from other water-snakes in its size, and that its poison was so dangerous that Heracles used its bile to treat the points of his arrows. It seems to me, however, that it had one head – not many. It was Peisander of Camirus [a seventh century BCE poet] who gave the Hydra its many heads, in order that the beast might appear more terrifying, and thereby that his poetry might become more noteworthy. Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.37.4

Touchè Pausanias! My Hydra may indeed only have one head, and I may be exaggerating for literary effect. But where exactly is my Hydra’s head located?  Where exactly do we need to concentrate our efforts? Answers will come soon, I hope. In the meantime, I choose to remain somewhat positive, since I know that the poison of the slain Hydra also has healing properties. Indeed, the geographer Strabo (first century BCE – first century CE) reported that the poison of the Hydra may have conferred healing power to a river in Elis:

Near the cave of the Anigrides Nymphs [the Nymphs of the Anigrus river], there is a source that makes the region downhill marshy and waterlogged. Most of its water flows into the Anigrus river, which is deep but slow and therefore forms stagnant pools. This boggy place emits an offensive smell over a distance of twenty stadia and makes the fish unfit to eat. There are various stories about this: some say that some wounded Centaurs washed off the poison from the Hydra there [after the battle with Heracles]; others that Melampus used the waters of the Anigrus as means to purify the daughter of Proetus [these daughters had been stricken with madness]. The bathing water there cures white spots, lichen and other skin diseases. Strabo, Geography 8.3.19.

If you wish to learn more about the industrial dispute from experts, I recommend the USSbriefs.

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Bella Ciao: Strike diary 13

This extraordinary month of strikes has come to an end. We had a great rally at Cardiff University today, with rousing speeches and rallying songs. Then many of us who are involved with the union retired to the pub.

In British universities, strike songs tend to be pastiches of well-known pop songs. Super-talented colleagues treated us to new versions of, among others, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; Oasis’ “Wonderwall”; and The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication”. But best of all, was Steven Stanley’s original rap “Get your paws off our pensions” (which you can watch here).

Busy gathering this morning in Alexandra gardens

I am sure Britain must have a tradition of workers’ songs, but I do not know them, which is rather sad. For I do like good workers’, partisans’ and revolutionary songs (see also here). This I have learnt from my father. I remember watching Dr Zhivago with him, and he would put the sound to full when the Internationale came on. As a teenager, I expressed my complete embarrassment, but secretly found this quite cool.

But there is no better workers’ song than the traditional Italian Bella Ciao, which is now best known in its anti-fascist version (see the Wikipedia page for the Italian text and English translation), but started its life as a song of the female rice-weeders in the Po valley, who were hoping for decent working conditions (see here for the Italian text).

Where the original version stresses the hardship of toiling in the rice fields of the Po Valley, among the mosquitoes and other insects, the anti-fascist version paints nature in a rather more bucolic fashion. The partisan asks to be buried on the mountain under the shade of a beautiful flower, by which s/he will be remembered.

I wanted to close this strike diary (for now – we may be back) with flowers: the flowers of Bella Ciao; the flowers that have started to spring everywhere in the last few days after a spell of very cold weather; and the roses in this epigram by Meleager (first century BCE) which celebrates hard work and the beginning of Spring:

A Cardiff crocus

Windy winter has left the skies,
The purple season of flower-bearing spring smiles.
The dark earth crowns herself with green grass,
And the blooming plants wave their new leaves.
The meadows, drinking the delicate dew of plant-feeding Dawn,
Laugh as the rose opens.
The shepherd on the hills rejoices in playing the pipes,
And the goatherd delights in his white kids.
Already the sailors travel on the wide sea,
Their sails swollen by the gentle breath of Zephyrus.
Already, covering their hair with the bloom of berried ivy,
people shout in honour of Dionysus, bearer of grapes.
The bees that are generated from the ox’s carcass
Consider their artful labours, and seated on the hive they build
The fresh white beauty of their porous comb.

A beautiful flower-shaped incense burner from Roman Belgium, Royal Museums of Art and History

The races of birds sing sweetly everywhere:
The kingfisher by the waves, the swallow on the roof,
The swan on the bank of the river, and the nightingale in the grove.
If the tresses of plants rejoice, and the earth blooms,
And the shepherd plays the pipes, and the fleecy sheep cheer,
And the sailors sail, and Dionysus dances,
And the birds chirp, and the bees labour,
How should a singer not sing beautifully in the spring?
Greek Anthology 9.363

Ciao for now!




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Take heart, sailors: Strike diary 12

We are now nearing the end of our planned strikes. Tomorrow will be our last day. There will probably be further strikes in April, May or June if negotiations fail to bring resolution to this dispute, but we will return to work on Monday.

To be honest, I worry about this return to work. Apart from my maternity leaves, this is the longest time I have been away from my desk since I finished my PhD in September 2005. For I have fully withheld my labour. I feel that if, as a lecturer in relatively secure employment, I disrupt students’ learning and delay administrative work, it is only fair that I should not seek to develop my own career by working on my research. I present my sincere apologies to colleagues in other countries to whom I owe pieces of work – I promise they will be ready very soon.

That is not to say that striking was a break. This has not been restful at all. We have stood outside in all weather. We have spent hours on social media trying to rally people to our cause. We have attended teach-out events, open meetings and committees. In many ways, it feels as if we swapped one job for another one.

We also allowed ourselves to dream about better universities. Universities that are not driven by metrics and audit exercises. Universities that are communities of scholars, of people passionate about education.

So it is with some sadness that I will attend our last rally tomorrow, and with mixed feelings that I will return to work on Monday. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and perhaps we need some poetic encouragement.

Mosaic with ships, lighthouse and dolphin, Ostia. Photo: Patrick Denker, Wikipedia

Book 10 of the Greek Anthology (a collection of Greek poems put together in the Byzantine period) is devoted to hortatory and admonitory epigrams, poems that exhort and warn various people. I particularly like the following epigram, by a certain Satyrus (perhaps active in the first century BCE), which encourages sailors to take to the sea in the spring:

Already, the moist wind of Zephyr, who gives birth to grass,
Falls softly on the flowery meadows,
The daughters of Cecrops sing, the calm sea
smiles, undisturbed by the chilly winds.
Take heart sailors, loosen your mooring cables,
and spread out the delicate folds of your ships’ wings.
Go to trade, trusting in kind Priapus.
Go trusting in the god of harbours.
(Greek Anthology 10.6)

May we be of good courage!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Piero Tassinari, my friend and colleague, who passed away on the fourth of October 2017. He loved poetry and sailing and considered education to be a public good. Here is an extract from a film he made with Italian reporter Paolo Rumiz. It is stunning.


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Cross-pollination on the pickets: Strike diary 11

Strikes are unnerving and unsettling. It is perhaps for that very reason that they are also sites of great creativity. There is so much art in making placards, creating slogans,  and writing strike songs. Our Cardiff rallies are becoming more entertaining and more cathartic by the day.

Another positive aspect of the strikes is that we get to meet people we would not meet otherwise. While universities praise interdisciplinary research on paper, it is fair to say that they do relatively little to facilitate that interdisciplinarity. Most British universities have lost their senior common rooms; staff are too busy to take their lunch hours; budgets for seminar series are dwindling. And when people from various departments meet, it is usually for administrative reasons, not to engage in “blue sky thinking”. So, quite strangely, striking can allow us to grow our academic circles.

If I were to use a botanical metaphor, I would say that strikes offer unexpected opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas. I touched upon the history of pollination yesterday, and I return to it today. The Greeks and Roman described processes that we would call pollination processes (in particular in the case of the fructification of the date palm; see here), but they did not understand pollination: they did not understand the ways in which plants reproduce sexually. This is why they could come to the conclusion – rather absurd in our eyes – that bees could damage flowers.

Gold plaques with bee-goddess, Camiros, Rhodes, 7th century BCE. The British Museum. Source: Wikimedia

We find that conclusion in an oration attributed to Quintilian (first century CE), on which I have written a few years ago (see here): a poor man and a rich man are neighbours; the poor man has bees; the rich man has flowers; the rich man accuses the poor man’s bees of damaging his flowers; the rich man sprinkles his flowers with poison; the bees die; the rich man is accused of wrongdoing. Then follows the long defence of the poor man (Pseudo-Quintilian, Orations 13).

This oration is well-known among classicists. Far less-known is the poetic reinterpretation of the case by Jean-Jacques Porchat-Bressenel, a professor of law, rhetoric and Latin literature at the Academy of Lausanne in the nineteenth century. His “Les abeilles du pauvre” was published in 1837 in his Glanures d’Esope (p. 295-6). By then, the role of insects in plant pollination was known (it was discovered around the mid eighteenth century). That fact is reflected in Porchat-Bressenel’s fable, which I translate here – rather freely:

Once there was a fellow, named Peter,
He only possessed a small plot;
Two goats he there struggled to maintain.
However, a great hive, bigger than his hut
Chez Peter flourished.
The neighbourhood whispered:
“His flies constantly on our flowers feed.
How dare he believe he has the right
To exact a toll on our meadows?
And to boast about his harvest!
I am in the tax collector’s good books,
And I do not need to pay more dues.
Against such pilfering, there must be a law;
By Jove, such a headache!
I want, when I have paid parliament and king,
To be sole master of my land.”
To that, what did the bee respond?
The bee, buzzing, kept to its labour,
Collecting up hill and down dale,
Never asking to whom the crimson flower,
To whom the plentiful pollen belongs:
They are the spoils of the hive or the wind.
And, in winter, when from the north the barbarian breaths
Spread in the neighbourhood colds and catarrhs,
The poor Peter with his honey,
Without asking a fee for his prescription
Came to heal his neighbours or alleviate their pains –
He even managed to sweeten their bile.

The story is clearly inspired by pseudo-Quintilian’s oration, but with some twists. The poor man’s neighbour is not presented as particularly rich, but rather as a narrow-minded, avaricious bootlicker, who has no understanding of new advances in science: he does not know what pollen is. The story is also given a moral ending: when the winter sends diseases to Peter’s neighbours, it is his honey that heals them for free.

There is a lesson here for modern universities!





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You’ve got the butterflies all tied up: Strike diary 10

The last 24 hours have been filled with drama. At 8 pm yesterday, a tweet by the Financial Times pensions correspondent, Josephine Cumbo (who has been doing excellent work throughout this dispute), announced that an agreement had been reached between employers and our union. As the details of the “agreement” came in, most of us realised that it was entirely unacceptable: we were still being promised poverty in old age. Within 30 minutes, #NoCapitulation was trending on Twitter. By 10 pm, an open-letter asking to reject this deal had around 5000 signatures. We live in the digital age!

This morning, union branches throughout the country met to vote on the “agreement”. At Cardiff, we had to assemble in a local park because the community hall that had been booked was too small to host everyone. After a great exercise in direct democracy, we voted to reject the agreement. Nationwide, one branch after the other did exactly the same – unanimously. We sent our negotiators back to the table. Groups of students in many universities occupied buildings.

At Cardiff, a meeting at the Welsh Assembly had also been scheduled today. We travelled by buses to the Senedd and listened to speeches by several Assembly Members and trade unionists.

I won’t lie. I’m exhausted. I want to go back to the class room. This afternoon, I felt like giving up this diary. I felt so depleted. However, the beautiful weather – and a nap – gave me a boost of energy; and here we are for my thoughts for the day.

Colin the Caterpillar Cake. Photo by Ben Sutherland available on Wikimedia.

In fact, the following thoughts have been with me since the beginning of the strikes. I have found myself thinking about butterflies a lot over the last month. You see, our local strike slogan is #HelloColin, after our Vice-Chancellor’s first name, Colin. “Colin” is also the name of a Marks & Spencer’s caterpillar-shaped cake. (Wikipedia informs me that more than 7 millions Colin the caterpillars have been sold since it was introduced in 1990.) Picketers at Cardiff have of course exploited to the full, and in good humour, the association between our V-C and the caterpillar.

So I’ve been racking my brains and tried to think about Greek and Latin botanical texts referring to pretty butterflies flying over beautiful flowers. I could not recall any, and a look at a few works on animals in the ancient world confirmed this. The Greeks and Romans wrote very little about adult butterflies. Instead, they concentrated on the – far more pesky, from a farmer’s point of view – larvae and pupae. This is partly because the ancients had no understanding of the process of pollination (see here for more detail), and could not therefore appreciate the important role butterflies and other animals play in the propagation of plants.

Coin from Rhodes with Helios on the obverse and a rose bud with butterfly on the reverse. Source:

Greek and Latin authors considered the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly alongside phenomena of spontaneous generation. I leave you with the verses of Ovid allegedly recording the teaching of the philosopher Pythagoras on the matter. For Pythagoras, butterflies are the souls of the departed:

If trust is given to things proven by experience,
Can’t you see that, due to time or melting heat,
Whenever corpses putrefy, they are transformed into tiny animals? […]
And those that are used to cover leaves with their white threads:
The wild caterpillars (a thing observed by farmers)
Change their form to become funeral butterflies.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.361-374.

May my butterfly mind rest tonight!

PS: some of you will have recognised the title of this blog as one line in Prince’s ‘When doves cry‘ – a beautiful piece of poetry.

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The money tree: strike diary 9

“Money doesn’t grow on trees”. In essence, that is what we are constantly being told in universities. If we, as staff, point out the discrepancy between that message and the fact that UK universities are engaged in huge building projects both on local campuses and abroad, we are told (again in essence) “university finances are very complex”.

Of course finances are very complex, but many people participating in the current UK university strikes object to being denied their expertise. There are pension experts and financial risk experts in universities: why were they not involved in decision making? (This is a rhetorical question.)

Crassula ovata. Source: wikimedia

I am certainly no expert in matters of pensions. But I am an expert in the history of botany, and I can tell you that money trees do exist. I am not referring here to the succulent plant commonly known as “money tree” (Crassula ovata (Miller) Druce), but rather to various folkloric trees that are made to bear money.

As it happens, I came across one such tree – a wish tree – during a walk yesterday near Symonds Yat, a village straddling the river Wye. From the car park on the East side of the river, you access the river via a steep flight of steps. It is midway down (or up in our case, as we did a circular walk) that you can see a felled wish tree. This is a tree into whose bark  coins were hammered. Hammering a coin is the equivalent of throwing a coin into a public fountain – it is supposed to bring good luck.

I do not know whether this particular tree was first used for wishing purposes after it had been felled (there are also examples of wish stumps) or before, when it was still a living tree. If the latter, it is possible that the tree died of metal poisoning, which is rather sad but also very evocative: poisoning by money.

To my knowledge, there are no recorded examples of money trees in antiquity, but there are examples of trees to which offerings were made (see here for the example of Xerxes’ plane tree). The philosopher Theophrastus (sometimes referred to as ‘the father of botany’) tells us about one such tree: a wild olive in the market-place of Megara (not far from Athens):

This happened with the wild olive in the market-place at Megara; there was an oracle that, if this were cut open, the city would be taken and plundered, which came to pass when Demetrius took it. For, when this tree was split open, there were found greaves and certain other things of Attic workmanship hanging there, the hole in the tree having been made at the place where the things were originally hung on it as offerings. Of this tree a small part still exists, and in many other places further instances have occurred (Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants 5.2.4; translation Arthur Hort).

Now that we have “established” that all sorts of things – including money – can grow on trees, can we please have our pensions back and return to work? Pretty please!

My premises are false, you tell me…

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All four seasons in one day: Strike diary 7

After the great freeze (by British standards) of last week, the weather has turned very mild. There’s now a scent of spring in the air. On the one hand, this makes the act of picketing much more bearable; on the other, this has somehow dampened my resolve. There is something to be said for having to brave the elements: it distracts from the absurdity of the situation at hand.

I have found myself overusing the word ‘absurd’ recently; still, it is the right one to describe much of what is going on. Thus, for instance, UUK (Universities UK, the body that represents our employers) announced on Monday afternoon that discussions with UCU (University and College Union) would be suspended until Wednesday afternoon, only to announce at around 8pm that same day on Twitter that it would meet with UCU ‘any time, any place’. I thought aliens had hacked the UUK Twitter account, but apparently not. Absurd, as I said.

The tiled corridor in Cardiff’s Old Library. Source: Wikimedia.

One has to try and keep sane in the face of absurdity. I do this by finding beauty wherever I can. So today, after my stint on the pickets, I went for a walk through Cardiff and I ended in one of the city’s ‘secret’ jewels: the tiled corridor in Cardiff’s Old Library.

The building is no longer Cardiff’s main library, but hosts the tourist information centre and the lovely Cardiff Story museum. It is through the museum that you gain access to the tiled corridor (which is not always open unfortunately).

The tiled corridor does exactly what it says on the tin: it is a beautiful display of late Victorian tiles. They were bought from Maw & Co, and the most striking tiles in the corridor were designed by Walter Crane.

Crane (1845-1915) was a famous English member of the Arts & Crafts movement, who experienced with many different media. You will most probably be familiar with some of his work, even if you have never heard his name.

Walter Crane, Beauty and the Beast. Source: Wikimedia.

The Cardiff Old Library tiles designed by Crane represent Day and Night and the four seasons. All these are pictured, in a classicizing style, as female deities named in Latin: Aurora, Nox, Ver, Aestas, Autumnus, and Hiems. They are absolutely stunning. Here are the Four Seasons for your delight:

I spent ten minutes at least in the tile corridor entirely on my own. This peace was most welcome after the hubbub of pickets and rallies. I came out stronger in my resolve to strike for decent working conditions. I highly recommend a visit to the Old Library!

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