by Eli Lambe
On Monday, Jon McGregor, author of Costa Book Award winning Reservoir 13, announced that he would not be taking part in this week’s event for the UEA Spring Literary Festival. His reason was that doing so would involve crossing the picket line of the ongoing UCU Strike against changes to pensions, which would leave lecturers and teaching staff at universities across the UK around £10,000 a year worse off (than in the previous arrangement). He stated “I have never crossed a picket line in my life, and am not about to start now. Instead, I will be joining staff, students, and writers for an evening of readings and discussion as part of the Alternative University being organised by striking staff and hosted by the Students’ Union.”
The evening included readings from current- and ex-UEA students and teaching staff and was headlined by McGregor. Other big names included Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent, UEA Creative Writing graduate Megan Bradbury and James Meek, author of the almost prescient, Private Island. Students, lecturers and researchers crowded into the graduate centre in Union House, taking up every available space to listen to readings ranging from book excerpts and poems, to a banjo rendition of a Woody Guthrie’s The Ballad of Tom Joad and an article about the corporate fucking over of workers in Somerset and Poland.
Hosted by Philip Langeskov and Jean McNeill, the night felt like a pop-up UEA Live – with all the talent and mastery of the written word you’d expect from such an event. Perhaps because of the pop-up style, there was a sense of support and care, reflecting Langeskov’s comments that being on the picket line had brought staff from across the university together in a way that hadn’t seemed possible before – creating conversations about their rights and treatment.
they would have to strike for between 10 and 15 years before they lost the amount they stood to lose as a result of the changes to the USS pension scheme.
Before introducing the first reader, LDC’s Jeremy Noel Todd, McNeill commented on a conversation she’d had on the picket line which strengthened her resolve in the face of an ever-decreasing bank balance – Langeskov had pointed out to her that they would have to strike for between 10 and 15 years before they lost the amount they stood to lose as a result of the changes to the USS pension scheme.
Whilst not all of the readings explicitly dealt with strikes and workers’ rights, there were common threads of precarity, as well as contrasts between wealth and poverty, anxiety and revolution. James Meek’s reading from his article in the London Review of Books, Somerdale to Skarbimierz, followed the relocation of a Cadbury’s factory from Keynsham, near Bristol to the Polish town of Skarbimierz and described the costs of not fighting for workers’ rights, as the unopposed relocation removed decently paid “unskilled” work from one area to create poorly paid insecure work elsewhere.
Megan Bradbury read an excerpt from Everyone is Watching which followed Jane Jacobs in her opposition to Robert Moses’ plans to overhaul Greenwich Village in the sixties. The conversation the excerpt recounts, dealt with differences between the urban and the suburban, feelings of lost potential and being trapped, and the feeling of missing “everything that you had promised to be since childhood.”
the decision to strike was not taken lightly, and each striking member of staff was putting their own money on the line.
Jill Crawford followed with an account of anxiety, isolation and intrusive thoughts from a hotel room in Egypt in 2012, and I was struck by its care and relatability. Meanwhile, Sarah Parry’s reading, from her short story They Flee from Me that Sometime Did Me Seek was a masterful modern horror encapsulating fears of sudden, terrible abandonment.
In his closing speech, Langeskov thanked students for their support and solidarity and emphasised that lecturers and tutors wanted to be teaching – the decision to strike was not taken lightly, and each striking member of staff was putting their own money on the line. When asked what students could do to help, Langeskov asked us to show up for the pickets, continue to bring food to the picket line, and to email the Vice Chancellor David Richardson to ask him to reverse his position as other VCs across the country have done. You can email David Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org, and join the picket line from 8am – 11am every day of strike action.
There is also an “Alternative University” being run from Union House, with talks and seminars in the afternoons whilst the strike continues. The full programme is available here. Langeskov commented after the customary escalating roar of applause that marked the end of the event that he was very grateful to the students who performed and to those who attended, and that the evening “thoroughly engaged every aspect” of the strike.
Featured image from the Writers For the Strike poster.
Additional event images provided by Matt Taunton.
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