Archive for the ‘Thesis’ Category

Cricket as Revolution

February 23, 2017

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend an excellent panel discussion on Cricket as Revolution organised by the LSE as part of its literary festival. The two speakers were Dr Prashant Kidambi of The University of Leicester and the journalist and cricket historian Peter Oborne. 


It was an excellent evening. Prashant kicked off with an unscripted 15 minute talk outlining the theoretical approach that he’s taking to a social history of Indian cricket that he’s researching now. His argument that the development of cricket is closed tied to the modernisation of Indian society in the twentieth century is one with which I agree wholeheartedly and whose grid of analysis (the rhetoric of equality on the field v quotidian bias on class/ethnic/caste lines, the role of mass media, the varying role of nationalism, and the role of class formation) could be applied across a range of sports in a range of territories. 

Against Prashant’s coolly analytical voice we then had Peter Oborne give a less coherent but more impassioned account of the role of cricket in the formation of Pakistani identity. His shoot from the lip style in the discussion afterwards was entertaining and entailed an unexpectedly enthusiastic digression on the development of women’s cricket in Pakistan. But I reckon his fondeness for straight talking (for example the comment, ‘Dubai is the most corrupt city on earth … with the possible exception of Bueno Aires’) may give something of a headache to whoever has to edit the discussion for podcast. But if it does go up on the LSE site I do recommend a listen.

The open discussion ranged widely but focused more on present-day issues than historical events. Of course I’m interested in both but as a researcher I would have been interested more in the latter. The former I’d rather discuss in the pub or at the match. But it was good to see such enthusiasm for the game among the audience, and especially the stout defence of the Test game against the rise of T20.

Prashant I’d first met when he examined me for my PhD and during that meeting he’d mentioned that he was working on a piece about the first all-Indian cricket tour of the UK in 1911. My thesis was largely concerned with the growth of international sport in the imperial context in the 1900s and I was aware that my own section on Indian cricket was weaker compared to some of my other material but Prashant was nice enough not to take me too much for task about it.

So it’s now a pleasure to see that he has brought his work on the tour to fruition and his book should appear in the summer. Before then he will also give a paper at the Sport and Leisure history seminar series at the IHR on the subject which I’m very much looking forward to now that I’ve heard him speak, if only briefly, about it last night.


By an odd coincidence I’d given a lecture on Indian cricket the day before in which, to put it simply, I outlined that contrary to traditional (i.e. white, Anglo, middle class) it wasn’t MCC that gave the game to the world, the world took the game from the English and developed it as best they could under colonial rule. Prashant can tell the story of the tour much better than I can so I urge you to either buy his book or come along to the seminar, which will be on 5th June 2017, if you’d like to hear more about it.

#cricket #India #LSELitFest

On ‘On Connaît La Chanson’

May 1, 2015

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On Connaît La Chanson (1997), Directed by Alan Resnais.*

Alan Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad, passed away last year. Among his lesser-known works is one of my favourite films, On Connaît La Chanson. This week I watched it for maybe the fifth or sixth time while training for the forthcoming Hackney Half Marathon.** But I hadn’t seen it for a long time, perhaps for five years or so. Certainly not since I started writing up my thesis. It’s a beautiful ensemble piece which is a love-letter both to Paris and to Dennis Potter. It uses a variety French chansons to illuminate the characters’ inner emotions (à la Singing Detective) and thus acts as a beautiful little initiation into the variety of French pop in the twentieth century.

One of the reasons that I took to the film initially is that one of the characters, Camille Lalande (the character hanging off the Eiffel Tower in the illustration above) is a guide. And I think I first saw the film when I had just completed my training as a guide, or was towards the end of it. I could see that certain situations in the film were inspired by the real-life things that guides have to cope with all the time (know-all clients specifically being one of them). As a semi-pro guide I can tell you that her guiding style is awful! But mebbe that’s for another post. Here I’m concerned with OCLC and academia. For anyone who is planning to write, is in the process of writing or even has completed a thesis it is one of those unusual films – a film about doing a PhD. Or more specifically, Camille goes from candidature to completion of her PhD during the course of the film. And anyone who has been through that process will empathise with certain situations and feelings that she experiences.

The first thing, and something that I touched on in an earlier post, is how one can get bored with one’s own subject. And if you’re bored thinking about it you’ll be even more bored talking about it. Camille explains her thesis to an acquaintance and is shocked when she realises that he thinks it’s as boring as she does. Often when you’re inside the PhD even though you yourself may think it’s really dull you still want everyone around you to think that it’s the most vital and interesting subject in the room. If only because you want them to convince you that what you are doing is worthwhile. The boredom often becomes bound up with anxiety – not an anxiety about the examination but an anxiety that you’ll never finish the Thing.

This boredom-anxiety is a threat because it can lead to you becoming depressed. Such is the case with Camille. The one thing that she has chosen to focus on in her life (she appears to be working casually as a guide and has no partner or offspring at the beginning of the film), the thing that defines her to herself and to her loved-ones, has become something that gives her panic attacks to the extent that she passes out during a tour of a château.*** Even having passed her viva she continues to be plagued by thoughts of the pointlessness of the comically obscure subject she has chosen to write about.

To try and make someone who hasn’t done a thesis understand how stressful it can be is quite a difficult thing. ‘What, you mean all that sitting in libraries is stressing you out? Oh, you had to give a paper in front of six people? You mean you can’t stand the pressure of talking about something for a couple of hours about the one thing that you’re the world expert in? Poor you.’ To misquote Keith Miller, ‘Pressure is a Messerschmidt up your arse. A thesis deadline is not.’

Well, yes. Such a bracing quote can help buck you up but it doesn’t alter the fact that writing a thesis can be a long, lonely process that lacks the cameraderie of the mess hall, the glamour of a pilot’s uniform and the thrill of 500 mph dogfights. So what to do about the doldrums when they arrive?

For me there were three strategies. First, booze. I don’t think this is recommended by the medical profession and I wouldn’t advocate it except at times of maximum affluence, minimum responsibility and maximum leisure time. An unlikely combination of circumstances for those in the thesis game.

Second, acceptance. This is the course that Camille chooses, aided by the friend who was bored by her thesis. He recognised her as being depressed, a diagnosis that she outragedly rejects at first. By the end of the film she realises that she is depressed, and the fact that a friend is also in the same boat comforts her that she isn’t uniquely afflicted. Sometimes it’s very difficult to admit to yourself that you’re having a bad day let alone to someone else. To do that you have to get out of bed and get out into the world, which can be the hardest but most crucial thing to do. The amount of times I’ve felt, not better necessarily, but rather on the way to not feeling worse is by chatting to someone and owning up to feeling down. It’s not a loss of dignity to feel sad, or self-indulgent, or weak. It’s just a thing to be got over in time. And sociability I think is the key to that.

Third, putting a perspective on the PhD. And by that I don’t mean pretending that it’s not a big thing. It is. To a lot of people it will be their greatest accomplishment to date. That’s a big deal. But by perspective I mean that you need to see it as part of your job, not an end point to a stage in your life. On a practical level the PhD is a job qualification that should lead to you being a member of the professional academic community, whether you choose to work in academia or not. Which means that doing a PhD is not unique; there are other wannabe professionals all over London doing just what you’re doing, only for a different set of letters after their name. Such as MITG.****

And that was something that helped me when I was fed up. Sitting on the tube, on the bus, walking around and observing the multitudes of people in London beavering away at improving themselves. Thousands and thousands at Birkbeck, in schools and universities, in FE Colleges and the City Lit. London is a community of strivers.

In this way Camille’s sister, Odile (in the red coat), is an exemplar. She’s a furious, energetic ball of strive. But a more useful (and real) example is that of Resnais himself. One aspect of the artistry of what he does in OCLC only occurred to me while watching Fast and Furious 7 at the weekend. Superficially they’re very different films (though I can’t help thinking that Vin Deisel’s ‘acting’ style would very much lend itself to the dreamlike blankness of Last Year in Marienbad). Yet what characterises them both is that they are ensemble pieces. For F&F7 this is a problem. The characters lack depth (even though they’ve had 14 hours or so to acquire it over the course of the franchise) and each time we have to spend time with them in conversation (in between bouts of increasingly ludicrous action) the film slows down. In OCLC on the other hand one doesn’t even notice how the skill of the director, even while using magical realist techniques that render the story as fantastical as F&F, introduces the characters to you in such a way that they become real people that you care about.

And Resnais did this to the very last year of his life, making films until into his 90s. Such tenacious creativity is worth remembering when feeling down about the pile of work to be done. Keep going.

*Not to be confused with On Connait la Chanson (2011-present) which appears to be an example of one of the few Canadian crimes against humanity.

** No, I’m not asking for sponsorship – if you want to give some money to charity come along to my Movember walk later in the year.

*** A tragi-comic moment – her group can’t tell whether she’s genuinely ill or play-acting as some character from the past. This prompted thoughts of the rivalry between guides and costumed interpreters that came up when chatting to a colleague at a seminar recently who has worked as a costumed interpreter at Historic Royal Palaces. She was (good-naturedly) put out when I made clear my feeling that interpreters (who are tied to a property) are a rung below guides (who wander where they will).

**** Member of the Institute of Tourist Guides


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