Monday, 19 October 2015

“Did you just call me a cunt?” - A valediction for uncensored, no-holds-barred, on-campus debate

Lay to one side any academic qualification that a person might obtain from spending three years at one of the UK's fine higher education establishments, and consider for a moment the kind of individual these faculties will eventually unleash upon the unsuspecting world.

English universities have long been places where young men and women, who have mastered the art of passing A levels, are granted an opportunity to slip free from the shackles of parental expectations, along with any dismal real-life persona they developed during seven concurrent years of puberty and secondary school. It's a period of experimentation - a time for trying on new and colourful identities, prior to settling on a less-grating personality - one that won't get you punched too frequently after you graduate.

On campus, hilarious stereotypes abound. I used to walk to lectures from my hall of residence, my footsteps dogged by a female black metal fan, whose smudged corpse paint, which covered her entire face, left her resembling an undead panda. You don't get that quality of individual in the dreary world of minimum wage 'work-till-you drop' jobs that I now inhabit.

There are common pairings too – certain types of people who seem preordained to be friends with each other. One half of an on-campus bro-mance that I used to encounter regularly was the young man whose recently-grown, shoulder-length hair, and newly-acquired leather jacket, hinted at clumsy exploratory forays into the world of goth metal, and possible ownership of a Type O Negative album. Riding on the rebellious vapour trails of this proto-edgelord would be his lanky, wire-haired, ginger-bearded sidekick – who had confounded society's expectations of lanky, ginger-headed men by opting for a degree in the soft humanities, as opposed to, say, Geology or Archaeology.

One morning a small group of us converged around four pushed-together tables in a room adjoining the corridor that comprised our university's Philosophy Department.

The younger, slightly more twattish, version of myself, who was fond of quoting Rimbaud and, when drunk, randomly bellowing “PARKLIFE!” at the top of his voice into the ears of unsuspecting strangers, had just concluded what was, as I recall, a masterful summation and critique of selected passages from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

That was when mock-Goth boy chimed-in:

The gist of his counter-argument was unremarkable enough to have been lost in time, but I do remember its conclusion where he summarised my presentation as “a load of old cock-swallow.”

I felt a boiling tide of anger rising inside me. My knowledge of Aristotle had been openly challenged in front of people who I hardly knew and barely respected.

How dare this cretinous streak of piss with the ginger-headed best mate disagree with me.

- This contemptible archduke of wank, clad in a leather jacket that now bore Tipp-Exed quotes from Milton's Paradise Lost.

- This human skid mark, whose key to unlocking the underwear of impressionable female students was the one song he had mastered on his acoustic guitar, which he would play incessantly. That song was Under The Bridge by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. 
This was nothing better than a playground scrap re-contextualised in a peer-reviewed setting, among the stunted, swamp-bound spires of Reading University. 

Fortunately for me battles in this environment are won and lost, not with flying fists and off-balance attempts at roundhouse kicks, but with finely-nuanced rhetoric, forged in the molten crucible of minds honed from four years of GCSEs and A Levels. A world of the intellect where witty and insightful rejoinders spring readily to the tongue:

Did you just call me a cunt?”

We were in an educational setting so the words came out in dressed in academic vernacular – 'Sir, either by design, or through your pitiful intellectual shortcomings, you have grievously misunderstood the tenor of my argument. The statements that you have made in support of your rebuttal are flimsy in construction and unlikely to stand up to the crushing weight of my response,' etc.

None-the-less, the underlying meaning of my reply was clearly evident in my tone of voice.

Rising to the moment, I continued, stabbing at the air with my finger as I launched into an impassioned speech that would have dazzled the Roman orator Cicero with its power to sway the hearts and minds of my rapt audience. I began by positing the hypothetical scenario upon which I intended to construct the arguments that would utterly demolish my opponent:

What if an alien from the planet Cock-swallow were to venture down to Earth...”

Others in our small group, sensing that civilisation was about to disappear into a gaping sink hole, began to wade into the discussion with their own inane theories and opinions. This was no longer a finessed debate – the exploratory back-and-forth of two duelling fencing masters, each feeling out the other's weaknesses, always meticulously plotting two or three moves, or counter-moves, ahead of their opponent.

This was a 'post-five-nil-at-home-defeat-at-the-hands-of-the-shittest-team-in-League-Two- full-on-pub-brawl' with students chucking bits of Platonic dialogue and Aristotelian maxims around like empty Grolsch bottles, while figuratively kneeing each other in the bollocks.

Spirited discussions like this are what I miss most about university. They were safe spaces where you could argue vociferously, and sometimes crudely, back and forth without fear of any long-term consequences.

Many of us were from middle class backgrounds. We had been told, almost as a matter of routine, by our parents that we were brilliant, and had experienced very little adversity in our lives. Being thrown into a situation where an essay that you had worked hard on would be openly challenged and torn apart by your peers if you didn't stand up and fight your corner, bred within us the resilience and the reserves creativity that we would tap into in the face of future adversity. 

These bare-knuckle scuffles made me come alive. I am sure that I was wasn't the only person to leave the room at the end of a debate riding high on a crest of Adrenalin and exhilaration.

Two decades on, safe spaces mean something different. Cultural paradigms in academia have shifted alarmingly in the direction of political correctness, which has taken a hammer and a chisel to free speech, with potentially damaging long-term social consequences. 

Sanctions for perceived misbehaviour on campus have, at some higher education establishments, become draconian and out of step with wider society. A student must now consider not only the strength of their argument but the way they express it and whether this will cause offence or contravene any university policies on free speech. The young man who, in the early 1990s, glibly referred to my presentation on Aristotle as “a load of old cock-swallow” could, in 2015, credibly find himself suspended for sexual harassment, or for triggering a student who found his off-kilter terminology offensive.

I never graduated from university but what I did learn there was invaluable in preparing me for the harder world that awaited just off campus.

I wonder what impact the neutered debates that increasingly characterise the modern university experience will have on the current student cohort as they leave education and enter the workforce.

Thursday, 8 October 2015


At the age of 41 I found myself sleeping rough on the streets of London, ironically with 41 pence to my name.

Wherever I slept I would awaken at four or five am, with the coins scattered around me, having worked themselves free from my pocket during the night. I imagined them as rats fleeing a sinking ship.

When I eventually returned home I had lost most of the feeling in one half of my right hand (although there has been some recovery my little finger is still partially numb). My first couple of weeks back had the quality of a waking dream where familiar settings such as my bedroom assumed monstrous and unfamiliar appearances. I expected at any moment to open my eyes and find myself back on the streets.

During this time I wrote down lines for a poem on scraps of paper.

I returned to these notes a few days ago and decided that I would work them into something for National Poetry Day.


by Mark Sadler

A cast-off from
the railway station,
who slipped free from
the end of the line
and was caught in
the purposeful eddies of
the evening rush-hour foot traffic,
is swept into the dingy corner
of some forlorn cul de sac
with soaped-up windows -
A heaped, vaguely human form
obscurely contoured
beneath a soiled blanket

A former climber
who in reduced circumstances
maps his ascent
on the horizontal plane.

In his sleep he claws
at the paving stones
in an attempt to gain
purchase on a handhold

or crushes against himself,
and holds his ebbing warmth
close to his chest
like a cherished treasure
that he will die to protect.

In the bleary, diesel-scented fog
of a grainy pre-dawn
supermarket delivery
he makes his own re-acquaintance,
recovers from the pavement
the small change
that migrated from his pockets
during the night.

The coins that flee his possession
in anticipation of a
greater tragedy to come
assume a tarnished constellation
around him.

Fallen stars
dimly recast in dulled metal
pressed flat beneath
the crushing gravity
of the world above his head
as he slowly sinks into two dimensions.

They resist his trembling attempts
to prise them from the
cold stone.

In the fading darkness of
another London night
where the foundations of sleep
have been restlessly sketched out
on a scrap of dirt
in an unlocked churchyard
a body in rehearsal for death
assumes the foetal position.