Kirsty Gunn: A vision of dystopia amid Oxford’s dreaming spires

An alternative reality is taking over our universities, a loss of institutional freedoms
An alternative reality is taking over our universities, a loss of institutional freedoms
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I was down in Oxford last week and thinking about freedom. Something about the city of dreaming spires set it off, igniting a spate of ideas around intellectual and creative license and how intellectual and creative license actually shouldn’t need any license at all.

For one just thinks. One just imagines. Or so we hope. We who happily inhabit our Western-style democracies don’t ever expect that we might live somewhere that doesn’t want us to do these things – although even here, where we’ve always said we value such freedoms of expression and thought, a lot of people don’t get to exercise that kind of individual will or have the wherewithal to say fully what they think, in all kinds of ways.

I was in Oxford because of my involvement with the writing programme there, as an external examiner who oversees the procedures around student work and submission and who sits on the examining board to help determine the final outcome of marks.

A wonderful expression of creative and intellectual freedom right there, you might say. This sharing of ideas and skills across universities all over the UK.

And indeed, at the various meetings in Oxford we talk quite a lot about that – the importance of tutors, lecturers and writers on writing programmes being able to express their expertise and their authority in the wider world of publishing, arts and culture as they go about the day-to-day business of helping young people and those returning to education learn how to read and write fully, creatively and well.

But freedom ends up being curtailed. And not only in Zimbabwe, but here in Scotland, too. In all kinds of ways teachers and thinkers and creative practitioners are being directed, in subtle and menacing initiatives, towards producing certain kinds of “outcomes”, as the educational and social jargon has it, that might reflect funding streams and governmental objectives.

Individuals speak out at the risk of losing their jobs or institutional support. At Oxford, there was talk of a student at one of the colleges who is suing the university over his class of degree. His argument being that for the money he spent, he should have come away with a First.

“Poor guy...” said the writer and critic John Carey, who is an emeritus Merton professor of English, when I was talking with him about it. “Can you imagine?”

Well, yes, we went on to agree. Horribly, ridiculously, we could. If universities are run like businesses this is exactly the kind of thing that can happen. “Value for money, all that,” said John. Poor guy. Poor all of us.

For it’s the end of universities as we know them – a whole kind of institutional freedom gone, just like that – and a dark new world upon us, where economic value is the only one there is; where everyone pays for the goods and services they get and ‘free thinking’ comes in partnership with capitalist opportunities.

It’s kind of like living in an alternative reality, all this. And with Kezia Dugdale going off to star in “I’m a Celebrity” and Alex Salmond raking in some Russian roubles with his own TV chat show, we can say goodbye to any idea of a serious political culture as well, can’t we?

I recently went to see Blade Runner 2049 on the big screen so you might say alternative realities, alongside curtailed freedoms, are playing their part in my thinking in all kinds of different contexts.

The film was recommended by filmmaker Graham Johnston, who studied at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and is giving a lecture there next term “skewed a bit by ‘neuro-art history’” as he puts it, “an idea that subverts conventional art histories and offers a new kind of permission to create”.

There’s that “permission” word again, you see.

Backed into a corner as we artists all are now by the rhetoric that’s hardened into orthodoxy such as “relevance” and “sustainability’ – words that look innocent enough on the surface until you realise that sustainability means private funding and relevance means it’s political. We need permission to do everything these days, it seems.

The new Blade Runner, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1980s original, was breathtaking in its awful dystopian vision. Graham’s advice to see it for its “soundscape and world” was good advice – for those qualities were more than enough to see me through a screenplay lacking much in the way of nuanced writing and a plot that lurched somewhat through its machinations.

“An artist always gives something of herself to the work” a character who designs memories for the man-made workers who dominate the Earth that human beings have mostly left years ago, says, in a moment of clarity and precision. No license requested there, or needed.

I came out of the cinema with Hans Zimmer’s massive base-dominated soundtrack reverberating in my ears and Denis Villeneuve’s re-cast vision of Scott’s version of our future playing over my walk back to the multi-storey car park.

Young people released from the torture of zero-hour contracts working at fast food joints and coffee shops had collected in a corner with a fag and a bottle. “Nothing to worry about!” they called out. “Your car’s safe! It’s ok!” I knew that; it wasn’t the car I was thinking about. It was them, a group of lovely young men who had probably been to universities themselves, who’d felt free once, who were on my mind. Were they ok?

“There’s snow in Caithness” my sister texted me as we drove down the ramp and out into the dark. “Better get up here as soon as you can.”