02 March 2012

Appealing for help is not illogical

How can it be that I complain of the lack of support for my work? Well, of course, lack of support for ‘my work’ is lack of support for me in the most basic sense, and there has been a plentiful lack of support, to the point of active opposition and obstruction.

When I was at school (at a school which I was forced to attend against my will, having told my parents at the end of the first day that it was a place to leave instantly) a hostile headmistress said to me that it would be good for me not to be treated as an exception. In the sense of being given no help in learning more languages than other people. I thought even then, with very limited information about what was going on behind my back, that while I might not be being treated as an exception in the sense of being provided with opportunity, I surely was in the sense of being the object of the storms of slanders which raged around me.

People tend to dislike my use of the word ‘slander’ in this context, and soften it to ‘gossip’. But in retrospect it is clear that its effects on my life, and on the lives of my parents, were extremely damaging.

Thrown out at the end of the ruined ‘education’ with no usable qualification with which to apply for a grant or salaried appointment in any subject, I was extremely fortunate to be led to the Society for Psychical Research, where I took a temporary job to help finance my return to Oxford at the start of the next academic year in the autumn. There, without research grant, salary, or income support from social security, I intended to pursue my researches in theoretical physics, to the extent that was possible in such painfully impoverished circumstances.

As my work would not be officially recognised as such, I would not have a supervisor (which is necessary for the eventual grant of a D.Phil), but I imagined vaguely that I would send some of my work from time to time to the Physics Department, to let them know that I existed.

At the SPR, however, I found that I would be regarded as eligible for, and would be supported in applying for, the Perrott Research Studentship – a postgraduate grant from Trinity College, Cambridge, a college with which the SPR had strong historical connections.

This was a way in which I could return to Oxford to do postgraduate work with the support of a grant instead of without any financial support at all, so I resolved to stay on at the SPR throughout the next academic year to see whether I could get the Studentship. If I did not, I would return to Oxford anyway and carry out my original plan of doing freelance research on theoretical physics, on my own and in poverty. The money saved during the extra year away from Oxford would at least provide an absolute minimum of financial support; by that time it might pay for a year’s rent on a cheap room.

In fact I was successful in my application for the Perrott Studentship, and had to consider what were the areas of potential research that could be considered as meeting their terms of reference, and would be most likely to lead to results that would gain academic recognition and re-entry to a salaried academic career.

In whatever subject I was making my salaried career, which implied aiming at becoming a Professor and head of a department in that subject as soon as possible, the salary would provide me with sufficiently liveable conditions (I thought and hoped) to be able to get something out of doing research on my own in theoretical physics, and also out of writing some of the books which I felt an internal pressure to produce. There would, at best, be far too much pressure on my time for life to be comfortable. I would have to aim at the fastest possible career advancement, and by the time I was a Professor perhaps there would be enough space for productivity in my life to allow for some sense of well-being.

I use the expression ‘career’ and ‘career advancement’ to convey to people what would be involved in practice, but I had never really thought of an academic career below Professorial level as a career in its own right at all, but only as an unfortunate preliminary to my real life as a Professor, the necessity for this preliminary having been forced upon me by the ruined ‘education’. If my ‘education’ had not been ruined, and Oxford University had not been hostile, I would have expected to become a Professor immediately on leaving Somerville.

I should perhaps also make the point that I did not regard the sort of ‘research’ under supervision that was necessary to gain higher degrees as ‘research’ at all. This was another preliminary which society set in one’s way to delay the start of a real life. I had been shocked to discover what went into getting a D.Phil qualification, which one would apparently have to do before entering upon real life, ‘real life’ meaning being free to reconstruct theoretical physics, while living in a hotel environment.

I did not discuss with anyone how little time would be left over from doing what was necessary to earn my salary and work for career advancement, even when I had re-entered a university career by obtaining a salaried appointment, as this was some years in the future, even after being awarded the Perrott Studentship. Nevertheless I suppose some awareness of the constrictions of such a situation entered into Somerville’s extraordinary assertions that, without a research grant or a salaried appointment, I was ‘free to follow my interests’.

When, many years later, I had an interview with a Somerville Fellow in Philosophy, to find out whether my D.Phil in Philosophy would induce them to let me have a salaried appointment, I was amazed that she could assert that I would be ‘less free’ if I had to meet the demands of such an appointment. So I would be ‘more free’, in her eyes, if I continued to live with no source of income.

It is apparently a standard piece of modern ideology that the income which may be derived from an academic career is inconsiderable, and that no money is necessary for staying physically alive, let alone staying alive in circumstances permitting intellectual activity. Nor is money apparently necessary for what counts as actual research ‘work’. Hence people can talk about ‘supporting my work’ as a peripheral frill, the absence of which should not lead to any complaint.

I remember one conversation with a salaried academic, similar to many others, at an international convention on lucid dreams at London University. I said I was unable to get support to take further my research on lucid dreams, or any other topic. ‘Oh, well’, she said. ‘There is no support. I can’t get any either. I have just given up on trying to.’ This person was a salaried academic in America, possibly deriving many advantages and facilities, as well as salary and status, from her university position. Subsequent to the publication of my book, she had become well known for her work on lucid dreams, although probably without ever receiving direct support for that purpose.

I, on the other hand, had produced the book on lucid dreams, on which her work had been based, as an unsalaried and statusless person, implicitly applying for the necessary funding to make further progress in this new area of research. She could, it would appear, see no difference between her own need for support and mine. Like all other academics who have worked and published in the field of lucid dreams, she made no response to my appeal on my website for contributions of £1,000 a year from every salaried academic who had worked in this field.

If someone recognises, as I do, that human nature contains little in the way of genuine altruism, it does not follow that it is illogical for them to complain about their position. It could be argued that complaining is, or should be, dependent on whether one is objectively suffering, rather than on what society happens to regard as worthy of complaint. However, the fact that the present society claims to be interested in ability, and purports to have a system designed to reward those with high IQs, is liable to heighten any bitterness one may feel about one’s position.