Making Fuss

22 03 2009

[You can listen to a recording of this episode here.]

As some of the more attentive Facebook users listening may be aware, I have at last come to terms with the process by which these letters might be posted on the iTunes podcast store. Consequently I now have some idea of the numbers listening every week. (By the way, thank you, all of you, for downloading and listening)

However the iTunes diagnostics cannot give me the answer to a more important question: who is listening. It therefore becomes difficult to tailor the content of the letters to their audience so please excuse me if this week I bore you by talking about something very local to students at the University of York.

The view from my desk here in Nicholas Street has, over the past three years, rarely featured the distinctive outline of Student Union politics. Well, all that changed this week when I got stuck in for the first time and revelled in the process of directing Union policy.

On Wednesday afternoon one of the student newspapers ran with a story about a proposed change of union policy. Outrage ensued. The issue at hand? Was the summer ball to be held at York Racecourse, as is tradition, or on campus itself?

(Quickly going back to the subject of our audience here, I should probably explain to those of another generation that ‘tradition’ must be read as meaning about five years. And, yes, the location of the summer ball would seem to be important to us. But before you harp on about standards slipping, you can’t have spent your entire degree campaigning in the style of 1968. Sometimes, I guess, the small things matter too.)

Anyway, there we were. The Union wanted to cut out the cost of hiring York Racecourse and split the saving between tarting up the campus and a reduction in the ticket price. Not, it would seem an unreasonable thing to be attempting in the middle of a recession.

Well, this was not good enough for some, who felt the corporate suite of the Racecourse was a more appropriate place to hold the event. The key argument seemed to take two strands. First, that there was an issue of welfare – that students would be kept awake by the noise. Second, that the ladies’ dresses would be ruined by duck poo. (For those not familiar with the University of York campus, it is populated by a considerable population of ducks who enjoy making the place their home.)

After a great flurry of collective foot-stamping it was decided that the entire student body would take a vote on the matter, after an Extraordinary General Meeting.

I am not normally a fan of the slightly melodramatic language used by the Union constitution in these matters. But on this occasion it helpfully serves to highlight the great irony of deploying what may be termed the democratic nuclear option on such an utterly ephemeral matter.

But due procedure was followed and the meeting was held in the dying moments of the term. Speeches were made for and against. Lecterns were thumped enthusiastically as the most passionate among us debated the motion with a drama and intensity that is too often lacking in the Security Council of the United Nations.

On the other side of the room, however, was a different reaction. The audience was mostly made up of stakeholders in the issue – that is to say the people who would, ultimately have to organise the damn ball. There were others. I sat next to one girl who thought she was auditioning for next term’s production of High School Musical. Remarkably, it took her a good fifteen minutes to realise her mistake.

Once the prescribed number of speeches had been made one more person had something to say – a fellow named Dan Taylor. In accordance with the rules, the meeting was asked whether we wanted to extend the session by a few moments to hear what this chap had to say on the issue of duck poo. The answer? No, not really. It seemed we’d rather head to the bar.

And that was that. Now here again, listeners of a different generation may be unfamiliar with the idea of online voting. It has the unfortunate consequence of sapping all the drama out of an occasion. Rather than bring the issue to a head in the room, we had to wait twenty-four hours while all ten thousand or so members of the Union were invited to express their opinion.

So we come to the time of writing where I am at a distinct disadvantage – for me it is Saturday afternoon and the result has not yet been announced, but for you it is at least Sunday, which means you will either be writhing in despair with images of duck-poo stained dresses etched on your mind. Or deeply sighing with relief that the Racecourse will be booked after all.

Or of course there is the third option – that you don’t particularly care about where the students of the University of York hold their Summer Ball. And in that you share a common thread with the rest of humanity.

But the excitement of the last week should not be written off as the hysterical reaction of a load of students with nothing better to do than talk about duck poo (though of course it is rather vulnerable to that accusation).

The whole fuss has made rather a good metaphor for politics in general. I suppose all politics are, ultimately, a spat between two groups of people who care greatly, and who are watched by a third, much larger group, who don’t fully understand what the fuss is about.

The problem is compounded every summer. I’ve always suspected that the reason Parliament doesn’t sit from July to September is not that MPs need time in their constituencies. Much more likely, it’s just that nobody cares that much about politics when the Sun is out.

This week York has been smothered with a thick creamy dollop of sunshine which has had two main effects. First, it has made the debate over the Summer Ball even more isolated than it would have been otherwise. Second, it has prompted large numbers of people, beautiful and otherwise, to strip off and announce to the world that they think it is already summer.

Of course there is a subtle difference between sunshine and warmth, and unfortunately the former has not managed to heat anything up very much. Consequently those leaving the house in the morning optimistically expecting soaring temperatures into double figures have been sorely disappointed.

The sunshine does, however, indicate that the arrival is imminent, of that wonderful student institution the lazy afternoon in the beer garden. There is something particularly special about spending several hours supping beer in the back yard of some rural pub on a summer afternoon. I don’t think it’s the beer, though beer is always a good accompaniment to such things. More likely it is as simple as having the time to waste – an increasingly rare commodity, and on such occasions one that is normally spent debating, with great intensity, the irrelevant and pointless issues of the moment.

For now though, for me at least, and with a graduation in mind, I must spend my time on more important matters: writing a dissertation, revising for exams and, of course, deliberating about duck poo.

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