Were Mike's theories on suburban alienation any help as he reached into the toilet bowl?

It was flattering to be asked up to Birmingham to address a staff-graduate seminar, but even as I licked the stamp I was beginning to have serious reservations.

Should I so readily have accepted my host's offer of hospitality? Universities can't afford hotel bills but was I really prepared to endure a long night in someone else's home, watching their choice of television programmes and then spending an embarrassing half-hour in a plasterboard bathroom trying to get the loo to flush? (My old friend Mike Tredgett from Keele University, who's written extensively on suburban alienation, once told me that he'd got into such a panic in this latter situation that he'd had no alternative but to reach into the toilet bowl, gingerly extract two large turds and hurl them vigorously out of the window.)

But at least I knew the actual seminar wouldn't prove too daunting. There's a wonderful tentativeness about such occasions that makes it impossible to know for certain whether the speaker is addressing a topic that has absorbed them for a lifetime or merely chattering about an issue that exercised them on the way up on the train. It is, for example, customary to begin with some such self-deprecating statement as, "What I intend to do this evening is to present one or two ideas. But don't think for a moment that these are in any way intended to be definitive."

I've attended several seminars at which this prelude became so extended that the speaker never arrived at the topic of the address before the end of the allotted time. This at least ensured that members of the audience were completely free to speak about their own current obsessions, which in most cases was their only reason for attending in the first place.

When I arrived at the seminar this Tuesday I was relieved to see that only four people had been attracted by a talk which, in a conscious effort to deter possible attendees, I'd entitled "Counter-Hegemonic Discourse in the Radio Phone-In". I began by suggesting that I'd only been spending so much time recently chattering on the radio because it provided me with a unique research opportunity. I then devoted ten minutes to routine self-deprecation ("These are not so much thoughts, as thoughts about thoughts"), a further five defining a phone-in (my audience was left in no doubt that it was not to be confused with the afternoon play) and then a meaty final ten minutes in which I suggested (very tentatively) that the radio phone-in was not genuinely counter-hegemonic because the presenter's voice always enjoyed an acoustic advantage over the telephonically relayed sound of the caller.

There were two contributions from the audience. An overseas student whose inadequate English suggested that he'd been accepted purely on financial grounds spoke incomprehensibly about Gramsci's concept of hegemony, and the chairman did his best to stretch out the proceedings by wondering if my ideas applied to television.

It was slightly tedious to spend the rest of the evening watching Crimewatch UK with my host and his wife, but their semi in Solihull was tastefully furnished, the toilet flushed first time, and I managed to turn right rather than left on the landing and thereby avoid jumping into bed with their 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte.

"We must do it again some time," said my host over breakfast. "Fellow academics are always welcome here. Apart, of course, from that so-called friend of yours, Mike Tredgett. He's a madman. I mean, I can understand his critique of suburbanites, but is that any excuse to throw lumps of shit at their houses?"

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie