BBC

Tension over tenses? Why worry?

A man walks into a bar… Hang on, if I know that then it must have already happened so maybe it should be ‘a man walked into a bar’. Does that sound right though? It’s like I’m telling the story at one remove so is it as easy for you to picture the scene? Actually I can’t remember the joke now, never mind.

There was an article in The Guardian earlier this week about one Radio 4 chap (John Humphrys) accusing another (Melvyn Bragg) of using the present tense when talking about past events and thus being pretentious and confusing. It’s all a bit of a non-story but maybe we need some light relief given recent world events and it did get me thinking.

I don’t remember being taught much grammar in English at school (plenty in other languages, not that much of it stuck) but I seem to have clung for years to those few rules I remember, and woe betide anyone who falls foul of them in my presence. I might not always recognise a split infinitive but when I do, I pour scorn upon it. Incorrect was-ing and were-ing (unless in a legitimate Yorkshire context) will be pounced on immediately. Or rather (and here the tense does matter) that was the case before I lightened up a bit and started questioning the rules.

Questioning rules normally comes quite naturally so I don’t know why it took me so long with grammar, maybe I just didn’t consider the possibility that they weren’t written in stone. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my language neuroses, I still shout ‘from’ at the radio in response to every ‘different than’ that I hear, but on the whole I figure as long as it’s clear what’s meant, what does it matter? The point that John Humphrys seems to have missed is that context is everything, and the newspaper headlines and the academic discussions he cites aren’t really confusing, he just finds them annoying. If I’m listening to a programme about Shakespeare and someone says ‘he buys a house’ I’m not likely to go ‘hang on though, he died a few years back didn’t he?’. Whereas if I come back from a round the world cruise and someone says ‘your Aunt Ada was a lovely woman’, I might want to go check if I missed a funeral while I was out of the country.

Far from being pretentious, I’ve always taken the historic present (not that I knew that’s what it was called) as an attempt to sound chummy and down to earth. By saying ‘and it’s after this meeting that Matthew Arnold gives his famous speech’ they make it sound like it’s recent, relevant, perhaps someone they know (and the academics on Bragg’s programmes have probably been working on these matters for so long they do feel like they know the people involved, even the ones who died two hundred years ago). It doesn’t sound as dry as relating some fact from the past, it’s more like you’re there with him as he goes through this action. Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps that’s another point about grammar and the like – we all have different views and interpretations. Different pet hates. Partly to do with background, education, age, but also associations (the first time we encountered this phrase was in some book we couldn’t stand, a friend’s irritating ex always made this particular error and now it grates) so maybe we should step back and think about what language is for. At one level it’s about communication and as long as the right message has been conveyed it doesn’t matter so much how it was done. At another it’s about rhythm and imagery, and to be honest I can see even more scope for bending the rules there. So, you know, take it easy, stop trying to score points (half your audience won’t know whether you’re right or wrong and most of the other half won’t care), and marvel at the versatility of language. However, I reserve the right to keep shouting at the radio in private and I’ll understand if you do the same.

Heavy metal: music on the sidelines

It hasn’t been universally welcomed, but like it or not you’re unlikely to have escaped the fact that Metallica were the first metal band to headline Glastonbury, last weekend. I’m not what you’d call a Metallica fan (I do still listen to the black album, and it’s still good) and I also have mixed feelings about their headlining status, though not for the same reason as the widely-reported row about it, but I definitely couldn’t help knowing that a) Glastonbury was on last weekend and b) Metallica were headlining on Saturday night. Yet I had to go look up the Sonisphere dates when I was trying to tell OneMonkey about Bruce Dickinson’s flying intro (it’s this coming weekend, the weekend of the Tour de France wondering what’s hit it in West Yorkshire, since you ask).

Consider these screenshots:

Over 2 million search results for Glastonbury on the BBCOver 400 search results for Sonisphere on the BBC

Even allowing for some of those 2 million and odd hits not actually being about the festival, doesn’t it tell you something that there’s only a few hundred about Sonisphere? (I would have used Donington as a comparator, but since it has the unhelpful name of Download these days, I didn’t bother)

There’s a concept on the BBC (for those of you reading this from outside Britain) called ‘undue prominence‘, which basically means the BBC can’t be seen to be promoting something, whether it’s a brand of soap powder or a particular band. Given the continual pushing of Glastonbury on 6Music for days (weeks? months? ‘tickets now available’, this singer rumoured, this band confirmed) leading up to the festival, and the re-playing of parts of Glastonbury sets for a couple of weeks afterwards, the BBC news website headlines about it, and indeed the BBC Glastonbury website, I have to wonder how far they’d have to go to fall foul of the guidelines. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there was only one music festival on at this time of year, and hadn’t heard that Download was 2 weekends before Glastonbury, or Sonisphere (as we now know) the weekend after.

Bruce Dickinson 2008

Scream for me Glastonbury? Maybe not…

So, is it a breakthrough that Metallica were one of the Glastonbury headline acts this year? Er, no. Surely we want greater diversity of music reporting, not a nod to ‘minority tastes’ on the all-but-state-sponsored festival du jour. Bruce Dickinson has been quoted as saying Iron Maiden wouldn’t play Glastonbury, and I would hope they’d stick to this if they ever were asked. There was a time when Radio 1 (in the days before 6Music) acknowledged that rock and metal existed and was popular; I listened to the whole of Donington 92 live, mainly because we always had Radio 1 on in our house (we even listened in the car as we embarked on a family holiday, the climax of Maiden’s set was a bit crackly as we ate fish and chips in a lay-by). The following morning I bought a second-hand tape of The Number of the Beast and the rest is history. How does the music-loving teenager come across any genre outside the mainstream these days? I end up listening to 6Music as the least worst option on my clock-radio (can’t get Planet Rock outside the kitchen for some reason) and I like Shaun Keaveny but the music choice leaves a lot to be desired.

We could of course learn to have properly diverse festivals. Germany apparently managed it with Rock am Ring at the start of June, where Maximo Park were on the same bill as Metallica, and a good mix of the Glastonbury, Download and Sonisphere line-ups seem to have coped with playing on the same day as each other, in the same venue. Until that happens, it would be nice if the mainstream media noticed that live music events do happen outside Somerset, even in June.

(Though not if they report them like this review in the Guardian from 1999 which has been bugging me for nearly 15 years. Maiden didn’t even play Moonchild  – the song he quotes the lyrics from – that night. I was there. And I can point to a set-list that says they didn’t, too. Either send someone with an affinity for the music on offer, or at least someone who’ll pay attention)

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.

The North, the working class novel, the iplayer

For those of you with a passing interest in Northern working class culture and writings thereon (and let’s face it, on this blog it’s a definite benefit) there are a couple of rather interesting radio programmes on the BBC iplayer and they look like they’re available for quite some time yet.

The first is Beyond the Kitchen Sink, which I must have missed last year when it was on as part of the British New Wave season. It does make the occasional reference to other programmes from the season, which I don’t think are still available, but it’s an enjoyable documentary in its own right. For just short of an hour, Paul Allen talks about the plays and novels of the mid-fifties to sixties which brought working class voices to the fore. There are archive contributions from the likes of John Osborne, David Storey, Stan Barstow, and clips from the film and radio adaptations of their work. A much more intelligent treatment than the BBC TV documentary from September 2010 with an overlapping focus (which I reviewed here) it asks questions like why were the writers mainly northern, mainly men, and why did it appear to be a brief trend. A suggestion for part of the answer to the last question is that writers following in their footsteps went into TV rather than writing plays or novels, which brings me neatly to the next programme.

Bingo, Barbie and Barthes: 50 Years of Cultural Studies is a dreadful title for a thought-provoking two-part documentary on the origins and legacy of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which Richard Hoggart founded in 1964 after he’d written The Uses of Literacy (which I’ve written about before). It features interviews with co-founder Stuart Hall who died recently, as well as other cultural studies academics past and present. It’s interesting to note how far removed cultural studies now seems to be (particularly in the popular imagination) from Hoggart’s intention but I do think that at its most incisive it can tell us a lot about the state of our society, for instance by examining the prevalence and format of TV talent shows or Downton Abbey or celebrity gossip magazines.

If any of that’s put you in the mood for some Northern writing and you haven’t sampled it already, you could try my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women. Some of it even has a working class setting…

Review of the week (it’s been an exciting one)

Apart from the release of my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women (more of which in a moment), I’ve been listening to the new BBC radio version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Richard Mayhew helps a girl in a London street and finds himself caught up in the disputes of London Below, with its fiefdoms and tangential relation to the London Richard’s familiar with. I enjoyed the TV series when I first saw it on DVD a few years ago, but it’s true the radio series had more scope and is therefore in some respects better. There’s a well of darkness in Neverwhere that can only fully be dredged when your imagination’s supplying the images (I was picturing most of the characters as they appeared in the TV series, but they weren’t being confined to scenery I’d actually seen them in). It remains a good story, which is the main thing, and though I knew the plot I was still finding it tense and unsettling at times.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Little Book of Northern Women, which I self-published via Amazon at the weekend (though it should be easily convertible to non-Kindle formats; I’ve got it as epub on a Kobo) has given me a thrilling few days so far. Kelvin Knight has become a one-man publicity campaign on my behalf, a role which I neither asked nor expected him to play, but which is much appreciated. The other stalwarts of the Telegraph Short Story Club have, as usual, been most encouraging as well, tweeting and generally shouting about the new book’s existence. So far, the feedback has been good and people have been enjoying the stories they’ve got round to reading (which for some eager people is all of them), but I would love to hear what anyone else thinks of the collection or any of the stories in it – you could leave a comment here or write a review somewhere and point it out to me.

Detective novel as history lesson

As a follow-up to my post in January about the detective novel as geography lesson, I thought I’d point out an article in last week’s Guardian, which my dad has steered me in the direction of. Mark Lawson, it seems, has made a series for Radio 4 about post-war European history as seen in the pages of detective novels. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it does sound interesting and the article mentions a few names I haven’t come across before and should probably go in search of. As Lawson points out, possessions and circumstances are particularly important in crime novels and they serve to catalogue the changing norms in society.
The Guardian also seems to have noticed the existence of NaNoWriMo, which of course starts tomorrow. I won’t be taking part this year (still sorting out those short stories from my mad March experiment) but good luck to all participants and we’ll see you on the other side.

Story a day update, Dirk Gently, and Peter Tinniswood

In the first 6 days of March I wrote just over 5000 words, spread among 5 different stories – not bad for an arbitrary self-assigned task, and the wordcount doesn’t include the copious notes I’ve made on what happens between the point I reached and the end of the tale. I’d been hoping for one or two completed flash pieces; all the topics I’ve tackled so far seem to warrant a longer work than that but I’ve still got over 3 weeks left.

Thanks to the brilliant BBC iplayer I’ve watched the first episode in the new Dirk Gently series. If you approach it not as a follow-up to the incomparable Douglas Adams novels but as a programme of the sort that a Douglas Adams reader may enjoy, it’s well worth a watch. Gently and MacDuff are well cast, the plot was suitably convoluted, silly, but with a twisted logic to it, and there were a few nods to the original. And I do love the fact that he’s still driving that Austin Princess (I actually have a story in my unpublished pile which features a car of that very type – many years ago my dad had an electric blue one).

Also thanks to the iplayer, on which I’ve caught various episodes of Uncle Mort’s South Country and Uncle Mort’s North Country (never in the order they were intended), I read a Peter Tinniswood novel a couple of weeks ago. A Touch of Daniel is the first of his novels featuring the Brandon family, of which Uncle Mort is a member by marriage. Written in the late 1960s and set among working class characters in a northern town, the novel could happily sit alongside better-known classics such as A Kind of Loving or Room at the Top. However, Tinniswood wrote comedy, and comic novels are hard to pull off though he manages it here brilliantly: this is understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best. There are running gags, the on-off-on engagement which put me in mind of Bob and Thelma in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, a shotgun wedding featuring a most unlikely couple, bizarre deaths and apparent miracles. All wrapped up with a houseful of elderly (and slightly potty) relatives, a staunch mother, wayward father, and taciturn Carter Brandon the put-upon young man at the centre of it all. If you like Robert Rankin and the Likely Lads, you could do worse than read this book.