In defence of Luddites

I saw an article this week that suggested the meaning and history behind Bonfire Night is being lost, and because of that and the proximity to Halloween, the two may gradually merge. Whatever you think about burning effigies of violent political protesters from times long past, it does seem sad to lose the meaning behind a tradition. It also strikes me as worrying when people start doing or saying something without knowing why – one of the least serious consequences of this is mixed metaphors and misplaced words.

Luddite. What does it make you think? Someone who doesn’t understand technology? A backward peasant, perhaps? I’m guessing that if that’s the case you don’t have a deep-rooted family connection to the textile industries of the West Riding. Some of my relatives were probably Luddites (it’s hardly something that gets officially recorded. Unless they got caught) so I’d like to nudge you away from using the word in that modern sense. I might not agree with their methods, but the Luddites were protesting against the introduction of labour-saving machinery that would take away their jobs. Far from not understanding the new technology, they understood only too well what it would mean for them and their families when the mill-owners needed to employ fewer workers. It’s a bit like supermarket checkout staff smashing self-service tills, or library assistants taking a hammer to the automatic book-sorter. Ultimately futile and likely to get them in trouble, but a heartfelt response to the prospect of unemployment. And in the early 19th century they didn’t have Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Why does it matter? Well, apart from a spot of pedantry, and not wanting dead relatives to be misunderstood, we need to hold onto history. Without remembering, we can’t learn from past mistakes, and considering how many there are, we have the potential to learn an awful lot.

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.

Fantastic academics

A while ago, as I mentioned at the time, I read (some of) the Oxford book of fantasy. Because I’m nerdy like that, I read the weighty introduction as well and it amazed me, first because there are apparently academics out there who study sword and sorcery, and second because even while arguing that fantasy as a genre is worth studying, they still seem to dismiss it. With friends like that, etc.

Plenty of fantasy stories are what I would class as mawkish trash (even some that I’ve enjoyed as a guilty pleasure), but then I have similar views on Dickens and thankfully for the heterogeneity of the literary world many people think differently. I’ve never been entirely convinced that studying literature at universities is a worthwhile occupation, but if you’re going to do it then I don’t see what’s wrong with studying fantasy – popular entertainment, particularly when it’s revealing what people dream about when they’ve got totally free rein, detached from reality, has got to tell you something interesting about the collective psyche. The problem of defining fantasy came up as it always does, but the phrase ‘known to be impossible’ struck me as breath-takingly arrogant: there are plenty of things ‘known to be impossible’ a while ago which have turned out not to be, from remote communities to scientific advances.

Another one that got me was ‘I suspect that few if any people now believe in dragons, vampires…’ – fair enough, I’ve never met anyone over the age of about 6 who believed in dragons, but I’ve crossed paths with people who believed (or wanted to believe) in vampires, and here’s a quote from Private Eye just before Christmas 2009: “There are at least 1000 people in the vampire community in New York City alone” – Michelle Belanger, author and former head of the International Society of Vampires. The author of the introduction seemed to find belief in demons, God and the Devil far more acceptable, but I honestly can’t see much of a difference between believing in demons and believing in vampires (both equally incomprehensible to my scientifically-trained atheistic mind). Mind you, he also seemed to see sword and sorcery as the continual triumph of brute force over intelligence, and it didn’t horrify him that such a state of affairs should be put forward as the natural order of things; clearly his mind works in a very different way to mine.

Odd days

For a while there it almost looked like I was posting these things regularly…

Normality, or what passes for it in these parts, is now resumed – infrequent ramblings, even more infrequent fictional output. Today I’ve made my first submission in four weeks, so while this year’s submission total is definitely going to be the best yet, at this rate most of them will have been in January. I keep thinking that if only I submitted more, even if my success rate stayed the same, in absolute numbers I’d get more acceptances which is presumably the point. Rational arguments with myself rarely work though, and I let my good intentions drift and fall away, until I get some jolt that makes me focus on achievements. Like seeing my grey hairs in the mirror.

I had high hopes for creativity this weekend: no pubs, clubs or supermarkets to sap my will; no pressing need to do anything in particular. Of course OneMonkey and I decided to go walking in the Peak District, and relying on public transport as we do, it really had to be Saturday. Which was very windy. And we’re both out of condition, having last been walking before Christmas. I was asleep by 9.30 with the cat curled on my feet, and all I’d managed to do since arriving home was strip my muddy walking gear off and drink some tea. This is the kind of thing I have to overcome to get writing, which probably explains a lot.

In search of lost time

So we’ve established by now that I am a time-waster, a faffer, a pontificating dawdler. And verbose. It’s not that I’m not an organised person, far from it, it’s more that my organising energies are directed badly: list-writing, calendar-marking, CD-arranging, labelling, cataloguing, in short anything that could probably safely be left until I’ve run out of all other occupations except breathing. I also get side-tracked very easily, so right in the middle of importantly tidying a stack of books (I have nowhere near enough shelves, or space to put them), I’ll remember the item I forgot to write on the shopping list earlier when I got halfway to the fridge door and decided to alphabetise the recipe books (all under V for Vegetarian).

To make matters worse, as well as my now-legendary written verbosity, I have a severe case of what my mother refers to (and believe me, it takes one to know one) as verbal diarrhoea, and I don’t seem to be able to talk and do things at the same time – one thing always distracts the other. By the time I’ve zig-zagged my way through seven interleaved activities when I get home from work, it’s just about bedtime; add a phonecall from my mum and a report of the phonecall to the long-suffering OneMonkey, and it’s so far past bedtime I may as well start making breakfast.

What’s that? You mean, if I stopped writing about how I never got round to writing, I might actually write something? Hmm, there’s an idea. Maybe I should try it sometime.

Two buses to Ripon

Far too much of my time is spent on, or waiting for, buses. Until recently, I couldn’t even read on a bus without feeling sick, but somehow I seem to have got round that by closing my eyes when we grind to a halt or go round corners.  I still can’t write on a bus though, which given my pitifully sporadic output is a serious shortcoming. For about five minutes, I toyed with the idea of a pretend phonecall, to allow me to record notes and snippets using the voice function on my MP3 player, then I realised I’d probably sound like less of a nutter if I just got the MP3 player out and started speaking into it. Needless to say, I haven’t yet.

I did try recording ideas and passages while I was washing up, to be typed up later, but with the long pauses and the distracting clink of crockery it wasn’t that successful. My next plan was to record while I was on my exercise bike; usually I either read a book or watch a DVD while I’m cycling, I find it distracts me from the tedium of the static scenery, and the worrying realisation that I’m unfit and nearly 30, never a good combination.  Unfortunately breathlessness, while something of a prerequisite in the sphere of romantic heroines, can be a hindrance for this sort of thing.

Ironing is a peaceful, mindless pastime that lends itself admirably to the contemplation of tangled plots and the honing of polished paragraphs, but if I only worked while I was ironing, I’d be down to a thousand words a decade.  If only I didn’t waste so much time on unnecessary activities, like reading the Education Guardian. Or writing a blog.

Rainy Day Women

On the way to work one sodden morning last week, I saw a woman with a clear dome umbrella; how she could see where she was going is beyond me, it had steamed up enough to obscure her face. Through the exhilirating 20-minute walk in the early morning gloom, as the rain only got heavier and the skies darker, I kept myself distracted from the way my skirt was clinging to my knees as I walked, by contemplating the stories behind that umbrella.

I might not always manage to convey them successfully, but the images in my head and the desire to lift them out and show them to people are always there, and I think always have been. By the time I reached my desk, my hand was so cold and wet it was hard to hold a pen properly (if it had been autumn, I would have worn gloves on a morning like this, but why would I have gloves to hand in summer? Unless of course I’d learned anything from past experience), but I needed to scribble down the ideas chasing round my head, even if most of them would amount to nothing. I almost always have a notebook and pen with me, and at work I have an out-of-date desk diary, mostly blank, that I keep for lunchtime scrawls or early-morning ideas.

Ideas, and snippets of dialogue, are not a problem – like Alan Bennett (one of my inspirations) I keep my ears peeled on the bus, and sometimes I strike gold. My main stumbling block is following an idea through to fruition, or fitting smart dialogue into a reasonable context. I start twenty different stories, some at the beginning and some in the middle, and finish one or two by the end of a year, if I’m lucky. Sometimes I forget where I was going, or my style and taste change so much in the meantime that I abandon a piece, but I might plunder it for one or two particularly good lines or images.

I keep telling myself that if I got down to this properly, if I sat at my keyboard for eight hours every weekend, an hour every evening before bed, I could finish most things I started, get more stories out there, and (statistically, anyway) have a better chance of getting published. As it is, I could faff for Britain, and if I really wanted to concentrate on one story, I’d have to try and ignore all the other ideas that came to me while I was writing it. What if one of them was the queen of them all?