Class and the BBC

Monitoring the class background of BBC employees strikes me as an over simplistic and probably counter-productive way of aiming at greater diversity in journalism, though I do agree that the BBC’s viewpoint does seem overly narrow (London-centric and middle class) at times.

In his Alternative MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival, Jeremy Corbyn has apparently suggested that the BBC should analyse the social class of its workforce. None of the reports I’ve read about the event this week say whether he set out how this should be done, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Apart from the research that suggests there are now seven identifiable class groupings in Britain rather than the familiar upper-middle-working, how easy is it to spot where the boundaries lie and at what point does someone move from one to the other?

At university I met a couple of people who’d been to state school (at which they’d learnt Latin) and came from, as far as I could tell, solid middle-class (certainly wealthy) backgrounds. Would they tick a diversity box because of their school? At my fee-paying school I knew people on assisted places (like me) and scholarships. One girl, whose strong accent our English teacher used to complain about, was from a single-parent, unquestionably working-class, household that had no previous brushes with higher education. Would she be overlooked in the diversity game, seen as privileged like the chap who pointed out in The Guardian that though he was seen as a ‘public school Oxbridge type’ when he worked at the BBC, he’d achieved success from a poor background via grammar school? Are we intending to punish people for their achievements?

I find the obsession with widening access to Oxbridge annoying and wrong-headed, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t do your utmost to get more working class teenagers in there, and then say anyone who’s been to Oxbridge isn’t who you’re aiming your diversity scheme at. In my opinion, it’s not so much where you studied as what your attitude is and whether you notice that not everyone in Britain’s having the same experience. My dad argues that once you go to university you’re no longer working class, and while I agree with him that you might have moved away from your origins to a degree, you haven’t necessarily moved towards anywhere in particular. Spending time with family and keeping in touch with old friends should keep you in tune with your roots even if you don’t fully fit there any more, giving you an awareness of issues that someone who’s fully distanced themselves (or was never there in the first place) won’t have.

I don’t like quota systems, whether they’re for female candidates in Labour’s internal elections or working class employees at a publishing house or the BBC. Unfortunately they’re easy to measure and they’re visible. Those in charge can be seen to be tackling some perceived deficiency, without anyone necessarily digging any deeper into how much good the policy is doing. I would be among the first to say that background matters, and that the BBC (and The Guardian, and probably other national news outlets that I don’t engage with) suffers from a lack of diversity, but unless they’re going to devise a questionnaire asking whether your childhood treats included tinned fruit and Blackpool Illuminations, and what your siblings and in-laws do for a living, instead of just asking which school you went to, I don’t think class-monitoring is the way forward.

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How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus

Quite simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, so full of love and sadness I felt like I might burst, so painful in places I had to look away.

Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck lives by the sea with her fisherman dad, who takes her to school every morning on the front of his bike. It’s not a Raleigh or a BMX, just a bike, and therein lies one of the truths at the heart of the book: Ellie Fleck’s family is not like everyone else’s, and all the kids in her class can tell. Most of them, as is the way with kids, punish her for it.

Set in the 1980s at the edge of the North Sea the story teeters between worlds: land and water, innocence and experience, all mod cons and an older way of life, boring everyday facts and the deeper truth of stories. Ellie has been filled with and shaped by stories, whether sea stories from her dad, ancestral stories from her Irish mum before her breakdown, or saints’ stories from church, so it seems natural that in this motherless world (“She’ll be better by Christmas”) Ellie surrounds herself with stories to get her through. But just because a wolf’s in a story, doesn’t mean it can’t bite.

Carmen Marcus had already acquired a reputation as a poet prior to writing this, her debut novel. This background is apparent in her use of language; I loved the repetition of words like thudtickticktick that (in context) conveyed so much and helped to describe Ellie’s world so vividly. Some of the imagery will stay with me for a long time, too – there’s a wonderful blend of fairytale and the natural world, sprinkled with small, child’s-eye details like the behaviour of a dunked biscuit, and just enough (hedgehog haircuts and ski jackets) to set it in its time and place.

Ellie’s a complicated character in a complicated situation and there’s no black and white of who should have behaved how, but the way the circumstances are explored (and the way several points of view are used within the book), the reader is fully caught up in the story of Ellie and the story she’s creating. It’s not an easy read in terms of subject matter, Ellie’s mum in particular is not in a good place, but it’s a powerful one and it delivers moments of magic to soothe the gut-punches.

Because of the central elements of fairytale and sea, I can see How Saints Die particularly appealing to fans of Kirsty Logan, but I’d recommend it to anyone who can take a bit of magic in their fiction and thinks they could find some fellow-feeling for a confused child.

Here’s a link to Carmen’s own introduction to the novel from her Read Regional appearances earlier this year: http://newwritingnorth.com/projects/read-regional/carmen-marcus-how-saints-die/

The Crows Remember, an illustrated fairytale

At the start of this year the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins (accompanied by a story from novelist Joanne Harris) kicked off her 52 Crows project, in which she vowed to draw a crow every Monday all year, to illustrate a story or poem. This week I was lucky enough to have her choose my story The Crows Remember as the focus of her drawing and man is it good! She’s gone colourful for this one, picking up on the wildflowers I mention and using them to beautiful effect. You can see her gorgeous drawing (and read my story) on her blog. I urge you to go look at all the other wonderful pictures and read everyone else’s stories and poems as well.

The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle. I digress…

I hope you enjoy the story. I don’t see how you could fail to be impressed by the drawing. And if you’re anywhere near Bath, I think there are plans for a 52 Crows exhibition next year, keep an eye on Bonnie’s Twitter for details.

Thousand Monkeys, Ten Years

Ten years ago, OneMonkey (not that he was known as that yet) said, “I’ve been reading about these new ‘blogs’, I think you should get one.” Dubious, but having learnt in our nearly ten years together that he was not short of good ideas, I let him show me some. Although, since we didn’t have broadband, he had to take me to the library first. “What will I write about?” I asked. I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since.

Back in 2008 I’d been writing on and off since I was a kid, submitting on and off for ten years or more, but I was just beginning to get the odd success and although it felt a little odd (presumptuous, maybe) I did refer to myself as a writer in that first post. Weirdly, right now I’m feeling like less of a writer than I have in a while – after that eighteen months of dedicated writing time I’m back to the situation of those early posts, not quite fitting writing around a day job (even though these days I work four days a week instead of five), procrastinating too much, blogging when I feel like my time would be better spent writing fiction (see also: procrastinating too much). Not to mention that HMRC recently dealt a blow to my self-image by taking away my status of self-employed writer (it’s great that they’ve made it so you have to earn over £1000 from your self-employedness in a year before you need to suffer their bureaucracy, but many a writer’s fragile ego is about to get a good kicking, I suspect).

I doubt I’d have expected to keep at this blog for so long, if I’d given the matter any thought at all when I began. When I wrote those early posts, OneMonkey and I lived with our cat in a rented house with a small garden; I think OneMonkey was a student again and we’d both recently been unemployed for quite a while. Because we didn’t have broadband, I wrote the posts in a text file (on my desktop computer!) then connected to the internet when it was cheap rate, just long enough to paste the words in and press the publish button. We’ve moved twice since then, ending up about fifteen miles away in our own flat with a bigger garden (sadly no longer with the cat) and I’m still behind the times with my not-always-on wi-fi and my laptop instead of a smartphone and constant connectivity, but it does feel like I’ve made a technological leap forward.

I’ve read nearly 500 books since I started this blog, many of which I’ve reviewed, quite a few of which I’ve been given free of charge for that purpose, in fact (man, would I have been excited at the prospect of that, ten years ago). I’ve been to writing workshops, entered competitions, had stories published, got rejections from more and more impressive places. I’ve written fiction that must number in the hundreds of thousands of words. I’ve become a better writer.

What about in another ten years? Will society have reached the stage of direct neural connection to the internet, and will I have upgraded to a smartphone? Will OneMonkey and I have moved again, about to turn fifty (and celebrate our thirtieth anniversary) in a house with a more manageable garden? Will publishers still be dealing with expensive hardbacks, and will I have got my act together and submitted manuscripts of sufficient quality to enough agents that they might also be dealing with me? Who knows, but I’ll keep writing and, all other things being equal, I’ll keep blogging so you’ll be able to find out here.

A preemptive playlist

Thus far, I’ve got about an hour and a half of the playlist I’m putting together for my fortieth birthday party. So what? Well, I’m not forty for another eighteen months, and I have no plans for a party when I get there.

Thus began the piece I sent to DNA magazine last year for their first issue (it was longlisted, then pipped by another playlist piece, unfortunately). We’re in the 3-month period in question, so I thought I’d share it here. Now read on…

I’ve never been one for parties, even as a student. I went to two eighteenth birthday parties thrown by friends of a friend, and then nothing. No-one in my circle had parties for their twenty-first or thirtieth birthdays, the few who’ve already hit forty haven’t thrown a party for that either. There were no engagement parties, nobody’s hit any milestone wedding anniversaries yet, and the single divorce was not the cause for celebration they’re made out to be in films. We don’t do Christmas or New Year parties, or any-excuse-for-a-barbecue parties in the summer. We did throw a house-warming party once, for two guests, and all four of us spent most of the evening chatting in the kitchen.

Next year in the space of three months my other half will turn forty, we’ll have been together twenty years, and then I’ll turn forty. Surely if ever there was a prompt to have a party, those three months would be it. Plenty to celebrate, lots to look back on, a broad timeframe with which to work. I realised that a couple of years ago, hence I started putting the playlist together. I knew that if I was going to throw only one party in my adult life I had to get the music right and ensure the optimum level of dancing. The only problem is the guests.

I have a crossover of musical taste with some but not all of my friends and close family. About half of them would hate at least half the music. In a way that doesn’t matter because the only potential guests keen on dancing are my parents and their hips will no longer allow it. Which highlights another party problem: is it safe to mix friends and family? My eldest sister didn’t exactly ban family from her fortieth, she just strongly discouraged us. It makes sense, few of us show the same version of ourselves to everyone, and there are anecdotes you probably don’t want your friends recounting in front of your mum. So, friends only?

Even if I figured that one out I’d still have a venue to find. Our flat will hold half a dozen guests comfortably, assuming no-one wants to dance. Then there’s food, drink, timing. The one simple, controllable thing is the playlist. I’ve got another eighteen months to fine-tune it so it’s perfect for the only party I’ll throw in my adult life. Then next year, sometime during those three key months, my other half and I can dance to it alone in our flat.

A Day in the Life, or should it be Paperback Writer?

As an insight into the writer’s life (and maybe into how procrastination works) I thought I’d treat you to a day in the life of a part-time writer. Since starting the new day job in mid-April, I’ve been doing that commuting thing Monday to Thursday, and Fridays have been my writing day. For a variety of reasons, most of them not at all fun, most of my Fridays have in fact been spent on other things but this week I had a genuine all-day chance to sit at a laptop, or with pen poised over a favoured notebook, to write.

Let’s see what I actually did.

I started my day with connections to other people, which seems reasonable enough. I dipped into Twitter for a couple of minutes (it will eat whole hours, if you let it) and spotted a submission opportunity. Then I caught up with the emails I’d been ignoring all week, and identified another couple of submission opportunities from writing newsletters and the like. I also offered my services to an embryonic working class writers’ festival which has been sparked by Natasha Carthew, who I think is Cornish. I remember reading an article she wrote in The Guardian about the lack of (particularly positive) representation of working class families in children’s books.

After a lunchbreak I wrote a few hundred words of the semi-rural fantasy but I was stuck on a scene so I figured I’d do something else for a bit.

So I sat with a notebook and pen and brainstormed an idea for a new story. Partway through this process it suddenly became imperative to know whether that was a Telecaster or a Rickenbacker I could hear at the end of a Swinging Blue Jeans song I was concurrently listening to for research purposes. A quick Google revealed photos showing them using both, so none the wiser I resumed listening and ploughed on. Of course the question now arises, why was I listening to the Swinging Blue Jeans for research? Well, I’m doing an homage to the three-minute pop song for the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe this September so I went to Billy Fury on Spotify and hit a random Related Artist. I also worked my way through Freddie and the Dreamers and Wayne Fontana. The things I do for art.

Later still, I went to a secondhand and antiquarian book fair (in sweltering heat! Why would I do such an idiotic thing?) and coveted many expensive books on northern industrial history, and dialect. There were half a dozen I would have loved to buy but they ranged in price from £70 to £250; if you’ve paid that much for a book you’d never dare read it in case of finger smudges and tea drips. Or I wouldn’t, anyway. I treat (tret? I never write it down; the dictionary claims the past tense is treated but not in West Yorkshire it isn’t) myself to a 19th century history of Bradford, which of course is important research for a number of stories I haven’t written yet, not to mention the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing now, honest.

At least half an hour was lost to me just having a quick flick through the new book when I got it home.

Then I rang my dad to tell him about said book, and coincidentally he’d bought me a book on northern industrial history from a charity shop the day before. Way cheaper than anything at the book fair, naturally. Cue conversation about local history and old books.

After tea it was getting kind of late to do any serious work and the heavy rain was hypnotic, and the storm light made the valley look like an enhanced photograph. But then I made a cup of tea and sat down at the desk with every intention of concerted effort. And wrote a blog post.

Things a like can mean

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Things I’ve meant by clicking ‘like’ on Twitter:

  • Wow that was really funny, you made me laugh on a grey day
  • Yes, I have seen your response but I don’t know what to say in reply
  • I choose not to be the only one in your social circle who hasn’t ‘liked’ this
  • I wholeheartedly endorse this sentiment
  • Mildly amusing
  • I enjoyed the story/article/video you linked to
  • Thank you for linking to that story/article/video, I may look at it someday
  • Clever wordplay, well done
  • What a lovely cat
  • Fabulous photography
  • Good for you for sticking up for yourself/this cause
  • Option B in the retweet/like limited poll
  • Wish I’d said that
  • I said that yesterday
  • More people should say things like this
  • I defend your right to say this but I disagree
  • I would like to end this conversation now
  • I accidentally leant on my trackpad and don’t want to unlike this in case that makes you feel bad