BBC

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.

Working Class Writer? Class, Education, Politics and the Arts

You can’t say the post title didn’t warn you what’s been on my mind lately. Some of it’s pre-election frustration and my disbelief at, among others, the bring back grammar schools brigade, because of course none of their children would ever be relegated to the non-selective school, in the same way presumably that their children will never need to use a library (or the NHS) so it’s ok to wreck them for everyone else. However, the topic of working class writers has been bubbling under again, partly via Dead Ink crowdfunding a book of essays on the working class called Know Your Place and some Twitter discussions that arose from that.

Name some working class writers, came the challenge. The names of various successful novelists were bandied about, but did they count? They were in varying degrees superficially middle class (wealthy, university educated). Did they think of themselves as working class any more? Would society let them get away with it if they did?

Non-British readers will no doubt be puzzled at this point but despite attempts to declare the UK a classless society (aka we’re all middle class now) class still matters here, it still has a major effect on your salary (even given similar levels of education), your educational opportunities in the first place, and even health prospects. So yes, it’s more complicated than it used to be (the BBC identified about seven social classes a couple of years ago) but it’s still there casting a shadow over most people’s lives.

Which brings us back to the working class writers thing. If someone grows up in a working class family, goes from their comprehensive school to university and graduates with a decent degree, does that automatically make them middle class? Well, Nathan Connolly who runs Dead Ink would argue no, as in this piece he wrote last week. That would be to deny the background and the upbringing that shaped them before they arrived at university. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with any conviction that you’re working class when on the face of it you’ve got a salaried graduate job and can afford an avocado whenever you fancy one, however much your attitudes, politics, outlook may align with siblings or cousins that didn’t head down the higher education path. There will undoubtedly be accusations of false claiming of credentials, like the outbreak of Mockney a few years ago. Kit de Waal, celebrated author and outspoken champion of working class writers suggests embracing the dual identity with no excuses and no shame, but you need to be pretty confident to do that (another trait that graduates from working class backgrounds are said to lack).

Where are all the working class writers then (as Kit de Waal asked last summer, in fact)? Are they looking at the quinoa in their cupboard and simply not feeling comfortable with calling themselves working class any more? Some will no doubt have intentionally left the working class behind via education, though the long tradition of self-education in the working class shows that the two don’t have to go together. Some may well be plugging away under the radar, not shouting about their class background and not writing anything that highlights it. The rest, however, are probably struggling to get a foot in the door because of lack of contacts, cultural capital, or money.

In Nathan Connolly’s piece from last week that I linked to earlier, he mentions setting up Dead Ink because he couldn’t afford the unpaid internships in London that were apparently essential. So many fields in the arts seem to rely on unpaid internships (and in London too) it’s no wonder the arts are dominated by people with money behind them (there’s an interesting paper called Are the creative industries meritocratic?, which you can access here). I was told in passing last week that I was at a serious disadvantage trying to get involved in the arts without a car – getting to performance venues (and home at the end of an evening, when any public transport is likely to have thinned out or stopped), school visits, distributing leaflets/brochures or attending meetings with publishers/agents/promoters. It may well be true, but that’s another obstacle if you don’t have money behind you. I know a couple of people who have a driving licence but no car, but without even trying I can think of 10 more in my immediate family/closest friends who’ve never learnt to drive in the first place (with maybe 8 or 9 who drive and have or share a car).

In conclusion then, working class writers might be out there but are probably struggling. When the only people who get a voice are the wealthy, we’re in a bad way so we need to fight for libraries, fight for a level playing field in education, and build a flourishing cultural hub outside of London (Northern Powerhouse, anyone?). By the way, the Labour manifesto mentions banning unpaid internships. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

Week 16: Comedy Gold

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Thanks to a refresher from re-reading the BBC Academy radio comedy pages (though not from reading the pictured pamphlet, which I only remembered as I came to write this post) I’ve written two sketches for Newsjack this weekend that not only made me laugh, but made OneMonkey laugh too. I have yet to hear whether they made the producers of Newsjack laugh, but one can only hope.

I can now reveal that the northern-themed writing I alluded to before Christmas is a guest post in the Literature and Place slot at Laurie Garrison’s Women Writers School, and you should have less than two weeks to wait till you can read it. In the meantime if you’re of a sci-fi bent you could read a new review I’ve written for The Bookbag, for an Alastair Reynolds novella, Slow Bullets.

Before I race off to write one-liners in time for tomorrow morning’s Newsjack deadline, have I mentioned the rather wonderful RS500 yet? They’re working through Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 album list, inviting an essay or a piece of fiction related to each one, and so far they’re at 252 so almost halfway but I only heard about them recently. While I may dislike many of the albums on the list, and bemoan the exclusion of some of my favourites, I applaud the harnessing of musical passion to a writing project like this, and I encourage any and all of you with a love of music to read, absorb, and contribute.

Week 12: In which I am both witty and political

This was the week leading up to the first Newsjack deadline of the season, and by season I mean time of year not series. Newsjack is a BBC radio comedy sketch show with a completely open submission policy, meaning absolutely anyone can send in a sketch or one-liner as long as it relates to the week’s news somehow. Traditionally I dip a toe in the comedy water by sending one-liners to the first couple of episodes, before I work myself up to a sketch later on. None of them have been successful so far but I entertain myself (and occasionally OneMonkey) while I’m writing them, so it’s not all wasted effort. This week has been tricky as reality has largely moved beyond satire, which hasn’t left much to write about. I’m persevering, however.

I did try to ignore the whole Presidential circus but I didn’t quite manage, thanks to Twitter and Radio 4. I unfollowed a few people on Twitter because I couldn’t stand any more hourly updates on Trump. I’m British, I don’t tend to follow American politics, in the same way I don’t follow French or German politics. I keep half an eye out to get fair warning of anything that might have global ramifications, but honestly I’ve never even bothered to watch all the rigmarole of a new PM arriving at Downing Street, I’m certainly not going to watch a foreign leader getting sworn in.

In my attempt to avoid too many news bulletins this week I may also have missed the point of the women’s march. I was genuinely moved and amazed to see so many people take to the streets, but I’m not entirely clear on what they were there for, or rather they didn’t all seem to be there for the same thing. From the people I follow on Twitter and a few things I caught in the Guardian and on the BBC I picked up the following reasons:

  • because no genuine feminist would stay away;
  • to point out they didn’t vote for Trump;
  • to reclaim public space as safe for women;
  • to protest gun crime;
  • to protest racism;
  • to promote gay rights;
  • to state that their son has been brought up in a civilised way;
  • to point out they are a man who’s been brought up in a civilised way;
  • because all their friends are;
  • because it’s Saturday (OK that one might be a King Missile reference to lighten the mood).

Maybe I missed the ones protesting at the women who’ve been killed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria etc at least in part due to the (apparently sainted and beyond criticism now) Obama administration, and the ones protesting at Britain and America’s close alliance with that staunch defender of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia. Maybe I was too busy noticing all the loud, comfortable, Western women in pink hats who were shouting a host of different messages. But hey, if we could get that many people behind an actual campaign, say to alter a policy or stop a war, I think they could change the world.

The Establishment by Owen Jones

Owen Jones is northern, a socialist, and he writes for The Guardian. I even agree with his viewpoint a fair amount of the time (both in this book and in his articles). I should have loved The Establishment, but unfortunately I didn’t – something about the way it’s put together got my back up and made me start picking his arguments apart. If it does that to a comrade (yes I am using that in a slightly tongue in cheek way), how far will it go towards persuading an adversary?

The premise of the book is that a small, influential band – the big players in the commercial world, the media, the City – bypass democracy by having a quiet word with our elected politicians so they can have things their own way, no matter what the people want. In essence there is (so the theory goes) a prevailing ‘establishment’ viewpoint and to rock the boat is to invite reprisal, from being missed off someone’s Christmas list to being hounded by an unsympathetic and less than straightforward media. In many ways reading The Establishment (subtitled ‘and how they get away with it’) was like having a concentrated dose of Private Eye (and will be familiar territory to Eye readers) but with added sensationalism that fell somewhere between That’s Life and Our Tune. For me (and maybe I’m hard-hearted) the laying-it-on-thick sentimentality of the section about one woman’s loss of a son at Hillsborough undermined the very real tragedy of that day for her and her family, as well as the important point Jones was making about the shocking behaviour of the police and media.

When it comes to the webs of power and the shadowy connections between politicians of all stripes, corporate interests and high-profile journalists there are things that should be pointed out more widely, there are definitely things to worry about, and there are things I think shouldn’t be allowed (Gordon Brown’s wife apparently being high up in a financial PR firm when he was PM and had recently been Chancellor, for instance). Some of it comes across here as a bit conspiracy theorist though: this MP was seen having dinner with a family friend who works for this big firm who would benefit from a change in the law! The scandal is not that this group of people who went to school or university together, or worked together in their first jobs, are still friends now that they’ve diversified into government, lobbying, the BBC etc (I’d be more worried if they claimed not to be) but that so many of the influential jobs in the Westminster-media bubble are filled by such a small pool of candidates from such similar backgrounds.

The book sometimes got a bit repetitive (maybe in some cases he was just trying to ram a point home) and while it’s clearly been a long time in the making, with copious research and a long programme of interviews with influential people, it felt like the end product had been thrown together in a hurry, with the same sentence appearing in two consecutive paragraphs or a sentence both beginning and ending with ‘in 1994’ for example.

Where the book is stronger is the ‘Conclusion: a democratic revolution’ chapter. This is where the author’s passion comes through in a coherent argument about why anti-establishment types need to present a proper alternative, not just rail against what’s there now. I wonder how different this (and several arguments earlier in the book) would have been if there was the slightest hint that Jeremy Corbyn might be about to become Labour leader.

In short, while I applaud the intention, this book just didn’t do it for me. I’m not saying don’t read it (I still learnt a few things from it), but I recommend that you read some Owen Jones articles from The Guardian, read some Private Eye, and if you want to know about vested interests and spin, read the marvellous novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey or, even better, A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett (which I’ve written about here).

Humblebrags and other bits of popular culture I seem to have missed

This week I learned (from a management newsletter at work, no less) that the humblebrag is a turn-off and best avoided. I had hitherto been unaware of the existence of the humblebrag so I looked it up, the example given in the newsletter not being clear, and I remained unenlightened. It is apparently the act of bragging in a self-deprecating way, which made me wonder if it’s largely an American phenomenon, as self-deprecating is (I always thought) the polite British default. I am now in a constant state of mild anxiety in case I commit this modern faux-pas without realising (I couldn’t see anything wrong with the half-dozen examples I read, which leads me to believe I’m either a) dense, or b) doing it all the time).

On the same day a colleague made an allusion to someone’s name being similar to a character from something. I not only had to have the character explained, but also the TV channel. When I last had a TV it had 4 channels (Channel 5 not being worth the effort of tuning in) and no remote control. I watch probably a couple of films or BBC programmes a week on iplayer but it’s not the same experience as I’m not even aware of what channels I’m not watching, I don’t see trailers for other programmes, and of course I don’t see TV adverts (I’m sure I mainly watched the BBC when I had a TV, yet I seem to remember loads of 1980s adverts. I’ll blame Channel 4 and their alternative comedy output). Occasionally people refer to a current advert at work (or on a Radio 4 comedy) and I’m completely clueless.

What with the lack of channel-hopping, and not reading newspapers (going straight for stories of interest on The Guardian or BBC News) I also don’t know who half the latest celebrities are. I saw a film review the other day that claimed the cast list was full of ‘Hollywood hot property’ and I only recognised one name (and couldn’t tell you a single film he’s been in).

It does sometimes make me worry, being a writer and yet soaking up so little of my own time. Have I spent too long reading Trollope? I have been sticking to my quest for more recent literature this year, but several of those have been set in the past (or an alternative version of it) so it might not be helping as much as I want it to. Is it middle-age hitting full-force (the accuracy of being referred to as mid-thirties sadly waning) leaving me baffled by popular (youth) culture? Thinking about it, I’ve never been quite in step with my contemporaries (Big Brother’s influence on my musical tastes had a lot to do with that) so I suspect I shall continue in partial ignorance. I certainly don’t intend to start listening to Radio 1 and reading celebrity gossip pages to catch up.

Hope for us all?

I have – somewhat belatedly – been reading an entertaining blog post from last month by Christine Entwisle, winner of the Writer’s Prize for Radio Drama 2014. Not only did she write about how winning things is something that does not happen to her (which gave me some faint reassurance that it’s not all pre-ordained, for creative writing graduates with the right networking skills) but she also mentioned a play she’s been writing for 12 years that no-one wants, whereas her prize-winning script took her four days. This has spurred me on in my last-minute attempt at a story for the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook short story competition, which closes on February 15th. That’s in 4 days. Perfect.

Festive highlights, week 1

The first of my two weeks off work is just about over, and as was inevitable I’ve done a pitiful amount of writing. I have, however, read most of Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (bit gruesome in places, but then it is set in hell), eaten quite a few mince pies, a wedge of stollen and an awful lot of roast potatoes, and listened to some great radio.

The radio in question naturally includes the adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens I’ve been looking forward to for months. Peter Serafinowicz and Mark Heap as Crowley and Aziraphale are fantastic, and it’s actually made me want to go back and re-read the novel, though I probably won’t as the To Read pile is teetering as it is.

I’ve also listened to the final ever Cabin Pressure, John Finnemore’s superb airline sitcom (I do like a series that ends properly instead of drifting on till they stop commissioning it), and the first episode of a fantasy series called Pilgrim (think old magic, think English countryside, think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but more to the point). All of this has sent me scurrying off to half-finished stories of my own (mainly of the comic fantasy variety), all fired up and ready to type. Right after I’ve had another mince pie.

Writing is rewriting, some evidence

Instead of doing NaNoWriMo this year (and I bet you’re all glad you’ve been spared the wordcount updates) I decided to edit the novel I was partway through this time last year. Except, as we all know, editing isn’t as much fun as writing. You don’t get the feelgood factor of watching the wordcount build, ticking off the chapter list in your outline or moving closer to that crucial scene. What you do get is self-doubt, the dispiriting task of deleting the only bit of dialogue you were completely happy with (but you’ve changed the plot and it no longer makes sense), and the dreadful feeling of finishing the session with fewer pages than you started out with. Keep going like that and you’ll have nothing left, right? And everyone else manages to get it pretty much spot on first time, right?

Well, just to cheer us up Eddie Robson has written a fabulously useful article on the BBC Writersroom blog, about the various drafts his script for Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully went through before it was recorded (as I write this, there’s a few episodes available on the iplayer – it’s a sitcom about an alien observation of a small village as they try to decide whether to invade. It’s got Peter Davison in). Not only is there an explanation of how he went from one draft to the next, but they’re all available to download so you can study the differences. He also points out all the problems with the scripts as the drafts progress, which is encouraging to say the least – this reminded me of David Almond’s comment at the Ilkley Literature Festival last month that finished books are an illusion to make you think the author has a perfect mind (read my review of his visit here).

Obviously I was in no way procrastinating by reading all of this stuff. The fact that I haven’t done as much editing as planned is just my usual lack of organisation.

Proustian cassettes and former glory

Some people never liked the audio cassette, but I was (and still am) disproportionately fond of them. Wondering what was on an unlabelled one this morning, and assuming it belonged to OneMonkey (I am an obsessive labeller. I bet you never could have guessed that) a wave of memories crashed in as it turned out to be the final programme in the 2007 edition of BBC7’s listener-written sci-fi chain-story (Picture This), plus the accompanying interview with Robert Shearman who wrote the first and last episodes. Steph May, author of alternative ending 2, got a mention in the interview but sadly I didn’t – never mind, you can still read my alternative ending on the archived BBC webpage.

As I listened I was transported right back to the kitchen (2 houses ago) with the cassette player and DAB radio next to each other on the table so I could tape it for posterity. Not long after that I got this package through the post, containing the whole thing on one of those new-fangled CDs, and my excitement levels reached danger-point. I think it was the fact that this was from the BBC – blame Douglas Adams for that feeling, I guess (among other things).

Doctor Who CD, Chain Gang Picture This CD, BBC compliments slipThe next unlabelled tape did turn out to belong to OneMonkey, and the whole of side 2 was snippets of Tommy Vance’s Radio 1 Rock Show, probably from around the start of 1993 (Bruce had announced he was leaving Maiden at the end of the tour, and Tommy Vance hadn’t yet defected to Virgin 1215 – these are the things I measure the passage of time by). A few years before I even met OneMonkey, and yet it brought back such vivid memories because I’d been listening too, in a different county. This is what I love about cassettes; even when it’s an album I’d taped off vinyl to listen to on the move, I can often still remember what I was doing at the time, and the ones with bad editing and the odd word from Mark Goodier or Bruno Brookes just add to that scene-setting. Don’t expect me to get rid of my tape shelves any time soon.

Calling Westminster, can you find The North on a map?

On my Twitter profile I summarise myself as ‘Writer. Reader. Northerner. Rocker.’ and anyone who’s been around this blog a while can testify that most of my ramblings and rantings fall into one (sometimes several) of those four categories. Today’s rant will mainly be about the north (like the one I had back in 2010 about the BBC programme about northern culture. This one involves the BBC too, tangentially); southern or overseas visitors may prefer to leave now.

Last week the Deputy PM launched a thing called TechNorth, which apparently is going to result in a ‘northern tech hub’ like the one in East London (TechCity), only incorporating Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and the Tees Valley. So far, so what? Well ordinarily I’d shrug and ignore it, but it’s not the thing itself that’s riled me so much as the way it’s been put across (and indeed, reported by the BBC). It’s a bit like those chaps down in Westminster think The North is a culturally uniform, tightly-compressed area with everything in common and no diversity of problems at all. As if Leeds isn’t already doing really quite well thank you, and The North East isn’t suffering from years of under-investment and the collapse of traditional industries that will take more than a token tech hub to put right.
Map of mainland UK

Let’s start with a brief Geography lesson (and it’s not like I know this stuff, I looked it up on a map the same way a policy wonk could). How far apart do you reckon Liverpool and Newcastle are, as the crow flies? Would you refer to a world-class tech ‘cluster’ if it included both Edinburgh and Aberdeen? Actually that may be a bad example because Scotland also seems to suffer from the undifferentiated lump syndrome in Westminster so let’s try this: how about if it included Bristol and Nottingham? To put it another way, according to the AA distance calculator Liverpool is closer to Oxford than it is to Newcastle, Sheffield is closer to Cambridge than to Sunderland, Newcastle is closer to Edinburgh than to Sheffield, and Manchester is closer to Aberystwyth than to Newcastle.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the quote on the government website claims TechNorth will be “a world-class tech cluster spanning 5 cities in the North” then mentions six northern cities and a cluster of towns (Tees Valley). The BBC goes one better and ignores Sunderland and the Tees Valley altogether, mentioning only Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle in the article I read.

OK, so it looks like they’re not sure where these places are or which ones we’re talking about, but what about comparisons to TechCity? “The government says it will spend the same amount on TechNorth as it has on Tech City” says the BBC article that admittedly I’ve just claimed isn’t perfectly accurate. However, let’s assume it got that bit right. A bit of poking around on the internet has failed to provide me with a figure, but that’s not necessarily important. TechCity is based in Shoreditch, East London (and this is where I confess that my knowledge of London is about as solid as Westminster knowledge of The North, but I’ll do my best) which I gather is part of the borough of Hackney, population c.214,000 and an area of 7.4 sq miles. If I point out that Sunderland, the least populous of the 6 cities, has a population of 276,000 can you see where this is going? They’re going to invest the same amount of money in a population of 3.74 million spread over c.940 sq miles as they did in one small part of London. This is The North, of course, and things are cheaper up here (though probably not at Harvey Nichols in Leeds) so perhaps I’m being unfair.

Grumbling quietly to myself (and OneMonkey) for a few days, it was almost as if Number Ten was listening, because before I’d finished writing the foregoing rant, our esteemed leader had taken himself off to Leeds to announce HS3. Apparently it doesn’t matter that The North is a rather large area because the government are going to connect it all up with high-speed rail and make it feel like everywhere’s practically next door. Except of course they aren’t, and I’m not sure it would be a good idea if they did. What they actually seem to be proposing is knocking a small amount of time off some of the intercity journeys, so that Manchester to Newcastle would still take longer than Leeds to London.

What no-one (except most of the people commenting on the BBC article) seems to have spotted is that in the modern world it shouldn’t be necessary to physically travel to a different city to work there. In fact from an environmental (and city overcrowding) point of view it might be good to move away from that idea. Perhaps it’s simply that the Westminster crowd can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to live and work in a city, in the same way that I just don’t get why anyone would want to live or work in London, but I know I wouldn’t be alone in rejoicing if I could be set free from commuting into a city every working day. Give us rural broadband, spend a bit of money maintaining the existing train lines and reopening a few stations that fell under the Beeching axe. The current proposals are patronising, badly thought through and have an air of ‘Crumbs! There’s an election soon – when did we last take any notice of The North?’. Such is my opinion, anyway, but as those outside the M25 might have spotted, northerners are a varied bunch.

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.

 

It’s November and there’s too much to do

Time ran away with me last week and I never made it to my blog. We had a friend to stay for a few days, then suddenly it was November and I had a novel to write. Another one. I haven’t even quite finished the last one yet (a couple of thousand words away from a complete first draft, I reckon) but it’s been put aside so I can participate in the madness that is NaNoWriMo. I’m already behind schedule and it’s only day 4.

However, as those of us who listened occasionally at school may remember, it’s not the winning it’s the taking part. NaNoWriMo is a good excuse to write furiously, without giving yourself enough time for the self-doubt to creep in. I’ll settle for 20,000 words I can work on later. A belated appreciative moment for the support crew of friends and family that make these intensive writing challenges possible – once again, I take my hat off to you all.

And while I’ve got my hat off, consider it also doffed to Chris Packham – anyone that can manage (with a straight face) to work so many Damned titles (but particularly Machine Gun Etiquette) into a BBC Wildlife Programme deserves recognition. Well done Chris, and I apologise for considering you a poor second to Terry Nutkins way back when.

At least someone’s been busy

I haven’t done anything much here for a while, you may have noticed (you may not, don’t feel bad if so – I won’t hold it against you). However, friend D has now given me details of the anthology I mentioned a while ago, which his story is in. It’s a book of magical stories for children, called A Pocketful of Moondust, and I do like the dragon on the cover.

Also being productive is the librarian I wrote about some time ago, who now has her own blog where she aims to review every book she’s marked as read on librarything (including, but hopefully not limited to, sci-fi and fantasy). We wish her well, and let’s hope she’s more organised than I am.

If you want to know what I’ve been doing for the last month (and I’m sure you do), I’ve been listening to more rockabilly Christmas songs than is healthy (where would I be without spotify?) and some Iron Maiden (including a Brazilian guy on youtube who does Maiden songs on the harp! Fantastic), watching DVDs (mainly Red Dwarf, and The Beiderbecke Connection), being unprepared for the festivities, failing to reply to friends’ emails, and saying ‘bah humbug’ a lot. And watching Dirk Gently on the iplayer (more bearable than I thought it would be, but as OneMonkey says, they’ve stripped it of all Douglas Adams-isms. Presumably to make it more palatable to a wider audience. Or maybe the BBC have forgotten how to make decent programmes and it was all a dreadful accident). And reading A History of Education in Great Britain. And some other stuff, but the key point I guess is I haven’t been writing. I’ll try and rectify that soon.