the Guardian

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.

The over-analysed writer

I don’t mean over-analysed in the English Literature sense, where sixteen pages of hidden meaning can apparently be wrung from one paragraph of a novel. I mean, loosely, in the sense of data analysis. I read an interesting article in the Guardian this week (and believe me, I don’t say that very often these days) which looked at graphs of writing progress for one author on his way to a finished novel, courtesy of an app he’d used to log these things. Cheering to most of us, I expect, was the up and down nature of the thing, the long pauses where life intervened and writing was something that happened to other people, or the stumbling recovery made up of several days of adding a sentence, a paragraph, nowhere near target.

NaNo2016_graph

My NaNoWriMo progress during November 2016

Now, if you’ve been around here a while you will have guessed that I’ve been measuring things like wordcount totals on spreadsheets for years. It was probably during one of my attempts at NaNoWriMo that I realised the motivational power of a graph with a line showing where the wordcount should be, and columns representing my actual total. Certainly it was through use of a daily wordcount tally that I realised how quickly a couple of hundred words in the library in my lunchbreak became a short story, a novella, a few chapters of a novel. There is a flip-side, of course.

I imagine that even for those writers working to a publisher’s deadline, life will intervene sometimes. A family emergency, illness, even the temptation of a sunny day after a fortnight of rain. Wordcount targets will not be met. It’s clear, therefore, that for everyone writing alongside a day job and family (I don’t just mean children, you do need to spend time with your spouse or your sister occasionally if you don’t want them to forget who you are) this will happen a lot. If you’re writing with hope but no fixed publication deadline, anything you’ve written that wasn’t there last month is a bonus. Look at that sharp red target line floating way above your little blue column, though, and it’s easy to get discouraged. What was I thinking? I can’t write a novel, it’ll take years. I’ve missed my target twelve days in a row. It may be your targets are over-ambitious, but that’s another matter.

In the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing at the moment (I don’t think that’s a real genre, I started calling it that as a nod to urban fantasy but a lot of it is set in northern villages and moors) I’ve had days when I’ve written nearly 3,000 words and wondered how I managed it, I’ve had whole weeks where I’ve written nothing. I will have written something else because I don’t have a regular day-job now, but not the novel. I’m a great fan of conditional formatting, so on a day when I’ve written at least 500 words of the novel the cell goes green when I type my wordcount in and I smile a contented smile. Simple pleasures. Crucially, I don’t have any targets. I don’t count non-green-cell days as failures. I try not to have too many consecutive blank days, but how many is too many?

Try an app, try a spreadsheet, try writing your target and actual wordcounts on the calendar in the kitchen for a month. One or more of these may give you a boost and keep you going. But if you find yourself being frozen by fear of failure, or beating yourself up over missed targets, ditch them and focus on the writing.

Northern underclass

I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but sometimes there’s nothing for it but to stand up and roar ‘I am northern and I am proud’. What’s got my goat today, I hear you ask (those of you who aren’t already tutting and turning away), well settle in with a mug of something hot and I’ll tell you.

The immediate trigger for incoherent rage (which hopefully has now subsided into coherence) was an article in The Guardian yesterday about trainee teachers from the north being told to tone down their accents in the classroom. Now, the scientifically trained bit of my brain is jumping up and down about small sample size and all the rest of it (really it doesn’t seem much better than anecdotal evidence), but for today’s purposes it doesn’t matter exactly how many people this happened to, or whether it was more prevalent with certain accents than others. The point is that any headteacher saw fit to tell anyone that their accent was not fit for a teaching role.

During a lengthy rant in the pub this week, Mark the artist made the point that (northern) working class culture is being eroded (Paul Mason wrote an article in The Guardian on similar lines not long ago) – imagine, he said, going back in time to somewhere the British colonised long ago and saying don’t worry about it all dying out, it’s called globalisation and progress. Well at the time they probably did say that but among the liberal intelligentsia now that would be unthinkable, traditions and dying languages need preserving at all costs. And yet, this doesn’t seem to extend to regional accents or dialects within Britain.

Those of you who’ve been around here a while will know of my fondness for and interest in accents (though not necessarily the written rendering of them). Since pretty much everyone I know is northern (or Scottish) I mostly talk about the north in relation to this but I’m all for retaining regional accents regardless of where you’re from. I had my first 2 or 3 years of school down south (East Midlands then Cornwall) and not surprisingly I got laughed at for my accent, and particularly for bits of dialect I didn’t even know were dialect. That drove part of my accent and dialect use away, but what was even worse was returning to Yorkshire and being told by teachers that, to paraphrase, well-educated young ladies did not have Yorkshire accents. Thankfully I have a strong rebellious streak, and my determination to hang onto my accent was helped by my Grandma warning me against sounding like sister number 2 (who worked in a mill, when there were still mills to work in).

What does it say to working class kids if all the teachers sound accentless and posh? It says people like you do not become teachers. I’m one of those in-betweeners, working class family with a middle class education and I still find comfort when I go into a meeting at the day job and find some academic or senior manager with a noticeable accent, it means I’m not automatically going to ruin my credibility by opening my mouth.

It might seem like a small thing, but accents are family-bonding, they’re how you show you belong, and they’re part of our heritage and who we are. To demand that someone gives that up to conform to a centralised ideal of the perfect teacher, and in the process set themselves apart from the pupils they’re supposed to be a role model for is cruel and pointless. I haven’t even got onto the spelling and grammar tests that are confusing for certain regions (I think Michael Rosen had a mention of the differing uses of ‘until’ recently) but I think I should get back to enjoying my day off and listening to rock n roll.

 

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).

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.

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.

MOOCs, autodidacts and organisation

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’d signed up for a free online university course. I’ve now done the first week’s work, haven’t touched the second yet despite it being available since Monday (I need to get more organised. Again) and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s what’s known as a MOOC (massive open online course) and is an introduction to forensic science, partly chosen because I thought it might be useful for crime-writing – apparently I’m not the only one, as the MOOC Twitter feed claims well-known crime author Stuart MacBride has also signed up for it (Stuart MacBride is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up everywhere but I’ve never actually read any of his stuff. I’m back on James Ellroy at the moment – White Jazz, not quite as gruesome as The Big Nowhere but neither is it as compellingly written and I keep coming close to putting it aside and moving on to something more pleasant).

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I’m a fan of lifelong learning, autodidacts, and acquiring knowledge with no immediate purpose other than to entertain or broaden the mind. So, while the MOOC was partly about adding flavour to crime-writing it was also largely about doing a MOOC to see what they’re all about. As the name suggests these courses are open i.e. free (and often with no prerequisites), and they’re online so it doesn’t matter if you can’t make a regular commitment on a Tuesday afternoon, or don’t live near a good bus route, you can do the lot in your own home (or the local library if you’re lucky enough to still have one) whenever it’s convenient.

Coincidentally, this week The Guardian has begun a series on MOOCs, trying to get to the bottom of what and who they’re for. Some people seem to think MOOCs herald the end of universities as we know them, or at least will be a game-changer. Personally, I’m not so sure they’re even direct competition, certainly not to undergraduate degrees. It strikes me that at least at the moment, when most of the open courses aren’t credit-bearing, what they’re actually replacing is all that recreational education that FE colleges ran out of funding for, or that’s being squeezed out of university lifelong learning departments in favour of access courses (stepping stones for mature students to go do a degree). With all the recent arguments about tuition fees seeming to revolve around the idea that universities are some kind of employment training centre conveying no benefits other than the increased likelihood of a well-paid job, I think we need MOOCs in a big way. You might want to check them out while they’re still free.

Writing the rules: the holy grail of creative writing

This week I’ve been pointed at a blogpost called How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day, and given a supplement from The Guardian last month called How to Write a Book in 30 Days (an extract from a book by Karen Wiesner). I haven’t finished reading either of them yet, but I know I will; I’m not the only writer scouring the blogs, books and articles of the world for some foolproof method to improve my output. There are even some who believe that if only they find The One, they’ll be unstoppable.

It may well be true that out there somewhere is a method which works wonders for you because of your lifestyle (not everyone can write at the same time each day, or even guarantee any writing time every day) or personality. One method might work for you if you’re determined to write so many words or so many stories in a year, but someone else might find it stifling and if they’re not in any great hurry there’s no point them trying to stick with it.

There’s usually something to learn from all these ways of working, even if it’s only that you’re happy as you are. Never be afraid to try new things, to change or adapt your methods, but remember there’s no right way to approach your writing. And if you hit upon a good way of doing it, write a blog post (or even a book) and pass it on. The rest of us will be here, eagerly awaiting the next idea that might make the difference for us.

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.

Staying focused in a frantic world

How do you stay focused? It’s a good question and one that’s open to many interpretations, but let’s pretend we mean keeping one’s mind on the task in hand. Namely, writing.

The short, honest answer for many (myself included) is I don’t. OneMonkey will argue that there are times when I may as well be in another universe for all the response he gets to perfectly simple questions, and those are the times I probably am in another universe of my own creation. Those times are not the problem. However, there are times when I’m in the final paragraph of a story, I can practically hear the satisfied sigh of a job well done, and yet…

An hour later I’m still in the final paragraph of the story but I have a tidier desk, I’ve changed the title of a story I finished two weeks ago, and I’ve jotted down 3 new ideas for endings for the story I want to write next. My mind is sliding off the task in hand and falling upon all sorts of other (no doubt laudable) occupations. I want to finish the story, I need to concentrate. What to do?

For me at least, there is no magic bullet. Sometimes I put music on to drown out the rest of the world, and that’s enough. Sometimes if I put music on I end up sitting back and listening to it. Sometimes I’m starting to get hungry so I promise myself a snack when I’ve finished the paragraph. Sometimes I have to give up because then all I can think about is what to spread on my toast.

Coincidentally, after I started writing this (told you I didn’t stay focused) I came across an article on The Guardian Books Blog about staying focused while writing. Specifically, the use of software that starts deleting what you’ve already written if you take too long over typing the next word. I have a feeling that after a few days you’d get into the habit of absent-mindedly tapping a key while you were thinking, then every first draft would have a string of jjjjjjnnnnnn every so often which you’d have to weed out (finding your wordcount was nowhere near as high as you thought). Personally, I’m with dogboytim, one of the commenters, who suggests “a cup of tea and a biscuit and turning the modem off”. There is little in life that can’t be improved with the addition of a cup of tea and a biscuit, so you’ve nothing to lose by this approach, and I for one would be distracted away from the plot less often if the Guardian Books Blog was not so handily in reach. Excuse me while I flick this little switch marked Wireless, and go put the kettle on.

Catch up, round up, warm up

So, I missed a Wednesday posting again. It’s been hot, I’ve been lounging around eating ice cream – trying to type at the same time would be asking for trouble.

In no particular order, a quick round-up of things I’ve heard about, read or seen recently…

After the event, I read this Guardian article and found out about the first UK flash fiction day, which took place last Wednesday. That would have been a good excuse to write some flash (I’m concentrating on detective novels at the moment), and no doubt plenty of people used it as such, but I haven’t had a chance to search around for the products of the day yet.

There’s a new crime-writing flash competition, 1000 words maximum, which might be a suitable challenge for those of us who like that sort of thing. I’ve written a crime short story before, but it was about 3 times that long and it still felt pretty brief.

Speaking of challenges, OneMonkey is a devotee of the xkcd comic strip and drew my attention to a particular cartoon about twitter posts and creativity from constraints. He suggested that, as well as haiku, I could try writing exercises based on alphabetical order of words as in the cartoon, or even based on length of words. It’s a thought, and one worth sharing – it’s unlikely to produce anything you’d want to release into the world, but as a means of getting the brain firing on a slow morning it has its merits.

Also in The Guardian, I heard about Neil Gaiman giving a speech at a university, so I wandered on over to Mr Gaiman’s journal and found a link to the transcript as well as the video. It’s a pep-talk for students who’ve just finished arts degrees of one form or another, but it contains sound advice for aspiring (or succeeding) writers, like never do it just for the money (which I agree with, but is probably easier to stick to when you’re already making a living). Oh, and he won an award for his episode of Doctor Who, which is only right and proper (you may recall I was quite thrilled with it when I watched it a year ago).

That concludes that, now I’m going to go off and pretend I’m a crime writer so I can redraft my unfortunately-not-shortlisted-for the-debut-dagger detective novel in the right mindset.

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.

Historical education, a restrained rant

Reading Saville last week prompted me to dig out from the To Read cupboard a book I’d found in a charity shop a while ago and never got round to: Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden. A 1960s book by former working class grammar school boys who’d moved on to academia, it’s a study of 88 working class pupils who passed A-levels at Huddersfield grammar schools a couple of years either side of 1950, assessing their passage through school to their various destinations and trying to make sense of why so many of their contemporaries fell by the wayside. Maybe it’s not everyone’s idea of an enjoyable book for the morning commute but I have Big Brother to thank for that (there’s a surprise) – 16 or so years ago I saw him with a copy of Friedrich Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England in his hand (which of course I later borrowed), went and read my dad’s copy of The Road to Wigan Pier, and that was that.

On a detached level as someone who’s interested in history, statistics and the West Riding of Yorkshire (so you can imagine what it’s like when they’re all together in one volume) it’s a very interesting book, raising as many questions as it answers (and it never pretends to answer many, I think the idea was to prompt people into further studies). Some of the attitudes and circumstances are recognisable from Saville, set in the educational background of the 40s, and some are still discernible in some of my contemporaries, educated in the late 80s and 90s. It’s depressing and frustrating to think that over those 50 years (and before and since) so much talent has been wasted (or conversely that so much mediocrity has been encouraged into high places by excessive coaching and the supportive wallet of a loving parent) and so many unnecessary obstacles created; one point that was noted was that middle class families in Huddersfield knew how to play the system and overcome bendable rules whereas the working class families often accepted any knockback as final.

Despite all the rhetoric, some things never change and educational opportunities in England are still not equal and universal. An article in Friday’s Guardian reported findings that state school pupils reaching university are slightly more likely to get a good degree than peers taking the same course but coming from a private education. Possible explanations are that the extra coaching and special treatment at school leave the privately-educated teenager less well equipped to deal with the realities of university, or that, to put it simply, if you’ve got to university without all the privileges of a private education you must be pretty clever. It’s all politicised, I know, and nothing is ever that simple, but amid all the current arguing over graduate tax, tuition fees and all the rest of it, it makes me want to either tear my hair out or send copies of books like the Jackson and Marsden one to all the squabbling politicians (not that they’d read it). The next book I dug out of the cupboard was The Rise and Decline of the English Working Classes 1918-1990 by Eric Hopkins; I must be in that sort of mood.

Rules to be broken

I’m surprised my dad (dedicated Guardian reader that he is) hadn’t already pointed this out to me, but via Adam Cheshire I came across writing rules from a recent Guardian article which proved interesting to read. They’re contradictory, some are more serious than others, and I can almost guarantee you won’t find the holy grail there, but if nothing else they give an insight into a few authors you might like. Pick and choose, laugh (at or with – your choice), memorise and discard. I quite liked Roddy Doyle’s rules, but bearing in mind Jonathan Franzen’s ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction’, this might be a good time to shut up and get on with it.

Satirical longevity

Having previously commented on how quickly some novels can date, I’ve been thinking today about how some can seem contemporary even when they’re pretty old. And having been reminded of The Way We Live Now (not that it’s usually very far from my thoughts, bizarrely fond of Trollope as I am) it occurred to me that satire seems to have the longest shelf-life.

On the face of it, political comment and specific complaints about society as it exists at the time of writing don’t look like they’d stand the test of time, but unfortunately whatever their nominal leaning, one politician is generally very much like another, and the same can be said for numerous other categories of people at the top (greedy bankers, for instance – always good for a spot of lampooning). Trollope’s satire, heavy-handed as it sometimes is, is not only funny but often gives the impression that it could have been written yesterday. Strip away the conventions of Victorian society, and his interminable descriptions of fox-hunting parties, and Trollope could stand in for Simon Hoggart in the Guardian. A couple of years ago, with Blair still in Number Ten, there was a BBC radio adaptation of one or some of the Palliser novels, and whether or not that was the intention of the producer, I seem to remember the Guardian’s radio reviewer drawing striking parallels between Trollope’s original and the goings-on in Downing Street that month.

The book that set me off on this train of thought was Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, or specifically the second short story which accompanies that novella, Love Among The Ruins. It’s a none-too-subtle dig at the Welfare State, which in 1953 was still largely in its infancy with the NHS a mere six years old (don’t get me started on the 1945-51 Labour government). However, ‘in the new Britain there are no criminals, only the victims of inadequate social services’, prisons like luxury hotels, and a Britain where it’s considered a boon to be from a broken home could have emerged from the keyboards of any number of tabloid journalists in 2009.

I can’t quite decide whether it’s all an illusion and every age sees itself in past literature, or we really don’t learn from our gruesome mistakes.

When is a blog not an article?

According to an advert this morning on the radio, today’s Sunday Times is featuring all the top blogs (quite what their criteria are I’m not sure). This caused OneMonkey and I to start debating the nature of blogs and modern journalism (yes, our Sunday morning lie-ins are really that highbrow).

Blogs are somehow seen, along with Wikipedia, as some hip and trendy sign of being with-it (daddy-o…): every newspaper and magazine, TV or radio show, author and band seems to want one. Sometimes it fits – a new band that still has time to write their own entries can give a sense of immediacy to their fans by adding random thoughts at all hours of the day, and perhaps inviting their fans to share related thoughts and photos of their own; Maximo Park did this to good effect in the early days. But if I want to read up-to-date news on the situation in Sri Lanka, I want a succinct and informative article, say from the BBC news site, rather than an hour-by-hour account from a journalist on the scene, throwing in their impressions, opinions and personal experiences along with the impartial reporting I’m looking for.

From the other side, blog-type semi-relevant streams of consciousness appear regularly in print – take Charlie Brooker’s column in the Guardian, which is usually an enjoyable rant about something that’s happened during the week, possibly on the scale of national news, but just as likely to be something personal. I’m not saying newspapers shouldn’t print the sort of articles that aren’t necessarily about much except how witty the columnist can be, but maybe they should beware of relying on them too heavily.

Maybe what I’m really saying is why can’t I get paid for doing this?

Love Removal Machine

A year or so ago I read an article in The Guardian about a promising young author named Gwendoline Riley. The brief description of her and her writing resonated with me, and I decided to investigate in the hope that I might be inspired or pick up some tips.

Since Sick Notes was the only one of her novels in my local library, that was the one I read, thoroughly and critically. I could see a superficial similarity of approach in Sick Notes and in my own first novel (unpublished, naturally), but I couldn’t find any common ground with the characters and I found I didn’t really care what happened to them. Not any criticism of Riley’s writing, just a comment on the different aspects of (for want of a better phrase) youth culture we’d used as settings; hers was an alien world to me, as is Raymond Chandler’s LA, but unlike Chandler, Riley didn’t present me with any enticing surroundings that I wanted to set up camp in.

For what it’s worth, and in case anyone else feels like comparing my first novel with any of Gwendoline Riley’s, I’ll put the first chapter here, probably serialising the rest of it later as I get round to it (a free novel – don’t all clamour at once). It’s about the same length as Sick Notes, as it happens, and I wrote it when I had too much time on my hands, back in the Winter/Spring of 2000/1. Thus far, only about half a dozen friends have read it, and very likely that’s the way it will stay (who has the time to read these days?). My style’s changed over the last seven or eight years, and I like to think I’ve improved with time and effort, but maybe I’m just deluding myself.

Ladies and gentlemen, Resurrection Joe, chapter 1…

Maths jokes for beginners

Another tip from my Guardian book of how to write comedy was to find a niche, be original, don’t just cover the same old ground. Interestingly, the intended composition of the proposed sketch group (being deliberately tentative in case we hate each other as writing partners and the idea folds at the first meeting) is firmly science based: S and B are nearly at the end of PhDs in engineering, though S did physics and computing beforehand, and between Mark and I we have degrees in astrophysics, theoretical physics, maths, philosophy of science, and six years of largely pointless research in applied maths.

To the outsider, that might not seem like a rich comedic vein, but when Mark and I were students together we talked about producing a comic based on our department. We wrote down the incidents, outbursts and conversations around us, but when we looked through them they all seemed too outlandish and surreal, and we figured no-one would accept it. The departmental computing officer walking into a room playing a tune on a child’s purple plastic caterpillar for no apparent reason. The student who travelled a hundred miles to collect sponsorship money of fifty pence. The fabulous moment in a seminar when the guest speaker said of his equations ‘They’re wrong in a number of ways. In particular they’re wrong because they don’t give the right answer’ with a perfectly straight face.

Of course most of this isn’t science-specific, it’s just the weirdness of human nature, but with a bunch of mathematicians or physicists in the vicinity, there’s a higher concentration of weirdness than in the general population. And that’s before you even get onto the genuine subject-specific jokes. I know quite a few bad theoretical physics jokes, but the number of people who understand them isn’t huge, and the number who’d laugh is a lot smaller. Once, that may have been a drawback, but with all the highly specific websites out there, not to mention the proliferation of niche radio and TV channels, a comedy show for people with a maths, physics or environmental engineering background doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and if nothing else, we’re unlikely to have much competition.

A funny thing happened on the way to the podcast

Having been a student for 9 years (in total, not consecutively) at 3 universities, I only ever joined one society for 2 years and that was the rock society which got me a discount at HMV and cheap entry to my favourite club. Now that I’m staff, suddenly I’m joining student societies left, right and centre. Or rather, I’m going along to the first meeting, realising why I didn’t bother when I was a student, and not going back.

Last weekend I went to the first meeting for this academic year of the comedy sketch society; I wasn’t intending to perform, I just thought I’d have a go at being on the writing team, but I was aware before I went along that there are many types of humour out there and it may well be that mine didn’t fit with the majority of the group. What I wasn’t prepared for was such an amazing culture clash: I’d be hard pushed to claim to be working class, but my grandparents were, and dammit I’m northern, I ought to be allowed some leeway on this, so with only the slightest sense of irony I’ll assert my bemusement at the roomful of pretentious new students eager to audition for the comedy troupe.

Maybe they were all in character from the moment they stepped in the room, but somehow I doubt it. OneMonkey’s friends S and B (genuinely working class and therefore even more justifiably bemused/enraged than I was) and I were very out of place, and not in terms of humour (though I hadn’t heard of half the comedy shows they were all claiming as influences. It may be that they were making them up, or deliberately being obscure to try and outdo each other, or it may just be that I haven’t owned a telly in nearly 8 years and none of them listen to radio 4). One young lad with studiously messy hair was actually wearing a cricket jumper and chinos.

It may have turned out to be a wasted afternoon in terms of joining a comedy society, but my impassioned recounting of the experience to OneMonkey and my artist friend Mark gave them both a good laugh. Which bodes well for the forthcoming attempt on the part of S, B, one of B’s friends, Mark (possibly) and myself to form our own sketch group with the intention (gasp!) of a podcast. I only have a hazy idea of what a podcast involves but I’ll leave that aspect of it to whoever came up with the plan, and I’ll concentrate on writing. Luckily, only the other day my dad gave me a booklet from The Guardian on how to write comedy; armed with the knowledge imparted in chapter 4, how to write sketches, I should be unstoppable. One of the tips from Richard Herring was to write a blog every day, so for once I’m doing some useful writing here and not just waffling into the abyss.