In which The Author tries to reschedule his train of thought
Right – NaBloPoMo, Day Two. Let’s hope the weather conditions, the wifi, and/or WordPress itself don’t put the mockers on this post, as some combination of them did last night.
First, may I apologize to anyone who’s found this because it was tagged in the NaBloPoMo blogroll. I’ve been writing this blog (in various places) for about six years or so, and there are a number of running themes threaded through it. If you’ve landed here through the mysteries of NaBloPoMo, you might be experiencing the same sense of confusion as I did when I first heard ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ by The Velvet Underground at the age of sixteen. I felt as thought I’d walked in on a frenzied jam session, and for half a minute or so I was completely disoriented by the chaos around me. Try this for size:
Let me assure you that, as with the song, there are certain fixed points in the structure of this blog, around which the rest of it revolves. (I’ve put some handy cross-references in where they’re needed.)
My friend Darren B. turned me onto The Velvet Underground when we were in school, and White Light, White Heat is still an LP I return to periodically. My most recent visit was last Sunday night, when the news of Lou Reed’s death broke on this side of the Atlantic. I cranked up the volume and subjected the Noisy Neighbours to a blast of New York junkie pre-punk rock.
Darren and I saw Lou Reed in London at the end of 1984. We paid seven quid each for tickets – which wasn’t an enormous chunk out of our student grants in those days. (Note for younger readers: back in the day, the UK Government used to give you money to go to university. Imagine that…) From the vantage point of 2013, when my friends cheerfully pay thirty or forty quid to see bands who are/were nowhere near as important as The Velvet Underground in the grand scheme of musical history, the tickets were quite reasonably priced. They were even more of a bargain when we were eighteen and heavily into post-punk and/or industrial music.
Mr Reed’s partners in crime that night included the estimable Robert Quine and Fred Maher. There was no support band. How could there have been? Who the fuck was capable of opening for Lou Reed, for Goddess’ sake? Even so, in an age when you still got change from a pound note for a pint of lager, it seemed a lot of money.
Ah yes, a pint of lager. That reminds me…
NaBloPoMo sounds great when you say it out loud. It’s the exact sound of a bottle of beer being emptied into a glass, or the glug-glug of the last bathwater vanishing down the plughole. It’s a fine piece of onomatopoeia, especially when you say it quickly. I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday, when I checked my emails fairly late in the evening. It turned out to be the online baby brother of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I had heard of the latter, mainly through Canadian Nancy, who’s taken part in it for the past few years. The idea is that you write a novel in one month, with a strict target every day. Nancy tried to rope me into it a couple of years ago. I had to decline politely.
You see, I’ve never been a great one for writing to deadlines, or writing to order for that matter. My notebooks contain countless unfinished stories and ideas for stories, none of which ever made it beyond the ‘rough notes’ stage of development. Even the Creative Writing workshop I signed up for in my second first year at university was too much of a structure for me.
Another of our heroes during our school days was Douglas Adams, most famous as the author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I met Mr Adams briefly when he did a reading and signing session at the bookshop I worked in during the early nineties. He was notorious for taking his time over his writing; he once said, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ I know exactly what he meant. I made Handing Assignments In Two Minutes Before The Office Closes For The Weekend into an Olympic sport when I was a student the second time round. The only pieces of writing which I’ve ever completed to my own satisfaction are Pit Stop, my Doctor Who/Torchwood crossover fanfic story, and Time Between, which was featured in the University of Glamorgan Anthology for 2011.
Pit Stop started as a bit of a jeu d’esprit in the pub one evening; I published the first chapter as a standalone story on an internet forum based in Aberdare. A while later, I took it into university when we needed something to workshop in our first Creative Writing session, and then it went back into hibernation. Even so, people kept asking me how the story proceeded. I was railroaded into continuing it, and finally it started to take a form I was pleased with. After several months of tinkering, I finished it and sent it off into a parallel blog where it can live, relatively unmolested, until the end of the world and/or the end of the Internet, whichever happens first.
As for Time Between – that idea had been kicking around in my mind for several years before I started working on it properly. Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘I carry a song in my head for a long time and then it comes bursting out.’ That was pretty much what happened with Time Between. I completed it as an assignment for Creative Writing, and our lecturer suggested that I submitted it for the anthology. To my surprise it was accepted for inclusion. In my mid-forties, I’d actually had something published in a proper book, with an ISBN and everything! It means that I can legitimately describe myself as a ‘published writer’ – it’ll do for me.
I won’t attempt to write anything approaching a serious work of fiction again, with any luck. Last weekend I finished reading Christopher Priest’s latest novel The Adjacent. I’ve been reading his books for over thirty years (and we briefly corresponded earlier this year) and I know damn well that I’ll never be able to write to his dizzyingly high standard. I don’t have the imagination, the inspiration, or the ability. I’ll never get anywhere close.
I’m currently re-reading Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, and it leaves me breathless with each page. My friend Martin H. has never been a big reader (his childhood and schooldays were not happy times, and he turned his back on formal education as a result.) I’ve recommended some of Mr Vonnegut’s short stories (notably the posthumous collection Look at the Birdie) as a good place to start. Mr Vonnegut’s stories demonstrate that a great writer doesn’t need to have swallowed a dictionary, or to show off his/her erudition, in order to write humane and wise stories about ordinary people. That calls for sympathy and understanding. Both commodities have been in very short supply in my life for some time now.
If 50,000 words seem like 49,000 too many or you’re more interested in blogging than writing a book, NaBloPoMo — National Blog Posting Month — might be your speed: a challenge to post once every day for the entire month of November. No theme, no word count, no rules; just you, your blog, and 30 new posts.
Well, I’ve been doing fairly well over the past couple of years. Initially I was averaging a post every week, and the pace quietly increased as I got the hang of it. (Finding my way around WordPress was a bit of a challenge, which is why some of my earlier posts are a bit ‘experimental.’) If I’ve been having a good week recently, I’ve posted every day. On occasions, I’ve done two posts in the same day. Other times, I’ve gone for several weeks without doing anything at all. Have a quick look at the Foreword and Contents to see my unpredictable publishing schedule for yourself. In spite of my early dabbling in the field, I was never cut out for a career in journalism.
So – NaBloPoMo. This is a challenge I could go for. After all, NaNoWriMo was never going to happen, in spite of Nancy’s attempts to get me on board. I’ve just finished one challenge, so it’s time for something new. October was Sober October, where people were challenged to spend an alcohol-free month and raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. I didn’t bother getting sponsors, unlike my friend Nicky H., but I thought I’d give her some moral support anyway.
It wasn’t the first long spell I’ve spent off the beer. I managed nearly eleven months some years ago, until the whole Xmas hassle in work sent me scurrying to the pub after work with the boys one evening. Late in 2008 and into 2009, I spent nine months without having a pint. During that time, I met what passed for my last ex-girlfriend (see New Year, New Start.) I can’t even blame my lack of judgement that time on the beer goggles which have led me down too many blind alleys over the years. Sober October? No problember!
[A digression: It was also Stoptober, where people were encouraged to quit smoking. I was exempt from that attempt at self-denial, but one especially stressful afternoon a couple of weeks ago Rhian asked me which lunatic had decided to run the two campaigns concurrently. Maybe next year they can go for the triple whammy and incorporate National Domestic Violence Month as well.]
I admit that I didn’t manage the whole month. Last Saturday I went to Cardiff and had a couple of pints with Josie, while the i turned into a Crossword Masterclass. I had a sneaky one in Aberdare when I got off the train as well, as it was pissing down and I had to wait ages for the bus. Apart from that one excusable lapse, I managed the whole exercise without a hitch.
This month is a different situation altogether. It’s Movember (as in MOustache), when men across the UK are encouraged to abstain from shaving their upper lips to raise money for another cancer charity. Yesterday, a couple of the guys I used to work with posted their photos on Facebook, before the growing season began in earnest. Well, regardless of how worthy a cause it is, you can count me out.
Every week, our local ‘news’paper, the Cynon Valley Leader, has a trawl through the archives and prints some photos of bygone days – long-demolished buildings, football teams, works outings, school classes. Looking at some of them, it seems as though moustaches were pretty much compulsory for a few years when I was a kid. Fair play to my Dad; he must have been one of the few Valleys men who made it through the 1970s without looking like a member of Brotherhood of Man (or someone from a Danish porn film.)
So, I’m afraid that Movember is a non-starter for me. But NaBloPoMo (I love typing that; it’s even better when I read this back aloud to myself) is a challenge I can rise to. I think I can manage thirty posts in thirty days, with no word limit and no restrictions on style or content. The only condition is that I have to read what some other participants are writing, in return for their reading mine, and leave the odd comment as well. That could be a problem in the Library, where the server seems to block access to many blogs (including my own) because the content filters are set to CHASTITY BELTS ON AND LOCKED. I’ll do my best, though.
You see, apart from a few close friends, hardly anybody ever leaves a comment on what I write anyway. Back when I first started blogging (it wasn’t here, and it had a different title in those days) I wrote a long piece about the British novelist Jack Trevor Story (see I Want to Tell You a Story.) I said that sometimes I felt a bit like Jack himself, sitting at his typewriter, staring at a blank piece of paper, waiting for inspiration to dawn. Like Jack, I had no idea whether my words would be read by a couple of million people (his regular Saturday column in the Guardian would reach that potential audience, after all) or a couple of dozen.
I get a lot of hits on my blog – sometimes as many as seventy or eighty in a single day – but how does that figure translate into actual readers? It’s very difficult to know. The search engine might bring them here when they want something entirely different. There’s no way of telling how many people just walk in, look around, and go away again, to use a pub as a metaphor. Some people might just be looking for general information about Aberdare, or photos of the Boys Village near Aberthaw – a remarkably popular topic, to judge from the search terms – or, most bizarrely, the words ‘Helen Wakeford nude.’ Helen Wakeford (now Bowen) was the Students Union branch president when I was a student the second time around. She was highly amused when I told her about that. Anyway, I swear I never saw her naked, and even if I had I certainly wouldn’t tell you about it here!
When I worked in retail, we used to measure ‘footfall’ in the shop; in other words, we knew how many people walked through the door in the course of a trading day. (There was a magic eye on the door that counted people coming in.) The challenge was in converting the visitor into a customer. On my last three visits to the shop where I used to work, I’ve left empty-handed on two occasions. That’s a 33.3% conversion rate, pretty poor for a large bookshop. (It might help if they actually stocked anything worth buying!) I wonder how many other similar ‘failed conversions’ they have from day to day. (I very nearly typed ‘on a daily basis’ there – it must have been a brief flashback to those much-loved management clichés.)
Even when I get a ‘like’ on here, some of them appear literally within seconds of my hitting the Publish button. There’s simply no possible way that anybody could have read what I’d just written and liked it within that tiny interval of time. Like everything else in Cyberspace, the blogosphere seems to be full of bots and malware programs, doing their Siren best to lure the unwary to the rocky shoals of system crashes. I’m pleased to report that the good ship Ubuntu sails through most of these perils unscathed, even if its captain does occasionally get sidetracked by the temptations on offer (see From Russia From Love and Computer Love.)
Anyway, back to NaBloPoMo. This is more or less what I wrote last night, before everything went supine and WordPress apparently published it, even though it had vanished without trace when I checked back a few minutes later. It’s Day One’s post, but on Day Two. Who knows what excitement awaits us for the next four weeks? I’m looking forward to the challenge, personally. It seems like a good way to explore what other people are up to, in a fairly structured and methodical manner, rather than just hoping to find something interesting.
I’m looking forward to discovering that there are other people out there, also in the Jack Trevor Story situation of wondering whether anyone actually does read their stuff. Furthermore, I might finally start using social networking in the way it was intended – meeting lots of new and diverse people from across the world – rather than just keeping in touch with people I already know. Wish me luck!
In which The Author listens to the radio once more
A fortnight ago today, I caught an interesting documentary on BBC Radio 4. At first I thought I’d come unstuck in time and missed a day. Professor Laurie Taylor usually presents a Tuesday afternoon round-up of the social sciences called Thinking Allowed. Sometimes I listen to it, other times I don’t – it depends on what mood I’m in. If Prof. Taylor’s exploring new aspects of anthropology, talking to people who’ve done the research at first hand, I might stay tuned. If he’s discussing yet another report making the obvious link between poverty and crime, I probably go and do something less boring instead. When I heard his voice on a Monday afternoon, I was understandably confused.
It turned out to be the first part of a two-part documentary called Bingo, Barbie and Barthes. It (slightly prematurely) marked fifty years of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline, and in particular the work of Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart. Prof. Hoggart’s 1957 book The Uses of Literacy was arguably the catalyst for the new field of study, and he became the centre’s first director when it opened.
In his fascinating retrospective, Prof. Taylor spoke to some of the key players in what became a very productive and often maligned area. I remembered a lot of them from my early days in academic bookselling, when the Polytechnic of Wales had a thriving Media & Cultural Studies Department. I wasn’t familiar with their work, but I certainly recognized their names from reading lists and stock-cards; the programme’s interviewees included Prof. Hoggart’s successor Prof. Stuart Hall, notable writers and researchers such as Angela McRobbie, Paul Gilroy and Dick Hebdige (see Pick’n'(Re)Mix), and the Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore, who had studied Cultural Studies at university (although not at Birmingham).
Cultural Studies, like its close relative Media Studies, was often accused by the British media of committing many sins: of left-wing bias; of being ‘woolly’ and ‘anti-intellectual’; and of often deliberate obscurantism. I must admit to having some sympathy for that point of view myself, as I described in Bullshit Detector. Eventually, the growing emphasis on Real-World applications in British universities began to sideline Cultural Studies.
At Glamorgan, the course was enfolded into a larger Social Sciences department in the late 1990s. Two years ago, during another internal reshuffle, the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences was enfolded into the Faculty of Business and Society. I can only assume that at some point during that internal upheaval my paperwork vanished (see Everything Changes) and my academic career came to an abrupt end. By that time, Cultural Studies at the University of Glamorgan was just a distant memory.
The CCCS, the alma mater of so many of the leading thinkers in the field, closed in 2002. You’ll be lucky to find a Cultural Studies course in the current UCAS handbook. Maybe Goldsmith’s College still offers it. It must be a hell of a competitive application process…
Anyway, this afternoon I caught the latest instalment of Round Britain Quiz, which has been running on Radio 4 since 1947, believe it or not. Like Brain of Britain and Counterpoint, it’s been shunted around the schedules for years until finally finding a permanent home on a Monday afternoon, with a Saturday night repeat. Unlike Brain of Britain (which I get as a podcast in case I miss a heat) I don’t listen regularly, because I find it extremely annoying, to be honest.
RBQ, as its aficionados call it, is very different from the other quizzes it shares a slot with, in that the ‘teams’ aren’t drawn from the general public. Instead, the regular players are a mix of former quiz champions, academics, writers, broadcasters, and ‘pundits’. They’re the sort of people who, in a previous generation, would have appeared on The Brains Trust, and who would now make up the regulars on Eggheads (if only it didn’t appear on that new-fangled television, of course). I first came across RBQ when I was working in Dillons, and Nick Clarke was in the chair. Now it’s chaired by Tom Sutcliffe, and (say it quietly) it seems to be dumbing down.
If you haven’t heard it before, let me warn you that the questions are bizarre in the extreme. Some are complied in-house, and others are submitted by listeners. There’s always a connection to be made between the multiple elements of the answers, and some of them are extremely obscure, to say the least. Sometimes you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on a conversation in a care home, where a group of elderly people with dementia are trying to do a particularly fiendish Spectator crossword. Here’s an question from today’s edition:
Why would Umberto Eco be interested in a Polish-born revolutionary, a time-travelling Tyler, Mrs Gorbachev, and Laurie Lee’s Miss Burdock?
Anyway, the panellists eventually cracked it, with only a little guidance from the chairman. I’ll talk you through it in the same way. Umberto Eco wrote The Name of the Rose, from which you should be able to deduce the connection with people who are also named Rose, or variations on that name:
the Polish-born revolutionary was Rosa Luxemburg
the time-travelling Tyler was Rose in Doctor Who
Mrs Gorbachev’s name was Raisa
Miss Burdock is the eponymous character in Cider With Rosie.
(Believe it or not, that’s a fairly easy one!)
Another question this afternoon involved very different three pieces of music: Handel’s Largo, ‘Flowers in the Rain’ by The Move, and ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by Buggles. The only clue was that they had an ‘initial’ connection.
It goes without saying that the experts recognised the Handel piece immediately. They’re all good British intellectuals after all. Their childhoods were probably made up of listening to the Third Programme and reading the classics in their original languages, interspersed by visits to the theatre or the opera house. However, when it came to the other two pieces of music, they were totally flummoxed. Mr Sutcliffe nudged them gently in the right direction for a few minutes until the penny finally dropped:
Handel’s Largo was the first piece of music transmitted over the wireless (what we used to call ‘radio’), on Xmas Eve 1906;
‘Flowers in the Rain’ was the first record played on BBC Radio 1 on its launch on 30 September 1967;
the Buggles song was the first song played on MTV, when it started on 1 August 1981.
(Note for younger readers: the M in MTV originally stood for Music.)
Anyone who’s been a pub quiz regular in the last twenty years or so will almost certainly have come across the Buggles question before. Just about everyone of a certain age will know the one about The Move as well. They’re such old chestnuts that I could legitimately describe them as ‘common knowledge.’
Unless, of course, you’re a team member on Round Britain Quiz.
That’s why I started to write this particular entry. Inspired by Richard Hoggart’s original argument, the Cultural Studies brigade did their best to apply critical techniques to pop music, films and TV shows, and to present them as part of a much broader ‘culture’, along with the obvious candidates like high opera and the classics of literature. In Bingo, Barbie and Barthes, Suzanne Moore had described the relief she felt upon arriving at university, when she discovered that popular music was deemed worthy of serious study. As a working-class youngster, she’d never listened to classical music, and had been terrified that she’d be a fish out of water at university.
Listening to RBQ this afternoon, the cultural divide was alive and well once more. It was blindingly obvious that ‘low culture’ had completely passed the teams by. Another question made reference to The Tempest, the rights read to a suspected criminal in the United States, and a ‘funny lady.’ Once again, the team nailed the first part, struggled with the second, and completely failed to get the third. (To be fair to the panellists, I don’t think Miranda Hart is funny either.)
Possibly by coincidence, and possibly not, this afternoon’s listening also including Auditioning for Auntie. The journalist Pete Paphides had been granted access to the BBC’s archives, to look at the written feedback from pop music auditions throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the wake of The Beatles’ triumph, hopeful musicians and singers had flocked to the BBC studios. They were armed with their gear and their attitudes, and were given twenty minutes to set up, impress the selection panel with three songs, and bugger off again. A successful audition would secure that all-important recording session.
The whole setup sounded redolent of a homespun, class-ridden, very British alternative to The X Factor. Instead of singing in front of a studio audience and a panel of music business movers and shapers, they performed to producers from the Light Entertainment Unit, who were more used to dealing with people like Tony Hancock. The comments made about The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elton John, Nick Drake, and a host of others, made for painful listening. It was obvious that the BBC staff, with a couple of exceptions, had no knowledge of (or interest in) the music they were dealing with, and no idea of what the public wanted to hear.
It was hardly surprising that the pirate stations made such a massive impact in the decade before the BBC finally bit the bullet and let Tony Blackburn play ‘Flowers in the Rain’ live on the air. The times they were a-changing, and the BBC was being left a very long way behind. It was the same period which saw the birth of Cultural Studies, and the idea that the division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures was artificial and maintained by sheer snobbery.
For me, listening to Mr Paphides’ documentary tied this little knot of programmes up in a neat bow. I’m not being an inverted snob when I say that it might be time to introduce some new blood to Round Britain Quiz. It’s all very well having two people on the team who know everything about the works of Handel, but when they can’t name a former Number One hit by The Move, surely something has gone wrong somewhere.
With that in mind, I hereby volunteer to try out for the Welsh team of RBQ as and when a vacancy may arise. I may have limped in a poor third on Brain of Britain last year (see It’s Grand Oop North!), but look what happened to the guys who beat me on the day. Scott Dawson, who won our heat, got knocked out by Barry Simmons (of Mastermind and Eggheads fame) in the semi-finals. Darren Martin qualified for the semi-finals as one of the highest scoring runners-up, won a place in the final, and lost to – yes, you’ve guessed it – Barry Simmons. Now you know the full story, you’ll see why I felt like the part-time football club who’d accidentally qualified for the fifth round of the FA Cup.
That’s what general knowledge quizzes are all about, at the end of the day. It must be wonderful to have all the education money can buy, and be a world authority on some obscure poet, with a long reference on Wikipedia and an entry in Who’s Who. The thing is, if you’re in your local pub quiz and you don’t know who currently plays James Bond, at best you’re going to look a fool. Anyone can drop an obvious question in the local pub, when everyone’s had a few beers and it’s all forgotten (except by irritating know-alls, who’ll remind you about it for the next twenty years or so.) However, if you want to show off your total ignorance of popular culture (or, alternatively, ‘common knowledge’) on national radio, you’ll look like a massive buffoon in front of millions of people.
If the CCCS at Birmingham achieved anything during its forty-year existence, it was to demonstrate that the barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are artificial constructs. The smashing of those barriers has become even more relevant in an era where (almost) everyone has access to pretty much all human knowledge, via the Internet.
James E., Gaz and I are still vaguely planning to get a team together to have a shot at Eggheads. In the meantime, I’m absolutely serious about trying out for the Wales team on Round Britain Quiz, even as a standby in case someone falls ill. I modestly think my general knowledge could plug a few gaps in the regulars’ store of facts. Paul Bajoria, who produces RBQ, also produces Brain of Britain. I should think he’s still got my contact details somewhere…
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
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