Monday, December 31, 2007

Cultural Amnesia

"It is so immense, I have no words for it" was T.S. Eliot's reaction to Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God. Old Tom was possibly just relieved that he had escaped being skewered on Lewis's satirical blade, unlike virtually everyone else in the precious hothouse world of the London literary scene in the twenties. I had a similarly awed response when reading Clive James's magnum opus (which it is, in every sense) Cultural Amnesia. The avid reader (there must be one) of this blog will know of my admiration for Clive, founded initially on his lyrics to Pete Atkin's music. He has been, away from the TV screen, one of the most important cultural critics of our times, and his post -TV career seems dedicated to cementing that position. Recent books of essays, such as Even As We Speak, seem to me to represent all that is best in the critic's art. The autobiographical work is just hugely enjoyable, and the poetry at its best is playfully serious, formally adventurous, thought-provoking and beautifully observed. It's not surprising that the jacket of Cultural Amnesia repeats the oft-quoted New Yorker assessment "Clive James is a brilliant bunch of guys" to point out the breadth of his achievements, but really that isn't adequate to characterise this latest volume.
I know from the estimable Pete Atkin website run by Steve Birkill that the original title for the book was "Alone in the Cafe" and that gives a clue to the process of composition. The author says that the book is based on his reading during time off (often in cafes) from all the other activities for which he's known over the last forty years; his marginal notes form the germ of these pieces. The eventual title refers to the necessity to resist the "cultural amnesia" which, in the era of increasing homogenisation, forgets that complex and vibrant mental world of twentieth century creative life.
The book is organised as a series of essays, alphabetically arranged according to the author of the quotation around which each essay is constructed. The focus is on those who shaped our culture in the twentieth century, so some names are the ones you might expect: Wittgenstein, Proust, Freud. And because James is concerned with those who had a negative effect, it's not really surprising to see Hitler, Goebbels and Mao there too. But would you have expected Beatrix Potter, Terry Gilliam and W.C. Fields? Probably not. There's a noticeably European (and non-English flavour) to the figures chosen, too. Starting with the cafe culture of old Vienna, James is not shy of advancing the claims of some figures many of us might not have heard of. Would you recognise Peter Altenberg, Karl Tschuppik or Miguel de Unamuno? No, thought not. Yet James makes a very convincing case for the importance of these figures. He isn't shy of using non-twentieth century characters either- so Tacitus, Sir Thomas Browne and John Keats are all in there.
The essays are not, though, biographical, and are not, quite often, about the person whose name appears at the top of the page. Rather, the essays are about the issues raised by a particular quotation of that writer. Thus, the Thomas Browne chapter is largely about using quotations as titles; the Arthur Schnitzler chapter is, hilariously, mostly about Richard Burton's hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare; and the Terry Gilliam chapter is about state-sponsored torture.
At the heart of the book, and infusing every line, is the passionate desire to assert the value of humanism, as it has been developed by the thinkers and artists of Western civilisation. The alphabetical arrangement makes for a serendipitous juxtapositioning of disparate figures- Michael Mann is sandwiched between Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and Tony Curtis rubs shoulders with Benedetto Croce. The emphasis on the Jewish writers of mittel-Europa is entirely justified by James's advocacy of these (to me, at any rate) little-known figures. I now have a growing "to-read" list starting with Egon Friedell, and then Ernst Curtius, Alfred Polgar, Stefan Zweig and ... and...
Clive James is nothing if not opinionated, and I was pleased to see some of the darlings of Theory brushed aside: Lacan, Kristeva and Baudrillard are described as "artistes in the flouncing kick-line of the post-modern intellectual cabaret."
A couple of quibbles: for a book that acknowledges the work of two editors, and a copy-editor, there are too many typos. Clive James is a stickler for accuracy, so the reader winces at incorrect spellings of German words, "English" rendered with a lower-case e, and other infelicities. There's also some repetition, understandable considering the piecemeal creative process, but avoidable if the editors were doing their job. A good joke about the special bullets used in films, which miraculously avoid hitting the hero, is not improved by being repeated. And there is some contentiousness about the often rather brutal moral judgements. 'Er indoors (sorry: Doctor 'Er Indoors) thought the assessment of Ernst Jünger was harsh, for instance. But these are minor blemishes on a very important work.

The old Everyman editions used to quote Edmund Gosse: "A cosmic convulsion might utterly destroy all printed works in the world, and still if a complete set of Everyman's Library floated upon the waters enough would be preserved to carry on the unbroken tradition of literature." I think that if Cultural Amnesia, and all the books mentioned therein, were to survive, we could make a similar claim. Spend that Christmas book token on this.

Monday, December 24, 2007

This man wants to be president

In a heartwarming Christmas story, Will Smith, an actor (and therefore someone on whose every word we should hang, especially as he has said he wants to be president one day) says that Hitler was essentially a good person. In other news, the Pope suggests that Lucifer wasn't such a bad guy really, and George Bush says maybe he never did get the hang of this politics thing...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

I enjoyed reading this reissue of a 1938 novel, now published in Persephone's smart grey livery. It's a tale of one day, but isn't a Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses. The eponymous Miss P is a timid, dowdy failed governess who finds herself by accident plunged into a demi-monde of bright young things, night-clubs and all night parties, presided over by the deliciously named Delysia LaFosse. She immediately becomes a Jeeves-like guru to the madcap women of this circle, averting disaster in their complex love lives by producing last minute solutions. She is an idiot-savant version of Jeeves, though- her plans are not the careful product of a highly developed brain, but the instincts she has when she allows herself to be be bold for the first time in her life. The short chapters, each detailing a few hours in the day, show Miss Pettigrew at the centre of a maelstrom of social activity as she pilots Miss LaFosse and her friend Edythe DuBarrry towards the safe havens of marriage with suitable young men, and incidentally finds a beau for herself. We are in the world of Waugh's Vile Bodies here, but without the vitriol. The villain of the piece, the caddish Nick, has an inexplicable power over women. This is explained in a disarmingly frank piece of racism by the fact that he has some Italian ancestry. More startlingly, Miss Pettigrew instinctively knows he isn't right because "he has a little Jew in him". These jarring notes aside - and Miss Pettigrew's eventual conquest is clearly Jewish - the novel is delightful, and to criticise it would be, as someone said of Wodehouse, like taking a spade to a souffle. Indeed, there's much of a Wodehousian nature here, and it's interesting to read from the introduction that Winifred Watson, who died as recently as 2002, was the daughter of a Newcastle shopkeeper, with no direct knowledge of the London scene she described. She stopped writing during the war, having written some historical fiction, a murder mystery and this little gem.
Persephone Books is an excellent enterprise. Their reprints of obscure twentieth century classics are stylish and robust, printed on good paper with beautiful endpapers based on contemporary designs. An extra delight in Miss Pettigrew is the illustrations, which are very evocative of that hedonistic pre-war period.

This particular publication is obviously a winner, as I see it is about to become a film. That will doubtless bring it to a larger audience, and that can't be bad. The film trailer is here.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

More numbing dumbness

Thanks to my Belgian correspondent Yves Buelens for alerting me to this. Incroyable, mon ami...

Europe is a country and everyone speaks French here

Thanks to Francessa for pointing this out to me. I don't feel like a genius, and Stephen Fry makes me feel inadequate, Anonymous, but this woman- who is some sort of celebrity in the US apparently- plumbs new depths of dumbness.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Not a genius

On the shared items bit, there's an article from John's blog about the blog readability thing. It points out that the code you enter to get the badge also contains a link to a cash advance site, thus helping that site to rise up the Google ratings. I had actually spotted that, so I removed it when I pasted the code. On reflection though, I think I'll just take the silly badge off altogether.
Here's the tip:
"Another fiendish way to make money on the web | Technology | Guardian Unlimited
December 7th, 2007 by John

I’ve been wondering about this since I saw people linking to the original post earlier in the week and, like them, submitted my site to the “readability test” offered. The thing that attracted my attention was the traditional badge that appeared with HTML code for you to copy and paste onto your site. Displayed prominently in the box under the badge was code to link to a cash advance site. I decided this was somewhat fishy and didn’t go any further. However Charles Arthur on The Guardian site did take it further and has a fascinating analysis of what does indeed look like a clever attempt to boost the ranking of the cash advance site. In the article Another fiendish way to make money on the web he says of the process that:

Anyway, once you’ve input your blog’s URL, you’ll quickly get a graphic showing your blog’s “readability” by school age - elementary school, high school, undergraduate, postgraduate, genius and so on. It seems to happen really fast, given the sort of linguistic analysis that must be needed, but computers are fast these days, aren’t they?

Then you have an image, which you can - if you’ve got the time and energy - copy, upload to your blog, and display; or a bit of HTML, which is much simpler, to paste in your page or profile. No muss, no fuss.

I was looking at this when I started wondering about the HTML. It has an image link…

All well and good. But then there’s the ALT tag - remember, the stuff that search engines actually index: alt=”cash advance” Get a Cash Advance”.

And that phrase “cash advance” has a link to an entirely different site…

Now, what happens when happy bloggers - or MySpacers, or Facebookers, or whatever, laughing over their blog’s or profile’s readability or lack of it, paste the code on their site? Search engines index their site and find a link from them pointing to “cash advance” and that site. Well, that sounds like a recommendation for the site, the search engines decide.

It’s a fascinating analysis of something that appears to boil down to a form of search engine optimisation, verging on blog link spam. It’s a piece of detective work that’s well worth a read - especially if you’re tempted to boast of the readability of your blog!"

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Am I missing something?

In the continuing fiasco about the lost data, HMRC has now offered a reward of £20,000 for the return of the missing discs. This after police searched municipal waste dumps to find them. In other news, the discs brought by a mechanic from Maclaren's formula 1 team to his new employers Renualt "have been returned". Well, isn't the whole point about computer discs that you can copy them? And wouldn't anybody who had such valuable data make a copy immediately?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Genius, moi?

I discovered the Blog Readability test via John Naughton, and had to do it of course. Gratifying, if baffling, to come out at Genius. Anyway, it means I can post a nice banner over there----> showing a brain.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Working class

As a non-telly viewer, I'll miss The Royal Family At Work. But it'll be a pretty short programme, won't it?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bad Science

I frequently share in the "shared items" section over there ----> Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" column. It's unfailingly interesting, frequently funny, and often features some jaw-droppingly appalling manipulation of science by self-declared experts who are exposed by Ben as complete charlatans. The equally admirable David Colquhoun does a similar job on his website. On World Aids day, I thought a proper post might be in order to highlight two instances of pseudo-scientific quackery, as reported by Ben today. Both are about treatment for Aids.
The antagonism of the South African government to properly researched Aids treatments is well-known. What I didn't know was this:
"(President) Mbeki pursued his own investigations on Aids therapies, resulting in government endorsement of Virodene, a home grown South African drug. Medical treatment for Aids cost $1,200 a month, but Virodene cost $6, “medicine developed in Africa for Africa”. Virodene was in fact based on the industrial solvent dimethylformamide, which is toxic, potentially lethal, and with - bizarrely - no proof of efficacy against HIV." Unbelievable! But then, the crazy world of homoeopathy can trump that. The Society of Homoeopaths are having a conference. One of the presenters has a novel way of dealing with Aids. Here's Ben's report:
'Before you feel smug and superior, the Society of Homoeopaths are holding a conference in London today featuring the work of Peter Chappell, who also claims he can make an immediate impact on the Aids epidemic using music encoded with his Aids remedies.
“Right now,” he says, “Aids in Africa could be significantly ameliorated by a simple tune played on the radio.” Damningly, contemptibly, not one single person from the homeopathy community has spoken out to criticise this lunacy.'
Well, yes. Just remind me which century we are in, please.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Prometeus - The Media Revolution

All rather disturbing... I think it's the confident way they talk about possible future events as if they have already happened.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Kindle: The Holy Grail for ebooks?

Kindle: The Holy Grail or the last gasp of eBooks? : OUPblog This is a very interesting development, especially as it has the power of Amazon behind it. Carry something the size and weight of one book, but with 200+ books' worth of reading onboard. It's intriguing...
Amazon has a demo here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Telegraph hack knows nothing about education shock

I was so annoyed about this article by Simon Heffer that I posted a lengthy, and not entirely coherent reply. Gratifying to see that even Telegraph readers can see, for the most part, what nonsense this is. I wrote the following, but it's worth checking the link to see the comments of others. Somehow, I think "Edmund Burke" may be a pseudonym...

My response:
I notice that Mr Heffer talks about "the Marxist drivel" taught in "teacher training colleges for the last 40 years". I suppose that's one way of keeping the old canard of sixties looniness going. Has Mr Heffer ever visited a training college - if he had, he might know that they don't actually exist any more, but why let the facts get in the way of a good rant? It might also be pertinent to point out that the Tories have been in charge for half the period he mentions. How about some truth?
I was at school in the sixties, routinely described by people such as Mr Heffer as a time when anything went, kids could do what they liked etc. I sat in a class with 40 others, in rows, chanting my times table. Later, when I trained as a teacher (and never heard Marx mentioned at all) I learned that, yes, there were a couple of experimental schools like that in the sixties - but literally a couple. Ever since, though, right-wing commentators have painted this ridiculously exaggerated picture of feckless teachers, indoctrinated by Stalinist trainers, turning out useless school-leavers. In fact, the major problem has been the ever-increasing attention on exams, exacerbated by the use of targets and league tables. Teachers are under considerable pressure to produce results by any means. This culture was, of course, a Thatcherite invention, enthusiastically pursued by her education secretaries, and since then equally vigorously pursued by the various Labour ministers. You'll recall that the national Curriculum, introduced by Thatcher's government, was considered so important that every school had to follow it - except, of course, those schools where the sons and daughters of the cabinet went. Dumbing down has, certainly, happened. A first year undergraduate in the university where I now work told me this week that she was struggling with the modest demands of our curriculum because, in her words, "at school, we were just given everything." The system now is based on getting results, not on educating people. Other countries manage perfectly well without this insane emphasis on testing. Look at Denmark, where schools are given minimal guidelines, and left to use their professional judgement and expertise. They turn out highly qualified, literate, humane and confident school leavers. So could we.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Writing for Profit revisited

Some time ago, I blogged about the advertisements that the mail-order writing course Writers Bureau place regularly in the national press. The general tone of the adverts was that their course could open the door for you to become a professional writer, earning lots of money. This was supported by testimonials from apparently successful clients. As I pointed out at the time, a prominent success story often featured in the ads was Jon Eagle and his novel Red. According to the ads, Jon received £25000 as an advance and sold the film rights. The ads said he's working on the script. The truth was that Jon Eagle did publish a book called Red- but he published it in 1996 with Minerva, a vanity house, and therefore very very unlikely to pay an author anything, still less anything like 25 grand. Another contentious claim was by Christina Jones who claimed that her first three novels were bestsellers. Only bestsellers, it appeared, in lists of romantic novels by people called Christina Jones. There were other problems which I won't go into again here.
What I can reveal now, however, is that after my post, I made a complaint about the ads to the Advertising Standards Authority. I'm happy (smugly so, actually) to be able to reveal now that my complaint was upheld. It took a long time - from early April to now, in fact, but I'm gratified by the result.
The ASA were very thorough, if a little slow, in their response, and approached Writers Bureau with my comments. Writers Bureau were obviously not prepared to give an inch. They maintained that Ms Jones was, if not a best seller, a fast seller, but the most egregious response was that relating to Mr Eagle. According to Writers Bureau, he stood by the £25000 claim, and his proof was a paying in slip. I had to point out gently to the ASA that you actually hand the paying in slip in with the money, and anyway, anyone could grab a slip and write whatever they wanted on it. A bank statement would have done the trick, but this was not forthcoming. It was also revealed that he had indeed sold the film rights - but for £1, and further, that no film had been or was going to be made.
The upshot is that if they continue to use Mr Eagle, they can't mention the 25 grand, and they've got to say that the book was published 11 years ago. They also can't claim that Ms Jones is a best seller any more. Interestingly, the complaints that the ASA added to my complaints were not upheld.
So, a small triumph, but nonetheless, a pleasing one. You can read the full judgement here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

How to deal with cold callers...

This seems like a good technique!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

The Book of Dave

Will Self is never a cosy read, and The Book of Dave is no exception. Its central conceit is that, in a Britain where the waters rose calamitously centuries ago, the primitive people who inhabit what's left of England have founded a religion based on the sacred texts of Dave, a depressed cab driver. The text is Dave's rants about his miserable life, and as a kind of coda, he's added the "knowledge" which becomes the mantra of all true believers. The novel veers unexpectedly between various dates in the late 20th century and various dates in the 5th century after Dave.
What makes this novel noteworthy, though, is the language (Mokni) used by the Hamsters (residents of what was Hampstead) in the future. It's a bizarre mix of cod cockney and oddly childish chat, the cockney being rendered almost like Dickens with Sam Weller. Self uses an idiosyncratic spelling system, and some strange diacritical marks to render it. The result is at once oddly familiar and rather unsettling. "Ow mennë tymes av Eye erred all vis bollox ... iss gotta B a fouzand aw maw". No wonder the French translator gave up...
It's funny quite often, but more frequently stomach-churning. A graphic slaughter scene in the opening chapter sets the precedent for several other set pieces of visceral violence. The novel to which it clearly owes a large debt is Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker and it comes as no surprise to discover that Self wrote a preface for the reissue of that book a few years ago.
In the end, a clever idea is over-cooked. The book could do with being trimmed, and perhaps it would have been graceful to acknowledge its relation to the Hoban book, even down to the maps which begin both narratives.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I want one of these...

I've always respected the pig as a very noble beast, but a bit unwieldy for the suburban house. These miniature ones are the answer. If you could epitomise cuteness in a picture, this would be a contender.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Another despatch from the department of the bleeding obvious. In other news: Pope confirms he is Catholic shock; Bears discovered defecating in woods horror.


Saw this on John Naughton's blog. I couldn't possibly comment.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sitting in Judgment

When I found myself agreeing with what a high court judge said about daytime TV - and in particular Jeremy Kyle- I thought it was probably yet another indication, along with the gammy knee, of advancing years. Turns out it's worse than the judge thought- and he called it bear-baiting. This account is actually quite shocking. In other news, I'm gearing up to asking a young colleague "who are the Arctic Monkeys?"

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Chilli for the time of year...

Good to know we are protected from attacks of the killer chillies...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Impotence of Proofreading By Taylor Mali

Thanks to Anonymous for the tip. Here's Taylor Mali with good advice for the folks at

Monday, September 10, 2007

Really Top Tips

I was sent some publicity material by the academic jobs website One of the items is a calendar, on which is printed a series of patronising "tips"- sample tip for writing CVs: "Don't use meaningless introductions". Doh! THAT's why I never got that vice-chancellor's job!
My favourites, though have to be the number 1 and number 4 top tips for CVs:
1. Don't apply for a job your not qualified for
4. Don't forget to check for spelling and typos

My advice- don't go to for advice...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Richard Dawkins on the strangeness of science: TEDTalks

Serious stuff - but very clear. Difficult to argue with the man Ben Goldacre calls Dawkipoos...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Edge Hill Prize

To the Royal Exchange on Friday, for the award of the first Edge Hill Short Story prize organised by my friend and colleague Ailsa Cox, and presented by AL Kennedy. It was a very pleasant evening - wine was consumed, canapés eaten, shoulders rubbed with the famous. The prize was awarded to Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin, who made a witty off the cuff acceptance speech, in the course of which he used the throwaway line, "anyone can write a novel". Up to a point, I think...
The associated conference took place the following day, and went well. Two of the short-listed authors, Tamar Yellin and Nicholas Royle, read from their work in between academic papers and experimental pieces. The rain mostly held off, and the Edge Hill ducks performed well, eliciting coos of delight from visitors.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Bookshop

I wrote a book chapter about Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore, and have been working my way through her oeuvre ever since. On a recent trip to Aldeburgh, what could be more appropriate than to pick up in the delightful bookshop there, Fitzgerald's novel of one woman's attempt to run a bookshop in a fictional coastal east Anglian town?
Like all her other novels, this is a bittersweet joy. The widow Florence Green decides that Hardborough (a fictional amalgam of, as far as I can make out from my limited experience of Suffolk, Aldeburgh and Dunwich)needs a bookshop, and she sets about converting a semi-derelict old house into one. The novel's action - and, as is the case with PF's other novels, there isn't much- revolves around the town's increasingly devious attempts to sabotage her enterprise. The late-fifties small town atmosphere is conveyed with precision, but with no apparent literary flourishes. As A.S. Byatt says, "how does she do it?" The venal Milo North, the snobbish Mrs Gamart and the misanthropic Mr Brundish are all convincingly drawn denizens of the town. My favourite character, though, was Florence's ten-year old assistant, Christine Gipping, another one of Fitzgerald's wise and prematurely old children.
The house is haunted by a rapper (and mercifully, this is a not a misogynistic gangster, but a dialect term for a poltergeist), whose presence punctuates the plot at key moments. There's a wonderful comic set piece scene where Florence decides that the town needs to be exposed to Lolita, and thus hardens the determination of her opposition. It seems slight - you could read it in one sitting - but like Fitzgerald's other works, it remains with you, because it has the ring of authenticity.
By the way, what an example for budding novelists- Fitzgerald didn't start writing novels until she was sixty, but still managed a Booker prize, two nominations, and a fanatically devoted following, of whom I am one.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Alan Johnston

This is great news. I'm very pleased to be in a position to remove the blog button from the sidebar. Amidst the rejoicing though, let's not forget that many civilians and journalists have been brutally executed by groups similar to the one that took Johnston, and that five Britons remain hostage in Iraq.

Monday, July 02, 2007

On Chesil Beach

Just got round to reading this novel. You may recall that, over at Patternings, Ann Darnton's experience of the novel was considerably spoiled by a reference to Beatles and Rolling Stones covers of Chuck Berry, at a time when they hadn't released them. Now here's a funny thing- I was bracing myself for that bit, and, er, it didn't happen. Instead, the hero tries to interest the heroine in Chuck Berry originals. Now, the edition I read is the 3rd printing, so I wonder if Ann's very legitimate point has been taken to heart by Ian McEwan and his publishers in the latest printing? Blog power, perhaps?
The novel itself I found moving and poignant. Like Atonement and Enduring Love, it explores the consequences of decisions made or not made, things said or not said, and the lifelong reverberations of momentary events. The novel is entirely about sex, though the sexual act isn't described, and doesn't occur. The agonising of the protagonists in the stifling world of early sixties Britain is examined with forensic skill by McEwan. The title reminded me in its cadence of Eliot's lines "On Margate sands/ I can connect/ nothing with nothing." On Chesil Beach, that is certainly the case, and the failure to connect has huge resonances for the lives of both protagonists. This is an impressive work, anatomising a relationship in a particular context, and showing how impulsive choices can have devastating results. And now, sans Beatles/Stones references, it's historically accurate too!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007

Academic Boycott

One of the most fiercely held beliefs of academics world wide is in academic freedom. So it seems utterly perverse for a union whose function is to represent academics to choose to boycott all academic links with an entire country. That's what the UCU have done. I wrote briefly about this before, and the position is the same now, perhaps reinforced in fact, despite Sally Hunt's opposition.
I think Israel has made some horrendous mistakes in its foreign policy, but I can't see how an academic boycott will help them change their mind. I also fail to see the logic of choosing Israel rather than any number of other countries with far worse records - China, Zimbabwe, Burma...etc etc. Of course, unlike those countries, Israel is a democracy, and its academics are in the forefront of the opposition. And if the UCU really were being logical about this, then of course America would be the first to suffer a boycott. But that would mean no nice trips to conferences in New York, so that's not on, is it? When, exactly, did it become a badge of honour in left wing circles to hate Israel? Did I miss a meeting?
Update 14.6.07
The Stop the Boycott campaign placed ads in the main serious papers yesterday, with 250+ signatories. I don't think I've ever been in such distinguished company. Sally Hunt wrote to the Guardian today to reiterate that she wants a ballot of all members. If they overturn the decision, I can return to a union that doesn't think it's cool to claim solidarity with Hizbollah.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Amazon links

I knew this blogging lark would make me rich. By putting a link to Amazon here, I've already amassed, in just over a year, £1.60 in referral fees. That's right - over ten pence a month! The thing is, once you are used to riches of this magnitude, you just want more, so I've signed up to Amazon's cunning links programme, which turns some of my words into links to Amazon products - e.g. Mike Tyson in the previous post - and probably this one too, now I've typed it. "My" links will still open in a new window. The Amazon ones are little inset boxes. Just off to put down the deposit on the luxury apartment...

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Harriet has tagged me, and since Harriet is She Who Must Be Obeyed, I obey. I have to write eight random things about me. That's easy enough, but I'm not one for being personal in public, so to speak. I was involved in a departmental team-building exercise recently, and one of the tasks was to describe yourself in two adjectives. The differing reactions were fascinating to observe: some people went for a straight character description, others wanted to reveal some hidden depth. I wasn't really ready to share my view of my qualities, so I took the jokey route - large and northern were my words- both undeniably true. So I approach this with a little diffidence. Don't expect, gentle reader, any startling revelations.
1. I had a moustache for twenty five years. Originally, I grew it because, as a young man teaching in a boys' school, I was more than once taken to be a sixth-former. I found a picture recently on my first id card at my place of work, taken fourteen years ago. I barely recognised the dark haired, moustachioed man in the photo. I'm grey now, and the moustache had grown grey too. It was odd shaving the upper lip after so long. My blogger profile picture is remarkably like a photo taken a few years ago of me emerging from a hot tub.
2. I've taught some people who have since become (relatively) famous. Nigel Short, chess champion, was one. Somewhere on a shelf at Granada (or possibly BBC Manchester) there must be a videotape of me teaching a third year drama class, featuring Nigel. I wore a poloneck jumper that I had daringly substituted for my standard collar and tie in anticipation of a TV appearance. It was a Look North/ Granada Reports feature on this unusual boy- except, he was perfectly ordinary, apart from his astonishing prowess at chess, and the day was excruciating, as he had to be the centre of every class. I never saw the programme. I also taught Kate Gartside, who now writes more than she acts- but I loved her in Preston Front. I directed a school production of Jonson's Bartholomew Fair once, and Kate starred in it. She later went to a drama school interview, where the audition was to read from a play chosen because no-one would know it- and it was Bartholomew Fair... A near contemporary of Kate was Molara, a vibrant presence in drama classes. I didn't know until I read her website that her uncle was Fela Kuti- how cool is that?
3. I still sometimes convert prices to pre-decimal currency. Recently, when stumping up nearly two pounds for The Observer, I said to the newsagent, "Blimey, thirty-six shillings for a newspaper, eh?" He looked blank, as did the lady on the till in the cafe where I work, when I mentioned that the price of a cup of tea had gone up to eleven shillings. Pounds shillings and pence worked very well - divisible by virtually any number, including 3, which, in my view, makes it superior to decimal. My last half dozen box of organic eggs was only a guinea...
4. I find that I am much more interested in science as I get older. I was spectacularly awful at it at school. My Chemistry teacher was genuinely baffled at how utterly useless I was. Now, I'm fascinated by the way real scientists expose the mumbo-jumbo promoted by "Dr" Gillian McKeith and her ilk. I love this website, which gives you an assessment of the quackery quotient of any web text.
5. I've worn glasses virtually all my life. As a baby, a bout of measles gave me a squint in both eyes, so from the age of two, I wore glasses. I had two operations as a boy, one on either eye; the left eye wasn't very successful, but the right eye was. My childhood was punctuated by visits to the Manchester Eye Hospital- first weekly, then monthly, then half yearly, then annually. At 17, my optician told me I didn't need to wear glasses all the time, and since then, I wear them only for what's known as "close work". Being a patient in the eye hospital was great, because no-one was really ill. I remember playing lots of games with other children, all of us with eyepatches, or impossibly thick, milk-bottle bottom glasses. It was like a junior version of Carry On Doctor. Twenty odd years later, I found that, when I was asking questions in class, I was getting responses from the person next to the one I thought I was addressing, and I suspected that my left eye had begun to wander again. I couldn't see anything wrong in the mirror, though.That summer, walking into a very grand room in a museum, with a huge mirror facing me, I saw my left eyeball move very quickly to the corner of my eye, and realised that it was at a certain distance that the effect occurred. I was referred to an eye specialist, and had to report to hospital for tests. I was surprised when I turned up that the waiting room had tiny chairs, and when I was called, it wasn't "Mr Spence?" but "Is Robert there?" My condition was generally one that children have, and the tests I did in 1984 were similar to the ones I remembered- lining up two images of Mickey Mouse, for instance. I had another operation to yank my eyeball back into place. At the time I was starting a new job, and rather hoped to begin sporting a glamorous black eyepatch. I didn't get one though, so arrived at my new place of employment looking like I'd gone several rounds with Mike Tyson. It did gain me some street cred, though.
6. I love radio. I love the BBC's Listen Again facility. I love listening to ancient programmes from my youth on BBC7. I love Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion.
7. I have been vegetarian for most of my life, and so I don't really know anything about meat. I can't identify cuts of meat, and don't know what people are eating in restaurants when meat is served.
8. My father is the same age as Chuck Berry, Jimmy Savile and the Queen. I find that fact oddly disconcerting.
If, dear reader, you feel like revealing eight random things about yourself, consider yourself tagged.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ken Robinson on creativity

This is a really funny, but also profound piece of thinking that makes some crucial points about the nature of education and creativity.

Dan Gilbert on Happiness

This is fascinating. Dan Gilbert is a Harvard psychiatrist who has researched into how we synthesize happiness. This talk, about 20 minutes long, gives details of his work. He's an excellent, lively speaker. Thanks to Bibliobibuli for the tip.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

More smugness

More evidence of the power of the veg...

Big company admits mistake shock horrror

Mars has done a swift U-turn. Well done the Veggie Soc. I'm still boycotting them though, as they haven't removed the calories.

Monday, May 14, 2007

A backward step

This is, as the Veggie Soc says, "incomprehensible". It does mean, though, that I won't be tempted to have a Twix with my morning coffee, so thanks Mars for helping my weight loss drive.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Oh for an editor

Over at Patternings, Ann Darnton points out how her reading of Chesil Beach was spoilt by Ian McEwan's failure to get a contemporary detail right - he has his protagonist playing Beatles and Rolling Stones covers of Chuck Berry before they were recorded. On one level it's a minor detail, but on another, as Ann points out, it goes to the heart of the novel, which is, presumably quite deliberately, considering its subject matter, set in the year before, as Larkin has it,

"Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty three/ (which was rather late for me)/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles' first LP." The whole atmosphere of the novel depends on its pre-beat group era setting.

I've observed a similar problem in the novels of Elizabeth George. This American anglophile gets lots of detail about England wrong. Despite apparently spending half her life over here, she still doesn't know that we don't say "candy bar"; she thinks that cricketers all have personal coaches; in a novel set in Lancashire, she consistently refers to the police HQ as being located in "Hutton-Preston": it's in Hutton, a suburb of Preston. If you were outside, you'd say Preston. If you were in Preston, you'd say Hutton. No-one would ever say "Hutton-Preston". Again, you might think, well, does it really matter, and obviously, the answer is probably "not much". But since Ms George prides herself on the accuracy of her portrayal of English life, you'd think these details would matter to her, or to her English editor, who received lavish praise in the acknowledgments.

In the latest novel I've come across, her hero's somewhat down-to-earth female sidekick has to question a suspect called Barry. She attempts to be matey with him, and addresses him as "Bar". Has any English person ever used "Bar" as a short form of "Barry"? I think not. He's Baz, innit?

Of course, the most laughably inaccurate feature of Ms George's oeuvre is the fact that her hero is a titled member of the nobility with a stately home, who just happens, for entirely altruistic reasons, to be a serving policeman. He's not exactly Lord Peter Wimsey, but he ain't Rebus either. I'm reminded that in America, the editors obviously feel that the US readership couldn't possibly cope with a few culturally specific words, so they edit Rankin to make all his British idioms American ones, thus making Rebus refer to sidewalks and car trunks. Wasn't it Sam Goldwyn, who, when informed that it would be unwise to film Lilian Hellman's The Little Foxes because the major characters were lesbians, replied "That's OK - we'll make 'em Albanians"!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Geography professors perform the YMCA

I can't see my English colleagues doing this somehow...

These guys from Manchester's Geography Dept performed for their Christmas do. I wonder what would be appropriate for other departments?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Man breaks up with girlfriend: a nation mourns

Just wanted to get this in before Private Eye. Obviously worthy of the first spot on today's BBC news broadcasts...

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Not all about you

Novels are not all about you, Natasha | The Guardian | Guardian Unlimited
Lovely letter from Ian McEwan in reply to the review of his new book. His point is, as he says, one which you would hardly think needs to be made, but clearly it does. I'm always amused when people cite John of Gaunt's "sceptred isle" speech in Richard II as evidence of Shakespeare's patriotism. First, it's the character's view, not the playwright's; more importantly, in the context of the play, the speech is a lament for an England that is lost. John of Gaunt finishes his dying speech by condemning the decline of the country he loved. It doesn't stop people (often politicians) using the speech as if it were an uncritical celebration of the nation.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Writing for profit?

Recent analyses of what writers earn confirm pretty much what we all knew anyway, which is that, unless you are JK, or Salman, don't give up the day job. That is, unless you can live on four grand a year.
In that financial climate, the claims of the mail-order writing schools look a bit dubious. But they must do good business, or they wouldn't be able to afford the extensive advertising that promotes their services. And, of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating isn't it, so the successful authors they feature in their ads will prove how good they are, won't they?
Well, up to a point. In the ad featured here, a prominent success story is Jon Eagle and his novel Red. Jon apparently received £25000 as an advance - pretty impressive for a first novel, eh? - and has sold the film rights. He tells us he's working on the script. All very interesting, if true. I did a little research.
Jon Eagle did publish a book called Red- but he published it in 1996, which makes you wonder why The Writers Bureau is using it as an example. Surely, they have more recent success stories? What's more, according to the details on Amazon, it was published by Minerva. This notorious company was a shady vanity publishing outfit, and thus far more likely to charge the author than to fork out 25 grand as an advance. The BBC investigated this company, and the consequent publicity led to their downfall. Two anonymous Amazon reviewers in 1998 said how great the novel was (that's handy!), but it remains out of print, and only available second hand for a trifling £246.73 - but hurry, there's only one. At least there's the film, eh? Well, no, actually. The IMDB doesn't list the author as a scriptwriter, and none of the various films called Red seem to relate to his book. One of those anonymous reviewers says it's to be turned into a TV drama, but I can't find any reference to it.
OK - but what about the others? Keith Gregson claims to have earned £10,000 for writing lots of articles in a year. This one seems pretty kosher. He has his own website, has published a lot of articles on local history themes, and has clearly got himself a nice little niche. He's one of the Bureau's Writers of the Year in fact. Ten grand will supplement his pension - he's a retired teacher - but it's hardly the "very good money" mentioned in the ad.
The third star pupil is Christina Jones who breathlessly announces that her first three novels are bestsellers. Hmmm... funny that her name doesn't appear in any list of bestsellers I've seen. Anyway, she's happy - writing has changed her life. Odd then, that on her website, she attributes her success to meeting an agent at a Romantic Novelists Association event. She says she did the Writers Bureau non-fiction course a year later - so here's someone who was already a published writer of fiction before doing the course, which wasn't about fiction anyway...She also reveals here that she's still working as a barmaid at weekends. You'd think a bestseller would be beyond that, wouldn't you?
In sum, then, the ad is at best disingenuous, and at worst downright misleading. If you are tempted to enrol, I'm sure you could do better.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Like, you know

More from Taylor Mali. Once again, he's absolutely on the button with this demolition of vagueness in speech.
Hat tip: anonymous.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Taylor Mali on what teachers make

The perfect riposte to the old "those who can, do..." canard.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Jane Aus

Classic FM tell me that, to mark Mothering Sunday, they are podcasting Jane Austen novels, or, as they put it "complete abridged re-telling of these romantic classics". That's got to be better than the shortened abridged version, hasn't it?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Radio Daze

Chez Topsyturvydom, we no longer have one of Mr Baird's televisual apparatuses, so the wireless is our main mass medium. The DAB radio in the kitchen is habitually tuned to Radio 4, with Radio 2 providing the meal soundtrack, except on Tuesdays. At other times, we've recently tried theJazz. Although I can't be doing with trendy interCapitals, I feel this station might prove a winner.
Basically, it's jazz, mainly of the 50s and 60s, played without adverts, and without DJs. It's owned by Classic FM, so presumably at some point it will become awash with commercials and presenters. At the moment, all you hear between tracks is someone who sounds very like John Thompson (probably because it is John Thompson) saying fatuous things like "Listen up to The Jazz..." He doesn't say "Nice" in his Fast Show voice though.
What you get is oodles of Ella, lashings of Louis, bags of Billie, miles of Miles and other stars of the fifties and sixties. Which is nice. It's as if someone has seen one of those lists of "the hundred best jazz albums ever" and has bought them all, and is obsessively playing the stand-out tracks. Programming seems entirely random, so you might hear "God Bless the Child" by Billie Holiday, and then again by some big band three songs later. And they don't seem to have that many records...
There's nothing experimental - I did hear a bit of Keith Jarrrett, but that's as far as it goes, and the only modern stuff is by pseudo-jazzers such as Jamie Cullum and Madelaine Peyroux. No trad, either. So, although generally pleasant, not a patch on the sublime Humph, whose show is a must-hear in these parts.
I've not, however, heard on Humph or TheJazz anything by Georgie Fame, coolest man on the planet. I've been listening recently to his album Sound Venture, forty years old, and sounding as brilliant now as it did then. He is in great form, appearing as vocalist with the Harry South band, whose line-up is amazing: Stan Tracey, Tubby Hayes, Dick Morrisey, the absolute pick of British jazz of the day. George sings some of his own stuff, some Lambert and Hendricks, and even persuades Harry to blast out a great version of Papa's Got a Brand New bag. It's all marvellous stuff, and in these days of endless reissues it's bizarre that you have to get it via Japan. That does mean that it comes in a very funky mini-LP format though, a CD sized replica of the original sleeve - and with 9 bonus tracks. Bliss!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Queen Coleen

I've read the Guardian, man and boy, for a very long time- but after reading today's issue, I'm seriously considering a change. The front page - the front page! - of today's issue is dominated by a photo of Coleen as Venus. The Weekend magazine's main feature is a further portfolio of her in the guise of the woman in various famous paintings. Even if Ms McLoughlin had achieved anything in her life other than being the girlfriend of Mr Potato Head, this still would represent an extravagant waste of the paper's resources, and constitute an insult to its readers, who buy the paper to be informed about national and world events, to read the reviews, to enjoy lively and well-written features by good writers. Instead, we get a huge publicity puff for a totally worthless book. She is, apparently, "an icon". God help us.

Friday, February 16, 2007

We don't ignore cheating

This annoyed me. I do wonder how you can possibly come up with a figure of 10% of all work being plagiarised if you then say that most of it is undetected. Of course, it's just "estimated" - but on what basis, we aren't told. What this means is - someone just made it up. Doubtless, though, since this is the BBC, the 10% figure will now get quoted as if it's a verifiable fact.
Well, here are some facts: I have yet to meet a colleague in HE who doesn't take the issue of plagiarism very seriously. I have never known of a colleague ignoring plagiarism. In every case of proven plagiarism I have come across, the student has been given an appropriate punishment, up to and including failure of the degree. Students are aware of plagiarism, and don't just copy things from a screen, unless they are very stupid, or very desperate, or both- and when they do, they are usually found out.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Introducing the book

I loved this. I was reminded of an old cartoon, showing a monk slumped over a manuscript weeping. Two other monks are watching, and one says "I see the copier's broken down again!"

Hat tip: Bibliobibuli

Monday, February 12, 2007


The poo woman has finally had to concede defeat. Hurrah! This is all down to the efforts of the excellent Ben Goldacre and his Bad Science column.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Now, this is what you call snow

BBC NEWS | World | Americas | Upstate New York buried in snow
As usual, Britain collapses into chaos because a few flakes of snow have fallen. I think we don't bother having any contingency plans so that we can have heart warming "spirit of the blitz" stories on the evening news. The British legion club mentioned here is offering stranded drivers hot drinks.
Good job we haven't got any really bad weather, eh?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Where's my African readership?

According to the Clustr map, someone is clicking on Topsyturvydom all over the place, except Africa. Truly, the dark continent...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

James Bond in Openshaw?

This is worrying. I can only imagine that it's an example of the government's joined-up thinking: Tessa Jowell reckons all those BBC types will make loadsamoney when they swap their bijou London residences for grim northern terraces, and as a result will have lots to spend at the shiny new casino...

Monday, January 22, 2007

It's a snip!

Have a look at this-
'Table-sized flat' for £170,000

So, after you've visited the trendy bars and "leisure facilities", you wouldn't be inviting anyone back for a coffee, would you?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Don't you know your left from your right?

Don't you know your left from your right? | Review | The Observer

This is an extract from Nick Cohen's new book, and is an exemplary demolition of the bizarre position some leftists have got themselves into: anti-war, but apologists for random suicide bombings. The tortuous logic adopted by such people is pernicious, and led to my resignation from the UCU, whose representatives still haven't told me why it's OK for them to chant "We're all Hizbollah now"...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Good news for wine drinking curry fans... me, in this report:
Spice Healer

Reasons to be smug, part 2

The New Yorker
reviews a history of vegetarianism. Lots to get your teeth into...