Monday, 28 February 2011

Politics as Fun

Just to vary the diet a little, here's a little lunchtime reportage, in which our roving correspondent mingles with the customers.

I don't know how typical our university is, but I've been intrigued to watch the way Student Union elections have evolved over the years. Back in my day, student politics was a tribal affair, in which a "slate" of candidates for all posts was offered up by each broad alliance of smaller, politically-adjacent tribes, who had temporarily buried the hatchet (ice pick?) in order to seize or maintain power within the Union. Dirty tricks were -- ahem -- not unknown, and the whole affair was ruthlessly political, in that it was all about political positions that mirrored -- if a little grotesquely -- those in the wider world. A lot of those standing for election had their sights set on political careers.

I myself stood for election on a Broad Left slate for the august position of "Mr. Picture Fund" within our college Junior Common Room Committee. Unlike the movers and shakers, I was one of those who had greatness thrust upon me i.e. I was asked by the movers and shakers to stand. Our slate won, therefore I won. The next year, our slate lost, so I lost. A shame, as I had enjoyed buying and distributing artwork around the college, and had developed good relations with some stunningly-talented young women in the Ruskin School of Fine Art (Ah, Trebbe, where are you now? I still have your dreadful etching...).

But things are very different now, at least here in Southampton. Posts are contested by individuals, as individuals. It's not so much about politics, as branding. If these people have their sights set on anything, it's... Well, I have no idea what, really. Maybe just a bit of fun.

The first requirement seems to be to come up with a pun on your name, which will be used as your campaign slogan. This year I see "Be Terrible with Torrible", "The Jolly Dean Giant", "No Shane, No Gain", "Staff Only" (um, the candidate's name is "Staff", I presume), etc. This slogan will be painted onto a bedsheet or a large sheet of cardboard, and taped up prominently on campus walls.

The second requirement is to have a campaign colour and a vague theme. I see Shane's supporters wear white Smurf-style hats. God knows why. Capes and sloganised headbands in the right colourway seem the norm.

The third requirement is to have a team of campaigners who are prepared to dress up and paint their faces, and establish a campaign base in a tent erected on the SU plaza. Competing sound systems and chanting add to the tribal atmosphere.

Thee seems to be no requirement to have anything as dull as a platform of positions, though some candidates do have a stab at it. I can detect no real politics in most of these positions: "Extra bunfights throughout the year", "Value for money courses", "Shag events (sexual health and guidance)", huh? The serious-minded candidates -- Greens, mainly -- seem rather embarrassed by their own party-pooping earnestness.

Maybe elsewhere, away from the shouting and dressing up, some "real" politics (ballot stuffing, candidate intimidation, innuendo spreading, that sort of thing) is happening. Or maybe it's all on the Web -- some posters do have one of those mysterious square "QR codes" tucked away in a corner. But, as far as I can see, it's all rather amateurish and sweet -- much more reminiscent of some school "cutting and sticking" craft and project work, or maybe a slightly earnest rave, than anything that would count as a dress rehearsal for grown-up politics.

I suspect this is a reversion to what student politics was like in the days of Rag Days, pipe-smoking, and trad jazz. Who would ever believe, looking at these pictures, that this election is taking place in the very weeks when an unknown sort of revolution is rippling through the Middle East? You do have to wonder what our overseas students -- huddled in groups, passionately debating what I take to be real-life politics and not football (though I could be wrong about that) -- make of our young people, and their apparently politics-free politics?

Interesting times. "May you live in interesting times" was, of course, a curse, not a blessing.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Tourist Trap

Drove over to Oxford today in my Pony Express role to deliver some stuff, and encountered some astonishingly intense rain on the A34 that made cruising past articulated trucks like driving through dense smoke.

After my errand was done, I walked the streets for an hour or so, getting a camera out whenever the rain eased off. If there's one place you need not feel self-conscious wielding a DSLR it's in the heart of a tourist trap on an early spring Sunday. It's the people without the cameras who look out of place.

Oddly, I seemed to be the only one excited by this magnificent yellow skip wrapped in green netting behind the Bodleian Library. Everyone else seemed to be taking pictures of each other in front of doorways.

I Will Go With Thee & Be Thy Guide

Yet another double spread from the "mirrors, windows, walls" book

I am by trade a jobbing cataloguer. If you think, with Samuel Johnson, that a lexicographer is a "harmless drudge", then I'm not sure what self-deprecatory term describes a mere lister of books. However, this line of work does lead to a certain hyper-awareness of the physicality and "bookiness" of books. My party trick is to guess, from its external appearance only, the year of publication of any book published before about 1984 (when publishers started to recycle styles in a post-modern way, and I stopped routinely cataloguing books). Yes, I know, it's a pretty dull trick, perhaps that's why I so rarely get invited to parties.

One aspect of publishing practice that has always interested me is the so-called "publisher's series". That is, where the publisher has decided to impose a certain uniformity on a subset of its output, usually both in terms of content and physical appearance. If you're even slightly bookish, you must have had the experience of noticing the family resemblance between two books, and then realising you are holding different numbers of a series with a name from the same publisher. Extreme and unmistakable examples would be World's Classics from Oxford University Press, and Everyman's Library from J.M. Dent. These delightful books are found in every second-hand bookshop in the English-speaking world, quite often arrayed on a shelf as a set because of their appealing similarity in size, binding and design.

These two series are exemplary of the thinking behind many series. There is complete uniformity of binding and design, which nonetheless allows the use of colour and illustration to introduce variation within the theme. There is a common purpose behind the selection of titles, in this case "improving classics from around the world". There is a standard, often low, price coupled with high production values. Having bought one Everyman's Library book, the hope was that you would buy more, to the mutual benefit of you and, of course, the publisher.* It's an early (and worthy) use of "branding". In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, publishers were often progressively-minded people, with a genuine belief in the power of literacy and literature to improve the lot of working people. A literate self-improver might not have heard of, say, Francis Bacon or Thomas Carlyle, but he had Mr. Dent's trusted word that he would not be wasting his time reading them.

In many ways, apart from being a handy peg on which to hang commissions, the primary functions of a series are reassurance and recommendation for the reader, and product placement for the publisher. A good series is always assured of a prominent place on the shelves of a bookshop. They are especially appealing to the young enthusiast, or unbookish relatives looking for a birthday present -- just think of Ladybird Books, I Spy books, the Observer's Books, or (if you must) the Mr. Men books.

Further upscale there is the magnificent, authoritative and uncompromising New Naturalist series from Collins. And where would ramblers be without the British Regional Geology series from the British Geological Survey, or Wainwright's Pictorial Guides to the Lake District? Or what about the Rough Guides or Michelin's various series, such as the Guides Verts for the tourist in France? For photographers, Phaidon produce a lovely series of tiny square books, each dedicated to the work of a single photographer, known as Phaidon 55, and then there is the venerable Collection Photo Poche from Delpire, both series genuinely pocket-sized and well-priced.

My favourite series, however, and the only one that has ever roused my inner completist, is Cape Editions from Jonathan Cape. The concept behind this series was beautifully simple: brief classics (an intriguing mix of anthropology, modernism, translations, and the "left field" -- sometimes all of the above -- reflecting the tastes of founding editor Nathaniel Tarn), presented in a unique, pocket-sized format, totally uniform in design and typography, but each a different, subtle colour.

I think I am right in saying these were the first paperbacks ever to be marketed in the UK with dust-jackets -- very stylish -- and by British standards they were exotic in their elegant plainness. The designer was the great Germano Facetti, designer of those ultimate series, Penguin Modern Classics and Penguin Crime. Hardback versions of most Cape Editions were also available, but it was the paperbacks that grabbed your attention. My first was a bottle green collection of poems by Georg Trakl, bought on the recommendation of my German teacher.

To be aware of, and to publish, a text like Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero in the late 60s was to be ahead of the game. Add to that the likes of Cold Mountain (Han Shan), Aphorisms & Letters (Georg Lichtenberg), History Will Absolve Me (Fidel Castro), A Close Watch on the Trains (Bohumil Hrabal) and, um, The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe (Julian Huxley) and you have a taste-making collection of short reads, a glorious predecessor of the many such series publishers have launched in recent times.

An essential feature of the best series is that, somewhere in each title, all the others in the series are listed and numbered. In the 19th century, there might be many pages of "end matter", listing the publisher's other titles and, with the less high-minded publishers, a veritable Yellow Pages of miscellaneous adverts. In Cape Editions, the list was put on the rear flap of those elegant dustjackets. Although I collected about forty of them, I never did own or read Huxley's The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe, but the knowledge that it and all the other titles existed was planted, and I knew that, simply by virtue of being there in that list, that they must be items of some moment.

The humble wisdom of the cataloguer lies in the knowledge that knowing that something exists and where it can be found, is quite often a lot more useful to a lot more people than actually having read it yourself. To return to Samuel Johnson:
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.
Happy to be of service, Sam, one harmless drudge to another. Of course, I have never actually read Boswell's Life of Johnson, the source of this quotation, but ... (I think you can see where this going).

* I have a particular liking for Everyman's Library, as my grandfather and grandmother both worked as bookbinders at Dent's Temple Press at Letchworth.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Past Historic

I still remember the shock of my first encounters with contemporaries who had been to private schools (what we in the UK, in our confusing way, refer to as "public schools"). On nearly every front they seemed seriously ahead of the game. It's easy to imagine that "privilege" is simply a matter of wealth and connections, something you can buy, like a big house or domestic help. Few people realise that the famous public schools are also selective: they only admit the very brightest children of the wealthy, and raise them in an academic hothouse with bountiful resources. They are also amazingly expensive. You're going to want a decent return on an investment of between £20-30K p.a. over seven years.

It was easy to typecast oneself as Alf Tupper or Jude the Obscure in comparison. Where I had done a bit of Judo in a community hall on Saturday mornings, taught by an amiable green belt who would step outside for a fag while we practiced breakfalls, they had been trained intensively in the school gym under the guidance of a 3rd dan black belt with Olympic experience. And where my horizons were fixed at the level of exams and university entrance (and had hardly been budged by a week's "work experience" skiving in the back room of the local paper), they had been encouraged to look at school and university as mere first steps in their Brilliant Career, reinforced by frequent visits from high-powered movers and shakers in the world outside.

But, we state school kids did have our own genuine advantages. Brought up at home in working families in real communities, our emotional and social lives were far richer. Faced daily with the distractions of teenage life, our ability to focus and prioritise was well-developed, and our sense of having made our own choices was keen. You can't stay on into the sixth form, achieve high exam grades and university entrance without having an acute sense of all the things you have chosen not to do. I think it was a surprise for my public-school contemporaries to realise I might have chosen to leave school at 16 and take a job. Not just theoretically, but actually (and, in many ways, my family would have been more comfortable with that choice). For them, this was only a choice in the same sense that they could have chosen to machine-gun the staff on Founder's Day (see the film If).

Crucially, though, academically there really wasn't much to choose between the best of both systems. For all the problems of a selective state system, there was a lot to be said for the grammar school approach if you think meritocratic elites have an important role in society, and it is sad to realise that experience is now receding into history. The very last generation of "selective" pupils is approaching retirement (I myself joined a grammar in 1966, which had become a comprehensive before I left in 1972), and our old teachers are all now very old or dead. From the 1944 Education Act up until the 1970s, the existence of free state grammar schools opened a pipeline for bright children from working- and lower-middle class families into the few top universities and from there into the professions, the media, and "establishment". Social mobility -- now almost halted -- was then very much a reality. The 1960s were all about social mobility.

Of course, the price of grammar schools was the much-maligned secondary modern school, although far fewer people were bothered by that experience than our political masters think. Certainly no-one I knew carried a grudge. After all, it is not everyone's ambition to do homework in three subjects every night for seven years. A grammar-school education was a privilege for which you personally had to pay the price, not your parents.

Our teachers were, if not the best, good enough. In that 25 year heyday of the state grammar school, a feedback loop was started: able state-school pupils would go to university, and many would return as state-school teachers, often out of a sense of commitment both to their subject and to the principle of free state education. It does still happen, of course, but the chronic shortage of maths, science and language teachers is evidence of a breakage in that crucial loop -- it seems the one thing that most able kids who have gone through the comprehensive system do not want to do is go back and teach there. In a world where the link between hard work and achievement has been obscured, and insolence and aggression have been enshrined as virtues, who can blame them?

This is a problem. I am angered by the way our kids are short-changed by their experience of school. Take languages as an example. At a third-rate grammar school I learned Latin, French, German and a little Russian to quite a high standard. By contrast, my children were offered either French or Spanish -- but certainly not both -- as a language. In fact, after she had studied the subject for three years, my daughter's school actually proposed to drop French as a GCSE subject until we threatened to kidnap and cut bits off the deputy headteacher. Their compromise was to compress the two-year course into one year, have the remaining candidates take it a year early, and then drop it. I was very proud that she got an "A", but dismayed that she never once heard the words "past historic" or "subjunctive".

The situation with sciences is, if anything, worse. I was taught Chemistry, Physics and Biology as separate subjects in adequately-equipped laboratories by graduates in those disciplines. At many if not most comprehensives, science is now taken as a single "combined" course, reduced to an elementary multiple-choice level of understanding, and often taught by someone whose grasp of the subjects covered is imperfect, to say the least.

Why has this happened? Government policy, certainly. Government failure to fund the system adequately? Yes, of course, both resources and salaries. But, surely primarily because not enough good graduates in key subjects are choosing to become teachers. Why not? Because too many secondary schools have become fearful places, where containment of the behaviour of ill-disciplined and unmotivated students is a teacher's first task. How much would they have to pay you, with your maths degree, to motivate you to learn to command enough of the attention of 30 or more unwilling 16-year olds to teach them a little elementary maths? Come on, be serious, that's the budget for the whole school...

Somehow, I doubt if this has ever been an issue at Eton or Westminster. For £30K a year, I'd hope not. Even at the bottom-feeding end of the private pool -- grammar schools which chose to go independent in the 1970s rather than comprehensive -- I don't think this is a problem. It's pretty obvious why not.

My solution is simple, but could never be implemented. We should simply lower the school-leaving age to 14, and take whatever steps are necessary to provide meaningful -- and if necessary compulsory -- employment or apprenticeships to every citizen aged 14-18. Don't want to be in school? No problem. Bye!

Oh, and we'd make private education illegal, obviously.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


Baffled at the pace of recent events in the Middle East? Feel like a bystander or a gawping couch-potato, as history takes place before your uncomprehending eyes? Me, too. It's 1989 all over again. Just as I felt I'd finally understood the USSR, the damn thing fell over and broke into pieces. A hundred promising theses on East Germany became landfill, and the whole category of Cold War genre fiction became as dated as "The Riddle of the Sands" overnight.

Here's a link to an article that may explain things a little. I found it enlightening, anyway. I can't help getting the feeling, constantly, that -- despite its absence from the nightly news -- the events in the Balkans in the 1990s were a seismic event whose aftershocks are still driving huge and unpredictable historical forces.

Monday, 21 February 2011


I was delighted when my daughter announced she would be reading some Coleridge for her English A level, then disappointed when it turned out to be just the "Ancient Mariner". Ah, well. But it reminded me that I have a special relationship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who sort of saved my life in 1976.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but back then I was in a dark despair about the point and purpose of my university studies. Why was I -- why was anyone -- doing this? What elevated the study of literature over any other harmless pastime? Where did literature's claim to cultural significance (over and beyond, say, playing and watching football or collecting stamps) come from? Was it simply a remnant of an outdated, aristocratic taste? I confided my doubts to my tutor, much like a trainee priest admitting to a crisis of faith, but his response could be summarised as, "Hmm... Oh, dear... Well..."

However, I was saved by choosing "Wordsworth and Coleridge" as a special paper. Saved by Wordsworth? Forget about it! If anyone could drive you deeper into despair, that would be Wordsworth ("an old half-witted sheep / Which bleats articulate monotony"). But in Coleridge I discovered the patron saint of underachievers with a taste for distraction and procrastination, and someone who had thought deeply about many of the issues that were depriving me of sleep. He was a true member of that sensational generation active at the turn of the 19th century, which (leaving poets to one side) included revolutionary minds like Humphry Davy, Joseph Banks, and Michael Faraday.

Many of Coleridge's poems are good, and a few are among my favourites. Primarily the so-called "conversation poems", a relaxed approach to poetry and poetic language which Coleridge seems to have invented. "Frost At Midnight", for example, pre-prepared me for sitting into the small hours next to my children's beds, getting them back to sleep. The tick of the cooling radiator, of course, had to make do for the fluttering fire. "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison", too, that reverse-Wordsworth of a poem, describing a country walk with friends and inspirational natural sights, not recollected in tranquillity but imagined during an enforced bout of immobility, all because Sarah, his wife, had "accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole time of C. Lamb's stay." Ouch. Bathos elevated to the sublime.

But it's the "other stuff" that makes STC truly remarkable. The Oxford Authors edition of Coleridge is 4.25 cm thick. Of this, merely 1 cm contains the poems. The rest is the Biographia Literaria, the letters, the notebooks, the lectures on Shakespeare, even his "marginalia" (comments written in the margins of books). Coleridge was a pioneer of the fragmentary, the parenthetical, the allusively rambling, the authoritatively incomplete. He would have loved blogging, perhaps Twitter even more so.

If you don't know the Biographia Literaria, it's not the sort of thing I'd recommend to anyone as a "good read". It's heavy going in places, full of references to philosophers and writers one has heard of but never read; the book has no shape and no argument; it's just a long, random stroll through STC's "literary life and opinions". But to the right person at the right time, it's a revelation. Coleridge is that rare thing in English letters, a thinker -- a reader of German, classical and contemporary philosophy, blessed with an open yet systematic mind (given a good stir by a lifelong struggle with opium). Reading the Biographia is like reading a colleague's private diaries and notebooks, and discovering they're the work of a world-class genius.

But, for me, the association of Coleridge and exams also has a down side. Some universities still cling to the tradition of the "viva"; after sitting written papers, borderline candidates who seem to be leaning the right way are given the chance to talk themselves into the higher grade. It's quite sporting, really, but rather stressful. I know, as I was called for a viva myself -- twice, actually, which is "cruel and unusual".

At my first viva, in the morning, the chief examiner smiled. "You have written the best account of Coleridge's theory of the imagination I have ever read. Thank you". Holy crap, I thought, I'm going to get a "congratulatory first"... It was possibly the proudest moment of my life. Thanks, STC! "But," he then said, "The special paper is 'Wordsworth and Coleridge', and you've written nothing at all about Wordsworth -- perhaps you could tell us why?" Holy crap, I thought, I'm going to take a kicking here, not least because the man asking the questions was Jonathan Wordsworth, great-great-great nephew of the dullest poet this side of the planet Vogsphere, whence cometh the Vogons. "Um...", I said.

What then happened in my second, afternoon viva, after an unwise pint of Wadworth's 6X at lunchtime, is a story for another time.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Inflexible Attitude, Hates a Challenge

There is currently a job vacancy in my department. We need someone, employed part-time, to apply ownership stamps to the new books, make and stick on the spine labels, carry out running repairs to damaged stock, plus a few other "processing" tasks. It's a vital role, but like most vital jobs on which the smooth running of an institution depend, it's also a very junior post and composed of rather repetitive manual tasks.

For the right person, though, it can be a good match. For over a decade, the job was done by a pleasant, placid and dependable woman who sat enthroned behind piles of books, and contentedly worked with her scissors, tape, rubber stamps, and sticky labels. When she retired, we employed two rather adventurous women to share the job, whose frequent and exciting holidays in places like Nepal and Peru became the stuff of legend. The most recent postholder was an artist, who has now left us to beef up her qualifications and concentrate on her "real" career (I hope, for her sake, she doesn't ever need to come back).

So, we advertised the post. And got 327 applications. Which is a record. By some margin.

Now, I don't want to seem ungrateful. It's nice that so many people want to work for me in this humble but vital capacity. But it's a real Sign o' the Times that so many people have applied, clearly without much thought about what the job involves. With our new online job application setup, all the applicant has to do is to attach a CV, tick a few boxes, and write some words about "why I want this job". My favourite application, in its entirety, reads "Looks like a nice job". Really? So glad. Next!

For me, reading through these applications is a rollercoaster mix of hilarity, sadness, incredulity and, at times, anger. Obviously, you get a very skewed view of someone's life just reading their CV in combination with a self-promotional puff. But, after a bit, some typical trajectories emerge that have led 327 people, often highly-qualified by any standards, to apply for a job stamping and sticking labels on books. I have sympathy for them all, as I can see a bit of myself in all of them.

There's the degree in an exciting subject -- archaeology, say -- followed by an MA and maybe a PhD, then a little unpaid or part-time teaching, then a string of McJobs in wine-bars and restaurants to pay the rent. Sadly, the world has a diminishing need for humanities academics, archaeologists, and similar trades. Being "over-qualified" can quickly come to seem a curse, rather than the blessing it ought to be.

Then there are the steady careers, often in IT, cut short after 15 years by redundancy, and potential high-flyers in professions like accountancy, law or teaching, burned out by depression or some other unstated but probably stress-related illness. I imagine they anticipate a nice recuperative period in a library from Central Casting, an oasis of whispered calm, surrounded by leather-bound tomes. Sorry.

I see lots of highly capable women, short on qualifications, and frustrated by serial "glass ceiling" jobs as temps and PAs, and a male prejudice against career breaks for childcare. Perhaps rightly, they hope a female-dominated profession will be more sympathetic to their aspirations. Wrongly, they imagine this job as a foot on a ladder that may yet take them to the top.

Next up, the genial slackers, waking up to reality a decade or two too late, and the compulsive job-hoppers, with CVs long enough for three normally-restless people. Hey, how hard can it be to get a job in a library? Reading all day -- cool! No, really: people actually fantasise out loud about looking forward to getting down to some serious paid reading. In your dreams.

Then there are the applicants who have taken a degree, then postgraduate professional library qualifications, but can find no professional post in a stagnant job market. They know this is not a professionally-graded job, but apply anyway. At least it's in a library! This is like an aspiring footballer taking a job as a groundsman, or a would-be journalist working in the newspaper canteen -- a strategy that may have worked in 1951, but not in 2011.

It's hard not to be affected by the unwitting foolishness, the glum despair, and sometimes the bitterness, displayed by many of these applications. But in 25 years I have only once shortlisted somebody because I felt sorry for them. So, based on those 25 years of experience in recruitment, here's my Idiotic Guide to Job Applications:

1. Apply for the job on offer, not some other job you'd rather have.

2. Take the trouble to find out what the job is before applying.

3. Decide whether you really want the job that is really on offer before applying.

4. Are you:

a). A highly motivated individual who is willing to try new ideas, and who responds well to pressure?
b). A good team player who is also capable of working on your own initiative?
c). In possession of a proactive, enthusiastic and flexible attitude, and do you enjoy a challenge?

Well, oddly enough, so are 80% of the other applicants, apparently. Why am I supposed to care about or believe in these groundless, formulaic claims? Don't assert your qualities -- give evidence for them. Evidence speaks for itself. Next!

5. Don't just submit a CV. I'm not going to do the interpretive work for you. But also please don't make me read yet another cut'n'paste celebration of your magnificence (see 4). A little thought about what sort of employee the employer is looking for and how you might match this goes a long way -- usually all the way to the interview shortlist. (But see 11).

6. Don't self-sabotage. I don't need reasons not to shortlist you ("I know I'm probably not the best candidate", "You should know I'm going on a trekking expedition from June to October this year", "I will definitely consider moving to the area if you offer me the job, but my spouse's job is very important, and my kids are about to start their GCSEs").

7. Any candidates who tell me they are "an avid reader who has always loved books", or that they have either a "clean driving license" or a "good telephone manner" have taken a big step closer to the reject pile. What do you think we do in here? Read books while driving round the campus, drumming up tele-sales on our mobiles? Next!

8. Proofread your application. I have to assume that anyone who clicks "Go" after typing

"I belive i have experiance in a similar so of sorting role at [employer deleted] and would welcome the oppertunity to learn some new skills to assist the running of the library"

either can't spell or doesn't care that I might think that they can't spell. That's a real example, by the way. Next!

9. Don't make jokes, self-deprecatory or ironic remarks, or use inappropriate language. Don't patronise me, or tell me why libraries are important. Don't put down or belittle your previous jobs or employers. You may be bitter, you may be hard done by, but your next previous employer may be me. Attitude and tone are important.

10. Never use exclamation marks or WRITE YOUR APPLICATION IN CAPITAL LETTERS or in unpunctuated lower case throughout. To write "i cant work saturdays lol" might be OK in a text, but... Do I really need to say these obvious things? Apparently, yes, I do.

11. Don't gush, exaggerate, lie, misrepresent or leave out vital information. I really do want to know when, where and in what subject your exams were taken, probably more than I care about the actual grades, though leaving these out is prone to misinterpretation. Be realistic. To have grade B GCSE French does not reinforce your claim to be a fluent and talented linguist. A couple of years working in a shop or office doing what you're told does not make you "a highly motivated individual who is willing to try new ideas ... etc." (see 4). But, listen, perhaps we're not looking for someone like that, anyway? See 1-3 above.

12. Above all, don't say that the job in question would be the perfect stress-free little earner that would enable you to get on with your real mission in life, which is sky-diving, getting a recording contract, writing a novel, doing voluntary work for the homeless (OK, I might buy that one), or generally putting off getting a life. None of these are actually an obstacle to you getting the job, but please don't tell me all about it on the application. Don't even tell me about it at the interview, or during the first month of starting the job. I'm the only fantasist allowed round here, and I'm the boss. Did I tell you I do a lot of photography?

Enjoy every minute, guys... Nothing lasts forever

Actually, what I really miss most in this new online job application system is getting to see people's handwriting, and how well they were able to complete our appallingly badly-designed application form, with its inadequately-sized boxes and mystifying questions. How often must applicants for gardening or catering posts have blinked uncomprehendingly at the box requesting "Publications (if necessary, continue on a separate sheet)"? How many academics know their typing speed?

That form was a real test of character and patience -- I know, I've filled it out a few times myself. But, in those days, we'd get 50 applications for a job, tops. Did I say we've had 327 for this one?

Monday, 14 February 2011

What's in a Name?

On the subject of famous female American poets, I came across this curious and enlightening piece of information.

Apparently, the Ford Edsel -- a car produced in the United States from 1958-60 -- is pretty much synonymous with "design failure" in the USA, in the same way as over here we would refer to the "Sinclair C5" (or even just "the British car industry"). No-one seems quite sure why, though I imagine it was probably a piece of crap, poorly manufactured and marketed, "the wrong car at the wrong time". The Austin Allegro, but without the stylish square steering wheel.

What is interesting, though, is that poet Marianne Moore was invited to submit suggestions for the name of the vehicle while it was under development. I don't know how difficult it can be to come up with a suitable name for a car, though some Far Eastern manufacturers clearly could do with a helping hand. Apparently the name "Edsel" (Henry Ford's son) came up early on, but Henry Ford II said that he didn't want his father's silly good name spinning around on hubcaps, thanks all the same.

According to Wikipedia, "Ford also ran internal studies to decide on a name, and even dispatched employees to stand outside movie theaters to poll audiences as to what their feelings were on several ideas. They reached no conclusions. Ford hired the advertising firm Foote, Cone, and Belding to come up with a name. However, when the advertising agency issued its report, citing over 6,000 possibilities, Ford's Ernest Breech commented that they had been hired to develop a name, not 6,000."

So, someone thought to ask Marianne Moore for some suggestions, the thinking being, "who better to understand the nature of words than a poet?" Indeed. Here are some of her suggestions (there were rather fewer than 6000, I think).

Andante con Moto
Mongoose Civique
Resilient Bullet
Silver Sword
Utopian Turtletop
Varsity Stroke

I think the "Ford Resilient Bullet" has a certain ring, don't you? It would certainly appeal to the Far Eastern market. But the "Utopian Turtletop" is a name that leaves me speechless with admiration. I'd drive one.

Moore, incidentally, as well as having a wooden ear for car names, was a dedicated wearer of idiotic hats. Check her images on Google. Classy! I had always assumed that the daft "highwayman" number she is often pictured wearing was the academic dress of some venerable American university. Nope. She just liked wearing a tricorn hat in public. With a cape. Well, wouldn't you, if you could get away with it?

Saturday, 12 February 2011

I Lost Two Cities

I have posted before about the pleasant surprise of uncovering yet another corner of my boundless ignorance. It is one of the deeper pleasures of life, I think, to be reminded of what an inexhaustible cabinet of curiosities we live in. This time, I have to admit I have only very recently read the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (I realise that, to an American poetry enthusiast, this is a bit like saying "I have only very recently listened to the music of Joni Mitchell").

In a scene dominated by the histrionic shouting of self-obsessed men, hers is a cool, ironic, yet intense voice. I suspect she would have been a lot more fun to talk to than her friend Robert Lowell. I particularly like the way there always seems to be one simple word in each poem that makes you think, "What? Is this a misprint?"

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79)

In this poem, the arresting word is "lied", of course.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Mirrors, Windows, Walls

I've been working at getting the "university windows and walls" images into a sequence for a Blurb book and, potentially, an exhibition [Ahem, any of you gallery people out there interested in putting on a 40-75 image show? No harm in asking!].

Sequencing is almost as enjoyable as taking the pictures, but a lot more like work. Early on, I took the decision that I would make a book entirely composed of "facing pairs". I'm bored with that traditional photo-book approach of "image on right hand page, blank page facing on left", and wanted the challenge of making double spreads that had impact but also worked together to advance the thematic concerns of the set (though I'm not quite ready for that "full bleed" look, yet, i.e. pictures going all the way to the edges of the page). I actually took a day's leave today to give the job my undivided attention. It must be nice to make a living this way.

Here are a few page-spreads that I'm happy with. So far, I have 59 such pairs to work with, plus a stack of other images, which means I've got well over 100 good pictures to use. That's far too many for a wall exhibition, but a good number for a book. If I can keep the page count below 80, it will fall into Blurb's second lowest price band for a "standard landscape" 8"x10" book.

This is a game anyone can play: just download the free BookSmart software from Blurb, edit some images into, say, 8"/20cm wide JPEGs at 300dpi, and away you go. If you're serious about your photography, you'll learn a lot, even if you never actually upload and buy a copy of your book.

I'm not going to burden the book with much text, and may simply use these three quotations to give the sequence some structure:

"The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows"
Sydney J. Harris (journalist)

"The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge"
Daniel J. Boorstin (historian and Librarian of Congress)

"Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment"
Jalaluddin Rumi (Persian poet & Sufi)

There's a useful movement there from the acquisition of knowledge, through the discovery of the illusion of knowledge, to the wisdom of bafflement ("the more I know, the more I realise how little I know", etc.), which -- though not describing everything the pictures are about -- is a useful programme to hang a sequence on.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Under Construction

In the main, I favour "straight" photography i.e. images resulting from a direct, unmanipulated encounter with reality. In the straightest of straight photographs, the natural light reflected from a real-life scene has entered the camera, been recorded, and then re-rendered in the darkroom or computer by the photographer with a minimum of manipulation. Simple, honest, true. Well, as good as, anyway.

However, there is obviously enormous scope for alteration and improvement at every stage of the process
. A scene may be artificially-lit, for a start. Most professional work is done this way, ranging from a convenient bystander's white-shirted back used as a reflector to fill in deep shadows to a full-on studio lighting rig. Even the straightest of straight photographers would not hesitate to use simple manipulations like "dodging and burning" in the darkroom, and the scope offered by Photoshop to enhance digital photographs is enormous -- knowing when to stop has always been a large part of the game.

But, when I am in the mood, I quite like the small-scale "constructed" photograph, which can be as simple as a traditional still life, or more complex miniature constructions, sometimes combining two-dimensional images as backgrounds for three-dimensional objects. Curiously, it's quite a gendered approach, in that its best practitioners tend to be women. Male "constructors" tend to be either grandiose stage set managers like Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, or nerdy hobbyists, modelling individual blades of grass. Women simply seem to be better-suited to mining their imaginations without resorting to heavy-handed surrealism or complex model-making.

Not so much constructed, as found

This is not an area I've explored much myself yet, but I have always had it on my rainy-day list, and as a fallback should wandering around in hunter-gatherer mode ever start to get boring or unproductive. Here are a few people whose work I enjoy.

Mari Mahr : her book A Few Days in Geneva (another beautiful Travelling Light production from the 1980s) can be picked up very cheap. In common with most constructors, she explores areas of personal significance, placing precious mementos or objects of symbolic significance in dream-like contexts, where scale and depth are confused.

Camille Solyagua : More at the still-life end of the spectrum, Solyagua is clearly very interested in the way the act of photographing can invest negligible objects with significance. I like her use of old picture mounts to frame natural debris like insect wings or leaves, but she does occasionally tip over into the sort of up-market kitsch you might find in a Southwold gallery. Solyagua happens to be the partner of zen-landscapist and night photographer Michael Kenna. I'm not sure I'd want to visit their house: too much good taste can give me a headache.

Lori Nix : Nix is, unusually, a female nerd, building careful little scenes to photograph, but I like her sense of humour, as displayed in the "Accidentally Kansas" series where floods, fires and traffic accidents are crafted like bizarre model railway scenarios. Her use of shallow depth of field is also interesting.

Bethany de Forest : Lori's strange little sister... If you think you can bear an immersion into a fairy-tale alternative universe that appears to be constructed out of sugar and spice and populated by crustaceans, check out Bethany's work. She makes clever use of the huge depth of field and tiny size of her home-made pinhole cameras to add a hyperreal dimension to her constructions. A little does go a long way, though.

Kahn / Selesnick : Just to show the typical male angle, here are the Gilbert & George of constructed photography, the strangely strange but oddly normal Kahn / Selesnick. Enter with caution: surrealists at work. I rather like their steam-punk "Apollo Prophecies", but work like "Scotlandfuturebog" is hilarious, especially when you realise that they are deadly serious in their earnestly over-extended whimsicality. You'd have to be, to put in that much effort.

Mike & Doug Starn : But this is how it's really done. The Starn twins are an incredibly creative pair, impossible to categorise. I am in awe of their series "Attracted to Light", very large-scale, composite, constructed photographs made from micro-photographs of moths (have I ever mentioned my one-time obsession with moths?). Tones, textures, photographic qualities combined with fine art values, de-familiarised insects like alien fighter aircraft -- simply amazing, and the book of the series produced by Blind Spot in 2004 is one of my all-time favourites.

Not so much found, or constructed, as exploded

Sunday, 6 February 2011

National Libraries Action Day

Yesterday was National Libraries Action Day, intended to draw attention to the likely closure of 450 public libraries, following government cuts in local authority funding (in England -- Scotland and Wales take a more enlightened view of these things). Phillip Pullman, who has somehow become the go-to guy when the discussion turns to libraries, spoke up for Oxfordshire libraries (20 of their 43 public libraries face closure), saying:
Leave the libraries alone, they are too precious to destroy. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.
Rousing words, with which I totally agree, as far as they go, and which go a long way to explaining my choice of career, when I'm in a positive mood. Now is not the time to go into the way I think about it when I'm not. So, I went on down to the Central Library yesterday afternoon, looking forward to a display of solidarity with my hard-pressed colleagues in the public library sector.

There actually wasn't a lot going on (our libraries aren't imminently threatened with closure), but I had a nice catch-up chat with Alison, who used to work for me and now runs children's library services down there. It made me reflect that my peak use of the public library service in recent times was fetching back weekly armfuls of books for the kids. Before then, in the years BC,* I would drop by most Saturdays, ritually returning and borrowing CDs. Since then, not so much.

Once, of course, as for any bright kid from a book-free home, the local library had been a beacon, a well-stocked embassy from another country where I longed to travel and whose language I was keen to learn. This was the 1960s, of course, when spending public money on libraries was still considered a Good Thing. I felt at home there in a way I never did at school, or in other public facilities like swimming pools and youth clubs. Later, it was a good place to do homework and meet like-minded girls on dark winter evenings. I don't know whether libraries still play this role in anyone's life; somehow I doubt it.

Even if funding and support could be restored to 1960s levels, though, the challenge for public libraries, of course, is the internet. In my previous post I referred to the passing around of sonnets as a sort of blogging, and I read Michael Moorcock in Saturday's Guardian referring to the way fanzines used to put you in touch with like-minded people as "a very slow working internet". In many ways, the internet is a global library -- it has taken the functions and ideas behind a public library, but added intergalactic hyperdrive. Faced with a gap in my knowledge, my first port of call is Wikipedia, these days, never the local reference library. Wanting to read a book or listen to music, I'm going to see if I can download it or buy it online, before I even think of looking it up in the online catalogue of the public library.

Of course, these days I'm very much an information "have" in a country where "have nots" are becoming a minority and are at an increasing disadvantage. To be able to take broadband access to the internet for granted (not to mention disposable income and leisure time) is an immense privilege that, according to Ofcom's figures, has made information aristocrats of 58% of the population of the UK. Libraries have an important role to play here, closing that gap, provided they can deliver the necessary infrastructure and opening hours.

But notice how Phillip Pullman refers to the library's symbolic value in the quote above, not its actual value -- it "reminds" and it "stands for", like some sort of church. I doubt Mr. Pullman is a big borrower or user of the free internet services at his local library. That's OK, neither am I. But defence of the library service will have to be based on more than high-minded sentiment, if it is to compete with repairs to the roads and care for the elderly in a shrinking council budget. I am afraid to say I have yet to hear anyone voice the compelling arguments for libraries that are based on what libraries are today, and could be tomorrow, rather than on what they have been in the past. But maybe that's the problem with relying on celebrity advocacy to attract attention to an issue...

* Before Children

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Text Detectives

In an earlier post on Grierson's Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems, I mentioned the way the typography of that book resembled that of 17th century printed books. The point I might have made, of course, is that very few of our canonical pre-19th century poems have come down us in printed form. The process of "transmission", as it is called, can be very convoluted indeed and, along the way, the noise-to-signal ratio -- the Chinese Whispers effect -- can be surprisingly high.

Few readers of literature realise this. Most of us like to read our texts unencumbered with footnotes, or prefer to have just the sort of footnote that tells us that a "jealous hood" is a state of mind, not a silly hat or part of town. Nearly everyone ignores the sort of notes that tell us that variant A has the word "teares", variant B "feeres", and C "beares" on line 94, and that variant D has no line 94 at all. For the student the text is what it is -- canonical, solidly printed on the page, to be learned, studied, and interpreted. How it got there is not a concern.

However, a better understanding of the nature of writing -- as opposed to the nature of studying for literature exams -- requires that it should be a concern. It is a very peculiar thing, after all, for a man to write an account of a witty seduction (real, imagined, or substantially retouched); to write it within the constraints of a rigid verse form; to share it among his friends; for it to escape from their custody into the wild, where it is much copied and passed around and perhaps even printed by piratical publishers, and then for people still to be reading it -- in a form which may or may not be a travesty of the original -- 400 years later. It bears thinking about. First and foremost, "literature" is what the theorists would call a social practice. It's something people do. Or, at least, it's something people used to do.

You may have come across Francis Meres' reference in 1598 to the circulation of Shakespeare's "sugar'd sonnets among his private friends". This was the usual practice, though I don't know why he would have felt it necessary to sprinkle sugar on them. It was an early form of blogging, in which you cast your poetic bread upon the waters. The good stuff got winnowed out by the laborious and error-prone process of hand-copying into the "commonplace books" of the private friends of your private friends. The rest ended up nailed to the wall in the jakes.

As it happens, and luckily for us, an enterprising publisher got hold of a (presumably quite sticky) manuscript of Shakespeare's sugary sonnets -- probably without the permission or co-operation of Mr. W.S. himself -- and printed them in 1609. Of course, we can never be sure whether it was a good manuscript. We'll also never know if W.S. might subsequently have made brilliant and radical revisions to some of them; his own manuscripts (as far as anyone knows) have vanished from the world.

Above all, we can never know how much good stuff by writers known and unknown we have lost. The close monitoring and censorship of the theatre means a pretty good estimate can be made of the "lost plays" that were performed but have not survived -- nearly all of them -- but poetry was a gentleman's private hobby, not a paid, public occupation (think of the "dyer's hand" sonnet, No. 111). There was no register of sonnets. The "literature" we have is simply what was thought worth preserving at the time, or whatever has repeatedly slipped through Time's net. Think of close calls like the sole manuscript of Beowulf, pulled at the last minute from a fire; who knows, perhaps something rather better had just gone up in smoke?

So, the unsung heroes of "literature" are the editors, those indefatigable seekers of manuscripts and printed books, who patiently reconstruct the relationships between scribbled sheets of vellum and paper widely scattered in space and time. Which version is a copy of which? What copying errors do they have in common? Would Shakespeare really have used a red biro to make proof corrections?

It's all that stuff that no-one ever reads in the introduction and notes to the scholarly edition, the one that has -- on good evidence and sound principles -- finally decided between "tears", "fears", and "bears" in line 94. As Helen Gardner wrote feelingly in her edition of Donne's Elegies and Songs & Sonnets:
No manuscript is extant containing solely the Elegies or solely the Songs and Sonnets. They are found either in manuscripts containing collections of Donne's poems, or as separate items scattered among other men's poems in commonplace books or miscellanies. [...] I began with the intention of collating all extant manuscript copies; but I abandoned the enterprise as wholly unrewarding...
And yet it's a curious thought that, despite the best efforts of these text detectives, generations of students may have been struggling -- creatively, cleverly, but pointlessly -- to understand some drunken toff's careless slip of the pen, misread by a secretary, whose appalling handwriting was then mangled by an apprentice printer's mumbled mispronunciation. But, who knows, maybe some texts were improved in the process?

[Will puts down his pint, smiles lopsidedly, and mutters, "'Ere, Kit, write this 'un down for us: 'Shall I compare thee to a mummer's play?' ..."]