Saturday, January 29, 2011

Blogging for writers

Is blogging a serious form of publishing for writers? That's the question I kept asking the National Writing Centre in Wales. And more pointedly I asked, 'Why don't you run a course on blogging?'  Blogs have encouraged millions of people to share their voice - I challenged them to name another development that has created so many new writers.

But are they proper writers, was the concern? Is blogging really a serious form, or is it just social networking in fancy format? And aren't most blogs, well a bit rubbish, if you want me to be frank? There's some truth in those objections, I'd reply, but then many writers' circles are as much about socialising as the quality of the output. And yes, there is plenty of rubbish; but there's quality too. I listed a dozen or so blogs that I follow and asked the director of the centre to check them out.

It's interesting that the Open College Of The Arts encourages its students to create a blog as part of their 'learning journal'. Blogging, they've realised  is good a way of sharing thoughts and work in progress, and the idea has been embraced most fully by visual arts students. Every so often the college promotes a student blog, and last week Gareth Dent, its Chief Executive wrote an article on blogging that referred to me and the Bike Shed.

The reason for the mention, is that the director at the National Writing Centre listened; so much so that they asked me to run a residential course on blogging for writers. It takes place next October and my co-tutor is the widely acclaimed travel writer, Rory Maclean. I met Rory some years ago on one of his courses on writing from life; he's one of the best tutors I've worked with - and of course, he writes a quality blog, all about Berlin where he lives. Also exciting, is that Fiona Robyn will be coming; she's a prolific blogger who recently published her novel THAW, as a daily blog, to coincide with its print publication.

And if you've never been to the National Writing Centre - because of course, you're all now desperate to go - then you should. It is based at Ty Newydd,  Lloyd George's last home on the edge of Snowdonia. It runs along the same lines as the Arvon Foundation, and this year's programme is impressive. Apart from my ground breaking offering (did I really just say that) there are courses by the Poet Laureate, Carol Anne Duffy and a list of other esteemed writers.

Those of you who read the Bike Shed regularly will know I am passionate about blogging. Part of the appeal is that blogging isn't precious: it can mix a little social networking with some decent writing; it can be good without being perfect; it's exciting and instant and it appeals to people who might not have the time or opportunity, to write a book.

But there is room to improve the quality or writing too. The course will be looking at how we might do that. If you'd like to create more engaging work, experiment a little, take feedback from a group of other writers, or just have the space to write a dozen new posts, then it should have something for you. I can promise you it will be fun; and hey, you get to meet me...  On second thoughts, that's maybe not the best of selling points.

So 24 - 29 October, put it in your diaries, and maybe see you there. I hope so.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tuition fees and intelligence flawed

Late on Thursday I was about to hit the sack when I was distracted by the 10 O'Clock Live show. The comedian David Mitchell was interviewing David Willetts, minister for Universities and Science. I was expecting a light hearted piss take, maybe the odd Ben Elton style jibe; it's brave of him to go that show said Jane, as I readied for some topical humour.

What followed was the most intelligent debate I've yet heard on the proposals to increase university tuition fees. Mitchell contrasted the proposals to the system of free education he and Willetts had enjoyed - did the Government regard this as progress? Wouldn't fees of £9,000 p.a. deter the very people the Government wanted to encourage; was there not a case for scholarships; what about subjects (such as Classics) that would be unlikely to 'payback' with higher earnings; wouldn't the proposals reduce social mobility?

And in response Willetts made considered, well spoken, non-avoiding answers. The introduction of student loans had encouraged take up - 40% of young people now progress to higher education. He hoped the new proposals would not be deterrent; the earnings threshold for repayment had risen to over twenty thousand pounds; the best universities would prosper and the poor quality courses decline.

But despite Willetts' measured tones, the more I listened, the more I sensed something wasn't quite right - perhaps it was his smirk that gave him away?

Central to Willetts' position were two considerations. Firstly, he argued it was unfair for the general tax payer to be funding the education of those who will go on to be higher earners. Furthermore, he claimed that the average graduate would, across their lifetime, earn one hundred thousand pounds more than a non graduate - surely it was reasonable they should pay back the cost of the education which had facilitated this.

At first sight these arguments appear plausible, but on reflection, it seems to me they are deeply flawed.

If we think about the claim that having degree leads to an increase in life-time earnings of one hundred thousand pounds, then presumably these earnings will be taxed. And even at a basic rate plus national insurance it must mean that the average graduate will contribute additional tax which more than covers the cost of their tuition fees.

Willetts' own words reinforced this conclusion when he claimed that there was a correlation between the number of graduates and the number of higher paid jobs. In justifying the 40% of young people going to university,  he said it was not just a case that graduates competed more effectively in the existing wage pool, but rather that the presence of more graduates led to an overall higher wage economy. So by his own logic, it must also lead to more taxable income and revenues.

Putting it crudely, and using the terms of Willetts' own logic, the government is expecting graduates to pay twice. It isn't difficult to see this - it is simple maths - and Willetts must know it too. It was a pity that Mitchell didn't challenge him on this obvious point.

But it was Willetts' first argument that irritated me most: the claim that it is unfair for the general tax payer to subsidise higher education because they don't directly benefit.

Let's leave aside that this is a gross misrepresentation of the tax system and the percentage of revenues accruing from the 'general public'. And let's not question the numbers of 'net gainers' from State services against the numbers of 'net payers'. Let's also not get into arguments about the benefits of a high value economy, driven by technology and services which require an educated and skilled workforce, increasingly of graduate standard.

Instead let's just examine the claim at its most basic level - that those who don't directly benefit from services should not be expected to subside those who do. Isn't that reasonable; plausible; fair?

Well if it is, why don't we fund the National Parks with an entry fee instead of State resources?  Not everyone likes the Arts, or visits museums, or plays sport  - why are we subsidising these out of general taxation? And what's so special about graduate education - there's probably just as big an earnings correlation with A-levels; why don't we charge for those too? Or how about prisons - we could levy a tax for the cost of qualifications received at her majesty's pleasure. Come to think of it, why stop at education; I'm pretty healthy - I don't see why I should be funding those who are ill.

Some of these examples are more analogous to tuition fees than others - if I took more time I'd no doubt think of better ones. But the general point is that tax has never been confined to redistributing income to the least fortunate. In practice, tax revenues in a modern state system are also used to fund services that benefit society as whole. If we start salami slicing that ideal and claiming this or that service ought only and on principle to be funded by those who directly benefit, then we quickly weave a web of inconsistencies.

The irony of Willetts' sophistry is that the plain truth is a more powerful argument. Why, I wonder, didn't he simply say, 'Of course increasing university fees is regrettable, but in the difficult circumstances we judged it to be a better course of action than reducing other frontline services'.  I might disagree with that claim; I might take a polar opposite position on the relative merits of education versus, say, the armed forces - but it wouldn't matter, the argument in itself would be sound.

Perhaps it's the philosopher in me, but I especially loath the type of rhetoric Willetts tried to pass off as logic. I'd rather we had an honest debate about what we can and can't afford, than the blind alleys of a pretence which claims there is some deeper fairness behind political decisions. David Mitchell led a good debate on Thursday; it's just a pity that in the end it was Willetts who sounded more the comedian.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Knowledge and enquiry

Sixth form 1979 - I am back row 4th from the left
Last week I attended the sixth form open evening at my eldest son's school. It was an opportunity for prospective students to learn more about the courses on offer, and for embarrassing parents to ask questions of the teachers.

I was impressed but not surprised. It's an excellent school with enthusiastic teachers, a strong academic record and a sense of community support - it is a model of good State education. And the presentations reflected that ethos, showcasing a wide range of options and a history of examination success. Students in the sixth form are expected to achieve university entrance and encouraged to consider their A-levels as the first significant step towards a future career. One presentation (notably on economics) went so far as to show the earning potential of economists!

But for all its excellence, the evening reinforced a concern I have held for some time - that we increasingly regard secondary eduction (particularly at the higher end) almost exclusively in terms of career path. Is there, I often wonder, any place in modern eduction for the subjects themselves - for the intrinsic worth in learning and knowledge as way to enhance our lives?

I am not being naive here, I recognise that career choices are an important consideration; what concerns me is the disproportionate emphasis that schools place on it - which I also believe is misplaced, and, to a some extent, misunderstood by those who work in education. For in practice, business pays much less regard to the particularities and intricacies of CVs that educators are apt to become obsessed with.

My father in law is a good example; a highly intelligent educator, he spent his working life trying to  improve standards and maximise the potential of his pupils; in retirement he is the Chair of Governors of a successful secondary school. And yet whenever we discuss the choices facing my boys, it is invariably couched in terms of university applications and future CV. It took an enormous effort of will on his part to accept that my middle son might justifiably drop languages at GSCE - regardless that my son hated them and wanted to study more humanities options - because he considered universities to value them in the application process.

This trait passes on to pupils and is reinforced by parents, eager for their children to succeed in life - but measuring 'success' almost entirely in terms of academic grades and future material reward. I had an interesting conversation with my son's girlfriend this weekend, who explained that her fourth choice at A-level was going to be Spanish.  Her reasoning wasn't that she loved Spanish, or that she had any particular wish to discover Spanish culture, language or literature (though she may well do); it was  because Spanish would make her stand out, add a different twist to her core subjects of maths and science - and because after university it might open career opportunities as it was so widely spoken worldwide.

These are not bad motives, but they lack a certain soul. It no longer surprises me that most of the graduates I meet at work have no interest in a continuing involvement with the subjects they studied. A large number of them gave up any intrinsic interest at eighteen, opting for courses like Business Studies and Logistics - a strategy entirely motivated by career.

Almost all of my immediate work peers are well educated, successful professionals; typical I'd say, of a large commercial organisation. I like these people; I am one of them, albeit I'm considered a little different, often described as an 'intellectual' as if it were a mildly pitiful affliction. Yet despite the  shallow banter of most Monday mornings, if you probe, you find they each have interests which extend beyond the banalities of football and TV panel games - though often they are hidden, repressed even. Maybe it is something about the pressure of work - perhaps to them work is wholly intellectually satisfying, 'enough in itself ' - for despite their interests there is a decided lack of what I can best term 'active enquiry'.

Business culture does not help here either. Most 'personal development' at work is almost exclusively business related and spoon fed - it fails to see the value in wider personal study or interests; or if it does, it struggles to measure and support them over time. Anyone who has attended a business creativity course will know what I mean - as if creativity can somehow be taught through a series of models and techniques. My suggestion that to encourage greater creativity we should allow staff to attend art or science classes at the local college was rejected as impractical, bordering on the silly - typical of a creative type to suggest that!

Perhaps it has always been this way? Certainly, there was never some golden age when large sections of society, loved and sought knowledge ahead of the daily necessities of life. But there certainly have been times and places when knowledge and self development was more valued for itself - the history of the North Wales quarry workers for example; their penny subscriptions helping to found Bangor University. In contrast, so many of the people I meet -educated people with more options and opportunities that at any time in history - appear uninterested in pursuing academic interests; they made it to university, they're doing well in their careers - why do more?

I appreciate there is a danger here of being intellectually snobby, of rating my own values too highly on the measure of competing virtues. I recognise too that progression to university and career prospects are tangible motivators for parents and pupils alike. Beyond that, the demands of work and family are hard; time is precious. And there are many people, particularly in middle to later life, who return to their interests and with vigour and passion - education they quote, is wasted on the young.

My sons attend an excellent school; I'm sure they will succeed and that their education will in no way be wasted. But it saddens me that such a successful school is still not confident enough to emphasise, at least a little more fully, that the best reason to study physics, history, philosophy, art... lies not in university entrance and career prospects, but in their intrinsic value; in the deeper understanding of the world they give us - and the lifelong joy that a sense of enquiry can bring.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Love Film?

Low budget, yet charming and brilliant.

Last week I signed up for a trial of Love Film, the home delivered DVD service. Evidently if I watch ten movies they'll send me a £20 Amazon voucher.

There's nothing special about that, except that regular readers of this blog might have noticed that for a, uh...erm, cultured man, I seldom mention films. Books get a regular look in, as does philosophy, painting, photography, occasionally music or even documentary; but almost never the movies.

It doesn't help that I loathe going to the cinema. I wish I had a fiver for every time I'd been told they aren't smokey anymore, that you get a lovely big seat, that I'm missing the big screen experience...  Yes, yes, thanks for the advice, but I still hate it. The fact is I don't like the sitting in the dark, next to complete strangers, eating popcorn, not being able to get up, or have a beer - all for the sake of the inane rubbish that is popular cinema.

All right, that's bit overstated, and cinema is only one way of watching films - hence the attraction of  Love Film. But in truth I'm not hopeful of getting my voucher - for despite years of trying, I honestly find most popular movies to be dull. Or if not exactly dreary, then formulaic, dumbed down and over-hyped.

This week for instance I watched Guy Ritchie's version of Sherlock Holmes.  It's perhaps not the best example because it's in no way a 'bad' film - but let's be frank, neither is it the cerebral thriller you might expect - in fact it's a sort of Sherlock Holmes meets Pirates of The Caribbean with added mumbling and special effects.

And if I'm honest I find the vast majority of popular films to be much the same. Slumdog Millionaire was entirely predictable; The Harry Potter movies are too dreadful to discuss; and as for the spate of pixar-style animated tales...zzzz

The problem with having this view - apart from being considered a social outcast - is that it is often positioned as snobbish. Maybe that's true, but it's not as if I only watch art house movies or look down on anything remotely populist. I could list hundreds of accessible films that are not dumbed down - just great stories, well scripted, beautifully filmed and believably acted. Films like (to take a very wide spectrum of styles) Doctor Zhivago, Local Hero, Cabaret, Zulu, The Remains of the Day, Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate, The Great Escape, The Deer Hunter, Saturday Night Sunday Morning, Out of Africa, Annie Hall...  Carry on Camping (OK maybe not that one)

Of course, those are all (more or less) famous examples of fine film making. But is it just me, or are movies like these becoming rarer? I genuinely don't know the answer to that. Perhaps I'm more out of touch than I realised; perhaps there are dozens of films being produced which I would enjoy - films that presume a little intelligence and artistic sensibility but don't require a doctorate - that engage us beyond the special effects and action sequences - that ultimately, we might actually remember.

Love Film tell me I've got nine more films to watch (as if the maths was that hard). So if you come across any good ones, could you please let me know.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New year; and a new resolve

A very rare picture of me, just for the New Year
Yesterday, my friend Debs called by, just as I'd sat down to write my New Year goals. Unusually for me, the process wasn't going well; sure, I had a list of tasks to complete, targets to meet and places to visit - but somehow it wasn't hitting the spot. Much of last year seemed to drift by and I've been wanting to shake up my routine and give it more clarity and purpose - but for all it specificity, the list wasn't capturing the way I felt.

It's hard to describe Deb too precisely; I could tell you she's one of the world's finest and most experienced female kayakers, making her living from guiding clients on the most extreme rivers. She's also a photographer, which supplements her income, along with a small jewellery business, and occasionally, when needs must, decorating my house. For the last two years, she's been studying for a degree at Falmouth University. Oh, and I almost forgot, she's been world champion twice and written a couple of books along the way.

Not bad for someone who left school with only a couple of GCSEs, but then she always had talents of a different sort - and first amongst those is making the most of the opportunities that come her way.

I met Debs when she was teenager; at a kayaking weekend to the Upper Dart in preparation for a trip to the Alps. She was a precocious talent on the water, though off it she lacked confidence, especially with those who were more articulate and academically successful. That's all history now, the important thing is that we became friends and twenty years later I regard her as one of my very best. I value too, her quiet and practical judgement that pays no regard to the inflated egos that abound in the world of outdoor pursuits.

So when I read out my list it didn't surprise me that she got straight to the point. Not wasting your time; that's what you're saying, I think. She was right, I said, it's the underscore of how I've felt recently, perhaps because I'm fifty this year. Age doesn't matter, she laughed, before going on to nail it: The list's okaybut if better options come along you should do them instead. The important thing is not to waste your energy on things like crap TV or negative people or conversations that you've heard a hundred times before.

That isn't a unique insight, but it has more power coming from someone who has so demonstrably succeeded. Most of us find it easier to slip into a sort of sub-life in which so much of your time is spent on the 'stuff' someone else wants you to do, that you haven't the energy for anything else. I try hard not too, and my family are hugely supportive of that, but the older I get the more I resent the wasted time. It isn't work that I dislike or the even the drudge of household chores - I recognise that 'stuff' needs to be done; it's the weekends wasted because of some badly timed appointment, the socialising with people I'd rather not, the inane TV, the unspeakable dross in most magazines, the same in most books, yet another conversation about football...

The one thing I disagree with Debs about, is age. She is right, it should not matter to our valuing time, but I suspect that most young people feel they have enough and some to spare. My sense is that as we  get older we feel the lack of it more keenly - not only in terms of our own mortality, but also in our day to day lives. I'm sure, this is partly the result of carrying more responsibilities, of of time consumed by young families, developing careers and elderly relatives.

For myself, as I enter 2011, I am happier and more secure than at any time in my life; by the standards of the vast majority of the world's people I have opportunities in abundance. I give thanks thanks too, that I'm not looking back with regret, for aside from a few sadder moments, there is little I would change. Rather, as I approach my fiftieth birthday, I am looking forward, with renewed determination, to make the most of the options I have; not to waste the privilege of being alive today.

It isn't possible to map the route I will take - and if it were, a bit like my list, it would be limiting. The really important thing, is to avoid entering the Doldrums, where momentum is lost and I drift aimlessly, hoping and waiting for the metaphorical wind to pick up.

Or as Debs more plainly put it, not to waste my energy on crap TV, negative people or conversations I've heard a hundred times before.