Sunday, January 29, 2012

Straws in the wind

Straw and a bluebell by Dylan

I've been troubled this last week, my thoughts not connecting in the usual way; loose strands I want to spin together, but can't quite find the means. They hint at issues we'd rather forget, or at least not examine too closely, preferring cliche to analysis, and if we must have latter, then let it be at a remove. 

You get what you pay for, began a conversation I overheard in the gym. Aye, came the reply, but you have to pay for what you get.  I was on the rowing machine and couldn't see who was talking. The woman who'd spoken first and sounded younger than I think she must have been, said, they'll pay us back when they're settled, to which her other half grunted, we'll be dead by then.  I rowed faster to my target of 2,000 meters - by the time I reached it, they'd gone.

On Tuesday it was reported that the UK had one trillion pounds of debt - more than sixteen thousand for every person. And that's evidently not a true reflection, because it omits the mortgages and credit cards and pension black holes and corporate debts and unfunded future commitments that we're all going to pay for - and some, like my children's generation, a lot more than others.

That evening I’m discussing family finances with my parents in law. I say the idea of my boys leaving university owing forty thousand pounds appals me. Partly I fear for their future, but I’m horrified too at the message it sends about debt as a norm.

On Wednesday Bill Gates says he doesn't pay enough tax. I'm sceptical of this mantra, wondering why those who chant it don't simply write a check to their local hospital. To be fair, Mr Gates has endowed thirty billion dollars to eradicate polio and other killer diseases. Back at the gym I watch the British TV awards on the overhead screens, uneasy with the juxtaposition of jungle celebrities followed by a short clip reminding us that one million children die every year of malaria.

I come home and they're discussing the Euro-crisis on Newsnight.  I find myself nodding and tutting as if I understood the complexities of global capital, and think suddenly of Dylan who after listening to Just William had earlier asked me what lugubrious meant, and the meaning of utter vacancy.  Jeremy Paxman probes an expert on why the Chinese won't bail us out. She replies: because their average incomes are one tenth of ours - maybe they think we could cut back

The comment brought back memories. When I was twenty years old I took what I regard as the only significant debt of my life - I borrowed three hundred pounds from my mother to pay the deposit on a flat. It was equivalent to a month's wages after outgoings and I repaid it in six weeks, preferring to eat soup and rice than purchase non-essentials while in hock. No doubt there was some deeper psychology going on there - but the diet did me no harm and in many ways it has shaped my 'appetite' since. 

Next day, there's an article in the Times confirming we remain the world's sixth largest economy. I wonder why we need any debt, why no politician is suggesting we remove it over, say, a fifteen-year period. In the same edition there are objections to the proposed benefit cuts, to any prospect of scaling back on the NHS, to the unfairness of this or that, the impact on the arts. Overseas aid is a suggested target for reductions.

The philosopher Karl Popper described democracy as the least worst of all the alternatives. He lamented its inefficiency, its disproportionate focus on the immediate and selfish desires of an electorate - it's inability, as it were, to ever eat rice and soup. Every politician I've met has confirmed my sense that he's correct in this. 

Back in my study, I'm confronted by my own contradictions. There’s a letter from our MP responding to my dismay over the increase in student fees. Next to it is another from Medecine Sans Frontier that I’m yet to open – I’m no Bill Gates but my donations are paltry compared to my needs and income.

Is it possible to be too concerned I wonder? Someone told me recently that his partner is so worried about the state of the world that she can lose sight of more immediate ills. It damages those she’s closest too, he said.

Friday, driving into North Wales there are two buzzards, circling above a wood by the Berwyn Mountains. In the mode of that dreadful pseudo-science they call bio-mimicry, I philosophise on nature not doing debt – though it can show altruism, even collective responsibility. Then I notice one bird has a carcass in its talons; the second mobs it and a fight ensues - I’m reminded that nature doesn’t do ethics or charity either.

The rain picks up and the buzzards are lost behind a swish of my wipers. I press on, the thoughts still swirling, unsure if the clouds are lifting or descending. At the farm in Llangynog, there are straws in the wind.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Writing our own success.

Sketchbooks - perhaps the ultimate home-books?

This post was inspired by the success of my friend and fellow blogger, who was recently shortlisted for the Times / Chicken House children's fiction competition. Last week, an exert from her novel, The Tarney Scalp, was published in the Times online. The eventual winner will receive a worldwide publishing contract, a substantial advance on royalties and representation by a literary agent.

That sort of prize is an aspiring writers dream. And with over 2000 entries, reaching the final stages of the competition is an achievement in itself. If there's any justice the shortlisted candidates will also be picked up by agents and publishers. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for her because a win on that scale needs a little luck as well as talent.

But talking to her about the competition got me thinking about the dangers of writers defining success too narrowly. I don't know if one in two thousand is the usual ratio of novels making the grade, but I'd bet it's not far off. Okay, so a lot of those will be trash, but anyone who mixes with committed writers will be aware of the angst, and at times despair, of those seeking a publisher.

Economists would say it's a question of supply and demand. They might concede an inefficiency in the way the market identifies talent, but I doubt they'd offer an alternative. For economic analysis is bound by the constraints of the publishing model - take away the traditional values and what basis do they have for measuring success?  Maybe that's why predictions about the growth of the Internet and e-books have been so amiss.

I'm not suggesting we lay any blame at publisher's doors - writers often gripe at the process, but it's not them stumping up the money for production and promotion. Rather, I'd advocate we should be more open minded about what constitutes success. If it's ultimately about reaching readers, then there are lots of other ways to achieve that - and you'll not be surprised that blogs are high on my list.

If you're reading this and thinking 'yeah yeah, but real books are better,' then I'd agree for some formats that's correct (novels especially) - but if you consider most poetry books do well to sell a few hundred copies, you might see my point differently. I know blogs which have that readership daily. I know too of blogs writers who have gone on to write for websites, magazines, newspapers and ultimately, yes books.

Print on demand and e-books have also made self-publishing a cheaper option - and less of a 'vanity' than was considered a few years ago. It is significant to me that when I was a painter I never met an artist who looked down on someone who organised their own show - and yet with writers, it seems that anything less than a fully funded contract from Harper Collins (or Chicken House) can be sneered at. This exaggerates of course, but writers have not always helped their own cause here.

I'm also a great fan of home books. My father in law has written (by hand) a ten year diary of his visits to Pembrokeshire, complete with sketches, cartoons, funny anecdotes, lists of oddities, quizzes... We love it, and it will no doubt be a family heirloom for generations. I have printed my blog for much the same reason, and it's surprising how many guests will pick it up and say they wish they'd written or collated an equivalent.

Pondering all this reminded me of the time I was involved with Welsh Canoe Association. The Sports Council, when administering its annual grants, would always ask for evidence of success - and I would point to the thousands of people participating in the sport. That's not what we mean they would say - we need to see Olympic and Commonwealth medals. When, one year, I asked 'why' they wanted these medals, they became a little flummoxed - until eventually one of the panel said 'because it encourages people to participate...'  Aware of the circularity of this argument he tailed off under the glare of his Chairman.

To be fair Sports Council gave us the grant we'd asked for - but I like to think that I helped them see success a little differently. For if we define it only terms of the 'elite' - whether that be in sport or in writing - then frankly, most of us, are setting ourselves up to fail.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

January makeovers... with a pinch of Aristotle

Cake - one of the nicest presents I received last year - but not in January.

There's an often quoted fact in my industry that December is the best selling month for food magazines and January the worst. You'll not be surprised that the trend is reversed for slimming titles. Television has its equivalent: celebrity chefs make way for the Greatest Loser and adverts for Christmas delights are replaced by weight-watchers and nicotine patches. We've come to expect this - because of course January is a time for resolutions and makeovers.

I'm no different - each year I jot down a few positive goals and do my best to achieve them. Last year I wanted to complete my book, finish my writing degree and not waste energy on crap TV, negative people or conversations I've heard a hundred times before. I did okay, but there's still work to do. I have a similar list this year.

And typically that involves getting a little fitter. I say typically because when I asked around the office, everyone said they wanted to lose weight and/or do more exercise. This week at the gym there was the usual influx of newcomers carrying programme cards or accompanied by a personal trainer. Again, I'm no different - I've spent more time on the rowing machine since Christmas than I did the entire autumn.

It's hardly an insight to say that we have an obsession with our looks - and weight in particular. The idea of the 'perfect body' as a prerequisite of happiness is ever more ingrained in our subconscious, at times insidiously so. Peddling away at the gym I watched a ghoulish documentary about a 72 stone woman - but more disturbing by far was another concerning a child of six who's been diagnosed with anorexia.

In my discussion with friends and colleagues I've heard three themes to our resolutions - weight and fitness (including less drinking and smoking), debt (less of) and travel (more of). On the basis of my straw poll, it seems our idea of the good life is being stick thin, mortgage free, and able to holiday at will.

Put like that it doesn't sound too bad - and let's not get pompous, most of us envy those in that position - but it's interesting that not a single person I spoke too said they want to read more, even those given Kindles for Christmas! Nor did anyone say they wanted to go to the theatre, get less angry, have more courage, help others, or make a difference. Aristotle who believed the good life lay in demonstrating virtue would be turning in his grave. David Cameron's Big Society didn't get a look in.

The funniest resolution I heard was someone who said they wanted to stop picking their nose in public. And the saddest (to return to my theme of an obsession with makeovers) was when one of my fittest friends claimed they needed to train harder and lose half a stone - for what? for whom? I need to be careful though - for my own list was equally self centred in its way.

But perhaps this is just the stuff of New Year resolutions, and by the time Spring arrives we'll all see things in better perspective. This week I began the planning for my company's Community Programme - and looking back over last year I was reminded of the hundreds of colleagues who did something special - for others as well as themselves. In some cases that was genuinely life changing (one couple found love on a bike ride!) in others it was less dramatic, but a highlight of their year nonetheless. When the narcissism of January fades I've no doubt there'll be new people coming forward - and hopefully (me included) we'll remind ourselves that there's more to a good life than the magazines and TV would have us believe.