Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Me and Oliver Postgate

I'm very sad to learn of the death of Oliver Postgate at the grand old age of 83.
For British readers I need hardly say any more. He was part of all our childhoods - Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss, and of course the inimitable Clangers. For anyone else, well, if you don't know what I'm on about, it's really no use trying to explain! Except to say that he was both the perfect children's storyteller - combining simplicity with humour and great characters - and a marvellous animator.

Interestingly, if you read his memoirs you will see that it was his work as an animator that led to his spending a year at an Australian university supposedly teaching his craft to the students there. It doesn't seem to have been a success: the academics clearly had no idea what he was there for and actively obstructed his attempts to teach anything.

I have to admit that I had Oliver Postgate's experience in mind when I started working at the university. After all, like him I have been more or less parachuted in with no background or experience in academia, and expected to impart some details of my craft to students when, for all I knew, their tutors may feel they can teach them all they need to know.

In practice I am pleased to say I haven't found this to be problem. The academic world has its quirks and I am aware of the politics going on around me (although the department I'm attached to keeps me reasonably well cushioned against this sort of thing). I'm able to get on with my job of seeing students individually and I've no doubt that I will be able to put on workshops and the like if I wish. Partly I expect this is because I have lower expectations than Postgate did, although I imagine it's also true that universities now are much better at integrating outsiders into their own student support networks. Mind you, I don't see that many academics - which could well be another reason why they don't bother me!

Funnily enough, it's just occurred to me that my university, Kent, had a particular association with Oliver Postgate. A triptych designed by him hangs in one of the colleges, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university - although it was apparently made clear at the time that he was receiving it only on behalf of Bagpuss!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

No such thing as bad publicity....?

It's the photo that gets me...

I think the explanation is that the photographer was so keen to get the Sun shining on the Drill Hall Library in the background that he had me squinting and generally looking - what can I say? - rather peculiar. Oh well. All I can say it I don't really look like that!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The story so far...

Half a term under my belt, and what I can say for the experience so far? I had a chance to reflect on this last wewek when the man from the university press office came to interview me for a press release.
My first thought is that on the whole it's been easier than I expected. I'd imagined myself getting bogged down in technical stuff - the Harvard Referencing System, for example, or the difference between report writing and essay writing. But it hasn't been like that, for the most part: the advice I've been asked for has been much more basic. To begin with it was how to structure an essay, which I translate as "how to put together a coherent argument". Now, as the first years are starting to produce work for submission, the focus is more on how to edit or how to proofread. In some ways that's more difficult: it's easy to point to a spelling mistake or a puncutation error and say "That's not right!"; harder to take a step back from the detail and try to show the student how the error impairs his work as a whole, and what he can do about it.
There's been less diversity in terms of disciplines than I expected. I haven't counted them up yet but the vast majority of my customers have been social science, business studies or law students. I suppose that reflects the way my work is promoted: presumably the tutors in those departments are recommending me, although I don't know that for sure. It would be nice to see a scientist or a drama student for a change.
It's nearly all been essays. Otherwise I think I've had one academic appeal, a placement application and a presentation.
The one thing nobody, but nobody, asks me about is creative writing - far less my own work. I'm not sure what I think of that. I'm not here to promote myself, of course, but it surprises me a little that nobody is at all curious about why I'm here at all. Perhaps it shows how focused the students are on their work. Or how far they take what's around them for granted.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A bit of politics

I haven't done politics here before and I don't intend to make a habit of it, but this is something I feel strongly enough about:

As they say:

On Wednesday October 8th, the British Government invoked anti-terrorist legislation, which was in effect aimed at the people of Iceland. This devastating attack on our society was received with disbelief here in Iceland, where it turned a grave economic situation into a national disaster. The people of Iceland have always considered themselves great friends of the United Kingdom. Our nations have a long history of mutually beneficial trade and have been close allies in NATO and Europe.

Hour by hour and day by day the actions of the British government are indiscriminately obliterating Icelandic interests all over the world and, in so doing, diminishing the assets that could be used to reimburse depositors with Icelandic banks in the United Kingdom and Iceland. The government's actions are also endangering the future of nearly all Icelandic companies and of the entire nation, in addition to over 100.000 employees of British companies with Icelandic connections. In this regard we would like to stress that the Icelandic authorities have always maintained their intention to honour their obligations in this matter, contrary to claims made by Chancellor Alistair Darling and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

In these trying times, it is vital that we all work together to meet the troubles that lie ahead. We cannot let leaders, like Gordon Brown, destroy the long-term relations of our nations for their own short-term political gain. Mr. Brown would never have reacted to the collapse of a bank from a larger and more powerful nation by tarnishing its people as terrorists and criminals.

We, the people of Iceland, ask you, our British friends, to join us in the common cause of ending diplomatic hostilities between our governments. It is our hope that this will stop the unnecessary economic damage on both sides, so that we can start to rebuild and make amends

Or, to put it another way:

Presiding over a debt-fuelled boom is one thing, but when it all goes (predictably) bust, going to war against the smallest country you can find is hardly a constructive way to address the problem, is it?

Hat-tip: Iain Dale

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Those who can't spell, teach

If it seems odd that I have to help undergraduates - people who have all got into university - with their English, then read this story. Of course, these tests are for trainee teachers: I don't mean to imply that all schoolchildren are being taught by illiterates. But I do worry when I find basic errors in letters that come home from my son's school. I've lost count of the times I've seen "practice" and "practise" transposed, for instance.

Mind you, the most memorable error I can recall seeing was in maths rather than English. It was a homework assignment some years ago when Isaac was asked to make 18 pence out of three coins. He got extremely frustrated, and I couldn't blame him - it's mathematically impossible! Well, almost - as I took great delight in pointing out to his teacher, it can be done but only in old money - with three tanners or a shilling and two thrupenny bits - but I don't think that was what they had in mind!

Friday, 10 October 2008

How to Write an Essay

No, this is not an article on how to write an essay. There are plenty of those around - in fact there are several on the RLF website - and I don't see any need to add to the number. Besides, it's not a subject I actually know very much about!

It seems to me that I harp on about this a bit, but that's one of the oddities of this job. I'm here to teach people how to do something that I'm not sure I know how to do myself.

Of course that's not entirely true. I can write essays, and I know that because I have a degree which means I must have done it well enough to get through. But I can't say that I ever approached the subject with any real thought to developing an academic style. I just tried to answer the question as it was put.

Now I mentioned all the guides to writing essays that the RLF has published and I have read some of them, but I can't say there's much in there to alter my view of how to do it. It's not that I don't recognise that there is a distinct academic manner of putting things or that there are some technical aspects to academic writing that must be learned, such as referencing. I can draw a student's attention to these things, of course, but beyond that I run into what I think is an inescapable limitation.

I can't ask a student to write something that I can't understand! Which means I have to approach the subject in very concrete terms. I tell them to start by explaining the thing they are writing about, and then discuss it - hoping that a conclusion will flow logically from what precedes it and so almost write itself.

Now, this may be all back to front. I know some tutors suggest writing the essay backwards, so that the introduction comes last, as a kind of preview of what follows, but I'm not convinced that's such a good idea. Of course if a tutor insists you could always summarise the whole essay in a paragraph or two at the beginning (though I as a mere non-academic don't really see the point) but how does that help get an essay started? It seems to me that you have to have something concrete to base your argument on, as otherwise all you'll end up with is waffle.

I suppose I shall change my mind when a posse of angry lecturers appears outside my office!

Monday, 22 September 2008

First day in the new job

Well, the title says it all. This morning I was introduced to the first-year students of the University of Kent at Medway as their new RLF Fellow. And got a good look at my potential customers, of course.

I mumbled a bit about who I was and why I was there. It didn't make a great deal of sense to me but it must have had some impact as I've got at least one person coming to see me on Friday. Well, as I cheerful informed her when she made the appointment, I need the practice!

I was struck by how very different the atmosphere was from when I was a student a quarter of a century ago. Everything is so much cleaner, for one thing. I noticed this most in the canteens - gone are the fag-ends, polystyrene containers and crushed pastic cups that used to litter the floors. And the students get more support. I don't think there was any such thing as a "Student Learning Advisory Centre" in my day. We had a couple of talks about study skills, about which I can remember nothing at all, and after that were pretty much left to it. I had a personal tutor whom I was supposed to meet once a term. I bumped into him once on the stairs and he said: "Well, this can count as our termly meeting" as he kept going in the opposite direction! Now strenuous efforts are made to prevent them from dropping out.

The students themselves struck me as very different also. They seemed very serious and (literally) sober. When I were a lad, there'd have been at least three strikes, a lockout and four demos going on by lunchtime, but it wouldn't have mattered as scarcely any of the students would have got out of bed by then anyway. It doesn't seem to be like that any more.

Part of me applauds this, of course. After all, I'm a taxpayer, and I'd hate to think of my money being pissed away by the likes of my younger self. ButI can't help wondering what happened to youthful high spirits. Are they really so much more conscientious than we were? Or is it something else - fear of failure, perhaps? 

Friday, 19 September 2008

Blogging Lite

No blogging tonight - it's Friday evening.

Though I did finish a short story today. I thought I'd finished it yesterday but found a plot hole that needed filling. 

That's it, I'm afraid. A slow news day!

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Hamartia and Other Tragedies

One of the perks of being a Fellow is membership of an organisation named NAWE - the National Association of Writers in Education. I just got my first mailing from them and have been having a look at it.

Well, I must say, this looks interesting: "Hamartia and Other Tragedies: Mimesis, Memesis and the Pitfalls of Summatively Assessing Creative Practice."

Yes, my jaw dropped when I read that too. And no, I haven't got the faintest idea what it means. What's more - and curiously, for someone who is passionately interested in words - I haven't the least inclination to look it up either.

Of course I dare say there may be a level of irony in all this and perhaps the author was poking fun at this sort of language - in which case, I apologise to him or her unreservedly. But I don't know, and I'm almost afraid to find out.

Now, it may apppear that I'm setting out to complain or at least mock this academic style of writing so perhaps I should say now that I'm not. Every industry has its own language (I'm a lawyer, I should know!) and there's no reason why university teachers should be any different.  But it neatly illustrates the curious position I'm going to find myself in come Monday. I've spent much of my career, in fact arguably all of it, trying to explain complicated things to all sorts of people in terms they can understand. Moreover, I suspect a part of my job will consist of helping students to do much the same - to put across what they are trying to say in terms that make sense to me, other people and critically to the students themselves. Time will tell whether I'm right about that, but perhaps it's why a writer rather than an academic is asked to this work. A head full of jargon is no substitute for actually knowing what you're talking about.

I certainly won't be encouraging them to use words like "Mimesis"! Well, not unless I've looked it up first... 

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Hail Fellow! Well Met!

Blog? What blog? I have a blog? Oh... Ooops. Sorry, I forgot...

Seriously, I've been a bit preoccupied of late, what with moving house and trying to deal with an ailment whose existence I'd have denied up until a year or so ago - namely, writer's block. Of which more anon, probably, but suffice to say I think I'm getting over it now.


I am officially a Fellow!

To be precise, I have been awarded a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship.

Let me explain. The RLF Fellowship scheme works by placing writers in universities, where our jog is to help students who may be having trouble with their written work. Their difficulties may range from questions of style, the right way to structure a dissertation or how to cite an article in a learned journal all the way down to the level of basic grammar and spelling.

This might lead you suppose that I must be an expert in academic writing or have teaching experience or at the very least possess a sympathetic ear! But it seems that none of these is required. Apparently having written a few novels and short stories is qualification enough. If this seems odd to you, well, it does to me too, but I've spoken to plenty of authors who have done this work and it seems that it is so.

I'm not sure which that says more about - the superhuman abilities of writers, or the woeful state to which the teaching of English in schools has descended in recent years. I'm afraid I think it's more likely to be the latter. Still, I shall try to blog regularly on this subject during my time in the post, and maybe I'll have a better idea of what's really going on at the end of it.

For now, I'm looking forward to it - it should be a lot of fun, if nothing else.

And if you happen to be a student at the University of Kent's Medway Campus in Chatham Dockyard - well, it may be the partially sighted leading the blind, but I'm here to help anyway!

Tuesday, 10 June 2008


Well, we're back. I wouldn't recommend driving around Greece as a rest cure, but it was a lot of fun, and then we had a week in the islands to get over it.
As usual I was behind the camera most of the time so there isn't any decent picture of me I can put up here but here is the only bit of the Acropolis in Athens that isn't covered in scaffolding! As one American tourist I overheard remarked, "That is so classical!"
Only a short post today as I'm still getting things back together after the break but I may have more to say at the end of the week.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Aztec costume is, I'm told, about finished - I'll post a picture of it next time I write.
As I'm going on holiday for a couple of weeks, it'll have to wait until I get back (unless I get really bored and find myself in an Internet Cafe. Unlikely). We're off to Greece; a week touring and looking at antiquities, followed by a week on an island.
The French historian Jacques Soustelle once remarked that a crowd of Aztecs would have looked like a crowd of Athenians, and I suppose there were some similarities: like the Athenians, the Mexica lived in what was essentially a city-state surrounded by other notionally independent city-states, in a mountainous country, and in classical times at least continual warfare was pretty much the norm. And they both favoured cloaks as the main garment for men, although I think Greek costume was less strictly prescribed than Aztec garb.
But I'm always a bit wary of comparisons between unrelated peoples. I've seen the Aztecs compared to the Romans (because of the way their armies were organised), the Japanese (fierce warriors who believed in fate and loved flowers and poetry), the Egyptians (pyramids!) etc etc. I've thought myself that there are interesting resemblances between Aztec and Tibetan culture; Tibetan Buddhists may be peaceful folk now but their iconography hints at a blood-curdlingly violent history. Nearly always, however, these comparisons don't stand up to any sort of scrutiny. Aztecs and Egyptians both built pyramids, but they weren't the same thing at all. Greek though, which so often is about drawing sharp distinctions between categories, is nothing like Aztec thought, which tends to emphasise the oneness of things. So I'm not sure you can use one culture to give you much insight into another.
I'm not going to try. I just intend to enjoy my holiday. Though the idea of setting a book in ancient Greece did occur to me at one time...

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Aztec Costumes

We were delighted when my son announced that the Aztecs are his school history topic this term. At last! Some homework I can help him with! But our joy turned to gloom when he brought a piece of paper home with him. "School History Day": each class will dress up as people from their historical period for this term...
My wife fixed a baleful eye on me. "So what," she demanded, "did Aztecs wear?"
"Um... skirts and shifts for the girls, and the boys... a breechcloth and a short cloak, mostly."
"I am not sending him to school in a breechcloth!" I could see her point. It might have been worse, mind you: my son's nine, but if he'd been six, he'd get a scrap of cloth to wear over his shoulders and no underwear at all. I thought about it a bit further and suggested a warrior costume. This proved to be a mistake.
"He'd like to be an Eagle Warrior."
"Really?" I showed Sarah what an Eagle Warrior's costume looked like. Now, my wife is very resourceful: for a similar event last year she ran up a toga iraetexta - and if you think of Romans as sporting a sort of white cloak with a bit of purple edging, think again, it's much more complicated than that. But even she balked at trying to fabricate a helmet in the shape of a giant raptor's head. I showed her a picture of a jaguar warrior and she just blanched.
I suggested the two-captive warrior's field dress: a pair of red jim-jams and a conical cap would do for that at a pinch, but it didn't find favour. The best I could offer, it turned out, was the Aztec version of a stab vest, cotton armour with a skirt of feathers around it. (Or possibly strips of leather, according to Dr John Pohl).
"That'll do," my wife said. "I can make the skirt out of strips of card, and he's got an old tunic I can use."
"Er... well, it should be made of quilted cotton, really. Strictly speaking."
I was informed in no uncertain terms that the subject was now closed!

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Happy New Year

New Year's resolution - predictably, to pay more attention to this blog. After all, having taken the trouble to set it up I may as well use to say something.
A few months ago I went to a seminar about how writers could make money out of the Internet. I don't know that it did me a lot of good - I still haven't got around to putting context-sensitive advertising links on my Web pages or writing to everyone I know to ask them to buy a pay-per-click link, far less writing the hundreds of pithy, well-informed articles that would justify asking anyone for a subscription. Still, the fact that I haven't made millions doing these things is probably just inertia on my part.
What I found more interesting was a comment from a writer at this seminar. People, he said, are interested in what writers do. They want to read about how you spend your days in the shed feeding the cat.
Well, apart from the fact that I don't have a shed (although I do have a cat), I don't know. I've never quite been able to see what is so fascinating about writers. Deep-sea divers, lion tamers and mercenaries, maybe, but writers? Of course many writers have led exciting lives that are worth reading about (which is presumably why they write about them) but as writers per se, all we do is drive a pen or a keyboard, and while it's fun to do sometimes it can hardly be exciting to watch.
Which probably has a lot to do with why this blog hasn't really taken off yet. I've been working on the assumption that what you want to read about is my writing. But I don't really want to write about my my writing, because that would be like doing the day's work all over again. I don't know if this is a common problem.
I shall change my approach, though. From now on, unless anything out of the ordinary occurs to me, I shall only write about what I do when I'm not writing.
It's just occurred to me that this will have the added advantage of enabling me to sustain the illusion that novels and stories really do come out nowhere and write themselves!