Memorialising places

September 27, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s just an odd thought I had a while back, looking at the street names of places near my home – but it was also reinforced by watching part of a TV programme on the Welsh mediaeval story collection, the Mabinogion (for the next few days it’s on the BBC iPlayer system if you want to watch it and the content works in your country).

Some of the stories were ‘onomastic’ or ‘toponomastic’, meaning that they explained place names and geographic features. They provided a (perhaps fanciful) explanation for natural features the audience could go and see. This had an advantage for the storyteller that the story could be embedded into locations the audience probably already knew, while the audience having heard the story would always associate it with that place.

However, near where I live there are several estates of new houses. So you have, for example, Monarchs Close. The name is onomastic to an extent, not because of what’s there now but because (I’m told) it memorialises an event many people have forgotten – it apparently was a field in which monarch butterflies were found, and that’s significant because they’re native to North America and only ever appear in the UK as accidental migrants in years where they’re carried across the Atlantic by weather systems (1995, for example). However, since the place is now a housing estate the name simply memorialises the fact that the butterflies are unlikely to ever be seen there again.

So when you walk city streets (or indeed any built environment) it’s worth noting names because they might tell a history that would otherwise be hidden by the current built environment, and which may not be quite what you’d expect. But given the often random choices of housing estate developers – for example naming new streets after members of their family, famous cricket grounds, or whatever, it also seems we’re in the process of covering up and confusing any relationship we may have with the landscape and our own histories.

And the same is true of buildings like stadia, often now named for some corporate sponsor and changed every few years. These names are projections of (brand or corporate) identities that have no intrinsic association with the place beyond the money nexus, but in their own way they’re usually just another layer on a history of power and control, including the control over names, that might go back decades or centuries. And yet… in the future, they might become the seeds of new onomastic stories.

By the way – if you’re interested in names and into horror, there’s a flash fiction piece on creepypasta.com, ‘The Name of One‘, you might find amusing. I don’t know why I came across this yesterday, but it’s perhaps a little bit of synchronicity going on.

X-Factor – a short story

September 21, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m supposed to be writing about sociological studies of the police. In fact I am writing about this. However in odd moments of downtime I’ve been playing with a story I wrote a couple of months ago. It’s not exactly horror, not exactly science fiction, and neither is it really fantasy or urban or any other easy-to-pigeonhole genre. If anything it’s a gentle meditation on a very limited aspect of unknowns, conspiracy theories, life, the universe and everything, and I don’t really see a commercial market for it. But I’m still vain enough to think you might enjoy reading it.

Rather that just include it in the post (it’s about 4,600 words) I’ve messed around with it, included a couple of images, experimented with prettying it up and saved it as a PDF. Partly, I confess, as an experiment in making PDFs available this way. There’s a download link at the end of this post.

The ‘X-factor’ tag comes from the Global Risks Report 2013  from the World Economic Forum (the ‘world leaders’ meeting that happens in Davos each year). The report outlines what it sees as the major global risks – chronic fiscal imbalances, systemic financial failure, increasing global income disparities, water supply, food shortages, greenhouse gases and other ‘usual suspects’. However it also discusses what it calls ‘X-factors’ – ‘emerging concerns of possible future importance and with unknown consequences’, ‘serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict’.

Here’s the opening of the story:

In crime novels, there’s often a point where the detective turns up at a murder scene and one of the uniforms says ‘A dog-walker found the body.’

That’s because it happens. Twenty-three per cent of dead bodies left in public spaces are found by dog-walkers. Not that I found that out until later.

My watch said 01:41. I’d left Miss Grosgrain at quarter to one, gone home, had a glass of wine, gone out with Daisy. I work unsocial hours. I often walk Daisy late at night.

The street lights around here have been switched to part-night operation as an economy measure. There are signs saying so on every lamp post. They turn off just before one. We’re used to walking in the dark.

On Botts Way there’s a grassed area, the kind of open space that developers put on their estates to add ‘amenity’ to the houses. Parents never let their kids play there.

In the middle of the grassed area there’s a body, face up in the dim starlight. A young guy, late teens or early twenties. Jeans, T-shirt. Much blood. Stabbed, I guess. Eyes open, brown. There’s a thin fuzz of hair on his chin. Close-cropped hair with a widow’s peak. Full lips, nose just a little too wide for the face. A small mole on the right hand side of his face, near his nostril.

I have my mobile phone. I take pics, just in case of… something. I don’t know what, exactly. I lean over the guy, make sure he’s not still breathing. I call the police. And wait.

If you want to read the whole thing, the image below is a link to the PDF of the X-factor story (should open in a new window):

 

Link to 'X-factor' story

Link to ‘X-factor’ story

 

And just for fun (sort of) here’s a snap of some notes I made literally on the back of an envelope while writing the thing:

 

Back-of-envelope notes

Back-of-envelope notes

So now it’s back to writing about studies of policing…

 

 

 

 

‘Critical’ academic work

September 11, 2014 2 comments

One of the things I seem to have been asked a lot recently is: when academics use the word ‘critical’, what do they mean?

There are certain uses of the term that have very specific meanings, such as ‘critical theory‘ (a term in the social sciences that is most closely associated with the ‘Frankfurt School‘ of the 1930s and later – Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and others).

However in more general terms, students are likely to be expected, in module or course learning objectives, to be able to develop a ‘critical understanding’ of a topic, ‘critically assess’ or ‘critically evaluate’ an argument or a situation, and so on. Then they are expected to be able to demonstrate their ‘critical understanding’ in assessments.

My usual first response is to draw an analogy. Let’s say you hire a tradesperson to do a job – a plumber, electrician, carpenter or whoever. You expect this person to be able to assess the nature of the job, including any problems it might pose. You also expect them to understand the materials they are working with and their fitness for purpose, the tools they have available and whether they are sufficient for the job, the health and safety issues involved, and so on. If they look at the job and say a particular cable needs to be able to take 60 amps rather than 30, or  can’t be routed through a space that exposes it to damp, or a section of roof needs reinforcement, or the saw they have isn’t good enough to cut through metal, or whatever, they’re making a critical assessment.

And so it is with academic work. If a theory requires data that isn’t available, or the available data doesn’t support it, or the analytical tools (for example forms of analysis that are available) can’t drill far enough into the available data to enable its interpretation, or (more commonly in the social sciences) the theory relies on untested assumptions that may have some political subtext or agenda, then a ‘critical understanding’ of the theory is one that acknowledges these shortcomings and a ‘critical assessment’ is that the theory is limited by such factors.

So, for example:

  •  a critical understanding/assessment of a theory means you understand what it can explain and what it can’t. For example in the social sciences, labelling theory can explain how the process of ‘becoming’ an offender works, but not why someone commits the acts that leads to that labelling process happening. It also can’t explain why particular acts are considered deviant or criminal; for this, you need another type of theory about how and why particular social attitudes exist or laws are made. So labelling theory is part of an explanation for crime, but not the whole explanation. The situation recurs continually in the social sciences, where most theories explain only one element or part of a situation and not the whole of it, or explain it in ways that rely on values and assumptions that are themselves disputed.
  •  a critical understanding/assessment of, say, a set of statistics means understanding what they tell you, what they don’t, and how reliable they are. For example ‘crimes recorded by the police’ are exactly what they say they are. They don’t include crimes that have been reported but not recorded, perhaps because the police don’t think the ‘crime’ happened or don’t think it was important. In addition they are subject to ‘counting rules’. If someone, for example, goes to a block of flats and burgles two flats one immediately after the other, is that one burglary (a single episode, because it was all one connected act) or two (because there were two premises broke into)? If a drunk person on a street assaults three people, is that one assault or three? These rules have changed over the years and this affects how we can interpret the figures. In general politicians now see police-recorded crime as unreliable, which is why they now rely more heavily on the Crime Survey of England and Wales (the new name for the British Crime Survey).
  • a critical understanding/assessment of an argument, perhaps about criminal justice policy, means understanding the strengths and weakness of both sides of the argument, deciding which side is right (or maybe that neither of them are because they both rely on questionable moral or political views) and being able to explain your decision.

I also, incidentally, tend to point out to students that demonstrating a ‘critical assessment’ or ‘critical understanding’ in a piece of academic assessment usually means investigating an issue to a point where is possible to write something rather more detailed than a Wikipedia entry (despite the Wikipedia links above!). Wikipedia is intended as an overview of the issue for someone who wants a fast briefing on a topic, and doesn’t usually give an in-detail discussion of the relevant arguments. Being able to demonstrate a critical assessment or understanding tends to mean being able to cite and discuss the important publications, arguments, datasets and so on in the field.

Another point I try to make is that this kind of critical thinking tends to mean developing and working through a series of related questions.  For example, a historical question about origins of the ‘Captain Swing‘ riots in the 1830s in England might point to a short answer – working conditions and wages in the countryside had declined over a period of several decades, and the introduction of threshing machines accelerated that by reducing opportunities for casual work over what is traditionally the busiest and best-paid time of the agricultural year, harvesting.

This raises additional questions, though, the answers to which provide evidence that suggests this general answer isn’t the whole story:

  • What’s the evidence for the reduction in earnings? Can we quantify this in terms of earning power, such as how much a loaf of bread cost as a percentage of a worker’s wage (there was the ‘Spleenhamland System’ and some other ‘bread scales’ which tried to do this for the purpose such as setting rates of Poor Law relief; the system essentially failed in its overall aims but that’s another story).
  • Alternatively, was there evidence of poor harvests which would have increased the price of staple products, or of inflation, and thus added to rural hardship? [see note 1 below]
  • Given that the use of threshing machines reduced the demand for farm labour, can we put any numbers on this? [see note 2 below]
  • Agricultural workers had many non-monetary practical resources and traditional rights that added significantly to their living conditions. Had conditions other than paid work deteriorated? [see note 3 below]
  • If conditions had deteriorated, was it easy to find alternative sources of income by, for example, moving to the growing cities?

If the example interests you, areas you might have wanted to explore include:

[1] The early 1800s was indeed a period of high inflation, graphically indicated by a Bank of England resource (note this is a summary illustration meant more for schools!). But ironically there had been slight deflation in the 2-3 years immediately prior to the riots, as shown on another web resource at safalra.com.

[2] There had been an influx of workers in the countryside – but that was over a decade before, after 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars as soldiers were demobilised and returned home. So it wasn’t an immediate cause of the rioting. Insofar as we can put any numbers on the reduction in demand for labour, it’s based on small-scale and illustrative situations in individual communities rather than any comprehensive national statistics (as far as I know, but no doubt someone will correct me!).

[3] Conditions had been deteriorating for some time as a result of the Enclosure Act 1773, which had enabled the progressive taking over of ‘common land’ and ‘waste land’ by landowners. This shut people off from traditional sources of free grazing if they had any of their own animals, the ability to gather wood for fires, etc.; and it meant many people were required to pay rent for land they had previously accessed for free. There’s no evidence of a particular ‘tipping point’ having been reached in the 1830s, though, and enclosure accelerated with a series of new acts between 1845 and 1882 – so after the riots.

In short, the fact of the Swing riots is itself evidence that some kind of tipping point had been reached, but it may have been more symbolic (that is, the threshing machines themselves were symbols of economic threat) than directly linked to economic conditions in any particular year.

If you’re really, really interested in the Swing riots there’s a recently reissued book: Captain Swing, by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, which originally came out in 1969 but appears to have been republished this year by Verso.

But whether you’re interested in the example or not, I hope it illustrates the ‘critical thinking’ process of working from simple to complex ‘critical assessments’ of a situation by asking a chain of questions about what evidence can be marshalled for different potential scenarios.

 

Poetry, or something like it

August 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Poetry isn’t my thing, really. Flash fiction, stories and so on, yes. Poetry no. If you don’t like it as poetry just think of these two things as flash fic. Or blame Stevie Smith for inspiring the first one, if you remember her ‘Not Waving But Drowning‘. Though mine isn’t as good. Oh, and yes, they’re about real people. But you don’t know them.

 

1. Waving/drowning

He’s waving but drowning
Sinking in crashing and speedy surf.
He wants to be saved.

From the sea? From himself?
He waves like he’s giving the finger.

I swim against hard swell.
He fights as if his life depends on it.
As if it’s all he’s ever known.

On the beach exhausted, wet and cold
I watch him cough water, spit blood,
Recover strength.

Soon he’ll stand and walk
to the end of the jetty
Jump in again. And wave.

If this is a test, I’ve failed.
If he’s testing himself, it’s to destruction.
If I try to save him again
Both of us will drown.

 

2. Hydrocortisone

We all die sometime
But medication speeds the process.

She needs enough to cope with the stress
But enough is too much for her body.

The medicine helps her stay together
When tragedy unfolds around her.

And yet it makes her fall apart.
Her skin grows fragile, and bleeds.

What will happen when it’s as weak
As a dried-out leaf in autumn?

 

British values?

July 8, 2014 1 comment

I’m late to this particular party because I’ve been distracted by other commitments and events including a couple of deaths in my wider family. That’s to the good, though, because I’ve had some time to read, reflect and research.

What follows is a commentary on the idea of ‘British values’. It’s prompted by the ‘Trojan horse’ episode a couple of months ago, in which it was alleged that four schools in Birmingham (and ultimately 21 schools in total) that already had substantial proportions of Muslim students had been targeted by radical Muslims who were planning to gain majority representation on the schools’ boards of governors, and put pressure on the schools to adopt a range of Islamic values and practices.

A subsequent investigation concluded that the evidence for this allegation was fabricated; but also that there were other cases in which such plots had occurred. It also concluded that some schools had already and willingly gone down this route – to the point that some schools with a majority of Muslim students had expunged almost all traces of Christian influence; they were for example unable to provide teaching of religious education to Christian students.

All this led to a more widespread debate about ‘extremist’ influence in schools, the extent to which it’s appropriate for any school to be operated on the basis of religious rather than secular values, and other matters I don’t particularly want to comment on here.

However it also prompted the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and then the prime minister, David Cameron, to fulminate about the need to ensure that schools promote ‘British values’. Policy proposals followed quickly – there’s a story on the BBC website about this and one in The Guardian (19 June 2014) that will get you somewhat up to speed on these. I don’t particularly want to to comment on the policy issues either, but they do give me a point of departure for the post.

What exactly do we mean by ‘British values’? Because my instinct says that:

(1) like other terms such as ‘popular culture’, the idea of ‘British values’ only looks coherent from a distance. As soon as you start to investigate it close up, it’s suddenly a lot more messy.

(2) any ‘officially approved’ list of British values is going to be as complete and coherent as the idea of ‘officially approved’ art, or ‘officially approved’ pop songs. In other words the idea of a government telling us what British values are is inherently idiotic.

It’s a long discussion and, unusually for me, hits on quite a few political themes. So if you’re interested hit the ‘read more’ tag.

Read more…

Contains or may contain rant

June 12, 2014 Leave a comment

A few days ago I went to a local supermarket. One of the things I intended to buy was meat. Avoiding the freezer section (where many meats are clearly labelled as containing water, maize flour, maltodextrin and various other things) I went to the butcher’s counter, where meats that have been jointed in-store are packaged and displayed.

As you may have picked up from previous posts here, I have to be careful about my food shopping habits because I have a partner with multiple food allergies – gluten, dairy and eggs being the main ones.

So I picked up some pork. I always check the food labelling, even for products I’ve bought many times before, because manufacturers occasionally decide to change food ingredients or refresh their product line. Packaging flashes like ‘New and Improved!’ often mean something she’s been able to eat before needs to come off the shopping list because suddenly, there’s a source of gluten in the ‘improved’ product.

There was a new, though very small, label on the pork that said ‘Contains or may contain traces of allergens’. I checked all the meats on offer and they all had that same label.

OK. Which allergens?

I asked at the butcher’s counter. He couldn’t tell me. His supervisor couldn’t tell me, because apparently the meat arrives from a distribution centre without any specific markings as to whether it’s had any kind of preparation that would involve allergens. He called the area manager who didn’t have any information sources on which meats might contain which allergens. I haven’t bothered to phone the head office because I somehow doubt they’d have detailed tracking of all meats they buy in – or at least, not the level of tracking that would include this information.

The best explanation the butcher could give was that the labelling about allergens is a blanket policy, and the meat ‘probably’ doesn’t contain any allergens. I observed that if someone has a gluten allergy that causes a five-day bout of IBS, ‘probably’ doesn’t cover it. I didn’t mention that if someone has a peanut allergy, buying meat that ‘probably’ doesn’t contain peanuts means buying meat that ‘probably won’t result in anaphylactic shock or death’.

So it’s not good enough. And the labelling means I won’t be buying any meat from that supermarket any more.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, some alternative scenarios. You go to the supermarket to buy vegetables and every packet or display of vegetables is labelled ‘Contains or may contain meat products’ – or ‘Vegetables are treated with meat-derived sprays’. It wouldn’t just be vegetarians who avoid  those vegetables; members of several religions would be more than a little concerned. You go to the supermarket to buy… no, wait – anyone who has an allergy will know that huge numbers of products, from air fresheners to chocolate to ready meals to over-the-counter medications, often do contain one or more allergenic products (paracetamol, aspirin and so on are often sold in tablets formed using either lactose or gluten-based carriers). If you have an allergy, huge swathes of the supermarket will be off-limits and you do have to inspect all the labels carefully because the least likely things can contain substances you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

The numbers of people with food allergies is at an all-time high and is increasing. The need for accurate and detailed labelling is acute. I’d guess a lot of people who actually read food labels would have the same reaction as me – so this pork/beef/chicken may have allergens in it, but which ones? I’d guess that a proportion of the people in the supermarket who were involved in labelling, product sourcing and so on are themselves allergy sufferers. And yet they manage to produce a screwed-up labelling policy like this. I don’t get it – unless of course they don’t shop in their own supermarket.

We already use a local independent butcher for a good proportion of our meat. He buys form local farms, and often goes out to check on the animals he buys in when they’re still on the hoof. In future, I guess, he’s going to be the one we get all our meat from…

States of Independence

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

This is a kind of a late review because the States of Independence event was a couple of weeks ago, on 15th March. It’s a free annual one-day book festival in Leicester that I went to for the first couple of years it ran, then missed it for a couple of years, and got back to it again this year.

First impressions: lots of stalls, and there are clearly still plenty of people out there wanting to be independent publishers. Some are producing full-sized paperback books, some are selling short collections of flash fiction and poems in a pamphlet-type format. But there are a lot of them.

Many are the same ones I remember from 3-4 years ago, though some have started to find different niches to fill. For example one  is now busy doing political nonfiction, looking at the background to recent scandals and documenting the extent to which the police and other security services have been involved in dubious practices. None of that’s particularly ‘news’ – a great deal of it has been admitted to and debated in parliament in the last year or two, and some of it has emerged in a ‘look, I told you so’ way when Cabinet papers were published in January having reached the end of their 30-year period of being kept secret (and essentially proved that the government of 1984 was in the business of provoking a miners’ strike in order to break the trades union movement, of which more below).

But there are plenty of other niches to fill and ‘tribes’ to satisfy. I’m really not sure how a market research company would classify all of them, but you could have a go at ’20-something students into horror fiction’, ‘people interested in poetry by local poets’, or ‘people from immigrant or minority communities who want to read stories based on their own cultural history, in English’.

I went to three seminars.

The first was on the 1984 miners’ strike, seen from 30 years on. This was interesting for a range of reasons. The wounds created at that time have still not healed, and because the police were in the front line in breaking the strike it’s pretty clear that there’s still a bitter aftertaste and a complete lack of trust in the police in many areas. There’s also a sense of outrage that some of the senior figures in the union ‘sold out’ and were, by their own later admission, giving information to the police Special Branch and MI5. Which also, incidentally, suggests that the remit of those agencies had a lot of grey areas that were rapidly redefined as areas where they should be quite active. That opens up a whole can of worms about the idea of the ‘police state’ and the way we should approach security issues in a democracy, but that’ll all have to wait for another blog. I will say, though, that I was active in police research in the 1980s and I can remember many very senior police officers in 1984-5 were extremely unhappy about the way they felt policing was being politicised. And what happened around that time, now we have some of the government papers published, does tend to reinforce the notion that if you’re feeling paranoid it’s because they’re coming to get you.

The pity of it all was that the basic problem the government faced was this: why have a coal industry in the UK if globalisation meant we could import coal more cheaply from China? How could coal produced at relatively high cost in the UK be run as a profitable industry? The government response was pretty brutal – close down the mines (and the hidden agenda was there too; smash the unions because they stand in the way of ‘progress’). And the union response was old-school and straight out of the 1800s. No one involved in any of this seemed to be prepared to talk sensibly about the wider context and find more constructive solutions.

The second seminar was about Indian writing today being published in English. From this I got some insights into the regionalism of Indian writers, since many are published in languages other than Hindi or Urdu; and the continuing influence of the caste system, with people often reading about the culture of their own caste. This segued for me into a bunch of issues about what the caste system really is and does, but if you need a quick rundown of this one starting point is Wikipedia. Plus it’s a little alarming (given how poorly my own horror collection sells) to hear about a country where an author is considered a failure if they haven’t sold at least 100,000 copies of their latest novel…

The third one I went to was about digital literature. I walked in late, at the point the speaker was (I think) quoting someone else. I caught the end of their sentence: ‘…if it doesn’t use random numbers it’s not literature’. That said, it was thought-provoking on areas such as ‘what counts as avant-garde?’, ‘to what extent can code be read as literature?’ and ‘are there parallels between the market for computer games and the market for fiction?’.

I won’t go into details. But if digital fiction or e-fiction interest you, a useful place to start is probably this collection at eliterature.org.

Overall, I had a good time. Once of the independent publishers is about to open its own bookshop (and also sells coffee); the masked booksellers were there and I bought stuff from them. The only thing that struck me as odd was that I didn’t see any of the people who are normally active on the local literary scene. Doesn’t mean there weren’t there, and while I went to three seminars there were another 20-odd running. Never mind, no doubt I’ll catch up with them another time.

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