Archive for the ‘Out and about’ Category

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

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.


Leicester street art

I’ve been having a quiet time. Actually a noisy quiet time since much of it has been spent doing things like putting in a new garden fence (much hammering, sawing and swearing). But I thought I’d share these, following a recent visit to Leicester. Materials: chalk on paving slabs. Artist: I have no idea, but I hope he – it was a guy working on them, anyway – does well.


Street art, Leicester, May 2013


Street art, leicester, May 2013


February 16, 2012 1 comment

I was going to put up an intemperate post about economic policies, but that can wait for another day – not least because I haven’t worked out all the details yet.

In the meantime, this seems interesting and worthwhile. I went back to Fabrika a couple of days ago and discovered they have an interactive exhibition. There’s some neat stuff there including a harp with lasers instead of strings, a sound tree, a video installation that gives ghostly images of people who’ve walked past it (probably mine is one of the faces on it now) and an art scanner installation.

It works like this: artists upload images of their work to a website,; the images are of course available online there directly, but uploading work allows you to download a link in the form of a QR code. You can print off the QR code and stick it on the wall in the gallery, or indeed anywhere else that takes your fancy. There’s a scanner next to the installation so in the gallery it’s easy to scan the codes and the images come up on a screen – outside the gallery, many mobile phones and pad-style computers have cameras so you can take a picture of the code, and they have software that reads the code as well, which will resolve into a clickable web address for the image.

QR codes aren’t new. They started off as security features on tickets, etc. and then became more widely used on all sorts of products. A lot of nightclubs now embed QR codes into their posters and such, so savvy punters can find their way to the place and find out more about events etc. So this isn’t new technology but it’s a new application of the technology that I think would have a much wider application than just one exhibition in one gallery. It could enable people to encounter artwork, stories and a whole bunch of other stuff on their travels – see a code, check it out, find out what that place means or has meant to other people. That kind of thing. It’s not so much a way of bringing the virtual and real worlds together (though it could do that, I guess) but allowing interaction with others based on a very fine-grained sense of space and place.

After a long absence…

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I haven’t done anything on here for quite a while. Two reasons, really – work and trips away.

Work – mainly academic and training. I seem to have written a couple of hundred exam assessments, marked several thousand scripts, and written several novel-length training packages and teaching modules. I say ‘seem to have’ because it certainly feels that way.

Around 20 years ago, a departmental administrator would email and ask for a new exam, and you’d sit down and ask yourself what you actually taught the students and write eight or nine questions. When the scripts came in, you’d scrawl on them and decide on a mark. A second marker would check a sample and maybe you’d end up having brief conversations about some of the scripts.

These days, you get asked for the exam: then you go to the module specification to see what students were supposed to have learned, write the questions, carry out a cross-check to ensure they cover the range of material in the module, check they’re not exactly the same questions you’ve asked in at least the previous two exams, write the indicative answers and check all the supporting documentation that students get, put everything into a word processing template and send it off. It gets signed off by the programme leader and the external examiner. When the scripts come back, there has to be a paper trail than includes comments students are able to see and a more or less transparent and documented process that’s capable of being audited. In principle, of course, the purpose of the paper trail and creation of auditability, along with the cross-checks, probably does make for a system that’s more resiliant to challenges.

Exams, of course, are about assessing students and doing it fairly. They’re not about inspiring them or opening up their imagination, which is really part of what the course materials should be doing – alongside making sure they have the basic principles, paradigms and knowledge. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should go back to how things used to be done. But it does mean writing exams and marking them is around four times as much work as it used to be. Part of me says that’s a good thing – we need to pay more attention to how we assess students and we do want procedures to be fair. But part of me wonders whether, in making procedures more fixed and managerial, we may have lost some contact with what students expect of us.

Writing training courses is interesting, because the people I’ve been doing it for are treating it as an interactive process. They tell me what they want: I write it; they come back to me having seen their ideas shaped up, and with new ideas about how that’s changed their thinking. Yes, it means many revisions, but it’s almost a model for how this kind of work should happen.

Holidays – I’ve been away a couple of times, and each time it’s been something of a ‘workation’ since I’ve had the laptop, a dongle, email and internet access, etc.

As a freelancer, I like the idea that I can work on stuff wherever I am and remain in contact with the people I’m doing work for. I imagine if I’d been in a holiday villa somewhere it would have been a case of doing a couple of hours each day before or after cooking dinner on the barbecue or walking in the countryside or on a beach.

It was a bit more difficult than that, though, because we were travelling around in a campervan and meeting up with friends in different places. Most days, a chunk of each day was taken up driving, while some of the places we went to see, like the Eden Project, really do demand all your attention for the whole day. I got a lot of inspiration, made a lot of notes and took a bunch of pictures. What I wasn’t able to do, of course, was a whole lot of work.

Riots – there seems to have been quite a bit of rioting while we were away, though being in the countryside we didn’t exactly see a lot of it, except for some of the media coverage. When we got home, which is a small market town, it turned out someone had put out a Facebook call for a riot in the town (meet in the town centre an 1pm – the person sending the message clearly didn’t understand the dynamics of formenting riots!) and no one turned up. The really big news of the week was that a cow was reported to the fire brigade because it appeared to be stuck in a canal, but it freed itself and wandered off before the firemen turned up to rescue it.

Fiction – that’s what I haven’t been writing. But I will… once I’ve got the marking and the training materials out of the way. However, it did occur to me, as I was looking at some plants at the Eden Project, that the world turns on narrative: not just the stories we tell each other at night, but the stories businesses and governments try to frame about wealth, power and justifying exploitation, and the stories campaign groups use to counter them. And the same is happening now with the riots. It’s hardly an original thought, and actually it’s one I’ve used many times before both in my fiction and my academic work. But there’s a whole other blog, though, or possibly more than one, in the idea and how to apply it to some of the stuff I see going on at the moment. I’ll see what I can scrawl down in the coming days… when the marking’s done!


Makes a change from working at home

Because I work from home, I rarely get into the city centre. However I had a few in-town jobs to do, went for a coffee at Darkside and then, by the clock tower, came across this guy busking there, who turns out to be someone called Oded Kafri.

Whatever you think of the various Youtube segments embedded on his site I can assure you he’s many times more impressive live. As best I can tell he has a regular kit, plus some eccentric items like a large water bottle upturned on a stand, and an electronic kit that allows him to trigger a selection of bass, flute and other riffs and some special effects.

Hearing ten minutes of really cool drumming just made my day. I may be easily pleased but I thought it was worth sharing.

States of Independence

March 19, 2011 1 comment

Went to States of Independence today. This was an event with independent small presses, workshops, readings and the like. I wasn’t involved in any of the readings but thought I’d scope it out. There were three sessions I wanted to go to but as usual (for me anyway) they were all running at the same time. Oh well… I have the programme, I have the links to the other things I wanted to investigate and I can follow them up later.

I went to the Shortfuse readings, which this time were short stories and flash fiction (and a haiku) by people who’ve been in a recent creative writing workshop series. They were all good. I personally liked some more than others (unsurprising) but the surprising thing to me was that the pieces dealing with topics like old age and housework were the most interesting. Huh? Quality of writing or because I feel I’m getting old? Both, maybe.

Went round the fairly extensive display of stalls. Only bought one book – well, I have about a yard of books at home waiting to be read. The one that caught my attention and where I bought a history of the Vikings was run by the Masked Booksellers. They’re charmingly eccentric but with a serious point at the same time.

The Masked Booksellers perpetuate the work of Josiah Saithwaite, a small-time Manchester businessman of the late 1800s, also a non-conformist preacher and socialist who believed that everyone was entitled to education as a right. Among other activities he sold second-hand books cheaply to the working classes, on the basis that books were a means of self-improvement. His strategy was that “Working people need to take pride in the purchase of their personal libraries by their own efforts” while the profits from sales went to charitable causes.

The masks came about because Saithwaite’s belief was that doing good should not be a matter of personal aggrandisement, and hence should be done anonymously. Apparently – and I didn’t know this until today – there are still groups of Masked Booksellers up and down the country, and indeed in several other countries as well. The money they made at States of Independence was going to a charity dealing with the needs of refugees. So given my own principles how could I not buy something from them?

Good day all round, except I managed to miss someone I was going to meet there because I didn’t check my email first and figure out where I was supposed to meet them. But I did meet one of the Speculators there. I should go more often to the meetings, but they run at the same time as other stuff I’m involved in so I rarely get the chance. Looks like my relationship with the group will continue to be largely by email rather than in person. Such is life.

Fabrika, Leicester – Critical Mass

November 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Fabrika recently announced ‘Critical Mass’, an open submission exhibition and earlier in the week I dropped off four of Chris Cafferkey’s photos there. Earlier today we were in Leicester together and nipped in for a coffee, to discover they (and quite a few others, obviously) were in the process of being hung. Her pics are of course brilliant, though my pics of her pics, taken on my mobile phone, are rather lower quality…

Pics waiting to be hung

Someone else’s pic is at the back of the stack, behind the square ‘owl’ photo – no idea whose it is but it looked interesting.

Three flower pics

Three flower pics

Owl pic, still wrapped

Owl pic, still wrapped

Fabrika, outside

Fabrika, exterior

The pics should be up later today (Friday) and the exhibition runs, I think, until the end of next week.

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