Sunday, 26 February 2012

Hop hop

I realised the other day that this blog has been terribly serious and hair-shirt lately. So here's a picture of a bunny rabbit in a tank top.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Great political writers of yesteryear: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) Writer, reformer, activist, radical

Charles Dickens enjoyed the sort of success in his own lifetime that would be the envy of many writers. Beginning his writing career at the age of 15 as a parliamentary reporter, Dickens went on to write social commentaries and serialised fictions that were hugely popular in his own lifetime. His works are still loved today, and seem to constantly be getting adapted for the telly.

Dickens' works are built upon themes of poverty and injustice. He grew up in a Britain where there was no welfare state, where orphans and the poor were sent to the workhouse to break rocks and unravel rope. Crime and illness were rife in the London slums; cholera and pickpocketing rocketed through the overcrowded housing like wildfire. As a young child, and even throughout adulthood, Dickens was given to wandering the streets of London at dawn, observing the lives that his contemporaries led.

The Dickens family fell upon hard times during Charles' childhood. His father, who was later portrayed as Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, had a period of struggling for work. The financial difficulties of the family saw Dickens' father and younger siblings being sent off to the debtors' prison at Marshalsea. The episode put an abrupt end to Charles' education. He was taken out of school and put to work in a bottling factory. That his schooling should come to such a sudden end left indelible marks on Dickens' character, and perhaps contributed to his wish to portray the plight of the poor to the chattering classes: he never forgot it. " early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learns, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me." He was later to use this experience to portray the hopeless situation of orphans Pip, in Great Expectations, and Oliver, in Oliver Twist.

Throughout life Dickens retained his strong social conscience. It informed his work from the popular 'London Sketches', short columns which he wrote for the paper as a young journalist, to his great novels. His work as a parliamentary reporter gave him access to knowledge about the terrible conditions in which child labourers worked, and he was also very aware of the plight of 'fallen women'. Despite the considerable commercial and critical success of his novels, Dickens never stopped with his political and activist work. He devoted considerable energy to setting up and running a rehabilitative home for women who had fallen into prostitution and petty crime, and was involved heavily in its running for at least ten years; and spent a couple of years donating anonymous articles to the radical newspaper The Examiner.

Two of his works were conceived with the express purpose of awakening peoples' awareness to the difficulties of the poor. A Christmas Carol, for which he had the idea in October 1843, was directly aimed at encouraging its readers to practical benevolence. Despite being less than two months from conception to publishing, the book was a massive critical and commercial success. Oliver Twist (1838), which begins with the birth of an illegitimate child to a woman who dies in childbirth, was written to awaken its readers to the realities of life for orphaned children, who lived their lives at the mercy of parish councils and workhouses. Unlike children with parents, there was little prospect of an orphaned child ever improving his lot through education (which had to be paid for), or through being indentured to an apprenticeship (which called for respectability and connections).

In later life Dickens appears to have devoted his work increasingly to political change. Little Dorrit and Bleak House both satirise social injustice and the irresponsibility which pervaded most of Britain's national life at the time; and Hard Times was a topical tome about profiteering: "My satire is against those who see figures and averages and nothing else - the representatives of the wickedest and most enormous vice of this time".

Most of all, though, Dickens' work was concerned with the little man: the guy who was poor & unlucky; the orphans who were born into hardship and cruelty; the families whose poor luck in work condemned them to the debtors' prison or the workhouse. "His goods are distrained, his children are crying with cold and hunger, and the very bed on which his sick wife is lying, is dragged from beneath her. What can he do? To whom is he to apply for relief?"

Currently reading

The Heart of the Matter Graham Greene

Saturday, 11 February 2012

DIY: Protection Racket

Image by The Print Project

Today I had an interesting conversation with a couple of friends about DIY - and not the sort that involves drill-bits and rawl plugs. It got me thinking about the DIY nature of Fictions of Every Kind. When Sam & I started Fictions of Every Kind in September 2010, I don't think it occurred to either of us to try and run it in anything other than a 100% DIY way.

"Do It Yourself" culture is hot these days. Everybody wants a bit of it, from bloody-minded diehards like me, to big business. A lot of people seeking careers in creative industries like to misuse the DIY label as a means of getting a 'foot on the ladder' upwards into their chosen career, whatever that might be. It's a much-overused and frequently misused term, and I'm not here to try and write the rule-book on what it is and isn't. All I can tell you is what first interested me in DIY, and why I think it's important.

Back in the late 90s, there was a very active emotional hardcore & punk scene in Leeds. Much of it centred around the LS6 area, where there were a lot of interesting bands. The scene was lively and diverse: gigs in basements and living rooms, sold-out all-dayers in 300-capacity rooms in Joseph's Well, as well as 3 or 4 busy gigs a week in tiny upstairs rooms in The Packhorse. There was always something to do, and you could lose a couple of decibels of your hearing every night of the week in one place or another.

What was really interesting about a lot of these gigs was the way they were organised. They were never run for profit. Promoters put shows together because they wanted to see the bands; they wanted to bring a band from Europe or the US, and they'd bring them to Leeds as part of a tour, pairing them with local bands. The bands weren't trying to make their living from it - they would usually be happy to get their petrol money, and an even split of the door take. The promoter usually took nothing, and nobody went home feeling aggrieved that they'd been ripped off.

Neither were the gigs arranged for career gain. Many of the bands (though not all) were committed to the DIY ethic of putting out their own records, organising their own tours, and of staying firmly in the underground. The reason a lot of bands did this is because staying DIY allowed them to play whatever music they liked. It meant they could work towards making their own sound without worrying about whether it would 'sell', and in the process be truly in control of what they did. It allowed bands to create the sort of innovative music that could never possibly have existed under the corporate interference of a major record label.

The atmosphere at these gigs was often very different from that at mainstream gigs. There was often a feeling that everyone had a 'stake' in the night; the audience were as important at the night as were the bands. It made everyone feel included. Put simply, DIY at those gigs meant doing something for love, not money; for fun, not career. It meant inclusion and community.

The ethics Sam & I learned in those late-90s days in the basements of LS6 are the ones we carried over into the way we organise Fictions of Every Kind. We do it because we care about it, and we will always try to organise our nights in a fair way. We are:

Not for profit Everyone who organises Fictions of Every Kind - myself, Mason, and Ian (no longer Sam, sadly, as he's moved away to London) is a volunteer. We don't make money from it, and we don't ever intend to.

Not careerist Everybody involved in the organising party is a writer. We started the night because we know how lonely it can be, and we wanted to give writers the chance to socialise. Literary events aren't always organised by writers - many are organised by 'arts professionals', whose job it is to organise 'arts events'. We run Fictions of Every Kind because we love it and because we care about it; we don't do it because it's 'part of our job', and it's not intended as a stepping stone to greater things for any of us.

Affordable and for the benefit of the community We keep our costs low by seeking out affordable venue hire, and by not selling tickets. Where there's a door charge, people pay on the door. When we do have fliers and posters, they're photocopied or letterpressed as they're needed. We keep our door prices low because we want Fictions of Every Kind to be accessible. Sometimes we do have to charge on the door, and when we do charge it is always either to pay for the cost of venue hire, or to pay the invited speakers or sound engineer.

Inclusive and fun Dammit, we started this because we were fed up of having nobody to talk to about our work, and we were sure that there were writers all over the city who felt the same way. We don't want our invited speakers to be a bunch of middle-class, overly-educated white guys, because life isn't all about middle-class, overly-educated white guys, and we don't want to perpetuate the idea that it is. In fact, we're almost aggressively inclusive. We want you to feel at home. We're the anti-clique.

Being DIY is integral to Fictions of Every Kind. It means that we can operate in a way that we think is fair and ethical, and be completely non-corporately driven. We always strive to put on good, entertaining nights, and do our best to treat everybody well. If you clicky this link here, it'll take you to a nut-and-bolts blog post on how we organise things. (You're welcome).

Thanks for reading, and I'll meet you over by the self-tapping screws in B & Q.

Currently reading

All Quiet on the Orient Express Magnus Mills

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Leeds Print Festival 2012

Last week, myself and Nick - collectively The Print Project - did 'some stuff' for the Leeds Print Festival 2012. Nick had worked really hard letterpressing their invites and talk tickets, and we had prepared some live printing demos for the opening on Friday night, as well as a stall for the fair on the Saturday.

It was an excellent weekend and our thanks must go to Amber and Aran for organising the whole thing. It was a really intelligently programmed weekend, and the exhibits and stalls all were superb.

Those of you who couldn't make it might be interested to see the pics in the Storify collection I curated below. The pics and links are from various twitters, instagram accounts and wordpress accounts. Enjoy!