Friday, 23 October 2009

The terribly sad story of not getting an Award...

You were delighted and grateful to be nominated for the Award and overjoyed to find yourself on the Best Personal (blog) category shortlist.

Then you start to ask yourself.
‘Why Best Personal category? Why not the Best Writing category?’
Because that’s how ridiculous and deluded you can be.

You are afraid to attend the Glittering Awards ceremony because you feel a fraud mixing with proper writers and also because you know you’ll be irrationally jealous of the (justly deserving) winners. Your friend prevails upon you.
‘If you’re going to submit yourself to scrutiny - you have to be prepared for rejection.’

And your youngest child indulgently pretends she'd like to attend with you; so you purchase Glittering Awards ceremony tickets.

You are virtual friends with some of the other shortlisted writers. Your virtual friends, the Nice Man and the Writer Who Will Win, are on the same shortlist as you. The Amusing Man and Prolific Short and Story Writer are on a different shortlist. Prior to the Glittering Awards ceremony you realise that other shortlisters are preparing readings for the evening. You’re not sure if it’s an axiom that shortlisters read and you’re the only one who isn’t aware of this protocol - but you’re afraid of ridicule and not brave enough to simply ask someone who will know.

You tentatively prepare several readings; a three-minuter, and five-minuter and a ten-minuter – just in case, like a little boy going to a important football match with his cleaned boots in a carrier bag.

Then you realise your behaviour is preposterous and you contact your virtual friend, the Nice Man, to see if he’s planning to read. He isn’t. And he isn’t sure how shortlisters know they are expected to read at the Glittering Awards or what the selection criteria are. You speculate that it might be writers on the Best Writing category shortlist who are asked to read. He suggests that your Best Personal (blog) category might be interpreted as a Best at ‘colouring-in without going over the lines’ category, and you both have a hearty virtual laugh over that.

On the day of the Glittering Awards you paint stuff on your nails (writer blood-red on your toes, nervous-neutral on your fingers); have a hairdo in a shop; put on a dress - with legging, because that's how edgy you writers can be.

You stash your the three readings in your big bag - just in case.

On the evening of the Glittering Awards you are sick with nerves. You down some Beechams Flu Plus Caplets because you feel a bit queer, and because you want to dull your anxiety.

The Amusing Man, the Prolific Short Story Writer and the Writer Who Will Win read their engaging and hilarious pieces.

At nine o’clock the Lady Who Has Worked So Hard to ensure all this happens takes her place on the stage to make the announcements. She says.
‘First I’ll read out the shortlist for each category.’
And your youngest child nods at you in excitement, her eyes saying.
‘This is your moment!’
You nod back, still more queasy with anxiety.
Then, the Lady Who Has Worked So Hard to ensure all this happens says.
‘Oh. I don't have a copy of the shortlisted nominations. I’ll go straight to announcing the winners and runners-up in each category.

And your moment has gone.

The Writer Who Will Win has won and the Amusing Man, the Prolific Short Story Writer and the Nice Man are all runners-up.

All your virtual friends get a mention and you fail.

On the walk back to the car park your youngest child gives you a cuddle because you look bereft. Your chest is full of tightly compressed tears but you can’t cry. Your youngest child doesn’t understand.
‘I don’t understand - why are you sadder about this than you are about sad things?’
And you can only reply with a rigid little shake of your head, because you don’t understand either.

During the drive home Michael Bubley, the affable Canadian popular singer, is treating Radio 2 listeners to an easy listening concert. This is galling but your hand is too sad to turn him off. Then Michael Bubley, the affable Canadian popular singer, starts to sing the song Home, and the tears start to roll down your face and there are even more of them than you thought and your youngest child is watching your face in the reflection of the rhythmic motorway lights and she doesn’t know what she can do to make it better.

And she can’t make it better can she? Because it’s all down to you. You have to stop thinking you’re a splendid scribe one moment and that you’re an insignificant incompetent the next moment. You need to grow a carapace and put more energy into what you actually write instead of worrying about what others think about you and what you write. Until you’ve done those things, you need to avoid Glittering Awards ceremonies; especially if you’ve been shortlisted.

This terribly sad sequence of events isn’t what happened to me; but it might have happened to someone like me if their personality were a charmless combination of misplaced confidence and hobbling insecurity.

Coincidentally, I didn’t win at the Manchester Blog Awards but these talented people did and I extend my super-congratulations to them. I also am very grateful to Kate Feld of Manchizzle who manifestly does work incredible hard to ensure that North West bloggers get such a fantastic event and such lovely acknowledgement for what they do.
There is a nice Guardian review of the Glittering Awards too.
Lost in Manchester
The Manchester Zedders
My Shitty Twenties
Cynical Ben
Words and Fixtures
Songs from Under the Floorboards
I thought I told you to wait in the car
Dave Hartley’s Weblog
Run Paint Run Run
The Manchester Hermit

This terribly sad sequence of events, written in the second person, didn’t happen to me but if I were ever called upon to cry to order - unlikely, I know – but if I’m offered a starring part in a weepy film say, or I find employment as a professional mourner, I know a tune that will set me off nicely.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Would we put another human person in a zoo?

When I believed in a God I looked forward to a time, after my death, when I could see the world as it was in the olden-times. Homo sapiens (modern humans, like us) are unusual because we’re the only living representatives of our taxon left. I wanted to witness an era when there were several human species alive all at the same time.

I had a fond hope that He (if He resembled anyone in my anticipatory imaginings He looks a bit like David Attenborough) would have a special screening room where I could watch the planet at any given point in history. With eternity to play with I’d happily watch all eons.
'Where's Kim?'
'In the screening room watching the Pre-Cambrian on fast-forward.'
'Oh yes.'
But to begin with I’d choose to view a time around 90,000 years ago. A time when modern humans were still mostly based in Africa, H erectus (go on, have a good laugh, get it out of the way… Are you done? Sure?) Right. Erectus lived in Indonesia, H neanderthalensis ruled Europe and the dwarf human species, H floresiensis occupied parts of East Asia.

I don’t believe in the supernatural anymore and it makes me sad to realise I’ll never see that scratchy video replay.

Floresiensis has been nicknamed The Hobbit. I will not refer to Floresiensis as The Hobbit. That is to trivialise the human who lived and breathed and made a living - and it’s not particularly fair on Bilbo either. That will be my last mention of The Hobbit in this post.

I recently attended a weekend conference on human evolution in Oxford. Here are some astonishing things I learned at the conference:

Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives; we share 99% of our DNA.

Chimps are as evolved as Sapiens but we've developed along separate trajectories for over five million years. Less than two million years of evolution separates Sapiens from Floresiensis and less than 700,000 years of evolution separates Sapiens and Neanderthalensis.

We are more closely related to chimps than a horse is to a zebra, and a horse and zebra can interbreed.

Neanderthals lived between 250,000 and 30,000 years ago. They were top predators and consummate hunters; more carnivorous than lions or hyenas. Neanderthals are our evolutionary cousins but definitely not our ancestors. They were a bit like us; they made complicated stone tools, cared for their sick and buried their dead. And they were a bit unlike us; in their anatomy and in their cognitive organisation - they had bigger brains than many modern humans but probably less elaborate powers of abstraction.

We (modern humans) evolved in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago; we were the first human species to colonise Australia - over 60,000 years ago. In human history Australia has never been visible from Indonesia and the journey to Australia always entailed a treacherous sea crossing. When we first set out on that peril filled trip we had no idea where we were going to end up (Indonesia is tectonically volatile and it may be that those first Australians made a choice between Vulcan and the deep blue).

We (modern humans) were established in Europe by 45,000 years ago.

The dwarf human species, Floresiensis, survived on the island of Flores until 18,000 years ago. Their ancestors were also competent seafarers.

And here is some sad stuff that those astonishing things made me think about:

The conference was about hominin evolution. From six million years ago until the extinction of Neanderthals 30,000 years ago. Most of the other people at the conference were thoughtful and clever; interested dilettantes like myself - keen to learn more. A few were Eurocentric xenophobes.

When, as happens a lot, someone tells me society is deteriorating I think about the enforced labour that buttressed great civilisations; Egypt, Greece; the Roman Empire. I think about Africans packed in slave ships and about exhausted Victorian seven year olds strapped to mill machinery, strapped to machinery - and I respond that we’ve been capable of the unthinkable for a long time, (yes, I am very popular on the Clapham Omnibus).

At the conference, I didn’t need to reflect on slave ships or seven year olds to wonder what we’re capable of doing to our closest relatives. I only had to sit in the lecture theatre and listen to queries from the floor. Questions raised by some of the delegates showed that they'd spectacularly missed the point of the whole event.

After one lecture an elderly lady with a very posh voice asked.
‘If modern humans arrived in Europe 45,000 years ago, why did they take so long to become civilised?’
I squirmed in my seat; embarrassed for her; embarrassed that she was airing her chauvinistic assumption - that sedentary classical culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

At university a lecturer told me it was impossible for him to understand or express the complexity of indigenous Australian tradition because it wasn’t a matter of merely describing a belief system or a material culture. It was impossible for him to describe Aboriginal systems because Australians don’t just do things differently from people with a western mindset, they think things differently too. He likened their cognition to an ability to think and see around corners.

During coffee, another posh lady assured me that, despite what we'd learned about genetic and anthropological evidence to the contrary, she still thought Australians were from far more primitive stock than Europeans.

Matthew Pope spoke about Neanderthal adaptations to Ice Age conditions. At the end of his lecture the lady in the seat next to mine puts her hand up. She’s a perfectly nice posh-spoken lady and we chatted amiably before the talk started. I smile and nod at her encouragingly as she makes to ask her question. I should know better…
‘Has anyone commented on the similarities between Eskimos and Neanderthals?’
What? What?! Because they can cope with inclement weather and they eat a lot of protein?
I swivel with my knees facing away from the lady, in a cowardly attempt to disassociate myself from her views. Matthew Pope is silent for a moment; dumbstruck I assume. My flattened hands are clamped between my knees; I hope beyond hope that no one will think I’m with this lady; think that she’s my friend, or my mother, or my sister.
Matthew clears his throat.
‘Eskimos - the Inuit - are modern humans.’
My knees are crushing my knuckles; my shoulders hunched, my eyes squeezed tight closed - and something is emitting a tiny high-pitch humming sound, I think it’s me.
‘Yes, but has anyone properly done any research…?’
Stop! You can't talk like...
I don’t know what else was said. I might have blacked out.

Another speaker, Chris Stringer, wondered aloud how we would behave if Floresiensis were alive today. He suspected, Badly, and I concur.

The small-brained humans were still going about their Flores-business 18,000 years ago; that’s yesterday in evolutionary terms. If I’d timed my birth and arranged my geography a bit better I could easily have met Floresiensis and not had to hang about for the post-mortem Betamax screening (I imagine Heaven to be like a green-painted church hall; to be a little bit old fashioned and a little bit out of step with the rest of… erm, the Cosmos).

And if Floresiensis had clung on in Indonesia for another few thousand years, what would have happened to them? If civilised Egyptians got hold of the little folk first they could’ve been set to work on the fiddly bits of pyramid construction, down those long shafts that were sealed after completion. Floresiensis would have slotted very nicely into plantation jobs and they’d have been just the right size for mill and mine duties. If eco-friendly Westerners found a colony of Floresiensis today, I think we'd put them in a conservation zoo along with our other closest living relatives. In an Indonesian enclosure maybe, with a concrete wave pool so they could keep their hand in, launching rafts (the posh conference ladies might be persuaded to donate funds for an Outback enclosure and an Arctic enclosure if approached).

This time last year I was doing The Poet’s poetry module. As my other reader knows, I never really got the hang of poetry but I did develop a taste for writing pantoums; I’m a bad finisher and with a pantoum if you’ve got your first line you got your final line. I wrote a pantoum about how it would feel to see another kind of human being. When I was small and very ill I was treated by an Indian doctor; that was the first time I’d ever seen anyone who wasn’t white and European; I wondered if it would feel like I felt when I saw him. I was concerned that a reader of the pantoum would consider my poem to be racist but the sentiments in the piece tie in with this post so I’ve (very tentatively) put that poem on my other blog, Another Human Being.

Ranty, blethery, blathery, rant. What on earth am I trying to say? I’m trying to say that I was shocked by the casual racism and I suppose, speciesism, shown by my sophisticated colleagues. That I don’t think civilisation is all that civilised. And that I worry about my own craven responses – in Oxford I was more concerned to disassociate myself from misguided posh ladies than I was to make an effort to change their views. I worry at the contradiction that I think it’s dubious to keep fellow creatures in captivity but that if there was a Floresiensis to see in a wild life park (see below) I’d be there with my camera, like a shot. I’m saying that if David Attenborough could organise for me to look into the eyes of another kind of human person before I die, I’d be very grateful. And I am saying that I tried to write a poem about similar thoughts this time last year.

The drawings are by James Fraser; thanks yet again, James. I saw some captive meerkats at the Bowland Wild Boar Park. I felt sad for them because they belong in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana - but they were lively and enchanting and I watched them for ages; they really do take turns at keeping watch.

The Bowland Wild Boar Park is great, by the way. A proper farm with no use for nancy gaffer tape or No More Nails (because baler-twine is the farm-mender stuff of choice for everything). This is my youngest grandson on the recycled oil-drum ride; yes he is being chased by the tractor – fabulous!

I usually end a blog post with a cohesive upbeaty quip but it seems out of place in this instance. My youngest grandson is seven; the same age as the exhausted Victorian mill workers I think about sometimes.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Heysham, Lemn Sissay & The Manchester Blog Awards (again)

I've cheated in my task of viewing the everyday for revelations of truth and beauty. That I'm a cheat is the first disclosure.

On a Sunday in September I travelled with my youngest child to register at university. After the queuing and form filling we drove to Heysham, an old village on the bottom corner of Morecambe Bay. The area is dominated by two advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactors; structures so implausibly big that they are almost certainly visible from everywhere on the planet.

We parked and walked for (about) half an hour and came to the ruins St Patrick’s where we photographed this group of rock-cut graves. The chapel was in use 1200 years ago; it seems very close to the water now but I suspect erosion has brought the sea a lot nearer.

St Patrick's Chapel

The two of us scrambled down to the beach and chanced on a man and a boy dabbling in a rock pool with a net. We chatted for a while. My youngest child has helped at an environmental centre and knows a bit about nature and stuff, and I like facts to be straight. The father was telling us the (incorrect) names for some of the tiny swimming things with great assurance but we didn’t contradict him. We tacitly agreed that it’s fine for that little boy to believe his super-dad is omniscient – at least for a little while longer.

I photographed this coastal rock formation because I believe it shows an unconformity; probably at least two unconformities. An unconformity is a buried erosion surface dividing two periods of deposition which may have been separated by millions and most probably billions of years. The underlying sedimentary rocks in the photograph are thinly-bedded siltstones, sandstones and mudstones which have been folded over by heat and tectonic activity deep underground. Over time those rocks have been exposed at the earth’s surface by a process of attrition. I think the top layer of sediments under the turf will have been deposited in relatively recent times, at the end of the last ice age, as little as 12000 years ago; virtually within living memory.

We had a go at skimming stones but the pebbles are mostly hearty chunks of Millstone Grit and not very bouncy. But then, I would say that.

'They're the wrong sort of stones...'

'Yes Mum, that'll be what the problem is...'

On the way back to the car we visited the most peculiar shop. The lady sews dog coats and peg bags on a machine, on the counter. There are the oddest assortment of things for sale; used buttons, medals and improbable jewellery and CDs that come free with the Mail on Sunday. I was tempted to ask for a packet of pea-flavoured crisps, just on the off-chance. I’m only sorry I didn’t think to photograph her emporium.

A perfect day; my youngest child going to learn more stuff, a deity dad, 1200 year old rock-cut graves, 12000 year old glacial deposits, sediments so old and folded it hurts my eyes to think about them – and a curious shop.

This piece of writing first appeared at The Culture Cheese and Pineapple an arts discussion blog I've recently joined . The remit was to leave the house, walk for about an hour in an unfamiliar direction, take pictures and notice things. Apparently, it is based on the idea of le quotidien; that the everyday can reveal truth and beauty.

As observed, what it initially revealed is my tendency to bilk. But I was pleased with the result. I'm always trying to be as candid as I can but somehow this writing seems more gentle and honest than my usual stuff, Maybe it's because I'm not striving so hard to try to be funny or clever. I'm more calm.

A friend sent me this link to Global Poetry System an idea that began with Lemn Sissay. Poetry isn't quite my thing. I've only really written one poem; and that was an accident, but I love the idea of poetry revealed in the everyday - along with truth and beauty.

As I've repeated to death,
I'm on the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards shortlist. My youngest child will attend The Event with me; even though I've warned her I'm likely to collapse in grief, beating my fists on the carpet and wailing,
'It's not fair! You've let talented people in!' when I don't win.
I'm not sure she believes me...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Manchester Blog Awards shortlist

For anyone who was visiting Mars yesterday: I'm on the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards shortlist
This has made me very, very happy.

I'm glad that some of the blogs I read regularly are also shorlisted:
Cynical Ben
Forgetting the Time
My Shitty Twenties (twice!)
Dave Hartley’s Weblog
I thought I told you to wait in the car
Big city, little girl

Congratulations everyone!

Thank you to my other reader for nominating me. Thank you to the shortlisters.

This is a photograph of me not being able to skim stones because they are the wrong sort of rock (Millstone Grit). But fate will have to work harder than that to get me down today; I'm on a shortlist and when I've stopped messing I'm going to get ready to travel to Oxford to attend a Continuing Education weekend course called Neaderthals in the 21st Century. It's my birthday and Christmas presents until forever - and that's fine.