Friday, 23 April 2010

"Happy St. George's Day."


“Of England, of the complex and almost infinite England, of that torn and lateral island that rules continents and seas, I will not risk a definition; it is enough to recall that it is perhaps the only country that is not fascinated with itself, that does not believe itself to be Paradise or Utopia. I think of England as one thinks of a loved one, as something unique and irreplaceable.”
-         Jorge Luis Borges, 1945.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

"Hence, 421."


My new story is published today in Perigee: Publication for the Arts. It’s titled Foreword to Volume 421. The story is a meta-fictional narrative which is supposed to be the foreword of the 421st volume in a series.
I originally wrote this story for a short fiction competition in The Guardian back in August. They didn’t accept it and so I sent it elsewhere. This was an interesting example of being forced to write a story: I wanted to enter the competition but hadn’t written anything approximately 2000 words long. I’d just finished Last Orders which is 4100 words and I didn’t feel like going back to it to make such a drastic edit so I needed to come up with something new. The story grew out of the idea of a chair which makes whoever sits in it write compulsively. I couldn’t make it work – the story kept getting stuck in a clichéd antiques shop where the protagonist finds the chair – so it evolved into a book which makes whoever reads it continue to write its story. This raised the question ‘what if the book fell into multiple hands’ and I got the idea of the collaborative universe of a single story and its potentially infinite narrative threads (very much like Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths). That latter idea I actually found far more interesting than the idea of the ‘magic book’ but with the competition deadline looming, I just forced the two concepts together.
The numbers of the volumes are entirely arbitrary – except for the title which was originally Volume 423 until I decided it might be more significant to make it a prime number.

Friday, 16 April 2010

"I agree with Nick."


Last night’s First Election Debate on ITV1 ensured that the upcoming General Election is no longer a two-horse race. Nick Clegg rose above the petty rivalries of Cameron and Brown to come off as a fresh alternative to blue-red government. He also had the advantage of sounding like the only man not reading off a script. Overall he was thoroughly telegenic and managed to communicate the Liberal Democrats’ sensible policies effectively to an audience who may not have been familiar with them.
It’s no secret that I will be voting for the Liberal Democrats on May the 6th. The Lib Dems’ policies are more logical than the other two parties, the party isn’t in the pocket of big businesses, Vince Cable is by far the best economist out of the three potential Chancellors, and now they’ve proven that their party leader can engage people on a real human level. They’re not perfect: their manifesto has no mention of higher education (a topic important to me) and I had to agree with Cameron about the unenforceability of regionalised immigration.
Can the Liberal Democrats win? Will we hear the familiar refrain: “I’d vote Liberal Democrat but there’s no way they’d win.” This frequently-used argument betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the election process. In an election, you vote for who you believe in, not who you think is going to win. Voting is not betting. The idea that a minority vote is a wasted vote is absurd and demonstrates people’s preference for being factually correct rather than morally correct. Bowing to majority pressure and the fatalism of accepting what you believe cannot be changed is – in an existentialist sense – inauthentic.
“Certainly, many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is going; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception.” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, 1946.
On May 6th, do what you believe is right. Even if nobody agrees with you. Even if I don’t agree with you. Vote for who you think should win not who you think will win.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

"When I started, I was but the learner. Now I have the Masters. Almost"


My Masters course is almost over. Formal teaching has ended and when term starts again, we hand in our last four pieces of assessed coursework – a presentation about adult reading; a report on national policy affecting academic libraries; a Greenstone digital library; and a research proposal for the Masters dissertation due in at the end of September.
On balance, I’d rate the course as resoundingly positive. If anything, it was enhanced by the fact that I decided to do it on a whim: deciding law school was a sucky choice and rearranging my whole career path only a month before the course started. It meant that I felt lucky to be there – after applying and being accepted so late – and so was able to appreciate every moment. I know some people had worked in libraries before and were accordingly more cynical than me about the Masters. What is gained in experience is lost in enthusiasm: a fair compromise?
An important benefit is the knowledge and skills I’ve learnt particularly since I had very little experience in the information world. I’ve gained some practical professional skills – cataloguing, coding, communicating – , some theoretical knowledge of librarianship’s foundations, and knowledge of the resources open to librarians and information professionals – CILIP, JISC, MLA Council, e-resources like UlrichsWeb, etc. This knowledge and by extension the course opens the door to various professional opportunities including the numerous part-time jobs that I’ve now taken on.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the last seven months have been perfect: there’s no perfection to be found in this world. We often spent time in the pub griping about the teaching, the resources, the faculty, and the organisation. As Course Rep, I heard every problem everyone had with the course and then sheepishly presented those concerns at faculty meetings. Major issues included the mismatched standards of teaching, structure of certain modules, and a general lack of communication from the department which meant that proactive students gained an unfair information advantage over long-distance students or students lacking confidence/enthusiasm.
For me, these gripes are outweighed by the biggest benefit of the course: the people. It was a running joke that the lecturers kept telling us to ‘network’ as if we were supposed to socialise out of some cynical motive for self-advantage. But it’s true that the people I’ve met over the past few months will probably end up having a larger effect on me than all the resources the university could muster. I’ve discovered people more akin to me than any other group of people I’ve ever met: people who like reading, who engage in writing, who compulsively organise and classify, who drop obscure references into conversation, who embrace Web 2.0. This includes faculty, professional librarians, work colleagues, visiting speakers, and most importantly my student colleagues. As I’ve mentioned before, the library community is one of the most accepting and interesting communities I’ve been part of – the information community play a large role in my recent conversion to Twitter after lambasting it for so long.
If anyone is unsure about taking a vocational Masters course or otherwise advancing their career in librarianship, I would advise them to jump off that fence and go for it. CILIP Library and Information Update had a supplement in the Jan-Feb issue giving details of Masters courses in information science across the country and there are literally hundreds of library blogs for moral support and guidance. In my experience, you get out of higher education what you put into it. So start applying and then throw yourself into the course with everything you have.

Friday, 9 April 2010

"Somewhere in between Porridge and The Wire."


Working in a prison library is an interesting experience. I’ve worked in public libraries and in academic libraries and I’d have to say that, for me, prison library work is the toughest I’ve done so far. The environment is certainly a unique one and though I’m happy to have experienced it, it isn’t the sector that I intend to devote a career to.
A prison is a closed community and as such the library takes on a unique role. Prisons are about as close as one can get to a closed system of human society: the prisoners occupy separate houses, have separate social groups, and are relatively self-sustaining within that environment. I was particularly interested to learn that prisoners cook their own group meals: I previously imagined the prison canteen of The Shawshank Redemption or a metal plate thrown into a cell like The Count of Monte Cristo. So the prisoners interact as if the prison is a small community like a village. The library thus takes on a central role – a community hub where prisoners from different houses can freely congregate to socialise, educate, or entertain themselves. The prison library plays the role of community centre much like the role of public libraries a few decades ago (a role now arguably taken by the Internet but that’s a post for another time). Devoid of individual external comforts and entertainment mechanisms, prisoners turn to the values of community that were so important to our forebears.
Working in the prison library was therefore comparable to working in a particularly busy public library. There was a lot of zipping through the computer system, putting the right things in the right places, and chatting with (occasionally moody) customers. During my work, I had a pervading feeling of intruding on a community. The prisoners all knew one another and it was in fact the prisoner orderlies who did most of the work: I merely supervised and chipped in to help. The orderlies knew everything, joked with everyone, recommended books, and could easily run the library on their own.
My interaction with the orderlies was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the work. They were wonderful people: friendly and cheerful. But all the while, I could hear a nagging voice in my mind wondering what they’d done; why they were here and not outside running a small public library.
One of the more fascinating social quirks of the prison was the idea of tabula rasa. Unlike in movies where “What are you in for?” is the first question the prison-sentenced hero is asked, in a real prison offences committed on the outside are unimportant. Like in Lost where the character’s pasts aren’t important on the island; where the island gives everyone chance for a fresh start. Unless someone makes it an issue, outside offences are ignored and even avoided in discussion. It’s as if what happened on the outside is incidental; as if by pretending that their community isn’t based on legally enforced punishment, the prisoners thereby make themselves freer – if only in their own minds. Who can say that any one of us wouldn’t choose denial over despair?
So the enduring question from interacting with the orderlies – people just like you or me – was ‘What separates me from them?’ Did they make bad choices or did they get pushed down a path to destruction? Why do I get to come home at night and write my thoughts on the Internet when they have to stay behind the imposing metal gates of Her Majesty’s Prison Service? If I had been in their position, where would I be now?

Thursday, 1 April 2010

"Two tall tales."


I’ve currently got two short stories published and floating around in the literary domain.
The first is entitled Last Orders and is available in First Edition Magazine. It will soon be in print and in the shops but until then it is available here in electronic form – for a limited time, it’s only £1. I’ve blogged about the origins of this one before.
The second is entitled Eduard Aster and the Möbius Play and is available in blankpages issue 21. This story stemmed from a single sentence idea that came into my head: 'writer finds review of piece he/she hasn’t written yet'. The idea of making him a playwright came from watching Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. The added complexity of the story and the layers of other characters came while I was writing it. The style is intentionally metafictional inspired in part by the academic-criticism-style of House of Leaves. Reading it back, the story seems overly pretentious: too many references to Greek theology and esoteric literature; the whole butterfly metaphor seems confused and underdeveloped; I can't fathom why I didn't think 'Edward' was a suitable name. Worse still, it’s very similar in content to Borges’ story An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain. I do like the style of it but my favourite thing about it is the way blankpages have presented it.
Hope you enjoy them. I’m very glad to have them in print.