Have you texted any good novels recently?


The modern art of conversation!

The modern art of conversation!

I was standing on Birmingham’s New Street station a couple of days ago on my way home from a teaching session with research colleagues at the University in that city. I have to say that the platforms at New Street are about as dingy and uninspiring as those of any railway station I have experienced anywhere in the world. I enjoy travelling by train; it usually provides an opportunity to catch up with reading or marking, and generally makes few demands upon the traveller. However, this journey was a little frustrating as the only announcements being made were informing passengers of delayed trains and late arrivals and departures.

As I stood on the crowded platform I became aware that my behaviour probably stood out from almost everyone around me. It did so not because of what I was doing, simply standing patiently in anticipation that I might, with any luck get home before dark, but rather for what I was not doing. As I looked around me I noticed that the six individuals in closest proximity were all engaged in sending messages over their mobile phones. So this, I thought, is what we mean by the digital age; an era in which our digits are used for communication more often than our voices.

Of course, I too send text messages via a mobile phone, but after ten minutes or more had elapsed I was surprised to note that, with still no sign of the much anticipated train, all but one of my fellow passengers was still busily tapping the tiny key board and seemingly oblivious to their immediate surroundings. Perhaps, I speculated, this is the way in which students write their essays today; maybe one of these highly focused individuals is writing a novel or some major work of history or philosophy. Can it be that the great magnum opus will in future be written on a mobile phone? Would it possibly necessitate major surgery to separate these individuals from their phones? These thoughts, I reflected are probably the result of two conditions, the first the effects of a simple ennui brought upon from this unappreciated period of waiting in the bowels of the world’s worst railway station, and the second could well be a Luddite tendency possibly related to my age!

At last the train arrived and slumping wearily, but with some relief into a seat I removed a book (an old fashioned object constructed from paper and board containing sheaves of paper called pages filled with text) from my bag, and settled down to enjoy forty five minutes of reading. Taking her seat beside me, a young lady still connected as if by an umbilicus to her smart phone, continued to exercise her fingers deftly across a tiny screen, a dextrous act that she maintained even whilst leaving the train twenty five minutes later in Coventry. Looking around the carriage I noted that her performance was mirrored with commendable concentration by several other passengers, whilst others listened through headphones, presumably to music or possibly stories, again through their phones, and others switched on electronic tablets to play games or even watch movies.

But then I spotted something reassuring. Having begun to think that I had become an endangered species, possibly at risk of attracting the attention of a passing anthropologist, or even David Attenborough in search of a new epic television programme opportunity, there sat quietly across the corridor of the train I noted was a young lady, possibly sixteen years old, certainly no more than eighteen with her gaze fixed intently upon the pages of a book. My curiosity was immediately raised, could this be the last of the dinosaurs or possibly the missing link? What could it be about this ancient technology that held her concentration so fixedly? My curiosity was soon followed by a feeling of unalloyed joy as she turned a page revealing the cover of her book. Women in Love, a D.H. Lawrence classic no less, I wanted to shout for joy, but being British and reserved restrained myself from so doing and returned to my own text with renewed enthusiasm, and an assured feeling that all was well with the world.

Just in case you may be thinking by now that I am resisting entry into the twenty first century, I will confess that I too occasionally listen to music from my phone. Furthermore, when travelling long distances, particularly by bicycle, I often make use of a digital reading device and celebrate the convenience that this brings (not actually whilst riding of course – but usually seated beside a tent in the evening!) And yes, you can download a copy of Women in Love, along with countless other Lawrence novels onto this wonderful machine at a very reasonable price, I’ve just checked. But I still think that from time to time when standing on a railway platform as uninspiring as that in Birmingham, it can be a pleasant, if somewhat arcane experience to engage in conversation with a fellow traveller. And whilst acknowledging the undoubted virtues  of the digital reader, there is something comfortably reassuring about the feel, the weight and even the smell of a good old fashioned book!

Two wheels good!

Well laden bicycles are a common feature on the roads of many countries. But in some they are put to educational use.

Well laden bicycles are a common feature on the roads of many countries. But in some they are put to educational use.

As someone who is a keen cyclist, I am seldom surprised when I hear of the accomplishments that can be achieved by individuals riding on two wheels. However, when these achievements impact positively upon the educational experiences of children I am always pleased to read reports from the press or hear about these from colleagues.

I recall a couple of years ago hearing an interesting presentation given by two members of the academic staff from the Faculty of Education at the University of West of England in Bristol, at which they described the support provided in the development of a library in rural Zimbabwe. Through various donations and fund raising events, these colleagues have regularly sent shipments of books to the country where volunteers have catalogued them and organised a library for the benefit of local people. Amongst the thousands of volumes that have crossed from the UK to Africa are many children’s books that are being used by both schools and individual children.

There is a challenge in rural Zimbabwe with regards to accessing a library, so this intrepid team have come up with an innovative solution. By providing a bicycle and panniers to the library, they have ensured that books can be delivered on a regular basis to outlying schools. A volunteer simply loads the panniers with books requested by children or schools, cycles to the venue and exchanges these for those delivered on a previous occasion. The schools and children get their books, the library has satisfied customers, the volunteer gets some exercise and everyone benefits. What could be better?

I was reminded of this situation by an article in this week’s Times Educational Supplement written by Adi Bloom. This describes how a project managed by the Agastya Education Foundation is supporting government schools in eight Indian States. Fifty nine motorcycles have been equipped with mobile laboratories containing science experiments which teachers can use with their pupils. These motorcycles, ridden by skilled pilots are able to weave their way along tracks and rough roads to ensure that science is delivered to the doors of schools where facilities are generally very poor. This superb initiative has been shortlisted for a prize from the World Innovation Summit for Education. I hope that we may hear more about their successes in the coming months.

Both of these projects demonstrate the determination that individuals have, to ensure that children who live in difficult circumstances or remote locations gain access to meaningful education. Such schemes require co-ordination and dedication, but above all they are dependent upon individuals with imagination and the drive to start projects that may at first appear unusual. Without such people there would still be children in Zimbabwe with very little access to books, and others in India unable to conduct the kind of experiments that may enthuse the next generation of scientists.

The next time  I am on my bicycle pedalling around the lanes of Northamptonshire, I will think of those committed librarians who are delivering knowledge and enthusiasm to children in remote schools. I have never had a two wheeled vehicle powered by an engine, far preferring to use my own legs to propel me forwards (even if rather slowly these days!)but I will similarly reflect upon the potential for scientific development in rural India being supported through the Agastya Education Foundation. Children are being included in learning as a result of the actions taken in these two countries. Those creative individuals who have developed these schemes provide a lesson to all of us by demonstrating that many obstacles can be overcome with determination and in these instances – the help of two wheels!


Who decides what you should know?


Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

The well respected Pakistan newspaper Dawn reports that yesterday the blogging platform WordPress was blocked (23rd March 2015), and those who wished to either publish their own words, or to read those of others posted on blogs, were thwarted in their efforts. The same newspaper has previously commented (February 8th 2015), on the fact that the media channel YouTube remains inaccessible within the country. A spokesman for the Pakistani government has suggested that there is content on the media channel that may be seen as either blasphemous or in other ways offensive, and that the people of Pakistan need protection from such material. I am aware from friends and students that similar restrictions exist in China and in several other parts of the world, and that this is a particular source of frustration to those who have spent time in the west, and have found such media to be a useful source of debate and information.

It is probably true to say that the use of media channels such as YouTube requires a certain amount of discrimination on the part of the user. There is (in my opinion) an awful lot of material available on these outlets that is insignificant, trivial and in some instances offensive, but should this necessarily be made unavailable. I suspect that my interpretation of triviality may be someone else’s notion of high culture, and why should my opinion be any more valid than theirs?

As is often the case with newspaper items, some of the comments posted in response to an article are almost as interesting as the original (no disrespect intended to the unnamed journalist who posted this particular piece in Dawn). In response to the article on WordPress censorship, one correspondent replied:-

By blocking WordPress and YouTube the govt. has deprived its citizens of knowledge, of education, of a basic right the constitution of Pakistan gives us.

This commentator makes a valid point. When used appropriately both WordPress (which is incidentally the platform upon which this blog is based) and YouTube can act as useful educational tools. I have on several occasions used film from YouTube for teaching purposes both here in the UK, and when teaching in other parts of the world. Similarly, I have posted items on this blog with the specific intent of enabling students to continue debating issues discussed in class, and know that others have used it for the same purpose. Does this therefore mean that there should be no censorship of materials posted on the internet?

This is far from a straightforward matter. Censorship when appropriately applied is designed to protect those who are potentially vulnerable or suggestible from potentially harmful influences. The British Board of Film Classification was established in 1912 as an independent body to classify films and give them a rating of suitability to a broad range of audiences. There is a general consensus that this organisation does a good job in ensuring that materials that are unsuitable for children, are classified in such a way that parents are aware, and cinemas restrict access to young viewers. Similarly, most computer systems have safety mechanisms whereby parents and schools can inhibit access to programmes and materials that may be deemed unstable for children. The notion of protecting the young and vulnerable is certainly one with which I have no problem.

The blanket censoring of WordPress and YouTube is a different matter. Those who have made decisions to restrict the availability of these media outlets have not been discriminating in terms of protecting the young and vulnerable, but have rather made a decision that nobody should have access. This surely conveys a message that the censors do not feel that the general populous has either the ability or the right to make up their own minds. Adults are being treated as children, and regarded as incapable of making informed decisions.

I have no difficulty with control that is designed to protect the individual. It is a good idea to enforce laws that mean for example, that in England everybody must drive on the left hand side of the road, or to ensure that alcohol is not sold to children. These are laws with good intent and a deal of common sense. However, I am unsure about who the censorship of media outlets is designed to protect. It seems to me that most adults are quite capable of policing the media for themselves. If an item comes on to the television that I dislike I can change channels or switch off the set. If I disagree with the sentiments or political association of a newspaper or magazine, I choose not to purchase them.

The students with whom I work are intelligent and discriminating individuals. In my experience they make good use of media such as WordPress and YouTube as yet another source of information to be used alongside the other, more traditional sources such as books and academic journals. But maybe here is the nub of the issue. Censorship is not about the platform upon which information is conveyed, but about the power of the messages that may be contained within. After all, throughout history that wonderful, though relatively low tech product the book, has been subjected to censorship or outright banning in many countries, including my own.

I do hope that my friends in Pakistan may have an opportunity to share these thoughts today.


Ulysses  by James Joyce, published in France in 1922, banned in UK and USA until 1930s

Doctor Zhivago  by Boris Pasternak, banned in Russia until 1988

The Diary of Anne Frank  by Anne Frank, remains banned in Lebanon

Lolita  by Vladimir Nabikov, published in 1955 then banned in UK until 1959

Wild Swans by Jung Chang, remains banned in China

A bibliographic dilemma shelved!

Christopher Hitchens - I never knew you could bring me such relief!

Christopher Hitchens – I never dreamed you could bring me such relief!

Newspapers in England used to refer to this, with some justification, as the silly season. Parliament is in recess, the schools have begun their summer holidays, the sun is shining and the “British public” have fled to the beaches for the annual ritual of pretence that a dip in the cold and murky North Sea on the Norfolk coast, can be likened to frolicking in the Mediterranean. The spirit is one of holiday optimism and I love it. Before long I too will be enjoying a break away from the oppression of e-mails and meetings, freed from a desk and indulging in those leisurely pastimes that I look forward to all year, but recognise as an artificial interlude in the realities of earning a daily living. Yes, the British holiday with its familiarity and orderliness gives us a brief respite, during which it is possible to become immersed in the self-delusion that life could be for ever strawberries and clotted cream.

There is, however, a slightly sinister aspect of the summer break that has troubled me over many years. Whilst others make New Year’s resolutions I always find myself, in the run up to August, making false promises of tasks to be achieved at home whilst away from the university.  For the past couple of years the same impending mission has occupied my mind and has left me with the merest soupcon of personal reproach as I have returned to my work after a couple of weeks of self-indulgence and a failure to accomplish my assignment. But early this morning my mind was eased and I now feel that I can spend a couple of weeks guilt free in the knowledge that I am not alone in my failures.

This Damascene moment came to me from the most unexpected quarter, when having woken early I was enjoying a quiet half hour reading in bed prior to rising for another working day. (Why is it incidentally that as I get older I seem to wake ever earlier?). When I say that relief from my annual summer anxiety came from an unexpected source, I suppose I should not really have been surprised, because my reading this morning involved what I always like to think of as a silent conversation with a writer who has at once the ability to amuse, infuriate, challenge and both confirm and deny my interpretation of the world. The late Christopher Hitchens, man of letters, humanist, scourge of the media, debunker of cant and thoughtful contrarian viewed the world both on a wide screen and through the lens of a microscope. I find myself agreeing with much of what he says and feeling offended by his opinionated arguments in equal measure, which is probably an indication of his genius as an essayist and social commentator.  Yet, never before today has he brought me much relief.

In order to understand the nature of this experience I must return to my afore-mentioned annual mission and its predestined anticipated failure. We live in a house full of books and I would have it no other way. Some visitors (often those who never return actually) suggest that there are too many books. Why, they ask, don’t you have a cull and take some to a local charity shop? After all this would make so much more room in the house. My response is usually brief, some may even say curt or brusque. Would you expel your brother or your best friend from your home? These books are after all, not merely pages between covers, nor are they simply the tools of my trade – though I know I could not make my living without them. Each volume, even that which may be oft neglected and shelved barely within reach, is a respected and much needed friend. Many have been lovingly caressed, some bear a beautiful patina of age and others a distinctive fusty smell acquired from others on the shelves of a second hand bookshop, where they sat long neglected, until I arrived to rescue them and give them a caring home. Many have been with me since my youth and some purchased in far off places during my travels. The very thought that I could now release a single volume to a distant source where it might suffer the potential abuse of dog-eared pages, scrawlings in margins, or heaven forbid, that most heinous crime of the folded back spine, makes me shiver and could give me sleepless nights!

I do accept that having  thousands of books around the house does require occasional management and this brings me back to the annual, never to be achieved summer challenge. As May gives way to June each year and then June fades to July my thoughts turn  to a master plan involving a re-arrangement of the shelves. The noble mission of bringing a certain order to what is seen by the casual observer as a degree of chaos takes over, and I invariably begin the mental gymnastics of considering how a realignment of  tomes might be achieved. When I say that this has been the fruitless agenda now for probably the past fifteen years, you will see that I am nothing more than an abject failure.

So returning to Christopher Hitchens, a man who I would never have thought could have eased my mind. Sprawled comfortably in bed this morning with a copy of his collection of essays “Arguably” on my lap, I read a piece originally published in the City Journal in 2008 with the title “Prisoner of Shelves”. Here was Hitchens (Hitch to his friends – amongst whom I would I am sure never have been numbered) describing exactly my dilemma. Would he, I wondered be able to proffer advice to see me through this annual conundrum? Could he present a solution to how I might embark upon, if not eventually complete this task? You cannot imagine my relief when he, a man of far greater intellect than most, reaches the conclusion that the problem is insoluble. Hitchens accepts that living amongst his disorderly library brings comfort, and that any interference with the status quo would fail to improve significantly upon either his lifestyle or his working patterns. If this predicament thwarted the intellectual Hitchens, then why should I ever believe that I am up to the challenge? – there we are, problem solved!

Thank you Christopher Hitchens. I can now move forward into the summer, much relieved in the knowledge that for all these years those pangs of guilt have been a false indicator of a chaos in need of control. The re-organisation of books is no longer a priority, after all, when friends come to stay I don’t tell them where to rest, who to sit next to or that they should tidy their appearance. One more week of work to go before I can enjoy a holiday free from the angst that comes with a failure to rearrange my books!