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Back in early June, I launched School of Forgery alongside John Clegg‘s Antler, also out from Salt. Owing to an unfortunate concatenation of events, John arrived at the launch with very few copies of his book, and I gallantly deferred the chance to take home my own so that he might sell as many as possible on the night.

Earlier this week my own copy finally turned up, and while I’d say I’m probably too close to John now for a full review to be carried out with the requisite lack of bias, I did want to take a moment to say how much I like Antler and how, even against the backdrop of a steady flow of distinctive and excellent poetry volumes onto my exhausted bookshelves, it stands out as a genuinely characterful debut.

As the blurb hints at, Clegg mixes “genuine and imaginary anthropology”, and the join between those aspects of his work that are essentially tall tales or fabulation and those that the results of diligent research is practically invisible. So too is the transition between tightly controlled traditional form and ranging free verse, the former being done so softly and unostentatiously. A quick march through some of the titles (Moss, Nightgrass, Wounded Musk Ox, Kayaks, Meteor, Dill, Mosquito) reads like a sort of ingredients list – words as ancient elements, boiled down tinctures, excavated knucklebones and panned nuggets, bottled and labelled for cautious use in the creation of spells and medicines. Plus there’s the over-arching sensation of the poet’s joyous obsessiveness, like a child collecting shells or insects, in everything he writes about.

So yeah, yeah, I recommend it.

Poetry Review 102:2

I have a new poem, Terrifying Angels, in the latest issue of Poetry Review. Following the departure of Fiona Sampson, who helmed the magazine for a number of years, the magazine is entering a phase of having guest editors at least until some time in 2013. I have to say, it already feels much fresher for it. This issue, edited by the estimable George Szirtes (he and I have briefly been on bad terms in the past but I’ve always admired both his poetry and his dedication to the cause), is themed around branching out to include poetries not comfortably included within the ‘mainstream’ bracket, hence the subtitle: ‘mapping the delta’. Szirtes’ introduction reflects my own feelings about where how I’d like to see future dialogues progress:

“But I know where the less explored areas are. They are less explored maybe because they seem more difficult, more the possession of one particular tribe … I admire much about these ‘tribes’ and wanted to invite writers to open them up through a sense of shareable enthusiasm, to tell us why they matter and to show us not so much the fascination of the difficult, but the fascination of poetry as a whole: the full delta.”

As well as some very good articles by Emily Critchley, Daljit Nagra and Adam Piette, there’s a rich crop of poetry presented, incorporating a wider-than-usual variety of styles. It’s always great to see poets we’ve published in (and first discovered through) Fuselit hitting the big time, so I’m particularly pleased that poems by Christian Ward and Joe Dresner have been included.

With the next two issues being edited by Charles Boyle of CB Editions, and Bernadine Evaristo respectively, I’m feeling very optimistic about the future of Britain’s flagship poetry journal.

Team Up & DIY: One Day Workshop

On Saturday 9th June, Kirsty and I will be running a one-off workshop at the Poetry School called Team Up & DIY. The double focus is on collaborative texts and then publishing and publicising the result of your efforts. This latter part will be drawing on our long and harrowing experience with amateur printing, binding, sourcing materials, building websites and fainting at the cost of posting parcels of literary goodness to Singapore. But the first part, the collaborative part, will be interesting too. We’ll be looking at a wide variety of (in some cases, arguably) dual-authored texts, including the potential for collaborating with dead poets, and carrying out an exercise with participants on the day that will involve them teaming up together.

Hopefully see some of you there!

Booking and further info here.

Pluralism versus Selectivity

Buried beneath the chalk-dry tone of this William Wootten article in the TLS, there’s fighting talk. Wootten compares Alvarez’ The New Poetry to the recent Identity Parade and Salt Book of Younger Poets (both edited by Roddy Lumsden) and finds “a colossal failure of nerve” in Lumsden’s choice to pack out both books with a broad spread of poets, rather than choose a dozen or so and make the case for them being the front-runners of their generation. The problem with such plurality, he seems to be saying, is that the reader is left with an overcrowded buffet to choose from, with far too much on offer for any sensible debate to begin. The success of poetry in the 1960s, when the Alvarez anthology was published, was partly, he writes, due to “the fostering of strong and discriminating tastes and dispositions … It was they who gave reasons why contemporary poetry might actually matter.

A few remarks on that argument. First of all, the metaphor of the man walking down the middle of the road comes to mind. Identity Parade in particular, alongside The Best British Poetry 2011 (also Lumsden-edited) has more than once been lambasted for having included the wrong poets and passed over others whose inclusion in any generational anthology should be a given. Wootten need not be worried that Lumsden’s tastes don’t offend anyone, or that he fails to be selective.

Moreover, a representative sample has to be representative. The size of the sample in relation to the population matters. If an editor or publisher is to in any way carry off the claim that their book is a generational anthology, even tentatively, it has to convince its readers that it covers a fair bit of the ground.

I don’t think this is actually possible with British poetry today, except by means of the mega-anthology. Sure, you could select your 20 or so luminaries and write a fiercely combative introduction that puts them at the centre of everything that’s happening, but no sensible person would waste time entertaining the thought that you were right. They might read your book, and they might even say you’ve articulated your views forcefully, but unless there were some reason they were in your thrall, and in your thrall alone, they would then re-subject themselves to the vast arena of poetry beyond your wagon-circle and never find themselves thinking: “But how would I refute x‘s case for those 20?”

Wootten’s romanticised ‘moment’ where contemporary poetry and its values were treated as a singular artistic arena whose various styles and champions could be debated, intelligently and passionately if not always in ways capable of clear resolution” certainly sounds attractive. But is that what we’d get if publishers started putting out anthologies defined by their editors’ deeply entrenched positions? I really, really doubt it. We aren’t anywhere near ready for it. For there to be healthy debate, there has to be a well of common understanding, a shared sense of the starting point and of the stakes. We don’t have that. We have such a spectrum of expertise, individualism and ignorance when it comes to poetry that you’re more likely to have a conversation where neither of you has heard of the poets the other wants to namecheck than one where two champions of disparate styles can cross swords. And I mean ‘we’ here both in the sense of the general public and literary types, both of whom I know equally well (ie. not very well at all).

Maybe if I put it like this then: Wootten is asking for work to commence on the penthouse while Lumsden is still embroiled in the effort of firming the foundations. We need to draw everyone together on the same footing before we can have the grand debates. In some sense, yes, that is a backwards step for poetic culture, but only because the poetic culture of the past was at all times dominated by the upper echelons of society. Wootten is living in a sort of a dream world where a wild and boisterous declaration of poetic/editorial intent can stir or boil the blood of the average reader, rather than merely carry the faint whiff of trying too hard.

The article also includes the oft-used phrase “competent but unexceptional poets”, which is usually a shorthand for a general complaint that there aren’t enough poets on high pedestals, who can be seen for miles around. No one’s ever made a great case for why we need these pedestalled poets, and no one has, to my knowledge, made a strong case for any poet of the modern era deserving this position, and that’s why we are where we are now. But I don’t entirely dislike where we are now.

School of Forgery

School of Forgery, by yours truly, is out now and available to buy. It’s published by Salt, and is the culmination of my last – oh, I don’t know – four or five years of writing activity. But it doesn’t just hoover up my various outpourings and stuff them into one handsome hard-cover; it’s a book with its own identity, structure and unhealthy preoccupations. Anything which didn’t fit has been left over for later. Essentially, the major theme is the relationship between invention and fakery, or falseness, and there’s a huge influence of Japanese subculture on the various poems. The contents are divided into ‘Originals’ and ‘Fakes’. There are pieces inspired by, about, screwing with or riffing on Seven Samurai, The Avengers (that’s the British version), Bleach, Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, mustard, Nell Gwynn, plastic surgery, octopuses, ginger, witches’ familiars, Battle of the Planets, Tom Jones, MI6, Celan and more besides.

It’s a Poetry Book Society summer recommendation, and if there’s one couplet in the book that describes the whole affair, I’d say it’s this:
And some of it will be intelligence.
And some of it you’ll think makes too much sense.
The best (ie. most ethical) place to buy it is from Salt’s website. It’s available from Amazon as well, but Salt are a small publisher for whom every sale counts, and more money goes to them if you buy straight from them. Plus they’ll probably get it to you much faster.

News of a joint launch with fellow Salt poet John Clegg to follow.

Poetry and Tribalism

‘Tribalism’ is, of course, a negative term, a word we use to criticise. We scorn it, want to be done with it, and yet it seems to perfectly describe a kind of attitude that few human beings avoid entirely. We identify ourselves as being part of a certain group, and round others up, usually without their permission, into contrasting groups which we define ourselves against. It afflicts British poetry culture, at least to an extent I see played out in various public and private interactions, and it could do, I think, with some objective analysis, as well as further discussion.

The three main tribes I’m referring to are: the mainstream, the spoken word scene (alternatively, performance poetry, slam or stand-up poetry) and the avant-garde (alternatively, non-mainstream or innovative poetry). Some of these terms are hotly debated, rejected or modified for clarity, but in order to get on with an article like this, I simply have to use them loosely. Via Facebook, internet forums, articles and pub conversations, I’ve experienced various discussions of the differences or lack thereof between the three, but these discussions tend to take place between like-minded people. I rarely see a proponent of the avant-garde square off against a regular from London’s spoken word scene, for example. If parts of this post therefore seem to labour a screamingly obvious point, it’s because I am addressing myself to myriad different viewpoints which, to my mind, seldom agree on what is and is not obvious.

So I’m going to try to pull some threads together. First of all, let’s consider some positive (and crude) generalisations, just to get our bearings:
  • The spoken word scene is grass roots poetry, increasingly popular and well-attended, priding itself on being inclusive, non-elitist and politically engaged. Spoken-word artists eschew obscurity to address topics directly and passionately through stage performance and are active in overturning the popular image of poetry as fusty and self-obsessed. The scene has its roots in the centuries-old traditions of tavern performance and oral storytelling.
  • Avant-garde poetry emphasises radical thinking, playfulness and the critical importance of language. Its principle belief is that powerful institutions and the outdated ideals that sustain them can only be challenged by revolutionising and reenergising language itself, by undermining and overturning the registers and modes of exchange that reinforce current orthodoxies. It embraces feminism and minority poetics and seeks to dispel myths about poetry that limit its scope and reach, including the idea that poems should be understood merely as self-expression or versified narratives.
  • ‘Mainstream’ poetry is not so much a scene or movement as it is a catch-all term for the most widely acclaimed poets of all stripes, as well as the numerous others whose work bears a familial resemblance to these ‘leaders in the field’. Its style is defined only by whatever is popular and enduring, and shifts over time. If there is a modus operandi at all, it is one of inclusivity through emphasis on the individual poetic ‘voice’, rather than any particular style or school of thought. Good mainstream poetry avoids both elitism and populism, attempting to meet readers half way, the idea being that good poetry needs to be challenging but also that poets must make every effort to engage their audience.
All three tend to give primacy to reader pleasure, but the latter two tend (to differing extents) to anticipate or require a certain hunger or adventurousness from the reader.

Now let’s look at the harsher negative stereotypes of each which are sometimes bandied about:
  • Spoken word is the domain of aspiring comedians, hip-hop artists and rabble-rousers who like a more pliant audience, shoehorning jokes and tirades into the loosest of verse structures. It’s the medium of choice for those who make little effort to refine their poetic craft and lack the patience for poetry’s more subtle effects, making much of the output derivative and rambling.
  • Avant-garde poetry, despite its pretensions, is dominated by middle class white academics who have failed to break into the mainstream and now disingenuously associate incomprehensibility and opaqueness in poetry with daring and cleverness. The literary equivalent of Brit Art, it’s Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome writ large; endless pontificating on random assemblages of text using plenty of jargon in order to prove you’re part of the club.
  • Mainstream poetry is a small enclave of largely white, upper middle class men who live comfortably enough to obsess mostly over trivial things and ignore most politics, look down on popular culture and compete for status in a classical canon, taking care to avoid offending too many sensibilities or challenging too many orthodoxies. Because of their (unearned) power and prestige, they are in a position to pick and choose the next generation of ‘mainstream’ poets from those whose beliefs and writing styles flatter their own, and, of course, from the creative writing courses they run.

There is at least a kernel of truth in all of these descriptions. There’s also much in the latter three that is informed by snobbery in its various forms, and by the problem of accessibility/simplicity versus difficulty/obscurity in art, which seems to result in deeply entrenched positions. I’d like to think most people agree that both difficult and accessible writing can be democratic and a force for good, and that each can respectively feel pointlessly obtuse or artless if handled poorly. The debate that rages seems to be about where we can draw the lines, although the most heated remarks are often so hopelessly broad-brush that the debate never really gets going.

It’s very likely that there are poets operating in each of the three spheres I identify who feel they are there because the other two won’t have them, or because they believe their own particular scene grants them access to the widest and most diverse audience. That experience is highly subjective though. Most poets looking to carve out an audience will undergo a process of gradual refinement, improvement and compromise that finds them gravitating towards one or the other, depending on how their personal judgement evolves.

As an example, my own work fits mostly in the mainstream bracket, and it’s likely that I’ve consciously made an effort to reconcile my ambitions to the dominant forms and aesthetics in that area. But I’ve also attempted to find my footing in some spoken word arenas, and a portion of my work has always seemed to be more in keeping with avant-garde fashions (albeit I don’t see it as being in any way out of step with my other poems). This has led to me to some vexing and seemingly nonsensical considerations: this old sestina that guarantees a laugh when read aloud, should I discard it utterly or keep it around as a surefire crowd-pleaser? How many collage poems do I dare slip into a submission for a mainstream poetry magazine? Which poems from my pamphlet can I safely perform without being dismissed as a dull page poet?

Coming out of this, my own subjective experience is that the spoken word scene is the most difficult to engage with. I’ve found that it demands a kind of force of personality that I don’t have and don’t want to have, and that my tastes are generally out of kilter with most of the audience. The world of avant-garde seems to line up more with the kind of work I want to write, but also seems to demand a degree of familiarity with certain niche poetics and a strong academic leaning, neither of which I possess. Therefore, for me, the mainstream has probably offered the shortest distance to travel in order to find the right fit, as far as I can find the right fit anywhere.

But that’s, as I say, simply my own experience. I don’t believe the case has been proven that any one of these three is fundamentally more embracing of all styles and approaches than the others. People being people, the process of becoming included, of working out where you fit in, requires a negotiation that challenges and tempers some egos while inflaming others (particularly where the ‘fit’ is near instantaneous). People being people, those most comfortable and most settled in their space can become arrogant and lazy. Arguably, this is most achingly obvious in the mainstream world, because of its relative apportionment of status and power. The same names are recycled by prize committees and editors stricken with nearly identical preferences. We don’t need to believe the rumours of flagrant nepotism; flawed human nature is explanation enough. Without an unaffiliated, independent critical culture or scrutiny from an external source (in other words, without constant prodding, nit-picking, niggling and badgering) people of influence settle into a clan-like arrangement. Hence Ted Hughes Prize winner Lavinia Greenlaw tellingly remarking that the shortlist she was on looked like “a family photo” last month. The belief that, say, Sean O’Brien or Robin Robertson has produced yet another outstanding collection is genuine and uncynical – it’s simply based on a lack of consistent exposure to contrary views and tastes, and susceptibility to the ‘aura’ of a poet who has made their name.

It’s worth noting, though, that the spoken word and avant-garde scenes suffer from the same human fallibilities, albeit theirs are less visible and (because they do not have access to the same resources) less disagreeable. “Avantpo criticism,” as one poet describes it on Facebook, “is somewhere between an echo-chamber and a circlejerk”, and when one starts drawing lines between poets based on book endorsements, namechecks in essays, guest editorships of underground magazines and the like, the web of affiliations quickly becomes apparent. Similarly, many spoken word nights feature a carousel of familiar names, something particularly notable when performances are televised or otherwise of a higher profile.

Conversely, it seems at first glance like all the rancour is directed towards the mainstream from the two ‘outskirter’ tribes. You almost feel sorry for mainstream poetry when you see it described, on the one hand, as needlessly complex and unintelligible by some spoken word advocates, and on the other dismissed as “the simple plundering of domesticated interiority for its symbolic potential” in a letter to the Cambridge Review. It seems to catch the brunt simply for being in the middle. Only Don Paterson hits back, and then only in the direction of the avant-garde, branding it “that peculiar and persistent brand of late romantic expressionism, almost always involving the deliberate or inept foregrounding of form and strategy over content – almost in a proud demonstration of their anti-naturalism”.

But from a position of privilege, the persistent foregrounding of mainstream poets in broadsheets and government-funded bodies is counter-aggression enough, particularly when you have Carol Ann Duffy making remarks like “there’s little competitiveness in the poetry world”, self-evidently reducing ‘the poetry world’ to the mainstream only. Niall O’Sullivan, host of Poetry Unplugged, is judicious in remarking that he bears no ill will towards the mainstream prize circuit as long as those involved don’t utter the usual lines about how they honestly tried to simply choose the best collection”. But they do, and this is a problem.

The antipathy, therefore, is roughly constant across the three tribes. So, I would say, is the propensity for a lack of objectivity. And is there roughly equal potential for strong and innovative poetry in each? I would say there is. Is there roughly equal likelihood of tiredness and mediocrity being mistaken for consistency? Yes. Are there always overrated poets? Absolutely. Sean O’Brien, Keston Sutherland and Kate Tempest, respectively, are not so far in front of the bulk of their contemporaries as their reputations suggest.

There is one distinction that is worth deeper consideration, though, and which may reveal a fundamental cause (or reinforcer, at least) of the tribalistic attitudes. While mainstream poetry undoubtedly revolves around a system of meritocracy, ostensibly rewarding poets proportionately to their work’s value, both the spoken word and avant garde scenes seem to operate more in the spirit of a collective, where active and frequent participation puts you on the same level as most of your peers. In terms of organisation structure, it’s like comparing a pyramid to an even plain with the odd spike. I’ve picked up this impression from various sources, but just to give a couple of recent examples, this interview in The Morning Star describes the moment a first-time reader is announced at Poetry Unplugged:
“… the host hollers: ‘Next up, a Poetry Unplugged virgin!’ and a roar of approval spreads throughout the intimate audience, a cheer louder than anyone would rightfully expect to emanate from 50 people.” 
In the case of the avant-garde, this article by Alec Newman (editor of Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) in the Cordite review paints a picture of publishers that “cooperate in the dissemination of our titles […] share our experiences, our strengths & our resources, and […] quite often publish the same poets in the same month in order to bring them to the widest possible audience.”

That’s not to say there aren’t aspects of meritocracy alive and well in the imaginations of both avant-garde and spoken word artists. Avant-gardists in particular seem at times to propose an alternative narrative of recent poetic history that is just as figurehead-heavy as the mainstream’s, while spoken word is prone to the populist argument: whosoever draws the biggest crowd is the most deserving (in this sense, populism is just the other side of the coin to elitism; both entertain a kind of artistic social Darwinism, whereby the desired outcome is that the very few are raised onto pedestals for mass dissemination and the rest fall away, even if that ultimately restricts choice and opportunity).

But the mainstream, for the most part, lacks the counterbalance of a collective spirit. Poets are gracious and generous, but there is an expectation that beginners must start at the bottom of a long ladder and spend a long time fruitlessly clambering. There is expectation also of reverence toward those higher up the food chain than you (not to mention argy-bargy when it comes to the exact order of that food chain), and a deal of agitation about the ‘excessive’ amount of poetry being written. Here’s Hugo Williams, on judging the Forward Prize in 2010:
“But an awful lot of them seemed to be published just because they existed, really. [147 collections is] too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out. I think it’s something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone’s got a right to get a book out … I’ve got the feeling that sometimes it’s more about desire than worth.”
When we ask ourselves why British poetic culture isn’t a continuum of styles, but seems to be regarded in terms of these three reductive pigeon-holes, it’s perhaps this difference of approach that gives us the answer. The mainstream, which is at the centre, is not porous enough. Poets from either end of the spectrum do not drift into or through it in a way that would completely disrupt any attempt to differentiate and stigmatise.

Do I think the mainstream needs to lose its meritocratic attitudes then? Partly, but not entirely. An absolute lack of selectivity across the board would do more harm than good. It’s been expressed to me that a serious problem among avant-gardists is that if you have the right attitude, the right chops, you’re in, and there’s no further editing of your poems or demands made of you as a writer. Discussion and debate about the relative merits of art and artists in any medium seems to me not just a healthy but an essential thing, but when it comes to a poem like Hot White Andy by Keston Sutherland, lauded by some as one of the best poems of the 21st century, I’ve read much intelligent analysis but nothing that even attempts to explain what it does that other, comparatively similar-looking texts do not. All poetry suffers from the problem of seeming to be, at first idle glance, indistinct and samey, which is why articulating distinctive qualities and features is essential. This articulation begins in blurbs and cover quotes and memorable remarks, and includes reviews and essays. One of the great flaws in our poetic culture, across the whole spectrum, is that it tends towards addressing inner circles and the converted, rather than attempting the more onerous task of engaging the sceptic. The avant-garde, on present evaluation, suffers even more heavily from this affliction, and the spoken word scene is almost totally lacking in written analysis, outside of the odd site like Sabotage Reviews.

This aspect of mainstream poetry’s self-coverage, then, is one I find flawed but crucially important to any healthy poetic culture.

I also think the collective spirit can be over-emphasised to the extent that it becomes less, not more democratic. I had a brief exchange with Niall O’Sullivan on this in the comments section of the post I previously linked to where he usefully described the conflict between the inclusivity of folk cultures and the capitalist/corporate encouragement of solipsistic individualism:
Mainstream poetry is all about the audience as a passive receiver, especially to the point where the poet often instructs the audience not to applaud until the very end. Inclusive tropes and turns of phrase are dismissed as cliche. 
Originality and individualism are as much a part of capitalism and consumerism as they are a part of mainstream poetry and this is why I’m not that surprised to find a lack of engagement with the current social movements within it. It channels the university lecture where a few short questions are allowed at the end rather than the boisterous trade union gathering or the revivalist church service.”
I partly agree with Niall here, but I also want to defend the university lecture model as an alternative and necessary means of including as many people as possible in progressive discourse. Popular rhetoric is simultaneously empowering and alienating. Many people exercise their social conscience by behaving sceptically towards mass sentiment and fashionable anti-establishment feeling, preferring to reach their own conclusions and to not to be grouped together with others whose views are broadly similar but not quite the same. Although there are toxic kinds of individualism, finding one’s own way is also a kind of empowerment, one that is more familiar to many of us than the process of becoming part of a popular movement.

Without getting too sidetracked, the point here is simple: everyone arguing or conversing with each other in an unstructured way can lead to the most simplistic arguments and loudest voices being foregrounded. Affording a temporary elevated status to a poet (or lecturer), as the person addressing an audience, who are there to listen is, in theory at least, a recognition of the time and care they have put into what they are reciting – by definition more time and care than can be put into an immediate reaction. This permits a greater wealth of nuanced and intelligent viewpoints to be shared.

Let me try to further break this down: there is an irreconcilable disagreement, as I see it, between those who say, “If anyone can be a poet or writer indiscriminately, then it all becomes worthless – only a few will ever be worth listening to” and those who argue that any amount of selectivity is non-democratic and necessarily endorsing of the current regime (ie. those at the top of any social order will oppose change). There has to be a path between those extremes which aims to justly reward any artist who is willing to commit, continually improve, and not avoid their social responsibilities. Mainstream poetry does not achieve this – it is too married to a certain family of styles, too non-fluid to recognise its own deficiencies – but some of the framework is there, and it’s a framework that needs to be preserved and built upon.

What this all comes down to is, you might think, rather bland: all three ‘tribes’ I have identified are important to British poetic culture and ideally should form a continuous, non-staggered spectrum. There is far too much of a tendency towards dismissiveness across the board, and too little effort made to properly recognise the merits of one another. Our collective responsibility, I think, is to change the mainstream without destroying it – or worse, replacing it with something similarly flawed.

(Note added 9th April: For a reason I can’t currently fathom, this blog is entirely lacking a comments facility! If you want to comment on the ‘Poetry and Tribalism’ article, I’ve mirror-posted it on the Fuselit blog.)

Favourite fallacies

Here’s a comment on page 5 of a Guardian article on policing by ‘runner6’:

“What I find amusing –
All politicians are corrupt / incompetent, all police are brutal racist thugs, all readers of right-thinking newspapers are bigots, all BTL landlords are evil.
Massive generalisations made because the above groups indeed contain some that fit these stereotypes. Yet the same paper does not extend generalisations to subjects which may go against its ideology and as a result does not write the kind of articles which may be needed to tackle problem areas of society.
Ergo there is a lack of objective thinking at this newspaper.”

Actually, the word ‘thug/s’ is not used in the article at all. It is used by various commentators under the article, mostly to refer to strikers in the eighties, rioters and young black men who carry knives. It’s also a word used frequently by “pro-police, pro-army, pro-law and order” tabloids (Neil Wallis’ description in yesterday’s Leveson Inquiry) to refer to various groups of citizens, but never to the police, as far as I can tell.

What I find interesting and infuriating about this type of comment is how much it exemplifies the human tendency to mould reality around a narrative one has already taken to heart. We accuse those in power of doing this all the time, but it’s important to recognise just how common it is. ‘runner6’ would very likely have nothing to say about the word ‘thug’ being used to generalise about those groups he has already, in his mind, designated as thugs. But when the Guardian makes strong criticisms of a group he supports, he is quick to read such excessive disparagement into it.

There are, of course, plenty of criticisms that could be made of the Guardian, and in particular of this article. What stands out in the ensuing clash of commenteers, however, is how strongly most people stick to their chosen mythologies. That’s the power of a simple narrative, of course, and it feeds into various ‘us/them’ mentalities that seem to me to stymy progress and positive change at every level of society. And while I find it easiest to point the finger at obviously unlikeable right-wing commentators, it may just be that the same lesson holds true for the rest of us. As soon as you find yourself accounting for your own position by the natural pureness of your heart, or your dogged subscription to broad moral values, it’s worth looking again at what assumptions you might be making, and what facts you might be ignoring.

In other words, I think one of the worst mistakes progressives and activists make is to believe too wholeheartedly in the righteousness of their cause and their people – or worse still, to believe that they are the people. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen police officers and journalists alike claim to represent the interests of the public (or a dominant section of it), as well as LJ Leveson himself. ‘runner6’ no doubt thinks his views are those of the ordinary citizen too. Somehow it’s always someone else who is the aggressor, the outsider, the dangerous element. Isn’t it time we all stopped playing to our respective galleries?

Birdbook II diary 11/01/12

Today I’ve been working on our forthcoming Birdbook II: Freshwater Habitats, specifically the layout and picture-editing. Birdbook I was designed in a very old version of Quark that won’t run on my new computer, whereas this one is being designed on a brand-spanking new copy of InDesign we’ve shelled out for, which means I’ve had to spend a lot of time recreating the old templates as best I can. Here’s a screenshot a few pages in:

Curiously, it’s been a lot more work to integrate the pictures this time round. In the first volume, nearly all the artwork came either as a framed rectangle (see the osprey above) or with the bird alone in a stark white space so that it could be easily dropped onto the page.

Quite a few of the artists for BB2, however, have submitted work on tinted or textured paper, or with some elements surrounding the bird that are abruptly cut off at an edge. I hadn’t counted on this, and it’s been tricky trying to work out how best to place them on the page. This red-necked phalarope by Anna Le Moine Gray is painted in soft watercolours on a slightly bubbly paper that fades to grey towards the bottom (a side effect of the scanning process, I think).

Cutting off everything but the bird and signature left it looking like it had been scissored out and stuck to our page, when we really wanted it to look as if it’s part of the page. So in the end I deleted large swathes of the texture around the edges but left some of it around the bird, fading out:
Le Moine Gray’s common sandpiper was a tougher challenge – the paper was much greyer, so that where the feet end is very suggestive and hard to pin-point when cutting around it.

At first I tried blending the feet in with a pencil version of the same piece the artist had sent us, so that the feet had a starker outline. No matter how hard I squinted, it looked messy. Upping the contrast ruined all the precise and subtle shading on the bird itself, and fading out to white made it look like the sort of misty portrait you might find on a collector’s plate. So I ended up deploying a similar method to the above piece, but having the texture fade out to grey instead of white. Then I placed it inside a larger grey rectangle in InDesign that filled up most of the page:

Still need to do a little work on it, but getting there!


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