Thursday, December 29, 2011

Six things that must happen to reverse this headlong rush to an illiterate British generation

Halfway through 2011 came a horrifying National Literacy Trust survey of more than 18,000 children.

It listed the following staggering statistics:
  • one in four children is unable to read or write properly when they leave London's primary schools
  • three in ten live in households that do not contain a single book
  • one in six people in the UK have the literacy level expected of an eleven year old
  • in 2005, 1 in 10 of the children and young people surveyed said they did not have a book of their own at home; but by 2011 this figure had increased to an incredible 1 child in 3.
Why is this not seen as a national scandal?

I believe it's because we have two cultures in this country. Those of us who are educated and read all know other people like ourselves who encourage their own children to read.

For these statistics to be true, we must be outnumbered by those for whom reading books is virtually an unknown pasttime.

All my life, newspapers have been wringing their hands about the levels of childhood and adult literacy.

Successive education ministers of every political hue have experimented with different teaching methods.

And all this time the problem has been getting worse and worse.

I believe that it's a root problem of our British culture; a culture that is leading to the closing of so many libraries.

Library closures

I learned my love of books from my local library.

But the latest figures on closures are that 415 libraries (323 buildings and 92 mobiles) are currently under threat or closed/have left council control since the beginning of this financial year out of around 4612 in the whole country.

Librarian professional body CILIP forecasts are even worse: it says that 600 libraries are under threat (inc. 20% of English libraries).

This does not include school libraries. Here, as this article from the Guardian reveals:
  • school libraries are facing drastic funding reductions
  • many school librarians are being downgraded or even made redundant
  • School Library Services are closing
  • some children’s book awards have folded
  • book gifting schemes have had their funding reduced
  • some schools have postponed author visits.
Every month brings bad news: in December we learnt that Hertfordshire Schools Library Services, one of England’s largest and most respected Schools Library Services, is set to close in the New Year.

The latest library visitor figures, covering the year to March 2011, showed overall library visitor numbers down 2.3% to 314.5 million and book issues down 2.9% to 300.2 million.

Although this is a reduction, it is less than what you might expect given these closures.

In November, Alan Gibbons called for a moratorium on the closure of libraries.

Tackling illiteracy and library closures was also the subject of Patrick Ness's Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, which he won with Monsters of Men, the third of his Chaos Walking series.

Too often, writers are told by publishers (I was told myself this year) that teenage boys don't read books and so we can't publish your book.

What can we do?

As writers, we must join with Ness and Gibbons. We can no longer be complacent. Our livelihood is at stake.

Yes, we have to keep writing compelling books. But we also have to act.

Here are six things that need to happen:

  1. We must be prepared to occupy libraries faced with closure, just like the occupy movement.
  2. The government must stop closing libraries and encourage more children to read in every way possible; even if it comes to giving away books. This happens in developing countries where the level of literacy is higher than ours, for God's sake!
  3. Publishers must reconsider the pricing of books. Books are expensive compared to other media which children enjoy, much of which is free, like television, the Internet, radio, music and video games. There needs to be a range of cheap books aimed at less literate children to get them reading so they can later migrate to more difficult books for their age group.
  4. The pricing of e-books needs to be much, much cheaper (for the iPad etc.), with all kinds of promotional tools like the vouchers used by iTunes, which would be the modern equivalent of book vouchers.
  5. Reading books must be made more cool. Celebrities rated by children need to come out and encourage children to read.
  6. You should get involved in CILIP's advocacy work on school libraries and schools' library services, if you aren't already.
It's going to take a lot of effort to turn this devastating trend around. But for the sake of the next generation, we have to do it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Welsh music is refreshed by a wind from the east...

Several Welsh bands are experimenting with the Eastern European Klezmer tradition and finding intriguing parallels.

Klezmer is a strong part of a musical tradition that originates with the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe. It is lively dance music, infectious and laden with emotion - both happy and bittersweet but ultimately lifting the spirit.

Like traditional Welsh music, it has been largely passed on from generation to generation by example rather than written down.

Several Welsh bands are now experimenting with playing Klezmer and, in one notable case, hybridising the style with Welsh music.

Cardiff's Klezmer Kollectiv are an eight-piece who play all around the Cardiff area. They employ the traditional instruments of clarinet, accordion, bass and guitar, but also add cello, sax, trombone and cajon (a box containing a snare for percussion) to give a full, romping sound.

Similarly the Llanidloes-based Klezmonauts, while gigging less often, are educating audiences in this infectious dance style.

Machynlleth-based ex-Ember member Rebecca Sullivan is also experimenting with Klezmer at the monthly Ceinws acoustic sessions.

South Wales duo Fiddlebox, however, are unique in trying to meld that tradition with the Welsh one, and in so doing to redefine the boundaries of Welsh traditional music.

Fiddlebox claim to have invented a new musical style, which they call 'Klezreig' - a synthesis of Cymreig and Klezmer that is proving highly popular with audiences everywhere.

The duo are fiddle-player Helen Adam and George Whitfield on accordion. They have just recorded their second important album, On The East Wind, and will be launching it on 30th November at a special concert at Burnett's Hill Chapel, Martletwy, Pembrokeshire, at 7.30pm.

Nowhere is the Klezreig style better exemplified than by a Klezmer version of the traditional song 'Machynlleth' which, by being played in a Klezmer scale, immediately gains emotional poignancy.

This version arose from an improvisation at a party in Machynlleth, between Helen and Tony Corden, the guitarist and organiser of the politics and music festival El Sueno Existe.

I interviewed them at George's house in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, and wanted to know first of all about the story behind the title.

Helen began her answer by referring to one of the album's key tracks, The Girl From The East: "The Girl From The East takes its starting point as an English folk song, The Girl I Left Behind Me. I wrote three variations on it... the first of the variations is written in the Klezmer style".

George has a more poetic attitude to the identity of the Girl From The East. "She's got her eyes on her own country in Eastern Europe, but is dancing in these green hills of Wales!" he smiles. "The Girl From The East is actually Helen!"

Helen Adam is a quarter Lithuanian Jewish, and a quarter German, on her mother's side, a part of her heritage of which she is increasingly aware. So you could say she arrived in Wales on the east wind.

A recent visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin led her to reconnect to her Jewish heritage.

"My grandmother emigrated to Germany and converted to Buddhism to marry a German Buddhist writer!" she says. "Then she left him and came with my mother to England and became a Catholic. But she ended her life in a convent in North Wales! The Klezmer track Hora Dorothea on our first album called, simply, Fiddlebox, is about her."

If you didn't know Fiddlebox was a duo, at times you'd think there were four of them, especially since they both sing.

This is in many ways also due to George Whitfield's ability to make his custom-made accordion, which is vital to the unique Fiddlebox style, sound like two instruments at once.

George had his accordion specially constructed by a top craftsman, Claudio Beltrami, in Stradella, Italy. It employs a unique bass switching system, designed to his specification, with an electric midi on board (that he doesn't use for the purely acoustic Fiddlebox), three rows of bass buttons that permit more complex bass lines and four sets of hand made reeds.

Together these produce a big sound with chunky chords, that is usually only achieved with larger concert accordions.

The bellows have a short delay time enabling a punchy reverb effect, which George uses eerily to open his song Simply Fly.

Helen and George are both immigrants to Wales, where they met, but they have made it their home.

Helen is fluent in Welsh and has represented Wales at the International Celtic Congress. Fiddlebox are a regular at events at the National Botanic Gardens and the Royal Welsh Show.

So, the Girl from the East "is happy to be here, but remembers her country," says Helen. "She feels an interloper, but that's how I present the Welsh material we play because I don't think I can pretend to be Welsh."

"We are trying to channel Welsh music through the prism of our own identities."

George nods. "We are doing what no one else is doing. I think it's a shame that Welsh culture has a lack of extension outside Wales, unlike Irish culture which extends all over world. One of the reasons for this is that there is a perception that Welsh music is just scales and arpeggios and we are trying to say it's not true."

Helen attributes this to the point at which Welsh music was written down. In fact, its historical development up to date seems to have gone through two phases.

Firstly, before the advent of Methodist religion, Welsh music was highly social, just like Klezmer, and centred around community celebrations, both seasonal and familial. It was jolly and upbeat.

In the eighteenth century, however, Methodist ministers frowned on such profane practices and the music became more sombre, or overtly religious. There are stories of musicians' harps being stowed away and falling into disuse.

Secondly, there is a feeling amongst some historians of music, such as Phyllis Kinney, author of Welsh Traditional Music, that the scale in which Welsh music was originally played was the Dorian scale, which contains notes similar to those used in seventh and minor chords.

However, when it came to be written down, by collectors such as D. Emlyn Evans and Llewelyn Alaw, there was a tendency to regularise it to fit with accepted musical theory. For example, seven-bar phrases might become eight-bar, and Dorian might become minor. This is how it is now played.

A further change is that originally tunes were closely associated with the lyrics, and thus followed the stresses and cadences of the Welsh language. Often, the original words are now lost, and this has contributed to a further regularisation of the tunes.

Therefore, in the past, it is likely that Welsh music would have had more emotional depth or breadth than it does now, perhaps something like the blues and gospel music.

Fiddlebox's Helen Adam offers her own angle on this: "For me, Welsh music must be robust enough to stand it own against others, and not have too much preciousness about it," she says.

The implication is that we need to keep an open mind about how to present this material. A culture is not static, instead changing in reaction to the times. Just as it has been forced to change in the past, nowadays, as Wales opens up to welcome visitors from abroad, this is bound to influence its culture and its music.

But Fiddlebox's new album is not entirely Klezreig. George Whitfield cites his influences as rock, country, blues and folk, while Helen also is classically trained and practices contemporary composition.

Between them they offer the full emotional range and some very catchy tunes, from George's upbeat Simply Fly to an update of the gruelling traditional English song Pills of White Mercury which is about syphilis in the 18th century.

George observes, "On the whole album, nothing was recorded that wasn't played live first, and much of it was played live for 6 months beforehand to make sure we had it down".

Fiddlebox were insistent that they wanted no special effects like echo or distortion. It would all sound exactly as it would at a live gig (watch them playing live below).

The album was recorded in an old Welsh chapel by producer David Unlimbo. The chapel also contained nesting swallows, and the mikes picked up their chirruping songs. Listen closely to the album and you can hear them, deliberately left in.

The swallows are gone now, blown on the east wind far away for the winter. Perhaps they are like the Girl from the East, and dream of their homeland. Except Fiddlebox's girl has made Wales her home, and Welsh music is all the more enriched for it.

Friday, December 09, 2011

An e-book, Hybrids update and more...

Boulder TV logo Here's a round up of recent news! Besides moving into my own custom built eco-studio, which I designed, and where I can now work surrounded by all my books at the bottom of the garden and be lovely and toasty warm with the superinsulation, triple glazed windows and underfloorheating, I've been a bit busy on other stuff:

• Boulder Media has now started work on visualisations of Hybrids in preparation for the proposed TV series. We're very excited and can't wait to see them!

• I've been commissioned to write an e-book on solar photovoltaics by a new publisher, Sedition. This will be a pilot for a whole series of e-books on sustainability topics. It only has to be finished by the 1st week in January!

• I'mNew Welsh Review December issue cover in discussions with Earthscan/Taylor & Francis for a new non-fiction book to be written next year on solar architecture.

• I've written an article on graphic novels, called What Pencils Were Made to Create. It's in the current issue of the New Welsh Review.

• I've finally finished the latest draft of his novel Stormteller (this is a link to a special website I made about it) which, along with my other recently completed novel, We Can Improve On You, is currently being read by the excellent David Fickling books. Fingers crossed!

• I gave a talk on solar PV at last month's Solar Flair '11 conference.

Solar Technology, The Earthscan Expert Guide to Using Solar Energy for Heating, Cooling and Electricity by David Thorpe
• My new book Solar Technology, The Earthscan Expert Guide to Using Solar Energy for Heating, Cooling and Electricity is doing well, as the seminal introduction to all solar technologies and practices, and solar energy itself. It covers solar space heating, architecture, water heating, solar cooling, solar power stations and photovoltaic electricity. It's full of pictures, and easy to read!

• You can now buy copies of this and my other books direct from me on my website's bookshop page!

• Of course, I am still producing daily news and weekly opinion pieces for the Energy and Environmental Management website.

On discipline...

These days, writers are supposed to be a brazen brand - masters of mobile and internet wizardry; and magicians of marketing!

It's easy for the time required for the craft of writing to be squeezed, and this has led me to consider the nature of 'discipline'. (And I don't mean perverse sexual practices!)

"Discipline" is a frequent topic of questions in interviews, as in that awful one: "It must take a lot of self-discipline to write a novel/be a writer..?".

Well, no, we tend to answer patiently... self-discipline is not an issue. If you really want to be a writer, actually you can't help it. In fact, you go crazy if you DON'T get the time to write.

Like, when unable to write for prolonged periods, I get to feel that I will start scraping the wallpaper off with my fingernails or yelling something deeply regrettable if I can't get back to it very soon.

OK, others might call it a form of mental illness, but, as anyone will know who has read biographies of many top entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs), scientists or artists, this kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour goes with the job description in many fields.

This is not to be considered weird! 

Now, I'm one of the lucky people who make most of their living from writing. I have to do several different kinds of writing to survive rather than just write fiction (my favourite form), and I feel that I've worked hard to be in this place.

Discipline as craft
Another meaning of the word 'discipline' is craft or skill.

For the past year, my work pattern has changed, involving a new discipline, and this has had an interesting effect on my writing.

Every weekday morning, I have to write an article, as soon as possible and usually within two hours, of about 700-1000 words, and post it on a web site.

This is an enforced discipline, but one that pays off well in terms of developing the discipline of the craft.

Typically, I have no idea before I start what the subject will be, and have to research it as I write it.

This type of journalism, for a specialist, largely business, audience, demands many qualities apart from accuracy and readability.

In particular, there is an instinct for what people want to read that no one else is providing, which can only come from knowing the field intimately.

There is also the kind of fluency that comes from being able to trust oneself that the process of writing at speed will result in something that isn't completely unintelligible and is of great interest to my readers.

This is a very different process from writing a novel, partly because it operates on a totally different timescale. It is topical, and so consumed, like a meal, within hours of preparation, after which it is likely to be forgotten; although one hopes that it will have greater influence, just as a top chef's creation may be talked about for long after it has disappeared.

The self-editing process is therefore different. When writing a novel, one can leave a draft for a few weeks so that, when re-reading it, one may see it afresh and notice errors and omissions that were obscured by the afterglow of creation.

Since adopting this new work pattern, and because I cannot expect my editor to spot my errors, I have developed new techniques to force myself to both edit as I write and to see my work freshly as if I had left it for weeks, even though it was only minutes. These techniques have fed into the novel-writing process.

I continually edit as I write, checking that I've said what I meant to say. I write in a text editor, not a word processor, so I can concentrate on the words alone, not be distracted by how they look.

I re-read and correct it, then copy and paste it into OpenOffice. I do the same there. Then I copy and paste that into TextEdit (I use a Mac) and repeat the process. Both of these have spell-checks that notice different words (OpenOffice doesn't check American spellings).

Each time I paste it into different software, it looks different, and my eye is forced to notice different things.

So I'll have read and re-read, continually correcting, this blog copy several times this way before posting it. Even so, I won't be surprised if someone spots a mistake!

There we have it: two types of discipline. One, that is about finding the time to write; the other, that is about the development of the craft.