Monday 27 December 2010

Story Time

Once again we’ve been trapped pretty much indoors over Christmas – just like last winter. It was colder this time with the cold snap starting earlier but the snow has been less problematic, though I did have a scary journey back from a concert in Chester cathedral on the Friday before Christmas. The snow has only started to melt today.
It really has been too cold to go out. I normally love walking in cold, crisp winter weather but five minutes on Christmas Eve was enough. There was nothing for it but to indulge in extra story time. Isn’t that what this time of year is all about?
I’m now making headway into that pile of books on the shelves in my bedroom. Plus there are all the films – reruns of old cheesy ones and those that have now been around long enough to make it to the small screen – the ones I would have liked to see at the cinema. The Other Boleyn Girl is one such example .Of course, I’ve had to rewatch Miracle on 34th Street and The Railway Children.
Then there are the TV specials: My Family (hilarious), Dr Who (a little disappointing but possibly because it had been so built up) and the return of Upstairs Downstairs (yet to be watched.)
And all the DVDs given as Christmas presents or found on the coffee table, left over from Sunday supplements.
We did get out, though, to see an excellent version of David Copperfield at Bolton’s Octagon theatre. They captured the whole story so well. I’m sure even people who had not read the book would have understood.
Yes, it is time for absorbing story. For a writer it is also a time for making stories. The enforced house arrest aids this also. So here I am, on the day we have our second Christmas –our grown-up children form London are coming a little later – working away. It is, of course, a pleasure. I did have a new computer for my birthday (22 December).

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Panic Setting In

Assignments are due in now. Students are emailing like mad with what are, after all, pretty valid questions. I’m tied up today and although tomorrow I’m technically free all day, I’m expecting a steady stream at my door. Two added complications, though. The assignments are due in tomorrow. And the snow is also supposed to come.
At least this amount of panic shows that they care. They are really trying to give their best shot with the current assignments.
Impressively, most of my students are already very clear that a text is never really complete – merely abandoned at the point where they run out of time or talent. Welcome to my world. And at least the marking should be very pleasant. I’m looking forward to reading some impressive scripts.

Monday 6 December 2010

Our Libraries are Under Threat

Throughout the UK and I suspect throughout many other countries libraries are threatened with closure. This feels to me as bad as burning books. Where would I be now if it hadn’t have been for some excellent libraries? I’ve recently worked out that if and when I retire – I’ll be 59 in a couple of week’s time, so this is a serious consideration- I’ll not be able to keep on buying books at the rate I do now. I was relying on the free bus pass and the library in town as a way of getting round this.
When I was a child I couldn’t afford books either. I remember very clearly the Easter holidays of the second year at junior school. This was the year I discovered the Famous Five. I was at the library every day changing my books. Of course, I soon got though all of the Famous Five books and went on to what my teachers no doubt labelled “better things”. Having access to so many books at that age is probably what allows me to be a writer today – and also a lover of reading.
Later, as I started reading fluently in French and German I was glad to be able to borrow books in those languages because then the cost of importing them was prohibitive.
University meant owning books, so I neglected the public library for a few years, though I made great use of a university library. Then, a few years on, came the children and weekly visits to the library became a part of our family routine. I loved going to the library with the kids and helping them to choose the books I would later read out to them.
The children grew up. I started studying first for an MA and then a Ph D. This brought me in touch with university libraries again but the municipal ones were also important: I was studying writing for children. Indeed now that I’m teaching at university level I recommend that students on two of my modules join the town library: if they want to write children’s; literature or need to write an essay about it they will never afford to buy as many books as they need to read in order to understand. Our university library stocks a few titles but it cannot afford to stock as many as they need to read. Besides, going to the children’s section of the library gives the students some contact with children.
As we gradually take on e-book technology, no doubt the role of the library will change a little. But it will remain a great force in keeping books alive. It will stock older editions of books and different libraries may distribute different types of e-literature. The physical buildings still need to be there with their shelves, reading and studying spaces. Even the most financially stable of us need them occasionally. For instance, I use Bolton’s library whilst my car is being serviced. This library provides decent study space, though, for me, the rows upon rows of interesting books and the interesting people are a distraction. Other people who visit are mums with young children, college students, retired people, and mature people, possibly out of work, who are clearly studying to better their prospects. The computers with internet access are popular and thank goodness this facility is there: we all have our IT crises.
Some libraries are thriving: they have cafés attached and arrange all sorts of events. Sometimes, however, this can be to the detriment of one of the library’s traditional roles: that of providing a quiet space for reading. That is where I think my university library has it right. There are there types of zone: one geared for group work where open chatting is acceptable, another where some noise is tolerated and a third where absolute silence must be observed.
The library may have to change in order to survive. We must not lose sight, however, of its primary role. Note that Alan Gibbons’ activity is called “The Campaign for the Book”, not “The Campaign for the Library.” It’s just that one of the greatest threats to books as we know them is, of course, the closure of libraries.
Thank goodness, then, for the legal deposit libraries and their hoards of books. At my university, we have a constant battle to stop the library throwing out books – including some first editions. We have to sign to say we want them preserved. Surely a function of any library is to have that out of print book that only a few will want. I often go back to a really old source and find that what is suggested is surprisingly up to date and what I had thought were new ideas are in fact very old. We have to change our thinking here. The librarians constantly say there is no room so they must get rid of the books. Some books are priceless. We should see the problem from the other angle and create more space instead of getting rid of books.
So, why do we need libraries?
• To preserve books.
• To provide access to books that are difficult to find elsewhere.
• To offer books to people who cannot afford to buy them.
• To provide a public space for study.
• To provide a public access to the web.
• To support literature in other ways (and without the commercial restraints under which festivals and bookshops have to work).
Get involved. Support your local library and join Alan’s campaign.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Students Inspire

Every Thursday I know why I like my job despite all of the incongruities and uncertainties. I meet my two Final Portfolio groups and they actually inspire me. I hope I also inspire them.
All three students who were due to submit did and four out of six came to class. I guess the ones who are committed show in these snow-covered times. One student lives locally- the other three had a commute. The others who did not come in actually did have very good reason – one of them to do with a meter of snow. The local student allowed plenty of time in case the pavements were covered. She actually arrived early and came along to my office. It was good to see her.
The conversation throughout the session was focussed and useful. These students are really learning to critique well. Are they becoming better self-editors? We hope so: this is the point of the exercise.
One student stayed behind for a short chat. She has learnt the networking lesson. She presented herself as a writer to be involved with a history project in her home town. She felt a bit of a fraud: several other people there had many publications to their name. Yet she wasn’t alone. However, there were several other people there who had thinner portfolios.
She held her own, and this has led to other opportunities. She now runs and participates in open mic events. She has some involvement with schools. Her writing is improving apace, too, partly because she is becoming more confident and partly because she is getting even more feed-back now.
I pointed her towards NAWE. They will help her keep her CRB check up to date and then there’s the Public Liability Insurance - £10,00,000 of it. NAWE also naturally provides further networking opportunities.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Intro to Children’s Literature – A Pub Quiz

Week 10 is our “pub quiz”. We look at the essential facts about Children’s Literature with an emphasis on late 20th and 21st Centuries. There is a certain amount of general knowledge students should be expected to have by the end of this course. So, they are presented with a “pub quiz” which they can access before the session. They then work their way through this in class in teams along with fitting a list of children’s writer’s into a series of grids that identifies who wrote what for whom when.
It was a bitter cold day yesterday and some roads were difficult to access because of snow and ice. The class is from 4.00 to 6.00. Many students commute quite a long way. Nevertheless, a committed bunch of seven turned up and worked through the material with gusto. We also spent a little time looking at a picture book text that one of the students had written. It broke all of the rules but still worked.
The answers were given after about one hour. This led to some quite lively discussions about some of the key figures in Children’s Literature. There were many grey areas. A discussion of those bought us to some consideration of what happens in the study of English Literature. Basically if you believe something is true it is up to you to prove it with convincing and extended arguments quoting the texts. Could J.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling fit into most of the boxes, in fact, followed closely by Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, C. S. Lewis and Charles Dickens? And did they think to put my name in any of the boxes?