Friday, 24 June 2011

100 word Friday flash fiction - Swimmer's Body

Lisa changes in a cubicle at the pool. Tanya laughs through the partition when she explains it’s because, under her swimsuit, she has scales instead of skin.
“That does explain it. You swim like a fish,” Tanya says.
Afterwards, Lisa stands under the communal showers in her Speedo Endurance. She explains, it’ll last longer this way. It helps rinse out the chlorine.
“You shouldn’t be shy, you’ve got a swimmer’s body,” Tanya says.
In the grotty cubicle Lisa slips layers of clothes on over the swimsuit. The scales flake silver dust when they dry out. Best to keep them damp.




I hear some funny and astonishing things in the changing rooms at the swimming pool, mostly because so many kids use the trainer pool adjacent to the main pool where I often go. Last week, I noticed a small girl with the most amazing plait of thick red hair, exactly like her mother’s. I admired them both before heading for a cubicle (scales, you understand) from where I heard the girl ask, ‘Do I look fat?”

Her mother said, “No, you don’t look fat. You’re six, for God’s sake.” This retort probably sounded like a non sequitur to her daughter (even if she wouldn’t have called it that) but the rest of us know what she meant. I’ve read about pre-pubescent girls developing totally inappropriate weight worries but it was chilling to really witness it.

While I dressed I tried to think back to being six in the changing rooms. What did I notice, and what didn’t I? Was I self-conscious? Did I judge others according to body shape? I remember noticing much older bodies rather than the young ones, perhaps because we all took our extreme youth for granted then. Wrinkly bits, hairy bits, the way other grown-ups didn’t all look like my parents under their clothes.

I remember collective giggling when a small girl entered the pool with her costume on back to front, nipples barely covered by the cross-straps. How lovely to be unaware that this was wrong, I think now. I remember a classmate who would put her swimsuit on over her vest and pants, and go swimming like that. When challenged, she said her mother had told her not to take all her clothes off in front of other people. She grew up to be a bit of an exhibitionist, so no harm done there.

Most of all I remember a girl, a couple of years ahead of my year group, tall and a little bit chubby, whose pale body was covered in large, variously shaped brown moles. Even from my six-year-old perspective, she seemed incredibly brave, donning her swimsuit and baring her flesh with the rest of us. Nobody ever teased her, but we looked, and she must have seen us looking. I wonder now what her mother told her, to enable her to deal with this. I wonder if she still swims, and whether it is easier or harder as an adult to expose an unusual body.

I longed to be able to breathe under water as a child, and still do, even then thinking that having scales would be a small price to pay for this advantage. I thought webbed fingers would be pretty amazing too. Now it seems as though, for a six year old, even having a normal body can be a trial. I just hope that the small girl I overheard will love her red hair and not want to change that too; on the plus side I’m sure her mother will have something sensible to say on the subject.

Friday, 17 June 2011

100 word Friday flash fiction - Open-minded

"Frankenstein's retirement project. Those were her words."
"Are you frowning?"
"No."
"That's alright then."
"I choose not to. It takes more muscles to..."
"I know. What does Richard think?"
"He says whatever makes me happy. He says he'll buy the boobs next if that's what I want."
"Right."
"He says his colleague Jemima did hers and they're great. He's going to invite her to the barbecue so I can feel them for myself."
"You mean see?"
"No, feel. He says Jemima is very open-minded."
"And you?"
"He says I should be more open-minded too."
"Is there an implant for that?"

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Grayling wants responses to his NCH defence? Here they are

In the last two days Grayling has fought back at critics of NCH in the Guardian and the Independent, building arguments to which he has asked for a response. I’ve looked at these, and as a product of higher education in philosophy I have tried to provide some responses for him. The points attributed to him here are taken from the two articles linked above.

Grayling’s arguments in favour of NCH:

  1. NCH is not diverting public funds from education, but rather proposes channelling money into education

Nobody is claiming that NCH will divert public funds, but that is not the only kind of wealth at issue here. As Grayling himself points out, society as a whole benefits from higher education even though only a minority experience it. NCH will divert some intellectual wealth by taking on faculty who would otherwise be available to other institutions, as well as some students with high academic potential.
I’m sure it’s clear to everyone that NCH will channel money into education (even if it is Peter Hall’s). However, how it does that, and how much, will not be regulated and might not be fair or good, or in the interest of access, and nobody will be able to do anything about that. Other colleges and universities, while not perfect, at least all have to operate according to one set of rules.

  1. NCH is adding university places to those already available

This is occurring at a time when 10,000 publicly funded places are being cut. The places NCH is adding will not be accessible to a large proportion of the would-be student body, even those who can just about manage the £9k a year charged by the best publicly funded universities. So it is adding places, but effectively only improving access for a small (well-off) proportion of applicants.

  1. NCH’s aims are to promote quality in education and be publicly committed to accessibility (with 30% of places funded or part-funded in future)

I don’t doubt the statement – one to one tutorials are undoubtedly good for students, and the faculty at NCH will surely be high calibre. However, it is hard to marry a stated commitment to accessibility with the overall act of largely creating places only accessible to the money-rich, rather than the intellect-rich. 30% of NCH places will equate to 330 or so when the college is at full capacity – so roughly 3% of the total being cut in publicly funded institutions.
There are myriad ways to improve access to education for large numbers of students, for example through internet and correspondence learning, which keeps costs down. There is also a broader problem of accessibility in the entire higher education system that Grayling is ignoring – more on this below (point 5).


Grayling’s defence against objections stated by his ex-colleagues at Birkbeck, amongst others:

  1. NCH is not at the vanguard of marketising education

Grayling argues that publicly funded universities have been doing this for years by increasing quotas of foreign students and charging them inflated fees, with unpleasant results: if this does not displace home students, he says, it at least increases the number of bodies in classes.
By arguing that publicly funded universities are already garnering private funds, and in a more damaging way than NCH will, Grayling is asking us to forgive a lesser sin. It is equivalent to arguing that one should be let off for serial shoplifting because there are others stealing more by tax evasion, or even claiming that GBH doesn’t count because it’s not as bad as attempted murder. If things are going badly in a system, it is a strange response in moral terms to join in, albeit in a way you find less bad than the worst offenders.
Moving from principle to practicality, slightly larger seminar groups are a minor inconvenience for many students in comparison with an extra £9k per year in fees on top of the usual amount. Whilst one to one tutorials are undoubtedly good for learners, there are many other teaching methods that are less costly in monetary terms and still provide excellent education.
Lastly, even if universities are taking overseas students in order to increase funds to spend on education, this does not change the fees – and therefore the perceived accessibility of a particular university – for home students.

  1. Objection to private education is a prejudice, not a thought

Oh, a juicy one. Private education is already contributing massively to the problem of accessibility and fairness in admissions. Many private schools are dubbed ‘A level factories’ for a reason, and many a teaching academic will have encountered those triple-A students who can barely string a sentence together, let alone an independent thought, once they have to rely on their own faculties. As a teaching postgraduate, I met ex-private school students who begged me to teach them how to think for themselves, rather than how to pass an exam. Many such individuals can make it into high-ranking academic institutions after two years of interview training and fact-cramming. However their skills sometimes (not always) reflect their parent’s ability to make a financial investment: they are wealthy, but not in intellect. If higher education is going to be elitist, it should be elitist about academic ability, not ability to pay. It is mind-wealth that should count, not money-wealth, but the latter can create the illusion of the former, while others rich in independent thinking faculties can find that nothing truly brings out this potential in the system they encounter up to age 18.

  1. Objectors choose not to believe that Grayling is “emphatically in favour of higher education as a great public good that should be fully and properly funded through taxation.”

He goes on, “It is a great public good in which society as a whole should invest properly, because even though a minority of people go to university, all of society benefits from their doing so.” I don’t think objectors choose not to believe he thinks this. They may have believed it before, but many feel forced to change their beliefs based on Grayling actions, despite his words.
However, the point is really that Grayling claims he still believes this. Of all people, Grayling must be well aware of the is/ought distinction. How things are rarely matches how they ought to be, but the ought gives us something to aspire to, something to aim for. The higher education system is faulty; access is already skewed. For those with clout, like Grayling and his celebrity academics at NCH, there are numerous principled (and less principled) ways to respond to this. To observe a dog-eat-dog world and choose to join it, rather than reject such a development and aim higher, is not amongst the more principled responses. It’s a bit like saying, we all ought to be kind and thoughtful, but actually we’re not, so let’s just get on with being rude, shall we?

Friday, 10 June 2011

100-word flash fiction (drabble?) for #fridayflash

Cricket pitch

It had never happened before. Another couple, on a square of blue rug, on the opposite side of the cricket pitch.

While Carl huffed, Winnie watched. The other girl held out a real glass goblet and the boy poured.

“They’ve got wine. Red wine,” Winnie said.

Carl popped open his can.

A baguette emerged from the boy’s bag, then small gleaming pots he arranged in front of the girl.

“Want a crisp?” Carl said.

The clink of glasses echoed across the worn grass.

“I hate prawn cocktail,” Winnie sniffed. She stood up, lifted a hand and waved. Nobody waved back.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Grayling's NCH - a symptom of decay, or a solution to it?

Outrage at Grayling’s New College of the Humanities is making education headlines this week, but while the wasps are buzzing furiously around this most putrid piece of rotten fruit, it is only the result of decay spreading throughout the whole HE barrow.

Grayling called his project a response to the cuts in humanities teaching at UK universities. It may not be the best response, in moral or social terms, but it is sign of the state of things that he has felt compelled to conduct this, as he calls it, ‘very small experiment.’ He claims NCH is not designed purely to rake in a profit, but to try to maintain some quality humanities teaching in the UK – lest our gifted would-be humanities students fly off to the USA or elsewhere.

Setting aside for now how likely or not it is that a UK student would countenance leaving to pay American university fees, there is a genuine issue driving this worry of his. As an astute audience member pointed out at the Grayling-goading event at Foyles this week, universities such as London Met, which are accessible to students without the usual complement of ‘A’ grades, finances and jobless lifestyle, are cutting back all humanities courses. (Notably, Grayling has just resigned from Birkbeck, another reputable college that welcomes undergraduates holding down jobs and lacking top-notch A levels.)

Humanities access is reducing everywhere, and Grayling’s stated concern is that the UK will lose its status as a place demonstrating the highest quality humanities education. It is not just about teaching, either; research happens in these departments and is lost with them, such as with the disappearance of American Studies at KCL. Grayling’s NCH will not support postgraduate or professional academic research.

The threat to continued humanities development in the UK is compounded by the very sudden change from degrees currently costing around £9k to those costing £25k and upwards from next academic year. Students and parents have not prepared for this by saving up for the last 18 years as they would have in the USA. They are surrounded by people who received the equivalent education at no charge or £3k a year, and are dismayed.

In this period of adjustment to £9k a year degrees, I am sure many students will feel they have to opt for more vocational courses, or at least ones more obviously directed at particular job markets. Some recent graduates even see having a humanities degree as a hindrance when it comes to future employment; what is three years of musing over art history in comparison with three years’ work experience in relevant fields?

Back in 1998, I chose to study Philosophy for the sheer newness of the subject, the mental training I would gain, its relevance to other areas of interest for me, but mostly for the sheer love of learning and stretching my mind. I did not consider this a luxury, as I would now if I were debating what to spend £27k on over three years.

The humanities will lose out on some great minds this way, and we could fall into a self-perpetuating deterioration extremely quickly. By the time the next generation of would-be humanities thinkers has saved up enough money to go and study the subjects of their choice, there will be far less new talent in the field than I encountered as a humanities undergraduate.

It is not clear (yet) how the NCH can better meet the challenge of maintaining quality in the humanities than other good UK colleges and universities. Even if it were clear that it would achieve this, the principle of access is at stake. Instead of turning a profit perhaps Grayling would like to invest in making all the course materials and lectures and NCH available online for those with a passion for learning but finding themselves short of £18k a year.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Grayling's fall from grace

“Cuts, job losses, money for the bosses,
Grayling get out! We know what you’re all about.”

These were the words the audience was chanting and I was transcribing when I noticed a lit match fall at the toe of my boot. Odd, I thought, given we were in the gallery at Foyles bookshop on a Tuesday evening, but we were there to listen to AC Grayling and others discuss arts cuts and the match had lit a flare which began billowing red smoke into my face. This was all the more appropriate, for I am one of thousands for whom the red mist descended several days ago at the news of Grayling’s private academic venture, New College.

The staged discussion at Foyles had been planned for months, and the timing must have been coincidental. Grayling was joined by Christopher Frayling, ex-Arts Council chairman, and Mick Gordon, these latter referred to at one point by an audience member as two ends of a pantomime horse. It’s true that as in pantomime there was much laughter, jeering and enthusiastic audience participation – Grayling was greeted with a classic long hiss.

New College proposes to charge £18,000 a year for undergraduates to study humanities on standard University of London syllabi, supplemented by the odd lecture by a high-flying academic, popping in from their internationally diverse academic posts. It will not be a seat for research or postgraduate study, nor will it technically have the power to award degrees; but with names like Niall Ferguson, Richard Dawkins and Grayling attached it is marketing itself as a kind of celebrity-enriched academy for the rich.

Predictably perhaps, Grayling stated categorically and  in line with his previously expressed views that education ought to be a public service available to all. However, actions speak louder than words, and his venture into private and expensive education, whilst resigning from Birkbeck College, has now eclipsed an entire career as a respected expert in ethics.

The shouts began before Grayling had even opened his mouth. One interjection from the audience that gained cheers of approval neatly summed it up: “You should be staying in public education to defend it and instead you are deserting it to turn a profit.”

Grayling replied, in a terrible misjudgement of the audience demographic, “Do you believe any number of broken windows will change this government’s mind?” The response was a resounding “Yes!”

And this is the crux of the issue. Yes, we all need to respond to government cuts with a certain amount of pragmatism, but this does not have to be exercised at the expense of integrity. The public expect more integrity from Grayling than they would of most, given his status and expertise in moral argument. Instead his defeatist attitude, and decision to join ‘em if you can’t beat ‘em, flies in the face of what he seemed to stand for. In a matter of days, Grayling has irrevocably damaged his reputation as a rational, ethical thinker, who leads others to truth as all great philosophers can. The disappointment in him I have heard expressed in recent days has drowned out so much former respect; he will surely be remembered not as a thinker but as a sell-out.

Some excellent points were made at this event, though sadly not by Grayling. I had hoped a master of logical argument could muster a decent defence. Instead we heard from Christopher Frayling that the entire edifice of the profit-making sector in the arts rests on the public sector, a truth that unfortunately applies equally to Grayling’s new project, which will rely on the publicly funded education and career experience of its lecturers.

That red flare at my feet marked a lost opportunity: Grayling seemed to offer at one point to stay behind and discuss New College after the advertised event – his retort that an audience question about arts cuts damaging access (a fair and relevant enquiry) was ‘hijacking the debate’ was laughed down when someone yelled that he was hijacking education. As we trooped out accompanied by the scent of smoke, I heard the flare-throwers joking that they should follow Grayling down the street and throw shit at him. This would have been unnecessary: Grayling through his own actions is already thoroughly tarnished.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Flash fiction

Flash fiction: it’s a clever name, sounding, well, flashy – modern, fast, bright, illuminating, and above all, over very quickly. Why flash fiction is having its moment right now is not an interesting or difficult question to answer. The notion of a bite-size nugget of literature is so suited to the zeitgeist that it would be stranger if flash fiction hadn’t taken off in tandem with internet use.

We all recognise the way the web and the increasingly indigestible amount of information flowing towards us all day affects our attention spans. It seems to be a self-perpetuating problem, in that content for the web is tailored to internet users whose eyes will jump around a page, reading a key sentence here and there; once the content reflects this, readers of web pages find that’s all they need to do to get the ‘whole story,’ and it becomes habit… Not that I make any such concessions on this blog. But I digress.

Flash fiction is, relatively speaking, still a nascent literary form. There isn’t much agreement on what counts as flash fiction at all, let alone what makes for good flash fiction. Word limits range from 50 or so up to the thousands, where we seem to be crossing into short story territory, but is a piece of flash fiction at 1200 words different from a short story? Presumably a writer with fixed ideas about what makes flash fiction and what makes a short story could write two pieces of equal length, but consider one to fall into the former category and the other into the latter.

Some flash writers and readers seem to consider true flash fiction to be a kind of condensed version of a longer story, in a way that a deliberate ‘short story’ definitely is not. They perhaps perceive the challenge to be in forcing a protagonist, plot, jeopardy and resolution into the smallest word count possible. I for one doubt this would make for the most satisfying read. And then there’s nano-fiction, and micro-fiction, which might turn out to have other defining features depending on who you ask.

Short stories often do something quite the opposite of condensing a narrative. They may offer us a moment, or illustrate something as simple as a shift in perception, a connection made or lost, a feeling discovered. They may even do this without telling us that is what they are doing. Raymond Carver’s short stories offer good examples of this.

I am intrigued by flash fiction, but feel a little weary in the knowledge that, new as it is, with no clear rules or necessarily expectations, there is going to be an awful lot of chaff out there obscuring the wheat. On the other hand, the lack of restrictions on technique, content and length ought to unleash some interesting examples of creativity in a new form.

I intend to try and learn what makes good flash fiction for me by trying to write it myself. After all, how long can it take to bash out 100 words? For most writers, that is both a difficult and interesting question…

Friday, 3 June 2011

Twitter-fiction - a 100 word story for #Fridayflash

Looking back, the smugness should have been a clue. That gleaming self-satisfied smile that strained his cheeks, his way of sitting back, fixing his gaze on her and grinning until his lips dried and he had to swash them with his tongue.

She didn’t like the tongue either, long and thin like a strip of bacon, too salty.

He bundled her into bed the first night, every night, pawed her nightdress up and away. He was hairy, sure, but it still came as a shock when she fumbled the light on that seventh night and there lay a panting hyena.