Archive for A variety of writings

Writing in a Flash: Changing the ending

One of the core skills of a writer is to be able to write to length. Sometimes this involves stretching the word-count to get to something credible without losing the plot. Often it means chopping back and back to remove all superfluous text and cut a rambling piece down to size. Sometimes it means complying with the word-maximum criteria of an editor, a writing competition or some other challenge.

Book-buyers may exercise their own, individual, rough and ready, on-the-spot judgement about value-for-money: The weighing of the number of pages of a novel against its cover-price; pound weight for pound cost.

How long is long enough? Does it really matter? It all depends. Read more

Doing Poetry: No Sweat

My ebook Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ is a collection of approximately seventy poems. One was called ‘Doing Poetry: No Sweat’:

I’m going to be a poet.

It’s an odd thing at my time of life

but a choice that is becoming

more popular, I’ve noticed.

I’ve bought my first garret

and cut down on food.

I now only need access

to a pub full of artists

and a distant woman

to impossibly love

and I’ll be off

doing poetry.

No sweat.

 

It isn’t autobiographical, just a poem. There is no garret; I don’t eat to excess but that is a health thing not a starving poet thing; and a distant woman to impossibly love is definitely off the agenda (unless you count Agent Lisbon from ‘The Mentalist’,  or the woman detective from ‘Castle’, or Ziva from ‘NCIS’. Do I detect a trend here..??).

A bit of a push

In an earlier posting I talked about planning. Each year I have a set of loosely-sketched intentions. For the near future these include ‘Having a bit of a push on poetry’. This is a broad statement of intent, but I have several elements in mind that might add up to ‘a bit of a push’. I also have a specific image when I talk about ‘poetry’: Not poems that pour out of me, like it or not, but poetry to order, poetry on demand, poetry to a schedule.

Recent attempts at producing poetry to a theme include:

  • Poems written as part of workshops linked to art exhibitions at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute (and the invitation to read some of the work as part of a public event)
  • Poems written in response to contemporary art works in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s ‘Metropolis’ exhibition
  • Poems written in response to the Royal Academy’s ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition.

Developing a poetic career

A few months ago I attended an excellent workshop run by the editor/director of Nine Arches Press which is a UK small press that specialises in publishing poetry. The theme of the workshop was to try to understand what might be meant by the career of a poet. It was clear that (except for a very small number of people) this rarely meant creating a full-time high-income role from writing poetry. Read more

Writing in relation to the art exhibition ‘Metropolis: Reflections on the modern city’.

This exhibition, held 23 March to 23 June 2013 at Birmingham Museum & Art gallery, was billed as a major showcase of international contemporary artwork focused on interpretations reflecting modern city life. At the time of the exhibition I was exploring (a) cities (b) contemporary art (c) writing. It seemed natural therefore to bring these three together by inventing a role for myself as Writer in relation to the Metropolis exhibition.

This involved thinking about what ‘writer in relation to …’ might mean and committed me to several visits to the exhibition, participation in guided talks about the artworks, taking notes on each work and extending these with further thinking or research.

The commitment was to produce ten or twelve relatively substantial pieces of writing stimulated by the exhibition.

Currently available are:

Fiction:

Three short pieces based on dreams of visits to cities.

The ramblings of an old-time cop proud of working the city streets

A young bureaucrat is asked to write a report on the likely future situation re homelessness in Moscow. But it is 1991 and the system is in transition, making it difficult to know what is acceptable.

Riots have broken out at estates on the outskirts of Paris and a young journalist interviews two young women to get their views on what life is like for them.

A piece of paper found in a book prompts a young woman to explore her city’s public spaces, with unexpected results.

A child’s dream of city life becomes a reality for him.

When Outside becomes forbidden, citizens have to live their lives online, safe indoors – but Outside will always exert an influence.

 

Non-fiction:

An exploration of what I meant by ‘writer in relation to’.

Reflections on the modern city: An exploration of what we might mean by that term, and the extent to which modern cities might offer solutions to problems rather than be the source of them

An exploration of the language used in the exhibition, how that relates to the language used in studies of modern cities and whether any conclusions can be drawn from that.

 

 

 

Writing about New York as Birmingham as New York

This writing arose as part of Birmingham Book Festival 2012. One organised event was for a small group (of writers/readers) to spend one Sunday touring Birmingham ‘as if it were New York’ – trying to see the familiar features, cultures, roads, areas in terms of features,cultures, roads, areas of New York: helped by a briefing before the walking tour started. Behind that was also the idea of the great Americam roadtrip that had??given rise to a range of classic writings.

Each person in the group approached this in their own way. My own methodology (which was not quite as clearly thought out as that might imply) was to:

  • Accept the idea that New York images/places could be transposed onto the geography of Birmingham; and willingly embrace the idea that the Sunday walk was a ‘ road trip’ tour of New York
  • Gather snatches of conversations, images, ideas from the day that might get woven into a fictional story of a day’s trip on foot round New York
  • Go back to the map of the (real) New York and replace the trip locations and images onto that geography
  • Invent the characters who might be on a road trip on foot round that city (Very loosely: 3 ‘On The Road’ type characters now in their 60s managing one last trip together)
  • Trying hard not to get too hung up on Americanisms vs English terminology – but the end result shouldn’t jar too much for an American reading it as a tale of New York
  • Getting some sense of (enjoyable?) storyline running through around 2000 words
  • Extend the same material into a second story. This would probably have some text in common with the first story (because of the common source) but should be able to be read in its own right. As it was it turned out to be a sequel of sorts.

This enjoyable exercise gave rise to two (somewhat overlapping) pieces of writing. These are New York: One Final Road Trip and New York Journeyings: A Memorial

 

 

 

Vancouver: memories, images and realities – A fictional account

The background to what follows is a fictional account of a visitor’s encounter with some of Vancouver’s extensive public art and fascinating architecture. Later, back home, sifting through photographs, replaying memories and trying to get beyond the surfaces, that person recorded the following which is put here for interest in the belief that sense-making and storytelling are basic human attributes.

I loved Vancouver. The word that kept coming to me whilst I was there was ‘nice’. Within that overall blanket of niceness, I captured (an interesting concept in itself) a wide range of images. Now, back home (another interesting concept) I have gone through a process of elimination that involved sorting the pictures into three piles according to the degree of connectedness, for me, between the image and my feelings whilst in Vancouver (as far as I can recall them this long after the event). The ones in the most-connected pile were saved, together with the borderline cases from the middle group. The rest were put to one side. This gave me thirty photos, with which I repeated the process, justifying each choice to myself. Those thirty were spread out in front of me and, again trying to articulate to myself any rationale, I chose my top most relevant one, my second most relevant one and so on until I had just a handful in front of me. These weren’t necessarily the best pictures of the lot, or even the most interesting ones. They were the ones that triggered most reflections of my ideas and ramblings whilst over in Vancouver.

Body sculpture: This sculpture was in the lobby of the wonderful hotel I stayed in. The Listel. It was on Robson, the main downtown street so was handy for all the things I had already decided to do, but the main reason for picking it was that it billed itself as an Art Hotel and, true to its word, was full of original paintings and sculptures. Just walking round the corridors was a great experience.

This sculpture was one of several things that I went back to each morning. I would simply sit and look at it for ages, finding more and more things of interest each time. What kind of things occurred to me on those relaxed observations? Clearly it was a body-part: a torso without arms or feet, and missing the head. So, from one angle, it was a part of a crime scene – a thing that demanded its own history of how it ended up like that – and encouraged speculation of how a detective would work backwards from a discovery of such a body to work out the detailed chain of events that led up to its gruesome discovery by someone. Admittedly this representational, sculptural version wasn’t gruesome (no blood, no gore) but its discovery, tucked away in a corner of the hotel lobby, was still a shock, an unexpectedness, a fascination, a wish-to-know-more.

Tucked away in its corner the piece was, in one way, easy to overlook but, at the same time, was set up on a ledge so was itself doing the overseeing – a shadow peeking out over each new guest. It kept up its solitary vigil as the flow of transients came and went. It might as well have been some remnant of a former receptionist clinging on to the role from a ghostly perch on high. Or some attempt at capturing a Spirit of hotel-keeping, a lighter version of those more solid Greek and Roman antiquities, a reminder that coming and going was nothing in the faceless gaze of an everlasting deity.

The dominant thing about the piece was its transparency, the net effect of the latticework; and yet the whole thing had its own solidity – solid enough to cast a shadow. An ambiguity in itself: that stuff of such substance could be constructed out of openness. Watching the changing light play in and out of the mesh, there was form and shape and substance whilst retaining its sense of emptiness, of being and not-being at the same time: of being and nothingness. Existing yet not existing; real yet not real. The very emptiness of its net structure creates something new, something with its own existence – the diffraction patterns that shifted and swirled as the viewer shifted position. Something out of nothing.

The corner it overlooked was the small half-hidden part of the lobby that held the public internet terminal – itself a thing that only made sense as a portal to the invisible, without which it became merely a dusty desk and silent terminal. The web/net sculpture held a place of guardianship to the web/net escape-hatch used by the transients to reconnect with the realities they had left behind. Like the terminal the sculpture was a communication route – sans mouth, sans hands, but not quite sans everything. Far from dead; far from dumb; far from lifeless – but still a lifeless form, dead until interacted with, dumb until communicated with. There was a tinge of Zen about the whole thing.

We spent a long time communicating – me looking intently at the piece, and the piece (in its own, rather mysterious way) feeding thoughts back at me.

Red squatting man: Turn left from the hotel, zigzag down to the seawall, follow the walkway round the harbour and suddenly you might happen to come across a circle of men squatting on the grass. They seem animated, chatting across their circle. They have a full set of arms and legs – so no crime scene: this is everyday normality – men passing the time of day, telling each other stories that are more or less true, more or less elaborations on a reality in their heads, more or less absolute fictions.

They take you by surprise. You stumble upon them, but only if you take one path not another. You might glimpse them in the near-distance and be drawn into their circle. They might lure you nearer, tempt you to stay awhile, trick you into passing time with them that you had planned to spend elsewhere. ‘But why rush’, they ask. ‘Why move on so hurriedly? Rest awhile, stranger. Linger with us.’

You might end up being transfixed there forever as one more member of the smiling silent circle.

In the photograph there is just one man looking off into the distance. He squats like a frog as if he might at any second spring off, yet there he remains, unmoving and unmovable. The shot misses the fact that he is one of a group of silent squatters, eyeing each other up with looks that are not expressionless but enigmatic. The collective has been reduced to a singularity and this changes everything. He (It looks like a He) is alone, looking out; resting or ready for a race? There is a feeling of boldness, of power, of benign tension.

In this particular shot, at that particular time (but shifting as the day goes on or the angle changes) there is a shadow (looming over the man; casting a shade for him to rest in or casting a shadow over his existence?) and a distant pathway and sign (an indication that others may come and go in the near distance but his gaze will not falter; he will remain intent on what is in his head).

I sat as one of the group in silent meditation. I felt their tangible presence. I shifted position and sat directly opposite this one man, staring into his look, daring him to change his expression. I lost myself momentarily and became one of them. I snapped back and became one of me.

One link to Vancouver that this image held out for me was the sense of the surprise of the everyday. There was a childlike excitement at seeing the first floatplane come in to land on the placid stretch of water. I wanted to tell everyone ‘Guess what I’ve just seen?’ – but of course to them it was an everyday thing. Another link was as a representation of the strong community that had resettled from the west, coming across the Pacific: again a surprise to me intuitive Eurocentric fixed view of the world that the way to Vancouver was from the West. Beyond that was the way, common to other places, that this rooted community became the historical site of what was now a tourist, heritage part of the city – with the warning that the vibrancy of neighbourhoods can easily tip into nostalgic aspic: Circles of old men animatedly gossiping being replaced by casts circles of statues frozen in the act.

Totemic eyes: This picture was taken at one of the landmark places in Vancouver: the totem poles in Stanley Park. This itself threw up for me a host of things to think about. Stanley Park: An English park; a legacy from the British colonial governor Lord Stanley; with its Rose Garden and so on – as one stop on the tourist trolley bus route, as a place savoured by residents and tourists alike for the Sunday walk, the routine rituals of open-air exercise and relaxation. Yet, there as one of the focal points, harbouring in one of its leafy clearings, a collection of totem poles. Totems; iconic symbols of heritage but of otherness; markers of histories and territories; carriers of stories and myths intertwined so that one reality bolsters another. Reminders that the locality was a site of struggle with nature, a site of daily routine for survival as well as a not-so-long-ago site for community joys and sorrows.

The poles carried meanings within their original communities. Here, clustered together, huddling for strength or standing as proudly independent as they can of the surroundings they now find themselves in, the poles carry sets of cultural meanings that have been shifted in time. The meanings were always mediated versions but now also carry overlays of what the modern tourist viewer brings to it all. Meanings are whatever we ascribe to the context. Are the poles meant as education, or as a parading of history before photograph-hungry visitors (I felt compelled to get my own shot of them: and a shot that didn’t even wonder if the eyes were those of a beaver or a bear or whatever, just a shot attracted by the eyes because of the electric blue colouring). Whatever they are intended to be they are very popular, very iconic of Vancouver as it is now – whatever they may have been in the past or in other settings.

The eyes are the gateway to the soul. The eyes on the totems were transfixing as if the past wanted to hold me in its gaze and assess me as fit (or not) to stand on those traditional lands. There were eyes everywhere, culled from different places, different communities: relocated to stare out somewhat defiantly – challenging me to come to terms with a different history, a different way of interpreting the world, a different sense of humanity. I felt small in their presence.

This particular set of eyes I found to be the most powerful. Others seemed to look mockingly, or accusingly. These eyes seemed to hold some compassion. I found them hypnotic. With the sun on my back we looked into each other’s gaze for as long as one of us could bear it. The eyes dominated what I saw. It is only when I look at the picture that I see the background detail, the patterning of the wood, and so on.

Tower blocks: Actually that is probably a wrong title – very English, very denigrating. There is a whole set of popular and academic studies done on estates, high-rise living, ideologies and community. The phrase ‘tower blocks’ has negative connotations because of these. But these blocks were strangely attractive. Maybe the better title would be Apartment blocks. But, even so, it’s not about the blocks but about the spaces between them – the carefully-designed gaps in which one might catch a glimpse of something else, something beyond the sides and edges of the colourful facades. In the case of Vancouver there were the almost secret flashes of sea and sky and mountain beyond the reflecting angular geometry of its urban front.

It is about seeing the gaps (what is almost not there) rather than focusing on the obvious. It is about looking in hope, beyond the normal visibility: things partially screened, partly hidden, almost secret. Things that can only be seen at an angle.

I asked about prices, about affordability, and about who therefore might live in such places (with their securely purchased views of water, of hills) and who might be relegated to other shabbier dwellings over on Eastside (and whether that means insecure, rented views of semidereliction). Is this image emblematic of Vancouver – the view that people take with them when they leave the city – or is it representative of the city to those who regard themselves as citizens?

The image has its own beauty – blocks of colour, modernist/postmodernist shapes, repeated angles. Shapes and segments, when one takes the longer view, when one sees in passing – but each segment, on closer inspection, when one stops to see, is a home. Each box is a site for daily decisions. People are structured together, boxed in but barely interacting, with each life customised into private individualism. Each apartment is a box within a block; each block is a square on a grid of streets; that arrange to form recognisable zones – and so on – and each on its own timescale. The apartments get changed round, redecorated, refurnished to a varying cycle, on street layouts that keep changing as cities reinvent their arteries, their flows, their internal logics to neighbourhoods that get described in guidebooks as emerging more slowly, over decades – neighbourhoods that can be experienced immediately as you move around the city but also which are measured out in centuries as the heritage of an unfolding, ever-expanding city like Vancouver.

I wandered round most of them: Gas Town, Yaletown, Granville, Davie, Chinatown, West End, even venturing out onto the beginnings of East Hastings. Areas that were all neatly delineated on the tourist map, all segregated onto their own page of the guidebook. Each having its own personality: the spirit of the area. Each seemingly having its own purpose in the daily workings of the city; its own meanings for the people who live and work there and – possibly – quite different ones for people like me, meandering through as tourists.

Were there always different ways of experiencing the same physical spaces: the life-views of residents and the passing views of visitors; the perceptions of settled communities and of newcomers; of First Nations and of latecomers; of City Hall officials and of street-dwellers; of police officers and of career villains? Worlds that overlap and collide and co-exist and coalesce into a shimmering vibrancy that is Vancouver.

Fence: I spent a long time watching the change of light and shadow on this background before eventually deciding to take one shot as a representative of the whole process that probably deserved more – a film maybe, to capture its richness – but had to settle for this single shutter-click. After all a film would only have been able to capture the one bit of transience out of the whole day, or what would have been recordable yesterday or the next day, in different weather. Each recording, however long or short, would have been a fragment of the totality; one of the millions of possible variations of the same reality. Whatever we record, write, think, do, attempt is a mere fragment of what might be written, thought, done, attempted. Life turns out to be merely one version of a myriad of potentials.

At the same time this image was uniquely the one I had before me at the time. It was all I had. I was being fascinated by this one not by any imagined others. I focused on the detail in front of me. The lines; the edges; the transitions from light to shade and back again; the patches of light in the shade and patches of shadow in the light; the hard fixed lines of the wooden slats interplaying with the fuzzier shifting lines of shadow; the straights and the arcs; the ambiguities of it all.

When I stopped watching I realised that I had spent more than an hour there: Amazing how long you can spend watching a line of light move across a background.

Steps?: The only reason why this kept getting through the selections was that I have absolutely no memory of taking it – yet I must have done, There it is on the memory of my camera, sandwiched between a shot of the Steam Clock on Water Street and a shot taken the next day of a strange little statue of Emily Carr.

I remember sitting in the Starbucks next to the steam clock, inside and warm whilst a knot of Japanese waited in the drizzle to take a photo of the clock as it went into its steam-driven Westminster chimes. A quarter of an hour later the sun was out (such is the changeability of Vancouver’s many microclimates) that I was able to get a shot of steam and clock without others cluttering up the scene.

I remember the walk over and down to the jetty and the bobbling little boat across to Granville Island. I wandered round the place and then got a bit disoriented trying to find a way back up to the bridge to start the short trek back to the hotel. It was then that I came across this statue of a woman, a donkey and a monkey (tucked on a corner just off Granville). The plaque explained all. I remember stopping, reading.

I remember Starbucks and the clock. I remember the bobbling boat and the loaded fruit stalls. I remember the weather, the seagulls, the bridge, the traffic. I remember everything: So why have I no memory of taking this shot?

I am not even sure what it is. It could be steps, or shelves, or balconies. It could be a picture of things high up, from below – or maybe that is some illusion. There are diagonals; there is repetition; there are lines of light, blocks of darkness, hints of colour and pattern to break the monotony. I can see all that but still have no memory of taking it. Strange.

I read somewhere recently that our idea of memory has changed. It used to be that memories were stored, each in its separate box. Pigeon holed, to be revisited as a whole unity. my image is of a huge warehouse full of cardboard evidence boxes all labelled and filed, and some old half-forgotten guardian as the only one who remembers the somewhat idiosyncratic indexing system. A lost memory is then a box not put back in the right place with the possibility of it being stumbled upon surprisingly, having slipped down behind other boxes – open the lid and there is the whole memory readily back in place. The current view is more complicated: Each memory has to be reconstructed (from fragments stored in distributed form across the brain) each time it is called to mind. It is a wonder, on this model, that more memories aren’t reconstructed differently (But how would we know? Each memory would feel that it is the right one, having no other memory to compare it to – we could end up living a life based on thousands of badly-constructed false memories) or that links get broken and it becomes impossible to put that memory together in that specific way (But the fragments are still there, itching to be constructed into something – maybe a sense of a memory that doesn’t fully appear – a deja-vu ..).

Whatever the cause I find it incredulous that I have the tangible evidence of having done something that my brain has no memory of me having done. Scary.

Looking at the set of pictures spread in front of me I am struck by several ideas. These images are significant things; things that are heavy with meaning for me. They each relate to some reality out there on the streets of Vancouver but here, back home, out of context, they are abstracted things. They seem things I have grabbed, to hold onto, to mull over, to make something of them, to pore over and maybe read more into them than they deserve as they begin to take on meanings of their own.

The pictures are symbols, totems, reference points to be gone back to over and over again (particularly if a person feels that they are losing their way). They become a mix of imaginations and remembrances, and when the time has passed they become assurances that things must surely have happened  because there is always a photo in the album.

 

Tales made in Birmingham: a taster selection

As Birmingham’s contribution England’s national Year of Reading a number of very short fictional ‘tales’ were written especially to help promote reading to new readers. These were intended to be distributed as widely as possible to people in Birmingham and beyond. These writings were produced essentially for an adult audience, but have general appeal within that.

These are (fictional) stories told to an imaginary researcher. They capture fragments of the lives of each narrator, told from their own unique perspective. The tales are also being brought together as an imagined account of social research under the ‘Sides and Edges’ heading. A selection is offered here as a taster. The full set is available as an e-book at the Amazon site under the title ‘Made in Birmingham: The Tales’ by Geoff Bateson.

The taster collection of Tales can be dowbloaded here: Tales Collection 1

Poems made in Birmingham: a taster selection

As Birmingham’s contribution to England’s national Year of Reading a number of new poems were written especially to help promote reading to new readers. These were intended to be distributed as widely as possible to people in Birmingham and beyond. These writings were produced essentially for an adult audience, but have general appeal within that.

These were written in deliberate attempts to cover a range of lengths and styles. Some are meant to be taken quite lightly; others are meant to be lingered over. A selection of the poems is offered here as a taster. The full set is available as an e-book at the Amazon site under ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ by Geoff Bateson..

The introductory taster selection can be downloaded here: Poems_Collection_1

Where is all this reading and writing taking us?

This is the text of a talk given to the Birmingham Book Festival. It looks at the development of reading and writing over the ages, and the speed with which things are developing. It projects forward to speculate on what things might look like in the near future. There is a comparison of levels of reading ability and levels of writing ability in Birmingham. There is a brief look at the connections between reading/writing and teaching/learning and the links between those skills and society in general. The full article can be down loaded here: Where is all this reading and writing taking us?

History of Castle Vale

Castle Vale is a modern housing area on the north-eastern edge of Birmingham (UK). It is unique in many ways and has gone through distinct sets of changes. The things that most people noticed on their first visit to the area, when it was first built as a housing estate, was the flat and open landscape and the very distinct boundaries which seemed to almost cut Castle Vale off from the rest of the city to make a little island of people. These features have recently been changed, and will continue to change into the future, but each change is dictated by past developments. To understand what an area is like now, it is important to understand its history. The history of the Castle Vale area can be traced backwards, layer by layer and then built up again as a sequential record of those things that made the place what it was at each stage of its development.

The history follows the changing fortunes of this one relatively small area of land from its beginnings as a swampy forest, through the feudal times of battling barons, through the growing industrialisation of Birmingham to the First World War, on through its life as an airfield, finally to the construction of the modern housing estate and the very recent improvements to that area. From time to time little excursions are taken into the wider history of the region but only in order to set the very local events within their wider setting and make them even more interesting than they already are.

The full history can be downloaded as a PDF here: History of Castle Vale

Sides and Edges: Tales from another place

Cultures and structures interplay to shape our lives, our politics, our expectations and so on but, at the same time, we remain unique identities operating as interacting sets of thoughts and feelings, constructing the worlds we operate in. Within a context that is already partly made for us, we rub up against each other’s lives as thoughts, feelings, words and actions. For better or for worse.

This may require us to show different sides of ourselves at different times. Some of us slip into these various roles as easily as slipping on a new coat. For others negotiating a way forward that retains an integrity of self whilst meeting the varying expectations of others can be an overbearing and difficult task, with gaps showing as edges that no longer quite match together.

The interplay between structure and agency (whether put forward as economic/social; genetic/environmental; determinism/free will or any other such bipolarities) has fascinated thinkers and researchers throughout history. Much of what has passed for social research boiled down at its core to considerations of basics such as these.

People evolve and so do ways of thinking about, and describing, the world. At the personal level, the emergence of my own theorising about social issues has shifted under the influence of number of conceptual inputs from a range of sources. An early one was a passion for the notions gathered under the banner of Symbolic Interactionism[1]. This emphasised micro-scale social interactions and brought together thinking from urban sociology and social psychology, exploring how people act towards situations based on the meanings that things have for them. Within such frameworks, people derive meanings from their definitions of the situation, their social interactions being modified through interpretations and impression management. Their identities are thus fluid things that are constantly being constructed.

Key amongst other influences on my own thinking were views linked to notions of social ecology and systems thinking. One aspect of my unfolding understandings of social relations drew on the work of Bateson[2] who argued that there is neither individual nor society as distinctly separate units but a system that connects both organism and its environment, that puts agency and structural contexts in the same framework. Not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’.

Going through the required adaptations and accommodations to the influences of structuralist and post-structuralist thinking led me on to a much stronger emphasis on notions of social construction. For a summary of this approach see Burr (2003)[3]. This then offered a framework within which knowledge, language, social processes, power and identity could be seen as interweaving in ways that were quite fragmentary, contingent and shifting.

‘Individual action’ in these terms became possible when people were able to understand the various discourses that define their lives and were able to act upon, or act against, such shared definitions.

Whilst language and power had a crucial place within all of this, there was always the danger that theory could outstrip people’s lived experiences. There was a view that people’s actions had become so theorised about by others that their own voice had been lost (Krippendorff,1998)[4].

On the broader scale, social research has constantly shifted its focus in ongoing attempts at explaining the complexities of shifting social ideas and interrelationships – sometimes with factions taking sides for and against emerging notions, sometimes blurring previously well-defined edges. Social theory is itself transient and dependent.

At the practical level social research themes have, recently, been shaped by the mix of funding availability and the current policy concerns of national bodies. There are arguments that research has become limited in scope by these restrictions and that there is little opportunity for serendipity or for researchers to simply follow their own lines of thought just to see where it all leads.

In the first few years of the twenty-first century I was a lead researcher on one national substantial piece of such research. The main focus of that research programme need not concern us here. What it opened up, for me, however, was a number of additional opportunities that , as research director, I could ignore as irrelevancies or could follow up as an additional line of personal interest research. In addition to the main prescribed research I could do additional work on the side, just for fun.

Being fixed in that particular place, over a three year period in the first decade of the millennium, engaged in the main research activity, opened up the possibility for me to be an active participant[5] in the daily life of that one small town somewhere in England. I won’t be any more precise than that as to its location because there are compulsive problem-solvers out there who will use such clues as there may be to track the place down and to leave the people, who acted as my research base, open to personal identification.

Suffice it to say that the area was not a large city; nor a rural village; that it had a large enough population to be able to be described as mixed in terms of class, ethnicity and housing types. It had, in common with other areas, undergone changes in population; had had streets renovated as part of redevelopment schemes. It had its share of fast food outlets, retail units, and charity shops. It had students, old people, shopkeepers, manufacturers, unemployed people and ill people.

It had its fair share of people who might be defined as criminal or odd or obscure. These slightly ‘off-normal’ people were far from being the subjects of my main research drive but increasingly became the focus of my attention as an observant resident of the places and activities that were their social context.

It was these people who were talked to, with the initial intention of possibly writing a novel at some stage in the future. Many people had interesting accounts to give of their lives and these people began providing character clues that were jotted down. The idea of using this material as the research for a novel was rapidly overtaken by an overwhelming interest in what these people had to say for themselves, and what this meant in terms of their views of what was happening in their community – which then spread from there to become a research activity to explore the interconnected richness of their varied accounts rather than to simply document specific individual eccentricities or extremes.

The bulk of the accounts came from people who could, on the surface, be described as ‘seemingly quite ordinary’ but who, in their own descriptions of their lives, had interesting facets to their lives. The examples that have been included in the research accounts represented only 20% of the total conversations held and were selected simply on the basis of being ‘interesting’ [6]. There were no clear criteria for defining this but it was usually only too clear when conversations fell well into the other 80%. The bulk of these other conversations were soul-destroyingly empty and uninteresting. These haven’t been totally discarded as, in themselves, they do provide some insights into small-town interactions, and may yet come to feature in some future account of what forms the bulk of English time-passing talk about weather, transport, TV, illnesses, relationships and so on.

There was an early decision to be made about the identification of the accounts that were selected. Simply issuing each with a reference number seemed to detract from the humanity of it all. What was needed was a phrase that captured something of the context of the person and which also reflected the fact that these situations were not fixed and static but were part of a journey that each person was in the middle of. Initially these were referenced as stories, to reflect this sense of narrative, but in English culture the term stories can also carry the meaning of falsehoods/inventions. These accounts were, so far as could be told, genuine reportings of residents’ perceptions of themselves at one particular time. ‘Stories’ thus seemed an inappropriate label.

At the start of this research I was reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and it seemed appropriate for each of the research accounts to be seen as a tale told by one of a loosely-bound band of people who, whilst geographically relatively fixed by this specific small town location, were collectively journeying their way through lives that intersected or were in broad parallels. There was also a semantic fondness for the notion of the journey, with its connections back to the French ‘jour’ and the feeling that many of the respondents telling me their tales were taking things day by day; giving daily accounts of their existences with an insecure sense of what the next day might hold for them. Ultimately each account was given a title that reflected the person or their situation and referred to it as their tale, as told to me.

The tales arose out of conversations rather than structured questionnaires of guided interview schedules. These however, were not simply conversations on any topic just to pass the time. They were deeply personal, often quite revealing, conversations about the person’s view of themselves and their place in the world. The accounts were sometimes consolidated from more fragmentary excerpts gathered through recurrent, fairly extensive conversations across a range of topics. In these cases, in compiling the accounts, attempts have been made to capture the respondent’s own voice but at the end of the day the accounts have had to exist mediated through my own editing across several somewhat disjointed or rambling conversations, with the danger that some of my own phraseology may have been unintentionally inserted in the process. More often, what is presented here resulted from single, short, intense conversations which provided their own very memorable phrases and imagery.

On no occasions were the conversations recorded (ie were not interviews, in the popular sense) but were always written down immediately after the interaction, reliant on a memory that proved fairly reliable and which improved with use. Where natural breaks in the conversation occurred (visits to the toilet, going to the bar to order drinks etc), full use was made of these to discreetly scribble down rough notes, significant phrases, key facts etc in a pocket notebook. Certainly I became adept at spotting and recording significant constructions and killer phrases. The words recorded in the accounts (in The Tales) are as faithful as possible, under these circumstances, to the ones used at the time but are not guaranteed as exact quotations. What this research made use of, then, were less than fully worked up case studies of people but were more than simple snapshots of isolated passing casual interactions.

Some tales carry the names of the respondents. Mostly, however, names were omitted, or changed, to further protect the identities of people who had agreed to give information about themselves only on condition of anonymity. Sometimes, and it will be obvious where this is the case, the content revealed things that bordered on criminal or illegal activities. The respondents did not offer this information immediately but reached this level of revelation only after a number of less exposing conversations. They were often clearly nervous about what they were saying or, alternatively, showed a guarded bravado about the whole thing. In either case they ultimately ended up, quite rightly, demanding anonymity. Often, a reluctance to be identified was because people were consciously offering up details of only one aspect of themselves and did not wish to be overdefined by these particular fragments.

At the whole-report level the title ‘Sides and Edges’ was selected. This was a relatively simplistic device for capturing the feeling that here was a set of people who were living at the edges/on the margins; who were constantly on edge; who were edgy/had edgy personalities. There was also, emerging from the accounts, a sense that they were unintentionally taking sides/being on different sides. There was, additionally, a more oblique sense in which a proportion of the residents were slowly toppling over onto their sides ie not totally upright, not securely standing tall. All of this may seem a bit speculative (or even far-fetched) but the title still appears to encapsulate the overall outcomes from the range of accounts.

As it progressed, this offshoot of my main studies increasingly connected across to the thinking from my main research – drawing, as this did, on systems thinking, the work of Bateson, links to theories of complexity[7] and psychogeography[8], and linkages to thinking I was doing at the time on pseudorealia ie things that are treated as objects/facets of everyday existence’s realities but which in reality are imaginary constructs of the person (and the role that words/language play in these processes of social construction). In light of this there may have been some unintentional bias in an attraction to respondents’ accounts simply if they contained such linguistic aspects or linkages to other current thought processes.

This research had, for me at least, clear links back to the Mass Observation[9] movement at its peak throughout the 1940s. The recorded fragments from that work were initially seen as an important way of getting a sense of the state of the nation at a difficult time, from provided accounts of everyday activities; were later discounted as a disjointed jumble of relatively valueless subjective jottings; and finally came to be regarded as a valuable social history archive of academic interest. It is quite possible that this collection of tales and their subsequent analysis may be similarly viewed as being substantial or trivial.

The accounts were collected as simple tales but an initial deeper exploration of the texts was immediately possible. A selected group of readers scanned several of the accounts and were able to easily identify a number of recurring issues which they listed as emerging puzzles or questions. The outline questions, emerging from these reflections on these accounts, began as relatively obvious ones:

  • Can we ever fully understand what drives other people’s everyday lives?
  • Can one really know the extent of someone else’s crankiness, phobias, prejudices, passions, levers etc – or do these things only exist in a distributed form throughout the personality of the other person and can only be merely glimpsed partially, from particular angles?
  • Is it possible to get inside another person’s viewpoint and, if so, would this be healthy ie can one interact intensively with another and not be changed oneself? Do we have hard edges as individuals or do we have fuzzy edges that get exchanged with others as we interact?
  • To what extent do individuals’ senses of self arise from internal, psychological factors and to what extent do they arise from within the social constructions that occur via interactions with others and with structures of power?

Repeated readings of the accounts allowed a greater number of such recurring issues to consistently emerge. These then formed the beginnings of a number of possible analytical frameworks against which the accounts are currently being further explored and tentative conclusions reached.

From my initial analyses, one possible framework that emerged links together the following notions, in a web of overlapping interconnectivities:

  • multiplicity, simplicity, complexity
  • structure, agency, determination
  • self, identity, relationships, interactions with other people
  • power, authority, dominance, status
  • fragmentation, consistency, unevenness, change, difference
  • pattern, interconnections, linkages between things and events
  • structurings, financial and social systems
  • interactions with things or places, reference points
  • evidence, conjecture, invention, imagination, what counts
  • time, sequence, space
  • appearances, representation, imagery
  • realities, authenticity, truth
  • belief, prejudice, ideology
  • language, meaning, metaphor, codes
  • social construction, discourse
  • essence, nature
  • causality, linearity, circularity, oscillation

This was one of a number of possible such analytical webs which provided opportunities to position, and draw understandings from, the various accounts told as tales by the various people encountered.

There is a sense in which each tale made little sense on its own and that it was only when the tales were reflected upon as an interacting set that they began to make more sense – paralleling the notion that it is only when individuals interact, using language as a powerful tool, that patterns of meanings get constructed and reinforced.

Any framework of meanings, drawn from reflecting on the accounts, became an accounting system through which it was possible to begin to glimpse the collective perspectives of the community of respondents. Connections were then made between individual tales, interpersonal understandings and collective definitions of realities. This kind of ongoing analysis, through sifting over and over to uncover the interconnections, is a process similar to knowledge-archaeology. Similar constructions and reconstructions of common understandings of community have been researched elsewhere[10].

The outcome of this will, hopefully, be a better understanding of how a range of influences can emerge into prominence, inhibitions or encouragements within the varying structuring of people’s understandings of themselves, their perceptions of others and their abilities to operate in non-linear webs of emerging potentials.

A sample of the data tales from this on-the-side strand of research is simply presented elsewhere on this site. They are offered here, however, as raw accounts with no attempt at this stage to describe the wider conclusions or undertake further substantial analysis.

Since the analysis has not been fully worked through, this interim publication is not easy to classify. It is not a research paper, in the traditional sense, written within the constraints of refining it down to a set of conclusions as a published piece of research. At the other extreme, however, nor is it a simple journalistic reporting of a set of ‘a day in the life of …’  accounts meant to be read once and discarded.

The research recordings are presented here as accounts to be reflected upon appropriately by each individual reader. This opportunity is offered in a spirit of joint exploration, offering an invitation to readers: Make of it all what you will. In this way readers of the accounts are drawn in as co-researchers.

I shall, of course, continue with my own analyses and refinement of the web/framework outlined earlier and shall, in time, publish my own insights. Others may begin to do their own thinking and draw their own conclusions after a sustained reading of the accounts.

Others may end up reading these reports, knowing that others will also have read them, which opens up the potential for discussions out there in the real world (however we choose to define that). Through those real-world conversations and discussions further analysis may be possible through ongoing reflections, attempting to see patterns of patterns. The way forward in all of this is far from clear.

It is also possible to imagine someone (albeit maybe with little else to do) setting up activities dedicated to discussing and analysing these Tales. It is also possible to imagine such reflections finding their way into seminars and content of various courses. In a number of ways the ongoing analysis could spread itself as a distributed activity, done day by day, with no certain ways forward.

This kind of ongoing interconnectedness of reflection on the tales, through linked systems of systems, gives a somewhat unique edge to the work. It is offered here in a spirit of adventure. Make of it what you will.


[1] Blumer, H. (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method, Berkley: University of California Press

[2] Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Chandler; (1980) Mind and Nature, Bantam Books; (1991) A Sacred Unity, Harper Collins

[3] Burr, V. (2003) Social Constructionism .London: Routledge

[4] Krippendorff, K. (1998) Ecological Narratives:Reclaiming the Voice of the Other, at www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/krippendorff/ECONOLOGY

[5] For a discussion of the issues associated with participant observer research methodology see Robson, C. (2002) Real World Research, Oxford: Blackwell

[6] ‘Interesting’ here is purely a subjective judgment, but one made in the light of what might count as really-useful research knowledge.

[7] Goldreich, O. Complexity theory at www.wisdom.weizmann.ac.il/~oded/cc.html; Bovet, DP and Crescenzi, ,P (1994) Introduction to the Theory of Complexity. London ;Prentice Hall: Taylor, M.C. (2001) The Moment of Complexity. Chicago: Univ ofChicago Press

[8] Coverley, M. (2006) Psychogeography, Pocket Essentials; Stein, H. F .(1987) Developmental Time, Cultural Space: Studies in Psychogeography. Univ of Oklahoma Press

[9] Hubble, N (2006) Mass Observation and Everyday Life, PalgraveMacmillan; See www.massobs.org.uk; see also wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass-Observation

[10] Bateson G. (1996) The Social Construction and reconstruction of Community, PhD Thesis, University of Central England (Now UCB). Birmingham