The World of An Insignificant Woman

Over the past year, I’ve been working on a creative publishing challenge I set myself. It’s time to blog about it here and draw a line under the project.

A few years ago, my parents showed me a faded typed manuscript of a memoir, The World of an Insignificant Woman. It was written in the mid 1980’s by my grandfather’s sister, Catherine Thackray, about their parents and family. It is based in a large part on the handwritten memoirs and letters of my great-grandmother, Hilda Marjory Sharp (born 1882).

In recent years I’ve taken a particular interest in new forms of publishing. I drink in the columns of Cory Doctorow and the experiments of James Bridle (two London-based thinkers I have had the pleasure of meeting a few times, through English PEN and Free Word Centre activities). The potential of print-on-demand and eBook publishing is huge, and I had begun to think seriously about getting in on the micro-publishing action.

Continue reading “The World of An Insignificant Woman”

All Over Bar The Shouting?

A few days ago I tweeted the following:

I know I should be glued to #Leveson analysis, just have the feeling that it will all play out as it should without me. Passive politics.

A few people asked me about this, and suggested I should care more about this most important of issues.

To be clear, I was not doubting how important the Leveson Inquiry is, or the significance of the scandal(s) he is investigating. Rather, I just have a sense that the issue has reached something of an apotheosis, and that a better order of things will now inevitably result. Henry Porter’s column today captures my thinking:

We can take heart that Murdoch is already finished as a political force here, that the record of his morbid influence is being settled and serious crimes will be prosecuted. What we have to focus on now is protecting our democracy from the influence of such a character again.

Porter goes on to say that there are still questions left unanswered – for Alex Salmond and for Jeremey Hunt, in particular – but I think we can now be confident that those charged with getting to the bottom of this now have the political and moral clout to pursue these issues to their conclusion. A far cry from the days when Tom Watson MP was mocked for his obsession with phone-hacking at News of the World.

On The Censorship of Cricket

The thing that caught my ear this morning was the cricket scores. England are on tour, playing Pakistan… in Abu Dhabi. The English cricketers cannot travel to play in actual Pakistan due to security threats.

This echoes the problems experienced by delegates to the Jaipur Literary Festival last weekend. Threats of violence (real and imagined) kept Salman Rushdie away from the podium, and even derailed a planned video-link appearance.

In both cases, the threats of a few reactionaries are spoiling the chances of ordinary people to enjoy their preferred leisure activities. In both these cases they are Islamists, although Hindu Nationalists are guilty of similar ad hoc censorship of artists such as the late M.F. Hussain.

But anyway, my half-formed thought is this: I wonder to what degree the practice of sport might be considered ‘expression’ in the same way as we think of writing as expression? The elegance of Sport is often likened to dance, which undeniably a form of artistic expression. And dancers are routinely referred to as ‘athletes’ with similar fitness regimes. The need for an audience is common to both groups too. If an audience is barred from a performance, then that is an infringement of the artist’s freedom of expression. Is not the barring the Pakistani cricket fans from the games (by virtue of the games being played in another country) a similar infringement?

The problem is not experienced by the players. Since Pakistan has a proud cricketing heritage, with millions of enthusiasts. Denying these fans the ritual of test matches feels like a denial of their cultural expression too. The Islamic fundamentalists are demanding that their conception of Pakistan trumps any other ideas of what is important.

This is probably an old conversation for Pakistani cricket fans. Yet it is seldom discussed here in the UK. The fact that the Test Match venue has been moved to Dubai is not remarked upon by the sports reporters. I think it is a useful issue to highlight, because if these similarities between art and sport hold up, then that would be a very useful point for free expression campaigners to insert into the campaigning rhetoric. One assumes there are more sport-lovers than literature-lovers.

Gingrich, Bin Laden, and Issac Asimov

Apparently, the megalomaniac tendencies that many perceive in Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich are inspired by Iassac Asimov:

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Newt Gingrich is from the planet Trantor, a fictional world created by Isaac Asimov in his classic Foundation series about galactic empire. Newt’s master plan for America does not come from a Republican Party playbook. It comes from the science fiction that he read in high school. He is playing out, on a national and global scale, dreams he had as a teenager with his nose buried in pulp fiction.

I haven’t read the Foundation series, but I gather it involves grand master plans for the whole galaxy, put into practice by a dedicated bunch of benevolent intellectuals. I know this, because series has been cited as influential on another ideologue – Osama Bin Laden. The phrase ‘Al Qaida’ literally means The Base, or Foundation

On the surface, the most improbable explanation of the name is that Bin Laden was somehow inspired by a Russian-born writer who lived most of his life in the US and was once the world’s most prolific sci-fi novelist (born in 1920 in Smolensk, Asimov died in New York in 1992). But the deeper you dig, the more plausible it seems that al-Qaida’s founders may have borrowed some rhetoric from Foundation and its successors (it became a series) and possibly from other science fiction material.

Now, I am not for one moment suggesting that there is an intellectual link between Osama Bin Laden and Newt Gingrich. To make that connection would be to unfairly libel Issac Asimov. However, the fanatical American Right are usually happy to make tenuous links for political smears (Sarah Palin’s quip that Obama was “palling around with terrorists” the most high profile example). So part of me would love to see Gingrich hoisted by that petard!

Niall Ferguson threatens to sue Mishra

Author Niall Ferguson, who says he has been smeared by Pankaj Mishra. Photo by he Aspen Institute - Creative Commons Licence.
Author Niall Ferguson, who says he has been smeared by Pankaj Mishra. Photo by the Aspen Institute - Creative Commons Licence.

Oh dear.

A couple of weeks ago this blog praised the historian Niall Ferguson for keeping his acrimonius war of words with Pankaj Mishra on the letters page of the London Review of Books, and not in the High Court.

But yesterday we hear that Ferguson is threatening legal action, which rather undermines my point about the classiness of ‘counter-speech’ over legal threats.

I can see how Ferguson would want to pursue this issue to its conclusion.  I imagine there are few things more shocking for a historian and political commentator than to be accused of racism.  To demand satisfaction is a natural reaction.  However, reading Mishra’s review of Ferguson’s book again, the words written do seem to sit very much within the realm of opinion. It seems to me that a successful defamation claim by Ferguson would set a very worrying precedent for the future.

Radio Litopia: A Town Named Sue

The Litopia online writers colony broadcasts several weekly podcasts on various aspects of writing and literature.  I was invited onto the Debriefer show, presented by Donna Ballman, to discuss the pressing issue of libel reform.

You can listen to my dulcit tones right here.  If it leaves you inspired, you can always head over to www.libelreform.org to find out how you can help the campaign.

Royal Courts of Justice. Photo by Yrstrly off of Flicker.
Royal Courts of Justice. Photo by Yrstrly off of Flicker.

 

A simple idea to help the pro-democracy movement in #Egypt: Publish

Tahrir Square – “The biggest think-tank in the Middle East”

In the Western world, there is much hand-wringing over just how our people and governments can help the people of Egypt get a better government.  Since we are viewed as part of the problem, any interventions (either supporting the Mubarak regime, or condemining it more forcefully) will likely make matters worse.  So for now, we hear slightly patronising platitudes about how the Egyptian people “must decide for themselves” followed by cautionary tales of radical Islam in the very next breath.

There is one way in which Western nations – or rather, the people civil society groups in those nations – could help the pro-democracy groups, and that is by publishing their message.  With communications still slow and unreliable in Egypt itself, the messages of What They Actually Want are patchy, stilted, and vulnerable to pro-Mubarak spin.

In Tahrir Square, just over one hour ago, Mostafa Hussein sends out the following message:

Tahrir square is the biggest brainstorming & think-tank in the middle east and possible the world now. #egypt #jan25

Well then: how about the people of Europe and North America, with their unrivalled and unfettered communications network, publish the preliminary findings of this new think-tank?

I do not mean “Let’s publish thoughts of Egyptian journalists and analysts” or “thoughts of Arab writers” or “eye witness accounts of what is happening”.   I mean, why not publish the debates and discussions of those in the square right now.

Now, I actually think that a book is the right medium for this.  Something that has been formally published and can exist in printed form has a certain authority and weight (literally and metaphorically) that these ideas need.  TV interviews and news reports are two-a-penny and far too transient, as are blogs, YouTube Channels and Twitter feeds.  A book on the otherhand – even a short book – can step outside the river of news and become something more tangible and influential.  It will be something other than the charter of the Muslim Brotherhood, that everyone can point to as an alternative to Mubarak and his henchmen.

With the new digital inventions at our fingertips, there are no technical barriers to doing this.  Initiatives like The Benjamin Franklin Project have shown that the free tools on the Internet are all that is required to gather and publish news and views.  And the means to pull content together are already in operation down on Tahrir Square.  Lulu.com allows you to publish a proper book, with an ISBN and a listing on Amazon, almost on a whim.

So, how about a British or American civil society group offers to spend until the end of this week managing the project, and undertakes to publish the book, in English, to an international audience.  I am thinking of a projects of the scope of The New Liberal Arts project – short essays.  I reckon think tanks like Demos, or the Fabian Society have the capacity to pull this off… or maybe a forward think news organisation like OpenDemocracy, The Guardian, or The Atlantic?

Update

A couple of PEN members may be putting this together with their contacts in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Libya!  Get in touch via the comments if you would like to help.

Prime Numbers and BASIC

I am reading Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter.  First published in 1979, the author discusses various systems – mathematical, visual and musical, which somehow manage to talk about themselves.  This self-reference, says the author, is one of the key ingredients for intelligence.

Much of the book so far has been taken up with explaining some key elements of number theory, and Hofstadter includes lengthy digressions on programming, and loops of operations nested within others.  It inspired me to find a BBC BASIC emulator and write a little programme that finds prime numbers.  Here is what I came up with:

10 CLS
20 PRINT "LIMIT";
30 INPUT L
40 FOR N = 3 TO L
50    FOR D = 2 TO (N-1)
60      IF N/D=INT(N/D) THEN GOTO 100
70    NEXT D
80    PRINT N;
90    GOTO 110
100   PRINT ".";
110 NEXT N
120 END

This programme asks you for a number, and it will search for prime numbers up to and including the number you give.  If it finds a prime, it prints it, otherwise it just prints a dot.  I chose this method of output so that one has a visual representation of how primes are distributed throughout the natural numbers, and it is easy to spot Twin Primes.

Since we’re thinking about self-reference, I might as well make an observations about this post, which is that it will probably succeed in alienating everyone.  Those with no interest in maths and coding will likely think I am being terribly geeky.  Meanwhile, those who do take an interest in such things will scoff at the incredible simplicity of my coding ambitions.  Already one wag in the office has asked me why I don’t print all the discovered primes in an array…

The output from my programme.

Chimanmanda Adichie's Single Story

An interesting TED talk by the novellist Chimamanda Adichie on the power of stories, and how a multitude of stories are required in order to fully understand other people.

Key quote is thirteen minutes into the speech:

I have always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person, without engaging with all the stories of that place and that person.  The consequence of the Single Story is this: It robs people of dignity.  It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.  It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.

That’s my kind of multiculturalism.

The Bookseller of Kabul

Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian author, has been successfully sued in Norway over her book Bookseller of Kabul.  It is a fictionalised account of her time staying with a family in Afghanistan, and much of the family’s private life is laid bare for the reader in unflattering detail.

On Comment is Free, journalist Conor Foley lays in to Seierstad, outlining the social faux pas she has committed:

Some may argue that freedom of artistic expression should be completely divorced from such political considerations. However, a writer who chooses to use a conflict as the background for their work cannot plead cultural immunity when real life intrudes on the result.

Indeed.  But being stung, criticised and discredited for failing to respect cultural norms should not be punished in a civil or criminal court.   Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, explains in the Independent why this development is a worry:

That’s not to say that Seierstad has not broken an unwritten code of hospitality, or that the Rais family has not faced problems as a result of the book’s publication. Although Rais himself continues to operate a successful business out of Kabul, his first wife has sought asylum in Canada and other members of the family are now living in Pakistan. But is this discrepancy in the fates of the male and female members of the family the fault of a Norwegian journalist – or Afghan society? Is it appropriate for a Norwegian court to punish the messenger? Is a court of law the place to determine how a book treats the “honour” of an entire society?

The example that such cases set is a very bad one.  What happens when an investigative journalist wants to deliberately abuse the hospitality of an Afghan businessman, in order to expose corruption?  What if an Afghani journalist wants to make similar, off-message commentary about his countrymen.  Seierstad should certainly suffer the reputational and social hit of her insensitivity, but dragging this sort of roman a clef into the court-room is a terrible precedent for free expression.