Trinity beckons, and while April showers bring May flowers, this sort of proverbial frivolity won’t mask the less cheery fact that it’s also Finals season, which for all current third-years basically translates into crunch time in Oxspeak. Dare you expose your identity as a non-finalist in the Radcliffe Camera, and you run the risk of incurring the (rightful) wrath of your territorial elder peers, whose solemn countenances and Goliathesque notes should suffice to deter you from venturing into that ‘pressure vessel’. But you already know this, and what you just read was simply an obligatory acknowledgement (if not hazard warning) of the fact that finalists are stressed so, provoke them at your peril. What you probably don’t know, however, is that meanwhile the librarians in there are wondering why on earth students only ever approach them when they need directions to the printer, because news flash: These people aren’t glacial automatons whose job begins with telling you to put away that Morton’s flat white and ends by checking out Siegelbaum’s Stalinism as a Way of Life. Not quite, and just because they work in a dome-shaped factory of academic toil doesn’t mean that they are necessarily walking zombies of Grimville. “These days, students don’t tend to talk to the librarians, which is a bit strange. What they really should do is approach us with their research ideas,” says Jed Foland, a library assistant-cum-history tutor at the Rad Cam (What a mate, definitely taking him up on that offer come dissertation prep). I recently spoke to him about what the view is like from the other side of the pond, and apart from wangling the mandatory ‘A Day in the Life of’ and behind-the-desk skinny from Jed, I made some interesting discoveries about library science, Bodleian mechanics and what it’s like leading the ultimate scholarly life as a tutor by day and a librarian by night. Here’s a little teaser: It’s not so much about books as it is about you – the reader.
When asked how he first got into the field of librarianship, Jed chuckled and said, “I’ve always loved books and wanted to become a history professor, so when I heard that the History faculty was hiring a part-time assistant to shelve books, I applied – and there’s never been a dull moment ever since I started five years ago.” His passion for the job was at once contagious and electric, as evidenced by the frisson of delight in the way he referred to the “nerdy academic je ne sais quoi” of Oxford. Yet it wasn’t until he started working in the company of books galore that the irony hit him: Being a librarian is primarily about customer service, and it’s more important for one to acquire communication skills than to memorise a modern-day Bibliotheca Universalis. As the guy who’s usually at the front desk tending to patron’s queries, Jed is one of the ‘public faces’ of the Bod, and while we have the liberty to punctuate work with Facebook procrastination sessions, he’s always working away on that Staff Desk computer, either going through faculty-prescribed syllabi and making sure that the reading lists are well stocked in the database, or organising thesis fairs and workshops for students at the Exam Schools – that is, when he’s not shelving books in the Gladstone Link, ensuring ready access to reading materials or showing students how to navigate the nuts and bolts of the Bod. True to the Oxonian ethos, he’s constantly on his feet and there’s never enough work to be done. “Every time your professor adds a new text to the syllabus, it is our job to find, purchase, process and eventually place it on the shelf for use. While we are the ones making sure that the books are constantly moving back and forth between the Swindon Book Storage Facility (BSF) and the Rad Cam, the more senior librarians spend a lot of their time liaising and planning the logistics.” To think that so much work goes into the situational mechanics of just one book in the library makes me recoil a bit in sheepishness, since I’m a faithful member of the voracious book-hoarding tribe that tends to unthinkingly yank a book off from the shelves only to realise that whoops, I won’t be needing it today after all so I’ll just leave it there on the table. In the morning, Jed gives tutorials on the history of science, medicine and biology (my sleuth work also tells me that his doctoral thesis was on Enlightenment microscopy), which means that he literally works round the clock save for Sundays. This dual identity at times leads to comic encounters between ‘Dr Foland’ and his students in the Upper Camera: “I would literally be scanning books next to the students who I’ve tutored an hour ago, and they’d be sitting there, writing an essay – for me.” How bizarre, I rejoined nervously. “It’s probably more so for them, I reckon. But I think that’s what a library should be: a place where students and teachers can work in the company of one another.”
Despite his love for working in the presence of students, there are nonetheless aspects to being a Bodleian librarian that are not as pleasant. For starters, having to deal with tourists on a regular basis can be annoying, especially for the one working at the front desk, who often has to play porter and ward off unauthorised visitors or anyone without that sacred Bod card. Tourists aren’t even allowed to peek through the crevice and take photos of the Rad Cam’s interior, because that would invade the privacy of students. And don’t try to pull a fast one on the staff by giving someone else your card, because their super-sharp radars will pick up on this and “report” you to the authorities (on the grounds that your card has been stolen). The issue of tourism is a tricky dilemma, and Jed is aware of the nuances at stake in the debate: “At the end of the day, tourists are important, both to the town’s economy and the Bodleian’s image. Still, we don’t want this to be a public reading room where anyone can casually go in and out. It is, after all, a university library.” While the Rad Cam is the iconic emblem of Oxford (as the postcards on sale in High Street newsagents will attest to), a flip side is that it has also taken on a mantle of establishmentarianism, and whenever there are protests or strikes, dissenters against whatever administrative follies will circumvent this first port of ‘siege’. Ever since the 2010 Bodleian take-over in response to the coalition government’s tuition fee-rise policy, more stringent security measures have been implemented; for instance, the library would hire more guards before an impending protest movement. “But as far as we’re concerned, students, academics and books are the most crucial things.”
With this imperative of scholarship in mind, Jed expressed another source of frustration for the Bodleian, which is the problem with limited funding. “Say if we wanted to subscribe to a top American academic journal, this would have to depend on whether or not enough money has been allocated to the item in the budget. The Americans have become a lot stricter about copyright restrictions in recent years, and nowadays professors can’t just photocopy or post on Weblearn any American book or journal document, and so they must either get permission from the publisher or refrain from using that specific text as class material. This is a real detriment to education, because it isn’t possible for one to always be in the right university at the right time.” That there are still such barriers to learning is indeed a real shame, especially in a digital age where ‘egalitarian’ dissemination of knowledge should be a principle pursuit in academia. Yet while Jed laments this obstacle, he is also optimistic about its remedy. “The way to go about this is through the academics and librarians themselves; every good academic or librarian I know of will bend over backwards to get you the information you need, simply because they are so passionate about what they do.” So how would he deal with a situation wherein the information someone requests isn’t available on SOLO? “If I’m familiar with the topic, I will recommend something else of equal merit or use. Alternatively, I or my colleagues could show them where to get a review of the work they were looking for.”
Ultimately, the Bodleian staff is equipped with the ability and know-how to blend librarianship and academics, which for Jed is where their real edge lies in. Students would no doubt benefit from an awareness of this fact: librarians aren’t just latter-day Ariadnes who can show you the way out of the Gladstone Labyrinth or decipher enigmatic call numbers purposely designed to aggravate your stress levels. Instead, they are scholars who would willingly answer your dissertation queries or offer research suggestions, because as Jed puts it cheekily, “we’re smart cookies.” Indeed, and we’d be fools not to utilise this readily accessible intellectual resource. At the end of the day, the library’s book-people dichotomy goes both ways: For librarians, it is about catering to students’ needs with recourse to texts, whereas for students, it should be about seeking academic help from both fronts, be it in the form of books or a shelver of books (who most likely has a masters/doctorate). Just don’t let any of them catch you red-handed with a kebab in the Gladstone Link, because chances are, he or she might be your next tutor – and that’s hardly the way to make a great first impression.
So I chatted to the managing editor of Glamour magazine the other day and she was great. Helen Placito, comfortably dressed, easy to talk to and totally down to earth was not necessarily what you’d expect from the managing editor of one of Britain’s top fashion magazines and she went some way to restoring my faith in the industry.
Women’s magazines like Glamour often come under a lot of criticism for promoting ideals that real women can never live up to. But Helen defends Glamour: “We’re very empowering; we do like to celebrate women”. She admits that “it’s very glamorous” but suggests that “we’re also very attainable”. One of her favourite celebrities recently featured by Glamour is Kate Winslet; “She’s had a lot of criticism recently because of having different children with different fathers. It’s nice to take someone who’s been slandered and celebrate them for who they are.” This philosophy largely governs Glamour’s attitude towards photoshopping too: “We try to limit how much we retouch. We’d never make someone thinner or fatter. We might sort out untidy hairs, redness, that kind of thing.” On the other hand, “there are lots of meetings at Number Ten concerning body image. Ministers tend to think women’s magazines are the root of all evil.” Yet Glamour often surprises people: “people judge us very unfairly. Sometimes those who attack us haven’t even read the magazine!”
And to their credit, Glamour “try not to talk about diets, but rather healthy living”. “We celebrate the fact that we were the first women’s magazine to put Adele on the cover. We talk about curvy girls – we run pieces on what to wear if you’re slim, what to wear if you’re curvy etc.” Helen mentions some weekly magazines as examples of where women’s magazine have gone wrong: “I look at them and can’t believe what they put on their covers. There’ll be a picture of a woman with a red circle round her thigh – I couldn’t do that as a day job.” “It’s like the Daily Mail online – it’s awful. I hate it. But people can’t get enough of that stuff, it’s a mystery. I hate the Mail online, but I love it at the same time.”
On the other hand, this is not something Glamour will ever subscribe to: “the most important thing is to remember your audience, don’t alienate her”. Precisely who Glamour sees as their audience, is a woman “late 20s to early 30s, but really we’re read by a huge age range; it is very much a general interest magazine, we cover fashion, beauty, celebrity, relationships, health – the lot. While it’s not targeted to someone who is married with kids, of course, we value all our readers!” And Glamour is doing very well at appealing to their target audience, significantly better than many magazines. When I ask Helen, for example, why Cosmopolitan – a magazine she worked at for six years – hasn’t kept up, she replies; “I don’t know. It has an amazing history. But I think it kind of lost its focus in a way. It’s very sex-driven. Some of it is quite filthy!”
Yet Glamour is not without its problems; the print culture to which it belongs is one that is rapidly going out of fashion. Helen retains a positive attitude about this though: “415,000 people still buy the magazine. I hesitate to say it’s dying out. People are still buying magazines, but there’s a lot more of them out there, never mind what’s on the web! But we are aware that our readership is declining slowly…If you’re lucky enough to work for a rich company like ours [Conde Nast] then you can experiment. But as a business model it’s tough, it’s really tough. It’s something we talk about every day in the office.” Asked about Glamour’s future then, Helen explains that “we’re actively targeting our subscribers. It’s hard to know but I think people will always love picking up a magazine, whether to read on the tube or in the bath. And Glamour sells 415,000 a month on print and only around 5,000 on tablet – but this is a new area, compared to print, and we obviously hope to increase that number hugely!”
One of the problems is that “everyone wants things for free nowadays. There’s an expectation that everything should be free. It’s crazy…tempting, but crazy.” Discussing The Daily Telegraph, Helen explains: “Their readership is literally dying out – it’ll probably still exist in 20 years but it’ll be entirely digital I think and they must know that.” The only way to stay successful in print culture is to be very smart: “If you’re smart, you’ve got to be appealing to everyone. Everyone is working harder; everyone’s pay is either the same or less. The ‘90s boom is over. It’s all a bit more hard work now.” This means that a lot of people leave places like Glamour, “jump ship and go into retail, because that’s where the money is”. But “a lot of those people have come back, because they just don’t find it interesting. We’re all very cynical about that in magazines, ‘who’s going to pick that up?!’ we joke. People are attracted by the higher salaries by I think they miss the creative buzz.”
But money is a real issue for anyone involved in the journalism industry and one of the questions I ask Helen is how often she is forced to suspend ethical judgement for financial considerations: “I’d love to say I never suspend ethical principles, but I do it every day, we all do, and not just at work. I mean, once you start questioning promoting fashion and beauty brands, you can get into all sorts of ethical questions, but ultimately people have free will, and they are free to buy or not. Likewise with the magazine”. But “beauty is our big driver – it’s what makes us our money”. And this is my next question for Helen – what kind of power advertisers wield over content in the magazine. “We don’t always love the ads in Glamour, no magazine does. I mean we joke about it but…you do have to question whether you can turn money down.” On the other hand, when there is something Glamour feels really strongly about, financial concerns are secondary; “Jo [Elvin, editor of Glamour] feels quite strongly about not having feminine hygiene adverts in the magazine”, for example.
Conde Nast, as an umbrella company, however, has come under criticism before for putting financial considerations before other more important concerns. They got in trouble in the US for not paying their interns anything at all, something Helen describes as “terrible”. On the other hand, how to manage those on work experience or internships, is “tricky”. “Most magazines have tons of work experience people who are being paid the minimum wage or not being paid at all and are doing real jobs. I feel really bad about it [...]No one at Conde Nast works for free, I do know that much.” “There’s just too many of you. I read all these applications letters and I know they’d all be good at it but we can’t accept everyone.” Helen explains: “I get a lot of letters saying, ‘I’d like to work at Elle magazine’. Often just being correct, professional and friendly makes you stand out. But the talent and experience is endless!”
Everyone is desperate to get into this industry. So what are the details of such a job, why is it so appealing? “I leave the office at 5.30 most days. And I rarely take work home – I’m very lucky, I realise that; at the start of my career this was not the case, I worked very long hours. This applies to our whole office pretty much – we don’t encourage late-night working. I am of the opinion that it’s just a fashion magazine and if you’re there at midnight every day there’s something wrong. It’s not that hard, we’re not running the country or solving the Ukraine crisis.” How serious is it all then? “I do think it’s serious, we work hard and are very professional and I think we produce a great product. But it’s actually supposed to make you feel better. We’ve covered the financial crisis, the Middle East, you name it. We like to surprise our readers sometimes! I think it’s important to know what you’re doing. Ultimately, it’s meant to make you feel good about yourself.”
“Of course – I’d be delighted to give an interview. But could we do it over some wine? There’s nothing like a drink after the adrenaline rush of giving a talk.” Seeing him perk up at the suggestion that we conduct the interview in the bar, I follow Blackburn down the stairs in the direction of the Union’s plush leather sofas, and perch myself on the edge of one as he sinks back into another. Merlot in hand, Blackburn is ready to philosophise. It’s a nice clue of what is to come – this is a philosopher ruthlessly committed to the rigorous pursuit of truth, but also to maintaining the levity, humour and theatre that have made him so popular.
Blackburn writes philosophy books for the general public like Think, Being Good, Lust and Truth. The first of these, Think, is an accessible exposition of the issues and arguments which have made up the philosophical canon since Socrates. It is also tremendously popular, on which point Blackburn wryly remarks: “When I’ve had to interview candidates for philosophy at Cambridge, it’s been somewhat embarrassing to have my own words thrown back at me”. In fact, we are at one point interrupted by someone who thanks Professor Blackburn “for getting [him] into Oxford”. Like most people who know of Blackburn, I found him (and the rest of philosophy) through this book, and I might have expected him to take some pride in popularising philosophy. But he balks when one questioner describes him as a “populariser” (as most people probably would). “I don’t popularise philosophy,” Blackburn insists. “I don’t bring philosophy to people; I bring people to it. I’d be mortified if anyone could show that in any of my work I’d said that anything was ‘simple’.”
He may not like the label ‘populariser’, but he nonetheless talks with some excitement about philosophy getting more popular. When I ask him whether he thinks he and his peers have had any success in bringing this about, he allows himself a little cautious optimism. “Statistically, there’s evidence that it’s working,” he says – but this was not always so. “I remember the first time I ever spoke at a literary festival, there was this huge queue and I thought: ‘Good Lord; there’s so much interest in philosophy from the general public!’ It turns out the huge queue was actually for Norman Mailer who was speaking in the next tent, and the queue for me was rather small”. Suspecting that many in his audience had got lost on the way to Mailer’s talk, he quips that he had to break the news to a modest crowd of disappointed festival-goers that that he had “never slept with Ernest Hemingway or bought ten rounds with Marilyn Monroe”. (He has evidently had some pretty intimate chats with Norman Mailer though).
Blackburn’s commitment to writing for the general public goes hand in hand with a little apathy towards the world of university academia. After 21 years teaching at Pembroke (Oxford), he resigned his post in 1990 – somewhat ironically, he felt like his increasing interest in education “was pretty much incompatible with living the life of an Oxford tutor”. Though he found himself unable to keep out of Oxbridge academia for very long, assuming a post at The Other Place in 2001, he is at his most vituperative when talking about academia and academics. Writing a few years ago about the arbitrary ways in which journals grade submissions with “stars”, he mused: “What kind of star would Socrates have got? He never wrote a thing. No measurable output at all. Rubbish.” A similar sort of wry sarcasm emerges when he’s quizzed about problems in contemporary philosophy. One questioner asks: “Would you redirect the train”? He’s referencing a Philippa Foot’s classic trolley problem: there’s a train hurtling towards five people tied to the track, and you have the option to redirect it to a track with only one person tied down. In a more extreme version, you have the option to push a fat man in front of the train, inevitably killing him but also stopping the train from killing the five lucky people strapped to the track ahead. For Blackburn, the question bears so little resemblance to any real-life situation as to render it trivial. With a mischievous smile, he quotes Elizabeth Anscombe: “I’ll blow up the track and kill the lot of them”.
Whilst he doesn’t talk with great affection about philosophical academia in its present state, he is keen not to shrug off its weightier elements. The zombie problem is a philosophical issue that became important in the 1990s: how do I know that those around me are conscious beings and not automatons that behave just like conscious beings – how do I know they’re not zombies? And if it’s conceivable that they are zombies, what is it about me that makes me conscious whilst they are not? When I ask Blackburn about this, I expect him to brush it off as a colourful distraction that modern philosophers have constructed to give them new publishing opportunities on a familiar problem. But he won’t hear of it. “I think that there’s a very deep human and potentially catastrophic side to that problem,” he says. “It’s not just a kooky puzzle for the intelligentsia. I’m prepared to believe that of some philosophical problems. But the zombie problem calls into question our sense of ourselves amongst other people, and that can go catastrophically wrong.” But, as in a number of issues we discuss in the course of the evening, he finds the answer not in new literature but buried in the canon. “I think Wittgenstein made what is still very under-appreciated, and the key contribution to that problem, which is to say: ‘If you’re worried about other people being zombies, why aren’t you worried about yourself yesterday?’”.
Whilst Blackburn will talk with some deference about certain philosophers, he is unashamedly caustic about the attempts of some popular scientists to close the book on philosophical questions. In his talk, he reserves his best material for Richard Dawkins. “The more noise scientists make denigrating philosophy, the worse they are at it. As a work of philosophy,” he says, “The Selfish Gene is absurd. The idea that we can ‘teach ourselves to be nice because nature has made us nasty’ is a completely insane view of the relationship between mind and body. To say whether I’m selfish as a result of my genes, you need to know history, anthropology, philosophy – biology can’t tell you shit about it.”
As Blackburn is, by his own admission, pretty well aligned with Dawkins on the God question, I’m expecting a more sympathetic response when I ask him if he identifies as a ‘New Atheist’. His reply is almost stern: “No. The whole framework in which Dawkins presents the philosophy of religion is misguided, and was shown to be misguided by Hume. For Dawkins, religion is a matter of false beliefs about what exists. I don’t think that’s adequate to either the sociology or the psychology of religion. Anthropologists – I’m thinking particularly of Durkheim – have a much subtler understanding of what religion actually means in people’s lives. It’s a set of activities (often with a very sinister aspect, like death or sacrifice) that are very effective at welding people into units of congregation. The essence of the thing isn’t about making you believe in something or other.” Now he turns his analytical artillery to one of Dawkins’ own favourite philosophical tropes: Russell’s teapot. The idea is that you can no more easily disprove the existence of God than the existence of a celestial teapot between Earth and Mars, but nobody would require a disbeliever in the latter to present any evidence. “Well yes,” says Blackburn, but belief in the teapot alone is a “simply observed scientific belief.” Suppose instead that the teapot takes on a religious significance – it becomes “a focus of morality, a ritual, an object of sacred texts and so on. After that, it doesn’t matter a shit whether there’s a teapot or not.”
Blackburn is not shy about maligning other thinkers – the attack on Dawkins is the fourth time in the evening he declares that an author’s question or argument “doesn’t matter a shit”. But he somehow seems to get away with being quite so rude about other writers just by being quite so rude about them – it comes with such a sense of good fun and sardonic theatre that it’s difficult not to feel like you’re on his side. Crucially, though, he also makes you think you’re on his side – his arguments are precise, his illustrations powerful and his approach thorough. When he takes on the objective of persuading the masses to get interested in the philosophy, it’s easy to see why they’re convinced. So when I see a Union committee member give me the smile and thumbs up to signal that our time is up, I slip in, almost apologetically, the obligatory last question: “any advice for aspiring philosophers?” He simply replies: “Follow your nose”. For those philosophy students whose nose also leads them straight to the bar, this endorsement can only be good news.
For the last twenty years, the Catweazle Club has presented a weekly event for musicians, poets, storytellers and performers of any kind. As a space for free expression and experimentation, it has become the pinnacle of alternative entertainment and the best outlet for aspiring artists in Oxford.
When I arrive at the club, I am taken to the room where the Catweazle takes place. For now, it is only a simple large room with white brick walls and scattered chars. However, when I meet Matt Sage, the founder and manager of the club, he assures me that by the time I return to watch the show later in the evening it will be a very different environment.
Matt first conceived the idea for the club when he arrived in Oxford in 1994. As a singer-songwriter, it was vitally important that he had a venue where he could present his work:
“I started the Catweazle club because I needed somewhere to perform, and I needed to connect with other makers of music and poetry and spoken word. There was nothing when I arrived in Oxford. It didn’t exist.”
Matt’s ambition was to create an inclusive space for performers and audiences. His design means that the Catweazle is very different from conventional open mic nights – to start with there are no microphones.
“I wanted to get a listening space, somewhere more intimate, a more open gathering. It’s proved very successful I think. If you want to have a rowdy night out you can do that anywhere else. Here it’s a little bit more sacrosanct than that.”
The idea was born when Matt was growing up, attending similar evenings in London at the Troubadour in Earls Court. “It was my spiritual home. I really took an ember from that fire and started a new fire here in Oxford.”
The greatest feature of the club is that performances are not limited to a particular style or genre, Matt explains “we get on average every week between 15 and twenty performers doing a couple of songs, a poem, a story, a dance, anything. So after 19 years we’ve seen thousands of things. Anything and everything.”
Nineteen years is a long time, and the live scene in Oxford has changed tremendously over the years. I ask if he has watched the scene develop. “Hugely. I know that a lot of nights have started by people coming to Catweazle. People who think they could do it better or differently and now there’s lots of nights. Every night of the week there’s two or three things happening.”
Ultimately the Catweazle is for anyone and everyone. Their mission and ethos is to celebrate the creativity of artists and offer a setting where that can be shared. Plenty of musicians and writers have performed in the club since its conception including Sam Willets, an Oxford based poet, whose book New Light for the Old Dark was shortlisted for every award dedicated to first collections.
“Sam had never read poetry publicly before he came to Catweazle. He began to perform here and then it gave him a reason to write, something to write for, an occasion to build up to. He has said to me many a time in the past if it wasn’t for Catweazle he wouldn’t have been writing poetry.”
When I return later on to watch the event, Matt has kept his promise; the setting has completely altered. The space is now decorated with candles and cushions, creating the aesthetic of a Moroccan den which gives the room an instant atmosphere.
One of the things I am most struck by is the respect given to the performers by the audience. When someone gets up to read or play, the room goes instantly quiet – this is certainly no rock concert – and the attention afforded to their work could not be more appreciative. The variety of acts on this night alone was surprising; I listen to the music of a psychedelic duo, a story teller who creates a modern feminist fable, and even an acoustic performance from Matt himself.
So if you’re a budding artist and want to observe Oxford’s growing live scene, the Catweazle club is the best place to exhibit your work. Its old fashioned variety style and non-judgemental environment is perhaps the most intimate listening space you will be able to find.
Catweazle takes place on Thursdays at 8pm (performers arrive by 7:30pm) at the East Oxford Social Club in Cowley.
Performance poetry – poetry read or performed in front of a live audience – has seen a remarkable rise in popularity over recent years. Although many cynics believe that poetry has become a dying art form, the spoken-word scene has spread rapidly throughout the English speaking world. Thanks to the growing phenomenon of “Poetry Slam” competitions, large scale events such as the “Woodstock Poetry Festival” and a range of venues hosting public performances, the performance poetry scene has the potential to dominate the arts sphere. In order to acquire a better understanding of this developing form of entertainment, I decided to talk a student poet about his work and experience of the poetry scene here in Oxford.
Nick Hampson, a student at New College, began his artistic career as a poetic songwriter after being greatly influenced by North American musicians like Leonard Cohen and Conor Oberst. He soon became interested in writing poetry and the way this ties in with performance: “I was in Edinburgh this summer for the fringe festival and Patti Smith, iconic rock legend, and Philip Glass, American minimalism/film composer, were doing a homage to Ginsberg, such that Smith would read his poems and Glass would accompany her. It was one of the most moving and profound artistic displays I had ever seen and it instantly got me thinking of ways in which I could include spoken word poetry into the work that I do as a songwriter”.
When composing poetry for performance, he tells me that one of the most difficult things is “finding a voice which is your own, distinctive and unique is the most difficult thing about any art form.” Nick explains, “You have to take the voice of others and adapt it to what you do. No one is born with a voice which is totally unique and fully appropriate to one’s desired artistic output.”
Due to his role as a musician, I was interested to see how music had influenced his poetry and whether he felt there was a strong connection between the two. “There is an undeniable force which the combination of music and poetry can create, and it is something which, when left to themselves, the individual art forms find hard to consistently replicate.”
Nevertheless, he believes the best feature about spoken-word is that “every performance is different”. This has been true with many famous performance poets; the Beat generation would regularly alter lines from their poems or their style of delivery in order to suit the crowd or atmosphere. This is one of the reasons that Nick believes it’s better than traditional literature: “Written poetry is structured by the author in such a way that the form and style suggests the way in which it ought to be read. Spoken word deliberately avoids any such suggestion.”
The content of performance poetry is varied but often poets who feel comfortable enough to share their work publicly are very opinionated. Yet despite the strong political stance taken by many poets, Nick tends to avoid such subjects in his work: “As soon as politics invades your work you become ‘one of those political protest writers’” He gets around this problem by making his work “politically charged” but in a way which “avoids specific blame or controversy.”
It’s surprising how little the spoken-word scene has been noticed by academics or literary critics – but then maybe that’s the point; it’s a way of escaping mainstream print poetry and finding a voice that is new and independent. Reading has always been a strange mixture of the private and public experience, and in the modern world of electronic and self-publishing maybe performance is the best way to liberate poetry.
If you’d like to read or hear work from Nick Hampson then visit: Soundcloud.com/nickhampson
When we really boil down professional sportsmen to their bare essentials, there are two ends of the spectrum to which they will invariably fit. At one end there are those who have all the talent, all the support and all the funding to get where they need to be. At risk of incurring the further wrath of the Real Madrid President, the Cristiano Ronaldos of this world. At the other end there are those who start off from unpromising beginnings, have only so much outstanding talent but through sheer hard work and tenacity manage to make it to the top. John Amaechi certainly fits into the latter of those two categories.
Born in Boston in 1970, Amaechi and his mother fled to Manchester when he was just four years old in order to escape from his emotionally abusive father. Arriving at his grandparent’s house in Stockport with just $2,000, his father’s presence haunted the family for much of Amaechi’s upbringing. John admits that he remembers little about a man who he describes as having no more than a biological attachment to, but tells tales of threats of kidnap and his father’s infrequent appearances in the UK as he sought to wrest his children back to his native Nigeria.
Compounded by chronically low self-esteem, Amaechi was a lonely child who was bullied at school and hated sport. For the vast majority of his formative years a career in the NBA seemed about as likely as Richard Dawkins taking up the holy orders.
“My journey to get to the NBA was incredibly implausible. I was a fat kid who ate steak slices until the age of seventeen and then I changed my mind and decided to play in the NBA and there I was, playing in the NBA.”
Amaechi’s story sounds all the more unlikely when you discover that his introduction to basketball could not have been more coincidental. The much travelled NBA star was always a big kid – he now stands at 6’10” – and this was all it took to persuade two basketball coaches to approach him on a street in Manchester and ask him if he fancied taking up the sport. Dwelling on his lack of sporting prowess and aversion to physical activity, Amaechi was sceptical at first, but no more than a year later he had moved to Chicago to pursue a career in one of sport’s most star-studded leagues.
Many a seventeen year old would have baulked at the suddenness of totally rehashing a life plan which involved such complete upheaval and a step into the unknown, but perhaps it was the dizzying spontaneity of it all that compelled Amaechi to take the jump.
“For me there was nothing about it that I didn’t want, it just seemed that the journey was not a straightforward one. As an adult we can understand that difficult goals will have correspondingly difficult journeys, but at that time the fact that my plan got thwarted at some many different points made me question whether that journey was possible at all but it didn’t quell my desire to get there.”
Amaechi’s path to success was littered with setbacks. He went undrafted until the Cleveland Cavaliers offer him a contract in 1995 and spent three years in the European wilderness before taking one last shot at the big time in 1999.
At the age of 29 he was running out of time, but he had received some positive reports from his time in Europe and that proved enough to convince the Orlando Magic to grant him another chance. A year later, the unknown Amaechi was at the heart of a story that reverberated around the NBA.
[caption id="attachment_47466" align="alignright" width="315"] Amaechi in action for the Orlando Magic[/caption]
‘Meech’, as he became affectionately known, had impressed to such an extent that the legendary LA Lakers offered him a 17 million dollar contract. Amaechi’s sense of loyalty, however, would not allow him to leave the side that had taken such a risk in signing him, although the financial sacrifice he was making may have been softened by the Magic’s promise to make up the difference the following season.
If anyone ever needed proof of the fickleness of sport then they need only know of what happened next. As Amaechi’s form fell by the wayside, he was gradually edged out of the Orlando set-up, contrary to all pledges and promises.
In his memoirs Man in the Middle, released in 2007, Amaechi described the snub as a ‘colossal mistake’. With time for reflection on his side and a new career as a performance psychologist in full flow, is it a flashpoint that still plagues the Amaechi conscience?
“I think it’s important for people to know that I have regrets for not having the products of that decision because going to LA would have given me everything I had ever wanted. Nobody in Britain would have been able to question that I was the best there ever was. I would have had four Championships rings; it just would have just been a self-evident truth that I was the best.
“But the reality is, is that what I have by not going is greater. It’s not materially greater but in the course of my everyday work now as a psychologist the authenticity of my word is the most powerful tool in my arsenal and that was cemented in that decision.”
There was also something else a little closer to home that Amaechi had gained by staying on with the Magic. Whilst he was still a student at Penn State, John started what is now a burgeoning CV of community work by signing onto a Big Brothers/Big Sisters scheme in which young adults were assigned misfiring teenagers to help them get back on track. Amaechi took to the programme to such an extent that the local police began seeking his help in watching over the neighbourhood youth.
In Orlando, Amaechi had taken up the guardianship of two teenagers, Jeff and Martin Jones. They grew so close that, after discussions with their biological parents, Amaechi took the Jones brothers under his full-time care. Staying with the Magic allowed Amaechi to honour this commitment.
Given the positive role that sport played in transforming his own life, you would be forgiven for thinking that it would be an activity that he would strongly encourage in his everyday charity work with disadvantaged kids. But Amaechi is surprisingly sceptical about the impact of sport on young people’s lives.
“The largest percentage of money going into sport is actually for this kind of issue, not sport for sport’s sake but it’s what they call ‘sport for development’. But it is misnamed because the truth is there is no evidence for sport doing good in society. The evidence, to use a good social scientist term, is equivocal at best. If you look at people like Professor Fred Coalter, who has written extensively on the power and use of sport in society, the evidence is just not great.
“What we do know is that it is not the individual sport that matters but it is the way that the sport is coached. The reason that sport gave me some benefit in terms of my personal development is that the people who coached the sport that I took part in, took that aspect very seriously. The sad part is that most people who get involved in sport have coaches who are either ill-equipped to teach what they do so that they are technically unskilled, or the larger problem is that they teach sport in a way that is antithetical to results you want. You are not going to produce emotionally literate, intellectually curious young people by communicating through screaming and shouting at the kids who are involved.”
Amaechi articulates strong views on ‘screamer’ coaches throughout his memoirs, expressing his distaste for management styles that revolve around verbal abuse and psychological torture that he has associated with the prevalence of depression in sport. It is a philosophy that Amaechi looks to put into practice at his Basketball Centre in Manchester.
“For our staff it is vital. I insist that at my centre we coach in a way that is likely to produce intrinsically motivated, emotionally literate, communicative young people. I am attempting to do some work with the government on improving the standards of coaching. We need to ensure that we have a better standard of coach in touch with what are now increasingly vulnerable young people.”
Perhaps the new FA Commission could learn a thing or two from Amaechi’s ideas on coaching.
[caption id="attachment_47468" align="aligncenter" width="553"] Amaechi imparts his coaching philosophy at his Basketball Centre in Manchester[/caption]
John remains in touch with a large proportion of his kids; in fact moments before our interview he had just finished making a video for one his adopted sons who is now a school teacher back in the States. But, despite his parental instincts, his arrangement with Jeff and Martin remained an informal one out of necessity. Florida was one of several states that had banned gay people from serving as foster or adoptive parents, based on the belief that they would not make good role models. Amaechi’s charitable and caring character makes a mockery of such arguments, but it is just one example of the prejudice that he had to deal with throughout his career.
Amaechi was side-lined at the Utah Jazz by coach Jerry Sloan because he disapproved of John’s lifestyle. Even his golden year with the Magic was tainted by the homophobic views held by his cherished team-mates. One incident in particular stands out in his memoirs, where Amaechi talks of a flight back to Orlando during which one of his closest friends launched into an assault on homosexuality, spouting words along the lines of ‘they get what they deserve’. That Orlando squad was famed for its sense of team spirit and togetherness, but for Amaechi hearing such sentiments from those whom he respected most was hard to stomach.
“It’s hard to fully trust the people around you and sport is one of those places where teamwork is not optional. You can’t win against high quality teams if you are not cohesive and it is almost impossible to be cohesive if you know that, secretly, the people around you harbour animosity towards you.”
Amaechi is open and honest in his book about the depths of depression that hiding his sexuality had caused. Time and time again he speaks of his desire to let loose and enjoy the eclectic collection of gay districts that he came across in his travels. However his fear of being outed and the damage he believed that would cause to the locker room stopped him from doing so.
Amaechi argues that the presence of an openly gay player would expose the homoerotic elements of the male bonding that is so commonplace in sporting environments and that, influenced by uninformed views of gay men, heterosexual players would be concerned that homosexuals would sexualize this behaviour. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, did his desire to lead a normal life ever take him to the precipice of quitting?
“I would suggest to you that a person does not leave their home, travel 6,000 miles on their own as a seventeen year old and then just give up.”
Sounding almost offended by the suggestion, the conversation moves to the problem of tackling homophobia within the game itself. In the past, Amaechi has been vocal in his criticism of various governing bodies, branding the FA as ‘dinosaurs’ for their lack of proactivity. So what does he believe needs to be done differently by the authorities in order to rid sport of its widespread homophobic attitudes? Amaechi’s response takes me be surprise:
“I’m not really interested in whether they tackle homophobia; I’m interested in whether they are interested in winning.” After a dramatic pause, he continues:
“I’m a performance psychologist who works in business and the businesses I work with are not interested in being nice to people. They are interested in what gives tangible performance returns. So I simply question any organization that creates a toxic environment where certain percentages of their employees will be unable to function at their best. I question their interest in being the best.”
So, granted that, whether a humanitarian or performance issue, homophobia remains a problem that is not being dealt with properly, where exactly are they going wrong?
“Well the logic of all this is completely understood to the FA. They understand that if they allow monkey chants then their black players will not play as well. But their ability to understand this extends only so far as skin colour, which seems a bit obtuse to me.”
But the picture is not just one of dinosaurs and pre-historic attitudes. Amaechi admits he is encouraged by the progress made by society, even since he retired just under ten years ago.
“Legally the framework in America has changed radically with the new President. In Illinois for example, just yesterday they passed marriage equality, so that is another state that you can add to the list of states that have become more progressive. People in general have become more progressive. But there is still, in America in particular a very strong Republican, socially conservative focus and there are still plenty of people in influential positions who are not interested in equality in the way that you might expect.”
Judging the progress made and the distance yet to travel, one could argue that Amaechi’s words about difficult goals having correspondingly difficult journeys may be just as apt in this case as they were in relation to his own life.
[caption id="attachment_47469" align="aligncenter" width="553"] Amaechi at a gay pride event in Chicago[/caption]
As we conclude our interview, we return to the very beginning. Before he moved to the States, Amaechi sat down with his mother to devise ‘The Plan’, a comprehensive document setting out how he was to achieve his goals. ‘The Plan’ included areas of his game which needed to improve, which colleges to choose as well as other practicalities of his ambitious journey.
But John being John, he decided to imbue ‘The Plan’ with his own set of values to ensure that he stayed true to himself. His final document consisted of eleven rungs, the last of which was ‘the role of legacy.’ Fearing a rather coded response, I ask what he would like his legacy to be. He points me to a quote I had used at the very start of our interview when I had asked him to explain something he had said in a television interview some years ago: “The most improbable of people, in the most unlikely of circumstances, can become extraordinary.”
“I try to live by it. I want to point out that the extraordinary is not necessarily about the height of the mountain that you end up climbing; sometimes it’s about the distance you travel from the foot of the mountain. I freely admit that I was a very average NBA basketball player but for different people ‘extraordinary’ can be very different things depending on where you’ve come from. It made me understand that for very different people there were equally implausible but equally laudable journeys out there.
“When I look at the world around me I try to recognise that there are some people who are considered lowly or worthless who can become extraordinary and I think that way of looking at the world is an empowering one.”
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I confess I was fairly nervous in the few moments preceding a talk by renowned author Antony Beevor, as I know next to nothing about military history and I fear it may be a struggle to keep up. This concern turns out to be unfounded. When he stands to speak, he launches into a polite but firm demonstration of the invalidity of the premise upon which the whole of the project of European unity is based.For Beevor, to cite the European Union as the main cause of peace is misleading; the introduction of democracy across nearly all of Europe has had a far more profound effect. It is difficult not be disturbed, outraged even, by the vivid picture he paints of an undemocratic Leviathan, whose various ministers have ignored the problems caused by ever-closer union for so long that the ugly spectre of right-wing nationalism has once again raised its head. After he has finished speaking, an occurrence even more entertaining than the Oktoberfest raging on in the room above our heads, I am keen to divulge more from him.
To say Beevor has a passion for Second World War history would be somewhat of an understatement. Of the numerous books he has written concerning the events of WW2, the most successful have undoubtedly been Berlin: The Downfall 1945 and Stalingrad, selling between them nearly three million copies. Stalingrad in particular has received critical acclaim, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, the Wolfson History Prize, and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature. With this in mind, my initial thought is to ask him why it is Second World War history that engages him out of all the possible fields of conflict that he could have studied. “World War Two had, obviously, shaped the modern world. It was a period when moral choice was almost dominant. Everything was somehow in one way or another produced from moral choice. Moral choice, actually, is the basis of all human drama. When we find today that we’re living in a post-military society, a health and safety environment, there is very little moral choice today. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people are fascinated in earlier periods.” Beevor points to a debate over the Booker prize a number of years ago, where this value of the notion of “moral choice” was held to be responsible for all the shortlisted novels having been set in the past. ”So I think it’s partly that and partly because in the post-war period, everyone’s lives had been defined by how they had behaved in the war”.
This notion of moral choice appears to be one that Beevor holds as integral to any interpretation of what the Second World War even meant, so I press him further. He recounts an example given to him by a friend when he was composing his 1994 work Paris After the Liberation: “Everybody has to survive and, you know, maybe you have to work with the Germans. For example, if you’re a waiter, you probably have to serve the Germans. You can’t expect someone to throw beer or an ashtray in their face as a gesture of resistance because it wouldn’t do you any bloody good and they’d just get shot for nothing. But you don’t need to be cosy with the Germans”. The use of the term “cosy” to class friendliness towards a hostile occupier beyond what would be necessary to survive is, for Beevor, an accurate expression of the sentiment. “I love the idea of the great moral philosophers using the word “cosy” to divine the dividing line. I think that’s absolutely right.”
One of the salient points that had been highlighted during Beevor’s talk is his contrast of the initial stated aim of the European Union; that is, the preservation of peace in Europe, with the situation as it stands now. The actual cause of said peace, in his words, had been the increasing democratisation of Europe; ironically now under threat due to the negative economic consequences of monetary without political union, and what he sees as the casual attitude to democracy that many European officials have. Given that such nationalist sentiment was last at its height in the period immediately preceding the Second World War, I pose the question to him whether any parallels exist between the current political situation and the political climate of the 1920s, for example. He, however, considers such parallels “dangerous”.
”This may sound rather rich coming from me, but I am alarmed by the way that the Second World War has become the dominant reference point for every crisis or conflict, partly through the newspapers but also because of the politicians, and it’s because either they want to sound Churchillian or Rooseveltian.” Ironically, Beevor has considered there to be a total absence of such leaders in the wake of the European crisis that he discussed at length this evening. “The newspapers like coming up with it as instant shorthand, but it’s always totally misleading and very dangerous”.
For Beevor, there’s “nothing new” about the need for “foreign inventions” to divert attention away from a country’s own internal difficulties. What strikes him as the crucial difference between the conditions today and those of the 1930s is that they “do not include two superpowers in Europe in the sense of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which created a false polarisation which was unbelievably dangerous”. This, perhaps, is one of the moral choices which he referred to, and one which he believes is far more absent now. “What’s striking today is that we’re living in an age of almost zero ideology. I’m very, very struck by how the Occupy Movement, for example, do not seem to have come up with any thoughts of an alternative society at all.”
Beevor’s narrative history Berlin: The Downfall 1945 notoriously met with opposition within Russia for its criticism of Soviet war crimes, such as the mass rapes that were carried out by the Red Army upon their entry to Berlin. Noting his emphasis on the importance of the polarisation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, I put it to him whether he thinks the far Left unjustly escaped criticism that was also directed towards the far Right. “Well, I think that fascism is so obviously ghastly that it’s almost too easy to criticise.” He is no less scathing of the communists, who in his words “were just interested in power in the way that the fascists were… I still find it absolutely staggering that you can still get not just old Marxists but also neo-Marxists somehow trying to justify appalling Soviet practices which were very seldom different to Fascist practices”. This, he believes, “reveal[s] them to be the archetypal ‘useful idiot’”.
On that note, we conclude; him having been at the Union for a considerable time already. At the end I am pleasantly surprised; having expected him to stress the importance of his particular period of history, he has stressed how interesting it is; yet, at the same time, has cautioned me against treating it as a historical be-all-and-end-all. Earlier in the evening, he bemoaned the lack of modesty in many prominent Second World War generals. This modesty, happily, is more than abundant in Antony Beevor.
PHOTO/Bjørn Erik Pedersen
George Watsky has only been on stage for about five minutes when the unearthly screech of microphone feedback obliterates all other sounds. He is in the middle of explaining how unfriendly the security barrier is between him and us, but is interrupted by this painful noise. He doesn’t, however, seem fazed. Without any semblance of panic, he discards the microphone and speaks to the crowd unamplified: at the Oxford O2 an entirely silent crowd listens as George Watsky performs poetry.
If you don’t know who he is (perhaps your Internet’s been cut off?) he suggests that you could start with his poetry: “I might direct people towards my lisp poem, I think it’s a good example … I think my spoken word poetry sets me apart more than my music because there’re a lot of rappers out there. I don’t think there are as many people who are touring who advocate for spoken word poetry like I do. I also think it’s a good example of – I try a lot of times in my work to take what would be perceived as a weakness and make it a strength, and use it confidently, so I think that that poem does it well and it’s also got a lot of word play in it”. ‘S for Lisp’ is what you want to search on YouTube. The poem starts “So someone said to me the other day I’ve got a lisp / A stranger you know they said I’ve got a subtle lisp and I should know I sound a little stupid doing spoken word when all my words have S in them are spoken so absurd / And I’m not upset, okay it just sucks / You think you’re speaking normally for two decades and then shucks; Find out your stuff sounds like a stanza of Severus Snape’s toughest parseltongue is pronounced by Daffy Duck”. It continues to be just as eloquent and intelligent exulting the letter ‘S’ in spite of the stranger’s attempt to silence him. Much like the earlier account of the microphone issues, Watsky refuses to be silenced.
Not content with being just a talented poet, Watsky has used his skills of rhyme and metre to break into the world of music. He has now released several mixtapes, including A New Kind of Sexy and Nothing Like The First Time both of which are available for free download. His latest album Cardboard Castles is an incredible listen, with songs such as ‘Strong as an Oak’ sending messages of youthful hope despite the circumstances, whilst others such as ‘Ugly Faces’ have a real sense of humour. He suggests that he would style himself perhaps as a “lyricist”, a term which encompasses both aspects of his work.
YouTube is also an important part of Watsky’s work. He doesn’t describe himself as a YouTuber, saying “YouTube is the platform that I get my work out there on, but I don’t think it’s what I do”. Having gone viral with the video ‘Pale Kid Raps Fast’, Watsky’s channel has now amassed nearly half a million subscribers. He primarily uploads music videos, all of which are innovative and different – something to watch as well as listen to. I ask how he comes up with the ideas: “I’m not always the one who writes the treatment, I sometimes am. I have a group of friends who are filmmakers who I went to school with and we all migrated from Boston to Los Angeles around the same time. We usually pick what song we think has the most potential and then brainstorm together. If one of us has a concept we’ll bring it in and send it to the other ones and then we’ll get together for a production meeting and we’ll delegate tasks and roles to everybody and just try to flesh it out together. It’s very collaborative. I’m definitely really involved from the first step to the last step”. So, if you want to watch a half-naked Watsky fall to earth after letting go of a plane flown by a toddler in sunglasses, the ‘Ugly Faces’ videos is the place to go.
Also on YouTube is Watsky’s webseries: Watsky’s Making An Album and its second series Watsky’s Releasing An Album. It’s worth watching even if you don’t enjoy rap music because it is genuinely very funny, and with episodes lasting only around seven minutes it’s easy to spend an evening watching the whole thing. However, he reassures me that “ it was fictional. I mean it was a mockumentary. It comes from a real place of like wanting to lampoon the music business or what it means to be a broke content creator. So, the seed ideas were definitely rooted in reality, but in terms of like actual scenarios, it was fictionalised”.
At the minute Watsky and his band are just rounding up their second tour. This is his first visit to Oxford, saying “I just know of it as a very historical town with a huge academic tradition”. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your affection for Oxford traditions), owing to the tight schedule of the tour he and his band hadn’t made it onto a punt yet, but this is only a minor loss on what has otherwise been a highly successful tour. After more than three months on the road he’s still hugely positive about the whole experience, saying ““It’s amazing to me, I had no idea that we would get such a great response when we hit the road, we’ve got awesome crowds everywhere we’ve been and it’s a really humbling, touching experience. I mean, I’m living my dream right now and it’s awesome. There’s parts of it that are unglamorous, and it’s just like nitty-gritty, like get to the hotel and move the gear up the stairs and stuff that isn’t as fun as the rest. But it’s, in general, just great. I mean to be able to go out there and see people knowing all the words – and yeah, I wouldn’t trade it”.
He’s been on and off various tours now since about 2007, so he says he’s “pretty used to living out of a suitcase at this point”, he doesn’t miss home comforts such as his own bed but he does miss “friends in Los Angeles”. Incidentally, that’s also what he misses about student life: “more than anything I miss the social aspect – like, your friends get lazier and lazier every year and take less pains to go out and hang out with each other and when you’re at school everyone wants to go out and hang out all the time so I miss that. I do miss taking classes but I’m still learning a lot all the time, so more than anything it’s just the social aspect”. What’s his final message for students? “I guess my message is just … you never want to force yourself or put pressure on yourself to figure out what you wanna do before you’re ready to make that decision but if you do have an inkling that you’re passionate about something, it’s good to remove plan Bs from your choice from your life plan, because if a plan B that you have that’s comfortable seems like it’s more reasonable or accessible to you, you’ll probably take it. So if you have a thought that you might be interested in doing something, it’s not going to happen unless you throw yourself into it with full enthusiasm”.