Andromeda 2

A new literary science-fiction convention in Birmingham Andromeda 2, 9th-10th September 2016. Not hotel-based, sadly, but good to see it. Especially now that the venerable Novacon, formerly of Birmingham, seems to have been drawn into a 10,000-year fixed orbit around Planet Nottingham.

andr

Postgrad student loans

The government’s new postgrad student loans are here. If you plan to take a Masters course from 1st August 2016, you can apply for a loan of up to £10,000 to help with course fees and living costs. All types of courses are eligible, including media and the arts. Payback only starts when you start earning more than £21k a year.

Our Armed Forces and members of their close family will also be able to study at UK universities while posted abroad, via distance learning. This follows changes in the rules a few weeks ago, and means they can also access the new postgraduate loans…

“…the Government is adding a new exemption that will allow them to gain student funding for a UK based distance learning course, even if they are posted overseas at the start or during the course itself.”

The government has stood by its promise to allow applications for all Masters topics, and media and the arts are not excluded. However, if my local university is anything to go by, universities will be deeming just a few of their Masters courses to be ‘not eligible’ for a postgrad loan — these seem to be the ‘professional body’ sort of postgrad courses that give professional qualifications in things like marketing, education, and sports.

Shock news: suggestion algorithms still crap

The Silly Season is here. So here’s an amusing 20 minute pinpointing of just how rubbish Facebook’s “Discover Groups” function is. Facebook’s suggestions for me are:—

Friends: “Momentum North Staffordshire” (extreme-left Labour Party members) and similar. Er, no, definitely not.

Location: “Shell Island, North Wales”. Probably lovely, but never heard of it and can’t afford to get to it. The vintage resort of Llandudno and its breezy headlands are more my style.

Parenting: “Can I Breastfeed In it?” and similar. Er, not for me. Man-boobs may make that possible soon, though 🙂

School & Education: “School of Education’s doctoral researchers at Staffs University”. I didn’t even know they had such a thing.

Sports: No. I have no interest in sports, other than the final few matches in the World Cup once every four years. Certainly not tabletop war-gaming.

Food: Nope, I’ve no interest in real ale either. I don’t drink.

Photography: “Peak District Photography”. Well, it’s the best suggestion yet. But I really don’t want to join a group that allows people to use it as their photo-dump for the 45 pictures of sunsets and ducks that they took today.

Buy, Sell, Trade: “Garage Sale – Bangalore, India”. Nope. It’s probably because I also participate occasionally in the Open Access India group, which aims to boost open access publishing there.

Professional Networking: “Forces Online Employment” or “Scaffold Jobs UK”. Not all blokes from Stoke are builders, Facebook.

Animals & Pets: No, I do not own a greyhound. Or even like dogs much. Not all blokes from Stoke are obsessed with racing greyhounds, Facebook.

Outdoor Activities: No, I’ve no desire to go camping these days – even in this nice weather.

Business: DisruptCyprus.com. No. But I guess it’s nice to hear that they’re having a disruptive business revolution in Cyprus, and not a petrol-bomb throwing disruptive revolution. Possibly I’m seeing this group because of some of my former students.

News & Politics: Ugh. Not everyone in Stoke is an old socialist, Facebook. The city is actually effectively run by the Conservatives, these days, thank goodness. Update your city profiles, Facebook.

Hobby & Leisure: Richard Corben Fan Club. Yes, maybe. A bit late now though. I mildly liked his early pre-1986 comic-book art, but haven’t followed him since.

Science & Tech: Finally, a good suggestion! “The Institute of Unnecessary Research”. News of unusual arts-science projects and opportunities. ‘Join Group‘!

Health & Fitness: “Vegans”? Eeeek!

Funny: “Jokes” groups. No. Ban them now!

Arts & Culture: “Patti Smith” and “H.R. Giger”. No, and I didn’t even like them when they were actually trendy back in 1978.

Games: “Boardgames” and hyper-realistic nerdy button-pushing “Space Simulators”. No interest.

Cars & Motorcycles: Nope, never owned a car or motorbike. Looking forward very much to the future arrival of the driverless robo-taxis.

Identity & Relationships: “BBW Big Women”. Just so wrong.

Neighborhood & Community: “Middleport Matters” and “Narrowboat Users Group”. Sort of, I do have a passing interest in canals and narrowboats due to living alongside a canal.

Home & Garden: For some reason “Synthesizer Freaks Music” is here. Does Facebook imagine that I’m sitting in a summer garden shuffling between early Gary Numan, Mirror System and Kraftwerk? They might not be far wrong there, if I actually had a garden.

Style: “Canal market place interiors”. Well, I guess I do live near a canal. Not sure I want to fix the place up to look like a canal narrowboat, though.

Travel: “Alfred Barnard Society” (visit breweries worldwide!) and “The Hovercraft Museum”. No, I don’t drink. And have no interest in hovercrafts.

Spiritual & Inspirational: “The Paranormal Billboard” and “Shanti & Jai Yoga”. No, no interest in all that silly ghost-hunting mumbo-jumbo, nor in yoga.


So, 95% wrong. Even if I had also included the suggestions I skipped. Similar to how wrong Amazon gets it, even after their taste system has been ‘trained’. Which all goes to show how poor website ‘suggestion’ services are. The first person to invent a decent suggestions algorithm that actually works will make a fortune.

Glass making lives on in South Staffordshire – new £5.5m glass museum, studios, maker network website

I’m pleased to see there’s a new £5.5m glass museum in South Staffordshire (*) which is having open days and which is only a few months away from fully opening in 2017. To be more precise the new museum is in Wordsley, which is my ancestral village and also where my ancestors engraved glass in the 1800s.

The ‘White House Cone – Museum of Glass’ has been developed by the British Glass Foundation, which has a “making of…” talk on the new museum in nearby Stourbridge on 17th August 2016.

glass

The new museum, which seems to include several maker studios and several galleries, looks very impressive. It replaces the old Broadfield House Glass Museum, which was run down and then closed last September by the Labour-controlled Dudley council. You may have heard a lot about that closure from those moaning about arts cuts, but what they don’t choose to mention is that it’s about to be replaced by a bigger and better museum.

The White House displays the internationally important Stourbridge Glass collection, as well as an upstairs gallery of contemporary work, and takes its place as part of a wider network of glassmaking in South Staffordshire. For more on that wider network visit Heart of England Glass, a low-key but excellently informative new website hub for craft glass makers and glass researchers in the West Midlands. The craft has mostly clustered in South Staffordshire, at Stourbridge and Wordsley (with some makers hanging on in Birmingham, last I heard, where glass used to be a vast industry). Plus there’s glass expertise at Dudley and the Bilston Craft Gallery, and now also a new hot glass degree at Wolverhampton University.

* For me, Staffordshire will always retain its old pre-1911 boundaries, regardless of modern municipal bickering and land-grabs.

New Audience Multimedia Journalist (trainee)

Excellent job in Birmingham, albeit with the Birmingham Mail: “Trinity Mirror plc is looking for a New Audience Multimedia Journalist (trainee) to generate story ideas, write them with our digital audience in mind, create and curate further multi-media content and put together total content packages that work brilliantly on all of our platforms.” Deadline: 4th August 2016.

The new Brexit cabinet

Well, what a fascinating day in politics. Yesterday I watched closely as May’s magnificently bold re-shuffle unfolded. The result seems almost perfectly pitched — provided they can keep hapless motor-mouths like Boris and Leadsom on a tight brief. And also keep Gove and Osborne quiet on the back-benches, perhaps by subtly holding out the prospect of re-entry into government after a successful Brexit and 2020 general election.

It’s also amazing how events have once again closely paralleled a great movie. Elizabeth: the Golden Age was the movie of the referendum and its two week aftermath, almost perfectly matching the events and personages. Now the movie’s prequel, Elizabeth, quite closely parallels May’s swift and decisive reshuffle. In Elizabeth the young queen Elizabeth, with the aid of her shrewd new bearded advisor and spy-master Walsingham, moves swiftly to suppress threats both internal and external, ruthlessly executing her internal enemies. Amusingly, May’s equivalent of Walsingham — Nick Timothy — even rather resembles Walsingham as portrayed in the films…

tim

Good to see that Nick Timothy is a proud Brummie, by the way, which may bode well for Birmingham. It’s probably also good for the West Midlands that Javid, from Bromsgrove, is the new Communities Secretary. And the new Conservative Party Chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, is a former coal miner from Staffordshire.

Karen Bradley, new Culture Secretary

Very good news that a local West Midlands MP, Karen Bradley MP (Staffordshire Moorlands), has been appointed as the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. She’s based in the north of the West Midlands, just north-east of Stoke-on-Trent. Here’s my quick 60-minute ‘instant analysis’, for what it’s worth…

Bradley grew up seeing Mrs Thatcher win election after election, but she came of age circa 1992 as the nation entered the John Major years. She graduated in Maths from Imperial College London, and became a senior manager and tax advisor at KPMG and an economics advisor to the Conservative Research Department. She also freelanced for a while.

It thus seems likely she will quickly grasp the economics of the mainstream media industries. Her parliamentary contributions suggest that she doesn’t currently have such a grasp. Her training may even let her grasp the more arcane and unique aspects of the economics of the media and cultural industries as we go into Brexit, and with a fresh eye too.

Having been a freelancer, if only for a time, she may get more of a hearing from creative industries freelancers than otherwise. Freelancing is a booming area, especially in terms of the provision of online services to the USA — so she can’t afford to make fumbles which damage the income of self-employed back-bedroom creatives who sell online. The Brexiteers mustn’t be allowed to loose sight of that emerging business sector, re: taxes and VAT and data regulations etc, as they chew over larger trade deals. She might do well to read the book Why Are Artists Poor?, as well as recent reports on high levels of poverty among some types of freelancer.

Her economics background should also be handy for grasping the complex economics of football and other sports. She has Stoke City F.C. on her doorstep in North Staffordshire, along with the sports-mad city of Stoke. Stoke F.C. is funded by the Stoke-based media-sports hybrid firm bet365. It’ll be important that UK/EU data regulations align in favour of such hybrid creative industries firms, in a way that doesn’t scare such firms out of the UK.

She apparently likes crime thriller novels. Possibly that’s a result of having worked as a junior under May at the Home Office, doing good work on some fairly harrowing crime topics. Apparently she also served as a government Whip for a time, which again may have provoked interest in investigatory procedures. But that’s just my guess.

The Staffordshire Moorlands is very rural, though it has full employment due to the presence of very successful large firms such as Alton Towers and JCB. Stoke-on-Trent is very nearby, a city which is still home to a significant and increasingly profitable chunk of the world’s ceramics industry. Stoke is also bidding to be City of Culture 2021, and has a serious claim as its grassroots arts and creative industries genuinely blossom.

There’s thus also a tourism angle to North Staffordshire, likely to be boosted as the lower pound draws more overseas tourists to the UK. As Brexit draws near she may well be talking a lot with the tourism and ‘soft power’ folks, as well as with the trade teams.

Manchester, and its growing mainstream media production hub, is relatively near her constituency, which is set to build a great deal of new housing in the next five years — some of which may well attract media workers from Manchester. There’s also a significant military signals expertise near her at the expanding MoD Stafford (two Royal Signals regiments, I think?). She might develop a connection there, if she doesn’t already have one, to better understand issues of media bandwidth and spectrum access, and the digital nuts-and-bolts of modern communications.

I imagine that rural media provision and rural arts touring may be on her radar, given the nature of her constituency. Perhaps also fairer regional distribution of arts funds away from London and the South East — especially in favour of the West Midlands, where it has long been sorely needed.

‘Big companies’ private sponsorship of the arts may be on her agenda, on which she could make an excellent start by charming some serious long-term arts sponsorship out of the owners of JCB. JCB might also be charmed into employing a lot of creatives (from land-art to stained-glass) for their planned world-class golf-course in North Staffordshire.

She will now have added weight when joining calls for more and faster rural broadband, though I guess she may be blocked in terms of making proposals on Internet content regulation. Because the powerful Ed Vaizey MP, although appointed to the Privy Council (liaising between the Government and the Queen), has also kept his role overseeing the Digital Economy. (Update: Matt Hancock MP has now replaced Ed Vaizey on Digital Economy. Although other reports have him on Arts? Maybe he’s now on both?)

It’s a little worrying that she currently seems to be very soft on Brexit, judging by her statement on the result — despite the overwhelming Leave vote in her Staffordshire Moorlands constituency. As a junior member of the government she probably can’t afford to be seen to be falling out of line with more powerful ministers as they steam hard toward Brexit.

Geoffrey Hill

The West Midlands poet Geoffrey Hill has passed away. Hill came of age in the years immediately after the Second World War, in a rural Worcestershire village on the northern outskirts of Bromsgrove. He went away to study at Oxford in 1950, and then taught in the blunt northern city of Leeds from 1954-80. During the 1980s he taught at Cambridge, under the open skies of our flat eastern fenlands.

He was best known for his accessible book of poems Mercian Hymns (1971), in the bulk of which he delved for his Worcestershire roots and elided the ancient kingdom of Mercia with his childhood. The reading public nestled him in their minds somewhere alongside Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. His later hermetic and unashamedly elitist poetry was “difficult”. It had less readers, while rousing great acclaim from critics and fellow poets. Many named him England’s greatest poet.


 

XX

Primeval heathland spattered with the bones of mice
    and birds; where adders basked and bees made provision,
    mantling the inner walls of their burh:

Coiled entrenched England: brickwork and paintwork
    stalwart above hacked marl. The clashing primary
    colours ‘Ethan dune’, ‘Catraeth’, ‘Maldon’, ‘Pengwern’.
    Steel against yew and privet. Fresh
    dynasties of smiths.

    —”XX” from Mercian Hymns

 


 
The early obituaries:

The Daily Telegraph: “Geoffrey Hill: ‘poetry should be shocking and surprising'”

The New York Times: “Geoffrey Hill, Dense and Allusive British Poet, Is Dead at 84”

The Times (London): “Sir Geoffrey Hill” ($)

 

Nine days after Leave

Nine days on from the vote to Leave, I thought I’d try to sum up what has happened that actually matters:

* The Vote. In the largest vote in British history, the people voted to leave the EU. The Leave results were in middle-class as well as working-class areas, deeply rural as well as urban areas (like Birmingham), and ran from the mountains and valleys of Wales to small coastal ports. As usual, only a minority (36%) of all 18-24 age voters could be bothered to get out to vote.

* The pollsters. The reputation of pollsters, pundits, academics and most of the media all took a mighty hammering, having once again offered almost no insight into the real mood and thoughts of the British people.

* The acceptance. The Leave vote was swiftly accepted by most who mattered, and the Prime Minister resigned in a dignified manner — staying in post for now but calling a swift Conservative leadership election.

* The threats evaporate, I. The Chancellor also stayed in post for now, while abandoning his earlier dire threats of a ‘punishment budget’ and ‘pension losses’ and general Armageddon. He cynically used the result as an excuse to formally abandon his 2020 spending targets (which everyone knew he wasn’t going to meet, anyway, so no loss there). We’re now also getting some clarity from EU officials on EU project funding – it’ll stay in place to 2020, and we can even apply for new funds that run to 2020.

* The threats evaporate, II. Obama, the Eurocrats, the mayor of Dover, the Argentinians, the Spanish all failed to carry out their various silly threats. Gibraltar was not invaded, the gates of the Channel Tunnel were not jammed open, the Falklands remain safe, the US special relationship is intact, etc etc. Other EU nations which want to leave the EU (over 60% of the French tell pollsters they want out) have noticed this.

* The threats evaporate, III. The UK stock market quickly rebounded and the FTSE actually ended this week on a 2016 high. The markets are probably considering that…

  – exports and manufacturing will be strongly boosted by the lower pound ($1.33, down from $1.48).
  – the value of the pound will bring in tourists in July-September, while encouraging British tourists to holiday in the UK.
  – projects and new jobs that had been held up by the vote will be back on again soon, probably from early September.
  – slightly lower house prices, and continued low interest-rates, may even incentivize first-time buyers.
  – a small additional baby-boom of ‘Brexit babies’ is likely, next spring — ‘fear breeds’, in more ways than one.

* The threats evaporate IV. Gove has decided to stand for PM, cruelly ditching Boris Johnson. Gove’s own prospects have been fatally damaged by the treachery. Farage seems to be drifting somewhere between his own vast ego and a UKIP that will no longer have a core purpose once Article 50 is invoked. All this means that the left’s hysterical vision of a nation being led over to the far-right, by an alliance of their pet hate-figures of Gove/Boris/Farage, now seems to be even more ludicrous than it was before. Denied any real far-right against which to define themselves, the irrelevant far-left drifts further into a poisonous mix of anti-Semitism and rigid identity-politics.

* Theresa May: Predictably, Theresa May emerged as the leading candidate to be the new Conservative leader and PM. She ruled out an early general Election and accepted that Leave is now the only option. So she is now a Brexit-oriented candidate of some sort, though she didn’t campaign as a Leaver. As things stand, her opponent in the final ‘two-horse race’ is likely to be a Leave candidate.

* Behind the scenes, I. Potential Brexit negotiators have already offered themselves, from Tony Blair to the New Zealand trade-negotiating team (world experts in agricultural trade, apparently). Once strong teams are firming up, early sketches of an outline timetable for Leave will start to be verbally batted about, probably aiming to Leave by June 2019 (so as to not get Leave tangled up in the 2020 General Election). Calculations will be made on if we actually need to be in the Single Market, or if we can find inventive ways to take the 8-12% WTO tariff hit that would otherwise be imposed on our trade with Europe. Such as a revaluation of the pound.

* Behind the scenes, II. The mood of Eire is being quietly judged, on the likely prospect of their re-joining the UK after 2020 as some kind of 95% self-governing entity. Scotland’s rather silly knee-jerk suggestion of negotiating with the EU on its own was rebuffed by the EU, and the Scots will probably also come to the reluctant conclusion in 2020 that they’re much better off in the UK.

* Behind the scenes, III. The British people are still watching, waiting, and evaluating in their own quiet and common-sense way – much as the elite would like them to just go away. As I read it, they want to feel better off, safer, more respected, prouder, in a genuinely fair and democratic system — and they’re also willing to accept some hard times in the short-term, if doing so benefits future generations.

 

Bringing the Express & Star photo archives online

There’s a Facebook page for The Express & Star photo archive project, which seems set to make a big bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project seems to have made a start earlier this year, involving volunteers sorting the archives, having secured seed funding to “explore” the archives in late 2015. I can’t immediately find any funding news after that, but it seems that — if funded — around 750,000 news photographs will be scanned, and then presumably they’ll go online in hi-res. For those who don’t know it, The Express & Star is one of the biggest local/regional daily newspapers in the UK, and has always had excellent geographic coverage via stringers.

old-pic1

About those ‘Euro billions’…

My local newspaper The Sentinel is reporting today that Stoke-on-Trent… “may miss out on £157m of European cash” from the 2014-2020 funding round. That’s a paltry £22m per year.

It’ll be easily replaced…

“… the West Midlands paid in £3.55 [to the EU] for every pound it gets back [in European grants]” — said by Open Europe Director Mats Persson, giving evidence in Parliament to the Communities and Local Government Committee, 2012.

Not that it’ll have to be replaced, as the funding to 2019 looks fairly secure (due to the way that EU funding rounds operate). We’re anyway unlikely to exit fully until spring/summer 2019.

Keep in mind, also, that the city probably wouldn’t have got another £157m for 2020-27 — because the EU would have shifted ever more funding over to Eastern Europe after 2020, regardless. Even if the UK had stayed in the EU, the city might have been lucky to get another £60m for 2020-2027.

Of course, the government at various levels will also need to reassure about match-funding and other similar provision. But, understandably, it’s doubtful that they’ll be in a position to able to give assurances on that for some months yet.


Update: The EU funding body (Special EU Programmes Body or SEUPB) today said it is “business as usual” for our EU funding application bids, so we can get and apply for EU funds that run to 2020. (We’re likely to finally leave by June 2019 at the latest).

A film for today: “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”

If you want a good film to watch this Sunday, it’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007). I’ve just seen it again, and it’s an utterly perfect fit with this moment in history.

The Leave vote in the West Midlands: an infographic

Here’s my quick re-tabulation of the BBC local results, to show only the West Midlands. It demonstrates the ‘Leave’ vote surging across rural and metropolitan areas alike, in what was the biggest popular vote in British history. Of course, some are already trying to re-frame the narrative on the vote — feebly squeaking about voters being ‘gullible’, ‘tricked’, ‘racists’ or ‘illiterates marking their cross at random’. But their anti-democratic squeaking is silenced by the roar of the results, which was heard right across the West Midlands from Stratford-upon-Avon in the south to the Staffordshire Moorlands in the north…

vote2016ref


 

“O brave new world…”

“O brave new world, that has such people in it!” — Shakespeare, The Tempest.

leavescreen

We’re leaving the EU

Congratulations to every one of the much-mooted “… people who have not spoken yet”. You’ve spoken at last, and have voted for the generations who are coming. It’s 4.45am and the UK is leaving the EU.

Lunar Society conference

Lunarticks, Linnaeus and Lichfield Conference 2016

“… in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Lunar Society. This two day conference will be held at Erasmus Darwin House … an extensive programme of speakers covering a variety of topics relating to the Lunar Society”

lunar

Community Media Conference 2016

10th September 2016.
The Community Media Conference 2016, Birmingham city centre.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – a game set in the rural Midlands

I’m not a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction in its modern American form, but there’s an interesting and rather more lyrical literary tradition in English sci-fi — stretching from Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826) through Wild England (1888), to H.G. Wells and beyond — which makes the English countryside and topography an integral part of such a story. The genre was perhaps at its strongest and most mature from about 1972 until 1984, when it mingled with interest in ‘earth mysteries’ and had its book sales bolstered by various popular post-apocalyptic TV series such as the original Survivors. I remember that I sought out and read just about all such books, up until around 1985 — as well as a few comics that treated the theme, such as the earliest appearance of Woodgod.

So it’s interesting to find this tradition put into videogame form and set in the Midlands. The game Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is set in and around a meticulously recreated Shropshire village, in the fateful summer of 1984.

everybodys_gone_to_the_rapture-1-1152x648

everybody-s-gone-to-the-rapture-1

The game’s use of the ‘the rapture’ in the title is frankly very off-putting, suggesting it may perhaps be some born-again Christian propaganda game. But it’s been made in Brighton and is published by Sony, and the game gets a very respectable 79% score in a review in the latest PC Gamer magazine (June 2016). It’s said to take a slow and meditative ‘walking + storytelling’ approach, and is far from being a grim and dusty Fallout or a “bring me the thumbs of 100 zombies” RPG game. The plot, involving a village in a Doctor Who-like “quarantine”, is a “fairly standard sci-fi” story according to PC Gamer. But the huge village environment, non-player characters and the orchestral music / sound-design apparently make up for the slightly downbeat and standard story.

1402798298-everybodys-gone-to-the-rapture

everybodys-gone-to-the-rapture04

What the PC Gamer review doesn’t mention is that the game appears to have won a shed-load of awards…

bafta

England: Made in the Middle

Such irony. It seems that the new five-part BBC series about the history of the Midlands has been made… in Manchester. England: Made in the Middle is on BBC Radio 4, 1.45pm from next Monday.

The Bluedot Festival

The famous Jodrell Bank telescope, located 15 miles north of Stoke-on-Trent on the Cheshire plain, is to be home to a major new three-day festival on 22nd-24th July 2016. Electronic music maestro Jean-Michel Jarre will headline the event’s music stage, along with Air, Underworld and Caribou — with Brian Eno doing projection-mapping onto the iconic telescope. There will also be a full slate of arts-and-science events and talks, which are being announced on the website as confirmations come in.

P5190079