Thursday, 31 December 2009

Review - The Corner


The Wire is an amazing piece of television: regularly referred to as the best show ever made. But like all creative works, The Wire is of necessity constrained by the medium in which it was presented. The story is forced into the structure of a television season: the viewer knows that at the end of a season, the Poh-leece will make some sort of massive bust; the characters are defined as occupying opposing sides, kingpins and dealers versus city hall and the cops; sympathetic characters are treated with respect.

The Corner is The Wire without redemption. The first collaboration between Wire creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, presents a Baltimore where Bubbles wouldn’t get clean, where the drug dealers would never go along with Colvin’s Hamsterdam, where Omar isn’t a street legend but just another stick-up boy, where Namond doesn’t become a good student but falls into the corner. Most importantly, it’s a world where there are no Stringer Bells, Avon Barksdales, Marlo Stanfields or Prop. Joes: there are no master kingpins that the Poh-leece can conveniently arrest to stem the flow of the drugs into the rowhouses. There are simply small groups getting their hands on drugs and selling them to fiends.

The Corner’s enduring message is that there are no easy answers. A life-long fiend cannot simply step up to Narcotics Anonymous or a detox clinic; a dealer cannot get out of the game. Those in the slums of our inner cities are constrained by their environment, trapped in a prison of our making. The natural conservatism of human beings means that people like Gary McCullough or his estranged wife Fran Boyd fall into a regular rhythm and then find it difficult to change: wake up, get high, run a caper for some money, get high, go to bed, repeat. Like anyone else, these people are reluctant to move away from the familiar. Their daily rhythm is considered a crime whereas the middle-class daily rhythm – wake up, work, go to bed, etc. – is arrogantly considered to be ‘normal’.

Homicide – David Simon’s earlier book – and The Corner work together to form a proto-Wire: a Wire unconstrained by the demands of television. True, the works are constrained by their own medium, by the demands of novelistic structure but that offers more freedom. Homicide and The Corner work together to be a depiction of life as it happens in a city like Baltimore. The ups and the downs, the haves and the have-nots.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

"The study of everything."

Einstein said that “Intelligence is not the ability to store information, but to know where to find it.” The only way to find things effectively is to know a little about everything. How does one come to know a little about everything: study to be a librarian, apparently.

The Christmas break is usually a time for relaxation and contemplation: a thin sliver of freedom between the monolithic standard academic term-times. It’s a rare two to three week period where it is socially acceptable to stop rushing about for a while and catch up with work and leisure: to relish the break from routine and forget the wider context of life.

My Christmas break this year serves as a microcosm of the information professional’s life: engagement in extraordinarily diverse tasks each pulling in a completely different direction. Before January, I need to a write a business plan for a small shop, prepare a professional job application, formulate well-formed internet searches in the stilted Boolean language of information retrieval engines, and write an analysis of children’s fantasy literature. I have to be everything from a business manager to an English literature scholar.

Yet that is the nature of the information professional’s job. The different library workers I have talked to over the past six months all tend to agree on one thing: that nowadays librarians are expected to be all things to all people, providing instant information on any topic. Just as the Dewey Classification covers all human knowledge from computers to art, so too the librarian needs to know enough about every subject to be able to direct a user to the information sought. One moment they could be asked about Greek theology, the next about Coca Cola’s corporate mission statement. Thus librarians need to be polymaths: simultaneously technicians and academics, warriors and diplomats, learned and learner.

Although many complain about this, I embrace it. In school I was frustrated when Year 9 rolled around and students were required to choose specific subjects to continue studying. On to college and university, we were forced down ever narrower tracks to further specialisation until eventually graduates emerge blinking in the sunlight with a single career-defining specialism. I didn’t want to specialise. Why pick between Media Studies and History: why not do both? Why settle: why not strive for omniscience? I want to learn everything – to know a little bit about every subject rather than lots about a single subject. One of the reasons I studied Philosophy was because the subject is close to the ‘study of everything’: the dream of absolute consilience.

So here’s to librarianship: the profession where one actually does need to know a little about everything. And of course, where to find it.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

"The least important battle of our time..."

This year an epic battle is being fought for control of the UK popular music scene. The battleground is the UK Music Chart. The prize is the coveted Christmas Number One spot.

The first contender is the Apprentice of the Dark Lord – Joe McElderry. Lord Cowell has had dominion over UK popular music for years: he has grown arrogant, bitter, and has chosen a new minion. McElderry has proven himself worthy on the field of Saturday-night light entertainment – he has mercilessly slaughtered his opponents and won the apprenticeship he so coveted. But his weapon – a cover of ‘The Climb’ – is banal, tedious, and filled with clichéd platitudes. Though it is guaranteed to win over the proletariat ITV viewership, the victory will count as a loss for music.

The second contender is the Revolutionary. Down in the bowels of Cowell’s dystopia, seditionary rumblings have begun. The people of the underground have woken up and discovered their strength. Those addicted to the foul drug, Facebook, have elected a champion to reclaim their once mighty kingdom – Rage against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’. Their first sortie may have been a failure but the revolution continues unabated. And this underground movement has a secret weapon: 29p downloads from Amazon.

The third contender is the Old Master. One year he almost had the prize but ultimately failed. Now, after years of bitter exile, he returns with a recycled effort from last year, ‘December Song’. It contains lyrics which compare snow to “white sugar from Jesus.” Oh dear.

Meanwhile watching from the sidelines is the Aloof Wanderer, Mr. Bob Dylan. Dylan surprised everyone this year by releasing not only a heavily-commercialised Christmas album but a heavily-commercialised Christmas album with an exclusive distribution deal with a bailed-out bank, Citibank. As Dylan’s raspy, nasal voice sodomised all our favourite Christmas songs, whatever remnant of ‘young Dylan’ was left in the musician’s ravaged body, died.

The final contender is the Young Bard. This humble warrior has arrived late to the battle waving his lute and entreating entrance at the gate. Musical comedian Tim Minchin, ‘White Wine in the Sun’, has been embraced by a number of underground Internet aficionados who feel that the Christmas Number One really ought to be a song about Christmas. Though he doesn’t have the tyrannical hold of Cowell or the bohemian support of Rage, Minchin’s is the song which best embodies musical talent, lyric-writing ability, and Christmas spirit.

There we have it. While the Dark Lord is challenged by demonic metal-fans rising from the underground and while an Old Master duels with a young, plucky Bard, most of us look on bemused. Best to block it all out by putting our earphones in.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

"Further Fulfillment."

I’m extremely happy to announce that later this month one of my short stories will be published in New Scientist magazine. New Scientist has a worldwide circulation of approximately 170,000 people so I’m rather excited.

A few months ago, I came across New Scientist’s flash fiction competition requiring entrants to write a 350 word piece of ‘flash fiction’ on the subject of life one hundred years from now. I spent about an hour sitting over my keyboard while my head buzzed with robot overlords, time travellers, massive religious revivals, cults, sects, hoverboots, hoverboards, Higgs bosons, and technological singularities. It became apparent that all of these topics were too big for 350 words, too overblown, too clichéd, and too boring. So I settled on a topic I’d been contemplating at the time: internet search. I wrote a concise, experimental little piece summing up a single speculation about the future of search. Apparently Stephen Baxter and the other judges enjoyed it: my piece, along with two others, won the competition.

New Scientist is on the shelves from December to January. The winning stories are available to read here: Flash fiction competition winners

My other recent publication has seen some trouble. First Edition #10 was supposed to be on the shelves in mid-November. A combination of factors has led to an epic delay in the printing. However the issue is now ready and can be ordered online at http://www.firsteditionpublishing.co.uk/. Eventually it will be available in WHSmith (but sadly not Borders which incidentally has massive sales on if you want to go pick over the corpse while it’s still fresh).