and we can’t live if we’re too afraid to die

I warned my census coordinator a week ago that I would not be in Brum Tuesday-Thursday this week; as I’m on 15 hours a week (ostensibly, it’s taking almost twice as long now we’re in Phase 2) we are not expected to be constantly on-call (which was implied by the job description and confirmed in the classroom; “very part time” was chosen so that I *could* take some days off to go home; I would have signed up for a full-time contract otherwise.) She did not particularly like it but agreed to meet up Friday for the workload. She is now saying I’ve breached contract and claims that discussion did not happen. This is horseshit, it really is. I really hope there are no long-term repercussions; that aside, I won’t really mind if I lose the last week of the job. It has become not enough fun and was never enough money, probably less of both than if I’d taken up waiting tables over Easter, and anyway I could probably use the time on revision and uni work. Ugh. Texted her back as politely as possible. Back in her court.

The reason for this absence, a three-day jaunt as hired hand, secateur monkey, food-sponge, strimmer jockey, laptop tech support and walking encyclopaedia of military hardware at Castle Reeve, was exactly as fun as expected, which is to say: fun on a bun. I had booked (terrifyingly expensive, even in advance) train tickets down from Brum a few days before I learned Mum and Dad would be bringing Olly up to Cov on the Monday. Derrrrp. But! My train went through Bristol, so after coming out for a massive all-I-could-eat at the Coventry branch of Cosmo (which I didn’t realise was even a chain), they gave me a lift home, and I got a couple hours more of what turned out not to be nearly enough sleep anyway.

Then on Tuesday morning, a long train journey through idyllic sunlit south coast to Newton Abbot, and from there to Castle Reeve, where there were days of ruminatin’ on stories and creative processes and writing by committee and the internet and media and publishing, and afternoons of interesting Reevefriends to provide conversation on law/acting/music/careers/COMPUTERS, and evenings of tea and hobnobs and Victoria sponge and strawberries & cream. Also Gainful Employ, mainly involving one form or other of violence towards plants.

I shredded bamboo and brambles with wild and gay abandon while Mr Reeve pulled up bulrushes in the more Passchendaele-esque end of his lake, rooted up dandelions and such with a trowel (which held some strange fascination for Frodo the Reevepoodle), chopped up thistles with a thistle-chopper-upper (one particularly glorious specimen got held up like the head of Medusa), and, as a highlight, turned unruly overgrown banks into nice grassy knolls with My First Strimmer. I love machines like this; I like the petrol-stink and the ponderous heft, the whir and torque and heat of the motor, the shoulder harness that makes me feel like Vasquez with a smartgun rather than a glorified 21st-century reaper with a glorified 21st-century scythe mowing down small green xenomorphs. Most of all I loved having its half-controlled power in my hands: feeling rather than hearing the motor’s thrum and fighting the weight and torque of it, seeing grassy verges and patches of reeds dissolve as chlorophyll-coloured plant viscera spatters on my hands and face like a palette-flipped splatter film.


So that was all good wholesome fun, and a shining beacon of shiny beacon-ness in what’s otherwise been a pretty shitty Easter. Could be worse; at least I didn’t get nailed to a cross or anything.

on a long run, on a long run

I got spat on by a census pleb today. The arse-end-of-nowhere Bartley Green AO* with the nonsensical street layout (people who had lived there decades couldn’t tell me how to work out where the next one along was logically. I grew up on terraces, this place is a COMPLETE MINDFUCK) was supposed to be one hour; it took me two hours of legwork, an hour of travel time, and will be another hour of filling out dummy forms. I’m not really getting paid enough for this. On the other hand, the AO on my own street which I’ve been given 6 hours to complete will likely take only 3, with no travel time, and I can run home for tea whenever I like. Swings and roundabouts.

Uncouth expectorators aside, I think I prefer Phase 2. I’m in the groove I was hoping for, and though we now have to visit every house three times and fill in a dummy unless we actually get the form back, we get allocated more time for doing so (which is to say still not enough, in most cases.) It’s much more binary than Phase 1, which I like in grunt work: the workload is heavier, but tighter, with less need for improvisation. I like brain work, but when your workspace is a clipboard in a broken-glass-littered slum, simplicity is nice.** And there’s a very satisfying air of finality to having each house Checked Off, even if it’s a giant mass of dummy forms and not a returned questionnaire in sight: as collectors, we are done with these districts now.

Thunder, the first I’ve heard in ages, was starting to murmur on the western sky as I finished up in that AO. The best you can say of the place is that it’s on a big hill, so home is downhill almost all the way, and downhill I rode, jouncing over the potholes and the tarmac creases of Weoley Castle. The sky just above and ahead was blue in the swirling grey, the boundary between cloud and open sky almost directly above me, and I raced the weather all the way home, the first drops of a summer shower lapping at my heels.

*That’s “Area of Operations”. The actual approved Office for National Statistics technical term is ED, for “Enumeration District”, but I can’t help trying to be operator.
**Also, now that we’re not issuing any replacement forms the load is lighter, even with the requisite paintbrush and, uh, jar of fresh lamb’s blood.

Crikey, my blog’s got pretty sodding long and disjointed lately. Maybe it’s some subconscious practice for essay season? I need to learn brevity again and stop overthinking things quite so much, damn.

the joke always tends to come true

My beloved prototype you-didn’t-hear-about-this WP7 device, all deliciously overspecified hardware and overwrought software crammed with surprisingly useful features, died of late without warning or reason, and left me without a smartphone in my pocket. Depending on my phone-providing bro this may or may not be an easily resolved state of affairs, though it’ll be pushing my luck to beg another sexy new device off him and I’m not sure how easy it is for him to procure another with the essential QWERTY keyboard. I might end up actually buying something decent and current, I’ve developed a taste for having some real hardware in my pocket [insert bad joke] – but I’d like to sort things out and make sure I’m not paying without needing to. I might be able to get my antique Tom-provided Blackberry unlocked and working, but it’s locked in Olly’s doom fortress in Coventry at the moment; for now I’m just alternating between the variety of dumb/feature phones kept in a box under my bed for just such a contingency, ancient devices barely capable of texting. For those not up on their phones, this is like going from an EE Lightning to a Sopwith Camel. For those not up on their planes, shit sucks.

After coming back from Bristol, I woke up (again hideously early) to go and be chai-wallah at the War Studies symposium being run by, among others, my cool Group Research tutor Stuart. The airpower day school I went to last year was interesting, but mostly way over my head, and I wouldn’t have paid to go to a similar event; however, Stuart offered me free entry (and free lunch!) in return for my services doing general vague dogsbody stuff on the day. He had me at “free.”

And unlike the day school, it was brilliantly enjoyable from start to finish. I heard fascinating lectures about the issues involved in the changeover from coal to oil in the Royal Navy, the effect the Boer War had on British musketry training, technical training for pilots in the earliest days of air war. In the interim bits between learning, while fussing over the hot-water urns and fretting about housing, I talked to a lovely publisher bloke from Casemate Books who had visited to court academics, which was also interesting, and uplifting to boot. I got his details, and while he says that they’re not, say, able to do me some work experience, that’s a contact worth having. Publishing still doesn’t strike me as a good potential career choice, but everyone in the book industry I’ve met I’ve got on with famously, which is nice.

Census collecting has gone to Phase 2. This is to say that rather than knocking on people’s doors and politely enquiring as to the whereabouts of their census form, with replacements issued and help offered if diddums needs, we knock on people’s doors and point-blank demand they give the sodding things back because this is getting silly now. On the third visit, if we’ve made no contact, we fill in a dummy form and paint a large X on their door in lamb’s blood.

there is a road that meets the road that goes to my house

Census collecting is pretty damn hard work.

It’s certainly proper healthy outdoorsy stuff, walking and talking in the sun; I go to bed genuinely tired, and my neck is tanned beneath the too-long mop I really need to cut off* (well, the neck is burned actually, but I can pretend it’s tanned); my arms would be too if I ever stopped wearing my one-colour long-sleeved shirts, though I never will.

I’m being paid £9/hour, which would be a pretty good rate for being a sort of reverse door-to-door salesman, except that there is no real way an hour of census collecting is going to take one hour of my time. As an example, a batch of sixty-something addresses has been calculated to be worth four of the government’s hours; a shade under 4 minutes per house sounds just about reasonable, given that while sometimes I’m just knocking, waiting and sliding a “please return your census bro” leaflet in, and sometimes going through the laborious purpose of addressing and barcoding a new form for them (so far nobody has required me to actually fill their form in for them… so far). But I’m not going down streets, but picking on sometimes extremely poor route maps (it would help if they gave us actual street paths rather than a hideously broad and poorly delineated AO map), and there’s usually a minute or two of travel time between them; and I’m expected to visit all these houses two or three times.

Plus there’s travel time to the AO – I’ve been lucky so far that most of it’s been ten-fifteen minutes’ bike ride away (though up some steep hills, carrying a *lot* of census paperwork – again, HEALTHY! But also sweaty and tiring) – which I don’t get paid for; and then the followup paperwork of double-checking my stuff, filling in the dummy forms, making sure my forms all conform; and my one hour of census collecting might have taken an hour and three quarters by the time I’m done. So it’s still good solid work, but not so competitively paid as it sounds, and I’m not enjoying the fundamental discord between expectations vs what’s actually possible – but Dad informs me that this sort of employee abuse is pretty much par for this sort of work, and you do what you can.

But it is definitely not boring. I can’t tell specific stories, sadly; they fall under the century-long statute of limitations applying to all census data. (The awesome bloke who did our classroom training,** when I asked if I was allowed to tell census anecdotes in a hundred years’ time, said “not only can you tell them, you can tell people I said you can tell them.”) But I have learned that places which look deceptively nice from Google Maps – even Streetview level – are often still quite shitty, unpleasant and run-down when your boots are actually on the glass-scattered, miscellaneously stained ground; and I have also learned that even in places that could have been backdrops to The Wire, I have so far not felt threatened, and there seems to be no correlation between the “niceness” of a neighbourhood and the actual niceness and friendliness of the people. Some people are shit. Most people are actually pretty cool daddio.

I’m very much on my own out there, and self-discipline is pretty nice – but it comes with a) going into scary buildings with no backup and b) having no help except the giant book of regs and the seemingly-rather-divorced-from-reality classroom training. We’ve not been given enough of the replacement H1 forms, and several times I have been terribly embarrassed by having to stop and fumble through my paperwork; and I have resorted to using my proper backpack to hold my folder and backup forms rather than the bespoke, census-branded bag because I simply can’t take that damn thing on a bike (also, it doesn’t hold my thermos.) I am sure that after a week or two I’ll have this all down to a fine craft, but at the moment it’s all a bit of a mess – the sort of pressure and uncertainty that I normally thrive on, and would be massively enjoying if my house wasn’t going to shit.

*It doesn’t even look that bad objectively,*** just fuck the Young Tory look.
** The training session was at a travel inn at the absolute arse-end of nowhere. I’m not sure if this is a calculated trick to test our census-collector-intrepidity, or just plain government incompetence and inability to find a good venue.
*** Alright, so it looks awful.


(written in an hour in response to this ludicrous and terrible article. Off on one again. Also, the comment handling on their site is godawful.)

The Shallows is a very interesting work, if a bit pop-science, but here, like far too many of its readers, you take from it (ironically) only the surface concept that people are “losing the ability to think.” Nicholas Carr is a good writer, a great thinker, and a very eloquent voice against technology dependence: but he is a mediocre scientist, and like you has a terrible infatuation with the long-form novel as the ultimate in human culture. Please do not hold The Shallows up as proving anything weighty or having any scientific credibility: it does not.

You seem to seriously believe that people write in order to see their words printed and bound. And maybe for some sad creatures, that is the whole point. (I can’t deny the appeal of seeing my name in little gold letters on the spine of something in tasteful black, certainly, but it’s not why I started writing and it’s certainly not why I write now.) Maybe there seriously are people who can only be validated by their words being mass-produced and distributed on pounded-flat dead trees. But most writing in 2011 is not for the delivery system, it’s not even for the money: it is fundamentally a creative effort, which is and always has been done for the art of it. And the writers who are doing it for the art will continue to live and create, regardless of success or recognition, long after those who are doing it solely for the money have had their revenue models torn out from under them. I can only speak for myself and my friends – but writers do not “hope, mostly in vain, that their work will endure for a few years or even centuries, in handsome printed and bound volumes”. Writers hope, mostly in vain, that someone will read and appreciate their work. Having nice physical reminders of it lying around is the icing on the cake of intellectual vanity. The average writer, if not your “serious” writer (getting a bit “no true Scotsman” there) creates for the point of creating, not to get their hands on the volumes you so fetishise.

Totally separate to this, yet associated somehow in your scorn for e-publishing, is the environmental impact of e-readers as compared to books. Ignoring the quite obvious counterpoint that comparing books to e-readers is not comparing apples to apples (it’s more like comparing apples to apple trees, and anyway neglects the instant and almost costless distribution once the infrastructure is in place): what is your point? Handheld computing is taking off massively. Dedicated e-readers are, at the moment, the tiniest fraction of the consumer electronics market; they are likely to disappear entirely in the next few years, their functionality merged into the coming iterations of tablets and smartphones. There are, for certain, many drawbacks to be overcome: technical issues with screens and batteries, the inertia of the current IP and distribution systems, the sluggishness of a publishing world still dominated by people who think like you. But in time – certainly not the five or ten years predicted by the e-zealots you somehow take as representative, but with terrible inevitability – they will be. All, that is, except the gradually more irrelevant generations who need “the feel of paper” or whatever other tactile nonsense, who seem to think the delivery system is more important than the words themselves.

Yes, the world of consumer electronics, especially in the current phase of market expansion, frantic innovation and short refresh cycles, is an environmental catastrophe. Are you choosing to blame this on ebooks? Are you saying that by going back to good old dead trees, the smartphones will all disappear, the world can be saved? The idea that book-reading habits can stand in the way of the coming handheld revolution, or that it is more than the slightest drop in an ocean of devices, is both hilariously wrong and terribly vain.

It is not about the forests. It is not about the devices. It is certainly not about the “handsome volumes”. I don’t know if you have ever studied the history of information; I am not particularly convinced by the Gutenberg namedrop. But I have. It has been a gradual progression (not, of course, without its setbacks) of overcoming the limits caused by illiteracy and material scarcity: as information-sharing technology, and the general ability to use it, has advanced, it has given ever greater numbers of people the ability to more freely consume – and produce – information. We are incalculably richer for it, as societies and as individuals. And all the naysayers and chicken littles who squawked at the printing press or the newspaper or the Coptic alphabet as dumbing down their culture, everyone who ever fretted about the oncoming end of society and the rise of the idiots, everyone in recorded history who has ever thought like you, has been wrong.