Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.
Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.
In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?
In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.
In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.
The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would!
|Posted on November 20, 2012 at 10:30 AM||comments (0)|
"Twitter is in constant tension between people wanting dialogue and people wanting monologue"
Posted by Scott Berkun on Twitter, 19 November 2012
In January 2011 I attended a self-publishing course. I was just about to self-publish a family memoir called "Live Eels and Grand Pianos", and I needed the course to give me ideas about how to market this book. I was told that Twitter was essential, so I logged in and joined up. I knew very little about it, most of it from hearsay. I had two conflicting ideas about Twitter.
One was that it was full of people telling each other what they'd had for breakfast and how many vodka shots they'd drank last night, but the other was that this forum had been used by protesters in Egypt and other Arab countries to convey news that would be suppressed by government controlled traditional media. I also knew about Trafigura.
In October 2009 London law firm Carter Ruck obtained an injunction barring the Guardian from reporting about its client energy and mining firm Trafigura, The injunction prevented the newspaper from reporting a parliamentary question from Paul Farrelly MP to justice secretary Jack Straw about Trafigura's activities involving the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. Trafigura had had to pay €152milion damages to thousands of Ivorians whose health had been damaged as a result. UK Media outlets had been unable to report on the story up until then due to persistent threats from Carter Ruck.
The Guardian simply reported that it was the subject of an injunction from a law firm it couldn't name, acting on behalf of a client it couldn't name, barring it from reporting proceedings in parliament concerning an MP who it couldn't name. Within hours the hashtags #Trafigura and #CarterRuck were all over Twitter, and Carter Ruck withdrew the injunction.
So what was Twitter? A liberating force for freedom of speech and a means where people whose voices are not normally heard could be heard, or just a mass of empty headed banality, or could it be both? I needed to find out.
I sent my first tweet in November 2010 and I've now sent about 1,000. What do I tweet about? Very occasionally I shamelessly plug the two books that I've self published, "Live Eels and Grand Pianos" and "Dotty Dorothy: The Perfect Spy". "Live Eels" is the story of my parents, Kathy and Charlie Bradford, both of whom were left seriously disabled by the Polio virus in the early years of the last century, so I needed to get some followers who may have an interest in the topics of disability rights and disability history. Somehow I stumbled on disability bloggers Sarah Ismail (@Samedifference1) and Kaliya Franklin(@BendyGirl) who have both retweeted my posts about this book, for which I thank them. I also thank them for enlightening me about the discrimination and stigma that people with disabilities face today. I am ashamed to admit that although I knew a lot about the struggles for inclusion that people of my parents generation went through in the early and middle part of the twentieth century I didn't know nearly enough about today's challenges and injustices.
I also tweet about books, writing, publishing and self-publishing, and follow several bloggers on these subjects. I particularly recommend Mick Rooney's (@Mick Rooney7777) Independent Publishing Magazine to anyone contemplating self-publishing. I follow many Guardian and Daily Telegraph journalists, and devour and usually retweet posts about the abuses of power by Rupert Murdoch's evil empire that the Leveson enquiry will pass judgement on shortly.
In the spring of this year Greenacre Writers (@GreenacreWriter) discovered me on Twitter and asked me to read from "Live Eels" at a literary festival in North London. I enjoyed that a lot, and Rosie Canning (one of Greenacre's founders) is currently campaigning against library closures in the London borough of Barnet. I am of course following this campaign on Twitter.
I find that I increasingly depend on Twitter for breaking news, and I worry that as result of these digital initiatives that there may not be any printed newspapers in a few years time. I love the online world, but I think that we would be a much impoverished society if here were no printed newspapers, magazines or books, and no high street outlets where we could browse them.
But my conclusion is that Twitter is a force for good. It does give people and causes a voice that may not otherwise be heard. I hope it's sustainable though. Twitter posted a net loss of $25.8 million on revenue of $23.8 million in the first three months of 2011, and its backers do not have unlimited resources. Let's hope it manages to build the revenues to ensure its long term survival.
For those of you who want to know more about the growth and use of Twitter, here are some facts:
1. Twitter had 400,000 tweets posted per quarter in 2007.
2. In 2008 there were only 3 million registered users and only 1.25 million tweets per day.
3. In 2009 Twitter had 8 million registered users.
4. From 8 employees in 2008 to over 400 employees in 2011.
5. Top 3 countries: US (107.7 million), Japan (29.9 million) and Brazil (33.3 million).
6. It took 3 years, 2 months and 1 day to tweet to the billionth Tweet.
7. Today it only takes one week for users to send a billion Tweets.
8. In March 2010 the average number of tweets people sent per week was 350 million. In February 2011 the average number of tweets people sent per day was 140 million.
9. The most popular Twitter user by number of followers is Lady Gaga. She has more than 18 million followers. She gains followers faster than Twitter adds new accounts.
10. When Michael Jackson died (June 25 2009) there were 456 tweets per second (a record-breaker for its time).
11. The current tweets per second record is 6,939 tweets per second. This was set 4 seconds after midnight in Japan on New Year’s Day.
12. On March 12, 2011, 572,000 new accounts were created on that one day.
13. The average number of new accounts per day created in February 2011 was 460,000.
14. The number of mobile users have increased by 182% over the past year.
15. There are an estimated 225 million users in March 2011.
16. In 2010, 25 billion tweets sent and 100 million new accounts were added on Twitter.
17. The first unassisted off-Earth Twitter message was posted from the International Space Station by NASA astronaut T. J. Creamer on 22nd January 2010.
18. 92% Reweet due to interesting content.
19. 69% decide who to follow through suggestions from their friends.
20. Twitter is ranked as one of the ten most visited websites.
21. Tweets are mostly conversational (38%) and pointless babble (40%).
22. Demographics of Twitter users: 54% female. 53% no kids. Users range from incomes of £0-30k (17%) to over £100k (30%). 41.5% are aged 18-39.
23. Twitter is approaching 500 Million Users – Estimated to reach this in 8 days, 7 hours.
24. Currently, Twitter is growing at over 1.123 million accounts per day, which amounts to more than 13 new accounts per second.
25. In the 5 years since launching it has attracted significant investment funds with an estimated total capital raising of over $1.3 billion. The most significant investment was Digital Sky Technology in August, 2010, which was at over $800 million.
26. In June 2011, it was announced that Twitter would be embedded in the new Apple mobile operating system. After the launch of the new Apple mobile iOS5 operating system, Twitter registered sign ups had increased by 300% per day.
27. 60% of new users are coming from outside the U.S.
28. 10 tweets per second mention Starbucks.
29. IBM can predict wait times at airports by crowdsourcing information from tweets. They search tweets for mentions of airports, then send an @reply to the tweeters and ask them to reply with wait times.
30. Scientists can tell with great accuracy where you are from just by the words you use in your tweets.
31. People are more inclined to Tweet something negative than positive. 80% of customer service tweets are negative.
32. Every public tweet since Twitter’s inception in March 2006 will be archived digitally at the Library of Congress. IBM plans to map every archived tweet to Wikipedia, and tag it with sentiment, to make them more digestible.
33. Twitter has been valued at $8 billion.
34. 85% of recruiters use Twitter for recruitment.
35. 81% of users follow less than 100 people.
36. 61% of all tweets are in English.
37. 5% of users create 75% of the content
38. 75% of traffic comes from outside of the Twitter interface.
39. 66% of questions asked have some commercial intent.
|Posted on October 3, 2012 at 11:40 AM||comments (0)|
Ever since I was about eighteen (that's almost fifty years ago) I've written down the author and title of every book that I've read. I write these details down in my best handwriting in a high quality A4 notebook that has gilt-edged pages, a marbled cover and a silk place finder.
Marilyn gave me the current book as a birthday present in 1993. I know this because I wrote that information down on the first page of the book. Then I duly transcribed all the entries from a previous notebook into this one. I read between twelve and twenty-four books a year so there must be about 850 entries in it. I start each year on a new page and the page header just tells me the year, and each new year is double underlined.
I hardly ever write anything in this book other than the author's name and the book title. There are only a few entries that give any more information; in fact there are so few that I can remember what they are without opening the book. Here's an entry I wrote in 1994:
"The first book I read this year was John McCarthy and Jill Morrell's 'Some Other Rainbow'. [This book tells the story of McCarthy's kidnap by Islamic Jihad terrorists in Lebanon in April 1986, his five years in custody and Jill Morrell's campaign to secure his release]. I began reading it on May 20th 1994 while I was on a return flight from Tel Aviv to London. By co-incidence, earlier that day I had visited Jerusalem, only three or four weeks after Israel signed a peace treaty with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. I had seen the PLO flag flying in East Jerusalem!"
I was in Tel Aviv on a business trip, and my customer had taken me to Jerusalem to see the historic city on a day off. I remember how shocked he was to see the PLO flag flying there, and I also remember how optimistic the Israelis that I met were about this peace treaty. I didn't meet any Palestinians, but I assume that at the time they too would have been optimistic about change. I'd brought 'Some Other Rainbow' with me, and of course the reasons for McCarthy's incarceration was inextricably linked to the Palestine problem. How wrong we all were to have so much optimism.
But why do I write all these book titles down?
I think that there are three reasons. If I dip into this notebook It's like dipping into a family photo album. Looking back on 1975 I see that I read three works by Solzhenitsyn and the first two books that I ever read by John Le Carre, and I recall that at the time I was backpacking around North America. I will always associate 'The First Circle' and 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' with a drizzly72 hour Greyhound Bus journey across the empty and flat Canadian Prairie. If I look back to more recent years I will always associate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi's ' Half of a Yellow Sun' and Dave Eggers's 'Zeitoun' with the tour of China that Marilyn and I made in 2010. When I recall where I was when I was reading a particular book I also recall the places I was in and the people I was with. I don't really need any more memory aids than the names of the author and the book. My notebook gives me a sense of time and place.
The second reason is that occasionally I look through the book to see if there's anything I want to re-read. I studied 'Wuthering Heights' for A level in 1966 and in 1998 I decided to re-read it as a result of looking back at my notebook.
Thirdly, every few months I look at what I've read over the past twelve months and ask myself if I'm restricting my reading to a limited range of voices. Those of us who read in English are a privileged lot. We can read works in our language by writers from all over the English speaking world; and in this sense of course I mean the UK and Ireland, the USA and Canada, Australia New Zealand and South Africa, but I also include India and Nigeria. And we can read books in translation. I use the list to decide what book to buy next. Have I just read three novels by middle-aged English white men one after the other? If so, my next book purchase might be travel literature, history, popular science or biography; or another novel by a woman from a different culture. So my notebook helps me to hear a wider range of voices, which, in turn, helps my own writing.
So I'm going to continue writing down every book I've ever read.
|Posted on August 6, 2012 at 10:25 AM||comments (2)|
Today, Amazon announced that Kindle books outsold printed books in the UK. Amazon said that so far in 2012, for every 100 print books sold on the site, it has sold114 Kindle books, excluding free Kindle books. UK Kindle readers buy four times the number of books they did before owning a Kindle. Meanwhile, over the past year, the site has seen a more than 400% increase in UK authors and publishers using the self-publishing tool Kindle Direct Publishing.
I cannot decide whether e-books in general, or Kindle e-books in particular are a development that should be welcomed, or whether they are a cause for concern.So I thought I would write about some of the effects of this disruptive innovation- which, like it or not is here to stay – on society as a whole.
There’s one undisputed fact – e-book readers and e-books are what very large numbers of people want. More than three million Kindles had been sold worldwide by the end of last year. They are not going away.
On the whole, e-books are usually cheaper than their printed competitors. Superficially they’re kinder to the environment, as they don’t require forests to be felled and fuel to be used in manufacturing and distribution. However ,there may be a catch here – if the forests aren’t felled then they won’t be planted in the first place. I just don’t know what the long term impact of this will be on biodiversity. Equally, some parts of the device, just like lots of computer hardware that we use every day are made from highly toxic minerals,some of which may be sourced from countries where there is little concern for both the environmental impact of mining as well as the human rights of the mining communities.
As far as holiday reading and reading on trains and buses are concerned, e-books are of course far more convenient than their printed equivalents.Thousands of volumes can be carried around on a device that weighs just a few ounces. Some people who have disabilities find them easier to hold than large printed books, and many of us welcome the ability to enlarge the font size as our eyes feel the strain later in the evenings.
But I have a concern about the place of the book in social interaction. If you’re on a train and see someone reading a book that you’ve really enjoyed, it leaves open the possibility of starting up a dialogue with that person. The reader is unlikely to consider your opening remarks as an invasion of personal space. But if the person is just holding an e-reader; well – they’re just reading. We don’t gain any insights about this stranger. Opening up a conversation becomes that bit more difficult as we would be interrupting their privacy. Equally, if you come into my home for the first time and then take down one of my books from the shelves and talk to me about it, then that’s fine with me, you’re welcome to do that. But if you pick up my e-reader, turn it on and start to browse its contents then it feels like an invasion of personal space – it’s like you're peeping at personal mail that I’ve left around. So I’m fearful that the replacement of the printed book by its digital cousin might limit the scope for spontaneous social interaction.
I’ve read and signed my work at Lit Fests, Rotary Clubs, Lunch clubs and other events, and I’ve bought signed books at these venues too. I’ve gone to these events with friends and family. Watching the author reading from an e-reader and then telling the public that they can buy it over the internet isn’t really the same thing; is it? There’s no signed copy, no momento of the day.
Amazon’s self publishing program has given hundreds of thousands of self-published authors a cheap and easy way to distribute their work. I’ve done it myself. Using the Kindle self-publishing program is virtually free; you only pay Amazon when you sell something. The problem is that Amazon doesn’t demand that you get somebody to copy edit or critique your work, or give any thought to book design. This means that the quality of the works on the self-publishing platform varies from excellent to dire. The benefit is that thousands and thousands of authors have been given a voice; the drawback is that some of the stuff may not be worth reading. But it’s a free society, and nobody is compelling anybody to read anything they don’t like. It’s the opposite problem to the one of the traditional publishing model, where new authors are excluded by the difficulties of persuading publishers and agents to take any notice of them at all. If – and this is a very big if – the traditional publishing business model can survive, we may actually get the best of both worlds here.
But perhaps my second greatest concern is the effect that the widespread adoption of e-reading is having on our high streets. I love browsing bookshops.I browse in independents and chains, in secondhand bookshops as well as new bookshops. I’m convinced that many of these stores won’t be there in just a few years time and I will miss them a lot. But I’m to blame as well. This year I’ve bought (or been given as presents) fifteen books. Five came from high street shops, two were bought from the author direct, two were secondhand, two were physical books bought on the internet and four were e-books. I’m obviously not doing enough myself the keep the high street alive. But every so often I have to remind myself that my next purchase must come from Waterstone’s – they’ve been so supportive of my work. I really hope that this big chain can find a way of re-inventing itself so that it is relevant to a new generation of bookbuyers.
There were just over 2,000 high street bookshops in Britain in July 2011, compared with4,000 in 2005. Over 500 towns do not have a single bookshop. Every high street business that closes down is a UK taxpayer, and the corporate behemoth that’s vacuuming up their business is Amazon, the inventor of the e-book. Amazon organises its affairs so that it pays hardly any UKtax. This is part of a general trend that worries governments; it’s the same trend that sees local newspaper advertising migrating to the internet, and once again the local newspapers that close are UK taxpayers; organisations such as Google, EBay and LinkedIn that have taken their business are not generally UK taxpayers.
But my greatest concern is this. Amazon now has over 90% of the UK e-book market and over 25% of the market for printed books. It’s moving into mainstream publishing, where I’m sure it will innovate in ways that we don’t yet understand. It is to be congratulated on the way it has not just responded to, but also anticipated consumer preferences. But Amazon is a media company. And in the past twelve months we’ve seen how one media monopolist has cynically abused its position in the UK. I’m not saying that Amazon would ever be a party to the abuses of power we’ve seen at News International, but society should be very careful about allowing another UScontrolled multinational to have such a dominant position in our cultural life.