Thursday 31 May 2007

Guinea Pigs Sought!

I realise I've been a bit slack at replying to people's comments and emails this month. Sorry! It's not wilful neglect - only the knock-on effect of things getting really busy with the School of Everything. We're in the middle of talking to investors, plotting lots of exciting things to do with the first working version of the site (coming soon...), moving into a new (temporary) office in Bethnal Green - and looking for guinea pigs!

I posted a request earlier on the School of Everything blog, and I thought I'd repost it here. If you think you know anyone (in the UK) who'd be interested, please repost or pass it on as appropriate. Thanks!

The Highly Educated Guinea Pig - taken by Kerry

We're building a tool to help people organise learning - so we want to make sure it's helpful to people who are already out there working as independent teachers.

What do we mean by independent teachers? Well, we reckon there are around 100,000 people in the UK who make a living partly or wholly through teaching on a self-employed basis, outside of institutions. That could mean offering guitar lessons, running yoga classes or photography courses, or teaching astrophysics from a garden shed. (It includes freelance driving instructors, but not those who work for a larger driving school.) Depending on the subject, they may teach from home, travel to their students, or rent a venue. For some, it's a full-time job - for others, a way of supporting their studies or creative projects...

If any of that sounds like you, we want to hear from you!

We're putting together a small pool of teachers who are willing to meet up occasionally over the next few months, to share their experience and give us feedback - as well as a larger number who are prepared to answer some questions over the phone or by email.

If you're interested and you want to know more, drop me a line:

Monday 14 May 2007

Pick Me Up (Again)

How many people can say an email changed their life?

Probably quite a few these days, actually - and some with more dramatic stories than mine. But, for what it's worth, the email in question was Pick Me Up - a weekly newsletter of stories, events listings and requests, run by volunteers and held together by a DIY approach to life.

Made up of two or three line snippets, each with a link to a longer article or a website, it married culture and activism with a hopeful, playful attitude. Nothing got written about unless it involved someone actually making something happen, then telling the story in their own words. Over two years, that included:

- providing air hostess service on the London Underground
- grazing cows in the city
- stealing a concert hall from the Sarajevo mafia
- installing a street piano in Sheffield
- and naming at least one baby!

So did it really change my life? Well, by the time I became an editor for Pick Me Up, I already had form as a journalist and an activist. But working with Charlie Davies - who started the email after the demise of The Face - challenged me to raise my game, and to push at the limits of those roles.

If I hadn't got involved with Pick Me Up, I'd probably still be working in a BBC newsroom. I certainly wouldn't have left to start the School of Everything, since it was through the email that I met three of my co-founders.

Charlie Davies (right) with Sebastian Mary HarringtonPick Me Up founder Charlie Davies (right) with sMary from the School of Everything

After reaching its hundredth issue last summer, Pick Me Up went to sleep for a while. As editors, many of us had become busy with new projects. It felt like we'd graduated from the email, and to keep it going out of a sense of duty would have been missing the point.

Still, I was excited when a brand new issue arrived in my inbox earlier this year - and recently, it seems to be returning to something like its original frequency. (As you'll gather, I'm not directly involved at the moment.)

My only concern is that, where three years ago Pick Me Up felt incredibly fresh and distinctive, today the attitude it embodied seems to be all over the place! Every time I pick up an issue of Time Out, I find stories like this, about the "Guerrilla Benchers" who reinstall seating where local councils have taken it away. Where our relationship with our readers - who often provided the best stories - felt like a contrast to the cynicism of some BBC colleagues, now "user-generated content" is all across the media. Such cynicism is hardly dead, yet just tonight I was struck by BBC2's new series Power To The People, in which a Newsnight reporter turns activist - in the first programme, leading the villagers of Lanteith on an invasion of Islington, complete with echoes of Eike's urban cows.

I'm not saying we started it all - and I'm certainly not saying it's stopped being cool now everyone's at it. But I am curious as to what Pick Me Up should do next. (Any suggestions...?)

As it happens, I'm speaking on a panel with Charlie in Sheffield this Friday, so I shall ask him what he's got planned! (If you want to come along, it's a discussion called 'Free vs Open', as part of the Lovebytes digital arts festival - and we're on at the Showroom cinema at 4pm.)

You can sign up for future issues of Pick Me Up here.

Friday 4 May 2007

Through the Looking Glass?

The intricacies of Proportional Representation mean it's still far from clear whether the Scottish National Party have won their historic victory – but Alex Salmond's spectacular win in Gordon sent me looking for a book I read a few months ago.

Tom Nairn's 'After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland' is the kind of outlandish political writing which catches at themes dismissed by the sophisticated insider. Published in 2000, it offered a very early judgement on the Blair era, and reading it today is a bit like digging up a time capsule. The fetishization of youth, about which Nairn was so scathing, feels rather distant now. On the other hand, his preliminary verdict on the Kosovo conflict might offer a clue to Blair's behaviour following 9/11. For a British leader, whose country has never fully accepted its reduced circumstances following the loss of Empire, Nairn identified “the glamour of appearing to bestride the world once more”.

And as I read it last winter, the book's central prediction – that Blair's ultimate legacy would be the break-up of the United Kingdom – seemed a surprisingly plausible prophecy. In London, the prospect of Scottish independence is still treated as Alice in Wonderland stuff. The figures don't add up, it's not value for money. Yet the inadequacies of this kind of politics-as-economic-calculation set me thinking of Nairn's attack on 'corporate populism':

'Corporate populism' is absolute philistinism. Another reason for the business class to support New Labour, of course, but one which seems inseperable from a frightful risk. Its apparatus of consumers and 'stakeholders' mimics democracy, substituting brand-loyalty and ordinariness for hope and glory. This can seem possible, even attractive, while things go well in the narrowly economic terms to which the creed awards priority...

When the growth-momentum ceases... people will then have to fall back on the non-corporate, less than cost-effective nation – on a national community and state... That is, on communal faith and justice, the extended family of egalitarian dreams. Everyone knows that a corporation will not 'support' customers in any comparable sense, beyond the limits of profitability; but everyone feels that is exactly what a nation should do. Brand-loyalty is precisely not 'belonging' in the more visceral sense associated with national identity. Indeed it easily becomes the opposite of belonging: sell-out, Devil take the hindmost, moving on (or out) to maintain profitability. Since the national factor cannot really be costed, it is easily caricatured as a question of soulful romanticism or delusion. However, such common sense is itself philistine. It fails to recognize something crucial. When Marks & Spencer betrays its customers the result is an annoyance; for a nation-state to let its citizens down can be a question of life or death, and not in wartime alone.

There is a hollowed-out rhetoric of progress which is one of the most infuriating traits of 'on message' New Labour politicians. I don't mean the litanies of practical improvements for which this government can rightly claim credit, but the abstract invocation of 'progress' which assumes that the past is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, and labels as 'reactionary' anyone who talks seriously about 'belonging'.

Let's imagine that Alex Salmond is Scotland's new First Minister. Two or three years down the line, having proved themselves in office, and with a newly-installed Tory government at Westminster, it is not unimaginable that the SNP win an independence referendum. In such a scenario, it may be worth heeding Nairn's warning for England:

Blair's Project makes it likely that England will return on the street corner, rather than via a maternity room with appropriate care and facilities. Croaking tabloids, saloon-bar resentment and back-bench populism are likely to attend the birth and to have their say. Democracy is constitutional or nothing. Without a systematic form, its ugly cousins will be tempted to move in and demand their rights - their nation, the one always sat upon and then at last betrayed by an élite of faint-hearts, half-breeds and alien interests.

And whatever happens in Scotland, with bad economic news on the horizon, the Brown era is likely to see 'corporate populism' put to the test – while questions of 'belonging' rise on the agenda, in more or less attractive forms.

Closet Labour Voters Spare Blair's Blushes?

Well, it's still early in the night, as the TV commentators say, but it looks like Labour haven't been given quite the kicking a lot of people were predicting. John Reid was on the BBC earlier talking about the gap between opinion polls and what canvassers were hearing on the doorstep.

Listening to him, it occurred to me that voting Labour has become a little shameful, in the way that voting Conservative was in 1992. Back then, the pollsters had to weight their survey results to compensate for the reluctance of Tory voters to own up. It wouldn't surprise me if the sort of casual vitriol that constitutes received opinion about Tony Blair has had a similar effect. Could it be that this tranche of closet Labour voters has spared the government some misery tonight?

Here in Sheffield, I made it to the polling station (by taxi) ten minutes before they shut up shop. But there's no election night drama for us – every council in Yorkshire has postponed its count to tomorrow daytime, so whenever David Dimbleby hands over to the “regional results in detail”, we get a reporter sitting in an all night cafe chatting with a few retired council leaders.

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