The Power to Sell Books


Qualified Failure?

Everybody remembers their exams: the tight feeling at the top of the stomach; drinking water as advised, only to need the toilet three quarters of the way through; tsking when someone’s phone has gone off; the horror when you realise that phone is yours; the cotton wool head at the final question with only three minutes left – all familiar I’m sure.  Yet in Scotland, this year is going to be slightly different.  A new qualification – National Five – is being introduced, the first exam to be run in conjunction with the Curriculum for Excellence.  Curriculum for Excellence seemed a great step forward in education, recognising the importance of creativity, problem based learning and building skills outside the normal memory test associated with doing well at school.  All good stuff – who wouldn’t support these ideas?  

Yet, the new English exam is very similar to, well, the old one.  In fact, it could be argued that it tests an even narrower set of skills than the Standard Grade exam it is replacing. 

The reason for stating this is that the new exam places the onus on answering questions on texts studied in class, while the old Standard Grade gave the candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their skill in writing in a number of different ways. Any creative aspect of writing is relegated to the folio of writing which the candidates have to prepare in class and which is worth less.  Please do not misunderstand: I am not defending the Standard Grade, which had its faults, such as a folio which was too unwieldy.  On the surface, this appears to be a non-issue – the pupils do not know the questions in the new exam beforehand, so they will of course need ingenuity to answer.   The problem, however, with ingenuity is that it is ethereal; a task might present no problems for a candidate one day, yet the next day an almost identical task may be completely beyond them.  And on results day, a teacher offering up their hands and stating: “They must have had an off-day,” rings hollow. Understandably, teachers are at pains to remove any variables, and limit the need for ingenuity, in fact ignoring many aspects that the Curriculum for Excellence sought to inculcate.  

The reason I state this is purely because I do it myself.  The most efficient way to get candidates to be able to answer an exam question on a text is to write a model essay which answers a similar question, the pupils can then go and learn this and using only a bit of savvy can adapt this to the questions in the exam.  Minimal reading of the text is needed.  The exam is only a memory test.

Undoubtedly, candidates studying English should be able to demonstrate a knowledge of literary techniques, but couldn’t this be done in a more creative way? Perhaps, under exam conditions, producing a short text like a poem, short story or a short story themselves – even a short film, showing awareness of these literary techniques by using them for themselves.  Even something like blogging, with its use of tagging and understanding of audience might be used.  Why not?  

What is more, we would more than likely find some real additions to the Scottish canon as a result, ensuring that Scottish Literature and the written Scottish identity continues to exist in a vibrant way.



5 rules for productive conflict

TED Blog

Margaret Heffernan speaks at TEDGlobal 2012

Rob Manning did everything in his power to screw up the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars last night. Manning not only cut radio signals to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s control room, but also simulated a hole being poked in the rover’s fuel system and solar flares flying toward the spacecraft.

Why would he do this?

Because he is the chief engineer for the rover mission, and wanted his team to be able to handle any worst-case scenario.

“Being a gremlin allows me to soul-search and look at all the things that I missed,” Manning told the Chicago Tribune in the days before last night’s landing.

Manning’s mischief would certainly get a thumbs up from management expert Margaret Heffernan. In a thought-provoking talk given at TEDGlobal 2012, Heffernan shared a counterintuitive lesson learned in her years running businesses and organizations — that conflict and opposition are essential for good thinking.

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“The Romance of an Ugly Policeman” — P.G. Wodehouse


“The Romance of an Ugly Policeman” by P.G. Wodehouse

Crossing the Thames by Chelsea Bridge, the wanderer through London finds himself in pleasant Battersea. Rounding the Park, where the female of the species wanders with its young by the ornamental water where the wild-fowl are, he comes upon a vast road. One side of this is given up to Nature, the other to Intellect. On the right, green trees stretch into the middle distance; on the left, endless blocks of residential flats. It is Battersea Park Road, the home of the cliff-dwellers.

Police-constable Plimmer’s beat embraced the first quarter of a mile of the cliffs. It was his duty to pace in the measured fashion of the London policeman along the front of them, turn to the right, turn to the left, and come back along the road which ran behind them. In this way he was enabled to keep…

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Divided Soul

I’ve never been to Wigan,  I first heard Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’ on a KFC advert and I don’t even have a record turntable.  When challenged by any of those guys with the round patches on their jacket I would have to concede that my relationship to ‘Northern Soul’ is, at best, tenuous.  Yet, whenever I listen to any of the tracks included in this genre, gleaned second-hand and at a distance from Kev Roberts ‘Northern Soul Top 500’, then, horror of horrors, downloaded as MP3s, a strange affection arises.  I say ‘strange’ because there is no personal or emotional reason for me to feel this way – the vast majority of my interactions with Northern Soul have occurred with media in between.

And this is hugely ironic, considering the socialising of the all-nighters with other fans, the huge values placed on the actual vinyl records or even the admiration for those who can dance really well, show, more than any other genre, that Northern Soul is a real world, physical, cultural beacon, around which people gather.

It is beyond me why Northern Soul kindles this affection; yes, the reasons listed above certainly can account for some of it, but there is something more.  For example, the fact that most of the records were not commercial hits, even though they were released by major labels with major clout, only to be cherished – saved? – by Northerners down for the football in London and taken back up North on the train, which is, famously, the reason the music came by its name, is hugely appealing.  Appealing because the music industry failed, but the music survived.

The other strand of my affection for Northern Soul lies in the fact that it took place away from the media glare of the London, in such places as Wigan or Southport, developing almost like a well kept secret, not in a showy, ‘puffed’ way but true to itself – not like a ‘scene’ trying to be a ‘scene’, and as such it was a solid, vibrant thing.  Ordinary people went to these places to dance, listen to the music.  It really is – or was – a living thing.  ‘Northern Soul’ is an apposite name in more ways than one.

And this is where my affection is tainted by wistful sadness.  A teenager in the Highlands would never have been able to gain access to ‘Northern Soul’, to get an idea of what it is about without the media, be it the internet or T.V detective dramas set in the Sixties.  The media allowed m to become a fan.  However, almost like a Trojan Horse, the very means by which I could become a fan, in some inexpressible way takes away from Northern Soul because I have never actually experienced it in any other way than being at the end of some sort of long line of communication and if I physically went to an all nighter it would be a different experience to if I had attended having heard a record at a friend’s house and then went with a group of pals.  Having experienced Northern Soul first through the media, I would be similar to a tourist visiting a museum.  I don’t know, perhaps this is overstating the case, but I feel if I went along to one of these events I might, in a small way dilute it and contribute to making it something other than it is in some sort of reflexive, vicious circle.

Paranoid as it is, I see this sort of thing happening already in, you’ve guessed it, the media. John Newman’s latest single, ‘Love Me Again’ set in a dance hall, mimicking the faster tempo of the ‘Northern’ records clearly aims to grab on to some of the goodwill that the scene provokes.  Yet if you look at the models, all stylishly made out, all good looking, all dancing perfectly, the spirit isn’t there.  Where are the ordinary people who love music?  Were they knocked back at the door?

The music, and the fans will still exist, and flourish, after this current vogue for ‘vintage’ looks, I have no doubt about that, yet I think I will look on from the side, trying to keep the faith in my mind’s eye.

A Scot? At Wimbledon?

Last Sunday, a Scot managed to play a blinder in Centre Court.  Yes, Andy Murray did his bit for tennis in particular and sport in general, and, by association, Scottish Nationalism by winning the thing. However, another was participating more directly in this Nationalism game and he didn’t even need to leave his seat in those green stands.  Merely by waving a Saltire in the right time and right place – after Murray had won match point and behind David Cameron’s head – Alec Salmond might well feel he had struck a blow for the ‘Yes’ campaign.  The reason for referring to his actions as a ‘blow’ is that, quite simply, Salmond is a political operator par excellence, too wily and sensitive to political currents to commit such a mistake.  Any of his pleas that he was merely ‘a proud Scot’ are disingenuous. Salmond set out to provoke.

And provoke he did.  Mutterings came to the fore in the press and online that he: ‘lacked class’ and that he was desperate to make ‘political capital’ on Murray’s coat tails.  It was difficult not to imagine such words as: “Quite the other thing, old boy,” escaping from beneath handlebar moustaches in gentleman’s clubs in Chelsea and Kensington.

And succeed he did.

Nothing will get on the nerves of a group of people who feel they aren’t being listened to in the way they should more than those who aren’t listening to them, telling them what to do, how to do it and when.  For example, something like … oh I don’t know… a First Minister being told off by the London establishment for not behaving in the proper manner when another one of their own had just ended a British Sporting Success Drought.  Cue thousands of shouldered chips becoming that bit heavier, gruntles becoming dissed, internal political barometers moving ever so slightly towards ‘change’.  Okay, it might not be a huge gain, but it’s still a point – call it ‘fifteen – love’ rather than ‘game, set, match’ (Yes, okay, I did it).

But then David Cameron’s return appeared to be a winner: inviting Murray to Number Ten, suggesting the possibility of honours – what First Minister could compete with that?  And Murray went and the photos were achieved, no matter how uncomfortable Murray himself looked.  Did he himself begin to feel like he’d taken the place of one of those yellow balls he had battered around the day before?  It seemed that the Independence debate had become a battle for the tennis player’s soul, played out under the gaze of the media. (Even though it’s obvious that Ivan Lendl has it hidden in a racquet bag and feeds on it on cold nights.)  This too might play into Salmond’s plans in the long run, perhaps even blowing up in Cameron’s face, as the possessive Scottish public see his move as a cynical attempt to garner some of Murray’s glory and feel it rankle.

Yet, here’s the rub:  none of this matters one tiny iota to Scots, English or British people in real, concrete terms, even if they think it does.  If Andy Murray is regarded as Scottish or British does not inform anybody about economic models, industry rates or public services following independence – if this is to happen at all – but we have heard more about this than any of these.  That Saltire, produced from his wife’s purse could well just be a misdirection, gleefully grabbed by both sides to divert attention away from a paucity of ideas.