Writers in Residence - a bit of a rant!

I had an interesting conversation with a friend at the weekend about MONEY. A thorny topic. Although the details are not relevant, she was pointing out to me the discrepancy between my attitude, and that of certain friends in the (ahem) legal profession. She had been bemoaning the relative paltriness of payment which she was receiving for a week's consultancy work as a seasoned professional in her particular area of expertise. I had done a quick tally and found that it was roughly equivalent to the sum that writers are paid for a week's tutoring at the Arvon Foundation, and which is considered to be pretty reasonable remuneration. 'I'd do it!' I told her. It was, incidentally, roughly equivalent to the sum that most writers - other than a favoured few - are paid as an advance for books which have taken/may well take several years to write. But hey, we are all volunteers and mustn't grumble.
What was amusing was that she then had the same conversation with a group of lawyers who pointed out that nobody could be expected to work for such rubbish money. Which possibly serves to explain why we are still such a divided society!
However, the point of this posting lies elsewhere. Some weeks ago a friendly journalist asked me what I thought about a recent advertisement for a poet in residence and I had, somewhat rashly perhaps, agreed to be quoted in that I thought the sum of money on offer was paltry. So did every other experienced writer of my acquaintance, although this is possibly because most of us have been made cynical by age and poverty.
The residency purported to pay for a 40 hour week for 9 months, for £13500 (pro rata)
But while £18000 per annum is a reasonable starting salary for a graduate, it is not a full year's salary these days for anyone with even a limited amount of professional expertise and experience and yet that was what they were advertising for - somebody with a substantial body of work.
I pointed out that shelf stacking would be a better option. A colleague, more in sorrow than in anger, pointed out that the residency was much better paid than that - but I'm not so sure. So called 'replenishment managers' (wonderful term!) for Tesco can command £22,000 with all kinds of extra benefits. And they don't need to be seasoned professionals with a substantial body of published work either.
Now I love poetry, and I'm by no means averse to working for very little or even for free when everyone is in the same boat and when it's in a worthy cause. I've done it countless times. But many years of struggling to earn a living have also taught me that the commercial sector tends to take us at our own valuation.
Now all of us would have been delighted to work for a fixed 2.5 days per week for the sum of money on offer. I do it myself for another organisation, helping students with their academic English, and thinking myself very lucky indeed to have the job. It's generous, it's challenging and enjoyable, but it doesn't expand outside those very fixed part time boundaries. What I do with the rest of the week is my business. In fact - mostly - I write! For hours and hours!
So the problem, I think, lies in the pretence that this is a sum of money which covers a full week's work of 40 hours. It isn't and it doesn't. But the result of pretending that it does, is that the boundaries all too easily become blurred. And quite soon, the work for the host organisation somehow seems to expand to fill more and more of those 40 hours.
Sadly, the general consensus about so called full time creative writing fellowships (and this from a cross section of experienced writers including myself who have worked in them over a number of years) is that few of us have ever managed to do much worthwhile writing while engaged on them, partly because too much creative energy is involved elsewhere but mostly because such fellowships invariably expand to fill just about the whole week.
I'm sure whoever has got the job will find it a stimulating experience but they would have to be youngish and mortgage free, or retired or with some other means of support, ie a non freelance husband or wife. I think many administrators don't get to hear this side of things, because writers tend to keep it to themselves, or moan about it in online groups. But the feeling is very general and is one of the reasons why so many of us feel that the whole concept of writers in residence needs to be revamped. It would be infinitely better for the writers if they functioned more along the lines of the few fellowships that are content to pay only for the time devoted to the organisation. A fair day's work for a fair day's pay, and no pretence made that the fees involved can begin to cover a full working week. Host organisations would just have to get used to treating writers like any other professional consultant, and forego the warm glow of feeling that they were giving something away. A business arrangement, not a charity. The whole concept needs drastic revision.

Whoops Amazon

Have just gone to the Amazon page where my book God's Islanders is listed to find the following 'sponsored links'

2008 God's Final Witness : Unprecedented destruction will come in 2008, leading to America's fall.
King Jesus and Queen Miriam: The Love Story of Jesus & Magdalene
Free Christian Lessons: Got problems? Need help? Study the Bible. Start Fresh. Be Happy.

This is presumably because of the word 'God' in the title, although the book is a well researched history of a Hebridean Island and bears no relation to any of the links listed. It leads me to wonder if I might find links to Home Improvement manuals on the Bleak House listing. Or how about Aviary Construction in connection with The Birds. The possibilities for cyber idiocy are endless.
There's a chapter about the history of the Kirk of Scotland on the island but the God of the title may have more pagan than Christian connotations. Nor, I'm willing to bet, would anyone who might be remotely interested in reading God's Islanders, be equally interested in any of these links.
Sometimes the internet has its drawbacks. Among which is the ability of software to make moronic connections. No finer demonstration is required of the 'garbage in garbage out' maxim.
I'll retire to bedlam.

The Urban Crow Studies Archaeology

The crow is getting a little serious here. But there you go. He can't be funny all the time. I saw him in town today. He gave me this beady glance, as if to say 'get a move on, you've been neglecting me' which is true. I've been down south. Where I saw very few crows, urban or otherwise, but quite a lot of skeletons, come to think of it.

Somewhere in the city
Archaeologists are uncovering burials.
The crow notes how they gloat
over skeletons, brittle with age,
here a clavicle, and there a skull.

He’s surprised by
their lack of respect in dealing
with the remnants of their fellows,
perplexed by the way time
confounds these humans.

He has seen the frequent
ceremony of interment,
heard them mourning mortality
heard their censure
of his own carrion habits.

Now, watching them scrabble
after a few bones,
he wonders how they can
so casually rob graves
in the name of science.

The Urban Crow Receives a Threatening Letter

I have a television license, honest, but I have friends who don't have a television, and are constantly receiving horrible letters from an authority that doesn't believe that anyone could get along without one. In fact over the past few years, here in the UK, all kinds of government sponsored advertising (mostly on TV!) has undergone a profoundly irritating change. They used to be content with patronising us. Now they assume an increasingly threatening tone. Big Brother - about twenty four years too late - is well and truly in charge.

We have reason to believe
says the letter
that yours is the only house in the street
without a television license.

That would be about right thinks the crow.

We have passed your details
to our Enforcement Officers
who will shortly be in your area
says the letter.

Bring them on, says the crow.

We will not tolerate abuse of our officials
adds the letter, loud with intimidating
phrases like

The crow, well aware of the law,
knows that they would have to catch him
watching the television he doesn’t possess,
to find him with his non existent
remote control in his claw.

Cor says the crow and shreds their message.

A New Novel

I have been pondering the new novel with more than a little enthusiasm. I have been trying to get going on something new for far too long and indeed have made many long and involved attempts, only to dislike the resulting chapters so much that I have shelved them and started all over again. Not just one novel, but two (and I don't mean the Corncrake - I mean something completely new.) Anyway - at some point in the last day or so, it all came together, and I saw the whole thing, not just the story, but how it should be written, and whose voice it should be told in, and how he might tell it and for the first time in a very long time I am anxious to get going and find myself scribbling words on odd bits of paper, or waking in the night with an insistent voice in my head, this man who is trying to get his story out. I even dreamed about him.
The problem with this story, which has been lurking at the back of my mind for a very long time, was that although the characters and the situation, the time and place were all there, I couldn't see where it was all going. Well, I could see where it was going, but not how or why it got there. It was a strange and sometimes uncanny feeling for me - I could hear and see these people, three of them - but even when I gradually realised who was telling this tale, I didn't know exactly what had happened to him. I didn't know the why of it all. I knew bits of it, but none of it seemed important enough or powerful enough to explain later events. And then, all of a sudden, as though my narrator had been reluctant to get it out, even to me - as though the character himself had buried it - there it was. It shocked me. Am I tantalising you, or just myself? Watch this space.
I'll let you know how it goes!

The Urban Crow Considers Burns an a' that

This is posted by special request. Here in South Ayrshire, the birthplace of Robert Burns, we have an annual festival called 'Burns an a' that'. It's supposed to be a festival of 'poetry, music and song' celebrating the life and work of our national poet although poetry never looms very large on the official programme. Somebody who works in marketing once said to me 'Burns doesn't sell' and it's all too obvious that our local council is of much the same mind. The 'a' that' usually eclipses any tiny mention of Burns.
The headline act at 'Burns an a' that' this year was Status Quo, and there was a Harley rally as well. Excellent entertainment - but all suggestions of a 'literary' nature as part of the officially funded festival seem to have been turned down flat. Next year, a HUGE anniversary, 250 years since Rantin Rovin Robin was born, looks all set to have the same omissions. Rab would have recognised the attitude. All of which is background.
Here's the poem!

The urban crow watches television through a shop window
and wonders why a band of ageing rockers
called Status Quo are heading up a festival
named for Scotland’s national poet.
The band seem to be wondering the same thing.
The festival director who looks as though poetry is as
foreign to him as ploughing is declaring
how much Rab would have loved the Quo.
The crow is sceptical, reflects on
how folk invariably presume to
know what somebody would have done or wanted
when attempting to defend the indefensible.
The crow knows nothing for sure
although he decides that a poet who celebrated mice
and sheep but not to the crow’s knowledge
corbies - might nevertheless have
liked to go rockin all over the world.

The Urban Crow Worries Woodpigeons

Two doos are sitting on a wire.
Who, they say.
Who was it? Who was it?

It was I, says the crow.
I cannot tell a lie.
It was I.

What did you do?
What did you do?

I killed cock robin
with my bow and arrow
says the crow.

Let us fly,
say the doos
and they go.

Credulous bastards
says the crow.

The Urban Crow Looks for a Job.

There's a swear word in this poem. Apologies in advance to anyone likely to be shocked. I couldn't help it. It has to be there. For overseas readers, you should know that wheelie bins and refuse disposal and the precise regulations for the arrangement of rubbish are a weekly feature of our news in the UK at present. Some poor soul down in England was even threatened with imprisonment over his refusal to pay a fine for infringing the rules.

The city council is advertising for refuse collection operatives.
I could do that, thinks the urban crow.

He goes online and notes that big plastic wheelie bins are
environmentally friendly and convenient and
will be emptied on a weekly basis.
On the day of collection, the wheelie bin
should be placed at the kerbside
so that the handles are towards the street.
After the bin has been emptied, the householder must
ensure the return of the bin to their property
unless some wee nyaff has tipped it in the canal first.

All refuse must be contained within the bin.
Any refuse placed at the side of the bin
will not be collected
Not even dead cats asks the crow?

It is important that no heavy items
are put in the wheelie bin
due to the potential risk of the bin
falling from the vehicle’s lifting gear and
flattening the refuse collection operative
particularly if he is a bird.

If at any time the bin is considered to be overloaded
a sticker will be placed on the lid with appropriate instructions
like your fucking bin’s too full get it sorted.

Although the wheelie bin is made of high quality
environmentally friendly plastic,
corrosive substances should not be placed in it.
If you find you cannot manoevre your bin because of age
or infirmity, (or wings, thinks the crow)
and there is no one available to help you, due to your
thankless family having buggered off to Australia then
please contact the Council for assistance.

The crow decides not to bother.
He’s a pretty mean waste disposal machine
himself but.

Paying the Writer

Last week a journalist acquaintance from the Times phoned me up to ask me what I thought about SPT's (Strathclyde Partnership for Transport) advertisement for a Poet in Residence to write and source poems for the Glasgow Subway. I said - for I could not tell a lie - that I thought the project itself sounded absolutely brilliant, and something I would love to have been involved in myself, but the pay was appalling. They weren't looking for a student or trainee. They wanted an experienced writer with a considerable body of published work to source poems, set up and run a writing and a reading group in a local library and throw in a series of workshops in a primary school for good measure. All this was based on a nominal 40 hours week, for 9 months of which half (ie 20 hours a week) was meant to be spent on the writer's own work. Quite apart from the fact that the job as described would definitely take longer than the 20 hours allowed - workshops demand preparation - the remuneration is £13500. Now if you do the arithmetic, you will see that this comes out at something like the minimum wage.
SPT are looking for an experienced professional consultant, for which they are planning to pay call centre wages. Their executives told the Times that the project would be a 'showcase' for the poet's work. But as the redoubtable Harlan Ellison points out in no uncertain terms such showcasing does little or nothing to help the writer. I've been married to an artist-woodcarver for many years now and if I had a pound for every time somebody has asked him to work for little or nothing 'because it will be a good showcase for you' we would be a wealthy couple. When did you last hear of a time served and experienced electrician being asked to work for the minimum wage 'because it'll be a good advert for your services'? And before anyone tells me that artists and writers are expendable while electricians are not, when did you ever hear of a specialist arts administration consultant working for the minimum wage in order to advertise their services?
Money. I'm hugely well qualified, experienced, committed. When I'm employed, I work hard. In return I expect a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.