Virtually all my work nowadays is on Korea. I used to have a different career, writing about <a href=”third_world_development.html“>Third World Development</a> – in theory, mostly. Since going freelance, I’ve been lucky enough also to have a couple of non-Korean strings to my bow, just to leaven the mix (and mix the metaphors); although both may be over, for the time being at least.
Student day conferences
For much of the 1990s I was involved with student day conferences, mostly at A-level. You may not know this, but up and down the land hordes of kids get a day off school to be bussed to venues like Westminster Central Hall or Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, for a bevy of talks by distinguished sociologists/biologists/psychologists/economists/etc – plus luminaries like Germaine Greer or Ken Livingstone as added attractions. For a few days each year, I’ve been fortunate to be a hired labourer at these splendid events.
Thus I owe a vast debt to Simon Powell, academic entrepreneur extraordinaire. Having originally invited me to speak at sociology conferences on my then specialist subject of <a href=”third_world_development.html“>Third World development</a>, Simon spotted what I never would have: that sitting around all day smiling and cracking feeble jokes was a transferable skill. So he got me to chair conferences as well: not just in sociology, but economics, business studies, psychology, biology, English, et al. Many were run by Ron Richardson, the co-founder of Updates Conferences. So thanks to Ron too for getting me out of the house, away from Korea and the computer, to go to new places and hear fascinating people like the above; not to mention Tony Benn, Hans Eysenck, Richard Dawkins, Laurie Taylor, and many more.
Best of all, poets. To listen to poetry all day, and be paid for it! My cup runneth over. Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, John Agard, Gillian Clark, Ian McMillan, Moniza Alvi, and many more. Simon (P)’s GCSE Poetry Live! roadshow toured the land, from Portsmouth to Newcastle. As chair, I feared that 15-16 year olds reared on garage and thrash metal would be a noisy audience; but not a bit of it. Watching teenagers hang on every bare, beautiful word was a joy nonpareil. Our civilisation isn’t quite dead yet.
Things change. Simon and Ron split their business; Ron joined a publisher of A-level magazines to form (Link: http://www.philipallan.co.uk/system/index.html redirects to) Philip Allan Updates. I did less chairing, and last year felt the time had come to stop. Simon focused on English, with a great magazine called E as well as the conferences. But in an unbelievably cruel twist of fate, both he and his wife Sian – they ran it together – were struck down by serious illness. Sian died in January, aged 47: words unbearable to write. Sian died in January 2002, aged 47. Her funeral, in Wales and in Welsh, was unbearable but unforgettable. Simon, indomitable, had Poetry Live! back on the road again by autumn. I salute them both.
Someone else thought they saw a transferable skill. Edwina Wolstencroft, a BBC arts producer who’d heard me broadcast on Korea, in 1995 asked me to present Nightwaves, weekday arts programme. That was fun, and varied: weird arty goings-on at Castle Howard, Dumas’ The Tower at the Almeida, Oliver Stone’s Nixon, new books on World War I, Michael Frayn adapting Offenbach’s La Belle Helene for ENO, and more.
But after 3 programmes I wasn’t asked back, and rightly so. You learn your limitations. I don’t know the arts well enough; and I wasn’t much cop chairing discussions. Listen to the professionals – Paul Allen, Richard Coles, Isabel Hilton, Patrick Wright – to hear how the job should be done. But thanks, Edwina, for letting me have a go. And I’d still like to do more broadcasting one of these days, in some shape or form. Open to offers!