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Are you one of those people who finds it a great deal easier to be angry with strangers than with people you know? I am. The person in the street who looks like they are about to cause trouble, or the driver shielded by glass and steel who didn’t indicate a left turn and nearly knocked me from my bike. Nameless and distant, there is minimal sense of shared humanity. I cannot see their perspective, they are ‘other’.

The philosopher Richard Rorty didn’t believe that we could reason our way to universal human rights. No rational argument could do the work required because the idea of an objective (non-relative) set of principles was a myth (he thought). I’m not sure I agree with his relativism, but I do like his solution. We should tell stories.

We need a route to empathy to remove the strangeness of strangers; to make them no longer the others but one of us. Rorty believed that stories offered this route and hence offered a hope of bridging global chasms between cultures.

If I knew the story of the boy setting fire to the bin, or of the man in the silver BMW who didn’t indicate, I might think of them differently.

Stories are powerful tools for breaking down barriers, and that’s why I think Manchester based Asylum Stories is a great project. They are us.

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Last night I was at the Manchester Blog Awards at Matt and Phred’s. It was an excellent event that has come a long way in two years.

I sat back with a beer and a tasty pizza and very much enjoyed the high quality of the readings. I think I was a little surprised by this. I think I expected to go ‘mmm..that’s nice’ or ‘mmm..that’s some good writing’ but not actually enjoy the readings.

But the offered set of witty, playful and amusing narratives had me wanting more. There’s nothing like a good bit of story telling. Fortunately, some of those reading were reading from books due to be published soon, so I shall make a note to buy them.

The full shortlist can be seen here. And the winners:

Best New Blog – Follow The Yellow Brick Road

Best Writing on a Blog – Every day I lie a little

Best Arts and Culture Blog – Northernights

Best Personal Blog- Travels with my baby

Best Neighbourhood Blog – Manchester Bus

And Citylife Manchester Blog of the Year: Travels with my Baby

And so I was well and truly beaten, which is a good way to lose, because justice is done. Nice also to see that buses and blogs still make good bed fellows.

Thanks go to Kate from Manchizzle for making the event happen, and to the Manchester Literature Festival for getting involved. And it’s also good to see the MEN taking such an active interest in Manchester Blogging.

On another note, does the MLF involvement have anything  to do with the literary focus of the Manchester Blog Awards? Is Manchester unusual in this respect, or does every major city have such writing talent in their blogsphere? Certainly it makes for an excellent Blog Awards event.

Exciting news: Kate of The Manchizzle has teamed up with Chris of Mancubist to produce a new website sporting a ‘writers map’ of Manchester for local content. Kate:

It uses a Google map of the city to organise stories or poetry linked to particular places. Readers can click on a place marked by the little cloud icon to read a piece of writing associated with that spot.

This looks like a fantastic project. It’s local, it uses web2 new media (and all that jazz), and it has some great potential.

Of the stories that are up I particularly liked Rats and Mice by Mike Duff.

It’s short enough to to be readable on the web, and drew me in quickly enough to keep my attention to the end. And it’s a nice bit of writing to boot.

I think perhaps the little speech-bubble/cloud icons on the map could do with being a bit more visible, but I like the idea. (Since they asked for feedback).

Both Kate and Chris speak of new developments on the horizon, so it will be interesting to see firstly how the project takes off, and then where they take it. Watch that space (and get involved too!)

The ‘writers map’ brings to mind a BBC local media project that is on the cards (as far as I know), involving local maps pinned with multi-media content. Lets hope that if that does arrive it doesn’t harm the progress of Rainy City Stories.

Well done Kate and Chris.

My bike is at the local bike shop for a couple of days, so I’m back on the bus – the 43. Forgive me then if I return to an old habit.

Now I’m back on the top deck and looking at bald-spots. I see cyclists in yellow jackets wizz past. I wonder if I’ll see me. Probable not (I’m on the bus, you see).

Someone sits down right in front of me, when there are plenty of other seats available. Sure, it’s fine for him, but he doesn’t have to have someone’s dandruff spoiling his view for the rest of the journey.

A young girl sports a bob the builder helmet as she is hurried past us by her mother at a skip and stumble pace. The bus pauses for a few moments (just for a rest, it seems – no one gets on or off).

At the big new Fallowfield bus stop there is battalion of transport officers in yellow hi-viz jackets – there to manage the otherwise orderless sprawl of buses and students- but it’s not so busy now so they stand around and talk. They are all about the same age and shape with the same amount of hair, like bus-controller Lego men that have all come from the same packet.

It’s not so bad, this bus riding thing. Warmer, at least, but the air smells mildly of cigarettes and curry.

I’m flattered.

And here I was, minding my own business.

The full shortlist for the 2008 Manchester Blog Awards:

Best New Blog:

Dear Kitty
Coco LaVerne
Follow The Yellow Brick Road
14sandwiches

Best Writing on a Blog:

Diary of a Bluestocking
Every day I lie a little
Nine chains to the moon
Chicken and Pies

Best Arts and Culture Blog:

Scatterdrum
Quit This Pampered Town
Northernights
Max Dunbar

Best Personal Blog:

Travels with my baby
Single Mother on the Verge
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
40three

Best Neighbourhood Blog:

Hyde Daily Photo
Mancubist
Lady Levenshulme
Manchester Bus

In the student union here at Manchetser University ladies can no longer visit the ladies room, because there is no ladies room. There’s no men’s room either.

Instead there are ‘toilets’ and ‘toilets with urinals’.

Previous labelling was deemed ‘genderist’ – offensive to those who don’t fit in the gender boxes.

UMSU Welfare Officer said in an interview for the BBC:

If you were born female, still present quite feminine, but define as a man you should be able to go into the men’s toilets – if that’s how you define.

And presumably vise versa.

Now, unisex toilets are not a new idea, and have been batted around for a while now. A few days ago I overheard that they had recently been shouted down at the BBC.

What is unusual is the apparent reasoning behind the move: some who define as transsexual and transgender have complained that they are uncomfortable using the men’s toilets.

But if this is the case, why not use the women’s toilets? If they self defined as women, wouldn’t that be a more obvious choice? (and the same would go for people with ‘woman’s bits’ who self defined as men).

Now clearly, who am I to suppose to know what the ‘obvious choice’ would be in these circumstances. I’m sure there are many reasons why my flippant suggestion doesn’t wash.

But here’s another (admittedly more expensive) idea. The union should install a third genderless loo, with both urinals and cubicles. Women can powder their noses in a man-free environment, and trans-genders can spend a penny without feeling uncomfortable.

Oh, and apparently, we can’t ask if this is political correctness gone mad, because that in itself is an un-pc phrase, according to previously mentioned welfare officer:

using the term ‘mad’ in a derogatory fashion is disabalist

Update:I went into the union to find the old signs still standing. I’ll let you know if they ever actually do get replaced.

There’s a bit of a buzz (or perhaps just a faint hum) in web-media about ‘citizen journalism’. Dave Hill at the guardian (Comment is Free) discusses the need for local papers to embrace the the ‘CJ’s’ and the bloggers. He even quotes Roy Greenslade in a previous article saying that:

Citizen participation is, of course, the future of journalism

That’s quite a claim, and I’m not convinced. However, it does seem like ‘citizen journalism’ (or ‘community reporting’) will have an increasingly important role to play. What that role is still needs to be worked out.

Whilst there does seem to be some very interesting progress in places (link via Dave Hill), a recent venture on MyManchester.net has a way to go.

The site hosts a feed from ‘community reporters’ and anyone can join in to add their own voice to the ‘community reporters news’. They encourage everyone to get involved and

it doesn’t really matter what you talk or write about … it doesn’t have to be ‘news’, as such, it can just be something you want people to know about.

This might work, I guess, but as it stands there is no categorisation by location, topic or type, and the diversity of subject matter and quality make the this single long feed rather useless for the reader.

It’s rather like asking as many people as possible to tape pages from their personal diaries to pavement on Market Street. Whilst it may be an interesting project in its own right, I’m not sure it would count as journalism, reporting or news.

No one likes 200 cable channels and nothing to watch, but there is a danger that this community reporters project will achieve the same effect but from a non-commercial direction.

The blog-spheres can in general be quite good at categorising and grouping itself in useful ways (see a Manchester example of categorising local output), and there are plenty of lessons to be learnt. For now MyManchester has a way to go before ‘community reporting’ is more than just a grand sounding title.

On a final note (and to counter some of my negativity), see here for an explanation of why community reporting (or citizen journalism) might be a valuable thing.

At 12 noon on June 21st begins Reification: the Tony Wilson experience. Billed as “Manchester’s longest ever intelligent conversation” it aims to be an “eclectic mix of creative talents who will be debating, engaging and challenging each other nonstop for 24 hours”, all in honour of the broadcaster, entrepreneur and creative champion Tony Wilson.

It’s going to be held in the Cathedral gardens and Urbis and you can find out more, including how you might become one of the lucky 200 ‘students’, here. This all sounds pretty exciting, but it is incredibly hard to get any firm grasp on exactly what they have in mind. One of the video’s from Channel M has John Rob (music journalist) suggesting it will be a sort of exclusive networking opportunity – to try get and back to that ‘village Manchester’ feel where everybody knows everybody else in the industry (and can get each other jobs).

This doesn’t sound much like an intelligent conversation.

Other snippets from the website and the videos suggest something more promising, but all is a bit hazy. The name of the event – Reification (to make the abstract concrete/ to treat the abstract as concrete) seems all too fitting.

Nevertheless, if you are Manchester creative, it looks like it’s worth keeping an eye on.

This week I chose the wrong day not to go into university – it seems I missed all the action.

I can’t help but feel the police in the video would have been better off keeping an eye on things from a distance, rather than offering a rather lame token of resistance – its not like the students were about to hurt anyone or anything.

Instead there was a minor ‘clash’ with police that achieved nothing but make the whole thing look better on TV – that and strengthen the view of a few socialist arts students that they are being opressed by the Machine.

Free education, they say. I guess that means ‘free education from the clutches of the corporate bosses who have turned it into a comodity’, as well as ‘can we have education for free please’. Two for the price of one slogan. Efficient.

I sound like I’m being flippant, which I am, I guess, but they complain about value for money one moment, and then that education is being treated like a commercial commodity the next.

Furthermore, education is never free; someone has to pay me to mark 60 3000 word essays (and the rest of it). I know they know that, but I’d love them to be a little more specific in their ‘demands’. Admittedly ‘Education for 3 or 4 years after the age of 18 should be paid for by all through higher taxes instead of just by those who receive it’ isn’t quite as catchy.

The building they chose to sit and hold their debate in is the one I work in. I could have looked down from the balcony above and spotted premature bald spots, or something.

All that said, I have no problems with a healthy bit of student protest. It builds character, and surely has to be better than passive dull students, too hung over to hold up a sign.

Working as I do at the university allows me the occasional pleasure of a visit in my lunch break to the Whitworth Art Gallery. I was drawn in on this particular visit by this spring’s William Blake exhibitions. William Blake, Urizen in Chains

The two concurrent exhibitions offer a substantial quantity and breadth of Blake related material to peruse – if I were an enthusiast I would have found a single lunch break, even that of PhD student, too short a time to take it all in.

However, I am not an enthusiast and I entered with only a vague familiarity of Blake’s visual style and little understanding of his poetry.

First up was Mind Forged Manacles, the show exploring Blake and slavery. Here we see Blake’s reaction to both the enslaving of people, to which he was fiercely opposed, and the enslaving of the mind – those ‘mind forg’d manacles’, to which he seems to have had an uncommon insight and awareness of.

Over and again I peered at engravings and watercolours that powerfully and often unnaturally expressed the struggle from chains to freedom. The rich and powerful man, with all his ability to control the lives of others, is a slave to his own minds greed and wants. In a worse place, perhaps, than even the slave in iron chains who at least is aware and yearns for freedom.

It seems clear that Blake thought mental chains to be as significant, as desperate, and as crippling, as physical chains, though perhaps not aching with the same pangs of injustice.

‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.’ – A quote form Jerusalem (the origin of that famous anthem) is written large on the wall of the exhibition.

I was particularly interested by (and perhaps could most quickly relate to) the reference to ‘Chains of reason – the mind self enclosed and confined, unable in its self absorption to reach beyond the rational’ – a sentiment echoed by G. K. Chesterton’s writings on the limits of the rational logician.

The second exhibition, Blake’s Shadow, explores the influence of Blake from his life to the present day. I confess to being slightly less enthusiastic about this side of the show. The mental power required to grasp the often subtle links and references had faded somewhat in a post lunch slump. It is clear that to fully appreciate this you must be willing to put the work in.

I was grateful, however, of the peaceful moments I enjoyed with headphones on listening to a varied landscape of Blake inspired music, including Billy Bragg’s Jerusalem, Fat Les’s of the same, The Fugs, with ‘Ah! Sunflower weary of time’, Nick Drake, David Axelrod, The Doors, Bob Dylan… a veritable aural feast, and a delightful way to round off my visit.

Drop in and take a look if you get a chance (exhibition runs until the 6th April), but don’t expect to be blown away by overpowering wall hangings, as nearly all of Blake’s powerful and evocative images are smaller than an A4 sheet of paper.

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