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Monday, 24 February 2014

Tim Plester, Game of Thrones and the Shirley Collins movie

Some of you will remember Tim Plester's beautiful morris-dancing memoir Way of the Morris, which came out in 2011. If you haven't seen it yet, there's still time... 

Well, Tim and his habitual collaborator, Rob Curry, of Fifth Column Films, are making a new folk-themed movie, this one about the life of Shirley Collins, with her co-operation. Details are sparse at the moment. But Rob tells me a couple of things, which are that the trip she took to the deep south with Alan Lomax in 1959 will be central to the narrative, as will "the women chewed up and spat out by the men of the folk rock scene". There are a Facebook page and a Twitter account you can follow if you'd like.

Sounds like a lot of people will be very interested in that, which is just as well as there may be a crowd-funding offer along shortly.

Also, they filmed Shirley Collins' first gig in 30 years, which took place at Union Chapel the other week.

I was meandering around the idea of writing about this when lightning struck over the weekend: glued to a DVD boxset of Game of Thrones, season three, a familiar face appeared on screen.

Nice pic. For it was Tim Plester, who has several strings to his bow, bearing out the adage that every character actor known to British casting directors will have an opportunity to appear in Game of Thrones before it's done. He was playing someone called Black Walder and hanging out in a rather unsavoury castle whose strategic importance moved several of the central characters to organise a wedding there.

The Red Wedding.

If you haven't seen season three of Game of Thrones and intend to, I urge to look away now.

I pinged off a message on Facebook congratulating Tim on his immortality, by virtue of being in one of the series currently on screen that will surely outlive its actors. And then I was shaken to my very bones, to the sound of The Rains of Castamere (got to love a show with its own self-referential folk music).

For Tim's is the second last face on screen at the end of season three, episode nine. Catelyn Stark's is the last and she is spouting blood from her throat, having been, well... See for yourself.

 Why Tim, why?

"What can I say? I sometimes get a little stabby at weddings x" came the reply.

* I'd like to congratulate Tim and his partner on the recent arrival of a baby girl, which has put the brakes on pre-production of the Shirley Collins film from Tim's end.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Liveblog: David Marsh and NM Gwynne's grammar debate at Kings Place

If you'd like to read this liveblog in chronological order, you should begin at the bottom.

The lady from David Marsh's publishing house turned to me at the end and said "Wasn't that interesting? I thought there was going to be a bit of a lynch mob for NMG at the beginning but actually the audience seemed very much on his side by the end."

Yes, I replied. But then you have to ask yourself what kind of people are motivated to come out to a debate on grammar in the first place...

Anyway. This is has been fun. Hope you enjoyed it too. Keep those apostrophes flying and please feel free to leave comments underneath this blog. Good night.


An audience member - another teacher - references Stephen Fry being a grammar snob at the Baftas last night. He learnt the rules at a good school, so he can break them. The teacher gets a round of applause for saying that, on the other hand, many of his students are completely unable to express themselves and that this is tragic. I'm not sure, if I were him, that I would have exposed my own school's teaching like that...


NMG gets the only round of applause of the evening so far by making a point about declining standards. Interesting.


An audience member takes on NMG about his pronunciation of "off", which is "orf". You're a prescriptivist, he asks. Should we all pronounce it like that? Does anyone else in this room pronounce it like that?


NMG blames Merriam Webster, the dictionary man, for America's "irrational" spelling, which he ascribes to wishing to differentiate themselves from the English after the revolution for political reasons.


DM. In some ways American is more traditional than English English. For instance the word "gotten", which used to be used in England and is no longer. Apparently there is someone in the audience who runs a website called Divided by a Common Language, and this is their specialist subject. (If anyone has a link for that website, please email me.)


More audience questions. These are good.

An OECD survey has shown that Britain is the only country in the world where children have a  lower level of literacy than their parents. Why is that?

NMG, an audience member asks, you keep saying that grammar was abolished in the 1960s. Surely that was for a good reason?

Do animals not think because they don't know any grammar, asks another? That one's for NMG.

Is American English a different language entirely or are they just illiterate?

An audience member points out that Sylvia Plath committed suicide and she was a dab hand at grammar. (I love this audience.)

Over to you panel...


An English teacher from the West Midlands says that grammar is taught in a dull way. She has students who can critically analyse but can't write a coherent sentence. Should grammar be taught explicitly? Or through osmosis?

NMG says that everyone keeps saying grammar is dull. "I don't care about that" he says. The important thing is to have an adult who can express themselves correctly.


Disagreement. NMG believes that there was a time when nearly everyone knew their grammar. David Marsh disputes this.


DM is sticking up for text speak. OMG is not new, he says. What do you think RIP is?

I'm not trying to be the trendy uncle, he says. But all of us who use social media are using language skills in a sophisticated way all the time, which you apparently deny.

NMG recites a list of good writers and top intellects, including Rudyard Kipling - which produces a sucking in of breath from the audience. The list has no women on it.


Questions from the audience now.

"I was not blessed with Britishness at birth," says an audience member with an - Italian? - accent. Would you agree with the idea that language changes and evolves, she asks? Because originally - several centuries ago - my mother tongue was Latin and it has simply evolved.

Yes. It does evolve, says NMG. But at some point it also became fixed. English, for instance, was passed down many generations in tact... until the 1960s.

There's definitely a theme emerging here.


Maybe, suggests Matthew Reisz, we could stick to grammar and not branch out into the decline of the western world?



So, asks DM, was the decision to invade Suez a better decision than the decision to invade Iraq? Or were they both really stupid decisions?

It's getting warmer in here.


DM: If proper grammar forms people's minds and correct education was abolished in the 1960s why do we have so many extremely bright youngsters? People are much better at communicating generally now than when I was young, says DM. And greengrocers have never known how to use apostrophes.

NMG: I've got sets of exam papers from 50 years ago. Arithmetic papers taken by 11-year-olds in the 1920s. And another set by teacher training college graduates in the 1970s. There is no comparison, he says. Examination standards have collapsed.

15 to 20 per cent of people can't read and write at all, NMG says. It's had an effect on the standard of thinking in society. When I was young there was no such thing as suicide, he adds. Uh-oh. I think he's lost the audience there...


DM is taking on NMG's central argument, arguing that thinking predates language. "My wife speaks four languages. Which one does she think in?" he asks. He's citing Pinker.


NMG: David Marsh is a lovely person. I'm sure his mother loves him, anyway. But the way he uses hopefully should instead be "hopedly".

Oh, and NMG is exercised about the demolition of the eduction system that began  in the 1960s.


And what doesn't David Marsh like about NMG's book?

We-ell. Nevile's book is terrific on the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, but....

Strunk is a strange choice of style guide to follow. If one were talking to a bunch of teenage girls about grammar and the first thing you showed them was a book that uses "girls mincing around" as an example - which Strunk does -  it's going to look very dated.

In fact Nevile's approach is extremely dated, says DM. Who uses "per caput" instead of per capita?

DM dislikes NMG on split infinitives. How do sticklers got so hung up on this, he asks?

What's the obsession with "hopefully"? Sadly I got up from the sofa, says DM. But Nevile was still droning on about hopefully.

I'm a real stickler for punctuation, says DM. I'm not some young iconoclast and my job is getting Guardian journalists to do what they're told. It's like herding cats.

STOP PRESS: David Marsh founded International Apostrophe Day.


NMG: My biggest problem with David Marsh's book is with his use of "hopefully".

"I think his position is illiterate. The word 'hopeful' can't mean what he wants it to mean." Oo-er.


"What was the question I was going to answer?" asks NMG.

"Is there anything about my book you like?" replies DM.

NMG: "It's a very good book... But when your next edition comes out David, as a result of what you have learned from me, it will be a very great book."


When I was young everybody knew their parts of speech by heart, replies NMG. The fact that that is no longer true has introduced class distinctions, he argues.


David Marsh kicks off with an anecdote about Nando's. "Was there a Nando?" he asks.

The he moves on to "Even grammar, the basis of all eduction, baffles the brains of the younger generation. Not a single modern schoolboy... can read a Latin author or read a modern language," which apparently is a quote from Piers Plowman in 1332.

"If I ask most journalists to define the two main types of reflexive pronoun they couldn't. I don't think people ever could. It's really rather dull. I'm not sure that getting them to learn things off by heart would be the right approach. I wrote my book because grammar can be fun."


NMG sets out his stall, which runs roughly thus. Without words we cannot even think. Vocab is about what words mean. The more we know the more competent our thinking will be . Grammar is how you put words together in order to have your thoughts. The more exact your grammar the better your thinking will be and therefore the better your decision-making will be.

He says: "I argue that ultimately civilisation depends on grammar. This is what everyone has always thought." He namechecks Eton and Winchester because they began as grammar schools.

Grammar is a fixed science, he says. Sure, words are added here and there. But if I were to pick up a grammar book written in the 1820s it would serve perfectly well today. Shakespeare did not split infinitives and nor would I recommend you to.

The big difference between Mr Marsh and myself, says NMG, is that I believe you have to fight change because change is destabilising.


Well, that was odd. NMG came on stage, received a round of applause and then departed again. Back shortly afterwards. Both speakers are now safely installed on the sofa. David Marsh got the slightly warmer applause but I guess Kings Place is Guardian territory.


Matthew Reisz's name is pronounced Rice, in case there were any doubt.

There's a story from writer Tim Lott, says Reisz, about how he couldn't help noticing the misplaced apostrophe in his mother's suicide note. A portent of things to come?


Geraldine D'Amico, curator of the Kings Place Words on Monday series introducing... She observes that grammar attracts a larger audience than saving the rainforest. It's the one thing that the English can be relied upon to argue about apparently. She's French.




The audience is arriving. Apparently about 140 tickets have been sold, which seems not bad for a Monday night's debating about grammar.

It may interest you to know that one of the last occupants of Hall One's stage, on Friday evening for one of his sequence of surprise London gigs, was Prince. The Purple One. Not The Tweedy One. The evening was notable, even for those of us who didn't want to shell out £70 for a ticket, for the Twitter meme that shot up as soon as the gig became public knowledge, with the hashtag #guardianprincesongs My favourite was Nothing Compares Tofu...

That reminds me: no sign of our Tweeter so far.


There was something ever so slightly jets and sharks about the banter backstage. "We need to talk about how much is too much," said NMG to DM with the air of one angling for a psychological advantage. "I'd like us to still be friends at the end," he added, implying that he felt it was by no means a foregone conclusion.

Prescriptivists vs descriptivists, eh? Cuh.


Well, the wifi works. That's good.

And all the speakers are here in good time  - even NMG, who has come all the way from Northern Ireland.

Here's a slightly rubbish picture of David Marsh (left), our moderator Matthew Reisz (centre) and NM Gwynne. Proof of life at least and the green room lives up to its name.

Monday 17 February 12.30pm

A technical note: in order for this to work as a live blog, you will have to refresh the page every once in a while, otherwise it'll just be a snapshot of the evening at a given point in time.

And here is a brief introduction to our two contenders...

In the blue corner is NM Gwynne. You can get a sense of who he is by following these links.

And in the red corner is David Marsh, author of the Guardian and Observer style guide, in collaboration with Amelia Hodsdon. 

Matthew Reisz of Times Higher Education will be chairing the debate.

I was also sent this by Michael Rundell of the Macmillan Dictionary blog, for which many thanks as it has a direct bearing on this evening's proceedings. It's a fun read and the link to Joey Barton's blog on grammar was a very welcome surprise.

This evening's debate will be tweeted by Chie Elliot of Carlton books, whose Twitter handle is @OrangeBlossomer and she will be using the hashtag #KPgrammar

Friday 14 February

I will be liveblogging a debate on grammar between David Marsh, the Guardian's style guide editor, and Nevile Martin Gwynne, author of Gwynne's Grammar, at Kings Place in King's Cross, from 7pm on Monday 17 February on this page.

You can buy tickets to the event itself here. Otherwise I hope you can join me online. You can also tweet along using the hashtag #KPgrammar

In the mean time, questions and grammatical pedantry arising from the debate or from the books written by either of these experts can be sent to me at

David Marsh's book, For Who the Bell Tolls, can be had here. And NM Gwynne's book can be purchased here.

Obviously writing a liveblog about grammar is like introducing an IED to one's living room and all resulting critique will be taken in good part. Bring it.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A BBC briefing for John Whittingdale MP about the folk awards - and my response

More on anonymous folk awards judges.

In December I wrote to John Whittingdale MP, who is chairman of the government's culture, media and sport select committee, which has oversight of the BBC, asking if he could look into the anonymity of the folk awards' judges. It may be worth a catch up on that.

Then a week or so ago I received a reply, which had been sent to Mr Whittingdale by Andrew Scadding, the head of the BBC's public and corporate affairs (below), a document that describes the status quo.

Here it is.

Radio 2 Folk Awards – briefing for John Whittingdale

The Radio 2 Folk Awards

·       The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards celebrate outstanding achievements during the previous year within the field of folk music.  
·       Since its inception in 1999 the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards been responsible for introducing over 400 folk artists from grass roots level, via the Horizon Award and the Young Folk Award, to mainstream audiences.
·       Some of our past Horizon Award winners are now listed amongst the most respected folk artists in the world. Karine Polwart, who went on to win Folk Singer of the Year, is one of Scotland’s most prominent and respected singer songwriters. Cara Dillon, Julie Fowlis (now co-presenter of the Folk Awards) Blair Dunlop and Kris Drever of the band Lau, are all past Horizon Award winners.
·       This year alone, two of the artists nominated for Folk Singer of the Year, Bella Hardy and Lucy Ward first appeared on Radio 2 as finalists of the Young Folk Award.
·       We are very proud that there is such a quantifiable and measureable positive effect on the careers of artists such as these, in a genre of music that does not often achieve the mainstream attention it deserves. By looking back over the 15 years of the Radio 2 Folk Awards we can see how many of our fledgling grass roots artists have developed into internationally successful performers.

The Specialist Panel

The Awards ‘Best Original Song’ and ‘Best Traditional Track’ are awarded by a specialist Panel.  The Panel comprises of people with professional or semi-professional interest in the folk industry.  The Folk Awards Committee nominates and oversees the panel.

The Specialist Panel for 2014 are:
·       Ian Anderson - Editor, Roots Magazine
·       Bruce MacGregor - Presenter, Travelling Folk (BBC Scotland)
·       Frank Hennessy – Presenter Celtic Heartbeat (BBC Radio Wales)
·       Jon Lewis – Producer Radio 2 Folk Show – Smooth Operations
·       Karine Polwart – Musician, Song Writer and Previous Award Winner

The Young Folk Award

A shortlist of 10 acts is selected from all the entries submitted to the Young Folk Award competition.  These 10 acts are then invited to a Performance weekend, which culminates in a performance concert from which a specialist panel of judges, comprising musicians and industry personnel, determine a winner. 

The judging panel for this year’s Young Folk Awards are:
·       Steve Heap – Director, Mrs Casey Music
·       Pete Lawrence – Founder, The Big Chill and Cooking Vinyl
·       John Spiers – Musician, Bellowhead
·       Rachael McShane – Musician, Bellowhead
·       Kellie While – Producer, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards

The Best Album Vote

The top five ‘Best Albums’ nominated by the Folk Awards voting panel (see below) are put to a public vote on Radio 2.

The Folk Awards judges

·       Aside from ‘Best Original Song’, ‘Best Traditional Track’, the Young Folk Award and the Best Album, all other Folk Awards nominees are chosen by a voting panel which is made up of approximately 190 people.  The Panel is comprised of those persons who have a professional or semi-professional interest in the folk industry, i.e. folk festival and folk club organisers, journalists, presenters, record company personnel, folk music academics, etc.
·       Folk Music is a small music sub-genre.  Although very few folk artists are attached to major labels some do have record companies of reasonable size, such as Proper, who have large budgets and a marketing team. However, the vast majority of folk artists still run their own small labels and are genuine cottage industries.
·       There is no doubt that within the folk genre there is a great professional boost for people who win a folk award, which although perhaps small compared to a Brit Award or a Mercury win, it is measurable.
·       If the voting panel were published there would be an incentive for the major and better off record companies to lobby the panellists to influence their vote. This would disadvantage many of the smaller, self-releasing nominees who could not afford the cost of this lobbying. Each year the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards throws up new names that would probably not get such an opportunity if there were to be heavy lobbying from better off artists. 
·       In its current form the Folk Awards do present a genuine level playing field that could be jeopardised if we change our voting system.
·       The process used is in line with other major award events such as the Brits and is regularly and rigorously examined by BBC compliance and Editorial Policy.

The voting system

The Awards are determined by two rounds of voting by the wider Folk Awards Panel:

·       Round One: The Voting Panel of approximately 190 people are asked to nominate up to three artists in each category.  To avoid any possible conflict of interest, panellists are not permitted to nominate artists with whom they have a close professional interest.  Managers, agents, publicists or record company members of staff, are not allowed to vote for any artist(s) that they represent.

·       Round Two: Each Panellist can vote for one nomination in each category.  Panellists are not permitted to vote for artists with whom they have a close professional interest.  These votes are counted by the BBC & Smooth Operations and the nominee with the most votes in each category is declared the recipient of the award.  Only the winner with the most votes is recognised, and no other results are released (i.e. there are no runners up). In the event of a tie, that is more than one artist receiving the same highest number of votes, then the award will be made jointly to all the artists. 

The Folk Awards Committee

The Folk Awards Committee consists of five people, who oversee the Folk Awards and also select the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award. 

The Folk Awards Committee 2014 are:
·       John Leonard – Managing Director, Smooth Operations (Chair)
·       Kellie While – Head of Programmes, Smooth Operations
·       Mark Simpson – Producer Bob Harris Show, BBC Radio 2
·       Mark Ellen – Music specialist
·       Al Booth  – Specialist Editor BBC Radio 2

Nominated Representatives

The BBC & Smooth Operations appoint nominated representatives that are responsible for monitoring the voting. They will ensure that votes are properly collected and counted and that the process is conducted in line with the rules as well as the BBC's Editorial Guidelines on Awards. Nominated Representatives are not permitted to vote either as part of the Voting Panel or The Folk Awards Committee.  Smooth Operations keep and store all nomination and voting papers on behalf of the BBC for three years following each award ceremony.

Nominated Representatives for 2014 are:
·       Louise Whitehead – Project Manager, Smooth Operations
·       Fergus Dudley – Editor, Editorial Standards BBC Radio 2, 6 Music & Asian Network

By way of reply I wrote Mr Whittingdale this email.

Dear Mr Whittingdale,

I'm very grateful indeed for your interest in this matter, which I know many other people have also emailed you about. 

Thanks for forwarding me the briefing note from Andrew Scadding, the head of the BBC's public and corporate affairs, explaining the folk awards voting procedure. Everything in it was also covered in my submission to you, so unfortunately this takes us no further forward: the BBC's briefing note was a description of the status quo. However, I would like to work to eliminate the trouble with the status quo.

Chief among my concerns are

* There is no oversight of the judging of most these awards - though by saying that the judges are expected not to vote for their own bands, it is accepted that there is an inherent conflict of interests in asking those financially involved to do the judging. Yet the judging is apparently done on a trust basis. The judges all work in the folk industry, meaning that many gain financially from the outcome. The concern here is that this may be a reason why the same bands get nominated year after year, since the same 190 or so judges are on the panel every year, while the tsunami of talent within the genre that does not have connections among this group does not get nominated. At least, this remains the suspicion because...

* The BBC's own website states that all award ceremonies should be conducted with transparency, as we would expect of any publicly funded body.

And yet the names of the judges - of whom there are apparently 190 - are not public. This is in contravention of the BBC's own guidelines about transparency, as well as of common sense on the matter. Keeping the running of any organisation fair and above board involves opening it up to scrutiny, as you are well aware in your role as Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport committee. Interestingly, the public naming of the judges for four of the awards has only been happening for two years - since I have been campaigning on this issue - and was done in response to my campaign. See this, which contains what the BBC's Fergus Dudley said to me about it when the changes were made.

The existence of the four awards voted for by the named panel is, in fact, an acknowledgement that the secrecy at the heart of the folk awards is a problem.

* The mechanism designed to fix the two problems above - the lacks of oversight and transparency - is the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately it doesn't work. Nonsensically it currently allows the BBC to say that anything it does is journalism - when this is not the case - allowing the BBC to avoid exactly the scrutiny that the act was intended to facilitate. Thus when I submitted a Freedom of Information request for the names of the folk awards judges my request was denied on the grounds that the awards ceremony is "journalism". This is clearly a self-serving travesty of the English language of which the BBC should be unworthy.

The first two of these three problems could be addressed by making the names of the 190 judges public and the third - the inadequacy of the Freedom of Information act - needs addressing by the government, I hope beginning with yourself and your committee. Because the three problems are linked I have approached you in the hope that you will take the matter in hand, as it is within your remit to do as committee chairman.

Since it seems to have become central to the BBC's justification of its behaviour in this matter, I would like to address the contention that making the names of the judges public would open them up to lobbying by "large record companies". Two points

* If susceptibility to bribery is a serious concern, then having such a large, unaccountable judging body would tend to exacerbate the problem rather than solve it, since I understand it is well-known within the community of judges who most of them are, even if it is not by the rest of us. Addressing the fear of bribery would surely involve choosing a far smaller panel - a different one every year - of judges who are open-minded and fair, yet who are also the master of their own opinions. People with reputations to protect, rather than an unaccountable crowd. Make their names public and any bias will be open to scrutiny.

* The only meaningful way to lobby the folk awards on behalf of music is to play it to the judges. These days technology has made it just as easy and basically free for a small independent record company to send an email with a link to YouTube or Soundcloud as it is for EMI or Atlantic records. To deploy the argument about lobbying by big business is, more than anything else, to illustrate the extent to which those who run these awards are unaware of the technological advances that have been taking place around them in recent years and, in particular, their applications in the music industry. Technology has made their argument redundant - unless there is something inherently corrupt about their chosen judges.

I would also like to address the contention in the BBC's briefing note that the folk industry in this country is a small one. 

* In this context it is a self-fulfilling argument because the folk awards are themselves the biggest marketing platform that folk has in England and Wales. To say that folk is a small concern when an English folk band, Mumford & Sons, is the biggest band in the world is to betray a kind of complacency that condemns all who rely on these awards to project them on to an international stage to a kind of BBC-enforced mediocrity. And this at a time when folk is undergoing a massive revival in terms of of popularity and volume of musicians.

Also, the idea that the BBC folk awards are in any way equivalent to the Brits is without merit as the Brits are not run by the BBC and are thus not subject to the BBC's guidelines about transparency and oversight. The only organisational thing they have in common is that this year the two ceremonies are occurring on the same night, simultaneously. This, incidentally, is a marketing disaster for the folk awards.

Folk, acoustic and roots music in the UK needs an awards ceremony that reflects the industry today in all its glory and not simply the financial concerns of a small number of friends and colleagues of the organiser, John Leonard of Smooth Operations, who first employed most of the arguments put forward in your briefing note - allegedly written by Andrew Scadding - over two years ago.

The BBC should name the 190 judges of the Radio 2 folk awards because its own guidelines say it should and it is the right thing to do. Why would it not?

I hope I can rely on your continued integrity in this matter: I am very grateful for your interest and work so far. 

Yours in all sincerity
Emma Hartley

* If anyone else is interested in writing to John Whittingdale on this matter he can be reached at I will now be addressing the other members of the culture media and sport select committee

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

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