16 May 2012

My writing - elsewhere on the Internet

I've been meaning to set up a website that collects all my work in one place, but for now, it's all below.

All of my writing for the New Statesman can be found here. There are articles on literature (BS Johnson, Alex Kovacs, Ann Quin, Chloe Aridjis, Deborah Levy, Kate Zambreno, McKenzie Wark, Nanni Balestrini, Lars Iyer and Jean-Philippe Toussaint), 1980s video game Alter Ego, trans politics and culture (Chelsea Manning, pronouns, comedy, sport, Boulton and Park, cultural history, an interview with Janet Mock and some theses on trans people and the media), art (Sanja Iveković, the Vorticists, Painting and Performance, Hannah Höch), football (Justin Fashanu, Darren Eadie and depression, Grant Holt, transsexual people and the sport), theatre (Copi and Georg Kaiser's From Morning to Midnight) and various other subjects.

For The New Inquiry, I wrote a Manifesto for Confessional Journalism.

Short fiction
The Final Sentence (3:AM)

Nazimova (Necessary Fiction)

Reflections on Villaplane (Berfrois)

Surveillance City (Queen Mob's Teahouse)

The Unfortunate, or: Watching Dimitar Berbatov (3:AM)

The Woman in the Portrait, in the Five Dials #readwomen2014 issue (33b) is here.

Trans/LGBTQI writing
My Transgender Journey series (Guardian) is here.

For Comment Is Free:
Transgender actors and transgender screen roles
Gareth Williams and the prurience of the press
Five trans role models
Sport is slowly catching up with transgender realities

I wrote a long essay for Aeon magazine (Jan 2014) about the 'Before and After' trope in media coverage of transsexual and transgender people - here

A report from the LGBTQI panel and passing of the resolution at the PEN International Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (London Review of Books blog)

An open letter to Alzambek Atambayev, the President of Kyrgyzstan, against the country's proposed 'gay propaganda' bill, hosted here by PEN International. (Click here for the Russian version.)

I wrote about Kellie Maloney's coming out for the Daily Telegraph.

I have an essay in a book called 'The Flexible Sex', published in German and English by the Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung. There are chapters by Rosi Braidotti, Heidi Safia Mirza, Clare Hemmings and others as well as my 'Conundrum: The Dilemmas of Transsexual Narratives'. You can access the e-book here.

I also did an interview with 3 O'Clock Press about my contribution to their Letters Lived book - a collection of letters to teenage selves including Nina Power, Selma James, Rae Spoon, Shea Howell and others.

For TimeOut (London):
My Transsexual Summer appraised
Cross-dressing in Victorian London
Trans films at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
XXXora's Newer Gender - a preview

On trans people, sport and the Stockholm Consensus (LEAP Sports - Pride House Blog)

On trans people and football for Meta magazine Issue 2 - which can be purchased here.

I have a couple of pieces in Meta issue 3, too: one on the uses of the transgender umbrella, and another on sexual harassment, reporting and the particular issues for trans people. Follow this link ...

For the Student BMJ (subscription needed):
Working with transsexual patients
Safeguarding vulnerable adults.

A piece for Open Democracy on global violence against transgender people - here.

Literature & Film
For 3:AM:
The Connecting Door - on English 'experimental' author Rayner Heppenstall

Returning to the City of Lost Souls - on Rosa von Praunheim's queer cult musical with Jayne County, Tara O'Hara, Angie Stardust and others

For Cineaste:
From Morning to Midnight (directed by Karlheinz Martin - Germany 1920)
By the Law (directed by Lev Kuleshov - Soviet Union 1926)

For the BFI website:
10 Great Transgender Film

I contributed to the first issue of BSJ: The Journal for BS Johnson Studies, available here.

I wrote on my good friends in Manchester band Performance, and their 2007 debut album (We Are) Performance for The Music Fix - here.

Transcripts of my talks for The Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre were  hosted by 3:AM - in November 2013, I did one on the Sex Pistols and one on Gang of Four. In December, I spoke about Stereolab, and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno.

I chose UBUWEB's Top Ten resources for December 2013, as well as a special list for World AIDS Day. Both have Rosa von Praunheim films: the Top Ten includes Guillaume Apollinaire, Bas Jan Ader, Hito Steyerl, Welles and Warhol, Deimantas Narkevicius, Germaine Dulac and Delia Derbyshire, whilst the AIDS/HIV list features Momus, David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin, Isaac Julien, Reza Abdoh, Leslie Thornton, Yann Beauvais and Gerard Byrne. They can be found here.

For the London Review of Books, I reviewed Phaidon's Queer Art and Culture volume - here.

For Guernica:
XXXora's Newer Gender

I collected my football blogs here in September 2011.

I am writing a series for the New Humanist entitled How to Watch Football. Click here for Part One, here for Part Two, here for Part Three and here for Part Four.

In addition, my piece in Issue 4 of The Blizzard on Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Zinedine Zidane, can be downloaded here.

Podcasts, radio and interviews
The Pod Delusion - Thinking Critically about Transgender Issues
(presented at Westminster Skeptics in October 2011, introduced by Belinda Brooks-Gordon)
Just Plain Sense - Trans People and the Media (with Christine Burns)
Talking about transgender history, identity and politics with Cambridge Skeptics - here

I was on Novara on Resonance FM, talking with James Butler and Huw Lemmey about LGBT History Month (February 2014). Listen to the programme here.

In February 2014, I ran a workshop with Football v Homophobia about media coverage of LGBTQ people in sport. The audio recording is here, and the slides are here.

Before my lecture at UCL on my Guardian column for LGBT History Month 2012 - which you can listen to here - I appeared on Resonance FM's Out in South London with Rosie Wilby.

I was a guest on Two Footed Tackle's special podcast on homosexuality in football, and on Cafe Calcio's show on the same subject.

An appearance on The Anfield Wrap ahead of one of Norwich City's many tediously inevitable thrashings at the hands of Liverpool. And a second one here (April 2014).

I was also a guest of the first edition of The Hour of Power on Resonance FM, talking to Nina Power about 'confessional' writing, with tracks by Gang of Four and Julia Holter. Listen here.

I spoke to the Royal College of Art's CAR podcast, alongside the art collective Horrible GIF and artist Hanne Lippard. Listen to the show here.

I appeared on Bristol radio's ShoutOut discussing A Transgender Journey - listen here.

I was interviewed by the Anti-Capitalist Initiative about trans politics, 'confessional' journalism and other things - here.

An interview with Brighton's queer cinema journal One+One about Jack Smith & Rosa von Praunheim, why I write and more. I did a longer interview about von Praunheim in Issue 12 Vol 2.

On 10 March 2014, I did a talk about my Guardian column at Klub MaMa in Zagreb, introduced by the artist-activist Željko Blaće - watch it here on YouTube. I did a video interview after my talk, which is here.

I did an interview for Slovenia's biggest daily newspaper, Delo - in Slovene.

A brief interview with Austrian radio station FM4 about Facebook's gender options - here.

An interview with Monika Kowalska for her Heroines of My Life website.

I spoke to Anna Aslanyan about life on unemployment benefits in the UK (in Russian) - here.

Finally, I was interviewed for Somethinkblue magazine - here.

20 April 2012

A History of British Avant-Garde Film, part three: 1940-1964

Originally published in FILMWAVES magazine in 2006.


The period between the outbreak of war and the mid-Sixties is often characterised as an exceptionally lean time for the British avant-garde. Seventies and Eighties film theorists and historians have tended to largely ignore the Forties and Fifties, criticising the lack of theoretical debate and formal experimentation in post-war British film culture.

In literature, there was a strong reaction against Modernism. Osborne’s dramas, Larkin’s poetry and the novels of Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, David Storey and John Braine, all concerning upper-working-class or lower-middle-class males in contemporary England, were written as if Modernism never happened, being fiercely championed by critics who had resented Modernism’s stranglehold over inter-war literature.

However, British feature film enjoyed something of a ‘golden age’ immediately after the war, producing the Ealing comedies, Powell and Pressburger’s finest works and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. However, the most striking formal innovations during the Forties and early Fifties were made in Hollywood, most demonstrably with Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but also by Hitchcock, who adventurously allowed Salvador Dalí to design a sequence in Spellbound, and continued to take risks with narrative structure and cinematography.

The Fifties ended with the emergence of the French nouvelle vague, inspired by Jean Renoir, Abel Gance and Marcel Carné’s pre-war works, as well as the literary nouveau roman, leaving British critics searching for an equivalent domestic movement. Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson all filmed works of Fifties literature, including Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Storey’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which led to their being grouped under the label of ‘New British Cinema’. The New British Cinema directors were not avant-gardists, and never aspired to be, unlike members of the nouvelle vague, and one has to look elsewhere for avant-garde activity in this period, given the lack of any prominent organised filmmaking units or influential theoretical advances.

To investigate these absences, it is necessary to return to the outbreak of World War II, during which all but one of Britain’s film groups was dissolved. The war fragmented the movements and traditions established by the Thirties filmmakers, in geographical and intellectual terms, rather than extinguishing them. Three of the decade’s most influential figures, McLaren, Lye and Grierson, all went to work in Canada.

Norman McLaren and Len Lye continued making abstract films throughout the period, linking the Thirties avant-garde with that emerging in the Sixties. McLaren was considerably more prolific, scoring a success with Begone Dull Care (1949); the best known of Lye’s few films of this period was Free Radicals (1958), a simple abstract film utilising African rhythms to mesmerising effect.

Like McLaren and Lye, Grierson refined his style after the Thirties rather than radically altering it, writing numerous articles about film, education and the preservation of democracy. Passionately committed to the war effort, moving to Canada to operate away from the Blitz and the blackouts, Grierson believed film was central to the Allied campaign, boldly stating, ‘Even the issue of the war may turn on the skill and imagination with which we formulate our aims and maintain our spirit.’

Grierson, like McLaren, opted to work in Canada, away from the Blitz and the blackouts. Other prominent Thirties documentary makers preferred to remain in Britain. Paul Rotha made The World is Rich (1947) about post-war food policy, while Humphrey Jennings left Surrealism and Mass Observation behind to become Britain’s most celebrated wartime director, famously producing Listen to Britain (1942) and Fires were Started (1943). Listen to Britain was distinctive in that it did not provide a spoken commentary or superimposed soundtrack, instead presenting the viewer with the sounds made by its characters, particularly pianist Myra Hess, lending a captivating magic to Jennings’ idiosyncratic vision of ‘everyday life’.

Perhaps the most intriguing avant-garde films to emerge from wartime Britain were those by two Polish immigrants, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson. After filming Europa (1932) and Adventures of a Good Citizen (1937) in Poland, the couple moved to England, where they made The Eye and the Ear (1944) and Calling Mr. Smith (1944).

Both films sought to bring Polish culture to the attention of British audiences, for political reasons. The Eye and the Ear synchronised pieces by modern Polish composer Karol Szymanowski to ‘different methods of cinematographic interpretation’, while Calling Mr. Smith appealed directly to British intellectuals, pleading with them to drop notions of Nazi Germany as the land of Bach and Goethe, highlighting the massacre of Polish intellectuals and demonstrating the cultural paucity of Hitler’s regime.

Although Churchill’s National Government questioned certain films (including Calling Mr. Smith), the government recognised the importance of film as both entertainment and propaganda, and were determined to keep cinemas open. As the government took greater interest in film, Leftist directors and unionists pushed for changes to the structures of the industry. Ivor Montagu and Ralph Bond founded the Association of Cine-Technicians (ACT) in 1933 to organise film workers; its journals published ‘A State Film Industry?’ in 1941, recommending nationalisation as a bulwark against anticipated post-war Hollywood aggression.

After the Soviet Union entered the war, Socialist and Communist politics received more favourable press, particularly in 1945 as Attlee’s Labour Party surged to power. As the government began its programme of nationalisation, the Documentary Movement, the Workers’ Film Association and the Tribune Group, allied to the Labour Party, lobbied for state control of the film industry, hoping to overturn corporate control of the medium. Stafford Cripps, the President of the Board of Trade, seriously considered Paul Rotha’s memorandum suggesting the establishment of a Film Corporation similar to the National Film Board of Canada.

For Socialist filmmakers, this was a time of optimism, despite serious concerns about Hollywood monopolisation, and lingering suspicions about the British Communist Party’s unwavering allegiance to Moscow. Many assumed, with little experience of state-funded culture or Labour rule, that the government would sponsor a more effective left-wing film service. However, Attlee’s Party had greater concerns, and its haphazard policy on film, particularly its failure to nationalise the industry, had negative repercussions. In 1948, an import duty of 75% was placed on all foreign films, leading to the Motion Picture Export Association boycotting Britain entirely; the inevitable climb-down by the government caused great embarrassment, and rendered any defensive further measures against the American export programme impossible.

For filmmakers allied (however awkwardly) with the British Communist Party, the changes in the political climate after 1948 were problematic. The Berlin Blockade, Churchill’s infamous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four all contributed to a growing distrust of Stalinist Russia at the start of the Cold War, making it more difficult for Communist filmmakers to secure funding, get their efforts distributed or sustain their organisations. The Workers’ Film Association, which became the National Film Association in 1946, supported by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, disbanded in 1953. Throughout the Fifties, the actions of the Communist Party and the Labour Party often proved difficult for British intellectuals and artists, particularly in 1956, when the Communist Party backed Khrushchev over the Hungarian Uprising, and in 1959, when Hugh Gaitskell proposed that Labour drop Clause Four from its manifesto.

However, there remained a vibrant culture of Left-wing filmmaking throughout the immediate post-war years, which never theorised its relationship with the mainstream in any depth, making films on limited budgets for pragmatic reasons. It was commonly understood that mainstream cinema was a tool of capitalism, and that operating outside it was inherently revolutionary; no further aesthetic or ideological reflection on this relationship was deemed immediately necessary. ACT established its own production company in 1950, primarily to provide work for its unemployed members; only one union film was made by its members (We are the Engineers, as late as 1969) but it did produce other films, most famously Green Grow the Rushes (1951), about a group of smugglers exploiting an ancient charter to sneak brandy into southern England.

Another Communist group, ‘New Era’, was more directly involved in filmmaking. New Era mostly made documentaries about Communist Party activities in the early Fifties, producing We Who are Young (1952) and One Great Vision (1953) on an amateur basis. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament produced March to Aldermaston (1959), with a soundtrack based on direct comment from marchers and speakers, sustaining interest with the rhythmic editing of expressive images.

Amateur production thrived in the late Forties and early Fifties, occasionally assisted by the establishment of the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund in 1952. These amateur filmmakers often worked within the documentary traditions inherited from pre-war film culture. Beverly Robinson’s film We Speak for Our Children (1952) intelligently rehabilitated the montage style of silent documentaries to construct a powerful, ideologically committed protest against the closure of nurseries in Kent.

This amateur practice was developed throughout the Fifties, often facilitating the entry of amateur directors into the professional industry. Occasionally, amateur projects became professional films. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s film It Happened Here (1963), which shrewdly mixed documentary and narrative styles, famously created a scenario in which Hitler’s attempted invasion of Britain succeeded, made all the more disturbing for its naturalistic use of British stereotypes and conventions. Aided by the availability of cheaper, lightweight 16mm cameras, Brownlow and Mollo spent eight years making the film, eventually securing distribution with United Artists after removing a controversial six-minute sequence in which genuine neo-Nazis expounded their views.

However, not all avant-garde filmmakers in Britain during this period were rigidly concerned with ideological politics, or interested in working within organisational frameworks. James Broughton, like Jennings a poet who took up directing, had been closely involved with a fledgling US avant-garde directly influenced by the work of Maya Deren, particularly Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). After making an impression on America’s West Coast with The Potted Psalm (1946) and Mother’s Day (1948), Broughton was invited to London to make a film, which he envisaged as his ‘valentine to the land of Edward Lear, Shakespeare and pantomimes.’

This ‘valentine’ became The Pleasure Garden, shot in the ruins of the Crystal Palace Gardens. Staunchly opposed to cinematic realism, the film betrayed the influence of Broughton’s contemporary Kenneth Anger, infusing the late-Modernist aesthetics developed by the Forties avant-garde with high camp, anticipating the works of Andy Warhol, Ron Rice and Jack Smith. Certainly, The Pleasure Garden was a playful, frivolous film, owing a debt to Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, in which a Free Spirit liberates an exuberant Folk Singer from an oppressive Park Keeper who attempts to halt his song.

The Pleasure Garden starred Hattie Jacques and John Le Mesurier, with Lindsay Anderson as its Production Manager. Anderson’s experience of working with an American avant-garde maverick on a British production proved invaluable as he became one of the most prominent, and certainly most persistently radical figures within the only ‘movement’ to catch the eye of more mainstream critics, the ‘Free Cinema’.

The output of the ‘Free Cinema’ directors – Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Anderson among them – was quite diverse, sharing only a Romantic emphasis upon personal expression and a common focus on working-class lives. The light qualities of their documentaries owed much to the Thirties tradition, particularly Jennings, who died prematurely in 1950, falling off a cliff while filming in Greece. However, the Free Cinema directors also evolved their techniques in response to the increasing popularity of television, cemented by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The advent of ITV and then BBC2 allowed for a greater variety of programming, challenging filmmakers to offer something through films that could not be achieved by television broadcasts.

The Free Cinema directors’ shared interest in working-class culture, or aspects of it, led the media to present them as political radicals. They were informed by the amateur filmmaking culture of the period, but their films suggested far less ideological commitment and had slick, professional production values, making their works far more acceptable to the mainstream. Crucially, the Free Cinema directors were expert publicists, writing provocative press releases and securing programmes at the NFT devoted to their work.

Perhaps for this reasons, they were perceived as spokesmen for the working classes, demanding greater representation for the proletariat in British film, and consequently some of their greatest films were denied a full national release. Anderson’s Thursday’s Children (1951), about a school for deaf children, won an Oscar nomination but not a circuit release, while Every Day Except Christmas (1957, sponsored by Ford), concerning a fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden, won the documentary prize at Venice but was rejected by the BBC.

However, as Margaret Dickinson stressed, their emphasis was always upon working-class consumption, as in Every Day Except Christmas, or Reisz’s We are the Lambeth Boys (1959, also sponsored by Ford), documenting a South London youth club. Working-class institutions never featured prominently in key Free Cinema works; neither, to any extent, did women, blacks, immigrants or foreign workers. Indeed, only Anderson remained persistently non-conformist; like the other Free Cinema directors, he took to producing full-length feature films, but his were the most incendiary, particularly his aggressive critique of the British public school system, If (1968) and the anti-capitalist O Lucky Man (1973).

There were several other unique independent filmmakers operating during the period. Margaret Tait made beautiful, deeply personal films, such as the heart-warming Happy Bees (1955), evoking her childhood in Orkney, and A Portrait of Ga (1955), where Tait filmed her mother to ask how much the camera can reveal about an individual. Hugh MacDiarmid – A Portrait (1964) was a documentary about the Thirties poet, now aged 71, which featured MacDiarmid acting out Tait’s interpretations of his poems on screen.

One other genuinely innovative filmmaker worthy of mention was Geoffrey Jones, who, like Tait and Broughton, cannot be placed within any British trend or movement of the time. Jones took a very different approach to the documentary, radically challenging the conventions set during the Thirties. Jones, like the GPO directors of the inter-war period, was often backed by corporate sponsorship, attracting the attention of Sir Arthur Elton of the Shell Film Unit, for whom he made Shell Panorama (1959) and Shell Spirit (1962). The latter impressed Edgar Anstey of British Transport Films, whose Housing Problems (co-directed with Elton, 1935) set many of the conventions (particularly for television documentaries) that Jones was to explode.

Anstey commissioned Snow (1963), an impromptu account of the communal efforts to clear snow from the railways during the arduous winter of 1962-1963. Eschewing the voice-overs that characterised Thirties ‘poetic realism’, Jones replaced commentary with a musical score by guitarist Johnny Hawksworth, cutting the film to the rhythm of the music – a technique he perfected in his later films, particularly Locomotion (1975).

While, it seems, later historians of British film were not mistaken in failing to identify any major advances in film theory during this period, there were plenty of avant-garde filmmakers producing inventive works, individually and collectively, moving Thirties film culture in several contradictory directions. The cultural interchange of the Twenties and Thirties was not entirely stifled by the war and the resultant economic crises, with British directors such as McLaren and Grierson going to Canada and creating an important relationship between British and Canadian film culture, and foreign directors such as Broughton and the Themersons introduced new ideas into various avant-garde circles.

Political, rather than aesthetic concerns dominated the period, but it was not impossible for less ideologically motivated filmmakers to produce works and find an audience for them. The ultimate disappointment with Attlee’s Labour government, felt more acutely after their electoral defeat of 1951 heralded the return of Churchill and thirteen years of moderate Conservative rule, led to a change of tactics amongst the cinematic Left. Realising that their attempts to overturn corporate control of the industry through nationalisation, forcing massive changes upon mainstream film culture, were doomed due to the foreign and economic pressures upon the government, they spent the Fifties trying to open spaces beyond the reach of those corporations. Although some individual films made by Left-wing directors were aesthetically successful, they tended to fail in their aim of finding a wider audience, and Socialist film organisations were often short-lived.

However, by the mid-Sixties, several very different avant-gardes were defining principles, forming alliances and organising into units. The stifling conservation of post-war literature frustrated Stefan Themerson (a poet, philosopher and artist as well as a filmmaker), as well as younger writers such as Anthony Burgess, Ann Quin and B. S. Johnson, who resolved to pick up Modernist aesthetics where they had been left before the war. Johnson, the loudest voice in this loosely constituted neo-Modernist group, successfully branched into filmmaking in 1967 with You’re Human Like the Rest of Them.

Elsewhere, young experimental filmmakers followed developments in the United States closely, taking a keen interest in Warhol, Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas’ Cinemathèque and the New York avant-garde. Perhaps in reaction against the ideological focus of the Left-wing filmmakers and the individualistic, anti-theoretical practice of the period’s other counter-mainstream directors, a new movement, aggressively formalist, fiercely avant-garde appeared, one that strove to initiate a ceaseless dialectic between film theory and practice. This was to become the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, the most influential development in the history of the British avant-garde.

13 April 2012

Advice for Young Journalists

More and more, I’ve found myself covering the state of journalism, on the implications of writing for free and my experiences of online discourse, often drawing pessimistic conclusions. Having tried to become ‘a writer’ and ‘a journalist’ for nearly ten years, a decade of failure with infrequent success, I’ve found myself wanting to share some advice with the (occasional) younger people who’ve asked for tips.

Suzanne Moore, vastly more experienced (and concise) than me, tweeted some principles after judging the Guardian Student Media Awards, collected here by Rhodri Marsden. They’re all sound, but I want to expand on certain points, as well as discussing what I’ve learned growing up with the Internet, and publishing mostly online. Parts of this are most relevant to political writers, but I think much applies more universally.

Part I: Preparing

1. Read
Suzanne starts here too – as it’s obvious. We read before we write: trying to write before reading is like running a car without fuel. (I like Graham Linehan’s comparison of writing to defecating, mainly because it kills any romance, and reminds us that if you don’t eat properly, you’ll become constipated. I liken it to mining. You dig relentlessly where you hope to strike something; perhaps you will, perhaps not.)

But what to read? Newspapers and current affairs journals, Left or Right, domestic and foreign, but consume as much culture as possible. Like any other writing, journalism is an art (George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is strong on this, but not gospel) and your sentences will have more cadence if you are conversant with literature, theatre, poetry, film, comedy and other fields. This matters: readers may not always praise good writing, but they’ll be quick to call out what they think is bad. More noticeably, you’ll find a wider frame of reference, which is distinctively yours.

2. Listen to criticism
This never becomes irrelevant, no matter how successful you become: you may see just one name on a byline, but writing is always collaborative. Besides reading, the main way you’ll improve is by taking on feedback, on both your style and content. Don’t ignore corrections of your spelling and grammar, thinking that it’ll be fixed by whoever publishes you: editors won’t study your argument if it’s poorly presented (and even if they did, sub-editors are a dying breed, so don’t rely on their presence).

Further down the line, don’t look down on the public – you are them and they are you. Try not to attribute criticism to jealousy, or dismiss critics as ‘trolls’, at least publicly, even if you feel it’s fair, as it looks graceless: only disregard it if it’s impossible to take anything positive, in which case ignore it. Readers will be more sympathetic if you engage, particularly if you’re hauled up for saying something they find offensive – I’ve used the wrong word or laughed at the wrong thing once or twice, and have found dialogue and (where necessary) contrition a better response than bullishness. We all make mistakes – most of this post draws on mine – and these days we make lots of them publicly. Someone will haul you up, so have a strategy.

3. Don’t regard anyone as ‘a journalist’

Yourself or others. Thinking of yourself as ‘a journalist’ is a fast route to pomposity; thinking of others thus will result in you being star-struck if you meet them. They’d much rather relate to you as a human being – it’s more fun. This isn’t all about contacts – the main thing, as Suzanne says, is to write well – but you’ll make better connections if your conversation grabs people than if you badger them to open doors for you. And besides, nobody is just a journalist, in their personal or even (increasingly) their professional lives.

4. Don’t lose heart if you’re in a ‘day job’

I’ve written around full or part-time jobs (in retail or administration) since I graduated. Much as it has frustrated me, I’ve met an amazing range of people, enjoyed some fascinating conversations and used the financial security to experiment with different styles and subjects.

As I wrote my Transgender Journey series for The Guardian, I worked as a secretary, which kept my self-importance in check: I never had long to congratulate myself on publication before someone asked me to make the tea. I learned plenty about NHS commissioning (which informed my work) and saw the insidious effects of Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill far more than many others would have, too – wherever you find yourself, there will be plenty to learn. Your judgement and your writing will be better for it, and the difference between pundits who’ve done ‘proper jobs’ and those who haven’t is striking.

In my worst job, I got my best advice: you become a loser when you give up. Whenever I feel my writing won’t achieve what I’d hope, I recall these words from a colleague and continue.

5. There may be better options than the NCTJ course
I did this once I’d already published quite a lot. In my first interview afterwards, I was asked why, the implication being that I hadn’t needed to. If you want to enter newspaper journalism by starting on a local, it’s often a requirement for employment – otherwise, you might be better taking one-off courses in (say) pitching articles, or interview techniques.

Doing the NCTJ helped me, but not always directly: I’ve not used shorthand or magazine design software since, and I could have taught myself the current affairs and written English modules, but the media law section was helpful, as were the guest speakers. More widely, it gave me structure to explore what I cared about most: I started covering trans issues for Brighton & Hove’s LGBT press after submitting something written for the course. However, my contact at The Guardian, who put me in touch with my commissioning editor, was someone who’d liked the caustic match reports I posted on a football messageboard, purely for fun. There’s more to life than diplomas.

6. Pitching
Editors are assailed by correspondence. I did work experience at a national newspaper once (not The Guardian), and on being introduced to the person who had enough time to supervise us, saw that she had 972 unread emails. I used to send pitches with headings like ‘article’ and wonder why no-one answered – I got a better response when I started packing as much information as possible into the titles, like this to Record Collector:

‘FEATURE PITCH: Telex (Belgian synth band, 1978-2006, Eurovision entrants, Kraftwerk-influenced experimental/conceptual pop)’

This was rejected, but with the caveat that ‘While your reminder about the wonders of Telex made me grin and I would be interested to read about this cross between The Residents and 80s electropop hell, I don’t think they are quite right for the magazine at present’ and I was thanked for offering it. I didn’t get the commission, but I go t a contact –more encouraging than being ignored. And it made me grin, too.


Part II: Writing

1. Criticise everything …
… especially your own beliefs and biases. Any political writers worth reading, from Orwell as a democratic socialist to those at Conservative Home are so because they fearlessly critique their own parties, politicians and power bases. Don’t just explore your own position – dialogue is everything – but there’s nothing wrong with being partisan, as long as you’re not uncritical. The best writing comes from a place of knowledge, and also from the heart.

2. Look through the consensus
Some ideas are repeated so widely that they feel like truths: the strongest writing questions rather than reiterates clichés. A robust critique of even just one received idea can really make a writer – a good example is comedian Stewart Lee, who broke onto BBC television in the Nineties before spending a long time out of the limelight, rediscovering a much larger audience years later.

Lee thought critically about how he used language, and how others used it, leading him to examine the place of ‘political correctness’. He understood that lots of people from all angles would attack ‘political correctness’, often without really understanding what it was, or setting it up as a straw man. Even its left-leaning or liberal critics would posit it as an assault on ‘free speech’, without acknowledging how the “move towards a formally inclusive language” had improved numerous lives.

Lee cut through this, ruthlessly exposing the ulterior motives of its more vociferous opponents. When interviewed, he said that he saw political correctness attacked so often that the most radical thing he could do was defend it. He was right, and right to do so: articulating so many people’s suspicions so astutely brought a new generation to his work and changed the terms of the debate.

(On this, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s documentary Manufacturing Consent, which outlines Noam Chomsky’s views on how the media polices the limits of political discourse in liberal-democratic societies, is interesting food for thought.)

3. Think about what power and privilege you have

These ideas come primarily from the left but apply to everyone. The bigger your platform, whether it’s measured in circulation figures or Twitter followers, the more power – and thus duty – you have. Far too many writers who use their positions for malicious ends are quick to cite their right to free speech but slower to consider any responsibility that comes with it.

Try to punch up – never down. Stand-up comedy provides good examples, positive and negative, on use and abuse of power: Richard Herring wrote well on this after Ricky Gervais’ questionable use of language caused controversy on Twitter, and Bill Hicks’ attacks on the institutions who handled the Los Angeles riots have dated far better than the more recent Little Britain’s mockery of minorities or more disenfranchised people. Wherever possible, criticise organisations or systems rather than individuals, and when confronted with cultural produce that isn’t brilliant, consider its intentions – an honest but flawed work that attempts to say something is far more forgivable than something made solely because its producer thinks it’ll be profitable.

Constantly assess your own privilege, too, and when writing about people from different backgrounds, consider if you’re speaking on their behalf, and how reasonable this is. (Sometimes, if you don’t, nobody else will – but try not to appropriate.) If you’re in a minority, it’s important to attack prejudice but this should never blind you to the fact that within your field, you may well have advantages that others don’t (and almost certainly do, if you’ve been able to get your voice amplified by the media), particularly if they belong to more than one group. Intersectionality is crucial.

If in doubt, ask yourself: “Is this fair?”

4. Be honest
Nothing justifies intentional dishonesty, whether it’s to further a career or a cause. Historically, little good has come from putting a higher ‘truth’ above personal ethics, and if you’re caught lying in the service of a social aim, you will damage not only yourself but the things you care about. Be sceptical about facts – where they come from, how they were agreed and why they are propagated – but if the facts don’t fit your argument, then your argument must change.

Don’t, however, give people who seem not to have any principles an easy ride when they do bad things, just because they’re “consistent”. Be vigilant against hypocrisy, but remember that this attitude stops people from challenging selfishness and exploitation – a task which remains as important as ever.

5. Write for the right reasons
The Internet is lawless, but strangely self-correcting. After I started writing for The Guardian, I thought about where to go next, and amongst other things, I wrote football reports and posted them here. A friend, who’d read the biting ones I mentioned earlier, told me they didn’t work because they were written like something I thought would suit a broadsheet, rather than in my own voice. I’d been caught red-handed, and realised that if I wrote with impure motivation, people will notice.


PART III: Publicising

1. “All publicity is good publicity” is not true
I tried to find out who first said this, but couldn’t establish a culprit – luckily, as the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity is, and always has been 24-carat bollocks (ask Gerald Ratner, to name just one), and has been wheeled out to justify no end of stupidity. If you want publicity, write something – nobody will take you seriously if you try to secure it any other way. In the long run, that will damage you, whatever the immediate gains.

2. Think carefully about how you use social media
There’s a perception that Twitter (more than other social networks) is merely a bunch of self-important fools hurling inanities into the void, and if you want to see this, it’s not hard. However, Twitter is a quick, easy way to build a persona, escape typecasting (if you write mainly on one subject) and interact with other writers, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you won’t use it, but you still need take some care about what you share.

Rightly or wrongly, Jody McIntyre lost his Independent blog over what he tweeted about the riots, and whilst you never want to be censored by a third party, it’s best to ask yourself “Should I post this?” before pressing Send. Luckily, people will let you know quickly if your answer should have been No, and if you respond sensitively, you’ll strike the right balance.


One last thing. In my early Twenties, bored and frustrated, I wrote to my favourite director, Werner Herzog, saying how much I loved his films and wanted to be in one. Despite the fact that he almost certainly gets dozens of such letters a week, he sent me a handwritten response from Guyana (where he was filming The White Diamond), on the day he received it, and said: ‘The only advice I can give you is to do some work, creative or otherwise, where you are able to control your own destiny.’ I keep it in a folder in my room, and look at it again whenever I need motivation to get back to my desk. You can ignore most of what I’ve posted, and sometimes you definitely should, but the crux never changes: think, read and write, as much as you possibly can.