Archive for October, 2008

I only know the one Georges Brassens song. But that one song, La ballade des gens qui sont nés quelque part (ahem, roughly translated: The ballad of those who are born somewhere), sprang to mind the other day, and I can’t shake it off. It is a satire on chauvinism in general, and tells the story of those who get too excited in relating the merits of their particular locale.

So it could be about me. I live in Bath, a World Heritage City, don’t you know. Beautiful stone buildings, wonderful museums, great shopping, and don’t get me started on the music festivals. Have I mentioned the Children’s Literature Festival?… I did? You’ll not be surprised then that, happy fool that I am, I think Bath is different!

Well, not really. Closer to the truth may be that the Knackered Hack’s somewhat nomadic path thus far is more characteristic of the Beatles’ Nowhere Man.

But the reason why we live in a place now has scientific form, according to researchers at Cambridge University:-

The authors of the new study argue that the strongest personality traits within a given population become self-reinforcing by influencing the region’s life and culture.

For example, where the population is creative, imaginative and intellectual (as was found to be the case in states including New York and California), one might expect to find people who are interested in art, literature and science. This may in turn lead to the establishment of institutions such as universities and museums. These institutions then influence the views and values of the local populace, encourage more creative and imaginative people to move to the region, and give people who do not fit that profile less reason to live there.

Dr Jason Rentfrow, who was also behind a recent paper The content and validity of stereotypes about fans of 14 music genres, is cautious but nevertheless fairly confident that the findings stack up:-

Obviously it’s not as simple as saying that a person is guaranteed to be more anxious if they come from West Virginia or more religious because they happen to live in New Mexico; but we did find pretty clear signs that there are meaningful differences in the personalities of people living in different areas of the United States.

What is particularly impressive is that the results show the effects of personality on people’s social habits, values and lifestyles are so pronounced that they have an impact on much bigger social forces.”

I wonder if this is specific to the US, where population migrations and the evolution city identities might be a little more recent. About Bath–joking aside–I’ve tended to think that it has historically sat at the cross-roads between “mainland” England and the more independent and remote Celtic parts of the British Isles, making it a kind of cultural cross-roads, where metropolitan money meets Glastonbury grunge. And that this probably goes way back.

Before you think this is all hokum, a little more about the methodology:-

Using an established framework called the “Five Factor Model” they divided personality types into five broad categories: “Extraversion” (sociable, energetic, enthusiastic people); “Agreeableness” (warm, friendly, compassionate); “Conscientiousness” (dutiful, responsible, self-disciplined); “Neuroticism” (anxious, stressful, impulsive); and “Openness” (curious, intellectual, creative).

Over six years, 619,397 people from across the US took part in an online test in which they were asked to read 44 short statements, such as “I see myself as someone who is outgoing” and “I see myself as someone who is very religious”. The respondents had to mark their level of agreement with each statement on a scale of one to five.

When I’m next in the States, I’ll have to consider carefully how to plan my trip around the geographical clustering of personality traits that the study revealed. Turns out it’s not random:

“Neuroticism” was, for instance, highest in the east along a line stretching from Maine to Louisiana, and lowest in the west, suggesting that the country has an identifiable “stress belt”.

The Wall Street Journal has more here (possibly behind the subscription wall). Below is Georges Brassens. Lyrics (in French) are here, including a reference to Montcuq, which I think is now a legal requirement of the Académie Française. Loosen your ceinture a notch, crack open a bottle of red, strike up a Gauloise, kick back and enjoy.

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The bad economic news goes on. But so does life. Consequently, I’m contractually obliged to indulge in yet more comic relief.

There’s been a new Friday ritual in the Knackered household since May. A vibrant red-and-yellow A4 envelope, emblazoned with the letters “DFC“, drops through the letter slot to sizzle like a stick of cartoon dynamite on the doormat until the kids (8 and 13 years old) get home from school. They can’t wait to rip it open and devour the 36-page comic inside.

The DFC, whose initials remain shrouded in mystery (alternative hypotheses are supplied inside the front cover each week, e.g. “Dracula’s Favourite Cardigan”, “Disco For Crustaceans”) is no ordinary comic: not that there are many of those left these days. This comic combines the talents of a rich mixture of graphic novelists, artists and storytellers, along with the literary demi-god of children’s fiction, Philip Pullman.

Mesolith at DFC

Mezolith, Stories from the Stone Age, illustration by Adam Brockbank

The weekend before last, the younger Chip off the Old Hack got to meet his heroes: a handful of the illustrators and storytellers were down at the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, entertaining the kids and signing copies. I’ve never seen him shake with excitement, but that is how it was as he clutched his pride-and-joy, the very first edition, waiting for it to be initialed. Gratifyingly, the sight of the very first copy had the young illustrators cooing like parents over a newborn.

Well, if you haven’t heard of The DFC, publisher David Fickling wanted to recreate the great storytelling tradition of the heyday of British comics: names from the 1950s and 1960s like The Eagle and Bunty. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Fickling, someone who was, until that moment, an invisible hand in shaping the education and destiny of the two Chips off the Old Hack; he published Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson; he also initiated the Horrible Histories series. If you have kids, grandchildren, nephews or nieces of a certain age, these titles will probably be very familiar to you. The Knackered favourite in that imprint is the Murderous Maths series, and some eagle-eyed readers tell me that MM author Kjartan Poskitt provides the The DFC‘s puzzles.

Fickling seems to have an eye for the creative outlier. In conversation, it was clear that his passion is good stories and that when he finds them he’s prepared to take risks. Writer/illustrator partnership The Etherington Brothers put in several proposals, but threw in one completely off-the-wall suggestion with no expectation of it being accepted; this was Monkey Nuts, the tale of Sid (a tap-dancing monkey) and Rivet (a robot drinks-machine). Happily, it made the cut. Perhaps that typifies the joyously exuberant, anything-goes creativity that the publication is managing to foster. And young people (even slightly reluctant readers, in our experience) are equally motivated and enthusiastic to read it.

So, it’s a fair guess that something very special is happening over at The DFC. Already, some of the illustrators are generating interest from Hollywood; it’s said we should expect some of these storylines to find their way into future Dreamworks productions. And us paleo types can get excited, because Mezolith (above), written by Ben Hegarty, is the story of stone-age, hunter-gatherer Britons.

It is early days still. The publication carries no advertising, and (as I understand it) the forty-odd contributing creatives are part-shareholders in the venture. So, as a pioneering enterprise, it deserves your support. If you want the kids in your life to think kindly of you on a weekly basis, (and don’t we all?) I’d scurry over to The DFC website, and get them an annual subscription. Better than money in the bank!

Of course, if you are planning to go to the Cheltenham Literature Festival this coming weekend to see Nassim Taleb, the Etherington Brothers will be there for a The DFC comic workshop* too. Now what are the chances of that happening?

* The DFC would like to hear from any schools willing and able to host a comic workshop. You can contact them via the website or via their terrestrial address: The DFC, Oxford, England, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, The Universe 31 Beaumont Street, Oxford, OX1 2NP.

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