Thursday, August 31, 2006

Happy Birthday, Sir B (or C)

Last week we celebrated (well, some of us did) the 100th. anniversary birthday of Sir John Betjeman. No doubt Betjeman himself would have had he been available. In spite of my failing to get to grips with most poetry, Betjeman managed to get my attention. Perhaps it was because he did not write on Homeric lines so I wouldn’t lose the drift, but it was mainly because he wrote of things to which I could relate.

The residents of Slough might not have appreciated his efforts, “ Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough, It isn’t fit for humans now,” but most of the rest of us could sympathise with his feelings.

His week was enlivened by one of those literary spats that seem to be the fashion.

Biographer A had written his life story some time ago and now biographer B had just produce a new, and slightly more critical one. The subject, (may we call him C? I know Betjeman begins with a B but I’m sure you will see that calling him B could lead to confusion) is in no position to argue and A now says that B used his book on C as a reference (are you still with me?). B says he didn’t, which does not make a lot of sense.

Even country vicars, before they try to drive their congregations to sleep with a Sunday sermon, usually take a quick gander at the Good Book before setting out, and it seems to me that any biographer would be well advised to glance at any previous work on the subject, in this case C.

I’ve always advocated writing biographies of those long since dead as being the safest practice. Even those who commission “authorised biographies” are seldom tempted to be perfectly truthful and the writer of an unauthorised (and truthful) version is likely to find himself on the wrong end of a law suit. Going back a thousand years or so is much safer, since the subject, his relatives and his lawyers will have lost their enthusiasm for pursuing any injustice you may have done the subject (may we refer to him as C once more?).

But the literary world seems to be prone to the sort of belligerency that we once associated with soccer crowds.

Salman Rushdie, who you will recall, was in a spot of bother with some mullahs a while back, had a little confrontation with another critical writer and, only the other day, the authors of two equally unmemorable volumes arrived in the high court for a ding dong over who pinched what from whom.

Thackeray and Dickens were rivals (or, more accurately, their supporters were) but they never resorted to such public displays and, reverting to Betjeman for a minute (or C, if you must) there is this. He wrote, of a seaside holiday, “Sand in the sandwiches, Wasps in the tea…..”

Now, Noel Coward had written earlier in similar vein, “There’s sand in the porridge and sand in the bed, And if this is pleasure we’d rather be dead,” but he never took Betjeman (C) to court over it.

Perhaps, since writing is now such a competitive sport, it should go on the Olympics roster.

In which case we can look forward to mandatory drug testing for all candidates for the Booker Prize.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Goodbye, Old Friend

A very sad day today. I have lost one of my oldest and best friends in the world. She and I had been together almost continuously for the past fifteen years with nary a cross word nor even much of a difference of opinion. She was a gourmand, a world traveller, a philosopher and had a will of her own that many would have envied.

She was, of course, my dog.

Peter the Great didn’t have many good things to say but he did state that “Now I know men, I prefer dogs.” And in this he was perfectly correct.

Cherry (for that was her name) came into our lives by happenstance. We took care of her for a couple of weeks whilst her owner was away. On her return, Cherry demonstrated that independence that was to be her hallmark in life – she elected not to go back to her owner. Instead she stayed with us – for fifteen more years.

Born in Florida, of what might be kindly referred to as mixed parenthood, she fitted into our family life immediately. And, tiring of Florida (as many do) she accompanied us to The Bahamas for a few years where she roamed the beaches and swam in the ocean like a regular tourist.

She lost her sight some seven years ago but it hardly slowed her down or inhibited her hedonistic life style.

Crossing the Atlantic, she became an adopted French citizen, although never to the extent of wearing a beret or smoking Gauloise as far as we know.

Continuing her travels, she visited the French Alps, the Massif Centrale, the coast of Brittany and, when I was writing my book on the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, she walked all the beaches with me. She became an implacable hunter of moles, although never actually catching one, and the excavations in the lawn were frequent testimonies to her efforts in this respect.

A lover of good hotels (provided they had elevators – she didn’t like stairs), she was the perfect travelling companion and rode thousands of kilometres in our car.

She is sadly missed.

We are burying her at the end of the driveway so that she will be able to hear our comings and goings.

And we are planting a tree in her memory.

It will be, of course, a cherry tree.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Mystery Book

The book I had ordered arrived in the mail yesterday. It was a volume published by Cassell in 1912, and its late arrival on my doorstep was not, for once, attributable to the vagaries of the English postal service. It had been ordered from E-Bay and one might wonder what had possessed me to order “The British Boy’s Annual” of that date.

I was researching the period for a forthcoming book and my interest was in seeing what the young man of the period might be reading. The book is fascinating. It was from the era when the end of empire appeared inconceivable to any patriotic Britisher.

As one writer in the book puts it:

“There lies before me as I write, a map of the world on which the lands comprising the British Empire are coloured red. It does not matter where I look – north, south, east or west – for everywhere I see red smudges scattered all over the face of the globe.”

Many of the stories are concerned with the derring-do of true British heroes and the style of writing is distinctly adult and obviously aimed at the teenager about to become a man. At the time of publication, Captain Scott was still on his way to the South pole, and no doubt the editors were looking forward to publishing his success in next year’s volume as they mention his expedition as being in progress.

Turning the pages I had a strange sensation. The book was in its ninety fourth year – and yet it appeared to be almost unread. Now whilst I am sure that the sixteen year olds of the period were a little more careful with their property than a modern teenager, it struck me as remarkable that this volume was totally unmarked and showed no sign of wear. The flyleaf, that had presumably been inscribed with the owner’s name, has been carefully removed, leaving me with no clue as to his identity.

To me this is a pity. I have a complete set of Dickens, circa 1930, once the property of a Miss Hannah Stuttard that she purchased in 1933. I know this as she carefully inscribed each volume with her name and date. From odd pieces of paper, used as bookmarks, I could conclude that Miss Stuttard was probably a school teacher in Burnley in 1935. If any of Miss Stuttard’s relatives should read this, they might like to know that her books are still in excellent condition and in regular use.

But The British Boy’s Annual puzzled me. How had it survived, not only a British boy, but the ravages of time so well? Pondering over this, it struck me that the owner would have been probably sixteen or seventeen years old when he took possession of the book, almost certainly it would have been a birthday or Christmas present. Less than two year later, the First World War broke out and he would have been a prime candidate for the armed forces. The book would certainly have been an encouragement for any young lad to “do his bit for King and country.”

I wonder if he never came back from the war and that his relatives preserved his belongings in his memory?

There seems no other explanation for such a book in such pristine condition, and they might like to know that it will be as well looked after in its new home as it clearly has been over nearly a century.

I just wish they had not removed the flyleaf.

Monday, August 28, 2006

There is a Free Lunch

Being a restaurant critic always struck me as being a job out of this world. Probably not too good for the waistline, but as long as you were only called upon to decimate one establishment per week, it could be kept under control.

And you get to visit the sort of places that you were never able to afford without the largesse of your employer.

You could work your way through the menu with an easy conscience, select from the wine list with nary a glance at the price column and, when it was all over and you were replete and full of the chef’s food and the milk of human kindness in equal amounts, you could summon the maitre’d.

In well chosen words, you could explain to him just what an inferior establishment he was running and, item by item, tick off the failings of the chef, the sloppiness of the service and the disastrous décor of the place. The coup de grace would be to point out that, if he wasn’t paying attention, he would be able to read all about it in the Sunday newspapers.

And then you could burp quietly and leave.

That seems to be the principle on which most of the critics work, anyway.

One particularly virulent one would write in a major Sunday newspaper of how he would turn up at the restaurant in his Rolls, complete with his latest popsy, and then would proceed to perform a hatchet job upon the eatery with great glee. If he’d shown up at my place, I’d have done a hatchet job on his Roller, personally.

But I suppose that, as a restaurateur, you can’t do much about it.

“Yes sir. Table for two? Right this way…, are you by chance from the Sunday……..You are? Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I see we’re fully booked – until the next millennium.”

Even then, some will slip through the net.

It seems to be a thriving business and, if there’s a vacancy, I’m fully prepared to force myself into doing the job and to hell with the waistline.

Mind you, I can see a few snags. For instance, you might be dispatched to eat at the Obese Canard, a temple of nouveau cuisine where the chef specialises in preparing food from items not usually thought fit for human consumption, such as a starter of pâte de slug served on a bed of recycled polystyrene. But you can always ask for something off the menu, I suppose. I was at La Tour in Paris a few years back in company with an Englishman who detested French food. Looking gloomily over the menu he muttered, “I’d give anything for a poached egg on toast.” The English speaking waiter repressed his astonishment that the man did not want the famous duck – and produced two perfectly poached eggs on toast.

So at the aforesaid nouveau cuisine joint, I could ask for sausage, egg and chips in place of the printed menu.

And then I could lie to my editor about it.

OK, I’ll take the job.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

All the News That's (selectively) Fit to Print

Every morning, courtesy of the internet, I read the London newspapers. Well, not all of them, since The Times has elected to charge me for the pleasure. As their writings will be mirrored by the other quality(?) dailies, I felt there was no need to subscribe to the Rupert Murdoch retirement fund.

Anyway, it’s a jolly good job I do read them, for without their expert knowledge, I would remain blissfully unaware of what a miserable existence the French have in La belle France. It’s a mystery to me why the French don’t seem to notice it themselves – just that stubborn pride that crops up so often in the newspaper columns, no doubt. Of course, it could just be that here in France, the quality of life is pretty good, outside of the urban ghettos that blight all civilisations. I suspect that the Paris correspondents of these papers are based somewhere around there and told not to report anything from outside of a 25 km. radius of a trouble spot.

Admittedly, our President, Jacques Chirac, is not Jacques the Beloved, but he stands head and shoulders (literally as well) in the political and diplomatic field above Britain’s present incumbent of St. Albions (with acknowledgements to Private Eye). Winston Churchill once rumbled that he was not First Minister in order to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire. Mr. Blair seems to be going one better by presiding over the selling off of Britain, either to George Dubya Bush or to any Muslim radical that makes a better offer. Eastern European immigrants are also taking up a collection, I understand.

But here I must be honest. In this decadent land that is France, we do have our crosses to bear.

For instance, we can’t complain about our railways – they run, pretty much on time and, with a few exceptions, are clean and graffiti free.

Our TGV system whisks us at close to 200 mph hither and thither across the country for fares which are risible by the standards of the UK systems. And is on time.

Complaining in the letters to the editor about the time taken for a specialist medical appointment is not an option. The waiting time is as long as it takes your doctor to contact the specialist.

Some of the hospitals have had to economise by getting rid of the top-flight chefs who used to prepare the patient’s meals. Dommage.

Our auto-routes are not free of charge but are, except in August, largely free of traffic and, remarkably, construction work.

Our post offices are clean and efficient, providing a whole range of ancillary services from banking and insurance to that sine qua non of mail services, rarely losing your letter, no matter what the size. And the mail gets delivered by knowledgeable mailmen.

And for years we have been taking Sir Ian Blair’s advice which was, presumably, directed at the inhabitants of Canning Town and similar, of leaving our doors unlocked. It does save a lot of paperwork for the “breaking and entering” charges, I suppose but our local criminals don’t seem to have cottoned on yet. And our gendarmerie is 15 kms away and closes for lunch, so better not to disturb them.

Yes, it’s all very distressing, and as I read the gloomy reports of the difficult times we are going through here in France, it’s enough to drive one to drink. Now there’s a thought – what shall it be? A bottle of good Bordeaux for €3? Nah, too expensive. I’ll just settle for my local Vin du Pays, excellent, at 75 cents a litre.

Looking on the brighter side, these newspaper reports are obviously the reason that so many immigrants just transit France and keep on going to Britain. It shows that they must read the newspapers too, and know a good thing when they read one.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Three "R's"

The news that British schoolchildren are becoming brainier and brainier was greeted with whoops of joy from the government. After all, a pass mark approaching 101% in GCSE’s and A Levels is not to be sneezed at. And it’s been accomplished just by improving the educational system, not by lowering the standard of course.

Students are equally happy and, in a few years time, there won’t be enough space on the front pages of newspapers to hold the pictures of students deliriously tearing open their results envelopes.

The only ones who don’t seem happy about this are those miserable Scrooges in industry who find themselves in the invidious position of having to find employment for these budding geniuses.

For a manufacturer of black puddings, fitting in someone who has just aced his TV, Film and Media studies course is proving something of a problem. What he really wants is someone who can count (black puddings, presumably), subtract, occasionally do a bit of multiplication and, in extremis, be able to write a coherent letter. Unfortunately, students with any aptitude in these matters are hard to come by under the present system.

One wonders what would be the pass mark if these embryo eggheads were made to sit the exams that were in use, say, fifty years ago?

Even the university courses are of such a specialised character that students eschew the dull and dreary nonsense of English and maths. I believe the University of Boris Johnson, for example, offer courses in falling off of bicycles and how to be a member of an irrelevant political party, skills which are not in great demand on the open market but which are typical of the courses on offer.

Employers wanting to find someone with simple numeracy skills are forced to employ those from the Asian sub-continent, with the possibility that, at the drop of a Chapati, they will be scooped up by the fuzz and incarcerated. Air travel is also out for these employees.

What is really needed is a return to the three “R’s,” which you recall are reading, riting and rithmetic. Having got these embedded in the brain, almost anything else is possible.

Presumably as you are reading this (possibly by mistake) thinking it was concerned with literary matters, you may wonder what this has to do with writing etc. Well, I don’t think any of the really famous writers ever took a course in TV, Film or Media studies or probably took any course at all that would have prepared them for a career as an author. For instance, Somerset Maugham was a doctor, Mark Twain was a riverboat pilot and Charles Dickens, (before he taught himself shorthand and became a court reporter) filled blacking bottles.

But I suspect they had one thing in common. They could all read, rite and do rithmetic.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


There is an old engineering proverb that reads something like: “If all else fails, read instructions.” Sometimes these old world homilies need to be remembered.

Only yesterday I wrote a little diatribe complaining that these words of wisdom penned here often came out with the wrong date. Recalling the aforesaid proverb, I found that, had I read the instructions, I could have adjusted things to conform to my “WET” status, which, you will remember, (and you have to keep up with these acronyms nowadays to get anywhere in life), stands for Western European Time.

A few strokes of the keyboard and, voila, there’s the right date and time at which I pen these immortal words. Now you would expect me to be deliriously happy over this technical achievement, but there’s a downside to everything. Even Archimedes found that, having shouted Eureka and rushed off to tell his neighbours, when he got back his bath water had gone cold. And so it was with me in this instance, although this was nothing to do with baths.

It concerns the little matter of truth, which, in little matters of truth, is usually referred to as “fibbing.”

You see I have long propagated the image that I rise at crack of sparrow’s to put my thoughts on paper. Now I am going to be exposed as a pious fraud, for henceforth you will see that, from the date and time stamp, rather than writing this with my first sip of coffee, the whole thing is often delayed until after the eggs and bacon or, sometimes, the croissants, and, on especially difficult days, the gin and tonic.

But never mind. What’s wrong with a few fibs? Politicians have never let truth get in the way of their careers and it is comforting to think that Tony Blair and pals have their writing date-stamped “BST.” I’ll let you figure out that acronym to suit yourselves.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Time, Please!

Glancing back over this rubbish (there was no need for you to agree so quickly!), I note that sometimes, for instance, a piece I write in the early morning carries a dateline of the day before when published. It’s all due, of course, to the different time zones we’re stuck with. I write in France and some unsung genius a few thousand miles to the west is responsible for publishing it. Not unreasonably, he puts his date on it and hence the difference.

An interesting thought is that, since the newspapers in the west coast of America arrive quite few hours after those of Europe, those lucky ones will be the last to hear of the end of the world. All I can say is that God moves in mysterious ways!

Early man had no such problem He got up when the sun did and went bed, following its invaluable example. It does explain why places that experienced semi-annual perpetual daylight and similar perpetual darkness at various times of the year, never became popular with real estate developers. Then man discovered fire, someone cried “Let there be light” and it was all downhill from then on.

Keeping track of time was not of paramount importance until intrepid explorers started sailing westward, when a suitable chronometer was needed to be able to calculate their longitude. Egyptian water clocks and hour glasses were hardly suitable. Also necessary was a recognised starting point, a meridian of longitude, and nationalistic fervour ran high, a good many nations insisting that the line running through one of their cities was the correct one.

Finally, in the 19th. century, a conference in Washington agreed that it should run through Greenwich, London, where the Royal Observatory was located. Remarkably, the Americans did not press for it to be located through Foggy Bottom, but in those days they were not yet regarding themselves as arbiters of the destiny of the world, so they missed the opportunity.

But now every place had its own time zone, so many hours ahead or behind Greenwich Mean Time, and I was disturbed to find that I live in the WET zone (Western European Time) and that this blog is probably brought to you from the PT zone (Pacific Time). This is, I suppose, a straightforward arrangement but I recall that, when I lived in the United States, parts of Ohio elected to operate on their own time for some strange reason, putting them an hour out of kilter with their neighbours and causing endless confusion to strangers who were unaware of the situation.

Generally, these time zones are a nuisance, but there is a redeeming feature. When you invite someone to have a drink and they refuse with that sanctimonious, “It’s a bit early, isn’t it?” phrase, you can cheerfully respond, “ Well, it’s not too early in Ulan Bator,” and pour yourself one. Those ignorant of time zones don’t deserve a drink.

P.S. For those of you who would like to delve into the longitude matter a little more deeply, there is a wonderful book by Dava Sobel, “Longitude,” the story of the clockmaker John Harrison and his chronometer. I wish I’d written it.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Crystal Gazing

You may have noticed that I tend to hark back a lot as opposed to peering into the future. The reason is that, whilst I can relate to the past, I’m not much good at predicting forthcoming events. Thus it was something of a relief to find that Professor Stephen Hawking was equally foggy about the future – even to the extent of asking for opinions on the Internet.

Soothsayers and the like have had a bit of a chequered history. William the Conqueror had one of board one of his ships on the way to Hastings, but the vessel sank, prompting William to remark that couldn’t have been much of a soothsayer. Nostradamus seems to have done well for himself and Old Moore has resisted the ravages of time – and a good many errors in the prognostication department.

Fifty years ago, popular scientific magazines were full of pictures of us flitting hither and thither in our own personal flying machines within the next decade or so and George Orwell got the date wrong for 1984, although, come to think of it, the Big Brother part now looks realistic.

That the prediction industry is alive and well is evinced by the horoscopes that appear daily in a good many publications. They do tend to deal in generalities, however, and rarely get down to the specific stuff we really want to know. For instance, a suggestion that your day may include something to do with water and a stranger is more likely to indicate a burst pipe and a visit from the plumber than a romantic arrival from overseas.

Zodiac signs are something of a female predilection. “What are you?” she asks. “Uh?” you say. “I mean, what’s your sign?” “Oh, Taurus, I think,” you say, uncertainly. “Might have known,” she sniffs, and wanders off to find someone more compatible.

This compatibility of signs business apparently needs to be taken seriously. Perhaps when dealing with your bank manager concerning an overdraft, it’s one of the first things you should get cleared up. “Oh, so you’re a Pisces. I’m sorry, it’s just not going to work for us. I’d better try another bank.”

And when writing science fiction, it would be better to avoid Orwell’s problem and put the date a few millenniums ahead. With any luck, by the time it arrives, if the human race has managed to last that long, they won’t be reading books anymore. It will all be done by osmosis via television.

Monday, August 21, 2006


The brouhaha surrounding the forfeiting of the test match by the Pakistan team made the headlines this morning in the English newspapers. Those of you who know nothing of cricket, and probably care even less, may as well leave now, since nothing that follows will be comprehensible or even probably of interest to you.

The nub of the matter is that the umpires inferred that Pakistan had been tampering with the ball. Subsequently both the Pakistani team and then the umpires had hissy fits and the game was handed to England like a kebab on a skewer. All most unsatisfactory.

It revolves around the phenomenon that a tampered or damaged ball can be made to “reverse swing.” This is something that has only burst upon the cricketing scene in the past few years, rather in the same way that Los Alamos ushered in the nuclear era, and apparently produces a similar fall-out.

To me it seems remarkable that cricket has been played for a couple of hundred years but only now has this ability to “reverse swing” the ball become apparent.

Stone Age man almost certainly did quite a lot of rock chucking and I’m sure it didn’t take him 200 years to find out how to do it.

“See old Ig , him from cave 34? See how he plugged that mammoth in the short ribs? Lovely bit of reverse swing he got on that rock. Better sign him up for the first team next week.”

For me, personally, it has all been most revealing. Many years ago I used to open the batting for the local club. I retained this position by virtue of being chairman of the selection committee, and I strongly recommend this approach to any one wishing to make a name for themselves in club cricket. Our captain remained at his post unchallenged as he was the local publican and controlled the post game booze-up. Power is more important than performance in this game.

As a batsman I certainly looked the part. My walk out to the middle was confident, I took guard with a flourish, my stance was upright, left elbow up, and there was barely a glimmer of daylight ‘twixt bat and pad. People would comment on my professionally nonchalant pose when at the non-striker’s end. Yet I would still get out. It was the subject of much discussion in the pub afterwards. “You looked well set,” they would say, “Bad luck, old chap.” We were innocent and naïve in those days. Had we known better, perhaps we would have found the solution but, like doctors grappling with an unknown disease, we knew nothing of “reverse swing,” for that was, of course, what must have been the problem all along.

Now I’m not a great one for conspiracy theories but on mulling this over, a sinister thing has occurred to me. The cricket balls we used were manufactured in India, which in those days had just been prised away from the British Raj. What if one of the ball-stitchers had been a Pakistani? Could it not have been all a devious plot to prevent me from playing for England?

I’m writing to the ICC about it. The way they behave I’m sure they’ll investigate.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Le Mot Juste

“And what is your particular genre?” she asked. I thought she had said gender so my startled look must have led her to think she was speaking to one of the less intelligent members of the species. “I mean, what is your literary style – your specialisation?”

Genre is one of the OK buzzwords that seem to surface from time to time and is now prevalent in the bookish world. It’s not one I like very much. For starters, no one seems to be sure how to pronounce it. You can go for the full-blooded Gallic approach with a fine rolling of “r”s and ending with an expletive sort of “eh” or then there’s the Anglo-Saxon mode of trying it through clenched teeth and without moving the lips. Which is why I thought she had said gender.

But my main objection is that inferring that you only write in one style is likely to seriously restrict your horizon. The “genre classifiers” seem to have made no slot for the “I’ll write anything for cash” group which, I suspect, includes most of us. Especially myself.

There is a modern penchant for specialisation, perhaps not a bad thing in a way, but one wonders what would have happened to Isambard Kingdom Brunel had he specialised in atmospheric railways? This, you may recall, came under the heading of “seemed like a great idea at the time but turned into a total fiasco,” but his more successful projects of ships, tunnels, bridges and railways were to make him famous. Hardly specialisation and he didn’t even have a university degree.

Books and the writing of them enables the mind to leap unfettered through the world and to restrict one’s self artificially to a specific genre (there’s that word again!) strikes me as being singularly unimaginative – and a lack of imagination will surely only lead to unimaginative writing. I notice there are several writing groups that concentrate solely on Science Fiction, surely they must read something else? Perhaps you get drummed out or blackballed for writing something worldly. Nothing wrong with Sci Fi if you like that sort of thing but H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote other stuff as well, as did Ray Bradbury. I suppose one can’t accuse them of not having broad horizons, but I’m sure you get my meaning.

It’s rather as if, having written a learned treatise on early Egyptian tablespoons (if they had them), you restricted yourself to the subject of their tableware to the exclusion of all else. Now there’s a genre for you.

I am unashamedly in the “write anything” school of thought – I find almost all subjects (save Egyptian tablespoons, possibly) of consuming interest, so when it comes to asking my genre, put me down as a “don’t know.”

And if you must use the word, try to avoid what I call the ventriloquial English school of pronunciation. It’s a French word and needs a bit of effort put into it. Then I won’t think you said gender.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Instant Theses.

The growing trend to employ what the media refer to as “performance enhancing drugs” to enable athletes to outperform non drug users, used to be referred to rather more directly as “cheating.” And the art of cheating seems to be growing apace, so much so that it can only be a matter of time before it appears on the A-Plus curriculum along with existing useless rubbish such as Film, TV and Media studies.

This became apparent to me the other day when I was contacted by a young man (I’m assuming he was young) who enquired if I would edit a thesis he was preparing for his doctorate. He had, he said, two dissertations plus some charts, graphs and statistics from a publication that he needed to have melded into a composite whole for presentation.

He himself was too busy to do the job and he estimated that it would only take about a day of cutting and pasting to the order with which he would provide me in the shape of an index. There was no need to do any creative writing – it was all there in the abstracts.

The material duly arrived by E-Mail and I was struck by the loftily academic tone of the two pieces. It seemed odd to me that someone with such a grasp of the subject was unable to simply rewrite the material. The Graphs etc. were also to be derived from an existing publication which gave me some concern over the possible infringement of their copyright.

As you know, Word documents (and most other word processors) include a handy little file which will tell you the authorship, always providing that the author has identified himself, and it was to this that I turned.

Not really much to my surprise, I found that the documents were not my correspondent’s own unaided work. In fact they were not his work at all, but had been provided, at a cost £9.99 each, by a company located in the Mile End Road, East London.

In my day in London, the Mile End Road would have been a pretty unlikely hangout for the academia of the city but it seems times have changed, for in that flowery environ there is located Papers4You, an outfit that will supply you with, as it says, just the paper for you. No more sweating in a stuffy library researching the subject, just send them your credit card details and, Bingo!, back comes your thesis. It does come, admittedly, with the caveat that you aren’t supposed to crib the whole thing and only to use it as a basis for your own work, but as Tom Lehrer wrote, “Plagiarise, plagiarise….. but be sure to call it research.”

Perhaps the students who make use of this “service” are not to be blamed too much. I, and a good many others, might have welcomed the chance of spending more time in the pub, for such a modest cost, while others did the donkey work.

But it is surely the academic authors in the pay of Papers4You, who have the temerity to list their names and qualifications on the company website, that should be ashamed of themselves.

I always knew that prostitution was the oldest profession but never realised until now that it could also lead to helping others to a university degree.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The ABC's of Life

Have you ever wondered (and not a lot of people have) who was the genius who first decided the order of the letters in the alphabet?

Imagine the effects if he hadn’t bothered. Searching for an Indian Take-Out restaurant in Yellow Pages would be a marathon task. The Oxford English dictionary would be a shambles. And your personal E-Book addresses in Microsoft Outlook would be – Oh, sorry, it already is, due to it’s default setting of listing everyone under their first name, making you scroll through dozens of Bills, Charlies and the like to find the one you want.

Personally, I believe the alphabet was set up by a committee chaired by an Aaron – hence the first letter was voted in. Zed (or Zee if you’re reading this in the US of A) was probably placed due to old Zachariah being the most cantankerous of the group. But how did they get all those fellows in between to fall in line? It must have made an EU summit conference look like a kindergarten party.

“I before E,” shouted Ichabod down the table. “But only after C,” said Clymenstera. “No, no, no,” cried Diadne, “That’s only when it’s in the same word.”

“Make a note of that,” said the chairman – and so it must have gone on. Days of wrangling just to make your life so much easier in these days when alphabet soup is the modern jargon.

In Russia, of course, they saw it a little differently.

“Comrades,” spoke the commissar, “ The A-Pluski results are getting to easy. Let us throw a wrenchski in their miserable lives. We add a few extra letters. That will surely put them in the bortsch and prove our superiority to the decadent twenty-six letter brigade.”

And so it came to pass.

So as you thumb though your address book looking for William Donaldson’s address under the letter D, give a thought to that unsung genius who has made it so much easier for you.

Except that your wife will undoubtedly have filed him under B for Bill!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ex Libris.

One of my great pleasures (there were a few others) when I was a student in London, was to browse the second-hand bookstores. I don’t mean the glitzy, coffee serving mega book emporiums that have sprung up in recent years, but the dusty, uncatalogued and totally disorganised sort of book peddlers that used to inhabit Charing Cross Road and similar byways of the metropolis.

Turning a corner in one of the aisles of creaking bookshelves that filled the shop, one would stumble on a character, equally as unkempt as yourself (students weren’t leaders of fashion in those days) , who seemed to have been browsing there undisturbed for several days.

And then there were the books. Gloriously unclassified and always holding out the hope that you would find a real gem – and sometimes you did. I still have some of those and, reading the prices pencilled on the flyleaf, is to take a trip back to a different era of pounds, shillings and pence. And fortunately, the prices only ran to shillings and pence on my purchases.

This wander down memory lane (or Charing Cross Road, if you will) was prompted by the domestic rearrangement of our living room. The French artisan who rattled up our cottage some four hundred years ago was not much of a bookworm. He put in a fireplace, a window and overhead, some useful storage space for animal fodder. Undoubtedly he felt that was sufficient. Over the years, a few bits have been tacked on but no library. Consequently, my books share living space with ourselves in the same room.

Now a desire for change has meant that all the fairly carefully arranged volumes have been uprooted from their beds and replanted, higgledy-piggledy fashion, on the shelves. Searching for a specific volume has now become a quest for a holy grail. But in the quest I come across books that I had totally forgotten about. It’s just like finding long lost friends.

And it takes me back to those far off days when I was browsing the bookstores of Charing Cross Road. I think I’ll leave them as they are.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Sign Here!

A correspondent in one of the Sunday papers was bemoaning the fact that he had not realised that book signing was a competitive sport. Apparently, he had been invited to engage in one of these jamborees at a book festival and had found himself competing alongside a couple of other authors whose books had a more popular appeal – or so it seemed by the lack of customers in line for his autograph.

I sympathise. In fact the only time I can recall anybody standing line for me was on the odd occasion when I would be pressed into service as the duty officer on a pay parade.

There is a touch of the proverbial sour grapes here, of course. Deep down, I would love to have anxious purchasers of my book all agog to have my signature on the flyleaf. There are a couple of snags. Firstly, few people care whether their copy of my latest masterpiece is signed or not; and, secondly, it’s doubtful whether they would be able to decipher my appalling scribble.

Frankly, I never understand why anybody would wish to meet an author anyway. Most of us are a pretty unappealing lot in the flesh and tend to be anti-social by nature. Don’t believe the highly retouched photographs on the dust covers either, where the author looks out benignly or studiously (depending on the type of book) at his or her readers. These photos are all taken at least fifteen years ago under some unwritten law of the publishing world, and meeting the subject face to face can cause serious disillusionment.

If you are a struggling author, as almost all are, it is wise to turn down the idea of a book signing unless you have an enormous family who can be guaranteed to show up for the event. Even then you will have to donate the books, as no family member will cough up for one without a lot of arm twisting.

If you have no family, the likelihood is that you will sitting in splendid isolation surrounded only by a pile of unsigned volumes, an event that can cause serious damage to the ego.

J.K. Rowling draws immense crowds to her signings and presumably garners a lot of sales this way. But Richmal Crompton, who wrote the vastly more successful series of William books (successful, in terms of long-term popularity, I mean) and whose works are still sort after, never, to my knowledge, made a public appearance. Most readers thought she was a man, anyway!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Preserving for Posterity

My brief mention of NASA’s small problem in having mislaid some 198 out of 200 tapes of the first moon landings and of the subsequent difficulties, if they ever find them, of still having the technology to play them, took another blow this morning.

One NASA official doubts that they will be in any fit state to be playable in any case when they are located. It seems the tape used will be unlikely to have weathered the years satisfactorily and will now be too brittle to ever be played.

And your collection of CD’s and DVD’s have a known problem in this respect after merely a few years. Not important, however, as the manufacturers will have conveniently discontinued the machines to play them on by this time! (It cost me a fortune to find the equipment to play my extensive collection of good old LP vinyls – which have a vastly superior sound to my ears than the emasculated noises out of CD’s.)

This does pose a very serious question concerning archival records. Since the abolition of the monasteries a few years ago, you may recall, there is a bit of a dearth of monks willing to spend their days recording matters for posterity in the style of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles or that of Mr. Bede. William the Conqueror’s ode to the tax man, The Domesday Survey, is still readable today, thanks to the efforts of his scribes. It is odd that, in view of the success of their technology, that NASA has failed to develop a comparable means for preserving history.

Just think, many years ago, Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase), sat down to write a letter to his beloved. He had the latest technology at his fingertips. A new pointed stick and the latest in clay tablets from MicroMud, He inscribed the first few words and a little clay figure jumped out. It said “I see you are writing a letter…….”

Abou, who didn’t like being told what to do, threw his new tablet away in disgust.

Many hundreds of years later, an archaeologist found it, still perfectly readable.

And he didn’t have to find a machine to read it with, either.

Monday, August 14, 2006

From our Correspondent

Over the weekend I was reading, or, more accurately, re-reading, a selection of Ernest Hemingway’s letters. He was a voluminous correspondent and although I have never been a great enthusiast for his books, a bit too macho for my taste, his life has always fascinated me. Anyone who can be regarded second only to Castro in Cuba, Che Guevara excepted, has to have been a man of some character.

His room in the rather seedy hotel in Havana where he lived and worked initially is preserved, complete with his (alleged) Underwood typewriter, as a museum piece, as is his country retreat just outside the city, and one is allowed to peer reverentially into them.

The letters themselves are entertainingly badly spelled and, as in the case of one he wrote to his latest mistress from the battlefields of Normandy, almost incoherent. But they make a wonderful back drop to his life.

Personal letters are a great insight into the personalities of the authors and it is a pity that it, along with diary keeping, seems to be a dying art. In today’s world, the only letter likely to arrive with the mailman will be a threatening one from your bank manager.

It is hardly conceivable that Dan Brown’s collected E-Mails will arouse much enthusiasm if and when published, and a news item this morning makes the survival of any such electronic communication a pretty dodgy business.

NASA, who you may recall, managed to shoot a few people to the moon for no very obvious reason, has managed to misplace the original tape of the first landing. But the more amazing thing is that, even when they find it, there is only one piece of equipment in existence capable of replaying it. The technology has changed, and it was only the foresight of a NASA technician that saved this one from the scrap heap.

Thus it may be with your E-Mails – and many may breathe a sigh of relief that their verbal indiscretions will be unplayable (or unreadable) by future generations.

It seems that for all the technical effort put into the art or science of modern communication, pen and paper can outlast them all.

So, if you want to preserve your thoughts, don’t leave them on your hard drive – print them out.

Maybe I’d better print out a copy of this blog. Move over, Sam Pepys!

Friday, August 11, 2006

One for the Terrorists

Yesterday’s news that a group of deranged individuals were plotting to blow themselves and a few hundred people to Kingdom come aboard airliners, on the face of it, cannot have been good news for the aviation industry. What would motivate someone to behave in this way is incomprehensible to most of us.

Apart from any other factors, it would seem that, if successful, the blower-upper and his victims would all be arriving at the pearly gates around the same time and, as the check-in staff at any airline will tell you, upset passengers are no easy matter to deal with.

This sort of thing is definitely to be discouraged.

However, every terrorist cloud has its silver lining and here I refer to the prospect that the ban upon carry-on luggage may become permanent.

I deplore the fact that books and reading material are presently disallowed, but I think that may change. After all, not many books are truly inflammatory and although many romance novels are drippy, it seems the problem here is with liquids. In case of doubt, a passenger could be asked to consume a page or two before being allowed on board.

But the real benefit to mankind is that, whereas in the past you would be hovering over that rather disconcerting gap between jetway and aircraft, waiting to reach your assigned seat 135C, while passengers in rows 1 through 134 tried to stow oversize bags in undersized overhead bins, now you will be able to walk down the aisle to your seat and sit down. Magic!

Some of you may be old enough to recall that the early Viscounts and BAC 111’s had no overhead lockers – they had hat racks! This was, of course, in the days when the advertising slogan of the hatting industry was: “If you want to get ahead – get a hat.” However this is now passé, since it has been proved that a hat does nothing to improve your chances of getting social security benefits and housing allowances from the authorities.

I feel sorry for those travelling with small children but here I have the solution. As you know, they are currently allowed to board ahead of the other passengers – it makes no difference, they will still be blocking the gangway when you get there. My idea is that they should be allowed to board first - but onto a different airplane.

I’m looking forward to a new era in air travel.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hard Times - Hard Going

One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens. OK, I know he gets a bit longwinded sometimes, that his plots are so complicated that you need a road map to follow them and that the maudlin death scenes are not to everybody’s taste, but there is so much to admire in his writings.

I have often puzzled why, as far as I’m aware, he has never been “approved” for studies in school. Perhaps it is that he includes scenes of drunken behaviour, scenes of violence, deliberate mis-spellings (Sarey Gamp etc.) that might mislead the kiddiwinkies – but Shakespeare is thrust down their throats on a regular basis and he includes all of the above by the bucketful. This does mean, of course, that most kids give up on Shakespeare for ever, so I suppose not having Dickens force-fed is something of an advantage as they can then come to him later on in life without prejudice.

Personally, I make one exception to my general feeling about Charles. I just can’t get along with Mr.Gradgrind and Hard Times (not too keen on A Tale of Two Cities either, but for different reasons). It’s Dickens’ shortest novel, written very hastily to boost the flagging sales of his magazine, Household Words, and was lapped up by a Victorian public who clearly enjoyed it more than I. The profits of the magazine doubled while it was being published.

It’s also his least well researched. He was intimately familiar with London, Londoners and the argot of the city but his knowledge of the North of England, the setting of Hard Times, was little more than a fleeting visit to Preston and the dialogue has an uncomfortable feel to it. The balance between the trade unions and the industrialists is not fairly struck, his day trip to Lancashire being insufficient to round out his simplistic version of the conflicts.

He seemed a tad uncomfortable as well, since his title for the book ran through innumerable changes: Rust and Dust, Stubborn Things, Two and Two are Four, Fact, According to Cocker, Prove It, Our Hard-headed Friend, and Thomas Gradgrind’s Facts before settling finally for Hard Times.

But his writing of the English language is as good as always – perhaps I’ll give it another go!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Don't Make Me Laugh

It can hardly have escaped your notice that humanity should surely not take themselves too seriously. After all, how can they? Being basically all the same shape (roughly) although coming in a few variations and shades of colour, almost from day one they have squabbled over territory, race and religion, implying that whoever said “love thy neighbour,” clearly did not know what he (or she, I have to add nowadays) was talking about.

It does make for a pretty miserable scenario over all and, I suppose, accounts for the depressing tone of some of the manuscripts I see. Hardly a glimmer of fun in them and heaven forbid that they should bring a smile to your face.

Fortunately, most writers have appreciated that it is necessary to leaven the drama of reality with a touch of humour. Shakespeare, even in his most dramatic moments, always had a moment of comedy chucked in on the principal of “Measure for Measure” no doubt. And Dickens, whose stories have outlasted their creaky plots and dubious coincidences, provided comic characters to give the reader a break from unremitting misery.

The writing of pure comedy is now pretty much confined to script writing for television. Publishers are not usually prepared to risk the chance of finding another Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber on their hands, which is a great pity I think but one can see their point of view. One man’s belly laugh may not be another’s cup of tea, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. And few writers have been able to sustain the fun for a whole volume.

It would be nice to find a little gentle humour in manuscripts, not the custard pie in the face variety, but perhaps a quietly ironic twist to a story that would introduce a human element – most people do have a sense of humour and laugh and joke in their everyday lives – but often this is an element that is missing from the dialogue.

However, I am a toiler over the keyboard for others and he who pays the piper calls the tune (very tritely metaphorical this morning, aren’t we?) so, if any of you budding Ibsens out there have a really miserable story to tell, well, I’m your man.

But excuse me if I go and have a quiet chuckle over it, will you?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Benchmarks of Language

Time was when the writer or speaker of the English word could rely upon two sources to enable him or her to get it right. They were the Oxford English Dictionary and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

When visiting the UK nowadays, I occasionally look at the BBC programmes and when here in my office, look at their website each morning. Sadly, one must now cross them off the list as an arbiter of our literary destiny. It’s hardly surprising that the youth of Britain are essentially incoherent, since most of the presenters on the BBC (and, of course, the other channels) are equally badly spoken. When visiting, I feel that I have strayed into a strange country (well, it is now!) as many of the conversations I overhear are absolutely incomprehensible to me.

The rot seems to have set in when, in what I felt was an admirable move at the time, the Beeb decided to incorporate regional accents into their programmes. Local dialects are a fascinating part of the make-up of the British Isles and deserve to be preserved. But this does not mean that they are in any way an excuse for sloppy use of the language.

One of the first announcers to take the plunge was Wilfred Pickles, one of whose great merits in my view was that he saw no need to change his name! He had a wonderful balance of a genuine regional accent, which he also saw no need to modify, along with an excellent delivery. It is no accident that he also turned out to be a consummate professional actor as his performance in Billy Liar was to prove.

But few have maintained his standard and the speech on some of the programmes directed at the “yoof” of the nation, is simply beyond belief.

And when it comes to the written word, the BBC proves to be little better. It seems to feel that it has a need to popularise itself by incorporating the latest gimmicky words in use.

As a cricket lover, I cringe to see that a wicketkeeper “gloves” a catch – how he manages to catch a ball using a noun beats me! But he is, of course, now a “glove-man” according to the BBC (and a few others in the media world).

Frankly, I’m stumped for words.

Which means that, for me, it’s close of play for today - should I say "stumps"?.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Chewing it Over

Sitting and sipping my morning coffee, I ruminate on life and its various quirks which eventually leads to me producing this paragraph or two. For the entire process of writing starts with thinking, or ruminating, if you will.

Cows, I understand, do quite a lot of ruminating which accounts for their rather thoughtfully amiable and contented look although, as far as I’m aware, none have written a best seller as yet.

Looking at some of the manuscripts I receive, it would appear that many would-be authors miss out on the rumination part of the job.

The ancient Assyrian scribes had a motto, which roughly translated, ran: “Select brain before engaging hammer and chisel,” and a glance at The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles reveals barely a crossing out or even an ink blot. Clearly there had been some forward planning here.

Modern technology seems to have an adverse affect on writers and their ability to produce a flawless manuscript. The idea seems to be that it’s now so easy to correct all this stuff that there’s no need to bother – leave it to the editor to sort out.

But rather as an applicant for a job can easily fail to gain the position due to a sloppy and unprofessional appearance, so will your manuscript be judged by the agent or publisher who first lays eyes upon it.

And the surest way to acquire a fine collection of rejection slips is by not bothering to ensure that your manuscript is as perfect as you can make it.

So start by ruminating on that.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Prepare to Meet Thy Domesday

News that the Domesday Survey is now available on-line from the National Archives has been greeted with enthusiasm by those of us who still feel that history is important.

In spite of the carping comments of The Guardian newspaper, whose correspondent appeared to be under the mistaken impression that it was an 11th. century Yellow Pages (he complained that it took a while to access the pages, that it then cost £3.50 for a detailed print-out and that then it contained nothing that interested him. Presumably he was searching for the telephone number of a handy swine herd!) it is a tremendous achievement. The fact that the book has survived for 900 years is remarkable in itself and, making it readily available without having to drag yourself all the way to Kew, is a tremendous plus for serious researchers. The on-line service also provides for a modern translation of the text, something that alone must be worth the £3.50 charged that the man from The Guardian seemed to resent.

The really depressing revelations are that it seems that only 80% of the British public had even heard of it and that of these, 13% thought it was extracts from the bible, one benighted soul attributed it to Tony Blair and, even more alarmingly, 2% thought it was by Dan Brown. One wonders what the history teachers in the schools are using their time in the classroom for. Or do they not have history teachers nowadays?

The implications of this are enormous. Reflect that, if civilisation survives for another 900 years, admittedly a slim chance at the present rate, our descendants will be able to read The Da Vinci Code on-line!

Observant readers of my drivel will have noted that I don’t think much of Mr. Brown’s highly successful piece of twaddle. If you can stomach them, try reading a few of his other efforts which lacked the entertaining background of the Da Vinci caper.

Long ago, I had read Holy Blood, Holy Grail on which he had heavily based his work, and though, in my opinion, that too was twaddle, at any rate it was readable, well written twaddle. It’s not that his book is unreadable, it’s mildly entertaining, but without the theme which he nicked, it would be just another pot-boiler. His publishers deserve more credit for its success by risking sending out an extraordinary number of review copies to get the public excited and lead them to seizing upon it as though it were the Holy Grail itself.

If you haven’t done so already and feel that, in order to keep up with modern society, you must read The Da Vinci code, I would recommend you splash out and buy the illustrated version. The pictures are quite good.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Counting the Cost

It has probably not escaped your notice that the distribution of wealth in this world of ours is decidedly uneven. On the one hand, you have blokes and blokesses with tons of the stuff and then you have the likes of myself, and probably yourself, who find latching on to even a small percentage is a pretty tricky matter. The only pseudo attempt to correct this, Communism, proved to be a distinct bust since, as George Orwell pointed out, all men are created equal but some are more equal than others. So that idea went nowhere – unless, of course, you were one of the more equal brigade.

And nowhere is this disparity in greater evidence than in the world of literature. For here we have thousands of talented writers having trouble finding the wherewithal for their next ream of paper and, at the other end of the scale, we have the remarkably untalented ones who can churn out a blockbuster on a hokey religious theme or similar, complete with trite observations, and scoop up a fortune. As the King of Siam once said, “It’s a puzzlement.”

All this leads up to my own field, that of ghost writing for authors who might need a little assistance in turning their ideas into reality. And here the problem is often that those who have the greatest need are often those with a decidedly skimpy bank balance. I’m not talking of the celebrity, who can afford to pay a fortune to have his or her life memorialised, but of the many struggling authors who turn to a professional writer, such as myself, for help. Pinning a fixed charge for such assistance strikes me as being both unrealistic and impracticable. I saw a “Ghost Writing Company” on the Internet which claimed it had one hundred authors, all poised with their pens at the ready, to help with your manuscript. I imagined them a bit like literary battery hens (if, of course, they really did exist) but what grabbed my attention was that this expert scribbling would cost you “$50 per double-spaced page,” perhaps the oddest way to assess a charge for creative work I‘ve ever come across.

So this is why I suggest to prospective clients that they try and figure out just how much they can budget to have the work done on their manuscript. With that figure in mind, I can then take a look at it and produce a strategy to make it work to our mutual advantage. Offers of a share in the Royalties are not really valid currency, it would be a bit like working for share in a lottery ticket, but sometimes can be incorporated in the case of a promising manuscript, to make the deal mutually more attractive.

And, of course, payment is always made in stages as the work proceeds, easing the financial burden.

Every project is different and it is always a pleasure for me to take a look at yours.

Who knows, we might be able to join the ranks of what’s-his-name who wrote that best-seller I mentioned earlier. Let’s hope we can do it better, though.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Instant Gratification.

Instant gratification is a modern mantra, but things instantly available are not always of the best quality.

When I lived and worked in the United States (which has taken instant gratification to its ultimate limit) some friends of mine ran a restaurant. They were French and complained that business was never as good as with some of their rival concerns down the street. I pointed out to them that they had, on display, the biggest turn-off for an American eater one could envisage. It was a notice that said, “Good food is not fast. Fast food is not good.”

I was reminded of this when I was scrabbling through the Internet and realised the number of “Print on Demand Publishing Companies” that were now hawking their wares to prospective authors.

Now I am a great enthusiast for the technology that, by using the POD process, enables limited run books to be produced inexpensively. But buying the machinery (or, as in most cases, having a trade agreement with one who has) is a far cry from being a “publisher.”

Even the better and more ethical of these companies overcook the possible success rates for their clients, but to my mind, the worst thing, reading through the blurbs on their websites, is that nowhere do they mention any editorial quality requirements for the books they publish. Any “editing” service they provide, at a cost, will be something of a joke and have nothing to do with the quality of the material.

Provided your credit card works, voila, your book is published – almost instantly.

The result is that of the millions of books produced, a large percentage turn out to be the most appalling tosh, their authors having been deprived of the critical filter provided by agents and traditional publishers ( and, dare I mention, ghost writers!) that prevent such dross ever appearing in print.

The problem is that Print on Demand is a printing process, and a very good one, for making available memoirs, biographies and all sorts of material that would not fit in with the requirements of a traditional publishing house. But it is a printing process only - and has little or nothing to do with publishing.

But by uncritically churning out “books” on demand, these so-called publishers do the professional writer and aspiring authors immeasurable harm. Not surprisingly, few reviewers will bother to even take a glance at a book carrying their banner.

And who can blame them.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Proof's in the Reading.

Some time back I mentioned that my least favourite part of this writing game is the correction of proofs of my own work. I don’t have a mind for it, I think. Checking other people’s efforts is a lot easier and the problem seems to lie in the fact that you already know what you meant – and therefore your brain allows you to skate over the words without actually reading them.

This becomes even worse if you are habitually what is sometimes called a “speed reader,” where the object of the exercise is to grasp the meaning of a line or paragraph without registering the individual words.

This was all triggered by the arrival of the galley proofs of my latest book. In the good old, bad old days, these would have consisted of a bundle of pages that one could sit back and leaf through at your leisure, making notes in the ample margins. You could do it from your bed or, if you happened to be Winston Churchill, standing at a lectern that looked as though he had just nicked it from the local parish church.

But no more. Once again the march of science has contrived to make the business as inconvenient as possible for you. Now your galleys arrive either by E-Mail or on a CD Rom as an Adobe file.

In this labour saving age, you have to print this lot out yourself, using your own toner and paper, a process that, for a good sized MS will take you quite a while. Having gone through it, you are then expected to make any corrections to the file and send it back from whence it came. There are no longer inky fingered printer’s devils to help you out.

Reading the file off a computer screen is a sure fire way to miss something. It’s inconvenient and inefficient even though it does seem to be a timesaver.

And having done all this, your book is finally published and you find that you have made an egregious error when your brain skipped over a vital couple of words.

There’s a lot to be said for getting someone else to proof read your own work.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Period Chat

Getting the facts right for the period of your book is just a matter of doing a little research. But getting the dialogue OK is an altogether more iffy business.

The further back you go in time, of course, the problem is eased since it would be a bold linguist (if that’s the right word) who could criticise your choice of words. I’ve long been sceptical of dialogue from a few centuries back but it’s difficult to argue. Shakespeare claims that Caesar, having been punctured by his best mate, said “Et tu, Brute?” but I would have expected something a little more pointed, if you’ll excuse the choice of words, from someone who’d just had a dagger stuck in them.

Legend claims that, William of Orange, whose command of English was decidedly dodgy, shouted from his ship as he was landing at Brixham “Good peoples, I am come for your goods.” To which the reply was, allegedly delivered in broad Devonshire dialect, “You’m welcome.” I quote the incident in my book “Assaulting Britannia,” but I have reservations as to its authenticity. After all, who was there assiduously jotting it down? The man from The Sun, perhaps, after a scoop?

But you can get away with dialogue right up until fairly modern times as it cannot be easily questioned. If you’re a writer in the light-hearted vein, the in between the wars period can be handled in the Bertie Woosterish mode, or if in the United States, perhaps a Runyonese style will do. It’s the serious dialogue that presents an almost insoluble problem. How did idle conversation go in, say, the 1920’s. I must confess, I don’t know the answer.

“Who’s for tennis, anyone?” sounds like a good start.