Monday, October 30, 2006

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

The extremely large and eminently respectable publishers, Harper Collins, have just released a new book. “Pete, My Story,” is the alleged autobiography of Pete Bennet, the winner of a television Big Brother contest in the UK. Being in the happy position of not getting British television where I live, I am shielded from viewing this sort of thing, so I am unable to comment on his success. The French have equally abysmal programmes, but here viewing is not compulsory.

The publisher’s revolting blurb contains the following:

“W**kers! Cheese! Eeezamanna! Pete Bennett, the 24-year-old Tourette's sufferer who shot to fame as winner of Big Brother 7, stole the nation's heart with his outrageous, loveable nature. Pete's incredible autobiography reveals what the tabloids didn't see. His story will make you cry, have you in stitches, and inspire you with its amazing honesty………… In his own unique style, Pete tells us what he really thought about life in the BB house, how it felt to be a secret heartthrob and confidante to all the girls who vied for his affections, including Aisleyne, Lea, Lisa. Find out what has happened since Pete left the house, from his romance with Nikki, Queen of Tantrums, to his huge new record deal with his band, Daddy Fantastic. Heart-rending and moving, hilarious and outrageous, Pete's story is an unique insight into a truly inspiring individual.”

Terrific stuff, the only problem being that, not only did he not write the book, making it, so to speak, a non-autobiography, but it seems that he has, so far, not read it either. Amazing honesty! Interviewed by The Guardian newspaper, he said:

"This posh geezer came over and asked a load of questions. WANK! And I had to answer them." How long did it take? "A whole week! WANK! Yeah. WANK! I'm tired, man." That's the lovely thing about Pete - he tells it as it is. Is it weird being an author? "I'm not really, it was some geezer with a Dictaphone. Ehehehehe! WANK!"

Now I have no problem with Pete, I hope he makes a fortune from his memoirs, and that they sell better than David Blunkett’s, but I do have a problem when publishers foist this stuff off as being the subject’s own work. It seems to me to be a totally unnecessary charade as well as being specious and does the supposed author no favours. There was no reason, other than hoping to deceive the public, why the book could not have been entitled, “Pete, His Story.” Or, if it was preferred to keep it in the first person, as would be customary for a real autobiography, it could not have been “as told to” whoever the ghost writer was. And I doubt that the writer was culpable either. We tend to do rather as we are told in this business. It’s what we get paid for.

But I find it unsettling that, dealing with a young man who has clearly a good many problems to cope with in life, it was not thought necessary to sit down with him and review the book in detail prior to publication. Perhaps he was offered the opportunity, for at one point his publicist (!) butts in, saying, “You know, Pete, you really should have read the book.”

The Guardian interview reveals that he disputes some of the facts concerning his personal life that appear in the book (he seems to have read or been made aware of some of it). These were, presumably, tarted up to attract readers who revel in the more salacious details of a person’s life. Including stuff that the tabloids "didn't see" must have really been a challenge.

The one overriding factor, as far as I am concerned, when helping to write an autobiography, is that the subject should approve of every item. It is, after all, their book, not the ghost writer’s nor the publisher’s.

Too often, recently, we have seen that many of these books of memoirs have been discredited as being either incorrect or, in some cases, downright untruthful, bordering on fiction.

The other thing I find a little disturbing is that the writer completed the interviews in a week. Gosh, golly, I find most interviewees (and myself!) are knackered after a couple of hours. And it takes me at least a couple of months to get it up together. Perhaps it’s just that I’m a slow worker. Also, it seems only five minutes ago (in publishing time) that he won the contest. I really must work faster if I’m to compete, I suppose.

The sad conclusion I draw from this is that, far from being a genuine autobiography, it is a money making stunt cooked up by a publicist and a publisher. I guess I’m shooting myself in the foot here as far as getting anything published by Harper Collins in the future, but I can always use a “nom de plume” or, in this case, a “nom de guerre” perhaps.

It might be uncharitable, but I wonder if anyone even asked him if he wanted to write a book. It seems he can’t even recall the “posh geezer’s” name.

Amazing Amazon

If I had my druthers, as they would say in rural America, I would much prefer to buy my books whilst rummaging around the dusty shelves of second-hand emporiums. Not that it’s often much good if you’re searching for a specific item but it’s a lot of fun. My father got me into the habit when I was young, and he had an interesting philosophy when borrowing books from the public library. In those days, you were allowed to take out four books. He would select two that he wanted to read – and two, totally at random. As he said, you never knew what you might learn. It struck me as being a pretty good ploy and I’ve applied it ever since, even when buying. As I have always felt that there was some law relating to not leaving a bookstore empty handed, this has salved my conscience on many an occasion. Unfortunately, where I live there’s a serious shortage of such establishments, reading not being high on the list of priorities in this agrarian community.

The solution is, of course, the internet. And E-Bay is a valuable resource, although I don’t think that scrolling through their pages is a patch on browsing in a second-hand store.

But when it comes to locating specific books, Amazon and their fellows are hard to beat.

However it seems that even they have, if not feet of clay, at least a suspect little toe. For the other day, an author was surprised to see a book of his listed there. His surprise was compounded by the fact that, not only had he not written it, but that, as far as he was aware, neither had anyone else. And intriguingly, it even had an Amazon sales ranking. He seemed to be more amused than upset, and some wag suggested that signed copies of the first edition would do well on E-Bay!

No doubt most of us were under the impression that Amazon, on receiving a copy of a book for listing, would hand it to the most junior staff bibliophile for his approval. He in turn would pass it up the chain of command until it reached the senior most man, holding the title of Royal Approver of Books for the Inclusion on Amazon Listing. Surely he would be a man with an immensely domed forehead, wispy greying hair and with pince-nez balanced on the end of his nose. Having weighed the volume in his mind, checked the page count and, not finding it wanting, he would apply the Holy Seal of Amazon Approval to the flyleaf and pass the matter back down the line to the Putter Upper of Items on the Website chappy.

Well, apparently it doesn’t happen that way. Some nerdy guy in the computer department snatches bits of trivia out of cyberspace and, no doubt a frustrated author himself (or it may be a her, who knows?) decides to exercise his artistic talent and create a phantom book.

Whilst I was chuckling over the story, it suddenly occurred to me that something similar had happened to myself. A few years ago, I wrote a little book designed as a freebie for potential clients. Out of force of habit, we allocated it an ISBN number and had a few copies run off. On reflection, as it was to be given away, we decided not to publish it but to issue it as a free download from my website.

Much to my surprise, it suddenly appeared on an Amazon listing, devoid of a good many details, which was just as well, as Amazon would have had a tough time fulfilling any orders.

It’s a bit like wandering past your local estate agent and finding that, unbeknown to you, they’re listing your house.

Presumably Amazon must have twigged that they were a little premature for the listing eventually disappeared.

A recent minor embarrassment was when they discovered that some of the effusive blurbs for books were authored by who else? Their authors! And it also worked for me in a reverse sense.

Early this year, a book of mine was published exposing a major offshore investment fraud. There was a chorus of boos from those who had already made money from the scheme and also from those who hoped to make some in the future. An orchestrated attempt was made to discredit myself and the book, the most dramatic being a suggestion, on a public internet forum, that a hit man should be despatched to take care of me. Apart from being a trifle illegal, it would have been self-defeating. My demise would have done wonders for sales, I suspect.

A more reasoned suggestion was that one star reviews should be submitted to Amazon to inhibit the sale of the book. A number did so. But Amazon quickly spotted that the “reviewers” did not match up to the listed purchasers and thus nixed most of the reviews. It has sold quite well.

On this basis, I would be tempted to ignore such reviews, unless, of course, it’s one I’ve written myself!

In spite of this, I am a great supporter of Amazon, although I do wish they’d stuck to selling only books. It seems they have branched out into all sorts of exotic hardware and gadgets plus music CD’s of artists that I’ve never heard of.

Amongst other items, they keep trying to sell me a thing called an iPod. If I knew what it was I suppose it would help. but I don’t. And I was never any good with wind instruments so I'll never learn how to play it.

And then again, perhaps it’s just like those books, a figment of their imagination.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Sweat of my Brow

Everyone has a book in them, so they say. I’ve never been sure who “they” are, but as they seem to be responsible for this and similar epigrams, I can only assume they are some sort of government department. It’s quite obvious, for instance, that when Tony Blair needs a speech, he puts in a call to the Department of Platitudes (I believe, now part of John Prescott’s portfolio) and orders one up from their recipe book.

“Make it three of epigrams and five platitudes, mix well together and half bake.”

David Blunkett’s book seems to have come from the same stable, the one I got that phrase from, and, for obvious reasons, was dictated. Now Churchill dictated the vast majority of his works, and did it by striding up and down, repeating the phrases out loud until they assumed the cadence he sought. Only then would he instruct his long suffering secretary to type it up. It was, you must agree, a very successful method.

This is the stage that Blunkett appears to have neglected. I suppose striding up and down might have posed some problems but reciting out loud would not.

Writing a book could well be described as 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. It’s not a task to be undertaken lightly and I hate to think of the number of books that have been started and that have quietly been allowed to die, simply because the writer ran out of perspiration.

And yet, reverting to some assistance from the Department of Platitudes for a moment, since truth is stranger than fiction, almost everyone has a book in them somewhere. The problem is extracting it.

Which is, of course, where I and my fellow ghost writers come in.

Ghosting a book can mean anything from totally researching the matter and writing all the material to simply adapting and improving an original idea, with the basic manuscript supplied. And, since few ghost writers have been known to be members of any philanthropic society, the cost of this is very much a function of just how many hours of sweat will be involved. It’s a tricky equation and needs some judicious bargaining on both sides to come up with an equitable arrangement. Few writers will be prepared to perform the work on the basis of a share of the royalties alone. This is a bit too much like offering them a lottery ticket.

But often a sensible compromise can be reached, such as a modest fee to get the work under way and, if the book is promising enough, a percentage of the subsequent royalties, if and when published. For my part, I like to receive stage payments as the work progresses which eases the financial burden.

It’s all a question of just how much time do you expect your “ghoster” to put into your manuscript. The more material he or she has, the easier it will be to produce a finished work and thus the lower the cost.

For personal memoirs and biographies, face to face meetings are essential, I feel, and, nowadays, I have resorted to video taping these, an immense improvement over plain audio recordings since I can review these at leisure and recall the facial expressions of the subject. I suppose that, in the case of any Muslim ladies, I will have to resort to the Jack Straw gambit.

So when you decide that the book that is festering inside you needs lancing, get as much of the groundwork done as possible, for sweat equals cash in this environment. And your writer will thank you for having eased his burden (well I will!).

Although most of my time is spent writing for others, this month two of my own books are “coming out,” as they used to say of debutantes. It’s not that I have managed to churn out two books in the space of weeks, just that both have had, rather as it is with elephants, I understand, a long period of gestation and thus have contrived to burst upon an eager public at about the same time. With a bit of luck, they will burst upon Amazon and a few other book peddlers within the next few weeks. My bank certainly hope so.

If you are desperate to get your own back on that relative who gave you the obnoxious Christmas present last year, you could not do better than to invest in one of these works.

“Grounds for Divorce.” Examining the US-UK relationship over the years and exploding the myth of “The Special Relationship” and the Bush-Blair love-fest. ISBN 0-9548883-5-9

“Assaulting Britannia.” The story of 2000 years of invasions, failed, attempted and successful, of the British Isles. From Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler. ISBN 0-9548883-4-0

Friday, October 27, 2006

Good News is No News

I’m glad I never had to work for a newspaper. I mean it must be a terribly depressing job for someone with a cheerful and positive outlook on life.

“Smathers,” says the editor, “I don’t know what you have in mind turning in this story all about a happy family. It’s not the sort of thing we need at all. What we need is stuff with nasty divorces, murders and rapes with a bit of paedophilia thrown in. Take McTaggart over at that other desk. He’s just come up with a corker. Did a bit of dumpster diving and found a whole bunch of incriminating letters. Great story! It’s got the lot. A Tory MP, a catholic priest, couple of choirboys and a lesbian. Of course we’re leaking it. I mean, it’ll be an even bigger story when it gets into court. And I forgot, the MP’s trying to get a divorce – this is really going to screw him. And then Jackson has that great story about the old age pensioner being mugged. He’s in a coma. No, not Jackson, you fool, the OAP. Now that’s the sort of stuff we want, not this happy families rubbish.”

And Smathers will creep away despondently and take up another profession, such as being a spin doctor for a political party, where they only want to hear good news.

And this depressing scenario even runs through to the typesetting department, where I understand they keep in what they refer to as “standing type,” those headlines that appear most often, such as “Henman Loses” or “England Slump.” It does save a lot of time, I suppose.

It used to be said that “dog bites man” is not news but that “man bites dog” is, and under the new regulations I’m sure that the maximum penalty for the latter is now greatly increased and probably includes deportation if the law can catch up with the culprit, which seems unlikely. Undoubtedly it is much more newsworthy nowadays, especially if the dog happens to be an illegal minority on public assistance.

So obsessed are the newspapers with gloom and doom that most of them have given up the cartoon pages as introducing an irreverent degree of levity into matters. American newspapers still have pages of what are colloquially known as “the funnies” and which do provide some entertaining reading matter. Just as well, since the rest of the edition, which will have consumed the product of a couple of rain forests, will be devoted to the annual sales with a couple of paragraphs of news carefully tucked away so as not to interfere with the marketing.

It is long since I gave up the notion that my views would have any influence on world affairs, but I do like to keep abreast of matters. So, every morning I read the world press, courtesy of the internet, hoping against hope that somewhere there will be a nugget of cheerfulness in the slough of despond that seems to surround us.

But I seldom find it and it makes a depressing start to the day.

It’s tempting to think of this love of printed misery as being a modern trend but, flicking through the pages of an Illustrated London News of 1866, it seems the Victorians were even more enamoured with the newsworthiness of disaster. Fortunately for the reporters of the day, it seems that coal mines were constantly entombing miners and that ships were forever being lost with all hands, leaving grieving widows and orphans, grist to the mill for the news men, who filled column after column with reports of the tragedies in rather more flowery and evocative prose than today.

As usual, I seem to find myself in a minority. After all, look at the circulation figures for the Daily Mail! Sadly Private Eye is not a daily, otherwise that would cheer me up. Or, perhaps, The Beano.

Now I come to think of it, one of the happiest periods of my life was when I lived in England for a year or so. I took no newspapers, had no television nor did I have a radio.

One day a little man arrived on my doorstep and demanded to see my licence for these. I said I didn’t have them. I don’t think he realised I was referring to the hardware and not the paperwork. His eyes narrowed and behind him I could see his colleague swivelling the aerial on the detector van in a desperate attempt to locate my clandestine radio that I’m sure he was convinced I had buried under a pile of old socks. Eventually he went away muttering and I suppose my name was entered on some government black list, but the incident did give me a moment of pleasure at having baffled officialdom.

And I recall how contented I was in those days. And the world still continued revolving without my assistance.

I think I’ll just give up reading the papers in the morning.

And I don’t suppose it will make a scrap of difference to Bush, Blair or any other world leader and their satraps who would try to make my mornings depressing by creating misery and mayhem.

Ah, peace, perfect peace.

You see, no news IS good news.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Du, Duba, Dubai.

That title will, I suppose, only be appreciated by those old enough to recall the Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet advertisements of a bygone era. I was reminded of it as I saw the ghostly wraith of the wording on the side of a French house the other day. This goes back to the time when the thrifty French would lease the unused sides of their houses out to commercial enterprises to act like rather solid billboards. I suppose most of them have been painted over now, but they were certainly preferable to those monstrous billboards.

Many years ago an unsung poet penned the following:

“I think that I shall never see,

A billboard lovely as a tree.

In fact, unless those billboards fall,

I’ll never see a tree at all.”

But back to Dubai. As you know, Dubai is home to a lot of sand, sea, camels and obscene wealth. It also happens to be the home of my publisher. Judging by the amount of construction going on there, it also aims to be the home to most of the world population. The place is one huge construction site and, whilst any aficionado of dump trucks, concrete mixers and giant cranes, will feel that he has died and gone to heaven, for the rest of us it can be a bit upsetting. So very different from life in my home town back in France that I chuntered on about yesterday.

Who they are expecting to come and fill the super, super high rise apartment blocks I have no idea. From the uppermost stories of these you would need oxygen and a pair of high powered binoculars to even catch a glimpse of the sea. At the opposite ends of the scale, there is a development called The Palm which is practically underwater. It is, of course, like all these developments, unfinished and one hopes that the melting of the Greenland ice cap doesn’t upset their calculations.

The tallest building in the world is rising apace and, just in case someone like the Chinese should trump them, they’ve designed it so they can add a few stories and, if you’ll pardon the expression, top it.

You can shop in the malls until sated or bankrupt and drink champagne on the top floor of the only seven star hotel in the world, the Burj Al Arab, also the tallest at 321 metres. And then just down the road they’ve built a ski run with real snow, presumably for homesick Norwegians.

From this you can gather it’s a place that delights in excess. A sort of Arabian Nights meets Las Vegas by way of Disneyworld. And the streets are clogged with traffic, as the most favoured vehicles are the sort that the rest of the world is trying to disown.

“Is there nothing about the place you like?” I hear you cry.

Well there is. Firstly, the food is excellent and service impeccable but, more importantly, the local inhabitants are at their most charming. For those who think only of Muslims and Arabs in terms of dangerous religious militancy, a trip to Dubai could be well worth it. For here is a truly intelligent attempt to integrate two very different life styles. Tolerance and respect go hand in hand as do, incidentally, many men, rather to some western visitor’s astonishment. But it's just a sign of friendship, nothing more. Dubai is a little nation that has come to terms with modern western thinking, even if it has meant exiling the camels from town. A pity, since I rather like camels – they seem to have got the human race pretty well wrapped up.

But to me, the most remarkable thing is that, not too many years ago, Dubai was an Arab settlement of pearl fishermen. When I was in the air force, we would fly over on our way into our base at Sharjah and I can’t even remember noting it as being a town. Not until oil was discovered in 1966 was it much more than a minor settlement. And yet here it is, twice life size and immeasurably more gaudy, but at the same time, very secure and most welcoming to the stranger. Longer established nations should, perhaps, take note.

I just hope the global warming doesn’t raise the water level too much for the inhabitants of The Palm. But then, if they can afford a place there, they can always move up to the top floor of the Burj Al Arab hotel and drink champagne until the tide goes out.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Home Town News

The other day, I was asked why I never wrote anything about the happenings in my neck of the woods. That’s not strictly true, since I have mentioned the odd incident from time to time, but basically the lack of verbiage on the subject is simply because there’s not much of anything going on in my village. And very pleasant it is too.

Even allowing for the fact that the median age here is boosted by having a retirement home in town, the locals boast a pretty good record of longevity. In spite of the French obsession with medications of various sorts, I would think that there is little call for tranquillisers from our local pharmacy.

So I checked back to see what were the high points of October in our village of some 1800 inhabitants. For this I had to consult my wife’s diary wherein she records this sort of stuff and remind me of various anniversaries.

The beginning of the month started off with the excitement of the opening of a restaurant. Chez Vero, who had taken over the old butcher’s shop when he retired, opened its doors to reveal a dinky little typical French restaurant even to the check tablecloths on half a dozen tables. Early reports from the local food critic, Joseph, our mail man, are favourable and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before Michael Winner, the Sunday Times obnoxious scourge of restaurants, shows up in his Rolls Royce. I hope they don’t let him in.

With prices for a three course lunch hovering around the €10 mark, it’s not surprising that business looks brisk. Looking at London restaurant prices, it's probably worth flying over. Our two moustachioed town maintenance men are regulars, a good sign.

Following this flurry of excitement, my wife’s diary is a bit skimpy and lacking in excitement.

Took the car into M. Baranger’s garage for its inspection on the 10th. It’s four years old and the “Controle Technique” is the equivalent of the UK’s MOT test. Walked back home, 2 kms., as it was a beautiful day, having stopped in the Bar Tabac for a beer and a chat en route.

Rained the next day, so didn’t bother to go and collect the car. Nothing to go out for anyway. My wife went the following day to collect it. M. Baranger gave it a thumbs up – the bill will follow in a month or so.

She noted that there was a surprisingly large gathering in the square on the 12th. and counted at least seven people. There were no riot police in evidence.

A note arrived from the Marie about this time alerting us to the fact that they were about to demolish the derelict building that has been leaning precariously alongside the church since the Vendeen wars. To celebrate, they placed a temporary traffic light there, brightening the place up no end.

It has just been pointed out to me that the gathering in the square on the 12th. was not a political one. It was just the walking group assembling before departing on one of their weekly treks around the countryside.

On the 16th., a Gendarmerie vehicle was spotted passing through the town about midday. This, we believe, was the first sighting for the year. It didn’t stop. Local opinion is that they were on their way to lunch and took a short cut through the town as they were late.

Went to our mini-supermarket, a Spar, on the 19th. and saw that Philippe, the owner, had purchased the next door property and was doubling the size of his emporium. I enquired if he was doubling his prices as well as it looked like an expensive project. He just laughed so I’m not sure. He’s learning English as his little boy has just started to do it at school. He hopes it will help with the tourists next year. So far he’s up to “Hello. How are you?”

My wife picked up the daily couple of baguettes and some croissants from the baker. He makes the best croissants this side of heaven but the kids waiting for the school bus in the morning usually snaffle the lot. The daughter is pregnant – just shows what goes on in a small town when your father’s a croissant genius, doesn’t it?

Spotted one of the little old ladies from the retirement home wandering around town on the 20th. She’s a regular escapee and seems to find her way back home without assistance. She stops in all the shops (all four of them) and has a conversation before toddling back to the home. Makes a break, I suppose, although it does tend to slow down service in the stores as they’re all very patient with her.

M. Gaudicheau, the vigneron next door to us, has bought himself a new white truck. And he’s had a sunroom built on to his house. Must have been a good year. And it’s not as though there’s no competition, the town boasts of no fewer that seven winemakers.

Saw that they have now finished demolishing the building next to the church and the road is clear. The traffic light is still there, permanently on amber. Maybe they’ll leave it as part of the Christmas decorations.

I hasten to add that these are merely the highlights of life in our town. Not every month is as hectic, which is just as well for I don’t think many of us could take it on a regular basis.

The weather is still very mild so we are hoping that, in November, it will turn a little colder and that the lower temperatures will curb some of this frenetic exuberance amongst the locals.

And now I hope you understand why I don’t often bother to report on events from my little corner of the world.

Oh, I forgot to add, they pick up the trash every Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


It’s that time of year when all those who thought in the Spring, “Gosh, let’s grow some pumpkins this year,” are beginning to regret it. There are only so many friends and neighbours you can fob off with one of these monstrous vegetables, vegetables that could show rabbits a thing or two about productivity (technically, I would hasten to add, pumpkins are a vine - some grape!)

The only connection I can see between these superannuated squash and with the pagan festival of Halloween is that the things are going to haunt you until they finally dissolve into rotting heaps of mush. And how much pumpkin pie and pumpkin soup can the human frame absorb before assuming a pleasantly orange glow?

Desperate for a solution, the Confederation of Pumpkin Producers came up with the concept of scooping out the middle, cutting some slots to resemble a face and putting a candle inside. Then the idea was marketed to kids in the United States who, as kids will, then spread the lunatic idea amongst their fellows elsewhere in the world. At the same time, egged on by the Association of Faintly Repellent Carnival Mask Producers, Halloween was foisted on an unsuspecting world.

Well, it was unsuspected by some of us, especially myself.

As far as I was concerned, Halloween had marked the end of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon year and I was perfectly content to let it remain that way. It was not until I was in London some years ago that I even realised that anyone, other than ancient Celts and the odd Anglo-Saxon who might be about, even remembered it. We were in town working on a TV production and one of the principals was a charming American girl. She had a flat in Ebury Street and had invited the crew back for a few drinks. She then proceeded to enlighten us to the fact that it was Halloween night. I don’t think many of us were impressed, so she proceeded to tell us ghost stories, a tough assignment to a bunch of hard-bitten writers and producers. Ho-hum, I guess we said, pass the bottle, will you?

I dismissed Halloween from my mind until I arrived in the United States, when I found that it was not only celebrated by the kids, but that many of the inhabitants of Detroit also joined in the fun by burning down a few houses on the night before, no doubt in the spirit of urban renewal.

British children, I recall, used to go door to door with an effigy of Guy Fawkes (a much maligned gentleman in my opinion – just think how much support he would get today), asking for a penny for the guy, but the Halloween bunch have brought hard-core marketing and strong arm tactics into the business. These embryo Al Capones demand money with menaces. Trick or treat? Razor wire and an electric fence would be my answer.

Not that the kids are solely to blame. Consumer marketers are the root cause of all this nonsense. In the US, Thanksgiving is promoted as a great time to spend and no sooner have they flogged all their Halloween junk on October 31st. than they’re at it again. Christmas starts around that time as far as they’re concerned and I suppose it might as well, since no-one has any idea if they’ve got the date right. Even the Three Wise Men.

So if you get a bunch of kids on your doorstep on the night of October the 31st., invite them in for a treat. Sit them down, dish out some candy, and proceed to give them a lecture on ancient Celtic customs and the influence of Anglo-Saxon culture upon modern day living. Keep it up for an hour or so and follow it with a question session to ensure that they were paying attention.

You probably won’t be bothered next year. Word gets around in the kid world. And you could always give them a pumpkin to take home.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Blogging Along

“You have a blog?” she asked. I wasn’t paying attention and I missed the interrogative inflection. It sounded nasty, one of those new social diseases, I assumed, and, just as I was wondering if my health insurance would cover it, she went on, “You know. One of those on-line diaries. Everyone has one.”

She was an attractive girl in an academic sort of way and looked as though she would have got her facts straight, but here I knew she was dead wrong. For everyone did not have a blog. Myself for one.

However, It struck me that, as I am usually a couple of light years behind in fashionable matters, I would do well to look into the blogging business. A bit of rattling around on the internet and I saw that, although she was somewhat adrift with her statistics, practically everyone did seem to have one. I reviewed a few samples. Some that I assumed were written by teenagers or possibly nomadic shepherds in Siberia, were incomprehensible to me, apparently using a Cyrillic alphabet (hence my confusion over the Siberian shepherds) and I gave up on those. Later I found that they were in a language called texting, shorthand for the orthographically challenged. Others were so specialised, banging on about politics or religion, that I found them of little interest. But there were some, mainly those that dealt with the everyday facets of life, that I found fascinating.

Much of my daily work is concerned with biographies, a subject that requires an insatiable curiosity as to the lives of others, and, of course, such blogs offer a window into their lives. This not an invasion of privacy as here the blogger is at liberty to reveal or conceal exactly what he or she wishes.

Private diaries are a little different. I don’t mean those that are received as Christmas presents and that inevitably fall by the literary wayside around mid-February, but the honest-to-goodness, Samuel Pepys, variety that provide an invaluable insight into the lives and times of the authors. Being private, one wonders whether or not the writers ever envisage that their affairs will become publicly announced. Pepys, for instance, who was unwaveringly honest in his recording, took the trouble to have his often scurrilous pages carefully bound, and preserved them in his library during his lifetime. Surely he must have had an inkling that they would someday be published. Joseph Goebbels, on the other hand, had his carefully photographed and preserved for what he hoped would be an appreciative audience after his death. No great literary shakes, they have been useful to historians, but not as much fun to read as Samuel’s or James Boswell’s.

But with a blog, there’s no doubt about the publishing date. It’s virtually instantaneous, and to a pretty wide potential audience. And it has that tremendous advantage – you can write exactly what you like without having to pander to client, agent or publisher. It’s literary freedom!

When I started to write mine, I appreciated that I am, by nature and inclination, pretty idle and that in order for it not to go the way of the Christmas diaries, some self-imposed discipline would be necessary. Making it an “as and when” business was not going to work – so I elected to try to produce a daily version whenever I was in the office. Remembering the injunctions of The Lord’s Day Observance Society, who, amongst other things, dictated that one could not buy groceries on a Sunday, I elected to give myself that day off, thereby aligning myself with cabbages, brussel sprouts and sundry other items. The society does not seem to have much clout nowadays so I’m hoping my example will cheer them up a bit. Enforced idleness should, I feel, be encouraged.

Since I knock this effort out usually in the small hours, it tends to be an “off the top of my head” affair and subsequent revisions an unaffordable luxury. So it comes out, as Lord Mountbatten had requested his biographer, Philip Ziegler, to write his, with “warts and all.”

I just wish someone could come up with a more attractive name. The English language has suffered enough already. Take that lovely word “gay” that can no longer be used in its proper context for fear of being misunderstood. An orthographic tragedy – and a quite unnecessary one.

But I suppose blogs and blogging will be in the next edition of the Oxford that I buy (my present one has nothing listed between block and bloke – I’m sure they’ve rectified that omission by now) and I do feel that it is a wonderful development. For in a world that is so overshadowed by that menace to civilisation, television, I think it’s marvellous that so many are actually doing something creative, whether in Cyrillic letters or not.

Perhaps the only downside is that it is all being preserved in that most transient of mediums, the internet, and few will be bound up and preserved for future generations.

It is a growing social disease, and this time an admirable one. Let’s hope nobody finds the antidote.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Vox Populi

I am a believer in the rights of the individual to do what he or she wishes with their life, providing it does not interfere with the life, liberty, health and happiness of their neighbour.

As George W. Bush once said, in a memorable phrase that a better read president would have termed, “A Phrase that will live in infamy,” - we have uninalienable rights!

But I seem to be in a diminishing number as the populations of the nations crumble under the petty yokes of the likes of the British Health and Safety people.

Personally, I avoid going to Britain nowadays. I’m quite sure that within a minute or two of stepping off my Happyjet flight, I will have breached several ordinances that weren’t there when I was a lad, and will probably become the subject of an ASBO. I am thinking of wearing a veil next time to ensure I’m treated respectfully.

Even riding the bus into London I fear I may be subject to a congestion charge and risk having my leg clamped, the sort of thing law enforcement is on the watch for, giving burglars, murderers and muggers a sporting chance to pursue their professions in peace.

The latest in a series of nonsensical rules is that, to curb binge drinking, the British will now incorporate a warning on the labels of wine bottles. I shall be interested to read the wording that is going to deter a potential drunk with a bottle, screw cap, no doubt, in his hand.

“Look, Pa,” says young Wackford Squeers, “It says it’s harmful to me health.”

“Drink it down, son,” says his father, “It puts weight on you and makes the flesh shine.”

(Those of you who haven’t read Nicholas Nickleby should ignore the foregoing.)

Now I don’t smoke and dislike it intensely, but I can still defend the right of those who may wish to end their life prematurely, to do so. It is, however, pretty anti-social and it does breach my first rule of not interfering with your neighbours health, so perhaps some restriction on the habit in public places is acceptable.

After all, drinking, unless you throw up over your neighbour, doesn’t have a deleterious effect on his life span and even then may mean little more than a trip to the dry cleaners.

Having said that, I recall that one has to step gingerly on the sidewalks of British cities shortly after throwing out (or throwing up)time, but I don’t think a label on a bottle is going to make much difference.

Many years ago, there was a cartoon in Punch in which an elderly matron was lecturing a small boy, puffing on his gasper. “Don’t you know, nicotine is a slow poison?” “That’s all right, lady. I’m in no hurry.” Of course, had it happened today, the helfnsafety people would have had the editor in court in a trice.

France, a nation notorious for gasping on their Gauloise, has now introduced similar rules and I wonder just how seriously they will be enforced. We are a nation of petty bureaucratic rules and regulations, most of which are happily ignored or sensibly enforced. Not so long ago, the gendarmeries protested that, by concentrating on a move to curb excessive speeding by motorists, they were having to ignore their principal task which, they recalled, was of maintaining law and order. A sensible compromise was reached.

And citizens, in general, have at the back of their mind that if Paris gets too uppity, they can always refurbish a guillotine or two and solve the problem.

For years, every bar in France had a huge notice on the wall headed, “Repression de l’Ivresse.” It looked like something that Robespierre might have had drafted during the revolution, and I doubt that it had one iota of effect on the drinking habits of the customers. And the lettering was lot bigger than it’s going to be on the British wine bottles.

Neither do I like hunting. My wife has to be called in to deal with earwigs, but man was born a hunter, and placing absurd restrictions on the practice strikes me as being nonsensical.

Every weekend, on high days and holidays, the fields around me are full of hunters and their dogs, carrying enough arms and ammunition for a decent sized army. Their only requirement is that they have passed a simple exam in the use of firearms and have a licence. Many of the farmers designate their fields as “Chasse Gardée,” Private Hunting, preserving them for those authorised. It seems an admirable arrangement and one that keeps many Frenchmen out of their wife’s way for long periods, thus contributing greatly to domestic harmony. Animal lovers need have no fear – they (the animals, I mean) are far more likely to be run down by a car than hit by a hunter’s shot – and nobody has suggested banning cars.

But in England, two men were arrested recently for potting at tin cans in a remote country spot with a .22 rifle.

America may be the land of the free, home of the brave, but Britain is fast heading toward being the land of the wimps and, under the Health and Safety people, bravery will almost certainly be abolished.

And I wonder, just what will be the wording on the wine bottles?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Praktiss Makes Perfekt

There’s an old joke about the man lost in New York. He stops a passer-by, obviously a musician, carrying a cello in its case and asks him how to get to Carnegie Hall.

The musician looks at him thoughtfully and says, “Practise, my boy. Practise. It’s the only way.”

And I think that’s the way it is with writing. I always marvel at those who claim to have written their first book at an advanced age. It must have been terribly hard work, mining those words from a very deep seam, if you haven’t done a bit of opencast shovelling beforehand.

I was some ten years old when I first got into print with my family newspaper (I always deny having been a press man but this is an exception). The type was set up using a John Bull Printing Outfit which restricted you to three or four lines at a time, making the procedure pretty laborious. Fortunately the circulation was restricted to three – my mother, father and a maiden aunt who lived with us at the time and it seems to have run to no more than two or three editions. Probably I ran out of “e’s” in the John Bull outfit.

But you see the point. I always thought I could write and even the differing opinions of countless editors have never dissuaded from repeating the exercise. As a teenager I was the dramatic critic for a local newspaper, who were only too pleased to find someone to work for peanuts. They were less enchanted when I wrote that I was unsure whether to send the cast of a recent amateur theatrical production a congratulatory telegram or a “get well soon” card. I was unaware that the editor’s wife was playing a leading role, which just shows how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and accurate research is a sine qua non for a writer.

The first writing job that actually produced some revenue for me was as a copywriter for an advertising agency. In Victorian times this would have given you an outlet for some flowery and purple prose but now means that you have to get the message across in the least number of words, taxing your artistic abilities to the limit.

And no professional scribbler can afford that luxury item, writer’s block. I can honestly claim never to have been afflicted with this psychosomatic disease. I have, however, had frequent attacks of a malady with very similar symptoms, extreme idleness. This has the same effect upon productivity and I suspect that those who claim the former as being their disease are really using it to cover for the latter.

For me it strikes most severely in the summertime and usually coincides with spells of good weather. Writing whilst lolling in a hammock is difficult even if you are J.K. Rowling and write all your stuff by hand. Using a computer, as I do, it’s an impossibility. Then there’s the grass that needs cutting and a myriad other jobs that get in the way of the artistic process during the summer months.

But this does not stop you from thinking about what you might be writing when you finally get around to it. And once you have the thing worked out in your mind, putting the thoughts down on paper becomes far less of a chore than if you were to sit gazing at a blank computer screen or a page of paper. And there is no doubt that the more you write, the easier it becomes to express your thoughts.

It is, of course, no guarantee of quality, as readers of this column will undoubtedly be prepared to testify.

During my lifetime, I have started innumerable projects that have lingered on and then died as the dread disease has stricken me. They are filed away in a drawer marked “Too Difficult,” awaiting a resurgence of interest on the part of this author to have another go at finishing the book. Naturally, this will be impossible during the summer months for the reasons stated above but now, as the evenings shorten, they might have a chance and I may take them out and dust them off.

So, as winter draws on (as they say), I am sure I can look forward to an increase in my productivity. But then, on a cold winter’s day, with the logs crackling in the fire and a pleasantly fugged up atmosphere around the place, I feel an attack of my old disease coming on. Extreme idleness has struck again.

Then I take a look at my bank balance and head to the computer. It’s a remarkable cure but is, I suppose, only applicable to those who earn their crust by the pen.

And my bank manager has never heard of writer’s block - but I suspect he knows a bit about extreme idleness and can recognise the symptoms when he sees it. Perhaps I need to get some practise in.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Baa to Ewe

Sheep, Peter Cook once remarked to Dudley Moore as they leaned on a farm gate, are strange creatures. He was referring to a particular sheep by the name of Harold. Harold was convinced he could fly and was forever climbing trees in an attempt to put the theory into practice, with predictable results.

Our problem the other day was not with flying sheep but rather with absconding ewes, or, more accurately, one ewe.

My neighbour, Jean-Paul, keeps an assorted menagerie in the paddocks around our cottage and the roll call of livestock includes seven sheep, all black and woolly.

Three of these grazed quietly in the paddock immediately adjacent to our garden – until the other day.

Then the ewe idly shoved her way through a hole in the wire and found herself outside of her normal quarters.

Now I don’t know what it is about adult sheep, the lambs seem intelligent enough, but on reaching adulthood, something goes cockeyed with their thinking processes.

Jean-Paul’s sheep do have something of a superiority complex, knowing full well that they won’t be showing up on someone’s dinner plate as carré d’agneau à la provençale at the drop of a cleaver, but there is no excuse for downright stupidity.

Goats are easy. They just find their way back through the same hole they escaped from, but adult sheep just don’t seem to get it. And she didn’t.

As we tried our best to corral her back home, I had visions of that BBC programme, One Man and His Dog, and would have paid good money for a bit of their expertise, either from the man or, preferably, from the dog.

She repeatedly charged the fence in an attempt to get back in and, failing in that, legged it down the lane and onto the road.

Fortunately, it’s hardly a major thoroughfare but, as luck would have it, one of the three cars that pass daily happened to be en route.

Our ewe took to the fields and, had she been entered in the 3:30 at Ascot, I would have put money on her. The last we saw of her was a black dot disappearing over the horizon into the vineyards.

Well, we made a search, but finding a black sheep in umpteen hectares of vineyards makes the proverbial needle searching in haystacks look like child’s play.

I telephoned Jean-Paul with the news. He is an absentee smallholder and wisely makes a point of ensuring he is absent when any such crisis arises. He was phlegmatic about it.

The standard sheep around here are of that slightly unwashed beige colour and clearly our ewe, whose name I can’t recall (all of Jean-Paul’s animals have names), would stand out in a crowd, if not like a sore thumb, most definitely as being the black sheep of the family.

A couple of days later, I was having my morning chat with Leo the donkey in the top paddock, when I idly started counting sheep, not as an aid to sleep, but because there seemed to be one extra.

And sure enough, there was the missing ewe, calmly munching away and not saying a word to anyone.

Presumably a local farmer or vigneron had found her and, knowing that ours was the only source of black sheep around, brought her back and deposited her over the fence into the top paddock. People round here are like that.

As Peter Cook said, sheep are strange creatures. She might have said something.

A day or two ago I mentioned Garrison Keillor's radio programme, "A Prairie Home Companion."
My daughter in the UK has sent me an E-Mail to say that, in their infinite wisdom, the BBC now broadcast this weekly on their Channel 7 from 12 to 1 on Sundays and later from 11 to 12.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Book at Bedtime

A correspondent in the London Daily Telegraph pointed out the other day that, in the glossy mega-bookstores that now litter the world, there was an overwhelming number of what are referred to as “coffee table books.” In fact the shelves and tables were now groaning under their weight, and the customers were groaning as they carried them home.

It had escaped me, since my preference is for the fusty, musty style of hole in the corner type of second-hand book sellers, where one has a far better chance of finding something really interesting, and it will rarely be a coffee table book. In most of these, these shelves wouldn’t be strong enough to support them.

However, I then found that somehow I had acquired quite a number of these behemoths of the book world – many of which would indeed, given the addition of four legs, made very good coffee tables.

They are all lavishly illustrated, generally beautifully designed and produced – and quite incapable of being read in bed. In fact, the publishing industry would do well to supply the coffee table to go with the book – I’m sure it would boost sales as we only possess one of these bits of furniture, limiting us to one book at a time.

Sometimes, of course, rather as it is with airships, size is a necessary part of the formula. An old friend of mine, Dr. John Taylor in the Isle of Man, recently produced a magnificent volume entitled “Huyghen’s Legacy, The Golden Age of the Pendulum Clock.” It includes a stunning series of photographs of these clocks, taken by himself, and it would have been impossible to compress them into a smaller compass without losing much of the effect. Once again, however, it is not the sort of thing for a quiet read in bed.

And size bears no relationship, necessarily, to the quality of the content, and I suspect that some publishers, faced with the necessity of marketing a bit of a clunker (or even capitalising on a successful work) come up with the idea of inflating the size, sticking in a load of pictures and then inflating the price. In fact, I find I have one such volume but, of course, I won’t mention the title. I will say that the pictures do, in fact, make the book much more enjoyable than the vanilla version, which was a load of old tut.

At the other end of the scale come the paperbacks and, although I can’t say I’m enamoured with them as collector’s items, they do have their uses. Such as being easy to read in bed. And the Penguin series must be the best of the bunch, encompassing as they do a wide spectrum of the literary scene. They also fit neatly into the pocket and, even with the recent ballyhoo over aircraft security, I bet you could have smuggled one on board.

I believe in moderation in all things, and I am concerned about this apparent increase in volume. No wonder the new bookstores are so big, they just couldn’t cope with these jeroboams of the publishing world otherwise.

Presumably it’s only a matter of time before we have pop-up illustrated versions of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which will undoubtedly require to be more like dining table books than the simple coffee variety.

It may be that fewer people are reading in bed nowadays. I always have regarded it as one of those luxuries of life, rather like long, hot baths. Winston Churchill, I must point out, liked both. Not only did he do much of his reading (and work) from bed but, on being posted to the front in the First World War, carted a tub and a portable geyser along to supply the hot water.

So for me, the larger formats stay pretty much resting at peace on the shelves when they’re not gracing the coffee table, one at a time.

And for a book at bedtime, you can’t do better than a quality paperback, even if it does lack pictures – after all, the essence of good writing is to paint a word portrait in the mind. A good author should have no need for illustrations.

And then, of course, you can even read them in the bath.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Trivial Pursuit

Trivia, I think, is fascinating. It is such a pity that it is, er…, trivialised, since it is one of the prime ways to gain attention at, say, an especially boring cocktail party. A brief mention that the sackbut is an early form of trombone but with thicker walls, imparting a softer tone, will invariably get attention. If you add that the bell is narrower, your superior erudition will be recognised. The secondary advantage is that you will probably not be asked back.

But to be an experienced trivialist, one needs to have the right equipment to hand, and here I would recommend the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica. I first ran across this work as a child of ten or so when, suffering from some infantile disease such as whooping cough, I was dragged to the doctors. The waiting room was graced with a complete set of this work and, no doubt to assuage a difficult patient, I was allowed access whilst waiting.

I was enthralled. Here, I felt, was the answer to the problem of attending school, which I objected to, and, in the future, to university, which seemed equally unattractive. All that was needed was a set of these books, thoroughly mug them up, and I would be qualified for the battle of life.

It was many years after this when the dream had long since faded and I was living in the United States, that a colourful leaflet arrived in my mailbox. It was from the Encyclopaedia Britannica people and it extolled all the attributes that I had recognised early on in life, including pictures of a large family, gathered round their fireside and studying a volume of the work with enchanted gaze. There seemed to be an awful lot trying to read from the same book and, remembering the fine print, I marvelled at the acuteness of their eyesight. The leaflet lacked one important detail however. They forgot to mention the price of this invaluable aid to education.

I wrote and asked.

They wrote back and said a representative would be calling.

I wrote and said that I was not interested in a social relationship, merely a business one, where they would tell me how much, I would send a cheque, and they would deliver the goods.

Two days later, a young man arrived on my doorstep with an evangelical smile on his face. I assumed he was either a Mormon or a Seventh Day Adventist but it was winter in Michigan and he seemed eager to come in. Seeing he had a book under his arm bearing the cryptic sign, Reti- Solovets, I wondered if he was from The Rosicrucians. But no. He was from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I enquired if he had the rest of the work with him, at which he seemed confused. No, he said, this was his demonstration volume. I pointed out that Reti-Solovets was barely scratching the surface of the fount of learning promised by his company and that, in my opinion, a little knowledge was a dangerous thing.

Conversation languished for a bit while he was trying to recall the page in his manual relating to nutty clients.

“Perhaps you can gather the family together so we can go through this,” he beamed, finally, “I need to explain just how valuable this will be to your children.”

I pointed out that we had no children and offered to call the dog in from outside if he thought it would help. She was ratting, but I was sure she would be happy to spare him a minute or two.

He seemed to be losing his grip on the situation so I told him my anecdote about the doctor’s waiting room and that, having given up on doctors ever since, had felt all the better for it.

I then remembered a friend of mine, who, when at a low financial ebb, had taken a job selling encyclopaedias, door to door. They had given him a segment in London’s East End where the citizens had an enviable reputation for a fruity command of the English language, coupled with a lively sense of fun and a fine disregard for book learning. He said it was a soul-searing experience. He made no sales but says the experience taught him a great deal about life and enlarged his vocabulary enormously. He had, however, never been quite the same man afterwards.

So, now feeling kindly disposed, I patted my evangelist on the head as he tried to persuade me to attempt to tear the book apart to show how well made it was. I stuffed the various payment plans back into his briefcase, tucked Reti-Solovets under his arm and shoved him off into the night.

I wrote to Mr. Britannicus, complimenting him on his salesman, pointing out that, in spite of his best efforts, I still wanted to buy a set and would they please give him the commission.

Eventually they came back to me with a price. The inference was that I had somehow upset the status quo of the encyclopaedia world but that they would, on this occasion, overlook the matter.

The volumes duly arrived and still grace my bookshelves. And what a cornucopia they have proved to be. For instance, whilst looking up Shomu, the 45th. emperor of Japan, as one so often does, my eyes wander down the page and I find that shonkinite is a rare, dark coloured, intrusive igneous rock that contains augite and felspar as its principle ingredients.

Now all I need is a party where I can work that into the conversation. And it’s all due to Encyclopaedia Britannica and, in this case, to Reti-Solovets.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Other America

Mark Twain once wrote that “It was wonderful to have found America. It would have been more wonderful to have missed it!”

He was, I suspect, joking, but it is true that most of the tourists who visit do, in fact, miss it. Or they miss what I think of as being the real America. Even the old Greyhound bus slogan of “See America First” doesn’t seem to have cut much ice, and California and Florida must still be the only truly favoured destinations for both Americans and overseas visitors.

This is a great pity since the United States is a wonderful country – especially the parts that the tourists don’t visit!

I was very lucky in my time there as my work took me to every state in the nation, including Alaska but regrettably missing out on Hawaii, something that I think few Americans (other than politicians) can claim to have done.

Once my duties took me to what is derisively referred to as the rust belt of the nation, Detroit, a city which I found to be much maligned and which I understand, has now experienced something of a renaissance. I must admit I didn’t have much desire to live there, however, and thus removed myself a good many miles westward – and found the real America.

A small town in the old Mid-west is like a time warp – and a very pleasant one – so far removed from the popular concept of a brash America and, by this somewhat devious route, I reach the subject of today’s pondering.

A little undiscovered gem of American daily life is National Public Radio, which must rank as the most intelligent station on the planet (sorry BBC, but you’ve lost it in recent years). Clearly the authorities have forgotten about it, otherwise they would surely have closed it down years ago as being too erudite for their citizens well-being.

And one of the brightest stars in that firmament of radio must surely be Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

This regular feature (although I know not if it is still running) detailed events in the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota and, to me, was not only highly entertaining with its wry and gentle humour, but gave a marvellous portrait of an America far removed from big city life and still retaining the sort of old-fashioned values that even the slickest of city slickers still envy secretly. I always feel that when the scriptwriters of “The Golden Girls” were thinking of Rose’s home town of St. Olafs, they must have subconsciously had Lake Wobegon in mind.

Garrison Keillor himself was a most unlikely looking star, and it says much for the intelligence and foresight of NPR that they took a chance and ran the programme, which ultimately acquired a huge cult following, including, you will note, this cynic.

Sadly, I don’t think the programmes have ever been broadcast outside of the US, but there is still some hope for the rest of the world.

For Keillor has also been a prolific author, and for anyone who has only visited tourist traps and New York, Washington, Miami or Los Angeles and think they have been to America, I adjure you to hasten to your nearest bookstore or fire up Amazon on-line, and grab a copy of one of his books.

The town I lived in was not a Lake Wobegon but it was close enough to bear more than a passing resemblance. I spent a good many very pleasant years there, living in what I still feel was the only genuine America, populated by genuine Americans.

As Mark Twain said, it was wonderful to find America, as I did, but it might have been as well to have missed out on some of the other parts. Whoever would have thought of putting a capital city in a place called Foggy Bottom?

Mind you, the resultant limited vision there could account for some of the decisions coming from the White House, I suppose.

I think it a pity that Garrison Keillor is unlikely ever to become president. Someone like him would do so much for the image of the United States in the eyes of the world.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Stories from Life

Since I am frequently in the biographical business, it is heartening to see just how many readers are turning to true life stories in the shape of personal histories.

It was Plutarch who started all this, although his “Lives” amounted to little more than brief essays, but he pretty much cornered the market for years.

Young Will Shakespeare dipped into him for inspiration when he got fed up with writing about English Kings, the odd Scots monarch and a Danish prince, although he does not seemed to have bothered to have given him the courtesy of a credit line. His plays, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra and Pericles all owe a good deal to Plutarch. Perhaps he was mentioned in the programme notes.

Biographers soon found how to turn their skills to professional advantage, as many still do. William of Poitiers wrote a smashing eye-witness account of William the Conqueror’s invasion of Britain, even though he was miles away from the action at the time and must have had extraordinarily good eyesight, and clinched the matter by following it with “The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans.” This eulogy paid off when William made him his personal chaplain, probably a better reward than the royalties from the book.

The early biographers concentrated largely on the rich and famous of the time and the others have their stories pieced together from the occasional anecdote or diary entry. Pepys diary was hardly autobiographical in spite of its interesting entries. He only kept it up for a few years and, at the time, no contemporary thought his life worth writing about.

The best know early biography must be that of James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.” On the evidence of his own “London Diaries,” Boswell was a remarkably unpleasant and unprepossessing young man, and what Johnson saw in him, Heaven alone knows. But in spite of being like chalk and cheese, they seem to have got along remarkably well, so much so that Boswell spent much of his life writing the Doctor’s life story. For myself, I always think of Samuel Johnson as being a pompous pedant in spite of his invaluable contributions to the literary field. He was as unattractive physically as Boswell was morally, and that may have been the mutual attraction.

Biographers scouring around for possible subjects tend to home in on celebrities as being easy bait for the potential reader, but when I survey the Bio shelves of a modern bookstore, I find that only about two percent of the subject’s names are familiar. Admittedly this may be in part due to my total ignorance of sports personalities and stars of stage, screen and television, but it is also due to the number of biographies and autobiographies of real people (as opposed to the categories mentioned above!) that are now appearing.

This I find to be a heartening trend – for the stories of ordinary people can be fascinating. Remember, the radio series “The Archers” is still going after umpteen years and that was “Just an Everyday Story of Country Folk!”

It’s probably the voyeuristic instinct in us that makes these tales so interesting and, in spite of the tendency to embroider some autobiographies with spurious details, by and large they provide a valuable resource for the social historian as well as providing entertaining reading matter for the general public.

The caveat is, naturally, that they should be well written and this is where I get in a plug for my profession – that of the ghost writer. Often the manuscripts need little more than a little tweaking to make them acceptable to a publisher – sometimes, a complete rewrite, and a professional writer will be happy to advise without any obligation.

Now if you happen to be a multi-million dollar personality, don’t bother to ask me – just send the cheque. In fact, in 1760, author David Mallet had done just that, accepting a large sum from the Duchess of Marlborough to write the Duke’s biography. He never put a word to paper but seems to have got away with it. I bet I couldn’t.

No doubt if they were around today, Plutarch, or possibly Boswell, would have been given a crack at writing Wayne Rooney’s biography. But I'm sure they would have turned the job down!

Friday, October 13, 2006


Today being a Friday the 13th., it’s a safe bet that not much of any significance will be taking place in the world.
Those of a superstitious bent won’t be stirring far from home and the rest of us might make the most of a jolly good wheeze for not doing much of anything.
According to the weather men, the barometer is set fair for the day with a mild zephyr from the nor’ nor’ east and a sky untroubled by clouds and stuff. It seemed an ideal day to me for taking down that dead tree and turning it into logs for the winter.
“Uh-huh, not a good idea,” says my wife, “Don’t you know what day it is?”
Personally, I don’t think the odds of being hit by a falling tree are much higher on a Friday the 13th. than on any other day, but now if I go out and launch the chainsaw at it, I would never hear the last of it if anything should go awry. I suppose a cry of “Timber!” might be the last thing I would hear.

It would probably have been advisable for me not to have got out of bed, could have had a nasty fall, but early in the morning one doesn’t always think clearly and so, here I am, moving very gingerly, just in case. Obviously this is a day for taking elaborate precautions.

Now, as you all know, this fear of Friday the 13th. is called paraskevidekatriaphobia (you did know that, didn’t you? Yes, of course you did) and I’m sure that this knowledge will make a great difference to your activities today. If so, it seems you are not alone, since it is estimated that in the United States, enough people use it as an excuse not to go to work that there’s an $800 million loss in revenue. But of course, it is not known just how many of those that don’t go to work are genuine hard-core paraskevidekatriaphobiacs or who are only, like me, precluded from taking any chances by their wives. More research is needed, I feel.

It seems to me that the whole thing could have been avoided with a bit of foresight on the part of the authorities or, perhaps, Gregorian, who seems to have had a lot to do with the calendar business. As W.S. Gilbert pointed out in The Pirates of Penzance, due to a fumble on the part of someone, possibly the Astronomer Royal, every now and again we get a spare day, making a it a leap year. Now if that sort of thing is possible, surely it could be arranged to get rid of all the Friday the 13ths. or, if necessary, making them Friday the Twelfth and a little bit?
This would solve the problem at a stroke and the economy of the United States would be improved by $800 million each year, an idea which would surely appeal to the White House in its search for world hegemony. That guy they have at the United Nations who looks like a discombobulated walrus would be just the man to force such a scheme through – he doesn’t seem to have much else on his hands at the moment.
I was on the point of drafting a letter to my friend Dubya when I found out that there was a snag. It seems that Friday the 13th. is not universally regarded as a bit on the dodgy side. Only the British, the Portuguese and the Americans seem to be afflicted with paraskevidekatriaphobia. Whether this is due to climate or diet is not known, but apparently in order to solve the problem for the Spaniards and the Greeks, we’d have to do away with all Tuesdays the 13th. as well.
I’m all in favour of a shortened working week, but when you consider that the French, by and large, take Monday off as well, world productivity’s bound to suffer a bit.

So the best thing is to leave matters as they stand. But to be on the safe side, I’m going back to bed for the day.
And we’re not inviting thirteen people around for dinner tonight – look what happened at The Last Supper.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Down the Rabbit Hole

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson spent a summer’s afternoon telling an unlikely and fantastical story to the daughter of some friends. Young Alice Liddell liked it so much that she persuaded the Reverend Dodgson to write it down. And Alice in Wonderland was born. He followed it with Through the Looking Glass and then the Hunting of the Snark, making the trio the sum total of the average person’s knowledge of the works of Lewis Carroll. It’s not surprising, since Dodgson, as well as being an active cleric, was a prolific writer but hardly the sort of stuff that was going to make the Victorian best seller list. Queen Victoria had liked his fantasies so much that she requested that he dedicate his next book to her. He did so. But it turned out to be an abstruse mathematical treatise, hardly what she had in mind and, not amused, it probably wound up in the Royal outhouse.

Allegedly he chose the pen name of Lewis Carroll from a rather dubious Latinisation followed by an Anglicisation of his names and had been using it, long before Alice came on the scene, for his more scholarly writings.

But Alice is what he’s remembered for – and quite rightly too. Both books are a joy and Jabberwocky is one of the only poems I can recite by rote.

Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the best read of any president of the United States and a lover of English literature, once remarked, on hearing that he was to entertain Elizabeth Wharton, an intelligent female activist, “Well, I’m glad to have someone at the White House to whom I can quote The Hunting of the Snark without being misunderstood.”

Yesterday it was a gloomy, rainy day and I cheered myself up by taking a trip down the rabbit hole to meet my old friends and got to wondering whether Lewis Carroll wrote the books just for Alice. I think that she inspired him but that he wrote them for his own amusement, plus a little profit along the way since they became extremely popular.

Some years ago I wrote a story about mermaids, The Truant Mermaid, for my daughter who was going through a mermaid phase at the time. Girls do, apparently. But it turned out to be much more entertaining for me to write than it ever was for her to read – and I think it might have been that way for Carroll as well.

He was a man of many parts in an era when such men thrived, unrestricted by the modern dreary need for specialisation. In addition to his church work, his mathematics and his writing, he turned himself into a photographer of considerable ability. Photographers were hardly ten a penny in those days and the quality of the surviving examples are a tribute to his skills at the craft.

They also gave rise to one of the popular myths about Lewis Carroll – that he was not only interested in telling stories to young girls. For one of the models for his art often turned out to be young Alice Liddell. And in an age when young girls were normally hard to find underneath their layers of clothes, Alice frequently appeared in what seemed to be the altogether.

In the years since his death, reams of paper and countless volumes have been taken up with the question of Lewis Carroll, his life and his penchant for taking pictures of young girls, sometimes scantily dressed. That he took a great many more pictures of other subjects seems to be forgotten. Frankly, I think we should just be glad that he wrote the wonderful books which pass that litmus test for all literature, no matter how often they are read, you can still get pleasure from them, time after time, as I did yesterday.

And Alice herself seems to have grown up into a perfectly normal young lady, fully clothed.

But it does pose a question. If Lewis Carroll, famed author or not, had taken those pictures today, he’d have been in the slammer in a trice on a complaint from some morally misguided citizen. It seems the Victorians may have been a better balanced society. Still, Oscar Wilde did some good stuff while residing at Her Majesty’s pleasure, I suppose.

If you’re really short of reading matter, “The Truant Mermaid” is available as a free download from my website,

But it’s not a patch on Alice, I’m afraid.