Sunday, 9 October 2016

Desiccation and drinking in the headless state of Spain

It is so dry here that all is dust and dusty. The snakes are sufficiently emboldened to seek any droplets of moisture that people might spil,and walking on the terraces of our huerto is like walking on potato crisps – sharp, sticky crisps. It has not rained in our lonely corner of Spain for at least six months and the country itself has been ungoverned for at least twice that time. Not that the two are connected necessarily. The drought means that we will have no olives this year, but better governed holdings have irrigated their trees and will have a harvest.

On the brighter side we are still eating our olives from two years ago, have a bumper crop of delicious purple-bloomed grapes, most of the trees in our little orchard have survived, and the Spanish continue to enjoy life in their festive tradition.

Recently we went along to the first night of partying at the fiesta of our second most favourite village in this country. On offer was a fully fledged fairground plus a dance to a live band starting at midnight (yes starting). We chose the more traditional tour of the bodegas (wine cellars) led by a large cohort of local musicians and singers. They play jota, a distinctive local music featuring guitars and mandolins together with solo or duet singers who stand in a special way and give it full belt – not a microphone or amplifier in sight. The stance is important: the singer stand proud and thrusting with hands on hips and elbows extended (or, for the more casual men, thumbs in jean pockets cowboy style). The songs have a fixed pattern. There is quite a lengthy instrumental introduction during which the singer waits patiently for a musical signal. The music slows to a near halt then, as the musicians move into the main body of the song, the singing begins. My Spanish is not good enough to understand the lyrics but most seem to be concern the village or its surroundings. Some are clearly amusing, especially those sung by a short man with a white beard tied like a pony tail with a red elastic band and wearing a strangely tied bandana shockingly exposing one side of his balding head.

The evening started in the beautiful main square of Cretas when a small group of young ladies from the village set off a rocket at nine o’clock precisely (9.30ish Spanish time). Then, nothing. The crowd continued chattering animatedly unril, at long last,  the joteras climbed onto the stage. There were roughly twenty-five of them and so the show began with a few short songs. Following that, the troupe began their musical meander through the narrow maze of streets which make up the old town. First stop was outside the church so no wine there, yet the waiting and  their singing was making me thirsty. After a few songs the players led us on a long walk through the newer part of the village, singing and playing as they went.

“Oh no,” I said half-jokingly to Margaret, “they’re heading straight for our camper van.”
“And we only have one bottle of wine,” she replied dryly.

Fortunately they turned into a nearby restaurant and we piled in after them. It was a large place where one long table had been spread with plates of ham, olives and bread together with bottles of red and white wine. The musicians sat down at the table and began to tuck in so I grabbed a glass and made for a bottle. Margaret restrained me, hissing that the stuff was solely for the musicians. I watched carefully as the rest of the audience descended like locusts on the food and drink, then joined in. Soon the music began again with the owner of the restaurant doing a solo and to my amazemnet she was followed by a young girl. I had noticed this teenager at the church: an attractive girl with thick black hair and a pretty but elongated pale face. She wore that sullen, teen-style expression and displayed the body language of someone who clearly did not want to be there. Yet she sang so clearly, so strongly, so convincingly that the experience went straight to the heart and brought the greatest applause of the whole evening.

After this a melodious walk back into the old city for more food and wine in a large garage. More again in a dead end street where there was cake, sweet wine and, of course, always the jota. We ended a memorable night at about two in the morning in another garage, this one, strangely enough, dedicated to bull fighting. Finally, that seemingly recalcitrant, but actually rather shy, young lady sang a magical last song and we wandered happily back to our van.

Despite the lack of government the main bar in our own village, our favourite bar, has changed hands yet again. At first we thought that our friends Miguel and Anna had left and handed the business over to their cook Vincente. We were told that they had gone to Barcelona or maybe Adalusia, yet one day Margaret met Miguel in the local shop – they still live here, they have merely given up the bar. Vincente is very fat, just as cooks are supposed to be. He says little beyond an initial greeting and final goodbye. His wife is from South America and looks it. Margaret thinks her exoticism may prove a retainer for the old men who are the bar’s main clientele (though not income). We will have to wait and see. Meanwhile we have decided to share our alcoholic largess between Vincente and Ramon. Yes, he of the bar next door. He who almost drove us from the village when he ran the, then only, bar. Earlier blogs relate his rapid demise from enthusiastic greeter to resentful barman, followed by his re-emergence as the owner of a new, bigger, and perhaps better, bar next door.

Think of us then in England as the pound falls to near parity with the euro. Then, think again when I tell you that Vincente’s beer is a little over two euros a pint! Meanwhile we think of our recent escape from a two week traverse of France where six euros a pint was not unusual!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Irish and Sovereignty

I like Ireland,­ and the Irish who live there. Ever since I was briefly befriended by the then prime minister’s (Teajoc’s) brother on my first flight to Dublin some years ago the people of the south have gained a special place in my heart and mind. I have so many tales about experiences there, usually based on the warmth and sense of humour of the people.

Our latest visit was occasioned by two events: our youngest son had acquired a son and house. My wife could not wait to get her hands on this latest grandson (I quote) and my acquired skills as a house renovator were needed to kick the other project off. And project it was. The house is not too far from the centre of Dublin where prices are soaring and, from first impressions, I found it to be a basket case in a dubious area. After two weeks hard labour where I provided a new shower and loft tank, rewired the kitchen area and fitted up a new kitchen I changed my mind about the house and the area – and reinforced my opinion of the Irish.

Just one example: the house is part of an old corporation estate and bordered by a scruffy lane which serves the next door launderette, Chinese takeaway, electrical supply shop and so on. We were living in our motor caravan, the house unfurnished and uninhabitable. There was nowhere to park, in fact most people parked on the pavements. So where were we to go? Luckily my son had spotted an unusual location near to his densely populated area: a dead end street overlooking a pleasant park and dribbling stream called the Poddle. At the end was a large space in which cars and lorries could turn. Great – we took up residence, nervously. Surely the permanent residents of this enviable plot of greenery would balk at gypsies moving in?

On the first evening an old man approached with his dog, presumably to complain. “Is it alright to park here?” I asked in an effort to pre-empt the onslaught, adding, “it’s just temporary while we help our son do up a house.”

“Oh, to be sure, you’ll be safe enough there. Nobody will bother you,” he said as my jaw dropped in astonishment. He then went on to tell us the history of the place, of his wife’s death and how his daughters supported him and finally to introduce his new “wife”, the dog, a little scrap of a thing whom he said, “never nags. Oh, and if you want you can park right outside my house”.

We became regulars at the Four Roads pub where we quickly made friends with the previous landlord and major contributor to the karaoke session on a Monday night. It was here that we saw a spitting image of Anne Widdicombe wiggling her bounteous hips whilst belting out Elvis’s ‘Teddy Bear’. And it was not just the Four Roads that welcomed us - we were chatted to by people in almost every pub that we entered.

My son allowed us just one day off work so we escaped to the coast south of Dublin. Finding it camping car unfriendly (not surprising, there are so many of the things nowadays and so big) we turned inland finally drawing to a halt above Parnell Park in the village of Rathdrum. The village was small but lively and we had a great evening of good, basic, Irish food, some quaffable local beer and visits to two pubs with live music. 

Next morning I ran around the park, learning a little more about Parnell who was born nearby and was a great and dogged proposer of home rule for Ireland in the 19th century. Perhaps appropriately the park also had a plaque celebrating the constitution of an independent Ireland which I read with great interest. Two words leapt out at me, particularly because of the recent Brexit referendum in the UK. The words were ‘sovereign state’ and the context , of course, independence. My eyes widened as I read this at a time that the Irish government had just been reprimanded from Brussels for giving favoured tax rates to the likes of Apple and Google and ordered to accept unwelcome refunds! And, hang on, wasn’t sovereignty the major issue in the UK referendum?

Now, I know this is a long shot, but could it be the great change that is Brexit might be the context for a united Ireland with free trade links with mainland Britain and who know what else – sovereignty perhaps? Yes, just as long as they do not lose those palatial pubs of theirs where the greeting is genuine rather than corporate policy and the drinkers are there to talk and sing rather than adulate mobile phones.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Does Brexit mean Brexit?

I do seriously ask myself how I might have felt if the Brexit vote had gone the other way. Would I have been angry? Demanded another referendum? Insisted that the decision was not binding or legal? Complained that immature people had unfairly biased the vote or ‘educated’ people had been swamped by the ‘workers’? I do not think that I would, neither am I crowing over the victory of the leave campaign. But, to me the future does seem bright.

I recently had the temerity to attend a Fabian Society meeting titled the ‘EU Referendum and the Future’. The society’s strap line is ‘let’s shape the future of the left’ and the chairman told us that it was a long standing think-tank with loose links to the Labour Party. I was pretty sure that I was a gooseberry amongst the coconuts there, and this proved to be correct. The speaker was introduced as a man with many years experience working with and for the EU. As he talked it quickly became apparent that he was committed to the European project and resentful of the referendum outcome. His speech was full of gloom, despair and a litany of the problems to be faced.

Question time produced glowing support plus all of the moans and groans that I listed above. Someone even suggested a new political party aimed solely at remaining in the EU - I recognised him as local liberal democrat, hence doubly disappointed. The speaker glowed in the warmth of so much support but, in answer to the demand for another referendum or simply ignoring the recent one, said, quite reasonably, that MP’s could hardly ignore a vote by the population as a whole, Then, chillingly, he added, “but it is all a matter of timing.  Eighteen months down the line when the economy is going really badly may be the time to reverse this stupid decision”[1].

The second wave of questions proved to be more interesting. One man gave a long speech which could be prĂ©cised as ‘shouldn’t we search for a progressive Brexit’. Another gave an equally long diatribe on the need to redistribute wealth via punitive death duties – something that he thought would be impossible within the EU. The speaker agreed that the last point was true: it would be impossible. He then dealt perfunctorily with my two-part question. I asked him if, given the outcome of the referendum,­­­ he couldn’t find just one positive thing to say about our new direction, and also whether he might now direct his obvious talents and experience towards making Brexit work. He did not answer the first part, but did say that helping with Brexit would negate everything that he had spent much of his life doing. In other words he will presumably spend the rest of his life trying to prevent what the majority of the UK want. Such a great pity; he undoubtedly has a great deal of knowledge that could aid the transformation of the country and might help to find ways of working with the EU to our mutual advantage.
There was little doubt that this was a meeting of unhappy remainers desperate to find ways of preventing Brexit, and the speaker told them precisely what they wished to hear hence fuelling their denial. I was convinced that I was the only gooseberry present, yet, much to my surprise, when I put my plea for a more positive approach to Brexit it drew hearty applause – from two people of the fifty or so who were there. But then Oxford is certainly not the UK and, as Theresa May has said repeatedly: Brexit means Brexit.

Naturally the divorce will take some time, but a happy separation will not be helped by those who are too rooted in the past. Some compromises are inevitable but Machiavellian attempts to ‘fudge’ the issue so that we ostensibly come out yet actually stay in will fly in the face of a long, well-informed, sometimes bitter, referendum campaign in which the remainers used all of their ammunition (and more) but did not convince the people of the UK to stay, close though the outcome was.

[1] This is very Fabianesque. The following is quoted from early pamphlet published by the group: For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Geology rocks: A day on Dartmoor

Dartmoor, for me, presents a chilling childhood image of an impregnable and inescapable grey jail surrounded by inhospitable craggy moors shrouded in mist. A frightening place populated by bloodthirsty and indestructible criminals who did somehow manage to escape from that awful prison. However, my recent visit – a field trip with the ever-popular Oxford Geology Group – has created a rather different picture.

Geology fascinates me, that’s why I joined the group some years ago when it was a moribund interest group, running a monthly talk and occasional field trips for its ageing and unwelcoming membership. It has now been transformed into a buzzing society with a very active website, oodles of lectures, lots of young members, field trips to everywhere, and a nationally important annual colloquium. It was whilst I stood on Blackstone Rock a prominent windswept tor in Dartmoor, that the idea for this piece formed. The man who started and fuels this little revolution shouted, “How come there is nothing on our field trips in Rob’s Blog?” And now there is.

What I really aspired to in joining the group was to look at a mountain, a valley, or a landscape and determine its geological life history; I wanted to look at rocks and say what they were and know more about their composition; in short I wanted to know all there was to know about this little planet of ours. Hubris.

What I have learned is that, though based on science, geology is hardly a science itself. However, I do now know that the grander mechanisms of geological change: plate tectonics, lava flow and cooling, erosion and sedimentation are all visibly true; and the stratification so ably demonstrated by William Smith’s famous map of 1815 makes sense of it all. I have also convinced myself that this is not a subject for the amateur. A solid knowledge of geology crosses many scientific boundaries and can only really be achieved by years of study. Nevertheless, I still enjoy the geology field trips very much. With a good guide they provide eye opening tours through landscapes which you may have seen before, but could not understand. A good guide adds another dimension to a panorama, something that Richard Scrivener certainly achieved on the Dartmoor trip. Of course, I understand that he stands on the shoulders of Smith and the geologist who followed him; nonetheless to transform what is simply a rocky terrain into a fascinating and logical story is a rare talent. It’s like walking down a darkened lane, then walking back in full sunlight.

I now understand that Dartmoor was a vast pool of lava which formed below ground level some 280 million years ago. The lava cooled slowly producing granite containing very large crystals of feldspar which we could see clearly at Blackingstone Rock. I also learned that the formation of tin-producing minerals so important to Dartmoor’s later industry occurred 3 million years after the formation of this great deposit of granite, itself called by geologists a ‘pluton’ after the god of the underworld. This was then followed by millions of years of erosion removing the crust above the lava and then digging into the granite itself leaving the occasional outcropping or ‘tor’ of which the Blackingstone Rock is one.

What will always trouble me is a simple question: what is granite? OK, I know it is an igneous rock formed from slowly cooling lava, but that tells you little of its physical appearance. When I look at a metal I can often determine what it is by colour, hardness, surface appearance, and so on. Granite can seemingly be of almost any colour dependent on the proportion of the various minerals that make it up, it can also be coarse or fine so how can you be sure that a rock is granite? My investigations on the web only served to complicate identification.

That aside, this was a great trip. After a good pub lunch accompanied by excellent Dartmoor beer Richard led us across the moors pointing out the cuttings made by the tin miners of old (we did not visit any underground mines). The ore that contains tin is called cassiterite and it appears as veins in the granite. Richard did show us some, it was dark reddish-brown and not particularly impressive. On the other hand, many of the rocks in the deep cuttings glittered attractively. Unfortunately this had nothing to do with tin: the glittering was produced by specular hematite which is an iron ore! I picked up a small stone with a wealth of this shiny black stuff embedded in it and have now deposited it in the dark confines of my stone collecting tin along with the other neglected pickings from other trips.

After a visit to a quarry we began the long drive home arriving back in Oxford at about nine. I was dropped off at a pub then visited two more that night and, do you know, no one mentioned the hard hat hanging from my backpack. I thought that it would be a great conversation starter, but it was Brexit that took centre stage.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Our new life as peasants

With the storm damage to the roof of our Spanish caseta repaired we were able to begin our life as transhumants or at least sample the peasant life. You see, during late June in inland Spain the fierce sun burns its way through a clear blue sky making outside, unshaded work nearly impossible for us North Europeans and quite unthinkable for the locals. Even typing this blog brought on a sweat. So what to do? Change lifestyle of course. Wallow in the traditional siesta and work in the mornings and evenings.

Yes, well, that was the idea. Our dream was to live in the expanded caseta for a few days at a time, rising with the sun or even before it, sleeping when it was at its worst (when only mad dogs and Englishman are about) then back to work in the cool of the evening before bedding down as darkness fell.

The first night we were in celebratory mood, really pleased to be living in the extended and refurbished caseta with its little shower room under the stairs and the reclaimed bed and table now installed after their long journey from Oxford. Beer was cooling in the irrigation channel below, the solar lights were functioning and I even took a cold, but satisfying shower before lighting the barbeque. All thoughts of labouring on the land flew from our minds as we found ourselves in party, rather than work, mood. We ate we drank. Up on the terrace we listened to a strange animal screaming, a frightening and, at times, troubled cry. It was really rather frightening and so loud in the pine woods above the caseta. No doubt it was a fox though someone suggested it might have been a genet cat. By that time the evening had flowed into night, yet it was not dark. The high bright moon still illuminated the huerto guiding me to the free range toilets - I haven’t quite solved the organic toilet problem yet, but I will. At present it’s a walk in the woods or a wooden seat above a bucket.

I set the alarm for six but missed it and rose at eight to wander down to the third terrace with my scythe over my shoulder and sharpening stone in hand. I was leading the attack against the weeds that, during our year of absence, had overtaken the newly reclaimed area. My enemies were the barbed bramble, the sharp rooted pampas grass and tough-stemmed variety of grasses that had reinvaded our now desiccated vineyard and vegetable garden. I started valiantly, but they had the sun on their side. Even at this time in the morning my exertions with the scythe soon produced an almighty sweat. Droplets were running down my nose and plopping onto the thirsty soil at my feet. Feeling exhausted and somewhat faint I soon gave up and struggled back up the hill to the cool of the caseta where I remained for the rest of the day, working in the shade and taking a long siesta in the afternoon.

That evening I did some more scything in the shade of the big fig trees and the next morning I did get up at six and finished the job before the sun blasted me off the land. I also cleared a few of the olive trees in our overgrown grove below. Then, later that morning, we moved back to the cool of our village house, our first peasant period complete. It was enjoyable, but not a great success work-wise. Becoming peasants may take some time.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A baby, a perfect pub, friendly French and a ruined roof repaired

Our latest journey to Spain was circuitous. We left the Cotswolds very suddenly to visit Dublin in order to wet the head of a new grandson – Conan. We slept near the ferry port at Liverpool and the only place we could find to park the motor caravan was behind some sand dunes which overlooked the Mersey River.  It was my birthday and the search for a suitable pub became frenetic, yet ended with the perfect place. The Edinburgh had great local ales, three very different bars (local, lounge and quiet room), wonderful pub architecture and friendly staff and customers. Next morning I ran over the dunes and was amazed to see the beach full of people dotted all over the sands. After a while it dawned on me that only one of them, another jogger, was moving! I had inadvertently chanced upon Andrew Gormley’s Another Place. I inspected one of the cast iron Gormley replicas and found a number on his wrist tag – the number was the year that I had celebrated the night before – weird.

Conan is a fine looking baby and my son and I celebrated his birth in the usual fashion and at great expense in the heaving pubs near his flat in Dublin. Next day Margaret and I drove south to catch the overnight ferry to  Cherbourg, and had a merry time mixing with Irish holiday makers in the entertainment bar during the evening. Perhaps we were preparing ourselves for Fran

After a day’s driving we tried to find a village or town where we could spend the night and get a meal and a drink – in France on a Monday night - near impossible. After visiting three places, all quite dead, we found somewhere north of Nantes that at least had a pizza van. We parked there and made our way to a much advertised restaurant – closed of course. But we did find a bar open. It had one customer and he was as pleased to see as the barmaid was. We four became instant friends despite the language barrier (we used our computers to translate) and Marie Laure insisted that I talk to the town’s resident Irishman on her mobile phone. He seemed as bemused as I was. The only other customer, Chico, rushed out of bar when he heard that we had not eaten returning after some time with two large pizzas, no doubt from the van. We drank we laughed, we wore funny hats from the bar’s collection and we photographed ourselves. At one point some poor local tried to join the party, but was quickly told that the bar was closed!

Then came payback time. I put a 50 Euro note on the bar, but they would not take it though I was quite forceful. The beers were on the house and the pizzas on Chico. And there was more. Marie Faure insisted that I move my camper to a beautiful spot beside the lake and then she and Chico piled in to have a drink on us. Aren’t French people nice?

One thousand miles out of Cherbourg we finally arrived at our village – La Fresneda. It is always lovely to return, and to be greeted by folks who wanted to know why we had been away so long. However, most of them had heard that Margaret had had an operation. The village rumour machine works very efficiently. Our huerto was overgrown, of course, and I had to face the debilitating task of retiling the ruined roof. I reckoned that the supersized hailstones had wrecked at least 75% of the traditional upper tiles and bought 300 replacements. It took me a week to remove the wreckage and re-tile but it’s done – the only thing left to deal with is the shattered solar panel. But that can wait, since, though almost destroyed, it is still producing some electricity.

On the Brexit front we have quickly ascertained that our village is quite neutral. There are only two other UK voters in the place and when we had them round for a few drinks we soon confirmed that they had voted to stay and we had voted to leave, so we have cancelled each other out. It still leaves a question for them to answer though. If, as is claimed, the EU is so good for the economy and migration boosts it further, why are so many countries like Spain in such a parlous state? We are told that unemployment is still around 50% for the young here and the economy is flat or worse. And then there is the question of Gibraltar, often seized upon by governments here to deflect attention from more pressing problems. But that’s Another Place where perhaps the cast iron replicas of the artist are replaced by – apes?

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Preparing the soil for Brexit, or whatever

With under a month to go before the UK makes its momentous decision, claim and counter claim are reaching hysterical heights. Still stuck in the UK, but with my postal vote already waiting in Spain I am woken each morning by the Today radio programme and the latest astounding announcements. We are told that wages will fall and prices will rise, or taxation will fall and democracy will rise. Meanwhile yet another large group of experts have simultaneously written a letter saying that we should stay whilst a survey shows that small businesses think we should go. Barrack barracks whilst Borris buffoons, David directs as Nigel neglects his position as a proportionately elected MEP.

Sequestered in Stow, permanently on the verge of departing for Spain, I miss the intellectual stimulation of Oxford and ponder whether anyone, yes anyone, is intellectually capable of making this complex in/out decision. Yet we all have a vote! One of my many casual pub acquaintances told me that no rational person could think of voting to leave, and addressed the migrant question by informing me that he once had a Romanian boyfriend so they are alright.

Meanwhile, as my wife waits anxiously, and impatiently, for yet another grandchild to arrive, I’ve not been idle. I’ve been doing my bit for Britain by upping our food production capability ready for our departure from the EU or our continued membership of it. We currently own part of the field behind our house and are engaged in a long legal tussle to get the lot and, regardless of the outcome, I have extended the vegetable plot. This has introduced me to a new skill: post and rail fencing. Hard work, but it looks nice provided that you don’t look too closely. That done I then had a large area full of weeds to deal with and chose the cardboard and muck solution: covering the whole area with flattened cardboard boxes to rob the weeds of light, then spreading five tons of cow manure (muck) onto it to keep the boxes down and provide the goodness to grow potatoes and onions over the dying weeds. Perhaps the answer to the question – to leave, or not to leave – will emerge from the darkness of my manure heap where, beneath the light excluding cardboard, the weeds are screaming “to leaf or not to leaf”.
A local beef farmer brought the muck in two large trailer loads and, on each occasion, turned off the tractor’s engine once he had dumped the stuff in order to chat – he doing most of the chatting.  His diatribe covered everything from the modern tendency for women to tend allotments through the various means of catching rabbits to, of course, Brexit. On that subject he told me that his heart wanted to leave, but his mind wanted to stay – a common dilemma. He explained that he depended on the farming subsidy he received and didn’t trust the UK government to keep doling out the money. Meanwhile he thought that the EU would continue to feed the farmers “cos them Frenchies and Gerries knew how to ‘old ‘em to it”.

There are so many points of view and perhaps the answer does lie in the soil: mud’s thicker than water. Most of the foreign groups that I show around Oxford do think that we should stay, though one Italian I met whilst passing through France suggested that we should leave saying, “You were never really part of Europe anyway.”

You can still try my Brexit calculator if you wish, just click here. Based on the small number who have chosen to share their results with me its showing -0.75. An absolute outer would score -4 and an absolute inner +3. So it’s tending towards out at present – but not by muck, oops, I mean much.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Are modern novels novel?

I trained as a telephone engineer. In my day this required a practical understanding of electricity and electronics and the honing of relevant skills in wiring, soldering, fault finding, etc, etc. Anyone of average intelligence could become telephone engineer, but only those with an interest would commence the lengthy process and only those with an aptitude would stay the course.

In writing I am an amateur. My teachers, after leaving school at the tender age of sixteen, were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, George Orwell, W Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene – to name but a few, and I have often wondered if those greats of literary fiction were trained? Did they attend creative writing courses or take degrees in writing?

Training to be an engineer, scientist, bricklayer, plumber, doctor, or whatever seems to me entirely different to training to be a writer. When I decided to write my first book (a non-fiction on voice systems) a colleague asked me, “Can you write?”

I was stunned. Everyone, I thought, well almost everyone, can write – just as everyone can speak. I had by then written countless research reports, articles for magazines and learned journals plus many stories for my children. Of course I could write. But that was not what he meant: he meant, could I write well – well enough to warrant the publication of a book? I wasn’t sure, so I recruited the help of my old boss, then retired, the son of an English teacher and a stickler for good grammar. Hugh became my editor for that first book and subsequently the editor of a newsletter that I ran for some years.

Recently I attended a lecture on editing. It was not what I was expecting. Rather than providing tips on improving ones output by removing solecisms, typos, etc, this worked at a higher level. The lecturer was an excellent presenter. He targeted three early chapters of novels currently under creation, making points about mood, the consistency of metaphors, the choice of words, etc. To me this seemed like literary criticism, or the sort of advice provided at creative writing courses. And it worried me.

Though I am a teacher of sorts I could never teach creative writing because I have not created a successful novel. On the other hand, publishing a successful novel does not make you a good teacher. Furthermore I do not really believe that creativity can be taught, the very idea seems to me to be an oxymoron. Encouraged yes, but taught no.
As often, I find myself well out of step. There is now a whole industry built around creative writing plus bringing the resultant masterpieces to the eyes of agents or publishers. And, failing publication via the traditional route, there are heaps of companies to help you publish your own book, design the cover and distribute it. Yes, there are kits, courses, consultants, critics, and lots of other things beginning with ‘c’ – all at a price.

And the output? Why, a new creation which is a page turner, where the characters are well-rounded and leap off the page, which has a subtle back story, gripping first line, a beginning, middle and an end, is  full of fresh metaphors and singular similes and has a riveting and unpredictable plot scattered with innumerable smoking guns. A novel that is unique, original and, well, possibly, just a little formulaic.

Sour grapes? Possibly. I must say that most people I have met who have been on creative writing courses seem to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves – and that cannot be bad. Some complain that they spend too much time critiquing the work of the other budding novelists on the course, but all agree that it was a sociable experience.

Oh, and in all honesty I do not know the answer to that question posed by my colleague over a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps I should take a course?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A ton of weightless books

I topped the ton on a motorbike years ago on a stretch of the ruler-straight Roman road that crosses the Cotswolds Hills called the Fosse Way. I passed the ton in a flashy, silver Mazda car rocketing along one of the unbelievably unrestricted sections of a German autobahn. And just today I clocked the ton in the “Books Read” section of my Kindle. If you are not from the UK this might all seem very odd, but, colloquially, a ‘ton’ here simply means one hundred: a. hundred miles per hour or a hundred books or whatever

A hundred books would weigh about a hundredweight, i.e. about one hundred pounds in America, more in the UK and roughly fifty kilograms in Europe. A strong man can carry a hundredweight bag of cement under each arm. I can manage one with difficulty – in other works a ton of books is pretty heavy.

One estimate I’ve found reckons that you can make 20 to 30 books from a 10 inch (25 cms) thick tree so my one hundred books would have required the death of four trees if they were paper, plus all the energy involved in felling the trees and transforming the wood into pulp. In the Kindle my books weigh effectively nothing, and cost virtually nothing to produce. What’s more they only take up a quarter of the Kindle’s available storage – so plenty more reading yet.

Actually my Kindle, just like my offices in the past, is a mess. I do have a section for “Books Abandoned”. There are 37 currently lying, sad and rejected, in there. Then I have the equivalent of my desk top where books lie about in good order, but actual disarray. There are well over a hundred books there patiently awaiting the push of my finger. Some, like The Diary of Samuel Pepys, I’ve been nibbling away at for years. Others are samples that I have yet to look at, others are in some intermediate state where I cannot bring myself to abandon them, but probably should. Still others are simply forgotten or ignored like a volume that has slipped from sight at the back of the sofa.

How can I be so messy? Well all of those books hanging around on my desk top, and those that I’ve abandoned and read are in that quarter of storage that I’ve used so far, so I can afford to be a little lax. Besides no one else sees my mess.

Where do all these books come from? Almost all are from Amazon of course, but the problem there is finding books that you like at prices that you like.  Here’s where Book Bub comes in. Every day it send me an email with news of eBooks on special offer that I might like and so I have a queue of books that I have sampled or bought by this route adding to the mess on my desk top. And I love it. My greatest fear is to be without a book to read - no fear of that nowadays, the problem is to find the time to read them.

My one hundredth book was The Fictional Man by Al Ewing. It was interesting. The gimmick here is the production (not explained in any detail) of fictional characters in the flesh who then play their namesakes in TV series etc. Yeah, it’s an odd idea, but it allows the author to debunk racism and question our own versions of reality. Not surprisingly it introduces the touchy subject of sex between ‘fictionals’ and ‘real people’ and ends with the odd concept of ‘real people’ who want to be ‘fictionals’. Perhaps not so odd in fact.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

An amusing launch of a very small book about a very large one

At an unusual book launch this week Peter Ashby, a local entrepreneur, read the definition of the word ‘Abbreviator’ from the first volume of a rather special book. It was an early copy of the Oxford English Dictionary which Peter had been given whilst transforming the dictionary into a compact version via microfiche. He had in turn generously given the many volume Dictionary to the nearby Frewen Club and had borrowed back the first volume for the evening.

The definition that he read from the Abbreviator entry was ‘An officer of the court of Rome, draw up the Pope’s briefs’ possibly proving that the ardent compilers of the great Dictionary had a sense of humour – or a blind eye!

Rob Walters, local guide and author, in launching his new book on the history of the Dictionary explained that the great book took nearly seventy years to complete. It was issued in parts by the Oxford University Press which took over publication in 1879 and ‘Abbreviator’ appeared in the very first section to be issued covering A-Ant. This miniscule fraction of the Dictionary was released in 1884 when already five years into a ten year contract. With half the A’s and all of the rest of the letters to do the task seemed ‘mission impossible’.

It was James Murray, a self-educated Scotsman, who nursed, guided and cajoled the Dictionary through its many years of near extinction finally arriving at Volume 3 which took the struggle up to the end of the E’s. It was at this point that the tide turned and the whole country, the University and the Oxford University Press  put their backs behind this grand and entirely uneconomic project. Rob explained that Murray died working on the letter T in 1915 in the full knowledge that his great work would be completed. Robert Bullard, local author of the popular Business Writing Tips read from a job application letter written by Murray which demonstrated the man’s phenomenal knowledge of the languages of the world.

Rob explained that the Dictionary had its true beginnings in 1857, but was not completed until 1928 with the publication of the first edition. However, this was not the end. The voluntary readers who scanned the thousands of books for quotations on which the dictionary was based continued their work through the near seventy years of compilation and so there was a backlog of new words leading to a supplement issued in 1933. And this is the story of the Dictionary’s life – the work never ends as new words are added and old definitions updated. Fortunately updating is much easier nowadays and the third edition of the Dictionary exists entirely on the Internet.

The evening finished with a rousing rendition of the ‘The Dictionary Song” by local musician and composer, Peter Madams, lead singer of the much missed Oxford group Veda Park.

The book is entitled A Concise History of the Oxford English Dictionary and is available from the Visitor Information Centre, the Book House, and Amazon. The launch was held on 21st March at the St Aldates’ Tavern, Oxford.