Pernilla’s questions

Last week, one of my fellow Blogg52ers, Pernilla who blogs at SVXRT40, was taking part in a chain response to a series of questions about books and reading. She concluded her entry for the week with a set of new questions that she passed on to any readers who felt challenged. I felt challenged.

(Let me just say I’ve made the executive decision to interpret “books” to exclude reference books or history books. Otherwise we might have a much longer text.)

The first question was Vart läser du helst? – Where do you read for preference?
I like to read in a quiet sitting room with good light and table nearby where I can stand a drink. What I like to read (changing the question) depends a great deal on how I’m feeling at the moment, but I think generally speaking and for entertainment I reach for either detective stories or science-fiction. Joy is finding a book that combines both successfully. I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, which I picked up when I was in London at the end of March. A wonderful fusion of noir, detection, thriller and existential science-fiction.

Gillar du att prata om böckerna du läser? Do you like to talk about the books you’re reading?
Sometimes I do and sometimes don’t. I’m not a member of any book club, but it’s fun to talk with people I know, if they’ve also read the same book. Just the moment I’m reading The Broken Road, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s final, posthumous account of the walk he took as an eighteen-year-old from London to Constantinople in the early 1930s. In this volume he is crossing Bulgaria. Bulgaria is where my wife and I met. Though fifty years separate Leigh Fermor’s visit and ours, it’s still fun to read out loud his descriptions of places we both know. I hope she’ll want to read the book too and maybe we can talk more about it then.

Vad tycker du om riktigt tjocka böcker?
What I think about really thick books – I think thick paperbacks are a bloody nuisance! Heavy to hold, with spines that are easily broken. There was a time when I thought they were good value – so much packed into them, but then I read a few that weren’t very well written and I came around to the perspective that thickness is no guarantee of a good read. Most of the thick books that I now own are either survivors from my youth or hardback replacements for good, thick books that fell apart (The Lord of the Rings, for example). Or, of course, some of them are reference books or history books — but we’re not talking about them!

Hur vill du ha det runt omkring för att läsningen ska bli trevlig?
I like it to be quiet around me when I’m reading, at least to start with. Once I’m into whatever I’m reading, if it’s caught my attention, I can tolerate music and even conversation around me if it’s not too loud. The most disturbing noise is conversation in English if I’m reading English or conversation in Swedish if I’m reading Swedish. That really disrupts my concentration. I like to be sitting comfortably, but I can read on the tram and I enjoy reading on a train. I’m not very good on long distance buses though. It’s nice to have a cup of tea or coffee to hand (see my answer to the first question), but if I’m really deep into a book I’m likely to forget about the drink and discover it tepid or cold when I eventually emerge.

Hur mycket tid anser du att du behöver ha fri för att börja läsa?
It’s hard to say how much free time I think I need before I start reading. It used to be, I’m almost sure, that my answer would be “None.” Nowadays, though, I’m very conscious that I’m more likely to pick up a smart phone to check news headlines rather than a book to read, if, for example, I have a shorter journey into town or maybe 20 minutes before I have to start making food. Picking up a book to read is far less of a natural spontaneous thing to do than it used to be. I’m not sure when that happened, but I think it must have been in my 30s when work — work that involved a great deal of reading — came to occupy so much more of my attention. In other words, I think I had already lost the spontaneous reading habit even before I became intimately acquainted with the Black Dog. I miss it, which perhaps is a sign I might rediscover it in the future.

När läste du en hel natt senast?
It is a very, very long time since I was so excited by a book that I sat up all night to read it. I don’t think I’ve done that since my student days. Another experience is closer to hand: being unable to sleep and getting up in the middle of the night and sitting with a book, often a book of poetry, and reading for two or three hours or until the dawn comes up.

Vem skulle du vilja ge ett boktips? Vilken bok skulle du tipsa om då? To whom would you like to recommend a book? Which book would you recommend?
I don’t recommend books much, though it happens — usually on the spur of the moment. This week – tomorrow in fact – people in Britain are going to the polls to elect a new parliament. As ever, the new parliament will consist of a mixture of hacks elected for the umpteenth time, career politicians who have climbed the rungs of party politics and now get to play with the big boys and girls, and a small group of individuals who don’t fall into either of these categories but who’ve joined in and campaigned out of the burning conviction that they might be able to make a difference or to protest against the other candidates. I’ve been wondering what book or books I might recommend to this last group.
I’m feeling cynical, so I recommend The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Not only is this an admirable guidebook to the practicalities of politics and power, you might also use it to help you spot when you are being manipulated and perhaps help yourself to avoid some of those pitfalls.

Vilken bok borde alla ha läst? Which book should everyone have read?
That’s a hard question to answer. In Britain a very long-running radio programme called Desert Island Discs asks guests which one book they would take with them to a desert island assuming they already have copies of The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. This is because most Brits of the sort likely to be invited as guests on Desert Island Discs, if not limited by this proviso, would almost certainly say either The Bible or Shakespeare — which would make for a very predictable list. They’re good choices though. If you’re familiar with The Bible you’re familiar with a significant foundation for Western literature, and if you’re familiar with the works of Shakespeare then you are familiar with a significant foundation for English literature. In both cases you get a huge number of stories as well. But let’s go right the way back, why not? I think everybody should have read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the oldest piece of literature in the world, and a cracking good story!

Senaste bok du ångrar att du läste ut? The latest book you regret having read through to the end?
Hmmm, nowadays I rarely regret wasting my time reading to the end books that don’t work for me. If a book hasn’t revealed itself in the first fifty pages or so to be interesting, intriguing, exciting, funny or whatever, I might give it another fifty pages, but usually I give up. In this way I have saved myself from the pain of reading, for example, anything by Dan Brown but the first hundred pages of The Da Vinci Code.

Hur ser du på böcker du lånar ut?
I have a very sad affliction that means I find it hard to lend books. It’s not that I don’t want to encourage other people to read good books, it’s that if I lend a book I expect it to come back – preferably in the same condition I lent it. This just doesn’t happen. Nowadays I try not to lend books, but to give them away. A book given away is not a book one hopes to see again. Sadly this doesn’t always work and I am right now thinking about a copy of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm — a hardback Folio edition in a slipcase with beautiful illustrations – that I lent more than two years ago. Is it ever going to come back to me? I begin to doubt.


Recent ReadingThanks Pernilla, answering those questions was fun. It’s inspired me to run a similar book lover’s questionnaire and I just spent this morning putting it together. There are seven questions. Rather than present them all here though, I shall publish a separate question each day for the next seven days, both here and on my Facebook page. I’m interested to see what answers I get — if any. I’ll summarise the response in my next Blogg52 entry. (Which consequently may be a day late.)


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Dr Dolittle

Sometimes when I’m stuck for a story idea, I revisit a series of books I enjoyed as a child. (Also, it seems, when I’m stuck for a blog entry.) The books are the stories of Dr Dolittle.

Dr Dolittle and horseIn several places in the books when the doctor and his “family” are killing time, someone is sure to ask the doctor for a story and he usually says that he can’t think of one, but then turns out his pockets. His pockets are full of all sorts of things that he’s picked up here and there over time and there’s always something he can tell a story about.

It’s a good technique, and you don’t have to fill your pockets with odds and ends. Just look around and let your eye light on something. If you’re at home you might look at the pictures on your walls, the things on your shelves, the furniture or animals in your room, or what you can see out of the window. If you’re out, look at the people passing by or the decorations on the buildings, adverts, snatches of conversation, smells, insects, rubbish. Ask yourself, Does thing this have a story to tell me? Why does it look this way? Who used it? Who threw it away and why? Or did they drop it – is it lost? Who is this person? Where is she going and how do I know?

I’ve even used this technique when I’ve been teaching English conversation as a hook to start people talking, telling stories about themselves or their surroundings.

Dr Dolittle, Jip the dog and Dab-Dab the duck aboard shipIf you search for Dr Dolittle on the Internet, as I’ve just done, the majority of the hits you get take you to the Eddie Murphy films from the turn of the recent century or to the 1967 film with Rex Harrison as the doctor. But Dr Dolittle is much older than that. The author, Hugh Lofting, wrote the germ of his Dr Dolittle stories in letters to his children from trenches and battlefields of the First World War. Of all the writing and pictures to come out of the First World War, surely the illustrated Dr Dolittle stories were the most unlikely.

Hugh Lofting was British but married and resident in the USA when the war broke out. In 1916 he was called up, travelled back to Britain and saw service on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. His experiences in the trenches were, he said, by turns too horrible or too boring to put into letters home to his young family – his daughter was four years old in 1917, his son two. Besides, his children wanted stories and pictures.

Lofting looked around and his eye lit on the animals that were conscripted to fight in the war alongside the humans. Years later he wrote:

If we made the animals take the same chances we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.

And so the idea came to him of a country doctor, disillusioned with human society, who prefers the company of animals and who learns to speak with them in order to be able to take care of them.

The letters written 1917 to 1918 became the basis for Lofting’s first novel The Story of Dr Dolittle. Or, to give it its full title, The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed.

Dr Dolittle - The End


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The illustrations are by Hugh Lofting and taken from the edition of The Story of Dr Dolittle “Digitized for the Microsoft Corporation by Internet Archive in 2007 from New York Public Library”. Hugh Lofting died in 1947, so his works are under copyright in Europe for another two years – but Microsoft claim the book is out of copyright in the USA as it was published in 1923. If anyone from the Estate of Hugh Lofting objects to my using these illustrations, please get in touch and I will remove them. But I hope you won’t.

Revamp

As regular visitors here will notice (I hope), I have carried out a revamp of At the Quill.

I’m in the process of building a new website. (It’s going to be called Stops and Stories and will be a forum of me to write about my travels – more on that later.) Anyway, for the new website I looked at a number of themes and I was rather taken with WP’s in-house theme TwentyFifteen. After I’d decided to use it for the new website, I heard the news that Google are changing the way they choose to display websites in their search results. (Journalists are calling this “Mobilgeddon”.) Apparently Google are going to favour sites that are responsive (adapt to different mobile devices) and that give users an easier viewing experience. Various tech journalists have estimated that “millions” of websites will be downgraded (for example, here).

Well, TwentyFifteen is a nice clean theme and seems to me to be both easy to read and very responsive. (I’ve tried it out on a number of different devices – thank you Gothenburg’s Media Markt and El Giganten.) That’s why I chose it for the new site. But then I got to thinking – in the lurid light of Mobilegeddon – that perhaps At the Quill would benefit from a facelift too. So, that’s what you see!

There’s one drawback with the new theme though – the header text and navigation buttons appear in the column to the left (on a computer screen) and there’s no space for my rotating banners, so I’m going to retire them. Before I say Adios, though, I thought I could give them an article to themselves and say a little about each of them. It also gives me an opportunity to test the responsive photo gallery plug-in I’ve added to the site as well. (Click on the pictures to see what I mean.)

Header- booksLet’s start with this one – as the blog is nominally about reading and writing. This is a photo of some of the books on my bookshelves, taken a good many years ago now. I tried out a single shelf first of all, but I decided having the books at an angle was more dynamic. I also decided that applying a raster effect (the dots) anonymised the books and made them more of an abstraction.

Header - cartoon faceThe second banner – which I think of as the cartoon faces – is a piece of cloth from IKEA that I photographed when it was being used as the wall of a tent. The bearded chap in the glasses, I though, looked a bit like me. To help the one figure stand out from the others, I applied a radial blur in Photoshop.

Header - stone eye This one comes from a series of photos I took of what I suppose is a kind of graffiti. The artist, Joakim Stampe, finds faces in the exposed natural rock beside roads and footpaths. He uses paint, mostly in a monochrome scale, to bring out the faces he finds. You come across his art here and there around Gothenburg. Writers, I believe find stories in all sorts of unexpected places, so it seemed a very appropriate illustration. (Here’s a little gallery of some more of Joakim’s faces.)

Header - horse This is another piece of graffiti – a regular horse coloured in like a Dalecarlian horse. It was on a grey electricity junction box. I’m all for redecorated electricity junction boxes (ugly rectangular things) and I liked the idea of a horse painted orange and patterned.

Header - MusesThis header – the muses – I only used for a short period. It’s a wall painting from the South Bank in London. I really liked the painting – I liked that it was made of words and that it named the muses. However, the only angle at which I was able to photograph it gave great prominence to Urania muse of astronomy and Polyhymnia muse of song. The next one along is “my” muse – Clio muse of history – but it’s difficult to make out her name, so I decided to take this picture out of the cycle. But I’ll let it in here, now, for one last fling.

Header - wavingFinally this is a picture of my waving shadow – together with my wife’s waving shadow. It seems appropriate to end with this as we are now waving goodbye to these banners.

The falling quills – actually a drawing of a goose quill I picked up a couple of years ago – remain as the wallpaper behind the left sidebar (on a computer – on a smart phone they’re in the header). I haven’t decided yet whether to add a logo to the sidebar – and if I do, what it should be. Another stylised goose quill perhaps (as on the banners) or perhaps my SC-in-a-circle logo (which is doing service on some of my other sites). Or something else? Any suggestions?

Henceforth each blog entry here will have it’s own Header image (similar in size to the one gracing this entry). Henceforth until the next revamp, I mean. 🙂


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Bothwell in Brussels

James Hepburn 4th Earl of Bothwell. This miniature painted in 1566
James Hepburn 4th Earl of Boswell.
It’s funny how information leaps out at you when you have been sensitised to it. Although I must have read it more than once, I’ve only just realised that the Earl of Bothwell was in Brussels in August 1565. James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell and Hereditary Admiral of the Scottish Navy is a character I want to use in the fourth book of Elin’s Story, and I’ve been looking for a way to bring him into the novel at least tangentially earlier on so his reappearance won’t be too much of a surprise.

Bothwell, in the title of one of his biographies that I have in front of me, was The Queen’s Man – the Queen being Mary Queen of Scots, whose tragic story of utter incompetence is a foil to the story of her hyper-competent cousin Queen Elizabeth of England. Although Bothwell was nominally a Protestant and Mary a Catholic their mutual interest in a Scotland independent of England overrode religious differences and Bothwell seems to have tried to support the Queen as Scotland’s best hope.

That said, in truth navigating Bothwell’s motives is tricky not least because – as with Mary herself – his biographers tend to be highly partisan. He is the villain who murders Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley, gets away with it, and then forces Mary to marry him as her third husband after having kidnapped and raped her. Alternatively, he is her loyal man of action who rescues her from her loveless marriage and finally sweeps her off her feet.

Neither story ends well, of course. Mary loses Scotland, lives for years under house arrest in England and is eventually beheaded in 1587. Bothwell, fleeing Scotland by sea, washes up in Norway where his first wife (yes, really!) accuses him of adultery among other things and has him incarcerated. Moved to Copenhagen, he eventually dies in the dungeons of Dragshölm, probably insane, in 1578.

The fourth book of the Elin’s Story series is going to be partly a tale of spying and mistrust. It’s set in the middle of the 1570s and one feature of it will be a plot to spring the Earl from prison in Copenhagen in order to have him lead a Scottish army into England to liberate Mary. I want my heroine to have met the Earl beforehand. In August 1565 Elin was a 15-year-old maid in the service of Princess Cecilia Vasa who had just reached Emden in the north east corner of the Netherlands and was staying there as she waited for a formal invitation to visit England.

Fortunately, very little is known about the Earl of Bothwell’s movements in August, beyond the fact that he visited Brussels for a meeting and presumably took a boat from somewhere on the coast of the North Sea, because he made landfall in Scotland on the 17th September 1565. So, plenty of scope to bring him north to Emden.

Meanwhile, the Princess Cecilia and her “family” – as the party are called in the records – were enjoying the hospitality of the Lady of Emden, Katarina Vasa, married to Count Edzard II of East Friesland. That must have been awkward at times. Cecilia and Edzard’s brother Johan had had an affair in Vadstena soon after Katarina and Edzard married and Johan had been caught with his pants down. Literally. He was severely beaten and very possibly castrated by Cecilia’s brother Erik, now (in 1565) King of Sweden. (All this went down in Swedish history as Vadstenabullret – which I think is best translated as “the Vadstena Brouhaha”.)

Of course East Friesland was pretty solidly Protestant – in fact Calvinist – at this time, and unlikely to be an easy place for Bothwell to drum up support for his cause. Also Princess Cecilia was in 1565 still infatuated with Queen Elizabeth and all things English and so not likely to be interested in entertaining Bothwell’s ambitions. On the other hand Cecilia certainly had an eye for handsome men and Bothwell must have had a magnetic personality to go with his good looks. In less than a year, Cecilia had swung around to hatred of England and the English and later in life even converted to Catholicism for political reasons. Could Bothwell have planted a seed? Conviction could be fluid in the 1500s. (As indeed today.)

But I don’t have to take Bothwell all the way to Emden. The capital of the Spanish Netherlands – the political unit that included the modern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1565 – was Antwerp and I know that the Princess and her family, with Elin as one member, passed through Antwerp on their way to Calais at the end of August. They were five days Antwerp, so here is another place where their paths might have crossed with Bothwell’s.

All this research. What a lot of fun! But wouldn’t it be better to get on with the bloody story?


The original of the illustration, a miniature painting on a copper medallion, is held by the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. This jpeg is taken from the collection at the Google Art Project here.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Her hidden face

Recent book covers from Amazon UK
Recent book covers from Amazon UK
One of the things I learnt from Writing Historical Fiction, the book I reviewed in my last article, was that there is a puzzling – not to say disturbing – visual cliche on the cover of a surprisingly large number of books of historical fiction which have a woman as protagonist. Celia Brayfield writes about what she calls “the headless woman” phenomenon on pages 50 through 53 of the book. It’s not just that women’s heads are lopped off, they can also be hidden, turned away or blacked out. It’s difficult to know what goes through the heads of publisher’s art directors when they make this choice. Brayfield uses this as one illustration of “the tensions that an author has to resolve when creating a female protagonist in a historical novel”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what she means – not that I misunderstand her words, but I don’t understand how the headless women illustrates what she wants to say.

My gut interpretation is that publishers’ art directors assume that these books will most appeal to women, that they assume women read historical fiction to vicariously experience life in another time, and that if the face of the heroine is unidentifiable it makes it easier for the reader to identify herself as the heroine. I’m not saying I believe this to be the truth myself, but it’s the only interpretation I can find that seems to make sense. Because it is absolutely true that an astonishing number of novels of historical fiction with female protagonists are illustrated on their front covers by women whose faces are invisible.

The five book covers I’m using to illustrate this article were taken from the first few pages of Amazon UK’s current historical fiction lists. I picked the ones that seemed more or less “Tudor” but I could have included others from earlier and later historical epochs. Not all books with female protagonists set in historical contexts are illustrated like this, and there are a few (a very few) books where a male protagonist is similarly illustrated, but the broad tendency is very obvious.

What this cliche illustrates unintentionally (and I think this may be what Celia Brayfield is getting at too) is the way that women’s lives and experiences have for centuries been ignored – hidden – in history books. When I first came across Elin’s story, which forms the core of the novel I am myself attempting to write, I was astounded that I had never heard of it before. A young woman travels from Sweden to England in the 1560s, becomes a Lady in Waiting at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, marries the Queen’s step-uncle and ends up as the senior English female aristocrat and mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral in 1603. When I looked in the sources, I found her, but as I had studied Tudor history at school and at university I couldn’t understand why I was learning about this only for the first time. More than anything else, discovering Elin’s story made real for me the criticisms feminist historians have been making for years about the way in which history has been distorted by male historians.

It also illustrated what I had been teaching in my periods as a history teacher: that the history we know is the story that was told to us; that everybody – even the most well-intentioned and scrupulously balanced historian – is prejudiced in some degree and allows their prejudice to influence the story they tell; that everybody ought to be wary of prejudice – of the prejudice others and of their own prejudices; that there is so much more in the source material; and that every generation comes to the same material with new questions, new perspectives and new interpretations, and comes away with new stories.

And you can – should – apply this thinking to stories in the news and the tales you are told by people around you as much as to stories from history.

Not sure how much of that came across – here, now, or to my students back then – but I live in hope.

Hide her face


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Habits of Successful Authors

Thinking about writing
Thinking about writing.
I did not make a resolution, but I was rather hoping that this year I would be writing frequent blog entries At the Quill – and at least one a week for the #Blogg52 challenge — but I haven’t managed it. The ordinary, the everyday (which has not been either ordinary or everyday as we moved to Brussels on 5th January) has intruded and distracted and I’ve barely managed to keep up appearances on the social networks.

A few days ago, out of the blue, I received a mail offering me a ready-written blog article. For just a moment there I thought: Here’s someone who’s been reading me and is fed up of waiting for the next blog entry so they’ve written one for me! Not a bit of it, of course, but I was taken in for a moment. The blog article purported to be an info-graphic. The person offering it — let’s call him Steve — said he had just produced it and he thought it might suit my blog. Of course what he was really after was for me to accept his article without looking too carefully at it and not spotting that it was designed to take readers away from my blog to the article’s home website. I went and looked and found the home website was offering writing services (at a price) for bloggers and school students.

As a teacher (former teacher) I have no interest in promoting websites that help students cheat. And as a blogger — albeit an irregular and sometimes reluctant one — who writes about the process of writing, I really have little interest in publishing other people’s work. So, thank you for the offer Steve, but no thank you.

Of course, I read through Steve’s info-graphic — I’m nosey as well.

I wasn’t overly impressed. First of all because Steve hadn’t really managed very well. True there were six or seven images, but then several paragraphs of text. In my book an info-graphic ought to manage to compress all its information into graphical form, otherwise it’s just an illustration.

Secondly, I’m afraid Steve did not quite come up to my standards of literacy. (Modest cough.) Not to say he was illiterate, no, but there were misused prepositions, odd combinations of pronouns, some dodgy punctuation and I wasn’t terribly impressed by the logic of some of his sentences. Now, these are all the sort of slips I might make myself (hopefully not all of them in the same article) but then they’re my slips. I would either catch them before publishing, or publish and then spot them — or get called out by a reader — and hang my head in shame before correcting them and hoping no one (else) had seen them. Why would I be interested in publishing Steve’s uncorrected drafts?

As for the subject: The Habits of Successful Authors. Hrmmph.

Steve had gutted a book and a couple of Internet articles for authors’ writing habits, collected a bunch of author photographs and then composed a dubious analysis. Some of his authors started writing early in the morning, others late in the afternoon. Some wrote stone cold sober, others wrote under the influence of various forms of narcotics from the mild — tea, coffee and cigarettes — to the less so — alcohol, hash, opium and so forth. Some had to write in the presence of certain smells (Schiller), others (Victor Hugo) wrote naked. There wasn’t anything particularly new to me in the list (except for that about Schiller and his rotten apples) and after reading I wasn’t anywhere closer to an understanding of what Steve meant by “success”.

Is success as an author defined by the ability to produce texts? Or is it defined by the ability to get published? Or the ability to attract and hold an audience? I would say all three, but an author’s writing habits are only able to ensure success in the first of these.

Beyond this, the paragraphs of text that followed the pictures basically backtracked on every recommendation they made and ended up saying nothing much at all: Getting up early worked for A, B and C, but starting late worked for X, Y and Z. Writing drunk worked for D and E, but V and W only wrote sober.

The truth is, “the habits of successful authors” are the writing habits that the authors themselves found worked for them personally. That doesn’t mean they’re going to work for anyone else. Of course you can try out different strategies in the search for what works for you, but setting out to copy other people’s strategies because you believe that therein lies the secret of success could also be a distraction from finding how to write yourself.

(Another way to avoid actually learning how to write yourself, Steve, is to borrow — or buy — someone else’s work to present as your own. Just saying.)

What habits work for me? I know from experience that what I need is a regular schedule. I have to get into the habit of sitting down in front of the computer at a fixed time daily and writing – either producing a minimum number of words or staying at the keyboard for a specific period. Once I’ve established my rhythm and can carry on doing it, day in, day out, the occasional short interruption is not a problem. Longer breaks are. Getting started in the first place (and getting started again after a longer interruption) is really difficult.

All my plans for writing success once we moved to Belgium were predicated on being quickly able to get into a regular writing rhythm. I just haven’t been able to do that yet. The mundane, the quotidian, keeps intruding.

I keep trying though.


The medieval woodcut that illustrates this article comes from the collection at ClipArt Etc. I am happy to thank and acknowledge them.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Who can put a price on Christmas?

A price on Christmas
A price on Christmas

A picture in place of 1000 words this week. A box of Christmas figures outside a second-hand shop in Gothenburg. I’m particularly intrigued at the relatively high – and so very exact – price on the pig. Mind you, 70:- for the bad-tempered little girls on the log seems a bit steep.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

En français

Amidst the intensity of organising our move to Brussels, and various family matters that don’t have anything to do with the move but impinge on it, one thought has been hovering at the back of my mind. The thought is French. Le français.

jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh
jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh
Like most English children I was exposed to French at school for all of seven years, but I would hesitate to say I know French. I can read it (usually with a great deal of effort and the help of a dictionary – and even then I sometimes get it startlingly wrong). I can’t write it and I certainly can’t speak it.

Brussels is, by and large, a French speaking city. When we were there flat hunting in November I managed quite a few Bonjours, but whenever I was supposed to say Au revoir, what came out of my mouth? Hej då!

I begin to fear my brain is geared up for two languages: “English” and “Foreign”. At present the “Foreign” space is occupied by Swedish – but what will happen if I have to learn French? Will the French drive out the Swedish?

No, I know it won’t, but it might seem that way for a while.

Into this confusion my mother has delivered a copy of The AA Phrasebook French, with a note “Any good, mon enfant?” The AA is the Automobile Association (of which my 92-year-old mother is still a paid up member). To be sure the section called “On the road” is not likely to be of much use, but some of the rest might help – at least to begin with and for those automatic phrases: Bonjour – Ça va? – Comment allez-vous? – Ça va bien – Au revoir – Bonsoir – Bonne nuit – Dors bien – Merci, de meme – Mon aéroglisseur est plein d’anguilles…

(OK, that last one isn’t in the book.)

Leafing through the phrase book I was reminded of a very funny piece by American humorist James Thurber. He uses a French phrase book to tell a story of drama and horror. It was the last section of The AA Phrasebook French that reminded me of Thurber’s piece. The last section is called “The police”.

Dispensing with the French bit – that would just slow us down – this is what we find. It is the police officer who gets to speak first.

Your registration papers, please.
You were speeding.
Your lights aren’t working.
That’s a … euro fine.
Do you want to pay on the spot?
You’ll have to pay on the spot.

OK, our travellers have got into a bit of a fix, but perhaps they can talk their way out.

I didn’t see the sign.
I don’t understand what it says.
I was only doing … kilometres an hour.
I’ll have my car checked.
I was blinded by oncoming lights.

Well, you can see this isn’t going to do them any good. They are avoiding the whole money issue. So it’s off to the police station with them. At the police station, the police take over again.

Where did it happen?
What’s missing?
Do you have some identification?
What time did it happen?
Who are the others?
Are there any other witnesses?
Fill this out, please.
Sign here, please.

There is at least a semblance of courtesy, but a threat underlies this barrage of questions and directions, a threat our traveller now reacts to.

I want to report a collision/missing person/rape.
Could you make out a report please?
Could I have a copy for the insurance?
I’ve lost everything.
I’d like an interpreter.
I am innocent!

The full Kafkaesque horror of the situation has dawned at last.

I don’t know anything about it.
I want to speak to someone from the British Consulate.
I need to see someone from the British Embassy.

And a final desperate appeal.

I want a lawyer who speaks English!

jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh
jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh
In an attempt to help the unwary traveller, the phrase book also provides a “phonetic” guide.

If you have ever wondered at the English and their ability to make simple foreign language phrases sound both English and completely incomprehensible, the phonetic guide gives an indication of how they do this. An English speaker trying to say the word Bonjour, for example, is encouraged to say bawnjhoor.

Take the last phrase in the book – the cri du cœur: I want a lawyer who speaks English! The traveller is recommended to say:
jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh.

Yeah. That’ll work.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Brand New Computational Device

My new Fujitsu
My new Fujitsu
I read recently that Microsoft is discontinuing sales of Windows 7. Not all versions of Windows 7, they’ll continue selling the business version for a while it seems, but they’re trying to steer people over to Windows 8. Horrible! My experience of Windows 8 has been so negative that I had already decided to stick with Windows 7 until Microsoft realise the idiocy of their new operative system and make something which is not actively user-hostile. If I have to learn to use a new operative system then I’ll switch to Apple. It’s just that MacBooks are so expensive.

Anyway, the Microsoft news helped fertilise a growing idea that now was a good time to buy a brand new computational device – a new (cheapish) laptop. I’m away to Brussels soon, I’m going to have time to write (that’s the plan), so why not celebrate with a new, dedicated workhorse? I’ve bought myself a Fujitsu, with an i5 Intel chip and a four core processor and I’ve splashed out on 16 GB of RAM. (And the OS is, yes, Windows 7.) So now I need to fill it.

I’ve bought a copy of Dragon 13 – the latest upgrade to the dictation programme that I use. It’s “15% more reliable than Dragon 12” – whatever that may mean. Perhaps it means it’s more likely to print a full stop than to write the words well stop every fifth time I say it. Hope lives eternal.

I’m also going to install the latest edition of Scrivener from Literature and Latte, the software I find most useful when I’m writing. It’s a minor irritation that I can’t dictate directly into Scrivener with Dragon, but I’m going to have to install either Word or Open Office anyway and Dragon plays fairly nicely with them. (I’m dictating this with Dragon 12 into MS Word.)

So, those are the core programmes I need. The next question is, what else?

What do you think I ought to try?

A nice programme for mind mapping would be useful. Has anyone tried using Free Mind? What about Scapple?

A basic programme for sketching would also come in handy – I own a sketch tablet from Wacom and I’m going to take that with me. The new computer is not great on photo processing – it doesn’t have a separate graphic card – but I like to doodle sometimes so does anyone know of a programme they can recommend?

What about photo processing? Obviously I won’t need anything as advanced as Photoshop, but it would be nice to be able to crop and adjust photos in a basic way. What’s the photo processing software you swear by?

What else? What other software do you like to use? For what purpose? Do share!


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The stories we tell

Joke
An Englishman went into a bar in Edinburgh and said “Can you tell me the quickest way to Glasgow?”
The barman said “Are you walking or are you driving?”
“Driving.” said the Englishman.
“Aye,” said the barman. “That’s the quickest way.”

When I was about 10 or 11 I discovered a way to hide from my mother things that I’d done at school that I knew she wouldn’t like. The technique was to give her a well-edited account of my day. If I concentrated on one or two innocuous events, and my account of them was sufficiently full, then the fact they occupied only about an hour of my school day would go unnoticed and I wouldn’t get grilled about the rest of the time.

Humans are storytellers. You can define us as a species in other ways I know, but I like this one and no one has yet identified storytelling among any other species, so why not? We share with stories: share our experiences, our dreams, our ideas and histories, our perceptions and values. Stories are the things that bind us together socially, both at the level of friends and families, and as groups, societies, religious or political believers. Nations.

This week I’ve been exposed to a number of different stories about nationhood. I am travelling in Britain and I flew here from Sweden a week ago. Last Sunday a Swedish general election took place in which several different stories of Swedish nationhood were being told and voted upon. And on Thursday – tomorrow at the time of writing – Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

All stories are always simplifications. Even the most intricately planned and delicately balanced novel – James Joyce’s Ulysses for example – is a simplification. Real life is untidy, incoherent, complex and glorious. When we tell stories we deliberately set out to take from real life, to hone, shave and organise so that the story contains enough reality to be believable, but no more. The day-to-day mess of reality gets in the way of storytelling. Stories always try to focus on one or a few essential details and aim to convey as simply as possible the message we want to share.

This is true whether you are a kid telling your parent about something that happened at school, or a comic telling a story to an audience, or a politician projecting a vision of a country. Your story always and ever only reflects a part of reality.

The trick, of course, is how much reality you include. My schools stories included just enough to make my day sound boring so as not to invite closer inspection. In a novel it’s often necessary to include much more reality to convince your reader. Ulysses infamously includes so much reality some original reviewers thought it was unplanned. (It is in fact ferociously well-planned and based on the structure of Homer’s Odysseus.)

The joke that starts this entry is about as empty of reality as you can go. You are not supposed to ask: Why was the Englishman asking direction? Why did he go into a bar to do so? You are not supposed to ask why the barman replied the way he did. You are supposed to know.

The format: “X goes into a bar” is a standard way to start a joke. The naming of a nationality sets you up for a prejudice. The barman is Scots (he is resident in Edinburgh and says “Aye” instead of “Yes”) and he has the last word, so he’s the hero. The Englishman is the butt of the joke for asking a stupid question.

The nation-stories I’ve been hearing recently are almost as divorced from reality as the joke. Not quite – there has to be a flake more of truth in them – but they depend just as much on prejudice, and encourage the listener just as much not to question but to accept. They aim at once to promote and confirm an established prejudice. Scotland is unjustly deprived of her freedom by the leeches of Westminster and the evil English. The Swedish nation (one people, one culture) is being undermined by an evil and unholy conspiracy of communists, capitalists feminists and foreigners. The United Kingdom is mystically united by ties of blood, Scots and English, spilled in defence of the nation on the battlefields of two world wars. And so on.

I can’t help feeling that if we all read more real fiction – and discussed how it works – we might be in a better position to question the paltry efforts of politicians and propagandists.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.