Thursday, 24 December 2009

Cinderella and Goldilocks do lunch

Our writing group tries to set a group task each week. Last week, in the festive spirit, the task was an imaginary conversation between two fairy tale characters.

Scene, a self service restaurant somewhere in Hollywood.

Scene a large self-service cafeteria in Hollywood.

There must be a place to sit somewhere – Cinderella glanced around the crowded room clutching a tray in one hand and her handbag in another. Weaving though the tables she spied a single woman sitting alone with her back to everyone.

‘I think I know that hair’ she thought. As she approached, a large, almost bear-like, man rose to block her way and then hesitated

‘Oh Cinders I didn’t recognise you with the head scarf.’ He moved aside and she slid into the empty seat. The girl opposite raised her head, flicking the golden blond hair out of her eyes.

‘I see you’re up to five now’ said Cinderella pointing at five boiled eggs sitting in a row of eggcups in front of Goldilocks.

‘It’s hard to get it just right.’

‘Are you seeing anyone about it?’

‘About what?’

About the OCD darling - you know it’s getting worse. I mean it used to be three bowls of porridge and such like, and now you’re up to five.’

‘Well what’s wrong with five – your prince Charming has five.’

‘No he doesn’t love, you’re confusing him with prince Charles, and anyway I’m sure that’s an urban myth. There’s always daft stories going around about Charles. Having five eggs to be sure of getting one just right is as daft as that story about his valet having to put his toothbrush handle to the right because he’s right handed. Honestly you can’t believe every thing you hear. You really do need to see someone - Hollywood is full of very good shrinks – you should get one.’

‘Don’t go on at me, it’s been a bad day.’

‘The bears giving trouble again?’

‘You don’t know the half of it. It’s all the hangers on as well. A vet and a handler for each bear and they have to have a rest about every half hour. A plain old actress can work all day, but the bears have to have their rest.

‘The little one is the worst – they grow so fast so we have to keep training a new baby bear. It’s ridiculous. They grow almost full size in a year and they only have babies in the spring. Before the end of May they’re too young to learn anything and then before you know they’re too big. By September it’s hopeless, and we have to wait till next year. How can a girl maintain her reputation on four months work a year.’

‘Funny isn’t it’ said Cinderella ‘you always hear about actors resting – I didn’t know bears did it too.’

Goldilocks ignored her.

‘Then there’s the furniture. The chairs have to be made of steel about an inch thick or they collapse when father bear sits on them. I caught my toe on his chair last week and almost lost a foot. The beds are beyond belief – OK it’s a good enough line “this beds too hard” - sounds charming and all that. “This bed is armour plated steel” doesn’t have the same ring but it’s a bloody sight nearer the truth.’

‘Are you going to eat the other eggs?’

‘No, the one at that end is too soft and the others are too hard. If you want one fire away.’

‘I think I’ll have the hard one – it’ll go well with my soup.’

‘I don’t know how you can eat leftovers the way you do – doesn’t anything upset you?’

‘It was my wicked stepmother; I had to learn to put up with anything, I’d have starved otherwise.’

For a second Goldilocks self-centred world was punctured

‘Sorry, I forgot – I didn’t think.’

‘Don’t fret love - it came in handy at the end didn’t it.’


‘Have you ever thought what a coach made out of pumpkin smells like? Especially an old one left in the back of the pantry since Halloween. Chuck in footmen made from mice and rats for horses and I reckon anyone else would have passed out before they got anywhere near the ball.’

Goldilocks smiled and relaxed. ‘You’re a survivor kid, you always were. Anyway it’s nice to see you – I didn’t know you were in town. What do you think of my new body guard?’

‘He looks like a bear.’

Goldilocks almost fell off the chair laughing. ‘He does – you’re right! I can’t get away from them can I? I never realised. His name’s Barry – He’ll have to be Barry the Bear.’ She glanced behind her at the massive bulk , but Barry was scanning the room for possible trouble and didn’t notice.

She turned back to Cinderella. ‘Are you working? Is that why you’re in town?’

‘Doing voice-overs and scripts, there’s not much call for princesses right now.’

‘Is Sleeping Beauty grabbing your trade?’

‘Her – no way - it’s a little known side effect of that stuff the evil fairy gave her – when you wake up, you age twice as fast as before. She’s on her third face-lift already. She lives on potions and make up. She’s on so much botox that the prince daren’t kiss her in case he gets paralysed.’

Goldilocks swept her famous hair off her face and grinned at Cinderella. ‘You do make a gorgeous princess when you put your mind to it. Why do you wear that headscarf all the time – you look like a wicked old hag.’

‘I picked up that look from my stepsisters – it’s a killer isn’t it. I just don’t like being recognised – having to sign all those autographs and stuff. I’d never get any work done.’ She eased the scarf off her head and shook loose her jet-black hair.

Goldilocks watched it settle with an expert eye.

‘You should try some of this stuff I’ve just started marketing. I make more from hair product commercials that anything else these days.’

Cinderella nodded ‘Marketing? Is that what you call it. It’s always been your think hasn’t it – promotion. I always said you should have franchised the porridge.’

‘Oh yeah – and have to share it with the bears – no way. Anyway franchising can be a mugs game. Did you hear about Jack?’

Cinderella shook her head.

‘He ran out of magic beans so got some wheeze going with Genetic Engineering – you know, like GM beans. Trouble is they grew too fast. They had to film at night because they couldn’t get the right shots in one day and by the next day the beanstalk was out of sight – cost a fortune in overtime and lights and what have you.

Next thing you know the whole thing has grown so fast it’s too weak to hold itself up and it all collapses. The giant was crushed under it before they’d even got his castle built – he’s in a wheelchair, and they’ve got to rewrite the whole script – had to bring in more writers.

They’re playing safe now but anyone can tell the new beanstalk is concrete and plastic, and they’re so far over budget that Jack may never work in this town again.’

Cinderella took another egg and finished her soup. ‘That’s why I keep the other side of the camera.’

‘I don’t know why you have to work at all’

‘Oh yeah – fairy princess with prince Charming – happily ever after, and all that.’ Cinderella put her spoon down. ‘Have you any idea what the upkeep on a castle comes to these days. I’m doing some great stuff on those bed commercials – you know, all that princess and the pea stuff. This new memory foam remembers where the pea is and moulds around it, even I can’t tell where it is.’

‘That’s cool did you write the script for it?’

‘Yup, and directed it.’

‘You’re getting to be a regular movie mogul. Have you heard about the mess the golden goose woman got into?’

Cinderella rolled her eyes, grinning mischievously as she eyed the last egg.

‘You’re going to tell me aren’t you?’

Goldilocks leaned closer across the table. ‘It’s the recession, isn’t it. You know all those adverts on the box “send us your old gold and we’ll send you money.” Well the golden egg bit has always been a bit of a hoax anyway – I mean there’s hardly any actual gold in the eggshell, but it was always good for fooling peasants. Trouble is they aren’t so many peasants these days so the old woman thought. “What about sending the eggs to these gold people?” Seemed like a smart idea, so she packs up a bunch of golden goose eggs in these special envelopes the Cash-4-Gold people sent her, and mailed them off. She’s in England, don’t forget, and they have a post strike. Can you imagine what half a dozen broken goose eggs are like after a couple of weeks stuck in the post?’

Cinderella sat holding her face for half a minute not daring to look at Goldilocks and desperately trying to hold down the giggles.

Eventually she said ‘you and me are doing OK really, compared to all these other folk. At least we’re working and out of trouble – I mean look what happened to Red Riding Hood.’

Goldilocks eyes widened. ‘I hadn’t heard, what’s she doing now?’

‘Just about keeping out of jail. Wolves are an endangered species and talking wolves that can imitate your grandmother are almost impossible to find. She has this one on a long-term contract but he’s getting older all the time, and his teeth are falling out. It’s costing her a fortune in dental work to keep poor Wolfie looking the least bit fearsome.

‘Then there’s the woodcutter. He can’t chop down trees because of global warming and there’s no wild wolves left, so he has to hang out with Red as well.

‘To make matters worse the wolf has got used to sleeping in a bed – he’s spent so much time pretending to be Granny, so now he has to sleep in bed at night – won’t go on the floor – has to have it in his contract. You can imagine the sort of thing that happens, they come back to a hotel after a gig and all fall asleep and the next thing you know, room service turn up. I mean it’s a bloody funny ménage-a-trois, Red Riding Hood, a woodcutter and a wolf in bed together, but people do talk. She only got away with it so far because no one knows whether to shop her for bigamy or to the animal rights people.’

Cinderella stopped as a deep-throated chuckle came out of Goldilocks. A few other diners looked around.

‘Keep quiet, people are looking – we’ll be recognised and we’ll have fans mobbing us.’

‘I know, I know. Don’t worry – my bear Barry will keep them away.’

She glanced behind her again. ‘Poor Red - it’s not as though she has Granny any more, the first wolf did for her – I hear that Red has to play both parts just to keep the show on the road.’

Goldilocks swept the eggshells together. ‘You’ve eaten four eggs’ she said.

‘I know, it comes from my starving upbringing,’ said Cinderella. ‘I can’t stop myself from eating free food.’

‘Poor you. What script are you working on?’ She paused ‘you’re always so mysterious, part of managing your image I suppose. Hey you’re not doing that movie that’s working on a closed set down the road – no one knows what it is – is that yours?’

‘No way! You haven’t heard? It’s called Pussy in Boots with the main character called Dick – I ask you – whatever next. Not my thing at all.’

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Another major revision

At last, or maybe at least, I’ve finished another major revision of the book. All the comments people have made, all the post-it notes, and the reminders written to myself in the middle of the night, or on trains, are all dealt with; the chapters are all in the right order, the pages are numbered, and I’ve mailed a copy to myself, so there is a back up in the sky wherever Google keeps such things.

And I feel sick. Is this a migraine, or some new anxiety syndrome, or just another phase in the life of a novel? Of course it’s not finished, I know only too well that I’ll read it again in a day or so and have to correct some clunky phrase, or typo that has been hiding in plain sight since the first draft, or maybe worse still a character referring to something that doesn’t happen until two more chapters. After that I have to find an agent or a publisher, or preferably both - maybe that’s why I feel sick.

I am getting to the point where I simply don’t understand the book trade. I listened to Mariella Fostrup on the radio and she had the usual mix of writers and publishers expressing various forms of optimism. Why does she never have an agent on her programme, or at least not when I listen?

Part of the discussion covered the issue of advances; apparently they are getting smaller and smaller, the smallest being zero. Sums of five hundred or a thousand were suggested as increasingly common. Where will that lead? Publishers started economising years back by shedding editorial staff who then became agents. Back in those days when advances were in the thousands and agents got a percentage of those advances you can see how it worked.

After that publishers further reduced their risks by saying that they would only take submissions from agents (see their web sites if you don’t believe me). Now they are economising even further by cutting down on advances. That presumably will make agents more risk averse, so they will only take clients that can still secure an advance that keeps the agent in business. That in turn will reduce the number of writers who can do it for a living.

In one sense you could argue that in the long term it does nothing, roughly the same number of books will be sold, assuming that the population still wants to buy and read books (let’s not get into e-books and all that for the moment). So in the end writer’s income and agent’s fees will be the same, but the timing will be different. Writers will need other income to keep the wolf from the door until royalties eventually turn up and agents too will have to rely on long term sales to get their cut rather than a slice of the advance.

Selling a book and persuading the publisher to come up with a big advance is obviously one of the key tasks that an agent uniquely does. Writing a good book that sells well over a longer term is what the writer does. So we end up with a position where the role of the agent, is seriously undermined at the same time as publishers are saying that they are essential.

I really do think it is time that Mariella started interviewing agents on a regular basis so that we can see what they are making of this. We could be running towards a situation where the whole book trade is dependent upon an endangered species. Will agents start asking for up-front fees from writers I wonder? Maybe we could do it like book advances. If I fantasise for a moment that I might get £5000 as an advance for my book; I’d be happy to pay an agent £500 to represent me and have them earn out the advance, the same way an author earns out their advance.

I guess a more complete picture of the industry should look at the pre publication costs of the authors. They can be considerable, apart from keeping alive, paying mortgages and all that we should factor in the creative writing courses, the consultant’s reports and of course the funds that go to companies like Lulu or Authorhouse who make their money out of writers that can’t find agents or other publishers. I wonder which is the biggest market, selling to writers or selling to readers?

Perhaps it’s better not to speculate and just write another book – that’s where the fun lies, after all.

Oh - if anyone wants to read it drop me an email.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Why do broadcasters encourage drunkenness?

Am I especially sensitive or is it the case that far too often when someone has something to celebrate there will be a reporter or an interviewer asking what he or she plans to drink, or what he or she did actually drink? Furthermore if they say they don’t drink then interviewer will probably challenge this, and say, “Well surely you’ll have a glass or two with such a lot to celebrate”. I know I mostly hear this on the BBC, but to be fair I mostly listen to the BBC so they may be no worse at it than anyone else.

The paradigm is that celebration means drink. I checked the definition of celebration in five online dictionaries and none mention alcohol.

In the interest of balance I acknowledge that there are other places where the assumption seems to be that thanks will be given to a God, though which one may depend where you are. I’ve noticed, for instance, American athletes who win something often thank God, so obviously a different paradigm is at work there. (None of the dictionaries mention Gods either).

What bothers me is that UK broadcasters seem far too often to link celebration with alcohol, and as long as they do, it makes it harder to tackle the problem that we in the UK clearly have with drink.

So here for all the UK broadcasters, is a possible new-year’s resolution.

“I promise to embrace the new decade with new ways of celebrating.”

Here are some suggestions for different questions to ask.

Who did you phone or what text message did you send?

What new clothes will you buy?

Where will you go to celebrate?

How soon will your life be back to normal?

Monday, 7 December 2009

TAVI and Tavi Gevinson

About six months ago I spent some time looking up information about TAVI Short for Transcatheter Aortic Valve Implantation; that is a technique for repairing the valve that lies between the heart and the main blood vessel out of it, the aorta. The valve stops blood running back into the heart at the end of its pumping action, so your blood pressure doesn’t drop when the heart has finished one beat and fills up again for the next beat.

Obviously everyone needs that valve to work OK, so techniques to repair damaged ones are important. They also need to be effective and when new ones are invented we need to be sure that they don’t cost a lot more for no greater improvement. That was why I was looking up TAVI.

I got distracted because I found Tavi Gevinson’s blog (

Tavi is a thirteen-year-old girl in Chicago (actually one of my more favourite towns in the US – I was once offered a job there). She has an amazing eye for fashion and a precocious talent at photographing herself and making web pages.

If you have nothing better to do for a few minutes have a look at her site, though you may find you take more than a few minutes. Keep saying to yourself – this girl is thirteen. How on earth can anyone get that savvy at that age?

There is a wonderful difference between art and science. Trying to decide whether TAVI is a treatment that the NHS should invest in will take a lot of work from health economists, epidemiologists and cardiologists. At the moment the NHS has done about 600 of these procedures but how it is paid for is different in every region. I reckon the debate will go on for some while.

On the other hand looking at what Tavi Gevinson does and deciding that it is brilliantly creative takes a few seconds. Maybe that’s why I’ve become more interested in art since I retired.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Anish Kapoor

I have to admit that I sometimes laugh at art exhibitions. I shouldn’t do it really, after all art is a serious business and the stuff I laugh at isn’t supposed to be funny. Mark Rothko makes me giggle, you know the huge black on dark grey deck chair canvas that he has in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It just kills me that he managed to convince people to part with massive amount of money to buy it. I tend to smirk at Tracey Emin too, for much the same reason. You have to admire the sheer nerve that goes into putting some of those awful drawings in front of the public.

Yesterday I almost laughed out loud at the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy but for a different set of reasons. Some of it just made me feel great. I think it was Nicholas Serota who said art lifts the spirit and mine was certainly higher when I came out. There are some very original pieces – by which I mean that you are unlikely to see anything like it anywhere else. Even if you don’t have my warped sense of humour you may laugh. When you first come into the exhibition there is a notice saying that the exhibits are fragile – do not touch. The first piece is you come to is a massive thing made of sheet iron about fifteen feet high and thirty or forty feet long. If that is fragile then everything I’ve ever learned about the physical world is wrong.

OK joke over, some of the pieces are fragile and maybe finger marks on the sheets of iron are not part of the plan. Then there is a massive block of wax, which is hardly fragile either. It runs on railway lines and goes to and fro between three galleries. It leaves a trail that is now about 25 centimetres deep. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay long enough to see it move very far, well hardly at all really. There is something majestic about it; it’s long enough that when you stand at one end you get that feeling that the tracks go on forever, just like a real railway. The massive amount of deep red wax is spectacular too, especially the way chunks of it have got splattered about in places that I bet it’s going to be hard to clean off. Set against the pristine white walls and gold encrusted architraves of the Royal Academy big splodges of red wax do lighten the tone somewhat.

Then there is the room full of concrete things. Actually it looks like big piles of clay, piles a yard high. He obviously used some sort of extrusion device, so each heap is made of stuff like spaghetti only as thick as your wrist. Each pile is a sort of sculptural shape, like a giant ant heap or some such. They are all different shapes and all of them look as though they didn’t turn out quite right – collapsed bits here and there, and very inexact forms. There are so many packed into the room that it is hard to walk between the pieces to get across the room – but remember they are supposed to be fragile – so mind how you go.

That room made me laugh as well, but it also made me want to take up sculpture again. Somehow there seems to be an adventure in that room. There is a spirit that needs to break new ground, break rules, laugh at the world and show it something new. How can piles of extruded concrete do that? I have no idea, but I want to do it too.

Another room has smaller pieces in shapes and colours. Simple shapes that a child might have made out of papier-mache, but covered in stark primary pigments that achieve an astonishing depth of colour.

There are lots of mirrors too, bent ones, so that the crowd are sometimes upside down, or weirdly distorted. In some places the walls are bent as well. Clever stuff, bend the people with mirrors and then bend the walls for real – you have to laugh. The bendiest piece of all is in fibre-glass, the opening is a huge flattened funnel, that could be lips, leading to a convoluted tube that looks like writhing intestines - inviting lips, that lead into a twisted reality, don’t they all.

Kapoor is not like other artists, he seems to have disconnected himself from the materials. He does this in many ways - mirrors showing things that aren’t true, for instance; or the way he uses colour, deep red wax to hold the railway tracks – who would have thought of that? Railways are all about stone and rock, carved out of mountains, spanning across plains, flying over bridges of concrete and steel. They are steeped in dirt and power, speed and strength. Blood red wax is just something else, there’s no way that you can avoid seeing transport differently now.

Once the shape of something has been freed from everything it is attached to in your brain, it becomes something of itself, something new, holding it’s own in the world, taking it’s place as a shape, as a form rather than a thing. We have become so used as humans to naming things, and keeping them in their place. Kapoor must be a genius to somehow be able to turn everything loose.

I think that is the deep inspiration in this exhibition, freedom – found where you least expect it.

If you haven’t seen it you should go – it closes 11 December.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Elvis never came to England, but maybe he should have

The next six months are going to be difficult. There is no getting away from the fact that there will be a general election next year and that means every aspect of our life is likely to be subjected to analysis and exaggeration

Why do I say that? I once went to a conference at which John Humphreys spoke, he said the first rule of journalism was to first simplify and then exaggerate. Actually that may be two rules, but the Today programme has never been good with numbers.

Already we have David Cameron banging on about broken Britain, but is it broken? I read an interesting quotation the other day about this country

‘We have found the quality of life so much more enriching and fulfilling. The civility, the culture, the people and its beauty have reawakened me and have smoothed out some of my bleak and jagged views about people and life.’

Who on earth could have said that?

Obviously not a politician, and presumably, if Cameron is to be believed, someone who is deranged and not the least bit aware of what is going on. In fact it was Lisa Marie Presley, explaining to the press why she has chosen to live in the UK. So here is someone who is rich enough to go wherever she likes in the world, deciding to come here to raise her family. Maybe she should talk to David Cameron, but for now I think I’m a Presley fan again.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Doc Martin

Once upon a time – I’ve always wanted to start a story like that - I had to treat a person with a panic attack on a train. The usual scene,

‘Is there a doctor on the train?’

I went along to the carriage and found a person who was hyperventilating (breathing too fast) to the extent that their muscles were going into spasm. If you over-breath it blows too much carbon dioxide out of your blood and that changes the chemistry in your muscles so they spasm. The solution is to breath into a paper bag for a few minutes to push the carbon dioxide back up. I did all that, but the train had to make an extra stop so that the person could be off loaded onto an ambulance. I got home late and started to explain it to Lois, who promptly said,

‘I know’ and told me all about it. For a moment I thought it must have made it to the TV news, but it turned out that I had managed to knock the phone in my pocket so that it switched on and dialled home – so she heard the whole thing.

Lots of people have the same experience I expect, but it never occurred to me as being an excellent dramatic device.

In this week’s episode of Doc Martin it was used brilliantly. Doc Martin can drive you mad, especially for someone like me that was once a GP, but Martin Clunes plays this clever but gauche character brilliantly.

I loved the way the script wove the story together. All the way though you knew what would happen, Doc Martin’s heavily pregnant ex girl friend Louisa, was bound to be in the taxi driven by a man with an undiagnosed illness. (He has methanol poisoning from trying to make his own bio fuels .)

Doc Martin is about to leave Cornwall to go back to London, thus abandoning Louisa and baby. The whole of this series has been leading up to 'will he go or will he stay' - so a dramatic end is anticipated.

Let’s skip the rest of the build up, but by the fourth quarter Louisa is in the taxi and we know how ill the driver is because his wife has collapsed back in the village. A neat way of making sure that the whole viewing audience know what methanol poisoning does, and knows that you can treat it by getting some proper alcohol (ethanol that is) into the blood stream. Putting it in simple language if the liver has a lot of ethanol to deal with, it hasn’t got the capacity left to turn the methanol into something even more poisonous.(1)

The taxi crashes, as expected, with the Doc in fast pursuit. Doc gets there, finds Louisa is still OK and taxi driver passed out. He needs to get him to a pub because the bottle of vodka the doc set off with is lying on the back seat smashed.

Doc phones his secretary to get her local knowledge as to nearest pub, and he leaves his phone on, so now his secretary is getting a running commentary on saving the taxi driver and Louisa going into labour.

The secretary is at the harbour side in the middle of the local fete, so has access to a PA system. Through this neat bit of scripting we get the final dénouement - Doc realising that he is wrong about going to London - Louisa delivering baby boy - and the entire village hearing the whole thing over the PA. OK so we knew it would all work out, because it always does, doesn’t it?

That neat trick of the Doc leaving his phone on was such a clever piece of scripting, but it reveals more than just writing skill. Doc Martin was supposed to be going back to London to be a vascular surgeon – a thing you can’t do if you are technically inept. All through the series he has done technical clever things – but always in a medical context. Using a mobile phone no longer seems like a technical skill, it has become a social skill, an essential part of being human and communicating with other people, so it feels right that the Doc, who has the social skills of a concrete post, should be incapable of working his phone. He can’t talk to people so he can’t use a mobile phone – obvious. The mobile phone has ceased to be a technical gadget and become a social accessory, like shoes or jewellery. The writers of this series are just the first to spot it and use it as a device and to make the plot work and have a climax that involves almost every character in the series.

It was brilliantly done and hilarious, I hope it wins an award.

(1) The reason you can treat methanol poisoning with ethanol is that ethanol acts as a competitive inhibitor. Ethanol is a competing substrate and so it blocks the conversion of methanol to its toxic products. Competitive inhibitors act by occupying the same site in the enzyme that the substrate occupies thus preventing the substrate from being acted upon by the enzyme.

Got that?

Monday, 26 October 2009

Concrete thinking

I finally finished the concrete and it looks awful. I knew it would. Stopping half way through because of teaching and Lois having the flu, means that the joins between the first bit and the last bit are very obvious. Add on the inescapable fact that nothing in this house was level to begin with, and it’s obvious that this bit of floor would have to be sort of bent, wiggly, and sloping, just in order to connect up with the library and the cellar and the corridor that leads into it. Even that sentence is bent and wiggly.

Fortunately I know what to do, so this is a sort of tip for any would be DIY floor repairer. You can buy some magic stuff called self-levelling flooring compound, various people make it but I always found the Evo-Stik version was best. It comes as dry powder that you mix with water so it feels a bit like custard. You pour it on and spread it around, and it levels itself, I suspect custard would do the same but this stuff wears better once it has set. I have to admit that last statement is a bit of a guess - I haven’t tried custard; it might go quite leathery I guess, but I suspect that the mice would eat it.

Having said that I’m not sure about our mice, they are very fastidious. A few Christmases ago we went away for a few days, leaving some presents under the tree; when we came home the mice had eaten some of the biscuits, but here’s the neat bit – they only ate the expensive ones.

So that just leaves, re-fit the skirting boards, remaking the first step into the cellar, hanging the door, putting the bookshelves back up, putting the books back. At the moment all those books are stacked in very tall piles on the window ledge in the library, which completely fills the window so the library is dark all the time. Putting them back will be difficult because it will raise yet again the thorny question of which books go where, and what these books have done to deserve being banished from the library. In some cases this can only be answered by reading them again. Is it any wonder that DIY takes forever to get done?

The one good thing about doing the concrete – apart from removing the damp patch at the bottom of the stairs - is that I feel pretty exhausted afterwards and so sit in a chair with the laptop, too tired to do anything except edit. So far this concrete has helped revise 19 chapters of Rag Doll Falling, 50,449 words. This is a major edit to work in a different beginning, which has knock on effects right through the book. After that, of course it will all have to be done again, and again…

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

More on Unseen Academicals

Thinking more about Unseen Academicals, having now read it twice in two days, such is the liberating effect of not being well enough to do anything else. One of the new characters is Mr Nutt. At first he appears to be a Goblin but later it emerges that he is an ORC, a sort of breed that has been manufactured as a kind of slave mercenary warrior. OK so anyone who can’t stand fantasy books now wants to stop reading, but if you can bear it, keep on to the end.

Gradually through the book we find that Mr Nutt is very clever and immensely strong, virtually a superhero in disguise. Normally this would be quite boring, lets face it this type of fiction is awash with supermen, but Pratchett is a much better writer than that.

Scenes emerge, usually driven by the actions of other characters, that reveal the talents of Mr Nutt, but running though the book is another story. Mr Nutt lacks self-confidence, and is desperate to discover himself and prove his worth. Instead of a fairly trivial story about the emergence of a new hero, we get a much more moving tale where we are drawn into being concerned about, even sorry for this poor individual, who believes he may be the last of his kind in the world. Other characters are drawn into caring for him, despite the fact that they know that his species, if that’s the right word for made up creatures, has a reputation for tearing people’s heads off.

The story of Mr. Nutt and Glenda, the brilliant cook who runs the night kitchen, is really a simple romance of self-discovery, but set against the improbable background of the reinvention of football it becomes a comedy. Scratch a little deeper and there’s almost no limit to what you find.

Football started out as a street game, but by now it has become a proxy for gang warfare, cue lots of minor characters, sketched in just enough detail to bring to life every unsavoury miscreant you’ve ever heard of.

The magicians, most of them familiar from previous books, could be any university group, they provide an opportunity for plenty of jokes about elitism, but a proxy too for any section of society that tries to run on its own rules, above or outside the law.

The law in this case is the Patrician, the appointed tyrant who is nevertheless a benevolent dictator. Lord Vetinari is subtle and so clever that he knows that despite his apparently absolute power he has only as much power as the population gives him. Power is in the mind of those who accept it in others. The same message comes from Glenda the cook; those who keep us in our place only keep us there because we know our place.

Like so many of Terry Pratchett’s books, it is a comedy on the surface, and often very funny, but underneath it could be ‘East of Eden’ or ‘For whom the Bell Tolls’. It seems obvious to me that he could have written classic novels anytime he felt like it, but somehow he went beyond that and created an imaginary world where all the deep complexities of the human spirit can blossom, safely wrapped up in exaggerated comedy so that the reader never realises that they’ve been exposed to literature.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Flu and laughter

This week we have flu. More to the point Lois has flu and I’m sitting here hoping I don’t. I had my flu vaccine shot on Saturday, but of course that is for last year’ flu, not the new one.

Lois and I spent the last week teaching, fifty students all week in a room that wasn’t ventilated very well. The university has some sort of system where all the ventilation is controlled from some central point, which of course takes a couple of days to track down. Even when we talked to the guy, nothing seemed to change much. Has anyone in the control centre ever sat though a whole morning of teaching in a stuffy room I wonder? Not very likely, I guess. I suppose it might be possible to have some sort of device that measures how often the air changes but one way or another I think Lois must have got the flu from someone in that room.

Lois tried out the online system run by the department of health so you can diagnose swine flu yourself. If the computer thinks you have swine flu then it gives you an ID number, and then you send someone else to collect the Tamiflu. So even if she doesn’t have swine flu, she at least has computer flu. Which ever it is, it comes with a cough and fever and feeling rotten.

This computer system is sensible of course; if all the people with the flu turned up to collect the supplies then it would certainly put the staff at greater risk. On top of that anyone with a wrong diagnosis who came to collect the supplies would probably get the flu anyway from the other people who were collecting. Making the diagnosis by wire and sending a friend must reduce spread to some extent. As it was when I collected the stuff for Lois I was the only one there.

Fortunately the new Terry Pratchett novel came out this week so a week sitting at home is less of a pain. For many years now I’ve been buying Pratchett’s as soon as them come out, plus going to book signings as well.

This one, Unseen Academicals, is as good as all the rest. Several new characters appear as well as a few familiar ones. This book is about football, sort of. A particular disc world kind of football, but I’m sure it draws on a lot of the history of the game in real life too.

Like all Terry Pratchett novels it draws on a deep understanding of humanity, but what he does is to make the messages a little lighter by giving some of the characteristics to dwarfs and trolls, or other sundry life forms. How we relate to strangers and how we cope with our deepest fears, is there in all his books, but it’s not heavy. Pratchett is very funny too; this new one is a tough book to read on a bus, because you are almost bound to laugh out loud at some point - actually at a lot of points.

I’m probably a little weird at the moment, not exactly feverish but something is operating a bit differently, either fighting off Lois’s virus (old people, like me, are supposed to have some immunity to it) or maybe just dealing with having the vaccine. Stuff like that makes me more emotional, when I’m sufficiently ill that all I can do is read in bed I find books make me cry a lot. Even the ones I laugh at a lot make me cry as well. I know I’m not really ill this time because Unseen Academicals just made me laugh and laugh.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Joan Baez

On Thursday evening, I did something I’ve been doing for about 45 years, I heard Joan Baez in concert, and it was as good as ever.

Birmingham Symphony Hall is a very special place. I used to have a season ticket at the old Town Hall in Birmingham, back in the days when Simon Rattle first came to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Over the decade here was here they got better and better and it exposed the awful acoustics of the Town Hall. It’s a nice historic looking building but if you have a seat under the balcony then you get a pretty muffled version of events.

I first heard Joan Baez in the town hall in about 1963 or 64; I really can’t remember which. I do know I had to queue all night to get the tickets and I sat in the front row. I can’t remember all the songs she sang but she did lose her place part way through and had to ask the audience which ones she’d done, she had a list of songs such on the topside of her guitar. Maybe it was a trick to get rapport with the audience, but it worked, she had everyone in the palm of her hand and that almost instant bond with the audience has been there ever since.

After the concert, because I was sitting in the front row I was able to dash through the door into the artist area and interviewed Joan for the university student newspaper. I have actually washed the hand that shook her hand since then, but I know which one it is.

Years later Simon Rattle persuaded Birmingham to build Symphony Hall. It is a masterpiece of sound engineering. When they built it the architect said it was the biggest perfect hall he was prepared to make, any bigger, any more seats and the sound would have been worse.

It is so much better than anywhere else I have been that it is hard to explain. I remember once listening to Cecilia Bartoli, she doesn’t use microphones or anything like that. At the end of the concert she did a piece where she sang to the people sitting in the choir sets behind her. As she sang the song she turned though 360 degrees three times. The second third time I closed my eyes as she sang, and it was impossible to tell which way she was facing, the sound quality did not change at all, whether it was coming straight from her mouth or bouncing off the back walls.

As soon as the place was built I started hoping that Joan Baez would sing there one day, I just wanted to hear that voice floating through the upper air in that place. For a couple of years, every time Joan toured she played in places like Warwick university and didn’t come to Birmingham, but when she did it was magic. Her voice really just flew through the hall, like a banner flying in the sunshine; it just makes you feel good. Joan obviously liked it too; she kept talking about the hall as the concert went on and at the end she turned off the mikes and sang, just by herself, with no band and no guitar. I just loved it, her voice and the hall was everything I’d expected. She let it go a bit, singing a song that rally let the high notes rip, floating right up there, I’m so glad I heard it back then before I started to go deaf.

Last night, I thought, maybe she is getting older; she looks a little stiff when she walks on, but the rest is the same. The rapport with the audience is total and that makes the concert a great experience, being in the middle of a thousand people who are having a spirit lifting experience, is something you don’t get too often.

She sang a few of the old songs, like ‘The night they drove old Dixie down’ and Diamonds and Rust. That’s been fun over the years; I think when it first came out there was a line ‘Twenty years ago I bought you some cuff links’. Now it’s ‘Forty years ago’.

This time she had an assistant who kept taking off her guitar after each song and bringing on a new one. Usually Joan takes about a minute after each song re-tuning. She makes jokes about it but this time it only happened once. She must have a fantastic ear because most guitarist that I’ve heard don’t re-tune between songs.

We did have one minute of twiddling the knobs and plucking. ‘I’ve been tuning this guitar for fifty years’ she said. ‘I know some of you have been here through it.’ Yup that’s me – ever since her first concert in the UK.

Times change, though she didn’t sing that. In that first concert she sang ‘Don’t think twice – it’s all right.’ She did it again this time but it was jazzed up, bouncing along almost like a celebration not a lament. I remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan sing one of his songs to a completely different tune; it was a huge shock, but a revelation too. I guess it’s not a surprise that Joan can do it too.

She made jokes, about how much she likes mournful ballads where people get heartbroken and die all the time; in fact at one point she sang one verse of a spoof version of ‘Silver Dagger’ in which damn near everyone died.

There was a nice moment when she talked about her mum and dad getting remarried after a couple of decades of divorce. Her dad was ninety at the time and she sang ‘Forever young’. Given the ages of her parents, the same might apply to Joan; if she goes on like this we could have a few more years yet.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

I phone therefore I am??

I’ve spent the last week buying an Iphone. Why on earth would that take a week? First I went to Carphone Warehouse, mostly because the local one has its own carpark. They have none in stock – buy it on the web they said.

I would have gone to the Apple store in Birmingham but they only sell the pay as you go version. So I get on the web and try to buy it from O2. I wade through all the menus and get to the final button and it refuses to sell it to me, saying that there is a problem with my credit.

Panic. Has someone hacked my account? What can possibly have happened? I have this bank thing that sends you a text message if someone makes a credit check on the account – no message comes. The mystery deepens. I phone the bank, ordinary phoning, not Iphoning. The bank say there is nothing wrong with my credit.

I get back on the O2 web site and try to phone them. The number on the site gets me a number unobtainable message, so I Phone, I won’t repeat the joke, you’ve got it by now, and BT tell me it’s not one of their numbers and anyway seeing as I moved my phone account to Tesco I should phone Tesco. They don’t actually say Piss off, but it’s as near as a tape recorder can get.

Tesco at least give me another number for O2 and they tell me that the problem lies with Equifax, who they use to get credit reports. So I phone Equifax, who tell me I don’t exist, Nice of them to say so. Has it crossed their mind that someone must be talking to them? Perhaps they do special personality tests in order to make sure that the operator is not spooked when they find themselves talking to a person who does not exist.

I try explaining that I do exist, I have a CBE; the Queen doesn’t usually give those out to people who don’t exist, it’s so hard for her to hang the thing around your neck when you don’t exist, hand to shake hands too. Actually in the same batch of emails that include the one from Equifax saying that I don’t exist, I have one from Who’s Who congratulating me on being in the latest edition, in fact I think I’ve been in it for the last decade. Obviously Equifax don’t consult Who’s Who when they decide who isn’t who.

It takes two more days to narrow the problem down to the postcode address files; our house is in twice, once as Stonebow Farm and the other as Stonebow Farmhouse. That appears to be the problem, when their clever software puts profiles together from many different sources some of them have one version and some have the other, so the computer can’t decide what to do and goes for the simple solution of deciding that I don’t exist.

I did eventually persuade O2 to phone the bank that issued the card I was using and now I have the Iphone.

Back to Equifax, I figured I had better sort out the mess with them in case any other misguided retailer uses them. Their web site allows you to verify who you are by sending them copies of things like utility bills and passports. Their web site is the slowest I’ve had to contend with for a long time. It timed out or crashed on me six times before I did eventually get the documents loaded. It probably only does that to people who don’t exist, they’re hardly likely to complain are they.

They have another cunning trick, part way through the routine they give you a code number and tell you to phone them. Just as well I have an ordinary phone, it must be tough on any non-persons trying to get their first phone.

The first thing that happens when you phone is you get a friendly message telling you that the easiest way to contact them is to go to their web site, you know, the one that just told me to phone the number that’s telling me to use the web site.

I remained calm and decided that this was just a standard promotional message, not some twisted irony. The phone gives you a bunch of menus, you know the sort of stuff, ‘If you are fed up with the idiocy of this company press one.’ ‘If you really object to being charged by the minute to listen to this rubbish, press two.’

None of the menus appear to relate to the instruction from the web site. You would have thought there would be something saying, ‘If our web site has told you to phone, press three.’ No such luck. It took several goes around their menus and a few dead ends and one spell when it waited so long that I gave up. The blasted message about using the web site is repeated between most of the menus. It is obviously a nice little earner, to charge by the minute and include plenty of messages that will render the client apoplectic, so they collapse in a heap leaving the phone connected and running up bills.

Fortunately we non-persons are made of sterner stuff. I did eventually get it all done and now I exist. Next problem is to correct the rubbish on their site. The local council manages to send me an email telling me that I am on the electoral register, but Equifax thinks I’m not. My bank collects a mortgage payment each month and sends me annual accounts, but Equifax says I don’t have a mortgage.

I wonder if I could get Equifax to tell the bank to stop sending me bills?

Monday, 21 September 2009

This old house

Why no blog for such a long time? It all does back to the floods in 2007, when the water flooded almost all of the garden, my pottery and the garage and nearly came into the house. It flooded the cellar and ever since then we have had a damp patch at the foot of the staircase, the cellar is just underneath there. It’s had two years to dry out and still looks damp so I decided that the floor had better be dug up to see what was going on.

This house was built sometime between 1820 and about 1850 and probably built in pieces because you can see a joint halfway along the house where the second phase started. More was added in 1970, but that’s another story.

I think farm workers who knew very little about building must have knocked it up, every time I take plaster off or dig anything up I find more horrors. After removing about a ton of old quarry tiles and earth I found the root of the problem. See the picture.

The staircase comes down towards the wall of the cellar underneath it but it never actually gets there. There’s a gap of about 4 inches that was filled by a chunk of wood (now pretty rotten). When the water came up in the cellar it would have flowed into that gap and soaked the wood, hence the damp patch. The wood in question is that piece under the pick axe

So instead of blogging I have been digging, taking out all the old muck and filling it back in with a new damp course, some foam insulation and a ton of concrete. It’s a new kind of keep fit. I’ve lost three pounds and hopefully there won’t be a damp patch any more, well, once the concrete has dried out completely.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Non random thoughts about the BBC

Yet again the BBC does something awful to the English language. What? I hear you say – surely that’s not possible, they are the bastion of good English and pronunciation. Possibly true, unless numbers and numerical concepts are involved.

The word that’s being wrecked this week is random. I heard a trailer for a programme called ‘Random Edition’. Apparently each week they are going to take a random edition of a newspaper and go back over the stories to explore the historical significance. The first random edition is September 4, 1939. So on the 70th anniversary of war breaking out they are expecting me to believe that they have managed to pick out the day after war was declared at random from all the other days they might have picked in the last seventy years. The odds of getting any particular day in that time period are more than 20,000 to 1

What random means is that all the possible choices are equally likely. I’m prepared to bet that all of the editions that are picked in this series will turn out to be momentous days in some way or another. I haven’t seen any publicity material about the programme, other than hearing a flyer for the first episode, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we happened – at ‘random’ - to get the day Kennedy was shot, the day the Berlin wall fell and other days like that.

Of course I’m cheating a bit because this is not the first series. The last series featured Lindberg’s first flight across the Atlantic, the first performance of Handel’s royal firework music, Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. Hardly random events!

In my somewhat biased way – I’ve spent my life involved with epidemiology after all – I think this is part of a pattern of lack of numeracy at the BBC. Twice in the last five years I’ve heard items on the Today programme say something along the lines that in properly conducted randomised trials of prayer to alleviate sickness, that half of the attempts seem to work. The protagonist for prayer then cheerfully says that if it works half the time there must be something in it. This like saying that if I toss a coin and get it right half of the time then I must be a clairvoyant or fortune teller. The stupidity of the statement ought to be obvious to everyone yet on neither occasion did John Humphreys challenge the speaker, presumably because he has no understanding of what a randomised trial is, or how it works

When we try out new drugs the concept of randomisation is important, we usually divide the patients in the trial into two or more groups that are selected at random before treatment. That means that every patient has an equal likelihood of getting the new drug or of getting some other drug or treatment that we want to compare the new one with. That way, when we add up the results of the different groups, if there is a difference between the treatments, we have good grounds for thinking that the difference is caused by the treatments and not by some characteristic of the patients or their circumstance. If they are really chosen at random then the samples are much less likely to be biased and the results are more likely to be true.

If we misuse the word random so that the public think that a random date just means an interesting date, picked so that more people will listen to the programme, then how on earth will we convince them that treatments that have been shown to be worthless in randomised trials are not worth taking, or hazards shown to be dangerous are best avoided?

Our whole society is becoming hopeless at making sense of risk, and part of that comes from lack of understanding of the mathematical concepts. I think it’s time that the media faced up to their responsibility in this.

It’s also true that advertisers have a lot to answer for. How do we let the lottery, which is supposed to be random, get away with saying ‘It could be you’? OK I guess it is true that it could be you, but it would be more honest to say ‘It’s really very very unlikely to be you.’

If I invented a new drug that had a one in a million chance of making you better then I’m sure I wouldn’t be allowed to say ’This could cure you’, but such a statement would be just as honest as the advertising for the lottery, it gives a lot of money to good causes. What I object to is a steady process whereby the population is deskilled in assessing risk.

The consequence is that people smoke, drink and feed themselves to an early death. I don’t mind if they really do make an informed choice to do that, but if the BBC and other media keep wrecking any chance that the population will understand statistical concepts then informed choice is very unlikely.

No doubt someone will point out that the BBC does produce one programme (‘More or Less’ on Radio 4) which is about making sense of these concepts, but by putting it in a separate box and labelling it as the programme that is about numbers they pretty much signal that this is the one to switch off. What is needed is a change in culture at the BBC so that they are as scrupulous about statistical and mathematical truths as they are about other issues in the integrity of newsgathering and reporting. That is obviously harder to bring off than dragging in a few geeks to make one programme a week about numbers.

Why am I banging on about this? I think it’s a public health issue. If no one understands risk, then too many people will die and be disabled by diseases they could have avoided, and public health professionals like me will be forever labelled as killjoys for trying to legislate our way to a healthier society. If no one understands risks then risky things have to be banned in order to make people safe. In the long run that is a bad idea, it makes us all even less able to deal with the next risk to come along.

A long and happy life does not happen by accident – it’s not random.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Trafalgar Square

This is the leaflet about Lois on the plinth that I hope to hand out to anyone who is interested.

Lois is dressed as a pigeon.

Many statues of humans around London have a pigeon sitting on their heads – so Lois had a statue of a man on hers. The statue is a miniature of Anthony Gormley’s Iron Man, which can be found in Victoria Square in Birmingham.

This is a sort of double role reversal joke, the pigeon underneath and the man on top and the live animal underneath and the solid object on top.

Many statues show some aspect of military history so Lois has a replica of the Dickin medal, which is awarded to animals for bravery in war. Most of the recipients have been pigeons (32 out of 54 in the last war).

Lois is also holding a twig and an egg. These represent nest building and future generations. The parallels in human statuary are the orb and sceptre. Actually the orb, which should have a cross on the top, represents, in iconography, the saviour of the world – in pigeon equivalent an egg must be exactly that - the possibility of future generations. What else would the world be saved for?

So although this Plinthing may look like a fairly simple joke, it is in fact an artistic representation of respect for past deeds, home and future – surely exactly what the plinth is all about.

Lois is an artist who currently works almost entirely in machine embroidery. She can be contacted at:-

Friday, 28 August 2009


This weekend Lois and I are going to London. Lois has a place on the Trafalgar Square Plinth on Saturday at 4.00pm. If you happen to be in the square on Saturday you may see what looks like a huge pigeon on the plinth.

Lois makes machine embroidery; I call it Fabricolage – putting fabrics together in a collage – stuck together by wild machining. Most of her art has quirky hidden messages in it so this pigeon will have a person on its head. The costume is a sort of embroidery, only in three dimensions and plinthed rather than framed.

Actually the ‘man’ on her head will be a model of Anthony Gormley’s Iron Man, the statue in Birmingham – just to pay some homage to Gormley for having the great idea of the plinth. An aside about the Iron Man here - Someone in one of the Birmingham newspapers obviously hated the statue and the paper rad a poll to find out Brums most loved and most hated statue. I think they planned to have the Iron Man removed if it came last. The amazing thing was that the Iron Man won both polls - most hated and most loved statue. What more could you ask from a work of art.

Lois will also be wearing a mock up of the medal that gets given to brave animals in war. Most of the winners have been carrier pigeons, taking messages that have saved soldiers lives.

Wikipedia says - The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 by Maria Dickin to honour the work of animals in war. It is a large bronze medallion, bearing the words "For Gallantry" and "We Also Serve" within a laurel wreath, carried on ribbon of striped green, dark brown and pale blue. Traditionally, the medal is presented by the Lord Mayor of the City of London. It has become recognized as "the animals' Victoria Cross". The medal was awarded 54 times between 1943 and 1949, to 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, 3 horses and 1 cat.

It seems only right to add that as a touch because so many of the statues in London have some sort of military connection. Mostly they have boring looking men on them – and usually a pigeon or two.

I doubt if all those pigeons standing on top of statues are protesting at the lack of recognition of animal bravery but at least for an hour on Saturday the roles will be reversed.