Tuesday, 30 November 2010


Today was symbolic of winter. Snow and heating oil both delivered on the same day.

I appreciate that parts of the UK are under a foot of snow, have schools closed, trucks stranded and are standing by for the TV cameras to arrive and film their misery or snowball fights. We are in the Vale of Evesham, however, and it hardly ever snows here.

We have about one inch of snow. Yesterday the temperature got down to minus 10 Centigrade, again rather unusual and we spent the day putting fleece around the fig trees in the hope that the poor things will survive the winter rather better. Last year we had a long cold spell that actually killed off the ends of some branches and we had no figs at all. The trees did try hard and started making figs towards the end of summer, but they didn’t make it to being ripe before the leaves started falling off. I don’t know if wrapping the trees for the winter will help, we will no doubt find out over the year. Actually the snow has warmed things up, it’s only zero outside now.

The other amusing ‘event’ of the day was a comment on here that I decided must be spam. The comment included what looked like a phone number. I put the number into Google and found a number of similar comments attributed to the same name on a range of different sites. When I searched on the name I found other sites with similar comments including one where this name contributed 85 comments, actually all the comments on that particular post. Some of them have proper text and some are repeats of the sort of thing I got.

Up until now I have pretty much been pleased to get any comments at all, and although I have the moderating box ticked, I have published all the comments that have come my way. It now seems that I will have to have a comment approval policy. Heady stuff. I actually went on a course on blogging where this was discussed, the lecturer has a five-point policy that she published on her site.

So here is my policy, at least for the moment.

My inclination is to publish all comments unless they are offensive, libellous, or look like robots have sent them. I might even publish those if they are amusing.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


I'm often up by 6am. At that time of day you can catch some interesting stuff on the radio. This morning as I made coffee I heard three presenters talking from inside an oak tree. I suppose they do sound a bit muffled, but they have the mike in there with them. They are discussing fungi, some of which they can see as they stand or sit inside the hollow of this tree, which is apparently seven hundred years old.

All this is on the radio. I am reminded of the day when I was about seven years old and first heard the Goon Show on the radio.

'This is the sound of Eccles riding along on a wall,' followed by a sound I’ve not heard since, presumably because Eccles no longer travel by moving wall.

I remember that line, I guess because the sheer incongruity would impress a kid that age. I also recall that my mum was ironing – that’s how the mind works.

Now I hear the sound of three naturalists talking inside an oak tree. So not much has changed in fifty odd years, except now they don't call it comedy. Once they have exhausted the possibilities inside the tree they move out to discuss the landscape.

Don't you just love hearing about a view on the radio.

Actually one of the funniest pieces of radio I've ever heard was a discussion about the proposed route of the Midland Metro on the Ed Doolan show. For those who don't live around Birmingham, UK, where I used to work, ED has a radio programme with the biggest audience in the region. OK why was such a mundane topic so funny? Try to imagine the sound of four people in a radio studio arguing about a map.

'No, no, it's further over to the left.'

Sounds of rustling paper.

'By the fold there.'

Sound of chair moving.

'No, past the end of that road there.'

And it went on, for about five minutes, until Ed managed to curb their enthusiasm and get things back under control. Quite clearly none of the participants had any conception of how impossible it was for anyone outside the studio to understand any of their discussion.

I actually laughed so much that I had to pull over.

That kind of radio is dangerous, as the Goon Show knew only too well.

OK so some radio is ridiculous, but when it’s done right it is brilliant because it feeds directly into your imagination, and the best radio makers know that. Think of that line from Educating Rita.

‘How would you stage Peer Gynt?’

‘Do it on the radio.’

Good literature does the same.

Television, on the other hand is so often much more boring because somehow it seems to assume that the viewer has no imagination. They add a picture to everything. Radio and literature know that the real picture is in your head, TV feels obliged to show you an actual picture. It’s fabulous when they show you something that you could never see otherwise, but so often it’s mundane.

They seem determined at all costs to avoid 'talking heads'; yet facial expression is what we all use a lot of the time to decide if we thing we are being told the truth.

When I used to be interviewed about health issues there seemed to be an obsession with filming standing outside a hospital - as if that had anything to do with health.

If you fill the viewer’s head with mundane pictures the chances are that their head will fill up with mundane thoughts. What radio and literature do is give us images. TV so often just gives us pictures.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Google analytics tells me that some people read this blog in far-flung places, well far flung if you are flinging from here in the UK. Places that are as far apart as the USA or Vietnam, if you believe the graphs. Could any of you tell me about radio in your part of the world? Do you ever get anything as much fun as three naturalists inside an Oak tree?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

IPad triumph

While shopping in Worcester we went into the boutique that supplied the dress that Lois wore at my daughter's wedding. The stepmother of the bride dress. I had some pictures, one of which is attached, on the iPad and with me, so we showed the owner of the shop. End result, I think her husband will want to buy an iPad. All staff suitably wowed by the pictures and I end up giving technical explanations to husband. The iPad is a transforming technology. OK, so I could have shown them pictures on almost any breed of smart phone but the impact on the bigger screen of the iPad is dramatic. I've shown pictures on a phone and it does not produce the OOs and AAHs that we got in the shop. Not just from the sales staff either, a couple of customers joined in the general eyeballing and eyebrow raising.

The picture also shows the cupcake tower that Lois made for the wedding. 120 cupcakes, all gluten free, plus a big one for the cutting ceremony. A useful tip for anyone contemplating the same sort of thing, nicely patterned cases wrapped around the cakes after baking make it look a lot prettier. Lois had made lovely sugar flowers as decoration on all of the cakes, but you can't see most of them when you look at the tower from the side, so the stylish cases make the whole thing look much more elegant.

I wasn't certain that there was much point in putting lots of pictures on the iPad and I only loaded a few just to see what I would do with them. It was a pure accident therefore that I happened to have pictures of the dress and cakes when we visited the shop. I can see how this could turn out to be very useful in situations where instant access to pictures or diagrams was needed. The fact that you can email to the device by 3G phone probably adds to the usefulness. It can only be a matter of time before we see iPads woven into TV crime dramas. I can imagine a plot, probably involving a serial killer who is working across country or state boundaries. The whole thing will turn on someone being sent crucial pictures on his iPad that he rapidly compares with the new crime scene.

Of course I could have imagined a female detective, but somehow there is an expectation that it will be blokes rushing around with new tech, unless the iPad is full of pics of the mother of the bride of course. Apologies also at this point to Suzi Perry, from the gadget show, because she does a brilliant job of proving that women can handle tech.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Happy and Sad day

Today is Lois's birthday, so anyone reading this please pop over to her blog and wish her a happy birthday. http://blissglutenfree.blogspot.com This is very magnanimous on my part because her blog is rapidly catching me up on page views.

It is also the anniversary of my brother Laurence being killed, see the earlier post 'The day the music died' for more about that. It's a bad thing, the two things happening on the same day, but Lois didn't have much choice about when she was born and Laurie had no choice at all about the day he died. That's just how it goes, I guess.

I still miss him. Laurie was brilliant at maths and physics and computers, he had worked for IBM and Microsoft, though never Apple, which is a pity. Whenever anything weird happened to my PC I would ring him up and similarly he would phone me about medical problems.

Fortunately, he was a bit of a hypochondriac, so he phoned me about as often as my PC played up. Just as well I've switched to Apple since he died. I still have a load of stuff he wrote, it sits on my hard drive with the notion that someday I will figure out a way to use it - the bits that I understand, anyway.

For the moment I'll just remember him, and if anyone who ever knew him is reading this, please remember too.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Andrew Marr on Kennedy

I would not normally blog while annoyed by something, but for once here goes.

I have just watched Andrew Marr telling us how awful John Kennedy was in the way he campaigned and I'm struck by how often the programme seems to require lingering shots of Andrew Marr sailing, hanging about in scenic views, standing by impressive buildings and generally displaying his Andrew Marrness for all to see.

Does this make him more believable?

I am all agog to see whether he owns up to this cynical manipulation before the end of the programme.

I would have thought it was obvious that Kennedy exploited his personal charisma in a way that Nixon was unable to do. Does that make him bad or smart? Or is it bad to be smart if you are president of the USA? I fail to see how this is sensational, didn’t Hitler do the same thing? Wasn’t Churchill a bit that way inclined? OK so Churchill used the radio rather than the TV, but that was what was available.

Let me make clear that I am not objecting to Andrew Marr because he was rude about bloggers at the Cheltenham festival; and for the record, I am 65 and not writing from my mother's basement, in fact she does not have a basement, she has a house of her own and so do I.

As I write we see Andrew walking, Andrew going up in a glass lift, Andrew staring meaningfully into the middle distance accompanied by some nice jazz. Did they commission too long a show, so that we have to have these fillers or did he not have enough things of substance to say?

Another Kennedy crime is revealed, he faced up to issues and tackled them head on. Is Andrew seriously trying to get us to believe that is a bad thing?

Now we have Andrew eating chilli, in order to talk about race, was there no other photo shot anyone could think of?

Finally he manages to end by suggesting that it a bad idea to emphasise style over substance. Quite right Andrew, so why do you do it?

Slapdash perfectionist

I keep coming across people talking about procrastination. Is it the time of the year? Is there something about the run up to Christmas and the New Year that says, lets put it off till January?

An alternative might be that because I wrote something about it a few posts back I am now tuned in to noticing the word. Kelly Diels said

‘I procrastinate in three ways: I delay making a decision; I delay responding to people (usually because I haven’t made a decision); and I delay doing.’(www.kellydiels.com)

She says that the last one of these may just be part of her creative process, not really procrastination but incubation.

‘I grow and warm an idea until it springs fully-formed from my head. (Usually at the last possible minute before a deadline.)’

That last line made me start to wonder if it is all just part of personality, I mean is procrastination something we learn or just something that some of us do?

Personality tests are a bit of a minefield. I’m always surprised by how many people are scared of them, but I have an advantage. In addition to spending her life blogging and cooking about Gluten Free food my wife Lois has a couple of degrees in psychology and the relevant badges to do lots of these tests. You can guess who she practiced on.

According to one test, done on my once as part of a job interview I was described as a slapdash perfectionist. You might think that the two descriptions are so opposite in substance that they could not exist in one person.

Actually it is true in a sort of way. The fundamental problem was that this was a pretty crummy psychometric test. If they had done a different one, say the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory MBTI to those who know, then they might have been able to make sense of me. Of course I know that you are not supposed to use MBTI for job selection, because it is possible to fake it, if, that is you wanted to get a job on false pretences and be someone else for the rest of you working life. Stay with me. On the MBTI I am an ENTP, mostly. Without going into the whole thing (put MBTI into Google if you are curious), the bits that matter here are the N and the P. P means perceptive – the way they use the word means seeing possibilities and that’s where my procrastination comes from. I hate finishing things because it is the end of all the possibilities. A finished project has lost all it’s life, it can only be what it is and all the other wonderful possibilities are down the drain and forgotten. That’s also where the perfectionist bit comes from.

The N stands for intuition (which begins with I, but I has already been used for Introverted, which I’m not, mostly). What intuition means, to me anyway, is that if pressed I will come up with something. I’ll come up with it fast, very fast, so fast that a poorly devised psychometric test will think I’m slapdash.

So there you have it, I am a slapdash perfectionist. I procrastinate when I can, and when the deadline gets near I hit the intuition button, and it is part of who I am. I have the tests to prove it.

There are of course other personality types who have an inner need to make up their minds quickly, (the types that end in J on the MBTI) they are the ones who give procrastination a bad name.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Breakfast blog

This is not an advert for a load of bloggers to meet for croissants in some nice coffee bar with free WiFi – though that’s not a bad idea.

Lois, my wife, blogs about gluten free cooking - http://blissglutenfree.blogspot.com .

I appear on her blog as Mr Taster. This morning I had my breakfast photographed. Fortunately my actual plate came out blurred and I’d eaten it before she had a chance to take another picture. The items you see on the griddle are little gluten free pancakes. My dad used to call them drop-scones but looking at Google I see they are also known as Scotch pancakes - odd that, given that my dad was Welsh. They are a bit like blinis, except no yeast is involved.

For the pedants out there Blin is apparently the Russian word for pancake and therefore blini is already the plural – who would only eat one anyway – so blinis has a somewhat unnecessary ‘s’ on the end; unless you really want lots and lots of them – there again why not.

I digress; having your breakfast photographed is only one part of the action. I frequently have to fill out evaluation forms on new recipes, taste, crunchyness (not relevant for drop scones), after-taste; the list goes on.

As a writer is it an interesting challenge to find words to describe taste, a bit like all that stuff that wine buffs come out with. The big difference is to factor in texture and time because nothing tastes quite the same or feels the same after you’ve chewed it for a minute or two. Gluten, the stuff Lois is avoiding at all costs, is quite remarkable stuff. It sticks everything together, not like glue between two bits of wood, or the sticky stuff on magic tape, but by weaving itself among the molecules of whatever else is in the recipe. Take it out and food tends to fall apart.

Many gluten free cooks add Xanthan gum to try and achieve the same trick, but that’s also quite useful as a laxative, which is one good reason to try to avoid it.

Here’s another: Xanthan gum is a polysaccaride made by fermenting sugar with a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. Xanthomonas campestris is the same bacteria responsible for causing black rot to form on broccoli, cauliflower, and other leafy vegetables. The bacteria form a slimy substance that acts as a natural stabilizer or thickener. I’m partly quoting that from someone called Wisegeek http://www.wisegeek.com - it sounds really appetizing doesn’t it.

Lois experiments with a range of flours made from things like Lentils, tapioca, quinoa and no black rot or slimy substances. See her blog for more details.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Made in Dagenham

Last night I had a really amazing experience. We went to see Made in Dagenham, the film. OK so such things are a little late coming to our rural backwater but it did only come out this year. In our part of Worcestershire the population votes Tory, by about 60% but I was surprised to see that the place was packed. There was hardly an empty seat.

This film, for those who haven't seen it, follows the story of the women machinists at Ford's Dagenham plant, who went on strike for equal pay, back in the time of Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson. What I found astonishing was the way that this audience cheered as these women took on the establishment in the trades-union movement and the Ford management.

OK so I guess the audience was at least two-thirds female and mostly over 55; so in some ways this was their history. They laughed when the women beat the union officials and made managers look stupid, they roared at snippets of black and white TV as they flashed by - Sooty even got a cheer.

The film is very good, lots of neat little touches that take the action past just a little industrial dispute and out into the whole of society.

I loved the final resolution of the dispute as Barbara Castle wrestled with deciding a percentage of the male rate that should be paid to the women; 92% as it happened. Putting a percentage on it exposes the hypocrisy of the whole thing. While the management could hide the injustice in the technical speak of job grades, semi skilled or unskilled, and all that stuff, it was easy to hide the ridiculous prejudice that was being acted out. Put a percentage on it and that just makes totally clear that it is the sex of the worker that determined the pay, and nothing else. As soon as that percentage existed it became indefensible. If two people were doing the same job they should obviously get the same pay.

Monday, 8 November 2010

What is a novel?

Two blogs in a day, what’s the world coming to?

It’s a side effect of the teaching – I’ve got behind with my reading and now find myself wanting to respond to stuff in other people’s blogs. The trouble is that they overlap and I realise it might be easier to write one more coherent piece. Well that’s the plan – you judge.

I read a nice little piece on the Bubblecow blog http://www.bubblecow.co.uk/2010/11/what-is-a-novel/ It ends up saying that a novel is “A collection of words which a writer deems is ready to be read.”

There is a response to it from Sarah Tanburn, among others, at http://sarahtanburn.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/who-judges/#respond

Both seem to me to be good pieces but they both leave out the effect of time. Authors develop. I can think a few whose later books are far better than the early ones. So the definition should be “A collection of words that the writer once deemed was ready to be read.”

I once thought that the first draft of one of my novels was ready to be read. The second draft is much better but actually I’d rather that you read the fourth. That’s as good as I can get it right now, but with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work I may be a better writer next year, so should I leave any deeming till then?

Sarah Tanburn says that the market decides what is commercial, but at the moment agents and publishers decide what will be marketed, so the market only gets to choose what has been chosen for it. Even the market’s collective conclusion changes over time. It’s not static. Stuff that was considered brilliant a few years ago might not even find an agent now, even leaving aside the pieces of research where someone sends Jane Austen to agents who don’t spot it.

If you let the market decide, then how many do you have to sell for the publication to be deemed a success? If the economy is depressed and sales go down, does that mean that the market has decided that books are of poorer quality?

There is one slippery slope after another.

For writers there are choices. Try to find an agent? Go the indie route? Put it in a drawer and realise next year that it could be better?

e-books open up another possibility, publish it now and update it later. There is no reason, apart from inertia and inability to find or use the relevant software, why there could not be a direct connection between the writer and the reader. Blogging already produces that. If you update your novel on Smashwords all the previous purchasers get access to the next version. Surely it is only a matter of time before we see the blovel. A dynamic text that evolves as readers come back with comments and questions and the writer realises that the whole thing should have started with chapter seven.


Why I don’t do NaNoWriMo.

Back in the early 1990s I helped start a masters course in Public Health at Birmingham University. The course is still going strong and I still teach two weeks of it. (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/students/courses/postgraduate/taught/med/public-health.aspx). For reasons that I can’t really understand my weeks happen in October and November.

For reasons that I also don’t understand NaNoWriMo also happens in November. Is it because the days are getting short, or the weather is crap?

Whatever – I do actually get paid for the teaching and I like to keep it up to date. That means that all the way through the year I keep notes on stuff out of journals and other media, so that in a mad panic in September and October I can bring my lectures up to date.

After I’ve done the lectures I feel exhausted, at least for a day or two, and by then a chunk of November has gone by. This year has the added distraction that my youngest daughter is getting married in the middle of November.

So there you have it, if I was going to write a novel this month it would have to be done in a fortnight. Go for it I hear you say.


I wrote 40,000 words of my first novel in a week in a tiny flat in the Alps while on a ski holiday. The weather closed in with snow and fog for three days – almost two feet of wet snow – so I just stayed in this tiny room and wrote. By the time you could actually see across the car park I had the bug and then I just did the skiing to make a change from typing.

I figure if I can write 40,000 in a week then a 50k version in two weeks would be no problem, apart from the one snag. It was pretty rubbishy.

I did find it fun. I wrote the first draft of my second novel in a similar flat in the Alps. Actually my productivity fell off somewhat – that time it was only 35,000 in a week, but the weather was better and I had my wife with me, so completely antisocial obsession with the book was – well – wasn’t, if you see what I mean.

Does this explain why there is a skiing accident at the beginning of A Rag Doll Falling? Well they do say write what you know.

So that’s my excuse.

Instead, of writing a novel this month, I have treated myself to a package called Scrivener. This takes some of the mess out of building up a full size draft. It allows you to draft sections and move the order of the sections around, combine them, split them, rename them, keep notes about them, and no doubt a load of other stuff that I haven’t figured out yet. You can also keep research material in the same project.

We shall see. The point is that not only does my teaching knock out a chunk of National Novel Writing Month, but I also get paid for it – paid a lot more than I’ve managed so far for writing novels, so I can afford to treat myself to a new package – and maybe an Ipad. Further reports on the impact of these purchases on my writing may follow.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


I started looking up procrastinating, which has to be a bad sign. One fascinating non-fact I gleaned from one of the online dictionaries – one that seems to connect everything to everything – there are no photos of procrastinating on Flickr. I suppose that’s a relief to some extent.

What set this off? For the last month I’ve been either giving or preparing lectures for two weeks teaching on the Masters in Public health course. I do this every year. The whole time I kept thinking or things I ought to be including in my books and all sorts of other stuff I wanted to write about or blog about. With commendable zeal I resisted the temptation and got on with the lectures.

Finally the clear space in the diary emerges and I can get on with the writing – so where did all the ideas go?

I did write some notes – a bit like those ones you write in the middle of the night when you know that all you have to do is jot down three words and you are bound to remember it all in the morning. I’ve still got some of those, waiting for the day when I can figure out what they mean.

I imagine if I worked at it I might be able to figure out some sort of general theory of procrastination, which would of course be a way of putting off everything else.

I think it goes something like this. Work has properties like gravity or magnetism. When approached by another magnet, unless you get them the right way round, they repel each other. So a really big piece of work can sit there looking big and obvious and yet be impossible to start. Another day the same thing can suck in everything around it and get more and more energy as it goes along.

I think maybe when it’s stationary it mostly repels – you have to sort of give it a big kick and get it spinning around and then the north and south poles flash past more often and increase the chances of pulling you in. Maybe there are more than just two poles, or maybe there’s more than one thing going on, like gravity pulling one way and magnetism pushing a different way. Of course, it can’t really be gravity because work has no mass though it can weigh you down.

Obviously it could take years of research to get to a really robust theory. I just need to do a bit more work on it and then it should be big enough to make writing a novel feel like a simple task…