Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Cherry picking clichés

We are all warned to avoid clichés in writing, but where do they come from? Take cherry picking for example. It has grown to mean selecting particular specimens or events, or giving special attention to one aspect of something above others. Have you ever picked cherries? We have five cherry trees, so I have experience.
One branch of the cherry tree before picking -
 a definitely nibbled cherry towards the bottom left
The first thing to say is that unless you take special measures to cover the trees, the blackbirds and magpies will pick all the cherries. Almost worse than that, they peck holes in the fruit so when the cherries finally get ripe they're half spoiled. You can see that in one of the cherries near the camera in the picture. None of this activity chimes with the way the phrase 'cherry picking' gets used.
I have built a massive metal cage around our biggest tree so that the whole thing can be covered in a net. This entailed going on a welding course and buying sixty quid's worth of steel and spending a similar amount on nets. Not a cheap option, but it does at least lead to a harvest of ripe unspoiled cherries. So does cherry picking summon up in your mind several hours of welding, antirust painting and vast struggles to get the edifice to stand and not fall over; plus of course twice a year balancing fifteen feet up a step ladder dragging thirty feet of netting into places it doesn't want to go?
That is the reality of cherry growing; the picking is something different. Cherries grow in irregular bunches and hang down under the leaves where they are often hard to see. If you just pull them off the tree, you can damage it and cause disease. The best technique is to use scissors, and snip the stems and have the cherry fall off into a basket that you hold underneath, while of course balancing up a ladder.
Bear in mind that you have to get the ladder into the tree to a significant extent because the fruit isn't just found at the ends of the branches. While you are struggling to hold the basket in the right place and snipping with the other hand the wind blows neighbouring branches into your eyes. Whatever you do don't step back, the ground is a long way down.
Just a few of the almost 20 kilos we picked this year
The reward for all this perilous activity is ripe cherries, followed by cherry pies and ice-cream and if you freeze them a whole year of taste explosions and delight. Fabulous, but still not what the cliché has come to mean.
So, where does the phrase get it's meaning? Possibly it comes from the fact that cherries tend to ripen at slightly different rates, so early in the season there are often bunches with one ripe cherry and several around it that are not ready. In those circumstances, you do have to just pick the ripe ones. If you don't invest in nets or other means of keeping the birds at bay, then cherry picking cherries, in the cliché terms, is what you have to do. It's a poor deal because the birds have all day to sit and do nothing except watch your cherries and pick the moment to grab. If you can leave them alone, if your tree is under a net, then there comes a time where they are all ripe together. Picking them at that point is much more rewarding.
Seen from the point of view of blackbirds and magpies, cherry picking means sitting around all day and grabbing the best fruit before the rightful owner dashes out to scare you off. Closer to the usual meaning I guess.

So there we have it, using a cliché is a bad idea because, not only is it lazy writing, but it may not mean what you think. Worse still, you may be mistaken for a sneaky blackbird or a thieving magpie.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Worcester Literary Festival and the compulsion to write.

The last week and a half has been taken up with the Worcester Literary Festival (http://www.worcslitfest.com), the first one ever. Over a hundred events spread over ten days, a massive undertaking for which the organisers should be proud.
I read a small piece at one event, and despite the dental work earlier in the week, got through it OK. As it turned out this was on one of the few days this summer when it has poured with rain and our audience was somewhat reduced as a result.
I found reading to an audience very different from giving postgraduate lectures, something I have done hundreds of times. Talking as an expert is not the same as performing as a creative artist, though many aspects of performance, like pacing and audibility are similar.
The issue is the content. In a lecture there are facts that can be relied upon, referenced back, verified by calculation or repeat observations. Interpretation is based on those facts and extends from a previous body of knowledge and experience. If I talk about how to control a disease outbreak, people who might have to do the same thing will listen in the hope of doing as well or better when they come up against the same problems.
Set the same material in a work of fiction and everything changes. The facts may be the same, but the audience start to consider whether they think the characters are believable, whether the plot moves fast enough, and a whole bunch of other things that make no sense in real life, even though the fiction may be purporting to imitate reality.
In a lecture, you tell it how it is, or should be; in fiction, you tell it how it could be, or might have been. I started writing fiction when I was still working in public health because I thought that my worst fears might make good stories. In every crisis I dealt with there was a more complex and more dangerous one going in my mind and in the minds of my team as we sought to keep one step ahead of reality. The worst-case scenarios were better stories; fortunately, none of them happened. That is probably the nub of it, real life can be boring; fiction can’t.
Yesterday, as part of the festival we had a 70th birthday party for the Worcester Writers Circle (http://www.worcslitfest.com/worcester-writers-circle-70th-anniversary), which apparently is the oldest writing group in the country (www.worcesterwriters.org.uk). We launched an anthology of members work to celebrate ( The Unboken Circle ISBN978-1-906198-04-6). When you consider that the group began in 1941 in the middle of the war, it tells you something about how compelling writing can be. Seventy years later and the compulsion is still there.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


I do not have to write a blog today because I have toothache. Why do I have toothache? There may be a number of reasons. At root, of course it all goes back to Nye Bevan who started the NHS, who paid dentists more if thy filled more teeth, after all, it can't have been my fault, sweets were rationed. Without all that dental attention, my back tooth would not have been full of all the metal that broke up a few weeks ago.
I do have a dentist appointment for tomorrow, when all the different bits of the poor mangled tooth with be heaved out and lost forever. Knowing this does not stop it hurting. I did get an emergency appointment when the thing fell apart and the hole was cleaned and a temporary dressing was put in. That seems to have done an OK job for the last two weeks but not any more. It feels like that side of my mouth is twice as big as it ought to be. If I don't think about it, I can just about fool myself into believing that it has not reached the throbbing, pulsating stage.
Who am I trying to kid; it has definitely reached that stage. Look on the bright side; at least I don't have to concentrate to avoid chewing on that side, I get reminded how sensitive it is about 65 times per minute.
There is one advantage to the current level of symptoms. When it woke me up at about four this morning it was a generalised ache and hard to pin down. At first, I thought it might be one of the other teeth that was playing up. I went back to sleep thinking, well at least I'm going to the dentist tomorrow, he can check the others. We are way beyond that now, I can localise the problem down to a few millimetres.
Later this week I am reading a couple of pieces at an event in the Worcester Literary Festival; black humour and toothache could be an interesting combination.
Thinking about performance and also seeking some distraction, I happened to watch a couple of UTube clips of Amy Winehouse in Serbia. The general consensus seems to be that she was drunk, certainly it was an awful performance. It would probably be a good thing if all her fans that took movies at the concert sent her extracts, maybe it might wake her up and show her what a mess she has become.
With a bit of luck mine won't be as bad; anyway, the expectations of the audience will be less and the ticket price is certainly a lot less. In the event that my speech is slurred and I can't get the words out properly, you know my excuse.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Philippa Gregory – The Red Queen

There appear to be no end of historical characters that Philippa Gregory can write about. I've just finished 'The Red Queen', selected this month for our book club. I always thought that Henry VII was an interesting character, but this book is about his mother, about whom I knew nothing. I had hoped to get insight into the character of Henry, but it turns out that he and his mother were separated when he was quite young and throughout the book she is only able to keep in touch through occasional visits and letters. The visits were almost always under the noses of hostile supervisors or other interested parties and the letters were frequently secret, and presumably destroyed, so the ones quoted in the book were probably invented by the author.
Did I learn much about Henry? No. The book does give an interesting picture of a pathological, almost deranged, upper class society at the time of the Wars of the Roses, in which back stabbing is as common as front stabbing. Lots of stabbing anyway. There seems to have been a fascinating obsession and reverence for regal bloodlines, which is certainly not justified by the abilities or morals of the various royals in the book.
The reader knows throughout the book, that it is going to end on Bosworth Field, or somewhere nearby, if we are to believe the most modern archeologists. A battle that kills Richard and establishes Henry as king. A battle that Henry should have lost if his mother's third husband and not changed sides at the last moment.
The thing I have not really got to the bottom of is why I keep turning the pages. What is it that Philippa Gregory is doing that drives the story along? Many of the characters are despicable, or boring, or driven by motives that would lead me to cross the road if I met them in the street. The fact that Henry's mother is proud of having calluses on her knees from spending so much time praying makes me despise the woman. Various advisors, husbands etc. point out many times that although she listens to God a lot, she only hears what she wants to hear. Hardly a model of piety, more a deluded megalomaniac. People like that have caused a lot of trouble over the years and much bloodshed too, what's more there are still plenty like that hard at it today. They never learn.
There isn't exactly a character arc either; she retains both her worldview and her habits and beliefs throughout the story. Anyone asking, 'when will she learn?' is going to be disappointed.
So how the hell did Henry turn out to be a good king? I recall from doing history at school that the country was almost bankrupt when he took over and riven by many years of war. Yet this lad, who had spent much of his life in France, somehow united the country, created stability and established the modern nation state, or at least laid the platform on which Henry VIII and Elizabeth did that. Where did he get that from? as far as we can tell from this book, not from his intolerant and bigoted mother, or from his uncle who had similar single-minded view of the world. Maybe the very fact that he was kept distant from her, dispossessed and struggling for much of his early life, was the key to moulding someone who had the nerve to say, let's do it differently.
It could be that the book is an argument in favour of boarding schools, and against the nuclear family, yet on the surface it appears to value blood lines, or bloody lines anyway, above everything else. One could argue that Gregory is using the traditional vehicle of the unreliable narrator to get across a very different point, but I don't think I kept turning the pages because of subliminal social comment, or because I wanted to see this awful woman get her comeuppance, after all, we know from the start that she ends up on the winning side.
I am left with having to admit that Philippa Gregory has mastered a writing style that somehow keeps the pages turning, even though the characters are unattractive and the end of the story is known from the start. In effect she has dispensed with suspense, plot or character as the driving forces in the novel. What then is left?
I think she is very good at knowing just how long each little subplot and story needs to be, how much detail to include and how to balance dialogue with narrative and internal voice with action. It is a style driven forward by immediate events and short horizons. At every stage the big picture looks hopeless, so the characters concentrate on surviving till tomorrow and trusting to God and blood lines for everything else. Jeopardy is clearly a driving force, except that we know the ultimate outcome. We don't identify with the characters because we think they might die, though the various dangers do create a certain amount of curiosity as to exactly how they will get out of each situation.
Philippa Gregory has obviously done everything she can to stick to what is known about both the events and characters and also to use famous historic unknowns to her advantage. No one has ever been sure who killed the princes in the tower, so she makes sure that all the main characters have a motive. I was however, confused by several references to the possibility that one of the princes might have been replaced by a double. Tough on the double, but what happened to the real one? That idea just gets lost towards the end of the book, or is it in a sequel? How many more of these do I need to read?

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Germain Greer at Malvern Theatre

I have always thought that women should be treated as equal to men, but I became a more serious supporter of the feminist cause when my first daughter was born, so I went to listen to Germaine Greer in Malvern. She is a professor so I expected something a little academic. To my surprise, much of the material that she quoted was about celebrities cavorting about, rather than an emerging evidence base in peer reviewed literature. It seems to me that if you read too much into the slogan on the tee shirt that Annie Lennox happens to be wearing you risk arriving at an unreliable conclusion.
She spent some time talking about the recent slut walk phenomenon, and I think she was right. The whole concept is brilliant, in that it produces a very visible confrontation to a set of deep underlying attitudes. Pulling the whole of an iceberg of prejudice to the surface is often effective because such things frequently look ridiculous in the daylight. To take the iceberg analogy a little further, they melt in the sunshine.
Germaine also quoted from a card she had been sent by an anonymous revenge seeking person, she presumes it was a man. The card blamed Germaine for every woman that ever walked out of a marriage. I can’t quote it exactly because I didn’t think to take notes, mea culpa, I am a professor myself, what was I thinking.
I’m not sure who was getting revenge on whom, the postcard writer for sending it, or Germaine for reading it out. She quoted from it repeatedly and simply refused to take the blame for anything it alleged. I have no problem with that because the accusations were ridiculous, but I think she could have delved for a deeper meaning.
Why do people write such things? Surely if they gave it a moment’s thought they would realise that the receiver of such a message, written in a vengeful and exaggerated style, and I suspect in capital letters, would bin it in a moment. Such a message reveals a complete inability on the part of the sender to see into the mind of the person the complaint is aimed at. From that one might surmise that the writer cannot comprehend why they have been abandoned. Might it not be exactly those attitudes that lead to someone writing such an intemperate letter that are the root cause of the deteriorating relationships that were the trigger for the letter?
I think if I were in Germaine’s shoes I would have asked the audience, who were about 80% female, ‘Would you live with a person who writes postcards like this?’ I wouldn’t be expecting them to say yes.
I am reminded of one of the maxims in Stephen Covey’s book, the seven habits of highly successful people – Understand and be understood. If you want other people to comprehend what you are saying, then the first thing you have to do is get where they are coming from. The writer of that card clearly had no understanding at all of Germaine Greer.
I have to pause here and ask myself if I have either. I was initially shocked at the hostility she appeared to show in the early part of almost all her answers to questions from the audience. For example, one questioner asked, what would her ideal world look like? The answer began along the lines: ‘What sort of fascist question is that?’ She went on to elaborate that the Nazi view of the world was an idealised notion of everyone in their place, all that fresh air and hiking of the Hitler Youth etc. All true, but hardly the answer to the question, though further into the answer she did begin to show some empathy without actually ever answering the question.
Why did she respond like that? I suspect because she has spent about 50 years being asked hostile questions, so the first thing to do is clobber the question into the long grass and then construct an answer that takes you back onto your main material, which is what she did. It is a strong response, but one that may have surprised a few people. Whilst the answer disappointed me, it was good to see a tough and seasoned campaigner at work.
I think my other disappointment was that, although the title was 40 years of feminism and fun, she didn’t talk much about fun. She did criticise the women’s movement for not having enough fun, contrasting the average women’s march with the gay pride events in Sidney and in effect saying that the gays were so over the top and clearly enjoying their own outrageous behaviour, that they were impossible to ignore. You can see why she like the slut walks.
I wanted her to go into more depth in examining the role of women. I was surprised that she made no mention of the value of female literacy and education of women. As Kofi Annan has said:-
“We know from study after study that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition, promote health -- including the prevention of HIV/AIDS -- and increase the chances of education for the next generation.”
As a professor, with access to that literature that Annan was quoting, I expected some of that in the lecture. What better way to drown the cynics and the vengeful postcard writers than to point out to them that treating women as equals would make the world better for all of us.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

More thoughts on chick lit

I bought a Versace jacket. OK so it was second hand, and an absolute steal at the price, but still quite an odd experience.
I tried it on because Lois was busy seeing what she looked like in a new pair of trousers. I glanced at myself in a mirror and was shocked. I looked better than my own self-image. Almost as if I was looking at someone else who happened to have my beard and was wearing my jeans.
Obviously some fashion designers are worth what they earn. I ought not to have been surprised, after all someone like Versace could not stay in business this long if all they sold was image with no substance, but it is still a mystery how this better looking person got into my clothes.
Does it matter? I'm 66, so hardly likely to be making money or influence from how I look. It is a weird thing that external appearance, which, without a mirror can only be seen by other people, should matter to me. It provides an opportunity to explore what vanity is like. Take how I felt looking in the mirror, and amplify it to an almost psychotic level and there is a character with a very different view of the world.
For a writer the challenging thing about fashion is that it's very much a right hemisphere thing. What goes on in the brain is all pictures and emotions; translating that into words presents a number of choices, none of which can be guaranteed to work. You could spend all day talking about the feel of the leather, or the way the light reflected off it, and completely miss the smell or the way it moves or the fit or the cut.
Actually the sleeves are a tiny bit too long and with the zip done up it's tight enough to keep me on a diet, all of which suggests that I may have been reading too much chick lit.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Why I like chick lit part 2

Chick lit is more than just Sophie Kinsella. I can't claim to have a comprehensive knowledge, but I have to discuss 'Rachel's Holiday' by Marian Keyes. Julie Cohen, mentioned this in a seminar and I remember downloading it to the Kindle on my phone during her lecture. I’m glad I did. I’ve since given paper copies to other people too, though not as many as Julie gave away in book week (See www.julie-cohen.com for more detail on her blog)
Rachel’s holiday is a serious book about addiction, except it follows a similar pattern to Sophie Kinsella's books by portraying a character who is too trivial in everything she does to realize the mess she is in. Self centered, constantly partying, this woman takes whatever illegal substances she can lay her hands on every time she can. She justifies her excesses with trivial excuses, as she runs up debts and runs off friends.
Obsessed with celebrity and instant gratification she aspires to have everything as soon as possible while propelling herself down a slippery slope to real addiction and poverty.
The book is a study in character development. Why go on reading about this air-head of a woman, an Irish girl in New York for all the wrong reasons, who is eventually rescued by her family? Somehow, she manages not to think twice about why her parents would go to the trouble of almost abducting her from New York to get her into rehab in Ireland. Wouldn't it cross her mind, you would think, that this is a bit extreme, and might mean that other people who know her are seriously worried about the way her life is going? Wouldn't that bring most people to just consider the possibility that she might be screwing up more than she thinks?
Nothing of the sort. Instead, she fastens onto the notion that this is an up market rehab outfit where celebrities have been admitted in the past. She will use the stay there as a holiday, which obviously she deserves, because she has a stressful life, and she will meet loads of vitally important glossy people who will be buddies or trophies as soon as she is back on the party circuit.
The beauty of Marian Keyes writing is that the reader can see all the flaws way ahead of Rachel herself, a classic use of the unreliable narrator, and somehow we keep reading just to find out when the penny will drop. When will she realize that any celebrity who finds their way to rehab is off the rails and only worth knowing if they manage to get their life back together and stop being the ultimate party animal?
OK, so I'm not giving too much away if I say that she makes it in the end, and learns some lessons and has insights that all of us can value. I think that is the joy of the chick lit genre, at least of the books that I've read so far. They are real literature, often tackling significant social problems and doing it in a way that makes the learning and insight accessible to a far wider audience than serious literature ever expects.
You could say that they are modern fairy tales, battles between good and evil, with glossy make believe characters, structured so that the reader doesn't think that they are being lectured to.
I am reminded of Terry Pratchett complaining that his books were not taken seriously. He said something along the lines of, 'Throw in one lousy dragon and no one takes you seriously.'
Chicklit has a similar problem; great stories, but once they mention shoes the serious reviewers stop reading. Wake up guys, shoes is where it all starts. 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Spearhead Dinghy

In March I mentioned a boat, a dinghy called Spearhead, that I helped design many years ago. Two of them have been sitting on my back yard for the last decade, sailing very occasionally. 
One has now gone to a new home. After a couple of weeks of refurbishment, we got it sailing. Not as dramatic an event as we might have liked because there was no wind but it did ghost along. We now have the other one on Ebay.
So, as a digression from my normal obsessions, here is a little of the history of the boat and what makes it special.
The project started out when my father was measurer for the 5o5 world championships. (For those of you who don’t know about such things, that is a class of sailing dinghy, five point O five meters long). The measurer has to make sure that all the boats are the same, so inevitably by the end of the week we knew all the ways that people tried to cheat in order to make the boats go a bit faster.
Flatter and longer with a deeper point to the bow seemed to be the main things and make it lighter if you can. In a 5o5 all those things are illegal, but what about making a new class?
Making a boat lighter, calls for some engineering innovation. In a sailing boat, there are forces at work that will break the hull. Start with the mast, it’s not difficult to see that this produces a downward pressure on the bottom of the boat which would make a hole and sink it. Normally the boat has extra thickening to resist this, but that adds weight. When the wind blows on the sail it pushes the mast sideways, so we resist that with side stays, but they pull the sides of the boat inwards. Also, if you do that maths and triangulate the forces, you will see that tightening the side stays also pulls the mast downwards even harder. Actually, it is all in three dimensions, and some of the force goes through the forestay and that too can deform the hull.

The solution to all this came to me lying in bed one night. A triangular aluminium tube frame fitted under the foredeck from which the mast could be suspended. The stays are attached to the frame so that all the rigging forces are contained. The whole thing weights about 10 pounds and because aluminium is light and the arrangement is very efficient, it allowed us to reduce the weight of the hull by about 80 pounds compared to a similar sized racing dinghy.
The rest of the boat was also packed with innovations. The deck was made in one big moulding, using epoxy resin for the fibreglass because that is stronger weight for weight than the more traditional polyester resins that were traditional at the time. We had a theory that by taking a lot of the stress out of the shell and into the frame system the boat would last a lot longer. Thirty odd years later I can say that we were right, not many wood or fibreglass dinghies last as well.
We created the shape by working in a big shed with a trapeze wire hung from the roof. We spend hours sliding in and out, simulating the movements that would be required when sailing. We gradually built up the shape with car body filler, sandpapering and polishing until we had something we could move around with ease. From that plug, we made a mould so that the whole deck of the boat could be cast as a single entity and dropped onto the hull.
The result, as you can see from the pictures, looks more like a modern racing car than a traditional boat. Of course, they make the cars out of carbon fibre, which would have been nice, and even lighter but we weren’t millionaires.
Why did we call it Spearhead?
 Because the shape of the wetted area when it floats looks like a spearhead, well, it would if you were swimming underneath. There are other clever things about the design, on which I could bore for England, but I’ll save those for anyone who asks.
I’m getting too arthritic for cold-water sports, and all the team that built the boats are dead now, apart from me. This is the last one left in the family after free cycle locally found a home for my old boat, so I’m writing this in the hope that we can find a good home for a piece of history that, as the pictures show, is also a load of fun

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Why do I like chick lit?

The book group I belong to are reading Sophie Kinsella’s ‘Remember me’ this month. I think I am the only man in the group, so it is slightly weird that I recommended Kinsella to the others. 
‘Remember me’, for those who don’t know, tells a first person story of a woman who wakes up after a road accident having lost the last three years of her memory. The last thing she remembers is falling down some steps coming out of a club somewhat the worse for wear. We get a brief sketch of her underachieving life and tedious job in which she has just failed to get an annual bonus because she has been working a few days less than a year. She has been out drinking with those who did get a bonus and is feeling pissed at her employers who she thinks have been mean, her boy friend, who didn’t turn up, and her dysfunctional family. Did she make it to her estranged father’s funeral? Not a cheerful start to a book but told with enough pace and wry wit to keep the reader turning the pages.
She wakes up in hospital assuming she hit her head falling down the stairs and gradually discovers that she is three years older, rich, with a very good looking and successful husband and appears to be running the department that she used to work in.
Her first reaction is to think ‘Hey great, I have a wonderful life, even though I have no idea where it came from.’
It would be very easy to descend into some heavy serious stuff about amnesia, or if I was writing it, I’m sure I’d have to fight off the temptation to explore some detailed neuroscience. Instead, Kinsella manages to keep moving with the story and uses chance encounters in scenes with other characters to open up just enough of the confusion and anxiety that would be felt by anyone in this predicament. She manages to convey a character who is both too shallow to be seriously bothered by what has happened and yet also driven by abiding curiosity to discover how her life has changed.
We discover that all her old friends hate her because she is now a very demanding boss, nickname cobra. Gradually we begin to get other glimpses of a less than perfect life.
In some respects, it could be argued that there is no plot, not in the active sense anyway; it is more a sort of static mystery to be uncovered, almost like archaeology. What drives the book along is the lead character’s curiosity about the last three years of her life. This is only likely to work as a literary device if the reader has enough sympathy and empathy with the character to care about her life. So where does that empathy come from?
Putting it another way, what is it about this ditsy woman that makes me want to turn the pages? Asking myself the question brings me up against the simple fact that almost every woman I know is more interesting, or at least less shallow than this character appears to be, at least from her own description of herself. I think the crucial issue is the contrast between how she professes to be and what she appears to have achieved, plus perhaps some basic empathy with her predicament.
I think that is what makes me read Kinsella’s other books too. She puts apparently lightweight characters into situations that demand our empathy, and then in rising to the challenge, something emerges in their character that demands our admiration and rewards us for reading to the end.
I’m taking the risk of writing this before I find out what the rest of the reading group think. They may hate it.