Tuesday, 20 September 2011


I rarely talk about politics but a piece on the radio this morning filled me with dismay. The energy secretary plans to make it easier for people to switch power supplies.
This can only mean even more idiots phoning up. We have already made several attempts to register with the system that is supposed to stop cold calling. As far as I can tell this has made no difference at all.
"You get your electricity from ... (Insert the name of one of the big six here)."
Repeat of the question with caller gradually changing tone of voice to “Oh no, I'm dealing with an idiot” mode.
Eventually I say that we use a company called Good Energy, a supplier of 100% green energy.  If you've ever been to North Cornwall, they run those massive windmills near Delabole. By now, if these tariff switching cold callers had any sense, they would be getting off the line. They ought to have realized that they are dealing with a customer who has gone to the trouble of getting their electricity from a company that they have never heard of who run windmills. Warning bells ought to be ringing.
Sadly, they always press on with their pre-rehearsed chat about prices. By now they ought to have tumbled to the notion that I have the Internet skills to be able to compare prices, after all I have managed to find and contract with a company with a rather singular profile. A few clicks of a mouse could get them to Good Energy's web site and they'd be much wiser. They ought to realize that I don't care about the price; I care more about the environment.
Then it gets worse, they start offering me a better price if I have my gas and electricity from the same supplier.
'Oh great I say, how long will it take?'
'Just a few days.'
'Good heavens, that fast to lay two miles of pipeline.'
Once again, I hear the doubt creeping into their voice as they fall into the next trap. We don't have gas because the pipeline doesn't come within two miles of us. You would think it would be simple to mark out those post codes where there are no gas pipes and tell the call centres to lay off. Sadly, they are not that intelligent, or their bosses aren't.
I wonder if the energy secretary even knows that there is no gas in some parts of the UK. We don't have mains sewers either, but at least the water company gives us a discount for that and we run our own treatment plant. Before you start feeling sorry for me in my splendid rural isolation, I should say that we do have piped water; good broadband, and we can get pizza delivered.
I don't really mind the energy secretary trying to keep prices down, but could he do something to make the call centres less stupid; and while he's at it perhaps point out that old farmhouses built before 1850 don't tend to have cavity walls either. That sort of data must be available from planning offices; so another bunch of cold callers could phoning up and offering to foam fill the cavity walls that we don’t have. 
For me the big benefit of ditching all these telephone salespeople would be that I could get on with some proper writing instead of bending my mind to imagining scripts in which I am so rude to them that they never call again.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Sew to Speak

It is peculiarly appropriate that Lois's latest art exhibition involves a play on words, both because I am writing about it and because some of the sewing is in fact words. Several years ago Lois did a course on Machine embroidery at Malvern College. The group of classmates from the course have continued to meet and have managed to mount an exhibition of their work every year since the course. This year the show is in Ledbury and I am writing this on the iPad sitting in the gallery as the group decide what to hang where. It is absolutely fascinating to watch and listen to group creativity at work. The group has it's own blog site
Most of the exhibits hang on walls or display on tables with no difficulty, one is an exception (see the picture). Lois's sister Joy, is an artist and over the years they have corresponded about art, and of course all the other trivial that you might expect sisters to discuss. What to do with the letters has been a recurring question as we go through the process of downsizing. Simply throwing them away doesn't feel right, but on the other hand it seems unlikely that the British Museum will want them. Given the context, a work of art was bound to emerge.
Over a period Lois gradually settled on the idea of embroidering text from some of the letters onto an old boiler suit that Joy had used while painting. Initially the plan was for me to make a flat plywood model of a person, to go inside the suit so that it could be displayed like a shop dummy. Enter the second random addition to the plot. Through membership of various art organisations Lois has access to a local scrap store. This is a sort of Aladdin's cave of stuff given away by local industry and other sources, in the hope that it will be of use to local artists. It is surprising what you can find there, but even we were slightly amazed to come across two life sized plaster models created by a local artist but no longer required. We immediately bought one of the models in order to dress it in the boiler suit.
Once the model was home we had to work out a way of making it stand up on it's own. For a while it lay on the table in the studio looking suspiciously like a pale corpse. The model is made from plaster-of-paris bandages, the stuff they wrap around you in hospitals when you have broken your arm. The thing was obviously hollow, because it didn't weigh much and it made a sort of dull clonking sound when you tapped on it. After some thought I drilled holes in the feet and shoved three foot long pieces of hollow metal tube up the legs and stuck them in place by filling the legs with polyurethane foam, the stuff you can get from DIY stores for filling big holes in walls. Not only does it fill gaps but it also a pretty good glue. Be sure to wear plastic or rubber gloves if you ever play with any; oh and remember that the gas in the foam has cyanide in it.
Continuing the recycling theme, and giving a further insight into the problems we have over moving to a smaller place; I was able to use two large flat five kilo weights as a stand. These came off the multi gym that was wrecked by the floods in 2007. I knew they would come in useful one day. They have neatly drilled holes that used to have steel tubes in them, back when they were exercise apparatus. These allowed the tubes inside the plaster lady's legs to lock in place and keep her standing upright.
She is now standing proudly in the gallery in Ledbury, having been carried by me from the car park - see video clip for example of the writer looking silly. If it is art it's OK, right?

Monday, 12 September 2011

Making words work hard

I have been interested for a while in the way that some authors seem to pack much more interest into a given word count. How do they do it?
In all the material I have read about writing I have never come across this as a concept, so here is my take on it. I can't claim to have this completely worked out, but maybe it will strike a chord with other people who could provide some examples.
A word, or for that matter a collection of words in a phrase or a sentence can do a lot of different things. We all know that nouns are things and verbs are actions and these can be modified by adjectives and adverbs and joined together by conjunctions. OK so that gives us a mechanical view of the way words work, but there is an alternative taxonomy that could be applied. Words might describe a scene, or a character; they may create atmosphere, or drive the plot along. They may add back-story, or they may be there to add mystery or suspense.
I'm sure there are better taxonomies than mine but I think key thing is that really effective writers manage to get a lot of words to do more than one of those things at once.
At a simple level I'm sure all writers know that setting a scene will not only describe some physical features, like where the chairs are, but atmosphere could come in the same package and on top of that the fact that a particular character was in that scene might also tell the reader something about the character and it might be telling you something about back-story or adding something to the plot. If each of those things is done individually, the pace slows down and the piece can start to feel wooden and over written. When the same words do several jobs, readers find themselves more engaged because their brain starts to work the way it does in real life.
If I go to meet someone, for whatever reason, it is quite likely that as I walk into the room, something will remind me of another room somewhere in my past, at the same time I may be looking for the coffee, deciding where to sit and trying to remember all the things I was planning to say. I may be subconsciously taking in what the room tells me about the person I am meeting, or about the company he or she works for and maybe getting some signals about body language, or hoping their perfume doesn't make me sneeze.
If I was better at reading like a writer, I'd have stored up a load of examples, which I could drop with panache into the blog, but I'm hopeless at making notes and remembering stuff like that. You might say that if I don't have any examples to quote, how do I prove that it's true. As someone who spent their life promoting evidence based policies and research in health care, I have to say that's a fair point. In part I don't have the evidence because I'm lazy, but also if it's done right the reader hardly knows it's happening. That's the real trick.