Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Boyhood recalled

A nostalgia piece today – something I wrote to try and re-create the feelings of a nine-year-old boy during the Blitz. Just history to many, but very real to those of us who lived through it.

From my bedroom window (1941)
There was a raid last night. As soon as the siren started to wail, Dad called out: “Come on, children – downstairs!” I put on my dressing gown, without turning on the light, and peep out between the bedroom curtains. Searchlights are fingering the sky. I hurry downstairs, with my sister Joan close behind.
The bed on the larder floor is already made up. Joan and I snuggle under the eiderdown – like sardines, with our heads at opposite ends. Dad says this is the best place for us, because the larder window has no glass (it’s made of that metal with little holes in it) and the ceiling is the smallest in the house, if it should fall.
Mum and Dad have a sort of mattress thing under the kitchen table. Dad keeps his special air-raid tray close by. It has a torch, in case all the lights go out; a candle and some matches, in case the torch doesn’t work; four corks, for us to bite on so that we don’t bite our tongues off when the bangs come; four little brown envelopes with our ear-plugs in, so that our ear-drums won’t burst; and a little bottle of brandy – “just in case”, says Dad. Mum says he’s a very methodical man.
Soon we hear the throbbing of the bombers overhead. Some of the boys at school reckon they can tell the difference between a Junkers and a Dornier. I just pretend that I can. Now there comes the crack of ack-ack guns, and the deeper crump of distant bombs. When the raids first started Joan and I thought it was all rather exciting, but now we just want it to be over so that we can go back to sleep.
Eventually the all-clear sounds and, after a bit, Dad says: “Well, I think that’s it for tonight. Might as well all get back to bed.” We trail upstairs again, and Dad comes into my bedroom with me. After checking that the door is closed, so that no light would show, he opens the curtains and we look across the Downs to the north. There is a reddish glow in the sky. “Looks like the City caught it again,” says Dad. “Right, lad – back to bed!”
Now it’s morning, the sun is shining and I’m looking out across the back garden. I hardly notice the barrage balloons hovering in the distance. My thoughts are all on the big walnut tree that stands in the corner of the lawn. Its trunk forks near the ground. I’ve been climbing the right-hand side for ages; I know every branch and twig. But the left-hand trunk is different: it’s smooth and bare for several feet and quite unclimbable. The only way to get into that side of the tree is to leap, like Tarzan, from a crotch on the other side, catch hold of a horizontal branch and swing yourself up so that you can hook your legs over. I’ve been thinking about this for days. I wonder if, today, I’ll have the courage to do it…..

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Writing goofs

When I was at school (a very long time ago) I was taught how to write. I don’t mean just how to form letters; I mean how to put words together so that their meaning is clear and unambiguous. And I was taught that it is important to spell correctly, to observe certain rules of grammar and syntax, and to punctuate in a way that aids understanding.

So deeply were these rules ingrained that, to this day, I just cannot help wincing when I see them broken.

I am aware however that, in the intervening years, a more relaxed approach has come in. Younger people have been encouraged simply to express themselves, and not to worry about ‘correctness’. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far that oldies like me are made to feel like fastidious old pedants, fussing on endlessly about things that don’t matter.

I was particularly glad, therefore, to come across Joanna Young’s blog at http://coachingwizardry.typepad.com/confident_writing/. She, it seems to me, has the right approach. She advocates the correct use of language, not for its own sake, but for what it says about you and your organisation, as well as for that clarity and precision that we all strive for.

Her ‘five common grammar mistakes’ chime precisely with those that most commonly make me wince these days. They are:

  • Confusing it’s and its
  • Confusing they’re, their and there
  • Confusing your and you’re
  • Using apostrophes to try and create a plural
  • Forgetting to use apostrophes to show possession
The first and last of these are, of course, linked. People write “the book and it’s title” because they think the apostrophe is needed to indicate possession – forgetting that “its” is a possessive pronoun in its own right, just like ‘his’ and ‘hers’, whereas “it’s” is just an abbreviation of “it is”. Yet one sees this error in the copy of major advertisers, whose (not ‘who’s’) agencies really ought to know better.
So – thanks, Joanna, for highlighting these points. I’m on your side!
Oh – and one more thing that makes me wince: the creeping use of lower-case”i” for the first person singular.

Obscurity rules?

I was reading some modern poetry the other day. At least, that’s what it called itself. Frankly, to me it was unintelligible. A jumble of words – some of them misused – without any apparent structure and making no kind of sense.  I tried speaking it aloud, to see if the sheer sound of it would strike sparks. Nothing happened

In this particular instance, I made a comment. I didn’t say the piece was rubbish (though that may have been what I thought); I just said that I didn’t understand it. The author’s response was that he didn’t give a damn whether I understood it or not .

This is what irks me about so much modern art. Surely the purpose of art, in any medium, is to communicate?  Art isn’t created in a vacuum. Nor should it, in my opinion, be created purely for the gratification of the artist.  If it fails to communicate – to arouse some emotion in the viewer or reader or listener, or to provide some new insight into human experience – then surely something is wrong. And I think it is deplorable for the artist to be indifferent to that failure.

Yes, of course some people are too thick, too unimaginative, too insensitive to respond in the way the artist would wish. But if a majority find his work incomprehensible, should he not worry? Should he not wonder if he is saying what he is trying to say in the right way?

I am not for a moment suggesting that everything should be ‘dumbed down’, to be accessible to the lowest common denominator. But obscurity for its own sake leads, in my view, to incomprehensibility being seen as a virtue; to rubbish being sold for thousands simply because rich men want to pose as connoisseurs.

There is modern poetry, modern art, that is mind-blowing, life-enhancing; but beware the man who doesn’t care whether he connects or not.

Less is more?


Tom, our grandson, is “sixteen, going on seventeen”. Months, that is. And his vocabulary, it must be said, is somewhat limited. To him, all female humans are “Mammas”, all males are “Daddas”, all four-legged creatures are “Dogs”and all four-wheeled vehicles are “T’actors”.

He also has only one word for our feathered friends. It is “Duck”. Whether a cockerel is crowing or a warbler is warbling, it’s all the same to him. “Duck!” he says, with a certainty that brooks no argument.

Recently, we took him for a walk in the grounds of a stately home. Rounding a corner, he came face to face with a magnificent peacock. Advancing on stiff, arrogant legs, the bird looked quizzically at our grandson, its head on one side – obviously wondering if anything digestible might be on offer. Deciding that a little bribery might help, it shook itself and then spread its plumage in a blaze of iridescent blues and greens.

Tom was unimpressed. He pointed an accusatory finger. “Duck!”, he said, emphatically.

The peacock, understandably affronted, arched its neck and let out a piercing scream – the sort of sound a tormented soul might utter in one of the lower regions of Hades. Tom, who had never encountered such an ear-splitting duck before, stared wide-eyed for several moments and then burst into tears.

It was after this incident that I began to muse on what it would be like if we all had to make do with such a limited vocabulary. Would a young man enthuse about taking “this gorgeous duck out to dinner”? Would the man with the piercing stare appreciate being described as “duck-eyed”? Would culinary life be as enjoyable if we all consumed Duck’s Custard and Ducks-eye Fish-fingers”? Would Shakespeare sound the same if “the duck himself was hoarse that croaked the fatal entrance of Duncan neath our battlements”? Or Shelley – “Hail to thee blithe spirit – duck thou never wert…”?

So many symbols would change, too: we’d have the duck of peace, the last duck of summer, blue ducks over the white cliffs of Dover, and red-breasted ducks on our Christmas cards.

My mind (and yours, too, I shouldn’t wonder) began to boggle. It was all too much for me. I decided I needed a change of scene. I got into my t’actor and drove off at speed, narrowly avoiding a herd of dogs on their way to milking. Please God, let Tom learn some more words soon!

Curate’s egg

A large parcel arrived yesterday – so I now have some stock of my book. Off I went this morning to visit a couple of local book stores. The first was encouraging: they took three copies, on sale-or-return, and the A4 point-of-sale poster that I designed. This emphasises that I am a Local Author. They were anxious to know if I would be getting any publicity, and I was able to tell them of coverage in two local papers, as well as the website and blog. They obviously found this reassuring. I asked if they would be interested in a ‘signing’ session, but they said these were not worthwhile in their experience.

The second bookstore – well, it’s more of a general newsagents really – took a desultory look at the book and said no, they didn’t think it was their sort of thing. Fair enough. One out of two is not bad, I suppose.

I also called on the Tourist Information Office. They weren’t prepared to display the book, but gave me a list of local organisations that might be approached with the offer of a talk.

There’s a long way to go . . .

Looking up . . .

Feeling brighter today. A copy of my book (at present the only copy in the world, I think) arrived in the post, so I can actually believe in its existence at last. (More copies are being printed as I write). And today a local paper rang up and asked for an interview. Another confirmed that they are running the story as written in my press release. Many friends have written, promising to buy a copy. So perhaps I was despondent too soon.

Had a discussion on religion today – with a friend of whom I am very fond, though we are at opposite poles. She examines everything from a position of Belief, and will bend whatever she hears or reads to make it conform with that belief. I start from a position of Scepticism, based on a suspicion that Man created God in his own image rather than the other way round. Still, I try to keep an open mind, and I enjoy our debates.

Enough philosophy for today, I think.

A dull thud!

I sent out a load of press releases on Monday, announcing the publication of my book to a waiting world. The result? Zilch.

Having worked in PR for many years, I thought I knew how to put a release together; what to put in, what to leave out. I had expected the local media, at least, to take an interest in a septuagenarian author living in the area, publishing his first book – with an exotic background. But so far, nothing. No excited young reporter, anxious for more information. No invitation to a radio interview. Of course, it’s just possible the release was so good it told them all they needed to know, and they’ll run the story anyway. We shall see!

Perhaps (in spite of my name meaning ‘salesman’) I am not very good at selling myself. My innate modesty has probably held back my acting career, too – though I was a late starter, anyway. Still, if I may say so, I have had some success . . .

Next week I shall start the rounds of the local bookstores. Watch this space!