Archive Page 3

Watch the birdie…

I recently acquired a new digital SLR camera – a Canon 450D – which has a facility called Live View, which lets you connect the camera to a computer and set things up so that you can see on the monitor what the camera lens is ‘seeing’. I have always envied those photographers who have the skill, and the patience, to get close-up shots of wild creatures, so I thought I would have a go with my new hardware. I set the camera up on a tripod near my bird-feeding station, ran a cable back to my conservatory and connected it to my laptop. There I sat, in comfort, and waited for the birds to come.

I had focused the camera on a feeder containing niger seeds – a food adored by goldfinches (and apparently by no other species). The picture below is the best of the shots I got. Not bad, I felt, for a first try.

Wild goldfinch at niger-seed feeder

Selling more books

I have to face it: my marketing campaign for the book I launched last January has run out of steam. I did, I thought, all the right things: put out a press release, wrote to retailers, visited local shops, tried (and failed) to set up some ‘signings’, did some talks to local reading clubs – and, of course, set up my own website (see right). I even started this blog in the hope that it might generate some interest.

But the fact remains that sales have remained pitifully low. And the total number of visitors to my website, in five months, has been 506.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read an advert for a company that offers a complete book promotion package, using every available aspect of the Internet – from tag-words to Adwords – and guarantees to achieve at least 5,000 visits in three months from launching the tailor-made website they construct for you. The all-in price is £396, or US$789.

This, I thought, is worth looking into. So I went to their website, at, and read all about the techniques they employ to maximize one’s online exposure. It looked impressive, especially given that money-back guarantee (though, naturally enough, they make no promises about the sales you will achieve). I began to realise some of the shortcomings of my own DIY website. A site is, after all, like a book: it can be the best in the world, but if nobody reads it . . .

On the margins I work on, I would have to sell an extra 250 copies to offset the cost of this package; but if it gets the book more widely known and talked about, that figure might be achievable. I’m sorely tempted to give it a go. If I do, I will report back here, in due course.

Meanwhile, I would welcome any comments on my current website, at

Taking issue

There is a matter I would like to discuss – a subject near to my heart – which concerns the problem I have in accepting the over-use of a certain word. This difficulty arises from the fact that most people, these days, seem to know no alternatives to this word. Whether it’s a fault in my hardware or a defect in my software, or a question raised in parliament, or a dispute between neighbours, it’s all covered by the same word: ISSUE.

In fact, I could (and many people would) re-write the preceding paragraph as follows:

There is an issue I would like to discuss – an issue near to my heart – which concerns the issue I have in accepting the over-use of a certain word. My issue issues from the fact that many people, these days, seem to know no alternatives to this word. Whether it’s an issue in my hardware or an issue in my software, or an issue raised in parliament, or an issue between neighbours, it’s all covered by the same word: ISSUE.

Not that I have anything against the word itself. It’s a fine word, with a respectable history. It’s just that it is used so much now that many other, equally respectable, words – such as those I used in my first paragraph – are now unemployed; on the dole. Which seems a pity.

Listen to any newscast, or read any newspaper column, and I can pretty well guarantee that you will find ‘issue’ used at least once, and often many times over. Why? What have those other words done, to be consigned to the linguistic scrap-heap?

I’m going to issue (it’s a valid use, and ‘promulgate’ is so ugly) a challenge to all journalists: see if you can go a whole week without using that word. I am sure you will feel better for it, and your vocabulary will be distinctly healthier.

Anyone got an issue with that?

It’s a Mars/Venus Thing

No-one, I think, would describe me as tidy-minded. One look at my home office would prove the point. (The French, incidentally, have a word for the kind of chaos in which I generally work: bordelique. It is derived from their word for a brothel – though why a brothel should be particularly known for untidiness I am not sure. Still, never having been in one, what would I know?)

When it comes to the washing up, however, I am a different person altogether – bordering, I suspect, on the obsessive/compulsive. I should add, by the way, that we do have a dishwasher, but two elderly people do not, in my view, generate enough at one meal to justify switching it on (or is that just the old Puritan coming out?) Anyway, when we are not entertaining, we still wash up the old-fashioned way – in the sink, with a draining rack so that the dishes can dry themselves.

Now, when I wash up, I have to start with a completely empty rack, so that things fresh from the sink do not wet those that are already dry. I arrange the dirty crocks to the right of the sink, in order of size, gather all the cutlery together, and leave the pans on the stove until everything else is done. As each item is washed it is placed in the drying rack according to a predetermined plan – and I get quite upset if there is no place for that last saucer. This ensures that everything is evenly spaced from its neighbour and, as the boffins would say, “the drying process is optimised”. Saucepans, for which the rack is not really designed, are dried by hand,

My wife, however, has a different approach. Things are washed in whatever order they come to hand and are shoved into the rack wherever a bit of space can be found. The result, each time, is a unique creation: an irregular mountain of crocks and pots, plates and pans all jumbled together and delicately poised in a less-than-stable equilibrium.

When I was a boy, we used to play a game called Spillikins. This involved letting a lot of slender coloured sticks fall in a tangled heap, and then trying to extract one stick at a time without any of the others moving. Emptying the drying-rack, after my wife has washed up, is somewhat similar. Can I ease that jug out, without that bowl crashing down on the wine glasses? Is that the plate I want, hiding under the steamer? It can be  quite exciting – or nerve-racking, depending on my state of mind.

I am not for a moment suggesting that her method is inferior to mine. While I am hide-bound by my own self-imposed rules, her mind is free to think of other things – her embroidery, for instance, or where she has left her glasses. My routine probably takes longer, and both techniques achieve the same result in the end. But the two approaches do, it seems to me, illustrate the differences between the male and female minds.

But then, never having been a woman, what do I know?

Borrowing from the Bard

I went to a performance of ‘Hamlet’ recently – directed by Jonathan Miller, in the Bristol theatre-in-the-round where I have myself performed a number of times.  The play, of course, is a marathon – for audience and players – and the title role is huge. Jamie Ballard captured the angst and volatility of the character superbly, though perhaps he lacked that princely quality that would have marked him out as a fine future king, had things been otherwise; and his death – directed by Miller with medical accuracy – managed to make a sublime moment somewhat comical.

What particularly struck me though, as I listened to the dialogue, was how many every-day phrases, that we use so often that they  are almost cliches, are derived from Shakespeare’s text. Phrases such as “in my mind’s eye”, “to the manner born”, “more in sorrow than in anger”, “suit the action to the word”, “I must be cruel … to be kind”, “the primrose path” – all come straight from Hamlet. There are others that we use with a vague awareness of literary connections but without realising we are quoting the ‘gloomy Dane’: “frailty, thy name is woman!”, “more honoured in the breach than the observance”, “the time is out of joint”, “brevity is the soul of wit”, “to hold … the mirror up to nature”, “the lady doth protest too much” – the list goes on. Yet most people think the only line they know from ‘Hamlet’ is “To be, or not to be…”

What a debt we owe to WS!

Two (million) wrongs make a right?

Since I wrote my last post, I have consulted two dictionaries – both of which say that the word ‘dissect’ can be pronounced as ‘dis-sect’ or as ‘die-sect’. What they mean, I suppose, is that both are used and therefore both are considered acceptable. But in my book that doesn’t mean that both are right. Mr Ellis’s argument seems to me to be incontrovertible.

Needless to say, I am disappointed (or should I say ‘die-sappointed’?).

But no doubt the modernists will tell me that, in language, there is no such thing as right and wrong . . .

Dissecting English pronunciation

Whenever I hear someone pronouncing the word ‘dissect’ to sound like ‘die-sect’, I remember Mr Ellis. He was my first biology teacher. He had crinkly grey hair, small round spectacles and a fastidious manner. As he demonstrated the use of a scalpel for the first time, he said:

“Now remember, boys, I am about to dis-sect this earthworm. Not die-sect. There are two esses, because the prefix is ‘dis’, added to the Latin root ‘sect’ and the word means ‘to cut apart’. On the other hand, you bisect an angle (pronouncing it ‘buy’) because the prefix is ‘bi’, meaning two – as in bicycle – and therefore the word means ‘to cut in two’. And there is only one ‘s’. So: never let me hear a boy talking of ‘die-secting’. Understood?”

Though there is much that Mr Ellis taught me that I have long since forgotten, that lesson stuck. My school,as it happens, has a medical foundation and has turned out many doctors over the years (I nearly became one myself). Yet I constantly hear intelligent people, including eminent surgeons, pronouncing the word ‘die-sect’. Perhaps they never had the advantage of studying under Mr Ellis. But I bet they wouldn’t say ‘die-sappear’ or ‘die-satisfied’.

My Ellis, incidentally, could be bitingly sarcastic. On our first lesson with a microscope, we studied samples of pond-water. I was excited when I found what I was sure was a one-celled organism. I stared down the eyepiece at it, and was convinced I saw it move.

Mr Ellis loomed up behind me. “What are you looking at, boy?” he said.

“I’m pretty sure it’s an amoeba, sir,” I replied.

Mr Ellis peered into the microscope, then straightened and addressed the whole class. “First rule of microscopy: make sure you know what you are looking at!” he said. “This boy has just spent twenty minutes contemplating an inanimate piece of sludge.”

Sixty years on, I still squirm . . .

My book cover

Recent Readers

View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile