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'The Mortal Maze', a modern thriller set in the Middle East

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Friday, 24 October 2014

Celebrity books at Christmas


One of the most depressing issues facing independent book publishers and authors is the prominence given to books by celebrities. We're still almost two months away from Christmas, but the adverts are already out there, offering "discounts", real or fictional. Sadly, these celebrity books will sell, even though they are usually shallow tomes produced by a ghost writers and may never be read by the recipients.

UPDATE: Now W. H. Smith is offering this book for a huge "discount":

So, why would anyone want to part with a tenner to hear this self-important clown's views when they are already well known -- too well known, indeed --via the broadcasting and print media? Further, for less than a fiver you could have a pint at your local pub and hear some bore leaning on the bar expounding similar unsustainable opinions.

Computer viruses that don't exist

This posting is to be read to the accompaniment of screams of disbelief and shouts of "no, no, no!"...

For the umpteenth time I have been sent urgent messages by friends and associates warning me that there is a new virus in circulation that will destroy my computer hard drive. The latest such message came this morning from an old mate who has circulated it to his many email friends. The warning is headed "Black Muslim in the White House". It claims -- as all similar messages do -- that the existence of the virus has been revealed by CNN.

These messages are a hoax -- repeat HOAX -- and should not be circulated. Just think about it a minute. If a "virus" is as dreadful as the message claims, why does CNN have it as an exclusive? In truth, CNN never did not report the "virus"; nor did any other major news organisation, for the simple reason that it does not exist.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Broadcasting: The annoying interviewer who provides both questions and answers


This item is from my favourite magazine, Private Eye. It is supposed to be satire, but is it? Having listened to James "Jim" Naughtie on the Today Programme this week, it would be easy to think that the item was a genuine transcript.

The other morning, on the Today Programme, Jim Naughtie was in typical form. As always, his questions were part statement and part enquiry. This is irritating enough, but what is really infuriating is his apparent compulsion to also provide the answers. What we got the other morning was something along these lines: "So, your answer would be blah, blah, blah, blah, etc ete, etc." This left the interviewee with three options: 1) answer "yes", 2) answer "no", or 3) provide an even more expanded reply than already given by Jim. She took Option 3. What she should have said was "Why the hell am I here if you're not going to allow me to answer your questions in my own way?"

An interview is best conducted if the questions are simple and direct.

  • Tell us what happened?
  • Was anyone hurt?
  • Do they know the cause?
  • Will there be an investigation?
  • etc etc

For a long time, Jim Naughtie's interviews have been the subject of public complaint and derision. So, why does he continue unchanged? Does he love and admire the sound of his own voice? Does he dismiss the satire and complaints as a form of love? Is his brain incapable of composing a simple question?

Above all, why don't his bosses have the courage to tell him that if he doesn't mend his ways, they will find someone else who can deliver interviews in a less irritating way? There are dozens of first class interviewers floating around the BBC. Many would love to replace him on the Today Programme and on his Radio Four Book Club.

UPDATE: This morning I heard Jim Naughtie doing an interview in which he asked two or three very simple, direct questions. Congratulations, Jim. See, you can do it if you try!

Friday, 17 October 2014

How not to make a sale

I have come to the conclusion that there must be a central training establishment for telephone and door-to-door salespersons on the make. These dreadful people appear to have been told that the best way to engage with a potential customer (victim?) is to begin with the words "Hello, how are you today?"

The most obvious answer -- and one that I usually give them -- is "Well, I was fine until a few moments ago when you called wanting to sell me something." They inevitably reply "Oh no, we're not trying to sell you anything." But, of course, they usually are -- and if, by chance, they aren't, they are trying to empty your wallet with some other proposal.

From time to time I have to phone people with a sales pitch. My opening line is always along the lines of "Hello, I'm Ian Richardson, a freelance journalist/writer, and I wonder if you could spare me a couple of minutes while I tell you about a story idea/proposal that I have?" Usually, they agree to listen and if they're not then interested, politely tell me so and the conversation ends in an amicable manner.

If I were to ring them with the opening words "Hello, how are you today?", they would probably slam the phone down, exactly as I do on such people. But will the wideboys and widegirls learn this lesson? No chance, I suspect. Nor will the training establishments that turn these people lose on the public.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Music on a wood saw

I don't know how the conversation started, but the other day I told an incredulous friend that a wood saw made an most unusual and charming musical instrument. He said he had never heard of such a thing, but I insisted that in the Australian town where I grew up (Charlton in the state of Victoria) one of the star turns at local talent concerts in the 1950s was a farmer who played a variety of musical pieces on a saw. And very good he was, too! There was nothing particular about the saw. It was just an ordinary one, about a metre long and probably from his farm workshed.

No doubt my friend remains skeptical about my claim, so today I decided to explore YouTube to see if there were any recorded musical saw performances. Sure enough, there were several. Here is just one example. Here's another example. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Ciggies on the screen

Last night my wife and I watched a 1967 black-and-white BBC interview with actor Maggie Smith. It was reasonably interesting, but what really caught our attention immediately was that both she and her interviewer were happily smoking cigarettes on screen. Can you imagine that happening now? Of course not. Indeed, all BBC premises are now no-smoking areas and special permission has to be gained to light up a cigarette if one is required and artistically justified for a drama being shot in a studio.

The Maggie Smith interview took me back to the wonderful film Good Night, and Good Luck about the broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. Murrow not only smoked during his program -- it was in the 1950s -- but it was sponsored by a cigarette company. Again, can you imagine, say, David Dimbleby puffing away on a cigarette during a live BBC television program? It would be out of the question.

When I worked as a journalist for BBC World Service, smoking was permitted in the newsroom for most of the years I was there. World Service news bulletins were then read at a rather leisurely pace to aid audibility on the shortwave transmissions. This allowed several of the tobacco-addicted newsreaders to smoke during a bulletin. They would inhale deeply between news items and breath out as they read each story. It was an astonishing sight, although many of my colleagues didn't seem to think so at the time.

Finally, on a thinly-related matter, there was once a music hall comedian born Vernon Watson. He wanted to have a more distinctive name, but couldn't think of a suitable one until one day he spotted a No Smoking sign. From them on, he was Nosmo King!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Genealogy & family history research: Lessons to learn from the Aussies

Let me offer a huge recommendation for the Australian newspaper archive, Trove. It is brilliant, and I choose this word carefully.

Trove is run by the Australian National Library and if you are attempting to track down information about your relatives in Australia, it is an excellent starting point. It is free and navigation around the immensely-informative resource can be learned very quickly. Another plus is that new material is being added every day. The only downside is that it becomes quite addictive, but what fun!

Now, let me turn to the British equivalent, the British Newspaper Archive. This is no -- repeat no --  fun at all. It is infuriatingly and quite unnecessarily difficult to navigate and, further, makes corrections to the text very difficult. Add to this, you have to pay to access it. It is incredibly user-unfriendly and you have to wonder if it was ever beta tested on the public. I bet it wasn't. I spent the best part of an hour rummaging around the archive this afternoon. There is just one word to describe my experience as I bang my head against the wall in frustration: Aaaaaaaaagh!!!!!!!!

UPDATE: Coincidentally (?) my Facebook page came up with a sponsored posting from the British archive, but when I posted a complaint about the site, it was promptly deleted. And when I complained about the deletion, it was also deleted. So much for free speech at this British institution.

SECOND UPDATE: If you take out a subscription to the archive, be careful that a month's subscription doesn't become open ended. Make sure you read the small print "Your subscription is sold on a continuous membership basis, meaning it will continue until you cancel it." and hunt down and untick the automatic renewal.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Does borrowing a book or buying one second-hand help the author?

The other day when I was searching for some family information in old Australian newspapers I came across this heart-felt advertisement in a provincial daily published in 1880:

It reminded me of an issue that must bother the overwhelming majority of authors: the fact that they get no financial return from books that are loaned to friends or family or are re-sold in second-hand bookshops or charity shops.

I have one friend who was so enthusiastic about my book God's Triangle that she bought a number of copies and gave them away as presents. That greatly cheered me, but there are a number of people who have written to tell me that they enjoyed the story so much they passed the book on to their friends to read. I'm sure they tell me this because they think it will please me. Yes it does -- up to a point.

Every author likes to know that all the hard work that has gone into a book is appreciated. There is no point writing something that no-one wants to read. But, the downside is that loaning books to friends undermines the often-meager financial returns for an author. Even best-sellers can result in very modest returns. A few months ago, I was at a talk given by an established writer who had authored several high-selling books and a screen play. These were listed in the chairwoman's introduction to the talk, to which he replied: "Thank you very much for reminding me of my works, but what I want to know is why haven't they made me rich?" I once asked a friend who wrote a highly-regarded book on Italian politics if he felt it had been worth it. "Well, I suppose so," he responded without enthusiasm, "but only if I try not to think about the fact that my royalties demonstrated that I'd worked for just 25p an hour!"

A real problem for authors are the charity shops -- especially those that deal almost exclusively in second-hand books. Hundreds of pounds can change hands each day in these shops, but none of it will go to the authors. Oxfam has a second-hand bookshop in Ealing Broadway, and I am convinced that it has played a part in the closure of two independent bookshops in Ealing in the past couple of months.

I now have to make an embarrassing confession. Looking through our own book shelves, I see that a substantial number of books have not been bought new at a bookshop or from Amazon. They have been given to us or we have bought them from a charity shop. And that is the real problem isn't it. It means that most authors will just have to be grateful that their books are being read by someone, even if the financial returns are not what they hoped.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Are snails like homing pigeons?

Personally, I have never had any problem stomping on snails. It's a speedy death and, I imagine, a painless one. They would probably prefer that to being slowly poisoned by those horrible little green pellets that people spread around their gardens. And for us, it is better than having to eat them, as the French like to do, and better than have them chewing away at our beloved home-grown vegetables.

This post was prompted by a Facebook friend who said she could never kill a snail. Instead, she would pick them up in a gloved hand and throw them over the fence into a neighbour's garden. Well, I am glad this friend doesn't live near me!

My response to my friend's admission was that she was wasting her time because snails were like homing pigeons and they would always find their way back into her garden. I meant this as a joke, but is it true?

A friend of my friend said she had once tested this out. She had gathered all the snails she could find in her garden and painted their shells with bright red nail polish. She then dropped them into a garden a couple of doors away. Sure enough, the snails were back in her garden flaunting their nail polish a few days later.

This got me sniffing around the internet to see if there had been any research into the possibility that snails had homing instincts. Sure enough there was a Guardian article that said they did know their way back to their original homes, but only if the distance was less than 20 metres.

There you are. My joke turned out to be true after all. So, you might as well do what I do and stomp on them, although some of you will no doubt write me off as a truly cruel and nasty snail-hating bastard. Perhaps that is also true.

LATER ADDITION: On a more serious note, hedgehogs are very good at keeping snails and slugs under control. The difficulty is getting one of the various hedgehog societies to agree to you having some, as they need to be carefully housed and looked after.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Funerals: a reason to be cheerful?

A week ago, I went to a funeral in London of a friend and former BBC colleague. He was a Roman Catholic, although I don't recall him displaying much enthusiasm for the church. This was reflected in the service which seemed to me to be more secular than religious. But as I have never been to a Catholic funeral before, I am not able to judge with any authority.

What did strike me about the 200+ mourners was that at least 95% wore dark clothes and I was one of the few men who did not wear a tie.

How different this is to many of the funerals that now take place in Australia, the land of my birth. It is quite common there for mourners to turn up wearing casual clothes. In some cases, mourners are invited to "wear something bright" to reflect that the event is a celebration of the deceased's life.

When my mother died aged 95 in Melbourne in 2007, the large turnout of mourners wore a variety of clothes from dark suits and ties to bright casual, tie-less outfits. It was, on the whole, a cheerful occasion with a good sprinkling of admiration and amusing anecdotes and laughter. My mother had not died of anything in particular, but of old age. In her advanced years, she was consistently upbeat about her life and achievements and declared herself "ready to go", whenever that might be.

My mother's funeral was so different from the one I attended for my former colleague. He had died at the early age of 61 after a very long battle with cancer. So, although the event was a celebration of his colourful and entertaining life and achievements, it was also a time of enormous sadness because the cancer had devastated his family and cut short his broadcasting career.

There was another big difference between the two funerals: Both my mother's private cremation service and the thanksgiving service later in the day were filmed. Crematoriums and many funeral chapels in Australia routinely video services and offer a DVD copy to the family. Some families take up the offer; others do not. It is left entirely to them.

Although I had seen my mother about a week before her death, I was back in London by the time she died, but a friend who has a TV production company in Melbourne happily agreed to send a two-camera crew to film the service. None of the mourners objected or even raised an eyebrow of disapproval, as far as I could tell.

The raw video from the two cameras was sent to me in London where I edited it into a complete record of the service. By the time I had completed this, I almost felt that I had been there. Members of my immediate family were very happy to get the finished DVDs for their family history files.

When I told an English friend about the filming, she bluntly declared it to be "weird". She said she would never want to watch a recording of her parents' funerals. She didn't get on with either parent so she wouldn't wish to be reminded of what might of been had she not had such a dysfunctional relationship with them.  I didn't always get on with my mother, but she was an extraordinary woman of generosity and with a vividly-amusing streak of eccentricity. And, of course, she was "ready to go".

As I am on the subject of funerals, let me also tell you about one that came with an emotional punch at the end. It was an austere non-religious event with no singing -- just eulogies from the deceased woman's daughter and two sons. The contributions from the daughter and one of the sons were heartfelt, but not at all controversial. Not so the speech by the other son. He took the opportunity to reveal the extended abuse his mother has suffered from her father. He went so far as to suggest that she had lost one of her babies as a result of an unprovoked beating. Furthermore, he denounced a Catholic priest who had been involved with the family. It was, without exaggeration, jaw-dropping stuff. Neither of the other siblings was aware that this was coming, but they seemed not to be offended. They felt their brother had a right to get it all off his chest, which he most certainly did.

Finally, if you would like to learn more about my mother's memorable life, click here: Rena's obituaries.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The threat to our pictorial history posed by digital photography

“More means less” is a truism that applies to many areas of life – but never more so than with present-day digital photography.

It is safe to estimate that billions of digital photographs are taken around the world each day, but almost none will ever become part of a family history archive. They are here today and gone tomorrow.

There was a time, not that many decades ago, when taking a photograph was an event from which the results were treasured.

The photographs from these sessions were archive quality and became proud possessions to be passed on from generation to generation.

We must all know friends and family who indiscriminately fire away with their digital cameras and smartphones with the enjoyment being for the moment.

Some of these photographic efforts are emailed to friends and family, or are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and other social media outlets. They are very rarely turned into prints that can be held in the hand and admired, or put in a frame or even a photo album.

Click here to see my full article published in Family Tree magazine, which is a very useful read for anyone interested in researching their family history. 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

TV events: The BBC's addiction to fictional figures - UPDATE

For reasons best known to the BBC, it merrily trots out all sorts of figures that just can't be substantiated. It happens all the time, frequently claiming financial and business losses that seem to have been calculated by holding up a wet finger in the wind. You know the sort of thing: A strike is staged or there is a shutdown for some other reason and we are told that there are "losses amounting to [insert any figure you like here]". Sure there are losses caused by shutdowns, but just because a can of beans, a jacket, a book, a dining table or a book of stamps is not sold today doesn't mean it won't be sold tomorrow and, therefore, is not a "loss".

This takes me on to the nonsense frequently repeated by the BBC and other media organisations about audiences for events such as royal weddings, American presidential inaugurations, and major sports.

Take the current claim in news bulletins that the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was watched by "up to (or more than) a billion people". How could that be? It's impossible.

Over the years, several ex-BBC editors, including myself, have challenged the "wet finger" calculation of figures, with no apparent effect. Among the most vociferous objectors is a former BBC senior manager and colleague, Graham Mytton, who is an internationally-recognised expert on audience figures. I am taking the liberty to quote from a Facebook entry he made earlier today about a BBC claim that the Commonwealth Games had an audience of more than one billion:
Why does the BBC put out this impossible and self evidently risible rubbish? There are two billion people in the Commonwealth. Most of them will have been asleep last night (it was 2.30 a.m. in India). Is it remotely conceivable that half of them were watching last night? No global TV programme has yet reached a billion, not even the Olympics, although they have come close. Why does the BBC throw away its usual caution and acclaimed authority for accuracy when it comes to global TV audiences? Every time it does this. The Royal Wedding, the Oscars, the World Cup and so on. When I worked at the BBC, one had to have a source. There is no source for this rubbish. Why? Because it is not true. Simple.
Does it matter that the audience figures are inflated? Will anyone care? Well, they should care because the BBC has built up over several decades an international reputation for accuracy. This should apply to every aspect of a story. If it plays fast and loose with figures for such things as business losses and audience figures, what else is considered too good to check?

UPDATE:  On the same subject, this article is worth reading. It denounces the extraordinary claims for the TV audiences for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton:

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Writers should not be expected to work for nothing

An important message from the latest newsletter of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain:

Free is not an option

A letter from one writer to another 
The recent Writers’ Guild Survey about the extent to which writers are being asked to give away their work for free, or work on others’ ideas for free, produced a howl of anger as a response. Though aimed at all writers – authors, poets and dramatists for the theatre – it was particularly tailored for those who work in film and TV. A whopping 87% of writers had been asked to work for free, with everyone experiencing an upturn.

It’s clear that there one culprit to blame. Us. We writers are simply colluding in our own downfall, by agreeing to work for free. The worse the story of abuse – endless treatments, being sacked from your own projects, promise of cash that never materialises – the more you wonder, why? The answer is simple. We’re all passionate about our work and understand there’s a lot of give and take in the industry (well we mostly give). Now, however, it’s time to stand together and say no. This is exploitation.

Let me clarify what “free” actually means. All writers accept that there’s a certain amount of spec work – you have to write a spec script to prove you’ve got the chops. That’s fine. When you pitch your idea, you have to put it on a page or two to sell it. But that should probably be it.

As one writer in the survey wrote:  “I'd distinguish between two kinds of pitches – the one I write to showcase my idea and the one they need to sell it. I expect to present my wares for no reward. The tipping point comes when they start giving me notes.”
Another writer says: “Just a ‘one-pager’. Enough to get a feel for the idea. But of course what they want is an entire series condensed into a couple of pages and to do this you need to have worked out the entire series, how it works, how the characters interact etc. There’s a fundamental difference between a ‘pitch’ and a treatment. A lot of TV ideas can’t be pitched in the same way as high-concept movies can. It’s a lot of work to ‘create’ a TV series.”

Time and again, development producers seem to be set up with a salary and an assistant, but no budget to pay for anything. Can this really be true? When it comes to a Top 10 writer or a special book, the funding will suddenly be there. Surely, saying they don’t have any money, actually means they don’t have any money for you.

The survey asked writers to name and shame the biggest culprits and it turned out to be nearly every indie around. If we’re willing to fund a company’s development (and often these are huge indies turning over millions, never mind in-house BBC), then they’re only too happy to let us. How many times have we been in meetings with producers and commissioners to discuss our idea and we’re the only one around the table who isn’t being paid? What’s more, if a producer is in a commissioner meeting with several ideas, which one will they really push – the freebie or the one they’ve paid for?

If we don’t put a value on our work – why would anyone else? Aren’t we just devaluing our own market by flooding it with free ones?

Giving a producer a free option is a really bad idea, then you’ve really lost control of it and they have de factor ownership. Try asking the producer if you can send it out to other people during this period and see the response. They believe it’s theirs, with no money changing hands.

All we have is our ideas. They are our currency. Writing isn’t about typing, it’s about thinking. That’s what we’re paid for.

So what’s to be done?

Say no to unpaid work. If you have an agent, make sure they know this and that they ask producers when they approach you, if they have money to pay for development. The Guild is going to suggest that a tick box is included on BBC editorial specification forms, which asks if a producer has paid the writer for the work.

Join the Writers Guild – there is safety in numbers and who else is going to care about us?

Other suggestions from the survey
“The BBC sets out a guideline/schedule for payments at all stages. Networks adhere to these guidelines. Independents get a 25% reduction on these rates. All writers must sign a Guild agreement before they work. All companies must sign a Guild agreement before they employ writers. Non-signatories are fined double what they would have paid for a Guild writer. Fines imposed by the BBC or network airing the shows. Easy.”

“What I’d like to see emerge from this campaign is a Guild-backed and enforceable principle that if a writer develops material for nothing, effectively bearing the cost of development, that constitutes an agreement to executive producer status and fees on the project.” That makes good business sense – if a producer wants something up front for free, then they should pay more later on.

The industry is taking steps to stop exploitation for runners and juniors. Now it’s our turn. It’s up to us to enforce that free is not an option.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Mysterious case of the supermarket plug in a BBC film (updated)

This is a most curious one. Last week my wife and I viewed an American film that we had recorded off BBC3 back in April. Because our hearing is not as good as it used to be, we watched the film -- a comedy called Youth in Revolt -- with the sub-titles switched on. As the film approached the end, we were astonished to see the words "Always Shop at Tesco" pop up on the screen during a pause in the spoken dialogue. See the screen grab.

Why and how did this happen? The BBC insists that the words were in the spoken dialogue, but we could not see any lips moving, nor could we hear either actor speaking those words anywhere around the scene, even with the sound turned up high. I have also downloaded versions of the screenplay and can find no reference to Tesco. Admittedly, these were not shooting scripts in which dialogue is often added, removed or amended when the filming takes place. 

Why would this encouragement to shop at a British supermarket be in an American film? Sure, Tesco used to operate in the United States for a while but under a different name. Another question: were the sub-titles provided by the American production company or did the BBC outsource them to a British company?

As I have said, it is a mystery.

UPDATE: One person who has looked at this film thinks that "Always shop at Tesco" is muttered as a throwaway line by the woman on the left of the screen. I still don't believe it. Why would a character in an American film deliver a slogan for a supermarket chain that is unknown in the USA? They wouldn't, of course. I still believe that someone inserted the slogan in the sub-titles before transmission by the BBC. Was it mischief or unauthorised product placement?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Why was this photo an embarrassment?

As a keen genealogist I have many family photographs that I would regard as “special”, but this is one that I wasn’t supposed to see. Nor were any other descendants of the couple who are pictured. The couple were my great aunt, Florence “Florrie” Cox, and the Rev. Frank E. Paice, on the day they were married in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in December 1914.

Both were Baptist missionaries from Australia, stationed in the early 1900s in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The marriage fell apart in scandal for two reasons: 1) Frank Paice had fallen for another missionary, Olga Johnston, during the two-year engagement that the church required Florrie and Frank to spend apart. 2) Florrie had a rare variation of the intersex condition, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Although she looked and felt like a woman, she had male chromosomes and could not function in several important respects as a female.

When Frank and Olga’s scandalous affair became known, both were forced to resign. Florrie returned to Melbourne, but was a family embarrassment with the breakdown of her marriage a relentlessly taboo subject.

The Australian press – normally addicted to such juicy stories – was prevailed upon to look the other way when the divorce went through the Supreme Court and the judge ordered that the file be “closed for all time”.

Frank and Olga married on their return to Bengal where Frank took up an engineering management job. When they returned to Australia some years later, they had reinvented themselves as pillars of society, with Frank taking on a number of high-profile civic positions in Melbourne. No mention was ever made of Frank or Olga’s time in India or their six years as missionaries. Not even their only son and close friends knew of their missionary past. I learned of the scandal only because my mother let it slip when we came across a photograph taken just before Florrie was about to depart for her wedding in Calcutta. 

It took me 18 months of email exchanges, letters and telephone calls to get a Supreme Court judge in Melbourne to lift the ban on access to the divorce file, revealing Florrie’s condition. But nowhere could I find photographs of Frank and Florrie’s wedding as they had been destroyed by the family – probably out of embarrassment and anger. Then I got lucky. A very distant cousin showed me a photograph of two people he could not identify. I was stunned to see that it was Frank and Florrie after their wedding at the Circular Road Baptist Chapel, Calcutta. Somehow it had survived the family's photographic purge and my hunt was over.

The story of Florrie Cox and Frank Paice is told in my book God’s Triangle, available in paperback and ebook.

Finally, an unresolved question:
Why is Frank seated while Florrie stands? I have part of the answer. Florrie would have wanted to show off her frock and her large bouquet to their best effect. However, it was unusual, but not unknown, for the groom to be seated for a wedding portrait.  I am unable to track down any reliable explanation why Frank chose to sit down, but maybe it was because Frank was shorter than Florrie.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Food for the mind as well as the body

From the Writers' Guild of Great Britain newsletter...

Free books given away at food banks

According to The Bookseller, Booktrust has given away 2,500 children’s books to food banks as part of this month’s National Book Start Week. Between 9 and 15 June, the charity gave away copies of Jez Alborough’s Super Duck (HarperCollins) to 60 food banks in England in partnership with Trussell Trust Foodbank network. Elizabeth Maytom, project leader at the West Norwood and Brixton food bank in London, said giving free books to families who are struggling financially is a “positive initiative”.

She said: “Books and toys are low down on priorities for families. Money will be spent on rent, energy, travel, food and sometimes school uniforms. We often try to give Christmas presents and Easter books for children but it hasn’t been easy. So a little book to take away and read at night is really positive.”

The Trussell Trust network helped 913,138 people in crisis from 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014. Of that total, 330,205 were children. Booktrust is now looking to supply food banks with free books during next year’s National Bookstart Week. Interested groups can contact the Book Trust at nbw@booktrust.org.uk.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Rupert Murdoch and the mis-use of power

LONDON'S HACKING TRIAL: Here are the opening sentences of a revealing and hugely disturbing article by Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter whose revelations opened the nasty can of worms about phone hacking and other misdeeds by Murdoch editors and reporters in Britain:
This was no ordinary trial.
It was unusual in its sheer scale: more than three years of police work; 42,000 pages of crown evidence; seven months of hearings; up to 18 barristers in court at any one time; 12 defendants facing allegations of crime spreading back over a decade.
But what made it most unusual was what it represented. First, this was a long-delayed showdown between the criminal justice system and parts of Fleet Street, in which the reputations of both was at stake. Beyond that, however, this was a trial by proxy, in which Rebekah Brooks stood in the dock on behalf of a media mogul and Andy Coulson acted as avatar for the prime minister, with the reputations of Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron equally in jeopardy. Officially, the trial was all about crime; in reality, it was all about power.
For copyright reasons I cannot run any more, but here is the full article. It is well worth reading.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

An American film recommendation and "prizes" that aren't prizes

My wife and I rarely get excited by an American movie. They are very often spoiled by lowest-common-denominator dialogue and neat, happy endings. An exception was Nebraska. This film was alternately sad and very funny. Sad because it was about an elderly man in the early stages of dementia and funny because the dialogue was sprinkled with some glorious declarations. In particular, the elderly man's grumpy wife was a joy. We also enjoyed seeing Bob Odenkirk, who played the dodgy lawyer Saul in Breaking Bad, playing a rather different, less frenetic role.

Without giving anything away, the film is about how the main character becomes convinced that he has won a million dollars in a marketing campaign. This reminded me that some years ago my elderly mother in Australia received one of those wretched Readers' Digest "prizes". She, too, was convinced that she had won a million dollars. When I told her she hadn't won anything, she replied: "But I have, Ian, because it's got my name printed on it!" I did eventually get her to accept that having her name printed on the "prize" meant nothing and it should be binned. I fear, though, that she went to her grave some years later still wondering whether she should have ignored me and laid claim to her million dollars.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The joy of living in the world's most comprehensive library

From time to time I wonder how long it would take me do my writing if I didn't have access to the Internet. There is no coming up with a precise answer, but I feel sorry for the diminishing number of writers who have to rely on visits to reference libraries for much of their information.

Out of curiosity, I made a note one day of the number of times I used Internet search engines to help me with my work. Here are just some examples:

1) How is an American ambassador addressed formally?

2) Is the fictional name I am giving the ambassador likely to cause problems because it is similar or identical to the name of a living person who is, or was, an ambassador?

3) Learn the age of a prominent politician.

4) Check the spellings of several place names.

5) Check the history of Jim Beam whiskey.

6) Seek the Arabic translation of a few simple English-language greetings?

7) Check the precise name of a film and when it was released.

8) Study photographs of Middle Eastern streets damaged by shelling.

9) Check the official title of a government minister.

10) Confirm that a former prominent celebrity is still alive.

So, these are just 10 examples, but there were many more. How much time would have been taken up out of my day if I had needed to check my limited selection of reference books, or to go down to the local library? Probably all day, is the answer -- which means that I would not have made any progress with my writing.

The Internet is a truly wonderful addition to modern life, but it must make for tough times with many libraries. That is a downside of the Internet.

Sub-titles: a simple solution - SECOND UPDATE

My wife and I watched a film on DVD a couple of evenings ago and it took an infuriating four tries to get the sub-titles to work.

Why do film-makers conjure up unnecessarily complicated "set ups" on their DVDs. There is, after all, a simple way to do this without irritation. One DVD we watched a while ago had the simplest of solutions -- an opening menu with just two options:

1) Play

2) Play with sub-titles.

Now, why can't all film-makers do this with their DVDs?! So much better than all the complicated and confusing instructions we usually see.


We watched Grand Budapest Hotel the other night on a Blu-Ray DVD. The sub-titling instructions were infuriatingly confusing and after three unsuccessful attempts to get the sub-titles to work, we had to give up.

Sub-titling on live British TV programmes is also a continuing issue. You'll find the latest complaints here: http://bit.ly/1A1iJPZ

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

NINA -- No, It's Not Awesome!

AWESOME – the most over-used and over-stated word in the social media.

The Oxford Dictionary definition: extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring awe.

The social media definition: mostly used as a lazy substitute for considered comment on just about anything.

On behalf of my recently-established organisation, NINA (No, It’s Not Awesome), I helpfully offer a random selection of alternative words and phrases:

Very nice
Most attractive
Most interesting
Bloody hell!
Intellectually challenging
You've done well
You’ve done well, considering
Heart warming
Are your art classes worth it? 
That wig looks almost real
Very creative
Much improved
Was it deliberately out of focus?
A good try
Better luck next time
Most impressive
Well, don’t give  up
An improvement on last time
Try another hairdresser!
Was it fancy dress?
You did your best anyway
Was it a good idea to wear tight shorts?
Mmm. A longer skirt would be better