Thursday, 19 September 2019

Fully Listed by Jan Edwards


A writing friend was bemoaning the fact that, being a fairly prolific writer of short fiction, she often loses track of the markets where she has submitted work, and the fact that many of those short fiction markets fail to notify unsuccessful writers does not help – and I feel her pain.
With editor’s hats on at Alchemy Press we make a point of always notifying both successful and unsuccessful writers when we have made our selection as a matter of common courtesy; which can be quite a task when those submissions have numbered anything up to four hundred per anthology.
However, I can see how larger markets who have thousands of stories sent in would draw a line at individual emails and many have a line in their guidelines giving a time limit after which writers can assume they have been unsuccessful.  Elsewhere technology has reached a point where most of those use automated replies. That may seem impersonal when you have slogged over a story and sent it out with high hopes, only to have it limp home anything up to a year later, but it is not really any different to a standard rejection email/letter, and at least you know where you stand.
So how do we combat the lack of replies from the markets and/or poor memory of the writer?
I keep an Excel spread sheet that lists story/market/date sent and reply expected but a simple Word Table will do just as well.  I realise that sounds desperately nerdy, but believe me it is done purely in self defence! I am one of the most disorganised people imaginable, with the memory of a gnat. If I don’t write it down forgetting it within days is common. When these markets can take anything between three and twelve months to reply it’s a given! And where I am concerned its not just lost story submissions that need tracking.
In writing the Bunch Courtney Investigations a series my lack of memory has proved to be a real problem when it comes to details of my characters.  I don’t just mean a character sketch of lead roles and the villains they are chasing, though I do write down the usual information on each: age, appearance, basic background. Recurring supporting roles are also reasonably easy to keep track off with a few bullet points. I’ve found that it’s the minor walk-ons who slip past me the easiest of all. This is something that has not been an issue with stand-alone novels, but with a series it suddenly became a real issue.
My memory for names is bad enough when faced with people out there in the real world; those people I ‘should’ know, and have a total recall of their face and where I know them from, but whose names remain stubbornly lodged in some dark recess of my junk-yard brain and refuse to be brought to mind. Meaning that I stand there chatting away, hoping the name will come to me – or by some miracle be mentioned in passing and hope to hell that I’m not called on to introduce them to someone else!

To some extent many of those walk-ons of mine don’t require names, but I was half way through book two when I realised that I had failed to make a note of the local Vicar.  In 1940, in a small village, people would know that name and my imaginary village of Wyncombe would be no different. We never meet the Reverend Day, yet he is mentioned several times. 
More recently the name that I needed to find was an old friend of Granny’s pal from whom local gossip is often gleaned. ‘Connie Frain’ gets mentions in two of the three Bunch Courtney books, and as with Rev. Day we never meet her in person; only gain her pearls of wisdom at second-hand. Hats off to those uber-bijou cameos who only merit half a sentence but who deliver the most vital of clues.  
I have an ancient writing programme similar to early versions of Scrivener that has a world-building function where these things can be recorded, and it’s been a life-saver on many occasions. Its one drawback is that it doesn’t list them alphabetically, so, yet I am this sad… I have recently also put those names into a Word table. This required a rapid revision of all the Bunch Courtney Investigations – including the upcoming third volume Listed Dead –  to make sure I had them all and I was gob-smacked to find over 900 entries over three novels. That doubtless earns me place as a card-carrying anorak of the highest order - but it keeps me out of mischief.
All of which brings me back to databases and spreadsheets in general. Keeping track of details is essential whether that is short fiction submissions, bit-players in a series of books or the bloggers and reviewers I will begin to harass quite soon to read the new books before its release, if I didn’t write it all down I just know I would forget.
***
You can read more about Jan and her Bunch Courtney books on her blog HERE

In Her Defence is available through most leading booksellers in print and digital formats.
 AMAZON (PAPER)   US  / UK/  /  AU INDIE BOUND / BOOK DEPOSITORY  / WORDERY /  Waterstones  /  Foyles Barnes & Noble  / Digital sources: Kindle  US / UK / AU/   Apple/  Nook  / Kobo  
Indie Bound /Book Depository /Wordery Digital sources:


Winter Downs  Amazon (paper and kindle)  US  / UK/  /  AU 

Winter Downs is available on all similar platforms. Listed Dead (mock-up cover on right) will be available in early 2020.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

My Obsession with Big Cats, continued, by Elizabeth Kay


The fourth leopard

 I am going to be totally self-indulgent with this, as I had a number of comments about the last post, and I’ve recently been a winner in the Exodus travel writing blog competition. I had my first piece of travel writing published in a local newspaper when I was nineteen. I’d been on a Land Rover trip to Morocco, an unusual destination in 1968, and we’d camped in a wadi – just the way my geography teacher had told me you shouldn’t – and after innocently watching a spectacular lightning display in the Atlas mountains and not putting two and two together it flooded in the middle of the night. I didn’t speak up when the campsite was first suggested; when you’re nineteen you always assume your elders know better. We were all okay, but only just, and I’ve carried on camping in dodgy places
ever since. It’s addictive.

            So. Wild camping in Botswana. Wow. It was one of the most exciting holidays I’ve ever had, and it was a 70th birthday present from husband Bob. He couldn’t think what to get me, and the only thing that I wanted more than anything was a leopard sighting in the wild. We saw such amazing things, and had some scary experiences. 


Adorable cheetah brothers
            The first part of the holiday was a visit to the Okavango Delta, where we were taken to our campsite in mokoros – canoes poled by local people, much like punts on the Cam. They carry two passengers, and a small amount of luggage, so our main bags were left at the previous campsite. It’s relaxing and dreamy and lovely. Until a hippo charges the canoe behind you, and tips all three passengers out, bites the canoe and sinks it. The event was unprecedented, and the guides were as shocked as the three women who ended up in the water, hiding in the reeds in case the hippo came back. The guide reckoned it was a young one, teenage I suppose, which had been feeding on the bank and was completely hidden in the vegetation. It found itself separated from the others, and panicked. No one was hurt, although very shocked, and two cameras and one phone were ruined. The boat was retrieved by the brave locals. The incident was no one’s fault, and very unlucky. I have a little smile every time I think of the insurance company dealing with the claim.

We saw four leopards all told, countless lions, two cheetahs behaving very affectionately towards one another and a serval. We spotted a half-grown leopard cub on some rocks, and then, a little later, the mother came through the bushes with her kill - an African wildcat. Our guide had never seen this particular prey before. I do realise some people may find the photo upsetting, as wildcats do look very similar to those at home. We also saw one in a tree, so that was just about every photo call we wanted!


We also saw a mother lion head off to hunt - she was obviously feeding cubs, as she was heavy with milk. Then a male lion started sniffing the air very thoroughly, and  eventually went over to a bush where a very small cub had been left. We were all terrified he would kill it, but he was the father. Quite a young lion, and it must have been his first babysitting session as the cub was only three weeks old. It wanted to cross the road, and he kept trying to gently nose it back to the bush. It wasn't having it, though, and ended up in the middle of the track yowling for mum. Two other male lions were in attendance as well, but they didn't attack it either and our guide thinks they were all brothers, there to protect the cub. 
The incident that was the most amusing was at a waterhole. Botswana is going through a drought year, and water is in short supply. Two elephants had taken charge of this one, and a group of five lions decided to have a drink. The elephants didn't agree, and kept chasing them off. The lions called for reinforcements, until there were ten of them, so the elephants did the same and a third one turned up. They took it in turned to chase individual lions, but the funniest part was when they squirted them with water. I wish the picture were sharper, but I was lucky to get it at all.
Our guide was terrific. He knew how the animals behaved, and could predict what they would do next and get us in the best position for a photograph. Because we were wild camping we had to stay in our tents at night. I took my camera trap with me, so I could see that we had honey badgers and hyenas round the tents during the night. We could hear lions roaring nearby, and elephants trumpeting. The pictures aren't very good, because it was in night mode, but enough to see what was outside!
For those of you who are considering travel writing, remember it’s not just ticking off animals – it’s their behaviour that grabs the attention. And the same is true of the people you meet – it’s the ways in which they different from us that are important. Happy travels!





Friday, 13 September 2019

An almost empty nest? by Alex Marchant


I’m sitting here today contemplating the desolation of an empty nest.


That may be something of an exaggeration, if I’m being honest. For my elder sister, it perhaps isn’t: she’s been a parent for thirty years, and this summer saw the last of her three children leaving home (to move 500 miles away), along with both his wedding and that of his sister, only six weeks apart. Months of frenetic preparations, book-ended by major family celebrations (and with the arrival of a new grandchild to the third sibling in the midst of everything), and then she and her husband find themselves alone in the anti-climactic aftermath, in the now-too-big family home, waiting for the next time the loved-up newlyweds deign to think of calling in…



In my case, it will only be a part-time empty nest, a transitional stage that hopefully will prepare me gradually for what is to come later – that time when it’s just me, my partner and the dog (and maybe still the elderly cat) in the house. Every ten weeks or so, our younger daughter – off to university for the first time next week – will be back for three or four weeks at least to remind us just what it’s like to live alongside a teenager. 

Our elder daughter has one more year of university left, so we began the fledging process a little while ago. Those frantic final weeks of an A-level summer – full of last-minute buying sprees and training in financial management, cooking, laundry, etc. (yes, I know we should have done it sooner…) – followed by the drop-off at her shared student house, declined into a normal September return-to-school for the youngest and return-to-work-routine for me. I still rose at 6.30 am to shoo the remaining offspring out the door to catch the school bus, and broke off work at 3.30 to hear all about her day. The only noticeable difference was a tidy ‘spare’ room (I spent the first free weekend blitzing No. 1 daughter’s room in a cathartic process that led to her commenting it was like a hotel room on her first return home) and a reduction in the number of available afternoon dog-walkers.



This time will be different, though. The major structure of my day – and my weekends – will disappear. Already I’ve abandoned the 6.30 start (as a night owl, it was always purgatory to me, especially returning to it after the school holidays), and I’m finding my morning ‘routine’ now stretches later and later. Even the dog has learned to be patient – if my ‘big boots’ and his lead go on before 9, he’s in luck. I need to be careful, though – if I’m not, given my poor grasp of time management, it’ll soon be lunchtime before I’m ready to go into the big, wide world (or up on to the big, wide moors, anyway…)



The potential to drift, then, is perhaps my main worry when a primary reason for much of what I do is no longer here (no one to ferry around in the parental taxi, or hassle to empty the dishwasher or walk the dog, or whinge at about – well, about almost anything teenager-y). The prospect of two daughters returning to the nest every few weeks (either both at once for the vacation, or separately for an odd weekend) means my life won’t suddenly seem bereft of meaning – which, I gather, is what some parents feel when ambushed by empty-nest syndrome.


But, yes, this is only the part-time empty-nest stage. The phase when children take their time to grow into young adults, trying out their wings while knowing they can return to the nest at any time and find their place there (largely) unchanged. When the first major stage of parenting has been successfully achieved, and you can take satisfaction in knowing you’ve guided them this far, and they’re ready to launch themselves into their next stage. A launch for them, but a gradual letting-go for … well, for me at least, if not others in the same situation.
Will it be the same when the nest empties for good?



Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is due out 1 November.




Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:



Wednesday, 11 September 2019

A Basket of Bears -- Misha Herwin



This summer my mum moved into sheltered accommodation. The family house where she had live for over fifty years was put on the market. It was a home full of memories−a place of births, weddings and deaths. My younger brother had been born, one May evening, in the back bedroom. His birth announced as my sister and I were watching the end of a favourite soap. It was where I had the reception for my first wedding. A small affair there were only fifteen people present. Mum did the catering and my cousin took the pictures. The house was also where my father died, peacefully after a long lingering decline and where Mum went on living until finally at the age of ninety-eight, she decided it was time to move out.
She is very happy in her lovely new flat. She is surrounded by people, which is what she wanted, there is twenty-four hour emergency care and the food is great. All in all it’s the right solution and we’re very glad we didn’t have to wait more than a few months for a flat to be available. When it did come up, there was no time to think. We had to move fast, or the next person on the list would take up the offer.
Having to pack up the family home was done in somewhat of a rush. Much of the furniture Mum could take with her. What was left some was passed on to members of the family, some things went to friends and some to charity shops. We were all asked what we would like to take. I have some pieces from Mum’s collection of blue and white china and a painting of my sister’s that used to hang in the living room and which has always been one of my favourites.
I also have a basket full of small bears. This was not my choice. In fact Mum gave it to my daughter for the great-grandchildren. Lucy decided that they already have enough cuddly toys and so the basket came to me.
Now I am very fond of bears. Our house has quite a number of them, including a basket of my own and there simply wasn’t room for more.
At this point I wanted to write about getting rid of them, but that was far too harsh a term for a collection of bears. Re-homing was more to my taste, but how and where. Charity shops are bursting with unwanted soft toys. They end up in bins to be rummaged through and discarded at will and those that don’t sell quickly go, I’m reliably informed by a friend who volunteers for Help the Aged, into landfill.
This was not going to be the fate of the bears who had been entrusted to my care. Once they came into my home, these creatures were no longer inanimate objects but were on the verge of being named and adopted into the larger community of bears. It’s one of the perils of being a writer that things quickly accrue names and personalities. They become individuals with histories of their own and to consign them to landfill would be unthinkable.
But where could they go?
Luckily a friend knows of a charity that makes up Christmas boxes for children who have very little and they are happy to take my basket full. So that is where they are going. All except for one.

When Pudding looked at me with that quizzical expression on his face, I knew that he had to stay. After all this is a bear with a story to tell…


Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Mind Map | Karen Kao



By the time you read this blog post, my husband and I will have embarked on our round-the-world journey. Oddly enough, China is not one of our destinations. We're looking for the unknown, something well outside our comfort zone.

Since maps and mapping are on my mind right now, this seems like the perfect opportunity to republish a post that appeared on my blog Shanghai Noir.

My mind map of Shanghai. Photo credit: Karen Kao

This is the map into my interlocking novels, The Shanghai Quartet. It’s a bulletin board my husband made for me, 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall. The backdrop is a map of modern Shanghai, enlarged many times over, onto which I’ve pasted the street names in use when this was Old Shanghai. Onto that map, I’ve tacked on Stuff: photos, postcards, lanyards and clippings. Welcome to my Shanghai.

Sailors and Strumpets




Let’s start in the northeastern quadrant of the city, the port of entry for most newcomers to Old Shanghai. This was (and still is) China’s greatest port. Not only in terms of its size or superiority of location but, above all, as measured in the wealth it generates for the city’s inhabitants.

This is where Kang arrives in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle and from where he attempts to flee China. Not far from the docks lies the Baptist Church where Beauregard the black American bouncer goes to worship.

Of course, any port town gets flooded by sailors from time to time, in which case, bars and whorehouses can’t be far away. The Trenches is where Max the American gets his first taste of decadence in the final volume of The Shanghai Quartet: The Smell of Opium.

Not far from The Trenches lie the Japanese Concession and the Shanghai Ghetto. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Kang and Jin hide under the nose of Tanizaki inside the Shanghai Ghetto. Their daughter Li is born in that place but we won’t meet her until Peace Court.

The Old Walled City

 

Moving south along the Huangpu River, we come to the Bund. This was the home of the great banks and trading houses like Jardine Matheson and its arch rival Butterfield & Swire. The Custom House, where Max and Kang first meet in The Smell of Opium, still sits on the Bund.

The men who worked in these places were relatively well-to-do. They could afford to buy dance tickets at the Metropole Gardens. Ballrooms and department stores and golden houses for concubines clustered around Nanking Road West. Only, in the days of Old Shanghai, they called it Bubbling Well Road.

Back then, if you stood on the banks of the Huangpu River and gazed east, you’d see nothing but the horizon. Pudong was still a fishing village, a place where the police would send criminals like Du Yuesheng into exile. The criminals found their way back to Shanghai, of course. They hid inside the old walled Chinese City or just outside by the Little East Gate.

In the day of Old Shanghai, this was Chinese territory where only Chinese laws applied. It was a place of narrow alleys, open sewage and regular political convulsions. A barbarian like Max or Tanizaki might have come here for fun but they wouldn’t have gone unarmed.

Del Monte House

 

If you look at a map of Old Shanghai, you’ll find the real Del Monte House in the southwestern quadrant of Shanghai. This late-night club was established circa 1919 by a Californian named Al Israel. There, you could gamble, dance and whore the night away, just as Cho does in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.

Map of southwest Shanghai
My Del Monte House. Photo credit: Karen Kao
In my fictional Shanghai, I’ve located Del Monte House on the exact same spot where my father was born and raised. The French Concession was where any self-respecting Chinese burger or aspiring foreigner would come to live. Max, Anyi and Kang all live in this elegant part of town.

But war against Japan destroys much of Shanghai including my fictional Del Monte House. By the 1950s, the brick facade is gone, sheered off by an American bomber. The fountain has become a communal wash basin. The once elegantly appointed bedrooms now house families who call themselves lucky  to have a roof over their heads.

This is the world of Peace Court, a lilong complex just a few blocks away from Del Monte House. Peace Court is home to Kang, Jin and Li until Kang tries to kill Jin. He disappears into the Laogai, the network of labor camps that flourishes in China even today.

New Territories



The northwestern quadrant is uncharted territory. Old Shanghai ended at the borders of the French Concession. Beyond that lay the Badlands where only the most daredevilish of pleasure seekers would venture.

On this part of the map, my thoughts run free. To other periods of Chinese history: the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, the present day. I roam beyond the confines of fiction to the realms of poetry, photography and painting. I don’t know where these ideas will lead me but that’s part of the fun.

When I  started writing The Shanghai Quartet, I tried to harness my thoughts into a timeline. I used pencil and graph paper. I drew four parallel lines for each of my four novels. Added a fifth dimension to include historical facts. As my story grew, the timeline lengthened and points of intersection popped up. Eventually, my timeline circled the room.

The timeline is gone but I still feel its embrace. No longer satisfied with a one-dimensional guide, my mnemonic structure is now as associative as my creative process is organic. Call it a memory palace in the shape of a map.

Note: if you'd like to follow my real life journey around the world, you can check out my Instagram account. No promises as yet on whether I'll be able to write while traveling but surely I'll be able to post a pretty picture or two.

Monday, 9 September 2019

So, where were you on September 3rd? by Julia Jones


On September 3rd 2019 I had the perfect invitation – I was asked to talk about my father, George Jones’s book, The Cruise of Naromis, to members of the Little Ship Club in London. The Cruise of Naromis, you may remember, is the slim volume I was able to make from my father’s 1939 diary, a suitcase of somewhat random photographs and papers from his wartime RNVR service and the account he wrote of his trip to the Baltic in August 1939. He had returned home on Sept 2nd to find that his call up papers had been waiting for a week.

On September 3rd 1939 therefore he was hurrying north to join the submarine depot ship HMS Forth at Rosyth. The Forth was a floating workshop, a hotel, an operational centre. She had a crew of over 1,100 men, displacement 8,999 tons and was armed with 16 AA guns. Quite a contrast with the trim little pleasure yacht he had just left. 

HMS Forth 
Both vessels had been launched during 1938 but whereas HMS Forth had been built by the internationally famous John Brown shipyard on Clydebank, Naromis was a product of the Norfolk Broads. Her designer, 'Higley' Halliday (Edmund Walter),  was a founder member of the Little Ship Club, established in 1926. The club was part of a movement to establish better facilities and training for yachtsmen and to open up the sport to a wider range of people. ‘Bachelor girls’ were welcome.

My mother bought her copy
immediately after the war -
and then she bought her boat
Some of these early Little Ship Club members might have been among the hundreds who had already bought Yachting on a Small Income by another of the Little Ship Club founders, the newly appointed editor of Yachting Monthly magazine, Maurice Griffiths. By the time my mother’s read-to-pieces sixpenny reprint copy was published (c1939-40) these hundreds had teemed into thousands.

In his introduction to this new edition Griffiths looks back to the 20s: ‘There was a time when a man who owned a small boat brought her into the conversation on every conceivable occasion referring to her with loud nonchalance as “my yacht” or else avoided all reference to anything that floated for fear his acquaintances might imagine he was secretly wealthy and try to borrow £5.

The website MY Seren is
authoritative on this designer
and his work
'When this little handbook was first published in 1925 the Public at large – and that means you, the “man in the street” – thought of yachts solely as those expensive white things that fluttered around in the Solent and cost someone hundreds a year to run. Nowadays, such has been the publicity of the Yachting Press and even of the Daily Press in reporting round-the-world voyages in small sailing craft by bank clerks, shop assistants and the out-of-works, that the possibilities of spending thoroughly enjoyable weekends and holidays afloat and in one’s own little floating home on even a bank clerk’s salary have become more widely known.’

He goes on to talk about the continuing improvements in facilities of yachtsmen, including the Little Ship Club, where Higley Halliday had become Chief Seamanship Instructor. There’s a (newly added?) chapter on The Feminine Owner’ ‘Your joining a yacht club will probably result in your being introduced to others like yourself who are keen to sail but have not the nerve to go it alone.’ This, Griffiths concludes ‘is now the day of the Little Ship and as every year passes her numbers increase like a penfull of rabbits.’ 
I didn't include my oldest
grandson's small ship
in my total

Hmmm, I thought, as I read this…My mother bought this book: subsequently she decided to follow Griffiths’s advice and buy a boat. In so doing she met my father – a yacht agent. That resulted in myself, my 2 brothers and (at my most recent count) NINETEEN small, medium and very small ships in our family … so who needs rabbits? 

On September 3rd 1939 my mother, aged 15, was in church with her mother. She remembered the vicar sharing Chamberlain’s 11.30am announcement and then her mother’s desperate haste to get home to her husband and their family of boys. My grandmother had been a Red Cross nurse in the First World War; she would have felt a justifiable horror what might be about to happen to her family now. Almost all except the youngest children did serve, but their WW2 service was different from their WW1 father and uncles – the majority were with the RAF, mechanised regiments or, in one case, survived the BEF to join a commando unit. Mum was in a munitions factory and a branch of the Foreign Office where they were doing something so secret she never quite worked out what it was, except that it was in some way connected with Bletchley Park and her job was to make the tea, do the filing and ask no questions.

Maurice Griffiths
RNV(S)R
At the Little Ship Club however, many members would be expecting a similar call-up to my father. As the prospect of war had come closer, and the shortage of trained men for the navy became more apparent, yachtsmen had been invited to volunteer for a supplementary branch of the RNVR, the RNV(S)R. There was however no training provided – volunteers were expected to organise (and pay for) their own. The Little Ship Club, with Chief Seamanship Instructor Halliday, had stepped into the breach providing hundreds of hours of instruction to members and non-members. When war came Halliday (born 1875 so too old for active service) was co-opted in to the Special Branch of the RNVR and asked to carry on his good work. 

My father’s trip on Naromis was probably intended as 'training'. Someone from the RNV(S)R London Division had got in touch not long after he volunteered: ‘Crocker suggests I go to Danzig and pay 9 gns.’ (Diary 1.8.1939)  Danzig (Gdansk) was not, however,  a place where you’d want to find yourself in September 1939. The German Battleship Schleswig Holstein had arrived there on a 'courtesy visit' on August 26th  - by which time (fortunately for my future existence) Naromis had been escorted out of German waters by a mine-layer and was hurrying home via Sweden and Norway.  Early in the morning of September 1st the Schleswig Holstein opened fire on the Free City and German troops poured across the Polish border. Naromis, meanwhile, having travelled 1300 sea miles in 3 weeks without mishap, ran aground on a beach in Yorkshire: ‘It had one saving grace, a well-built pub. It was here that we heard the news of Germany’s attack on Poland and the phrase “German troops moved across the frontier at dawn” that was to become so well-known during the next twenty months.’ (Naromis p 91)
Battleship Schleswig Holstein, Danzig / Gdansk 1.9.1939

Not everyone in my audience at the Little Ship Club on September 3rd 2019 had made the connection with Sept 3rd 1939. That’s understandable as we all have our personal significant dates  (also our attention might possibly have been diverted that week by other Europe-related issues). But where were your parents – or grandparents – on September 3rd 1939? And what happened to them next?

As a thank-you for its RNV(S)R work
Little Ship Club members are allowed
to 'deface' their ensign
(My RNV(S)R research isn't over yet -- if you can contribute, please let me know sokens@aol.com)


Sunday, 8 September 2019

Go on, plant a tree or two • Lynne Garner

Large bracket fungus -
home to an array of mini beasts
I had something completely different planned for this month. However, whilst researching for a project I'm working on I came across the Woodlands Trust website. As the name suggests they actively conserve our woodlands and trees. We all know trees are an extremely important part of our environment, for a number of reasons including:

  • Combating climate change by absorbing CO2 and other pollutants 
  • Protecting against soil erosion therefore helping prevent flooding
  • Improving soil conditions
  • Helping keep cities cooler
  • Reducing noise
  • Supporting a huge range of wildlife and fungus

So, I wanted to share the following: 

Schools, community groups (even a group of neighbours who want to improve a local open space) plus not-for-profits can apply for a free tree pack from the Woodlands Trust - more info can be found at this link.

Also did you know the government has put aside £10 million to help plant 130,000 trees? The fund is being manage by the Forestry Commission. It is open to individuals, local authorities, charities and NGOs. To express an interest in taking part in this initiative then click here.

Please spread the word far and wide - let's get planting!



Blatant plug time

Love a short story? 


Then check out my short story collections (available as ebooks and paperback):

Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Fox of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Ten Tales of Brer Rabbit (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Ten Tales of Coyote  (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)


Anansi The Trickster Spider (ebook £1.49/$1.49 - 16 stories) 







Saturday, 7 September 2019

What’s the Russian for ‘funny’? by Bill Kirton



A while ago, an online friend who lives in Azerbaijan asked me to write something for her blog. I was flattered, but when I asked her what sort of thing she wanted me to write about, she just said: ‘You used to teach French so maybe something about language and culture. And try to be funny.’ (Yes. Kiss of death.)

This was Wikipedia's offering when I searched for 'Russian Humour'

Even though I’ve lived for decades in Aberdeen and, thanks to the oil industry, have met several Azerbaijanis, I still know next to nothing about their country or culture, or indeed those of any of the former Soviet countries. So how could I, in Scotland, say anything  which might sound funny to an Azerbaijani or a Russian? I can’t even fall about like Mr Bean, Norman Wisdom or Jim Carrey. All I have are words.

Does language-based humour translate? Words aren’t just labels, they’re things, truths. We all know that Eskimos have a whole range of terms for snow, but why do Russians (apparently, and correct me if I’m wrong) have separate expressions for light blue and dark blue, making them not shades of the same thing but two distinct primary colours?

The playwright Ionesco was Romanian and he wrote hilarious (French) plays. His first was based on his attempts to learn English and, in the second, one character says that when you hear the sentence, ‘I live in the capital’, you only have to know which capital is being referred to and you’ll know immediately which language is being spoken. If it’s Rome, the language is Italian, if it’s Paris it’s French, etc. The Spanish for ‘Washington DC’ is ‘Madrid’, the Russian for ‘London’ is ‘Moscow’, and so on.

We all know that words have immense power. Take a horse. Now, leaving aside variations such as nag, gelding, stallion, mare, filly, chestnut, Clydesdale,  piebald, etc., is a horse the same as a pferd, a cheval, a caballo, an equus or a hippos? (I wanted to include a single Russian word for the animal, too, so I checked an online dictionary and was amazed and baffled to find:
ЛОШАДИНЫЙ;  КОННЫЙ;  КОНСКИЙ;  ГРУБЫЙ N ЛОШАДЬ;  КАВАЛЕРИЯ;  КОНЬ;  КОННИЦА;  РАМА;  СТАНОК;  КОЗЛЫ;  ВКЛЮЧЕНИЕ ПУСТОЙ ПОРОДЫ В РУДЕ;  ГЕРОИН V ПОСТАВЛЯТЬ ЛОШАДЕЙ;  САДИТЬСЯ НА ЛОШАДЬ;  ЕХАТЬ ВЕРХОМ
Are all these creatures the same thing? And are they horses?)

It used to be ‘I think, therefore I am’. Not any more. Our words and accents can give away our social class, religion, intelligence, nationality – all sorts of secrets. Language is a vital part of how we perceive the world and the way we express who we are. It’s about perceptions. But, fortunately for me and my friend’s request for something ‘funny’, so is humour. Arthur Koestler said humour depended on what he called ‘bisociation’. Usually, we hear and experience things in a single context and there's no surprise or disorientation involved. But with bisocation, you get a second, totally different context and it’s the suddenness of the contrast between them that triggers the laugh. A cry often heard in the old melodramas was ‘You scoundrel, you deserve to be horsewhipped’. It had a clear, single context. But look at the Groucho Marx version. ‘You scoundrel, I'd horsewhip you if I had a horse’ – it draws on two completely different contexts.

So much for language then. What about culture? If the ‘foreign’ culture has a different set of references, can bisociation work? Well, yes – and to an even greater degree. To begin with, let me give a personal example. First, you need to know (my apologies if you do already) that when a French person wants to attract someone’s attention in a crowd, for example, they tend to yell ‘Coucou’. In English, the equivalent is ‘Cooee’ (pronounced coo-eee). An acquaintance (who should have known better) saw a friend of hers in the distance amongst the crowds outside Notre Dame in Paris and called out ‘Cooee’. The punchline (of this true story) is that couilles, pronounced coo-eee, is the French word for testicles. I leave you to imagine the reactions of a predominantly French crowd reacting to a woman shouting ‘testicles’ in front of a medieval cathedral.

We pretend to resist national stereotypes, but the tired (but persistent) British cliché is that Germans have no sense of humour, Italians cry a lot and pinch women’s bums, and the French have disgusting lavatories. Equally, all Polish people are plumbers and Russians love being catastrophically miserable. (It’s something to do with the Steppes and Tchaikovsky apparently). Pasta in English is chips, French bread isn’t really bread because you can’t slice it, most continentals have got a word for queue but don’t know what it means, and so on. So what are the chances of me sounding funny by, for example, telling non-native speakers that ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe’?

Or how can I convey to a Russian with no English the truth of Ogden Nash’s observation that:
A shrimp who sought his lady shrimp
Could catch no glimpse,
Not even a glimp.
At times, translucence
Is rather a nuisance.?

And yet, I can give an answer to those questions from my own experience, or rather that of a friend who taught Russian. He was talking (pre-Glasnost) with his Russian language assistant at school, in English, of course, and he told her a joke. The shortened version of it went as follows:
After a business meeting, two men relax with a round of golf. One is a club member, the other his guest. Afterwards, the guest wants a shower but has no towel, so the friend lends him his golf towel. (Such towels are very small). The guest hurries into the shower and, still in the cubicle, he hears female voices outside. He’s obviously come into the ladies’ rooms by mistake. He’s in a dilemma. He has to hurry to catch his plane and the women aren’t in a hurry to leave so he’ll have to walk past them. But he only has the small towel. Should he use it to cover his private parts – thereby having the embarrassment of having to actually look the women in the eye as he leaves – or should he cover his face and just run past them? He decides to cover his face and rushes out. The three women are naturally shocked. The first says ‘How disgusting. Well, at least it wasn’t my husband.’ The second says ‘No, you’re right. It wasn’t your husband.’ And the third says ‘He wasn’t even a member of the club.’

But the real point of the joke in this context is that the Russian to whom my friend told it had already heard it back home, where no golf club was involved and the punch line was ‘He doesn’t even live in the village’. Plus ça change, eh?

Friday, 6 September 2019

Of Sons, Psychopaths and Series - Debbie Bennett

Andy and I are currently binge-watching Netflix. That’s a strange 21st century expression – binge-watching. Watching a series to excess, gorging ourselves, although to be fair, sometimes it’s only an episode a night and we might even a skip a few nights if we are out and about. We’re season 5 now, of apparently 7 seasons and I have no idea where we are going or what might happen.

I generally find American and/or digital series boring. Season 1 is OK, but then season 2 is more of the same and it starts to drag as even the writers look like they’ve run out of ideas and lost interest. Plot-lines are regurgitated, strung out for effect until the viewer (well this viewer anyway) doesn’t really care what happens any more, so long as something does. It’s a bit like Brexit, really, isn’t it?

But this series has the both of us hooked. Every time things settle down, it kicks off in a new direction and we don’t see it coming. There have been several WTF moments, several times when we’ve had to watch the next ten minutes of a new episode just to see where it’s going now. None of the characters is particularly likeable, and most of them seem to be psychopaths, whores or both! None of them is particularly attractive either. And yet it’s addictive viewing.

So what are we watching? Our guilty secret. Sons of Anarchy. Which can best be described to the uninitiated as a cheesy US biker soap – but it’s surprising how many people will admit to watching it, or have sat through all 7 seasons! The title is somewhat ironic, given the rigid structure of this motorcycle gang, where every decision is brought to the table and a natty little gavel banged down to ratify a group decision – I’ve seen school kids more anarchic than this lot, although their tendency to butcher all and sundry is alarming; the body-count per episode is high and bloody. This is 15-rated, for God’s sake, and I watched somebody face-plant a bowl of nails last night, just before (or it might have been after) a guy bit out his own tongue out very viscerally up-front on camera. And I thought the Americans were conservative about such things! But we love it. So did Stephen King apparently – so much so he has a cameo role in one of the early seasons. I knew I recognised him from somewhere.

What is it with soap though?  What keeps us coming back for more? Are series books the same? I know with my crime series, I stopped at 6 as I genuinely felt there was nowhere else I could take my characters without rehashing the same plots. I guess police procedurals at least have the steadfast DS or DI with his/her trusty sidekick solving the next impossible crime – but I get bored reading them, so I don’t think I could write one. I’m more into whydunnits and will-they-survive-its, so maybe that’s why Sons appeals to me so much as I’m fascinated by the twisted mentality of these guys and girls and what they will do to justify their actions to themselves and others…

Coming to the end of season 5 now. No spoilers please!