September 2014


Second homes mean no homes

Today I lunched in a ghost town called Lerryn. Or rather, a ghost village. And there were no actual ghosts. In fact, there were the spasmodic signs of life by way of vehicles passing through, an occasional dog-walker and one or two locals calling into the village store. Totally idyllic; so serene, picturesque and peaceful.

Almost the only sounds were leaves rustling downwards on to the riverside path and the squwaks and chirrups of the bird life. A million miles from care … and from all the horrors that daily assail us.

So why label this haven nestled in a wooded valley on the banks of the Lerryn River as a ghost town?

Sadly, for all its beguiling charm and instant appeal, Lerryn represents one of worst aspects of modern Cornwall. One reason for the quiet calm enjoyed on this autumn day is the lack of people. So many of its cottages and houses are deserted, bereft of occupants. They project that sad look of homes waiting for tenants. Windows are shut tight. Many interiors are bare or sparsely furnished. They have that end-of-season, dust-sheet and, yes, ghostly look of the unused and unwanted.

The most prominent signs in the village are To Let and For Sale. And a notice says the playgroup has closed down for lack of children.

Underscoring all this is the curse of the second home. While so many in the county go homeless, here in Lerryn (and elsewhere) is a reservoir of homes just waiting for families to bring them alive – to do the job they are  meant to do by providing shelter and security and a roof over one’s head.

But as things are at present it is accepted that homes remain empty and people remain homeless so that a minority of cashed-up individuals can launder their excesses by buying second (or even third) homes that are gainfully used (and gaining is an apt description) for but a few weeks of the year.

And so Lerryn delights but also saddens.

Bewildered boffins

What is it about academics? They spend their ivory-towered lives researching facts, studying data, unravelling formulae, probing complex documents, noting and commenting, offering opinions, stating statistics and meticulously compiling peer-reviewed papers… and yet they cannot understand basic instructions in plain English.

During my various absences on long-term sabbaticals I offer my apartment in inner Melbourne for rental by academics around the globe (https://www.sabbaticalhomes.com/OfferedDetails.aspx?id=52348). My listing clearly states the apartment’s availability and goes into considerable details about its location, its amenities and its suitability (or lack of) for potential tenants.

Yet, time and again, I have to process requests for dates that are clearly stated as “non-available”. This, as I take care to point out, is a bachelor pad, ideal for one and possibly for a couple. So why seek occupancy for a family of five? It is a place totally unsuitable for young children and yet requests come in from couples with infants, with a couple of toddlers, and those into their teen years.

So what is it about these presumably intelligent, analytic, thesis-writing (and all very nice and friendly) people that makes them incapable of understanding what is presented to them in easily understandable terms?  How do they ever complete their degrees, write their papers, submit their dissertations?

Perhaps it is because, as long editing experience has shown me, they seek out the complex over the simple. They prefer seven words when three will suffice. They go for length over brevity. And all in the name of gilding the lily; adding an air of gravitas to the lightweight and cloaking the fact that they are merely stating the bleeding obvious.

They speak and write to each other but not to those outside their cloistered walls. But just in a while it would be good if they could remove the blinkers, read what is written and not distort it into non-existent data.

They are such lovely people and are welcome to stay awhile – but, as we are all urged to do, read the instructions first.

Words from the wise

Top advice for all would-be writers and authors.

“You keep your tools sharp by working all the time. We are professionals. You can’t wait for inspiration. I try to do it every day. When something good comes, you have to be prepared to polish it, carve it and chisel it; that’s the work.” – Troubadour Leonard Cohen speaking as he approaches his eightieth birthday on Sunday.

 

Rowling along regardless

It had to happen eventually: I have ventured into the many-worded world of the writer known as JK Rowling. I say “known as” because, fortuitously for the maintenance of her ever-growing wealth, she was revealed (with PR precision timing) as labouring also under the name of Robert Galbraith.

It is through her use of this pseudonym, to denote authorship of two voluminous but non Harry Potter works, that I have been making her acquaintance. Specifically in my favourite genre of crime fiction and her book titled Cuckoo’s Calling.

As a crime novel, it sort of works. True to form, the solver of the crime is dysfunctional in career and private life. He does, of course, have a brittle relationship with women and, just as inevitably, is fighting the demon drink. To provide further traditional sauce to an already rich pudding, Rowling arranges for him to lose a leg while serving in Afghanistan and be labelled wherever he goes as the illegitimate son of an infamous Jagger-like rock musician. But, as the man in the advert says, there’s more. The rich confection is topped off by naming him Cormoran Strike – a moniker right out of Hogwarts School.

The crime that this pastiche of private eyes has to solve is reasonably mundane. A bright young socialite/model/popstar plunges unseen to her death from her Mayfair apartment. Did she jump or was she pushed? Around this situation – deemed suicide by the police – Rowling weaves a satisfying web of suspects, intrigues, alliances and even dalliances.

But, at the end, the reader is left with one question still unanswered: would this somewhat over-long and book of “clever” writing have received the sales and attention had not  JK Rowling been unmasked so precisely at launch time as its author?

The pantheon of crime writing – the fastest growing fiction genre –  is replete with innumerable writers whose work matches and frequently outstrips Cuckoo’s Calling. So much of it is given over to incidents and chapters where one can visualise Rowling sitting at her desk muttering “look at me, look at me” as yet another set piece, that adds little to the tale, tumbles forth.

It is like reading a series of assignments submitted by the cleverest pupil in the creative writing class. The wordplay is frequently entertaining, there is Smart Alec humour in many of Strike’s ripostes. Descriptions are thesaurus-rich. But after a while it’s all a bit like  watching a street entertainer adding another ball to those he is already juggling. One more? OK. Can do. Another? Of course.

Fascinating or amazeballs, as modern parlance goes. A fun way to spend an idle moment before moving on. There are, after all, so many others able and willing to enthral, mystify and entertain us.

Contrary to what the PR machine maintains, JK is not the only one – not by a long way.   But at least she gets people reading; and that’s no bad thing.

Birthday blues

The end of another 10,000m

The end of another 10,000m

As yet another birthday approaches (the years are clearly getting shorter) two questions persist in engaging my ailing brain: why am I slowing down … and how much longer have I got?

They are not issues that those of lesser years will understand; that only comes with age, and therein lies the rub.

Here I am in good health, carrying no excess weight, sleeping well, drinking less, exercising regularly and generally doing all the “right” things … and yet I am slowing down. In everything, not just out there on the roads where to sustain an 8:30 min/mile pace (considered a snail’s progress a year ago)  has become a glorious achievement.

I know the answer I’ll get. It’s an age thing, I’ll be told. We all slow down as we grow older. But why? My car is ageing along with me but it has no trouble in going whatever distance I require of it, and at the speed I ask. Our bodies are merely engines and therefore, if properly maintained, should perform in similar fashion to our cars.

One slight consolation is that the UK rankings for my age group for 2014 have me in 7th place for the 10 miles and the 10km (both down on last year’s positions) and I remain at No.1 for the marathon.  And I can still out-run many who are  half or even a third of my age – but the writing remains on the wall:  I am slowing down and it don’t feel good.

All of which leads on to the second question about how much longer I’ve got, not merely of life but of active life. The idea of immobility and inactivity appals and frightens me. Especially as there is so much I have yet to do and achieve.  Yet somehow I am stagnating because (back to question 1 above) I am slowing down.  My home is now in Limbo Land

Carpe diem, is the cry – but if you are too weary and slow to raise an arm to seize the bloody day ….

Maudlin times.  Think I’ll go for a run.

Horse before cart

Today I have been handed a 107,000-word manuscript for assessment … and it provides an object lesson for so many would-be writers.

It comes to me as a PDF. Why? At this early stage, a simple text document is all that is required. Why go to the trouble of creating a format that is impractical and unworkable for the next stage – editing?

A quick bit of Googling revealed the author had already gone to the trouble (and expense) of obtaining an ISBN. Again, why? It is something else that comes much later – if the manuscript is assessed as worthy of publication.

Google also provided a listing for the “book”, giving every indication that it was published and available, although its creator claimed this was not so despite it having been registered in all the official sources.

Once past all these obstructive preliminaries it soon became clear that this was a work very much in progress, rough and incomplete . The usual wandering apostrophes were everywhere, paragraphing was non-existent, style was inconsistent to the extent that there was no style. As a document purporting to throw new light on a well-known historical event, it ignored the timeline helpfully provided at the start. It rambled and lacked structure.

An assessment could therefore be provided in a few words without going into all the usual specifics. It would state  rewrite, revise, proofread and re-submit.

The simple lesson provided by this request for assessment is to get the priorities right. Those are to complete your manuscript, revise your manuscript, have your manuscript thoroughly proofread and then, and only then, submit it for assessment/consideration/editing.

Once all that has been done, then is the time to think of ISBNs, PDFs, national library registration and uploading details to the web. Remember, it is the horse that always comes first; not the cart.

 

 

Size matters?

OK, size does matter. Well, it may do in certain circumstances. But in books? Is a blockbuster of many hundreds of pages any better than a slim volume containing less than 50,000 words?

On indie writer websites there often seems to be a boastful preoccupation with the sheer size of a work we are being urged to read. It is a case of emphasising quantity before quality or, as the old tailor of legend would say: “Ah, but feel with width.”

That’s not the view of esteemed best-selling author Ian McEwan who has suggested novels need to be shorter rather than longer if they are to claim the attention of today’s readers. “Very few really long novels earn their length,” McEwan told BBC Radio listeners. He said they always got his fingers twitching for a blue pencil to do some editing.

He admitted, however, that much modern writing was heading in the opposite direction and observed that Americans especially liked really huge novels. He certainly practices what he preaches; his latest book, The Children Act, runs to a scant 55,000 or so words.

However, as I found with McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, brevity does not always equate with pleasure, the one positive in this case being that the pain it inflicted was soon over.

Short or long, it is the quality that counts. At least a blockbuster makes a better doorstop than a mere  novella.

Cover up

Despicable though it is that personal websites are being hacked and the material widely distributed, it is difficult to have much sympathy for the “personalities” who suffer such indignities.

If you do allow yourself to be photographed in the all-together, why post the results on the internet if they are intended strictly for private consumption?

If you are willing to flaunt yourself in such fashion – and really who cares? – does it really matter if everyone can take a peep? You live by exposing yourself to the world at large. You spend your lives flaunting your bodies,  dressed in the barest of outfits, going naked whenever the “artistic” occasion demands it of you. So what’s one more naked body among the acres of flesh with which we are daily confronted.

And, really, what is there to get all that excited about? We all know what lies beneath – a naked body is a naked body. It is either male or female and from an early age we have learnt to spot the difference.  Despite the way the media likes to stir up excitement about the fleshy exposure of so-called celebrities, there is really little to get all that excited about. Seen one, seen all.

But if you really don’t want the rest of us to see you in the nuddy, stop taking the pictures. And if you truly can’t resist, stop sending them out to where others can access them.

Better still, put some clothes on. After all, we all look better that way.