Monday, 24 December 2012

A model of The Rocket

One of the nice things about being a writer is that occasionally someone who likes your work will contact you to say so, and often will bring a new perspective or something interesting from their world into yours. Such has been the case with my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret which has prompted  a fair degree of welcome correspondence since its publication, including some fascinating emails from North East railway enthusiast Colin Moran.

Like me, Colin is dismayed that North Tyneside Council have not seen fit to preserve long-time Stephenson residence Dial Cottage in West Moor as a visitor attraction in the way the National Trust have done so well with George Stephenson's birthplace in Wylam, Northumberland. Colin is currently conducting a one-man campaign on the issue, and I support him every step of the way.

What I did not know about Colin until a few days ago is that he also constructs model replicas of some of the locomotives that have been so important in our railway heritage. The other day he sent me pictures of his model of Stephenson's Rocket which I'm so impressed with that I wanted to share them with readers of this blog. Colin has kindly given me permission, and so I reproduce some of the interesting images below. I don't know anything about model railways, so I'll simply copy what Colin had to say about his model:

Thought you may be interested in viewing my " Rocket " which l think is
quite spectacular in detail and finish. Notice the rails are very different
from today. They were called " Fish Belly " because of their curved shape
between the stone supports. The rails were tied together by bars to keep
the gauge. This was before sleepers were conceived shortly after the
Liverpool/ Manchester became operative.
A clever man in Birmingham made the rails in moulded brass section, in
exactly the way the original cast iron rails were cast. I had the plinth
made and put all the the parts including cutting the blocks together. The
loco is a full working steam machine identical to the real thing in every
detail, although never steamed as l said. Its simply too good to soil, and
will remain l think in that condition, even after me some day.

Thanks again, Colin. These look wonderful.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Write wit 3

Here is the third in my series of quotes about writing by writers. For the others, see Write wit and Write wit 2

A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. 

Don Delillo  


My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this. 

Ray Bradbury 
Maya Angelou

I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. 

Maya Angelou

Tips for a short story writer: 

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

  5. Start as close to the end as possible.

  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Kurt Vonnegut 

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.

Kurt Vonnegut
Ernest Hemingway
All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time. 

Ernest Hemingway

There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.
Ernest Hemingway

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
Ernest Hemingway

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story. 

John Steinbeck

Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

John Steinbeck


You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write. 

Saul Bellow

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. 

Stephen King

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.

Stephen King

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

Stephen King
Tom Wolfe
 The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction. 

Tom Wolfe


Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.

Mark Twain


There’s nothing wrong with well-made, strongly constructed, purposeful long sentences.
But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness.
They’re pasted together with false syntax.
And rely on words like ‘with’ and ‘as’ to lengthen the sentence.
They’re short on verbs, weak in syntactic vigor,
Full of floating, unattached phrases, often out of position.
And worse — the end of the sentence commonly forgets its beginning,
As if the sentence were a long, weary road to the wrong place. 

Verlyn Klinkenborg

Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money. 

George Orwell

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. 

George Orwell

Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices. 

Francine Prose

A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. 

EB White

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. 

EB White

There are very few thoughts or concepts that can’t be put into plain English, provided anyone truly wants to do it. But for everyone who strives for clarity and simplicity, there are three who for one reason or another prefer to draw the clouds across the sky. 

EB White

Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal. If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal. 

EB White

Susan Sontag

The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart. 

Susan Sontag

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry. 

Muriel Rukeyser

Writing is only a substitute for living.

Florence Nightingale


Thursday, 13 December 2012

All shall be published

In the latest issue of The Author (official magazine of The Society of Authors) I have an op-ed piece about digital publishing and its possible consequences for the professional writer. In the magazine my contribution has the title 'Indiscriminate tide'. I have reproduced the article below under its original title 'All shall be published'.
Around about the time of the liberal, permissive (and much-missed) 1960s a well-worn expression was 'All shall have prizes'. This encapsulated the philosophy that participation was more important than competition. In certain circles the notion of winners and losers became anathema as it was too hard on the losers and discouraged involvement. Too great an emphasis on high standards would act as a disincentive to the mediocre - that is, most of us.
There was a certain logic to these ideas, but the counter-argument was that there was no reward for genuine ability and hard work, and less motivation for the highly skilled. Also, when the time inevitably came for selection (for university, for serious sport, for a job) how could selectors effectively discern who among the crowd was the real star, the person they needed?

This is a preamble to my thinking about the way publishing seems to be going. These days it has never been harder or easier to be published. On the one hand mainstream publishers are ever more nervous of trusting new talent, or even moderate successes of the past, relying instead on high profile established names and increasingly on celebrities for their publishing and marketing efforts. On the other hand, through Amazon, Smashwords and the rest, it is possible for anyone who wishes it were so to be published, at least in digital form, without any real expenditure and, significantly, without any quality standard or objective test of merit. Marketing, of course, is left entirely to the authors.

With what seems to be the inevitable demise of printed books in the near or long term in favour of the ebook format, and the correlative decline of the traditional apparatus (agents, publishers, bookshops) what we will be left with is a few huge digital bookstores. The good news for the would-be author is that it will be the easiest task in the world to self-publish and present in these bookstores - the new axiom is 'All shall be published.' No need now for those mind-cudgelling synopses and tricky pitches; no more dollars and pounds spent posting heavy manuscripts to every possible contact in the Writers' & Authors' Yearbook; no more waiting weeks and months for a reply; no more rejection slips; no more disappointment.
Who would deny any writer the pleasure of seeing their work in print? Who could object that good writers with interesting stories who would otherwise be ignored by a celebrity-obsessed publishing sector should be given the opportunity to show the reading public what they can do, what they have done? Surely no-one: but when the barriers are down aren't we all - writers and readers alike - in danger of being drowned in the flood? How is any writer - good, bad or indifferent - going to be able to keep her head above water? to be spotted? to be picked out? to be read?

If the answer is word of mouth - or viral attention in digital-speak - I fear for the future of careful quality writing and editing. Infinite Shades of Grey, it seems, is what we have to look forward to. 

It's true there never was a Golden Age, and in writing as in other forms of the arts excellence rarely equates with popularity - which is why quality newspapers generally struggle to achieve a circulation that will keep them financially sound, and why few first-rate authors ever make it to the Rich List - but until recently it was just about possible to make a living. Now, apart from the difficulties of gaining attention in a world where the noise-to-signal ratio produces so much distortion, there is the growing problem of perceived value. 

The price of ebooks is generally way below their printed cousins (of course the production costs are much less) and the tendency is very much southwards. Hundreds of thousands of ebooks are available for free, either permanently or temporarily. Price promotions and heavy discounts are the norm, whether from the giants of distribution (Amazon, Sony) or directly from the digital publishers. One of my own publishers, Wild Wolf, regularly offers free downloads on its titles for the short term promotional gain the tactic provides - and I have personally benefited from a modest upsurge in real sales after the promotion ceases. But the cumulative effect is to devalue the printed word in general. As customers we are conditioned to become highly resistant to paying much, if at all, for what we read. 

The amateur author may be quite happy to place a zero price tag on his ebook in the hope of winning readership, and there is no gainsaying that. Except we all have children to feed. The professional has somehow to make a living, but the prospect of doing so is receding rapidly for most. High quality writing does not come exclusively from the full-time professional - of course not - but just as professional sportspeople tend to be those at the peak of excellence because a) they have been through a careful, rigorous selection process and b) they hone their skills all day and every day, such is the general case for writers. 

It would be to the detriment of mankind if economic exigency led to the literary art becoming once again the exclusive pursuit of the leisured or moneyed classes, or relegated to the province of the casual amateur. Ironically, what might be seen on the one hand as the democratisation of publishing in the digital age, accessible to all, could have the unintended effect of pushing us back into a pre-democratic age of inequality with the doors firmly shut on the aspiring professional.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Library lines

Encouraged by the Society of Authors and New Writing North I've become interested in the Save Newcastle Libraries campaign. Of course libraries are important to me now in my role as a writer - for research, as places in which I do talks, and as repositories of my books; and I have worked several times on behalf of Newcastle Libraries centrally, in branches and in the community - but my love of libraries goes back to early days in the old Ashington Library behind the Post Office. I've been searching in vain for pictures but I believe the building (which must have originally been a large house) still exists near the present library and I guess is owned by Northumberland County Council.

I remember the small junior library at the back of the building, the much larger adult library forbidden to us children, and the reading room upstairs which was also forbidden until we got to the Grammar School at the age of 11 and were allowed up there on the pretext of doing homework. I recall the first time I stepped up the staircase to the reading room holding on to the varnished brown banister in a confusion of thrill and fear, a feeling that I was encroaching on hallowed ground, that I was being regarded with suspicion bordering on rage by the library guardians downstairs, that I had no right to be making the journey, but that the journey itself was an exciting sort of treasure hunt for books I'd never set eyes on before, shelves I'd never had the opportunity to explore.

I remember, too, being so proud of my library tickets - it was either two or three small wallet-style tickets that could fit into each other, one for each book we could borrow - and especially when I was finally able to exchange the (pale green?) Junior tickets for the (blue?) Adult ones. Now I think of it, I believe we were allowed two tickets as Juniors and three as Adult readers. The old-style cards - which had the member's name handwritten and a date of expiry - were later replaced by a rather boring rectanglar charcoal-grey block of a card with no personal details, and of course in recent times by barcoded plastic.

Above all, though, what I remember as a child reader is being lost in whatever world I'd brought back with me between the covers of my library book. Worlds I could never have visited without that library portal to enter whenever I chose (opening hours allowing).

Although my mother was also an avid reader and like me a regular library visitor, there were no books in our house beyond comic annuals, a couple of dictionaries and a Bible. I'm sure the same could be said of virtually every one of the workers' homes in Ashington and other working class communities - in fact I remember as a student teacher reading a statistic from the then recently-published 1967 Plowden report on Education that the average home had only five books in it, including a dictionary and Bible. Labouring families at the time would not have dreamed of spending part of their hard-earned wages on books to keep. That's why the library was important to me, and millions like me. And why would it be different today, despite the obvious technological developments that have made reading material apparently more easily available? There were bookshops in my day, but we didn't visit them. There's a world of difference between possible and reachable, between available and availed.

In support of my argument for preserving and protecting libraries I have been collecting some thoughts on the subject from past and present authors and assorted creative types. I offer them below as evidence.


If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (statesman, scholar and orator)

Come, and take choice of all my library,

And so beguile thy sorrow.

William Shakespeare (dramatist and poet)

When I step into this library, I cannot understand why I ever step out of it.

Marie de Sevigne (diarist)

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.

Jorge Luis Borges (poet and short-story writer)

I love the architecture of public libraries, the very large windows. Inside it’s polished, it’s quiet; during the day, the sun is usually streaming through one room or another. And all the people are sitting there together, but they’re all going to completely different places through the books they’re reading.

Maira Kalman (artist and author)

A library is not simply a repository of books, it is the symbol and centre of our culture - a door and a window for those who might not otherwise have such doors and windows.

Amy Tan (author)

The library … is no mere cabinet of curiosities; it’s a world, complete and completable, and it is filled with secrets. Like a world, it has its changes and its seasons, which belie the permanence that ordered ranks of books imply. Tugged by the gravity of readers’ desires, books flow in and out of the library like the tides.

Matthew Battles (Harvard rare books librarian)

I go into my library, and all history unrolls before me.

Alexander Smith (poet)

To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse.

Barbara Tuchman (historian)

Everything you need for better future and success has already been written. And guess what? All you have to do is go to the library.

Jim Rohn (management speaker and author)

Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark. The pleasure they give is steady, unorgastic, reliable, deep and long-lasting.

Germaine Greer (author and campaigner)

My alma mater was books, a good library . . . I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.

Malcolm X (political activist)

When I got my library card, that's when my life began.

Rita Mae Brown (author)

The privilege we have in this country to borrow books from our public libraries is quite wonderful, really. It empowers all of us to keep on learning and exploring throughout our lives. That’s very special, because life is all about growing, changing and opening ourselves up to new ideas and information.

Elizabeth Taylor (actor)

We all love to hear a good story. We save our stories in books. We save our books in libraries. Libraries are the storyhouses full of all those stories and secrets.

Kathy Bates (actor)

Of the boys who worked in the reference library a surprising number must have turned out to be lawyers, and I can count at least eight of my contemporaries who sat at those tables in the 1950s who became judges. A school – and certainly a state or provincial school – would consider that something to boast about, but libraries are facilities; a library has no honours board and takes no credit for what its readers go on to do but, remembering myself at 19, on leave from the army and calling up the copies of Horizon to get me through the general paper in the Oxford scholarship, I feel as much a debt to that library as I do to my school.

Alan Bennett (actor, author and playwright)

Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.

Lady Bird Johnson (campaigner and First Lady)

There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the Earth as the Free Public Library - this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.

Andrew Carnegie (industrialist and philanthropist)

When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully - the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equalizer.

Keith Richards (musician)

I’d be happy if I could think that the role of the library was sustained and even enhanced in the age of the computer.

Bill Gates (entrepreneur and philanthropist)

The library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history.

Carl Rowan (journalist and diplomat)

At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better.

Barack Obama (statesman and politician)

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.

Ray Bradbury (author)

What is more important in a library than anything else - than everything else - is the fact that it exists.

Archibald MacLeish (poet and playwright)


Thursday, 27 September 2012

My favourite mondegreens (misheard lyrics)

It should be a good word for Scrabble except that it doesn’t have any high value letters, but at least it can be a conversation piece to distract your opponent when you add ‘monde’ to their ‘green’ and they say, ‘mondegreen’; what’s that? .


A mondegreen is a misheard, misinterpreted or misremembered lyric or phrase, often to comic effect. As a result of near-homophony, the line takes on an entirely new meaning for the listener. Why ‘mondegreen’? The word was coined by US essayist Sylvia Wright for her 1954 piece in Harper’s Magazine, The death of Lady Mondegreen. She wrote:


‘When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,

And Lady Mondegreen.


It was not until much later that Ms Wright realised the actual fourth line reads:

And laid him on the green.
There was no existing term for the phenomenon of the misheard line, so ‘mondegreen’ was born.


The expression is usually applied to lines from verse, poetry or lyrics of songs. In this posting I’m going to focus on misheard song lyrics, but I’ll mention in passing one of the most famous examples in literature of a mondegreen that comes from misremembering;  it explains an otherwise weird book title: The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Well into the novel, the narrator Holden Caulfield hears a little boy wrongly singing the words to Rabbie Burns’ Comin’ Thro’ The Rye as If a body catch a body coming through the rye, instead of Gin a body meet a body. It leads to an optimistic reverie by Caulfield and is memorialised by Salinger in the ‘catchy’ title.


My first memory of mondegreens (though I certainly didn’t know what they were called at the time) comes from my childhood mishearing of Christmas carols, and how we entertained ourselves in school or church services singing the ‘altered’ versions. We kids thought we were being smart, original and funny when we privately sang to each other our versions under cover of the adult voices singing the proper words, not realising that our mothers and fathers, and probably our grandparents, had done the same thing at our age. Who has not sung the first line of While Shepherds Watched  as:


While shepherds washed their socks by night


The full version of the altered first verse is, as I’m sure you’ll recall:


While shepherds washed their socks by night

And hung them on the line,

The angel of the lord came down

And said those socks are mine.  


It’s amazing how many carols and Christmas songs lend themselves to amusing mishearings. Among my early favourites were:


Deck the halls with Buddy Holly

Get dressed ye married gentlemen

We three kings of porridge and tar


The tradition goes on even to modern Christmas songs. My daughter recently pointed out to me that the Christmas single by The Waitresses Christmas Wrapping is in fact a greeting to former snooker world champion Terry Griffiths.  You’ll see what I mean if you click below for a blast of the chorus:




Another British former world champion was famously featured in a sort of visual mondegreen on BBC TV’s flagship music show Top of the Pops in October 1982. Dexy’s Midnight Runners came on to sing their hit version of  the Van Morrison song Jackie Wilson said (I’m in heaven when you smile). However, someone in the production team either mistook the name in the chorus or was having a laugh because the picture projected behind the group throughout the song was not the cool black American r&b singer Jackie Wilson, but the portly, lovable Scottish darts player Jocky Wilson. If you need it, here’s the proof:



Perhaps the most famous pop music mondegreen comes from the Jimi Hendrix classic Purple Haze. Is Jimi singing ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky as the published lyrics suggest, or is it ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy? You be the judge.



Not only can we get confused about pop lyrics, but sometimes convincingly so. For years I thought Dusty Springfield was singing:


You don’t have to say you love me,

Just because you can.


Check out the line below:




Mick Jagger’s vocals in many of the Rolling Stones’ songs lend themselves to plenty of misinterpretation. I defy anyone, without looking up the published lyrics, to make out the full first verse of Get off my cloud. I’ve just this moment had a go, and here’s what I’ve come up with - it all goes wrong for me at the third line:


I live on the apartment of the 99th floor of my block.

I sit at home looking out the window, imagining the world has stopped

And in flies a guy that’s all dressed up like a Union Jack

And I’ve walked by and found that I’ve since turned out a flicker good back

I said, hey you....etc.


Have a listen and see if you can come up with a more intelligible version:



I  know I’m not alone in mishearing lyrics. In your own time you might want to check out some of these I’ve heard reported:


From Abba’s Dancing Queen:

See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen.


From Abba’s Chiquitita:

Take your teeth out, tell me what’s wrong.


From Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog:

You ain’t pornographic and you ain’t no friend of mine.


From Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights:

It’s me, I’m a tree, I’m a wombat

Oh, so cold at the end of your hole.


From Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody:

Sparing his life for his warm sausage tea.


From Robert’s Palmer’s Addicted to Love:

Might as well face it, you’re a dick in a glove.


From the Ghostbusters title track:

Who you gonna call? Those bastards.


This is just a short selection - believe it or not there is a website dedicated to a comprehensive collection of funny misheard pop lyrics. It’s called, appropriately enough, KISSTHISGUY


From those early years in the carol service to today I’ve been entertained by mondegreens, but I don’t think I’ve laughed louder than when I watched comedian Peter Kay’s The Tour That Didn’t Tour on Channel 4 recently. Towards the end of the show, Peter demonstrates some of the misheard pop lyrics he has come across. Here’s the clip for your enjoyment - trust me, it is hilarious.


If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy Mind my malapropisms.