Monday, 31 August 2009

A Sequel by Someone Else?

There's a sequel by someone else to one of your favourite children's books. It's sitting there on the shelf, calling to you with a siren whisper. "Now you can find out WHAT HAPPENED NEXT. C'mon, you KNOW you want to." But do you? Do you really? Just published is Hilary McKay's answer to Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'A Little Princess', called 'Wishing For Tomorrow'. I've ordered it, but deep in my heart I know I probably shouldn't have done. Sara Crewe's story was one of the great loves of my childhood, its riches to rags to riches story somehow deeply satisfying to my soul. It was, I felt, what a really good story should be. It has sat in my head, complete and entire since I first read it. I may. fleetingly, have wondered how Sara Crewe's life evolved after her rescue by the Indian Gentleman, but hey, my imagination could provide the details of that. So why do I want to read a book by someone else, written 104 years after the publication of the original? Because I am like the Elephant's Child--full of "'satiable curtiosity". And because now that I know it's out there, I can't resist it. If I'm horrified and disappointed, it will be my own fault, after all. I have not read any reviews (deliberately), since I'd like to make my own mind up without any prejudice.

Also coming this autumn is Eoin Colfer's sequel to Douglas Adams' 'Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy' series, entitled 'And Another Thing'. I am the lucky possessor of a Limited Edition Proof (42 of 238) of the first half of the book. It arrived (naturally) by the Vogon Postal Service (Punishment for mail tampering: Disintegration) and has a helpful and friendly rainbow-hued DON'T PANIC! on the front cover. I yield to no one in my admiration of Eoin as a writer of children's books (have loved Artemis Fowl since his first appearance), but I did approach this offering with trepidation. 'Hitchhiker's', its insane landscape, and quotes from it have been part of my life since the first radio-broadcasts. I have lost count of the times I have muttered 'Brain the size of a planet, and all I am asked to do is....". I am delighted to report that Eoin (once again) does not disappoint. He has captured Adams's voice and madness perfectly (at least in this first half), and I look forward to reading the whole thing on 12th October.

So have I ever been disappointed? Yes. Most certainly. Many times. To pick out a couple at random: I've hated every sequel to Pride and Prejudice I've ever read--even Emma Tennant couldn't make me love her version of 'Pemberley'. I couldn't love Geraldine McCaughrean's 'Peter Pan in Scarlet' either--though it was a well-written book. There are very often extremely good reasons why an author doesn't write a sequel to a much loved work. Robin McKinley (one of my very favourite fantasy authors) is always being pestered (and I do use the word advisedly) for sequels to her Damar books and others. She says that while it is always theoretically possible that one will arrive from what she calls 'The Story Council', she has to write what she is given--it's not something that a writer can force. I know that were I ever to be in the same position, by the unpteenth complaining and plaintive request I would positively not WANT to write another word on the subject. However, if in 104 years someone wants to write a sequel to something of mine, then I say good luck to them. But I'm quite glad I won't be around to read it.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Manners Makyth Man--Or Do They?

There is an excellent US site for those interested in all things to do with writing which I joined a while ago. It's called Red Room if you want to hop over and take a look. Since they don't have a feed puller for blogs, I take the trouble to cut and paste some of the posts I write here into my blog page there. It gets me more readers, and I like the site. For this blog, however, it's the other way round. Red Room has instituted a weekly 'blog subject' which they ask their bloggers to write about. All the blogs are then collected into a compendium, and the best are chosen as features--with the prize of a book on that week's subject to the winning author. There are no constraints on how you can approach the subject--whatever comes to mind. The only rule is that you must put the subject into the 'tags'. This week's subject was 'bad manners', which is why I've written the piece below. It has already been published on my Red Room page in a slightly amended form, but since my readers here are all different (at least, I think you are!), I'm putting it here too. I hope you enjoy it--and would love to have your own examples of the worst bad manners you've encountered.

The first written code of manners could be said to be found in the 10 Commandments. Leaving aside the religious exhortations, it is basic politeness not to covet your neighbour's wife, or ox (Ferrari) or ass/donkey (VW Golf) or any of his material possessions (mud hut on beach/Georgian Rectory/penthouse flat/Armani suit/collection of cigarette cards etc etc). Adultery with the neighbour's (or anyone else's) wife is pretty low on the manners front--and as for murder, well there's not many ruder acts than killing someone. Stealing, perjury, and being dishonourable to your aged parents are not looked on as good either, even in modern times. This set of basic taboos is common to all mankind, and if we break them, we are punished by society in one way or another, although, as society has changed and we have become more 'civilised', the punishments are less and less rigorous for some of the offences, which not so many years ago would have seen a perpetrator ostracised or even executed.

Knowing the various different codes of behaviour which apply in our particular societies--ie how to behave with 'good manners' and not bad--is an important skill which enables us to exist peacefully with our fellow humans. As William of Wykeham once said, "Manners Makyth Man". In earlier times, children had manners strictly drilled into them--my own grandmother was very much of the 'seen and not heard' school. I'm glad for my own children's sake that that one has changed. My other grandmother informed me that leaving a little food on the side of the plate 'for Mr Manners' was a polite thing to do. As a very young child, I used to imagine Mr Manners as a sort of spindly hobgoblin (or house elf), who lived under the table and didn't get much to eat. I had nightmares about his thin, bony fingers on the end of an even thinner, bonier arm reaching out and up from the darkness at my feet to take his due from my plate. No wonder Gran told my mother I was a fussy eater!

The manners of everyday life have changed rapidly over the last twenty years here in England--and all over the world. Men still (just) open doors for ladies, offer seats, walk on the outside of the pavement. But where, before, this simple politeness was accepted as just that from a woman's point of view, now it may be perceived as sexist behaviour, and not manners at all, and may be extremely unwelcome, not to say bad mannered. In my own childhood, I would never have thought of contradicting or arguing with my parents. It would have been seen as the height of rudeness. Now my own children think nothing of having a different opinion about something--and expressing it. It's now normal behaviour (even though a snarly teenage bout of surliness still gets stamped on pretty quickly!). Whatever else has changed, though, we Brits have one unbreakable rule of good manners. We queue. And if someone bad mannerdly barges in front of us, we get jolly cross.

But there is another sphere of manners altogether, which is totally new to those of us born in the '60's and even the '70's. The Internet and cyberspace are a minefield metamorphosing at warp speed where manners and etiquette are concerned--especially the social networks. Is it rude to ignore a 'Friend Request' on Facebook? Will someone think it's bad manners if I delete or block them (will they even know or care)? What is the etiquette about commenting? And on Twitter, how many #hashtags should go in a tweet? Do I have to follow everyone who follows me, or can I just follow the ones who interest me? Can I jump into someone else's tweet exchange? Do we even need manners on the web? All this stuff is evolving so fast it's impossible to know what's right and what's wrong--you just have to do your best, lurk, watch what everyone else is doing, copy that (if they're doing it, it must be ok, mustn't it?).

If in doubt, there's one rule of manners which pretty much covers every situation, whether at home, abroad or on the fluid world of the web. 'Do as you would be done by'. And so we're back to the Bible again--New Testament this time.

PS. Since we're on manners here, let me just say thanks awfully for reading this. It's frightfully kind of you. Cheerio.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Blyton and the Perils of Reputation

Helena Bonham-Carter is to play Enid Blyton in a new BBC4 series this autumn. I'm sure it will be fascinating (for some) to find out what a bad mother she was to her two girls, and other salacious details about her life, and to relate those things to the literary merit or otherwise of her books.
I don't like this trend. Increasingly, it seems to me, in the light of recent revelations, that there have to be more and clearer distinctions between the writer judged as person/character in their own life drama (and it seems often not a very nice person/character if you have been reading lately about William Golding et al), and the writer judged as/by their work. It is easy for latter day critics and biographers to ferret about in the recent past, through letters and newspaper clippings and other media and make a retrospective moral judgement along the lines of 's/he was immoral/cruel/alcoholic/druggy/an abusive parent (take your pick and add more), so therefore the work that is left behind is somehow compromised, because it is now seen through that particularly harsh lens of hindsight.'

In general, books which carry on being printed and read through many generations stand or fall on whether they are good and readable, and whether they have something durable to say, some perpetual and long-lasting universal insight to give into the human condition--not on whether their author was or was not a monster in their personal life--though scandal, of course, always has and always will sell copies in the short term. On its publication, sales of Byron's Don Juan, forinstance, were helped immeasurably by the whispers about the poet's unconventional love life as well as by the fact that it contained insults about the Foreign Secretary of the day and mocked the revered Lake poets. It lasted for a good long while on the reputation of its raffish author (of course, it helped that he died youngish and far from home), but is now probably studied only in 19th century English literature courses. Jane Austen, on the other hand, writing Pride and Prejudice at roughly the same period, and not a bit scandalous in her habits, has lasted, giving pleasure to each generation which recognises in her stories something true and enduring which sets off chimes and echoes within their own lives and experiences, ( including my own daughter (15) in the current one).

But back to Enid Blyton, where I started. No one could call her books great literature. She never pretended they were. As a child I read her avidly--liking The Secret Seven least and Malory Towers best, with The Magic Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair and The Famous Five et al. following close behind. My parents, to give them credit, didn't care what I read, as long as I read. But many of my friends were forbidden to read Blyton, on the grounds that it was somehow unsuitable pap which would rot their brains. And this was long before any of the 'truth' about her as a person was known. I remember, very clearly, feeling slightly ashamed of longing to get my hands on the next adventure from the library. In restrospect I had been subtly and unwittingly tarred by a sort of middle-class all pervasive literary judgementalism which even now I still hate for its snobbery and disapproving pretentiousness. Something of the same judgmentalism has grown up around JK Rowling and Harry Potter too--fuelled by the rather dog-in-the-manger view that something so popular with children should have more literary merit, perhaps?

The fact is that both Rowling and Blyton write a good story, a riproaring yarn, a page turner, and millions of children recognise that and care not a bit for their carping elders and betters. Again, both Rowling and Blyton turn children into readers, and for that they should be forgiven much (in a literary way--as I said above, the personal shouldn't come into it at all).

It was therefore good to see Melanie McDonagh in the Daily Telegraph coming out and recognising Blyton's part in getting children to read, calling her 'a genius among children's writers'. Melanie was, however, very careful to make the distinction that she was not 'a writer of genius: you don't mention her in the same breath as Tolkien or Kenneth Grahame.' I think that's a fair assessment. Tolkien and Grahame will probably still be around in a hundred years. Will Blyton? I don't know. But taking a small straw poll of friends with children of the right age this weekend, I think she will be around for a while whether her reputation is irreparably tarnished by the BBC documentary or not. The children round here are still as happy to escape into the tattered pages of their parents' illicit copies as mine were when I handed them over 10 years ago. And it doesn't seem to matter a bit that the world of George, Anne, Dick, Julian and Timmy the dog has long disappeared into some rosy '50's hinterland of history. Perhaps that's the attraction. No latter day pervs and stalkers to worry about, like there are in the papers and on TV. And it's certainly better and healthier comfort food for the 10 year-old brain than a quick and violent game of Auto Theft IV.

Monday, 24 August 2009

An Amazing Abecedenarian Alphabet - A's Part 1

The First of my Amazing A's: Abecedarian (adj): pertaining to the ABC; rudimentary; arranged like an acrostic; (n) a learner/teacher of ABC; member of Anabaptist sect which rejects learning.

aberdevine (n): a twitcher's name for the siskin, which is a yellowish-green finch (Ety. uncertain). 'How divine to spot an aberdevine, dahling!' Can't wait to throw that one into a conversation...

aboulia (n): loss of willpower, inability to make decisions. [Gr. a-, priv., boulë, will]. What a useful word for a procrastinating author. To editor: "Due to a bad bout of aboulia, I will be slightly late in delivering my novel. Do hope you will understand. Yours etc..."

abraxas (n). a mystic word, or gem engraved with mystical half-human/animal figure, used as a charm. [said to have been coined by the 2nd-cent Gnostic Basilides to express 365 by addition of the numerical values of the Greek letters]. Strangely, this is also the name of my local cookery equipment shop. Or is that simply a cover for a new mystical sect involving ritual bowing to pots and pans while dressed as a goat?

accipitrine (adj). pertaining to hawks. I wonder what word pertains to doves. If I knew, I could make a fascinating political sentence involving the two.

acronychal (adj): at nightfall (of the rising and setting of stars). [Gr. akron, point; nychos, -eos, night). A good word, but harder to fit into a sentence than you might think...

ad aperturam libri (Lat); as the book opens. Cheating a bit, on the A alphabet front, but a useful Latin phrase for a writer, I feel.

adminicle (n): anything that aids or supports. I could do with an adminicle, which I envision as being a small personage somewhat like a house elf, but of a more secretarial nature.

adversaria; a commonplace book. See title.

aeolipyle (n); a hollow ball turned by the tangential escape of steam. A useful object, and addition to vocabulary, I am sure. But where would you use it? [L. Aeolus, god of winds, pila, ball; Gr. Aiolou pylai, Gates of Aeolus)
affy (v, obs); to trust, to confide, to assure. ‘I affy that I defy you,’ in short.

agathodaimon (Gr. n);one's good genius, the one that gives you tremendous ideas for your novel at 3am. Not the one that says you're crap.

aggri, aggry (adj.); a word applied to ancient West African glass beads. So now you know what that one is, lovely Twitterers.

agraffe (n); a hooked clasp [from Old High German chrapfo, hook]. As in 'I hang my coat (which has an agraffe) from a chrapfo on the wall'.

agryze (adj); terrify, horrify, disfigure.Well, if it was good enough for Spenser (Faerie Queen), it's good enough for me.[OE agrasan=dread]

akinesia (n); the lack, loss or impairment of the power of voluntary movement [path]. Anyone else's teenagers suffer from this? Mine do!

alalagmos, n, [Gr]; a war cry. Perhaps shall use an alalagmos when I next have to deal with recalcitrant traffic wardens!

Albigensian (adj); of bloody c13th crusade which stamped out Catharist sect. Book blog on 800th anniversary at

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Twittering the Dictionary

I am a writer. Words are my trade. These two facts are self-evident. But I am also a hoarder, a ferreter-out, a collector of the strange, exotic, ancient and arcane--at least as far as vocabulary is concerned. Every time I use a dictionary for its everyday purpose of checking a spelling or meaning, I get sidetracked by the many magnificent verbal treasures to be found on any one spread. The two most useful presents I have ever received have been dictionaries--one, a blue-and-gold leather bound edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary was an unusual wedding present which still lives in its original slipcase, smelling of twenty years of knowledge searching, the gold-leaf on the very tips of its delicate pages worn silver with thumbing. The other, a Chambers 20th Century, I was given as a leaving gift when I departed my life as an editor with Orchard Books. It sits to the left of my computer and is entirely invaluable to my writing life.

I love to know about and explore the sources of words--are they from High German, or Latin, or Greek? Might they be from another language altogether (like Amharic or Ashanti), and somehow, somewhere have slipped into English usage by the route of trade or fleeting fashion or simple lexical stealing? I love the moment where the meaning of a word suddenly makes sense when I see it broken down into its component parts--it's there in plain sight but I never thought of it in that way before.

There are many quiet pleasures to be had from brief browsings of a dictionary, but one thing I have never done is to read an entire one from cover to cover--until now. It all started with Twitter really. After all, what does Twitter really do apart from tell the world what Stephen Fry had for breakfast? Or what t-shirt Neil Gaiman wore last night? Or many other less interesting (I don't like to use the word boring) daily ephemera. I realise that in our celebrity-obsessed world these are things which many people like to know about. However, I wanted to try something different. Something which would be (perhaps) both educational and interesting not only for my Twitter followers, but also for me. What could I do?

The answer was sitting right under my elbow. Starting at A, I would work my way through the entire dictionary, tweeting the interesting words and definitions I found in 140 characters. Originally I planned to do this over 24 weeks (combining w and x and y and z), but I now know it's going to take a lot longer than that. Two weeks in, I have reached al-, and there's still a long way to go (60 pages) before I reach B, and I don't want to rush it. After all, I do have other (and bigger) writing projects to get on with.

Not everyone is on Twitter (or indeed any other social network), so I've decided to do a weekly roundup of interesting words here on the blog too. I'll be starting with the 'A's so far' on Monday. Have fun reading them. I hope you find a word or two that you like, (and maybe you'll even come up with some more of your own favourites that you think I should have put in). Let me know! All suggestions welcome.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Beginning Again - Part Three (The Writing Retreat)

Writers are scattered, solitary creatures by nature, holing up all over the country (and beyond) to do their job of wrangling words in small, cramped sheds and offices, sitting in lonely state at cafe tables, or huddling against the radiators in hushed libraries. Don't feel sorry for us. We like it like that. But sometimes, just sometimes, the urge for the company of our own kind comes upon us, and that is where the Scattered Authors' Society (0r the Other SAS) comes in. On occasional 'treat days' a few of us might gather for a convivial lunch in diverse parts of the country; sometimes we communicate on a web forum, spraying urgent questions (such as the memorable 'how do I get the fox poo smell off my dog) and more obviously literary chat into the aether; and once a year as many of us as can get there gather for four whole days in an ancient manor house tucked away in a hidden part of Oxfordshire and go 'on retreat' together.

I say 'on retreat', but this is perhaps misleading. Obviously my fellow members would have to kill me with a slow series of pencil stabs if I divulged too much of what really goes on, but I can say that there is a quiz (literary and brain-taxing questions on children's books), plus several useful workshops (as well as that all important solitary writing time if inspiration strikes). It is about one of those workshops that I am going to write now, because it was brilliant, and it is a fun way of accessing creativity if you are stuck on a book (or indeed in your life). The workshop was devised by the wonderful Katherine Roberts, whose book I Am The Great Horse (winner of the Branford Boase Award), I am currently reading with great pleasure.

You will need:
A quiet room with a large table.
A (preferably wide) selection of old colour magazines.
Large sheets of sugar paper (different colours if you like).
A glue stick.
A timer.

Katherine is quite strict about the timings of this--so I will be too. For the first 2 minutes, you ponder the question you want to ask. Personally, I needed to know more about the lead character in the new novel I have just started. Then, for exactly the next seven minutes, you put everything out of your head except for the magazines, out of which you tear those things (words, pictures, numbers--whatever) which catch your roving eye. Tear, as opposed to cut. This is important. Don't think about it, don't be cerebral, just tear away and put your chosen images into a pile. When the time is up, you must then spend 20 minutes arranging the images on your large sheet of paper (mine was dark pink, as it happened, just because it 'felt' right) and glueing them on. Just do it--don't obsess about what goes where. This is accessing the instinctive part of your brain, remember, not the 'rational' bit which says 'oh, but that looks so MESSY/WRONG/NOT AS GOOD AS MY NEIGHBOUR'S'. Or whatever.

It's good to do this in a group (though it's fine to do it on your own too), since in a group you get feedback and other people may see things you hadn't noticed about your creation, and ask you questions which you hadn't thought of. For me, doing this exercise sparked all sorts of things in my brain--I knew a lot of surprising things about my new character almost immediately, and was at once enthused to write them down and ask more. My fellow authors saw a strand that I hadn't connected with--and I even got my character's name. What struck me most though, was the fact that from the SAME pile of magazines, 20 odd people got really amazingly diverse pictures and answers--though obviously our questions were different. With some of those whose writing I knew, I am sure I could have picked out their 'works of art' correctly--the writing 'signature' perhaps carries over into other media. It was altogether an excellent hour, which I wouldn't have missed at any price and a wonderful four days which took me out of myself at a time of great sadness (see previous post). I shall definitely be present again next year (if I haven't been buried in a barrel for letting out too many SAS secrets).

I'm off to the wilds of Italy now for a couple of weeks--so the next post will probably be about pasta. Watch out for it!
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