Saturday, 22 December 2018

Mrs Jolly isn't jolly any more

I was in Henley On Thames last night in a pub where they have lots of old books on display as decoration. Naturally I had to have a quick butcher's and, to my delight, discovered a 1954 copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. A quick chat to the manager and a donation to a local charity and it was mine. It's a fascinating read.

Some things haven't changed in 64 years, such as the advice to writers that, no matter how much you want to see your work in print, you should never have to pay for that pleasure.

The appalling wages haven't changed much either. In 1954 you could expect the BBC to pay £1 per minute for radio broadcasts of up to 10 minutes and 15 shillings (note: 75p) per minute thereafter. And the book's preface states that 'many publications consider that a guinea (Note: £1.05) or less per thousand words is adequate recompense'. Now, I realise that £1 in 1954 was worth more - the equivalent of £26 now - but that's still pretty crappy.

The one thing that has noticeably changed is that, in 1954, almost every advert is for typist and copyist services. 

In the age of Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Ulysses and Final Draft, it's easy to forget that 'in the old days' the author either hand-wrote their manuscripts or typed them, which meant that there was just one copy. Therefore, if it got lost in the post, the writer would lose everything. That was why it was essential to have a copy made. And before photocopiers and printers, that meant hiring a copy typist (or you typed another copy yourself).

Here's a good example of an industry and a skill that has been lost due to technology. History is littered with them. 

My brother Si used to be a professional photographer. The arrival of digital photography has all but killed his trade. Why pay an expert when your smart DSLR can make decisions about exposure, shutter speed and ISO for you? Why pay a photographer for 20 stunning shots when you can take a thousand and, by fluke, 20 will be pretty good? Things got so bad that Si retrained as a teacher and now teaches photography at university. But even that role is changing as most of what makes a good photo is now done in post; he has more students lining up to learn Photoshop than photography.

When I was researching content for the K-series of QI, I spoke to the man who ran (then) Britain's last knacker's yard. As he pointed out, the horse industry once employed hundreds of thousands of people from breeders to sellers, trainers to saddlers, farriers to riding instructors, plus coach builders and many other peripheral horse-related jobs. And, when the horses died, the knacker was an essential link in the chain. The collected carcasses were recycled and re-purposed as fats, tallow (yellow grease), furniture glue, bone meal, bone char, sal ammoniac, leather, soap, bone for cutlery handles, bleach and animal and pet feed. These days we just incinerate them. The arrival of the motor car decimated the horse industry.

And now we are sitting at the advent of the driverless car. How many jobs will be lost to that particular innovation? No more cabbies, hauliers, delivery drivers, driving instructors ... and, if the cars really won't have as many accidents as human drivers do, there will be lay-offs at garages and repair shops and a drastic loss of revenue for insurers.

Technology is fabulous when it makes our lives better - I'd never want to go back to a typewriter for a start - but every new advance invariably has casualties. And for the typists and copyists like Mrs Jolly (see ad above) who would 'type or duplicate it for you', the arrival of the computer sounded the death knell on her industry.

However, replacing expertise with technology does have its dangers. Do we want a society made up of competent generalists instead of a expert specialists? I'm not so sure.

But then, I'm a bit old-fashioned, I'm an underpaid writer and I've had a few pints. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

As one door closes ...

Well, there's a thing.

The Diabolical Club is funded.

No more crowdfunding!

But now begins the work of editing, designing, typesetting, proofing, printing, marketing, distribution...

And I can't wait. Roll video!

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Jim Tinley RIP

If you're a regular visitor to this blog (or my previous blogs - see right) you'll know that I come from Cornwall. I grew up in Launceston, Blackwater, Penzance and Helston but moved to the South East when I was eighteen. My teens were spent in Helston and its environs and I still think of it as 'home' despite having lived away from Cornwall for thirty years.

It was a pretty idyllic childhood; a loving family, beautiful countryside, glorious beaches and great friends - many of which are still friends to this day - all conspired to make it so. School too was something I enjoyed, mostly because I was lucky enough to have such inspirational teachers. And among the best of the best were my three art teachers, Arthur Andrews, Phil Howells and Jim Tinley. Arthur died in the early eighties and Phil in the last year or so. But Jim was a bit younger than the others and retired to his beloved Porthleven - Helston's nearby fishing village - and became a well-known local character and painter. I last saw him in 2011 when we arranged to meet up for a drink and a catch up. He was, always, a wealth of anecdotes and dry humour and delighted in hearing what my contemporaries and I had got up to since our previous catch up. I, in turn, loved to see his latest work in progress. He was a very good painter and was brilliant at capturing the people who populated his beloved village.

Sadly Jim died earlier this month but he left behind a legacy of wonderful paintings including these below:

Some people touch your lives in ways you don't appreciate at the time. Even though I eventually became a writer it was my art teachers who made the biggest impact on me at school. They taught me to see the world around me rather than just glance at it. In particular they gave me a love of people watching, which ultimately led to a life-long fascination. Almost all of the characters in my books are drawn from life.

And there's the clue - drawn.

I'm sad that I haven't got down to Cornwall very often in the last few years; life has been too busy. And now, sadly, there will be no more boozy catch-ups.

But I relish the fact that the last time we met, Jim told me that I seemed to be turning into him.

If that means being a kind, talented, inspirational human being, I'll take that.

But I expect he was talking about the hair and beard.

Oh, and he told me to lose the belly, which, to some degree, I have (he'd got rid of his and was keen to demonstrate the fact).

RIP Jim. I'll raise a white wine spritzer to you tonight.

Saturday, 20 October 2018


A few years ago I self-published a surreal novel called The Third Condiment, under the nom de plume of Wixley de Lune (don't ask). The whole project was a way of using up hundreds of gags and weird ideas that simply didn't fit into any of my other books. And you won't be surprised to hear that I managed to sneak a bit of murder-mystery into it.

The book's narrator, the aforementioned Wixley, is a huge fan of agricultural crime novels - or 'Countrycide' books, especially those of Gabel Maypole. And I went so far as to create the covers of some of her better known books:

Wixley also loved a TV series called 'Widdershins' in which the eponymous detective has to conduct his investigations from inside a sterile ball as he has no immune system. Here's the DVD cover:

The novel is, by far, the silliest thing I've ever writter (or will probably ever write) but I am terribly fond of it. And you can order it here.


Saturday, 15 September 2018

Happy birthday Agatha

It's Agatha Christie's birthday today.

She died in 1976 at the age of 86 and, staggeringly, produced 73 novels (66 murder mystery), 28 collections, 16 plays, 2 biographies and a handful of broadcast works and poems in her lifetime.

But, as prolific as she was, the quality never seemed to suffer. She is still the third most published author in human history, having sold over two billion books - a record broken only by the Bible and Shakespeare.

I've been a fan of her work for longer than I can remember. In fact, one of my earliest television memories is of seeing Rene Clair's 1945 version of And Then There Were None on a wintry weekend evening (a dark and stormy night?) with my family and being thrilled by it. I've since read all of her crime novels and also those of her 'Golden Age' contemporaries - Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and more. And, of course, I've read Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories too.

So, when I came to write what became first published novel, a murder mystery seemed to be the natural genre to attempt. A 30 year career in the police service helped too; I've seen more than a few homicides and hundreds of crime scenes. Throwing my knowledge of real-life policing against my love of murder mystery fiction created the delicious tension from which most of the novel's comedy is generated. A Murder To Die For is set at a murder mystery festival weekend celebrating the life and works of crime writer Agnes Crabbe - my thinly-disguised version of Agatha Christie. Crabbe's most popular fictional detective is Miss Millicent Cutter, a younger and saucier Miss Marple, and most of the festival-goers turn up dressed as her, Then, on the first day of the festival, one of the fans is murdered. It then becomes a race between the procedurally-driven police and the murder mystery fans to solve the crime, a job made much more difficult by the fact that the victim, witnesses, and very possibly the murderer, are all dressed as Miss Cutter.

Writing a murder mystery is no easy task and, while going through the process, my respect for Christie grew exponentially. To turn out at least one new crime fiction novel every year for 66 years is a staggering feat. Admittedly, the method of killing is very similar in many of her books - having been a chemist, her knowledge of poisons was excellent - but the plots are always extremely clever and leave the reader guessing until the last page.

Writing such a novel requires an extraordinary level of planning. You need to know where every person is at any one time. You need to create back-stories and descriptions to ensure that the players don't act out of character. I even needed to create a map of my fictional village to ensure that people's movements make sense, If Christie was able to keep all of that content in her head while writing (and writing without the luxury of word processing don't forget), she must have been some kind of genius. 

Luckily, she was a genius. And she was the first British woman to learn how to surf standing up.


She was.

So happy birthday Dame Agatha. And thank you for all of the entertainment, inspiration and murders most foul.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs

Frasier - in my opinion the finest sitcom ever to come out of the US - is 25 years old today and Vanity Fair has published a fantastic oral history that includes many of the cast and creators. Read and enjoy.

Here's the link.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Writer's Day

(Originally posted on my old blog in March 2017. The Cottage Bookshop has since tragically closed and the Red Lion is up for sale! What did I do?!?!)

8.30am - Tea, granola, enter office. Start researching/writing/editing.

10am - Tea. More research/writing/editing.

11am - Elevenses. More tea. A Brief check of emails, social media etc. Then more research/writing/editing.

12pm - Meet a writer chum for a snifter at the Red Lion in Penn Village. Enjoy a well kept pint of ale, chat about author-ish things, admire ducks in pond, fawn over a chap's vintage Bugatti.

1pm - Raid Penn Cottage Bookshop for goodies.

2pm - Take dogs for yomp o'er fields and woodlands behind the house. Enjoy sunshine and watch the chemtrails poisoning the angels (one for the conspiracy nuts there).

3pm - Tea and a return to researching/writing/editing.

4pm - Tiffin. More tea and a hot cross bun obscenely buttered. Make stock from yesterday's chicken carcase. Return to researching/writing/editing.

6.30pm - Finish for the day. Exit office.

7pm - Cook evening meal (chicken, chorizo and asparagus risotto using fresh stock) and be sociable. Tea.

Amount earned: £0.00

Quality of life improved: Immeasurably.

Happiness levels: Medium to high.