Saturday, 15 March 2014

What could possibly enhance this image?

Today The Independent reported the death of Glenn McDuffie, aged 86. That name probably won't mean much to you, but it's a fair bet that you will recognise the man behind it. 

You see, Glenn was the sailor in this famous photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaed on August 14th 1945, in Time Square, New York. Over the years it has become a symbol of the joy experienced at the end of the Second World War. I can add nothing to the raw human emotion recorded in this amazing image, but I believe the work of a friend of mine may just do that.

Please, if possible, turn off any noise around you, sit, and allow yourself three minutes and fifteen seconds to listen to Donna Gagnon reading The Kiss.

Rest in peace, Glenn McDuffie, you have a very special place in human history.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

On Writing: In audio, the pictures are better (discuss?)

Do you recognise good writing when you hear it?
The Verulam Writers' Circle Crystal Decanter and Gnome de Plume

We can probably agree that good writing is good writing, whatever the genre or subject of that writing, and we can probably also agree that we recognise good writing when we see it. But what about when we hear it? If we're listening to writing that's from a genre or is about a subject that has little attraction to us – best intentions notwithstanding – do we listen as carefully?

I am fortunate in belonging to an excellent writers' group, Verulam Writer's Circle (VWC), where we have regular manuscript evenings at which our members read their work aloud and receive critique. Over time it has become clear to me that some people are far better at retaining, analysing and critiquing orally delivered work than others. I for one am very poor at this, and – although I enjoy the readings – prefer to analyse work from the screen or printed page. Of course there must be many factors that influence this, including the confidence and projection skills of the reader and the acuity of the listener's hearing. The factor I'm interested in here, however, is the writer's ability gain interest – to hook the listener's attention – by creating 'pictures' in the mind.

At one recent VWC manuscript evening I was delighted to have my drifting attention lensed into sharp focus by passages in two different pieces, each by a different writer, both of which performed that magical trick of forming clear, colourful, images in my mind. From that point, but regrettably only from that point, both readers had my effortless attention: the operative word being 'effortless'. The message from this is, I guess, that if we writers can get those 'visual effect' moments in the right places in our work, we are in with a chance of winning-over listeners – and therefore, I would assume, readers/editors/publishers – who might not otherwise give our work their best attention.

Fair enough, but how to achieve such images? I really can't say. In my view those pictures in the mind are not achieved, as some people might think, by simply mentioning colours, textures aromas etc., by their bald names, or even by complex similes or metaphors, because among the few 'rules' I do believe in are: Less is more and Show, don't tell. All I can say for certain is that when those visuals work the effect is truly magical. 

What I would like to know most of all is: Given that [truism alert] it is impossible to read your own work for the first time – any more than you can tickle yourself – is it possible to know you've successfully achieved 'the visual effect' as you write and, if so, how?

If you know an answer to that final question, I'd be extremely grateful to hear from you because it's not a secret I've learned.

Thank you for kindly visiting my blog. Do help yourselves to virtual tea and biccys, but please shut the fridge door and turn out the lights out when you leave. Call again when you've time.

Good writing!


Saturday, 23 November 2013

An Appointment with The Doctor

Half a lifetime ago, in 1980 to be precise, a small Hertfordshire community service organisation called Bushey and Oxhey Round Table (BORT) received a visit from Doctor Who.

Tom Baker had been The Doctor since 1974 and was not in the habit of condescending to lesser planets let alone to a provincial Donkey Derby, but BORT had a reputation for punching above its weight, and somebody in BORT knew somebody very near the top in BBC Enterprises. So The Doctor came to our fund-raising event, complete with the pukka Tardis.

For the purpose of publicity stunts, we also acquired a number of other genuine Doctor Who props and costumes : a Dalek and a round headed monster whose name escapes me, plus a generic Time Lord outfit, which is why the young fellow in the picture - as BORT chairman - got to be a Time Lord for a day.

To be quite honest I got the impression that Mr Baker – surrounded by his BBC minders (not Dennis Waterman, the real thing) – was not best pleased to be dragged around a Donkey Derby. In the event he did a stalwart job. Great fun was had and lots of money raised for charity.

The very next year, 1981, Doctor Who regenerated again: enter Peter Davison. I do hope it wasn't anything I did.

BREAKING NEWS: So Tom Baker has another place in the 50 years of Who history – The Curator.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Can a Voice Change Your Life?

Freda, the real love of my life (in case of misunderstanding)
I'd like to share with you something I've never experienced before. It happened yesterday morning driving home from the gym when I switched on the car radio, which was tuned to BBC Radio 4, a programme called 'Don't Log Off'. I fell in love with a woman, Jenny,  talking about her life in the outback of Australia.

I arrived home and sat in my garage for the final ten minutes of the broadcast, listening to this serene, beautiful, voice full of humanity, with a deceptively light-sounding but truly profound life-philosophy encapsulating the way she dealt with - is dealing with - personal tragedy.

Besides the content of what Jenny says, there's something about the direct, uncluttered, way she uses language without artifice. It's like natural, flowing, poetry – or perhaps that response is personal to me - I'd be pleased to know if her words affect you this way as well.

I learned a surprising amount about Australia and Australian history from Jenny, too.

So why not treat yourself to a quiet half hour - trust me, it must be quiet - maybe pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back, close your eyes, and listen - and perhaps fall a little in love. You won't regret it.

(There's a short intro first) BBC Radio4 - Don't Log Off, 22 May 13: A Tale from the Bush

Do turn out the lights and close the door as you leave the blog.

Bye for now.

Thanks for visiting.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Skimming Waves - A short story

In remembrance of all the lives lost before, during and after Operation Chastise.
Skimming Waves

May 17th 2002, the anniversary. Two men are standing a stone’s throw apart, midway between twin towers on the half-mile long curve of granite blocks. They’re both gazing down, preoccupied, at a group of youths, one in a red sweatshirt, skimming pebbles on the lake behind the dam.

Despite new glasses, Helmut’s seventy-year-old eyes can’t make out the logo on the youth’s red sweatshirt. It’s something black on a white circular background, possibly a souvenir of some rock concert. Possibly. He shivers despite the spring sunshine and refocuses to gaze along the stone parapet and down the walkway. You can’t tell the repair work from the original structure now, perhaps that isn’t so surprising after fifty-nine years. For the first time Helmut notices the other man: his ridiculous sunhat, green cagoule, waterproof trousers and brown walking boots. English, as are the stone-skipping youths. The Englishman turns, gaunt, nervous, and makes eye contact.

Graham had been counting the ripples as pebble after pebble skipped across the water. He had leant out over the parapet, looked down to where the bouncing bombs must have struck the dam and then further down into deep water where they’d sunk and exploded. He had shuddered and hauled himself upright. Sensing the presence of someone else he had turned.

The man facing Graham is about his own age, with close-cropped grey hair, a stylish leather jacket, slacks and polished shoes. Impeccable. German. Behind steel-rimmed glasses the man’s eyes appear cold, questioning. The German blinks, coughs and looks away, and then he seems to make up his mind and begins a slow arthritic plod, closing the gap between them. A step away from Graham he pauses and slips his right hand inside his jacket. He withdraws something smooth, leathery, slides the cover off and offers Graham a cigar.
Graham exhales, shakes his head. ‘No. Thank you. I gave up some time ago.’
The German shrugs, replaces the cover and tucks the case back beneath his jacket. ‘They came that way,’ he says in English, pointing up the valley, past the youths skimming stones, toward the Möhne River, ‘your Lancaster bombers.’
‘Not my bombers, I was only ten years old.’
‘I too was this young, but bombers have no respect for age.’
‘You were here?’
‘Of course.’ He progresses painfully to the other side of the walkway, gesturing to Graham to follow. Pointing out over the dizzying drop and the outfall toward distant buildings beyond, he says, ‘Here is where we are when the deluge comes, Wickede, my hometown. It is eight kilometres below this dam, but still it is destroyed: houses, railway, animals – everything.’
Graham feels the cold ache he has experienced many times before when looking at the photographs but this time it is intense to the point of pain. The view wobbles. He staggers but a strong grip supports him before he can fall.
‘You are unwell?’
‘Just a bit giddy.’ Graham waves a dismissive hand, leans against the parapet.
‘Drink this.’ An opened hip flask is in the German’s fist. ‘Schnapps. It will help I think.’
Graham takes it, nodding his thanks. ‘My name is Graham,’ he says.
‘So, Mr Graham—’
‘Just Graham, it’s my first name.’
The German watches Graham drink, accepts the flask from him and downs a long draft. Between swallows he says: ‘So— Graham— it is your father flying with the famous 617 Squadron?’ He wipes his mouth with his hand and passes the flask back.
‘Thank you.’ Graham takes it but hesitates. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’
‘No, Helmut, my father died at Dunkirk. My only connection with the raid is through an uncle.’
Helmut examines the ground, nodding. ‘So, he is a Lancaster pilot, this uncle—’ he hiccoughs ‘—with many decorations for glorious victory.’
Graham passes back the flask, hand shaking. ‘No, it wasn’t like that. My uncle flew unarmed Spitfires on photographic reconnaissance.’
Helmut refuses to take the flask. ‘This shaking, it is more than giddy, I think. You drink please. I apologize for rudeness. So many of your countrymen come here following the heroic Dam Busters.’
Gripping the flask in both hands, Graham drinks and then returns it. ‘I understand your bitterness, Helmut. I saw pictures that my uncle took. The destruction—' He averts his eyes. 'As a child, I had nightmares about people drowning.’
‘Many Germans did drown, and many more died that were your allies, Graham, prisoners. But my nightmares were not of drowning.’
‘No? What did you fear most?’
‘Your Mr Churchill, with his butterfly tie.’
Graham almost chokes. ‘You mean Churchill’s bow tie? Really?’
‘Indeed, so.’ Helmut is smiling now. ‘My father had a— What do you say? Cartoon? —from the newspaper, with this horrible face and the bowtie, yes? It filled my nightmares.’
Graham is smiling too. With a controlled shake of his head, he says, ‘My fear was of gas masks, even more than the bombs.’ He stops smiling, swallows hard, and stares into the distance. ‘But it was the idea of people drowning that I hated most, even if we were enemies.’
Helmut puts a hand on Graham’s shoulder. ‘We were not all Nazis you know.’
‘I know, and I couldn't get that out of my mind. I became a hydraulic engineer. I’ve built dams, so I understand the power of water, for good and for bad.’
The two men survey the view from the dam in pensive silence for several minutes.
Helmut turns. ‘It has been a pleasure to meet you, Graham.’
‘You too, Helmut.’ Graham glances at his wristwatch. ‘Goodness. I must go, I shall miss my coach.’
‘Graham, you chose to come here for the fifty-ninth anniversary, why?’
‘It’ll be crowded next year. And I wanted time to think. You know?’
‘Besides, I won’t be around then–– Cancer.’
‘Ah—’ Helmut nods. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘So am I.’
The men on the dam shake hands and turn to leave in their respective directions, each glancing down at the youths who had been skimming pebbles.
Clearly aware of their gaze, the youth in the red sweatshirt jumps to attention, twitches on his heels and performs an insolent straight-armed salute.
If you are interested to know more about the Dam Busters and Operation Chastise, please follow the links below to the RAF Museum website. Even if you think you know everything about 617 Squadron and their most famous raid you will probably find there is information this excellent archive that will fill-in gaps in your knowledge. Some of the papers have never before been on public display.

Finally, if you feel moved to give something back to those who risked – and those who continue to risk – their lives in the cause of our protection, please click this link to the RAF Benevolent Fund.
Thank you.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Hemingway-Schrödinger Experiment - an explanation

Polly, my 'Mews'. Died 01/01/2013. Much missed.
At midday (GMT) today, 10th February 2013, I published on the @OscarWindsor Twitter account, my original take on the famous/infamous 6-word story attributed, some say erroneously, to Ernest Hemingway.

The 'Hemingway' version is, of course: 'For sale: baby shoes, never used.'

My version (dedicated to Polly - see pic) is: 'For sale, cat carrier, never used - Erwin Schrödinger.'

To the best of my knowledge and belief, this is a completely new version of the story, in an original (hopefully humorous) treatment.

Before publishing the piece, with great hubris and pomposity, I announced, on LinkedIn and Facebook, that I would be carrying out an experiment in 'communication and psychology', inviting anyone who had the time and interest to take part and respond/RT if they felt so inclined. A number of kind people - some known to me, others new contacts - did respond.

I'd like to thank everyone who RTed or commented. Particular thanks are due to my good friend @taniahershman for not only RTing the piece, but also including it in her excellent #storysunday gathering of favourite stories.

Having involved so many people in my personal whimsy, an explanation is due. Here it is:

Way back in 2010, I blogged about how an 'original' joke of mine turned up in a BBC TV series. I still have no idea how it got there - well, none that I can substantiate. Ever since then I've been fascinated to understand more about the mechanism by which jokes, and other 'memes' (e.g., the apocryphal attribution of the 'baby shoes' story to Hemingway) gain a toe-hold and travel the world.

The Hemingway-Schrödinger Experiment? Another piece of silliness. I came up with a micro-fiction that I hoped might tickle a few people and decided I'd set it adrift in the rip-tides of the InterWeb to see what occurred.

So, should you see my version of the story - or, indeed, any further adaptation of my version - bobbing its way past your time-line, across your in-tray, or anywhere at all, really - now or at any future time. Please, give me a headsup on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or here.

I'd love to be able to chart the travels of my InterWeb message in a bottle.

Thank you in anticipation.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Sure-fire Christmas Present No:1

"The harder I work the luckier I get", is a quote attributed to various individuals, including Thomas Jefferson, Sam Goldwyn and Gary Player, but that maxim could justifiably have originated from the keyboard of my good friend and guest today on ItttL, Jonathan Pinnock.

Jon's writing has won him numerous prizes and accolades, including the prestigious Scott Prize the direct result of which is his first collection of short – and very short – fiction, Dot Dash, published this week by Salt Publishing, publishers of the 2012 Man Booker finalist The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore.

His work has appeared in a bewildering number of publications, worldwide, and been performed on stage and on BBC Radio. Jon achieved further success last year with his first full-length fiction book, Mrs Darcy versus The Aliens, published by Proxima Books.

ItttL: Hi, Jon, and welcome back to ItttL. Congratulations on your Scott Prize win, and on the publication of Dot Dash. How does it feel to share a publisher with a Man Booker Prize finalist?

Jon: Wonderful! Although… obviously I’m really pleased for Salt and for Alison Moore (and “The Lighthouse” is a bloody marvellous book, by the way), but it’s actually quite unsettling to feel that you’ve hung around in the same playground as her, because you can’t help wondering if you should maybe be raising your aim a little too. And that way madness lies.

ItttL: Given that Dot Dash is your first collection, what is the current title-count of the short fiction you've written to date? I suspect the answer is a high number, so how did you decide what to include, and what to leave out?

Jon: I’m not actually sure, but it’s probably in three figures by now. The decision process was actually quite simple. For the longer pieces, I started off by going through everything I had that had won a prize or had got some kind of mention and put them in. Then I went through the ones that had been published somewhere and picked the ones that seemed to me to be the strongest. For the shorter ones, the process was a lot simpler, because there were only just enough that had previously been published. In fact, I think I may have thrown in a couple of unpublished ones to make up the numbers.

ItttL: Dot-dash represents the letter "A" in Morse code. "C" got Tom McCarthy shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2010, did that fact influence your choice of title, or was there some other reason? (He asks with a sly wink).

Jon: Ha. We’re back to the Booker, aren’t we? No, “C” had nothing to do with it! I wanted to do something different from the usual “XXX and Other Stories” thing, and the slightly unusual structure of the collection lent itself to “Dot Dash”. Also, I’m a big fan of the band Wire, especially their song of the same name. If I ever get allowed to publish another collection, I’d really love to continue the theme by calling it “Dip Flash”.

ItttL: My copy of Dot Dash arrived last weekend; so I'm still buzzing with the amazing variety of work it contains in no fewer than 58 separate pieces. What would you say is the main trigger/inspiration for you when you start writing a piece of short fiction?

Jon: Generally speaking I need a purpose – some kind of competition or publication to aim for. It’s very rare that an idea pops into my head unprovoked. What I love is when you start writing something to fit a particular set of parameters and some completely unexpected theme emerges from your unconscious. I also love playing with different formats – different voices, tenses, sentence lengths and so on.

ItttL: I'm pleased to see that you've included a number of my favourite Pinnock tales in Dot Dash, including: After Michelangelo (under a different title, the first of your stories I ever read – brilliantly dark); Canine Mathematics (which makes me corpse every time I even think of it – cunningly crazy) and Mr Nathwani's Haiku (a new voice that fooled me in a Verulam Writers' Circle Crystal Decanter competition anonymous adjudication - perceptive and moving). If I asked you to pick your personal favourite story from Dot Dash, which one would it be, and why?

Jon: This is a bit like asking which of my kids I prefer! Of the really short ones, “Steaming” is the one I’m proudest of, because I think it succeeds in being simultaneously gruesome, funny and mundane in less then 140 characters. Of the longer ones, maybe “Return to Cairo”, because it combines humour and absurdity with pathos. But ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll almost certainly have changed my mind.

ItttL: Following the success of Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, the indisputable popularity of your short fiction, and by extension I'm sure, the success of Dot Dash, what projects do you have in preparation?

Jon: Good question. The next book is an offbeat non-fiction/memoir-ish thing that’s currently out on submission. And I’m trying to decide what to do after that! I guess I’d hoped to have some idea by now of what kind of writer I am, and hence what I should be focussing on, but unfortunately I seem to remain resolutely unfocussed. So I’ll probably end up trying to write several completely different things at once in the hope that Darwinism will somehow result in something publishable emerging. God only knows if that will work, but it appears to be my only option.

ItttL STOP PRESS: I've just received an email heads-up from Liars' League of an upcoming event and see that yet another story from Dot Dash, The Last Words of Emanuel Prettyjohn leads the list of stories to be performed by professional actors, in London, on November 13th. Congratulations once again.

Thank you, Jon, for taking the time to drop in at ItttL on your hectic blog tour. I wish you continuing success, and a sales graph like the north face of the Eiger.

Christmas recommendation No:1 If you've read this far, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that I heartily recommend Jonathan Pinnock's short story collection Dot Dash as a book you'll enjoy at first reading and return to dip into again and again. It's a dead cert Christmas present, even for somebody whose lifestyle limits his or her reading time. Dot Dash is available direct from Salt Publishing, Amazon, or your local bookshop.

PS: I understand that signed copies are available via the PayPal button on or!