Sunday, 14 September 2014

Hit or Miss?

Guys, something happened this week that's bothering me and I really need your input. I think we can probably agree that none of us knows how others see us, yes? Or, to lapse for a moment into a dialect we're going to hear a deal more of in coming days: "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!"

Look, I have no hair – not by choice, you understand, it's the genes – and I do work out hard at the gym, regularly, so I could sort of understand if people who don't know what a pussycat I really am might – very briefly and in a bad light – mistake me for someone a 'bit handy'. But, last Thursday, I'm minding my own business in ASDA, clinging on to a shopping trolley while the little woman investigates another aisle, when this geezer swishes silently up to me on one of those Shopmobility scooters and whispers, out of the corner of his mouth, like in bad B movies: “You look the type. I’m looking for a hit man.”

OK, I’m a writer, I make things up, but this is true. Of course I made light of it, hoping he was simply someone with an even more bizarre sense of humour than my own (difficult to imagine), or perhaps a harmless eccentric. With fingers crossed I smiled, what I hoped was a none-hit-man-like humouring smile, and hoped my wife would arrive soon to save me. But before Freda could arrive, the hit-man-seeker’s own trouble and strife turned up with her trolley giving the poor sod such a humiliating ear-bending that I almost felt like taking the commission.

What would he have done if I’d said yes? How much would he have been prepared to pay? I don’t know, but I have a feeling… It was that pleading betrayed look he gave me every time our eyes met as he dogged the footsteps of his shrewish spouse down other aisles.

So, my question is, given that most of my friends online are probably writers, editors, and publishers or in some other way connected with the literary world: Guys, you know how hard it is to make a living as a writer. Do you think there's an alternative income stream for me here?

Please, I'm only after friendly advice, not potential targets. You know how little sense of humour the Security Services have.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

EXTRA! Successful Author Exposed as Fraud

Hello again. I know, just as it seemed safe to re-enter the water blogosphere I'm back to threaten your sanity with a post. Apologies, but another chance to interview my chum Jonathan Pinnock was too good to an opportunity to miss. So I'm levering the 'dangerous structure' signs from the door and brushing away the cobwebs for the first time in months.

IttTL: Hi, Jon. Welcome back to my scruffy crash pad. We're out of milk and coffee, I'm afraid, so I hope black tea's OK? The tea bags are behind you, drying on the radiator. Oh, and the jammy dodgers are a bit soft, but you'll find the furry stuff comes off if you wipe them with your sleeve. It could have come from my sleeve, of course…

JP: Nice to see things haven’t changed. I’ll just have a glass of water, please. Boiled.
IttTL: Right-you-are. Water, boiled and cooled, coming right up, sir! Jon, it is public knowledge that your hilarious Jane Austen mash-up, Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, published by Proxima in 2011, was pretty weird stuff. In fairness, that publication marked the cards of your readers and set the benchmark for your Scott Prize-winning collection Dot Dash, published by Salt in 2012. But your latest opus, Take It Cool, has zoomed out of left field even for those countless loyal fans expecting, indeed relishing the unexpected from you.

For the benefit of the few fans remaining unaware, Take it Cool, published by Two Ravens Press is a true-life account of your search for a West Indian reggae musician bearing the same unusual surname as you.

Was this project a long-planned change of direction or–– how can I put this? ––an itch you simply had to scratch?

 JP: The truth is that I started work on TiC some time before I actually got published in any shape or form, back in 2005. It always seemed like a story worth telling, although it took me a long, long time to work out how to tell it. Writing a novel (even one like Mrs Darcy) and all those short stories were extremely valuable in helping me solve that problem. So yes, it’s a bit of a change of direction, but it’s one that builds on everything I’ve done before.

IttTl: Reviewers have described Take it Cool variously as genealogical, musicological, historical and even 'a British man's odd quest.' Each of these descriptions seems to touch on aspects of your book but none truly does it justice. Is there an existing term that accurately describes Take it Cool, or will the world have to invent one?

JP: TiC is one of those books that refuses to fit in any particular pigeonhole. It’s pretty much sui generis. This suits me fine, but it’s a nightmare from a marketing point of view. What’s nice is that the genealogists (at least the one who reviews books at Family Tree Magazine) seem to get it from their angle, although I’m still waiting to see if anyone in the music press takes an interest. What I really want to shout from the rooftops is ‘Look, FORGET ABOUT $£@%^& CATEGORIES, this is a book you’ll ENJOY. Just trust me and TRY it.’ However, last time I tried doing that, I got arrested for causing a breach of the peace.

IttTL: Sui generis? That phrase must be one of a kind. I usually discourage the use of suspect language on this blog, and clambering about on the roof poses safety issues for the landlord, but I digress… In your quest for a connection between your own family history and that of Dennis Pinnock, the trail took you to 18th century Jamaica. When did the possibility of a slavery connection occur to you, and how did you feel when it did?

JP: No question about it, that was the point at which the project took flight. Up until then, it was going to be the story of me trying to track down this obscure singer, with a vague sideplot of me trying to find out how we were related. It really wasn’t much to build a book around. However, once slavery raised its ugly warty head, there was a whole new dimension to explore. There was always the risk, of course, that I might end up implicating myself (or at least a contributor to my genes), but it seemed worth taking.

IttTL: It seems to me that your eclectic musical tastes, your confessed magpie collecting tendencies – having discovered Dennis' career and discography – and a growing admiration for Dennis as your researches progressed have coalesced in Take it Cool to produce a unique bond across time, race and culture. So, it must have been quite a moment when you finally came face to face with Dennis. Can you describe that meeting in a few words?

JP: I’ve no idea what he made of me, but I liked him a lot. He was very unassuming, but also keen to talk about his career and his music, and the conversation didn’t flag for a moment. This was true of the other guys I interviewed as well, Paul ‘Snoopy’ Nagle and Tex Johnson. What was really nice, and quite unexpected, was that they all took my quest at face value and didn’t think I was some kind of idiot. In many ways, this was the best validation of the project.

IttTL: In Take it Cool you make great show of being uncool. In this respect, sir, you are a fraud. Take it Cool has done what it says on the label: it has taken you, Jonathan Pinnock, cool. How can a white British guy whose book has received a warm and enthusiastic review on, not to mention a prize book giveaway on that same coolest of websites, continue to claim un-coolness? 

JP: I’m not sure you can ever truly shake off un-coolness. You either are or you aren’t, and I’m most definitely not. However, if the book ever does get reviewed in the music press, I may have cause to re-evaluate this.

IttTL: Indeed you should, Mr Cool – sorry – Jon (for now). You're not a man who stands still for long. So, what are likely to be the next challenges you'll be taking on?

JP: That’s a very good question. As ever, there’s a whole load of things I’d like to do, almost none of which will actually make it beyond the first 1000 words or so before they self-destruct. For example, having had one stab at narrative non-fiction, there are now half a dozen other similar projects I quite fancy having a bash at. But I’d also like to go back to fiction, although exactly what form that’s likely to take, I have no idea. I’ve recently enrolled for the Creative Writing MA Programme at Bath Spa, so I’m hoping that will help me decide what I should be doing.

IttTL: Best of luck with sales of Take it Cool, Jon, your MA, and with all your future undertakings. Thanks for dropping by.

Jonathan Pinnock blogs at, an address in cyberspace that rewards the visitor with a miscellany of literary goodies; here you'll find links to Jon's eclectic back catalogue plus abundant evidence of his polymath skillset.

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.