“Blue Peter” and me

December 5, 2016

From the age of about six to twelve, one thing marked the passing days as surely as swimming with Dad on Saturday, church on Sunday, scouts on Friday, and that was – every Monday and Thursday on BBC-1 at 5.00pm – Blue Peter.

vjp

Even the Blue Peter year had its own internal calendar: the lighting of the candles on the advent crown (made of old coat hangers and tinsel, natch), the warnings about pets on Guy Fawkes Night, and especially the Blue Peter “Special Expeditions”.

Every summer, Val, John and Pete (for I was lucky enough to be a child during the glory days of these iconic BP presenters) would go somewhere so exotic that we had barely heard of it.  The resulting films would be shown in the autumn.

Ceylon was one (right): It was not yet “Sri Lanka”.  Another was Bangkok, yet to acquire itsceylon current racy/sleazy reputation.

(As a kid, I imagined the whole production team having a two-month jolly holiday.  In truth they probably went for a single exhausting week.)

Anyway, it was their trip to Bangkok which earned me a coveted Blue Peter badge.  I had spotted in the Guinness Book Of World Records that the official place-name for Bangkok was incredibly long, indeed the longest in the world.

Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit

Instead of copying and pasting from Wikipedia (like I have just done) I wrote it all out by hand in a letter to Blue Peter.

My reward, a few weeks later, was to be watching the show, when Valerie Singleton announced,

“We have received a letter from a viewer called Ross Welford…”

The rest of her sentence I didn’t quite catch because I was yelling to everyone in the house to come and watch.

It got better.  Peter Purves then walked to the far side of the studio and began unrolling a long strip of vinyl  across the studio with the place-name printed on it, while he and John Noakes tried to pronounce it.

The next day I was famous at school. And for several weeks later.  In fact, only last year, someone mentioned it to me: “Do you remember when you were on Blue Peter?”  As if I could forget!

blue_peter_logo_2011

Forty-odd years later, and last week, my name was read out on Blue Peter again, and again it was for writing something.  A book this time.

Time Travelling With A Hamster  is on the shortlist for the Blue Peter Book Award, so I found myself once more on the sofa waiting for Blue Peter to start.

It’s a bit different.  The theme music is just about recognisable as the old tune, and the presenters are exhaustingly energetic, but some things don’t change: the first item was about the London to Brighton vintage car rally, which BP must have done at least three or four times when was a kid.  Best of all, they still have the advent crown!

If I win, I get to go on the show.  Apparently  – and very unusually – every single episode since 1964 has been archived, so they might be able to dig up that item on Bangkok’s place name from some time in 1974.  I might even get a Blue Peter badge.

(Is it greedy to have two, do you think?)

 

Accent mystery solved!

November 21, 2016

In my last post,  I queried the accent given to the late Duke of Windsor by the actor Alex Jennings in the Netflix series “The Crown.’

A reader, Mr RT of New York, emailed an explanation for the apparent failure of the actor to reproduce faithfully the “received pronunciation” of the time, and to pronounce words such as “ask” and “after” with a short, northern”a”.

It is not, it turns out, a northern “a”, but an American one, and the actor was being scrupulously accurate.

Edward VIII, as we all know, gave up the crown in order to marry a divorcee, Mrs Wallis Simpson, an American.

It was noted at the time that he had adopted some aspects of American English.

Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, an MP during the abdication crisis of 1936, wrote in his famous diaries (Chips, The Diaries Of Sir Henry Channon, 1967):

…”Edward the beautiful boy-king, with his gaity and honesty, his American accent and nervous twitching, his flair and glamour, was part of history.”

Listen to him in the interview in the clip above.  It is a long, long way from being an “American accent” to my ear, although seventy years ago it may have sounded so.

There are, however, a number of distinctive pronunciations.

He says “subdued” with an American accent (“sub-dood” rather than “sub-dyood”);  “decades” is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable rather than the first; “commands” definitely has the short “a”.

Yet “after” is still “ah-fter”,  and “nephew” is the (now more-or-less unheard) “nevv-ew”.

(I don’t know what to make of his pronunciation of “windows” when he says “throw open the wind-uhs” of a stuffy court.  Or his distinct pronunciation of “retrospect” as “ree-trospect”.)

So that’s that mystery pretty much solved.  If you are still interested, listen to how Wallis Simpson speaks in this video clip.

For quite long passages, her American accent is barely audible.  She has the long, RP “a” for a start – the “a” that her husband seemed to be abandoning.  She was quite high society, was Wallis.  Accordingly, her speech was closer to British English than most of her compatriots.

I imagine that, by their deaths (his in 1972, hers in 1986) their accents may have met somewhere in the middle.

 

“The Crine” and an accent mystery

November 14, 2016

Mrs W and I are thee episodes into Netflix’s mega-budget offering “The Crown,” and are loving it.  (Though I am developing a slight obsession over one character’s accent.)

It’s not just that every shot is beautifully-composed, or that the costumes are gorgeous, and that even the CGI’d locations and sets are indistinguishable from – probably better than, actually – the real thing.

the-crown-lead-large_trans2oueflmhzzhjcyuvn_gr-cealqh55qdyqumvbbbc4cmIt’s the voices.  Claire Foy as the young Queen brilliantly replicates the cut-glass accent of the era; Matt Smith as the Duke of Edinburgh has the perfect upper-class drawl.

I can just about remember real people speaking like that, but only on television and the radio.  By the 1960s the accent was already becoming unfashionable, but clung on in the fruity tones of Maria Bird’s narration of Andy Pandy on the BBC’s Watch With Mother, and a few other broadcasting voices.

The accent is usually called RP – short for “received pronunciation”.  Why “received”?  According to Wikipedia, “received” here has the same sense as “approved” or  “accepted” (as in the phrase “received wisdom”), although my dialectology professor at University, the late Stanley Ellis, declared it was the accent that would allow the speaker to be “received” into upper class society.  In fact, standard RP – these days –  is pretty much a regional accent.  It is standard south-eastern English.  Being English, of course, it comes with an additional class signifier.  It co-exists with London English (“cockney” and others), and the accents of Essex and the surrounding counties.  It seems surprising in 2016, but it’s still true that the higher up the social ladder you are, the more likely you are to speak RP – in the south at any rate.  In reality, most natives are bilingual and can easily adapt their accent according to the circumstance.

“Heightened RP” is what the Queen speaks: an even more marked, “tighter” pronunciation in which a phrase such as “that black hat” becomes “thet bleck het”.  She’d pronounce “The Crown” like “The Crine” which is what I have taken to calling it.  It is a mark of the properly posh. Or was.

Almost no one speaks it now, not even the Queen herself.  Doubtless there are some people who cling onto it, but it sounds so mannered as to be comical.

But, like people who scour period dramas for solecisms like television aerials on roofs, or double yellow lines on the road, I find myself listening very carefully to the accents.

In episode one of The Crown, for example, the Duke of Edinburgh says, “OK, come along.”

I had to wind back and check (cue eye-rolling from Mrs W).  Surely no one, apart from Americans, said “OK” in 1951?

My main gripe, however, is this: how come Alex Jennings (in an otherwise brilliant turn as the oleaginous Duke of Windsor) kept getting his RP wrong?  He’s a native of Essex (I checked) an area with a solidly southern pronunciation, so why on earth did he keep pronouncing “ask” with a short, northern “a” instead of the southern “ah”?  Perhaps it’s deliberate, for some reason?

Update: he’s at it again in episode 4.  “Ask”, “answer”, and a couple of others (I wasn’t watching with a notebook in hand) – again and again, pronounced with a short “a”, yet – oddly, the word “last” was pronounced with the appropriate long “ah”.

I’m baffled.

“Hamster” and the Geordie accent

October 14, 2016

 

No – obviously, hamsters don’t have a Geordie accent.  It just made a good headline.

But seeing as Time Traveling With  A Hamster (note the absent extra “L”) was released in the US last week, I thought it would be helpful for the American readers to get an idea of how they speak in the book.

Don’t worry: it’s not written in dialect.  It’s perfectly comprehensible as it is, with only a few hints at the accent in the text.  But if you do know what the Geordie accent sounds like, you might enjoy the book even more!

hqdefaultOnly one Geordie word was changed for the US edition, and that was “ha’way”.  Ha’way, or “howay” is heard everywhere in the northeast of England, and means simply “come on”.  All the ha’ways in the US book were replaced with “come on”.

It’s a very distinctive accent, and – among Brits at least – famously difficult to imitate.  Poor attempts at Geordie accents usually end up as a cross between a Welsh accent and Anglo-Pakistani: there’s an -up-and-down quality to it that is shared by the others.

Non-Brits often have trouble understanding Geordie.  It’s said that the singer Cheryl Cole was dropped from the US edition of The X-Factor because audiences had trouble with her accent.

Turns out there are loads of guides to speaking Geordie on YouTube.  Here is one of the better ones. (Check out her part two as well: it starts with a perfect rendition of the “eee” favoured by Al’s mum in the book!)

(And why “Geordie”?  It’s a regional nickname for people called “George”, in a similar way that Scots can be called “Jocks” or Irish “Paddies”.)

Book number 2: thank God for that!

October 12, 2016

I’ll be honest – there were times when I thought, fleetingly, that perhaps I was destined to write only one book.  That Time Travelling With A Hamster would have its brief moment in the limelight and then gracefully move along the bookshelf to make room for books by other, more prolific and successful authors.

invisible-coverI would tell myself that Harper Lee  wrote only one book, To Kill A Mockingbird.  (Then I’d remember Go Set A Watchman  and feel a little sad.)

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was also a one-off, written in 1936, that still sells 75,000 copies a year.

(Incidentally, Mockingbird and GWTW both one-offs, both set in the US deep south, both won the Pullitzer Prize.)

Anyway, the doubts were necessarily momentary as I had a contract to fulfill with HarperCollins and – in hindsight – the problem was not that I couldn’t think of a story to write, but that the initial, enthusiastic reception to Hamster had somewhat intimidated me.  And if I felt that with the modest success of Hamster imagine what poor Harper Lee felt when her first ever book won the world’s most-coveted literary prize and was set by exam boards the world over.

Anyway, it’s done and I’m thrilled with it.  I say “done”: it’s in the final editing stage, where metaphors are unmixed, characterisations sharpened with a word here and there, plot holes that have survived so far are identified and filled in (or disguised), and the copy-editor says things like, “she can’t put it in her jeans pocket because you said five pages ago that she was wearing a skirt.”  I owe an awed debt to my brilliant editors.

The cover, once again, is by the wonderful Tom Clohosy Cole.  It really matches Hamster.

In fact, it looks just like a collection of books by an author should look.  Which means I’d better get cracking on book three…

What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible is available to pre-order from Amazon.  It will be published on December 29.

 

 

 

 

 

Whistling: top 5 songs

September 14, 2016

I learnt to whistle over the summer, and accomplishment of which I’m much prouder than it really merits.

I don’t mean whistling a tune.  I’ve been able to do that since I was very little.  (My Gran would say, “Oh, it’s Whistling Rufus again!” which I assumed to be some performer but I’ve just looked it up and it’s the name of a song.)

No, I mean whistling through my fingers: the loud shriek used by everyone, it seems, but me. Over the years I had tried and tried but could only summon a pathetic rasp of air.

Then my son learnt to do it and I gave it another go – to no avail.  “No, dad,” he said, “Put your fingers like this,” and he showed me.  “Shove them further in your mouth.”

The result was instant!  I could do it.  I laughed with delight and did it again and again until everyone told me to shut up, including my son. They didn’t realise I had nearly fifty years of whistling to catch up on.

As for whistling tunes, well I’ve always loved a song with whistling in it.  Seriously, who doesn’t?  There are more than you might think.

Rolling Stone Magazine has produce a list of the fifteen best whistling songs of all time except it’s rubbish and doesn’t include the best whistling song ever (see below) so I’ve decided to make my own top 5.

5.  Lazy Song by Bruno Mars

There’s not all that much whistling in this, really -only three notes.  But, the whistling bit  was added for the single release after the album track was recorded, so there is a version without it.  It sounds completely wrong.

4  Bridge On The River Kwai Theme

There are loads of versions of this, but this is the full whistling one.

 

3. Magic Moments by Perry Como

There are crisper recordings of this song on YouTube, but this is the only live version that I could find.

 

2.  Jealous Guy by John Lennon

You’ve got to wait a bit for the whistling in this one.  It comes about halfway through, which makes me think he was stuck for a middle eight, so just whistled the main melody instead.  Works a treat!

  1.  I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman by Whistling Jack Smith

The finest whistling record ever, if you ask me, and it comes with some added trivia.  “Whistling Jack Smith” was in fact a performer called John O’Neill, who recorded it for a set fee and received no royalties.  It’s not even him on the video.  That’s an actor called Coby Well who was hired for Top Of The Pops.  John O’Neill also did the whistling bit in the theme for The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

What I Read In My Summer Holidays

August 16, 2016

It’s odd, I reckon, that since the whole writing thing took off  for me – with Time Travelling With A Hamster,  and another one (title TBC) coming out next spring, and the zygote of a third one beginning its gestation – I have actually read less for pleasure than before.

So roll on a long summer holiday: endless hours reading by the pool, or on the beach, or – far more likely – in a sweaty departure lounge.  (Why “lounge”?  Anywhere less conducive to lounging is hard to conceive. Come to think of it, does anyone call it a “departure lounge” any more?  Holding Bay, Transit Point? The Pen Of Frustration?)

Anyway, I stacked up.  I’m not keen on E-readers, so it was a fair chunk of my luggage allowance.

Here’s what I got through:

whisperWhisper To Me by Nick Lake.    This is, essentially, a teen romance, but it is not remotely slushy, and much more as well.  It is written as a long letter to a boy that 17 year-old Cassie has fallen in love with, an attempt to explain her strange behaviour which has driven him away.  It’s great: sad, touching, funny and totally convincing as Cassie learns to deal with the voice in her head which drives her to self-destructive behaviour.  I loved the way the author deals with swearing in a YA novel: Cassie says she feels uncomfortable writing swear-words, so she just stars them out.  There’s loads of them, but – surprisingly –  it works.  There’s a good supporting cast, too: Cassie’s grieving, protective dad, and her complex, sexy friend, Paris. (Nick Lake is my editor at Harper Collins.)

 

denisA Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Talking of swearing, someone seriously needs to do a new translation of this extended essay on the horrors of the Siberian prisons of 20th century Russia.  It’s not so much a story as a long essay and is remarkable more for its depiction of the dreadful cruelty of Communist punishment than for its narrative engagement; nonetheless the translation (by Ralph Parker) is in many places laughable, and rooted in a late-50s/early 60s slang, where prisoners call each other “twerps” and “ninnies” as if they were not in an unimaginable prison-hell but a slightly under-heated Mallory Towers.

truthThe Truth by Michael Palin.    Amusing.  Engaging.  I still had to look up the title, though, so a bit forgettable.     Palin’s voice is unmistakable, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  (Until you start imagining him saying, “Vewy well.  I will welease Woger!” and then it all goes to hell.) It’s a good, sweet, English story and would make a cracking film.

 

 

 

The XXX XXXXX by XXXXXXX  XXXXXXX  I didn’t like this and abandoned it a quarter of the way in, but I don’t want to say say what it was.  If it was old, or the writer was dead I wouldn’t care, but it isn’t and it has sold millions, won loads of awards and it’s sort of YA-ish which means I might bump into the author and that would be awkward, so I’m not saying.  It’s Victorian and bossy and unconvincing and I sighed with relief every time I put it down.

burilaBurial Rites by Hannah Kent.  Slow to start, but I ended up entranced by this tale of a murderer awaiting execution in 19th century Iceland.  Agnes Magnusdottir has been found guilty of the murder of her lover and – there being no prisons – is billeted with a local family while the state prepares her fate and a young clergyman tries to counsel her.  The evocation of a hard, cold existence and the warmth of the people enduring it is wonderful and the massive research that must have gone into the book is worn very lightly: you never get the impression you are being told anything but a good story.

 

 

Ones I took but didn’t get round to:

The Color Purple by Alice Walker  From the “classics I should  read” pile.  Between Homer’s Iliad and The Brothers Karamasov.

The Encounter – Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.  Saw the play by Simon McBirney which was mesmerising. It’s the true story of an explorer who has a profound encounter with a remote Amazonian tribe.

Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson.  I have LOL’d by page two at a funny simile so I’m already liking it.

Back to CDs…I think

July 8, 2016

The builders are in, and so a load of junk is out.  (How do we accumulate this stuff?  Where does it come from?  Why did I ever think that there was any point in hanging on to a broken hand-mixer?)

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Anyway, stuck at the back of a cupboard, Mrs W and I came across our old CDs in a huge box.

The rule is: if you don’t use it, why keep it?  Years ago, I uploaded all the CDs we had to iTunes.  Then we got a Sonos player and Spotify Premium and the CDs were stacked away with a couple of old boxes of vinyl records and that was that.

Prime candidates, then, for being chucked out.

Except…

I think I’m going to reinstate the old records.  Probably not the vinyl, but several tall racks of CDs, oh yeah!  Why?

Because I miss them.  Spotify especially, but also iTunes, is completely rubbish at helping you to decide what you want to listen to.  Having the CD covers on display is a huge visual memory-jog, when you go, “Oh yeah!  Haven’t heard that for a while, let’s put that on!”

Spotify requires you to know what you want to listen to,and is brilliant for that.  Having access, at a very low cost, to virtually every song you’re ever likely to want to hear is the most phenomenal privilege (and one that’s utterly lost on our resident offspring) but I’m convinced I listen to less music now rather than more.  And certainly a narrower band of artists and albums: it’s the ones that I remember I like that get played on Spotify.  On top of the CD box was  an old Scouting For Girls CD which I haven’t heard for ages, simply because I’d forgotten I liked them.  Barenaked Ladies the same.

It’s like I’m stuck with my very own, personalised Now That’s What I Call Music double CD and nothing else gets played.

Pile-of-CDsMrs W is worse.  The only thing she can remember she likes is some weird 90s Swedish rapper called Petter and an (admittedly excellent) soul compilation by Tower Of Power.

CD covers, like the vinyl album covers that came before them, also have added value – not only in terms of the artwork, but additional information about the musicians, composers, lyrics and so on.  I know some of this is available online but it’s a right old fag to find it compared with reading it off a cover.

So back they come, row upon row of CDs, plus those stupid plastic boxes that always break, and box-less CDs littering the floor and getting scratched…What joy!

 

Happy ending for “Happy Birthday”

June 28, 2016

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After years of avoiding it, film-makers and performers can now include “Happy Birthday To You” in their work without paying a huge music corporation for the privilege.

God knows why, but I follow stories about music copyright sort of keenly.  It’s not like I have any personal interest, it’s just a curiosity.

Today’s news that a US judge has ruled on “Happy Birthday To You” inevitably caught my eye.

For years, Warner/Chappel Music has been collecting royalties for public, commercial performances of the popular song, which was written by two Kentucky sisters in 1893 and published in a collection of songs for kindergarten children.  Over the years, the rights ended up with the Warner corporation who now must pay back $14 million that it has collected in royalties.

For while the tune remained the same, the lyrics had changed.  The original was a welcome song for children to sing at the start of the school day: “Good morning to you, Good morning to all…”

US district judge, George King, ruled that the tune had long been in the public domain – i.e. no longer subject to copyright rules.  The lyrics were less certain.  The birthday words did not appear in print until 1911; it was not until the 1930s that Patty Hill (one of the two sisters) claimed to have written them at the same time as the “Good Morning” lyrics.

Anyway, King ruled that Warner/Chappel no longer had any claim over the song and must pay back money collected.

Variations of “Happy Birthday To You” are sung around the world in different languages.

  • In Spanish it’s Cumpleaños Feliz
  • Portuguese, Parabéns par Vocé, 
  • German Zum Geburstag Viel Glück
  • Italian: Tanti auguri a te

And so on.

(According to Wikipedia, the Swedes sing a version that goes, Har Den åran Idag…only I have never heard it (and I have been to a few Swedish birthday parties.) Instead they sing Ja, må han live, expressing the hope that the celebrant will live to be 100.)

Back to copyright: my favourite copyright story again involves a schoolteacher, this one in Australia.  In 1932, Marion Sinclair wrote Kookaburra (“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree…” etc) the tune of which was substantially used in the worldwide hit Down Under by the Aussie band Men At Work. (It’s the flute part: you can’t miss it).

The supposed copyright infringement did not come to light until 2008.  Larrikin Music, who owned the rights, had not noticed the infringement, and began legal proceedings.  The protracted case which ensued cost Men At Work, and especially the song’s composer Colin Hay, a very substantial sum.

He has now rewritten the song with a new flute part.  Sadly, it’s not as good.

 

 

Game of Thrones spoilers: I give up!

June 16, 2016

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I was watching the news the other night and the newsreader said something like: “Coming up next, news of the opening game of the Euros as England faced Russia earlier today.  So if you don’t want to know the result, time to leave the room.”

It’s familiar enough stuff; we hear it all the time.  Then it struck me: how many people still do this?  In the age of Twitter, Facebook, text and so on, does anybody anywhere watch a football game on TV that has been played earlier in the day without knowing the score?

There was an episode of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads back in the 70s which revolved around Bob and Terry’s desperate attempts to win a bet by remaining ignorant of the outcome of an England-Bulgaria game before it came on TV.  I can’t remember if they succeeded or not.

The-Likely-Lads-James-Bolam-and-Rodney-Bewes-539563Like Bob and Terry (above), I’m engaged in a struggle not to know what happens in Game Of Thrones, except my struggle is lasting for weeks, and it’s not working.

Thing is, I’m too tight-fisted to shell out for a full Sky subscription, and I want to wait until I can buy the box set on DVD.  That way I can binge-watch and save money.

Naturally, I don’t want to know what happens before I watch it, but it’s next to impossible if you’re even vaguely engaged with the news and social media.

Before series 6 had even started I knew that Jon Snow had not died properly and that Melisandre might have something to do with his resurrection.  It’s not as if I went looking for information – far from it.  But when you see headlines saying “Jon Snow: Is He Really Dead?” then you begin to wonder.

I know that Bran Stark  makes a comeback (though – to be honest – I could have guessed that much, otherwise where was he for all of series 5?)

I know that Theon Greyjoy/Reek makes it through at least almost the end of series 6 because there he was on the front of a magazine headlined “Alfie Allen – Thrones’ Great Survivor”.

And now I learn that there will be a big “Battle of the Bastards” because of a headline this morning.  I didn’t read the article but it can only be Roose Bolton and Jon Snow.

Gaaah!  Perhaps it’s all a devious scheme by Sky to get me to subscribe.  If so, I think it has worked.