Archive for the ‘books’ Category

“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.

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Encounter: time-travelling magic

June 14, 2016

1438630284encounter_02

I’ve written before about my, shall we say, complicated relationship with the theatre.  I take the approach once described by Sir Michael Parkinson: “I have never sat in a theatre without wishing I were in a cinema instead.”

Except…sometimes.  This was one of the sometimes.  Tempted by a friend who promised that it would appeal to my love of magic and illusion, I saw The Encounter, a one-man show with  Simon McBurney, produced by Theatre Complicite.  It was on at the Oxford Playhouse and is now touring France, a nice change for football fans tired of the Euros.  It’ll be back in the UK soon, I’m sure: it’s terrific.

This is how the programme describes it:

Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.

In 1969 Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. 

Simon McBurney traces McIntyre’s journey into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, incorporating innovative technology into his solo performance to build a shifting world of sound.

It’s this “shifting world of sound: that provides the illusion aspect of the evening.  Audience members are asked to wear headphones and McBurney uses multiple tricks and devices to create a truly three-dimensional picture of McIntyre’s extraordinary  – and true – Amazonian adventure.

When he encounters the more-or-less undiscovered Mayruna tribe in the depths of the jungle, McIntyre realises to his astonishment that at least one of the tribe – an elder he nicknames “Barnacle” – is communicating with him telepathically – the so-called “Amazon Beaming” that is the title of the book on which the play is based.  Subsequent research reveals that this “beaming” has been a long-standing, if little-understood, mystery.

TTWAHThere was another aspect of the drama, however, that caught my imagination, and that was the Mayruna’s concept of time.  In my research for Time Travelling With A Hamster, it became clear to me that our “Western” perception of linear time was not the only one.  Other cultures viewed time as more fluid, and often “circular”.  In the legends of Australian aborigines, this is called Dreamtime; ancient Hindu texts refer to a “wheel of time”.  The Mayruna, too, regard time as cyclical.  In The Encounter, the Mayruna are attempting, in effect to “time travel” back to pre-Columbian times to escape the encroaching modern world.

McBurney is superb in this show, which is bare theatre at its best.  The set is non-existent: a desk, some sound equipment, that’s it.  It’s a bit like watching a radio play, except it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good on the radio.

 

“Let’s talk about adverbs,” he said, swiftly

April 21, 2016

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Stephen King’s splendid book On Writing, and referenced his personal ban – which I think he’d like extended – on adverbs.

“The adverb is not your friend” he said, adding, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.”  Loudly, no doubt.

swiftI’ve since discovered (because I have never been aware of it) that my own writing does include adverbs.  Not that many, I don’t think, but too many to please Stephen King (for whom I have, lest it be doubted, the utmost respect).

King’s dislike of adverbs comes down to his dislike of sloppy writing; he thinks there is nearly always a better way of indicating how an action is being carried out, which is all that adverbs do.
But I’m not sure, now, that King isn’t overreacting somewhat.  Earlier today, I wrote, “He waved his fist limply.”  Realising I had transgressed the King’s Law, I reconsidered the sentence and realised that “limply” was exactly how the character had waved his fist and that the adverb would stand.  There are others that I found.  None offended me.

To further illustrate his point, King makes reference to the favourite old game of creating “Tom Swifties”, named after the adventure books by Victor Appleton.  Appleton was probably over-fond  of using adverbs to describe how someone said something, apparently terrified of using the word “said” on its own.

“Come here,” said Tom, gruffly.

That sort of thing.  It has given rise to endless joke variations.  There’s about a million on the web, but I’ll give you a handful of my favourites.

“It’s pretty windy today,” said Tom, breezily.

“I think someone’s turned the heating up,” said Tom, hotly.

“My bicycle wheel has broken,” Tom spoke out.

“I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked.

“I’ll have a martini,” said Tom, drily.

Years ago I lived in Sydney, Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald asked readers for suggestions.  I was thrilled when mine was printed.  Obviously I still remember it and relish the opportunity to boast about it at every chance:

“There’s just no atmosphere up here,” said Major Tom with an explanatory air.

 

 

 

A gem on every page

April 4, 2016

Fifteen years ago I was holiday with my then-girlfriend (now wife) in Zahara de los Atunes in southern Spain.  Three things are especially memorable.  Mrs W told me she was pregnant; Islamist psychos flew aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York (the horror of which we watched unfold on a television in a village bar); and I read Stephen King’s “On Writing”.

kingThe copy that I read then has long been lost.  Perhaps I threw it out: I remember finding its presence a little intimidating. There is so much good advice and encouragement included in it that it seemed to be reproaching me for not following it.  How could I have read this book yet still be slogging away as a producer of largely crap TV, instead of actually, you know, writing?

Then someone last week tweeted me one of its countless bon mots.  Perhaps it was:

Fiction is the truth within the lie.  Or

Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s.

I can’t remember.  Stephen King quotes are pretty common on Twitter.  Anyway, I bought it again and stayed up till 1.00 a.m. last night, rediscovering the wisdom and fun in its pages.  I laughed at this one:

We are writers; we don’t ask one another where we get our ideas from.  We know we don’t know.

Not only is it true (however unsatisfying, “I don’t know,” is the only answer to the question “Where do your ideas come from?”) it revealed something to me that had till now only been on the edge of my realisation.

And that is: I am a writer.  The way that I smiled in recognition at that quote means that I am a member of a club that includes Stephen King!  A lowly, just-published, starting-out, probationary member perhaps, but still…

Whether or not you like Stephen King books (and I think everyone should read at least one or two just so that you know something of one of the world’s most popular novelists) he’s pretty illustrious company.

He’s bossy too.

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. 

I have  just picked up Time Travelling With A Hamster and opened it at random.  One one double page I found two adverbs, “expectantly”and”warily”.

Sorry, Stephen!

 

 

The glorious myth of the “book launch”

January 24, 2016

Well, it’s out.  Officially.  My book, that is. (Time Travelling With a Hamster.)

I know that because I have had a “launch party”, which – it appears – is something that everyone (myself included) assumes happens for every book that is published, more or less.  And which, in actual fact, almost never happens unless:

  1. The author is famous writer or another sort of celebrity;
  2. The author is not a celebrity, but has loads of celebrity chums;
  3. The author pays for it him- or herself

Almost as soon as the words, “My book is being published'” were out of my mouth, my lovely friends, a bunch of freeloaders to the last, were saying, “Oh great, where is the launch party?”

It’s one of those enduring myths.

image001According to a fascinating chart on Wikipedia – here – there were 184,000 new books published in the UK in 2011.  No wonder publishers cannot afford to give them all a launch party.  This was put to me fairly bluntly when I raised the subject.  Even if everyone who turns up – and there were about 80 people at mine – buys a book, that goes nowhere near covering the cost of the event and unless you fit into categories 1 or 2 (above) then journalists are simply not going to turn up.  Think about it: why would they?  It’s just a book.  There’s 183, 999 others…

As it turns out, when I stated my intention to go down route 3, my lovely publishers at Harper Collins could not have been more generous with organisational help and booze provision.  And Waterstones, Kensington High Street, provided an excellent venue.

IMG_1580We sipped wine, ate lovely canapés;  there were speeches (mine was a little less polished than I had hoped owing to leaving it in the Uber car and having to wing it, but people laughed anyway.  In a good way, I think); there was an old friend who endured an hour in a hamster outfit before revealing himself; and there was baffling magic by my friend Max Somerset who, in a final genius flourish,  produced a hamster from nowhere to proper gasps of delight.

I think next time, though, I’ll launch a book in the kingdom of Oman.  There, they publish only seven books a year, guaranteeing stand-out status!

 

What do you mean, you haven’t watched it?

January 7, 2016

Game Of Thrones, I mean.  It’s awesome, and anyone who hasn’t watched it is missing out big time.

I know: you’ll  be late to the party, but the advantage of that is that you’ll be able to binge-watch them all on a box-set.

To be honest, I think watching it in weekly episodes would be tricky.  Even after watching four series, Mrs W confuses Tywin and Tyrion Lannister, and – to be fair – it is a fabulously complex story.  It involves (if you haven’t heard) multiple warring dynasties in a fantasy world that’s part Lord of The Rings, part Ivanhoe, and part pervy sexploitation flick (so kids: definitely not suitable for you.)

It helps to watch the first few with the handy charactyrionter guide that comes with the box-set.  Or you can watch along with the GoT Wiki on the iPad, but beware of spoilers.  It’ll tell you which series a character appears in, which indirectly tells you when they are bumped off – and they nearly all are, sooner or later, usually very violently

The magicky aspect put me off for ages.  Dungeons?  Dragons?  Dwarves?  Oh for heaven’s sake…  But give it half an episode and you’ll be hooked.

One tip: don’t bother with the audio commentary.  Somewhere the quality control slipped.  I watched the last episode of series 4 with an audio commentary by the actors who play Tyrion, Cersei and Jaime Lannister and it was awful: three actors giggling and making childish double-entendres.  Well, two of them: Nicolai Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) at least had the decency to sound embarrassed while his co-stars chortled at penis jokes.  (I know: it seems a bit prissy to be complaining about knob gags in the context of a programme as debauched as Game Of Thrones, but…time and place, folks, time and place.)

So now we have to wait until March (March! ) until Game of Thrones series 5 is available on DVD, while series 6 starts shooting in April – even before the book it is based on is finished.

And if you’re already a fan, here’s my guess.  Jon Snow will marry Danaerys Targaryen.  Isn’t she the “rightful” queen anyway?  The good have to win.

Don’t they?

 

 

 

My book’s in the shops!

December 23, 2015

IMG_8601…well, one shop anyway.

The official publication date of “Time Travelling With A Hamster” is December 31, but at least one shop – thank you Waterstone’s, Kensington High Street – have received a bunch of them already and decided to put them out in the store, sandwiched – handily – between two David Walliams books.

My son looked up from his phone (itself a good sign) and said, “Dad, your book’s in the shops!”

“Eh? How do you know?”

“Izzy’s just Snapchatted me a picture of it in a bookshop!”

“What?  Let me see, let me see!”

“It’s Snapchat, Dad.  It’s gone already.”

Yeah, I knew that.

Anyway, I tracked it down to the said branch of Waterstone’s and set off to see for myself.  Is that a bit sad?  I don’t care.

I considered lurking to see if I could spot anyone actually buying one, but it seemed a bit creepy, so all I could do was take a picture and leave.  Smiling broadly, obviously.