Sunday, September 27, 2009

Disposing of books is a serious matter

It isn't just one of your everyday games.

I give away a lot more books than I used to. Marriage and the essential storage limitations of a two-bed flat made me bite the bullet, and anyway, if I really can't see myself reading it again - or at least not for another 20 years or so, in which case I might as well just buy a new one - then it's my duty to release the poor thing back into the wild. So, every couple of weeks sees two or three books sedated, put into a bag and carried up the road to a handy charity shop.

Generally we give our books to Helen & Douglas house, which is both a good cause and local. Best of all, it has a darned good secondhand books section - an alcove the size of a small room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on either side. As the book section of far too many charity shops is essentially a small shelf between the Menswear and Broken Toys sections, I judge our books have the best chance here of finding a new home.

But! Yesterday's giveaway selection posed a condundrum. Included in it were a book on edible plants in Alaska, and Master of Hawks by Linda E. Bushyager. The former is left over from research for some hack writing. The latter I read because the author is our vicar's aunt and the black sheep of the family. "Dark," he says - well, darkly. I wanted to research whether she really is channelling the dark forces in an effort to oust Christ and place the Evil One on the throne of the universe, or whether she is in fact just a really quite differently good writer. As I couldn't get past about the third chapter, I incline towards the latter. (If it's the former then the fact of the latter makes it a really bad own goal for the forces of darkness.)

One of those titles has a distinctly limited interest and is unlikely to find an avid reader in Abingdon through Helen & Douglas. The other I had to buy from a specialist online reseller who handles these rare and OOP titles. So, H&D wouldn't really do it justice either.

Oxfam on the other hand, I gather, have a burgeoning secondhand book business nationwide and so I thought might also have a bibliographic mechanism capable of giving these books their due. So, those two went to Oxfam.

That did however give me further pause for thought, because I learnt of Oxfam's burgeoning secondhand book business nationwide from this article in the New York Times about the tribulations of a secondhand bookshop in Salisbury. I've no idea why the affairs of a bookshop in a provincial English city should attract the attention of the New York Times, but it happened. The contention of the article is that Oxfam is actively putting secondhand bookshops out of business, quite possibly as a deliberate strategy. Which would be a real shame, not to mention a cultural crime. So, was I indeed aiding and abetting the forces of darkness?

It's a minefield, I tell you.

I went with Oxfam (a) because we don't have a secondhand bookshop in Abingdon anyway, and (b) as an Oxfamite fairly points out in the article, "if someone's business model is so marginal that an Oxfam shop opening nearby decimates it, then we are not the problem."

I am not remotely obsessive about this.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mike Oldfield & me

I hope I meet Mike Oldfield one day. His music was the background sound to most of my writing in the late 80s and early 90s. It would be only polite to say thank you. But as there's little sign of him dropping in any day now, reading his autobiography Changeling seemed like the next best thing.

General legend has it that at the age of 19 Mike Oldfield sold the idea of Tubular Bells to Richard Branson's new music company Virgin, and it went on to make a fortune for all concerned. No Tubular Bells, no Virgin Music, no Virgin Atlantic, no Virgin Galactic. Interesting thought. And that's mostly true, but even so it's not as if Oldfield just whipped it out of nowhere. He had been playing in clubs and bars since about the age of 12, getting more and more session playing experience under his belt, and Tubular Bells had been bubbling inside him for years. (Curiously, the bells themselves were a last minute addition when he finally came to make the album – they were still in the studio from the previous recording session and he thought he could probably use them.) He was able to record it almost from memory, with self-taught mixing and editing skills and with tapes he'd recorded even earlier in his teens.

And then he had to do a follow-up, a process he likens at one point to getting toothpaste out of a tube. He'd had his say! He'd recorded his music! What else was he going to do?

The problems of my life have very little overlap with young Oldfield's, who for one reason and another was a functioning alcoholic even before Tubular Bells, and did a tad too much LSD and needed some severely aggressive therapy in his mid-twenties to sort himself out. (The screams and howls in TB's "Piltdown Man" bit aren't faked.) But I'm eye to eye with him here. Y'see, it's dawning on me that my first three novels – not including The Xenocide Mission, because that was an unexpected sequel – were the three novels I really had inside me, struggling to get out. Simplistically, they were the Space Opera One, the Time Travel One and the Alternate History One. Then I had to write something else. Um.

Anyone who has been foolish enough to ask how my writing has been going recently will know that I've been rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting ... if Hergest Ridge was toothpaste out of a tube for Oldfield, this is like pulling teeth for me. With a pair of tweezers. The first draft itself took some wrenching, but I got a story out and I like it. My publisher didn't, and to be fair I can see what he means. But it's the story! What do you mean, rewrite it?

As the world knows, Oldfield managed. Historical forces were against him – it wasn't his fault that Tubular Bells came out just as punk was coming in. After the rapturous reception of his debut work, he just couldn't understand why all his subsequent stuff was getting panned, even if it did keep selling. Finally he was able to keep going by redefining his entire approach and outlook, employing other musicians, riffing off their ideas and targeting his music at the market, at the same time as keeping it deliberately Oldfieldian. The first fruits of this new approach were his albums Platinum and then my favourite, QE2. He was back on track.

I enjoyed reading the book, even with its occasionally slightly clunky style which persuades me he really did write it himself rather than filter it through a ghost writer. Favourite anecdote: Oldfield's sister Sally, six years older than him, was best friends at university with a girl called Marianne Faithfull ... What with one thing leading to another, young Michael aged 13 or 14 found himself playing guitar in a recording studio with his big sister and her friend and her friend's famous boyfriend in the producer's box. Thus, shortly after, he was able to tell a teacher at his school who was predicting a life of miserable unemployment unless he got a haircut and some decent O-levels under his belt: "I've just been in a recording studio with Mick Jagger and I'm going to be a musician."

Nice one.

Richard Branson emerges mostly with credit. He wasn't the one who spotted the potential of Tubular Bells but he was the one who drove the money-making process. Oldfield gradually came to understand that his motive remained (understandably) making a healthy profit for Virgin, which is how within a few years Virgin had moved from being the company that debuted with Tubular Bells to the company signing up all the nascent punk bands. Oldfield understands but is still a little nonplussed. Tubular Bells' money-making potential for Virgin was helped considerably by the contract Branson foisted on its young, naive composer, giving him the lowest royalty rate possible, binding him to another 9 albums with Virgin and giving Virgin the rights to Tubular Bells for the next 35 years. Oldfield finally got it back in 2008.

There's a parallel universe where Moonlight Shadow still has the lyrics Hazel O'Connor wrote for it, rather than the ones Oldfield dragged out of himself with the help of a rhyming dictionary, a bottle of wine and an all-night writing session. It would make interesting listening. The success of that song gave Richard Branson ammunition to encourage Oldfield to write more and more songs, and less and less instrumental stuff: the logical conclusion was his album Earth Moving, which is all songs, and barring a couple of tracks really is the most forgettable item in his output. Oldfield hit back with the mighty Amarok – nothing that could remotely be made into a single, every instrument under the sun, Zulu choir and Maggie Thatcher (impersonated, in the last couple of minutes) all thrown together into a glorious hour-long mix. And when he finally broke free from Virgin, the result was Tubular Bells II which was and is a work of genius.

He didn't always enjoy the process of re-identifying himself as a musician, with its loss of control and whiff of compromise, but it's what makes him a pro rather than a talented amateur. And face it, when even the work you don't particularly enjoy leads you to live outside the UK for a year for tax reasons, there are compensations.

I'm sure I can learn from this with my own approach to writing. Now I just need to work out how ... I probably won't get the tax problem and I doubt my wealth will be indirectly funding innovative ventures into space. But you take what you can get.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The lesser of two weevils

Tomorrow is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. I will be seriously disappointed if I meet anyone who does any such thing.

I will however buy a drink for anyone I meet who observes International Talk Like Dr Stephen Maturin Day.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Easier than dust and daemons

Philip Pullman is writing a book about Jesus, says the Oxford Mail, exploring the novel concept that Jesus may not have been the Son of God. Oh, yawn.

Granted, this is news to the bookselling trade but in terms of significant theological events it's not even static on the radar screen. As a mild mannered cleric points out towards the end of the article, it's not like he's the first, is it? It's so depressing to think that a whole new generation who missed out on Dan Brown - okay, that bit's not depressing; good on them, I say - are going to be jumping on the rehash of a 2000 year old argument as if it's all brand new and one in the eye for established religion.
"It is understood Mr Pullman also puts forward the possibility that Jesus being the son of God was an invention of St Paul. "
It's like Karen Armstrong was never born.

Nor am I encouraged by:
"For every man or woman who has been led to goodness by a church, and I know there have been many, there has been another who has been inspired by the same church to a rancid and fanatical bigotry for which the only fitting word is 'evil'."
So, Christianity has produced a precise 50/50 split of good and evil, hey? Based on the evidence of Christ Church on Long Furlong, this means there must somewhere be a church that verges on the Satanic. Hmm, I've never felt entirely easy walking past St Michael's ...

I jest. I do however hope his views within the book are more moderately, less Dawkinsishly expressed.

One thing I do learn from the article is that Catholics apparently get Auxiliary Bishops, presumably in case the main one fails.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Whee! I mean, oops

Honestly , it could happen to anyone. I mean, I bet it's happened to you, too. You know how it is. You're sitting in a Victor bomber, which is one of the most Derek Meddings-esque aircraft ever to have actually existed but which isn't actually, you know, at this present moment in time, um, officially air-worthy ... And neither you nor your co-pilot or indeed the plane are licensed to fly ... But anyway, you're sitting in it and you're doing a 100 knot run down the runway to give the spectators a thrill and you really mean to slow down but your co-pilot freezes and doesn't throttle back in time and you keep accelerating and ... well, what would any plane do in those circumstances?

Take off, that's what.

Accident, my afterburners.

The nicest word that comes to mind is "lazy"

I suppose a peril of moving in primarily IT literate circles is that you forget how many illiterates there are out there: not necessarily in terms of grammar and the ability to construct coherent sentences (though to be honest, there is quite a close correlation) but just in terms of etiquette.

Fr'instance, a post two days ago on Terry Wogan and various domestic issues drew the following well-targeted comment, all entirely sic including the unclosed opening inverted commas:

Two things

1) I'd like your permission to (re)print your article on ‘Torchwood'for our website

2) I was hoping we could use your ‘scribing' talent for our website.

The Best Shows Youre Not Watching (dot) com [all one word]
‘Torchwood'one of our featured shows. We're hoping to round up a few people who can occasionally contribute perspective (via an article/blog) on the shows – maybe a recent episode, future direction, plot shortcomings etc.

What's in it for you?
Primarily a larger audience back channeled to your blog. We don't pay but the site has a lot of promise and we're pretty excited about getting it off the ground. Let me know what you think.

[I redact the URL because I've already given the name of their site and have no intention of making life too easy.]

Intriguing, because while I could swear I've mentioned Torchwood more than once, a search on the blog only uncovers one article, written nearly three years ago when the series began. Anyway. To save you looking it up, I devastatingly replied:
First, convince me you really are after my scribing talent as a result of a personal evaluation of my ability as evidenced on this blog, and that this isn't an automatic spam generated by a bot searching on the word "Torchwood".

Why might I suspect the latter case?

1. The only article I've written on Torchwood is nearly 3 years old.

2. There's a clearly visible link in the left hand column saying "contact Ben", and yet you drop a comment into a totally unrelated post. The nicest word that comes to mind is "lazy".

How you go about this convincing of me I leave up to you, but the clue is in point 2 above.
It's not just web spammers but any kind of direct marketing: the key word is clue, people. If you want people to take you seriously, show you have one. Honestly. Do you really, really think that this kind of so-obviously mass-produced, badly worded twaddle is going to convince us of anything, other than the fact that you so clearly haven't gone through our site in a search for exactly the right 'scribing' talent to suit your needs? Put another way: is it really an advert for your site that it's going to be 'scribed' by the kind of people who either write or respond to this kind of thing?

I thought I would test my theory that the commenter may not be 100% inspired by my personal brilliance. A quick search on key phrases of the comment shows:
  • US TV critic Alan Sepinwall got exactly the same, in a post about American Idol and Ellen Degeneres. As a follow-up comment points out, he's apparently a high-profile critic in the US and doesn't exactly need the back-channelled larger audience.
  • Journalist David Kirkpatrick in an article on nanotech. At least Mr Sepinwall has actually written articles on Torchwood. In Mr Kirkpatrick's case the requested article was about The Clone Wars. A quick search shows that Mr Kirkpatrick has previously written exactly two lines in different posts about the Clone Wars: on 7 January 2009, commenting on wii games: "Hell, the Clone Wars lightsaber game is downright tiring", and a link to the show's trailer.
  • Finally, writer Kat Richardson got done with a comment that starts off about Medium but then segues for no apparent reason into The Clone Wars, again. A good 'scriber' is at least proficient with cut and paste and the ability to read their own spam.
And there are others, but I got bored.

Good grief, this is the kind of thing people were doing back when the web was young in the mid-nineties. I may even have done it myself, though I hope I didn't. Is a whole new generation that doesn't remember the mid-nineties now making the same mistake?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Guess which of the following items of change are pushing us closer to the edges of our comfort zone?
  • Two sets of long-term neighbours, with whom we get on very well, are moving within a short space of each other.
  • A knock-on effect is that I am now Lord Holder of the Thing (see yesterday's post).
  • This time next year Bonusbarn will have finished school, and there is a school of thought that holds he could be doing more to prepare for the event.
  • Terry Wogan is giving up his morning show on Radio 2.
I will admit that when Chris Evans took over from Johnnie Walker for evening drivetime, it was like swapping a comfy old slipper for a cold, wet plimsoll with yesterday's sand still in it. Solution: wait and see if the first couple of songs are any good and if not then switch to Classic FM or play a tape. I'm sure Sir Tel's legions of fans will find a similar way of adjusting. For crying out loud, people, the sun will still come up tomorrow. Promise.

There are two ways of dealing with a move away from the centre of your comfort zone: try and reverse time and move back to the centre, or redefine the edges of your comfort zone so that the centre comes to you without you moving. And that is how we will try and deal with the first two points.

Monday, September 07, 2009

We have a thing

Anyone know what it is?
Yours truly has taken over as secretary for the management company for the building. As well as power! a large pile of paper we got ... this.
The outgoing secretary got it off his predecessor. No one knows quite what it's for. It comes in its own little pouch. In the top picture you can just see a little roller inside the bit that squeezes down, though it doesn't squeeze down very hard.

We also got power! an official company stamp, in a weighty metal stamping machine that embosses the paper with the stamp design. I can remember something like it from my grandfather's study and it has a wonderful Victorian steampunky sort of feel to it. That, I can work out. The squeezy thing shown above, though ... still guessing.

He also does stations and memorials

Clifton Hampden bridge, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott: him as also did St Pancras, lots of churches, and memorials to the Martyrs (Oxford) and Albert (London). According to the guide book of walks around Oxfordshire, it replaced a ferry across the Thames and was privately commissioned by a local family.

"I say, dear, who do we know who does a bit of building?"

I completely agree that if a job is worth doing then it's worth over-doing.

The house at the end might be nice to live in, though I'm not sure I would enjoy having high water flood marks in my back garden. Even less would I enjoy people being able to look down into my back garden and say "oh look, you can see where the water comes up to."

Saturday, September 05, 2009

More of the same, please

Abingdon is getting a WH Smith and feelings are mixed, mostly inclining towards the "no, thanks" end of the argument. I'm torn myself. The part of me conditioned by childhood says that having a Smiths in town is a Good Thing because ... well, because it is. Anyway, a Smiths would be a sign of confidence in the town's reviving economy which we could well do with. There's still the gaping abcess where Woolies once stood.

A more realistic part of me observes that everything you're likely to want from a Smiths,* you can already get anyway - we have a very good stationers, we have two very book shops and, right opposite where it's going to be, a very good newsagents. They are all privately owned, run by people who know exactly what they are doing and who can help out with your stationery / literary / newsagently needs, and I would hate to see any of them lose business to a national chain.

[*Exception: music. Since the fall of Modern Music and Woolies we have no decent music sellers: Woolies also took with it the DVD market.]

So, by and large I too incline towards the no, thanks brigade. We could maybe do with limited colonisation by some of the national chains. A Woolies replacement would be something else, or a decent clothes shop. Maybe an M&S where Woolies once stood. But we really don't need a WH Smiths, unless it's a Smiths that tones down on the books and papers and stationery and really pushes the digital media items.

We could well do with more like this, however.

On a sunny September morning he was sitting in the middle of the precinct and delighting passers by with gentle Spanish-style guitar pieces. That's the kind of thing that makes it worth going into the precinct and, while you're there, spending money in the shops. And I dropped a quid in his guitar case.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

C'est Inglourious mais ce n'est pas la guerre

I like to think I'm the kind of person who would Get Inglourious Basterds. I can see what Quentin Tarantino was doing and so I'm not going to make myself look silly by protesting "but World War 2 wasn't like that." No. It's a Spaghetti Western revenge-drama told in the framework of a WW2 movie. I get that. And it's great fun, beautifully made, perfectly acted, inpeccably dialogued. The bad guy in particular deserves an Oscar, if not for Best Supporting then for Best Nazi in a Serious Screenplay (Ever). In fact - another Spaghetti Western touch - he reminded me of Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time in the West, even with a touch of facial similarity, and I wondered if it was deliberate.


There are two ways revenge dramas should go. One is all-out tragedy - everyone dies horribly. The other is a happy ending, with the revenger triumphant and the revengee nicely dead, but always the revenger remains on the moral high ground. Even if we're talking a difference of a matter of inches, he's better than those around him.

In IB it's an uncomfortable truth that the good guys are slightly worse than many of the bad guys. I can say this because it's a driving point of the movie, so (unlike saying "World War 2 wasn't like that") it's meaningful within the film's own frame of reference. It may be that no fate is too bad for some Nazis, but then we get the perfectly decent Wehrmacht soldier wearing his Iron Cross - "for bravery," he says, with quiet dignity - bludgeoned horribly to death by the Basterds for not giving away the position of his lines. Hmm.

And then there's the ending ... Right, we're truly into fantasy territory here and it's here that the film just rollercoasters along. But. Without giving anything away, let's just say it's a given within the movie that it would be better for Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and Bormann to have met their ends earlier and in a different way than they actually did. True, the cast don't know they are characters within a movie: they have no idea that it was the total, humiliating Gotterdammerung of 1945 that smashed Nazism so decisively. To a group of US soldiers behind enemy lines in 1944 it might have seemed a perfectly reasonable proposition and so they act upon it. But I wasn't convinced. That, plus the non-tragedy of the brutal revengers, means that for the first time I come away from a Tarantino movie thinking, "hmm, could have ended better."