Saturday, 27 December 2008

Why I can no longer phone home

Welcome to the bereavement counsellor’s chair. That’s you in the chair, and me the bereaved … so if you’re not ready to be subsumed by my gloomy news, “look away now”.

My mother died of a sudden heart attack on Monday 8 December, at about 2:20 in the afternoon.

I had just returned from a very pleasant walk in the woods with my dog, and answered the phone expecting a work-related call, not my grief-stricken not-step-father saying my mum had collapsed while cleaning the windows and the paramedics could not revive her. For the record, she was only 64, and had only been retired from her very hectic publishing job for about six years.

Since the 8th, life has been a strange mixture of sadness, raucous laughter, not getting ready for Christmas, and mild panic and confusion, because I no longer have anyone special to phone to tell my news.

I live about 100 miles from my mum, and haven’t lived at home permanently since I went away to school, aged 11, in 1977. In all that time, we mostly spoke on the phone, or while we were driving around from one place to another – on work-related trips or the 50-minute ‘school run’ at the start and end of holidays and Sunday afternoon ‘tea visits’. We had a regular appointment, during my school days, whereby I would ring her on Sundays (after church, a daily ritual at my C of E boarding school) giving ‘three rings’ to let her know it was me, then redialing so she could pick up the receiver.

On the day after her death, Mr Ms_well and I drove up the M1 and back to do the grim things I now know you have to do, if you’re a next of kin. When we arrived home at about 10 minutes to midnight, we couldn’t sleep, and instead watched a DVD of Peter Kaye featuring his own personal take on the ‘three rings’. Are all northern mothers the same, then? I howled with laughter, and with sadness. My mum was a fan of Peter Kaye, and I was half tempted to have Is this the way to Amarillo? – the Tony Christie version, mind you – played at the funeral, because my mum loved it, and she used to live next door but one to TC.

Once I left school and had a phone of my own and, crucially, an answering machine, my mum’s catch-phrase of “It’s only me, I’ll phone you later”, became very familiar, and already, that’s the thing I miss the most.

So here I am, having gone through a thoroughly modern Yorkshire funeral – no punch-ups (that’s the old-fashioned way!), but emotionally charged by ex-husbands, bereaved partners, bereaved partner’s US-based son who’s a stranger to everyone at the wake, aunts and uncles who don’t speak to each other, and former bosses and their families who diplomatically fail to turn up, despite the 20+ years of devoted service given with only a pittance of a pension to show for it (which will only just cover the funeral expenses, but don’t be me started on that just now).

And now I’ve had three unexpected and unwelcome weeks off work, at a time when I’ve got a bulging order book and clients who are being extremely thoughtful through the gritted teeth of “when will you deliver that job?”

Back to work, then. As my dad wrote in my son’s remembrance book “Oh blah dee, oh blah dah, life goes on …”.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Melvyn Bragg hits the hot spot

Quote of the day, aka “How to get one over on Today’s pompous and self-important anchor man, John Humphrys”:

Trailing his show In Our Time (which immediately follows Today, at 9am on Thursdays) Melvyn Bragg said:
“So, the science of heat with … [names of guests].

“It’s extraordinary to think that until 1700 almost all the world was heated and lit by fire alone. Since then, we have discovered many ingenious ways to generate hot air — John …”

[Noises off: not-so-muffled laughter and noisy protestations from Mr H!]

Time: 8.35 (2:35 minutes into Today)

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

A red-tailed hawk and a three-legged dog

Nothing much happens in the small Hertfordshire town where I live (though we have made the headlines once this year). But I’ve seen two unusual sights in two days, so thought I’d share them with you.

Yesterday I met a three-legged dog.

When I say ‘met’, it glared at me and my dog from a distance, stalked us for several yards, then gambled towards us at a frightening pace (given his disability). I stood my ground while my cowardly and totally soppy Springer Spaniel groveled in case the newcomer was unfriendly. [My dog was attacked when he was a puppy and has learnt to be wary of growly border-collie-types who can out-run him!]

But fear not, dear reader, after a quick sniff, the three-legged dog trotted off. Then he cocked his leg…

…Not by slightly raising the stump of the missing leg, but by doing what can only be described as a doggie hand-stand.

Talk about adaptability! (And what fantastic balance.)


Today, because the sun was shining, we dared to stray further from home to a nearby country-park-cum-woodland (owned by the Woodland Trust, in fact), which is a very popular dog-walking venue – providing you don’t mind washing off the cow pats and badgers-doings when you get home.

We’d had a good stretch through the fields in the sunshine, and climbed high up into the woods then back down to head for home, when I spotted a chap walking towards us behaving rather oddly.

Not sure whether to choose a different direction (I am hyper-conscious of potential problems walking alone in isolated spots, even with my dog and mobile phone), I paused and shielded my eyes from the sun to see if I could tell what he was up to.

As he approached, I realised – he’d been catching his red-tailed hawk.

I put my dog on the lead and so we got a really good close-up of the bird, and a quick chat with the ‘owner’ who assured me that this huge bird of prey is fine with dogs. He tells me he doesn’t need a licence to own/hunt with the beastie, which surprised me, knowing how up-tight some farmers can be about their live-stock. Apparently, though, the red-tailed hawk only goes for the small-fry that farmers think of as pests (cute bunny rabbits, mice, voles, squirrels etc).

Having seen it up-close, I’m very glad he caught the bird, before it caught us!


This wasn’t what I had intended to write in my blog this week, but you know how things can pile up. Things I was intending to write about:

* Eddie Izzard live in London last Saturday - excellent; and included an hysterical joke for editors… but damned if I can remember it. Woe.
* Last night’s Horizon on ‘Time’, plus more on science communication.
* Still trying to get round to doing my ‘green’ story; started it in September. It will come, eventually.
* And ‘slow blogging’ - snippet spotted in Guardian last week. Instead of writing about it, I’ve been practising it!

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Who knows where the time goes?

Woman's Hour are currently talking about Sandy Denny and her role in the English folk music scene. They started the package by playing my all time number one favourite song in any genre ever* (hyperbole, moi?) 'Who knows where the time goes?'.

While Sandy's version is definitive, I don't care who sings it, I just love it.

The freelance writer/editor's anthem, perhaps? (as in, got to dash now, I've got to work on another project that's running late!)

*And hey, I know a few, having been a singer of all sorts of music for >30 years.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

So, is ‘Plan A’ a load of pants, Mr Rose?

Marks and Sparks is having a sale. Whoopie…

Well no, actually. I don’t think this is a ‘good thing’.
“Plan A is our five-year, 100-point 'eco' plan to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our business and our world. It will see us working with our customers and our suppliers to combat climate change, reduce waste, safeguard natural resources, trade ethically and build a healthier nation.” (M&S Plan A website)

For a while I was willing to go along with their eco-hype. I agree with a lot of things that they’re doing. But the announcement today that they’re having a 20% off everything sale has undone all the good PR, as far as I’m concerned.

I know that we have to consume stuff; and choosing recyclable packaging is a good thing; and that trade (fair trade, that is) is a good thing for the developing world and for us here too. But the most pernicious problem (in the West) is that we all over-consume. Especially at Christmas. It makes me want to vomit.

Wouldn’t it be better for all of us, in the long run, if they sold fewer items of a higher quality at a slightly higher price?

I can’t help noticing that, since Plan A was introduced, the quality of M&S pants has gone right down. (I know Jeremy Paxman would agree with me! ) Sad to say, I’ve been buying the same old basic style for the past 20 years… And of course, these basics do wear out. I just wish they wouldn’t wear out so quickly these days. The fabric may be fair trade organic, but it’s not as thick (and strong) as it used to be, and the quality of the elastic would make Nora Batty turn in her grave (is she in her grave yet? Ah, Wikipedia suggests not… sorry)

[I see M&S has ‘relaunched’ its Plan A website too (old site vs new site; and why doesn’t the site URL appear in the title bar of Firefox? Strange.)]

What I really can’t bear is the vast quantity of totally unnecessary items (and their associated transportation, and packaging, and the transportation of the packaging…) that will be hauled from the shops today just because there’s 20% off. In my new local M&S yesterday (yes, I do go there – for mid-week fruit and veg shopping, because the big T killed off the local greengrocers years ago) they were ‘offering’ low-priced boxes of chocolates at the till. Over packaged; over priced; unnecessary*.

Minutes after I’d listened to two retail giants debate the ‘'Irrational' downturn in high street spending’ on Today this morning, the programme finished early to launch an emergency appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee to raise funds to help displaced and distressed people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yet again, at Christmas time, I'm frustrated and fed up with it all. I don’t need any more unpleasantly perfumed and over-packaged hand creams, jumpers that don’t fit and have to be returned to the shops, or kitchen gizmos that gather dust.

Instead of feeding Mr Rose’s bank account today, I’m going to give my Christmas-present-fund to the appeal, and hope that my family will be happy with my home-baked cakes instead.

Bah humbug
Rant over!

* Mr Ms_well and I do enjoy choccies now and again. We once bought a fancy heart-shaped box from Thorntons, ate the contents and kept the packet. Now for anniversaries and whatnot, we buy lower priced bags of Fair Trade chocs and put them in the recycled fancy box. Stingy, but kinder to the environment (and our pockets).

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Guilty, m'lord

Popular wisdom (aka the media in its various guises) suggests that those who are raised in the Catholic faith have a tendency towards all-encompassing feelings of guilt and an ongoing urge to confess their sins.

But I don't think they don't hold an exclusive licence to such feelings: guilt, regret, and an inexplicable tendency to start 95% of all emails with the words "I'm sorry* I haven't…" are issues for us non-denominational-girls too**.

Having spouted off in this blog about my fellow editors and their scrupulous/unscrupulous behaviour, I'm now dreading the fallout and wishing I'd kept shtum. Oh woe. (In fact, I've now gone back and edited that item, to avoid potential problems.)

* Can't think where I picked up the habit, but I even tend to say "I'm sorry?" when I really mean "Pardon? What did you say?" It comes to something when I'm even apologising for my own lack of acuity… There's no hope, is there?

I worked in a pizza restaurant when I was a student and one customer had been a real pain. As he paid the bill he muttered something about the quality of the food/service. Wanting him to speak up a bit I said: "I'm sorry?" To which he swiftly replied: "So you should be!"

**[Also a tendency to over-use the word 'tendency'. Whoops.]

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Unhealthy competition among copy-editors

I really should be getting on with something else, but this has worked me up into such a froth that I need to get it off my chest…[Edited 15/11/08]

I’m a member (Advanced member, in fact) of a worthy organisation which, among other things, aims to raise professional standards for Es and Ps.

A few weeks ago, I received a round-robin email from this organisation containing a paid-for advertisement from a potential client seeking writers/editors to put on a “preferred supplier” list. The client in question is one I’ve been intending to contact for several years, and so I was eager to fill in the tender documents and get on their list. I’m already on similar lists, and have worked for a number of similar clients and I do reckon I’m pretty well qualified for that particular work.

I didn’t hear back from them, despite asking them to email me to confirm receipt of my submission, but I put that to the back of my mind until yesterday afternoon, when they sent out a message to all tenderers saying something like “we’ve been inundated with applicants, so many that we’re going to need extra time to sift and therefore have had to put back the planned interview dates”.

On the face of it, that’s fine. But this has got me worried.

This client is not a publisher; their work is in a neatly defined industrial sector (can’t go into detail for obvious reasons); they are used to dealing with high-level government officials, business leaders and expensive PR companies.

I’m worried about who has taken part in this tender, the quality of their submissions, and most important, the prices they’ve quoted.

Why? Well, in the past I’ve gone through a similar exercise myself in order to sub-contract work during busy periods. I’ve sent out a round-robin email to fellow editors/proofreaders and received a flood of replies. Out of 20 or 30 applicants, only two or three were (on paper) suitably qualified; and in one case I gave the work to someone who really didn’t turn out to be as good as I’d hoped.

I strongly suspect that the same gang will have been part of the flood of tenders to this client*. This worries me for two reasons:

• They will probably seriously undercut my (reasonable) rates, making it look like editors work for tuppence ha’penny, (and that I’m taking the p*** with my ‘professional’ rate).
• It undervalues the society's stance of ‘raising standards’ etc., because Uncle Tom Cobley and All may have applied, regardless of whether they are really suitable for the job.

What to do? I’m tempted to raise the issue on the organisation's email newsgroup, but things have become rather fractious there lately and I don’t want to stir up a hornets nest when I’m busy. Instead, I think I’ll send a quiet note to the appropriate committee member and see what they have to say.

I can see that the editors' organisation was happy to accept the money to cover the cost of the advert, but they could have been a bit more sophisticated about sending it out. They do have a directory of members where we all list our specialisms/keywords. So they could, for instance, have done a quick trawl and only contacted people with relevant experience/skills.

All of the above sounds like I’m a bitter old bat clinging on to a stronghold of lucrative clients against young upstarts who might do a better, cheaper job than me. Erm… partly true! (Not the ‘old’ bit… well, I’m probably just about still in the ‘youth’ wing of the organisation.)

But I do wonder whether I’ve shot myself in the foot by talking to fellow editors very publicly (e.g. at conference, in the members’ journal) about what I do. Have I made it sound like a gravy train that’s worth catching?

I’ve always been slightly concerned about that, and have tried to prevent it. For instance, the NUJ lists details of hourly or daily rates paid particular clients. I’ve spoken out in favour of sharing ‘rates’, but against naming the clients, because I reckon there are some unscrupulous so and sos who’d deliberately undercut me.

And now I’m faced with the prospect that this may, rather publicly, happen. Hmm.

Interestingly, earlier this year I took part in a similar process for a different client. I successfully made it onto the list, and the client let all the list members know who’d ‘won’. I was the only member of this particularly organisation on the list.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting I have a god-given right to this particular work; just that I'm worried about (unfair) competition, which may only increase as the recession bites and more hopefuls respond to those dreadful ads for 'profreeders'.

Not a good start to the day! But now I’d better get on with the work I do have, before it gets whisked from under my feet…

* I do know of one other person who’s involved who does have relevant experience.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Who will edit the editors?

It's all very well being a writer/editor, but it's pretty nigh impossible to edit your own words.

On several occasions I have embarrassed myself in editorial email fora/ums by accidentally mistyping, or scrambling my words as I edit and re-edit a message in the vain hope of ending up error-free. Now I find I'm doing it on my very own blog. Dammit.

If I wasn't trying to maintain my anonymity (for the precise reason that I don't want fellow editors to come here and carp), I'd offer a prize for readers who find errors. But I'd run out of prizes pretty quickly…

Editing someone else's writing is much easier, and I do have happy clients to prove it.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Phew! Thank goodness for that; but what sort of puppy should Obama pick?

I woke early and the Today programme on my bedside radio seemed particularly gloomy. No cheering crowds, no excited presenters. Half asleep, I thought McCain had won, and dozed for half an hour worrying about the future for global environmental politics (not to mention everything else). What a relief when the headlines came on at 7am.

My favourite line from Obama's victory speech:
"Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century." (my emphasis)

But that aside, the most pressing decision Obama now faces is what sort of dog he should get for his daughters!
"Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House."
Much as I love my English Springer Spaniel, and he's great with people (especially kids), I don't think that would be an appropriate choice. A hound of traditional US pedigree might be advisable, but a rescue mut might be more politically sensitive. Who'd have thought that picking a puppy could be such a political decision?

And then there's the question of a name…

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Waiting, waiting, waiting, for the party to begin…

Turning on the Large Hadron Collider didn’t end the world, as some people had feared. But here we are, less than two months later, poised on the brink of another potentially world-changing event. Not sure I can take the strain of “Waiting, waiting, waiting…”*

Hot news is that Barack Obama has already won one race: in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, a town of only 21 voters. Turning the town Democrat for the first time since 1968, the electorate chose Obama by 15 votes to 6.

I’m surprised to see that some fellow UK-based bloggers/editors say they’re not interested in the election. Whichever way the voting goes, it’s unavoidable that the US presidential election will have a knock-on effect – for better or worse – on global politics and economics, not to mentioned environmental issues.

So I’m keeping my fingers (and everything else) crossed for a high turn-out and the right decision…

* First poem we had to learn in “Elocution” lessons, 30 years ago. (They really should have filled our growing minds with something more useful!)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Brand or bland? The editor’s decision is final

Thanks to Messrs Brand and Ross for knocking the Credit Crunch out of the headlines for a day or two (though I’m already bored of their story too). I don’t want to comment on the detail of the incident, but I do want to talk about the editor’s role in the palaver.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Kelvin McKenzie actually said something sensible (on Today, R4) this morning: it’s the decision of the editor – or more specifically, the editor’s line managers – that should be called to question.

I'm not saying they should be sacked, suspended or anything else, but I do think that they are the ones who need to be out there justifying their decision, not B&R (although they’ve had the sense and/or PR advice to apologise).

This wasn’t a live show; it was recorded. The editor apparently took the tape to line management for approval and someone somewhere in the chain of command decided to approve it. Now they need to stand up (or 'fess up) for their decision.

Being an editor is a tough job; they don’t tell you that in the careers guidance. But I do try to tell would-be editors that, when I get the chance. You need to be thick-skinned, and you need to be able to stick to your guns if necessary, but you also need to be quick to hold up your hands if you’re wrong. And that’s as true for editors of books and journals as it is for those in charge of national newspapers and radio shows.

On my first outing as a trainer of editors I likened the role to that of Graham Poll, the international footy ref whose error during a World Cup game led to his resignation. This certainly wasn’t the first time GP had made very public errors, but he wasn’t afraid, when necessary, to stand up to international football superstars.

Editors need to do the same. Even if it’s just a simple matter of defending your stance on a grammatical construction, or choice of illustration, or whether or not to publish the damned book at all…

You don’t often hear young people saying “I want to be an editor”, do you? But we’re actually an awful lot more powerful than people realise. Not just the big names in the national press or TV, but right down to the humble freelance book ‘editor’ who wonders whether she should strike out the author’s phrase ‘cradle-land’ and use ‘place of origin’ instead. (Go on – live a little. Let that new word fly!)

Meanwhile, I’m currently being edited myself. It’s a dull technical book I’ve been working on for 9 months; and now that the gestation period is nearly over, the editing process feels nearly as uncomfortable as Braxton Hicks contractions. Having spent 2 hours late last night responding rather tetchily to the editor’s queries, I now realise I need to rein myself in a bit and let the beleaguered editor get on with her job.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Biscuits: the driving force behind the nation’s freelance writers/editors

Freelance writers and editors, working at home, need to demonstrate a significant level of willpower; so I’m pleased to learn that scientists have published evidence to suggest that sneaking a daily dip into the biscuit barrel could, contrary to expectations, give your willpower a much needed boost.

Although I criticised the concept of Psychologies magazine last week, I am still drawn to psychology-related articles in the more serious press. Last week, while belated flicking through back issues of New Scientist, I came across a piece that pretty neatly sums up the chemistry/biology behind that eternal freelances’ problem: procrastination. And, in a twist of logic that Psychologies would surely be proud of, here I go reinterpreting the hard science for my own journalistic purposes…

Resist! by Helen Phillips (New Scientist, 13 September 2008, pp40–43) reports on several studies into self-control and willpower. Few readers will be surprised to learn that some people are better at self-control than others, that female impulse control is linked to the menstrual cycle, and that there are links between IQ and the ability to avoid temptation.

More interesting, though, is the news that resisting temptation appears to be controlled by the frontal lobes of the brain (especially the right frontal lobe), and that the effort of self-control also taxes the areas of the brain responsible for ‘working memory’. (One conclusion the researchers draw from these results is that teenagers find it hard to control their impulses because their frontal lobes are still developing.)

On top of that, there’s evidence that exercising willpower is also a physiological process – i.e. it’s a process that needs energy.

Helen Phillips cites studies published in the journals Psychological Science, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which suggest that self-control requires effort (energy) and, just as you can run out of energy when you’re pounding the treadmill at the gym, you can run of out self-control.

Part of the evidence for this comes from studying people’s heart rates while they’re being asked to resist temptation, which shows that there are peaks in energy use during temptation experiments. Another study (by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University) found that giving participants a sugary drink before their self-control was challenged improved their ability to resist temptation.

Ok, so here’s my spin on this news: eating a bicky or two before I set to work in the morning is actually good for me, because keeping up my blood sugar level boosts my self-control ‘muscle’.

A bit far fetched, perhaps? Not necessarily. One thing I’ve noticed since I turned freelance is that prioritisation (inextricably linked to resistance and self-control) is getting harder and harder. On the evidence of Phillips’ article, I now suspect my problem is caused by long-term depletion of willpower.

Ponder this for a moment:

Ten years ago the biggest drain on my self-control was the effort of getting out of bed, performing my daily ablutions and setting off for the office.

Fast forward a few years and my self-control was sorely tested by the arrival of a baby who needed me to think on his behalf (and I still do, 9 years on!), then later, along came the dog who had to be walked, fed and pampered, with rarely a day off from my responsibilities. (Not to mention all the other domestic chores, of which the most brain-taxing is invariably answering the question "What's for dinner?" )

These days I reckon I spend 90% of my time resisting doing the things I want to do, because I have so many other things that MUST BE DONE.

Having a deadline, therefore, is crucial. If, as now, I have work on the books, but nothing urgent, I can’t resist the temptation to blog instead of getting on with the paid-for stuff. And every day I’m also using up currency from my bank of self-control by “resisting” the temptation to tidy the house, put the rubbish out, stuff/unstuff the washing machine, prune my email inbox, write letters to friends I should’ve replied to in January…

It’s only biscuit power that’s helping me to resist all these exciting opportunities!!

One last thought before I really MUST get on with real work: one of Phillips’ interviewees strongly recommends writing detailed ‘to do’ lists as a way of giving yourself a leg-up to get over the procrastination fence:

“… Even something as simple as saying you will go to the gym at 5pm on a specific day is a more successful strategy than intending to exercise once a week. Planning can turn a difficult conscious decision into an unconscious habit, which makes the whole process faster and more efficient without depleting energy levels.”

So if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I’m knee-deep in ‘to do’ spreadsheets.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Don’t mention the R—; it’s just a BAGEL

Clearly there’s no escaping the economic downturn. Most people are now convinced we’re facing a slowdown, and first the Today programme (Radio4), then the mighty GB himself, used the R-word yesterday. These people ought to be more careful with their terminology.

Today, in fact, specifically said “… the R-word …”, which caught my ear over the cornflakes (well, porridge, actually). There must be a West Wing fan in the Today editorial team; for all WW fans know that it’s not an *R—, it’s just a ‘bagel’.

Shame on me for not knowing off the top of my head which particular episode this is from (I DO have all of them on DVD), but through the wonder of t’internet I can tell you that it’s from Season 5, Episode 1, first screened in 2003.

The context is that Pres. Bartlett (Democrat) has had to hand over the presidency to the Speaker of the House, Walken (Republican), because Bartlett’s daughter Zoey has been kidnapped. Meanwhile there’re various other crises rumbling along, not least the impending Bagel.

Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) can’t bear the idea of mentioning the R-word, and quite right too! I’m sure there’s a saying (but can’t bring it to mind) about naming a thing bringing it into existence. If there isn’t, there should be – especially in the field of economics.

I do accept that current circumstances are, to say the least, exceptional. Nevertheless, the more the media harp on about the Bagel, the worse it is likely to get.

Funny thing is, I barely remember the Bagel last time around, even though it landed me and Mr Ms_well in negative equity territory. Back then, I’d just finished a stint writing for an electronics magazine (that industry was going great guns); and I'd moved to work for one of the UK’s largest trade unions.

The economy was certainly high on our list of priority issues, but the focus was much more on the loss of manufacturing jobs in the midlands and the north. So despite the (moderate) fall in house prices in the South East, the City carried on regardless and as I recall there was less hype about the Bagel, and more concern about the ‘balance of trade’ deficit. On top of that, with high inflation, those of us who didn’t lose our jobs were getting decent pay rises – my salary increased by £15k in the five years after I graduated in 1988 (though, admittedly part of that was linked to rising up the career ladder).

Things certainly don’t seem the same this time around. For one thing, I now listen to Today – guaranteed hype-on-toast Monday to Friday – and for another, as a freelance, I’m potentially more likely to feel the effects of organisational purse-string-tightening.

No sign of that yet, so far, for me (but I’m keeping everything crossed), but just this morning I bumped into a neighbour who’s a freelance PR, off on her way to an interview for a secretarial job at our local school. She says she’s sick of working at home, but I can’t help wondering whether the downturn is making her (and others) worry unduly about their employment prospects.

C’mon folks, I agree that we’re living in uncertain times (no change there then?), but life WILL go on. The only thing that IS certain, is that panic and media hype won’t help anyone. Sorry to quote Michael Winner, but “Calm down, dears” is the only advice I’m currently willing to take.


* R—, of course, stands for recession. Nice to be able to use an em-rule once in a while!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Do I need 'Psychologies' magazine?

I'm vaguely worried about the appearance of Psychologies on the newsstands of the nation. I say 'vaguely' because I admit that I haven't succumbed to buying a copy, so it's perhaps not fair of me to pass judgement … But here I go anyway!

It came to my attention via ads in the Guardian's G2 section, and I've surfed around the mag's website to try to get a handle on what it's about. Skimming over the contents of the latest issue, it looks like the usual mix of celebrity interviews, problem pages, and {skincare/healthfood/holiday}-vendor-driven items masquerading as helpful health-related info. What worries me is the mag's title/raison d'être. What could be interpreted as research-driven reportage is more likely the same old women's mag guff dressed up in a pseudoscientific overcoat*.

The main reason why I'm concerned about the emergence of this publication is that I don't like the way that the popularisation of knowledge about human psychology is taking hold in society. [Originally I'd posted a second reason, but I've just deleted it for fear of a lawsuit from the mag's contributor I was moaning about.]

It's so easy for people to read a few articles about, say, posture or gestures, then sit in a meeting (or worse, a job interview) and analyse every move you make. This has become engrained in our society to such a degree that I find myself consciously wondering whether I'm making eye contact often enough when talking to friends (never mind interviewers), and uncrossing my arms when waiting at the school gate for fear of looking unapproachable, when really I'm just feeling chilly!

All in all, I'll stick to New Scientist for my weekly insight into theories of human behaviour, thanks very much.

* Talking of overcoats, I see this month's issue has an article on "What Your Clothes Say About You: How our life journeys are woven into our wardrobe". They'd better not come round here to analyse me. I'm still wearing yesterday's clothes (saggy old trackies) pulled on in haste at 7:00 so that I could get straight to the computer to meet a 9:00 deadline…

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Autumn Days – a hymn that gets the bloggers' keyboards clattering

I never intended to blog about religion – it’s not something that I think about often – but here’s my second post this month pertaining to the Church of England.

On Monday I went along to my son’s junior school [‘voluntary aided’ C of E; aka the closest school to our home] for Harvest Festival. The format worked well. Each class performed a ‘sketch’ on the harvest theme, interspersed with prayers and hymns. Unfortunately, it was hard to pay attention after the first five minutes because the first hymn raised my hackles to such a degree I could hardly sit still.

The hymn in question – Autumn Days, written by former nun, Estelle White, about 30 years ago – turns out to be quite a favourite among bloggers.

It was the lyric of the first verse that incensed me (no pun in tended; this is C of E we’re dealing with!):
Autumn days when the grass is jewelled
And the silk inside a chestnut shell
Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled
All these things I love so well
To which I can only respond using a new acronym (pinched from Kathryn Flett* in Sunday’s Observer): WTF?

Why on earth would anyone want to praise “Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled”? Having Googled the hymn title, and nosied around a few of the very many blogs that seem to adore this bizarre hymn [see for instance this, and caseyleaver], I turned up a snippet from the Independent in 1996, which reports on a Norfolk-based church choir’s mutiny when the incumbent asked them to sing this ‘modern’ ditty instead of a good old-fashioned harvest hymn. White’s justification for mentioning the jet planes was, the Independent reported: “Mid-air refuelling was a wonder in the Sixties”.

I suppose it was the juxtaposition of this hymn among some very good items about Fair Trade (and a great word game that extracted the words ‘Eat’ and ‘Starve’ from the letters of ‘Harvest’) that really annoyed me about the school’s choice of hymn. They’d done so well, why ruin it with this nonsense?

As far as I can tell, the only planes that refuel in mid air are fighter jets. Not really appropriate for a junior school Harvest Festival… never mind the issue of pollution and ‘food miles’.

So I picked up my grumpy-old-woman pen and dashed of a letter to the head teacher, extolling the virtues of good old-fashioned “We Plough the Fields and Scatter” – the tune of which is attributed (‘doubtful attribution’, says Hyperion Records) to a German, J.A.P. Schulz, but is actually more correctly linked to an English folksong John Barleycorn.

Today’s lesson: If you want to get your blog noticed, add some hymn lyrics! (Though I suppose it all depends what kind of traffic you want to attract…)

* Kathryn's column this week is well worth reading if you're an enthusiastic participant in newgroups, blogs, social networking and virtual worlds.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Very useful list of confusing words

I didn't mean to be blogging today (urgent deadline to meet), but I've just found this via another blog, and if I don't post it up here right now, I'll lose it.

Difficult words

Some of these don't bother me in the slightest; others I often type in haste and repent at leisure.

OK; back to my deadline…

Monday, 6 October 2008

What feminists did for a physicist

Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, interviewed on Woman’s Hour this morning, praised the feminist movement for its on-going efforts to raise awareness of her ground-breaking non-Nobel-laureate-winning work.

Bell Burnell has recently been appointed as the first female President of the Institute of Physics; and from what I heard on WH this morning, it sounds like she’ll do a fantastic job.

I already know several women who’ve studied physics because of her influence; now she’s in a position to encourage many, many more. The great thing about her comments today was that, instead of going down the “physics is exciting, it’s all about the stars and outer-space” hackneyed route, she pointed out that the great thing about physics is “there’s less to learn” – less, that is, than learning all the names of the bones in the body, or parts of a plant. There are a number of fundamental concepts and equations to grasp; the rest is about applying them.

I hadn’t ever thought of it like that; very clever way to turn children on to the subject, I reckon. After all, people so often get put off school science because it is, fundamentally, boring. The trick is to find a way to help them through the dull but necessary senior-school stuff so that they stick with it to a higher level where they really will get to learn about the fundamental principles of the universe.

It sounds like JBB has some ideas for doing just that; and it was great to hear a cheer for the feminists too. JBB might have been overlooked for the Nobel, which was given to her (male) supervisor, but the outrage of the feminist movement has probably done more to raise JBB's profile, to the extent that she reckons she’s probably better off without it!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Is DECC good news for us greenies?

Aha! Today I have a new acronym to add to my editor's checklist: DECC, the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Announced yesterday as part of the cabinet reshuffle, this new department will be led by Ed Miliband and has been welcomed by Greenpeace. Indeed, they’re so pleased about it that they’ve sent me a letter* (well, they issued a round robin to all their members, but I flatter myself they wanted to let me know personally!)

What a shame, though, that Gordon Brown didn’t bother to mention it in his round robin to Labour Party members – he was too busy justifying the resurrection of Peter Mandelson. What does that say about his underlying concerns? Is DECC a token effort? Oh boy, I hope not.

I am a tad suspicious of the motives behind this new department, though. The person who told me about the announcement mentioned the n-word (nuclear) in the very same breath…

I’m a definite fence-sitter when it comes to nuclear power.

It’s not a ‘sustainable’ option in any sense of the word, and in any case leaves us with the same problem as on-going oil usage – namely that we can easily be held to ransom by hostile countries who are sitting on the fuel sources. Wind, wave and solar we have aplenty, so let’s hunker down and develop these cleaner, safer and home-grown technologies.

On the other hand, from the politicians’ viewpoint, telling people to cut energy usage is not a vote-winner (as we’ve already begun to see with the low-cost insulation announcement); the prospect of power cuts, or worse, rationing, is even less enticing. But if people don’t get a grip on their energy usage the politicians have to come up with something, and nuclear is a low-carbon-emissions alternative.

So I’ll give two cheers to Ed Miliband and his new department; and with my editor’s hat on, let’s hope to goodness that Mr M lets his civil servants give it a proper logo and sensible acronym – unlike the powers that be who insisted on dropping the ‘department’ from Communities and Local Government.

Talking of which, I’d like to add three cheers for the appointment of Margaret Beckett as minister for Housing. Only yesterday I was reading of the woeful lack of heavyweights in government [Tribal gatherings by Decca Aitkenhead], and Mrs Beckett (I am told that’s her moniker of preference!) brings a wealth of experience to this portfolio, which is set to be one of the highest profile issues for many months to come. If the house builders cause her any trouble, she can always call in the caravan manufacturers!

* Send Mr M a letter via Greenpeace’s campaign to encourage ‘green collar’ jobs and stop the development of the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station. See also an informative take on the news on the Greenpeace blog.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Gaining ‘respect’ through consumerism has landed us in a Moral Maze

I try really hard NOT to listen to The Moral Maze (Radio 4, 8pm Wednesdays) – some of the panelists drive me nuts (esp. Melanie Philips) – but I caught a few moments of it last night that were worth listening to. (Catch the repeat on Saturday at 22.15-23.00)

The questions posed by chair, Michael Buerk include: “What’s wrong with self-interest? … What’s wrong with being rich? … How can we reconcile our loftier ideals with the realities of human nature?”

Prof John Milbank put his finger on the issue, though we didn’t hear nearly enough of his thoughts, which included: “Capitalism has an inherent tendency to monopoly… towards huge divisions in society … [we are currently seeing] systemic immoral behaviour …”

Most significantly, he wondered why people are behaving in this way (purchasing goods they can’t really afford); then answered his own question:

“… People are motivated by respect and the avoidance of shame, so they go by whatever is regarded as 'excellent' in the society in which they live. It’s only since the 18th century that we’ve seen it as ‘excellent’ and ‘acceptable’ to earn as much money as possible in any way you like. … [as a society] we are telling people how to get ‘respect’ [i.e. by being good consumers].”

RESPECT; a little word that comes with a cart-load of baggage. (Isn’t that what the knife-wielding teenage gang-leaders are after too?)

A powerful analysis, I think, especially for the UK/USA, where “keeping up with the Joneses” is deeply ingrained in our society, and where only the very strong (and eccentric?) manage to buck consumerist trends. (Even being a vegetarian is regarded as ‘cranky’ in a society where meat-eating is synonymous with wealth and status.)

As you might expect, evolutionary psychologist, Michael Price, stated that humans are capable of both competing AND cooperating; and we’re now seeing a situation where long-term cooperative initiatives are being undermined by a few uber-competitive individuals. But he failed to volunteer a ‘solution’ (fair enough; he’s a scientist – he tells us what the situation is, not what to do about it).

Meanwhile, the guy from the Adam Smith Institute twisted and turned and got up everyone’s noses.

Thoughts for the day:

Will Self: “Economics is the pseudo-science that describes a set of magical relations.”

Michael Buerk’s final point summed up: “I’m self-interested; you’re greedy.”

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Wedding bells in a church of your choice

The Church of England moves in mysterious ways, that’s for certain. Apparently, they’ve finally come round to the idea (19 years too late, in my case) that they should allow people to get married in the church of their choice, not just the one that’s nearest to their current abode. This will be good news for some; and it means my very own Archbishop’s Special Licence will be a bit of national history, not just something for the family ‘archive’.

Church weddings have been going out of fashion for decades, but once the government ‘deregulated’ the marriage business in 1994 – leaving people free to celebrate their nuptials in, of all places, motorway service stations, hot-air balloons, and even the bottom of the sea – the C of E option looked even more dated.

Today, amid much rejoicing – i.e. the Bishop of Reading holding a special wedding breakfast accompanied by a gospel choir singing wedding favourites (deep joy!) – the C of E finally launched the Church of England Marriage Measure which means that you can get married outside your ‘home’ parish, providing the church of your choice has some sort of family connection.

And blow me, they’ve also launched a website dedicated to helping people get the church wedding of their dreams! There, you can read the “Seven steps to a heavenly wedding” (I kid you not); and meet a happy smiling and female vicar (via the magic of the interweb).

My, how things have changed since I walked down the aisle…

Neither of us were (are) church-goers; in fact Mr Ms_well.words is about as anti organised religion as it’s possible to get. But despite my atheism, I’m a former C of E head chorister, and I really wanted to have a wedding filled with good old-fashioned English psalmody. It didn’t turn out quite as I’d envisaged.

In 1989, we were living in London; my family in Yorkshire, his in Herts; and my aging granny too ill to travel but determined to get to the wedding one way or another.

The picturesque (and extremely popular) church near to my former home was fully booked, and in any case, wouldn’t marry us because we were not parishioners – in fact neither was my mother, it turned out. Once we investigated, we found out that her home was just over the parish boundary, and actually her local church was at the far end of her road; an old soot-blackened Victorian pile like so many others littering the City.

I’d read in a wedding magazine that it was possible to obtain an Archbishop's Special Licence to marry outside your own parish, so we contacted this local church to asked whether they would do the deed. I never did get to meet the vicar (a Curate dealt with our ‘case’), which is a shame because he later became rather famous in the national press for various misdemeanors! Plans went ahead over the phone, without us stepping foot in the actual building.

When I finally did go there, it was a bit of a shock. The grim and gritty (but authentic and definitely Northern) church outside had been stripped of its charm on the inside and ‘renovated’ to suit the Evangelicals who had moved in (complete with Sunday night ‘Rock’ events).

So, no angelic choir singing psalms; no vast organ pumping out Mendelssohn’s finest; no WEDDING BELLS…

By that time, we’d already gone to the trouble of getting the licence, signed and sealed by Archbishop R Runcie, so it was too late to change our minds. (Mr Ms_well.words had to go to Westminster Abbey in person to obtain it!)

Small wonder there was thunder and lightning during the Service…

Ever since, I’ve been meaning to get the Special Licence properly framed (instead of it being folded up in the bottom of a box of wedding snaps). Now it’s a piece of history, I’d better fish it out and put it somewhere safe.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Teaching to the test - an educational dilemma

OK, I give in. After a very unnerving experience at my local FE college last week, I’m prepared to go along with the knockers and tutters, and admit that “fings ain’t wot they used to be” in the world of education.

Every summer there’s a palaver when the GCSE and A-level results are published, over whether or not standards are slipping. On the one hand there are employers and universities having to provide catch-up courses in English and Maths because they claim that the youth of today aren’t making the grade; on the other the government praises the efforts of school children who are gaining higher scores in tests than ever before. I’ve tried really hard to swallow the government’s explanation (while acknowledging that - ever fearful of slipping down the league tables - schools simply don’t enter their pupils for tests they won’t pass). But last week’s experience has called all this into question for me.

What should have been a straightforward “interview” at my local FE college turned out to be a nightmarish 2-hour session at a computer screen in a library surrounded by ‘uncouf youfs’ doing their utmost to get up the nose of the poor librarian who was trying to monitor their on-line doings, viz. “I’m sure Jade Goody isn’t part of your coursework”.

I’ve applied to take a City & Guilds course called “Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector”, as a good way to get some feedback on my teaching style before I venture forth (again) to teach copy-editing skills. I filled in the various forms, and listed my qualifications (12 O-levels including Eng Lang (A) plus three other languages, 3 A-levels, a BA, and a Post-grad Diploma). I also got a good reference from a friend who’s been a teacher for many years. Then the college called me in for an interview.

This wasn’t a surprise; it said this was standard procedure in the prospectus. They also warned that literacy and numeracy tests were compulsory. [Why does Word’s spellchecker not like ‘numeracy’?]. But the format of the ‘interview’ was certainly unexpected.

About a dozen of us were huddled in a corner of the library while the course administrator ‘explained’ the course. Then we had to sit the tests, or should I say “take the Skills Base”. (Is that really what she said?)

This took the form of two ‘interactive’ tests, where the software behind the system gauges the level of questions according to previous answers.

That was rather disconcerting! I could tell I wasn’t doing as well as I’d expected when, in the literacy test, I suddenly hit a rash of “Is the following a complete sentence?” questions.

Well, I’m pretty darned sure I know a sentence when I see one; it was the wording of the question that bothered me. I’m sure they didn’t really mean ‘complete’ which, according to my shiny new Concise OED, means : “having all the necessary or appropriate parts; entire”. The examples given were ‘complete’ under that definition, but that’s not to say they didn’t need editorial input… However, there was no tick-box for that option, only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ were offered.

The numeracy test was slightly more straightforward. There’s no other option when you’re calculating the length of the hypotenuse.

Overall I passed (though not as well as I should have done), so I avoided the Little Britain “Computer says ‘nah’” moment. But pity the other course applicants who were struggling. Instead of each of us then being interviewed in privacy, the administrator got us all back together to check through our applications and answer any questions. This meant hanging around listening to other people’s private concerns before the humiliation of being told I’m working at “Level 2, but at Level 3 in some areas” – which is enough to get me on the course, but just goes to show that in the 20 years since I graduated, the education sector has changed a lot.

Principally I’ve learnt that they don’t seem to trust anyone’s ‘previous’. Everyone had to sit these tests, regardless of how many (or few) GCSEs or Doctorates they had.

I can only draw the conclusion that the skeptics are right after all – those stunning GCSE results and all those A* grades count for nothing if “computer says ‘nah’”.

Arriving home in a froth, I wasted time searching education websites and discovered that there are plenty of practice tests out there that I could have worked on to boost my score, dammit. So if you’re ever thinking of “improving your skills base” (!), avoid the humiliation of a less than perfect score by giving these a try first: readwriteplus or TDA practice materials.

It seems a sad fact of 21st century life – you really DO have to “teach to the test”.

Thought for the day: “We don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control!”

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Talking to the animals is not as daft as it sounds

Libby Purves (very irritating Radio 4 presenter) has just been speaking to Miranda Carey, a woman who gets people to talk (and listen) to horses as a form of psychotherapy (Midweek, Wednesday 24 September). Sitting alongside her in the studio was actor Ted Danson (ex. Cheers), who amusingly objected to Libby’s suggestion that this was all a bit “Californian wacko”. But is she right? An article I read in New Scientist (23 August) suggests this might not be quite as barmy as it sounds.

I wasn’t convinced by all the arguments put forward by Miranda Carey. She uses horses that have been traumatised (e.g. racehorses who’ve been stabled too much when they should have been out running in a herd in the fields), and gets her patients (one example was an abused and confused former prostitute) to work with the horses in a form of mutual therapy.

I could see the point of getting ex-cons to work with horses as a way of boosting their confidence. Why should a horse (or any other animal for that matter) care about your criminal record? They take you as they find you, and if you treat them right, you’ll be a friend for life. But I’m not so sure about the work she does with people who have more serious mental health problems. Even Libby expressed some concern (albeit in her infuriatingly jokey way) over the question of whether the animal needs to have been traumatised in order to fully appreciate the human’s worries… (Thank goodness Paul O’Grady – a well-known animal fanatic who apparently takes a sheep for a walk through the woods near his home in Kent – was in the studio to lend a bit of Northern commonsense to the proceedings!)

But there is something in Carey's argument. Kate Douglas, writing in New Scientist (23 August, pp33–35) says that over the thousands of years we’ve lived alongside dogs, the human-canine relationship has had a significant impact on dogs’ mental skills. If you think your dog’s trying to tell you something, you’re not just anthropomorphising.

Dogs, it seems, have developed an acute sense of right and wrong; they also have a repertoire of barks to tell us different things; and researchers in Cambridge (UK) have found that dogs can use human-like gestures to get their message across (e.g. pointing or staring at the thing they want). Dogs even learn in the same way as children – watching others complete a task, then copying and experimenting until they achieve the same goal.

None of that is really new to me, as a dog owner. I’ve learnt as much from my dog as he’s learnt from me (that’s why he can wind me around his paw to get what he wants). And if it’s true for dogs, why not also for horses, who’ve also been close companions to Homo sapiens for millennia?

And, if Paul O’Grady is right, why not sheep too?

Yet again, I’m glad I’m a vegetarian.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Battle of the Dictionaries: Collins vs the OED

Collins is stepping up its PR in an effort to win the ‘battle of the dictionaries’. Today’s ‘stunt’ caught my attention via Radio 4’s Today programme. Meanwhile the Oxford English Dictionary is keeping a lower (but more thoughtful?) profile, by sending one of its key researchers to talk to editors at the recent SfEP Conference.

Collins have issued a list of words that they want to omit from the lexicon and have lined up the usual household names to champion a word each. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, for instance, has chosen ‘skirr’; and Steven Fry has chosen ‘fubsy’. Their challenge is to get these words mentioned in public places as many times as possible between now and January, in order to merit a place in the Collins’ corpus.

Good stunt*; but should we really take this seriously?

My recent experience of teaching newby copy-editors suggests that many people really don’t understand how dictionaries, and the English Language itself, work. Does this matter? Well, it certainly does if you’re an editor. If you never go further than GCSE, it should, in theory, be acceptable to use a dictionary to check your spelling and not to worry too much about the origin of words and where they might be going. But use of English (or more to the point, mis-use) is a ‘Class Issue’ – not just because of the all-too-familiar debate over ‘political correctness’, but because so often a person’s use and mis-use of English is seized upon by the snipers and gripers as a stick with which to beat those who persistently fail to conform to “the rules” (whatever they may be!).

[John Prescott springs to mind. His political opponents (and sometimes even his friends) ridicule his linguistic jousting, and pick over his words like vultures would a carcass – reveling in every malapropism and mispronunciation, claiming his inability to string together a coherent sentence makes him unfit to govern. Whereas anyone who’s seen him speak at a Party Conference will know that it’s the passion he puts into his speeches that pulls him through every time (and I’m sure he’ll be sorely missed this week in Manchester, if they don’t let him on the podium).]

But if you’re a professional word-smith, you will know that English is ever changing, and in fact you have more influence than most over which words actually make it into the dictionaries, because the best are evidence-based rather than rules-bound, and we editors are the ones who are tweaking the words of the great and the good, and checking their usage: “Did you mean ‘disinterested’ or ‘uninterested’?”.

Both Collins and Oxford (and other publishers too, I dare say) collect examples of usage from all sorts of media, and record that information for posterity.

As Charlotte Brewer, Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, told SfEP Conference, the Oxford English Dictionary now runs to 20 volumes. Originally it set out to provide historical evidence of usage, but that meant it was not helpful on matters of ‘correctness’. This, says Brewer, has been an on-going dilemma for the editors of the OED. For example, in the 1890s there were two different meanings for ‘disinterested’: not interested (with an example from Donne; 1612); and impartial, unbiased (dated to 1659). Despite this evidence some modern readers will feel the former is ‘wrong’.

First Murray and then Burchfield wrestled with their consciences when it came to ‘editorialising’ (ouch; I’m sure neither would like that word!). These acclaimed OED editors were particularly troubled by pronunciation and profanity:

“It is a free country and a man may call a vase a vawse, a vahse, a vaze or a vase…” said Murray, who then contradicted himself by insisting that the silent p in pneumonia should be voiced because it helped people understand the origins (etymology) of the words.

Burchfield, working on a supplement to the OED in the 1960s and 70s, faced controversy over the definition of the word Jew (including death threats!), and dilemmas over which ‘rude’ words should be included (as Brewer pointed out, the literati were still reeling from the Lady Chatterley case).

He couldn’t resist the temptation to have his say on some of the ‘new-fangled’ words that were suggested: insinuendo (“tasteless”, said B); opinionnaire (“of doubtful usefulness”… well, he was spot on with that); and prioritize (“a word that at present sits uneasily in the language” … but which we’re now quite content to use!).

So next time you’re ‘embrangled’ in a debate over usage, remember that the greatest minds in the linguistic world are similarly troubled – and they don’t have all the answers either!

As for who wins the battle, don't ask me! I bought a new Concise OED after Brewer's talk (so the PR worked on me!) but I don't care for its design which is goes for legibility over detail. So I'm still dipping into my trusty old Chambers for the meatier stuff (favourite: paragoge/paragogue ns. an addition at the end of a word, as t in against, amidst, amongst, whilst).

* Actually, not such a good stunt. Despite wasting a fair few minutes surfing and Googling, I can only find one primary link to this ‘news’ apart from the Radio 4 prog. – an article in the Times (online). What’s up with the Collins press office?

Friday, 19 September 2008

Aghaarr! Corny pirate joke ahoy

Aghaarr, Aghaarr, Aghaarr (trs: I say, I say, I say)

How much did the pirate pay for his wooden leg and hook?

… An arm and a leg!

[Don't blame me; blame it on the Beano … well, it is "International talk like a pirate day"!]

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Silly bankers - What the Dickens* is going on?

With the financial crisis worsening by the minute and HBOS the next big name bank to be facing meltdown, it's probably not the right time to tell the bankers to take an hour off and read a book.

But if they did have a few hours to spare (and let's face it, a fair few of them will in the coming months), what do we recommend they should read?

Forget the self-help manuals and the get-rich-quick tomes. Go for a bit of Dickens, I'd tell 'em:

Start with Martin Chuzzlewit; and if you've got half an ounce of empathy in that greed-addled brain of yours, you'll quickly see that the Big CD foresaw exactly the kind of crisis you've now got yourself into. Witness Martin and poor sop Mark Tapley off on a fool's errand to make their fortune in - of all things - the US real estate sector!

And witness Montague Tigg and his ne'er-do-well business partners as they fleece the populace with their Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company.

If that all sounds like heavy going (and it honestly isn't - it's excellent, entertaining stuff) then pop down to the library (yes, they do still exist, but only just) and borrow a GCSE-level history book, flick through the index for "South Sea Bubble" and "Tulip" … And maybe you'll finally get the message!

* Any editors out there may by now have realised that I deliberately used a cap D for Dickens.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Populism at the Proms – where Barenboim meets the Cybermen?

I can’t make my mind up about the Proms: is it good for the ‘classical music scene’, or pandering to populism?

I didn’t watch Saturday’s Last Night at the Proms, but I heard snippets on the radio while I did some chores. The performances were, as you’d expect, of a high standard, but the programme (i.e. pieces chosen) was, basically, unremarkable.

I can understand why people get worked up about the Royal Albert Hall gig. If you’re on the inside, there’s a great atmosphere, and that can be catching when you’re watching at home. What I can’t fathom is the Proms in the Park element.

I went to a few of the picnic-and-performance-type events at Kenwood (Hampstead) some years back when they were the ‘in thing’, but apart from the snob value of getting your candelabra out of your Fortnum & Mason’s picnic hamper, I didn’t get ‘it’. You couldn’t hear the music over the braying of the socialites; and I’m scared of fireworks, so that element of the proceedings is a write-off anyway.

Given that PitP has to be a September event, the odds are stacked against a pleasant evening’s chillin’ with your mates; far more likely to be genuinely chilled - to the point where blankets, raincoats, wellies and thermal undies are essential.

Why stand in the cold and the dark to catch a glimpse of a distant orchestra churning out the ‘pops’, and listen to Terry Wogan doing his ‘not-the-Eurovision-Song-Contest’ compère routine?

Is this really the impression the classic music ‘industry’ ought to be conveying? And is that really what the Proms are about?

No, I don’t think so. And it’s a shame that this is most people’s only encounter with the Proms, because there were a couple of great things worth shouting about (probably several more, but these are the ones I notice):

First was the Dr Who Prom, back in July. I was annoyed they’d canceled the Blue Peter fixture this year, mainly because that cut the child-friendly gigs from two down to one, but fair play to the BBC, the Dr Who Prom was spectacular. And hopefully the children will have subliminally picked up on the crucial role that orchestral music plays in TV and films.

Those Cybermen are a joke on their own, but once their ‘theme’ starts up and they come marching down the stairs into the Royal Albert Hall, they really were pretty terrifying. The two boys I’d taken with me looked very worried: they couldn’t find a sofa to hide behind!

Some of the critics panned Murray Gold’s music, but I’m now a convert – the show would be nothing without it, and it stood up well in a concert format.

The other items were predictable (except for the Mark-Anthony Turnage premier, which was most welcome), but you have to make concessions to the likely age of the audience. Mind you, the woman sitting next to me (who’d come on her own) confessed that she’d only come because she’s a Dr Who fan – particularly enamoured of David Tennant. And I bet she wasn’t the only one!

It’s too late now to “listen again” (the BBC i-player only had the concerts posted for a week), but apparently they’re going to show it on TV, so if you’re a Dr Who fan, or interested in the music, keep your eye on the BBC website for details.

The second great concert was something I hadn’t intended to listen to, but caught my attention when I was at my desk one evening. It was so spell-binding I had to stop work to listen. What was it?

Prom 38: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

This is conductor Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra, which he formed in collaboration with the Palestinian philosopher Edward Said. Members are from both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They’re young and they play together with great fervour.

It wasn’t just the excellent playing that got me hooked, though; it was the atmosphere in the RAH. Of course, when the audience had the chance to show their appreciation, they certainly did, but even before that, I could tell that they were enraptured – I don’t know how I knew. Maybe having been there just a week or so beforehand it was easy for me to be back there in my mind’s eye?

But more significantly, it took me straight back to the two live performances I’ve seen of Steve Reich’s The Cave. This work views the situation in the Middle East conflict from three different angles: Arab, Israeli and American. To someone like me, who hadn’t a clue about what goes on over there (other than that it’s a seemingly endless tragedy) it was a revelation. Whether or not you like Minimalist composers (and I really think you should!), and where ever you sit in the political spectrum, I highly recommend this – live, if possible. I also recommend Anthony Holden’s review of the 2006 performance at the Barbican; he says it all so much better than I ever could.

But finally, perhaps they have converted me to populism after all – I thought Sue Perkins did a grand job as a Maestro! (The only bit of the PitP I did see.) The series was entertaining and informative; just goes to show that getting “grades” doesn’t necessarily make you musical (Goldie vs Katie Derham, anyone?).

Monday, 15 September 2008

Goodbye Grange Hill… and good riddance

So, today sees the broadcast of the last ever episode of the BBC's 'flagship' children's drama, Grange Hill. Well, now I'm 42-and-three-quarters I'm a bit out of their target demographic, I guess, but I'm really glad they're finally getting rid of GH.

The show's been running for 30 years, so back in 1978 when it started I'd just 'escaped the horrors of the English comprehensive system', that is, I'd been packed off to an all-girls boarding school to try to keep me away from the trouble-makers and get on with some proper study.

Our TV diet was very strictly controlled (Top of the Pops on Thursdays; Dallas on a Saturday; Robin of Sherwood on a Sunday) and so I only saw Grange Hill in the school holidays. And I remember that it definitely did conform to the prejudices I was being force-fed - that the comprehensive system was a disaster, that kids bunked off, cheeked their teachers, got into trouble, and teenage pregnancies were the norm.

Of course, I now know different (hey, they have bullies, drugs, and teenage pregnancies in boarding schools too, folks!), but I didn't find it entertaining then, and I don't like it now.

These days, though, I see the programme in a different light - as a parent. (Watch out: rant approaching!!)

The thing is, instead of stretching kids' imaginations and engaging them in things they'd never otherwise encounter, GH just reflected back 'real life' which, for some kids then and now can be dull, depressing, frightening and lacking in opportunity.

It's not so much the bad behaviour that bothers me. Mischief can be entertaining, and 'cute', providing it doesn't go too far (I'm still a fan of Dennis the Menace and his pals; not so sure about Horrid Henry, though). What gets to me is that the kids of GH often had little respect for the adults around them (admittedly, some of the adults certainly didn't deserve any). I can't help wondering what subliminal effect GH had on classroom behaviour then and now.

There were some great shows back then that were eclipsed by GH. And GH started a trend for grittier children's shows, so that today the BBC's offering is pretty low-grade - too many progs are just imitating adult reality TV formats.

One last thought: I'm not saying that all kids' TV should be Blyton-esque; but the schedulers ought to bear in mind that programmes for 13-year-olds are probably also watched by their 6-, 7- or 8-year-old siblings.

Can we scrap Tracy Beaker next please?

Friday, 12 September 2008

Crystal on txtng and blogs at SfEP Conference

(The post formerly known as: "A blog a day keeps the sanity inspectors at bay")

Some people have suggested that blogging is the worst form of vanity publishing - unmoderated, unedited outpourings from all and sundry - but I'm pleased to report that two 'experts' this week have confirmed my view that blogging is an activity that's, so far, been underestimated as a communications technique.

Students of journalism may already be drafting their final year dissertations on "…The symbiotic relationships between bloggers and journalists…" [insert quasi-academic phraseology of your choice] but when a highly respected and serious academic says that of all the various forms of 'electronically mediated communication' (EMC), blogging looks set to have the greatest impact on the English Language, I'm happy to bow to his greater knowledge.

David Crystal, speaking at this week's Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) annual conference, gave an entertaining insight into the impact the World Wide Web is having on the English Language.

He was on to a winner with me from the start, because he's been studying how people behave when they communicate electronically - a topic that's been getting under my skin for quite some time. Why do some people get so snippy in chatrooms and newsgroups? Why do I feel nervous when an unknown correspondent emails with a cheery "Hi, X" instead of "Dear Ms…"? And why did one client accuse me of being 'brusque' when I thought I was 'saving time by getting straight to the point'? But enough of my anxieties…

DC started out by explaining that 'conversation' is so successful because you look at the other person while they're speaking and there's an element of 'simultaneous feedback'. The listener isn't passive; they're making gestures and helping the speaker to keep on flowing by 'offering corrections', that is, clues about how the recipient is reacting to what the speaker is saying.

He rightly pointed out that although we call it 'chat', that's not really what goes on in a chatroom or a newsgroup. He compared the chatroom to being at a party and trying to chip in on all the conversations that are going on around you. In real life, it's neither possible nor sensible; but in a chatroom (i.e. on-screen) you can do this - though it's a skill that some have yet to acquire.

For example, an interesting snippet from his research is that there's a limit to how many times you can bat an email back and forth before one or other of the readers loses the plot [tell me about it!]. Email programs helpfully 'frame' the replies for you, by flagging the previous comments down the left hand side of the message with a coloured line. But DC suggested people can only handle up to about six iterations before, in my case, I throw up my hands in despair and pick up the phone instead.

He didn't say anything about how this might affect people in newsgroups such as SfEPline [I guess he wanted to make it to the conference dinner without getting his shins kicked] but it's easy to see how some people get discombobulated by the multiple threads and iterations, and tempers start to fray.

All of which was in interesting diversion on the way to his main point (fair dues, he had a book to plug) which was that, contrary to 'popular opinion', the growth of EMC does not signal the ruination of English-as-we-know-it.

DC's book, txtng, aims to allay fears that the next generation will mangle the English Language to such a degree that us oldies will be cast out to the fringes of pedantry. Sensibly he points out that "You have to know how to spell before you can txt"; and that we've been using contractions and abbreviations to communicate for donkeys' years.

If 'txtng' is harmless, what then of 'blogging'?

Well, DC reckons that blogging could have the greatest impact on the English Language, because it's grass-roots opinion, unmoderated and unedited - a communications methodology we haven't seen since the Middle Ages. He's seen some amazing examples of English usage (and abusage) on his travels in cyberspace: "It's the written language in its most naked form". Of greatest interest are the blogs that pay little heed to the usual conventions - ungrammatical, lacking punctuation - and yet are still perfectly intelligible.

What does that tell us about the endless rounds of "should it be a comma or a semi-colon" that twitter away in an editor's brain? Well, another speaker at the SfEP Conference (Charlotte Brewer, talking about the Oxford English Dictionary) had plenty to say on that subject, but I'll have to leave that for a later post.

Suffice to say that my take on DC's presentation is that blogging isn't a waste of time. For me, at least, it's a way to flex my writing muscles without being bogged down with my clients' expectations. And I'm pleased to hear that it's also good for my mental health (according to Joanna Moorhead's article in Tuesday's Guardian; though I hasten to add I'm well aware my problems are as nothing compared to those of the folks she's writing about).

Thought for the day: "Blogging: 'syrup of figs' for the 21 Century."

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The scoop that wasn't

While waiting for a train one day last week, I couldn't help hearing someone being very indiscreet about their employer, to the extent that they were discussing details of various (identifiable) contracts they were working on, including those involving litigation - and worst of all, pretty damning details about the company's pricing policy.

Given that this company is frequently involved in government-funded projects, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not that the 'finger-in-the-air' approach to pricing surprised me, but fancy talking about it on a busy railway platform!

Now, this is why I never call myself a 'journalist': instead of phoning up the (highly influential) trade magazine which covers that industry sector and selling my 'scoop' to the diary page for a (no doubt small) fee, and causing a great deal of embarrassment and potentially a massive row in the process, I've kept quiet.

They say 'talk is cheap' don't they? It certainly wouldn't have been for the person I overheard - they'd have been disciplined, possibly even sacked.

As well as from reminding me, once again, why I know I don't have the killer instinct a journalist needs, the incident also reminded me how easy it is to accidentally spill a few too many beans - especially when a chatty client says in all innocence (well, that's what I thought), "What are you working on?".

Mental note: don't be too specific - no names; no whatsits.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

CERNtainly not a whimper

Well, we're all still here, folks. We haven't yet been sucked into a Black Hole as a result of the scientific shenanigans in Geneva this morning. But I gather the scientists did commission a study a while back, just to be certain that turning on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) wouldn't be the end of life on Earth (well, Earth itself, actually).

Twenty years ago I'd just finished my Finals (BA Joint Hons) in Physics and Music. I had never set out to be a physicist; all I wanted to do was gain an appreciation of this fundamental science. My final year dissertation was on "Potential applications for superconductors" - the technology that's today powering the beam of particles round its 27km circuit somewhere underneath Geneva. Guess what? I didn't predict this! But it was, I now realise, my first piece of 'science communication', because basically it was a literature search/summary of what was going on in physics labs around the world in what was then a pretty esoteric topic.

Fast forward 10 years, and I had just finished a Diploma in Science Communication at Birbeck. In the first year of this (then) two-year course, one of our number was from the CERN press office. I wonder whether he's still there? And I wonder whether he's one of the science communicators who, it seems, have learnt a thing or two from the 'spin doctors'.

Because this morning's coverage in the UK broadcast media is testimony to the CERN scientists' expertise as communicators. The Big Bang end-of-the-world-is-nigh-style coverage has grabbed the imaginations of small boys of my acquaintance (hopefully small girls too, but I haven't talked to any this week). I don't entirely approve of taking this tabloidese tack, but you have to admit, it's got a result.

Am I jealous of those science communicators who've finally got physics on the front pages? You bet! But I'm more niggled by the up-coming programme on Radio 4 this morning that's going to talk to 'celebrities who like science' in Physics Rocks.

Why should that get up my nose? Simple: the most enjoyable part of the Diploma for me was the Radio topic. I scripted and produced a radio programme aimed at schoolchildren on great careers in science, which included our take on the TOTP of celebrity scientists - Brian May being the best known back then. The intro theme tune for our programme "Free to choose" was Oasis's "Whatever" (You're free-ee, to be whatever you…) and we wound up with The Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony. And now I can't hear either of those tracks without being transported back to the BBC World Service studio where we put our programme together under 'live' conditions.

I loved it. I loved the teamwork, I loved the live action; and it was great working in the studio with all the slidy-fader-doodahs (reminded me of recording projects for the music half of my weird degree); and for a little while I really did think that a career in radio beckoned. Science radio - what better use of a degree in Physics and Music?

But just a couple of months later I made the ultimate 'choice' and gave up my freedom for ever (OK, slight exaggeration there; call it poetic licence). What am I on about? I became pregnant.

So yes, I'm jealous - a bit. But I made my choice and I don't regret it. Who knows, one day I may get back into the studio. In the meantime, well done to all the scientists and engineers at CERN - and three cheers for the fantastic internationally collaboration which goes to show that we can all work together when there's something we really want to achieve (please solve climate change next, chaps!!). But I'd like to give an extra cheer to the CERN press officers and all the PRs who've done a grand job in getting this story into the headlines.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Clash of the deadlines

aka "Not really the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster**".

They're just like buses, aren't they, deadlines? Nothing happens for quite a while, then there's a sudden flurry and everyone wants everything done straight away. I'd bet money on the fact that this week is one of the worst of the year for that - what with everyone back off their holidays, and back into "getting things done" mode, especially with the Party Conference Season looming. The other hectic period, for me at least, tends to be around Easter time, when government-related projects (and many others too) all have to be finished and invoiced before the end of the year.

Annoying, really, as I've a great long list of juicy things to blog about, and no time to do it. Still, I need the money, so better get on with it…

**Note for film fans: just Googled "Clash of the Titans" (1981, stars Laurence Olivier et al; don't recall ever seeing it, actually!) and I see that someone's doing a remake: director Louis Leterrier. Hey, you read it here first! (Do you care?)

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Police, politicians and paintings

Sometimes the juxtaposition of news items simply can't be ignored.

A snippet on Today (Radio 4) this morning caught my attention: A couple in Cambridgeshire were being burgled, and phoned 999, only to get a text message from the local police instead of an actual Bobby.

Next item up was Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, asking the nation to stump up £100 million to buy a couple of paintings. Well, they're Titians, and I'm sure they're fabulous. But they're owned by the Duke of Sutherland and they've been on loan from the Duke of Sutherland's estate since 1945. Is the guy really so hard up that he needs to cash in his family heirlooms? I doubt it.

Normally I wouldn't join the chorus who cry for 'money for nurses/schools' [insert pet issue of your choice], mainly because the sums involved in such cases tend to be trifles in the overall scheme of government spending (and as a former civil servant I know that a million quid doesn't go very far).

Nicholas Penny said that buying the pix would "end decades of anxiety about them being sold overseas". Doesn't the man realise that one of the many things people do when they holiday abroad is visit famous galleries to see famous painting? I could take him a tiny bit more seriously if he was wanting to save something from destruction, but overseas? What's the big deal?

Sometimes public spending is a case of 'what goes around comes' - e.g. give civil servants a 4% pay rise and they'll have a tiny bit more spending power in the high street and the VAT will dribble into the Treasury's coffers. In this case, though, I can't see it happening. Do we really think the Duke will stump up the Capital Gains from his 'car boot sale'?

On the other hand, £100 million (or even half of that - which is what he's likely to get) would buy quite a few bicycles for the Bobbies of Cambridgeshire, and if it's a choice between fighting off burglars rummaging through my drawers and keep a couple of paintings on home turf, I think I know which I'd choose.

[Sorry; links are to Daily Telegraph (top when I Googled), as BBC website has gone temporarily awol.]

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Weird radio

I don't usually listen to Classic FM, but my desk-side radio is still tuned in because I was working over the weekend (when R3 goes a bit jazzy).

I'm interested in demographics, and how advertisers tap in to same to get us all to buy stuff. But they've got me worried this morning.

My ear'oles were assaulted by a weird ad for the Classic FM chart show: "Will the Three Tenors knock the chanting monks off the top of the chart?" [Ans: "Do I give a damn?"] followed by the programme sponsor's 'ident' which went something like:

"The Classic FM chart, brought to you by Pedigree Joint Care - putting the bounce back into old dogs."

Conjures up some very strange images in my mind (surely Classic FM's listeners would be better off sticking to the Viagra?)

Monday, 25 August 2008

A lesson from Doris

I just caught the end of a major interview with Doris Lessing on today's Woman's Hour (Radio 4). The fragment I heard was fascinating - particularly how winning the Nobel Prize has affected her. But there was one comment that stuck out a mile:
"Being old is a way of life."
By which she meant, she's so busy taking herself from one hospital appointment to another that she doesn't have time for much else - certainly not writing!

Not the cheeriest of thoughts, but perhaps a useful incentive to get on with things while you have got the time…

… if only. I once heard a similarly (un)inspiring aphorism:
In youth, you have health and time, but no money
In middle age, you have health and money, but no time
In old age, you have time and money*, but no health.
*Whoever wrote this obviously wasn't a freelance editor living in the South East with a massive mortgage and son who hoovers up food as fast as I can shove it in the trolley.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Big Read (aka I nicked this from Dougalfish)

Spotted on Dougalfish's blog, and so hard to resist:

Big Read

The rules:

1) Bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) [Bracket] the books you LOVE.
4) Reprint this list on your own blog.

1. [The Lord of the Rings], JRR Tolkien
2. [Pride and Prejudice], Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy], Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. [Winnie the Pooh], AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. [Jane Eyre], Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. [Wuthering Heights], Emily Brontë
13. [Birdsong], Sebastian Faulks
14. [Rebecca], Daphne du Maurier
15. [The Catcher in the Rye], JD Salinger
16. [The Wind in the Willows], Kenneth Grahame
17. [Great Expectations], Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. [Gone with the Wind], Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. [Alice's Adventures In Wonderland], Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. [A Town Like Alice], Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. [Anne Of Green Gables], LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. [Anna Karenina], Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. [The Magic Faraway Tree], Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
76. [The Secret History], Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

53/100 - not quite as many as I thought I'd read. Odd.

Far too difficult to choose a favourite. I'd normally say Rebecca, but can't ignore Jane Eyre, Catcher in the Rye, Pride and Prej, Lord of the Rings, blah blah.

Am now even more aware that I haven't read a good book in ages. (Too much time wasted on blogging and such-like?)