St Pancras Chambers – from cosy to cool

 

Booking Hall

Flikr.com – The old booking hall

In The Eighteenth of November Fabriel and Alice take refuge in the derelict St Pancras Chambers after the fire. It becomes their home for the duration of the story. I have always loved that wonderful mock-Gothic building. I bless Sir John Betjeman for his part in getting it listed Grade I, thus saving it from being demolished. Despite its listed status, when I was writing the book the building was still in a terrible mess, both inside and, perhaps a little less so, outside.

St Pancras Chambers, now carefully restored, has transformed into the magnificent St Pancras Renaissance hotel, with luxury flats above it. Many of the sumptuous, original Victorian features have been preserved; it bears no resemblance to the wreck of a building that I explored. And the old station itself is now a typical, and expensive, mall type shopping area, with the Eurostar check in on one side and local services at the back. The Eurostar trains are one level up, where you will now also find some additional bars, including the long, narrow champagne bar.

I still miss the dirty, somewhat tatty and romantic old station. When you walked into the old Booking Hall you could easily imagine you had been transported back to Victorian times. The station itself was sort of cosy, if you can say that of a station. It held so many memories for me. It was from the old station that we caught the train to Sheffield every week when I was doing my M.A.; it inspired me. That’s all changed. If you travel to Sheffield nowadays you have a long hike through the new squeaky-clean malls to reach the repositioned St Pancras station. Totally devoid of any atmosphere or interest, it may be clean and modern, but it’s boring and hasn’t a romantic bone in its body.

A Near Miss

 

NearThingCrazyCover

I was really looking forward to reading this book. I was attracted by the cover (so nice not to have yet another wishy-washy, pastel chick-lit type of cover) and by the title and the blurb on Amazon. I’d also read some splendid psychological thrillers recently, notably Gone Girl and was eager for more. I was to be disappointed.

Strangely though, this was almost a good read. That is, if you are thinking mostly in terms of the need to keep reading to find out what happens. On the other hand I found myself profoundly irritated, right from the start. The first and continuing source of my irritation was the editing, or rather the lack of it. If ever a book could have done with a good pruning, this was it. You make a point, or describe someone’s innermost thoughts, or describe a scene. Then you stop. There is no need to say the same thing over and over again, in slightly different ways.

A woman so transparent their brains must have been in their floral wellies not to have seen right through her.

I have just reviewed Norwegian by Night. A book that has many joys, of which the main one is the character of Sheldon. So endearing, prickly and flawed that you almost believe he is real. The characters in this book are the complete opposite.

Two-dimensional paper cut outs, straight out the pages of Country Life or Country Living. And shallow with it. And gullible. So-called friends willing to believe the worst on the say-so of a comparative stranger. A woman so transparent their brains must have been in their floral wellies not to have seen right through her.

This is such a pity, as the premise of the story is a good one. Gaslighting is a chilling form of mental abuse where false information is cunningly planted to cause the victim to doubt his or her own sanity. The fact that it happens in the real world should have lent credence to the book. And there were indeed a few occasions when I wasn’t sure who was the victim and who the perpetrator, as was the author’s intention. But in the end it wasn’t enough.

In view of all this, why would I give the book three stars on Goodreads? Simple. Because despite my many criticisms, this is a book that you have to keep on reading – no mean achievement for any writer. It’s a shame that the ending is rushed and implausible. Implausible or not there’s nevertheless a brilliant, subtle clue right at the very beginning. One which I missed though it’s hiding in plain sight. See if you can spot it.

A cloaked, twisted figure …

Cover: The Eighteenth of November

Extract from Chapter 10 – The Eighteenth of November

The light from the vast clock glowed sharp white, throwing a carved gargoyle into sinister relief. Alice jumped, her heart racing like a hamster’s wheel. She was being silly, she told herself, there was nothing to be frightened of, it was just a stone effigy. She set off again, gripping the rail more tightly. After a few steps she glanced back; she let out a shriek, stumbled and almost fell. It had moved. She was sure it had moved; and its eyes had glowed red. Fabriel didn’t respond to her cry. He didn’t even move when she sat down next to him. Didn’t give the smallest sign that he was aware of her presence. This was no longer the gentle protector she’d met in the park, the one who’d tucked her up in her nest of pillows. Alice put her hand in her pocket and touched the mouse. She would have liked to take it out and talk to it, but was intimidated by the presence of this stranger.

Alice wondered if she’d offended him in some way and then told herself not to be so selfish. From the look of him, she was the last thing on his mind. Alice hotched closer and leaned against him. He didn’t stir. She sat quietly and stared ahead wishing she could figure out what had happened to her. She couldn’t concentrate. She felt as though her thoughts were bubbles floating around and past her. They burst if she reached for them. There were pictures too; snapshots that disappeared as quickly as they’d appeared. A red tractor. A little striped cardigan. A tiny mottled egg. Flames. She didn’t even know the names any more, seeing only the pictures before they disappeared. Perhaps it was best not to try to think too much. Alice closed her eyes. Perhaps it was another dream. If so it was a very long one; she hoped she’d wake up soon.

They didn’t notice the crouched gargoyle bare its stone fangs nor see its smooth contours waver and dissolve. A cloaked, twisted figure began to traverse the roof in scuttling, crablike movements, dodging between the dormers, melting into the shadows cast by the giant clock. There it squatted in the gloom, glaring down at their entwined figures, gibbering with malice. Its glittering eyes shone like coals beneath the all-enveloping hood. A stink of sulphur crept across the cold night air.

 Now available on Amazon Kindle.

On the roof

Cover: The Eighteenth of November

Extract from Chapter 10 – The Eighteenth of November

The roof looked very steep, and dangerous. Alice nearly cried out for him to be careful. Remembered just in time that angels are used to heights. She wasn’t used to heights. She wanted him to come and help her but something about him stopped her calling out. The doorway led onto a long, narrow platform; Alice stepped out onto it, clinging onto the doorframe with one hand and not letting go until she could hold the platform rail with the other. She stood there, gripping it tightly, hardly daring to look down, keeping her eyes fixed on Fabriel until she felt safe enough to sit, still holding onto the rail, using both hands now.

It was dark but a lightness in the sky suggested dawn or just before; it was hard to tell. The sound she’d heard was louder now though she still couldn’t make out what it was. A little below, to her right, she could see the outline of roofs and chimneys and, further down, windows. Blurred squares seen as if under water or through muslin. And was that a lighthouse perched on a roof? Perhaps she was dreaming after all. She looked back to where Fabriel sat under a huge clock. It loomed over him, so close it looked as if it could topple straight down on him and crush him. She thought with a pang that he looked crushed already.

His whole body spoke of defeat. She wanted to go to him and hold him but was afraid at first to leave the platform. When at last she plucked up courage and made a move she found that it was easier than she’d thought. There was a little ladder at the back of the platform and the roof, although though it sloped a bit, was flat and quite wide with a rail to cling on to. After a few steps it was just like walking on the pavement, if she didn’t look down.

Now available on Amazon Kindle

 

Alice and the Mice

Cover: The Eighteenth of November

Extract from Chapter 7 – The Eighteenth of November

The first thing Alice noticed was the mice. They were everywhere, lying across the rails and between the rails. Some were stretched out on the platforms, some huddled under the benches. They lay singly and in piles, perfect little corpses. Someone had once told her why the mice in the underground were so small but she couldn’t remember now. It didn’t matter anyway. They were dead. Alice knelt down and took one of the tiny creatures between her thumb and forefinger, straightened up again and sat on the bench with the frail body in her lap.

She stroked its soft black fur rhythmically with one finger. She lifted up a tiny paw and studied the perfect nails, glowing like seashells hidden in its pelt. She turned it over and tickled the loose underbelly, scratching under its chin as if it had been alive and begging silently for more. The way cats do. Alice slipped the mouse in her pocket, keeping her hand on its furry body. She wondered if it had babies. She’d had a baby once. She wondered what had happened to it.

Alice set off down the deserted platform towards the tunnel. The strange silence reminded her of her favourite book, a book she’d loved when she was six and which she’d never quite forgotten. It had a rectangular yellow cloth cover and shiny coloured pictures and she’d never been able to find it again, even though she’d searched bookshops. She couldn’t even remember the title. It was all about some children who’d woken up from sleep one day to find their village deserted, all the parents gone. The children had set out to find them. Alice didn’t remember if the parents had been found or even why they’d been spirited away, but in her head she could still see the pictures of the underground tunnel where the elves lived, dimly lit with orange lanterns shaped like seed heads.

There were no lanterns here, no elves. There was a strong smell of smoke and oil as if there’d been a fire, but no signs of fire or even an explosion or any other clue as to what had happened. Maybe it had been gas. They couldn’t all have died from natural causes. Not all these mice. Alice had to keep her eyes down as she walked, to avoid treading on them, and considered for a moment trying to sweep them all up into neat piles so they wouldn’t be crushed as well as suffocated. There was no broom, though, and nothing else that would do, like a stiff piece of cardboard or stick or something. She shoved the mice gently to the side with her foot as she made her slow way along the platform, so that as she progressed a wavy line of little bodies formed a wake behind her. She stopped when she got to the tunnel. She wanted to go in, to walk along the rails, to see what it was like. Maybe she’d find the elves.

Now available on Amazon Kindle

A surreal, twentieth-century parody of hell

 

Cover: The Eighteenth of November

An extract from Chaper 6 - The Eighteenth of November

The escalator levelled out. People pressed forward. Fabriel was shoved hard against the girl; the back of her neck was soaked in sweat. He put his arms out to protect her, suddenly conscious of the wet on his own shirt and under his arms. His feet were burning. He looked down; flames were licking round his ankles in a surreal, twentieth-century parody of hell. Then a noise like a high wind. Something that looked like a jet of flame. People screaming. A pall of oily black smoke engulfed him.

They fell together, the girl underneath him banging her head on the hard floor; the baby was sandwiched between them. It didn’t cry. Something crashed down, right by his head; heat seared his face and throat. He ducked; the girl wasn’t moving but he felt the baby stir. Fabriel pulled his jumper up so it covered his mouth and nose then, keeping as close to the floor as he could, bundled the baby under one arm and with the other grabbed at the girls coat and tried to pull her along. He made slow progress for he hadn’t got much purchase and, although she was slight, she was a dead weight. The baby under his arm started wriggling and whimpering. His face was practically on the floor but every breath he took was like breathing in fire. His eyes were streaming. He couldn’t see in the oily darkness.

The sensible thing would be to get the baby out and come back for the girl but he knew he’d never find her again, even if she survived the flames. His head throbbed. A great wave of tiredness engulfed him. He was vaguely aware of the baby, still wriggling, but his grip on it was weakening. ‘Hang on in there.’ Fabriel snapped into consciousness. Another face an inch from his. Fabriel tried to speak, heard only cries and screaming. Made a gesture towards the girl. His rescuer got the message. The man grabbed the girl beneath her shoulders and crawled backwards, pulling her behind him. Fabriel followed as best he could, sliding on his stomach and elbows commando-style, the baby wedged between one arm and his chest. It had stopped wriggling.

Now available on Amazon Kindle

Alice knew quite a lot about angels …

 

Cover: The Eighteenth of November

Extract from Chapter 2 - The Eighteenth of November

Alice thought she heard the alarm clock shrill, but turned over and decided she’d dreamed it. Then she dreamed that she heard something scratching at the door. It was only when Lucy jumped on her back that she realised the sounds had been real. ‘Get off cat!’ She turned over and burrowed under the covers but Lucy just came further up the bed and sat on her head. Alice shook the duvet to dislodge the animal, but she clung on with all four sets of claws. ‘Get off Lucy, you daft thing. Go on, bugger off.’

‘Lucy!’ Matt had exclaimed. ‘What sort of name is that for a cat.’

‘It’s really Lucifer,’ she’d said sulkily. ‘But we found out it’s a girl. So now she’s Lucy.’

‘Why not Beelzebub? Much nicer.’

‘I told you, she’s a girl.’

‘Lilith then.’

‘Lilith wasn’t an angel,’ she’d said, taking the mewing kitten from him and placing it in its basket.

Alice knew quite a lot about angels. She’d always liked the fallen angels best and thought that chasing them out of Heaven seemed hardly Christian. She’d continued to hold a torch for Lucifer and his brothers, even when mocked by Matt and his friends. She’d been little then, and perhaps more resilient. Now, at twenty-two, she wasn’t as sure as she had been. Matt said she let people push her around. That was just great, coming from him. When she did stand up for herself people made a big deal about it. ‘Oh look. Alice is being assertive.’

A wail from the box room announced that Zoë too was being assertive. But by the time Alice had shuffled into her slippers and padded across the corridor the child was fast asleep again. Alice sat on the corner of the upright chair and watched her baby through the bars, her breathing automatically adjusting to Zoë’s so that soon their chests rose and fell together. Zoë’s little puckered mouth made rubbing, goldfishy movements from which tiny sounds escaped. It was a bit like the sound waves might make sucking in and out of a miniature cave.

The door creaked; a ginger shape slid into the room and made for the chair. The child’s eyelashes fluttered. Alice felt the warm tickle of Lucy’s fur on her bare legs. She should get up and feed the cat, and she needed to get dressed and wake Zoë and feed and dress her too. She didn’t stir. Just sat there savouring the sight and sound of her baby, the smell of her, all warm and milky like fresh custard. Alice put her hand through the bars of the cot and smoothed back the damp dark curls plastered on Zoë’s forehead. Was she running a temperature? Should she ring Martha and cancel? Call in sick at work?

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Fabriel’s Dream

Cover: The Eighteenth of NovemberExtract from Chapter 1 – The Eighteenth of November

He was running through a wood, moving faster than the ground allowed. His toe caught on a root, he fell heavily onto his shoulder and lay winded. He scrambled to his feet, cursing, and ran on until the trees began to thin out and he could see a vast field, stretching ahead of him. It sloped downwards in a gentle gradient before rising sharply to a small hill. His breath caught in his throat. From the summit of the hill a column of smoke rose dark against the sodden winter sky.

He threw himself forward, almost falling down the field in his desperation. As he reached the bottom, drifts of thick yellow smoke billowed towards him, searing his eyes and burning his nostrils. Firefly sparks settled on his clothes and in his hair He pulled his cloak across his face and charged upwards. As he mounted the last slope the smoke parted suddenly, like a curtain, revealing indistinct shapes darting and scurrying about like ants round a disturbed nest.

At the summit a mass of people formed an impenetrable hedge, the smoke so thick he could scarcely see their features. He fought to get through, clawing, gouging, kicking, using hands, feet and elbows. Suddenly the crowd surged forward, baying, dragging him with them. He burst out of the circle and found himself staring at the thing in the burning embers.

Fabriel woke screaming, lay still, trembling, the screams still ringing in his head. They could stay there for hours, days. There had been times when he dared not sleep for fear of them. He made himself take deep breaths and look methodically round the room, ticking off the familiar items now reduced by moonlight to shades of grey. The heavy carved chair with his linen shirt draped across it. Dark suit hanging on the wardrobe. Deep leather armchair. Tiled floor. Mosquito grilles. The door into the bathroom was half open; it creaked slightly in a sudden movement of air. He could feel it play over his face, a touch like a spiders web.

 Now available on Amazon Kindle

Weird folks and writing rituals

 

Lipstick and green powder

We writers are a strange lot. Or at least we like to think so though there cannot be anything much more weird than the things some other folks get up to. Like having yourself buried in a coffin for 150 days, knitting covers for trees and phone boxes or creating a museum of burnt food. Compared to all that Truman Capote’s habit of only writing when he was lying down or T.S. Eliot’s  need to wear green powder and lipstick may not seem so odd.

A strange use for a fridge

Be that as it may, we all have our own writing rituals. Nabokov loved index cards – but he was very specific as to the type. They had to be lined 3 x 5 inch cards, which he paper clipped together and stored in slim boxes. He used medium pencils, the sort with erasers at the end. Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel leaning on a fridge. As he finished each page he would toss it in a box and the whole lot would be brought to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to sort out.

What would Maxwell have to say?

I don’t use index cards. Nor do I lean on a fridge to write. As to throwing everything in a box for an editor to sort out – these days many publishing houses don’t even have in-house editors. If they do exist said editors now have to take on so many other roles they don’t have the luxury of nurturing an author as before. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Charles Monteith are long gone.

Cheerful colours

So what are my particular rituals? I begin with notebooks where I try out ideas and then work out the plot details. The notebooks have to be Ryman’s Europa spiral bound, ruled A4 Notemakers. The covers come in cheerful colours – deep pink, egg yolk yellow, soft green and also in darker bright shades of blue, green, purple and red.

Write on the left side of the paper only

I write only on the left page initially, leaving the right hand page for jotting down new thoughts or ideas that come to me while I’m working things out. That way I don’t lose anything, though I have to say that the pages end up with lines and arrows crisscrossing from one side to the other, like a web created by a demented spider. When I have a fairly solid idea of the plot, I start to write.

Screen or paper or both?

But then the story takes over and often leads me in a totally different direction to the one I envisaged. However, the outline in the notebooks gives me a framework I can go back to. Like many writers these days I write directly onto the screen – it makes it so easy to move lines and paragraphs around. I also find it helpful to copy and paste a paragraph that I want to work on. That way I have two versions on the page in front of me; if I screw up I still have the original. (If a passage is particularly tricky I will print it out and edit it in pencil. I find I have more control with a pencil – and you can rub it out. And, somehow, the physical connection of my hand with the paper via the pencil seems to create some sort of alchemy.)

Keeping track

Just as I have more than one paragraph on the page I also have more than one document in the folder. If I’m about to do something drastic I save the document with a new name and work on that, keeping the earlier version – or versions as there are often several. That way I can always go back to it if I need to. It works in theory. In practice I end up with a whole load of similar documents carefully labelled, but still confusing when you come back to them months or even years later. In general I don’t need to but I still find them essential – like a sort of security blanket.

P1000697What are your processes and rituals? Please do share them. Do you have a special pen, prefer a particular coloured paper or have strange writing habits – like only being able to write with a cat or dog in the room? (Not so strange in my book. Animals are total timewasters but immensely comforting to have around. Even if they do insist on lying on the keyboard or batting your pencil behind the radiator.)

 

The Mystery of Body 115

The search for identity

Cover: The Eighteenth of NovemberThe title of my novel, The Eighteenth of November, is inspired by a tragedy that touched many lives. For it was on 18th November 1987, at around 7.30 in the evening, that a devastating fire broke out at King’s Cross underground station. One of the busiest interchange stations on the whole London Transport network - 40,000 people pass through it daily during the two hour peak period alone.

A number of things sparked my interest, which grew as I researched the fire, its causes and the consequences. Above all, I was incensed at the degree of corporate negligence that had allowed the fire to happen in the first place. And I was intrigued and disturbed, in equal parts, to discover that one body was still to be identified at the time I was writing, thirteen years after the fire.

An ethereal being?

One of my friends suggested that maybe the body wasn’t really a person but an ethereal being. This proved to be the inspiration for one of my main characters, Fabriel. Nevertheless Body 115 (or ‘Michael’ as he was called by the police and forensic investigators) had indeed been a real living person. The question remained though – who was he?

While many of the victims were untouched by the flames, dying rather from the poisonous fumes, ‘Michael’ looked ‘as if he’d been thrown on a bonfire. ‘ Despite this, the police thought he’d be one of the first to be identified as there was a wealth of forensic information. Among the distinguishing features were his height – 5’2” – the facts that an unusual metal clip had been inserted in his brain and he possessed a unique set of dentures, which had the initials EH or FH etched onto them. To top it all, the police had a couple of fingerprints.

What was in the ‘left luggage’ locker?

However, two years after the fire, despite unprecedented publicity, including the wide distribution of a realistic facial reconstruction, the quest had got nowhere. Despite over 6,000 hours of painstaking investigation, led by Superintendent John Hennigan and Detective Sergeant Ray Turner, they were no closer to an identification. Then a suitcase was found in a left luggage locker at King’s Cross station; in it wage packets, denture powder, tobacco, clothes that would fit a man of 5’2” and an old Merchant Seaman’s ID card.

The name on the card was Herbert Rose. The face on the photograph resembled the reconstruction. They thought they had achieved their goal; their hopes were dashed. The fingerprints on the ID card didn’t match the fingerprints on ‘Michael’. Despite this enormous setback, British Transport Police continued to follow up the hundreds of enquiries. Getting nowhere but refusing to give up.

Was this ‘Michael’?

As the tenth anniversary of the fire approached they began to focus on a missing man named Alexander Fallon. He had suffered a breakdown after the death of his wife in 1974 and moved to London where he lived a rootless life. He did however have four daughters, with whom he kept in touch from time to time. At first he had been eliminated from the enquiries as his family put his height at 5’6”. In addition, he was 73 whereas it was thought that ‘Michael’ was between 40 and 60 years old.

Nevertheless, there were significant ‘matches’. ‘Michael’s’ body had shown signs of heart and lung disease; he had been a smoker. There were the fingerprints. There was also the unusual clip in the brain. Alexander Fallon had suffered an aneurism in 1980 and been treated at the Royal London Hospital. His medical records led to the surgeon who had operated on him – and yes he would have used that distinctive clip. The dental records matched. New techniques allowed the marks on his skull to be matched with scars visible in photographs taken years before.

The long search is ended

Another telling piece of evidence. Although he had kept in touch with his daughters, albeit intermittently, all contact had ceased from the date of the fire. Equally significant, he had not claimed any of the benefits to which he was entitled since that date. Something that it seemed was quite out of character.

The family asked that his body be exhumed so the DNA could be tested; in the event it proved unnecessary. The British Transport Police considered it but, among other complications, was the fact that the body had been buried with Ralph Humberstone, another homeless man. In the event the weight of the forensic and other evidence was compelling. Body 115 was formally identified as Alexander Fallon of Falkirk in January 2004, over sixteen years after the fire.

For further information, there is an excellent article in the ES Magazine (the magazine of London’s Evening Standard newspaper) dated September 11th 1998 – over ten years after the fire but still some years before Alexander Fallon was identified. There is now an excellent book – Body 115 – by Paul Chambers. A detailed, thorough and informative examination of the painstaking work that led to the final identification. It’s highly readable and I just wish it had been written before I wrote my book – it would have saved hours of research!

The Eighteenth of November is now available on Amazon Kindle

Enchanting, erudite and very, very funny.

BookOfLostThings

The Book of Lost Things is magnificent; it pleases on so many levels. It’s an adventure, a quest, an examination of the psyche of childhood. It’s a labyrinthine journey through the worlds and the landscapes of fairy tale. With more twists than you’d find on a stick of barley sugar on the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel.

With a book so overflowing with riches, it ‘s difficult to know where to start. Maybe I’ll start at the end. No, there are no spoilers. I wouldn’t do that to anyone, especially not to someone who has yet to read it. I’m starting at the end because my reaction demonstrates the power of this book. I cried. Yes, I cried when I read the last chapter. It was sad, realistic, poignant and anything but sugar coated. A truly fitting ending for an extraordinary book.

The Book of Lost Things introduces us to David who is 12. His mother is dying and David, helpless, does everything he can to keep her alive. In his description of David’s rituals of touching and counting, John Connolly offers a most sensitive and enlightening explanation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and its triggers. He gets inside the head of a small boy who thinks his mother died because he didn’t do enough to keep her alive.

“Something tore inside him every time he saw his father holding the new arrival.” Increasingly miserable and angry, David retreats into his own world.

Left alone, David and his father cope as best they can. At least they have each other. Then Rose comes along. Then the baby. David, trying to come to terms with the death of his mother, watches bewildered and hurt as his father transfers his attention to his new family. “Something tore inside him every time he saw his father holding the new arrival.” Increasingly miserable and angry, David retreats into his own world. A world where books talk among themselves. A world which has a parallel in which a missing boy ‘passed unseen through David’s world, unaware that he shared his bed each night with a stranger.’

As his fury and grief mount, David’s thinks constantly of his mother until a day comes when he hears her voice. Her voice calling to him, begging him to rescue her. Summoning him to the sunken garden. As her voice, becomes ever more insistent he is forced to overcome his fear of the place and to follow. What happens next is yet another demonstration of John Connolly’s skill as he welds reality to unreality. The seeds of the eventual denouement are sown; they are there, but as light as those on dandelion clock.

From now on we are in the world of the brothers Grimm and of myth, legend and fairy tale. A world of monsters and harpies, of trolls and dwarves. Of wicked stepmothers and weak kings. Of sleeping princesses and enchanted castles. Peopled with woodsmen and hunters and bears and monsters. Above all, it is the world of the crooked man. The crooked man who steals children who are never seen again. The crooked man who wants something David can give him. Who will stop at nothing until he gets it.

We also have trolls who suffer from severe acne. A prince who ‘ponces in like a big, perfumed tea cosy.’ A Snow White who is fat and a group of quarrelsome, Marxist dwarves.

As David battles to reach the king whom, he hopes, can help him he is aided along the way by a variety of characters. The woodsman, the dwarves – eventually – and Roland, of Childe Roland, among others. All tell him stories that would be familiar but that they have, at the author’s hands, undergone subtle and not so subtle transformations. To say much more would be to spoil the surprise, and the fun. Suffice to say that the way John Connolly re-imagines these tales is masterful. Both in the wealth of his imaginings but also in the way he relates them to the psyche of a twelve year old who has lost his mother and who is struggling with his feelings towards his father, stepfather and stepbrother.

There is tension aplenty in this book. It also brims over with wit and humour. David, for instance, loses patience with the woodsman who was ‘fine for decapitating wolves and giving unwanted advice’ but who was falling short at keeping up with developments in the kingdom. We also have trolls who suffer from severe acne. A prince who ‘ponces in like a big, perfumed tea cosy.’ A Snow White who is fat and a group of quarrelsome, Marxist dwarves. Though to quote David’s own words ‘for a group of homicidal, class obsessed small people, they were really rather fun.” Why Marxist dwarves? The explanation is ingenious and worth waiting for.

I cried when I read the last chapter. It was sad, realistic, poignant and anything but sugar coated. A truly fitting ending for an extraordinary book.

Beautiful language, intricate, colourful and disturbing imaginings. Wit, fun and learning. You’ll find them all between the covers of this book, but there’s more. When you’ve finished you’ll find an interview with the author, in which he gives a very personal and enlightening account of his approach to the book. There follows a commentary on each of the fairy tales, in the sequence in which they appear. Each one is linked to a relevant passage in the book and references modern films and books inspired by the tales. Finally we have one of the traditional versions of the story.

As I read them I was tempted to regret that I hadn’t read them first, to remind myself of some of the stories I had forgotten. On reflection, though, I’m glad I didn’t. The book is complete in itself. The additions are akin to a literary liqueur, something to linger with and enjoy with the coffee – afterwards.

 

The dough-faced ploughman

Ploughman1The English language is simply marvellous. On second thoughts, perhaps ‘simply’ is not the most apposite word. Our language is anything but simple. It’s rich, fascinating, intricate and often infuriating. There are rules, sort of. Although as often as not they are there to be broken. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that you absolutely have to know the rules before you are allowed to break them. Indeed, what’s the fun in breaking things if you don’t know you’re breaking them in the first place?

Browsing through a bunch of websites, all devoted to the vagaries of English grammar and spelling, I was startled to discover that, according to the BBC, a new word is created every 98 minutes. Some people who are good at maths conclude that this is 40,000 every decade. Goodness. Since the average person knows between 35,000 and 75,000 words, if you live a normal life span you haven’t a cat’s chance in hell of keeping up (sorry, cats! It’s just an expression). Even so, it behoves us to use as many words as we can and in as much variety. And if that means inventing, then go ahead and invent. It all adds to the abundance.

There’s an excellent precedent in Shakespeare. Although he didn’t invent half the words he used, as some claim, he did invent an awful lot. Assassinate, besmirch, impartial, worthless, grovel, mimic, noiseless, bump – just a few of those he created. So for the purist who goes all humpy when words like frack, phablet, geek chic, blondies and death stare appear within the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary – just remember. Shakespeare did it first. Or indeed he probably didn’t because scribes were probably inventing new words and scandalising the establishment from the time the alphabet was invented.

There are many sites with fabulous lists of assorted facts and trivia pertaining to English, both spoken and written. It’s there that you’ll discover that W is the only letter in the alphabet that has not one but three syllables. That there are no words that rhyme with orange, purple, silver or month. You can stretch things a bit if you like and contrive some great rhymes, but they won’t be exact enough for the exacting. ‘Go!’ is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.

The most difficult sentence, or more accurately the toughest tongue-twister in the English language is said to be “the sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick“. As for that dough-faced ploughman. There are nine different ways to pronounce the letter combination “ough”. All nine can be found in the following sentence. A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed. How’s that for rich, fascinating and intriguing. Not to mention infuriating.

The Joy of Travel

Pardon

No. 5  Pardon?

I have no idea how many people pass through Stanstead every year – millions, possibly billions. And I assume most of them reach their destinations, with or without their luggage. Which is something of a miracle if my recent experience is anything to go by. The incomprehensible screeching that passed for public announcements would do a good job of shattering glass and put any self-respecting parrot to shame. As to fulfilling its purpose – forget it.

Where on earth do they recruit these people? What criteria do they use in interviews? Maybe they select perfectly normal people with perfectly normal voices, though with a preference for those on the shrill side. Or maybe you really do have to speak on a frequency that would have even dogs whimpering and covering their ears. Perhaps it’s all in the training. Maybe in boot camps where recruits are required to begin  at a normal speed – getting faster and faster and higher and higher as they progress towards their diplomas. Somewhat along the lines of the old speed typing tests except with the added requirement to run the words all together so as to be indistinguishable, one from the other. With extra brownie points for slurring.

Bad as it was in the departure hall, the situation at the boarding gate was even worse. I was a going to try to replicate it here to try and give some idea of what it sounded like but the nearest I can get to describing the tone is the sound of nails being scraped down a blackboard or the high pitched shriek of metal grinding against metal. The only two words I caught were ‘the back’. Whether that was to say we were to board from the back (no sniggering please) or that the plane was for some unaccountable reason going to fly backwards it was impossible to say.

A long line of hopeful passengers milled about like sheep that were one dog short of direction. I approached the desk hoping for enlightement. It did me no good. I still couldn’t understand a word. All it achieved was more confusion, a cold stare and hurty ears. It wasn’t much better on board. Given the vital importance of some safety instructions this is less annoying than alarming. We are all a bit blasé these days about life jackets and whistles and oxygen masks – we know they are more to reassure us than a having any practical use. But the stuff about electronic equipment really does need more than a quick slur. And why not spell it out – mobile phones, MP3 players, iPads and computers can all make the plane crash.

The captain has just made an announcement. All I understood was that we are makings good progress, despite being bounced about like a celestial tennis ball. Whatever he did say was I imagine meant to reassure us. A bit pointless really since he too seems to have been to boot camp with the rest of them.

P.S. For those of you who have yet to see it, this video is hilarious. But it does rather prove my point; I could only catch about one word in five. Nevertheless, I wish all the flights I was on had attendants with such a sense of humour. There’s an interview with Ellen here.

“One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot.”

Napoleon

The quote comes from Siegfried Unseld; I don’t know what the publisher in question did to annoy Bonaparte. And I’m not suggesting we go that far. But to any writer who’s received a rejection – especially of the dismissive and unhelpful ‘not right for our lists’ variety – will perhaps feel a twitch of sympathy. Rejections are the warp and weft of a writer’s life. You have to deal with them; no matter how ill judged or unfair you believe them to be. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cannot hide my pleasure when publishers get it so wrong.

J.G. Ballard, whose distinctive novels and short stories spanned over two decades, certainly made an impression on one publisher. But not in a good way. Commenting on the manuscript of Crash, Ballard’s iconic and controversial novel, one publisher wrote ‘the author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’ Max Beerbohm, submitting the manuscript for his classic Zuleika Dobson, was damned for being too fond of himself although he ‘has never reached any high standard in his literary work.’

The characters in another classic, Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, were found to be ‘so deadly and monotonously dull … so depressing … that they make a most fatuous assembly to find between the covers of a book.’ Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was turned down as it ‘contains unpleasant elements.’ H.G. Wells War of the Worlds was refused on the basis that it was ‘an endless nightmare.’ George Orwell’s Animal Farm was rejected, for a variety of reasons, by several publishers. One was afraid of that the choice of pigs as the ruling class would upset the Russians. Another, missing the point entirely, said that ‘it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.’

Of course cultural attitudes played a part in some infamous rejections, so one does have to allow for that. When D.H. Lawrence submitted the manuscript of Lady Chatterley’s Lover he was urged not to publish ‘for your own good.’ Indeed its first edition was published privately in Italy in 1928. When the full unexpurgated version was finally published in the U.K., in 1960, Penguin Books were immediately put on trial under the new obscenity laws. The publisher won this infamous case by successfully proving the book to be a work of literary merit.

Cultural and historic considerations aside, many extraordinary works of fiction have fallen foul of publishers down the years. War and Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, Lolita, Moby Dick, Catch 22, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Ipcress File – the list goes on and on and on. Many illustrious authors – among them Kipling, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and F.Scott Fitzgerald have all been recipients of excoriating criticism. Luckily for us they persisted and found publishers who had a greater vision.

We’ll all get rejections, some of us more than others. Writers whose first novels are welcomed with open arms are rarer than hens’ teeth. Nevertheless, seasoned and proven writers still receive their fair share of setbacks. The only thing a writer can do is just go on. Persevere. Don’t’ give up and, next time you get that unwelcome letter, just remember that you are in good company. If you can, try to get hold of a copy of Rotten Rejections edited by Andre Bernard. It’s this book that I relied on to write this post. I cherish my copy, especially since to buy it brand new could cost nearly £60. However, second had copies are still available, for pennies.

Take your time: this is a book to savour

RiddleyW 

I read Riddley Walker a long time ago. It delighted me then as it delights me now. I felt, and still feel, that everyone who loves the English language should read it; I have recommended it over the years to many people. It wasn’t the first Russell Hoban book I read and, in the first instance, it was the titles that attracted me. The Mouse and his Child, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin- Boaz. I loved his quirky oddness and went on to read more.

Some memories remain with you, no matter how brief the event, or how much time has passed. They don’t’ necessarily have the significance of great life events, such as weddings and the first day at big school. Nevertheless, possibly because of their intensity, they stay in your mind. Thus I still vividly remember meeting Russell Hoban at the Hay on Wye Literature Festival. I don’t remember the year, that wasn’t important. I do remember the cottage in the field beneath the bridge where we stayed, a bunch of us who had all met on an Arvon Foundation course.Russell Hoban gave a talk and a reading. Then he stayed for a long time signing copies of his books, speaking with each person. Not hurrying anyone along. One young man staggered up holding a pile of books that he had to anchor with chin to stop them falling. They were not newly bought – which is rather the idea of a signing after all – but well worn, much read copies. Perhaps another author might have balked at this. Russell Hoban expressed his pleasure that someone had read so many of his books and patiently signed every one. I was just someone who came along to a reading by a favourite author but he made a lasting impression on me. I always remember him fondly as a kind man as well as a brilliant writer.

Back to Riddley Walker. It’s quite strange to re-read a special book, one that made an enormous impact on you years before. There’s always the danger that some of the magic will have gone because you are no longer the same person. I didn’t experience that with Riddley Walker, but certainly it was a different experience this time round. I won’t say a great deal about the plot, as there are some splendid and detailed reviews on Goodreads. Suffice to say that the book is set in the remote future, perhaps some 2000 years after our world has been wiped out in a nuclear holocaust. Set in Inland – England, one of the easier words to figure out – it is the story of 12 year old Riddley Walker living in a society that has regressed to the iron age, with only distorted remnants of knowledge of what went before the 1Big1.

It delighted me then as it delights me now. Everyone who loves the English language should read it

This is a book that it pays to read slowly. Indeed you really have to read it slowly to untangle the mishmash of phonetic and dimly remembered vocabulary, much of which bears no resemblance to the original. It can, at times, be extremely frustrating as you mouth some words over and over, putting the emphasis on different syllables, trying to work out what they mean, because you know you can figure it out. I got hung up on the Eusa story. If I’d looked at the Acknowledgements on the first page it was staring me in the face, so this is not a spoiler. Nevertheless I was sure I should know what it meant and had forgotten it was based on the story of St Eustace and his connection to Canterbury – Cambry. Defeated, I got up in the middle of the night and Googled it!

That’s the effect this book has on you. It’s like reading a puzzle. Endlessly intriguing, infuriating and joyful by turns. For me, though, it’s the language that pulls me in. I was going to say more than the story, but in fact the two are so intertwined it would be hard to say when one ends and the other begins. Every time you read it you find something different. I picked up the book just now to find some words to use as examples. And suddenly realised that ‘aulder trees’, which I had imagined to be ‘Alder’ trees are in fact ‘older trees’. Doh!

Even as I write this I’m conscious of the things I’ve left out. Not least of which are the many cultural references and the philosophy.

“… the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. That’s how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongs the many.”

There is still one thing that puzzles me – the reference to Rizlas. It seems so out of keeping with the rest of the fragmentary, distorted language. Nevertheless, I’m sure a writer of the calibre of Russell Hoban meant it to be there. I only wish I could ask him. I’m sure he’d reply, were he still with us.

Of Bangers and Big Bottoms

Big Bertha

Have you ever wondered why we call bits of bullet and shell shrapnel? Or when and why sausages became known as bangers? And who was Big Bertha and what on earth had she to do with Tommy Atkins? The answers to all these questions lie in the First World War. So many of the words and phrases we use today had their origins there. Some are disputed, of course. If in doubt refer to that fountain of knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Major Shrapnel invented the shell, although his name these days is applied to the horrible, fatal fragments of a shell rather than the shell itself. Big Bertha was the large bore mortar gun that did so much damage to the men in the trenches. It was made at the Krupp works and said by some to be named after Mme Krupp von Bohlen, owner of that industrial empire. I have no idea how big her bottom was but I doubt she would have been flattered by the name.

Tommy Atkins refers to the common British soldier. Sometimes shortened to just Tommy it became popular in the First World War but its use dates from much further back. The actual origin is debatable. A letter from Jamaica in 1743 referring to a mutiny among the troops says “except for those from N. America ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly”. However the popular belief is that it was chosen by the Duke of Wellington, inspired by the bravery of a soldier, Private Thomas Atkins, during the Flanders Campaign in 1794.

As to bangers. Due to severe food shortages during the war there was little meat to spare for sausage making. Instead, the manufacturers packed the casings with scraps – bits of vegetables – and with water. When they were cooked over open fires, especially on shovels in the trenches, the water caused them to hiss and burst and pop. Hence bangers. The popular bangers and mash also acquired a new name in the war – Zeppelins in a cloud. However, this is one name that didn’t stick.

Blighty did though, for a long time. It comes from the Urdu word vilayati, which means foreigner. When the British ruled India it was applied to an English, British or European and was bastardised into the word blighty. It’s popularity increased in the First World War. It was slang for a period of leave back home. In time it simply came to mean England as immortalised in the song Take me back to dear old Blighty.

Next time you take or look at a snapshot remind yourself that in the war it meant quite literally to aim quickly and shoot with your rifle. Or when you drop into someone’s office for a chat, think of how different it would have been in the trenches. Chat was another name for a louse. Since it took some time to pick the vermin off their clothes and skin, the soldiers talked or, in their own words, chatted, while they did so. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, chatting for talking goes back to1440. And lice have been called chats since 1690.

Bonkingbullshit, joystick, muck about, ace, camouflage – these are all in use today but they are populalry thought to have their origins in the First World War. So if you are feeling washed out, or downright lousy and thoroughly fed up with the bumf your boss piles onto your desk and don’t feel you are getting a fair whack, thank your lucky stars that you are living in 2014 and not 1914. Compared to what those soldiers had to endure, you really are onto a cushy number.

Is it just me?

 

CallImportantI know I’m not alone in being irritated by call centres, scripted responses and having to press a million options to get to speak to a real person. However, while I have a very short fuse when it comes to such matters, it’s nothing to my reaction to the current proliferation of automated voices. The real ones are bad enough. They obviously recruit them from some Stepford-inspired suburb, sort of artificial posh but not really posh. A bit Mrs Thatcher after the elocution lessons but with the underlying, and not entirely disguised, shade of Estuary. They always sound so bloody smug as well.

Let me waste even more of your time

Before I jump up and down about the automated voices – I’ll get there in a moment – there’s something else that has me chewing the furniture. Yes, that’s right, it’s the spiel about the Internet. More or less compulsory, these days, it goes something like this.

“Lucky you, we’ve finally answered! You have pressed eleventy ten buttons and perhaps, just perhaps, if the planets are not in retrograde and the fibre optic fairies are not having a bad hair day, you have got to the right department. So let me just waste a bit more of your time, and money, telling you that you’d be better off going on line and finding out what you need on our website. Oh, and by the way, I’ll take my time telling you about it. ”

Listen, lady – or bloke – if I could do whatever it is that I want to do online I’d bloody well do it online, wouldn’t I!” The only reason I’m wasting the precious minutes I have left on this earth, making this stupid phone call in the first place, is because I can’t do whatever it is I want to do online. Doh!

Your call is important to us. Oh yeah!

Equally infuriating is the moronic phrase ‘your call is important to us’. Oh really! If our call was that important you would surely have found some way of making it easier for us to speak to you. So please, don’t insult our intelligence. I am convinced that, somewhere in an evil empire, there’s a gaggle of intensely annoying creatures whose sole purpose is to think up moronic phrases guaranteed to have normally peaceful customers smashing their handsets in fury. You know, the sort of people you try to avoid at social gatherings and who cling like limpets. Whiney voiced and supremely irritating,

Hearing voices

Speaking of voices. I don’t quite understand why it is, since there’s so much else that’s infuriating, but automated voices push every single button (no pun intended). Including some I didn’t even know I had. It’s partly the voices themselves. There’s something very superior about them – ‘de haut en bas’. A smug sort of nannyish ‘I know best tone’ that raises the hackles. They ask you a question. You start to reply but hardly have you begun than they interrupt with an example. As if you were a complete numpty. So then you have to wait for them to repeat the question. And when you finally get to speak you inevitably get the reply ‘Sorry I didn’t hear that!’ and they repeat the question as if to a recalcitrent child. You can almost hear their sigh of exasperation. You try again.

“I didn’t hear that.”

“Oh for f***** sake. I said MAKE A F*&$$$ PAYMENT.”

“Sorry, I didn’t hear that.”

“I SAID MAKE A F*&$$$” PAYMENT.”

“Sorry I didn’t hear that. Did you say …

I SAID MAKE A F*&$$$” PAYMENT.”

These so-called service providers obviously don’t give a stuff about their customers. I think it goes further than that. I believe there’s a sinister purpose behind it all, a cunning plan. I believe they aim to wear us all out, give us strokes or heart attacks or goad us into violence so that we end up incarcerated in prison or in the asylum. And then they won’t have to bother with us at all. Except to take our money. Of course.

A subtle delight

LittleEgyptCoverI’ve never been disappointed in anything that Lesley Glaister has written and ‘Little Egypt’ is no exception. Rich, deep, deceptively simple, enthralling and horrific by turns, it is beautifully observed and written – a subtle delight. The two timescales – 1920s and circa 2000 – are handled in such a way as to be totally believable. Two different world’s experienced by one young girl become an old woman. I was going to say bag lady, but she’s not exactly that.

These days social services would almost certainly swoop on Little Egypt and the two youngsters but things were very different in the 1920s so that the situation is entirely credible. As are the plot’s various twists and turns. I was constantly surprised, for the book often appears to be taking you in one direction only to go somewhere else entirely. The writing is so skilful that, although the clues are there I, for one, didn’t see many of them coming, though the tension throughout had me in no doubt that something horrific was going to happen. It just wasn’t what I expected.

The book often appears to be taking you in one direction only to go somewhere else entirely.

This is another book where the characters are wonderfully drawn. I sympathised with poor Osi and, to some extent, Victor. However, my heart went out to the responsible and feisty Issy and also to loyal and put upon Mary. I’d have had the selfish, self absorbed parents in court – though their behaviour would not have been considered as reprehensible then as now – and yet their actions and behaviour is entirely in character.

As both readers and writers know, it’s extremely difficult for a writer to sustain tension right to the very end, to finish well and satisfactorily. Here again, by quietly and almost unnoticeably introducing some crucial facts early on – the lawyer, the trust fund, the greed of the corporation that owns the supermarket – Lesley Glaister gets over some possible, potential stumbling blocks. I particularly admire the fact that she has both the skill, and courage, to leave some loose ends, adding even more credibility to a wonderful story.

Intensely irritating but ultimately endearing

The Receptionist

You know how it is when you know someone who is intensely irritating. They drive you nuts. But just sometimes, unless they are real monsters, you find that inexplicably you get quite fond of them. Even though they still annoy the hell out of you.

Some books are like that.

I love The New Yorker. Or rather I love the idea of it. I haven’t read that many issues though I am familiar with the cartoons; it’s one of those magazines that are part of my childhood and growing up. Like Punch. So I was eager to read The Receptionist, to get the lowdown on what life was like in the creative and humorous hotbed that was The New Yorker in the late nineteen fifties and sixties. The era of Madison Avenue and Mad Men.

Founded in 1925, the magazine covers reportage, commentary, essays, fiction, satire, poetry and cartoons. While reviews and events focus on the cultural life of New York City, it is widely read throughout the world. I have to admit, to my shame, that many of the writers mentioned in The Receptionist are unknown to me. Others, though, are old friends and firm favourites. S.J. Perleman, Peter DeVries, Muriel Spark and James Thurber to mention just a handful. So it was with happy anticipation that I settled down to read

My excitement was short lived. The irritation set in from the very first page with what appeared to be an implausible story. A naïve new graduate from the University of Minnesota takes a temporary job with a film director, who immediately invites her to send in her resumė, which he promptly passes on to the famous New Yorker writer E.B. Wright who agrees to interview her. I’m not doubting it happened – things like that do happen. But the name-dropping and the smug self-satisfaction turned me off straight away.

I was eager to read The Receptionist, to get the lowdown on what life was like in the creative and humorous hotbed that was The New Yorker in the late nineteen fifties and sixties. The era of Madison Avenue and Mad Men.

The interview was ‘unprecedented’. Her attitude to the famous writer patronising – ‘I was overwhelmed with a desire to put the poor man at his ease.’ Her statement that ‘anything would be of more interest’ than the typing pool, is arrogant in the extreme. None of this endeared me to the author. However, I decided to battle on. And it was a battle. I read ‘The Receptionist’ on and off for several months; it felt like a very long six months.

There’s something self indulgent about this book, at least the first half of it. Something self-conscious. In many places all it amounts to is names, famous names, trotted out one after another. As I mentioned, most of the names meant nothing to me but that’s hardly the author’s fault. However, I’d have liked to know more about them, I thought that was what I’d get from reading the book. I didn’t in the main. There were some highlights. I had read most of Muriel’s Spark’s work when I was younger and loved it. So a whole chapter devoted to her had me sitting up and taking notice. I found myself thinking, goodness this bit is actually interesting.

If only she had kept it up.

The book’s covers and no less than four pages at the beginning contain glowing reviews from the likes of The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The New York Journal of Books, The Washington Post and more. At first my impression was that I had been reading a different book. I don’t understand how The New York Journal of Books, for instance, can refer to “verbal dexterity” when some passages are so muddled I had to read them over and over to make sense of them. And when other sections read like a mushy romantic novel and others are plain silly – “how could I ever go to bed with someone who not only misquoted Coward but could dis the song Ingrid was humming just before she said, “Play it, Sam.”? “ You could be forgiven for thinking that was meant to be either funny or ironic. It isn’t. It’s twee.

For the book’s real pleasure is indeed the self-examination. The dawning self-awareness and the not inconsiderable courage of the author in putting it out there for all to see. It is this honesty and self-knowledge that begin to throw light on the earlier chapters.

To get back to what I said in the beginning. About getting fond of people even though they continue to annoy the hell out of you. That applies to this author, because if ever a book was its author this one is. I’m going to quote two other reviews because they describe the element that endeared the author to me despite everything. The thing that kept me reading fairly consistently from about half way in. Oprah.com said, “Groth … isn’t a woman to give up and, by the end of the book, she finds her own delightful voice, which is the book’s real pleasure.” And The Boston Globe – “A literate, revelatory examination of self.”

I take issue with the ‘literate’ but apart from that those two quotes describe why I didn’t abandon the book half way through. For the book’s real pleasure is indeed the self-examination. The dawning self-awareness and the not inconsiderable courage of the author in putting it out there for all to see. It is this honesty and self-knowledge that begin to throw light on the earlier chapters. To reveal not so much a shallow, self important young girl revelling in her affairs with famous people, but a bright and talented young woman somewhat adrift and needing direction.

Janet Roth was young in an era where men were all powerful and women, on the whole, were wives, housewives, typists or merely decoration. The era brilliantly depicted in the TV series, Mad Men. There were of course a few highly paid and powerful women columnists at the New Yorker in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Writers such as Muriel Spark and Dorothy Parker were also regular contributors. But you can see how a young aspiring writer from the mid-West, with absolutely zero confidence yet abundant feminine charms, could end up spending eighteen years as the receptionist on the eighteenth floor. The writer’s floor. Yet never getting that longed for chance to join them.

Absurdly generous vacation leaves, with pay, plus indulgent working hours also contributed to this extraordinary long and ultimately fruitless employment. However, these conditions also allowed her to take classes and travel widely and all credit to her for keeping up with her studies. She may not have had the confidence or push to get herself the job she wanted. She may have been star struck and wild and self-absorbed, to say the least. But she didn’t give up. She just came at writing a different way. She obtained her Ph.D. in English, became a Fulbright lecturer and Professor Emeritus in English at a New York State university, taught at various other universities and is the author of three books on the literary critic and prolific writer, Edmund Wilson.

So I have to confess I did grow quite fond of her in the end. I certainly admire her courage– her self-analysis is honest an insightful. As to the book itself – it still annoys the hell out of me.

Srsly?

SrslyThe Oxford English Dictionary has been an invaluable source of pleasure and learning since it was first published in 1884. Now that it’s on the web it’s there, whenever you want it. You can of course subscribe but much of it is free. Constantly revised and researched by an army of editors and experts in England and the USA, the online version is updated no less than four times a year.

It’s fascinating how a new or updated word will have one person smiling and another snarling. Why, for instance does the new addition srsly make me grin, whereas merch for merchandise has me reaching for a gun to shoot someone? Or myself. I mean OMG, do we have to reduce everything to text speak? Dear OED what were you thinking of! My loathing of such monstrous non-words is only partially offset by my joy in discovering that OMG, far from being an invention of today’s youf, has its origins in the early nineteen hundreds. OMG indeed.

It came as a surprise to discover that fewer than 100 new entries date from 2000. The youngest word in the OED was crowdsourcing until it was supplanted by copernicium, an artificially produced radioactive element. Hashtag is pretty new; it’s only been in since 2007. On the other hand bezzie – best, favourite and now a short form of best mate or best friend – goes back to the mid nineteenth century.

So here, with no apology whatsoever, are some I love and some I hate and some that are just a little weird. The interpretations below are entirely mine, not those of the OED. Oh and BTW I never claimed I would be consistent.

I love

  • Flexitarian – I didn’t know I was a flexitarian although I have a varied diet.
  • Snacky – feeling snacky? Go and eat something snacky. Or just some nuts!
  • Time Suck – cats on the Internet.
  • Srsly – I just like this one. I think we’re back to cats on the Internet again.
  • Blondies – white chocolate brownies.
  • Death stare – We’re good at this in my family.
  • Fabrosaur – A type of dinosaur. Made of fabric?

I hate

  • Bikeable – an environment suitable for cyclists. Why not say suitable for riding bikes?
  • Guac – would saying guacamole strain your brain too much?
  • Boyf – OMG OED!!!
  • Deets – Ditto
  • Citational – I hate it when nouns are turned into adjectives.
  • Babymoon – probably used by people who have ‘baby on board’ in their cars.
  • Apols – Good God, nooooo. See OMG above.
  • Bouncebackability – what the @%$&£ is wrong with resilience?
  • Blamestorming – there’s original. And there’s silly.

And then there’s just weird

  • Food baby – fat tummy, as in looking pregnant but really just being fat.
  • Ship – relationship in fan fiction. Really, really strange.
  • Slash – as in actor/dancer. So not taking the piss then.
  • Jorts – short jeans or jean shorts. Yuck.
  • Fauxhawk – not a bird of prey. They’d have more sense.
  • Meatspace – reality check! What planet are you on?
  • Derp – The new ‘Duh!?
  • Screenager – too clever by half.

 What have you found that has you smiling or that sets your teeth on edge? Put your comments below – I’d love to hear what you think.