World Book Day 2016

[Originally posted on Goodreads on 2016-03-03 to coincide with World Book Day.]

World Book Day has come around again and, as always, it’s got me wondering what’s my all-time favourite book. My tastes have changed over the years. Once I might’ve said Great Expectations, but I went off Dickens in my twenties. Then I probably would’ve said Pride and Prejudice, but I think I prefer Northanger Abbey now. Pride and Prejudice is fun, but the plot remains firmly rooted in that era. These days, Lizzie Bennett would likely be a high-flying career woman. Lydia Bennett might still go off the rails, but it’s less likely that her actions would prove quite so catastrophic to the rest of her family. Northanger Abbey, on the other hand, moves with the times. John Thorpe would now be a bore droning on about his car and his sister Isabella would be posting selfies and gossiping on social media. Northanger Abbey (if it hasn’t been converted into a hotel or housing estate) would still be an old building that’s been thoroughly modernised.

On the other hand, my favourite novel might actually be The Big Sleep. Raymond Chandler’s wise-cracking Philip Marlowe lifts the story and propels it along. Or is it, perhaps, Ice Station Zebra that tops my list? Forget the film, the novel is fast-paced with an unreliable narrator:

“This time you believe my story?”

“This time I believe your story.”

I was pleased about that, I almost believed it myself.

The Lord of the Rings is another favourite that I’ve read countless times but, then again, I also like the gentle humour of The Little World of Don Camillo.

One of the great things about Goodreads is that it’s reminded me of long-forgotten books that have grown dusty on our numerous shelves. I like the site’s recommendation system. There are, of course, such systems in on-line stores, based on purchasing history, but there are plenty of books that I’ve bought from second-hand bookshops or book stalls or that have been given to me, and there are those I’ve borrowed from the library. There are also books from the on-line stores that I’ve purchased as presents that don’t reflect my reading tastes. This skews the data used by the software for recommendations, whereas on Goodreads the data is more representative and the recommendations make more sense.

It’s been fun adding all the books I can remember reading. It’s triggered memories of story-fragments. What book was that? When did I read it? Was it a library book or was it one of mine that was lost or given away?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a number one favourite book, but there are books in various genres that I love reading and re-reading. Wit, pacing and well-formed characters transcend genre.

The best thing about World Book Day? In an age where I so often hear “I’d rather watch the film”, it’s a great reminder that books are still loved.

The Tale of The Foolish Hedgehog

[Originally published on Goodreads 2016-02-10, two days before a giveaway for five signed copies of the illustrated children’s book The Foolish Hedgehog.] This is the story of how I came to write The Foolish Hedgehog given that my primary emphasis has been on writing text books and adult crime/thriller/speculative fiction rather than children’s books.

I have always loved reading and writing and as a child my favourite genre was adventure stories. In fact, that’s still true today. However, I also loved mathematics and hated pulling books apart in English Literature, so when it came to choosing my path through higher education, I opted for the maths route and kept writing as a hobby.

Life often doesn’t pan out the way you imagine and at some point I found that I had switched tracks from being a mathematician to being a computer programmer with an interest in typesetting, specifically TeX. As a result of my work in that area, I was interviewed by the TeX User Group (TUG) for their interview corner. Dave Walden, the interviewer, put the idea of self-publishing into my head. Although I was confident about my typesetting abilities, I wasn’t so confident about my writing skills.

A friend of mine, who’s also a writer, suggested I try a writing course. She had already been on the diploma creative writing course at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and thoroughly recommended it. At first I thought it would be too inconvenient. I had given up full-time work to care for my son and we live out in a village with infrequent bus services, but I discovered there was an online writing course taught by Caroline Gilfillan at UEA, which overcame these obstacles. It was only a three-month course for beginners, but I thoroughly recommend it for enthusiastic writers with a busy lifestyle. (This particular course has stopped, but the Writers’ Centre, Norwich now has some writing courses.)

The course included a section on Vladimir Propp who studied folklore. The Wikipedia article on Propp gives a lot more detail, but he essentially broke fairy tales up into sections and listed a sequence of functions (tropes) that fairy tales employ in their narrative. One of our assignments was to write a story that followed this scheme. After toying with the usual princes, princesses, young apprentice/farmer-turned-heroes, I saw some roadkill and “The Foolish Hedgehog” came into being.

The principle functions this story follows are: interdiction (warning not to go somewhere), violation of interdiction (disobeying the warning), trickery (the villain attempts to deceive the protagonist), guidance (protagonist is led to a vital location), liquidation (issue resolved) and return (protagonist returns home).

After I had set up my imprint to publish my text books, I decided that I may as well publish the story (mostly for the fun of it and to try out the different style of typesetting required for illustrated children’s books). The story was greatly enhanced with the inclusion of the illustrations provided by my friend and Norfolk artist Magdalene Pritchett. (If you go to any of the South Norfolk art exhibitions, such as in Poringland, Kirstead or Hempnell, you will likely see her paintings. She’s also exhibited paintings at Eye in Suffolk.)

The story is about a little hedgehog who lives with his grandmother. He promises that he won’t go near the wasteland (the road) where the dragons (vehicles) live, but one day he’s tempted onto the road by a hungry crow. It can be used to introduce children to the concept of road safety and stranger-danger. Here’s an extract from the start of the story:

There once was a little hedgehog who lived with his grandmother.

Every evening when the little hedgehog went out to play, his grandmother would always say:

“Don’t ever go onto the hard wasteland. There are dragons there. Great giant creatures, with eyes shining brighter than the moon. Their roar is deafening, and their breath is poisonous. They have no claws, but their round feet will trample you.”

Every evening the hedgehog promised his grandmother he wouldn’t go near the wasteland.

But one day, as he played with some fallen leaves, he heard the roaring of the dragons. He wanted to see if they really were as big as his grandmother said.

“I’ll just have a peek, that’s all,” he thought. “I won’t step on the wasteland.”

Walking

[Originally posted on Facebook 2015-05-12] When I was a child, my family used to go out for walks at the weekend, usually after Sunday lunch. Seaford Head, Hope Gap, the Cuckmere, Friston Forest and on the other side towards Newhaven, the Tide Mills. I resisted such activity as it interrupted my reading, writing or guiding my plastic figures and animals on their adventures. (It may seem odd for sheep, pigs and cows to go on adventures — especially normal farm animals rather than the anthropomorphic cartoon variety — but these were fleeing from some evil villain or oppressor and had to brave the mountainous terrain up the radiator, down the wardrobe and across the chest of drawers.) However, despite my opposition to these outings, I benefited not only from the physical exercise but also the clearing out of mental cobwebs and the stimulus of my surroundings. My thoughts went to the wreckers who had lured unfortunate sailors onto the rocks, the smugglers who lurked in the Cuckmere estuary and, as a child, the abandoned Tide Mills sent shivers down my spine. The Seaford to Brighton trains may well pass through there during the day, but surely there were midnight ghost trains that stopped at the disused station! I miss the eerie call of the foghorn, I miss the sea and I miss inspecting the world of the rock pools. Although my knees don’t miss the downland ascents!

I always have excuses for not getting up and going outside, but it’s bad for me to sit in front of my desk all day long, so I’m trying make the effort to go out for walks. It drops the mundane clutter from my mind and helps to re-order and re-focus ideas. Norfolk has its own share of wonders, both natural and man-made. Ruins and oddities that whisper of a long forgotten age with forgotten people who were once born, lived and died, in essence no different from ourselves. We are brief dwellers in this place, but we cause ripples in the stream of time and leave our footprints on its banks.

No Services Stop Here

[Originally posted on Facebook 2015-05-02.] There are some interesting little curiosities in our village and the surrounding area, such as the Foxhole bus stop at the end of Long Lane that has “No bus services currently operate in this area” displayed on it. I’ve never known of a bus service that went down that narrow country lane, but I’ve only lived in the area for ten years. The nearest bus stop from our home is actually only a short walk away, but it’s cunningly disguised as a reminder speed limit sign. The only thing that gave it away was the board with a bus timetable fixed to it, but when the bus company decided to change from the one-hourly morning service to two-hourly, they removed the timetable, so the 9:20 now arrives at 9:55 (or thereabouts) and the 10:20 has gone to meet its maker (or, perhaps, just gone to Long Stratton instead).

Some of the old folk who were bred and born here have acquired a sixth sense through a lifetime of close contact with nature (or, possibly, frequent trips to Norwich) and they have divined the secret locations where the bus stops and can sense the times when the bus is due. And so it might happen, that one of these fey folk might come upon on a soggy mawther standing up in the rain and say, “if you’re waiting for the 10:20, that ent coming til 11:55”.

However, the bus company have spared us the anguish of sleepless nights, wondering when they’ll get around to replacing the old timetable with the new one, as they’ve removed the board it used to be fixed to, and so the bus stop’s disguise is now complete. No passer-by could ever mistake it for anything but a speed limit sign, thanks to its masterly camouflage.

No doubt the bus company is at ease with the knowledge that we live in the modern age with information at our fingertips, but that strange creature commonly known as “a signal” is a city-lover that delights in the frenetic urban high life and fears to venture down the winding country lanes where the pace is slower cos there ent no point tearing round the corner as they’ll only be a tractor there and you ent never going to pass that for the next five miles.

But the Foxhole bus stop with no service still remains like a phantom from the past and seems to say, “who remember that ole bus that useter stop here?”

Update 2019-10-05: eventually my curiosity overcame me and I asked some elderly locals who had lived in the village all their life what bus service used to go that way. I was either greeted with a puzzled “what bus stop?” or I was reliably informed that “there ent never been no bus that go that way.” The general consensus was that no bus could possibly get down that route because the lane is far too narrow. So why then, I persisted, is there a sign that says no services stop there? The reply was simply “there ent no bus that go that way.”

Sometime later I happened to be driving down a narrow lane further south of the village on the other side of the A140. (I don’t like to say that I was lost. I was confident that I hadn’t wandered across the border into Suffolk, and I was pretty sure that eventually I would find a sign pointing to somewhere I recognised. I was just temporarily misplaced.) I came to a junction with another equally narrow, twisty lane and, while looking around trying to determine which way to go, I saw another one of those “no services currently operate in this area” signs.

I’m not complaining about these redundant signs. It’s just one of those interesting oddities that piques a writer’s curiosity, but since my original post the sign has been removed, and there’s now no trace of the mysterious Foxhole bus stop that was apparently never on any bus route.