Keeping up with the Joneses – and the Vines

A couple of months ago I set out to do a grammar grouse blog, but Jacob Rees-Mogg got in the way (let’s face it, he does that, a lot). So now, in the dark days of November, it seems a good moment to try again… and this time it’s Jeremy Vine who’s got me going. Not because I disagree with him. On the contrary, he put out a tweet recently that was music to my ears (or eyes? Eek, that doesn’t work either), all about our dear old friend, the apostrophe:

Grammar question. I have friends whose surname is Hobbs. I went to a function celebrating their anniversary. I have just emailed a friend I ran into there, and said it was “great to see you again at the Hobbses’ party.” Am I exactly correct in the way I wrote their surname?

YES, I replied, yes yes yes. Scrolling down, I realised I was pretty much the only one out of hundreds of replies. Everyone else was absolutely certain it should be the Hobbs’ or the Hobb’s party. So a party given either by a couple called Mr and Mrs Hobb, or a thing called a Hobb (short for a hobbit? Yes that, was suggested too).

I know, I should get out more. So perhaps should Jeremy Vine. That way perhaps we’d both be better at Keeping up with the Joneses. Oh sorry, should that be, Keeping Up with the Jones? What is a Jone, then? If we don’t allow names ending in ‘s’ to have their own plural form, the meaning isn’t clear. The same goes for the possessive apostrophe, whether singular or plural; its function is to show that something either belongs to somebody, or is named after them. People in Britain have had no trouble understanding this for the last few centuries; now, apparently, we can’t cope anymore and councils all over the country have done away with the apostrophe altogether. Five years ago, the ire of local residents armed with marker pens forced Cambridge City Council to cave in over its decision to abolish apostrophes from road signs. (It was thought that apostrophes can confuse emergency services – a calumny hotly denied by the emergency services themselves. Just because you’re a police/fire officer or paramedic doesn’t mean you didn’t go to school.)

St James' Park NE1Grammar and the use of English change over the years, I know. But speech patterns don’t. Have you tried saying, ‘this is Jane Morris book’? Or, ‘the Harris are coming to tea’? You can’t. The person you’re talking to will hear ‘this is Jane Morey’s book’ and ‘the Harrys (Prince and Potter?) are coming to tea.’ So why have one rule for the spoken word – which at least makes the meaning clear – and a different one for when the word is written down?

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Enter a caption

Alas, judging by these signs, the battle is pretty much lost, except for the odd London underground station still holding strong.

 

And I bet everyone going for treatment at one of London’s most famous hospitals will refer to it as St Thomas’s, whatever it may call itself. st-thomas-430x321

 

Right, that was arguably my most nerdish post ever. And if you think I’m overreacting to a tinsy-winsy point of grammar, here’s a glorious recent tweet from that Giant of the Twittery and Literary world, Philip Ardagh, replying to a tweet that read:

‘Anyone else keep seeing a dog stood by the bush outside the tent? #GBBO’:

A dog STOOD’? ‘STOOD’?! It should be: ‘Anyone else keep seeing a dog STANDING by the bush…’ you bunch of halfwits. You should be HORSE-WHIPPED, I say. HORSEWHIPPED. Sob.’

adult beagle walking on grass field

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Wildly out of proportion but Philip, I know what you mean.

 

(From an item first published on Authors Electric Blog)

Jacob Rees-Mogg: he’s GOT a little list, whether he likes it or not.

Casting around for what to write about as we begin the Silly Season, my mind turns to the irritating grammatical errors indulged in by People What Ought To Know Better….and lo, that great Jim Lloyd* of politics, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has beaten me to it.

Rees mogg list

Jacob Rees-Mogg: like Ko-Ko in Gilbert and Sullivan’s
Mikado, he’s got a little list, he’s got a little list…

I’m not going to spell out the whole of the Mogg’s Little List, as in The Times on Saturday 27 July, but it did strike me as an odd collection of:

  1. Genuine grammatical mistakes
  2. An obsession with how to address an MP (4 rules apply to this alone)
  3. A personal dislike of well-established English words that go back – not just to Gilbert and Sullivan (see caption above) – but to Chaucer and beyond (got)
  4. A refusal to modernise beyond 1971 (Use imperial measurements).
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…and it’s the wooden spoon for anyone refusing to use imperial measurements.

To be fair, it’s not all bonkers. Some of the banned words and phrases make an ugly bunch of clichés: ongoingmeet withyourself (or presumably any kind of self used instead of the personal pronoun) and no longer fit for purpose. To that list I’d add I’ll take no lessons from the honourable gentleman/lady on x, which makes me want to hurl the radio across the room every time I hear it.

But some of the others… Er, what’s wrong with equal? Everything, probably. Not, perhaps, a word that has much currency in the world of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esq., MP.

Finally, a grouse in which the Mogg is justified, if you take the view that language should never be allowed to evolve at all. (A thorny issue; many clunking grammatical errors take refuge under the overall ‘language is a living organism’ blanket. To my friend and I, for instance, is now so universal that anyone replacing the I with me is looked down on.) So to that much sneered-upon use of hopefully in the sense of it is to be hoped that (as opposed to doing something in a hopeful way) – banned, naturally, by Rees-Mogg.

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Tsk, back to school, Geoffrey Chaucer;  
your use of language fails the Rees-Mogg test.

But I think he’s missing a trick. Words can change in meaning, or gain new ones, if the need is there. Instead of saying, ‘I’ll pass my exams, at least I hope I do, and get a job,’ you can shorten that to ‘I’ll pass my exams, hopefully, and get a job.’ Why not? In this sense, hopefully corresponds exactly to the German hoffentlich, and I have – sorry, I’ve got – no problem with that. Moreover, it’s etymologically interesting, as the meaning probably arises from American English’s German roots, just like dumb (dumm) and enough already (genug schon).

So enough already of Rees-Mogg’s bêtes noires of the English language, now for mine – oh look, he’s taken up this entire post and there’s no space left.

Typical politician.

 

The archers*A reference to BBC Radio 4’s long-running soap opera, The Archers. Jim Lloyd is an annoying character who excels in quoting Latin, badly, at every opportunity.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)

Something for children to get their teeth into: World Book Week 2019

5803022F-E37C-41CF-922E-3D9A679688ECI’m always delighted to visit schools, whether or not it’s World Book Week (which it just has been, in March). Taking a group of 9 – 13 year-olds on an illustrated tour through Dante, Greek mythology and the First World War (Ante’s Inferno) or Doctor Faustus, demons and Elizabethan Magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), and seeing their eyes light up at the richness, complexity and sheer power of stories is hugely inspiring for a writer. But one of my school visits this year took a different form, one that gave me more than the usual butterflies as I wrote the date in my diary. Not just butterflies, in fact. Trepidation.B1BA6FB4-9FC8-40A5-9541-67A315DC616E

Stretham Primary is a lovely village school in a not particularly well-heeled part of Cambridgeshire, in which quite a number of children qualify for pupil premium. I’ve visited a couple of times before and been bowled over by the warmth of my reception and the eagerness with which the 9 – 11 year-olds lap up facts about Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan natural philosophy and the Faustian pact. It never ceases to sadden me how the book world generally underestimates young people, considering all these themes far too adult for them to understand. From my experience at Stretham, not only do children have no problem grasping them, they are also excited by stories that give them something to get their teeth into.5798B2EE-E72A-4CC2-A2DA-1507C388A9DF

So why the trepidation?

Well…. this time, the children were doing something for me.

As a writer you hope you’re on the right track, that what grabs you will grab your intended audience: but there’s nothing like being able to put this to the test. I needed to try out my latest work in progress, and ten 11 year-olds had bravely volunteered to read The Fall of a Sparrow and tell me what they thought. At 50,000 words this was quite a commitment. And scary for me… what if none of them got beyond the first chapter, the first PAGE?

Shortly before the day of the visit, I received a package in the post. Feedback …eek.

Taking a deep breath, I went through all the painstakingly written comments – and breathed out again.

07F08712-8B97-4318-8E31-2763BF32907FThe children had enjoyed the story. They got the characters, the situation, they felt with Eleanor – the heroine – in her predicament, as she delved deeper and deeper into family history, uncovering a tragedy that had never been confronted before. If some of the readers felt that occasionally, too much description held up things, they still all wanted to keep turning the pages, all the way to the end. And now they couldn’t wait for my visit so they could pepper me with questions – about the characters, the ideas, what it’s really like being at a boarding school (since that’s where the story is set) and most of all, how soon will The Fall of the Sparrow be published so they could ALL read it?

Ah, now that really is the question….

How to drive your audience crazy

Screenshot Art

Exhibit A: exquisite torment (the programme, not the play).

I am not a great user of Facebook.  If I post something and it gets a handful of likes and the odd comment, I’m doing well. So I was all the more surprised recently when something I put up sparked a whole host of likes, comments and discussion from a wide range of people, for whom I’d clearly touched a nerve.

What can it have been been – political?  No no, stay clear of all such, say I. The dreaded B word? As if. Enough misery about that as it is.

 

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Stygian gloom of modern restaurants (Photo by Damien Petit on Unsplash

No. All I did was upload an example of a blight that has been seeping gradually into the printed world for the past few years, until now it affects every play, opera, concert and musical programme, magazine, brochure, exhibition text, restaurant menu and just about everything printed you can think of. Even websites aren’t immune. It is a kind of exquisite torment dreamt up by designers to tempt you with what looks like an interesting, important piece of writing – only to make it impossible for you to read it. Pale grey text on off-white paper. Small chunks of green writing set by themselves – presumably to highlight their meaning – in yellow background boxes. Items on menus printed in such tiny point sizes, diners need a pocket magnifying glass if they aren’t to go hungry (not helped by the fashion for restaurants to plunge their customers in Stygian gloom so no one can see the menu anyway). As a way to drive your audience crazy, it can’t be beaten.

 

ART

Art by Yasmina Reza at the Oxford Playhouse

Look, I know my Great Age is part of the problem. The majority of designers and editors, presumably under 40, are blithely unaware that lavender type on mauve paper is illegible for Oldies Like Me. But a heck of a lot of Oldies Like Me go to the theatre, restaurants and art exhibitions, and I can’t help feeling that if the directors of these have gone to all the trouble to commission articles from distinguished writers and experts, why wouldn’t they want a large proportion – who knows, perhaps even the majority – of their clientele to read them? What, for goodness sake, is wrong with black and white?

So back to exhibit A, above. I had never seen Yasmina Reza’s brilliantly witty, poignant play about the balance of power in longterm friendships, until it came to Oxford Playhouse last month. Intrigued, I badly wanted to read the interview with the playwright in the programme and was faced with not only pale type on pale paper but, ye gods, splashes of paint daubed across the text (a, you know, clever reference to the play’s title, Art). OK, so I managed eventually, the next day, with the aid of bright sunshine, but it was a slow process. Whereas if it had been black on white, like the article I’m writing here, I’d have skipped through it like a young fawn.

 

adorable animal animal photography animal portrait

Skipping through black and white print like…er… one of these.    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Perhaps I should start a Campaign for Printing in Black and White, snappily known as CAMPBAW.

I could be on to something, you know.

 

 

 

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog.)

Never mind the story, what’s the theme?

Sometimes when submitting my work, I get a question that stumps me:

What’s the theme of your story?

It’s a story, I want to reply, it doesn’t have a theme. Which isn’t strictly true, but to expect a writer to sum up the complex interweaving of character, purpose and plot that makes up a novel in one word feels to me like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit down and decide to write a book about human relationships, or loneliness, or the abuse of power, bullying, courage in the face of danger, overcoming difficulties or redemption. A story forms itself in my mind which will have all these elements and more, but it won’t be about any single one of these.

 It will be about an unconfident, friendless 12 year-old girl who finds herself on a journey to the bottom of Hell (Ante’s Inferno), or a geeky 13 year-old boy, driven by desperation to make a pact with a demon (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst).
Or an angry 11 year-old sent away from home to a school where the only person who will speak to her is a weird, excitable 9 year-old boy that all the other girls pretend isn’t there (The Fall of a Sparrow, current wip). Other elements are woven into the story – Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno and WW1 in Ante’s Inferno, Elizabethan magic and the Faustus legend in Henry Fowst – but no single one of these becomes THE story’s theme and nor should it be. If you really want to boil my books down to a single theme, it’s about a young person who finds life and making friends difficult, who through a series of challenges and dangers gains experience, self-knowledge and a better relationship with the world around them.

Jane EyreNot a great sales pitch, is it? I mean, you could summarise just about any book that’s ever been written this way – Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Three Little Pigs, for heavens sake -and give no flavour of what they are really about.

Do we demand this of all works of literature, that each be identified by a single theme? How about:

Macbeth: the battle between Good and Evil.

The Lord of the Rings: the battle between Good and Evil (with hobbits).

Harry Potter: the battle between Good and Evil (with wizards).

The Narnia Chronicles: the battle between Good and Evil (with multiple mythological creatures).The Last Battle

His Dark Materials; the battle between Good and Evil (with daemons).

Um…

I realise I may be missing something here. Worse, that if I can’t summon up an original way to label my stories, then maybe they are just not strong enough to stand out. I hope not. But I also suspect a covert laziness on the part of the person demanding a theme, to find an easy way to sell my book to their colleagues or (more likely) reject it out of hand. Your hero has trouble making friends, do they? Ah, so that’s the Bullying Theme. We have enough of those on our list already, sorry.

This is my problem with themes. If you write children’s books, your main character is a child. They will have enemies or there would be no story. The enemies are not nice to them. This is called bullying. It is exactly what happens in books for adults, only there it’s called threatening, menacing, violent behavior etc, and the people who do it are Bad Guys, Villains, Psychos. Yet no publisher would dismiss a gripping, page-turning thriller just because yet again, it’s about Bad People Being Nasty to Good (or at least not so bad) People.

Bullying appears in my stories but they are not ‘about’ bullying. The behavior arises from clashes between the characters, conflicting goals, problems in their own lives, troubled back stories and secret fears. All the ingredients, in short, needed to build characters strong enough to drive an exciting, complex, satisfying story where the reader really cares what happens.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

 

 

How Grimms’ Fairy Tales can lead to even grimmer fairy tales

It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when someone slips you a few searching questions.  I loved doing this interview with fellow (if a little, ahem, younger) university graduate and writer Amna Boheim http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/.  Who knew that early exposure to toadstools, matryoshka-red-fly-agaric-mushroom-mushrooms-forestgingerbread houses and angry kings could set you on the path to Hell and pacts with demons?  I mean, they could have led to botany, cookery and, oh, I don’t know, the Wars of the Roses.

But in my case they didn’t.

 

 

pexels-photo-185360Discover more about the tangled roots of Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst on Amna’s blog:

http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/ 

28 reasons for following Authors Electric

…Starting with No. 1.  Me.

Before I am justifiably deluged by an electric storm of outrage at such hubris, I should clarify: I am only No 1 in the sense that I’ve joined the wonderfully diverse and fascinating band of writers that is Authors Electric and have been allotted the 1st day of every month. The other 27/28/29/30 days belong to my 27 fellow sparks, with the remainder going to guest writers. I’m honoured to be in this company. The only brief is to write about anything and everything to do with books and writing and already I’ve discovered, through reading other Electric Authors, writers I hadn’t heard of, and enjoyed discussions of all kinds, ranging from playwriting to indie publishing to the Rise of Donald Trump.  Actually, delete ‘enjoyed’ for that last topic.

Here’s my blog for 1 November:

Good Halloween reading

Today I’m posting my First Ever blog for Authors Electric. It comes the day after a somewhat strenuous school visit, in which my aim was to persuade 40 Halloween fixated Years 7 and 8 that stories of pacts with demons, crystal balls, charms, spells and alchemy, all dating back hundreds of years, are at least as exciting as pointy hats, plastic orange pumpkins and wriggly worms. I’m pretty sure I succeeded. Mostly.

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More exciting than a pumpkin

Even more important – and this is why I love school visits – is the chance to enthuse children with the sheer magic of books themselves. Some will be keen readers already. Others, not yet, but give them a glimpse into other worlds and you never know when they may follow it up. My favourite books as a child were either retellings of great myths and legends – T H White’s The Once and Future King, Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Tale of Troy – or stories that recreated a classical world of monsters and magical creatures, such as C S Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles. These were all terrific stories in their own right: I didn’t need to know anything about Malory or Homer or Ovid to enjoy them. Only much later, encountering those authors at university, the feeling of coming home I experienced filled me with an even stronger appreciation of the writers I’d loved as a child. They really, really knew their stuff. More, they were determined that children should have the chance to know it too.

So when, at the end of my talk (sometimes during, which can be distracting but hats off for enthusiasm), somebody asks, ‘What made you become a writer?’, the answer is easy. I had to. Because while you’ll find hundreds of books by excellent children’s authors based on King Arthur and the Greek and Roman gods and heroes, some of the world’s greatest literary works have been ignored in this respect.

    Dante’s Inferno, for instance. A brilliant, grotesque imagining by the poet of descending through 9 circles of Hell, based on the classical underworld, complete with Cerberus, harpies, furies, Minotaur, rivers of blood and fire – surely it could only be a matter of time before somebody made this into a cracking children’s adventure story? Well, I waited… And my own children grew up a bit and gave me more space to think… And one day I decided enough was enough and sat down to write about a girl called Ante (Antonia) who finds herself plunged on a dark journey to the heart of Hell, guided by a mysterious boy called Gil.  I wrote the kind of book I’d have loved aged 12 and when Ante’s Inferno (Matador, 2012) came out, was delighted to find plenty of 9 – 12 year olds out there who feel the same (enough to vote Ante’s Inferno to win the Peoples Book Prize).

Why did no one do it before? My guess is that people assume that Dante, a 14th century Italian poet studied by theologians and academics, must be too difficult for children. In my experience young people are often underestimated in the kind of ideas they can grasp and enjoy. In my school visits, I sketch in a few details about Dante and the purpose of the Divine Comedy. I invariably find the audience fascinated by the idea of a Hell based on myths of the underworld (some of which they know), arranged into individual circles for different kinds of wrongdoing. Many of them want to read Ante’s Inferno as a result (hurrah!) but more importantly, they’ve been given a taste of the great wealth of literature and legend that’s out there.

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Seven deadly sins – popular with children

Which brings me to the topic occupying my current school visits. Not Greek legend and the Seven Deadly Sins – also very popular with children, incidentally – but Elizabethan magic and devilish bargains.  Perhaps you can guess the inspiration behind my latest book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in which a 13 year old boy, finding himself in a spot of bother at school, hits on the brilliant idea of summoning supernatural aid.

Unfortunately, entering into a pact with a helpful fellow called Mephistopheles lands Henry in rather more trouble than he’d bargained for….

Follow me and my fellow electric authors here!