Archive for December, 2011

Please allow me to introduce myself – no, I’m not a “man of wealth and taste” but Blog – and I have been “around for a long, long year”. To be precise, I am one year and 100 posts old today. To celebrate this momentous event, the guy who usually drones on at you has finally seen sense and handed it over to me to share my thoughts on how well those 12 months have gone (or not as the case may be). 

You may have gathered if you read his last post that he’s feeling quite pleased with himself. Being naturally indolent, even he didn’t think he would ever reach this point. But, with my staunch, cheery support, he has, so I won’t begrudge him some credit for that.

Our relationship has been tense, sometimes tetchy, but we’ve muddled through. My main gripe is that he’s not consistent enough in the frequency with which he puts me to work. After a steady, manageable start he then launched into 24 days straight posting on his spring vacation. That might have been fun for him, swanning around Tahoe, Vegas and San Francisco, but it wore me out I can tell you. It was difficult enough acclimatising to an 11 hour flight and 8 hour time change, but then expecting me to work beyond midnight over an extended period was adding insult to injury. A trip to the blog tribunal was on the cards at that point.

But then he followed it with a very leisurely timetable – only 18 posts in 5 months during the summer. Admittedly, some of the articles were much longer, especially those on his beloved cricket (I really don’t understand the fascination at all myself), but it did leave me with a lot of time on my hands. Mind you, every cloud as they say, I was able to freelance on the off days, though don’t tell him – he places a lot of store by loyalty.

And then there’s the language he uses. Personally, I find it a trifle flowery, even pompous on occasions. But with a grammar school education and 30 years in the civil service behind him, he dosen’t stand much chance does he? He thinks he’s funny too – gimme a break! He really needs to work this year on getting the balance right between being informative, interesting and entertaining.  

I must admit I prefer his factual posts, y’know those about San Franciscan characters, to his ruminations on life and cricket (he seems to think the last two are the same thing!). I sometimes find the latter more embarassing than enlightening with their wistful, elegiac tone (he told me to use those particular words, God knows what they mean). 

I just hope he’ll revert to the San Francisco stuff more in the future. He’s promised to do so, so let’s hope he lives up to that – though once the cricket season raises its coy head in April, I doubt he’ll be able to contain his dewy-eyed sentimentality, and start blathering on again about the rhythm of the day’s play and the strategic importance of the tea interval and other such drivel.

Something else that bugs me – these writers continually bang on about the “block”, and how they suffer from it from time to time. I just don’t geddit  -what IS their problem?  Despite what I said earlier, I’m ready to perform 24/7 so why can’t they be?  

I believe he’s announced to you that he plans to alter my design and layout.  Now, I’m a simple chap, so I just hope he doesn’t try to turn me into a look-alike of those appalling Grateful Dead tie-dye shirts he is so beloved of.  I’m quite comfortable in my current skin, thank you.

He’s not that hot actually on the technical aspects, as you may have noticed by his use of photographs at times. But I have bitten my lip in the expectation that the penny will drop soon (I really don’t understand why he doesn’t take my advice on including more clichés in his articles).

He doesn’t read enough either and if he has pretensions to being a serious writer, he needs to step up his game on this.  I don’t hold out much hope, therefore, that he’ll bother to look at this post, let alone take on board my concerns (he’s never asked my opinion before now). Perhaps, dear reader, you could be my advocate and tell him in your comments on individual articles. But treat him gently – he’s a sensitive soul beneath the wisecracking exterior.

So what does the future hold? Well, for all that he frustrates and irritates me at times, I’m prepared to stick around for another year. After all, it’s “the nature of my game”.

I think I’ve probably upset him enough already, and abused the privilege of this audience with you, so I had better give it a rest now.  Besides, I don’t want him dumping me for a younger, fresher model – times are hard and “better the devil you know” has always been my motto. And I do quite fancy another spring break out west, not to mention a trip around the national parks in October, if he can get his act together and organise them.

I don’t suppose that I’ll get the chance to talk to you again in the near future, unless you place a comment at the bottom of the page (that’s a hint, right?), so I’ll sign off with a Happy New Year!

Ooh, who, who!

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I am writing this, my 99th post, on the day before the first anniversary of my blog. Around 65,000 words have soiled the screen since New Year’s Eve 2010 when I embarked, belatedly and anxiously, on this expedition (a word I prefer to that ubiquitous “journey” that every reality TV contestant and sportsperson seem to be on nowadays).

The birthday and century will be rung up tomorrow, fittingly, whilst I reside in the northern English town of Lancaster where it all started, though the blog has been half way around the world in that time – well, Barcelona, Northern France, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and the length and breadth of the UK.

I thought I should take the opportunity here to reflect upon the success or otherwise of my efforts over the past 12 months.  Although you’re burdened with my voice today, I have arranged for a guest writer to offer their own unique insights in tomorrow’s centenary post – of which more later.

In only my second post – This Writing Lark – I stated my aim was to produce “worthwhile written work that others might enjoy”.  I hope that I have succeeded in this, at least some of the time (“you can’t please all of the people…..”), and the comments, such as they have been, have certainly been positive. But I need to engage with my readers more if I am to build a significant platform for my work.  I have plans to ensure that this happens, courtesy of the advice from Kristen Lamb, Anne R. Allen and other luminaries on the blogging scene. 

As I indicated in my recent posts entitled Blogging versus Writing and Yes!!!! I AM a Writer it is only now that I am beginning to feel like a writer.  Ideas for posts present themselves more readily than before, especially than in the summer months when, to be fair, the distractions were greater. I now need rather then just want to write.

So what will the New Year bring? I will blog at least twice a week, essentially on the same subjects that have filled it this year, including the resurrection of the San Francisco themed features, and engage in much more comment and discussion with other bloggers than I have managed before.  Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, will complete my social networking activity.

But 2012 will be different – as I had always planned – in that I now intend to focus on other forms of writing than the blog.  In addition to submitting work to relevant publications I will also be dipping my toe in the competition waters.  Finally, and by no means least, I will be working on more substantial, long term projects, once I have clarified to my own satisfaction which of those should take precedence (or whether they should be tackled concurrently). 

One palpable change that I intend to make is in the design of the blog.  The current theme has served me well, and whilst it does fulfill the basic requirements – clear and well organised – it is a little dull.  I think a funkier image is necessary, so I will be researching the increasing range of WordPress themes to find the one that fits best.  I won’t rush into this, and it is possible my conclusion might still be to retain the current one, but, equally, don’t be surprised if you receive a more colourful greeting when you visit in the New Year.   

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank WordPress for making the task of designing and writing on the blog much less onerous than I had feared, as well as my friend Pete who recommended the platform in the first place – that was inspired advice. 

I will now leave you in the less predictable hands of my guest writer for the centenary blog, namely “Blog” himself (at least I think it’s a he), who will be offering his own idiosyncratic opinions on the past 12 months. 

I’ll see you again in the first post of 2012. Happy New Year!

Now, how do I get rid of that falling snow over the Golden Gate Bridge!

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The scene is a large supermarket in the south east of England at 6pm on the eve of Christmas Eve.  A constant and grating loop of seventies pop songs is playing instead of a school choir or Salvation Army Band.

Helpless men between the ages of 18 and 60, who would prefer to be still in the pub, shuffle outside The Perfume Shop and La Senza, summoning the courage to approach the giggling female assistants in their last minute hunt for that perfect present that might, at least for now, persuade their wife or girlfriend to see them in the light that they did when they first met.

A middle aged couple are doing their last minute food shopping for the “big day”.  Although they have already bought many of the Christmas-specific items – party food, snacks, chocolate – they bicker over whether they have enough to satisfy the army – alias the man’s father – who will descending upon them tomorrow, and the neighbours who will be calling in for drinks on Boxing Day afternoon.

Why are we getting bottles of apple and orange juice when we know that Jean likes wine and Peter will want a beer?  We don’t drink it and we are going away on Tuesday (the husband is forced to repeat this over the increasingly manic strains of Noddy Holder).

You say that, but that was last year – they may not be able to drink alcohol any more, they’re not getting any younger y’know.

(“So here it is, Merry Christmas”).

And why do we need to get sweet biscuits and pork pies which neither of us eat, and will only end up going home with my dad?

(“Everybody’s having fun”).

Well, he can take them home then can’t he, it’s not a problem.

(“Look to the future now”).

And we don’t need the extravagance of a Christmas tablecloth and napkins, I for one am happy to eat off a normal one.

But it’s Christmas and I want it to be special, and that’s the end of it (the husband ponders whether The Perfume Shop accepts returns BEFORE Christmas).

(“It’s only just begun”).

We will leave them now to plan their Christmas Eve search for parsnips and brussel sprouts, both of which have been ransacked earlier in the day.

A teenage couple with a small baby are trying to arrange a short term loan that, judging by the girl’s industrial language on her mobile phone, is meeting with as much success as Joseph and Mary’s efforts at securing a room at the inn.

In a quiet corner of a busy café, whilst her weary, shopping-laden mother sips a caramel macchiato, a three year old girl, oblivious to everything around her, with eyes alight and blonde curls swaying in unison, sings a medley of Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

So here it is.

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Have you ever passed people in the street, or stood behind someone in the queue in a shop, and overheard a snatch of conversation that has intrigued you so much that you wanted to hear more, but could not as they had moved on as quickly as they arrived?

One place in which you may hear hundreds of such snippets in just a single day is the shopping mall, particularly in the build up to Christmas when the numbers of its parishioners escalate.

The Bluewater shopping centre in Kent is the fourth largest in the UK in terms of retail space, and the sixth biggest in Europe. The following quotations were all overheard by myself on a trip there on Monday 19th December. Some are amusing, others intriguing and some just plain weird. The common denominator is that I neither heard what was said before or after – those words, the context in which the comments were made – are lost forever.

Whilst you might be thinking that my behaviour bordered on the creepy side, I should state that acute observation of people is a fundamental requirement for any writer. Moreover, Former Press Secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Moyers, claimed that eavesdropping was the only place in which you could truly “delve into the life of our times”.  And with not one person either casting me a quizzical look or uttering a cross word during this exercise, I must have some talent for it!

I had originally intended to “explain” each comment by reference to the location in which it was made and the gender and approximate age of the speaker. But I think the majority  speak for themselves.

I have confined the number to 20, though I collected many more (which I promise not to inflict on you unless you insist):

1. I’ve got to get one that’s got a slit all the way down.

2. Because my calves are quite big I had to have the zip adjusted last year.

3. I’ve gotta try and find one that hasn’t got that mark on it.

4. Shall we ‘ave a look in ‘ere while we’re ‘ere?

5. Mum, come and look, come and look, they’ve got a Bristol.

6. Billy, you run off one more time and I’ll cancel Santa.

7. Forty five quid? I could make that for a tenner.

8. If I don’t get me money back I’ll kill ’em.

9. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s Southern Comfort ‘e likes, not Jack Daniel’s. 

10. I can’t afford presents like that. I’m at Uni.

11. I bought ‘er some books off Amazon. She don’t read but they were SO cheap.

12. Time for lunch. So what’s it to be – sushi or McDonald’s?

13. Alfie, there’s a spare table over there. Quick, get it!

14. I’ve bought all this lot and I’ve hardly started on my list.

15. Oh…. my…. God, it’s got a Hollister!

16. See, I told ya, Bluewater’s way more poncy than Lakeside.

17. If we keep going we’ll end up outside.

18. After all that, I need Starbuck’s.

19. That’ll do. I can’t be bovvered to look any longer.

20. We can’t go home yet, we’ve still got Mummy’s present to get.

I think a number of those comments would be heard in any other shopping mall in any other town on any other day because, understandably, they reflect many of the preoccupations of modern life – money, obsession with appearance, thraldom to designer names, tainted by desperation in many cases. The only surprising omission was any reference to The X Factor, The Only Way is Essex, and many other alleged celebrity TV showsor what manufactured and over-hyped song would be the Christmas Number 1 – but maybe I just struck lucky.

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If you’ve trudged your way through my previous posts – Er…………I’m a Writer and Er………..I’m a Writer Part Two, you will understand that I have struggled with acknowledging to myself, let alone others, that I am a writer and should, therefore, declare myself as such when asked that dreaded question “what do you do?”.

Well, now, rather like the ugly duckling in the Danny Kaye song, I have finally come to accept that my feathers are no longer “stubby and brown”, but rather that I am, if not a “very fine” one, at least a swan.

The particular flock of swans that opened my eyes to this fact came in the form of a writer I only discovered ten days ago.  Kristen Lamb is the author of two outstanding books, namely Not Alone  – the Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer. I believe the titles are self-explanatory, though I need to go into a little more detail to describe their influence upon me.

I devoured the first book within three days of buying it.  On the basis of Kristen’s advice I have almost trebled the number of followers I have on Twitter in the past week.  The list now contains a number of highly successful authors, agents and publishers. This is called “building my platform” by the way.  I have also amended my profile on both Facebook and Twitter to reflect my current and future goals rather than focusing on my past.  In a word, my “brand” is becoming more “professional” with each passing day.

I have not even finished the first chapter of the second book yet, but feel compelled to share what a seismic change has been brought about in my own attitude by the first few pages alone.

Indeed, on the very first page, Kristen goes straight to the heart of my, until now, enduring dilemma:

When people ask you what you do, you need to tell them, “I’m an author” or “I am a writer”…………As long as you introduce yourself via your day job (other than writer), then you are telling your subconscious that you want to be that day job FOREVER. Don’t even try to cheat with “I am an aspiring writer”. Again, this is a subconscious cue, and twenty years later, you will still be “aspiring”.

In case you have not read my previous articles on the subject, I have described my “day job”, since I retired from the civil service, variously as “retired”, “unemployed” and “student”, sometimes taking a gulp before adding hurriedly that “I’m doing a bit of writing nowadays”.

Kristen addresses, with her customary humour, the embarassment factor that accompanies that brave declaration with:

If you want others to shut up and stop mocking you, just tell them they had better knock it off because there is a part for a nose-picking circus midget with mommy issues in your novel. Then they might agree to play nice.

And finally:

Screw aspiring. Aspiring is for pansies. Takes guts to be a writer. Yes, other people will titter and roll their eyes, but you won’t care. In the meantime, toughen up. You will need the skin of a rhino in this business. Do not look for outside approval. This is about as productive as looking for unicorns or Sasquatch.

So, in the immortal words of the great Frankie Howerd, “titter ye not” people – I AM a WRITER!

After all, what do I spend my time doing when I am not carrying out household chores, caring for my elderly father and spending quality time with my wife – and sometimes even DURING those times – yes, writing.  Blog, Twitter, Facebook, e mails, forums – all writing. This is what I do. And, in the New Year, I intend to step up several gears by entering competitions and submitting articles to relevant magazines, as well as progressing one or two more substantial projects. That doesn’t make me a plumber, interior decorator or civil engineer – it makes me a WRITER.

So thank you Kristen for giving me both the reassurance and confidence to proclaim this to the world.

Her hugely informative and entertaining blog can be found at http://www.warriorwriters.wordpress.com/ .  Whether you are “just” interested in improving how you build and develop your relationships on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, or believe you too could produce an interesting and valuable blog, this is the place to go.  And don’t forget to read the books as well – they have been my inspiration.

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I recently accompanied my elderly father to the optometrist in the local high street for his overdue eye test.  On the wall of the waiting area was a sign proclaiming “Do not use mobile phones”  – not “We ask our customers to kindly refrain from using mobile phones” but “Do not use mobile phones”.  The message was unequivocal – they were, understandably, not permitted in an area that contained highly sensitive equipment.

I suspect you know what’s coming next – yes, half of the people congregating outside the consulting rooms were in conversation on their handheld devices, most saying nothing more illuminating than that they were “at the optician’s”. A young man sitting next to me loudly responded to a call whilst a nurse tried to explain her treatment to the woman sat on the other side of him. It never occurred to him to move away or – heaven forbid – turn off his phone.

Another sign declared “No food or drink”, which was being observed perfectly, other than by small children in buggies (strollers) who ought to have constituted an exception anyway. How ironic that we are prepared to forego the staff of life for an hour or two, but cannot survive without the comfort of that little piece of plastic and lead for just a few minutes.

But before my momentary outrage triggers a rant about the decline of respect and civility, I need to relay another shocking discovery – all the while I had muttered about, and frowned at, the widespread flouting of a quite explicit and rational instruction, I had been checking my e mails and Twitter timeline on my own phone. Now I don’t know whether, aside from the obvious distraction and discourtesy, surfing is less forgivable than speaking (I suspect the radiological damage is the same), but I do acknowledge the hypocrisy of my stance.

What it does illustrate, however, is the utter dependence we place upon the simultaneously liberating and tyrannous grip – literally – of our smartphones. androids and tablets. I tend to use my ageing Nokia N93 primarily for texting and surfing and have never understood the fascination with playing games on computers of any size or specification.  

But I doubt that I could live without it. When I commuted to work it enabled me to let my wife know if my train was running late, ensuring that dinner would still be edible when I finally made it home.  It allows me to track the progress of my favourite sports teams when I am out and about.  And it prevents me from missing an important meeting when my usually reliable memory lets me down.

I like to think that I don’t abuse the privilege of having one.  I will remove myself from a crowded public space to return a call, and, even then, talk almost too quietly (natural English reserve meets respect here).  Nor do I walk the streets with it cupped in the palm of my hand, as if expecting at any moment a call from Barack Obama asking for my views on the Syrian crisis, or a text from Bob Dylan inviting me to open for him on his next tour.   

Sadly, however, too many of my fellow citizens appear to believe that ownership of any sort of handheld electronic device entitles them to declaim loudly and tediously on public transport and in restaurants, and go about their business with their faces buried in the contraptions, oblivious to the world around them, sometimes causing danger to themselves and others.

I am getting perilously close to ranting again, so here’s a new game for you.  Next time you see someone heading towards you on the street, head bowed, nose caressing the screen display on their iPhone, iPad2 or e-reader, rather than leap out of their way into oncoming traffic or scrape your back against a wall, just hold your ground and shout “boo!” as they career into you. It’ll frighten the hell out of them! And sometimes it even elicits an apology!

But one note of caution – choose your target carefully.  It’s not advisable to select someone who is bigger or meaner looking than yourself.

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Isn’t modern medical science wonderful?  You can get a replacement knee or hip and have a heart or liver transplant if you need one.  And there are many other parts of your anatomy that can be mended and healed.  Well, today, I had my deformed dongle, which has given me a great deal of discomfort, not to say embarassment, for several months now, replaced.

Bent out of shape, not “by society’s pliers” but by my treading on it at regular intervals, it was still “doing the business”, albeit a little more slowly and gingerly than before. But today, on a pure whim, I walked in off the street in the centre of Canterbury, in the shadow of the great cathedral (perhaps, just perhaps, some divine providence was at play), and got it fixed.  My pre-Christmas blues, outlined in today’s earlier post, were alleviated at a stroke.  

The painless procedure, carried out without anaesthetic, was administered by two skilled and pleasant surgeons, and only took as long as twenty minutes because my wife, who had wandered off into adjoining wards, was needed to confirm that the replacement was in sound working order before we could be discharged.

If you’re still with me (which, of course, you are), and wonder what on earth I am prattling on about, the dongle is a mobile broadband USB stick 625, a “plug in and go” internet connection for my laptop.  The hospital at which the procedure was undertaken was a branch of T-Mobile.

Surely, you didn’t think I was referring to anything else did you?  If so, I am reminded of Max Miller when he said that “It’s people like you who give me a bad name”!

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Contrary to my earlier post on this subject ten days ago it’s now 1st December and I don’t feel Christmassy at all! So this post is going to act as a short, gloomy antidote to the sense of childlike expectation that inhabited that piece.

Being English, my natural response is to blame the weather – it remains unconscionably mild, despite dire warnings in September that we would be mired in deep snow long before now, as we were last year. This morning’s intermittent squalls and drizzle add to the cheerless atmosphere that pervades our high streets and shopping centres.

Minor celebrities may have descended to earth to switch on the lights and begin rehearsals for their pantomimes, anxious retailers may be offering ever more tantalising discounts and Dean Martin may be imploring it to snow, but there is a pervading gloom that I have witnessed in four separate Kent towns over the same number of days this week.  The economic situation is, of course, an important factor.  That said, I do not see any obvious signs that people are reining in their spending, with bargains available on so many popular gift items.

No, what is most striking is the grudging, almost resentful manner in which people are going about their festive preparations.  Christmas seems an imposition, and an expensive one at that, at a time when the traditional British approach of “getting by” is what is preoccupying many people.  This is mirrored too in the paucity of Christmas trees, lights and decorations adorning domestic homes.  I cannot recall seeing so few this “late” into the season.

Despite the prompt I gave myself over a week ago, the CDs and DVDs continue to hibernate in dusty ignorance in assorted cupboards around the house.  Billy Bob Thornton will be in an especially foul mood when he is roused to reprise his seminal role as Bad Santa. I have even resisted the blandishments of the twenty four hour TV movies channel too, though that is not that difficult as it generally churns out a surfeit of bland, syrupy made for TV films, interspersed all too rarely with classics such as A Christmas Carol with the wonderful Alistair Sim.

So no wassailing or figgy pudding for me yet, nor have I sampled a single mince pie.  But perhaps it’s just me, running ahead of myself, like those young children singing Jingle Bells under their breath in my previous post.
Kate Rusby’s Christmas concert at the Barbican tomorrow, with its mellow mix of popular and South Yorkshire carols, may well do the trick.  The weather forecasters have indicated that a cold spell will descend upon us at the weekend, which should also add to the seasonal atmosphere.   And next week heralds the customary round of Christmas lunches, dinners and drinks, though they are likely to add more to my waistline and credit card bill than my spirits.

But I should not be complaining.  After all, I began my previous post by lamenting that Christmas forced itself upon me earlier and earlier with each passing year.  I can’t have it both ways can I?

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