Monday, December 27, 2010

Cuts, Slashings and Charitable Donations

It’s been a depressing week. Not that I don’t enjoy Christmas; I most certainly do. But this extra time off affords me the chance to catch up on news-worthy events around the globe.

I read on the BBC website the other day that the Indian space program (sorry, I’m a Brit... do you mind if I spell it programme?) suffered a set-back when their latest launch resulted in an in-flight explosion. In just a few seconds, an expensive rocket and satellite system checked out in a cloud of smoke off the Indian east coast near Chennai.

Ah, well. These things are sent to try us, no? If there’s one thing I know about the Indians it’s that their strength of character will see them prevail.

Another depressing story concerned the imminent funding cuts to the NHS budget in England. Cuts, indeed. Perverted, callous, merciless slashings, more accurately describes what’s going on.

20 billion pounds worth of ‘savings’ must be made over the next four years, according to the UK Treasury. It’s rhetoric such as this which leads me to believe that the word ‘compassion’ has been banished from Westminster.

Research -- statistics, dare I say? -- has proven that the higher the nurse:patient ratio, the greater the patient recovery rate. Up to 26% more patients make successful recoveries in hospitals where staffing levels are higher. If, as the Royal College of Nursing fears, these looming cuts lead to a staffing reduction of up to 27,000 posts, it is nothing more than common sense to predict that lives will be lost in Britain as a result of cutting the NHS budget.

Let me be clear: British lives will be lost thanks to the UK government’s abominable decision to cut the NHS budget. Add in the imminent cuts to the budgets for policing, ambulance cover, roads maintenance and social services (to name but a few), and the outlook is grim for the people of the UK over the next decade or longer.

I also read, with some dismay I might add, about the UK government’s decision to cease funding of the Booktrust scheme. The Booktrust scheme provides free books to children in England, with the intention of fostering a love of reading from an early age.

From April 2011, the charity will lose 13 million pounds of funding, and there can be no doubt that this decision will, in the short term, adversely affect the quality of life of British children. In the longer term, of course, the damage caused by the UK government’s Scrooge-like mentality towards its own citizens is immeasurable.

I admit to having a vested interest in people reading (and buying) books: I’m a writer; why would I not care about issues regarding literacy? Notwithstanding that, I think it’s nothing more than common sense to say that if we, as a society, allow our next generations to turn exclusively to some other medium for education or entertainment, we’ll be giving ourselves a kick in the pants down the slippery slope to illiteracy. And a society that is illiterate can never stand on its own two feet, let alone help out its friends in their time of need.

Now, that brings me to the notion of ‘standing on your own two feet’. It’s quite an apt turn of phrase, given the content of this post, and my other posts related to spending cuts.

Another article I had time to read this holiday period focused on one of the few budget increases announced in the last few months: UK foreign aid.

I’m no expert on the ins and outs of spending UK tax-payers’ money on funding development projects in far-flung corners of the globe. Please read that sentence again.

But I cannot let it pass without comment that, when a perilous situation is developing in its own back yard, the UK government remains committed to an INCREASE in its spending in foreign countries.

George Osborne, the UK Chancellor, announced on 20 October 2010 that the UK’s overseas development assistance (ODA) budget will increase in 2011 to 0.56% of the UK’s Gross National Income (GNI). By 2014, it will increase to 0.7% of GNI, as the Conservative party promised prior to this year’s general election.

Fair enough, the original decision was made by the out-going Labour chancellor, but to refuse to cut this budget is an idiotic decision made by an idiotic government. This is one spending spree that must be curtailed until such times as the people of the UK are more able to afford such luxuries.

Part of this increased ODA budget is destined for India, a country which recently announced plans to spend 124 billion rupees on a manned space mission by 2016 (BBC website, 27 Jan 2010). They’ve already set up a fully-fledged (and expensive, no doubt) spaceflight training facility in Bangalore, and in 2009 launched an unmanned space mission as a prelude to manned flights. Mars is also a target of the Indian space programme, by 2030 apparently.

A document obtained from the House of Commons library (Standard Note SN/EP/5578) reveals that the total of UK aid to India in 2008 was 29% of all worldwide aid received by that country, or about 613 million USD.

In 2009, India boasted the world’s 11th largest economy. They’re a nuclear-equipped power, with missiles (tested recently off the coast of Orissa (Odisha) province) that are capable of hitting targets in Asia and much of the middle east. In 2007, India’s TATA motor company bought that most British of icons, Landrover.

You know, a friend of mine back in Scotland slipped on ice and broke her hip last week. Her local council couldn’t afford the salt that would have made the pavements less slippy. Budget cuts, you see. And what with those NHS cuts, and the cuts to social services, things look grim for the poor old biddy’s recovery. But, enough digression...

It’s not just India the British government is ‘helping out’. Take the Chinese, for example - another world nuclear power. Although UK aid to China (sorry, that phrase still flabbergasts me when I see it in writing) is due to end next year, in 2011 the UK will still send them a bundle of cash from the British taxpayer.

The Chinese economy is bigger than the UK's. There are 128 Chinese billionaires. Only America has more. Care to guess which country has the third highest number of billionaires?

Yup. India. Britain lags way behind with 29, compared to India's 69.

Worldwide, there are 90 countries which currently receive aid from the UK taxpayer. While I don’t advocate a complete stop to UK support for these countries, I do want to see cuts to this budget, commensurate with the level of cuts being forced upon the UK’s local councils and government-funded bodies (the NHS, arts, universities, etc).

I see it as crass arrogance that Mr Cameron expects the people of the UK to bear the brunt of these ‘bad times’ while accepting the same level of spending on foreign aid. If it were the same level, that would be bad enough. But to tell us you’re increasing the sum, Mr Cameron, is to kick us in the guts when we’re down.

You’ll be glad to hear I’m coming to the end of my rant. I’ve no doubt many who read this will decry me for being selfish, for having no compassion, or for being a short-sighted racist.

Feel free to think what you want of me - I admit to being myopic. But I am not selfish; neither am I a racist (two of my closest friends are Indian); neither am I short of compassion for my fellows when they are in need.

It is precisely because of my compassion, in fact, that I urge David Cameron and his government to remember the old proverb: charity begins at home.

Do not allow the UK to become the sort of place where justice no longer matters.

Do not allow the UK to degenerate into such a state that we cannot afford to provide even the most basic of social services to people who have paid good money to receive those services.

And do not allow the UK to fester into the sort of place where our children do not know how to read. If you do, very soon the British people will be so illiterate and uneducated that we will not be able to look after ourselves, let alone help out a friend in need.

Reverse these cuts by cutting the UK's foreign aid budget. Do it now, Mr Cameron, before it’s too late and you’re remembered as the man who ruined Britain.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The trouble with statistics is that they’re easily skewed and seldom reveal a complete picture.

For example, government statistics reported in the Scottish press today reveal a significant fall in the country’s homicide rate - down 20% on last year - to levels not seen since 1979.

Knife crime, the ugly smudge on Scotland’s copybook, is also down, with homicides involving a ‘sharp instrument’ accounting for 35 of the nation’s 78 homicides last year.

This is excellent news: Scotland now ranks alongside Bulgaria and Romania on the European ‘homicides per head of population’ league table.

The Scottish government was quick to pat itself on the back. Justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, said the success was thanks to the government’s drive to put a thousand extra Scottish police officers on the beat since 2007.

While I agree with the commitment to provide more cops at street level, I dispute Mr MacAskill’s assertion that homicide rates are falling because of his government’s commitment to fighting crime.

Common sense dictates that the gradual reduction in homicide rates over, say, the last hundred years is as much to do with advances made in medicine during the corresponding period. We’ve become much more competent at repairing stab wounds; it’s not necessarily the case that we’re less violent towards one another.

When collating the number of assaults involving knives and ‘sharp instruments’, is the degree of surgery the victim needs recorded? Surely that’s a significant factor in determining whether someone lives or becomes another homicide stat, but I doubt it’s being recorded or analysed.

In my opinion, it's our doctors, paramedics, nurses and surgeons who deserve our thanks, not some spineless politician.

A run of bad luck in theatre - or idiotic funding cuts to the NHS budget - and those homicide rates can skyrocket.

Government statistics? I seldom believe them. They’re too easily manipulated and only slightly more trustworthy than the average politician.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Libraries, Funding Cuts and Diabolical Politicians

Many of you have read my previous posts regarding the disastrous cuts being made to Britain's police forces, prisons and education budgets.

I read Nicola Morgan's post on the proposed cuts to library services today, and it turns my stomach to think of Britain degenerating to such an extent.

If you value your local library, use it. Use it to write to the UK government, expressing your outrage that these so-called leaders are taking us back to the dark ages.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Patience of a Writer

I'm sure that'll replace the original, at some point in the future.

Patience is a virtue, some say. It's also an absolute 'must have' for a writer.

And so is persistence.

I remember when I was just starting out - I thought, quite honestly, that it'd take me a few months to establish myself.

What a loon! A few months??

I found out the hard way that writers need patience. It takes years, decades even, to establish a niche, a market, a presence - call it anything you like. But it doesn’t come easily. And so many good writers give up far too soon.

That's why I admire guys like Peter Watt. He plugs away for hours on end, day in, day out, to meet publisher deadlines and self-set goals. He achieves his objectives, and his hard work pays off. Just last month he released a new instalment of his Duffy and Macintosh saga. If it’s even half as good as the previous novels in the series, it’ll be a cracker of a read. My copy's sitting on my lampstand, waiting patiently to be read. (See how he puts so much of himself into his work?)

And I can’t imagine anything more satisfying than having someone read my stories, interact with the characters I’ve created, or gaze about (in their minds, of course!) at the settings I’ve crafted - and the best way to achieve that goal is to be patient and persistent.

I know it’s easy to become despondent in this business. A few weeks ago I emailed an agent I’d queried with a cover and partial a few months ago. They’d come back quite quickly, asking to see the full ms, and I sent it the same day. Months passed with no word, so I to sent them a polite ‘ahem’ asking if they’d received my full submission. Yes they had, was the speedy reply - but it had been filed in the wrong place.

Am I annoyed?

Hell, no.

I know some people who’d be livid, but I understand these things happen. We’re all human. And, I swear, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve lost a file, I’d be writing this blog from the study of my gleaming white yacht in the Whitsundays.

Do I still want that agent to represent me? Of course I do - one wee mistake doesn't change the fact that this agency ticks all the right boxes as far as maximising my manuscript's potential is concerned.

But it does lead me back to the ‘patience & persistence’ thing.

So, don’t be put off by having to wait - few things happen quickly in publishing.

Don’t stop querying - you only have to get your work in front of the right reader once.

And don’t stop entering competitions.

Yes, that last one will keep me paddling along for a while :)

Friday, September 17, 2010

There's pink, and then there's PINK!

Okay, so no one should laugh when they’re watching a report about homes being resumed. I get that. But is the Aussie sense of humour really on its last legs?

I was watching Nine News the other night and there’s this item about the Queensland State government’s plan to ‘resume’ - compulsory purchase, the Brits call it - about 60 properties in the Yeerongpilly area of southern Brisbane, to make way for a new railway station.

The camera zoomed in close on a few poor unfortunates who’ll be worst affected (I’ve come to expect that when my heart strings are being tweaked for me), such as the hair-dresser who’s worked hard to build up her clientele in the area, and a property developer with a half-built apartment complex who doesn’t know if he’s Martin or Martha any more. I could feel the emotion.

But I kinda lost it when the mature (for want of a better phrase) lady resident blasted onto my screen. Don’t get me wrong – I feel for her, too. Honestly, I do. She’s just finished refurbishing her home and this announcement couldn’t come at a worse time for her.

But she’s wearing her hair bright pink, almost in a punky ‘what-the-hell-are-you-lookin-at?’ style. It goes with her bright pink top, though, and her bright pink lippy.

‘She likes her pinks bright,’ I say to myself.

And there’s nothing wrong in that – she can wear anything she likes, and adopt any look she wants.

Here’s what killed the interview for me, though. The reporter asked her what she thought of the government’s announcement. And she said...

‘It’s shocking.’

But nobody else laughed. Absolutely no one. Not the cameraman. Not the reporter. Not the couple of anchors back in the news room. Not even the weatherman.

Now, I feel for these poor Yeerongpillyites, I really do. But, come on. There’s more than enough bad stuff going on in this ugly big world that’ll depress us. I reckon we should all take every opportunity God sends us to have a good going belly laugh.

Unless you work for Nine News, of course. Very professional.

Not even a smirk.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Recipe for Disaster

Today, the Down Under Dunder focuses on the cuts to public spending that are about to ravage the UK, in particular the proposed cuts to police funding.

The last reports I read from a my favourite UK news web sites said that 40,000 front-line police jobs (that’s actual cops on the beat) are to be lost in the UK over the next four years.

Forces across the country are faced with having to make cuts of up to 25% of their annual budgets. Inevitably, that will result in cuts to actual numbers of on-patrol police officers, as well as police equipment and civilian staff. In other words, the service that each force area provides to the tax-payer is destined to diminish.

Strathclyde Police already have a recruitment freeze in operation. That means each cop who retires or is killed in the line of duty isn’t replaced, resulting in a net reduction in the number of officers available to do the job we demand of them: protecting our lives and property, preventing crime and, where crime has been committed, detecting offenders. Every other police force in Scotland is already doing likewise, or is about to.

As it stands, pitifully few crimes committed in Scotland are detected; roughly 49% of all reported crimes are solved, according to Scottish government figures released on 7 Sept 2010. Any less and ‘...we may as well just put the lights out and walk away...’ to quote Perth Sheriff Lindsay Foulis, the Scottish equivalent of an Australian magistrate. (In fact, Sheriff Foulis was decrying the automatic early release of prisoners, but automatic early release and poor detection rates are issues which are closely related; both can trace their roots directly to the biggest problem facing the Scottish criminal justice system today: under-funding.)

All manner of police services and initiatives will also suffer.

Community policing, for example. Fewer cops on the beat will mean each ‘bobbie’ has less time to foster good community relations and build the respect that a community must have in its officers.

Requests for information under ‘freedom of information’ legislation will go unanswered, because there won’t be enough civilian staff to attend to those requests.

Crime prevention initiatives will fall by the wayside, abandoned as ‘non-essential’.

Inter-force investigations (of alleged police misconduct or incompetence, for example) will be compromised.

Hey, Amnesty International, are you watching that one?

You name it, it’ll be cut.

Fewer firearms officers, yet more criminals turning to guns, since the deterrent of being caught and convicted is diminished.

Fewer police helicopters, yet more criminals prepared to endanger the public as they careen along our streets at idiotic speeds in the hope of evading justice.

Fewer police dogs, yet more criminals encouraged to violate the sanctity of a stranger’s home and sneak off under cover of darkness.

Bad enough. But the real problem, as I see it, is the dystopia that must surely fester in such a sour melting pot of injustice. I see the UK turning into a nation of vigilantes – victims of crime, their families and friends, who let nothing stop them from exercising their God-given right to justice. Worse, any Tom, Dick or Harry who wants to throw his weight around will jump on the vigilante bandwagon faster than you can say ‘Nice bullets, Mr Kersey’.

Kangaroo courts; no right to a fair trial; punishments that grossly outweigh the severity of the crime committed; no right of appeal.

Defence solicitors should also be concerned by these cuts – where will their bread-and-butter business come from if the detection rate plummets?

It isn’t a pretty picture. In fact, we’re witnessing a disaster in the making.

When the crime rate spirals because our courts can’t cope (surprise, surprise, court funding is also under review), and when violent criminals who should be locked up wander freely among us because there’s no room to incarcerate the fewer and fewer who are convicted (prison to guess?), the public will take only so much before they fight back against those who would steal their freedoms.

I don’t think it’s a question of ‘if’; more a question of ‘when’. And as soon as a community heads down the path to vigilantism, that community is ruined for all time.

These cuts will permanently scar the face of British society. They’ll turn a once-beautiful part of the world ugly.

It doesn’t have to be so, but it’ll take a far stronger government than the one we have now to steer Britain away from the brink of ruin.

One positive will come from these budget cuts, as far as the Tory / Lib. Dem. UK government is concerned: the reported crime rate will fall.

Of course it will; it’s inevitable. The ‘reported’ crime rate (not to be confused with the ‘actual’ crime rate) will fall because, in the not-too-distant future, days or even weeks will pass before some over-worked, under-valued, demoralised and ill-equipped plod turns up to log your crime report; and there’ll be little or no chance of tracing, let alone convicting, the perpetrator of that crime. The public won’t bother calling the cops to report ‘petty’ crime, and the reported crime rate will fall.

[Aside: what is ‘petty’ crime? Is it when some splendid example of adolescence and his trusty screwdriver cause thousands of pounds of damage to the side of my car? Or is it when someone less fortunate than me breaks into my home and shits on every photograph I have of my dear departed mother. I’m curious to know what the government’s spin merchants define as ‘petty’.]

Three years from now, if indeed it takes that long, the UK government will quote this drop in reported crime figures and laud its achievements in delivering tough policies on criminal justice while still reining in the costs of policing the nation. They’ll ask for another term in government and promise us better times ahead.

And the Mad Hatter will be nothing short of delighted, because everything will be what it isn’t. Finally.

He’d be delighted now, in fact, since I’ve come to the end and stopped.

Monday, August 23, 2010


There’s been a heck of a lot of press coverage about the release last year from a Scottish prison of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, “the Lockerbie Bomber”. And quite rightly so. It seems everybody has an informed opinion, one way or the other, on the wisdom of setting this convicted murderer free, and it’s comforting to know there are still some people out there who are capable of rational argument.

I’ve held off passing comment because I’m living in Australia these days, and my feeling up till now has been that what goes on in Scotland doesn’t really affect me. But I’ve come to realise that’s a misguided philosophy since I will inevitably return there one day, to live or to die, and because I still speak with a brogue that identifies me as Scottish wherever I go, despite the Australian bushman’s hat sitting atop my head.

So, friends, I want to use this blog to make my position clear for all time: I believe it was fundamentally wrong to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi before he paid full price for his crime. In fact, I believe it's fundamentally wrong to release any convicted criminal before he or she completes the full sentence handed down by the trial court judge.

And, just so you know, it irks me when people – complete strangers, mostly – decry me, as a Scot, for the additional pain the Scottish government has caused the families of the victims of the Lockerbie atrocity.

I was sitting in front of the fire at home that cold night in Scotland in December, 1988, enjoying a beer with some friends. It was a quiet Wednesday evening in Perth, and we’d just begun our Christmas holidays. We were watching a video – can’t remember what was on it – but when it finished the TV brought us back to the real world with news coverage of the carnage that had rained down on Lockerbie, a relatively peaceful village in the Scottish borders.

The pictures we saw were horrendous. Flames. Twisted metal. Demolished houses. Papers and possessions scattered in the now infamous crater. I was a cop at the time, and I know from bitter experience of house fires and vehicle collisions – small bones by comparison – that the rescue crews and police officers on the ground will have witnessed something unspeakable that night, and for many days and nights afterwards.

The enormity of al-Megrahi’s crime must never be understated. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi’s victims were human beings. Most were ordinary people, just like you and me, making the long journey home to be with their loved ones at Christmas, a sacred time of year for us Christians. But that didn’t matter to al-Megrahi. He had his agenda, and that was what was important to him.

That man denied his involvement. Even after an impartial court convicted him, he appealed his conviction, rubbing salt into the wounds he inflicted on the families of his victims yet again.

He has shown no remorse. He’s shown no empathy for those upon whom he heaped indescribable suffering. He should have died in prison, cancer or no.

Yet, the Scottish government saw fit – apparently without consultation with the families of the victims of the bombing (or with anyone else for that matter) – to ‘show compassion’ and release him from prison. And they cite a medical report from some source that now refuses to even explain itself to the people who most need to know how and why this decision was reached: the families who lost their loved ones at the hands of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

You may have guessed that I have a passionate viewpoint on the subject of crime and punishment. I admit right here and in public that I’m a hardliner – commit a crime and you’ll pay the full price for it. No remission or time off for good behaviour. No access to TV. No access to telephones. One meal a day. If you’re sentenced to 30 years, you’ll serve 30 years and break rocks while you do it.

Yeah, I know – I’m an animal.

Or am I?

Inspired by what I see as the inadequacies of most modern-day criminal justice systems, I wrote a novel speculating on how close the public is to revolt over the matters of crime and punishment – that was long before Scotland’s Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill gaily pranced to front and centre of the world stage and showed up the Scottish criminal justice system as the pussycat it really is.

But here’s the rub: if you read just about any newspaper in Australia or Scotland (my points of reference) you won’t have to search too hard to find an article somewhere exposing the softly-softly approach to modern ‘justice’. And if you read the online editions in particular, the chances are you’ll come across a readers’ comments section – what the public have to say about the level of punishment handed down in our courts.

The comments can get quite alarming at times, even for me, but the gist of what the public has to say is this: the vast majority of us want stiffer sentences; we want prison to be a horrible place, not a holiday camp, such that it serves as a genuine deterrent; but most of all, we want to feel safe to walk the streets.

Rapists often serve two years when they should (in my opinion) be locked up for life – hard labour, no remission.

Child molesters are smacked on the wrist and told to stay away from kids. (Here’s a rhetorical question: how many kids’ lives does a child molester have to ruin before he’s (or she’s) considered a threat to society?)

A murderer generally goes to prison for a lot less time than someone who steals $10 million from a bank – assuming the prosecution decides to pursue the charge of murder, and isn't enticed to settle on the easy option of accepting a guilty plea to culpable homicide.

Is that justice? Real justice? If you answered ‘yes’, come the hell on! Have you asked the victims of crime what they think? Have you asked their families?

So here’s my recommendation to Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond: stand up and be men about what you’ve done. You made an appalling decision. Sure, you have no legal obligation to travel to America to justify your actions; but your obligation to the families of al-Megrahi's victims goes far deeper than legality – it reaches into the very heart of this thing we call 'morality'.

Get yourselves over to America, meet with Senator Menendez and his colleagues, and with the families of every victim of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi if they want to meet you, and look them in the eye. Tell them why you did the unthinkable. Show them your reports. Justify yourselves. Prove that you have just as much compassion for them as you do for this convicted murderer.

Then, when you genuinely understand their hurt, their anger and their despair at what you’ve done, apologise to them, and to the people of Scotland for the embarrassment you’ve cause us, and resign from the Scottish government.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

One Thing Australian...

All things Scottish, all things Australian, and all things literary… that’s what DUD is all about. That’s what Jack is (mostly) all about. And this is Jack’s blog, so that is as it should be.

However, once in awhile, Mr. Ramsay lets me pop Down Under to play on DUD. But I hesitate, sometimes. After all, I’m neither Australian nor Scottish. And, while I AM a writer, I’m not sure just how ‘literary’ I am. For sure, I know I’m not in Jack’s league when it comes to literarability.

However, I do have an Aussie connection. I have several good Australian friends, and I am going to have the pleasure of meeting one of them very soon. Larry arrives in Maine on Sunday night, and I will be picking him up at the airport. How exciting!


What if he doesn’t like me? What if I am far, far less impressive in person than I am online? After all, how much trouble can I get into when all I have are my words to make an impression? But once Larry meets me in person, he gets to see and experience the full deal. The real McCoy. Me, live and in color. Holy smokes.

This could be bad.

I once sneezed a pea out through my nose while dining in a restaurant.

I walked though the supermarket with a mashed and melted chocolate Rollo stuck to my butt.

I drove through town with a live chicken stuck in the grill of my car.

I drove through the same village with my groceries on the roof of my truck.

A customer introduced himself to me as Mr. Derbogosian, and I responded, “God Bless You!” (No peas were forthcoming, thank heavens…)

I bragged about getting a good deal on a piece of property by saying “I jewed them down to $25,000.00.” The man I was speaking to was named Steinberg. (Someone should shoot me and put me out of my misery.)

I got nervous when meeting a politician, so I licked my hand and slicked down his rooster-tail. (I feel a migraine coming on…)

I even broke wind in church (but made a remarkable save by scowling at the old man sitting one row behind me. It was a spectacular ploy, and the poor gent even apologized for it, afterwards. [I'm going to Hell, aren't I?])

And all that… well. That was just last week.

With luck, my Aussie friend Larry will be a big buffoon. He’ll lack grace, finesse and style, and he’ll be homlier than a stump fence, too. If that is the case—if he’s kinda like me—then we will have the time of our lives.

But if he’s cool, and suave, and polished… I think I’m doomed.

When he comes home-- when he flies the 10,000 miles back to Brisbane and Russell Island-- I hope you’ll not give his stories too much credence. If he’s as awesome as I think he is, my plan is to keep him drunk for the four weeks that he’s here.

And really… you can’t believe a single thing a drunk Aussie says, now, can you?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Grammar Pet Hates (a.k.a. Boy Him Card Read Good)

Warning: this is a rant. Look away if you're not in the mood for rantings :-)

Clarity. That’s all writing’s about. Well, okay - not all. But, without clarity in what we’re saying to people, there will never be complete understanding between human beings. That’s an important point to remember about why we need grammar; why grammar’s important to get right.

As a writer, I tend to pay particular attention to the structure, grammar and punctuation of anything I read – there’s an incorrigible editor locked away inside me, I suppose – and when I come across one of my pet hate grammar mistakes, I almost always throw a Trussie and correct the mistake with a big black permanent marker pen. What can I say – I’m human and some things just get under my skin. And just like everyone else, there’s one thing in particular that sets me a-fizz.

I was catching a train the other week, and right on the wall three feet from my face, surrounded by some Troglodyte’s best graffiti ‘art’, was something that that Trog would have sprayed over if he’d known it was stealing his thunder. I don’t want to risk infringing on some advertising exec’s copyright, so I won’t reproduce the error here, but here’s another very similar example from a well-known UK TV cookery show:

Whoever wins, it’ll change their life forever.

It’s on pay TV. It’s played right at the start of every show. It must be right, right?


What’s the problem? Bad grammar. The sentence has an agreement issue. It starts off singular (whoever), changes to plural (their), then sods off back to singular again (life).

Clarity? No chance. How many winners are we really talking about here? One, or many? You may think it doesn’t matter, but I’m asking myself: ‘How many chefs can win this competition? Can there be only one winner, as the sentence starts off suggesting, and which would be far more exciting? Or, will there be many, as the middle of the sentence seems to predict?

Bad grammar = no clarity = lazy speaker = no respect for me as a listener/viewer/reader.

If the presenter really wanted to ‘card read good’, he would have said (for example): We’re about to change someone’s life forever.

What alarms me most is that this obviously incorrect (and often confusing) way of speaking / writing is becoming increasingly acceptable in media – newspapers, TV, radio; and in publishing.

A while back I flirted with a website called authonomy – writers upload their works, whether finished or in progress, and others read and comment. I remember pointing out a very similar agreement issue to one chappie who’d uploaded a sample of his novel, and who wrote for a big-time newspaper. He also claimed to have a qualification in journalism. Good for him – no, seriously; I admire him for caring so much about the art and craft of writing (communicating) that he’d dedicate time and effort to formalising his qualifications.

But this chap almost knocked me off my seat when he said that I was the one who was wrong; that modern teachers actually tell their students that it’s okay to write sentences like that.

What absolute rot. It’s never okay to allow standards to slip. It’s never okay to turn a blind eye to laziness – or encourage it, for that matter - and claim it’s the modern way.

We’re writers. We work to a given set of high standards and we must always maintain those standards. If we don’t, no one will know what the hell we’re raving on about.

If you’re a writer, aspiring or otherwise, read Lynne Truss’s excellent book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s probably the most cathartic text I’ve read in years, and it sets the bar very high. Please, aspire to achieve those high standards.

Oh, and for all the purists out there, I apologise for starting so many of my sentences with conjunctions. Here’s what to do: scroll back to the top of this article so that it fills your computer’s screen, then take a big black permanent marker pen...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Viewpoint Writing


I mentioned in a previous blog posting that I’d come to talking about viewpoint in fiction one day. That day is here. I don’t intend to delve into the real nitty-gritty of what is one of the biggest (and heaviest) subjects in the world of writing novels. Instead, I’ll give an outline, and I’ll conclude by pointing you in the direction of my favourite reference material.

Viewpoint – or point of view – refers to the eyes through which the reader ‘sees’ a story unfold.

If I told you a story about a trip I made to town to buy shoes with my wife (don’t get me started), I’d be telling you that story from my point of view. In literary parlance, that’s called ‘first person viewpoint’ (FPV): the person who is relating the story is the person who experienced it first hand.

There are a couple of other ways to relate a story, though. One is called ‘second person viewpoint’, (SPV) and the other is ‘third person viewpoint’ (TPV). Just like FPV each has its advantages and disadvantages, and I’ll discuss these briefly.

First Person

We drove to the store, the same store we were in last week, and the week before that, hunting for those God-awful shoes. Sparkly, spangly, patently heeled and winkled. Shoppers jostled me, unaware I was on a knife edge. Just one more pair, one more pair and I’ll...

The big advantage with FPV is that the reader gets into the character’s head almost immediately. That brings the reader closer to the character, and empathy with that character (the holy grail of the fiction writer) follows on pretty quickly. For example, when we read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, we’re reading the story from young David’s point of view – first person. Almost as soon as we start reading, we begin to get a real feeling of sympathy for David’s plight, and we start rooting for him. Bingo! Dickens has his readers onside and they’re easy meat after that major hurdle is overcome. We care about what happens to David, so we keep reading to find out how he fares.

One major disadvantage with FPV, however, is that writing style is more noticeable. Because you’re getting more personal with your readers, they’ll pay more attention to your ‘voice’ and be less forgiving if they find they don’t like it.

Another major disadvantage with FPV is that the writer must find some credible means by which to keep relevant information from the reader without having that reader exclaim in frustration, ‘But how could this character not know that?’ For example, in a murder-mystery it would be inconceivable to have a scene from the murderer’s first person viewpoint – for where would be the mystery in that? A writer could, technically, keep information back from the reader to increase and maintain the mystery to the end, but would you really want to read another book by that author if your bubble of anticipation was burst with some fact that must have been known earlier on? I doubt it.

Second Person

You drive to the store, the same store you drove to last week, and the week before that, hunting for those God-awful shoes. Sparkly, spangly, patently heeled and winkled. Shoppers jostle you, unaware you’re on a knife edge. Just one more pair, one more pair and you’ll...

SPV is an ‘in-your-face’ way to write, I find, and it really packs a punch when it’s done right. That’s the biggest advantage of writing in SPV – your writing stands out from the crowd... a bit like the stinky kid in the high school playgrounds.

And therein lies the problem. A huge slice of your readership pie won’t like reading this kind of writing because they’ll probably feel like they’re being dictated to by Moses or some snotty TV chef (actually, cook books are a great example of second person viewpoint writing). If you want to write like this – if you really, really enjoy the challenge that’s inherent in writing SPV - then go for it. Be aware, though, that just because you make direct short addresses to the reader (you’ll do this, and you did that...) doesn’t make your writing SPV.

Third Person

Jack drove to the store, the same store he drove to the week before, and the week before that, hunting for those God-awful shoes. Sparkly, spangly, patently heeled and winkled. Shoppers jostled him, unaware he was on a knife edge. Just one more pair, one more pair and he’d...

TPV is where the story is narrated by someone who wasn’t present as a character. There are a couple of ‘sub-modes’ in relation to TPV: omniscient (where the narrator knows and can relate anything that goes on in any character’s mind at any time); and limited (where the narrator narrows what information is divulged by keeping thoughts, feelings and attitudes to one viewpoint character in each scene or chapter.) And in limited, there are even more divisions – referred to a levels of penetration (i.e. how deeply into a character’s mind we can penetrate.)

The great advantage of third person viewpoint is that the narrator can more directly control what information is available to the reader. For example, in first person viewpoint, unless you’re Lwaxana Troi, you can’t usually tell with any great accuracy what’s going on in people’s minds when you walk into a room. But with TPV (omniscient) the narrator can get into those minds and let the reader know what’s relevant. Equally, with careful planning and execution, the writer can hold back information with a higher degree of credibility – and that can lead to increased tension and suspense.

That’s why TPV limited is the viewpoint of choice for writers of mysteries, thrillers and horror stories: readers find out what the writer wants them to find out, exactly when the story needs them to, for best effect. What’s behind the scratched wooden door? What will happen if our main character doesn’t jump off the train right now? Who was it who really planted the bomb? All of those questions can be answered after drawing out the maximum tension and suspense from the story, and TPV limited gives the greatest flexibility towards that end. Better still, in TPV writing style takes a back seat and lets the reader concentrate on the story.

There are disadvantages, of course, to writing in TPV. There’s a temptation to ‘head-hop’ – start a sentence or paragraph telling the story from one character’s viewpoint and end up telling it from another’s. That leads to confusion in your readers’ minds – never good.

The biggest disadvantage, however, is common to both first and third person limited viewpoint: controlling what your characters do and do not know at any given time. For example, if you’re narrating a TPV story using limited point of view, you can’t have that character thinking or talking about something he can’t possibly know about.


Whatever viewpoint you choose to write your story in, make sure it works best for the story you're telling. Try out a few paragraphs, or even a whole chapter, in each viewpoint that takes your fancy and go from there. Some viewpoint modes work best for certain story types – first person for comedy, for example, and third limited for thrillers and suspense. The big question is: what works best for the way I want my readers to enjoy this story?

Reference Materials

I found Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (ISBN-10: 0-89879-927-9) to be very helpful in demystifying the subject of viewpoint.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Approaching Our Dotage--by KazzaBP

I’ve been pondering age, lately. My age. And I’ve come to realize something.
I’m getting old.

There are all kinds of clues. Wrinkles where there never used to be any. Gray hair that re-sprouts exponentially every time I pluck one. Arms that aren’t quite long enough to allow me to read the newspaper. A child who is approaching thirty.

One of the most telling signs, though, is how I am perceived by others. Young men never, ever flirt with me anymore. Instead, they call me Mrs. Pease. And old men flirt with me all the time. They call me honey, darlin’ and my favorite, which just came my way today: baby doll.

Hehehe. I am so far from being a ‘baby doll’, it’s not funny. Well, it is. Because if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry. He was eighty if he was a day…

Yep, I’m getting old. There’s no denying it. But I find comfort in many things--the first of which is–-my friends are getting older too. In fact, one of my dearest friends is about to catch up with me, once more. Jack Ramsay–-brilliant blogger, author extraordinaire, husband, builder, brother and best friend–-is having a birthday this week. For the next five months, he will be every bit as old as I am.

And I intend to rub it in.

Jack is a strange combination of mature, responsible man, and pain-in-the-ass kid-at-heart. He is full of sage advice one minute; giving words of wisdom and citing common-sense snippets designed to improve the world around him… and the next, he’s spouting potty-mouth and tee-heeing over the asinine and ridiculous.

It’s a combination I love, and one that is bound to keep him mentally healthy for years and years to come.

And that’s a good thing, for his body is falling apart all around him.

Now that Jack is approaching his dotage, there are subtle changes in his life and his life-style. He used to play rugby and tussle with the staunchest of adversaries. Now he watches the game from an easy chair and shakes his fist petulantly when he takes umbrage at a call. His grocery bags used to contain items such as curry chicken, beer and even the occasional bottle of Scotch. Now, he unpacks antacids, prune juice and—dare I say it?

You know… I really don’t! Because Jack–-even as he gets decrepit and stooped, even as his eyebrows begin to resemble thatched eaves and his whiskers get all gray–-is still a spirited son of a gun. He still gets wrathy, still gets wild, still gets EVEN! I’ve learned my lesson there! No way am I going to mention his incontinence pants! No way in hell!

Oh, I could go on and on about the not-so-graceful aging of one of my best friends. I could mention the hemorrhoids, the corns and the bunions and the bi-focals. But I won’t, because that would be mean, and I’ve a strict policy against elder abuse. Besides, I’m about to sneeze. And at Jack’s and my age, that can have disastrous consequences.

Happy birthday, Boy. And welcome. It's not so bad...

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Incredible Collapsing Man (meets Lee McGowan)

It's not often I fall in a heap with shock. It's even less frequently I'm left speechless (och, weesht - ye know Ah like tae gab). Today, both of the above happened. See, I've just checked the Tuesday night football scores, and I'm going to have to take back everything I've ever said about my beloved St Johnstone.

How timely for an example to appear right now: see, in years gone by I would have interjected there that the club's full name is actually St Johnstone-Nil.

I've suffered long and hard at their hands over the years. Every die-hard Saints fan has. But, lo! Lo and behold! St Johnstone 4 Rangers 1

I said St Johnstone 4 Rangers 1

Good God - the world's buggered. Someone restore some order again soon, I beg you.

Speaking about football, a great new writer by the name of Lee McGowan - a fine Scotralian, just like me, who's just as mad on the beautiful game - will be reading his work in the meeting room of the Brisbane Central Library on Saturday 10 April, starting at 3pm. For more details go here

I'm going to try to pop along, and I'm sure Lee and everyone else on stage will make everyone very welcome.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Quick Pic

Strelizia. Yesterday. 4pm. Enjoy (the ants sure are!) :-)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


In the interests of getting the balance of this blog just right (‘...all things Scottish, all things Australian and all things literary...) I’d like to talk today about something related to ‘writing’, and there’s nowhere better to start than at the beginning of the writing process.

Choosing the tense you use to craft your essay, poem, narrative prose, etc is one of the biggest decisions a writer has to make. It’s also one of the first. Get it wrong and your piece can fall flat. Worse, you could turn readers off your writing for good. But if you get it right, you can add tension, win reader empathy and really make your work stand out from the crowd.

Let me start by clarifying what I mean by the word ‘tense’. Tense is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as ‘a set of forms of a verb that indicate the time or completeness of the action expressed by the verb.’

Take the simple verb, ‘walk’. I
walked to my office this morning. I like walking in the morning. I’ll walk again just as soon as I’ve finished this piece - to the coffee pot, perhaps.

Those are the three tenses: past (I walked); present (I like walking); future (I’ll walk).

Choosing the most appropriate tense for the article you’re writing is crucial. Although you can write in one tense and edit for another at some later stage, that kind of edit can be huge and almost always involves a complete rethink followed by a complete rewrite followed by divorce and litigation. Making the right decision early on saves that rework (and all those ugly legal fees).

The question is, which tense is right for your project? Well, that depends entirely on what you’re writing.

Let’s look at narrative prose. As an example, I’ll use the opening sentence of my crime thriller Brogan’s Crossing to illustrate the obvious differences between tenses. (Forget viewpoint at this stage – I’ll discuss that in a later post.)

Sam Brogan let the doors swing shut and flicked a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole as he limped into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

The handling of the verbs ‘flick’ and ‘limp’ are the clues that this is written in past tense. Past is the writers’ favourite and almost always works best for fiction. If you consider that most stories are told after the event, it makes sense to relate those stories in the past tense. Brogan’s story unfolds as we read, and there’s a certain feeling of comfort and security that comes from knowing that these events have already happened. It’s a safe bet, too, because many publishers prefer novels written in this tense.

But I could have written it differently, using present tense, for example.

Sam Brogan lets the doors swing shut and flicks a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole as he limps into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

Straight away you can see there’s much more immediacy, and more intimacy between the reader and the character. We’re with Sam as things happen to him, and that often works well for action-based fiction.

So, why didn’t I choose this tense to write Brogan’s Crossing? There are a few reasons, but it really comes down to wanting this story to have as much credibility as possible. Many readers, when confronted with present tense narration, find it difficult to ignore the fact that a character is relating story when he/she should be minding events as they unfold.

Now let's look at future tense.

He’ll let the doors swing shut and flick a glance at every conceivable hidey-hole, then limp into the thickening stench of beer and vomit.

This mode of writing can certainly make your work stand out from the crowd, mainly because not many writers use it. But be warned: it takes a great deal of skill to master future tense, and a great deal of discipline to stay focused. You may also be limiting your audience because it reads so differently from the norm.

That’s a quick and relatively simple overview of the differences between the three tenses, (with an absolute body swerve around the topic of pluperfects, past progressives and past perfect progressives. Maybe, one day...)

Past and present are more commonly used than future. It’s not illegal to mix past, present and future together, as long as you do it consistently and with care (e.g. when combining past tense action with present or future tense interior monologue – ‘She sat and watched him drink another beer. I’ll show him, she thought. One day I’ll teach him, and he’ll never talk to me like that again.’)

Choosing the right tense can be a tough decision for a writer to make, often because it’s made in conjunction with a decision concerning point of view. And viewpoint is the next subject I’ll tackle.

For now, though, I’m about to walk to the coffee pot.

Update 20100319 -

Remember I said you could turn readers off your writing for good if you pick the wrong tense? Well, here's an example of what I mean, from a newspaper I was reading this morning:

'Once Ului crossed the coast, it was forecast to weaken quickly into a rain depression.'

The reporter is telling us about an event which is yet to happen, but has incorrectly chosen to use the past tense ('crossed the coast' and 'was forecast'). If you're talking about events that might come to pass at some future date, use future tense.

'Once Ului crosses the coast, it is forecast to weaken quickly into a rain depression.'

See the difference? Readers instinctively know that what you're talking about is yet to happen. And that means you've achieved clarity in your writing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I went out shopping the other day, and as I was driving into the car park of one of Queensland’s biggest malls, I rounded a corner and found my path blocked by a couple of young lads and their spangly cars, boom boxes ... booming, paint jobs of orange and purple flames, strobe strips flashing away on the dashboards impatient for Saturday night. They were going at it hammer and tongs: shaking fists, shouting insults, each claiming that last available parking space for himself – and I couldn’t help quipping to Princess Spendalot, ‘They remind me of me when I was young and stupid.’

Of course, the memory flood gates opened, and even as I manoeuvered our behemoth around the tacky obstruction and headed to the next level (I’m happy to report that neither of the Stupids was adorned with those Carlos Fandango flared trousers I used to wear) I’d started my journey and was travelling back to the Eighties at an alarming speed.

Welcome aboard the Moronic Express, stopping only at Young, Stupid and Idiotsville.

The human mind’s a mystery to me, so I won’t try to analyse why or how I ended up at The Night of the Pistachios, but there I was, eighteen years old and walking into my first wine bar in Perth city centre, pockets stuffed with pound notes and condoms and my new-found sophistication tripping me.

I wasn’t alone. Dick, my best mate at the time, was with me – he’d recommended the place because his father had taken him there the week before to celebrate his eighteenth birthday – and I naturally followed his lead, up the disinfected marble stairs and through the wide glass doors. The carpet was plush, the seats red velvet, and the intimately-lit bar had that look of sanctuary about it that draws in the unwary.

We moseyed on up to the penguin who was busily polishing his wine glasses, eyeing the elegantly dressed table of beauties to our right and trying our best to broaden our shoulders that crucial few millimetres. I, at least, had the required amount of designer stubble, but Dick hadn’t quite started shaving and could best be described as fluffy... But that worked in my favour, right? I mean, girls prefer that manly, semi-rough appearance over the ‘Mum says I have to be home by ten’ look, right?

No matter.

We reached the bar. We leaned. We ordered sophisticated cocktails. We leaned some more, nodded knowingly to each other, eyed the girls, turned and sipped our drinks, eyed the girls again, smiled and I (forgive me, I was a novice – if I’d been in my car I probably would have hooted my horn like the stupid prick I am) winked at the least frowny one, sitting pretty in red, hair piled high and curly (the eighties, remember), shoulder pads to rival mine.

She smiled in response and I leaned back so far I would have toppled over if my shoes hadn’t been so heavy with polish. I couldn’t think of anything I could do that would make me look more cool, more ‘sophisticated’, more worthy of her flirtations – until Dick suggested I help myself to some of the weird-looking complimentary nuts from the bar.

‘Never tried them, but I’m game for anything,’ I said, gazing at my Lady in Red and grabbing a handful from the bowl. With the dexterity and confidence of a Starsky or a Hutch, or a Doyle or a Bodie, I chucked a few of these new nibbles into my mouth and crunched down, chewing and crunching, crunching and crunching and crunching.

And the more I crunched, the more that red goddess and her hench-goddesses laughed.

Pfft. Pistachios my backside.
But, like all semi-intelligent creatures, I learned from my experiences that evening. I learned PDQ where the rest rooms were, thanks to all that crunching. I learned that some cocktails pack a punch like Ali. I learned that one red wine tastes pretty much the same as any other after three or four bottles. And I learned that dentists are worth every penny they fleece from us. Fleece on, dear dentists, fleece on!

But the biggest thing I learned that night is that it’s just plain lazy to serve those bloody nuts in their shells.

Pic courtesy of AllenS.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Racist? Moi?

I’ve got a few minutes, so I thought I’d do a wee blog this morning. I had a long think, came up with nothing, so decided to have a sup of coffee and a gander at the paper while my cogs finished their union meeting and got back to work. And, hey presto, a subject. A glorious, ripe, bulbous subject that’s just perfect because it gets my blood boiling.

Now, some of you who have read this blog (has anyone read this blog? hello? hello? did I just see tumbleweed?) know that I tend to go for the easy, self-deprecating stuff, with a smidgeon of chucklage thrown in to excercise the old laughing tackle. But today – and please feel free to look away if you don’t like the swearies – I’m going to break with that tradition because I’m so fucking over the pile of shite this world is festering into.

See, I’m a Scotsman. I’m an Aussie too, but we can set that aside for a wee while. And because I’m a Scotsman, and a football fan (in my spare time I take a rest from that particular torture by stabbing myself in the thigh with poisoned cat claws), so because I’m a football fan I couldn’t help but take an interest in the article on the BBC news website today – Police Fears Over ‘Anyone But England’ T-shirt.

Apparently, the cops in Aberdeen have taken it upon themselves to wander into a guy’s kilt shop on George Street and warn him about displaying these ‘ABE’ t-shirts in his window. It could ‘cause offence’, they say. Because it’s ‘racist’, they say. They have a duty to ‘preserve the peace’, they say.

I know what their bloody duties are – I was a cop in Tayside before hopping a plane out here – and sending a beat cop to pressure some guy into changing an inoffensive and purely ironical window display ISN’T what they have a duty to do.

Let me reiterate: they’re advising the owner of Slanj (the shop – great looking website, by the way) that his window display could be deemed ‘racist’. And then they go on to point out that Aberdeen, like other parts of Scotland, ‘...has recorded incidents relating to nationality...’ Hm. Is that so?

First, race and nationality are not one and the same. Go check out the English cricket team if you’re in doubt. And the Scottish one, too, if you really must. Didn’t find what you were looking for? Check out the British Army.

Second, this has absolutely FUCK ALL to do with race, and everything to do with HISTORY. See, since 19666 (yes, El Diablo was involved) – the year when almost all of Scotland was shrouded in the smoke of smouldering TV father told me our old brick shithouse valve-bustin' Baird took three kicks before it coughed out sparks (ah, they don’t make ‘em like they used to) us Scots have had to put up with ‘racism’ from the English.

Which takes me to point three. It isn’t fucking racism! It’s light hearted BANTER between one and a half great footballing nations. Nothing more. The English expect it of us. They have a laugh about our blinkered approach to the world and our inability to reach the finals of ANY sporting event (tennis excepted – thanks Andy), and we laugh when anyone they play at football knocks the swagger out of them. That’s why us Scots support anyone but England. Not racism. Jealousy. See, we're fed up of our World Cup campaigns stalling at every red traffic light...

But how could anyone be so desperate for confrontation as to call it racism? Or nationalism? Or any colour of ism you care to think up?

Another thing: exactly where do we draw the line as we struggle to define the term ‘race’? As far as I’m concerned, I’m with Ross Lyle from Slanj: us Scots and them English are one and the same race. We’re British. And we all have a British sense of humour.

What we’re seeing here is another example of the world (or is it just those who are connected in any way shape or form with the justice system?) gone mad. So, my message to the cop who thought trying to throw his weight around in a kilt shop would be a great way to spend a few minutes of his shift on a cold shitty day is this: fuck off and catch a mugger, ya mug.

P.S. If I wasn’t such a tight-arsed Scot, I’d buy one of those t-shirts and wear it every game England played. After all, and as usual, it’s the only connection I’ll have with the world cup. Oh, No it isn't...where's my Australia kit? :)

PPS Anyone who doesn't see the irony that's inherent in this article (the owner of a kilt shop being told he's being racist against the English) doesn't know the history of the kilt.

I'm done - end rant.

Pic courtesy of David Lodge. Thanks, Dave.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review: A Feast of Small Surprises (Corinne Van Houten)

I love it when I pick up a book and find an hour has passed in the blink of an eye. Not all books grab my attention that way – far from it, in fact – but I had the pleasure of reading Corinne Van Houten’s masterful mystery A Feast of Small Surprises just recently and I think she’s got the recipe just right.

A wise reviewer / literary critic once said ‘ only get out of a novel what you put in...’ and I can tell you A Feast of Small Surprises proves that assertion beyond question: invest, and you will reap high rewards.

Set in Italy (Florence and Rome, to be precise) Feast sets its tone in the first few pages and sticks with it throughout. A newly discovered piece of baroque artwork claimed by some in the know to be a masterpiece by a long-dead bad boy of the seventeenth century; a vicious car bombing meant to kill; and a cast of self-centred characters each with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas makes this novel an absolute joy. Worried that there might be insufficient sub-text? Don’t be – it’s a cracker.

Now, I won’t debase Corinne’s novel by peppering this review with spoiler alerts, but let me just say as far as plot is concerned that everything hangs together and you won’t be disappointed. That’s down to the amazing balance of believable characterisation, believable use of the principles of cause and effect, and believable depictions of where the story takes place. Mix all three elements together as Corinne Van Houten has managed to do and the result is a joy to become a part of, however temporarily. The thing is – and this is the gauge by which I measure true quality in fiction – Anne Langlais and all her idiosyncrasies are still with me weeks after reading the novel, as are Maya Kelly and Edward Donant. And just about every one of the supporting cast of characters, each with their human strengths and human weaknesses.

I doubt there’s a woman alive who won’t recognise part of herself in Maya, or in Anne. Every person is flawed, after all, thanks to what has shaped us in our lives, and these two women silently demand that we ask ourselves – ‘what’s she going to do now?’ (actually, as far as Maya is concerned, I often found myself asking who’s she going to do now...but that’s perhaps giving away too much – read it yourself!)

When I think of ‘page-turners’ I generally gravitate towards the Bond novels, or Dan Brown’s offerings, or something along the lines of Matthew Reilly’s Ice Station. Imagine my ‘surprise’ then, when I caught myself at 3am one morning (and I’m an early-to-bed kinda guy) turning yet another page of Feast. The least likely looking page-turner it may be, but it’s that, nonetheless.

Clearly, Corinne Van Houten has travelled; I’d bet she’s been to Italy many times, visiting galleries, sitting by the fountains that she so expertly describes and taking dinner under the stars on the fringe of just about every bustling piazza. But her descriptions of place go far beyond the travelogues in which many writers of fiction find themselves mired. Somehow she manages to give meaning to each location, and I think that’s due in part to her knowledge of the art history of each place she describes, and also because of her ability to relate that history to the people of the present day. I’ve never been to Italy, but after reading A Feast of Small Surprises I’m planning to make amends on that score. I just hope I find as many delights in the real thing as I found in Corinne Van Houten’s brilliant novel.

One last thing to wrap up: I must pay homage to her choice for the cover of her novel. Irene Belknap’s Continuum (oil on canvas, 1990) is not only stunningly beautiful to look at, its thought-provoking themes relate closely to those of the novel – focusing on character, heritage and the often absurd nature of humanity.

Corinne Van Houten grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a PhD in Art History, Women’s Studies and Literary Criticism and now lives in Oregon. To buy a copy of Feast visit Corinne's website, or get it on amazon.

Cover photograph reproduced here by kind permission of Corinne Van Houten.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Minute's Silence Please...

For the passing of the portavac.

For three weeks, Porta, our faithful little friend from Beijing, has been coughing and groaning and spluttering, thanks to #name removed to protect the guilty# defying instructions not to involve him in the last tri-annual Great Dusty Shed Cleanup. A turn for the worse was observed this morning (pardon my passives), and Dr Jackypoohs performed open belly surgery under general anaesthetic in the midst of a spilt box of cereal. An hour of sweating over the operating table - the one beside the stove top, not that it matters - couldn't prevent the inevitable, and Porta's little heart finally gave out at 09:07 hours.

Sadly, next of kin have rejected all organs donated.

Funeral at the end of our driveway on Monday 22nd at noon, or whenever Reverend Recycle-Truck shows up.

Sad days.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Coincidence Conspiracy

I was reading the paper this morning when I saw an article about some meteorite that landed in Australia 40 years ago having finally given up some secrets. Amazingly, a boff or two had found that it contained ‘millions of different organic compounds’, whatever the hell that means. But the really, REALLY amazing thing about the article was that this meteorite was called the Murchison meteorite...and it landed in an Australian town called...Murchison! Freaky or what? I mean, what are the chances?!

Okay, so I’m having a larf mate (for anyone who’s still scratching his baldy bit, they named the damned thing after the town, for Pete’s sake) but in real life coincidences slacken our jaws almost every day.

Example: I went to Scotland on holiday a few years back. Had a great time and the weather was fantastic. Yeah, I know...who’d’a thunk it. But there I was at Jura House gardens on the island of Jura (another coincidence? too damned spooky, if you ask me...) poking my nose into some flowers (them flowers, in fact -->) while Alibal went off to get us some tea from the marquee, when a polite and educated elderly lady of the ‘have-gaiters-must-walk’ persuasion approached and started chatting to me. Her opening gambit was, of course, about the sunny weather – it must have been 28ºC (about 82ºF) – and my new chum had a good old rave about the heatwave. I said it was just perfect temperature for me, since I’d lived in Australia for a few years and was used to temps much higher than 28. (Aside: yesterday it was 37ºC here, or 98.6ºF – just right for demolishing a garden shed.)

So we chatted some more and she asked what brought me back to Scotland and I told her I was taking the chance to research my family history – I’d been over to the Isle of Skye looking for Bruces, down to Fife looking for Ramsays, and up to Aberdeenshire looking for Eastons, and now I was taking a wee break on Islay, checking out the distilleries and just enjoying being home.

Then Catriona – we’d introduced ourselves by that stage – asked where in Australia I was from, and I told her I have a place on the western outskirts of Brisbane, in Queensland.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I’ve got a cousin in Queensland. Up north.’

‘Really?’ says I. ‘Me too. I’ve never met her though, since I’ve only just found out about her.’ (I’d spent time just a few days before with my cousin, Tony, who’s mad for the family tree stuff and can tell you which Fitzgerald married which Bruce, and which Ramsay married which Mitchell, where and when, and what they all did for a living way back in Umpteen Oatcake.)

‘Well,’ says Catriona, ‘my cousin’s from a sugar town called Sarina.’

I almost choked on the tea Alibal had brought over from the marquee. ‘That’s a coincidence. My cousin’s from Sarina.’

Our faces may have taken on the same thoughtful look at this point, I don’t know – but after a pause, and almost in perfect unison, we said, ‘Cath Hutton.’

If you’d told me before I set out on my trip home that I’d chance upon a relative of a relative in a remote but beautiful part of Scotland’s west coast, on the sunniest, hottest day of the year, I wouldn’t have believed you. But it happened. Of course it happened – in real life coincidences happen all the time.

Since that encounter with Catriona, I’ve met up with our cousin Cath many times, and we still have a good old head-shaking session when we talk about that chance meeting on Jura.

I just wonder if some fluke of timing ever inspired Jane Austen, who loved to pepper her plots with amazing, entertaining (and often convenient) coincidences. No matter, because it’s obvious to me that life imitates art, just as much as art imitates life.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Possum Death Knell

The thing that’s surprised me most about Australia since I came to live here ten years ago is how easy it is to get used to the beasties. The stories I’d heard before coming out here weren’t enough to put me off, but they did make me wonder about how I’d react to my first huge spider incident, or to finding a scorpion in my boot or having a billion flies land on my Chicko roll. I was reasonably sure I’d cope okay, but a man never really knows until it happens. As it turns out, I was fine with all of the above. But one incident lives with me to this day as the singularly most gruesome thing I’ve ever seen in Australia. If you’re squeamish, better look away now...

Alison’s brother and his wife came out from Scotland to visit us in April one year, and brought their four-year-old twins, Ethan and Tamzin, with them. We had a great time visiting the theme parks down the Gold Coast, taking a trip over to Stradbroke Island and driving along the beach (which the kids loved), going to South Bank parklands to swim and generally enjoying each other’s company over too much rich food.

But the thing that brought the biggest smiles to the twins’ faces was when it grew dark outside and the possums came down from their beds in the palm fronds to feed on the bananas and nuts we treat them to on the patio every few nights. Tamzin stood at the lounge window, mesmerised by their fluffy tails and cute little cat-like faces, so much so that she named the cutest of them Hush – ‘...because that’s what you do when the possums come down to feed’ (she was only four, remember).

A few days from the end of their holiday, Adam, Michelle and the kids went off on a pre-planned trip to Sydney to visit some friends of theirs. While they were away, Alison and I kept up the routine of occasionally feeding the possums, partly so that they’d be there for the kids to gawp at when they got back from Sydney.

The night before our guests got back, Alison and I were snuggled up watching Monarch of the Glen on telly (which, twee as it is, always makes me homesick enough to pour myself a Scotch). Hush the possum was down on the patio, feeding on a banana, and when she’d had her fill she jumped onto the trunk of a palm tree and disappeared up into the shadows.

I turned my attention back to the telly, but a few minutes later Hush crashed to the ground. I’ve seen possums fall out of the trees before, and they’ve always taken a few seconds to compose themselves before running off or starting a fresh fight – they’re very territorial. But Hush was dead. Lying on her side with her eyes shut, not breathing, not even twitching.

Alison and I looked at each other – the last thing we wanted was for her brother and his family to come home and see a dead possum in amongst the bromeliads.

‘If she’s still there in the morning I’ll go out and bury her,’ I said.

‘What the hell’s wrong with her?’ Alison asked, but she’d no sooner finished speaking when a four-metre python clattered onto the pergola roof and fell to the ground beside Hush.

After a few minutes of lying absolutely still (during which time I was really confused – what was up the tree that would kill a possum and a python?) the snake started to flick his tongue in and out, then uncoiled himself and moved towards Hush.

Over the next hour or so, Alison and I stood hypnotised as the python unhinged his jaw and slowly enveloped Hush’s body, a mere two metres from our lounge window. When he was done, he just as slowly eased his belly up onto the edge of a flowerpot to push Hush just a little further down, then slithered off into the darkness.

Maybe one day I’ll log on to YouTube and post the video I took. Or maybe I won’t. That was the first time I’ve ever not finished a glass of whisky. Know what I’m saying?

Anyhoo, the next day we picked up our guests from the airport, took them home and pretended for the kids’ sakes that some imposter was Hush. And I prayed like mad that the python (who I later named Malfoy) had enough in his belly to see him through hibernation and wouldn’t be back for seconds before our house guests left for Scotland.

Yes, we resorted to a little white lie, and I see no reason why it can’t be...wait for it...Hushed up for all time to protect the innocents.

Who groaned?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pop Goes the...Stick Insect

Warning: I still find this disturbing, in a Gawd, I'm an idiot kind of way.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I arrived in Australia, green as grass and a committed scaredy-cat as far as the local wildlife is concerned. Have a look at Snakes Alive! if you feel you’ve missed something.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realise that even living in suburbia, as Alison and I did in the first few months after we arrived in Western Australia, the wildlife quite literally on our doorstep was magnificent to behold.

One evening we arrived home after working in Perth, and there, on the screen door, was the biggest stick insect I’ve ever seen. I swear the thing must have been at least nine inches long, maybe even a foot.

We stood gawping at it (he/she? Who can tell these things just by looking?) for a good five minutes and then gently eased the door open and slipped inside.

That stick insect was the instigator of much refreshed enthusiasm for our new homeland that night. Everything we spoke about centred on its mammoth proportions, its subtle colouring, its brazen refusal to budge even when we were standing just a few inches away (I got closer as I got bolder, as men do), and its surprising cuteness – it’s an insect; it shouldn’t be classed as cute, but this little (big) guy (guyess?) was cute as cute can be.

Another day dawned and our routine – alarmingly, very like the routine we followed back home in Scotland – kicked off again. After a quick breakfast we headed to the front door, but I stopped myself from barging out with my usual bluster. I wanted to see if Twiggy was still there (yes, because of her stubborn refusal to move from the door we decided that she must be female and we named her accordingly - sad, isn’t it, how grown adults with university degrees will regress to the level of five-year-olds when cuteness is introduced to a situation. Actually, there is a pattern to observe here, as I'll demonstrate in a later post.)

There was no sign of her. Not on the screen door, not on the bricks of the wall, and not on the inner door, although why I was checking there I have no idea.

“Musta buggered off last night,” I called over my shoulder to Alison as I stepped out onto the porch...


I looked at my feet, and there was Twiggy. All nine or so inches of her. Flat as a flounder, and very, very dead.

I’ve never felt so low. I’m still not over it. But it’s only been ten years.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Labels (a.k.a. How to Look Like a Complete Nutcase, Part II)

In an earlier blog post I suggested to novice writers (and I include myself in that category) that taking time to participate in some writing courses might be a good idea. Now, I like to practice what I preach, so I contacted Queensland Writers Centre and booked myself on a course – Creating Narrative Suspense, run by the great Peter Watt (Cry of the Curlew, Eden, Papua, The Stone Dragon, The Frozen Circle, to name just a few.)

On the day of the course, I slapped on my sticky name badge, picked the seat at the front – the one with the biggest pile of chewy mints on its desk (my favourite ‘lollies’, as the Aussies call them) – and had a fabulous Saturday. I networked about a dozen other writers, and I learned from one of the best about how to keep a reader reading my work. If you haven’t yet thought about what techniques you can use to make sure someone who picks up your book finds it very hard to put down, I recommend you contact Pete and ask when he’s next running that course.

Anyhoo, when the course was over I popped the last chewy mint into my mouth, said my goodbyes and trotted off between Edward Street’s late afternoon shoppers to meet HRH Princess Alibal, who I knew would be hunting the vast plains of Brisbane for just the right...well, I can’t really recall, but it’s usually shoes.

The first thing I noticed was that some of the older women I passed weren’t so much glancing at me as giving me those long, sympathetic looks – the kind of look you’d give a cockatoo that’s cooped up in a cage. Odd, I thought, but I wiped the slavers from my mouth (the last mint wasn’t done yet, and mints always gets my juices flowing like mad) and trotted on at pace. A few more women gave me that look, and at one point I was sure one of the older dears was about to reach out to take my arm.

“Bunch of bloody weirdos,” I muttered to myself, causing a fresh dribble of slavers to cascade down my chin. I stopped to check my reflection in a perfume shop window, just in case my drool had pooled somewhere that might embarrass me, and there, big bold and bloody obvious on my chest was my nametag, not quite soggy...but getting there.

Okay, so imagine you’re walking down the street on a sunny Saturday afternoon and you see a bearded drooling idiot trotting towards you with his name emblazoned across his chest, glistening with some kind of goo. Wouldn’t you feel sympathy? Wouldn’t you want to help this poor nutcase called ‘Jack’?

Of course you would.

To all who received my very best scowl that day, I thank you for your concern, but I’m fine. Honestly. And I promise I’ll never grow a beard again. It’s great for scaring babies, but it also tends to mask the sensation of drool, and that’s never a good thing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sharing Secrets with Phantoms (a.k.a. How to Look Like a Complete Nutcase, Part I)

My wife (Princess Spendalot, She of the Shoes) came home from work the other day. I knew she was home because she stood at the door to my study doing her little ‘cough, cough’ routine. So I greeted her with the usual ‘Nice to see you’re home; fancy a foot massage and a glass of wine?’ stuff, and she rather pointedly asked me who I’d just been talking to.

I realised I’d been at it again.

See, when I’m writing, I need to ‘meet’ my characters, so that I can understand them; so that when I commit them to paper, I can show them doing what nature intended them to do, not what I or my plot needs them to do.

I’ve found that, for me, the best way to do that is to start a conversation with them. Unfortunately, that can make me look like a nutcase. Meh...if the glove fits...

I imagine myself out and about with them, at a football match, or having dinner, or (my preference) walking in a quiet forest with a stream running beside us. I listen to what they tell me (although, of course, it’s me who’s doing all the talking...hence the nutcase thing) and I make mental notes of how they talk to me, because that’s how I get to feel not just their unique speech patterns, but their attitudes to certain things. And with attitude comes depth – we start asking deeper questions about why a character feels a certain way about something.

Take Gaby Dunbar, for example. Gaby’s a supporting character in my crime novel, Brogan’s Crossing, but when I ‘walked and talked’ with her, I started to realise that she’s probably one of the strongest characters I’ve created. We went for a walk in the countryside – I chose Birnam Wood in Perthshire, because I used to walk the softly sprung pine needle paths there when I was younger, and because I find its fresh forest smells and cooing wood pigeons relaxing – and we spoke about her early years, and her relationship with her mother, and how her father died and the effect that had on her, and about her sister and how there’s always been animosity there and what's causing it.

I asked her why she chose law enforcement as a vocation, what her career aspirations might be, why she feels so strongly about meting out justice on behalf of those who can’t claim it for themselves, and how she sees the future: how governments are changing their attitudes towards crime and punishment, and what needs to be done to restore the deterrent element of any punishment. Gaby’s answers surprised me, but gave me a chance to go back over the character sketch I’d drawn for her and add detail; detail that (I hope) brings her to life and makes her someone who readers can respect and identify with.

Don’t get me wrong: you don’t need to mash everything you know about your characters into your manuscript (in fact, please don’t, because there’s only so much backstory a novel – and a reader, however patient – can take); but you do need to know how your characters will react to, say, a waiter spilling a drink over her, or her mother chiding her about still being single and childless at 35 years of age. If you know these things and more about your characters, you’ll not only make them realistic, consistent, flawed and believable, you might just create a spin-off character or two who can stand on her own as a protagonist in a future novel.

I was having dinner with Gaby Dunbar when my wife walked in on us. Embarrassing but, no, I don’t feel cheap – I’m a happily married man. Besides, Gaby let me into a few secrets I’m fairly sure she wouldn’t tell anyone else – not even her mother.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Never Name Your Baby 'Cumbernauld'

I splurged a whole load of guff yesterday about how I go about getting a novel from 'I've got an idea...' to 'I'm finished!' But I didn't really go the whole hog. See, every novel needs a tag to identify it. A title. And, for me, the process of picking that tag always brings on one of my biggest nightmares.

There are writers out there who can pluck earth-shattering titles from nowhere, and God how I envy them. They hack away for a month or three creating a masterpiece, then tag their babies with names like 'Angels and Demons', 'Deathwish' or 'The Empire Strikes Back'. Lucky ****ers.

I, on the other hand, tagged one of my works 'Pretence and Palliation'. Yup, I did. Notwithstanding the obvious limitations (one day I hoped to market this novel to the Americans, who spell it 'pretense'), it just sucks. Big time. I know it sucks because I lost count of the number of people who read my work on authonomy and said, 'Jack, this is a cracker of a page-turner, but what's palliation mean?' I had another go. 'Beyond Reasonable Doubt'. Better...but I still hear sucking.

I knew then that getting the title right was going to take a horrific few months, and I knew there would be sleepless nights, sweaty brows and much scoring with that blood-red pen. After all, I'm the man who once wrote a short article about constipation and called it 'Winnie Won't Poo'.

What the hell was I thinking?

Now, I could start a list here of all the crappy book titles I've come up with (imagine Eddie Izzard and his renaming Gerry Dorsey to Engelbert Humperdink sketch - Zingelbert Bembledack, Tringelbert Wangledack, Slut Bunwalla, Klingybun Fistelvase, Dindlebert Zindledack, Gerry Dorsey, Engelbert Humptyback, Zengelbert Bingledack, Engelbert Humperdinck, Vingelbert Wingledanck…wait, wait, wait - go back one...), I could do that, but all it would do is annihilate any self esteem I have left as a writer. Let me just say that I think I'm learning what it takes to name my babies. When I'm conversing with friends about my latest novel and they bowl the inevitable 'So what's it called?' question, I no longer mumble 'Cumbernauld' and change the subject. I beam and say 'Brogan's Crossing' - and almost instantly I see them put a name to my lead character and begin thinking about what changes must be taking place in this guy's life to make him 'cross' to some other path. (Either that or I've bored the buggers speechless.)

And that's the secret to naming your work: knowing your work. Know it inside out. Focus on your theme, the underlying message that you're trying to get across to your readers.

Look again at those titles up in paragraph two. Each one tells you exactly what the novel is about. More than that, it tells you that the writer knows how to focus on what the story is about. But 'Pretence and Palliation'? Sheesh.

I'm not saying 'Brogan's Crossing' is the best title I could come up with, and I'm sure if I ever hook an agent or publisher she'll have (I hope) a few words to say. But it's a step in the right direction.

And if you're struggling to find the perfect title for your manuscript and you're about to turn to the Scotch, try The Random Book Title Generator. It's an excellent website for getting started.

Good luck.