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Wednesday, 1 July 2015


I have read a lot of great books in the past few months but two stand out for particular reasons - or one reason they both share.  They are written by writers talking a lot about writing and the business of being a writer, as well as other things that affect them, interest them, annoy them and inspire them.

I recommend both books highly as they are especially useful and entertaining for writers trying to be better writers.  Don't miss them. Outstanding.

The first is a collection of non-fiction pieces by Sir Terry Pratchett, including speeches, newspaper articles, notes and observations, etc.

A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction (Paperback)

Terry Pratchett in his own words. With a foreword by Neil Gaiman Terry Pratchett earned a place in the hearts of readers the world over with his bestselling Discworld series - but in recent years he became equally well-known as an outspoken campaigner for causes including Alzheimer's research and animal rights. A Slip of the Keyboard brings together the best of Pratchett's non fiction writing on his life, on his work, and on the weirdness of the world: from Granny Pratchett to Gandalf's love life; from banana daiquiris to books that inspired him; from getting started as a writer to the injustices that he fought to end. With his trademark humour, humanity and unforgettable way with words, this collection offers an insight behind the scenes of Discworld into a much loved and much missed figure - man and boy, bibliophile and computer geek, champion of hats, orang-utans and the right to a good death.
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
ISBN: 9780552167727

The second is by Carlo Gebler, a collection comprising memoir, opinions on literature and the literary business, why he writes and how he must keep going to earn a crust.
Confessions of a Catastrophist (Paperback)

Catastrophist, a person who regards historical or political events as progressively disastrous; a pessimist.   - Oxford English Dictionary
Over a long career, Carlo 
Gébler has written an enormous variety of material including drama for the screen, stage and radio, long and short fiction, memoir, history and travel. He has not, however, written a cookery book though he realizes he might have to. If he does it will be called Burnt Dinners, of course.
When he started writing seriously in the late 1970s there was no internet and 
publishers liked to lunch. Three decades on the literary world has changed: most significantly, it seems no longer congenial or welcoming to literature or those who try to make literature.
As a catastrophist who never doubted from the moment he started that 
conditions in what he calls the Kingdom of Letters would only get worse, Carlo Gébler is not in the least surprised by how things have turned out. It was always going to go downhill (how could it not?) and in his Confessions he describes that process but in his own personal, idiosyncratic and caustic way.
The book is an intriguing mixture of pungent, fierce and striking memoir with 
pithy mordant notes on the literary trade, on the books he’s written and why he wrote them, and on the difficult business of negotiating a way through the thickets and trying to make a living.
It is not a sour book (hopefully): it is a funny book (hopefully), it is unquestionably 
a true book, true about literature and the innumerable humiliations peculiar to it.

Publisher: Lagan Press
ISBN : 9781908188372

Tuesday, 30 June 2015


I take my spade
to dig the ground,
to graft the roots,
to ladle the soil,
to shovel the dung
to slice the turf
to tool God’s earth
to break up the clods
to cultivate the land
to poke
to prod
to turn over the clay
to earn my pittance
each working day.

But one other use it has
when I want to skive a bit,
as soon as the boss goes away,
I’ll lean on it.

Monday, 29 June 2015



Sitting at a bedside, looking at the dying man,
His eyes closed on his yellowed head,
His nostrils moving slightly like weak bellows
And me, breathing with him and for him and at him,
Trying to recharge this exhausted battery,
To wish the impossible wish that his face would show a trace of pink,
His nose would twitch a signal,
His eyelids, like a carrier pigeon’s wings, would deliver a message,
His near-silent communication would show he was not as bad as he looked.

No night-vision glasses to see life leaving his body,
Just a little less breath-noise, deflation, exhaling more than inhaling,
Lifeless, as the stillness of a glass pond that was once busy with ripples.


Mildew and moss are taking hold in cracks
And grooves of the weathered concrete headstone,
But I can still read the birth and death dates,
The first, middle and last names, cold, hard facts,
A pittance of proof that he was once here
But no hint of what he was, what he did.
A slab amongst other slabs of concrete,
Staking a rough claim to his last frontier.

Sunday, 28 June 2015


A version of this was published in the London Paper a few years ago.  I was wondering in this age of austerity, how tipping has been affected.  I am a reluctant tipper. Why should it feel compulsory in some places? What's the point of tipping anyway?

It would be interesting to hear from waiters, waitresses and others (employers?) who expect tips, and from that range of customers - naturally lavish tippers to the refusers.

Tips boxes, buckets, bowls, jars, etc are appearing in all sorts of commercial establishments. Should staff have to, er, beg?  Should customers be pressurised?

To tip or not to tip, that is the dilemma. A tip is always expected in most countries of the world, ask any taxi driver or waiter - but not always deserved.  Is tipping just a duplicitous way to supplement low wages? My answer is a resounding yes. The customer seems to be expected to pay extra for this thing called service, regardless of standards, especially in restaurants and taxis. Some time ago, a group of us went out to a pizza restaurant. The food was fabulous but the service was a little slow, a tad robotic and littered with several mistakes including forgotten starters, wrong wine etc. As a group we put in our share of the bill and I took it to the cashier. We had decided to leave the change as a kindly tip. Standing next to the till was the restaurant manager, an American as it happened, who watched the money being handed over and, in a mechanical calculator kind of way, he quickly worked out the change amount as a percentage of the total bill. As soon as I had generously said, “keep the change”, he glared at me with a Mount Rushmore stony face and said: “That’s only 8%. Isn’t that a little insulting to your waitress?”  I stood with my friends in a collective dumbstruck rigidity before saying: “The food was great but the service was just okay. Our tip reflects the service.” He continued to glare and complain about our stinginess citing at least 15% as a starting or indeed tipping point. We stood firm and left the restaurant wondering why we felt like naughty schoolchildren.  Clearly, in this case, the customer is always right except when he’s wrong.
This kind of pressure happens all too often either from the management or from the hangdog waiting staff who are only interested in supplementing their meagre wages.  It is interesting to note the fickleness of people in service jobs, where friendliness, helpfulness, sincere good manners and efficiency should be delivered willingly and well all the time.  At the point of payment,  some catering staff change attitudes like Jekyll and Hyde at the absence of a tip, turning surly and huffy to show their disappointment.  So, were they really suited to the customer service job in the first place?  Was the whole service gloss just a sham?

Here’s a warning notice I would like to see outside restaurants: “THIS RESTAURANT DEMANDS THAT YOU AGREE TO PAY ANY SERVICE CHARGE WE DECIDE TO PRINT ON YOUR BILL AND IT WANTS YOUR GUARANTEE THAT YOU WILL TIP WAITING STAFF WITH AN AMOUNT NOT LESS THAN 12.5%.  IF YOU DON”T COMPLY, WATCH OUT OR DON”T ENTER IN THE FIRST PLACE”.   If I saw a notice like that, I would know their stance and where I stood and I would avoid the restaurant, nip to Sainsbury's and buy a deep pan pepperoni to eat at home.   This tipping exploitation of customers and wage deprivation of staff by catering and taxi people is not just a UK disease.  On recent trips to California, everybody, it seemed, waited for a tip including the hotel doorman (but not the hotel receptionist, strangely enough), the porter, the maids, the bartender, the restaurant staff, the taxi driver and anybody else who could screw us for a few more dollars.   In one restaurant near Sacramento, a colleague and I went to a self-service (hold that thought) Chinese restaurant. We were shown to a table and then told to help ourselves from the buffet counters. We did just that, had a fine lunch and as we walked out, we could see a table clearer straining his neck to clock if we had left a tip in our booth. We hadn't, of course, but if his face had been a laser, the look he gave would have melted us on the spot. Tipping in a self-service restaurant?  What?   More recently, in another Chinese restaurant, this time in London’s Soho, we were a table of seven and our host decided not to leave a tip on top of the included service charge.  Our waiter’s facial expression, body language and attitude, formerly Saturday night game show host happy, smiley and charming, turned to Charles Bronson in “Death Wish” in a heartbeat.  It’s that arc from “greetings” to “grrrr”.

I have more stuff on tipping.....but I don't want to bore you.

Have a nice day.

Saturday, 27 June 2015


The gauze of dawn
mists my eyes to semi-blindness,
the fine rain drizzle
dims my fading vision,
the window’s condensation
obscures nature’s outlines,
the rough-edged world out there
is blurred and hazy.
I rub my face to no avail
for all before me is vague,
distant, dreek and dim,
hopeless,  desperate and grim.

I should have gone to Specsavers.

Friday, 26 June 2015


We read, we learn.  It is as simple as that.  Currently, I am reading a collection of Terry Pratchett's non-fiction, speeches, reflections, bits and bobs - a pick 'n' mix of all sorts of things that actually forms itself into an untidy writing masterclass.  In short, it is a joy.

Here and there in the book, he mentions books and writers that influenced him and on his recommendation, I have downloaded a book (circa 21 pages) called The Specialist by Charles Sale.  I have not read it yet but I'm intrigued.  If it is good enough for Sir Terry, then it is more than good enough for me.

A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction (Paperback)

Here's the blurb for The Specialist, from the Amazon site:

"The Specialist is one of the world s favourite humour classics. Generations of readers have enjoyed its gentle wisdom about the building of privies and applauded Lem Putt s devotion to making a privy a thing of beauty. Lem Putt is a specialist, and this book is the philosophy of a man who loves his trade and has considered every aspect of it, from how to prevent people taking their time when they commune with nature to solving the problem of female modesty in an ingenious way."

Even before I read it, I know it is going to be £1.25 well spent.

The Specialist (Hardback)

Tuesday, 23 June 2015


I stole the next twenty-nine words from Sir Terry Pratchett*:
“We look around and see foreign policies that are little more
than the taking of revenge for the revenge that was taken
in revenge for the revenge last time.”

We kid ourselves that there was a simpler age in the cut and thrust
Of nation versus nation, clear-cut rules of war, tit for tat, eye for an eye,
Tooth for a tooth, the victorious, the defeated, the romance of blood spilled
By heroes, and corpses tallied by military admin to deliver a final score.

Now, it’s still tit for tat, but evolving into tit for tit and tat for tat, tweet for tweet, 
Whatever suits, two eyes for one eye and a mouthful of teeth for one tooth, 
And sometimes a whole head, sometimes heaps of bodies buried where no one will ever find them. “Put’ em up. Put ‘em up,” said a cowardly lion once.  Who do we think we are kidding?

*Carnegie Medal award speech, 2002