Friday 12 December 2014

Last night, on BBCs 'Question Time' some panel members, audience members and certainly Nigel Farage bemoaned the loss of grammar schools and wanted them back. Those who spoke and proclaimed that social mobility was better in the 1960s were not old enough to have any sensible recollection of that decade or the one before it, when grammar schools covered the land. Now, although I did indeed feel cheated of an education I'm not going to rant about grammar schools. A grammar education was indeed a fine thing and those bright enough to get places in them were lucky indeed. But the system itself was grossly unfair in a number of ways:-

When I was attending primary school and working towards the 11+ my (typical) local grammar had places for around 10 percent of the pupils taking the exam. So let us say that 12% or 15% or even 20% of my schoolfriends were actually bright enough to benefit from a grammar school education. What happened to those children who were not selected in this limited numbers, rigid, uncompromising method of sending one lot to grammar and the dross to secondary modern school? Why, the 90% (many of them quite capable of keeping up with the other 10%) received an education that terminated at 15 years of age with no examinations - none were offered or taken at secondary school - and therefore had no qualifications whatsoever to present to an employer.

You will have guessed by now that I was one of the 90%, a service child, and therefore very rarely selected for grammar even had I done well in the exam, because service children move every two or three years to a different location and the school would rather have pupils who were going to fill their places until they reached leaving age. If the unfairness of the system so far has not impressed the reader, consider also the fact that girls are brighter than boys at 11 years of age and were discriminated against at the selection stage, otherwise the grammar schools would be full of girls and very few boys. Thus many more bright girls (who it was thought only had to get married and darn socks) were also pushed aside and sent to secondary schools where indeed they learned to cook, while the boys did their woodwork.

Happily for me, I went to night school soon after leaving secondary modern, got my Os and As and then went on to do two separate degrees at university. I don't know what happened to my classmates who were successful in the 11+, but I'm pretty sure most of them didn't do any better. I repeat, I have nothing against a grammar education per se, but if people like Farage (who went to a private school) want to bring them back, they should ensure that there are places for all those who are capable of such an education and it is fluid enough to allow late learners to pass between schools.

As for social mobility being better in the 50s and 60s. In those decades 5% of schoolchildren went on to university, no doubt the offspring of middle and upper class parents. Now it is 43%. All my 5 grandchildren have degrees or are in the process of doing so, while I was unique in having a university education amongst my ancestors, parents, brothers and cousins, my family coming from farm working stock. No one related to me had even dreamed of getting such an education. Oh, they were just as bright as I am, but the system prevented them from progression. The measure of social mobility, it seemed, to those on Question Time last night (Russell Brand excepted) was who went to Oxbridge. They bemoaned the fact that Oxbridge was full of private school students. Well hell, those two universities are not holy ground my friend. There are others which turn out just as able and brilliant minds.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Last month I met two Australian writers new to me: Anna Tambour and Rob Knell and happily added them to my wide circle of writer friends and acquaintances. We had lunch together in the postage stamp back garden I lovingly call the Italian courtyard. Both Anna and Rob are excellent writers in their different ways, but like many of us hampered by the age-old problem of getting published by the big houses. I include myself in that last statement, since more recently I am finding it frustratingly difficult to sell a novel to the large established publishers. It matters not that I sold 87,000 copies of 'Castle Storm' when Transworld/Random House brought it out. The next novel 'The Silver Claw' sold only 9,000 and I was immediately dropped and all communication ceased.

Publishers are of course in it for the money and nothing else. As one writer friend once put it, his book might as well have been a pound of butter. An editor does not want a good, well-written novel. He or she wants a product that will sell and sell very well. That editor may be a book lover too and preferably both good writing and good sales go together, but the marketing department needs to see long black figures or the novel is called to question. One of the problems is that editors and marketing departments do not know what is going to sell and what isn't, any more than we know the date of our death or what our next tax bill will be. It's all guesswork and blind prayer-ridden hopes of a new Harry Potter.

My own thoughts on the current difficulties of getting published are that ebooks, desktop publishing and on-line purchasing have thrown the big guys into a panic. They are attempting to analyse what's happening and are not coming up with any answers. A mist has come down over which way to go in the future. The media are little help to them or writers, since they concentrate on prize winners and runaway wildfires. One of the biggest problems is that fewer people are reading books. The market is shrinking because a huge percentage of the population reads nothing longer than a magazine. I have no answers myself, which I know is a big get-out. My hope is ever that writers like Rob and Anna manage to gather a readership using small, energetic publishers and social media, and get the audience their work deserves. Me? I've had my day, a more mellow time in the 80s and 90s of the last century, when the days were, if not golden, at least a little more silvery than they are now.

Monday 22 September 2014

Yesterday I went to see a play by a small theatre company that's been on my radar for some 30 years now. They're called the Eastern Angles and they never fail to amaze me with their performances. The play itself, written especially if not exclusively for this group by Charles Way was a brilliant piece of work. 'Ragnarok' is set in Asgard, the home of the Norse gods. The action, which involves all the gods, the giants and other mythological creatures, revolves mostly around a fight for power between Loki and Odin, culminating in a final battle between the forces of the two.

The 'theatre' where this took place is a redundant aircraft hanger on the now closed American Air Base, Bentwaters in Suffolk. It's a windswept desert of a landscape - vast and flat - with oases of giant rusted junked machines that at one time pushed or pulled the mighty American B52 bombers. Naturally the hangar, as a venue and stage for this kind of play, was perfect. It's huge and echoey, and lent itself perfectly for the hall of the Norse gods. Gargantuan puppets were used for the giants which towered over the audience. There were strange eagles that flew, serpents that slithered across the floor, and of course Fenrir the wolf that never stops growing.

This theatre company employs actors who seem, for the most part, go from one small company to another, though they occasionally get roles with the biggest companies. The goddess Freya was played by Gracy Goldman who has been in Doctor Who. What is evident is they are brilliant at their work. Eastern Angles for the most part, puts on new plays with an East Anglian flavour. A few years ago I saw one about the tragic 1953 floods, when the sea came in and covered much of the local landscape, taking many lives, some of the friends of mine. I was in those floods as a 12 year old and I have to say the writer brought back memories with vivid force. Recently I saw another play about Margaret Catchpole, a local anti-heroine whose lover was a smuggler. She was transported to Australia in the 19th Century and became a real heroine there.

What is all this leading up to? Well, small theatre companies produce wonderful and well-crafted entertainment. The equivalent in my line of business must be the small publishers, who can produce excellent books. The recent rise of small publishers, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres gives me hope that sf and fantasy is experiencing a new flowering of imaginative fiction in general. This decentralisation of literature is opening up shining new avenues to writers whose work is rejected by the large corporate publishers, whose main interest is and has to be earning money rather than producing wonderful unusual novels and collections of short stories.   

Thursday 14 August 2014

Thunder and lightning, very, very, frightening . . .

On Monday we decided to go for our annual camping holiday, which since the kids have grown up, and the grandkids have also reached adulthood, has been reduced to 3 days and 2 nights. We went up to Norfolk. On arrival the onshore wind through the campsite was around 30 mph. It soon rose to a 50 mph gale. I went into a massive struggle with fibreglass bendy tent poles and flimsy tent material - that's how they make 'em these days - and sadly lost the contest. Three large gentlemen emerged from their tents and between us we managed to subdue the rebellion. Immediately the tent was habitable a storm came in - see above photos of storm coming in - and before long we could add a biblical flood to the wind, then hailstones as big as mothballs, and finally the accompaniment of thunder and lightning. We repaired to the car to watch the display of forked and sheet lightning (I've been assured cars are safe in such circumstances) immediately over our heads while listening to the full version of Max Bruch's 'Scottish Fantasy' on Classic FM radio. The storm left on the last note of 'count the folk songs' symphony. Norfolk! I should have guessed. They say the north folk have to shout at each other all the time to be heard above that unseen element that rages across their flat landscape. Wherever you go in that county the flags have tattered trailing edges and the birds look aggrieved at being flung about the sky. Interesting though and we got to see a double-rainbow at the end of it all. If you study the above photo in the two top corners you can just make out a faint echo of the bright arch below.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Thriller detective and police procedural novels seem to proliferate, along with television programmes in the same genre. It seems I can't turn on the tv guide or look into a bookshop window without seeing that the latest best seller or best watched is a crime thriller. There are dozens of them around at any one time. I too watch and read, though I find the standard of grammar in some of them a bit hard to swallow. I'm into a novel a the moment, but it's full of sentences like "(There was) an unshaven Neanderthal in a sleeveless, too-short undershirt chewing on a toothpick while sitting behind bullet-proof glass burping up a beer." The bullet proof glass was burping up a beer? I can hear my old fireside companion Raymond Chandler spinning in his grave. Of course, such writing sends a chill through me as I wonder if I do the same sort of thing. Probably, but I hope very occasionally and certainly not with the frequency I find in the short-chaptered, punchy-prosed, wad-thick novels that race to the top of the best seller list and stay there for six weeks. Naturally, if I could write thrillers I would do so. Money, money, money. Unfortunately I am completely inept at the genre.

The English language often bemuses me. On occasion I come across the written word 'golfing'. The other day it had me pausing to consider whether golfing is actually a word. I have never heard it used in speech. Everyone I know says they are going to 'play golf' not 'go golfing'. Yet it appears in thrillers all the time. One doesn't say 'basketballing' but then again, one does say 'swimming'. Hmmm. I went to my Chambers next (I prefer it to the Shorter Oxford which ain't short at all mate, but stands in two heavy volumes on a very weak bookshelf) and found that indeed 'golfing' is a legitimate word which does not point the scinger of forn at thriller authors who use it. Damn, I love to feel superior, but find I'm just a pedant after all and one who is frequently put on the back foot.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Annette and I live on the Shotley Peninsula, a triangle of land between the Rivers Orwell and Stour. We call it Mesopotamia, following the Ancient Greek meaning of the word and because it sounds exotic. It really is exotic in one sense: the wildlife abounds. We have no golden eagles or red squirrels, sadly, but we have most other birds and mammals, including otters, badgers, polecats, buzzards - the list is long. I like taking photos of my fellow creatures and have managed a barn owl this summer, both in flight and standing on a branch looking at me as if I were an alien. Owls are difficult, being around mostly in twilight when the light is poor, so often the photo is too fuzzy and out of focus. I have photos of four different little owls which are absolutely useless, even though it took lots of patience and many visits to take them. Yesterday at dusk however, Annette and I went for a long walk along the banks of the Stour, looking for little owls. What we found - having seen none for years - was a whole colony of hares. There are those who will tell you I have an obsession with hares and even follow the ancient Iceni practice of deifying them. The above photo is one of several taken at the going down of the sun and the close of the day. On the way home, guess what, sitting on top of a telephone pole was the one bird I had been trying to get forever. Annette sat in the car in extreme agitation on the bend of a narrow rural road, the hazard lights blinking, as I leapt from the vehicle to take the above picture. He looked at me as if he were posing for the front of a mag.

Friday 23 May 2014

We've decided that it's time to revisit India, a country we have come to love over five or six previous visits. Annette has more depth in India than I have, since she taught voluntarily for several months at a school in Bihar in the North East, one of the poorest, least visited states. Together we did the Golden Triangle but our favourite destination is Fort Cochin, in Kerala. The picture above is of Annette standing in the garden of the 'Delight Homestay' owned by David. (Kerala is a Christian state and therefore Christian names proliferate). From the rooftop of Delight one can see a large open hard-dirt square which is used variously as a parade ground for soldiers, religious festivals, a marketplace, but more often than not, by boys practising their cricket skills. On any one day there might be a dozen different groups of boys playing their individual games. They play from dawn till dusk, give or take the school hours for those who attend. It is no wonder the country produces such good cricketers. I usually take a couple of dozen practise cricket balls to hand out the boys, who are often playing with boxwood bats and moth-eaten tennis balls. They invariably say, 'Thank you, Uncle,' which is delightfully polite and makes me feel good - which, let's face it, is of course one of the reasons why it's such a pleasure.

This time we are going to Gujarat (where the new Indian leader hails from). We know nothing about this state, which is situated above Goa. It will be exciting to explore a new region, but one which has a certain familiarity to it. There will be temples to see and Hindu gods to reconnect with. My favourite is Ganesh, the Elephant-headed bachelor, who got his ears and trunk when his father Vishnu believed him to be an intruder in his house and decapitated him. My understanding is that the severed Ganesh was given the head of the first animal he came across, which happened to be the largest beast in the land. All the Indian gods have creatures they ride on, to carry them from one place to another, and Ganesh's mount is a mouse. A rodent with broad shoulders?

India has some wonderful wild life, which is one of the many reasons I love the place. The number of colourful birds is amazing and given that a good proportion of the human population do not kill living creatures, fear of humankind is often absent, which allows one to get close enough for a good picture. I have just spent two years trying to get a photo of a kingfisher here in Suffolk and only managed it recently by incredible luck. (I'm not a bird watcher, I'm a bird taker - often only later finding out what I've taken.) My India kingfishers were taken sitting outside a roadway cafe, as the birds kept landing on a wooden fence. Interestingly, Gujarat is the last refuge of the Asian lion. What? Yes indeed, it was only when I was reading my Lonely Planet I discovered there is such a thing as an Asian lion. Now it would be great to see and photograph one of those in the wild and this time I will make sure I have enough juice in the camera. We saw two wild tigers when we went to the Rajastan - and my camera batteries were exhausted. It is ever thus.

Sunday 20 April 2014

When I get up out of bed of a weekday, I invariably turn on the Radio 4 news and listen while I'm shaving and then having breakfast to the woes of the world. However, I unconsciously do the same on a Sunday and find myself listening to the Sunday service, which takes the place of weekly news. I leave it on for the hymns mainly, which instantly take me back to my childhood, not because I faithfully attended church (though I did do that sometimes) but because in those days we had an assembly first thing in the morning at school which included bible stories and hymns, both of which I am grateful for now. I'm not devout, but both the stories and the songs can feed the spirit and raise it up on their own merits. Handel's 'Thine Be The Glory' is a superbly lifting piece of music. There are many others. You don't have to be a believer to find joy in such music. And stories like Samson and Delilah (a woman spurned) and David and Goliath (a bully gets thrashed by the nice boy of the class) are equally engaging. I am swept back to that 5 to 11 year old Garry at Felixstowe Langar Road Primary School, the smell of cabbage and potatoes still lingering from yesterday's school dinner, belting out 'Rock of Ages' tunelessly from well-used lungs and listening enthralled and appalled to the story of Joseph being left to die in a pit by his brothers. Aaaahhhh, Nostalgia.

Friday 21 March 2014

Birds on a Twig

Outside my window in Spain is a tree with a long curved bare branch, not much more than a twig. Every morning at dawn chorus time the birds come and land on this perch, usually only one at a time, but following each other in fairly rapid succession. Different birds - goldfinches, crossbills, blackcaps, greenfinches, others - and they stay for a minute or two, singing and moving around in a slightly agitated manner, before flying off. The thing that surprised me though was the fact that they always face the rising sun. Not a single bird ever lands and faces the other way, with his or her back to the sun. It is almost as if they are carrying out the 'Salute to the sun' which most Hindus (and others) perform in the Far East. I believe I have come across a certain form of behaviour which might indicate something - I'm not going to tell you what, because I'm writing a paper - and hopefully a Nobel Prize will follow eventually, when they realise what a tremendous insight I've given to Mankind. 

Sunday 16 March 2014

San Jose

Yesterday was the Festival of San Jose in our little village of La Herradura. The Spanish have a great capacity for enjoyment (without the need to get drunk) and the fiesta reminds me of my childhood. A fairground is set up overnight along the seafront, with rides, toffee apples, candy floss, bright lights, blaring music, loud callers, and all the things one associates with fairgrounds. It seems to appear as if by magic, growing from a sleepy beach strand into a razzy-jazzy monster. I love it.

Today, Sunday, there is the horse show, an amazing spectacle of riders - haughty Adalucian women with their hats tilted over one eye and proud-looking slim men on beautiful beasts with high curved necks and silky manes and tails - a show which has to be seen to be believed. There are flamenco dancers weaving in amongst the horses and riders, as they perform superb feats of skill in the sandy ring watched by the whole population of the village and the surrounding mountains of the Sierras.

Speaking of superb feats, congratulations to the Irish on winning the Six Nations yesterday (said through gritted teeth) with England missing out narrowly - twice - once when the French beat us by two points and once when the Irish beat the French by two points. Also on the same day I beat my friend Keith at table tennis for the first time. He is a brilliant player. However, Keith has Parkinsons and while he shows no symptoms with a bat in his hand it is obviously a lose-lose situation for me. I can hardly go around bragging that I beat a man with advanced Parkinsons, can I?

Saturday 1 March 2014

There is a stark beauty in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Andalucia, but also a grimness in their visage that I haven't experienced in other mountain ranges. Driving through the first pass from Motril to Granada on the old road the sheer cliffs on either side of the road rise up vertically into the sky, bleak and massive, and lean over as if to say, 'Here we are, you puny mortal, ready to clash together when we feel we need to crush you.' I search vainly for some green vegetation to break the broad expanse of grey, but there is none: only black pits of half-caves too high to be of any use to man or beast, though perhaps the birds use them. I see so very few birds in those dark avenues between the shoulders of the mountains that I wonder if they have ever seen any life. True, the higher one gets the more open the range becomes, terminating in the snow-capped peaks of Mulhacen, the highest of them. I have to say I'm always in the grip of tension driving the narrow winding roads, some of them without any barriers between their outer edge and a vertical drop of hundreds of feet and my stomach knots every time we journey up to one of the Moorish villages that perch on lofty ledges. However, at the end of the climb is a rustic meal in a rural restaurant - hardly a restaurant really, since most of them are the living rooms of a local family - of the highest quality. Potatoes cooked in olive oil (poor man's patates), rabbit or goat stew and home-made wine. Absolutely delicious if you're a meat-eater and enjoy an old-fashioned meal. Braving the big-shouldered mountains, with their immense, threatening drops, has its rewards. Going down the twisty roads doesn't quite hold the same terrors.

Monday 17 February 2014

So here we are in my Spanish retreat once again, avoiding the winter in UK. I feel a little guilty being able to escape the rain and the floods, though I don't think we've had any in Suffolk to my knowledge. Last night Annette and I went to a small restaurant to celebrate her birthday and the flamenco guitarist was absolutely wonderful. Such talent in these guys who seem to have a small audience for their brilliance. When I feel like grumbling that my readership is not great I should think about these musicians and dancers along this coast, who are clearly geniuses in their art yet seem happy to play for an audience of small numbers. I admire them immensely. The singers in flamenco are also terrific. The songs are belted out at full volume in gravel tones - they call it 'Canto Jondo' - and to ears other than Andalucian might sound unmusical. I was raised in Aden and am used to Arabic music and the canto jondo singers definitely owe something to Moorish antecedents. I love it. It knocks me back in my chair with a great blast of sound and I often see other tourists looking at the exit wondering if they need to escape quickly before the place collapses under the singer's onslaught. 

Saturday 1 February 2014

Into Cappadocia

Just returned from a week in Cappadocia, Turkey. Great group of fellow travellers of mixed nationalities. We saw the tour advertised in Annette's 'Archaeology Monthly Magazine' for £195. 'A week in hotels, a guide, transport, flights - all for £195? Wow, we must do this,' we said, thinking, This is our reward for subscribing to an intellectual magazine which we scan while in the bath. Later we found out it was advertised in almost every other magazine, including 'Girl Guide' and 'Women's Institute Magazine'. Ho hum. When we arrived at Antalya Airport we did so with two plane-loads of passengers all going on the same cheap holiday. 400+ people scrambling for 20 to 30 coaches (I didn't count them). We were on number 2 coach and the friends we had booked with were on number 10 coach, both going to more or less the same places but not together and not at the same time. We managed to get that sorted out with a sympathetic guide (our man Can - pronounced 'Jan') who kept us together. In the end, it was fine. Thirty people on our coach, sharing meals and hiking over beautiful Turkish plains and mountains. The rock formations in Cappadocia are astonishing, including some cave-dwelling homes now vacant. It wasn't warm, but not that cold either, though there was some snow in the mountains. We saw lots of ancient monuments and buildings, some of us had Turkish baths, others wanted to go ballooning but failed because of the high winds. Food was good. Company excellent. And I won at gin rummy twice. Of course, we had to visit 'my brother's carpet shop' and a cousin's leather store, oh, and not forgetting the gold and diamond place either, but hey, you expect that in Turkey and there was no pressure to buy. The Japanese and Indians in our group made up for the rest of us and I'm sure they got some jolly good bargains. We bought four Turkish carpets in Hong Kong in 1990 and since they last 150 years we'll wait until AD 2140 to buy new ones.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Victor Gollancz has just reissued my trilogy 'The Navigator Kings' in an omnibus edition. This work, which contains an enormous amount of research, visiting Fiji, Tahiti, Aitutaki and (twice) Raratonga and talking to oral historians, as well as delving into books on Polynesian navigation and sailing techniques, I believe to be the best of my efforts. It is a strange conception, I admit. I do a geographical juggle, exchanging Britain for New Zealand, so that when the Polynesians finally invade 'the land of mists' their vessels land on the shores of Scotland (the main protagonist being a Celt). The story is jam-packed with Polynesian myth and legends, and indeed, folk lore. They have their giants, fairies and dwarves; their strange islands inhabited by strange beings; their fantastic voyages (some of which were real) and their gods, demi-gods and ancestral heroes. I'm very proud of the trilogy and hope it gives some enjoyment to readers. It gave me a lot of joy researching and writing it, learning about the peoples of Oceania and the way of life.

On a different subject completely, I'm not sure whether it's because I always (according to Annette) have my head in the clouds, or whether the years are telling on me, but I've had one or two aberrations lately. One I've spoken of before: we were in the car and Annette was telling me something which I had difficulty in hearing, so I automatically reached out for the car radio volume control so that I could hear her better. Two is more recent: I was watching a local team play football when one of them scored a goal. I stood for a few seconds waiting for the slow-motion replay. 

Yes indeed, I think my dependence on modern inventions is beginning to overwhelm my common sense.