Breaking Eggs.

I've been reading political books over the past couple of weeks, possibly triggered by the fact that for the first time in my voting life, I don't know who to vote for. Hoping for inspiration. Maybe it's my choices:  John Crace, Gavin Esler and now the acidly funny Marina Hyde. But even though they've made me laugh, it's hollow laughter and I still don't know who to vote for. They've just brought back to me the hideousness of the past few years, and the general impression that whoever is in power, it's likely to continue, because we have a broken, undemocratic system, as corrupt and useless as any of those countries we used to mock. 

One quote from Marina Hyde struck me forcefully. It's a quote of a quote of a quote, but it's apt. 'There's something rather Stalinist about Brexit's wreakers of so-called creative destruction. In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge quotes the Romanian writer Panait Istrati, when the latter visited the 1930s USSR of purges and show trials. "All right, I can see the broken eggs," he said, "Where is this omelette of yours?"' Hyde wrote this piece in 2017. Little did she know what was coming our way. 

No sign of the omelette so far. Lots of destruction, even in small ways. I posted three slim poetry books to Poland yesterday. It took about fifteen minutes, while the patient counter assistant weighed the little parcels, measured them, asked what was in them, looked up the customs number for books, typed in the Polish addresses, typed in my address three times, printed out stamps and bar codes, stuck them on, along with an air mail sticker, and then printed out three customs forms for me to sign. And don't even ask about the cost. As anyone who has tried this knows, it will still be touch and go whether they arrive at all. Don't blame the EU. We did this to ourselves. All this for something that pre-Brexit involved a small and very simple sticker of which I kept a stash at home. God knows what small businesses including small publishers do. Actually - I know what they do. They don't send to Europe. Or import from there. Well done, 'party of business'.  

There's a bit of fairly low key egg breaking going on in my world as well at the moment. Well, it IS  low key in that the vast majority of people won't give a flying you-know-what about it.  'Writers' (I use the word advisedly, because some of them seem to be more celebrities than actual working writers) have demanded that book festivals such as Hay divest themselves of their main sponsor, a company called Baillie Gifford. I should explain that unless you want to charge Taylor Swiftian prices for tickets without the added attraction of Taylor herself, most book festivals need help to stay solvent. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is next on their list. And more, since the company in question does a lot of sponsoring. The egg smashers call themselves Fossil Free Books. BG's investment in fossil fuels is minimal, and it's obvious that the FFB crowd don't understand much if anything about the rules surrounding investments. I'm seldom invited to book festivals, although whenever I have been, I've enjoyed the experience. And sometimes it has been very moving, like my gig last year at the excellent Boswell Book Festival, on the same platform as a traumatised young woman who had escaped from Ukraine, with her equally traumatised little girl. 

Mostly festivals are a significant pleasure for those attending, including middle aged and elderly women. Who buy a lot of books. And the organisers generally do excellent work promoting reading to children as well. But hey, the omelette brigade are gaily smashing eggs and celebrating their success, all while disclaiming any responsibility for finding replacement sponsors. 'Not our job,' they say. 'We've broken it. Now fix it.' It remains to be seen if the omelette ever materialises, or if they're simply left with egg covered faces. 

But here's a thing. The most cursory online search reveals that the UK's biggest book chain is now owned by a US hedge fund with a really significant investment in oil. Are all those writers who signed letters demanding that book festivals find new sponsors now going to approach their publishers demanding that they remove their books from this chain? And if not, why not? There's signalling virtue and then there's shooting yourself in both feet. Perhaps the foot shooting is the preserve only of Brexiters. 

All of which leads me back to my initial problem. I still have no idea who to vote for. Where are Lord Buckethead and Count Binface when you need them? 

How Not To Be A Writer - Part Five: Early Radio Days

Outside our flat in Edinburgh's Great King Street
with one of my flatmates, Eileen.

As I wrote in an earlier post, my first radio drama producer was Gordon Emslie. I don't have a picture of him, sadly, and he died far too young, while still in his 30s. Over my subsequent career in radio, a career that came to an abrupt end, for reasons I'll outline in a later post, I was lucky enough to work with many talented producers but Gordon was the first. 

Gordon was definitely one of the good guys. He produced my first short radio plays, The Hare and the Fox and A Bit of the Wilderness. I learned so much from him and began to hone my craft, finding out  what worked and what didn't. Above all, I learned something about the practicalities of production which in those days involved 'spot effects' that had to be co-ordinated with the movements of the actors around the microphones - sounds like the rustle of bedding, the clatter of teacups, the clash of swords - and background sound effects produced by supremely talented individuals rushing about between tape and record decks  - the 'FX' were often on vinyl -  mixing sounds to match the setting and performances. Contrary to popular perception, radio acting involves some movement, as well as the ability to visualise the reality of each scene. Spot effects are still used, of course although other broader background sounds are generally laid on digitally, afterwards. Sometimes these sounds are played to the cast, so that they can appreciate - for example - the volume of storm noise over which they may be pitching the dialogue!

There were other fascinating aspects to all this. Radio plays are seldom recorded chronologically. Studio time is always at a premium. So a script will be read through, then rehearsed and recorded all within a very short space of time. Depending on the availability of the cast, who may well be involved with other work commitments, the play is generally recorded if not randomly, then patchily, rather than in sequence. Productions with several episodes and an extensive cast will always involve this patchwork of scenes which are then edited together. It is, I think, the nightmare of every producer and production assistant to get to the end of a major production and find that a key scene is missing!

The producer/director is the magician at the heart of all this, making it work. As the writer, I was expected to be there for much of the production, because I might want or need to make cuts or do rewriting 'on the hoof'. Like all drama this is a collaborative medium, and if you don't enjoy the heat of collaboration, you're best to stay away from this particular kitchen altogether. 

It's a fascinating experience, because it's only when you hear your words in an actor's mouth that you can see where changes may need to be made. A good producer/director, like a director in theatre, has the last word. The actor can ask for, and the writer can suggest changes, but all of this goes through the producer who is responsible for pulling the whole thing together, maintaining the central vision, to borrow an expression from the world of video games.

You learn not just how to work with dialogue, but also how to orchestrate, including 'stage' directions about where people are in relation to each other, and what they are doing. I remember writing 'they fight' as one direction, whereupon my producer pointed out that this was something of a cop out. (It was.) The actors needed to know exactly how they were going to fight, so that they could move -and breathe - in relation to the microphone and each other and produce a perfect sound picture.

On the other hand, the writer should never be giving precise instructions about how actors should say their lines: those superfluous 'slowly, loudly, angrily, sadly' adverbs that often litter scripts from beginners. You need to let the actors practise their craft too. Besides, if it isn't already there in the dialogue, then - with one or two exceptions where the meaning runs counter to the actual text - you're probably not making a very good job of your dialogue. 

I learned so much and enjoyed the whole process. You can read more about my subsequent radio work on this blog, here. 

I was writing other things: short stories, poems and reviews, but although future radio commissions seemed a distinct possibility, I knew that I needed something else, something to broaden my experience. 

Having put out a few feelers here and there, I was called to a meeting with Professor Stuart Piggott, a scarily distinguished (and rather handsome) archaeologist at Edinburgh University. I remember that he had a stuffed owl in his office, but very little else about that meeting. His friend and colleague Stewart Sanderson was running a course in Folk Life Studies at Leeds University. He was offering me a place to do a postgraduate Masters degree there. 

I packed my bags and went back to the city where I was born.

Disability, Accessibility and Odd Attitudes.


Alan in his element

I don't often stray into such personal territory in my blog which tends to be about writing and publishing as well as the antique textiles and teddies that I 'rehome' and, of course, Alan's artworks. And gardening. That should be enough to be going on with, shouldn't it? But sometimes, you just have to make an exception.

Ever since I've known him - and that's a long, long time - Alan has been a seafarer. He was a trawler skipper for a while. I tapped into his knowledge when I wrote my play The Price of a Fish Supper which you can listen to in its best version with Ken O'Hara, directed by Isi Nimmo, here. Later, he became a charter yacht skipper, travelling to destinations such as the Canaries, the Azores, Norway and - on one memorable occasion - Russia. He's a well qualified and massively experienced ocean-going yacht skipper. He even taught sailing for the Scottish Watersports Centre in Largs

In the Canaries, we lived and worked aboard a big Catamaran called Simba. You can read about it on this blog, in several previous episodes, titled 'A Tale of Two Canary Island Winters.'

Unfortunately, a number of years ago, Alan's mobility gradually became worse, a condition which was eventually diagnosed as serious psoriatic arthritis coupled with osteo - i.e. wear and tear - arthritis. He has a good rheumatologist, and these days excellent treatments are available but some of them came too late to prevent damage. So, his upper body strength is fine, but his mobility is very challenged. And painful. He soldiers on. In fact last year, he managed a fundraiser for our local hospice, going round the village in his wheelchair and washing windscreens. 

There has been plenty written elsewhere about accessibility problems. The realisation of just how badly served people with disabilities are in this country only dawns on you when you're struggling with the shortcomings. 

For example, seems disinclined to ask hotels and guest houses to clarify whether rooms have walk-in or over-bath showers. Many disabled people don't need a fully wheelchair accessible room, but they do need small adjustments. Disabled parking spaces are often (and inexplicably) situated a long way from entrances for people who struggle to walk. Hospitals are some of the worst culprits but hotels are bad too. Accessible rooms are sometimes lightless dug-outs situated down long corridors. Disability friendly rooms are usually dog friendly rooms as well, so we're faced with choosing between accessibility for my husband or asthma for me. Crossing places in the UK don't give you nearly enough time to cross.Anyone with a serious mobility problem could add to the list. People with disabilities don't expect the whole world to change to suit them, but a modicum of imagination and consideration might help.

However, that's not the point of this blog. Those were anticipated problems. What we didn't expect was a different kind of problem altogether - and that was wholly unanticipated.

Since my husband was diagnosed all those years ago, I've watched the changing attitudes of some  relatives and friends. 

Not everyone of course. Not by any means. We have some good friends and among them are a couple  who are happy to invite Alan onto their boat. With a little help, he can manage to get aboard. He sits at the helm and they let him get on with it. That's their beautiful yacht in the picture above. He hasn't lost any of those skills and he hasn't lost his mind. Just his agility. And he's instantly in his element, using all his considerable experience, because there is more to sailing than leaping about with ropes. Sadly, these willing friends live a long way away, so sailing with them is a rare treat. 

But gradually, there came the realisation that other invitations had dried up. There were friends with whom Alan had sailed for years. Friends who wanted crew. What they clearly didn't want was to accommodate somebody with a disability. Not even for a short trip now and then.

It took me quite a while to acknowledge this, and I expect it's the same for other partners of people with disabilities. You don't want to believe it. But it creeps up on you, until it becomes so obvious that you can't ignore it any longer. I'm pretty certain people will have similar stories from other areas of life and disability. People deciding for you what you can and can't do. Because they don't want the responsibility, not just of accommodating you, but of what they perceive to be the responsibility of you. Not even for a day or two, very occasionally. Just pause for a moment and think about that. Think about how infantilising and hurtful that is. Right up there with 'does he take sugar' isn't it?

Back on the water at last thanks to a local coastal rowing club!.

How Not To Be A Writer - Part Four: Money Matters


This is a small diversion from the chronology of  previous 'How Not To' posts.  Whenever writers get together, we don't talk about what we're writing. We moan about money. 

It's worth pointing out yet again that, with a few starry exceptions, writers are at the bottom of the heap as far as payment goes. Full time professional writers earn, on average, £7000 a year. That means that vast numbers earn considerably less and payments are falling all the time. I wrote my last big project on a £500 advance. It took 2 years to research and write. 

If you look this up on Google, you'll be presented with wholly unrealistic salaries in the £35,000 plus range. Some deluded websites claim a staggering £45 - £55000. I don't know anyone who earns anything approaching this from their writing, even those you would think of as successful. Those who do, earn it from writing related work, such as teaching creative writing in universities, so that they can encourage more people to be poor. Or writing for television. (Lucrative, but also hard to get into.) Or specialised writing, such as technical writing, for large companies. Those who write for children can earn a living of sorts by doing schools visits and talks, but again, these are a diminishing resource. And as another writer friend pointed out recently, these are payments for actual work undertaken in the school or college, not for the books themselves.

As far as large publishing companies are concerned, creative writing and publishing is a massive pyramid scheme, with the writers beavering away for peanuts at the bottom, and literally everyone else being paid more than the people without whom there would be nothing to publish or produce. 

There is no real solution to this. The big corporations will always pay their top executives handsomely and the astronomical advances will always go to celebrities, who probably haven't even written the damn books themselves.  Those organisations that are supposed to represent writers can do little about the imbalance. Small or medium sized publishers struggle constantly with rising prices of resources like paper, which means rising prices of books, and a corresponding fall in quality of the end product.

Almost everyone who writes, and most of those running small publishing companies, have to find other means of earning a living. I have colleagues who lecture, who teach in schools, who are alternative therapy practitioners, who follow quite different full time careers and write on the side. Creativity will find a way. I deal in antique textiles and toys from an Etsy store called the 200 Year Old House. 

And now, I self publish on Amazon under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, eBooks and paperbacks, with some excellent professional design and formatting help from a company called Lumphanan Press. I make no fortunes, but there's always the faint possibility that something will take off and bring in some real income.

I'll leave you with three things to think about. 

Getting an agent doesn't automatically mean that you will get a publishing deal these days. Don't waste years of good writing time submitting endless query letters to agencies and waiting for them to respond.
Most books don't earn out their advances. The system is designed that way. It's perfectly possible for a publisher to profit from a book while the author, even from a mass market success, is paid sixpence a copy, as part of the deal. It's going to take a long long time to earn out even a modest advance at those rates. 
When people tell you that there is 'no money in the budget' to pay the creatives, what they mean is that there is, in fact, a budget. They just expect that you'll work for nothing. I still do sometimes work for nothing, but these days it's only for local organisations, small charities, good causes. Places where I can sell my own books. And seldom in winter, when I hibernate. But for big media corporations? Book chains owned by US Hedge Companies? I don't think so. Not any more.