Tuesday, July 29, 2008

For no good reason...

...other than the fact that I'm awake at four am, and filling the time with anything but useful activity, here are some pretty pictures.

These were sent to me by Mark Kelly, who designed my website. They come from the blog of one Phil Beard. http://buttes-chaumont.blogspot.com/

Aren't they beautiful?

Friday, July 25, 2008


In the village where I used to live there also lived a dog. The dog was small and white, and it sat all day behind a white-painted cottage window in which hung a pair of white net curtains. It was a dog well camouflaged.

Whenever I walked past the window the dog barked at me. That was its trick - to wait until the last second, and then hurl itself at the pane, yapping furiously, claws scrabbling at the glass, its mouth at just about ear level. I would leap off the pavement in fright, cursing the thing, and then forget all about it until the next time. The dog never tired of the joke, and I never remembered the punchline until it was too late.

One weekend my next door neighbour, a Navy man, phoned to ask a favour of me. He was unexpectedly detained on duty for another twenty-four hours. Would I feed his dog and take it for a walk? No big deal, except that the dog in question was a Staffordshire bull terrier. These creatures get a bad press - highly territorial, apt to take offence at any chance remark, and not inclined to let go of you once they've decided to grab a hold. A gin-trap, basically, with a leg at each corner. I gather that there may be a release mechanism of sorts located beneath the tail, but I wouldn't care to tinker with it.

So my neighbour's assurance that I should just let myself into his house, act confident, and put a choke chain on the beast was a bit worrying. It was a mystery to me as to why anyone should want to own such a dog. Still, I could hardly refuse to help, and so I said OK. I quickly wrote out a will, left it on our kitchen table, and went next door.

The Staffie was as good as gold. It seemed pleased to meet me, allowed me to feed it a few of the local toddlers, and made no objection when I put the heavy steel chain around its neck to go walkies.

It's a curious thing to be strolling down the street with fifty pounds of fighting dog on the end of a leash. I felt as though I should roll up the sleeve of my T shirt and stick a pack of Marlboros in there, or something. Chew a bit of gum. Learn to spit properly.

As we passed the white cottage window, I remembered too late about its yappy occupant. But you know what? A very noticeable change had come over that little dog. It didn't seem at all keen to perform its trick, but instead sat there like a china statuette of itself, mute and motionless, its mouth firmly shut, eyes apparently fixed upon some interesting aspect of the pub sign opposite.

The little white dog was still sitting there on the return journey, still gazing innocently into space, still no word to say for itself as I walked past with my new best friend. In fact that dog never gave me any of its lip from that day on. So this is power, I thought. This is respect, as accorded to the mighty. Now I get it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Amazon self publishing

If you've ever thought of writing a book, making a film, producing your own music, here's an interesting scheme. You can now self publish on Amazon, at virtually no cost. Amazon CreateSpace

I see a kind of double irony here, in that what many will dismiss as vanity publishing might actually be of most benefit to established authors, and that the very mainstream that helped establish those authors is what makes it possible for them to use - or even switch - to this system.

For those authors who already have a presence on Amazon, thanks to success in the mainstream, it would be relatively easy to add an extra title or two to any existing list. Past promotion will have given such writers a profile, they get Googled, there's a ready and waiting market for their work. A 30% royalty is likely to be a lot higher than any publishing house can offer them, so what's to lose?

Standards, possibly. More bookshops probably. But there could be gains as well, and not just in fiscal terms. I've spent a working lifetime in children's publishing, and have survived by writing and illustrating to a 'market', always going for the idea that seems most commercial, always thinking in terms of the broadest appeal, always producing material that I hope will work in translation. No apologies for that, but this scheme provides an opportunity to be a little more experimental, and adventurous. Poetry, for instance, is an area I'd never go anywhere near, likewise short stories, likewise local history. No mainstream publisher will buy material for which there is no broad market, and I can't afford to spend time on work that I'm unlikely to sell. But the Amazon scheme makes it tempting to try something a bit different. OK, there are no advances on offer, and there's still time and money involved in producing any piece of work - professional editing costs, for instance, should be factored in to any project - but I would certainly give this some thought.

For years we've been bemoaning the fact that publishing has narrowed, that commercialism rules, and that the bestseller lists are the be-all and end-all. Could it be that Amazon, of all institutions, will be responsible for a renaissance in specialist and limited appeal works, and actually end up enriching a culture that many have accused it of helping to destroy?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Doctor on Wheels

My friend Eddy says he saw a new kind of mobile trading van earlier this week: Doctor On Wheels. What a great idea. The van stops in lay-bys, apparently, so that busy motorists and truckers can get themselves a bit of treatment. I can see a whole new market opening up here - beaches, picnic areas, the car park outside B&Q.

Anyway, that’s it. I’ve decided to quit writing and illustrating and become a doctor on wheels instead. Already got my mobile surgery – a converted ice-cream van. See below.

Neat, eh? It plays the theme from ‘Doctor Finlay’s Casebook’ as I tootle along, and when I beep the horn it goes ‘Crash trolley! Crash trolley!’

I'm planning a special this week – Canesten cream with diazepam sprinkles and a flake. £47. Stop me and try one.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hep Cat's Holiday

Every once in a while you stumble upon some self-contained and hidden world that you were previously unaware of. The land is peppered with clubs, associations, groups of enthusiasts and just plain nutters, whose activities are so weird and obscure that they either go unnoticed or are dismissed altogether.

I've met dowsers, twitchers, pitchfork rebels, Big Lebowskis, trekkies, ferret smugglers, avalanche dodgers, cheese rollers, witches and warlocks, members of the Sunbeam Talbot Alpine Register, and many book collectors of course - all of whom can pass for normal as they go about their daily business. But then you touch upon their other life. Some chance remark reveals their secret, and it's at that point you should get out, my dears. Walk away. Because if you're foolhardy enough to show even the merest spark of interest, you find yourself pinned against a wall by a gale of evangelistic fervour that's likely to take your ears off. Next thing you know, you've signed up for two years before the mast with the Captain Pugwash Appreciation Society.

That's kind of what happened to me last weekend. The Gents were booked to play at the Hep Cat’s Holiday, billed as three days and nights of dancing to music of the forties and fifties - the jive era. We were looking forward to it very much, and it didn't disappoint. Hosts Robert and Claire Austin put on a terrific show, with professional dance classes, retro clothing side stalls, a constant soundtrack of great music (courtesy of incredibly knowledgeable and well-stocked DJs) plus half a dozen top live bands. What made it work, though, was the enthusiasm and commitment of the punters. They came from all over Europe, bringing their unfeasibly flamboyant wardrobes and haircuts with them, and boy did they impress. Hats, shoes, skirts, suits, all pin-sharp and perfectly tailored - this was serious stuff. None of your dressing-up box schmutter here. They looked the business, and they could dance it too.

It was great fun to just watch and listen, and when we weren't playing we did plenty of that. Our slots were on the Sunday - the last day of the festival - and so we only caught a couple of the other bands. We particularly liked the Honolulu Hula Boys (as friendly a bunch of Italians as you could hope to meet) and sat out in the evening with them, passing the ukelele around and singing songs beneath the patio heaters. 'Paper Doll' and 'I'll See You In My Dreams' are two that I seem to recall.

Twenty four hours of it wasn't enough, and so next year I plan to be there for the whole weekend. Yes, I've rescinded my membership of the Tufty Club, and decided be a hep cat instead. Whether I shall be able to coax my ravaged frame into lindy-hopping with the best of them seems doubtful, but I'm happy to give it a go, and am already saving up for my first pair of two-tone penny loafers. That comes to tuppence, by my reckoning, and if the world of publishing is kind to me I should have enough by November.