Sunday, February 28, 2010

The rules of writing

There was a recent feature in the Guardian where writers were asked to state their 'rules' of writing. ('Don't, unless you really can't think of anything better to do', would probably be mine.)

The question of how to write is as perennial as it's unanswerable. However, on the excellent Bookwitch blog, I discovered that Declan Burke had thought to go and seek the opinion of Mr. William Shakespeare himself. Thanks to Mr Burke, we now have it direct from the bard.

“1. Write ye not a new tale if’t can at all be helped. Plunder thou yon histories, myths and pre-Renaissance Italian romances for plot, setting, character, structure, style and theme. If anyone notice, claim ye homage.
2. Makest thou heroine a maiden as young as is strictly legal.
3. Lest there be doubt on who be your varlet, give him a hump. Or a hooked nose. Or black skin. If ye can manage all three in one villain, have on.
4. A good title be half the battle. ‘Big Fuss About Nowt’ flyeth not.
5. A pox on reality. Toss ye in some ghost, fairy, witch and monster for good jizz. If ye can handle a haunted kitchen sink, have on.
6. If ye suffer from block, have your mistress take up the quill while you cane opium and give her daughter goodly tup. If ye be nabbed, claim research.
7. Ne’er miss a chance for identity mistook, for such wrangling be good for fifty page or more. If they be cross-dressers, ye’ll get a whole tale.
8. Prithee, no more than one monologue per page. Unless folio pages they be. But e’en then, no more than three, max.
9. If the pace should flag, lobbest thou in a ‘Gadsooks!’ or ‘Forsooth!’ Or have skewered a king, general, politician or prince. For the money shot, go with ‘Gadsooks, I be skewered, forsooth!’ The plebs love’t.
10. Once in while end your line with a rhyme / ’Tis posh as a turret and waste some more time.”

Friday, February 05, 2010

Things once common, now extinct. No. 8: Milk.

There used to be seven different types of milk, according to an ex-milkman friend of mine; Gold-Top, Red-top, Silver-Top, Blue-Top, Green-Top, Sterilised, and one more that I can’t remember. All of these could be bought, delivered, or thieved, from the back of a float.

If milk floats are not quite extinct they're definitely disappearing into the sunset, or sunrise, the whine of their electric motors and the clink of bottles on the doorstep our morning alarmers no more. And milk is no longer heavily promoted as a drink. It's just something to drizzle onto your muesli, the 'skinny' in skinny latte, the froth on your cappuccino.

At one time there were Milk Bars (how rock’n’roll) on every corner, and milk vending machines on every station. Petrol and railway. I don’t know how much it cost to buy from such machines – I never put any money into them. As an eight year old I would have been more inclined to spend my threepenny bits on Bazooka Joes, or opium. (Children, I’m joking, of course. Black Jacks were far better value than Bazooka Joes.)

At primary school we had milk delivered in 1/3 pint bottles, galvanised crates of the stuff, which in winter were parked next to the classroom stove in order to thaw them to a point where they were at least partially liquid. When Margaret Thatcher came to power she famously stopped all this nonsense, by cutting out free school milk. ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher...’ was the slogan of the day. She would have got my vote as a child, but the mad old bat was about twenty years too late to be of any use to me.

I was no great fan of milk, and periodically petitioned my mum to let me have orange juice instead. Orange juice was available for those kids who had the necessary dispensation, but there had to be some pretty serious reason for it. I used to look with envy on those privileged ones, and wonder what they’d got that I hadn’t. Impetigo, maybe, or croup, or dengue. Whatever, I didn’t qualify.

Every billboard and TV advert encouraged you to ‘Drinka Pinta Milka Day', and you couldn’t argue with it. Milk was good for you - and it was especially good for your teeth. Milk was recommended by real doctors, along with Craven ‘A’ cigarettes, which were known to be kind to your throat. I'm surprised they didn't just add milk to tobacco (Milk Cut maybe) for a complete oral health package. But they put it into just about everything else, and we consumed milk lollies, milk loaves, milk choclolate, and milk shakes, knowing that we were really giving our teeth a boost.

I have a clear memory of sterilised milk, tasted for the first time when I went to stay with my cousins in Birmingham. As a West Country lad I’d only ever known untreated milk, bottled maybe a mile away from the cowshed. In fact I can recall my dad bringing milk home straight from the nearest farm, in a white enamelled jug. I've tasted it warm from the udder, too, one of those rites of passage you go through when working on farms as a holiday job. I can't say I liked it much. I do like cows, though, the smell of them and the heat they generate, so welcome on a freezing winter morning with an hour yet to go before breakfast time.

But Birmingham milk was different altogether, delivered in a tall bottle, sealed with what looked like a beer-bottle top. It had a very strong taste, not particularly pleasant, but not much like milk either, and so I preferred it.
The taste of Birmingham still lingers for me in what’s now called UHT milk – most commonly seen in those tiny plastic pots that squirt out more than they could possibly contain as you try to open them. So whenever I’m in a hotel room, and I make myself a cup of tea, I'm reminded of Brum. I think of the black pebbly soil, the echo of public swimming baths and the roar of the Midland Red buses. Hot summer holidays with my big city cousins.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

School Zone

Teachers and school librarians are the gateway to the minds of young readers, so I'm delighted when my work receives their approval. Here's a lovely review from learning resources manager Joy Court, writing for School Zone, where X Isle was Book of the Month. School Zone is a great reading resource for parents, teachers, and pupils alike - well worth a look.

Librarian's Book choice.

'This book is a complete change of genre for the author known for the Various trilogy. In contrast to the world of fairies, this is a quite outstanding example of a dystopian future novel and the most realistic flooded world scenario that I have come across. In a way, that is the smallest of its virtues. The novel's real strength is in the portrayal of adolescent boys and their interactions as individuals and the portrayal of group dynamics. These are very real and recognisable young men and it is how they react to the pressure and terror of life on X-Isle, and the ways in which the horrifying and evil adults delight in a policy of divide and rule, that is so gripping and thought-provoking. This is a dark and brutal place and understandably, most inmates are brutalised by it, but the book is ultimately uplifting. The boys come to realise they can be stronger together and eventually work to overthrow the regime. This book would make a worthy comparator to Golding's Lord of the Flies and generate some fascinating class discussion. Although it would appear to have most appeal to boys, everyone will enjoy the sheer quality and readability of the language and the depth of psychological perception as well as the fast paced narrative and immaculate plotting of this unforgettable read.'