Friday, July 30, 2010


The Taygetos, above Mystra

I like mountains – great big craggy ones that you can climb up if you have the energy, but can also just stare at in awe. Unlike most people it was the mountains in Greece that first attracted me to the country, specifically the Taygetos Mountains of the Peloponnese. These look as if they belong in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and always stir something in me when I look at them.

I’m not alone in this. Nikos Kazanzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek, wrote that the Taygetos make you realise how utterly meaningless your own petty concerns are. You are humbled before them. I agree with this, and bobbing in the sea off the coast of the Mani and staring back into the mountains is as close as I get to a religious experience.

Which is why it’s puzzling that I seem to be living in possibly the flattest region of the UK. Even small hillocks can provide paroxysms of excitement in Suffolk, and village church spires stand out for miles around. Looking out of my window into the great metropolis of Ipswich I can see the county’s highest point, a new tower block that is the pride of the town’s waterfront development. Unfortunately it’s not much bigger than your average Croydon office block.

Water Tower, Southwold
I don’t want to be too down on Suffolk though, it's just that I miss my mountains. And I’m also learning to discover the county’s more subtle charms. Last weekend we went camping in Southwold, an attractive coastal town that is now getting known for hosting the Latitude Festival. We missed Latitude by a week (on purpose) and were there to have my daughter’s b’day party on the beach. The campsite is council run, and not particularly great, but what it lacks in character it more than makes up for in location (right on the beach) and views.

My favourite thing, however, was not the beach, or the gentle countryside, or even the pubs serving locally brewed Adnams beer. No, I liked the water tower.  I becoming a bit of a connoisseur of these structures, and in the flatlands of Suffolk there’s a lot of them about, but the one in Southwold is surely the most impressive.  Who knew that a water tank on legs could look so cool? My only guess is that the architect was a big fan of the BBC series The Tripods from the 80s. I’m still half expecting another one to come marching over the horizon to claim Ipswich for its alien masters.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's all about the words . . .

So, this is the tough first post. I'd like to say that I've thought long and hard about it, but I haven’t really. Initially I tussled over which of my two pillars of interest to begin with. Should it be a rant over the idiocy of homeopathy, or a celebration of hiking in the mountains of the Peloponnese? Both of these are sure to come, but instead I decide to begin with what it all comes back to – what blogging should be all about.

Huge amounts of people think that they can write, and many also harbor the belief that their writing deserves an audience. Back in the day it used to be diaries and long reams of snailmail correspondence. Now it’s blogs, tweets and emails. For the ambitious there is always the dream of a book – after all “everyone has a book in them”.

This is nonsense. As anyone with half a minute to spare can see the vast majority of the written word that enters the public domain is complete dross. As I’ve already intimated this is not particularly a modern phenomenon, but Web 2.0 does mean that bad writing is not so much in-your-face as jumping out of the monitor and scratching your eyeballs.

And let’s just examine the “everyone has a book in them” meme in more detail. No they don’t.

Ok, a bit more detail. I once worked for a literary agency. My main job was trawling through the slush pile. For those who don’t know this is the vast accumulation of unasked for manuscripts that even crappy agents get through their letterbox, and the place I worked for was rather good. On an average week we’d get about a hundred. If these followed our guidelines they’d include the first three chapters of the ‘book’, or about 10,000 words. In other words they represented a strong commitment by the authors to their writing.

And almost without exception they were complete rubbish – as in there was no need to read beyond the first couple of sentences before rejecting them kind of rubbish. This sounds immensely callous, and will surely anger many aspiring authors, but it’s the simple truth. If you can’t get the first sentence right, then don’t bother with the rest, because no one else will.

Here are the stats: of the 7,000 odd manuscripts I looked at 90% fell into the utter drivel category. About 10% ranged from just about readable to not too bad. About ten or so were pieces I enjoyed reading, or could see others enjoying, but didn’t quite fit the publishing market at the time. One, that’s one out of 7,000, got into print. This is it, if you’re interested. It’s a cruel world . . .

So, I realise I’ve now opened myself up to piles of criticism and invective. (Before you start I know I’ve started two sentences with an “and”, which is considered bad form, but I did it for a reason). However I wanted to make this commitment here and now: whatever else this blog may be, I will try my very best to make it at least readable. Hopefully it will also be entertaining and informative, but if the writing’s crap, then I’ve failed. Let me know . . .