Friday, 29 June 2012

Why illegal downloading really does matter

I make no apologies for fighting for the rights of writers and artists to earn from their work and to be allowed to make decisions as to value and cost. So, I bring you perhaps the best, fullest, and most passionate and moving argument for why this is important.

Interesting point about fair trade coffee, too - it's why I created the idea of Fair Reading.

The end of the article goes to the heart and is worth quoting:
"Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?
Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?
Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?"
Please, parents and teachers, tell your young people. It matters. It's a moral issue.

It's theft. And there are victims.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

All for books - George Watson's College off to NZ, representing the UK

I'm very very proud of a school in Edinburgh that I have strong links with. Actually, I'm very very proud of two schools in Edinburgh that I have strong links with. One is The Mary Erskine School, and I'll be blogging about them soon. And the other is George Watson's College.

I used to live within spitting distance of GWC, not that I'd ever want to spit at them, of course. And I have done a load of events there and have got to know the very supportive librarian, Jane Shankland, quite well.

So, I was DELIGHTED when Jane told me recently that a team consisting of girls from GWC had won the UK finals of the wonderful international Kids' Lit Quiz - something else I have strong links with. Yes, I am so strongly linked to things that sometimes I can barely move my arms.

So, these clever girls fly off to New Zealand this Friday for the WORLD FINALS. They must be so excited. I think they look quite excited, don't you? They are: Rosie Isaac, Rebecca Poon, Katherine Holdgate and Beth Miller.

Their experience began last November when the team won the Central Scotland Heat. They then progressed to the UK Final. in which they had a decisive victory. Essentially they’ve come top of around 700 teams in the UK already. *bows in awe*

Jane said, "We have had great fun coaching the girls and they all have a huge love of books and taking part in the quiz has definitely helped create a buzz about reading in the school. It is so encouraging to see reading rewarded in this way - not just sport!!"

And indeed it is. I wonder if the girls realise that their school was also where, in my mind, Deathwatch is set. The scene with the Madagascan Hissing cockroaches... And, coincidentally, that's the book that the other school I mentioned, The Mary Erskine School, helped me write. And that school recently won the UK debating championship - as I discovered when I bumped into them at the airport as they set off to Istanbul to make an official visit to the parliament there as part of their prize. Clever schools, and it's no coincidence that they focus so strongly on reading and books.

Good luck to the girls of George Watson's College! Have a wonderful trip and come back with memories to last you a lifetime! We are proud of you already.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Who are my fellow combatants?

Until just now, I felt like part of a secret society. A secret society at which I'm going to have to fight and be stroppy and possibly even crabbit.

Some months ago I was flattered to be asked to be one of 50 authors from around the world to make up the Edinburgh Writers' Conference. (I don't mean do their make-up, silly...) Why do I need to be stroppy and fighty and everything? Well, because the conference is designed to mirror the writers' conference in Edinburgh 50 years ago, in 1962, when authors such as Norman Mailer and Muriel Spark debated cultural issues and apparently some of the speakers "nearly came to blows". I'm pretty sure this is why I've been invited.

But who else has? The identity of the 50 authors was a secret so I couldn't talk about myself it till yesterday, when the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme was launched. I thought we might learn then.

Well, apparently there was a press release in my goody bag at the launch, but there wasn't in mine. So, a quick plea on Twitter elicited this pic from @robaroundbooks and now, if I peer really hard, I can see the names.

Thank goodness, because otherwise it would have been like a blind-fold wrestling match. I like to know who I have to be crabbit with, even if I don't hit anyone.

Tonight I'm in Dumfries and Galloway, as I'm speaking at a conference tomorrow for writers/aspiring/self-published, all about social media, blogging etcetcetcetc. A long drive and lots of time for thinking about my current novel - in which I have come to a horrible complete standstill because I have NO IDEA what happens next. This is the worst case of mid-book crisis I have ever had. :(

I'm telling you, if I haven't cracked it by the time the Edbookfest happens, I will be highly likely to hit someone. Whoever they are.

Friday, 15 June 2012

My life in a boys' school - and why I can do press-ups

I was born in a school. Literally. A boys' boarding school. And thus began a strange childhood spent entirely in all-boys' schools, in the depths of various parts of the country, with my father as my headmaster and both my parents teaching me English, maths, French, science, cricket and hockey. One day I'll write about it properly but not yet.

Let's just say I learnt to be tough. Let's also say that now I cherish the strangeness of those times, and think that it was, genuinely, character-building, and I'm actually not entirely dissatisfied with the character that it built. I spent a lot of time alone (but never lonely) and am now very good at that. In fact, I need a lot of space and time to myself. I do love being with my friends and family but I also like being with myself only. Despite what I'm about to say, I wouldn't wish to have had a different childhood and there were huge benefits, particularly in the holidays. Well, OK, only in the holidays!

There is one teacher I'd like to tell you about. He's dead now, and for that I'm not sorry. He was a brutal man. I've no idea what went into his childhood to make him so, but he certainly got great pleasure from tormenting me. He picked on me as the only girl, and he knew that I would never complain to my parents because he knew that I knew what would happen if I did. You didn't complain about a teacher in those days. Besides, for me that would be "running to daddy" and I certainly wasn't going to do that. It was unwritten but certain that I would not.

This man - we'll call him the captain, because he had been an army captain and still used the title - was cruel. His eyes were small and button-beady, his shape rotund and solid and chest-puffed, his face apple-cheeked, his nose bulbous and threaded and pitted with veins and pores, and he wore an ancient kilt that smelt of cigarettes and tweed. (Yes, he was Scottish but this school was in Yorkshire.) He taught history and geography. I was bad at both but never understood why. I just knew that for other subjects (well, apart from maths) I'd get high marks and praise, while for his subjects I was getting 20-30%. Every time I handed in the best work I could do, every time I hoped it would be a decent mark, and every time it came back with his acid, diminishing remarks and a mean grade.

I remember his hand-writing now - it was small, whip-tight and poisonous. Red, of course, and I even remember the kind of orange redness of it.

But there's something I remember more clearly. The PE lessons, because as an army captain wasn't he just the obvious person to be teaching PE to some boys and one girl? Brutal circuits we had to do and whoever came last or committed some invisible misdemeanour had the punishment of doing more. And press-ups and windmills. As many as he could make us do. You did them till you could do no more. And when you stopped, exhausted or with arm-muscles paralysed with pain, you felt a failure for not doing more.

That is not all I remember of the PE lessons. But all I will say about the rest is that I did learn to fight. And I don't mean verbally.

He was a cruel man and probably a sad one.

I have only one thing to thank him for: I can - and do - still do press-ups. Oh, and if anyone got me in a head-lock, I'd certainly know what to do.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Of boots, escalators and photographers

This is a true story retold from 2007.

I have always adhered to the motto "Be prepared". And now I know I was right.

I had to go to London, for various reasons including a school event and a Times interview to promote The Highwayman's Footsteps, and an extraordinary photoshoot. This was to take place in a fake dungeonesque place in a museum, after dark, in Docklands, and a load of people had gone to extreme lengths to set it up. So there was no possibility of chickening out.

Anyway, 7am train from Edinburgh, into King's Cross, across to Liverpool St, left my suitcase in L'pool St, got the train out to Essex, did a school talk, back on train into L'pool St. Decided, in my infinite wisdom, not to collect my luggage but to leave it there while I rushed to Docklands for the photoshoot, because Paul, the nice-sounding photographer, had already been waiting a long time and probably wanted to go home, because Paul, unlike me, has common sense.

So, I hurry onto the Underground in the middle of rush hour. I can do this - I am strong and fit and I used to live in London. A long time ago. Before Docklands existed. I get to Bank and I hurry through more crowds to the Docklands Light Railway. I am slightly concerned, as I have not been on it before and it could very easily be dangerous. There are, however, no warnings about the type of danger I am about to encounter.

As I step onto the escalator, my foot kind of slides gently and undramatically from under me and I almost fall. But, being strong and fit, and desperate not to be uncool, I don't fall. I try to put my foot down again, but it doesn't seem completely to be there. This is a disconcerting feeling, as, last time I looked, it was. However, I look behind me and see an object sitting at the top of the escalator as I rapidly leave it behind. I put two and two together and realise that the heel has come off my boot.

Those of you to whom this has never happened need to understand: this is not a funny situation. It is not possible to walk properly like this. And my luggage, where spare footwear should be, is in Liverpool St Station.

But I was in the Girl Guides and we know how to deal with situations like this. In fact, I remember my Docklands Light Railway badge and one of the tasks was, quite definitely: carry a spare pair of boots in your handbag. This, naturally, I have done. Yes, really, I have a pair of red suede boots in my handbag. I am not joking.

So, end of story, you would think. But no, because I am in very heavy crowds on a very busy escalator, about to enter throbbingly full tunnels full of fearsome marauding Londoners, who are quite happy to laugh at me now, but will not be if I stop in the middle of them to change into red suede boots. I could be arrested. So I hobble. At first, people feel sorry for me because they think I am injured. Then they laugh. Then they get annoyed, as I am not walking fast enough for them. Or me.

This is not helped by the fact that, on the DLR, there are no friendly maps telling me where to go. I am like a tourist. I have to ask for help. But I can't, because I have only one heel and this renders me pathetic. Being in the Girl Guides did not prepare me for this. Luckily, a businessman, perhaps finding a woman with one heel worryingly interesting, asks if he can help. I want to ask if he is a cobbler but even if he is he is fairly unlikely to carry a spare heel and hammer with him. Unless he was in the Boy Scouts. I am disinclined to ask this. This is London. You don't ask questions like that. It's the sort of thing that starts incidents.

I pretend that I have not noticed anything amiss with my footwear, and I ask him which train goes to West India Quay. "This train," he says, smiling in the way that only businessmen who have other motives than cobbling do. He gets on the train with me, which is worrying. But I still have not managed to change my boots, which is more worrying.

I cannot change into red suede boots with this man watching me. I also cannot change into them because I have no idea whether West India Quay is one stop or ten and I might be caught mid boot. So, between each stop, I do not change my boots. I tuck my feet beneath me and pretend that I am merely demented, hoping that everyone will ignore me. This works disturbingly easily. This is, after all, London. I must remember that. That as long as you don't get in anyone's way, or ask for help, you can wear broken boots if you want to.

I hobble off with increasing and impressive agility at West India Quay, which was five stops away, which is annoying because I easily could have changed my boots. But the day hasn't been going my way so far, so why would it change now?

West India Quay is deserted. It is an unmanned and unwomanned station. It also has no signs or maps and I have absolutely no idea where I'm going. I need to find a really sleazy dark street corner at which to change into my red suede boots. Luckily, there is a wide choice. I manage to change without being arrested or propositioned, largely because there is no one around at all.

Docklands is like a sci-fi film set. There are looming sky-scrapers, distant lights, boats with no people, restaurants with no people, a creaking saloon door and tumbleweed tumbling along the dusty highway. I have absolutely no idea where to go.

My phone rings. It is Paul. "Where are you?" he asks. "I don't entirely know," I say, "but I think I'm here." We then do a passable impression of the Anneka Rice show from years back, and I find the Museum of London and, in it, Paul and Simon. I half expect to find Paul Simon, but that would not happen on a day like this. I would not be prepared anyway.

Paul is dressed a bit like a cat burglar so he is quite hard to see. Apart from this, he is very, very nice. He has no idea about my stressful incident. And I don't tell him. I prefer him to think that I am calm and cool, that I always wear red suede boots on sci-fi film sets and that I am not the sort of idiot who would lose a heel on an escalator. He photographs me in all sorts of poses in all sorts of varieties of dungeon, amongst the artificial smells of ancient life and strangely authentic soundtracks of 18th century people drinking mead.

Simon keeps holding a thing to my chin, flashing a light and reading out a number. This feels important but I haven't a clue what's going on. Paul doesn't ask me to smile, not once - because, as I say, he's very nice and nice photographers don't ask me to smile. He asks me to think about the characters in my book. I say, "But you said you weren't going to ask me to do anything, like act or anything." "I'm not," he says, smiling, "I'm asking you to think. I take the pictures, you think." This suits me fine and I think about the characters in The Highwayman's Footsteps.

It is an extraordinary experience, surreal, soporific. Oddly pleasant. At one point I nearly fall asleep, and at another point I start laughing. I try to explain to Paul that I have had a weird day. A few hours ago I was failing to understand the accents of some Essex convent girls and one hour ago I was legless on an escalator, and now Paul is taking photographs of me in a fake dungeon. I don't explain this well. I decide to shut up in case I am smiling in a photograph.

You may be wondering why I had red boots in my handbag. It's simple. I love boots. And I thought it might be a good idea to wear these red ones for the photoshoot but I knew it would really not be a good idea to walk around London in them. Those boots were not made for walking.

After all, what if I lost the heel on an escalator?

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Escalating rudeness

I propose that the London Underground escalator rule is applied to all escalators everywhere. For those of you who don't know it, it's simple: if you want to stand still, stand on the right. If you want to walk, walk on the left.

I get crabbit with the selfish behaviour of people on escalators elsewhere. Thing is, I wouldn't dream of telling anyone how fast or slowly they should move; I respect everyone's right to go at his or her desired speed, to walk or stand still as desired. So, why is it that people think it's ok to stand blocking the whole escalator and when I say, incredibly lightly and smilingly and politely, "Excuse me, please," with a "sorry" and a "thank you" thrown in for politeness, I get scowled at? And even, sometimes, refused passage? And once yesterday, argued with?

I don't know what I'm doing wrong when I ask to go past them; I try to make my voice as light as possible, so as not to seem at all cross, and I always smile, but I still get daggers almost every time.

What is it with people? Is it just me or does anyone else out there hate the thought of holding people up, getting in the way, forcing them to go at a different speed? And whatever happened to good manners? I know I'm impatient and like to walk faster than most, but I'm busy, I'm in a hurry and have no time to dawdle on escalators holding everyone up. If I'm not trying to make you go at my speed, why should others try to force me to go at theirs?

It's a very trivial matter, yes, but pffffthp!

Friday, 1 June 2012


There's a scene in WASTED where a pigeon smashes through a window. A couple of people have doubted whether this is likely. Well, it may not be likely, but it's happened to me. Twice, in the same room, involving the same window. Here's how I told the story of the second encounter back in 2008

As my friends will know, I'm easily distracted when I am supposed to be writing. Usually by emails or people challenging me to Scramble on Facebook or suddenly feeling compelled to vacuum behind the fridge. Anything, really, to provide an excuse for not doing that very difficult thing: writing. But yesterday I was actually writing quite well. I'd not checked my emails or the back of the fridge for at least five minutes. Well, maybe three.

So, there I was, sitting on the sofa near the window, laptop on lap, typing away, when there was a huge explosion and the window blew in, as a vast and fierce pigeon smashed through it, showering me with glass and blood. I screamed. A LOT. And rushed from the room, dumping the laptop and slamming the door behind me. I spent some time screaming on the landing and trying to calm down. I was worried that my daughter might have been concerned so I weakly but bravely called upstairs, "Don't worry, I'm fine, honestly." No reply. I tried a bit more strongly. Hannah came out of her room. "What are you talking about?"

Anyway, we couldn't leave the bird in my study, could we? I had visions of it wrecking the place and, more to the point, my NOVEL was in there. Also, since my other daughter only last week had to claim insurance for the cost of repairing her laptop after spilling milk on it, I couldn't really claim for another laptop and expect them to believe that a pigeon had bled to death on it. The insurance company know I'm a writer and they'd be bound to think I'd made it up.

So, Hannah stood behind me, holding a big towel as high as she could, with the intention (in case you were wondering) of preventing the bird from flying further into the house if it leapt through the door when I opened it. I carefully opened the door a little, which caused more flapping and squawking (actually, I think the squawking was me) so I slammed it shut again. Deep breaths. Can you call a man to deal with a pigeon in the room? Does this constitute an 999 emergency? What would it be under in Yellow Pages? Bloody Bird-catchers?

But we didn't need a man, oh no. No, we could deal with this ourselves. First, I needed a shield. A large cardboard box would do and this I duly found. So, armed with the box, I opened the door again, with Hannah in towel position. No sign of the bird. Well, it must be dead. Or stunned. Or demoniacally hiding, waiting for me. Or it could come flapping back to consciousness if I wasn't careful. So I was careful. I gingerly poked a stick into every possible hiding-place, averting my eyes from the blood on the wall.

It had gone. Back through the gaping hole in the window. Presumably. The rest of my day was spent clearing up shattered glass and blood and dealing with the neanderthal glaziers who mumped and grumped their way to £90. And I lost half a day of what would obviously have been quite brilliant novel-writing. The best I've ever done. Really.

Since the novel in progress, WASTED, is about chance/luck/causal determinism/randomness/chaos and how apparently chance events have major effects on our lives, I wonder how this pigeon attack will affect the novel. The point of the novel, if you are interested, is that we cannot know how things would have turned out differently - we can't do what ifs. So, we can ask "What if the bird had never flown through your window? How would it have affected what happened next in your novel?" But we can never know the answer. All you can ever know is what actually does happen from that point. (Actually, in the novel, the reader can play round with chance because you get to toss a coin to determine the ending, and I get to toss a coin to select between alternative chapters. But I digress.)

You may like to know that by chance (or is anything ever chance? Isn't it all mechanically caused?) the scene I was writing at the time of the pigeon explosion needed something to happen that randomly affects the timing of an event. Perfect!So I put it in the book.

Chance? Fate? Or causal determinism? Makes you think. If a kamikaze pigeon hadn't shot through my window, would I have thought of this as the mechanism in the story? Or would it have been something else entirely? And would that affect everything else? We'll never know.