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Her novels cover misogyny in the City, sexism, racism, fame culture and now, in Feral Youth, the summer riots of 2011. So it continues to amaze me that Harper Collins chose to market Polly Courtney’s books as chick-lit. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised for we live in a world where, more often than not, it’s the marketing department that makes crucial decision such as the title and the design of a book’s cover; a world where a literary agent once told me that my mistake was writing books for readers, when I should be aiming them at publishers. Thankfully this last attitude is still pretty rare.
Nevertheless, the traditional publishing world is heavily stacked against authors, especially first time authors. But even established writers are feeling the pinch. In this climate, and given the struggle many writers have to find a publisher, Polly’s decision to sack the mighty HarperCollins took courage, spirit and self-belief. She has never looked back.
Not only is Polly even more successful than she was before, she has become a pathfinder. By daring to take on a mighty publishing house she has shown the rest of us that it can be done. That we can publish and market our own books. That we don’t have to accept what the traditional publishers tell us is best for us. And, if you are not sure of the process, I urge you to read her piece in the Huffington Post, in response to an article by John Green. It contains one of the most succinct descriptions I have seen of how the two worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing actually work.
Feral Youth is her sixth novel and her first since leaving Harper Collins. Its genesis was indeed the London Riots of 2011, though in fact these take up only a part of the book. What it does do is explore the causes of the disaffection. In the months following the riots Polly was surprised that no one seemed to be looking at the underlying causes, instead they were, as usual, laying the blame on ‘gangs and bad parenting’. That, she felt, was not the answer, so she decided to find out for herself.
Already a mentor at Kids Company, Polly spent the next two years going into schools and youth groups, getting to know these marginalised children as individuals and not simply as the ‘feral youths’ characterized by the tabloids and politicians. She wanted to discover what it would be like to be them. What, if anything, did they care about? What motivated them?
It wasn’t all straightforward. She had to contend with suspicion as to her own motives and how she was going to portray the youngsters in the book. It took time but gradually she was accepted. And once she was she found herself among a group of spirited, energetic, smart and positive young people. Youngsters who were light years away from the way they were portrayed in the media. But yes they were angry, for good reason. They were also, unexpectedly, political.
Feral Youth opens our eyes to a world that’s very different from the stereotypes we are so often presented with. It’s both moving and shocking. It grips from the first page, not simply because it’s a compelling read but because we are touched by the characters and in particular by 15-year old Alesha – ignored, confused, torn between two worlds. As we follow her story we are drawn in. Which one will she choose? Has she the strength to break with her past? Such is the power of the novel that we really mind.
Feral Youth is available in all good book shops from 26 June 2013, both paperback and e-book. It is priced at £8.99 / £1.99.
The launch party will be held in central London on 26 June 2013. For tickets and enquiries, please get in touch via the contact page.
“Courtney has an ability to breed empathy for an ethnic minority often subjected to negative stereotypes” — Metro
“Feral Youth is as compelling as it is horrifying. It lifts the lid on the lives of marginalised young people that the media demonises and the rest of us prefer to ignore.” Fiona Bawdon
“Feral Youth deserves to be her breakthrough book, the one that marks her out as a serious writer.”Katy Guest, The Independent
I love it when advertising agencies think up something different. And I love the clients who go with it. This sweet commercial from Ibis hotels has come up with a refreshing take on the product.
By focussing on the beds, rather than the hotel itself, and using bunny rabbits to convey softness and comfort they avoid the usual cliches. It might be said that Premier Inn have already been there – beds feature in their ads too. No rabbits, though.
The first video shows the actual commercial. The second on shows how it was put together – not unlike the Ikea ‘Cats’ commercial. Though it seems the bunnies were rather easier to control. No surprise there!
I love the English language, but some words really irritate me. One in particular has been prominent lately; it’s been on every newsreader’s lips, constantly, driving me nuts. It’s not a word that bothers most people, judging by the amount of times you hear it. However, having written that sentence I suddenly realised that I never hear ordinary people use it. By that I mean that you don’t hear it when real people are talking to each other.
A little reflection and I realised why. It’s because it’s ‘official speak’. And that’s the clue. That’s why I hate it so much. (When I used the word ‘irritate’ I was lying. It doesn’t irritate me; it infuriates me.) I have to confess that I haven’t noticed it used in print, but it probably is. Newspapers are as guilty of ‘official speak’ as the rest of the media, but probably not so much.
So what is this word that drives me so crazy? It’s the word – or in my vocabulary the non-word – ‘wrongdoing’. Where did it come from? Who first started using it? What in the name of all that’s holy is wrong with saying ‘crime’ or ‘doing wrong’? I think I know. In order not to say ‘wrongdoing’ you have to use a few more words, which might throw out the carefully controlled TV and radio schedules by a few nano seconds and get the newsreaders colliding with the continuity announcers and bumping uncomfortably against the poor weather people, who, goodness knows, are squeezed enough.
What would I say instead of ‘wrongdoing’ – always assuming I was a newsreader? What I would say is ‘he claimed he was not guilty of any crime.’ ‘She says she has done nothing wrong.’ ‘He denies he has done anything wrong’. In fact, these phrases don’t actually use up any more words than saying ‘He says he was not guilty of any wrongdoing.’ In fact, in some instances, fewer words are used, so there’s no excuse. It’s simply lazy. One journalist says ‘wrongdoing’ and everyone else says ‘wrongdoing’. It’s all part of the parrot syndrome. Maybe I’m being be unfair to single out newsreaders and journalists since it’s the politicians who are the worst offenders. All the same, I don’t expect much of politicians but I do think we should be able to look to journalists to respect this great language of ours and stop behaving like sheep.
No. 4 Hand Luggage
I note the instructions on the airline’s website. I even go so far as to measure my hand luggage. Better safe than sorry, as they say. What with most of the airlines jumping on the Ryanair bandwagon and charging an exorbitant fee should your hand luggage protrude a millimetre beyond the accepted norm.
I wonder why I bother.
Flying to Malaga to volunteer at a rescue centre, I paid a massive £37 for the privilege of putting a suitcase in the hold. And even that weighed in at less than half of the 20 kg allowance. However, I didn’t have much choice. You need plenty of old clothes and sturdy shoes and wellies if you’re going to be walking, washing and generally cuddling and playing with a whole load of eager and boisterous dogs.
I wouldn’t have minded if everyone played by the rules. They don’t. That being the case I would have expected the airline personnel to take action. They don’t. This is not the first time I have witnessed ground crew turn a blind eye and cabin crew stand by while sweating cheats attempt to hoist ‘ hand baggage’ into the overhead lockers. Said ‘hand baggage’ being easily large enough to contain a large pony or a small giraffe.
On this occasion I flew Monarch, though they are by no means the only culprits. On the return flight I reckoned that 50% of the passengers were hefting so-called cabin baggage that in each instance was only marginally smaller than the case I’d had to pay to put in the hold. And sizing up these passengers, I reckoned it wasn’t that they couldn’t have spared the extra money.
Some people just don’t believe rules apply to them.
One blonde, orange lady had an enormous, pale blue holdall that fitted that description exactly – it held all including, no doubt, a designer kitchen sink. A bearded gentleman wielded a massive rucksack type of container that nearly felled the woman behind him as he manhandled it into the overhead lockers. I’m not talking about a few inches extra here. Nor a few pounds of extra weight.
During the interminable wait at the baggage carrousell there were plenty of mutterings from other law abiding folks as we eyed the lawless ones making their seamless way towards the exits. Hauling their ponies, giraffes and kitchen sinks behind them.
Of course there’s nothing to stop me breaking the rules too. Except. Guess who’d be the one to be picked at random and asked to do the ‘cabin bag test.’ You don’t need to ask!
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fayre lady.
I wonder how many of the thousands of commuters who stream across London Bridge every day remember or even know the nursery rhyme? Of those who do, how many are aware that the words refer to real people and real events? And that there is an older version.
London Bridge is broken down,
Dance over my Lady Lee,
London Bridge is broken down,
With a gay ladye
There’s hardly a corner, an alleyway, a stone in London that isn’t steeped in history. London Bridge itself can be traced back to the first century, when the Romans built the original one out of wood and clay. This was replaced at various times using alternative materials, like those mentioned in the rhyme. Though I doubt it was ever built with silver and gold.
Both rhymes propose various ways to rebuild the bridge so it won’t fall down again. Starting with wood and clay that will be washed away, then bricks and mortar but ‘they will not stay’. Various other materials are mooted such as iron and steel, silver and gold and a watchman. Each suggestion is rejected in turn, as befits a rhyming game. To some extent the rhyme follows the actual fate of the bridge.
Over time the bridge was destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again. At one stage it was attacked by the Vikings: this resulted in a stronger replacement, complete with drawbridge. In the 12th century the first stone bridge, designed by Peter de Colechurch, superseded the then current bridge. This took thirty-three years to build. Hardly surprising when you know that it featured twenty arches, each one sixty feet high and thirty feet wide. At various times during the fourteenth century it carried no less than 140 shops (some accounts put it at as many as 200). Hence the reference to silver and gold in the verse.
This bridge survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 though buildings with thatched roofs were banned in the metropolis from then on. Incidentally, it was another three hundred years before the ban was lifted to allow the building of the new Globe Theatre, in 1994. While the great fire it didn’t destroy the bridge, it weakened it. In consequence various changes were made in the ensuing years, such as strengthening the foundations, removing buildings and restricting traffic.
While the stone bridge lasted much longer than many others, it was eventually demolished in the 1820s and a new London Bridge was built on a site near the old one. This nineteenth century bridge was replaced in 1960s; it wasn’t destroyed but sold to the Americans, being dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt in Arizona, of all places.
So much for the physical bridge. But what of the people referred to in the rhyme? Who was the fayre or gay layde; who was Lady Lee? For the answers we have to go back to the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. She is indeed the layde referred to. Lady Lee is Lady Margaret Lee, a close friend of Anne’s. She and Anne were childhood friends. When they grew up Margaret became Anne’s trusted lady in waiting and remained with her throughout the good times, even standing beside her on the scaffold.
Anne was hated by the common people who found her high and mighty. They also had a strong allegiance to Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Open criticism of Anne was officially approved of after her death. This situation continued during the remainder of Henry’s reign and subsequently that of Mary. However, when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne things changed. Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn’s daughter – the criticism could no longer be open, so it went underground.
The rhyme is an allegory, that is to say it describes one thing by means of something else. Thus the words of the rhyme describe the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. Lady Lee is mentioned to ensure that there will be no doubt that the ‘gay layde’ is Anne. Although the nursery rhyme associates the bridge with Anne’s death, she was in fact executed within the walls of the Tower of London. But London Bridge itself did indeed see plenty of gruesome sights. The severed heads of traitors, impaled on spikes and dipped in tar, were regularly displayed at its Southern Gatehouse.
I only have eleven books on my phone at present. Not many, you may think, for someone who is such an avid reader. However, I do most of my reading at home, have bookshelves stuffed with everything from battered Penguins to unwieldy hardbacks and I also use the library. So far I have seen no need to get a Kindle, the phone is perfectly adequate.
Nevertheless it is a bit of a double-edged sword, so to speak. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say it is the technological equivalent to a Swiss Army knife. Not only does it have books on it but it also has Angry Birds and a notepad, radio and TV and Lord knows what else. So distracting. However, now that I have mastered the keyboard ( ironically touch keyboards are not good for touch typists like me) I try to do some writing when I’m commuting. So, one way or another, when I am out and about there’s not a lot of time for reading. Indeed, should I wish, I could have not eleven free books on my phone, not even one hundred and eleven for, currently, there are over 42,000 free books available for downloading through Project Gutenberg.
The aim of the project is “to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.” The oldest digital library in existence, it was founded by Michael Hart in 1971 and takes its name from Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press and moveable type. Run and sustained by volunteers, it digitises and archives cultural works and makes them available to anyone who wants them. They can be downloaded onto virtually any computer or phone. Michael Hart stated that his goal was “to provide as many eBooks in as many formats as possible for the entire world to read in as many languages as possible.” Another stated objective is to help spread public literacy: in that respect Gutenberg might be likened to a digitised version of the public library.
All books have to have copyright clearance before being added to the archive. Project Gutenberg claims no copyright of its own on the titles it publishes; most are distributed as pubic domain, according to U.S. copyright law, though there are some restrictions. Many of the books are out of copyright in any case. All eleven of ‘my’ books are out of copyright – among them the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Wuthering Heights and several works of Dickens.
I haven’t yet added any Shakespeare – though should I wish to do I’d be spoilt for choice. Not only regarding the amount of works available, but also the languages. If I was that way inclined I could read the Bard on my phone not just in English but also in French, in Catalan, in Esperanto and in Tagalog. A delightful name for the language spoken in the Philippines. However, what with the classics I have already, the pile of paperbacks beside the bed, the lure of the TV and radio not to mention those irritating but addictive birds I don’t see myself embarking on the Complete Works any time soon.
You Tube is a notorious time waster. A pleasant time waster but a time waster none the less. All those cute kittens and weird animal antics and skateboarding dogs and hilarious babies. Being a bit short on inspiration this week, I thought I would simply put on two of my favourite talking dog videos. No apologies. They are really funny.
Some thoughts on the lack of clarity and logic in manufacturers instructions. Or, to put it another way, a great big fat rant!
A couple of weeks ago my printer got sick. It developed a strange disease that caused it to believe it was a rainbow. Of course a colour printer should make rainbows, but only when asked. My poor machine had what appeared to be a severe identity crisis. What should have been mono print came out green or green and yellow. And then it would change its mind and print exclusively in pink. Attempts to rectify it sent it into further vibrant hysterics. Although there were diagnostic thingies to help, in most cases I find them virtually useless. The reason? Language. And logic.
Way back, when I was training to be a social worker, I signed on for an optional course called ‘The Use of English’. Some of my friends thought it irrelevant – what had use of English to do with being a social worker? The answer is ‘everything’. It’s all to do with clarity. It’s not only writers who need to make their meaning clear. For them it’s a matter of reputation and personal pride. But in other professions it can be a matter of life or death – literally. Think doctor. Think air traffic controller. Think engineer.
While computer and printer technology may not be a matter of life and death, lack of clear instructions can lead to hours of wasted time, great frustration and dent any good will felt towards the manufacturer of the equipment. While perhaps unquantifiable, this is nevertheless undeniable. Just take a look at some of the reviews next time you are buying a piece of technology.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learnt from that ‘Use of English’ class was this. If a piece of writing doesn’t make sense, don’t immediately assume it’s because you are not clever enough to understand it. Think instead – is it me, or is it badly written? You will find that in many cases it’s the latter. The meaning hasn’t been made clear in the writing. Punctuation plays a large part here. The placing of a comma, for instance, can alter the entire meaning of a sentence.
To get back to the matter of technical instructions. Language is critical, but so is logic. In my experience, people who know a subject really well make an entirely unconscious assumption that everyone else does too. When I started to read ‘A Brief History of Time’ I was delighted that I appeared to understand it. At first. I can’t remember where I got lost but it was quite early on. Later I worked out the reason. It began well enough. A to B, B to C, C to D. Then suddenly we had jumped to J, K, L and another leap to Q and so on. The bits just didn’t link up; I couldn’t follow. As I result I gave up on a book that I had really wanted to read.
I gave up on my poor printer too. My attempts to recalibrate it were frustrated by the incomprehensible instructions. The words bore no relation to the images in front of me. The instructions for my new printer were not bad, but still left a great deal to be desired. If there is a choice between using the printer to set up or using the computer, why not say so? If you want me to return to a section later – and presumably it’s important as you are asking me to do it – why don’t you tell me how to get back to that page?
Since beginning this post I have spent a frustrating half hour trying to set up the ePrint function on the new printer. (Why I’m not sure because I doubt that I will ever need it.) It asked for my password. I entered it. It told me the password is wrong – or at least up popped a little cross, in red in case I am too dim to know what a cross means. After several futile attempts I wondered if perhaps I didn’t have an account after all (although in fact I do). So I tried to create a new account. Only to be told that my email address is already registered. So I attempted to change the password. Simple, you’d think. Not. I was directed to a completely different site, a commercial site that prints photographs. I do not want to use a commercial site that prints photographs. I have just bought a printer that does just that. Doh!
I’ve given up for now. Maybe for good. There’s no phone number so I can ask a helpful person for the information that should have been there from the start. Which account are you talking about? Do you mean the same one I always use for Hewlett Packard’s products? (There! I’ve said it.) If not that account, why don’t you tell me which one you are talking about? Why am I obliged to sign in to a totally random account that I don’t want in order to get a password for an account that I do want? Or might conceivably want in the future? Can you please direct me to your communications department? I would willingly accept the task of writing logical, fool proof instructions in clear English for you. Please ask them to get in touch. You can contact me via the contact page on my website. You won’t need a password.
I sometimes think we must be turning into a nation of parrots. No sooner does someone use a new piece of jargon than everyone else starts to use it too. We’ve become lazy, blindly following others like a load of fuzzy-brains trailing after a not-very-literate pied piper. Or maybe we think that if a politician or a ‘celeb’ uses an expression it makes us look good if we use it to.
In earlier posts I have berated the BBC in particular for perpetrating this laziness. And there’s no doubt that their continuity announcers, presenters and newsreaders are among the worst offenders. However, it’s hard to see which came first, the politician who says ‘going forward’, the journalist who persists in repeating it or the public who parrot it. I guess everyone’s to blame. It’s as if once someone has used a particular phrase everyone else gets collective amnesia and seems incapable of remembering that there are other ways of saying the same thing.
Below I’ve listed a few of my pet hates. Just a few, I’m sparing you. They won’t be everyone’s pet hates, but they have me screaming at the radio and, on occasion, throwing things. I no longer have a cat to frighten in this way, which is a good thing, but even so I often wonder if my neighbour can hear me through the wall.
At a young age. Why? What in the name of all that’s holy is wrong with ‘when I was young?’ Or ‘We should learn that when young’, not ‘at a young age’. I don’t know when this one crept in but it’s driving me insane.
Wrong doing. This so unnecessary. Why can’t they say ‘accused of a crime’ or ‘not guilty of any crime’ or ‘not guilty of doing anything wrong’ or simply ‘not guilty’? It doesn’t take much longer to say.
Loved ones. Here’s another one that sets my teeth on edge. Like the others it’s a sort of unthinking shorthand. What’s wrong with ‘family’ or if it’s a wider group ‘family and friends’, ‘friend’s and colleagues’ and other such permutations? I mean ‘loved ones’ isn’t necessarily accurate, if that is what you were aiming for, which I doubt. After all you don’t necessarily love your family.
Going forward. Oh spare us! What does it mean? What’s wrong with ‘in future’, or ‘next time’ or some other precise expression? Listen carefully next time you hear someone say it (you won’t have long to wait). You’ll discover that, in most instances, it means absolutely nothing. It’s like a verbal twitch.
Ahead of. There is some excuse for this one. Sometimes. But it’s not to be used in parrot fashion. For instance, if the future event is to take place very soon after the event that it is ‘ahead of’, then it makes sense. If the event is some way in the future, then why not use the good old word ‘before’?
Hard working families. Another weaselly bit of political speak. How do they know these families are hard working? Is this an aspiration or a fact? Are they implying that only hard working families deserve whatever hollow carrot is being dangled before them? What about those of us who aren’t in families? The single people? The divorced? The widowed? For my part I find this expression insulting in the extreme. And lazy. And unthinking. And well, just what I’d expect from a politician.
It’s a while since I posted anything quirky or weird or unusual. So I think a little silliness is in order. I came across this video during the week and it appealed to my rather strange sense of humour. I do find it a bit worrying too, since it involves working animals. I hope the sheep didn’t feel humiliated and that they weren’t worried by the twinkly coats. Even more, I hope they weren’t frightened.
Someone posted a comment to the effect that the sheep should have been given a credit and I heartily agree. They did all the work. And there’s no way any of it could have happened without the splendid and intelligent sheep dogs. And they didn’t get a credit either. I love this video for it’s inventiveness and fun but I’m somewhat annoyed that the shepherds have grabbed all the credit and still a little concerned about the animals involved.