Archives August 2020

The Algorithm

As a writer your life is controlled by a Single Deity.

It dictates your mood, your income, your happiness.

It’s a benevolent God that smiles on you.

Or a vengeful God that flicks you casually into the outer darkness.

It’s the Amazon Algorithm.

It’s all knowing. All powerful. Remorselessly accurate.

‘Don’t sell your book to your friends and family,’ the gurus yell. ‘The only thing they have in common is you. All you’ll do is confuse the Algorithm.’

No, you must sell your book to a carefully targeted niche audience. Better 50 people who enjoy long country walks in bondage gear than a hundred random friends.

(As if any writer has a hundred friends. Only two to go and I’ve got three…)

‘Amazon know everything you’ve ever bought. Everything you’ve ever looked at. They know what people like you have bought. How can the Great God Algorithm not be right?’

It’s difficult to argue with such cold, calculating logic.

Until you see what the algorithm recommended for me on Thursday morning.

A cordless power drill – as regular readers know, I run a mile from any hint of DIY

Elemis skin care – sadly, around 20 years too late

A mini exercise bike – which looks exactly like the tiny little bikes clowns ride in circuses

A Hawaiian shirt – obviously, as the last shirt I bought was a bottle green rugby shirt

And a men’s ‘get healthy’ skipping rope – a.k.a ‘the marriage wrecker…’

You’ve woken me up. What’s that awful thumping noise? And why are you gasping for breath?”

Sorry. I was skipping. In the hall. In my Hawaiian shirt.”

My apologies. I appreciate that the mental image of a grey-haired, slightly overweight, middle-aged writer in a Hawaiian shirt maybe too much. Especially one twirling a skipping rope round his head…

All this followed hot on the heels of last month’s laser-precision recommendation for me: an Abrams M1 battle tank.

I’d been planning a quiet afternoon’s editing. Clearly Amazon thought I might fancy invading Afghanistan…

But so much for rugged, manly things like power drills and battle tanks.

The algorithm is about to see me in a new light.

Every Wednesday I do half an hour of Facebook Live. In theory I talk about writing: in reality I talk about my wife’s taste in gin.

I do this from a state of the art broadcasting studio – or the dining room, as we sometimes call it. My phone’s propped up on a stand, which sits comfortably on eight paperbacks. I smile cheerfully, and start chattering away at 7:00 every Wednesday night.

So far, it’s worked perfectly. The set-up’s fine and – thanks to the evening sun shining in through the window – the lighting’s even finer.

But as you may have noticed, summer is drawing to a close. It’s getting darker and it’s raining every day. Wednesday’s broadcast was cloaked in shadows…

And so I’ve pressed ‘buy now.’ What have I bought? A Selfie Light Ring.

An hour ago I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Then someone told me her teenage daughter needed one. ‘For her YouTube videos.’

And there it was on Amazon. ‘Easy to assemble’ and ‘good value’ – two boxes a clumsy miser always likes to tick.

It comes with three light modes (I’ll have ‘most flattering’ please), ten brightness levels, an adjustable phone holder and a tripod stand. So much for resting on old paperbacks: eat your heart out, Hollywood…

Sadly, I told my wife about it. “Oh, look,” she said, “It says it’s ideal for make-up videos. You’ll be the envy of teenage girls on TikTok. And if the writing doesn’t work out you’ll have another career to fall back on…”

This one was written on Friday August 28th: I’m now into my final edits on Salt in the Wounds and the aim is for it to go off for formatting – the Kindle version and the paperback – by September 11th. Publication is tentatively set for Monday September 28th.

No Price to Pay

I can’t work out how long it’s been.

Twenty years?

Twenty-five?

But it’s come to an end.

Ah, I see what you were thinking. She’s finally lost patience. Come to her senses. Can’t say he wasn’t warned…

No, you’re wrong. Although if I don’t cut the grass that could change.

I’ve left my office. Given it up. Stopped paying the rent. Joined the legion of people who’ve decided they can work from home. Who don’t need to drive into town, park the car, walk to work, make a cup of tea, discuss last night’s football and finally turn their computer on.

As I mentioned last week, it’s come at some sartorial cost. I’m wearing a green rugby shirt and red shorts today.

“Shall I buy you a yellow belt, dear? I hadn’t realised the traffic light look was the new black.”

But there’s a bigger price to pay. Yes, bigger than my wife’s sarcasm.

Storage.

Where the hell to put it all.

Right now half my stuff – and a man accumulates a lot of ‘stuff’ in 25 years – is in Dan’s bedroom. Let’s hope he doesn’t come home unexpectedly. There’d be a few hurdles between him and a good night’s sleep.

The other half? It’s in my car.

Not so much a VW Tiguan as a VW Lockup.

Clearly ‘something will have to be done.’ Maybe clear out my wardrobe. If I got rid of all the clothes that don’t fit me there’d be an office-worth of storage.

But there are compensations. Big compensations. Chauffeuring sundry boxes and files around town is not all bad news.

I’m being paid in memories.

Look what I’ve found. Some early notes. An early ancestor of these columns. The first one’s headed Monday September 3rd.

…And by some super-sleuth detective work – thanks Google – I can work out it’s the first Monday in September, 2001. Dan was 7, Ellie was 5. And little Alex? A month short of his third birthday.

Not much happened on Monday. I complained that I was turning into my dad. Couldn’t go into a room where the kids were watching TV without saying, ‘Turn it down.’

Blimey, has that wheel ever turned full circle. “Turn it up will you, love?”

“What, again?”

“Think I might be going a bit deaf…”

So what happened on Tuesday? An auspicious day: the day before the children went back to school. And here I am tucking my youngest son into bed. And after his bedtime story having ‘what’s close to our normal conversation.’

Shall we say your prayers?”

Dad, you put your hands together like this.”

I can’t twist them like that. My hands are too big.”

No, like this, Daddy.”

Come on, I’m tired. God bless Mummy.”

God bless Mummy God bless Daddy God bless Grammar and Grandpa God bless Daniel and Ellie and most of all God bless big Alex.”

Big Alex? When did you become big Alex?”

I’m starting nursery tomorrow.”

Oh, OK. Sweet dreams. Love you lots.”

And that was that. Or so I thought. I suspect I was heading for a beer. But he called me back.

Daddy!”

What, treasure?”

Remember, Daddy. It’s wrong to kick people.”

So where did that particular gem of wisdom come from? A lecture delivered to his sister quite probably.

Once again I sidle towards the door. But he calls me back again.

What now, love?”

Daddy.”

What is it?”

I forgot to give you a kiss. And tell you I love you.”

Where are the tissues? A car full of boxes? It’s no price to pay.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling broody. Where’s my beloved? It may not be too late…

The Writer’s Shirt

The Writer’s Shirt

What do the witches say to Macbeth? How do their prophecies influence his future actions?

The English curriculum is full of splendidly worthy questions – well, apart from this year.

That may or may not be one of them. I have no idea. I made it up.

Let me suggest an alternative. One that goes right to the heart of what it means to write. That defines the artist and his craft…

How do we know Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in his nightshirt?

Or that Dickens wrote Scrooge in his nightgown? That Ian Fleming wrote the early Bonds in a fetching pair of navy and white striped pyjamas?

Because every writer I know writes in his PJs. He gets out of bed, breaks wind, feeds the cat, runs a hand through his hair, scratches his nether regions and turns his laptop on.

I’d like to tell you that I’m the exception. I’d like to tell you I get up, run five miles, shave, shower, eat fruit for breakfast and only then reach for my laptop…

“At last,” my wife says. “You’ve managed to get dressed. I’ll alert the media.”

“I was in the middle of something…”

“Oh,” she says on closer inspection. “I see I’ve used the words ‘get dressed’ loosely.”

She may be right. I’ve now abandoned my black trousers/black t-shirt/black hoodie look of early summer. Instead I’m in black t-shirt/faded red shorts/khaki green top. Although my wife uses a different word to describe the shade of green. It has four letters.

The new elegance has not gone unnoticed. My wife has taken to wandering round the house muttering to herself. I occasionally catch the word ‘standards.’ And ‘slipping…’

But what do you know? She’s in luck. All nine planets are in line and I feel the urge for my annual bout of clothes shopping. A new shirt should do it.

What I really want is the shirt I had in my early 20s. (There are several other things from my early 20s I’d quite like back as well…)

Let’s push the sordid fantasies to one side – reluctantly – and concentrate on the shirt. It was cream. Lovely, soft fabric. With just four buttons. I pulled it on over my head. And I’ve spent the rest of my life searching for its direct descendant.

When I was a dull person in financial services a shirt like that was out of the question. And the children were small. Go home and anything I wore was immediately covered in mud, vomit or spaghetti hoops.

But now things are different. I’ve run away to join the circus. I’m a writer. I can wear whatever I like. When I finally get dressed, obviously…

And what I like are half-placket shirts. Also known as French peasant shirts. Henley shirts. “Most people call them grandad shirts,” my beloved said. They may do: I’ll save that for a few years if you don’t mind.

Put more simply, they’re the shirts Monty Don wears on Gardeners’ World.

Grey hair? Knackered knees? Nope. Nothing says you’re getting older quite like Googling ‘where does Monty Don get his shirts?’

I find out. And have a moment of pause when I discover how much Monty spends on his gardening shirts. I’d like the same please: but I was thinking of about thirty quid…

A furious online search ensues.

And guess what? The gentlemen of England are clearly following my lead.

Because however I describe them, they’re out of stock. None to be had anywhere. Not a half-placket or French peasant in sight.

Another one ticked off the bucket list. At last. I’m a fashion icon.

The cover of GQ can only be days away…

This one was written on Friday August 14th – just as I finished the first draft of Salt in the Wounds. That’s now gone off to get some feedback from my advance team of readers, and should be published by the middle of September. It’ll be available on pre-order by the end of this month. Meanwhile it’s just on four years since Alex and I finished our first walk on the Pennine Way. I’m always disturbed by how young I look on the cover of that one…

Creakin’ Jack Flash

I blame Phyllis. She’s a good friend of mine. I’ve even met her once. So once more than I’ve met most of my friends.

It was her post on Facebook. ‘Ageing rock stars’ or something similar. They’re having to update their lyrics as they get older. The Commodores, for example. Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady?

Not any more. Once, Twice, Three Times the Toilet…

A Whiter Shade of Hair. Stairlift to Heaven. You get the picture. And obviously it set me thinking.

About getting older. About Jumpin’ Jack Flash starting to creak…

You know what depresses me about it?

What creaks, hurts or refuses to work is entirely random.

In my youth there was cause and effect.

Stopped a cricket ball with my shin. Large bruise, limped for a week.

My own fault for fielding at short leg. And 30 years on the dent in my shin is still there. But very definitely, cause and effect.

Not now.

Currently my right Achilles tendon is so sore I can only go downstairs one step at a time. My left knee hurts so much I can only go upstairs one step at a time.

I should take Desiderata to heart. Take kindly the counsel of the years and all that.

Well, I’m not. I’m raging. Not so much against the dying of the light as the creaking of the knee.

But I’ve far worse things on my mind than my knee. Definitive proof that not long now and ‘middle aged’ will be an optimistic description.

There’s no point writing these columns if I’m not honest. If I do not admit to the occasional strand of grey hair. And that my bladder is not what it was.

I go to bed early. Early to bed, early to rise. My dad would have been proud of me. And I slept like a log. Lights out until the alarm shook me awake.

Once again, not now. ‘Blimey, have I managed to get through to nearly three without needing a wee? That’s good.’

But I made a joke about it, and accepted it as the passing of the years.

After all, the new version of the Commodores’ hit was still a long way off.

But suddenly it has moved ominously closer. I blame the hot weather. Drinking a lot of fluids. One has given way to two.

And then – last night – came the final humiliation.

I’ve written about it before. It’s a rite of passage for a parent. You get up. Make a cup of tea. Check your e-mails. Go in the shower. Answer a few more e-mails. Start to think about breakfast. And the front door opens. One of your children. Home from a night out.

“Do you know what time it is?”

A casual shrug. “Yeah, sure. We went down to the beach. Then we went to Josh’s house. Are you making bacon sandwiches? I’ll have one.”

That’s bad enough. But it’s part of life.

Until last night. And a far more terrifying rite of passage.

I woke up. Dark outside. What was it? Two? Maybe even three? I fumbled for my phone.

10:58.

Had my phone run out of charge?

Sadly not.

I plodded to the loo. Headed back to bed. What was that? A light on downstairs.

Someone must have left it on. I’ll have to go downstairs and turn it off. Sounds like someone’s left the telly on as well…

You know what’s coming. Alex was watching an old James Bond. You Only Live Twice.

I’d got up for my first wee of the night before my son had gone to bed.

I’ll leave you to come up with the film title…