I spent the summer of 1999 working in a data entry job in a sixth form college, saving up for my final year of university. The work was easy, and I was quickly promoted to a small room where I would assist the admissions officer: a bored, middle aged woman whose working day consisted of eating biscuits and listening to the radio: two things I could readily assist with.
The millennium was coming, as was a solar eclipse, and those of a superstitious nature saw this combination as a portent of the End Times. We didn’t know at the time that we were in a brief bubble of relative peace and security – one year after the Good Friday Agreement and two before 9/11. A moment of sunshine for the UK.
As the 11th August drew closer, newspapers and magazines were full of safety tips (don’t stare at the sun!) and eclipse facts. Astrologers were full of crap. And the radio? It was a golden time for Bonnie Tyler fans.
The college had decided that not only could we all take our early tea breaks at once, but we could do it on the roof of the building. By five to eleven the flat roof was crowded, my colleagues from admissions armed with pinhole cameras I had made from stationery. I patiently showed them how to use them: stand with your back to the sun, hold the paper at arm’s length and move the card, with its pinprick, until you get a clear image of the sun projected on the paper.
As the projected circles waned to crescents the volume dropped. First the traffic fell silent as people pulled over and got out of their cars to watch. Then, in the mid-morning gloaming, the birds stopped their songs.
Behind the paper of my pinhole camera, I could see the rest of Leeds. Each building bristled with people on the rooves, the streets were thick with crowds. All looked behind me at the sun. I turned around and looked at the shining sickle in the sky, opaline behind thin cloud.
The sun waxed, the sky brightened. The birds sang once more. I looked away and blinked. The darkness had been brief. We returned to our day, to our small rooms and biscuits. But for just one moment, we had all stood together under the sun and the moon.
When I was little I thought all schools had a school song. It was only really when I went to university that I discovered the only other people who had a school song were the ones that spoke Latin and thought they were better than me, and that their songs didn’t have so many weaving metaphors. Southdale was my junior school, a strange red-brick building near where the train station used to be. The school song was one of many things I later discovered were not as normal as the headteacher, Mr Terry, had led us to believe. Most schools spent less time on hymn practise, for example, and did not adapt the rules of cricket to take into account the tarmac pitch or the asbestos-riddled abandoned “temporary” classrooms (if the bounced off the roof of the “yellow buildings” the fielder has to catch with one hand to catch you out). I found a picture taken of the school in 1910 – it looked much the same in 1989. It still had “Boys” and “Girls” carved above the doors, but we ignored all that, the girls taking part in the games of cricket and football with their amended rules.
My secondary school also had its oddities. Built around Park House, once the home of well-to-do cloth merchants, then a convalescent home for smallpox sufferers, the school had partially burned down in the 1980s (I had an excellent view from where I lived at the time). By the time I attended (1990 – 97) the school was a mix of the Victorian town house, a 1950s red brick grammar school, 1970s concrete and the strange brown plastic-y building of the 80s. The buildings formed several courtyards, one of which housed peacocks, for some reason. Peacocks are extremely noisy birds, their screams tore through double maths, articulating the horror of the young minds trying to grapple with quadratic equations. Music was in the former groom’s lodge, widely reputed to be haunted, behind which lay the derelict stables (also haunted). The head teacher, Mr Horn, wore his academic robes for assembly, thus earning the nickname “Batman” and would eat dinner with the pupils, leading to some extremely awkward conversations. He would invite pupils to carol sing in his home which was not unlike Park House and had the original servants’ bells (and was naturally widely reputed to be haunted.) Ossett School was called Ossett School, although everyone called it Ossett Comp because it was a comprehensive. It had the only sixth form in town, and the only swimming pool. The hockey pitch was called the redgra (short for red gravel, which you would be picking out of your knees for weeks if you fell on it) and every year there was a school trip to the carpet factory next door.
You may wonder how a state junior school ended up with a song, or a bog-standard comp ended up with peacocks. I can’t explain the peacocks, but the school song has a logical explanation. Southdale wasn’t always a junior school. Before 1969, Southdale was a Secondary Modern, with the grammar school being on the site of what became Ossett School. Before it was a Secondary Modern it was a school for local children, and in the 1930s the school song was written. According to the comments on Ossett.net it was sung from time to time in the 60s, but it was Mr Terry (also known as Tez-bomb), in the 1970s, who really brought it back. And so we would sing it in hymn practise, alongside “Will Your Anchor Hold” (not a great hymn for a town where the only boating for miles around was the canal, but still one of my favourites), and on Commonwealth Day (which is a real thing, apparently) we used to celebrate by singing it alongside God Save the Queen (the pre-football match one, not the Sex Pistols one).
I laugh about the old school song sometimes. It does sound like something translated from an East German youth collective. “Sturdy hills of grime” is not what the tourist board would sign off on, if we had one. But the town was, even as I grew up, a textile town. The town crest shows the industries of the town: the wheel of a colliery, a sheaf of grain, a dead sheep and textile mills on an idealised riverside. Of those industries we still have the abattoir (which now specialises in halal slaughter) but when I was a girl the area was still dotted with shoddy mills (shoddy being a type of recycled wool), jeans factories, and of course the carpet factory (Burmatex, which has also survived). The song talks about the warp and weft being hand and brain – you need both to make cloth, with only one you just have a length of string.
Other than being a little odd, what both Southdale and Ossett school had in common was a belief in the children. Some of us went to university, others would stay in the town working in the service industries that have replaced the mills and the pits. But we were all given a fair crack of the whip. We would fight and play and get into mischief together. I remember Mr Horn telling me I could do whatever I wanted, and encouraging a small group of us to apply for his alma mater Oxford (although most of us didn’t). He believed in us. My son has just finished doing his GCSEs, in a disappointingly un-haunted, peacock-free school. One year his head blogged about the results stating they are “Very good, considering we are a non-selective state school.” Batman wouldn’t have stood for that, he expected the best from us. He would say “Very good, because we are a non-selective state school,” and off he would go with a swish of his cape.
Ossett School is an Academy now, I have friends whose kids go there, it’s still well-thought of. It’s still non-selective. The uniform is neater, and there are some new buildings. The children who go there now won’t get free university education. Their children (or younger siblings) may be streamed into grammar schools and modern secondary moderns, or whatever they end up being called. Warp and weft torn asunder.
Not every school can have a haunted stable block, but I believe every school can and should have a mix of people going there. For its faults, my son’s school had dads in Ferraris and mums in white vans. My schooldays weren’t diverse in many ways – my town was overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent for the area, but there were people who came from, and were going to, all walks of life.
My schoolmates and I may not be able to speak Latin, and we may be a bit shoddy but on the whole we’ve done alright. Thank you, proud loom of youth.
I awoke to the sound of a Welsh summer holiday, the patter of rain on my tent and the whipping of the wind around me. I have been holidaying in Tavernspite, on the border of Pembrokeshire and Camarthenshire, for four years now, and only once have I got sunburned.
In those four years I have never been the ten miles down the road to Dylan Thomas’s boathouse, in Laugharne. I have hinted that I wanted to go, from the subtle (“Oh look, a sign for Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse”) to the less subtle (“I’d actually really like to go”, “Seriously, I really like Dylan Thomas”) but for one reason or another we’ve never made it there. But as the storm woke me up I thought today I would finally get there.
We camp with my partner’s family, in the shadow of his Aunt’s caravan, but this year my parents had joined us in their new campervan. My mum volunteers at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, so I knew she’d want to see how our Cymric cousins treat their literary artefacts out of professional (or amateur) curiosity.
At breakfast my niece made a cogent argument for going swimming (by shouting “I want to go swimming!” repeatedly) so we split into two groups – my partner’s aunt, brother and the kids went to the big swimming pool at Bluestone and my parents, my partner and I went to Laugharne.
The boathouse itself is small, it must have seemed tiny filled with three children and two drunken parents. The parlour is approximately as it was in Dylan’s day, upstairs where the bedrooms were there is a small museum with artefacts such as Thomas’s deathmask and his only pair of cufflinks. Downstairs in the basement is a cosy little tea room where the poet in residence offered to read one of his poems while we ate our welshcakes. On the walk from the castle to the boathouse you go past the shed where Thomas wrote, perched on the cliff overlooking the estuary.
Laugharne is in what is known as little England, the south west corner of Wales below the Landsker line. As a general rule, Welsh speaking increases as you go west. But south Pembrokeshire and the little patch of Carmarthenshire where Laugharne is are Anglophone, the genetic makeup of the inhabitants has more in common with southern England than villages twenty miles away (of course Thomas was born in Swansea). If you drive 50 minutes north to Cardigan you will hear Welsh as an everyday, living language: used to gossip or to scold naughty children in supermarkets.
Dylan Thomas was not a Welsh speaker (although his father taught Welsh), and rejected the bardic traditions of Welsh poetry such as cerdd dafod (literally “tongue craft”). But there is Welshness running through his work like the letters in a stick of Tenby rock. I don’t mean his meter, which (in his later work) counts syllables (as is traditional in many Welsh poetry forms) rather than feet, I mean in his subject matter. English speaking Wales is still Wales, and although it is smaller geographically it is more populous. Llareggub could be one of any number of rural, coastal Welsh towns.
We joke about the Welsh weather – I call rain “little drops of Welsh sunshine” – but it was a particularly nasty day, when we parked in the car park by the castle with its warning that at high tide your car might be washed away you could barely see the other side of the Taf estuary. The town was eerily quiet. I’ll leave it to Thomas scholars and Tourist Boards to battle out whether Laugharne was the model for Llareggub, the setting of Under Milk Wood, but for me the town with its squat, square houses, candy painted like rows of coconut ice, was how I always imagined the home of Captain Cat and Polly Garter. Driving around west Wales we encounter several Bethesda chapels, sitting grey and judgmental, even as they are converted to flats. While some characters, Mr and Mrs Pugh, for example, could be transplanted anywhere, others, like the Reverend Eli Jenkins, could only exist in Wales.
I read Under Milk Wood in 1994, during my English Literature GCSE. In the outdoor, temporary classroom (that had already been there for twenty years, and is probably still there today) we took turns at playing the parts, reading the play aloud. We were allowed to watch the 1972 film version with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole (and some nudity). Under Milk Wood was different to the other texts we’d read. The words are chosen for their loveliness and playfulness. Little really happens in Under Milk Wood, but what happens happens beautifully.
“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea”
It is impossible to read that without the rhythm, the tidal cadence, of a south Wales accent. It is impossible to read that indifferently. Thomas’s sentences are sensual structures, made to be read aloud. Under Milk Wood opened my eyes to the lovely potential of words. A writing circle colleague said that when he read Thomas’s work he despaired, as a writer Thomas has set the bar unattainably high.
Today, 14th May, is Dylan day (or Dydd Dylan if you are north of the Landsker line). It celebrates the anniversary of Under Milk Wood being first performed in New York in 1953. Take an hour and a half out of your day to go to Llareggub, listen to Richard Burton’s recording or better still, if you have the script read it aloud yourself and lose yourself in the rhythm of the words.
Leafing through this month’s Writing Magazine I came across an article about the 1,000 most used words in the English language. It was one of those moments of serendipity; I had just been thinking about vocabulary size and comprehensibility.
Two things have led me to think about this, one is that I am learning German and am just at the point where I can (slowly, with a dictionary in one hand) read a simple novel. I’ll be blogging about my struggles with the German language later, but for now know that I’ve been thinking a lot about how difficult learning words is. The other is that I now work in a place where I am increasingly coming across adults who are unable to read or write either enough to function in society. According to the Literacy Trust, there are about 5.1 million adults in England who are functionally illiterate.
Becoming a reader
A book cannot teach someone to read, but for those who read rarely or struggle one can be a gateway into being “a reader.” A simple-to-read book can show people that a book can be fun. What I would like in German is something plainly written with no weird tenses (German has some very specific challenges around tense, which I will complain loudly about when I blog about it) or complex metaphors.
There are lots of myths around vocabulary size. I have heard many times that the average vocabulary of a reader of The Sun newspaper is 500 words. David Crystal in this blog post from 2010 sat down and counted the different words in an edition. There were 8,000. A typical four year old has a vocabulary of 1,000 words. I’m certainly no fan of The Sun newspaper but to suggest its readers would struggle in a nursery class is being plain classist. If you look (as Writing Magazine did) at the most used 1,000 words and try to write using only them, then you are going to come out with something hilariously simplistic. XKCD’s Randall Monroe did this in his book “Thing Explainer” and has made an online tool where you can paste in a piece of text and it will highlight any words outside of the 1,000.
Simplicity as strength
There is a power in simplicity. As well as being understandable to more people, sometimes explaining things in the simplest of terms strips away what hides the issues. When I was growing up I recall that the South African regime had a particular hatred for the BBC children’s news show Newsround (which was aimed at the level of a nine year old) as every time they said “apartheid” they would explain it was “the system that keeps black and white people separate.” To say what the policy did made it harder to shrug off as normal.
Language is a tool, for the reader as well as the writer. The reader uses it to understand, the writer to be understood. Growing up, when I found an unfamiliar word I would do what I do now when reading in German – reach for the dictionary. This is even easier with modern e-readers which have on-board dictionaries so you can look up words with the touch of a finger. If I’d already figured out the word from the context, all the better. I wouldn’t shy away from a “difficult” word when writing, but for each word we write we must ask ourselves if it’s the best one for the job. A common mistake new writers make is to try and sound “literary” by using long, unfamiliar words. It’s also a tactic used by people trying to sound important, or learned.
The science bit
There is a way to measure the readability of text. SMOG stands for “Standard Measure of Gobbeldygook and analyses text to equate it approximately with a grade in US schools (in the UK it is converted to “reading levels” by adding five to the finished score. These equate to average reading ages for children. I have used the US scores throughout as that is what the calculator will give you). You can read the maths behind the measure on Wikipedia but you may prefer to copy and paste text into the SMOG calculator. It’s a blunt instrument, of course. You could write something using simple words with such looping metaphors it became unreadable.
As a general rule, someone unable to understand a newspaper would often be considered functionally illiterate. The SMOG scores for some UK newspapers (converted to the US grades) are:
The Sun: under 9
The Daily Express: under 11
The Telegraph and The Guardian: over 12
(This article: 11.16. My SEO plugin suggests its readability “needs improvement”)
Over to you
Can you write a short story or a factual article with a SMOG score of under 9? One that someone who found reading difficult or a chore might enjoy? If you write something, please share a link in the comments so others can read.
The inaugural Lightbox Literary Festival 2017 runs from Thurs 20 April – Sun 23 April and I am extremely excited to have been invited to lead a Q&A with established author Nicola May. Nicola, author of Love Me Tinder, Better Together and The School Gates, to name just a few, went from self-publishing her novels to being picked up by Accent Press who went on to publish all of her books. Needless to say I’m hoping to pick up some of the secrets to her success.
Tickets are £8, £6 for Friends of the Lightbox, and are available at https://www.thelightbox.org.uk/Event/how-i-became-a-published-author
Actress Mil Nicholson has given voice to the people of Thornethorpe in the audio book of Mighty Like a Rose. Here she tells us about her acting career, favourite reads and what goes into making a successful audiobook.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in Wallsend, the name taken from the town lying at the end of the Roman Wall in Northern England. Many famous ships were built on the Tyne river at Wallsend port. My Mum and I were great pals, she was a force to be reckoned with, and still full of fun and energy in the last months of her 96 years. My work began in the business world after getting my degree. I acted in any plays I could, whilst apprenticed to a Solicitor. Then work as a Mum with three big bouncing boys, a year apart. After arriving in the United States when my lads were one, two and three, I realised the USA was where I was meant to be. Years later, I found my real soul mate, and we moved to Hollywood to follow our acting careers. ‘Twas a great fifteen years, working in Movies, TV and Stage. Now I live in North Carolina up in the mountains, very isolated, with my wonderful second husband. We are a team in most everything we do, which now includes audio book performing, his part being editor, producer and lover, all in one.
How long have you been an actor?
I began acting at age seven, found the stage to be my second home. While acting in several musicals in England, I was coached for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. After winning the scholarship, unfortunately I couldn’t attend. However, I continued stage acting, and to date have performed in over 100 plays in England and the USA. Some of my favorite roles were Nurse Ratchet in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Doris Wilgus in “The Owl and the Pussycat” and Meg in “The Hostage” musical version. While in Hollywood I played several roles in movies and TV, but by far the most satisfying were the stage plays.
When did you start doing audio books?
Audio books came into my life after I left Hollywood for NC. I had done voice over work in Hollywood, most notably the life story of JRR Tolkien on the Lord of the Rings DVD. I began being part of a team on Librivox, a wonderful free site, then decided to perform a solo of Charles Dickens Dombey and Son, with around fifty characters all self created. I’ve continued to record Mr. Dickens’ work, and now have eight books available for free, with about half a million downloads. I also recorded 17 books for Audible.com, a SciFi series of 9 books by Dave Duncan and a Western Series of 8 books by Janet Dailey. Then on joining ACX, have performed such great books as Mighty Like a Rose.
Do you have a favorite type of character you like to read?
Captain Cuttle in Dombey and Son was a favorite voice of mine, I’d always wanted to do an Arrrrgh! pirate, and he’s perfect for the job, and childrens’ voices are always a fun challenge. However, there are just so many varied voices, and each has its place, some I have to work harder to maintain, and others just flow out. I particularly love accents, and have most of the British Isles covered, also now Texas, Montana, Massachusetts, Maine. Minnesota, South Africa, and Australia. I intend to add to my repertoire as I go along.
Tell us a bit about what goes into making an audio book.
Audio books are quite an involved process. From the initial choosing a book among the many available, auditioning if it’s ACX [Audiobook Creation Exchange – Amazon’s audio book creation site], then working out a timeline and agreeing contracts. The downloading of the text, reading the full story, sorting into separate chapters, paginating, marking characters and mood, and then dividing into recording segments. After the author has given me a description of the characters, I begin matching a voice to each character, and making a file of each voice to refer to throughout the book. If there are several characters talking to each other, I will rehearse that scene so I can switch evenly from one to another, because the recording isn’t stopped for a change in voice. When the performance is begun, if any errors occur, the recording is stopped and the place marked, then re-recorded. At the end of the session, the session is edited for the corrections. I then listen to the whole recording again to make absolutely sure all is right. Any new corrections if any are then made. Finally the mastering process takes place, removing any extraneous noises, sound levels checked, the whole changed to MP3s. When the book is complete it is uploaded to ACX for approval by the author. If any corrections are agreed, they are done, and when all is in order the book is checked by ACX’s technicians. If they are satisfied, the book goes to the market. Five hours work for one hour of finished recording is the industry standard.
What do you read for fun?
Ah! reading for fun. Right now I’m reading Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, just wonderful, I’m fond of Stephen King, David Baldacci, Jeffrey Archer, Isaac Azimov, Jonathan Kellerman, and in between I go back to my Dickens for a good laugh and cry.
Does your work make you read books you normally wouldn’t?
Yes, I do record books I would not normally have chosen to read. If the story is interesting and well written, then it is helpful for performance work. I have recorded some self help books, and tried to make them really interesting, but it makes for hard work as the text is not exciting or has any characters to break things up. Thrillers can get quite dramatically heavy, and romances can raise the emotional levels, in some of Dickens I actually had to stop recording in order to either stop laughing or crying, even though I’d rehearsed some of these scenes ahead to keep under control. I may be just a softy at heart!
I love my work, it is a wonderful replacement for stage work. When I enter the sound booth, it’s like stepping onto the stage, my audience at the outset is my mate, then who knows after that. What a joy to look forward to work!
Thank you Cathy for letting me voice your “baby” it was a real pleasure.
Thank you Mil, for all your hard work in making the Audiobook so great!
Since e-publishing and print on demand have become available, indie authors and boutique publishing houses have blossomed. There’s a wealth of choice and diversity that simply wouldn’t be possible with traditional publishing. But how can independent authors and publishers ever hope to compete with the big five publishers? They need your help. Yes, reader, you.
Perhaps the author is a friend or family member. Perhaps they write books with that resonate with your interests or identity. Perhaps you just really like their book. Well here’s five simple things you can do to help them succeed.
5) Buy books from indie authors
Obvious, I know. But each time someone buys a book (whether physical or e-book) not only does the author get paid, but the book gets pushed slowly up the rankings. On Amazon in some categories the difference between the front page of the bestsellers list and not being in the top 100 can be a handful of sales. Most people only browse the bestsellers so anything that helps your favourite author get up there is a help.
4) Be social
Most authors (including me) now have a Facebook page and twitter. Follow them and share or retweet their updates. Chat to them. Comment on their blog. Not only will this cheer the up (it’s nice to know people are listening), but it will help others to find them.
3) Leave reviews
If you enjoyed a book, review it on Amazon and Goodreads. You don’t have to enter into serious literary analysis, just put a few words about what the book is about and what you liked about it. People are far more likely to buy books with several reviews than with none.
2) Request the book from your library
Although the amount an author gets when a book is borrowed from the library is tiny, it gives thousands of people access to that book. And using your local library helps to keep your local library open. Win-win! As the Manic Street Preachers say: Libraries gave us Power!
1) Tell your friends!
If you’ve read something you think a friend will enjoy, tell them! Post about it on Facebook and Twitter! Indie authors don’t have a big advertising budget but a sincere recommendation from a reader is worth much more than a Facebook ad campaign.
Publishing on Kindle is easy. Getting people to find your kindle romance books is hard. With almost 375,000 titles on Amazon.co.uk most people never look beyond the top 100 bestsellers highlighted by Amazon.
Amazon are the top e-book seller because they make it so easy to publish, but also to buy. Books are sorted into categories and themes. This can make interesting reading in itself – amnesia and gambling are romantic themes; pirates and firefighters are romantic heroes (I suspect this doesn’t tell us what women want, just what they want to read about.)
Best sellers in romance
You can check out the top 100 best selling books on Amazon. There are separate lists for free and for paid for books. For many people (myself included) this is where they will browse for books. Here’s how I pick a book: I shamelessly judge by cover, then click on something that looks good. If the description sounds appealing I’ll buy it. I do use the categories (I like historical romance books) but I don’t spend enough time looking for things that might not make it onto the top 100. I intend to change that!
Finding kindle romance books you want to read
Goodreads has a recommend feature which recommends based on what you have already read and rated. Twitter and Facebook are good places to reach out. If there’s a book you especially enjoyed you could ask for something similar. Many authors will tweet about rival books, especially if they have a theme or target a demographic similar to that author’s work. Tumblr has many blogs that promote books with positive representations of marginalised groups.
Helping others (including me) find kindle romance books they want to read!
If you have read something you enjoyed, tell people! I have found many great books through the recommendations of friends, tweeps, internet acquaintances and colleagues. Sharing a link of Facebook or Twitter means a lot – people pay much more attention to a personal recommendation than to an ad. Writing a review on Amazon or Goodreads helps others to find books. Don’t feel you have to write your own masterpiece, a brief description of the plot and what you liked about it is plenty.
Too much choice?
Of course not! It’s wonderful to live in a world with so many books, available with a click. It just means we have to work a little harder to find the perfect book for right now.
Please, share your recommendations in the comments.