Archive for the ‘Fiona Glass’ Category

The house is oddly quiet this week and next, since my husband Dave is off doing the famous (or should that be infamous?) Coast to Coast walk.

One coast... (St Bees Head)

One coast… (St Bees Head)

This is a marathon trek of around 190 miles from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.  On route it takes in some spectacular scenery in not one but three separate national parks – the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.  It also passes through some areas of surprising wilderness – surprising not least because they survive in this hectic twenty-first century.  Most people do the walk from west to east, not least because the most challenging terrain is in the Lake District and it’s better to tackle it while you’re fresh, rather than at the end of a fortnight’s plodding when your legs are reduced to stumps and your feet are on fire!

The other coast... (Robin Hood's Bay)

The other coast… (Robin Hood’s Bay)

The walk was the brainchild of Alfred Wainwright (more on him later) who devised it for one of his series of well-known guide books in 1973.  At that time, the idea of walking between two such little-known places was unheard-of, but in the intervening forty years a thriving business has sprung up catering for the thousands of walkers who tackle the route every year.  Busiest time, not surprisingly, is in late summer/early autumn, when the summer heat has died down a little but the nights are still long enough to make getting lost less of a problem.  Believe me, stumbling around in the pitch-dark on Nine Standards Moor is enough to reduce strong men to tears.

The late, great Alfred Wainwright

The late, great Alfred Wainwright

So, who was this Alfred Wainwright?  Well, originally just an ordinary bloke from an ordinary town in Lancashire, who took a day trip to Windermere in the Lake District and promptly fell in love.  Not with a person, but with some of the most stunning scenery – mountains, lakes, rivers, glaciated valleys – in the country.  Not long after, he sold up, took a poorly paid job in Kendal and moved to the area, and spent the next thirteen years climbing every hill and mountain by every available route (and a few that weren’t) and writing a series of guide books about the process.  The books are special, because not only did he write them in his own unique, drily humorous style, but he also illustrated them with beautiful blackand white sketches and annotated maps.  You can spend hours at a time flicking through the pages, poring over the routes up Helvellyn or Blencathra, and laughing at his occasional talking sheep.

Where it all started...

Where it all started…

We’re lucky enough to live within spitting distance of the railway station where Wainwright fist arrived in the Lake District, and within a 2-hour car journey of the start of the Coast to Coast walk.  It’s been Dave’s ambition to tackle the walk ever since we moved to the area.  He’s currently about a third of the way through, running out of useable feet, but enjoying every minute and every spectacular mile.  And very grateful to Alfred Wainwright for coming up with the idea in the first place.


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The brand new public library in Birmingham is getting ready to open its doors later this year and staff have already started transferring the contents from old to new building.  It’s a Herculean task – apparently they will be moving over 1,000 crates of books, papers, journals, cds, maps and gawd knows what else across every single day for the next three months.


It’s an exciting time all round, and to involve the public a little more, the library ran a poll to choose the first book to be reshelved.  There were some interesting choices on the top ten including, unsurprisingly, The King James Bible, as well as classics like Alice in Wonderland, 1984, and Paradise Lost.

But the book that won, and that was carefully placed on a shelf all by itself by council leader Albert Bore, was Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It’s particularly fitting – not only is it a great book that appeals to adults and children alike, but the author had strong links with Birmingham for much of his life.

I just wish the new library building was as endearing, or likely to prove as popular for future generations.  I can only think of concertina wire whenever I look at it.

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Talking of the green, green grass of Wimbledon, there’s a fascinating blog post about lawns, their history and their uses at Mark Easton’s blog on the BBC Website.  It seemed too appropriate not to pass it on!

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The mysterious radgepacket...
The mysterious radgepacket…

I’m in a slightly weird position here. A few weeks ago I had a short story accepted by Byker Books for their latest anthology, which has the utterly unforgettable title of ‘Radgepacket – Tales From the Inner Cities Volume 2’. Of course, I was delighted – but I was also slightly baffled. And that bafflement has stayed, because in spite of emailing the editor regularly, reading the whole of the first anthology, and visiting the Byker Books website every other day, I still have no idea whatsoever what a radgepacket is. And that annoys me. 😉

There are a couple of clues. For starters Byker Books is based in Newcastle, so I’m assuming it’s Geordie, or at least north-eastern, slang. And two, they specialise in dark, gritty, even shocking urban fiction of the sort your Aunt Agatha would faint if she read, so I’m assuming it has something to do with that. But otherwise, I’m stumped – and what’s more, a friend of mine who was born within spitting distance of Byker has also never come across the term.

So, can anyone out there come to the rescue? Is it something horribly rude, or in spite of appearances is it actually quite normal and dull? I would love to know!

By the way, the story I’ve had published is called ‘Rock and a Hard Place’ and involves Jed, an ageing rock star whose pushy manager suggests he pretends to be gay in order to attract the pink pound and sell more records. Needless to say all does not run according to plan and there are twists and double-twists galore as Jed meets his supposed boyfriend Simon, goes clubbing, enters a lookalike contest for himself, and generally tries to stay sane.

Here’s a brief taster to whet your appetites:

It’s all old Hinchcliffe’s fault that Jed Lemmon turned gay. There I was lounging in bed one Sunday afternoon, hand resting on some blonde babe’s left boob, when there was pandemonium downstairs and before I knew it he was banging on the bedroom door. That kind of pissed me off. I mean, I know he’s my manager and I gave him the key myself, but even rock stars deserve some privacy – even washed-up old scrotes like me.

I patted Suzie on the rump and sent her home, then scraped my jeans off the bedroom floor and dragged them on. A quick swig from the flask I’d hidden by the bed and I was more-or-less ready to face the old man.

“Wotcha Jed,” he said, grinning from ear to ear and jabbing me in the chest. “How’s things with you?”

“Oh fine, just fine,” I mumbled, trying not to watch as Suzie’s Jeep sped off bad-temperedly down the drive. “What can I do for you, Mr H?”

It was the usual – of course it was. He dropped the bonhomie, even as he dropped his rump into an over-padded chair. “Business as well as pleasure, Jed. Records, to be precise. We’re not selling enough. Sales are down for the seventh month in a row – nobody’s buying your stuff.”

I took my time lighting a cigarette. “I’m sorry, Mr H. I’ve done everything you said. I can’t think of anything else.” Well, why the hell should I? It’s why I pay him a bloody great wad of my earnings every month.

“I know – and I’m proud of you. But don’t worry, I’ve had a brainwave.”

My heart sank. Great bloke, old Hinchcliffe, and I couldn’t have got where I am without his help. But his brainwaves are notorious. We’d already had the Jed novelty hats and the posters given away with Choco-flakes, and as for Jed Lemmon dressing up as an orange to advertise yoghurt – I’d had nightmares for months.

His jaw developed a horizontal crack that might have been a smile. “It’s simple. We tell the world you’re gay.”

If you’d like to find out whether Jed gets out of it all unscathed you can find more details on my website, or you can order the anthology direct from Byker Books. Be warned, though, their fiction is high-octane stuff. As they themselves say, don’t buy the book if you like happy endings or stories about kittens playing with bits of string. 😉

And someone, please, put me out of my misery and tell me what that darned radgepacket is….

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Missing apostrophe

Missing apostrophe

Birmingham City Council has been getting a lot of stick lately for its decision not to use apostrophes on street signs.

As a writer part of me does worry about this. It’s yet another erosion of the traditions of our language and grammar, and yet another blow to the trusty old apostrophe, the use of which baffles many people already.

But just how important is this? Fair enough, something like St Paul’s Square really should have an apostrophe because it’s called after St Paul’s Church, which is called after… St Paul. The apostrophe is there to show possession. Place names, on the other hand, tend to be less clear-cut. Kings Heath perhaps ought to have an apostrophe because it refers to the heath owned by the king (singular). But how about Druids Heath? Is that singular or plural? Where should the apostrophe go? It might well be better in that case to leave it out than get it wrong. And as for Acocks Green, is this even named for someone called Acock or does it come from a different source altogether?

As the article I link to above says, many of the apostrophes were already dying out in the 1950s so this is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, I have an old map of the area which shows Kings Heath spelled without the apostrophe as far back as 1880 – and many other such names around the country have either lost their apostrophes or never had them in the first place: Kings Pyon, Bishops Itchington (yes, really!), Canons Ashby.

So perhaps Birmingham council deserves a bit of slack. After all, I’d much rather see a road sign spelled Kings Heath than the sign I saw in a computer superstore this lunchtime, which read “IPOD’s”. That really did annoy me!

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Pretty much everyone these days knows about the obvious differences between British and American English – the sidewalks and pavements, the faucets and taps, the gottens and gots. What fewer people know, and I only found out from working with American editors, is the occasional gulfs in grammar between the two languages.

Take passive, for instance. Here in the UK the rules are fairly straightforward, once you get to grips with them. A sentence written in passive voice is one where the subject of the sentence has the action of the verb applied to it – in other words, the subject of the sentence is the object of the verb.

Sounds baffling? You’re not alone! *g* But take the example I was taught at school, ‘The ball is hit by the boy’. In a normal, active sentence, this would be ‘the boy hits the ball’ where the subject of the sentence (the boy) is carrying out the action (hitting) on the object (the ball). But in the passive version, the subject of the sentence (the ball) is having the action (hitting) carried out on it by the subject of the verb (the boy). A more relevant example for erotic romance would be ‘the woman was undressed by her lover’. Oo-er…

Passive voice can appear in any tense. Present – ‘the ball is hit by the boy’; past – ‘the ball was hit by the boy’; even future – ‘the ball will be hit by the boy’.

Obviously an entire story written in passive voice would be incredibly clunky and stilted, but used sparingly it adds variety and can be quite effective at altering the reader’s viewpoint.

In America, from what my editors tell me, this is all quite different. For starters, they call it passive tense, and it seems only to relate to the past. Any sentence involving the word ‘was’ is automatically considered passive tense, irrespective of what the subject and object of the verb are. So, going back to the tedious boy and his ball, the American passive would be ‘the boy was hitting the ball’, even though the subject of the sentence (the boy) is also the subject of the sentence. Their only active version of the same sentence is ‘the boy hit the ball’.

For writers born and educated to this system, that’s fine. But here in Britain there’s a worrying side-effect of this difference, because we have a subtle but important distinction between finished and continuous actions. For us, ‘the boy hit the ball’ is a single, completed occurrence, whereas ‘the boy was hitting the ball’ suggests multiple, continuing actions over a period of time, with no specified end. Put another way, ‘the man undressed his lover’ suggests the woman is already naked, while ‘the man was undressing his lover’ could mean she still has her underwear on!

When I explained this to one former editor in America, she was fascinated, and confirmed that American English has no such distinction. To them, ‘the boy was hitting the ball’ is simply a more roundabout and stilted (and passive) way of saying ‘the boy hit the ball’. Too often, British writers are asked to take out every single instance of the word ‘was’ from their stories on the grounds that it’s passive, which can lead to a loss of the subtle shades of meaning in our writing.

So, what should we do? Explain, and hope that our editors listen? Write the American way for an American market, even though it risks losing some of the richness of the writing? It’s an interesting problem, and one I’m still trying to get to grips with. How about the rest of you?

PS. If you’re interested, or can’t get to grips with my rather woolly examples *g*, there’s a nice grammar guide on active and passive verbs from Birmingham City University here: http://www.ssdd.bcu.ac.uk/learner/Grammar%20Guides/3.06%20Active-Passive.htm

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Fans of Lord of the Rings might not automatically associate the rural landscape of The Shire with Britain’s buzzing second city, but the fact is that Tolkien grew up in Birmingham, and when he came to write his books he peppered them with local settings. In particular, The Shire was heavily based on the south-eastern suburb of Moseley, a green, leafy and prosperous area where the author spent much of his childhood, but the family moved several times and other settings have crept in too.

Some of these are better known than others. It’s fairly widely known, for instance, that Ted Sandyman’s mill in Hobbiton was based on Sarehole Mill, one of only two working watermills left in Birmingham.

sarehole mill

The mill sits near the banks of the River Cole, with its own large mill pond, and is a picturesque building dating from around two hundred years ago, although there has been a mill on the site for nearly five hundred years.

The wild tangled area of woodland and wetland beyond the mill known as Moseley Bog also features in the book since it inspired the Old Forest, the dark and terrifying stretch of woodland where the trees think and move, and all paths lead to the forest’s evil heart.

moseley bog

Tolkien regularly played in Moseley Bog as a child, and the experience clearly stayed with him for life!

Less well known features include The Ivy Bush pub, where the hobbits used to drink. There’s been a pub called The Ivy Bush on the Hagley Road in Edgbaston for many years, only a few hundred yards up the road from where the Tolkien family lived. The pub, an interesting old corner building which used to have a lovely painting of an Ivy Bush on the outside wall, is such a well-known landmark that it’s given its name to both the road junction and the surrounding area.

ivy bush

The Two Towers of the book’s second volume were almost certainly based on Perrott’s Folly and the tower of the Edgbaston Waterworks, which stare out at each other across the city’s rooftops near the shores of Edgbaston Reservoir. Although built at different times, both would have already been in existence when the family moved to nearby Stirling Road.

two towers

Perrott’s Folly (in the foreground of the picture) is thought to have inspired Minas Tirith and the waterworks Minas Morgul! The third tower, Orthanc, may well have been inspired by Birmingham University’s Edwardian Italianate clock tower, which Tolkien would likely have seen being built.

university clock tower

And the Weathertop hills? Well, hold a mirror up to Tolkien’s description of them and you have the Malvern Hills, a range of low hills only about 30 miles south of Birmingham in the county of Worcestershire. The flat-topped Amon Sul, with its ring of ramparts, is almost certainly based on the Herefordshire Beacon, which sits at one end of the range and still bears visible traces of an Ancient British hillfort.

herefordshire beacon

More widely, the story of the Scouring of The Shire is based on Tolkien’s own experiences of inter-war development. Moseley was developed in Victorian and Edwardian times and at that time was on the edge of the city, with only green fields and small villages beyond. In the 1920s, though, vast tracts of land were being built up to form the suburbs of Hall Green and Shirley and the destruction of this ancient landscape clearly left its mark on the author.

The link between Tolkien and Birmingham (and its surrounding area) isn’t as well publicised as it might be. There’s a Tolkien Trail in Moseley, which takes in the mill, the bog, and the former family home in Wake Green Road. One of Moseley’s many parks, which runs along the banks of the River Cole near the mill, has been renamed The Shire Country Park. And just lately there’s been a campaign to have a statue of an ent (designed by the author’s great-nephew Tim Tolkien) erected on Moseley village green. Even so, it’s one of Birmingham’s best kept secrets, and one which deserves to be more widely known. The city has an undeserved reputation as a sea of 1960s concrete but is actually still full of attractive hidden corners like these.

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