Wry Thoughts on Losing Control

Like many of us, I’ve had to deal with large documents, usually course submissions for an exam board.

But people like me (I ran a recording studio) are not to be trusted with such things, so the college employed a woman whose jobs was to check through our submissions on the look-out for errors, weaknesses and possible improvements.

And I can’t deny that she found them. She could have marked up the text with revisions, suggestions and so on, but preferred to slap explanatory Post-its on the sections she wanted amended.

I was not alone in thinking she went a bit over the top here. Our documents would be returned positively bristling with Post-it notes, despite the existence of other colours all yellow, and one such occasion, rather than top myself, I went for a cunning plan.

I accepted Pat’s major suggestions, but there were many others, most of a nit-picking nature. So, life being short, I artfully removed quite a few of these notes before returning the document to her. Since she couldn’t remember all the Post-its she’d placed in the document in the first place, she didn’t notice that several were missing. Sneaky, right?

Pat was so well known for her system she was referred to as Post-it Pat, no doubt based on the children’s character Postman Pat.

Another example. A certain education administrator I knew many years ago had a long, rectangular office, along one wall of which he had a long rectangular pin board. This was his pride and joy. Written on small plastic pins of various colours were the class, classroom, teacher and subject of every class in the college. In short, the timetable for the entire institution.

Yes, he had it all under control – until certain students who’d figured out the weakness in his system, snuck into his office one evening, removed every single pin from the board and left them in a heap on the floor.

The following morning, he came close to a nervous breakdown because now he had no idea which of his many pins went where. In one fell swoop, from total control to no control at all. His world had collapsed on his office floor.

So the fact that a system is physical does not make it safe. Even in the real world (the world not involving computers) backup is essential.

Of course, we all lose control in the end, but that can’t be helped. If you find the thought disturbing, take the advice of Swami Rod – just relax and have a bad time.

Filming Books

Books have been adapted for film and television for decades with varying degrees of success. Genres such as fantasy and crime have been popular: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and recently His Dark Materials. On the crime front, we have had multiple versions of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, the Wallander novels of Henning Mankel, (two in Swedish and one in English), and one of the Montalbano books of Andrea Camilleri (in Italian).

Classics have been popular for the treatment too, from Jane Austen, through George Eliot, Thackeray and Dickens, to EM Forster, John Irving and many others. Adaptations of solid books like these provide welcome opportunities for acting talent (Helena Bonham Carter, for example) who usually do very well by them. And it may be that film and TV versions provide the only exposure to these books for some.

But the question will often arise, How faithful is the adaptation to the original?  Because there are purists out there who will contest any departure from the books they hold dear even if the change might result in a possible improvement or be necessary to render it in visual terms at all.

Here in the UK, we have recently had yet another version of The War of the Worlds, by HG Wells. Those who study such things report that the script has taken significant liberties with the text. Why would anyone do this? Suggestions include making the original appear more relevant to the present day, and to spice things up with ‘love interest’ where there was none before.

Changes like these are probably not be unusual. Think of the fun a post-graduate student could have watching all those films and TV series then comparing them to the books on which they’re based. If I were younger than I am today . . . I still wouldn’t consider it. The task would take years and life is too short.

But what if, instead of taking liberties, the film or TV version is completely faithful to the text, surely that will be enough to guarantee success? I think this will depend on several things. Is the text worth being faithful to in the first place? The recent TV version of His Dark Materials is a genuine attempt to put across the original and much labour has clearly been expended on it. Yet I failed to find it involving – exactly the same reaction I had to the book. (I expect to be in a minority here and shot down in flames by a talking bear or a squadron of witch-archers flying overhead with bows and arrows.)

At the other end of the scale (for me) is Italian TV’s version of my Brilliant Friend. This, too, is exceptionally faithful to the book, required an astonishing amount of hard graft but works very well in conveying not just the characters, of which there are many, but the place where it all happens. Naples.

To end with a tricky one. Where much of the effect a book has on the reader is due to its prose style we will have a serious problem adapting it for the screen. If the narration is first person then much of the flowing prose may still be supplied –  by members of the cast, sometimes in person so to speak, more frequently through voice-over. But if the original is written in the third person there is no obvious solution.

Fortunately, there is no obvious problem either, because it is not compulsory to adapt a novel for the screen. Leaving well alone is always an option.

 

 

Reviews

I have written many reviews over the years and always found it demanding. To begin with, if I read a book and really don’t like it then I won’t review it. No point putting an author off after publication. Some might argue that comments concerning a certain category of book (let’s call it Book Number 1 in the Inspector Torcuil McSporran series) might have a beneficial knock-on effect in Book Number 2. But who is to say there will be a follow-up?

Reviewing has also caused me to change my reading habits. In the past (when I was younger than I am today, in every way, oh yeah, oh no) I would read physical copies. I still do, but if I intend to review a book now I will buy a eBook edition. The reason for this is an ingrained belief that it is not enough to make an assertion of the sort This book is absolute drivel OR This book is a work of genius. Assertions should be supported a) by reasoning and b) by evidence.

In the case of a book, evidence can only take the form of quotations from the text. To which end I used to sit in front of a screen typing with one hand while holding the book open at the relevant page with the other. This was a slow and inefficient process leading to strain of the left thumb. Then I discovered, late in the day, that by using an eBook I could highlight noteworthy sections then – sheer bliss! – copy them at will into a review.

Having just read two reviews of my recent title, I have been struck by how inadequate some reviews can be.

Review 1

Here are a couple of plums. Firstly, about the cover:

It is nice designed in the color and in the design itself.

And

The author succeeds in writing very detailing about the scenery

To judge by the syntax errors, English was not the reviewer’s first language. Is this is a concern? Yes, though only if the reviewer’s command of the language in which the book is written is an obstacle to him/her in properly getting to grips with it.

In this case, the reviewer liked the book but in terms so general anyone reading the review would learn nothing at all about it. For example, wouldn’t we want to know what the book was about?

To quote from the site the review was posted on (here I am quoting again, I just can’t help myself), the site “helps readers of influence discover and recommend new books to their audiences”.

Review 2

This was an interesting one but in a different way.

Hart’s characters are complex and without any definite shade of black or white except for Klein Pearson , who as the sole antagonist comes out as a vile, hateful character.

This would be a telling point against the said Klein Pearson if there was any such character in the book. Unfortunately, there is not. The reviewer has conflated two very different characters, Dieter Klein and Adalbert Pearson. Worrying, right?

 

 

 

Bookshops changing with the times

They don’t have it easy these days and are obliged to follow certain trends to stay in business.

The bookshop I know best has a lower ground floor which used to be full of books – not surprising in a bookshop. Now, though, it hosts a large selection of games ranging from Monopoly through Harry Potter to Star Wars. And there are models of X-Wing fighters for those into Star Wars to assemble. Hours of joy all round.

So shelves which used to be full of books are now full of games. I can’t say a single intelligent thing on this subject because I have never played any of them.  What I notice, though, is the astonishing amount of packaging these games come in, a level of waste that books can’t compete with.

When all the packaging is ripped off where does it end up? I’m reminded of a store specializing in children’s toys (no longer trading) which was even worse. The ratio of packaging to toys did not favour the toys, most of which – to make matters worse – were made of plastic.

So if we aren’t following the trend, not playing the game, we can always stick with something safe. A book hot off the press.

 

Autobiography

Some years ago now a friend showed me chapters of an autobiography she was writing, and very good they were too. She said I should give it a go and eventually I did. But unlike her I had no aptitude for it. I began well enough, Hello, my name is Rod and I was born at an early age. But I wasn’t capable of keeping it going. More accurately, I was capable, technically, but completely lacked the motivation to do it. At root, I found myself boring. And if I failed to interest myself, why would I interest anyone else?

A few bright episodes came to mind, especially concerning my travels in Iran, Afghanistan and their aftermath. For instance, when I was finally released from the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Belgrade, a member of staff drove me to the UK Embassy prior to catching a train the following morning. One of his first acts was to drive the wrong way up a one-way street, and while he was at it hoped I would understand that he had a wife and children. Good for him, I thought. But it turned out he was afraid I would contaminate his family with infectious hepatitis. To eliminate this non-existent risk, he put me up for the night in an embassy outhouse, where I slept in a roll of carpet and was wakened with the lark by field telephone.

But if we included events like that in a novel, who would believe us? In any case, taking all such stories together, a string of narrative pearls though it might be, nothing came close to a continuous narrative. I was reminded of a description I had once seen of Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust, which someone had compared to reading Faust by lighting. So how about a succession of dramatic episodes? But that also failed to get me going. Writing biography would be a different matter altogether, provided the subject was of interest.

What follows from this?

Firstly, I think that those bloggers who are most successful are those who take themselves as their subject. Not only do they let strangers into their lives, they open the door and usher them in. If they could offer them refreshments they would. Not everyone can do this, though. I don’t have what it takes.

Secondly, those of us who write fiction give ourselves away all the time. I obviously can’t prove this, it is merely what I think. And some will reveal their hand more than others. I would say I reveal my hand quite a bit. In fiction there is usually an element of self-description at one remove. The reader can infer various things about the writer even if he does not divulge the name of his cat.

 

Grounds for Concern

We used to live in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. There was considerable hedging and many trees which I used to climb  to prune. Two cats and one pheasant lie buried in the grounds.

When I came home from work of an evening, the bus passed open fields before it reached us. Below is a small part of what used to be one of those fields, now covered in houses with driveways and garages.

The planners insisted that an old footpath by the impressive name of the Via Regis be kept – and it is still there if you know where to look for it. But now there is no field to either side, as once there was. Dog walkers don’t like this so much. Neither do dogs. I was just chewing over this sad state of affairs with Buster the Staffie the other day when he spotted a lamppost and ran off.

If I stayed on the bus past my stop, (as sometimes happened when I dozed off en route), I would see more open ground on the left. Now this is also covered by a large housing estate.

The same has happened with ground to the right, now another large housing estate called The Murrays.

Its route then takes the bus past West Edge Farm on its way to the town of Bonnyrigg. Bonnyrigg used to have a thriving market on a Thursday morning, but apartment blocks are now being built on the the ground. Though in a nod to history  the developer has called this development The Market.

Not so long ago there were fields on both sides of the road, and if the driver of the bus (Number 31, for those who like to know such things) had turned right by mistake at the top of the brae onto the Lang Loan, she would have seen a large expanse of agricultural land to her right. Here is a small part of what is on that land now.

A cottage on the outskirts of one of the fields is now surrounded by construction work and their bus stop has just been taken out of service for eight weeks. There is a helpful sign, though: USE AN ALTERNATIVE. Yes, thanks for that.

Much of the land at the Lang Loan has now been built over and even more is under construction. And the same is true of the land at West Edge Farm.

The collective acreage of all this is considerable, with ground being built on and paved over on a large scale.

At least two questions arise here. Will this land provide a habitat for living things when all this work has been completed? Even if the answer is a limited yes, not so much as before. Hedgehogs used to live here. Now they don’t. It is many years since I’ve seen one and I read that the hedgehog population has suffered a large decline.

The other issue is water. A large acreage of soil which used to absorb rain is now trapped under houses, streets and pavements. Where all the water supposed to go? Floods, anyone?

But people have to live somewhere, right?

Well, yes, they do. Though compared to previous times when tenements were popular, the same number of people are spreading themselves over far more ground than before.

And, to tie in to the theme of The Ears of a Cat, I would contend that there are too many people anyway.

Which makes me part of the problem I am describing.

The Ears of a Cat

This novel was due to come out on January 28th, 2020, but the publisher stole a march on me big time by bringing forward the date to November 28th, 2019 then publishing it even ahead of that. A planned launch during the first week of February has therefore been abandoned. The paperback is on sale through the websites of Amazon, plus those of major UK retailers such as Waterstone’s and Blackwells (who are offering it for sale at a discount of £1). Physical copies are already available in Blackwells Cambridge and Edinburgh stores.

While all this is good, I have been badly caught on the hop with respect to reviews, so if anyone out there would like to review it, I will do what I can to help. For example, I could have the publisher send a paperback to your preferred address. The eBook is readily available for any reader/reviewer outwith the UK.

To give a flavour of what to expect, here is the publisher’s press release. Apart from the “dizzying pace” it is pretty accurate.

Press Release

With buckets of black humour and a dizzying pace that pulls the reader to the final page, Roderick Hart’s latest novel is set in the near-future in a world very like our own where population expansion has become a serious issue…

To the well-meaning people of Future World the problem is obvious: too many people. However, so is the solution: eliminate as many of their fellow human beings as they can – though for Catherine Cooper, Cindy Horváth and Gina Saito, this is easier said than done… at least until they get their hands on a bird flu virus made lethal in the lab.

But as they work out how to use it to the most devastating effect, the German security service gets wind of their intention, as does an unscrupulous freelance agent from the United States. Following a succession of bizarre events, including a conversation with a cat, a fractured penis and the testimony of a Japanese sex doll, only the last woman standing, fish-whisperer Gina Saito, can hope to bring it off. Yet she knows full well this will lead to an agonizing death on foreign soil.

The underlying issue in the book, no matter how comedic Roderick has made the novel, is one that is a real concern to him. “My ‘inspiration’ was a deep-seated pessimism about the way the human race is going,” he states. “I approached this through a narrative involving people feeling the same way but who, unlike me, actually try to do something about it, to improve on the current situation by bumping off as many people as possible. After all, the easiest way to reduce carbon footprints is to reduce the number of feet.”

Set in Berlin, Los Angeles, England and Japan, the unfolding events show that having a plan isn’t enough: good intentions can lead to ludicrous results and, ultimately, death.

RELEASE DATE: 28 November 2019

ISBN: 9781838591441 Price: £ 8.99