Friday, March 27, 2015

The third in the Grimhilderness series...

This unpleasant-looking fellow also
plays an important part in the story
I've been blogging a bit recently about the new children's book I'm in the process of writing. Only a couple of weeks ago I said it was no longer going to be called The Disenchanted Wizard. At the moment it is called The Disenchanted Wizard. Unless something better turns up. 

On the other hand I wrote a bit later that the book was no longer a prequel to Grimhilda! This at least is still correct, and likely to remain so. The book was to have been set about twenty years before the events in Grimhilda! Now they take place about the same time as the events in The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, but in a different city altogether. 

And another decision has been made. I'd be thinking of the books as a series for a while, but with only two on hand it seemed a bit pretentious to call it a series. However, with the third in the pipeline, I'm now able to go forward on the series idea, and they will be given the overall name of Grimhilderness. 

As anyone who's read the books knows, this is the place where Grimhilda's diamond mine is located, and it was where the Mumbersons arrived home from. You discover things the more you write about a place: it seems that Grimhilderness is reasonably easy to get out of; it's not so easy to get into. You'll understand more of this when you read book three. Of which two chapters have now been written...something I've very excited about!


My first e-book for children: Grimhilda! a fantasy for children and their parents, is available on Kindle or Smashwords

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret - the 'sort of sequel' to Grimhilda! - is available as an e-book on Kindle, and at Smashwords11-year-old Billy lives an ordinary life. But one day people start wanting to get hold of his blood...what's the secret his blood holds?

My non-fiction e-book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp, is available on Kindle or Smashwords.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Living with computers

Just thinking how commonplace computers and such have become in my lifetime; actually it's not even that long. My first experience of computers, as far as I can recall, was when I worked at the Dunedin City Council, back in the eighties. We couldn't actually change anything on the computers (which in those days were still fed by cards with holes punched in them), but we could type something onto one of the terminals, and print it out. That was Big Time! (The actual computer filled an entire room and had enormous rolls of tape spinning around working very hard.)

I think the very first computer we actually owned was one that was about the size of a calculator: it was about twice as long horizontally as vertically, and you could only fit one program onto it at a time. With an upper limit of something like 64 bits...! It was very low level programming, but it worked...even though it was frustrating having to delete one programme in order to do another. From memory this was called the Casio PB-100, and it was very popular, in spite of its considerable

I remember sitting up to the wee hours of the morning inputting information on its little keyboard, and getting very frustrated when one single error would make the whole programme refuse to run.

At some point after that I used a friend's computer. He was always somewhat ahead of us, and had a computer where you spent a great deal of time typing stuff in via the keyboard (that was progress). You had to add in information for bolds and italics and all that sort of thing, because of course it did none of these by the mere press of a couple of keys. There was no mouse, so if you made a mistake you had to go back by pressing the cursor (at least I think that's what we must have done - it's a long time ago) in order to change things.

And then all this information was recorded on a tape. You'd play the tape back and only then would you discover whether you'd done everything correctly or not. If you hadn't, you have to go back and find the error and fix it, and then record it again and then play it again...I don't know how we had the patience, quite honestly.

Was it really this big? Seems enormous. 
Finally, around 1989 we bought an Amiga 500; this was truly the Big Time! What a wonderful machine that was. Okay, you had to save things to disks, and it was wise to do this fairly regularly. And you couldn't use more than one programme at a time, so none of this modern idea of having several programmes open that you're working on simultaneously. You had to find your own typos and do your own proofreading. Woe betide if you didn't save on this machine...the work was gone for good.

I first learned to use a mouse with the Amiga. I can remember trying it out at a friend's house and seeing the cursor flying out of control all over the screen, and wondering how anyone ever got any finesse with it.

The Amiga played some great games, ones we thought we far superior to what Microsoft was producing at the time. And we eventually began to discover email, and the Internet. It would cost us a dollar an hour to be online, and we could spend an hour just getting online. Email was terrific; the Internet didn't seem to be that big a deal initially.

Regretfully, Amigas went out of circulation, and we finally had to concede to buying a PC. (Which was named Alphonse, as have all of his descendants since). Though we mourned the loss of the Amiga, it didn't take long to get used to the new style, and by now browsers had appeared, and we realised just how extraordinary the Internet was. And this was before Wikipedia, IMDB and dozens of other sites that we use all the time - even before Google. Remembering a time when these didn't exist, or when they were baby sites trying to find their way, seems odd now. They've become so much a part of the Internet worlds.

And then we added a laptop to the family (this must have been in the mid-noughties, because we had we carted it around parts of Europe in 2007). Later, though probably not that much later, an iPad invaded the place, and an iPhone (this was my wife: she's always been up with the play), and then Smartphones and such.

Now my wife even has a Mac after the laptop became sluggish and slow. I don't personally like it much: Apple seems to have contrarily put things that are normally on the right in the PC on the left, just to be annoying. And there are other things about it that don't grab me. Still, it has its points, and occasionally I do concede and use it for something.

The computers over the year have done very little 'computing' - for me they're biggest benefit has been being able to write at speed, and correct easily (I bought my first typewriter in the year I first started work and taught myself to touch-type; that was around 1960...), and cut and paste and so on. But the other big boon has been the music programme, Sibelius. If only I'd had this when I was younger I would have had a ball with it. The hours it would have saved writing out fair copies of music for others to be able to read. Not to worry, it came along in good time, and along with the millions of words I've written on the various computers, there have been hundreds of thousands of notes.

What a time to be alive!

The Author to Her Book

How many authors feel about their work, I'd say...

The Author to Her Book
Anne Bradstreet
Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, expos'd to publick view,
Made thee in raggs, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judg).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joynts to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobling then is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array 'mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;
And take thy way where yet thou art not known,
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.

Friday, March 20, 2015

No longer a prequel...

Over the last week I've been hammering away at the structure of my next children's novel, which used to have the title, The Disenchanted Wizard, but may not be called that by the time it's finished.

The book started out from two separate ideas: firstly, to show how Mr and Mrs Map in Grimhilda! got stuck together on either end of the map of Grimhilderness. Secondly, there was to be a major character called the Moorish Dog. There's still a Dog, but he's no longer Moorish, and the map of the Iberian peninsula that was connected to him has also gone.

Supporters claim they won't go to the 'New' Den
when the Old Den is closed - but they did.
As has the idea of showing how Mr and Mrs Map got stuck. As has the revealing of who they were: two different couples so far; both gone. As has the shifting of most of the cast to the Isle of Dogs in London during the playing of a football match in Millwall Stadium (otherwise known as The Den). There'll still be a football match (I hope!) because the leading character in the story - a girl rather than a boy, this time - plays football. And so does one of the other main characters.

What else has gone? Quite a bit has come and gone, until the characters are beginning to wander around wondering if they should be in search of another author...

Anyway, the last week has been an interesting rewriting of the plot as it appeared in the draft I wrote back in November. Most of the characters are still there, most of the big scenes are still there, but the reasons for these things happening and the reasons why the characters do what they do has also changed a good deal. Such is life in the writing world.

Oh, and by the's no longer a's another 'sequel of sorts' like The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ravel on You Tube

I've been watching, or listening to, a number of You Tube videos of classical music performances over the last couple of weeks. Sometimes I've just listened while I'm doing something else on the computer; other times I've sat and watched the video, distracted from doing anything else altogether. 

I hadn't realised just how much music was available for one thing, though I'd known that just about any piece of music you wanted to hear, or see performed, can be found on You Tube these days. Which is extraordinary in itself. 

Tonight I've just watched a performance of Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand. It was played by Hélène Tysman with the Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar under Professor Nicolás Pasquet. 

Tysman gives a stunning performance, all the more so because concertos for the left hand are notoriously difficult, requiring the pianist to balance their body in a way that's quite different to normal, keeping an intense focus on just one hand, the very hand that in many pianists is slightly weaker than the other. The pianist is required to play, in this concerto anyway, right up to the upper register of the keyboard, which means leaning far to the right, maintaining the balance, and working across the body at the same time. It’s an achievement and a half to do it.

And there are some extremely difficult things to do in this piece: rapid octave passages, great thundering bass notes hit from a distance, intricate fast moving sections that have to be entirely encompassed under one hand. It's not a piece I'll be tackling any time soon...

I always wonder what a pianist practicing such a piece does with the right hand. There are no concertos purely for the right hand, so they can’t learn two different concertos at once, and obviously a professional pianist can’t let the right hand languish for weeks while the left hand does all the work. I’d be interested to know.

There’s an interesting comment part the way down the page relating to the video: Can people not look like they're bored during the entire performance! This is honestly an impeccable performance. I would be in awe if I got to play in an orchestra next to her. [I've corrected several errors in this comment for readability.]

The person commenting isn’t talking about the audience, but about the orchestral musicians. I personally didn’t think they look bored, although there seemed to be some odd grins and facial expressions at times, as though one or two were giving a nod to musicians in other parts of the orchestra. This isn’t entirely professional, but I guess these are students, so they might be given some leeway.

The young men’s dress sense could have been smartened up, however: several of them have their collars undone and their ties hanging loose. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but I’m sure once they join a full-time orchestra such things won’t be allowed.

However, one more word on the boredom factor. I remember going to see New Zealand’s own Symphony Orchestra last year, and was quite surprised, as we waited for the concert to start, to see the violinists, who were the ones I could see most clearly, sitting there with faces that could have expressed anything from ‘not this piece again’ to ‘what an unpleasant-looking audience; I wonder if they have a musical bone between them.’

I don’t say that that’s what they were thinking, but they seemed very unfriendly, somehow. And at the end of the concert this same expression came over them, in spite of tumultuous applause. Curious.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bug displays

We took one of our grandchildren to the Museum today, and spent a lot of time at the Bug exhibition that's on at present.

Some fascinating exhibits and information, and a great deal of interactive stuff which always goes down well. Amongst the latter was a computer programme that allowed you to form your own bug display.

Here are my two examples - not quite perfectly laid out, but pretty good!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Not The Disenchanted Wizard

Back in November I got myself involved in the NaNoWriMo competition which requires you to write a 50,000 novel in a month. I wrote about doing this at the time, when I was still only some 38345 words ahead. I finished the 50,000 words, but some of them were the scruffiest words you can imagine...which is not surprising if you're trying to write a novel almost from scratch in a month.

I know some people can write quickly and confidently. Some claim that their first draft is the only draft, and usually only needs tidying up. (Stephen King claims this is the way he works: comes back to it after a couple of months and removes all the excess adjectives and adverbs.) Some have a gift for storytelling that just seems to pour out of them, and though those works may have some flaws, they carry the reader along all the same.

My certificate, though the
book's title has now changed
There were some good things in my story, some interesting and fantastical events, and I knew where I wanted to finish up...roughly. But when I'd finished the 50,000 words (which included a lot of notes about what I was writing, which is how I write anyway) I had a big hole between the first two-thirds and the last couple of chapters. In fact, though I tried to write those last chapters, they were awful, because I wasn't sure how the characters had actually got to that point.

So over the last month or so I've been working at the story again, first by going through it and making lots of notes (yup, that's how I work), and then trying to work out some of the problems, and then trying to figure out a structure and then discovering, over and over, that if I did such and such then I'd have to answer the question as to why such and such...if you get my drift.

A few days ago I tried working backwards from those last chapters to try and figure out how things got to that point. Copious notes ensued. Copious notes, and oodles of questions. I'm getting sick of my inner editor asking, But why...? like a nauseating two-year-old that someone's left on your doorstep and you have to look after for the afternoon. (Having been through the two-year-old questioning stage at least five times, it's not a period of life that I find quite so endearing as I once did...)

Anyway, today I feel as though I'm making progress. I'm now in the position of being able to go back to the beginning to sort out the structure again, this time with a lot of the reasons for things happening already in place, instead of being guessed at. Of course there are still questions (Be quiet you nauseating child!) but we're managing to work things out.

As I said in my last post this is a prequel to Grimhilda! the first book in this series of children's stories, and explains, amongst other things, how the Maps came to be the Maps, and who they are (something I thought I knew back in November - I was proved wrong and had to give the original couple their dismissal notices).

The big climax was to have taken place in a different country altogether to the rest of the story. I finally realised late last night that this was just adding to my burdens, and ditched the whole idea, along with copious notes and things copied off the Net. Much more straightforward for the storytelling to keep the thing in one city; it's the third city to appear in these books. The first two were unnamed, but this one has a name, though whether it'll actually appear in the book is another question.

Anyway, at this point I don't have a deadline for finishing the story, but I think once I start writing the next draft, I'll get an idea of how from publishing it'll be. As long as characters don't keep wanting to change their motivations and backstories and refusing to do what they're told.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Some information comes to light on the composer Donald Ford

Back in 2012 I wrote a post in which I wondered about Donald Ford, the composer of the delightful song, To Daffodils. I couldn't find any more on Google about this man except that he'd written He is Tender with the Beasts, Nod, and Romance, to words by Wilfred Gibson, Walter de la Mare and Robert Stevenson respectively. There was also a list of ten pieces for children on the Presto Classical site

Since then I've had some acquaintance with the song, Nod, which I can't say is my all-time favourite: it has an intentionally dreamy accompaniment which isn't much fun for the pianist to play. So be it. 

Anyway, a curious thing happened in relation to that original blog post, which I'll kind of have to work backwards in telling you about. The other day, while reading the paper, I discovered that on the Facebook site, under the Direct Messages area, there's an 'Other' section. I think FB mostly uses this to throw spam items in, but occasionally a post from a real person gets stuck in there unwittingly. 

Because I'd never known about this section, I'd never checked it, and seemingly FB doesn't notify you about it - though that may be because I haven't clicked something somewhere in their system. Anyway, after reading about the Other section I had a look, and found a message from someone that had been written two years ago! They'd probably thought I was very rude for not responding. 

It said: Mike, Read your bit about the Donald Ford "mystery" - he's no mystery, he's my uncle. And you are right, he wrote a host of songs, some sung [and recorded] by Dame Janet Baker and John McCormack. I have copies of most of them, and have recorded them myself. If you need info I have it...His son was my cousin Barry Ford, old child actor, London theatrical agent and casting director for ITV before retirement. 

This note came from Angela Byerley Haw, and I've since got in touch with her and found out some more about the talented Ford family. She's sent me some more information on Donald Ford and other members of the family. The following paragraphs are an edited version of what she sent to me. 

Donald Ford was born in 1891 at Forest Gate London, and died in 1966 in London. He published a little book about accompanying voices, and did some choral direction. He worked for Chappell and Co in London, and they had a huge fire in the 20s or 30s which destroyed some of his work. 'Family talk indicated Chappells was not good to him.' [The only fire I can find that Chappell's had was in the sixties, but there may have been an earlier one too.]

Donald's brother Aubrey was a violinist and died young, and his older brother Leslie was a well known painter mostly of 'Thames river scenes, views of barges etc, and had a rather dark character.' You can see Leslie Ford briefly in this old Pathe movie from 1956. He's the one with the cigarette butt on his lip. 

One of Don's Ford nephews was also a painter of greater achievement, and at one time painted commissions for Harrods. He was Marcus Ford. Don's only child, Barry Ford, was Angela's first cousin through his mother, Angela's Aunt Elsie Byerley Ford. 'Barry died in 2004, after many years in the theatre business, and as a casting director. 'The whole family as well as the Byerleys were a jolly bunch, all very talented in the arts and musical performance.' 

In another note, Angela wrote that Ford was quite a prolific composer, and wrote a great deal of music for children - mostly choral works - as well as educational music for those learning to play the piano. She also recorded some of his music for her cousin, Barry. 'I remember [Donald] accompanying me on the piano, for "A Song of Homecoming", an appropriate choice, in 1963, on my first trip back to England after nine years in the USA, and he was at the airport to meet me.' (Angela still lives in the USA, and is about to make her 'last trip' back to the UK.)

Don married Angela's aunt Elsie Byerley, a woman who shared his musical passion, as did the entire Byerley family, who were old friends and neighbours of the Fords in Forest Gate. Donald also wrote some casual pieces of note much value in order to make some money, under the name of Harner Williams, a combination of the names of his mother's side of his family.

It's been great to find out more about this talented man, and his equally talented family, and perhaps more will come to light in due course. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Catch up with this movie when it's released

A week or so ago we were invited by the Automobile Association to put our names in the hat for tickets to go and see a movie called X+YWe received a couple of free tickets late last week, and though we knew nothing about the movie, went along to the preview showing.

What a pleasant surprise! It's the story of a boy who has some level of autism which shows itself in an inability to relate well socially while also being able to do maths exceptionally well - to the degree that he's invited to enter for the Maths Olympiad.

There's a good deal more to it than that, but I won't spoil your surprise by telling you how it plays out. Just take it from me it's well worth going to see.

Asa Butterfield, who was The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, is superb as Nathan, the main character. (His younger self is equally well-played by Edward Baker-Close.) He manages to wend his way through the minefield that playing an autistic boy can be, and remain believable. It's not assumed in the movie that you have to be autistic to be good at maths, of course, which is one particular plus, and equally it's assumed that people who are considered autistic in some degree vary enormously.

The somewhat eccentric actress Sally Hawkins plays Nathan's mother, and though she doesn't avoid all of her quirky approaches to acting, she's good in the role, and brings character to a part that could have been maudlin. (We last saw her in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, which is possibly one of the most annoying movies we've ever seen, mostly because of the character Hawkins plays in it!)

Rafe Spall is Nathan's teacher (he has multiple sclerosis, to boot). Spall is also an actor who brings a lot of bells and whistles to his acting; indeed one awkward scene between Hawkins and Spall in this movie could quite easily have come from a Mike Leigh film. Spall is excellent, however, in spite of being saddled with an illness that doesn't seem to develop too rapidly over the course of the film's several years. He has a bunch of great lines, and delivers them wonderfully.

Eddie Marsan, hiding his somewhat odd features behind a beard, is another slightly off-the-wall character, playing the man in charge of the British team involved in the Olympiad.

There are some great performances amongst the maths whizzes, but the stand-out one comes from Alex Lawther, who's torn between the fact that his family 'require' him to be a genius, see him as 'unique' because of his autistic aspect, and obviously expect him to love something it turns out he doesn't particularly care about.

I'm sure there'll be some who carp at yet another movie about autism that only presents part of the picture, but for all that this is a wonderfully human story, and very satisfying.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Australia's own Guantanamo Bay

Late last year I read Tracey Barnett's book, The Quiet War on Asylum. I was born in Australia, but have lived most of my life in neighbouring New Zealand. This book makes me ashamed to think that my birth country is so brutal and inhumane in its treatment of boat people. It's already a shameful place, in many respects, for its ongoing poor treatment of the Aboriginal people, who have occupied the country since time immemorial, but are now regarded very much as second/third/fourth class citizens, in spite of the generally liberal outlook of most Australians. 
New Zealand has had its faults in its own treatment of its indigenous people, the Maori, but we have learned better interracial relationships over our mutual history, and continue to work towards improvement. Furthermore, there is plenty of opportunity for people of Maori blood to prosper in the same way as other Kiwis, and many of them do prosper. 
I was going to write a review of Barnett's book, and haven't yet done so. In the meantime, however, I'm going to present some sentences and paragraphs I highlighted while I was reading the book. On their own they speak as well, if not better, than any review I could do. These are focused on the Australia issues. There are a number of NZ issues included in the book too, since Barnett is concerned that NZ doesn't follow Australia's path, something it appears to be learning towards.  

Over 7100 people are in immigration detention in Australia and offshore according to February 2014 immigration records. Sadly this includes over 1100 children.11 The toll on these lives cuts deep even after they are released from detention.

These people have hope upon arrival but find only hopelessness inside prison instead. They expect safety and help but land inside barbed-wire indifference with no stated end to their sentence. They are subjected to multiple daily musters and head counts by uniformed even riot-gear-suited guards sometimes in the middle of the night with loudspeakers issuing orders in a language they can’t always understand. They are moved repeatedly without notice to distant camps in handcuffs. They are subjected to room searches and solitary confinement. The people surrounding them are often suicidal or self-harming or are almost uniformly severely depressed. Most damagingly this is prison for those who perceive themselves to have done no crime.

The Senate passes three resolutions calling for an independent review. None occurs. Many of the women and children who died were attempting to reunite with their husbands and fathers who were denied the ability to sponsor them under harsh new Temporary Protection Visas or TPVs a policy Pauline Hanson championed. These visas mean each case has to be proven again three years after issue leaving lives in continual insecurity. (Three years earlier in 1998 Ruddock had objected strenuously to Hanson’s policy suggestion. ‘Can you imagine what temporary entry would mean for them? It would mean that people would never know whether they were able to stay here ... I regard the approach as being highly unconscionable in a way that most thinking people would clearly reject.’ The following year Ruddock himself announced the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas.)

I understand how hope dies. I just can’t support laws that erase it.

Many of these refugees have been isolated from Australia by being placed on neighbouring Pacific Islands. Here is a horrific article showing just how badly Australia is treating these people: The realities of life for mothers and children on Nauru.
I'd thought that the situation in Guantanamo Bay prison was horrific, and still wait for President Obama to follow through on his promises to close that place down. Australia seems to want to have its own Guantanamo...