Friday, 19 June 2009

Buds, books and authorial banter.

Just as my few fragile buds of hope seem about to be crushed by a juggernaut over-laden with a cargo of heavy reasons for bleak despair, an odd thing happens.

The juggernaut in question was a wander around a branch of a national chain, its book shelves heavy with celebrity guff, ‘ten for the price of a cup of tea’ offers on paperbacks and a particularly viperous member of staff who wouldn’t believe my conviction that the author whose work I was seeking might actually be on a bookshelf and not in the “world music’ section of the CD racks (Me, “No really, he’s an author, he writes books.” Viper, “Nah mate trust me, I’m sure he’s a drummer or sumink, have you looked under Ghana?” I kid you not) It’s my fault, I know. I should have gone to Daunts. He should have gone to school.

Dark dismay filled my heart. A gloom further dimmed later by my shame and frustration in not saying anything to the bus passenger seated in front of me for whom eating liberally vinegared fish and chips in an enclosed public space was not adequate rebellion and who felt he had to throw those pieces that didn’t meet his expectations onto the floor of the aisle and then spit semi-chewed saveloy onto the seat next to him. Would that I could put my seething silence down to tiredness or fear. Sadly I only realise now that I just couldn’t be arsed to engage him. As a friend of mine recently told me, “never argue with idiots, they’ll bring you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

Thus it was, with a heart like a black hole, that I proceeded with the day, wondering what the point of it all was. Until I opened my diary and realised that the day could yet have a pleasing outcome. The first light of joy was a fine lunch at a Pall Mall club with a rather impressive fellow whose youth belies his wisdom and who through his PR company is doing some interesting work in applying his fascinatingly inventive theory of “why most PR companies are useless.” I’ll spare his blushes, but will say that the conversation was as interesting as the lunch was delicious.

Then on to the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly where the annual Society of Authors “Authors’ Awards” were held. Margaret Drabble introduced proceedings by racing through the closest thing to a PowerPoint display that I imagine the Society of Authors will ever produce, a video display of the prizes, the shortlisted entries and then the winners. In seamless harmony Sebastian Faulks presented the awards cheques, totalling £60, 500 to each of twenty-one writers whose work was being recognised. Never did a man look more happy to giving away someone else’s money to worthy and deserving recipients. Never did I feel happier to be at an awards event and thankful that there were no TV cameras, no "slebs" and only those who have a genuine talent, or provable interest in fine writing, fine publishing and fine thinking. I can't tell you what balm it was.

Faulks’ end of-ceremony-speech was funny and masterful, making reference to the esteemed panels of judges by name and saying that a more illustrious collection of judge-writers would be hard to imagine. At which point Lady Antonia Fraser turned to A.N. Wilson (both judges of the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Fiction) and muttered soto voce “I agree!”

Sebastian went on to say that we have been living through a true “golden age” of British writing, the proof being the number of people who confess that for the first time in years there just isn’t time to read all the good books, both fiction and non-fiction, that one wishes to. I heartily agree. Despite all the gloom and doom that is among us, we are indeed in the midst of a glorious era of very fine writing and for that we should be grateful. I am, as it allows my little buds of hope to survive a while longer.



Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Ticks, tacky troubling ticks.

I am forcing myself to make a small but rather embarrassing confession in this post. Small because in the general scheme of things it is so insignificant as to be unworthy of mention; embarrassing because every time it happens I find myself wondering why it has happened, what has caused it and whether or not I should be bothered by it. But mostly because I am aware of it happening after the event and thus far never before. I am also embarrassed by having ceded control to a renegade part of my brain. And what is it?

It is a small verbal tick that I seem to have picked up from goodness knows where. I am aware of verbal ticks in others, the constant “you knows’ that irritate the speech patterns of some unfortunates like grit in a machine and whose overly frequent and inappropriate repetition make me want to scream “STOP IT NOW”; the “innits’, those verbal warts that attach themselves to everyday speech, that make the traditionalist part of me squirm and fight with the modernist “language is a fluid and constantly evolving means of communication’ part of me. (The traditionalist, if you’re wondering, wins. Every time.)

It’s the same impulse in me that makes my knuckles white when I hear an antipodean upward inflection at the end of a sentence that isn’t a question. It’s a personal thing, I know. I’m not proud of it, the onboard, inbuilt, instant negative judgement, language snob in me. It just is. I accept it. But this new development in my own speech troubles me. I am usually hyper aware of my speech. It served me well in my career interviewing the great and good for Oneword Radio. It serves me well when chairing live events at literary festivals. I hope it will continue to serve me well in a couple of weeks time at the London Literature Festival, but a doubt in my confidence in that ability has crept in like a bad smell.

My employer, Ben Budworth, the CEO and publisher of The Lady magazine, first pointed it out. We had been chatting in his office and as the conversation closed I headed for the door and said “OK fella, see you later.” An innocuous statement that would have gone unnoticed but for the sharp antennae that Mr Budworth has for new developments that jar. “Hold on,” he said. ‘Come back here” I returned to stand, confused, beside his desk. “Fella?” “FELLA?” “Surely “my good fellow,” if you must, but “Fella”, oh no, never. Not here. Now go and wash your mouth out.”

I left, chastened by the boss's rather proficient ‘David Brent of traditional magazine publishing' impersonation. I asked myself a number of questions. “Was this the first time I’d said it?” “Where on earth did I pick it up?” “Why had I not noticed it before?” I felt troubled that somehow I’d been found wanting by my boss, who although a long-standing friend, is still my boss in a new job. Someone that I want to impress with my accuracy of language, dexterity of speech and text. I am the literary editor after all. Standards have to set and maintained, even if they're only mine.

Since that first time there have been others. Always with Mr Budworth, some commented on, others not. No-one else has picked up on it. I am not aware of having said it to anyone but him. But there, lurking in the back of my mind is new and uncomfortable seed of insecurity in what was until recently a reliable skill.

As I said, small and embarrassing. But there nonetheless.



Thursday, 4 June 2009

Sign up now to keep the libel laws out of science!

Forgive the parlous lack of posting in the past few weeks, a combination of the Guardian Hay festival, the new job and general effort in getting the wheels spinning again have hampered me. I apologise.

May of you will be aware of the situation that Simon Singh finds himself in and I’m sure will be as concerned as I am about him and the wider ramifications. I therefore devote this post to his cause and have copied the page from the excellent senseaboutscience website. I hope they won’t mind. I encourage you to click through and sign the petition in support of Simon.

Sign up now to keep the libel laws out of science!

The use of the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence discourages debate, denies the public access to the full picture and encourages use of the courts to silence critics. The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic through an open discussion in the medical literature or mainstream media.

Today Simon Singh announces that he is applying to appeal the judge's recent pre-trial ruling in this case, in conjunction with the launch of this support campaign to defend the right of the pubic to read the views of scientists and writers.

Join the campaign! In a statement published today, over 100 people from the worlds of science, journalism, publishing, comedy, literature and law have joined together to express support for Simon and call for an urgent review of English law of libel. Please help us with this campaign, sign the statement and tell everyone you know to sign it. With every additional 1000 names we will be sending the statement again to Government until there is a commitment and a timetable from the parties for the necessary legislation.

"It has been a stressful and frustrating twelve months since I published my article on chiropractors and their attempts to treat children with conditions such as asthma. The British Chiropractic Association's decision to sue me for libel has been an enormous drain on my time and energy. However, the support that I have received from family, friends, readers, bloggers, scientists, journalists and those who care about free speech has been incredible, and it has played a crucial role in my decision to continue defending my article and fighting the libel action.

More importantly, everyone agrees that there is something fundamentally wrong with the English libel laws, which have a chilling effect on journalists, whether they write about science or anything else, whether they live in Britain or anywhere else. Hence, I am delighted that so many individuals and organisations have come together to launch a campaign with Sense About Science to highlight how the English libel laws clash with the right to discuss science in a frank and fair way. The Keep Libel Laws out of Science Campaign will also raise issues related to my particular libel case, and it will encourage a debate on the reform of the English libel system.

The campaign launch revolves around the statement shown below, and I would urge anyone who cares about science or free speech to show support by signing up.

And I would also encourage you to make your friends and colleagues aware of the issues at stake and ask them to sign up. It is possible that the time is right for major libel reform in England, which will then allow scientists and journalists to write with less fear of being intimidated."

Simon Singh

Click here to read Simon's full account of the story

Click here to read and sign the statement.

For more information contact Sile Lane on or call 020 7478 4380.

***UPDATE*** as of 18:00BST more than 2000 people have signed. However, even campaigners (and their tired little fingers) need a rest. We will continue updating the names in the morning.

News already! This statement has already received a response, with support from cross party MPs.

With huge thanks to Andy Lewis, Emma Welsh, Hamish Symington, Frank Swain and Elisa Parish.

Press Coverage

The Independent Silenced, the writer who dared to say chiropractice is bogus

The Times Review of libel law called for by comedians

The Guardian online Science writer Simon Singh to appeal against chiropractic libel judgement

Nature news Science writer will appeal libel case ruling

Times Higher Education Singh plans to appeal ruling in libel case

Wall Street Journal Britain Chills Free Speech

The Daily Telegraph online Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais defend science writer sued for libel

The Daily Mail online Celebrities back writer sued by chiropractors for saying unproven treatment is 'bogus'