Category Archives: Books

I can be your hero baby

herosEveryone needs heroes. Without them there’d be no one to learn from, nothing to strive for, and the Nazis would always end up winning in 1950s war movies. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of writers I admire. The list is by no means exhaustive, and it’s heavily influenced by my recent reading. But all of the following are affecting the way I’m thinking at the at the moment.

Gideon Haigh

English born but Australian bred, Haigh’s Ashes blog was one of the best reads of the summer. A wry writer with a great eye for quirks, his blog always provided original insight and stepped off the beaten track – exactly what a good blog should do.

Mike Skinner

The fleeting nature of pop music means lyricists never have time to build a detailed story. All they can do is throw out an image using a few words and hope it captures the scene. Presumably, Ezra Pound would have been a great frontman for a rock band.

Mike Skinner (leader singer of The Streets)  is brilliant at these images – listen to his account of first date awkwardness on Could well be in. I especially like ‘I’m trying to think what else I could say / Peeling the label off, spinning the ashtray.’ For fans, Skinner’s Twitter account is well worth following too.

Sir Winston Churchill

I’ve been gradually working my way through Churchill’s The Second World War since Christmas. That’s not to say it’s not great, but it was a very long war and the book is too heavy to take on the tube.

Churchill has a fittingly majestic style but is always very readable. The part where he goes to Russia to persuade Stalin to change sides is extraordinary. He weaves the domestic details of the trip in amongst an account of a conversation that ultimately decided the fate of the entire world. Very rarely do we get such a personal insight into history.

Seth Godin

I know this is hardly an original choice. And I know there’s already more than enough Godin fawning on the internet, especially as he spends most of his time recycling the same ideas over and over again.

But Godin is massively successful, and I think his great secret is his accessibility. He writes plainly, avoids getting overly technical, and above all he keeps things brief. His 200 word posts are perfect for skim-reading during a working day, and then discussing endlessly around the water cooler or on Twitter. If there ‘s one thing I will do with this blog, it’s to start writing entries of  less than 300 words where at all possible.

The five funniest books

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Deciding whether one book is funnier than another is, of course, a completely subjective judgement. I’m aware that no two people have same taste and that anyone – myself included – could easily come up with a list of five other books that are equally funny. But this is the definitive list, and it is correct.

Unreliable Memoirs – Clive James

James’ stories of growing up in Australia. Everyone used to tell me how funny this was but I refused to read it because I thought I’d be disappointed. Believe the hype.

Best bit:  James and a couple of schoolfriends are watching a couple get it on in the long grass when one of his friends decides to fire a home made bow and arrow:

‘It would have been bad enough if the man had stood up with one hand holding the arrow and the other holding his behind. Unfortunately it was the woman.’
 

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

World War II madness. Pretty much everyone in the world has this on their favourite books list and they’re all right.

Best bit: Milo Minderbinder (of the US airforce) has agreed a contract with the Germans to bomb his own base.

‘Milo, this is Alvin Brown. I’ve finished dropping my bombs. What should I do now?’
‘Strafe,’ said Milo.
‘Strafe?’ Alvin Brown was shocked.
‘We have no choice,’ Milo informed him resignedly. ‘It’s in the contract.’
‘Oh, ok, then,’ Alvin Brown acquiesced. ‘In that case I’ll strafe.’
 

England, Their England – Archie Macdonell

A Scotsman is commissioned to right a book about the English. He researches his subject by hanging with the 1920s upper classes – probably the funniest of the lot.

Best bit: The hero Donald Cameron is invited to play cricket alongside the famous Boone, a Cambridge Blue at cricket.

‘Off his first ball the massive Cambridge Blue was easily stumped, having executed a movement that aroused the professional admiration of the Ancient who was leaning upon his scythe.

‘Donald was puzzled that so famous a player should play so execrable a shot until it transpired that a wrong impression had been created and that the famous Boone had gained his Blue at Cambridge for rowing and not for cricket.’
 

Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall – Spike Milligan

The first of Milligan’s epic war memoirs. Not the best of the series, but the funniest.

Best bit: ‘How it all began.’

‘The last minutes of peace ticking away. Father and I were watching mother dig our aid raid shelter. “She’s a great little woman,” he said. “And getting all the time,” I added. Two minutes later a man called Neville Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said, “As of eleven o’clock we are at war with Germany.” (I loved the WE).’
 

Bear V. Shark – Chris Bachelder

America becomes obsessed with a fight between a bear and a shark in a fantastic satire of modern media.

Best bit: The book’s premise tells you all you need to know…

‘Given a relatively level playing field – i.e. water deep enough so that a Shark could manoeuvre proficiently, but shallow enough so that a Bear could stand and operate with its characteristic dexterity – who would win a fight between a Bear and a Shark?’

Charlie George – proof that size doesn’t matter

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We’re constantly told that short sentences are better. Fit one idea in a sentence, stop before you get to 25 words and you won’t go far wrong. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the odd six line monster.

One of my favourite ever sentences (copywriter – guilty) is from Nick Hornby’s autobiography Fever Pitch. In it, a 15-year-old Hornby goes to Derby to watch Arsenal in the FA Cup. Mindful of terrace hooligans, Hornby is keen to see Arsenal win, but also aware that a drab draw would increase his chances of getting back to London in one piece.

Enter Charlie George, the iconic Arsenal striker who suddenly has a great chance to score. Hornby grudgingly accepts that the safety of the Arsenal fans should not have been a consideration as George duly tucked away the opportunity.

“But whether it was absolutely essential to celebrate by running over to the Derby fans – in whose snarling, southern poof-hating, Cockney baiting, skinheaded, steel-toecapped company we were obliged to spend the rest of the afternoon, and through whose hostile, alleywayed territory we were obliged to scuttle after the final whistle – and making an unambiguous take-that-you-provincial-fuckers V-sign … this was much more opaque.”

I love that sentence.  Over the course of 68 words Hornby manages to not only explain the background of the situation but also capture the hatred and antagonism of the crowd. ‘Take-that-you provincial-fuckers,’ signals the bursting point of a furnace that’s been brewing for the last few lines. The violence that follows seems natural and inevitable.

“He got booed off the pitch and fined by the FA; we got chased all the way to our train, bottles and cans cascading around our ears. Cheers, Charlie.”

So, thought of the day? If you want to build tension, use a long and rambling list that constantly points the way to the upcoming excitement. Otherwise, stick to your nice, short sentences and everyone will understand what’s going on.

Van and the old Romantics

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I bought Van Morrison’s new recording of Astral Weeks the other day and I’ve hardly listened to anything else since. It’s hard to improve upon perfection but I think Live at the Hollywood Bowl might just do it.

As you can tell, I’m a fan. Which is why I was interested by a blog I came across on the BBC website ridiculing the idea that Van is Ireland’s greatest poet. Now, clearly Van isn’t Ireland’s greatest poet but that’s not to say he isn’t great. His lyrics may often be indecipherable on record, but get the album sleeve out and you’ll realise the gems you’re missing out on because he can’t be bothered to enunciate.

I once wrote an essay comparing Van to the Romantics.  The essay got absolutely slated by my supervisor, presumably because she thought Van wasn’t a proper poet either. But I’m still very much in Van’s camp, and it’s going to take a pretty strong argument to persuade me that Astral Weeks wouldn’t sit very comfortably in The Complete Works of John Keats.

“Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings.” – John Keats, Lamia

“To dig it all and not to wonder, that’s just fine.” – Van Morrison, Sweet Thing

Zen and the art of writing instructions

bikeI’m off on a road trip round the States in June. In preparation I’ve been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the first time since I’ve started doing a lot of ‘technical copywriting’.

That introduction suggests several questions which I’ll answer straight away:

  1. I’m not crossing America on a Harley or any other type of bike
  2. Zen… is about a technical copywriter on a bike trip. Along the way he tries to rid himself of Phaedrus (the ego of his former mentally-ill self) and pontificates generally on the relationship between technology and beauty
  3. Technical copywriting involves writing all the formal stuff that isn’t glamorous but is important to get right e.g. instructions, user manuals, legal babble etc. etc. Stuff like this.

I’ve obviously got more of an interest in technical writing than I had when I read the book the first time so I’ve been keen to hear what Zen has to say. One bit has particularly struck me so far. The book’s narrator remarks that some bike owners – such as himself – take pride in maintaining their bike and become actively involved in learning how it works. Others – such as his friend John – refuse to take any interest at all and instead pay a mechanic to do a half-arsed job. He says the second group have a ‘spectator attitude.’

“Writing and editing technical manuals is what I do for a living … I knew they were full of errors, ambiguities, omissions and information so screwed up you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them.

“But what struck me for the first time was their [the manuals’] agreement with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals … Implicit in every line is the idea that ‘Here is the machine, isolated in space and time. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it.’”

I’m not sure quite how much attention I should pay to this. People who build a relationship with their technology are all over the internet – google ‘Apple help forum’ and you’ll see what I mean. But there also needs to be a place for a (probably larger) group who don’t want anything to do with their circuit board.

Zen’s narrator seems to think that though technical writing should cater for these ‘spectators’ it should also be able to impart an understanding along the way. So instead of just writing “Select Organizer” you might write: “Select Organizer. This is where you can change your phone’s calendar and alarms.”

Whether this is what people want when they’re wading through a 35-step guide to setting up a video call is debatable. Though it may be more Zen-like to understand exactly how our machines work, many non-technophobes have neither the time nor inclination to spend hours getting close and personal with their mobile phone.

But as machines get increasingly technical this basic level of understanding may become vital in saving the user time. After all, computer experts rarely follow a process from start to finish but instead jump straight in at the important bit. If users don’t have the understanding to jump in then they may soon lose the ability to use technology effectively.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I guess I’ll have plenty of time to think about it on the inter-states of the USA.