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It's nice to see that the first volume of Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, is getting great reviews. Here's one from today's Times and another from yesterday's Guardian Review. I looked up the official Dylan site when the book first came out a couple of weeks ago and to be honest was disappointed by the extract from the book linked from there - not terribly enlightening comments on stuff that's already been well-reported elsewhere, couched in rather dull language. It would be typical of Dylan, not to mention a stroke of genius, to write a several hundred page memoir which tells you absolutely nothing about its author! But judging by these two reviews at least, maybe there's more to it than so far meets the eye. And I'll read it anyway - it's God, for Bob's sake! (Or should that be the other way round?)
A superb article in today's Guardian by Robin Cook, the only Labour minister who resigned from the cabinet over the Iraq war, on the recent revelations about the "intelligence" (or lack thereof) that our government spun to sell us the conflict. Cook writes: "John Smith [Blair's predecessor] would have been incandescent with an intelligence agency that had so badly misinformed him, and with a private office in Downing Street that apparently did not ask elementary questions, such as whether they were talking about [Iraq's] battlefield or strategic weapon systems. Tony Blair is curiously indulgent to all those who led him into the most damaging episode of his premiership. We even read that all the key players in preparing the false prospectus for war are to be rewarded in a special honours list. A parade of the relevant officials down Whitehall in sackcloth and ashes would provide a more convincing demonstration that Downing Street is really sorry."
The Independent today meanwhile has an interview with another anti-Iraq activist and part-time fabulous actress Susan Sarandon. Like a number of other non-Brits, she's completely flabbergasted as to why a formerly honorable man like Blair backed Bush's war in the borderline-insane way he did. "Last time I was in London," she's quoted, "I asked someone to explain [Blair] to me, and they told me that you have to align yourself with power. But what about a power that's corrupt? Then why didn't everybody align themselves with Hitler!"
I was sad to read elsewhere in today's Independent about the death of novelist Bernice Rubens. I have to admit I've never read any of her books, but I always liked something about her - her face maybe, or the syllables of her name - just the idea of her, really. The obituary in the paper is repeatedly interesting: "She wrote every day, declaring, 'I feel unclean if I don't write.' She worked in an attic room - her 'hole in the sky' - with her desk set up beside a grand piano and a cello. She once explained: 'I do a nice sentence, then I think, that deserves a little tinkle on the piano. I do another sentence and then I have a go on the cello.'" As a guitarist, I can relate well to that method of writing. (Douglas Adams was similar, I believe.) "The quality of her work could be patchy," the paper points out, which "might be attributed to the fact that she only ever wrote one draft of her books and never plotted them in advance: 'I never know where I am going in a book, and that makes it exciting,' she said. 'I know and direct the characters, but if I knew the plot . . . that would be boring.'" I've read the same thing about a number of authors, Russell Hoban included, and although I can understand the reasoning I rarely feel confident enough myself to "write without a safety-net". But to only write one draft of a novel - now that's daring! It's sort of the literary equivalent of going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel. Another quote from the obit I liked was this one: "I don't love writing, but I love having written, if you know what I mean." Yes, I do, only too well... RIP, Bernice.
The Guardian has embarked on a very honorable scheme to enable non-US citizens to have their "say" in the US Presidential Election in a few weeks' time. Initially I had my doubts about this, thinking that no matter how strongly a non-American might feel about American politics and US foreign policy, ultimately it's up to the people of America to make up their own minds - and many Americans thinking of voting for Bush would probably get even more pro-Bush than ever if some limey like me were to try and persuade them to be sensible and vote Kerry for the rest of the world's benefit. But then I thought: "Bollocks. This is one of the most important western elections in living memory. Bush has to go." The Guardian campaign is therefore a great idea and might help change a crucial few minds in the US. The paper outlines its campaign much better than I can so I'm just going to paste a slightly edited version of the first couple of paragraphs from the story here:
The forthcoming American election, on November 2, may be the most important in living memory. You would be forgiven, though, for feeling increasingly helpless as you hear the "most important election" mantra repeated daily: unless you happen to be a voter in a handful of swing states, there's little you can do about the final result. If you're not American, the situation is more acute. Certainly, the actions of the US impact on our lives in overwhelming ways; British political life may now be at least as heavily influenced by White House policy as by the choices of UK voters. And yet, though the US Declaration of Independence speaks of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind", you don't, of course, have a vote. You can't even donate money to the campaigns: foreign contributions are outlawed. And you're unlikely to have the chance to do any campaigning on the ground. All you can do is wait and watch: you're powerless. Or are you? At G2, that sounded like fighting talk. Where others might see delusions of grandeur, we saw an opportunity for public service - and so we have assembled a handy set of tools that non-Americans can use to have a real chance of influencing the outcome of the vote. We've identified ways to give money to help your preferred candidate, even though direct campaign contributions from foreigners aren't allowed. There are ideas for making your voice heard in the influential local media outlets where it could really count. And at the core of it is a unique scheme to match individual Guardian readers to individual American voters, giving you the opportunity to write a personal letter, citizen to citizen, explaining why this election matters to you, and which issues you think ought to matter to the US electorate. It may even be a chance to persuade somebody to use their vote at all.
The Guardian has also published a very useful page giving details on how to contact the US media and get in touch with a voter in a swing state.
Meanwhile, a story on the BBC website reports that the UK is about to plunge into a cold snap (if that's not a mixed metaphor). A Met Office spokesman, asked what the forecast could be for winter, is quoted: "We expect temperatures to drop in winter." Hmm, useful. Even more intriguingly, when looking at the story again a few days later (I am as usual compiling this page a few days in retrospect) that rather banal quote has been "disappeared" and replaced by this one: "We are confident that we will see a higher than average frequency of northerly weather types, bringing not just colder weather but a more frequent snowfall than we have experienced in recent years."
I noticed an odd headline in the free Metro tabloid this morning while Tubing it into work. I hardly ever pick up my own copy of the paper, mostly because it only reports news that's already been well reported the day before, but also because I hate the idea of being one of an entire row of people all sitting reading the same bloody paper - it looks pathetic, not to mention suspect (the word "propaganda" springs to mind). And it creates litter (although I guess it does therefore keep the litter-pickers in work). Anyway, squinting myopically at a copy of the paper that had been dropped on the floor in front of me I noticed the headline "£150,000 of public money spent teaching Welsh to speak PC". I had to blink and look at it again - surely it should have been "£150,000 of public money spent teaching PC to speak Welsh"? Clearly this story concerned a remote Welsh village where no English was spoken and where the last police constable had just retired, but because it had such a tiny population no Welsh-speaking replacement could be found, so they had to draft in an English-only-speaking PC from somewhere else and teach him or her to speak the dialect. Q.E.D.! Excellent technical error, ideal for submitting to Private Eye for an easy tenner. But when I picked up the paper (reluctantly, even for a tenner) and actually read the article, the truth once again turned out to be even more ridiculous than fiction. The headline was right - "PC" in this context meaning "politically correct". Apparently the Welsh Development Agency was among quangos in the region who had spent lots of taxpayers' money on courses to educate its staff to use terminology that wouldn't offend people - "brainstorming", for example, "could be considered insulting by those suffering mental illness", while "nit-picking" "originated during the slave trade when hair was examined for lice". Metro doesn't have a website but its parent paper the Evening Standard reports the story here, albeit without the spoonertastic headline. Still a funny story, though.
My experience of feedback from online companies (qv TypePad below) gets worse. The other day I had a query for my bank, NatWest, so I went to their website and looked for an email address to send it to. There wasn't one as such, but about four screens in from the home page I did find a feedback option. This gave three choices: (1) phone your branch, (2) nominate a member of staff "if we have done something really well", and (3) "If you wish to complete our on-line form". The latter didn't seem to be a complete sentence but I clicked the link to the on"-"line form anyway. This consisted of a page with boxes for the usual info, such as name, email address, phone, whether you're an existing customer or not etc, and finally a box for writing your actual query. I filled this whole page in, received a confirmation message and left it at that. The next day I received the following email reply:
Dear Mr Cooper
Thank you for your message received via our web site.
Please contact our Streamline Section who will be happy to advise you.
This was then followed by a PO Box number in Harrogate and a phone number. Not particularly impressed at having to repeat my query via another method of communication, I fired back the rather sarky reply "Gee, great! You mean I have to repeat my enquiry over the phone? If that's the case, why bother having an online feedback form?" The next day I received the following reply from someone at the "Harrogate E-Messaging Team":
Dear Mr Cooper
Thank you for your feedback received via our web site.
We provide an Online Feedback Facility for feedback related to our Online Service. When we receive enquiries for different sectors within the bank we provide contact names and telephone numbers.
Feeling a bit sorry for "B", I then wrote back, "Thanks for the clarification. I didn't mean to give you a hard time personally but as a longstanding NatWest customer I would have thought that a bank of the resources of NatWest would be able to provide answers to email queries such as mine in an email. Would you be able to give me the name and address of the right person to write to to point this out?"
I heard nothing then until 11th October, when I received the following message:
Dear Mr Cooper
Thank you for your feedback received via our web site. NatWest has a policy of continuous improvement and places great importance on customer feedback.
The comments that you have made have been taken forward to form part of our discussions for future enhancements. I would like to assure you that we are committed to providing a first class Internet banking service.
May I thank you for taking the
time to provide valuable feedback as we are continually looking for ways to
improve our services.
If you have any further comments or suggestions please send them through this feedback facility and I will forward them on to the relevant department.
Harrogate E-Messaging Team
So it now seems I have to give them feedback on their feedback on my feedback on their lack of feedback. How very postmodern. At no point, needless to say, has my initial query even been touched upon.
Further to my news about All My Own Work being shortlisted for the PABD prize (see 2nd October), I found an interesting offshoot of PABD today in the form of a regularly-updated blog about UK & US books, writing and publishing news. It's at http://pabd.typepad.com/
Incidentally, I must admit I wasn't that enamoured of TypePad when I recently looked into switching the Thoughtcat blog over to them.
Deciding to start at the beginning and find an appropriate blog service, I Googled for "blogging software". The top (sponsored) result was from TypePad and was headlined "Start your own blog". Clicking on the link provided took me to http://www.typepad.com/splash/ which had a large banner saying "30 day free trial - no risk or obligation - no credit card required". At this stage I was still under the naieve impression that all blogging software packages were free, an impression that was fortified by the fact that nowhere on this initial TypePad page were any prices given. There were also no links to any other pages with pricing structures. The only link on the whole page in fact was one saying "Start now!" which I duly clicked. This took me to a page saying "create your own account" and "find out if TypePad is right for you". Again nowhere on this page were any prices listed - even the "terms of service", despite listing a great deal of small print, didn't give any indication of how much the service actually cost. Completing the fields on this page led me to start designing my blog, which I duly did for some time without seeing any prices at any point - although I note that I did see a lot of information about TypePad's features. By now I'd forgotten about the "Free trial" because I was so engrossed in the fun affair of creating my new blog. Eventually I clicked "help" and then "account info" but this didn't list any prices either. Eventually I emailed the support people at TypePad saying I felt this was all a bit misleading, whereupon I received a link to this page giving prices starting at $4.95 a month and the sarky comment "I hope you will feel that we are not 'misleading' anyone when this information is prominently linked from our home page." I emailed them back to tell them this whole story, commenting, "I would be interested to know at what point a new user of your service starting a blog via this special offer is explicitly issued with a pricing structure - after 30 days of happy blogging maybe, at which time they might be faced with the choice of either paying up or having their new blog taken down?" Their response on 30th September was "Thank your for your feedback. I will pass it on to our documentation team." I've yet to hear anything further, and it's interesting that if you Google for TypePad you still get a sponsored link saying "Set up your blog for free".
I wouldn't wish to knock TypePad in principle - it looks to me like very good blogging software, but this special offer package seemed misleading and in any case I couldn't see why I should pay to start a blog when I could do so with a free service such as www.blogger.com and get results which look to a reasonably non-technical person like me very much the same.
Alright, already! I've been away for a bit, but have finally managed to get up to date with the blog. I do apologise to my regular reader for my prolonged and unexplained absence, but the problem was I had to go to Thailand for a month, and when you do something like that, it takes you at least the following fortnight to find time just to wash your underwear, let alone do any blogging. So anyway, I haven't really written anything today as such, but I have posted a few retrospective entries below gathered over the past six weeks. I also kept a diary while in Thailand which runs to about 10,000 words, and we also took about 400 photos, so some of those bits and pieces will hopefully surface over the coming days.
The big news today though is that my novel, All My Own Work, has been shortlisted with five other novels for first prize in the UKAP/PABD 'Great Read' novel-writing competition. The competition was open only to previously unpublished manuscripts, and the prize includes the assistance of a professional editor, 20 free copies of the novel published by self-publishing company PABD, and promotional assistance to get the book in the shops (or at least online) by Christmas. The actual prize is announced on 31st October, so watch this space! I will now celebrate in traditional style by going to Argos and buying a carpet cleaner.
BBC website runs another of
its excellent "Have Your Say" forums today, this time asking whether Tony
Blair should have announced his intention to stand for another full term. I
was at work when I found this but it was just too tempting not to contribute
the following comment: "Blair's announcement is typical of
his arrogance and lack of connection with the will of the country. If he had
an ounce of humility and respect for the Labour party and the electorate at
large, he would have long realised that he has been discredited, that he is
a liability and that he has more than had his day. Far from announcing that
he will go on and on, Blair should be falling honourably on his sword and
allowing a democratic vote for a more sympathetic successor who will bring a
fresh approach (but hopefully not fresh blood) to the government, the UK and
the rest of the world." There are plenty of other contributions to the forum
as well, a surprising number of which are hugely in support of Blair. As one
exasperated commentator asks (underneath my comment), "What does Blair have
to do wrong before he's kicked out?"
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