Author Archives: Phil

Cheers for breakfast

Cheerslogo

Phil: Since I don’t have a small child to get ready for school in the morning, if I’m so minded, I can take my time and linger a bit over my bowl of breakfast cereal. It’s a great time to catch up on some magazine reading, and since I prefer to work later, I don’t see any panic to be sat in front of a computer terribly early.

In the past, this would be accompanied by BBC Breakfast News. I suppose it’s useful to catch up on the various happenings in the world, but if I’m honest, knowing the weather forecast is probably more practical.

But, with Brexit, all this stopped. Yes, I might catch the weather and local news, but the rest of the time the airwaves were filled with people shouting at each other. And just as Brexit leaves the stage, along comes Covid, and the news editors decided our mornings should start with a blast of ratings-gathering doom and gloom.Even as this recedes in interest, we’re treated to more disaster with (currently) empty shelves, price rises, lack of power etc.

Enough!

For a very long while, there has been no TV. Telly snobs will say this is a good thing, but I grew up with the magic box and get just as annoyed with those who boast about not watching it, as I do with those who devote their entire lives, and a complete wall in their lounge, to the screen.

Idly flicking through the channels on a very relaxed morning, I found that I could watch the 1980s American sitcom Cheers with my cereal.

Set in a Boston bar, the show features a pretty static line-up of characters, very few of whom can be described as high-flyers (OK, Fraiser, but the rest). It’s warm. It’s cosy. As the theme song goes:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name

And they are right. We all want to find our little community, where we fit in and the rest are pleased to see us.

Of course, the other reason I enjoy watching the show over breakfast is it seems so deliciously naughty to do so. Grown-ups are supposed to want to know what is in the news, even if there is nothing we can do about it. Cheers, and other shows are for the evening.

Side-stepping the expected norm feels a bit like bunking off school, or deliberately taking a longer lunch at work when you know you’ll probably get away with it. Naughty, but in a safe way.

Best of all, the warm and fuzzy accompaniment to y Fruit’n’fibre probably puts me in a better frame of mind to face the day. Or reminds me that I might be happier sat on a bar stool, drinking beer, and watching the world go by.

As the theme goes, “Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot“.

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It’s all about telling stories

Phil on the micPhil: For the first time in years, I find myself having to give a talk to a room full of people tomorrow. It’s a work gig, not a literary one, but I’ve just remembered something.

I don’t like writing presentations.

I love giving them. Public speaking has never worried me, at least as long as I know what I’m talking about. Unlike my writing friend, I don’t suffer from stage fright. I’ve happily stood in front of a few hundred people using the magic of PowerPoint to entertain them. Generally it goes well. OK, there was this one time, but that’s another story.

Actually writing a talk though, is a bit of a slog. Even drawing up a spider diagram and try to work out the correct order for the slides, and exactly what should be on them doesn’t ease the pain.

Then, I had a brainwave.

First: Open a packet of Maltesers. I need brain food.

Second: The first half of the talk is a story. I’m explaining how I came to be in the hobby I’m talking about. With this in mind, the whole thing becomes easily linear. No need to work out diagrams, just tell the tale. With plenty of photos.

My presentations are always full of photos. The less words there are, the more I can busk it on stage and adjust the talk to the time and audience. And if there is one thing I really hate, it’s a presenter who does no more than read every word off every slide. I can do that, and generally, quicker than they can.

Thinking about this a bit more, most of my job involves telling a story. When I explain how to make something, I take the reader through things step by step until we reach a joyful conclusion. Along the way, there are diversions and even a bit of jeopardy.

In fact, pretty much every form of communication is a sort of storytelling. Maybe they don’t all start “Once upon a time”, but that’s how humans tell each other stuff.

And having been so profound, I better get back to writing my talk…

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When did a holiday become a “staycation”?

Poppitt Sands

Grumpy Phil: I keep hearing that everyone is going on a “staycation” this year, because they can’t get abroad.

Somehow, staycation has come to mean taking your holiday in the UK. I’m not sure how this happened, but I want it to stop NOW.

When I was a kid, we went on holiday every year. For several years this was to my grandparents in Scotland. Later, there was camping in Kent. All of these were holidays.

I didn’t get abroad until I was 12 and that was a week-long school trip to France. La Nolan’s daughter has been out of this country more often than I have, and she’s less than a tenth of my age.

Calling holidays in the UK staycations suggests they are somehow worth less than a trip abroad. They aren’t. Given the choice of sitting in a small British town eating cake or “larging it” in Ibiza, I know what I’d be picking. Yes, I am boring, but it’s my b****y holiday so I can do what I like.

To me, a holiday is anywhere away from home. Away from the mental list of jobs we really should be doing. A break from the norm. If you want to qualify it, for the trip to be a holiday, you have to spent at least one night away.

A staycation is taking time off and staying at home. Your house. Where you live most of the time.

Look at it another way, in normal times, many thousands of people from other countries visit the UK. I know, they all descend on Stratford and Warwick. They are on holiday. If I decide to visit one of Britians’ many tourist destinations such as the Lake District, then I’m on holiday just like someone from Japan.

So, let’s get the words right. Don’t let some over-paid newspaper columnist, bitter that their month in a terribly nice villa in somewhere fashionable, has been cancelled, define the language. A holiday is a holiday even if it means sitting on  damp beach wearing a cagoule. Just enjoy it.

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Getting arty in the park

Phil: Team NolanParker are proper culture vultures when we want to be.

Artinpark_250Point us at a literary festival and we are there. Anything to spend a bit of time with other writers, or people who just love books.

And if you love books, can you spurn other art forms? Of course not.

Which is why we ignored the threatening rain clouds and headed along to Art in the Park, Leamington Spa’s premier arts festival. Not just La Nolan and me, but her 7 1/2 year old protegee too. A youngster who like nothing better than getting crafty making things.

First up, there was dancing. Not for me of course, I didn’t want to get my tweed jacket sweaty, and anyway, it’s hardly suitable for Streetdance! No, the dynamic duo found themselves taking part in a very vigorous workshop learning some bangin’ choreography. Good job they had stoked up on drinks and a double-chocolate muffin beforehand, although that last bit was the small ones idea!

After all their exertions, a quiet stroll was in order to the riverside looking at some of the art on sale. After a Covid-enforced break last year, the festival was back, bigger than ever and having filled the main park, spilled over to an new field with yet more stalls, food and music. For a free event, there was a terrific amount to enjoy.

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This time, it was a henna tattoo workshop while I went for wander. It’s amazing who you bump in to at these sort of events – I was browsing a decorative blacksmith stall and found that the other browser was an old boss. Well, I’ve always fancied having a go at metal bashing and it seems that we might both be signing up for a taster course!

Lunch was a mix of halloumi fries (new to me, and delicious), fish tacos and an excellent hotdog for the small member of the team. Well, you can’t do boring at this sort of event can you?

After that, more strolling and time to stock up on unusual cards, including Christmas ones. You never know when you need a nice card, and there’s nothing like most of these in the shops.

Best of all, you get to meet artists. People who create things. While gawping at a painting of sculpture, the person who made it is happy to chat. For me, this personal connection really matters. Owning a unique object that has been crafted by another human being is a pleasure.

Books are also crafted by people. It’s why I feel guilty when I abandon one – I know what I’m holding is the result of many, many hours of effort and imagination. Someone cares about those words, which is why it’s such a shame when I can’t appreciate them fully. But then, like art, you can’t love, or even properly appreciate, everything.

As we found in the park though, art comes in so many varieties and flavours, there will be something you love, it just takes a bit of looking.

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Don’t let me down Carol

Img_5414Phil: I like Carol Kirkwood. She’s the nice weatherlady on BBC Breakfast. Always seems cheery, even when giving us bad news. So, when I find she’s written a novel, and it’s in the Parker reading pile, I am worried.

Let’s be honest, I’ve not had the greatest success with celebrity novels. They tend (IMHO) to suffer from insufficient editing. Plotlines that get the chop in anything written by what Jennifer Lopez would term “a civilian” make it to the page because the publisher knows only the name on the cover matters.

My worries aren’t eased by reading a Radio Times interview where Carol admits “I didn’t ever think I would be able to write a novel is the honest truth,” she says. “I was approached about writing a book by a publishing agent. I met with him and he said, ‘Would you like to do it? Do you think you can do it?’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know because I’ve never tried.’” – basically, a publisher spotted the chance to make some money by slapping the name of someone popular on the cover. Carol had no burning desire to write, but by dint of being famous was given a publishing deal anyway.

Yes I am jealous.

So, the book – it’s rubbish isn’t it?

No. It’s not. Sorry to disappoint you dear reader.

The plot revolves around actress Shauna Jackson. Early in her life, she enjoyed a magical visit to Greece, complete with some romance with the heir to a multinational shipping empire who for no reason I assumed looked like a young George Michael. Later, she has joined the Hollywood A-List, gets cheated on by her husband who promptly dies, and eventually heads back to Greece.

This is not inciteful. It’s not “proper” literature. What it is, is something to read on the sunlonger. And that job it does very well indeed.

As you bake in the sun, your brain won’t be too challenged, even the big twist is pretty easy to spot as it hoves into view. This doesn’t matter. We like Shauna. We like everyone in fact. Even the cheating husband has a good side – Carol doesn’t really do nasty. There are endless chick-lit style product mentions, most of which were fashion brands and lost on me, but it doesn’t matter.

It’s easy to be snobbish about books like this, but if you don’t like them, don’t read them. The story flows well enough and is enjoyable. If your reading tastes requires your brain to hurt after a few pages, then don’t buy books by famous people. And certainly not the nice lady who does the weather.

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Tea, cake and plotting

Teaandcake

Phil: Here’s a photo we haven’t shown you for a while – the essentials of a NolanParker planning session.

Sat in the sunshine, we discussed Book 3, and how we will manage to finish it. Discussions that were powered by tea and cookies produced by the Nolan’s fair hand. She is so multi-talented!

After a long break, the first job was to read everything and work out where we are. The good news is that the book is a lot further on than I remember it. And, more importantly, it’s pretty good. Loads of funny stuff balanced with some serious plot lines too.

Pondering on how we take things forward, we’ve decided to work on the endings – ‘dings because there are two strands to this novel and we need to wrap them both up. One in particular required much chat at at least 3 cookies each to plan out – but that’s the bit we really enjoy and something I’ve missed while we have been away from writing book stuff.

Now the hard work starts – turning those ideas into words on a page. Watch this space.

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Back in the writing groove

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Phil: It’s been too long. Life has come between us and the writing we love. But that has to change. We need to complete Book 3

Step 1: Remember where we are. We can sort of recall the story, but really, it’s time to re-read everything.

Step 2: Reading on screen is OK, but reading from the page is a lot easier. Eating several ink cartridges and much paper in a domestic printer doesn’t appeal, and we’re working from home so there isn’t an office printer to try to slide many, many page through.

A commercial print shop is another option, but in the past, it’s been an expensive thing to do.

So, to Lulu.com. An hour of messing around rough-formatting the manuscript file, creating a quick cover, and the book is in their print queue. A week later, two copies are in my hands. I’ve allowed larger than normally margins for scribbling, so the result is 2cm thick (I forgot to add page numbers, sorry).

All this for £7 a copy. It feels like a real book. It looks like a real book. Let’s hope it inspires us to finish the project!

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Miss Benson’s Beetles

Phil: Does anyone else look a book up on Amazon and immediately head for the 1 star reviews? I bet I’m not alone in doing this, we all like to see a bit of moaning.

Anyway, for this book, they tell us a lot more about the reviewers than the book itself.

Not yet read books so can’t comment” – well then DON’T!

Packaging ok but book, bought as a gift, was damaged inside and the dust cover was torn. ” – Not really telling us much about the book is it?

This was a good book until it wasn’t. Billed as a friendship saga but ends in heartbreak.” – SPOILER ALERT! Life, even fictional life, isn’t all sunshine and roses.

Anyway, none of that tells us much about Rachel Joyce’s latest story.

It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.

We are in a very different world to today. Margery is a traditional spinster, with all this suggests. Her life hasn’t been easy. Often overshadowed by a terrible tragedy that takes place right at the start of the novel, she has a lifelong passion for exotic beetles, and suddenly sets out to travel around the world in order to discover a specimen rumoured, but not proven to exist. This is a drab world of rationing and slow recovery from conflict. Somewhere were women got married, had children and did what they were told.

Lone women travelling would be very unusual, so she engages the services of an assistant, who initially turns out to be hopelessly unsuited to the job. Eventually though (this is a story after all) they come to understand and support each other.

In many ways, this is a character study of women in the era. As well as our two heroes, there are ambassadors wives on a remote island who have nothing to do other than find ways to stem their boredom. They live a round of social events and craft sessions, always aware that they were very much second-class citizens – and appendage of their husbands. Along come two apparently independent women and this causes some consternation.

If I’m being honest, while I enjoyed the book, you need to suspend your disbelief and also ignore the extraneous POW character who seems to serve no purpose, even when he comes into his own at the end. I’d have simply edited him out entirely, but it’s not my book.

It’s also worth remembering that the 1950s didn’t offer the same level of information to anyone, especially women. Foreign travel was rare and exotic so ending up in the sort of place beetles are found, was a leap in the dark. Travel was hard, but then the normal world wasn’t short of discomfort either. In many ways, Margery escapes a stifling existence in her own, unconventional way.

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We’re 500 miles from comfortable Colganland

Img_4181Phil: When you simply need a book to dip into to relieve the stresses of the real world, then something by Jenny Colgan is a good safe bet. Woman’s Weekly call her “the queen of feel-good” and you don’t mess with them.

Five Hundred Miles from You is classic chick-lit. We have two nurse practitioners who for various reasons need to swop the places they work for three months. Over shared patient notes, they fall in love. You know what’s going to happen from the back cover blurb, and it doesn’t matter. We are here for the journey, not the destination.

What I love about this book is that one of the locations is Kirrinfief in Scotland. Loyal readers will remember the tiny town from Colgan’s previous novels and this adds an interesting twist to the story. Characters who were central to plots in the past suddenly, and quite logically, turn up in the supporting cast here.

If you are in on this, it’s all great fun. For new readers, it makes no difference – but they might be tempted to pick up some older novels and read the back-stories.

Aside from the story telling element, this makes a lot of sense from a writer’s point of view. If you are going to invent an entire town full of characters, why discard them after a single book and start from scratch? If nothing else it saves a lot of work.

Personally, I love the idea that the characters have a life beyond a single story. Nina from The Bookshop on the corner is still dispensing books from her van to as a form of literary medicine. I can imagine that she and the others are still having adventures, and all we need to do to find out more, is open the covers of another Scottish-themed book.

Five Hundred Miles? I enjoyed it. Maybe the culture shock for both characters suddenly finding themselves in either London or Scotland is laid on a bit thick, but them I have travelled north of the border a bit and visited London many times, so perhaps I’m just more familiar with both.

It certainly seems odd to read of an ex-soldier who appears not to have visited the capital before, but then I worked with a lady whose squaddie husband managed to travel by train from Kent to the Midlands, including changing in London, and hadn’t found a single place to eat anywhere along the journey. Or at least that was what she claimed, and at the time, even I worked out that saying “He couldn’t find food in London and yet they let him have guns” wasn’t the most sensible thing…

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Bad language

Phil: Listening to a news programme recently where they were discussing something Navy-related, the expert said that the information he had wasn’t “Scuttlebutt”.

Even the landlubbers amongst us would understand that this means his information wasn’t rumour or gossip. According to Wikipedia, it’s the seaborne version of water-cooler gossip.

I’d never heard the phrase before and wish we’d had the chance to use it in Kate vs The Navy.

This got me thinking about other phrases, especially made-up swear words.

I suppose for a sci-fi nerd, the best known is “Smeg” from the TV Series Red Dwarf. It’s never given a meaning in the show, but is a handy non-sweary thing for characters to say. Quite how the advert-free BBC feels about regular mentions of high-end white goods isn’t recorded (I always chuckle when in La Nolan’s kitchen looking at her fridge, but then I’m a bit sad) but whoever came up with the idea is a genius. “Smeg” is perfect, short and slightly aggressive, you really can say it when annoyed.

Sticking with space operas, the other is “Feldergarb” from the original Battlestar Galactica. Swearing in an American kids show was certainly verboten, but you need a phrase for your agitated characters to say and that’s what they came up with. I guess that all the kids picked it up and used the word in the playground (OK, all the nerdy kids) so, like Smeg, it will have entered common usage.

The thing is, does a made-up swear word still count as swearing?

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