Category Archives: Phil

Cheers for breakfast

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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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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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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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Sally Parker’s not my mum, and I’m relieved

Sally Parker is struggling to find the hero inside herself.
All she wants to do is lie down.
Her husband Frank has lost his business, their home and their savings, in one fell swoop. Their bank cards are being declined. The children have gone feral. And now the bailiffs are at the door.
What does an ordinary woman do when the bottom falls out?
Sally Parker is about to surprise everybody.
Most of all herself.

Phil: I like Mel Giedroyc. She’s very funny on the telly.

But if this is typical of her literary output, please, please don’t let her near a keyboard.

Sally Parker (no relation) is one of those ladies who lunch. Her husband, a hedge fund manager, pays all the bills. She lives in a gilded cage with staff she doesn’t like, who do all the work. The three kids and one niece, are all nightmare spoilt brats. Her skills are being born pretty.

We know all this by reading the interminable build-up. If you want to know how the other half lives, then you’ll love it. I was bored.

Then it all starts to fall apart. Slowly. There is a financial crash. Husband Frank develops narcolepsy and keeps falling asleep. They lose the house and move through a series of improbable situations to keep a roof over their heads.

Eventually, we end up in Wales at the bedside of a dying aunt – for no reason I could entirely fathom. There, after a bit of trans-misogyny that might have provided a much stronger plotline, everyone ends up standing in a room.

This might work if there was a single character you cared about. But there isn’t. If the who lot had been killed on page two, I’d not have missed them.

It’s tempting to pull out problems, but that’s just going to turn into a rant. We could mention Sally’s good friend Janice who it is made clear, silently fancies Sally and pretty much saves the day without a hint of thanks. Or the wonky timeline where, as everyone individually rushes to Wales, sees Sally suddenly decide to take a days’ employment mucking out at a stable. Or Mikey, the business-minded child constantly being told to shut up when she tries to offer cash to help dig the family out of a whole. I could go on.

In theory, the idea that Frank started out tarmacing as a boy, and ended up by dint of his hard work, a successful fund manager, ought to be interesting – but it just happened. You would have thought that as Sally was party to this from the start, she would be involved and feel part of it. Nope.

The trans story (Warning: Spoiler) that is largely ignored is that Frank’s dad, who he idolised, changed sex but his parents stayed together. That might have provided a thrust for his actions, but we find out about all this in the last chapter.

While not the worst celebrity novel out there (Hello Celia Imrie), it’s a book that would have benefitted from being written by a nobody and then beaten into shape with the help of an editor. Someone who would have picked up the pace in the first half (“one fell swoop” takes half the book), ditched the unnecessary narcolepsy storyline, and the pointless stuff about the doctor which doesn’t do anything for the plot. The deeper issues might have been turned up – the trans stuff and also the aunt they all rush to visit by the end. All the stuff about Frank’s business partner having repeated breakdowns seemed both odd and tasteless too.

Maybe, part of the problem is that I don’t live in this world. I don’t even come into contact with it. If I and my friends lived the ladies who lunch life, then I’d identify with more than just the surname of the lead characters.

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Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd

Phil: Some stories require the reader to suspend their disbelief to enjoy them. Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd by Jonas Jonasson asks you to put your disbelief in a bag, take it down to the bottom of the garden and bury it.

Full of mad ideas and improbable coincidences, the story doesn’t make sense if you insist on being Mr Literal when reading. You will find the idea of a Swedish Nazi art dealer abandoning his illegitimate son in the desert to be eaten by lions a touch improbable.

You’ll also be stuck when the son doesn’t get eaten by lions, instead, being brought up by a Maasai medicine man. And when the son runs back to Sweden, his adoptive dad decides to track him down. All of this while we have a couple of fake (or not) paintings and an advertising executive helping people take revenge on others.

It is mad. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In style, the book has a lot in common with the work of Tom Sharpe. Perhaps less dodgy sex (although the dealer does become known as “goat-sex man” for various reasons not involving sex with goats) and violence, but still that craziness where the rules of the real world don’t really apply. Or at least, not in the way we expect them too.

There is a lot of plot in these pages too. Most books would be happy with about half as much, but in this respect, it’s like a very filling meal which is so tasty that you can’t help eating a little more than you really should.

If you like absurd stories, then try it.

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Don’t fall down the research rabbit-hole

Phil: Have you ever found yourself on Wikipedia reading up on something and unable to resist clicking on a related link? At the time you tell yourself it’s relevant to the topic, but then there is another link, and another. And another.

You start reading about tractor production in post-war America and half a day later you’re learning about the proclivities of minor German aristocracy in 1830.

It’s addictive, something to do with dopamine in your brain, and the urge to procrastinate while kidding yourself that any education is good. I mean, who doesn’t need to know about flat-roofed pubs for example?

I’ve just finished the enjoyable Funny You Should Ask book by the QI Elves. It’s full of unrelated facts such as what would happen if you tried to dig through the Earth, or what causes deja-vu. If you enjoy odd snippets of information, it’s a good fun read.

The most useful fact in the book isn’t in the main text, but the introduction.

When writing for the quiz, they start with the answer and then craft a question around it. Working the other way around means endlessly researching as they fall down the rabbit-hole (named after the rabbit-hole Alice falls down in Wonderland) finding linked facts when they should be working.

I’m not sure this will help cure my procrastination, but maybe it will do something for you. In the meantime, I need to go a read up on The Auburn and Lidcome Advance. You never know when knowledge of old Australian newspapers will come in handy!

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