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Archive for March, 2011

Libraries and Writers

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Last week I went out. It was nice to be allowed out for an evening. This week, I’ll be out again. Both events courtesy of libraries. As a writer, it’s nice to be allowed out occasionally.


Last week’s visit to Tavistock was great. It was a good event, in a packed town hall, which had been paid for by the enormously kind, generous and supportive “Friends” of the library. The Mayor was there, and a councillor, and I couldn’t count all the authors. As well as my friend Bernard Knight, there were Maureen Duffy, Lilian Harry, EV Thompson, and a number of others.


You want to see pictures? It’s called Celebrating History. Look here:


(I have had problems with the link, but if you click on the second set of photos from the left, you’ll be taken to the right page. There is a glitch somewhere, but I think it’s the way the set is created)


A good audience, friends to speak to, enthusiastic supporters of writing – and I came away with a real sour taste in my mouth. Nothing to do with the gig, it was what I had heard during the afternoon on the radio.


A year ago, maybe more, I was invited to chat on the radio. I was asked whether I thought library visitors should pay for the services they used. I thought about it, and, bearing in mind the dreadful state of British finances, I reckoned yes, perhaps a minimal fee for those who could afford it of some 15 pennies or so per loan would not break anyone’s bank. And, importantly, it would go a little way to supporting the Public Lending Right.


This is the system whereby it is agreed that authors who allow their books to be used in libraries are reimbursed. After all, authors are generally badly paid folks. Yes, honestly. The last I saw, three quarters of authors earned less than the national average wage, and two thirds less than the half that. Half earned less than ten thousand a year. Authors are not well paid.


The PLR is a brilliant scheme that pays authors six pence and a bit per loan. It’s not a huge sum of money. And it’s a way of reimbursing authors for their work in writing a book in the first place.


Now, I know some people will begrudge paying anything for reading a book. Just as there are some thieves who enjoy watching films for free by stealing – sorry – downloading them from illegal sites, and there are listeners who steal – no, actually I’m not sorry at all – the work of musicians, so there are also thieves who want to steal my work and the work of other writers.


So, why does it make me and other authors angry? Like others, I have a house and a mortgage. I have a family, dogs, and all the other little trinkets most people want. I like to be able to pay my TV licence, and put petrol in my car. And eat. To do these, I work – usually from sixty to eighty hours a week, for most of the weeks of the year – and the result of my work is a book or two a year. I think it’s sort of fair that after my efforts, if someone likes my work, I ought to be paid for it in some way. Sometimes it’ll mean earning pennies because I am paid a percentage of the price of the book (royalties) and other times it’ll mean I get money for all those library loans.


I am not a charity. I don’t write for fun. I write as a living.


Some people think authors are automatically millionaires as soon as the first book is published. Ha ruddy ha. Even the PLR is capped. An author can only earn a maximum of some six and a half thousand. Nice money, if you get it – but if your total other earnings are less than ten thousand, it only boosts your income to borderline hardship.


I made this suggestion, then, that libraries should start asking for money. Not from pensioners, not from kids, but from the gainfully employed the libraries could have asked for some fifteen pence without trouble.


At the same time, I asked why computers were being installed. I know people like to use email – but why on earth should anyone think that they should be entitled to free use of a computer for emails? The libraries never used to issue free postage stamps in the heyday of the library services. Computers are invariably out of date before they’re installed, and if you want a library as a repository for information, computers tend to be bad sources. They have access to webpages which could be written by a professional – by a professor, even – but how do you tell that it wasn’t put up in a bored moment by a pimply youth from Middle Wallop?


Books: encyclopaedias, dictionaries, all kinds of research material, are tested. They are checked by an author, if he or she is reputable. Then they’re checked by an editor. Then by a copyeditor. Sometimes by fact checkers, and certainly by proofreaders. All these people are there just to ensure that what you see on the page is accurate.


How many websites go through such a rigorous process to ensure that facts are correct?


So, I would always contend that a book is a safer medium for a library to hold. It takes less space, it is reliable technology that is still, I reckon, not out of date, and it is accurate.


Right, rant over.


But only so I can get on to the big one.


Why was I bitter and twisted last week? Because I had heard this.


Now some people may not know Will Self. He is an intelligent man, usually. But in this chat, which was intended to explain his support for libraries, he said that he did not go, never used his local library (except to pick up audio books for his daughter). He said libraries never invited him (that’s probably because since he’s regularly on TV shows, libraries know damn well they cannot afford his appearance fee). He said libraries were supported by “middle brow writers” like Philip Pullman, Jacquie Wilson because they made “a considerable amount” from their library loans.


So, he dismissed two millionaire authors, who are amongst the most successful UK authors (it sounds terribly like bitter jealousy on the part of Self here). Many authors like them don’t bother to claim their PLR, and I’d be interested whether Will does himself. Still, that has nothing to do with it. There are many other authors, like me, who depend on the few thousand pounds we receive from PLR every year. It was crucial to me when I was earning three thousand a year as a new writer. It is plain dumb for him to suggest that PLR is only for wealthy authors. Sorry, “Top borrowed authors” making “a considerable income”. Can you hear me spitting tacks?


And then, he went on in a mean-mouthed way to insult librarians. He called them people with “a jobsworth mentality”.


Words fail me. But I can only assume that Will Self has no interest in libraries whatsoever. Instead of talking in support of them, he denigrated the buildings and their use, then went on to deliberately slight a group of people who will never earn the sort of money he has. It was mean-spirited in the extreme.


I was enormously disappointed. Still, it’s given me the added incentive to do what I can to support libraries.

A Delightful Gentleman

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Just heard the very sad news that HRF Keating has died.

I met him several times when I was at Crime Writers’s Association events. A self-effacing, kindly gentleman, always polite and excellent company, he began his hugely popular inspector Ghote series without having visited India, where they were all based. He always seemed somewhat surprised to learn that so many Indians enjoyed his work.

As well as the Ghote series, he worked on non-fiction, he had a pseudonym (Evelyn Harvey), and other titles. He learned his trade in newspapers, but will be remembered for the more than 20 titles he wrote since 1964. Within the CWA he’ll be remembered mainly for winning two CWA Gold Daggers – a marvellous confirmation of his abilities as a great writer, as was confirmed when he became a member of the Detection Club.

I for one will miss him enormously.

Another Set of Thieving Fraudsters

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Another week, another set of unpleasant people trying to rob others using the Internet.

This morning I was delighted to receive a mail from a friend. It’s been a few months since I have heard from her, and to have a mail item is always good, isn’t it? And then I got the sad message. She’d been robbed.

OK, these things happen. I read that while on holiday in the UK, someone had taken her purse. Ouch. In it was all her money, her passport, everything. Including credit cards, of course.

The US embassy was happy to help her. They’d let her fly home without a passport, but she had to settle her hotel bills and buy a ticket. Naturally the bank (boo, hiss) wouldn’t or couldn’t get a new card to her fast enough, and so had no access to funds. Could I help?

Now, since I live in the UK, there were quite a few points that struck me. Where to start? Well, the telephone number was an intriguing +44 702 402 9894 or +44 702 403 0611 – both intriguing because they are mobiles. Interestingly, they are based on a UK region code, but what’s the betting they’d redirect to a foreign country? Quite high.

Because this fraud is a nice, simple one to recognise.

The story is garbage. Here in the UK, it would be easy and quick to get money from a bank. Even with details like cards gone, over here we’re quite efficient in our banking. And the US embassy is large and helpful as well as efficient. They tend to assist US citizens in trouble. Even expediting passport issues so that, guess what? You can get to the bank and prove your ID.

However, the killer on this was the usual. I checked the email. It was a clever one, this. The reply email looked initially to be my friend’s – there was only one error in it, an extra “I” in the middle of her mail address.

If you have an email like this, just ignore it or, maybe, if you have any doubts, contact your friend at the normal email address from your address book on your computer. And before you even consider replying to the email, for goodness sake reread the mail and ask yourself: does this note actually sound like my friend?

It didn’t to me, so I emailed her. Naturally, she was in the US still, as I expected. She hasn’t been to the UK in years. And being a singer, I would have seen if she was planning a trip. Still, it meant that she was able to email her friends, which is kind of useful.

Ruddy thieves. I’m getting a couple of mails a week which are just as daft as this. If there is one that looks possibly genuine, always check with the actual contact, just to make sure. So far, not one request for funds has been remotely genuine.

Beware. There are lots of folks out there who want your money!

DNA and Politics

Friday, March 25th, 2011

John Rentoul, a journalist on a UK national newspaper, has happily tweeted this morning a comment about the government’s policies on DNA. For those who are lucky enough not to live in the UK, the system in place used to allow for all people stopped and arrested to have their DNA taken. Then, it was matched with any crimes the police could find. We are told that many old cases have been solved with recent DNA innovations. A particularly repellent man was yesterday put in gaol for life.


But now the dastardly government wants to do away with this.


Which is typical very silly politics and Rentoul should know a ruddy sight better.


You see what used to happen was, that if you were arrested by the police, your DNA would be stored and recorded – for life. Not if you were convicted of a crime, you’ll notice, no: Labour is a control-freak party that believes (against all logic and history) that the state is best. At all times, in all places. Including your life, whether you have already committed a crime or not. I say that because Tony Bliar was very keen on research that suggested it was possible to predict which children would become career criminals. So he planned that they could be taken from their parents and put up for adoption.


The man was, it has to be admitted, a megalomaniac of the very worst sort and not merely a deranged, money-grabbing war-monger.


But the idea of storing individuals’ DNA was OK, Labour said, because of course, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. Well, crap, actually.


If you shake hands with a man, and he climbs into a car, drives to a house, goes in and kills someone, your DNA will be there. In modern life it is damn difficult to imagine a possible crime which will not be contaminated. And that means Police who search for DNA may very easily be distracted by the wrong DNA.


A few years ago a European (German, I think) series of crimes was finally looked at again. Over many years this perpetrator had committed a number of crimes. They were utterly insoluble, covering a huge territory, and the MO was different for each, the timescales were confusing – all was terribly confusing. Until after six or so years, it was realised that the DNA being analysed had all been contaminated. They were looking for scientists in their labs, not the actual perpetrators. It set the cases back years. Probably several crooks will never be caught now, because of that blinkered search for DNA.


In England there is a new system of DNA analysis that takes trace samples and from that a computer model extrapolates what the DNA might have been originally. It is enthusiastically being sold all over the world. But in America and most other countries it’s rejected because it is not, never will be and cannot be, proof. It’s making up the DNA. Like saying, “The murderer’s name starts with a D, ends with an S. OK, so it’s you Mr Daniels!” brilliant, except Mr Davies, Mr Djanglies, Mr Donuts and many others would also fit the bill.


Still, Labour are fulminating about this silly government because they want to remove this database. They don’t want every person who has been arrested (whether charged or not) to be on a database. I rather like that idea.


Still, the man yesterday was probably responsible for some 200 crimes against the elderly, involving robbery and rape. It’s good he’s inside.


How was he caught? Not by DNA. He was caught by the police having an undercover operation for two weeks in an area he was known to target. They caught him by old-fashioned police work, not DNA.


DNA has never been a magic bullet. It is only corroborative. The sooner our thicker politicians can get that simple fact into their heads (which I personally doubt) the better.



Cycling Madness

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

It is rare that I take silly risks. I’m in my fifties, for goodness sake. Still, today I was asked to go for a cycle ride with a friend, and thought it couldn’t hurt. It did.

I haven’t been regularly cycling for a while. It was two years ago I got my Kinesis bike, and boy, is it good. It’s easy, fast, direct, with great handling. I’ve only fallen off it once, and while it was painful, hey, getting fit is hard. I’ve a friend who’s a writer who once had an industrial injury. He sat at his desk so long, his leg went to sleep, and when he stood up, he fell and broke his leg. Yes, really. So falling off a bike is easy in comparison to dangerous work like writing.

Last year I was working so hard, I didn’t have time to get out on the bike for months at a time. So this month is the first time on the bike in the last ten, I think. And that means a certain anxiety while going out with Roger.

Why? Because Roger used to be a national cyclist with the Swiss team. It was a while ago, as he laughingly told me, but seeing his gleaming blue eyes smiling at me was enough to persuade me that this was probably the smile of a sadist. Was the Maquis de Sade fair-haired? I think he might have been. Did one of his children set up home in Switzerland? Hmm.

But I digress.

The first eight miles were . . . well, good at first, then painful, and then we hit a hill that had me giving up, getting off and walking. The next few were better, apart from the hill up to South Tawton, which was a really nasty one (thank you Perry for trying to run me over) – but I stayed on the bike. And Roger kindly left my gently steaming body at the corner of the lane, and cycled off up the next hill.

He really is unpleasantly fit.

So, today I have learned that I am way behind and need a new effort on the bike before I can have a chance to make the London to Brighton ride. However, the good thing is, London to Brighton doesn’t have hills like the ones round Spreyton, Chagford, Moretonhampstead . . .  so before too long, I will be ready. Honest.

I’ll have to be. I am getting money for the British Heart Foundation. After today, I know full well that getting money for that charity is enlightened self-interest.

Meanwhile there’s the book. That’ll be finished, hopefully, next week.

And then I can get back to work on the other projects.

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

The Last Few Yards

There are few more hideous periods in an author’s life than getting close to the end. Fine, so I am nearing that gorgeous phase when I can type “The End” and wander into the sunset. But hold on  . . .

First, you have that rush of happiness at the thought that it’s close to being over. Except it’s not, of course. The agent will call up with the “Hey, Mike, this is great” call, which must have a “But” somewhere towards the tail-end.

Then there is the editor, who will be more fulsome (it means nothing. They’re more polite the less keen they are), and the copyeditor. Both involve retypes, more work, reminding yourself what the hell the story was, who died in that alley, and who on earth was actually responsible.

The job is never over, really.

However, before you even get that far, there are other little tribulations.

Doubts creep in.

Did I tie up that red herring on the first questioning of a suspect? Oh, God, no, I didn’t. And the guy’s clothes. Why were they green on that page, when I clearly stated they were red on this one? The ruddy man’s carrying a sword here, but it’s only a long knife at the end of the para – and why the hell do I say that she was dead lying on her back, when she was on her face on page ten?

Some, of course, aren’t so bad. Some, indeed many, of these little niggles (did I say little? Hah!) aren’t so bad always. They can, for example, mean that the story develops along new, unforeseen lines that can make the plot work a lot better. But some don’t work that way. Some are story-stoppers. They are the equivalent of the tree trunk lying across the railway tracks in front of the Riviera Express. They stop the thing on the tracks while the poor blasted author wanders off muttering darkly about narrative consequences and tangled webs and wouldn’t it be nice to be stacking shelves at Waitrose rather than sitting here at the desk for twelve hours or more every day . . .

And then you reach the sunny uplands and suddenly everything is good, happy, delightful, and a massive, massive relief.

I am looking forward to that moment just now.