Friday, November 30, 2012

Stars in our eyes


It is a curious thing, this world of independent ebook publishing. We hear a great deal about how important reviews are in helping to sell a book. I have also mentioned before (Reviewing – the situation) how I feel that the number of five star reviews given to self-published books is misleading and, I think, ultimately unhelpful.

Here are some numbers to consider (these were correct at the time of writing):
·         Fifty Shades of Grey, currently #683 in the Kindle Store, has an average ranking of 3 stars (from 14,107 reviews).
·         The Da Vinci Code, currently “languishing” at #47,508, has around 3.5 stars (4,144 reviews).
·         The current #1, Notorious Nineteen: A Stephanie Plum Novel, has around 3.5 stars (70 reviews), and has been in the top 100 for 80 days.
·         The 2012 Mann Booker Prize winner, Bringing up the Bodies, has a somewhat better ranking at 4.5 stars, but only manages the #2,746 position (not that I wouldn’t kill for that!).
·         The 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction (no prize was awarded in 2012), A Visit From the Goon Squad, has 3.5 stars and the #3,882 position.
·         A Farewell to Arms, Moby Dick, and Joyce’s Ulysses, all average 4 stars; Women in Love manages only 3.5.

It is far from clear to me:
1.      What meaning and value the reviews on Amazon have.
2.      What relationship there is between reviews and sales.
3.      What relationship there is between reviews and the actual quality of the book.
4.      What relationship there is between the number of stars a book receives and its popularity.

There is a great deal of anecdotal information bandied about; and perhaps I am just adding to that here. My point is that the situation is far from clear. There are doubtless many, many factors that influence the sales of a book, and also many, many factors that influence the mind of the reviewer. The actual quality of the book is only one of these, and perhaps not, by a long way, the most important.

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Don't forget the **CHRISTMAS SPECIAL** deal on Maybe they'll remember me.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Facebook's Fear of Naughty Bits

Here you can see the original cover of my book. The image on the cover is of a statue at Ouchy, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Thousands of people, of all ages and from all cultures, pass by that statue every day. On every sunny day, dozens of people sit on the lawns around it, enjoying their lunch.


But Facebook doesn’t approve!

Everyone in the world of self-publishing knows how difficult it is to market a self-published book. Well, the other day I decided to bite the bullet and actually pay for some advertising, to see how that went for a while. Among the most affordable options was an ad on Facebook. I know, given my budget, that it would not get great exposure; but it would probably be more than I was getting without it. So I decided to risk it and part with some cash. I wrote the little blurb, uploaded the image, decided how much I was willing to spend, etc. Then I waited for the ad to become active. Only it didn’t, because the image didn’t meet their guidelines. I quote:

The image of your ad violates our Ad Guidelines. Images may not be overly sexual, imply nudity, show excessive amounts of skin or cleavage, or focus unnecessarily on body parts.

Now, I wonder, how does one “imply” nudity? By wearing clothes, perhaps? Hmmm, “focus unnecessarily on body parts.” How quaint! How coy! So, if I have a photograph of a hand? An eye? What body parts, Facebook? Can’t even bring yourself to name them? Let me guess: the “naughty bits”? These body parts have names, folks – breasts, penises and vaginas. Most of us possess at least one thing from that list. (I’m guessing that bottoms are not considered quite so naughty; but if they are, most of us have one of those too.) Presumably a woman in a bikini can “show excessive amounts of skin or cleavage”, but not “body parts”. So, be honest, Facebook, you don’t really care about “excessive amounts of skin or cleavage”; just those naughty bits. Now Facebook can make any rules they like, and I have to abide by their guidelines if I wish to use their services. But, really? Can an image of a statue in a public place really be considered offensive? Or are we dealing with automated censors here, programs that cannot make sensible decisions, rather than people?

I suppose these images would be unacceptable in an ad?



Does this pass muster?

 
Perhaps it’s time that Facebook (together with a large sector of modern society) began to grow up, and make some sensible, adult decisions. Or are we stuck with some automated programs (“bots”, or whatever the hell they are) to set our moral standards for us? Let’s start by calling a spade a spade, and a penis a penis.

Feel free to have a vigorous debate about this in the Comments section!






P.S. I have since changed the cover image, but I can assure you it was not because of Facebook's or anyone else's fear of naughty bits.

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All-read-E - For all your manuscript assessment, copy editing and proofreading needs.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop


We interrupt our usual programming to bring you a special broadcast: my part in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop. This is an opportunity for writers/bloggers to promote the work of others in the same field, as well as their own work. My task today is to answer the following questions in relation to my latest work. Although I currently have several other projects under way, my novel Maybe they’ll remember me is still a baby in my eyes, so I will focus on that. I hope you enjoy the experience: 

What is the working title of your book?

Well, I hope it’s working! It works for me anyway. When I was trying to come up with a title, this line, spoken by one of the central characters, leaped out at me.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Hmmm, how do I begin to answer this? Some of the ideas in this story have been hanging around in my head for as long as 35 years. However, these ideas lacked a single, unifying idea to bring them together. I began writing this book at the beginning of this year, and it just wasn’t working. Then suddenly I had the idea, which was to tell the story by focusing on the previous generation.  

What genre does your book fall under?

Another tricky question, but one which people always want answered – it is this tendency we human beings have to want “to give names to all the animals”. By other people this novel has been described as a romance and as a family saga. It is not quite either. I toyed with the idea of “literary fiction”, but what the hell does that mean? How about this: a real life drama.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I am not sure how well-known some of these actors are outside the UK (or Australia). Some Googling may be required to identify some of them. Oh, and I see this more as a BBC miniseries than a Hollywood blockbuster.
·         Gregory (present day) – Anthony la Paglia, to give him an Australian voice.
·         Maggie (in the forties and fifties) – tough role: Jessica Raine perhaps?.
·         Harold (in the forties and fifties) – I say, give Daniel Radcliffe a chance.
·         Kate (in the forties and fifties) – her physical appearance is probably more important than for the others. Rachelle Hurd-Wood?
·         Kate (present day) – who else but Judi Dench?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

If you try to possess a butterfly, you end up with a dead thing under glass, pinned to a board. (A little too esoteric? I think you’ll get it when you read the book.)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It is already published, by this here particular self.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About a month, once the characters finally figured out who they were and where they wanted to go.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This book is, of course, unique and incomparable. But, although I haven’t read any of her books, some of the novels of Denise Robertson sound as though they may have a similar setting and similar themes. I like to think there are hints of D. H. Lawrence here also, although without (hopefully) quite so much self-indulgent introspection. Perhaps, also, there is a little of East of Eden, although I don’t claim to be on a par with Steinbeck.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

The simplest answer to this is that the writer’s whose books I have loved, and the people I have met during my lifetime, inspired me to write this. I am inspired by the beautiful use of words, and by the complexities of human life.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

My sincere wish is that as they are reading this book, people will feel that they are meeting real people dealing with real life issues. I hope that they will see a little of themselves and the people around them in these characters. These are not people living lives far removed from our own: they are not spies or action heroes. They are you and I, our parents, our brothers and sisters, and our friends.

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The next writer/blogger to participate in the Hop on December 5 is Gil Schmidt, author of Enter the Phenomenologists:  http://gilthejenius.blogspot.ch/. I invite you to visit his site today, and again next week.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Theatre: The word become flesh

I watched part of an interview a few nights ago with that great British actor, Peter O’Toole. He revealed himself to be a very thoughtful and intelligent man, not that I had any reason to doubt it. The interview was recorded in 2011, and Peter is now 80 years old. He holds the record for having received the most Academy Award nominations (8) without ever having won one. The interviewer remarked that perhaps the problem was that he had never made a really bad movie, and that people therefore took the high quality of his performances for granted. If he had made a clunker one year, then followed it up the next year with a masterpiece, perhaps he might have won. A passing thought: our failures make our successes look even better.

In the course of the interview, Peter made an interesting remark. Without wishing in any way to be blasphemous or irreverent, he said that he had always felt that in the work of an actor, the word becomes flesh. Words on a page take on life, body, substance, breath, when they are performed by an actor. It seems to me that this is profoundly true. It is why a play can be produced over and over again, in each generation; because a play is not just the words, it is the incarnation of the words, and each “avatar” will be different. Even night after night, with the same actors, it will be different, because what happened in that actor’s life that day will add new flesh to the words. And that is also why an actor can perform the same role again and again. And come back to a role again later in life.

I have always had some difficulty reading the text of a play, although I have loved performing in many (in a purely amateur capacity), and enjoy watching them. Peter O’Toole’s words have now made it clearer to me why that is the case. It is because the words on the page are not the play. The play is the word become flesh on the stage.

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This is the only snippet of the interview that I could locate on YouTube. It doesn’t contain the piece to which I refer here, but it is worth a look:

Monday, November 26, 2012

On being decisive

Here I am in the supermarket, and before me stretches, on shelf after shelf, a bewildering array of toothbrushes. Here I am again, faced with a decision! Making decisions is a theme that fascinates me. Volumes could be written about the process of decision-making, both from a philosophical and psychological perspective. I am going to begin with a little exploration of the words “decide” and “decision” themselves.

If we look closely at the word “decision” we can see that it is closely related to words such as “incision” and “precision”. These have their roots in the Latin verb caedere meaning “to cut”. The connection is obvious with respect to “incision”, less so with respect to “precision”. Nevertheless to be precise is, so to speak, “to cut something fine”. To decide (in Latin, decidere) literally means “to cut off”. So already, here, we see some important philosophical and psychological ideas.

A decision involves cutting off possibilities. When we choose one option, we exclude others. There are many fascinating “what if” stories (eg. the movie Sliding Doors) which explore the outcomes of alternative decisions. Herein also lies a whole realm of science fiction speculation about alternate futures and timelines. Making a decision is a potentially terrifying experience, because in committing ourselves to one path rather than another, we exclude other possible futures, for ourselves, and perhaps others. The cutting involved is not simply theoretical or external – it “cuts” right into us. Of course, some decisions will be more critical (and painful) than others. Choosing which kind of toothbrush to buy today is unlikely to affect my life as much as choosing whether to take this or that job. Although, in some circumstances, choosing to turn left rather than right could prove fatal.

If we look at the word “decide”, rather than “decision”, we discover a whole other range of associations. “Decide” shares a common root with other “-cides”, such as homicide and suicide. These are also processes of cutting off, on this occasion from life. “Decide” shares with these other “-cides” this cutting away of life, or, in this case, other possible lives. So every decision is also, to a greater or lesser extent, also a death. No wonder that, sometimes, facing a large decision can render us paralysed.

Finally, as much as we might like to, we can never know for certain whether we have made the correct decision in life, because we have no way of knowing the results of the alternatives, which are now dead to us as possibilities. For that reason, it is pointless to say to ourselves, “If only I had...” At the same time, this is also liberating, because we also can never say for certain that we made the wrong decision. All we have is the here and now that results from the previous decisions we have made (and perhaps also from the decisions of others) and a whole vista of further decisions stretching before us.

Now, back to that toothbrush choice....

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OTHER STUFF

I have made a promotional video for Maybe they'll be watching me, which can be found here.

I also thought it might be interesting to make a "soundtrack" to the book, including some of the songs that are featured in it it one way or another. This can be found on my Pinterest page, here.

Enjoy!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reviewing - the situation



A while ago I offered my services to self-publishing authors to review their books, free of charge. In this way I hoped, not only to read some interesting books and learn a few things (for instance, I have been reviewing genre that I would not ordinarily read), but also to draw attention to my own writing. This offer has generated considerable interest. Already I have learned things from this activity, although not necessarily about the writing process as such. Here are some of my preliminary “findings”: 
  • While it is always a pleasure to review a book that is well written, with a good story line, it is much more difficult to review one that has serious flaws. It is not difficult to identify the flaws, but it is difficult to draw attention to them in a way that is constructive and is not taken too much to heart by the author. I think I know how to criticise a book sensitively and constructively; what I do not find so easy is sending the review to the author. I know how painful a disappointing review can be. Nevertheless I have to tell myself that we are adults, and that an honest review will do more good in the long run than a sugar-coated one.
  • I am a little disturbed by the number of five star reviews (particularly on the Amazon site) of books that are not, in my opinion, worthy of such a rating. Many of these reviews are certainly written by friends and family, who probably want to show their support for the author. Others appear to be written without much real thought or effort.  While the intentions may be good, giving a five star rating to a book that may really be only worth three stars, is not helpful for the author. The author needs to know about the mistakes he or she has made. She needs to know how she can improve this book, or write an even better one next time. Let’s be clear that a book that gets three out of five stars is still a good book. One that gets four stars is very good; and one that receives five stars is brilliant. Very few books are brilliant; and even fewer, by first time authors or early career writers. I am doing a disservice to an author by giving five stars to a good or even a very good book. There is always room for improvement, and sometime down the road, that author, through having learned and developed, may finally produce that five star chef d'oeuvre.
  • I am disappointed by the number of typographical and/or grammatical errors that I find in self-published books. Believe me, I am disappointed when I find them in my own work, too! It is absolutely essential to have someone else, and even several other people, read your book. And this needs to be not just any “someone”, but someone with a good grasp of grammar and spelling. Our family and friends, for all their good intentions,  may not always meet these criteria. I have even read books that have supposedly been professionally copy-edited and proof read, but which still contain dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of basic errors. And this is without even considering whether a sentence or paragraph, which may be grammatically correct, is also well constructed. Even a good, professional copy-editor/proof reader will not catch every error (and don’t believe anyone who claims they will); but using one should go a long way towards improving the quality of the reading experience.

As long as I have time, and a pool of willing victims, I will continue to review books. I hope that people will appreciate the need to be honest and fair; and I hope that people will come to accept a three star review as positive, although it still leaves plenty of room for growth and improvement.

In the meantime, I may consider expanding into the copy-editing/proof reading business myself. That, however, I will not do for free!


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SPECIAL OFFER
From now until Christmas, electronic copies of Maybe they'll remember me will be available for 50% off at Smashwords (using the code YB48M), and at Amazon.

Paperback copies: 10% off at

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Give us today our daily blog

For someone slightly anal, like myself, watching the stats for this blog is quite fascinating. I watch as my latest post rockets up the “charts”, to reach the number one spot in only hours. Or I see it languish somewhere below the top ten, wondering what I did wrong with that one. The posts I think may do well fizzle and pop pathetically, while those I dash off in a hurry, because I feel I have to say something, soar like a bird.

And then there are the country stats. Hmmmm, who is that, I wonder, following me here in Switzerland? And Kyrgyzstan? Who would have thought! But “Hi there”, whoever you are.

I have no idea how the visits to my site compare with visits to other people’s sites – and I probably don’t want to know. I can only make within-site comparisons. But even just considering my own site, there is the fear that visits will decline, and that I will have to do something new to attract attention again. If you read my earlier post (“Life is like...”), where I talk about living in a world with only down escalators, I would add this: Not only do they only go down, they constantly pick up speed; which means that it is necessary to actually increase my own speed when going up, just to maintain my current position.

But don’t worry. I don’t need comforting. I am enjoying myself, and I hope you are enjoying reading the stuff I write, however varied its quality. The challenge of coming up with something (slightly) interesting to say, daily if possible, is one that I relish. And thank you for taking the time to visit.

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SPECIAL OFFER
From now until Christmas, electronic copies of Maybe they'll remember me will be available for 50% off at Smashwords (using the code YB48M), and at Amazon.

Paperback copies: 10% off at

Friday, November 23, 2012

Memories of slush


When I was about 30 years old I came to Switzerland to attend a conference at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. After the conference, a Swiss protestant pastor generously and spontaneously invited me to stay with him and his family for a few days, an offer which I accepted with enthusiasm. He was the minister in a small Swiss village, in the German part of Switzerland, about an hour or so by train from Zurich. This was my first experience of those gigantic Swiss cowbells, clanking around the necks of the cows in the field, which extended right up to the walls of the presbytery. This was a fascinating and enriching experience for me, and there are several stories I could tell. But the one that I will tell today concerns snow.

I was born in the UK, and until the age of eight I lived in Birmingham, where I eagerly anticipated the appearance of snow each year. But in 1966 my family emigrated to Australia, and memories of snow began to melt. It was not until about nine or ten years later, on a brief trip to the USA with my parents, that I once again encountered snow in Yosemite National Park. It would be another thirteen years before I saw snow again, which brings me to this story.

Knowing that I was from Australia, and knowing that snow remained something of a novelty for me, the pastor’s wife decided one day to drive me up a nearby mountain, where, she hoped, there might still be traces of snow. This was in June, so I imagine we had to reach quite an elevation. We were not alone in the car. There were others staying at the pastor’s home, and altogether there were five of us crammed into her small and rather dilapidated vehicle.

To reach our destination we had to climb quite steeply up a fairly narrow and winding road. I had the distinct impression that the pastor’s wife (whose name, I’m afraid, has long since also melted with the snow) did not drive very often. She tackled the road very slowly and with great care, as a result of which the engine began to overheat. Now, her solution to this problem was not to stop for a while, nor to drive a little more quickly, and in a higher gear, which may have helped cool the engine by decreasing the revs and increasing the air flow. No. Her solution was to turn the heater on full in order to dissipate the heat. Into the interior of the car. Into us. Being at high altitude it was already quite cold outside the car; but in that small car, with five of us crammed cheek to jowl, wearing warm clothing in anticipation of the cold outside, it soon became unpleasantly hot. That, together with the jerky and twisting movements of the car, and the fact that I was in the back seat (never a good thing), caused me to regret the full breakfast I had eaten that morning.

Fortunately, I managed to keep everything in its proper place, and eventually we reached a parking area near a long, sloping expanse of grass – a ski slope during winter, I was informed. We left the car and I breathed air that had not, thankfully, already been breathed by four other people. Together we walked up the slightly muddy slope to where, in shaded dips and gullies, a grey, crystalline substance retreated from the summer encroachment of the sun. This was the decaying corpse of snow. Nevertheless, I dutifully gathered some into my gloved hands and formed a slushball.

Fortunately, the drive down the mountain road was less stressful for the car, the driver and her passengers. Although I think she may have been a little embarrassed at having only been able to present to me these dregs of snow, I was grateful to her for having taken the time and made the effort.

It would be another 22 years before I saw snow again. Its appearance still has the power to evoke those early childhood years. It will be one thing that I miss when I leave Switzerland in a few weeks time, and I am hoping that Mother Nature might oblige me with a display before I go.

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SPECIAL OFFER
From now until Christmas, electronic copies of Maybe they'll remember me will be available for 50% off at Smashwords (using the code YB48M), and at Amazon.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

On being a hermit


I have, it must be admitted, slightly hermitic tendencies. I almost wrote “hermetic”, as in sealed off from the outside world, which may sometimes be true as well. But I meant “hermitic”, as in a tendency to be a hermit and withdraw from the world. In the early days of Christianity, hermits were regarded as holy men and women. Many lived alone in caves. Some, such as Simeon Stylites, spent many years living perched on a small platform supported by a pillar. They depended on the faithful to bring them what little food they ate, and paid scant regard for personal hygiene. In eighteenth century England it was quite fashionable to keep a pet hermit somewhere down the bottom of the estate, in the hermitage.  

There are many reasons for withdrawing from the world. This may be for a time of healing or reflection. Many writers become periodically hermitic at crucial stages in the writing process. There are also less constructive withdrawals, when, for example, we are running away from responsibility or seeking to avoid confrontation. The ability to withdraw constructively from society is becoming increasingly difficult. This is due to both technology and the very nature of contemporary society. Technologically, “down time” or “quiet time” is becoming a thing of the past, as we carry our office, our friends and our family with us in a little, rectangular box. Being alone and undisturbed has become, if not physically, at least psychologically, impossible for many people. From the point of view of society, it will not tolerate withdrawal: we are irrevocably responsible to and dependent on society. Even the “ferals” – this may be an exclusively Australian designation for people who try to drop out of society and live an alternative lifestyle – draw unemployment benefits.

Time and time again in my thinking about the modern world I encounter the perhaps ill-defined concept of stress. When crowded together, most animals become stressed. Either physically, or in less tangible ways, we are always jostling for space and position, elbowing others out of the way, trampling others, or being trampled. Space and time are rare and extremely valuable “commodities”. We need time and space, our own time and space, to maintain our physical and psychological well being. Without it, the result is what we have today: a society full of people who are always on the verge of exploding, whether that be in the form of road rage, supermarket rage or Columbine/Ut√łya massacres.

I admit that my own hermitic tendencies are not always healthy. Nevertheless, it would probably benefit each of us individually and society as a whole if we were to make "time out" and "space out" an integral part of our lives. Turn off that phone and leave it off all day, for perhaps one day every month.

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Special Offer:
Until Christmas: 50% off electronic versions of Maybe they'll remember me at Smashwords, with this code YB48M.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Frisbees


My father, who is now 85 years old, has often expressed to me recently his astonishment at having lived into the twenty-first century. He was born in 1927, and ahead of him, although, of course, he did not realise it at the time, was the Second World War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. He made it through. He imagines himself as a child, sitting on the step in front of his house, trying to envisage at that time that he would still be alive today. Inconceivable! The turn of the next century was not even a shimmer on the horizon. The twentieth century was only about one third of the way through.

Change is almost synonymous with life, and there is, perhaps, no generation that has not imagined itself to have lived through more change than any other. However, my parents’ generation may have some justification for this claim. I won’t take the time to list here the monumental changes that the world has passed through since 1927. Some of us have lived through some of them, be they scientific, political, social or technological. Nor do I need to list the things that we take for granted today, that were scarcely imagined in 1927.

I was born in 1957, which in some ways represents the dawn of the “modern” age. It was the year in which the first satellites were launched into orbit (the Sputniks); it was the year in which the International Atomic Energy Agency was formed. Computers (of a “primitive” variety), television, international commercial jet flights and Rock’n’Roll were already in place. Most importantly, it is the year in which Frisbees first hit the marketplace.

We have not progressed as far in the exploration of space as we might have imagined in 1957. The Atomic age has fulfilled as many nightmares as dreams. But at least we still have the Frisbee! The important things endure.

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Some of us are currently participating in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop. As part of that I encourage you to visit the Blog of the author of A Solitary Life, Colleen Sayre. Next Wednesday, as part of the same event, I will tell you more about the background to my own novel, Maybe they'll remember me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Blowing his own trumpet


I was walking home from the university the other night, and the traffic was quite heavy (for Lausanne). The vehicles in the lane heading towards me were moving very slowly. As often happens when I am walking home, particularly if it is dark and cold, as it was that night, I tend to enter a kind of trance state and walk on automatic. Sometimes I will suddenly look around and be surprised at how far I have come (it is about a 4.5 km walk each evening from the uni to my apartment). On this particular occasion what startled me from my trance was the sound of a trumpet. Now this is not something that one expects to hear, walking past tennis courts and corporate buildings. I glanced upwards, expecting, perhaps, to see the seven angels  trumpeting the end of the world. I could see no evidence of them, this evening at least.

It took me only a moment to realise that the sound of the trumpet (a little more jazz-flavoured than we might expect from angels) was coming from a white van that was moving slowly past me in the far lane. It was, indeed, the driver of the unmarked van, blowing his own trumpet as he drove. I suspect he was in violation of several rules of the road, but at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. At least he wasn’t taking that important phone call that just couldn’t possibly wait; or sending that urgent text message to a friend, assuring her that he would text more information about when he could text her at the first opportunity.

Eccentricity is by definition rare in any society, however that society might define its particular centre. However, I think it is fair to say that eccentricity is less common in Swiss society than in many others. It was therefore quite refreshing to have my rather grey reverie disturbed that evening by a little splash of colour from an otherwise plain white van.

Monday, November 19, 2012

More circles


Once, several years ago, I remember standing in the centre of a stone circle, somewhere in Cornwall. My partner at the time, I recall, was reluctant to enter. I felt no such compunction. Whether such places have any intrinsic “magic”, I am not sure. Certainly that place was open, bleak and windswept. Perhaps against such unbridled space and formlessness, creating a circle is already a kind of magic. Here is form. Here is enclosure. Here are edges and boundaries. And here we are, once again, considering circles (see previous post).

Regardless of what one might think about the numinous quality of particular times and places, the fact that others have found a site significant, that they have been drawn to it repeatedly, and have taken the time to give it form and structure, itself lends significance to a place. I have felt the same way when viewing Aboriginal rock paintings in Australia. Here, in this vast, terrifying, and occasionally formless world people are declaring: Here I am. Here we are. I will shape things. I will enclose and tame things.

Standing in that circle, the wind whistling through the scrubby bushes, the horizon broken only by low hills and tumbled boulders, it is possible to feel the aloneness that our ancestors may have felt. Imagine a world in which the entire human population may have numbered between 20 and 30 million, less than the population of the greater Tokyo area today. The population of Britain was less than 1 million. The world must have seemed a lonely place.

It is in places like that stone circle where we can feel our roots reaching back, far back, into the past. More than that, we can feel that past reaching into us. We are not so very different from those people. We sometimes still find the world a terrifying and dangerous place; we still seek to build walls behind which to keep ourselves safe; we constantly struggle to bring form out of chaos. If I search for ready-made meaning in the external world, I may be disappointed. But what I can hope to do is create a little bubble of meaning out of the surrounding chaos, much as our ancestors created circles from the stones randomly scattered throughout their environment.

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My novel Maybe they'll remember me was recently reviewed at The Bookbag. The review can be found here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Time... and time again


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

T. S. Eliot wrote these words towards the end of Little Gidding, the fourth of the Four Quartets, a series of poems that are largely a reflection on time. These poems were among the last written by Eliot, composed during the Second World War, when he was around my age (mid fifties). They are words that have always stayed with me over the years, circling around and around inside my head, encircling me. There are hints here of many things: the circle of life, the eternal return. There is the suggestion that the end is in the beginning and the beginning in the end. You can only know the beginning when you reach the end, just as you can only finally know the meaning of a sentence when you reach... the full stop. (It’s rather like waiting for the verb to arrive at the end of a German sentence.)

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others...)

There is an inner tension between the image of the eternal return and that of the sentence. The circle suggests unendingness (and with it, to my mind, a certain tedium – the circle of life is something to escape from in Indian thinking). The sentence, on the other hand, is a linear construct, with a beginning and an end. It is these that give it meaning. In fact, I am inclined to offer another image for consideration, that of the arch. In this improbable structure, every block supports every other block: the end and beginning support each other equally. Thus it is with the sentence, and thus it is, perhaps, with our lives. This arch that we construct above the flatness of reality requires both a beginning and an end.

Thus despite the attraction of the circle, with its apparent perfection, I opt for a more linear interpretation of life and time. Circles, in the end, are boring. Beginnings and endings are much more interesting.

Finally, in this ode to geometry, I am tempted to give the last word to the spiral, that ever-changing, ever growing (almost) circle. Perhaps it was the Celts who had the best idea, after all.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Newgrange,_Ireland.jpg

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Music music music


Music is a strange phenomenon. Western music, at least, is all about mathematical ratios. From these arise our perceptions of harmony and discord. But it is a mystery to me why such things should affect us in any way. Why does it sound unpleasant or unsatisfying when there is disharmony? And why does it sound pleasant, even beautiful, when there is harmony? Why does a particular sequence of notes please us, while others can leave us feeling dissatisfied? Why is the resolution of a chord at the end of a symphony so satisfying? Why does a minor chord evoke sadness? Having spent some time as an evolutionary biologist, I confess to being mystified by the evolution of this musical capacity. Charles Darwin was similarly stumped. He once wrote, “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man ... they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed” (The Descent of Man).

There is almost certainly something in our neural structure that makes us respond to music. I’m sure we have all experienced the inability to get a particular tune (even a very annoying one!) out of our head. It seems to resonate in some way within our neurons, running round and round in an endless loop. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a story entitled “The Ultimate Melody” (published in Tales from the White Hart, 1957). In this story, a scientist has a similar theory. He undertakes to create the perfect melody, the perfect “hook” if you like. He apparently succeeds, resulting in a catatonic state. So beware of those song writers and music producers out there. We now understand their ultimate goal!

It may be that the evolution of this musical capacity is just a side effect of other things which have more immediate implications for human survival, such as speech recognition, or the differentiation between various animal calls. If so, it is a very happy accident indeed.

For those interested in this question, the following not-too-scientific paper in Nature contains an interesting discussion.


Recent Review
I would like to recommend a nice short science fiction story by Charlotte Gordon: Soul Mates. Read my review at http://philipnewey.com/index_files/Page654.htm

Friday, November 16, 2012

Nothing

Kate Bush, in 2011, released an album entitled 50 Words for Snow. The title track features the voice of Stephen Fry contributing 50 increasingly absurd and Fry-ed words for that crystalline variety of H2O. I have nothing more to say about snow in this post. But as I feel that I have nothing in particular to say today at all, I was wondering if I could find 10 (an aim a little more modest than that of Bush and Fry) ways to say it – nothing, that is.

So here we go:
  1. Vacuum – and no, not the hoovering variety.
  2. Zero – being somewhat mathematically inclined during a previous life.
  3. Zip – not the code (or the fastening device).
  4. Void – bodily functions come to mind, but let’s not go there.
  5. Love – tennis and all that.
  6. Bugger all – Aussies and Brits will get this (not sure about the North American audience – ok, so sometimes it means almost nothing, or next to nothing – cut me a little slack here!).
  7. Sweet FA – choose your own version of the “FA”.
  8. Nada – alright, so I had to borrow that from Spanish.
  9. Nihility – for the philosophically inclined (more like “nothingness” than “nothing”, but let’s not be picky).
  10. Nout – another one for the Brits – any geordies listening in?

Actually, nothing is very important. You may recall that line from Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen: “Nothing really matters.” We can change the emphasis a little: Nothing really matters. It really does. There is, after all, much more nothing in the universe than something. There is much more nothing in us than something. Someone once said that if you compressed the entire human population, removing all space, the end product would be about the size of a sugar cube. Like all these claims, this is a very rough approximation (as far as I am aware, no one has yet tried this experiment – perhaps someone should write a funding proposal); but it makes the point. Take away all the nothing from inside me and I will amount to, well, practically nothing.


PS. While you are here, consider signing this petition.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What lies beneath


In another of my many former lives, I used to be a preacher man (not the son of one, though). I want to make it clear from the start that I no longer have any religious affiliation of any kind. I say this in order to avoid frightening away those who find all things religious anathema. Of course, in the process I may alienate those who do consider themselves to be religious. I am not interested in a debate on the issue here. I raise the point only because what does remain of my previous life is a desire to look into things, or beneath things, to vary the spatial metaphor. I have always found that what is beneath the surface is much more interesting than the surface that conceals/contains/ protects it. The surface is not a bad thing. It is necessary to do all these things from time to time: conceal, contain and protect what is within.

It is also very important, at other times, to expose this hidden substance of the world, of people, of me. Above all, I need to be aware of the hidden substance of me. Hidden it may be, but it is not inactive. It is this substance that ultimately gives shape to the exterior of my life, though I do not always recognise how, when or where.  “Know thyself” – these are still wise words. As always, there is a warning that goes with this: It can be very dangerous to bring some of the hidden stuff out into the open, particularly too much, too quickly. Nevertheless, I believe that the dangers of not doing so are greater. I think that the source of much of the unexplained, explosive violence in many of our modern societies is due to the denial and suppression of this hidden substance. We make the dangerous assumption that the surface is the truth and nothing but the truth; and that nothing but the surface is the truth. Has there ever been a less tolerant society than our “tolerant society”? Probably many; but not one that denied its own intolerance, lying just below the surface, so vehemently. There are many other creatures swimming around down there, some of them malicious, some of them harmless, some even benevolent. We ignore them at our cost.

What my life as a writer has in common with my earlier life as a preacher is the desire to raise awareness of this underneath. It was never my desire to tell people what to think, only to encourage them to do so. Whether I am successful at this, either as a preacher or as a writer, is for others to say.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Polly Ticking


This is not a piece about exploding parrots, but I thought if I called it “politicking”, you might not read it. And who could blame you? But don’t be alarmed, I do not intend to push any particular political barrow. Rather, I am concerned with the general notion of being political. In one sense, it is impossible not to be political: everything we say, everything we do, everything we don’t do, has political implications. We are all part of the body politic, “no man [or woman] is an island”, etc. However, the notion of being political also has a slightly stronger meaning: to become actively and deliberately involved in a particular political cause, aimed at changing, in some way, the political landscape.

In this latter sense, I used to be much more political than I am today. This issue comes up at the present time because I have friends, both on and off line, who are much more politically active than I am. At times this makes me feel a little guilty: Have I become too complacent? Too self-involved? The answer to both questions may be “yes”.  But that is not the whole story.

There is a constant interaction between the individual and society. Each can and does influence the other. It is probably fair to say that the interaction is not balanced. The individual is affected much more by changes in society, than society is affected by changes in the individual. That depends, of course, on the position of the individual within that society. In social networking theory, some people serve as important nodes, with more connections to more people than others. When they change in some way, the ripples may be much greater than when someone less well-connected changes. This is something we should all think about very carefully in this age of online social networking: we are all, to some extent, seeking to extend our sphere of influence.

Because of this interaction between the individual and society, it is possible to approach political action from one of two directions. We can try the top down approach. This is concerned with attempting to directly alter the structures, institutions and framework of society, perhaps by starting or joining mass political movements, by lobbying political parties, or by entering directly into the machinery by becoming politicians ourselves. The other is the bottom up approach. In this approach we seek to influence the individuals around us, by modelling behaviour, by education, by sharing our ideas and values. The ripples are small, but perhaps with enough of them, changes can occur in the political structures themselves. Over the years I have lost faith somewhat in the first approach, because social institutions and structures have a tremendous inertia. Social movements have a way of themselves becoming institutionalised and soon fall victim to the same inertia as the things they oppose. Those who try to enter the structures are more often shaped by them, rather than being able to mould them into a new shape. For that reason I favour the bottom up, slow ripple approach. It may take much longer, and I may never live to witness the changes, if they occur. But at least there is the satisfaction of knowing that I have been able to touch someone else’s life, as they have been able to touch mine. My hat is off, though, to those who really do succeed in bringing about change from the top. I envy their courage and stamina.

It is a very small thing, but I hope that by touching other people with my writing, I may be able to cause a few ripples. All I seek is to have people look a little deeper into themselves, to understand the forces at work in and around them. If I achieve that, even a little, then my work here is done.

The book burners are correct: writing can be a subversive activity.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Re-imagining the future


I have sometimes thought that it would be interesting to write a history of the future. I hear you asking: What on earth would that be? Well, the future has long been a favourite topic of fiction and non-fiction, of television and cinema. We love to speculate about what the future will bring. So, I am wondering: How has our concept of the future changed over the years? How accurate have the various previsionings of the future turned out to be? To what extent have these previsionings actually shaped the present in which we live?

This last question is particularly interesting because our present is not independent of these earlier visions. These visions have, to some extent, shaped our expectations, generated ideas. And some of these have subsequently become our reality today. So Star Trek (for example) did not simply predict the existence of notebook computers and eBook readers. Someone watching those shows probably thought to themselves, “Hey, what a great idea!”

It is certainly also true that the way a society at a particular time and place envisions the future says a great deal about that society. It tells us something about that society’s hopes, dreams and fears. Orwell’s 1984, to take an obvious example, surely tells us as much, if not more, about the psychology of 1947/48, as it does about the future (as envisaged at the time). Studying the past’s visions of the future, knowing what we now do about that past, can tell us something about our own greatest hopes and fears. What do our visions of the future say about us, here and now?

While this would be a very interesting exercise at the level of society, perhaps it can also tell us something about our own individual hopes and fears. What is your vision of the future? Has your vision of the future changed over the years? Which of the multitude of visions offered today by the media of books, cinema, television and video games, resonate most with you? Which do you find most attractive, which the most terrifying?

The future, remember, is just over the page. See you tomorrow.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Before my time


It’s time for a rant, but not before I admit to a guilty pleasure... I like to watch TV quiz shows. Not game shows – good, heavens, I am not that uncouth. But shows where people have to answer questions, to demonstrate that they know stuff. I probably get this from my parents who always record one show while watching another. And my father collects trivia the way a bowerbird collects brightly coloured objects.

Now for the rant. There are two particular things that get up my nose when I am watching these shows. One is the oft-repeated remark, “That was before my time.” There is an invisible barrier, apparently, that prevents knowledge from seeping through from the past into the present. If something happened before I was born, or before I became aware of the world around me (these people seem to imply) how can I possibly be expected to know it? Well, I have news for you: almost everything is before all of our times. How very sad if we are unable to accommodate into our sphere of knowledge anything that occurred before our own fleeting existence upon this planet. Dinosaurs were (just) before my time, but that doesn’t prevent me from having a smattering of knowledge about them. I think this may be a symptom of the pressure to be “up-to-date”. It is as though everything at the present time somehow replaces and forces into irrelevance the things of the past. Believing this will be to our detriment.

The second thing to insinuate its way into my nasal cavity is a certain attitude towards literature. More than once I have heard people remark that they have never read a book in their life. This is likely to be an exaggeration, I suspect (I suppose these people did go to school – although I have heard many stories about how students these days, if they have a novel as assigned reading, will borrow the movie on DVD rather than read the book).They state this with no sense of shame or embarrassment; they wear it as a badge of honour. They might just as well be saying, “I don’t breathe. Oxygen is so highly overrated!”

These people can die of anoxia, if they choose. They can die of bibliophobia, if they like. They can kill themselves by tearing out their roots from the soil of the past. They’ll probably even think they are doing something really cool and clever.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Life is like..."


We have been informed, since some years now, that life is rather like a box of chocolates. And indeed it is! But not because “ya never know whatyer gunna git”. You do know what you are going to get, Forrest – from a box of chocolates that is. (“Fawrst, read the inside lid of the box, you....). No. Life is like a box of chocolates because you can be damn sure that the best ones have all gone before you get your hands on the box! (And who wants those with an orange centre, anyway, right?)

For me, though, life is more like this: Life is like wanting to go up to the next floor, in a world with no stairs, no elevators, and only down escalators. You have to work damn hard just to stay in the same place, let alone reach the top.

I also like this one, which I have stolen from someone, but I can’t for the life of me remember from whom (drop me a line if you know): Life is a terminal disease that is sexually transmitted.

But back to the escalators. Much of my life has been spent standing at the bottom of escalators, looking up. Several times I have started new jobs, in quite different fields, and each time I have been down there at the bottom, trying to figure out how to get up there to the top. Not easy when, as I think I might have mentioned, all of those escalators are going down. As if gravity isn’t enough of a force to contend with!

Oh well. Here I am again, at the bottom of an escalator. Up there somewhere are those mythical beings who somehow (so I am told, by those who claim to have seen them) make a living writing books. Oh well (he says again, with a resigned shrug), it’s warmer down here anyway. And I never did much like heights.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Great big computer thingies


Way back when, during one of my other lifetimes... Incidentally, I am not sure that I believe in previous lifetimes, except those that I have lived over the past 55 years or so. Anyway, way back when – it was the mid-seventies – I actually studied computing at the University of Adelaide. Yes, kiddies, they did have computers back in 1975. Ok, the computer with which I had to work seemed to fill the entire ground floor of the building. Yes it’s true that, in order to run a very basic program, it was necessary to use a special typing machine thingy, to type holes in special card thingies. And so what if we did have to wait three days for the results of our program, printed out on what could usefully serve as toilet paper for giants. Did it bother us that it was only then that we could see where our inevitable error occurred, and that we would have to correct our cards, run the whole thing again, and wait another three days? All this in order to calculate the square root of some number or other. Well, yes, it did bother us actually; but we had no choice.

When you complain, as some people do, that your Samsung or Nokia smart thingummy is just too big and bulky, bear in mind that it probably has 10,000 times (that’s a nice biggish number that I just plucked out of the air, where it hovered enticingly before me) the processing power of that basement-sized behemoth at the University of Adelaide in 1975. Try carrying THAT around in you handbag (or manbag, if you prefer).

Borrowed from: http://www.keymarkenterprises.com/_blog/Keymark_Blog/post/CloudComputing_FastForwardtothePast/

And don’t get me started on........

Friday, November 9, 2012

Genesis of a novel


People have been asking about the genesis of Maybe they’ll remember me, so I will say a few words here, without giving too much away.

I have been trying to write since at least my mid teens, when I used to compose dramatic poetry, oozing with existential teenage angst. A little later, perhaps in my late teens or early twenties, I tried my hand at fiction. These were usually clumsy attempts at science fiction, although there were a few more general pieces. I was never able to finish any of them. I continued to make attempts at various times throughout the years, but with much the same outcome. There were some recurring themes, and even some particular plot points, that resurfaced time and time again.

However, it was not until the beginning of this year that I finally made the breakthrough, and actually completed a novel. And what an experience it was! At first I had the same difficulties as always. I would write at a furious pace for a while, the words streaming from my fingers onto the screen, via the keyboard. But, as always, the well of ideas and words would run dry. This time, however, I did not give up. Strange things began to happen. Characters that I had considered to be marginal to the story began to assert themselves, and this took me, much to my own surprise, into the years preceding the story I had intended to write. By the time I had finished, there was practically nothing left of the original chapters, in the story I now had before me. It was entirely new, with fresh and unexpected stars. (Those original chapters do remain, though, and I may yet return to them to continue that other story.)

Two of the main characters of Maybe, Harold and Maggie are loosely, very loosely, based on my parents. That is to say, my father did serve on the Queen Mary during the Second World War, and my mother did work in a buttons factory in Birmingham. The family did migrate to Australia during the 1960s. But that is where the facts end and the fiction begins. Maggie and Harold took on lives of their own, and while, inevitably, they retain traces of their origins, they became completely different people. Indeed, there is as much of me in Harold as there is of my father – and many others too. People are very crowded on the inside. Kate, as far as I am aware, has no historical counterpart. (Although, Kate, if you are out there somewhere, give me a call.)

One of the great joys I had in writing this novel was immersing myself in the period. I listened to the music of the era, watched clips from movies, scoured the internet for pictures and stories from those times, devoured images of the fashions of the day. I tried to make the story as historically realistic as I could, within the context of fiction. I made sure, as far as possible, that the Queen Mary was where I said she was at a given time and place – to such an extent that I let this shape the story to some degree. If the characters saw a movie, listened to a song or entered a building, I made sure these things were possible at the time. The plays in which Kate appears were all on at the times and places in which I set them although, to the best of my knowledge, Kate did not appear in any of them. The explosion of the V2 is based on eye-witness accounts – it happened precisely when and where I said it did. Digging up these fragments of information was a great delight to me.

Since writing Maybe, I haven’t really looked back. There will, I promise, be more to come.

So there we are. A little background. I hope you have as much pleasure getting to know Harold, Maggie and Kate as I did.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A must re-read


Some novels I can read twice, or even several times, others only once (and I may even regret that!). So why do I return to a novel to read it again (and perhaps again and again)? I can think of at least four reasons why I might do so.

First, I might do this if a novel has moved me in a particular way. I return to it to repeat the experience. It’s rather like listening to a favourite piece of music over and over. You know how it will make you feel, whether it be joyous, or deeply sad. Of course, overexposure will deaden any response eventually, as with any sensory experience. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is one such novel. Another is The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok. On the other hand, there would be no point in re-reading some novels, particularly mysteries or thrillers: once you know the outcome, you can never repeat the initial experience. You can never again savour the suspense, the sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat-ness.

The second reason I might revisit a novel is because it is such a rich and complex piece that I am certain to have missed something during the first reading. In contrast to the previous case, I do not necessarily expect to repeat the initial experience. In fact, I expect the book to offer up a new experience each time I read it. I will understand something that eluded me on the first reading. I respond to James Joyce’s Ulysses and some of Virginia Woolf’s novels in this way.

The third reason involves the changes I have passed through, the living I have accomplished, and the growing older I have achieved, since first reading the book. So I return to it to see how it appears now, in a different light, to this new me. This has been my experience with some of the novels I was required to read during the latter years of high school. Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White is a novel I have re-read several times, at key moments in my life. I recently re-read Conrad’s The Secret Agent, another book that was required reading. Some of the Russian classics have also resurfaced during these later years. I was a huge fan of science fiction in my teenage years and early twenties; but I have to say that most of these books have not fared well with age (with my age, at least).

The fourth reason is somewhat less satisfying. I have long been a fan of fantasy, and have often found it necessary, before reading the 800 page, tenth volume of a seemingly endless series, to go back and re-read the 800 page, ninth volume, in order to refresh my memory. (Don’t these writers have editors? Has no one ever explained to them that bigger is not always better? But therein lies another tale.) This can sometimes be an irritating, rather than fulfilling, experience.

I imagine there are many other reasons why people choose to revisit a book. I would love you to share your own experiences in the comments below. 

Fa Fa Fa Fa Fashion


I am not a very fashionable person. Does that mean that I am old-fashioned? Not exactly. Non-fashioned might be closer to the reality. I just don’t get the concept of fashion. Why should anything be the right thing to wear, the right thing to say or the right thing to believe at any given time or place? Who or what determines this? The market or marketeers? The trendsetters?

The whole concept of fashion arises out of the need to fit in, to belong to a group. So it is not precisely about the external item per se, but about the set of beliefs and values that it incorporates. The need to belong is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Survival depends on being part of a strong group: without the group we are nothing; weak groups are quickly eliminated. Once upon a time, we did belong to a particular group: our tribe, our village. With the rise of industrial society, these naturally occurring social groups began to break down. People began to move into the larger cities to find work, resulting in the mixing of people from all kinds of groups and communities. Larger groups and communities began to arise, such as the “working class”: people sought unity, community and identity based on social class or job description. More recently, in urban environments, new tribes, “gangs” have emerged. Neighbourhoods have sought to take the place of tribes. But many of these new tribes and groups lack the natural, geographic and organic link that bound together the tribes and villages of our past.

As a vestige of our tribal past, we try to define our identity within a group that dresses, talks and thinks in the same way that we do; although, more often, we change the way we dress, talk and think to fit the group. The problem today – or one of the problems – is that fashion is such an ephemeral phenomenon. It is difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with the trends. We are always in danger of falling out of favour with the group. This introduces an underlying anxiety into our lives, that is probably new to our times. We cannot depend on our membership in the group for the belonging and stability which we desire, because the requirements of the group shift and change all the time. This is made worse by the fact that these group norms are not even determined by the group, but by external forces: celebrities, designers, corporations, which have their own agenda.

I began by saying that I did not get fashion. But perhaps I do. I share the need to belong. Perhaps I am not willing to change what I do, think, wear, or enjoy in order to achieve that belonging. I would rather find a group with which I share many of those things already. So, group, if you are out there, let me know.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"I love you all"


Oh my God! A follower on Twitter stopped following me! What have I done? Why don’t they like me any longer! How did I offend them? Or did I simply bore them? I wouldn’t be so devastated if I had thousands of followers – I doubt that I would notice. But when one of my tiny handful suddenly disappears, when fourteen followers suddenly becomes only thirteen… I am not loved!

Then I realise I have no idea who it even was. I look down the list. Who is not there now that was there yesterday? I have no idea. See! So there! I didn’t even notice you! Take that!

That's all a little silly, I know. Yet there is a more serious side to it. One’s worth today seems to be measured in terms how many followers one has on Twitter, how many friends one has on Facebook. People talk about this as if it actually means something. I’m sure there are people out there who are devastated to realise that their best friend has ten more followers than they do. Businesses think it means something too. And who am I to question the profound insights of the marketing community?

But I wonder. If I have 5,000 friends on Facebook, isn’t that pretty much the same as having none? Yet another word shifting its meaning in our culture: Friend.

Of course, when a celebrity stands there in front of the camera, waving and blowing kisses, saying “I love you all”; or, these days, when they Tweet it to all their followers – I know they mean me. Don’t they?