Monthly Archives: December 2013

Reading matter: The Odessa File


Can you forgive the past? It’s 1963 and a young German reporter has been assigned the suicide of a holocaust survivor. The news story seems straightforward, this is a tragic insight into one man’s suffering. But a long hidden secret is discovered in the pages of the dead man’s diary. What follows is life-and-death hunt for a notorious former concentration camp-commander, a man responsible for the deaths of thousands, a man as yet unpunished.

Over Christmas I’ve been re-reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, the story of an investigative journalist tracking down a prominent former Nazi in 1960s Germany. The real triumph of this novel, I think – apart from the fact that it’s an excellent thriller – is the strong sense of time and place. Forsyth’s tale puts us into a very specific period of history and gives us an evocative and very real “stage” for the action to be played out, as well as a fascinating look into post-war Germany.

The story revolves around Peter Miller, a journalist who stumbles into a world he – and by extension the reader – is unprepared for. His journey is our journey too and Forsyth neatly explores the contradictions and confusion of a country and its people struggling to come to terms with a terrible and at that time still very recent past in a much more nuanced way than I expected. Here be monsters – but not cartoon villains.

There are aspects I don’t care for: the girlfriend subplot feels tacked-on and a weak excuse for a few uninspired sex scenes, and the rockets subplot is exposition-heavy and, at times, a serious distraction from the main plot. Overall, though, this is a solid thriller and an entertaining read.

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Mobile scribbling

Apple iPad Tablet Concept Photo Giddy via Compfight

Yesterday I talked about how much I use my iPad these days and it got me thinking about how the iPad has changed how I write. Years ago, I used to write exclusively on my desktop PC. Then I bought a laptop, and began to use that more for “on the road” writing, with editing still done on the desktop. These days much of the quick writing is done on the iPad instead and, after much trial and error, I’ve come to rely on three main apps.

(NB: I still use the desktop – and in particular Scrivener – for anything that requires heavy formatting, organising long documents, and editing. The iPad is just for getting the words down in the first place!)

pages 1. Pages

Price: £6.99

Pages is the most expensive writing app I own and ironically it’s the one I tend to use the least, although that’s more because it doesn’t entirely suit me personally instead of any inherent fault with the app. If you’re looking for a proper word processor, with easy and comprehensive formatting, Pages is for you. You can export documents in Pages, Word, pdf, and epub formats.

Notebooks 2. Notebooks

Price: £5.99

The big draw of Notebooks is the fantastic integration with Dropbox, which makes sharing documents between multiple devices a breeze. You can write in plain text, rich text, or markdown, and organise files into folders to your heart’s content. I’m not a huge fan of the writing environment but I love the organisational functions of this app.

iA Writer 3. iA Writer

Price: £2.99

The cheapest of my three main apps and the one I use the most on days when I just need to get some words down. If you need a clean, distraction-free app, iA Writer is a winner. I’m never going to be doing heavy editing in this app and formatting is a no-no, but it’s still a pleasure to use.

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Written on tablet

The Future of Computing Andy via Compfight

Why tablets are killing PCs – a few years ago I would have disagreed vehemently with anyone who suggested that one day I’d be spending more time on my iPad than I ever do on my laptop, but over the last two years in particular it’s become a big part of my life and my laptop is mostly gathering dust in a cupboard.

The desktop PC still gets plenty of use – for gaming, and a couple of applications that only run on Windows. “Serious” writing gets done on the desktop too, thanks to Scrivener. Everything else? Well, I could get out the laptop, plug it in (the battery life is terrible), wait for it to boot, wait for it to find a wifi signal … or I could pick up my iPad and with a couple of clicks do what I want.

In the morning I read the news on my iPad while I eat my breakfast. I use it to write and keep on top of my emails while I’m on long train journeys. I watch TV on it when I’m stuck in hotel rooms (thank you, iPlayer). I keep it next to my desk so I can quickly research and reference while writing fullscreen on the desktop. It works for me in a way my laptop never did. And tablets in general seem to work for a lot of people, from the technically literate to people who do just need email and access to Facebook.

I’ll freely admit to being a geek. I love it when technology makes people’s lives better, even if it’s in a relatively minor way.

NB: I’ve never owned an Android tablet so I have no idea what they’re like or how they compare. I have no strong feelings either way.

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Copyright or not to copyright

Joanne Harris has an interesting post on copyright as it relates to writers here that sparked off a few thoughts because my own views on copyright conflict sometimes.

Generally, I’m in favour of copyright for creators. Let’s get that out of the way right at the start. The satisfaction of having produced something creative and any prestige from having done so does not pay the electricity bill and put food on the table. In the real world, creators need to be able to earn money.

Having said that, much of my conflict on this stems from the way that copyright has been enforced over the last twenty years or so – suing individuals for ludicrous amounts of money for a few torrented mp3s – and the reluctance of many creative industries to embrace the digital reality and increased consumer expectation. A personal example of this is when, after hearing a song while on holiday in France a few years ago, I attempted to purchase it on iTunes (UK) when I got home.

Not available in your country.

Ok. So I, a customer, want to give you money. I wish to purchase a song I like, some of the royalties from which will eventually go back to the band who created it. And I am not allowed to. Amazing.

As a late 30-something, I’m probably from the last pre-internet cohort who grew up expecting to pay for music, TV, and films. Thanks to the reluctance of media companies to embrace the internet and digital downloads, a whole generation of teenagers found that they could not access the content they wanted in the way they wanted it, and so they went looking for a way to get it anyway. I’m not saying that the mass pirating of media that followed was right but it was, in the circumstances, perhaps inevitable. If you put up barriers, people will find a way around them.

Are things improving? In some ways. Phasing out region-delayed releases has probably helped, along with the growth in legal and reasonably priced online stores. I probably buy more singles on iTunes now than I did as a music-obsessed teenager because it’s easy. I buy more books now than I ever did before I bought a Kindle. I’m happy to pay for content I think has value. People are more aware of copyright, and the use of Creative Commons to make it clear when work can be used by others.

It can work, as long as companies don’t misuse copyright law to, for example, remove negative reviews or claims of corruption. Copyright needs to be a balance between the rights of the creator of a work and the rights of others – and sometimes I wonder if we’ve found the right balance.

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Robin Hood and Jane Eyre

Hathersage 1 A first-time visitor to the Peak District could do much worse than starting out in the historic village of Hathersage, with its wealth of history and easy access to glorious countryside, but every now and then I get reminded that it’s worth repeat visiting too – not just a waypoint on a journey to somewhere else!

The Robin Hood connection comes from Little John of Hathersage, buried in the churchyard. The Peak District is littered with sites linked to Robin Hood (Sherwood Forest in those days would have stretched far further north than it does now) and Loxley, to the west of Sheffield and just eight miles from Hathersage, is often cited as his birthplace.

The Jane Eyre connection is slightly better-documented: in 1845 Charlotte Bronte came to stay at the vicarage and Hathersage would provide rich pickings for inspiration. The surname Eyre was that of a prominent local family, and other local landmarks became incorporated into Jane Eyre.

With plenty of facilities (including an outdoor swimming pool), Hathersage makes a good base for a day out or a longer stay in the Peaks, with easy access to the Hope Valley and the Upper Derwent Valley.

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Balloch Castle, Scotland

Balloch Castle 2

Balloch Castle was constructed in 1808 by John Buchanan of Ardoch to replace a ruined castle originally built by the Earl of Lennox in 1238. Standing on the shores of Loch Lomond, Balloch Park has been a Country Park since 1981, and became part of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park in 2002.

Balloch Castle 1

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Make sure you’re punctuating the story you want people to read

Reading this post about the Oxford comma – from which I’ve taken the title of this post – reminded me of a discussion I had with someone I had the misfortune to edit for a few years ago. He didn’t believe in punctuation: “You know what I mean!” was the constant retort to any attempt on my part to find out what he did mean.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on grammar and punctuation and I’m not a fan of overly-prescriptive rules: language is a living thing, constantly evolving, and can’t be preserved in aspic. There is a case for punctuation without being too pedantic, though; especially if you want your message to come across the way you meant it. Lynne Truss’ classic book Eats, shoots and Leaves gives plenty of examples of how disastrous punctuation can radically change the meaning of our writing.

Every time the reader has to stop, go back, and work out what you meant, it’s taking them out of the moment. In non-fiction perhaps that matters less, but in fiction – where the reader needs to be drawn into the world the writer has created – it is jarring (and sometimes inadvertently comical) and can take the reader completely out of the story.

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Tantallon Castle

Tantallon 1

The first time I ever visited Tantallon Castle in East Lothian, Scotland, I was the first and only visitor of the day at 3pm, although this may have had something to do with the gale-force winds and torrential rain that made climbing the towers a distinctly exciting experience!

Luckily, the second time I visited the weather was a lot more conducive to looking around and taking in more than sea spray, and I’m glad I went back because Tantallon is truly stunning. Built by the Douglas family in the 14th century, the huge 50 foot curtain wall and towering cliffs provided a formidable fortress.

Tantallon 2

Tantallon was eventually destroyed in 1651 by Oliver Cromwell’s army but a surprising amount of the castle still remains, including some of the living quarters. The climb to the top of the curtain wall is hard-going (and can be treacherous in wet or icy weather) but it’s worth it for the incredible views.

Tantallon 3

Tantallon is signposted from the A19 and there is a car park, although the castle itself is reached via a footpath that can be very muddy in wet weather. Good footwear and a warm coat are essential!  The visitor centre sells souvenirs and a guidebook.

Tantallon 4

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Conwy Castle

Conwy 1

I never seem to have enough time to spend at Conwy Castle but it’s one of my favourite castles in the UK. Built by Edward I in the 13th century as part of an “iron ring of castles” to subdue the rebellious Welsh, Conwy still dominates the surrounding landscape.

While the interior of the castle is not as complete as Caernarfon, Conwy is well worth a visit.

Conwy 2

Conwy 3

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Lifeboat 2

Another Whitby-related post (if you couldn’t tell, it’s one of my favourite places!), this time about a local man, Henry Freeman, and a famous rescue.

Henry Freeman was born in Bridlington in 1835, the son of a brickmaker. In his teens he worked as a farm labourer in Flamborough before moving to Whitby when he was 20. By 1861, Henry was working as a fisherman. During a huge storm on 9th February 1861, Henry joined the Whitby lifeboat crew as they carried out 5 launches to save the crews from stricken ships, despite having no previous experience. On the final launch, in heavy seas, the lifeboat overturned and Henry was the sole survivor.


[Attribution: Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and The Sutcliffe Gallery]

Undeterred by his brush with death, Henry continued to work as a fisherman throughout the 1860s as well as participating in the occasional lifeboat rescue. In 1877 he was appointed Coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat, the Robert Whitworth.

On 28th October October 1880 the Robert Whitworth launched 4 times to rescue the crews of ships caught in another severe storm off the North Yorkshire coast. Henry Freeman was awarded a silver clasp to add to the RNLI medal he had received for the 1861 rescues.

But Henry’s most famous rescue came in January 1881, when the brig Visitor was wrecked off Robin Hood’s Bay during a severe storm. Jermyn Cooper, vicar of Fylingdales, sent an urgent telegram to the Whitby Harbourmaster asking for assistance, but the lifeboat could not leave Whitby harbour because of the appalling weather conditions. Onlookers at Robin Hood’s Bay could only watch helplessly as Visitor slowly broke up and her crew took to its single, small boat.

With a launch from Whitby impossible, the decision was made to take the Robert Whitworth to Robin Hood’s Bay overland instead – dragged by horses six miles across country while hundreds of men, women, and children dug through snowdrifts with shovels and cleared walls and hedgerows to create a path for the lifeboat.

Appeal for memorabilia of historic Whitby lifeboat rescue

Their heroic efforts paid off: the Robert Whitworth was carried from Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay in 3 hours, and successfully launched to save the crew of the Visitor.

Henry Freeman retired as coxswain in 1899, after 22 years service, and died in 1904. His memorial can be seen on the seaward wall of Whitby Lifeboat Station, where you can also see the current Whitby lifeboat, George and Mary Webb – very different from the open rowing boats used in Henry’s day!

Lifeboat 3

The RNLI do an amazing job – the volunteers who risk their own lives to save others are the sort of people who really restore my faith in human nature.

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