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The Great (Atlantic) Divide 09 August, 2012

Not long ago I asked an American friend how she was.

‘I’m quite well,’ she replied, perfectly cheerfully.

‘Only quite well?’ I asked.

‘No, quite well.’ She meant entirely well, extremely well, with no sense of the ‘Mustn’t grumble’ that a Brit would imply with the same words.

Today, I read, in a book written by an American, the words ‘The landscape has all the expressiveness of…’ Now if I wrote that, I’d finish the sentence with something sarky like ‘a bluebottle reading the phone book’, meaning that it had no expressiveness at all. But no. My author - who is writing about Madagascar, as it happens - goes on ‘…a van Gogh painting. Between the red, sandy soil and the cobalt-blue sky grows an assortment of outlandish plants.’ No trace of sarcasm: he intends it utterly as a compliment.

Neither of these cases is a question of vocabulary or even usage, exactly: perhaps what they are is nuance. But whatever you call it they would mean something completely different on the different sides of the pond.

Let’s Not Be Beastly… 03 August, 2012

Reading a book that was published in 1953 (The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey), I find myself wondering when the word ‘dago’ became offensive. She uses it - in the head of her principal character, who is a very cultivated detective - with no semblance of apology.

Maybe the answer is that it always was offensive, to the people being so described. It’s just that we Brits, still believing in the 1950s that we ruled the world, didn’t care what Johnny Foreigner thought.

London 2012 24 July, 2012

Listening to the radio this morning and being annoyed - as always - by the reference to 'Team GB', I found myself thinking, ‘It's just a flash verbal logo.’ Then I remembered that the word logo derives from the Greek for ‘word’, so that although most logos nowadays are visual, they should by definition be verbal. So now I'm confused as well as annoyed.

I looked it up in the dictionary and found that logo is short for logotype, and that its origins are in the world of printing. The first logotypes were designed to save the printers time. So is ‘Team GB’ any quicker to say than ‘the British team’? Well yes, I suppose so, but you'd have to say it quite a lot to make the milliseconds you saved mount up to anything worth saving.

Then again, everyone is saying it quite a lot.

I may be going round in circles here.

Paragraphs I Wish I'd Written No. 375 16 June, 2012

‘The Black Prince is a pub that caters specifically for the under-age drinker. At school we used to call it The Crèche, the rationale of the landlord being that anyone crafty enough to hide their school tie in their pocket was old enough to drink. On a Friday afternoon it looked like the set of Grange Hill, and you could barely move for satchels.’

David Nicholls, Starter for Ten. Hasn't (yet) reduced me to helpless weeping the way One Day did, but the man is still a genius.

A Book I Wish I'd Written – and It’s about Vegetables! 31 May, 2012

Spotted in Foyle's the other week and an irresistible impulse buy: How Carrots Won the Trojan War by Rebecca Rupp. I opened it at random, found a chapter entitled ‘In Which Celery Contributes to Casanova’s Conquests’ and parted with my money without further ado.

It's a fascinating and at times hilarious look at the development, mythology, social status and more of 20 vegetables (or perhaps 15 vegetables and 5 fruits if you are going to be picky about it). And it is full of stuff that you have never thought about but that will enrich your life beyond measure. Did you know, for example, that the Mr Potato Head toy (familiar to me only from the Toy Story films) was originally marketed as ‘an assortment of plastic features - eyes, nose, mouth, ears and a wardrobe of silly little hats - intended to be jabbed into a real potato’? The industry buzz (in the frugal 1940s) was that the public would disapprove of this frivolous waste of perfectly good food. How wrong can you be?

Or that, despite all the muscle-building publicity that Popeye gave to spinach, he’d have been better off with a plate of spaghetti? What spinach is really hot on is Vitamin A, good for night vision, so ‘Popeye the Sailorman would have had an edge as a night pilot but [spinach] is not much as a pick-me-up prior to a dockside brawl’.

Finally, here‘s a sentence that I defy you to work into a conversation: ‘Surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson, a man obsessed with size, seems never to have measured a pumpkin.’

Rebecca Rupp, I don't know who you are, but I thank you.

Let’s Not Be Beastly to the Bicycles 17 May, 2012

A sign at King's Cross Station begins 'Bicycles are forbidden from being…’ - I forget the rest. 'Chained to these railings’, I expect. But do you suppose the average bike has any say in the matter - or gives a damn?

May I Offer You an Alternate? 13 May, 2012

Seen on a wall on the South Bank today: a sign offering an 'alternate route'. Baffling. Is it a route one day, but not the next?

Or am I misreading it? It is an instruction to alternate my route: should I use it only every other time I go there?

What's in a Blog? 07 May, 2012

There's an article in the latest edition of the women’s writing magazine Mslexia about blogging and what the point of it is. Almost everybody the author quotes started off blogging madly enthusiastically, forcing themselves to do it every day, then realised that this was becoming a chore - and worse, probably a pointless chore - and that it was taking up far too much of their creative energy.

That doesn't worry me a great deal because I don't think of myself as having creative energy (could that be where I am going wrong?), but I am pleased to be able to stop feeling guilty about not blogging more often than I do.

I said ‘almost everybody' earlier because the exception quoted in the article is Heather B Armstrong of She is, apparently, ‘a sarcastically witty ex-Mormon ‘mommy blogger’, who…has turned her blogging habit from a cathartic hobby… into a multi-million-dollar business.’ So that is somewhere else that I am going wrong.

London Place Names Out Today! 26 April, 2012

I'm very excited about this - well I would be, wouldn’t I? The publishers, Ebury Press, have done a superb job, with endpapers and chapter openers based on London street maps and a tiny image of a double-decker bus instead of an asterisk where there is a break in the text. So cute! I hope other people think so too.

And - first review - the website said, ‘Taggart’s conversational style is well judged, and her research superb.’

So please either cross your fingers for its success and/or have a look at the books page. Thank you!

Does It Pay to Advertize? 08 April, 2012

I'm reading a biography of Georgette Heyer, my all-time favourite comfort author. I've read some of her novels so often I could have a fair stab at reciting them by heart. So it is interesting - and faintly disappointing - to discover that she was not only very much a grande dame, she was also a bit of an old bag.

But, give her her due, her attention to detail was meticulous. The one time she really got it wrong was in describing the oriental grandeur of the Brighton Pavilion in a novel set three years before that OTT orientalism was added. I confess I have read Regency Buck a number of times and never noticed, and the biographer suggests that not many other readers noticed either.

Anyway, never mind the Pavilion, she was also meticulous about grammar, punctuation and the like. In the 1930s she had a row with one of her publishers because the typesetter - who seems to have been a law unto himself - insisted on spelling words such as realise with an s. Modern-day dictionaries - and I've checked Collins, Chambers and the OED - all prefer realize, but both Collins and Chambers give the s form as an alternative, without suggesting that it is wrong, old-fashioned, illiterate or any of those things. But what I found odd is that Miss Heyer, as I'm sure she would have wanted to be called, also wrote advertize with a z. Both Chambers and Collins say that this is American; the OED doesn't mention it as an option, and the latest example they quote with this spelling is 1803. I can understand that Miss Heyer was old-school, but not as old-school as all that.

If I was asked to pontificate on the subject - as I sometimes am - I would say that advertize was just plain wrong.

So how do these changes happen? I have no idea. But it does show that those of us who get on to soapboxes about this sort of thing are asking for trouble.

The Book of London Place Names preview 05 April, 2012

I can't expect anyone else to be as excited as I am about this (though my neighbour did her best), but I have just received my first copy of my new book. And - I can say this because I didn't have anything to do with the design - it looks terrific. It's due to be published on 26 April - look out for it in London shops and, who knows, other shops too. If I am doing anything interesting in connection with it I'll let you know nearer the time.

Have a look at my books page 22 March, 2012

After a bit of a lull I've finally updated the books page. With my various hats on, I have four news books coming out in the course of this spring, so please keep a look out for them and pass the word around!

The Joys of Editing 22 February, 2012

Since writing my last post I've been on holiday and the moment I got back I had to drop everything and edit a TV tie-in book for the AA, because the transmission date of the series had been brought forward. Hence the long gap.

But that book brought home to me something about my job that I hadn’t thought about for a while: what a good thing it is to be forced to read books that you mightn't otherwise have read. This one was The Fisherman’s Apprentice by Monty Halls. Monty spent eight months in the Cornish village of Cadgwith, learning - in a very hands-on way - about the traditional small-boat fishing fleet that still plies its low-impact, sustainable trade around the British coasts. I had no idea just how much damage we can do to the world's oceans by catching - and buying - fish indiscriminately. I view the labelling in my local supermarket with a much more informed eye.

The series will be out soon and it’s charming and funny as well as hard-hitting - I urge you to watch it and, if you live somewhere where you can buy local fish, to do so and support your local fishermen. They are a remarkable body of men.

Do Not Pass Go 12 January, 2012

I'm a sucker for books about London (and as I have just written one myself, I am hoping I am not alone in this - my book on London Place Names comes out in April). A few years ago I laughed like a drain all the way through Keith Lowe's Tunnel Vision, about a young man who makes a drunken bet that he can visit all the London tube stations in the course of a day. Tension is added by the fact that he is getting married on Saturday and if he loses the bet he also loses his honeymoon tickets to the Caribbean.

More recently it has been Do Not Pass Go by Tim Moore, a sort of random social history of London based on visiting all the properties on the Monopoly board. From Tim’s encounter with a transvestite prostitute at King's Cross to his wife's self-sacrificing stay in a surreal student hostel off the humble (in Monopoly terms) Old Kent Road (she is supposed to be in Claridge’s, which of course is in top-priced Mayfair), it conveys an intense love of London, along with some wonderfully quirky facts. I didn’t know, for example, that before fleeing to Moscow the spies Burgess and Maclean had a last cup of tea at the RAC Club in Pall Mall; that Napoleon’s state coach was once on display in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (why??) and 800,000 people went to see it; or that a large part of London’s electricity supply would be cut off if a certain pipe in Chelsea Wharf got blocked with leaves from the Thames. (The book was published ten years ago, so that last bit may no longer be true - don’t panic.)

London geeks should flock to this book; if you happen to be a Monopoly geek as well, so much the better.

‘The Great British Novelist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of’ 08 January, 2012

A few years ago I read an article with this title and have been quoting the novelist in question - Stephen Benatar - in my talks ever since. He is a master at just the sort of self-promotion I am always telling authors they need to be able to do. His first novel was published when he was 44 and a later one made it to the Booker long list, but in the tough recent years he has had to resort to self-publishing. He’s done something that almost no self-publisher bothers to do: employed a halfway-decent designer, so that the words look good on the page. (Believe me, it makes such a difference.) And he tirelessly organises appearances at Waterstones and elsewhere to promote his work. I met him at one such event recently, and he assured me that Waterstones were always happy to have him: he was hoping to sell a hundred copies in the King's Road in the course of a weekend.

Well, he sold one to me. I chose The Man on the Bridge because Stephen said it was the book he'd like to be remembered for. It’s about a young man on the make in London in the 1950s, who is taken up and treated lavishly by a famous painter, whom he in turn treats callously. Stephen’s very good on the difficulties of maintaining a homosexual relationship in the days when it was illegal; and remarkably adept at making us see the world through the eyes of a not very sympathetic narrator. So I'm happy that, having praised Stephen’s self-promoting skills for years, I can now praise his writing abilities too.

The Value of Fiction 29 December, 2011

Some years ago, having just read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the eleven-year-old daughter of a friend said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve ever thought about what it would be like to be someone else.’ Yes! I thought. Gotcher! I’d always maintained that reading fiction gave you a better understanding of the human condition - young Sophie had come up with a less pompous version of the same thought.

Anyway, pompous or not, it's now official. According to Andrew Taylor in The Author magazine, a psychologist based at the University of Toronto has established that ‘when readers speculate about fictional characters, their dilemmas and their motives, it tends to develop their ability to empathise and their social skills’. Encouragingly for those of us who read a lot of whodunits, ‘the quality of the fiction…seems to be irrelevant’.

So I’m making a New Year resolution to read more novels. It’ll make me a better person and I’m more likely to keep that than the usual ones involving chocolate and wine.

An Enigmatic Character? 15 December, 2011

One of the things they always tell you as a means of improving your fiction-writing skills is to read writers you admire and observe how they create their effects.

I have just been reading John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. He uses an omniscient third-person narrator, but he also puts the reader inside the head of quite a lot of his characters. You know all about what Soames is feeling and what Young Jolyon is feeling, what Fleur is feeling, what Jon is feeling. You even know a certain amount about more minor characters. But he never goes inside Irene’s head.

I'm assuming you have seen this on TV, even if you haven't read it, but just in case: Irene is the beautiful, enigmatic, rather intangible woman that both Soames and Jolyon fall in love with. As a reader, you know all about her appearance, her figure, her clothes, the way she keeps her youth and beauty - but not first hand about her feelings. I'm sure this is a deliberate effect, keeping her at one remove from us and from everybody else.

She-Wolves 11 December, 2011

Anyone with an interest in history or wanting to read a bit of background to Philippa Gregory’s novels or The Lion in Winter, which is on the stage in London at the moment, should make a beeline for She-Wolves by Helen Castor. Subtitled 'The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth’, it consists largely of four linked essays: about Matilda, who failed to become queen when her father Henry I died (the battle between her and her cousin Stephen simmers away in the background of the Brother Cadfael novels); Eleanor of Aquitaine, she of The Lion in Winter and mother of Richard the Lionheart; Isabella, who made the mistake of marrying Edward II and ending up deposing him; and Margaret of Anjou, who married Henry VI and lost out in the Wars of the Roses.

These essays are framed by the death of Henry VIII’s teenage son, Edward VI, and the subsequent accession to the throne in quick succession of three women: Lady Jane Grey (who lasted all of nine days), Mary I and Elizabeth I. The point is that, when Edward VI died childless, there was literally no male heir. After all Henry’s desperate efforts to beget a son and all Edward’s determination to keep the throne Protestant, the best that they could come up with was a fifteen-year-old cousin-once-removed whose claim came through the much-despised female line and who had no desire to be queen anyway. And the English establishment had, for the first time, to cope with someone who had all the power and authority of a king, but happened to be a woman.

This fascinating book tells the story of the four women before this period who came closest to being queen - by fighting for their own rights of the rights of their sons - but who lost out because they were female.

I heard Helen Castor speak at Burnham Market literary festival and thought she was marvellous. I've now finally got around to reading her book and can promise you that it is marvellous too.

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 30 November, 2011

The 2011 award - worth a decent sum of money to the winner - was this week given to Ronald Reng for A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke. Enke, you may remember, was the German goalkeeper who shocked the footballing world by committing suicide two years ago. It’s an incredibly moving read, as you would expect.

And why am I telling you this? Well, because the author is represented by the same agency as me, and while I can't claim any reflected glory I can at least share their pleasure with anyone who cares to read this.

Good News for Short-Story Writers! 19 November, 2011

There hasn't been much good news for short-story writers in the book world lately but, according to the latest edition of the Bookseller, this may be about to change. Bloomsbury Publishers have dubbed 2012 'the year of the short story' and are publishing five début collections.There will be podcasts and other online and print marketing.

Most if not all of the authors are already published novelists, but it’s encouraging to see such a major publisher backing what has lately been an out-of-fashion genre.

Workshop in Guildford 16 October, 2011

On Wednesday evening (19 October) I'm appearing at the Guildford Literary Festival, conducting a workshop on how to make your work as good as possible before you send it to anyone; and other ways of improving your chances of getting published. It's a two-hour slot, between 6 and 8, so I'm hoping that lots of people will be prepared to contribute their ideas and experiences. These occasions always become more interesting when the audience has an oar or two to shove in.

So if you live in the catchment area and read this in time, do please come along and be outspoken and interesting!

Pushing ‘Pushing the Envelope’ – Again 11 October, 2011

Some time after we had given up hope the Daily Mail decided to run an extract last week - full page, headed by a picture of Ricky Gervais in full jargon-blasting mode from The Office.

When I give talks about how to get published I bang on about the power of publicity and, as if to prove my point, the book went from around 200,000th to 12,000th on Amazon in the course of that day and stayed in the 20,000 region for the rest of the week. It's slumped again now, but it was fun while it lasted. So thank you, to all you Daily-Mail-reading, Amazon-using people who dashed to your computers and bought it.

Jargon – Nobody Wants to Know the Good Bits 19 September, 2011

I made an odd discovery when I was doing publicity for Pushing the Envelope last week - no one seems to be interested in the idea that some jargon is creative and even (perish the thought) interesting.

Personally, I love the idea that someone somewhere has coined the acronym WOMBAT to mean ‘waste of money, brains and time’. I love the concept of mushroom management - ‘keep them in the dark and feed them bullsh*t’ - and I'm also intrigued by the thought that this was once considered a positive thing to do, because if you feed them enough (even if it is sh*t) they will grow. I like the way expressions evolve so that people forget where they came from in the first place: this is a phenomenon that will, one day soon, make it possible to perform a ‘due diligence’ carelessly.

But do a phone-in on the subject and all you hear about is the ghastliness of expressions such as ‘knowledge base’ and ‘get with the programme’. It’s a shame: even this pond-life end of the language spectrum deserves some credit for - well, for pushing the envelope, for making language go that little bit further, higher and faster.

And let’s face it, we’re stuck with it, so we might as well enjoy it.

My Day in The Sun 14 September, 2011

My book about business jargon, Pushing the Envelope, is published this week and today there was a feature in, of all places, The Sun: check it out, as the jargonistas say, here.

Budleigh Salterton – Hurricanes Permitting! 12 September, 2011

Just a reminder that Richard Willis of Impress Books and I will be talking at the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival on Friday (16th) - more details at Budleigh Salterton. It’s a stunning location with (weather permitting) gorgeous light over the sea at this time of year and Susan Ward, the organiser, has assembled a great cast of speakers, including the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel. And, of course, Richard and me. Do drop in if you are passing.

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