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Let’s play Hyndland bingo!

26 Apr

It probably says a lot about the neighbourhood of Anniesland, in Glasgow, that after spending a month here I am writing a post about Hyndland. Anniesland is a bit betwixt and between, both in a literal sense (its main landmark is Anniesland Cross, a major junction between roads that run west out of Glasgow and south to the Black Hole and the Death Star (as I like to call Govan and the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital) and also in terms of character. It’s kind of west end but not posh, a bit down at heel but not cheap, not that far the city centre, but not actually close. Continue reading

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Church ministers? Bunch of slackers! 

18 Oct

I’ve just done a blog post for Premier Christianity about why church ministers have the easiest job in the world. Before you start fuming, I should say that it’s not an entirely serious argument, to put it mildly.

It was commissioned because it’s Thank Your Vicar Week. So if you have a vicar (/pastor/minister) why don’t you give the article a read and then maybe send them a nice email? Although I can’t promise they will have time to read it.

The Art of Complaining

3 Apr

“I couldn’t sleep a wink!”

One of the joys of helping to look after my little nieces is getting to revisit things from my childhood. Last week it was paperchain people (try them with monkeys – it’s really cute!) but the week before that it was the Princess and the Pea, the Hans Christian Andersen story about a girl who arrives at a castle in a storm, claiming to be a princess, and whose royal pedigree is proved by her feeling a dried pea through 20 mattresses.

Coming back to this story many years on, instead of dwelling on how ridiculous this is (and it is), I instead found myself thinking, “Of course complaining about a pea in her bed shows she’s a princess. If she was a nice, middle-class girl she wouldn’t dream of complaining!” I mean really, if you were taken in on trust, out of a storm, alone and helpless, would you tell your host the bed was lumpy? I wouldn’t lie about it, but I’m sure I could find something more positive to say than, “I couldn’t sleep a wink all night!”

This got me thinking about complaining more generally. In Britain, we’re traditionally not supposed to be very good at complaining. To be more accurate, we’re very good at moaning about things, but we would rather die than complain to anyone who can do anything about it, like a waiter or shopkeeper, for example. Perhaps we might write a stiff letter, but never say anything to anyone’s face.

This is a Very British Problem, judging by the Twitter account of the same name, which is extremely funny. (It’s also available in book form for those who aren’t into social media.) This is also one of the areas where I’m not very British, perhaps as a result of spending too much time overseas (or it could just be my personality). I am fairly likely to complain if something isn’t right. I spent 15 minutes in Superdrug the other day trying to return some hair chalks that only cost about three quid, on the principle that if you buy something, it should work. The complaint has been forwarded further up the chain of management. By the time I get my three quid back (if I ever do) they will probably have devalued to the equivalent of 30p due to Brexit.

Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered. But there are some things you are supposed to complain about, or at least not sit on. I often find I’m annoyed by some insignificant thing someone has done again and start thinking, “He/she knows I hate it! They’re doing it to annoy me!”, only to realise that I’ve probably never told them I hate it, and they are blithely oblivious to my irritation. In a situation like that you either have to say something, or learn to live quietly with the annoyance, rather than explode in rage when it happens for the tenth time.

Addictions are another situation where you’re supposed to complain, according to official advice. Without going into any detail, there are some addiction/dependency ‘issues’ in my own family, and while a public blog post isn’t the place to drag them out, it’s not something I keep from my friends. In such a situation, silent forbearance probably makes things worse. But there is probably a level of willingness to complain that lies somewhere between doormat and drooket fairytale princess, which is healthy and practical without being self-centred. With that in mind, here’s a slightly altered version of the well-known Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to shut up about the things I ought to put up with,
The courage to complain about the things I ought not to,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

(If you’re into Hans Christian Andersen, by the way, check out my lovely audio version of the Snow Queen, narrated by Sophie Aldred.)

How to learn Albanian in 20 seconds 

31 Jan

Bună!  I am in the process of trying to learn Romanian, as I’ll be going there next month for a few days. I enjoy the challenge of learning a language, and Romanian is shaping up to be a fairly easy one, for me at least – it’s basically just Latin, with the odd Slavic word thrown in. 

Despite that, I’m at the frustrating stage where I know a few words but can’t actually say anything. I can say that I should, I need, I must or I would like, but not what I should, need, must or would like – except coffee, so I suppose that is somewhat useful. 

So in light of my own frustration with Romanian, I’m going to teach you to speak Albanian in 20 seconds. You won’t be able to hold an intelligent conversation about Proust, but you’ll be able to cope in most social situations. All you need is one word: mirë. 

Mirë is pronounced meer, as in meerkat, and it means good or well. (Technically e/i mirë means good, and mirë means well, but let’s not complicate matters.) The wonderful thing about it is it can be a question (Are you well? Is that ok?) as well as an answer to the question, and an assent to some proposal. Let me give you an example of a conversation you could hold in which you only use the word mirë. (You have to imagine it’s all in Albanian, although to be honest it wouldn’t matter that much whether you understand it or not.)

Hi, how are you? 

Mirë. 

How have you been? 

Mirë. 

How’s your family? 

Mirë. 

How’s work? 

Mirë. 

How’s your health? 

Mirë. 

We should go out for coffee sometime and catch up. 

Mirë. 

How is Tuesday afternoon for you? 

Mirë. 

Great, see you then! 

Mirë! 

See? Now you speak Albanian, at least as long as you are prepared to be fairly passive in any given conversation. If you’re thinking that there never would be a conversation like this, with such a screed of questions, you’re wrong – I’ve actually cut it down a bit. When you haven’t seen someone for a while, this list of questions can seem to stretch on for aeons. And throughout those aeons, you will be able to give pertinent replies – provided that they are all “mirë”.

(By the way, if anyone does happen to ask you for your opinion on Proust, tell them he’s mirë.)

The Moral Importance of Foundation Garments

23 Dec

foundation-garments

It’s 23rd December, Christmas-Eve Eve, so naturally you would expect me to be writing about Christmassy things. And I was going to, honest. I even had the title worked out, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without…”. But then I got a new bra.

Yes, I know, that’s too much information. But it is relevant because it got me thinking about the (albeit not immediately obvious) similarities between brassieres and moral codes.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a new bra, and ages since I had an expensive, good-quality one, and I had forgotten how much of a difference it makes. The thing about elasticated undergarments, and moral codes, is that over time they have a tendency to grow slack. They are less restrictive, but also less supportive.

I noticed an astonishing difference as I ventured out into the world wearing my spanking new purchase. Some clever engineering goes into these bits of frippery; I felt positively cantilevered! I noticed that I held my head higher, and my shoulders straighter, too, the structured nature of my unmentionable reminding me of other areas that could do with a bit of improving, like posture.

On the first day of wearing the new nether-garment it did feel restrictive and unfamiliar, but by the second day it had become natural, to the extent that when I come to wash it, and have to wear one of my old ones, I will probably miss the new rigour.

I’m never one to leave an analogy unstretched, so bear with me as I opine that moral codes are not dissimilar. (By the way, if the language is more flowery than usual, the glass of rioja I just had seems to have gone right to my head.) Moral codes, like bras, have a tendency to loosen and stretch, without our necessarily noticing. They seem fine, but it’s only when you compare what they are supposed to be like that you notice how much things have slipped.

There was a comment on the Premier website* under an article on three-parent babies to the effect that in-vitro fertilization used to be controversial, particularly for Christians, but now nobody bats an eye. A comment in reply pointed out that this is exactly the point that the ‘slippery slope’ argument makes. Leaving aside that particular ethical quagmire, it’s an example of how things can become looser over time. If there’s something that shocked you years ago, or at least made you feel uncomfortable, and now you don’t even blink, it could be that you’ve become more mature, or worked through it – or it could be that you have grown slack, and not even noticed.

Of course, this is where the analogy reaches breaking point, because you don’t just go out and get a new moral code. A code to live by is probably less like a piece of underwear and more like a kitchen knife – once you find a good one, you keep it forever. However, kitchen knives need to be sharpened up from time to time, just as foundation garments need to be renewed. Talking to others who think deeply about moral issues, listening to sermons and lectures – challenging ones, not just pleasant homilies – and examining both your own behaviour and issues that you prefer not to think about are all ways of doing so, I would suggest.

So if an acquaintance thinks that something you habitually do is ethically questionable, don’t assume that automatically makes them wrong, judgemental, narrow-minded or all of the above. It may just be that your moral elastic has been through the washing machine** one too many times.

Happy Christmas!


* Don’t read comments on the Premier website. It is time you will never get back.
** Never wash your bra in the washing machine! Not even in a pillowcase or delicates bag. Always hand wash. Trust me.

The Five Deadly Sins of Writers on Twitter

10 Feb

Before we get into this, I’d better be upfront: I joined Twitter because I am an author, and apparently it’s one of the absolutely essential things you have to do. Tweets drive traffic to your website and, so the theory goes, that increases sales of your books. I’ve yet to see the proof of this, but I stay on Twitter anyway because, annoying as it often is, it’s good for up-to-the-minute news, it’s sometimes funny, and you should see how much faster companies work to sort out your customer service queries when the details are on the web for everyone to see.

However, as a writer on Twitter I’ve become aware of the ways in which writers abuse this extremely abusable medium in a variety of irritating ways, so I thought I would have a little moan about it (which, naturally will increase sales of my books. Hmm.). Here are the five commandments for writers using Twitter.

bull horn

1) Don’t tweet about your book all the time.
I know that’s the reason you joined Twitter, but this isn’t a billboard or a TV screen for you to advertise on. It is, in a loose sense, a community. People follow you because they are interested in at least some of what you have to say. If the only thing you have to say is “Buy my product, buy my product!” they will very soon get tired and stop following you.

That’s not to say you can’t mention your wares at all, but keep a strict limit on it – one every ten tweets, say, or once every five if you absolutely must. In between times, find interesting things to say. If you can’t do that, the question is not “why are you on Twitter?” but “why are you a writer?”

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

2) Don’t only follow authors.

And don’t mainly follow authors, and especially don’t follow authors just because they’re authors. Yes, it might be nice to share the joys and sorrows of your profession with like-minded souls, but that’s not why you’re following them, is it? You’re following them because they’ll probably follow you back. And so they will, because they’ve read the same advice you have about building up your Twitter following to drive traffic etc. etc.

The problem with this logic is that they are not interested in your books! They are not going to buy them! They just want you to buy theirs. Do you plan on buying even one book from each author you follow on Twitter? No? Well use a bit of that writerly empathy to understand that the same applies in reverse, and stop trying to sell coal to coal miners.

BSZpsnx3) Don’t offer a follow for a follow or a like for a like.

For the same reason that you shouldn’t follow authors, hoping they’ll follow you back, please don’t say “follow me, I always follow back!” or “like my author page and I’ll like yours!” Anyone who follows you just to get followed, or likes your page just to get liked, is probably not really going to engage with your tweets or your webpage, and is almost certainly not going to buy your books.

It’s worse than that, though. To my mind, this kind of self-interested mutual back slapping is meaningless, pointless and vaguely incestuous. It’s also a little dishonest – a step down the road towards giving each other reciprocal positive reviews, regardless of what you thought of the book. Yes, you might get fewer page likes and follows if you refuse to play this game, but as we used to say on Team Starfish, “at least we kept our integrity.”

hard-sell-confused.com-0074) Don’t begin a relationship with a sales pitch.

If someone follows you on Twitter it’s nice to say “thanks for the follow” and it’s also nice to comment on some interest you may share. It’s not nice to say “Buy my book!”, “Visit my website!” or “Love me, love me, love me!”

Yes, I know that’s what you want in the long term, but take things at a steady pace and read the signals, ok? Think of it like meeting that special someone for the first time: it’s probably better to begin with “Nice to meet you” than to go straight in with “How many kids should we have?”

father ted5) Don’t give us the gory details.

This last one probably only applies to the writers of erotica, horror and especially gritty thrillers. You want to entice the inhabitants of Twitter to read your new masterpiece, so you give a short summary, and what better to include in those few characters than the most shocking and titillating bits?

Well, anything really. Twitter is public. Your followers may see it (although they may well not, but Twitter algorithms are a topic for another day) but so may anyone else in the whole Twittersphere. People with weak stomachs. People who’ve had traumatic experiences. People with strong moral views.

Although our culture sometimes seems saturated with violence and sex to the point where it’s no more shocking than a PG Tips advert, there are still plenty of people who don’t want to get wet. And don’t forget that, despite the popularity of things like Fifty Shades of Grey, there are still people who see erotica as being just as morally reprehensible as porn.

It’s entirely possible to provide a pretty good impression of what sort of book you’re plugging without giving it both barrels. Save that for your own website, where you’re likely to get a self-selecting bunch of people who actually like that kind of thing. In advertising your wares graphically on Twitter, you’re not gaining new readers so much as alienating potential followers.

And who knows, maybe followers are good for something other than buying our books? Maybe they have value in themselves as human beings. A radical thought, but one that, if embraced, might make us all more pleasant and charismatic members of the Twittersphere.

(By the way, if you do want to follow me on Twitter, for reasons other than sins #1 and #2, my handle is @kcmurdarasi.)

All’s Well That’s As You Like It

13 Aug

My good friend Rebekah Holden (who is the same person as the actress Rebekah Harvey, since actors are supposed to have unique names) had kindly posted guest post by me on her lovely blog. It is a simple, 5-step guide to writing a brilliant Shakespeare comedy. Just add genius. And comedy.

All’s Well That’s As You Like It; How to write a Shakespeare comedy

Why the chicken really crossed the road

15 Apr

image

I am just back from a lovely holiday in Albania complete with sun, sand, sightseeing and strange cocktails. However I have already written at length about how wonderful Albania is, so this time I think I will tell you what Albania has taught me … about chickens.

Before I continue, I should explain to any chicken fanciers reading this that there’s nothing unique about Albanian chickens, so far as I know, it’s just that I never had much exposure to chickens, or indeed any farmyard animals. My primary school teacher once let us hold some newly hatched chicks, and my family had the occasional visit to a farm during the school holidays, if we were passing one, but I’m a city girl born and raised, and I’ve mostly seen chickens in small, pale, plastic-wrapped pieces on supermarket shelves.

That changed when I lived in Albania, and especially when I married into an Albanian family. My mother-in-law keeps chickens, as do a lot of people in Albania, as long as they have a bit of garden for them to scratch around in. So let me share with you the wisdom I have gleaned about chickens so far:

1) Cocks crow all the time . I knew that cocks (or roosters, if you prefer) crowed at dawn, just like they do on cornflakes adverts. What I didn’t realise is that after they start, they don’t stop. They just keep going all day long. It’s pretty annoying if you’re trying to sleep late, or have a siesta – and I often try to do both.

2) People can recognise their own chickens. To me, one black chicken looks pretty much like another, and I assumed there was some sort of leg ringing system, or a more informal way of marking which one is yours, but apparently not. People can just look at a black chicken (or any other colour – I only give black by way of example) and tell whether it is their chicken, their neighbour’s, or a completely alien chicken. I think it must be an acquired skill. Despite a lot of peering at chickens over the last week, I still have no idea which is which.

3) Chicks are only cute for about two weeks. After that they stop being adorable little balls of fluff and turn into straggly, leggy things with half-grown feathers and a bad attitude. The males start to bully the females, which is not an attractive trait. However, chickens do produce new fluffy chicks pretty regularly, so it’s not too bad.

4) Chickens are chicken. This insult is well-founded because chickens really are scared of everything. They scuttle out of your way as if you were trying to kill them (even when you’re not), and when there was a loud bang at my husband’s cousin’s house, the chickens practically jumped into our laps. I can understand where the story of Chicken Little came from, because if anything dropped on their heads, chickens would undoubtedly be terrified enough to think that the sky was falling. This is also because…

5) Chickens are incredibly stupid. I mean so, so stupid. Especially the young ones. When they run from danger, as they so often do, they’ll as likely as not run in the wrong direction. They followed my husband’s uncle around when he was hoeing, even though one of them had already lost a toe that way. It’s no wonder they’re said to be able to live for a while without their heads – there’s nothing of worth in there anyway. And this also answers the age-old question, why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was too stupid even to realise there was a road, let alone that it would be in danger from traffic.

No doubt there is a lot more I could learn about chickens, and do feel free to inform me through the comments, if you are a chicken expert. For me though, it’s back to chickens being kept in the fridge, in pieces, until the next time I go back to Albania.

Game of (Heavenly) Thrones

17 Mar

I was very excited a couple of days ago to receive through the post my author copies of Augustine: The Truth Seeker. It’s a brilliant feeling to hold your own book in your hand, and I have been waving a copy in the face of everyone I know, with what must be very irritating squeals of excitement.

Game of Thrones

I was going to write a post telling you about the book, and how you can get hold of it. (This is still something of a mystery – I have my copies but no bookshop seems to yet. Can’t be long now.) However, I have been watching a lot of the HBO series Game of Thrones recently – all three seasons in just over a week in fact, because we got a short-term Sky Entertainment pass. And I noticed some interesting similarities with my own work. Therefore, instead of telling you all about how wonderful Augustine: The Truth Seeker is, let me tell you why it’s just like Game of Thrones – but with a PG certificate instead of an 18.

  • It’s about an ambitious young man from a semi-noble, but not monied, provincial background trying to make it in the big cities of the empire. Remind you of Littlefinger?
  • Barbarian hordes start invading from the north and east.
  • Some people hold to the old gods, some to the new, and there are weird mystery religious from foreign lands with a worrying hold over believers.
  • Pretenders to the throne keep cropping up, and at one point in the book there are three monarchs, including a King (ok, emperor) in the North who comes south to try and take the whole lot.
  • Crossing a narrow sea was quite a big deal in both Game of Thrones and Augustine’s time. Especially when you did it with an army.
  • Family members scheme to undermine each other’s power base. (I’m thinking of City Prefect Symmachus and Bishop Ambrose – and just about any of the Lannisters, Barathaons and Greyjoys.)
  • Both have an emphasis on mothers who wish they had more influence over their wayward sons (Monica with Augustine, Catelyn Stark with Rob and Bran, and of course Cersei with Joffrey).
  • There’s a lot of celibacy, in the Night’s Watch and various religious orders of George R. R. Martin’s world, and in Augustine’s Monastry in the Garden. There’s also a lot of the opposite, when Augustine was a younger man – and everywhere in Game of Thrones.
  • Illegitimate sons who are dear to their fathers have an important role to play.
  • People drop like flies. Don’t get too attached to the characters in Game of Thrones or Augustine.

Of course, I’m being a bit facetious. It’s not just the lack of dragons in Augustine that distinguishes it from Game of Thrones; there are far more fundamental differences, the key one being that in Augustine’s world there is a truth that can be discovered, and the one who sits on the heavenly throne turns out to matter a great deal more than the earthly game of thrones. There’s also a lot less nudity and swearing of course, although there is some violence and “mild sexual references”. It’s aimed at the 12 to 14 age group, or mature ten-year-olds, so nothing too graphic.

So there you have it: Augustine: The Truth Seeker, the PG Game of Thrones. I await the phonecall from HBO about TV adaptation rights.

Train of Thought

25 Nov

I am writing this on a train. That sentence probably didn’t alarm you.  It might have done if I had instead written “I am writing this while driving a car.” That’s just one of many good things about public transport in general, but trains more specifically. I have been left in charge of the car keys recently and have had occasion to do a bit of driving, and while cars are certainly convenient and at times almost necessary, it has made me realise just how much I like trains, how relaxed they make me feel in comparison with the heart-palpitations-and-incipient-ulcer sensation I get when discovering that I’m in the wrong lane with no idea how to get to my junction.

Certainly, trains have their faults. They’re almost a by-word for lateness, they are sometimes crowded, and it’s not much fun being on the last train home on a Saturday night with all the people who are too drunk to drive, and far too drunk to regulate the volume of their conversation. However, those things are also true of buses, which are far less pleasant to travel on. So this post will be all about the superiority of trains as a form of domestic transport.

Five reasons why trains are better than cars

1. You don’t have to scrape the train on a cold morning, and the heating is already on when you get in.
2. If the train breaks down, you don’t have to pay to repair it.
3. Trains are almost never in the wrong lane, and can’t ever take the wrong turning because they’re on rails.
4. No one tailgates you on the train.
5. You don’t have to park a train.

Five reasons why trains are better than buses

1. Buses have to stick to roads. Trains often go through some of the most beautiful countryside, without any other traffic to scare the wildlife away.
2. Trains don’t take unannounced diversions and leave you in an unfamiliar part of town with no idea how to get to where you’re going.
3. You don’t have to go to each platform to find out which one your train will stop at; there will be a sign in a central area telling you which one. Not so with bus stops.
4. People on buses (in the aggregate) are louder, smellier and more aggressive than on trains. I don’t know why, they just are. Bus drivers also tend to be less friendly than train conductors. Maybe someone should do a sociological study.
5. Trains are great for writing on. It’s something about the white noise, rhythmic motion and view out the window. It seems to switch off certain parts of your brain in a really helpful way. Buses don’t have the same neurological effect, and anyway all the bumps mean you would never be able to read your writing anyway.

I’m crossing a misty river in perfect comfort, watching the stressed traffic driving along the bank below me, which means I’m almost on Central Station. Time to sign off.