A tiny ocean

As I explained in my previous post, I’m going to be posting some writings produced from prompts from Cat Rambo’s weekly writing games.

Why not try the prompt yourself before reading further? Or you can join Cat’s Patreon from just $2 a month to write live with the group!

Prompt: A tiny ocean is in a Turkish garden. A woman writes a notebook about it.

Writing time: 10 minutes

Wooden bowl with resin ocean decoration

It makes me wonder how many of these things there are, around the world. If it hadn’t been for the owner’s unusually observant nature, this would too could have just slipped by, unnoticed.

You often hear of sinkholes, and they’re always measured in units of largeness. Cubic metres, or the width of the White House or the length of an American football pitch.

But this… this tiny ocean contains, as far as my instruments can determine, all the things you’d expect to find in a normal-sized ocean – fish, islands, coral reefs, whales, icebergs, even… but all microscopically tiny.

“It leads to some interesting questions, does it not?” says Professor Yavuz, shoving his hands deep into his pockets as he paces back and forth across the lawn.

I lean back in the flimsy folding chair and rubbing my aching neck.

“It does indeed. I’ve just discovered a shipwreck.”

[In case you’re wondering, that gorgeous bowl is by Ilka Abbé, price 75€.]

More writing prompt pieces to follow!

Anyone who knows anything about modern SF will have heard of Cat Rambo, the author and former President of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. What most people don’t know – indeed I didn’t until I signed up as a Patreon – is that Cat has an incredibly lively, supportive, inspiring Patreon community. There are discussions of all things writing and beyond, plus some amazing interactive sessions every week.

One of these – and you get access to this even if you’re only a Tier 1 Patreon like me, which I think is phenomenal – is a weekly writing games session. This takes the form of a Zoom session at which Cat sets three prompts, two with a 10-minute writing time and one with a 15-minute limit. Then anyone who wants to can read out what they’ve written.

As always with these things, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what everyone produces from a single prompt. It’s also a really good way to realise that it’s not at all easy to bring your story to a satisfactory end in such a short time.

I won’t be able to make the session every week, but with three prompts a time I’ve already come up with the seeds of a couple of stories that please me and I’m keen to continue the habit of weaving something from (apparently) nothing. So watch this space!

I did it! My book of Manx fairy tales is now available to read

As those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while may remember, some time back I wrote a series of short pieces in response to writing prompts based on a box of Christmas tea sachets. Those stories turned out to be set on the Isle of Man, where I was born and grew up.

Together with other short stories, flash fiction and fragments, they are now available as A Manx Daisy Chain and other stories. You can buy the title as an e-book or paperback, currently on Amazon (here), and I’ll be adding it to other platforms according to demand.

So if you like fairy tales, or fancy the idea of stories about robot dinosaurs, Bake Off in space or why translators need to be really careful about the assignments they accept… you might enjoy reading it!

Look at the pretty cover design!

Review: Copywriting Course, College of Media and Publishing

Or how to put yourself off copywriting (for life?) in 14 extremely tedious and not very relevant lessons

As those of you who’ve been here for a while will know, I quite enjoy writing. I’m fairly good at it. And, as a sensible freelancer, I’m always trying to think of ways that I can offer more value to my clients while also broadening my skills base, just in case they ever do manage to perfect machine translation.

So a while back I signed up for the College of Media and Publishing’s Copwriting course. And when I say “a while back”, I really do mean a long time ago. Like, years.

In fact, so many years that when I got together in 2020 with a handful of fellow translators to set up an accountability group so we could finally finish the course (all right, I hadn’t even done one assignment, but I would)… it turned out that I had to pay a supplement of £50 to restart the course again.

And everything went downhill from there, really. What follows is, I admit, a fairly harsh review. YMMV. Maybe it’s just me. You might love it. I ended up with a Distinction, so I do feel a tad ungrateful – which is one of the reasons it’s taken me almost a year to decide to write this – but on the other hand as a copywriting course retailing at anything up to £500* I just feel that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

Copywriting diploma with distinction grade
I’d almost rather have failed, given how much I hated it

Firstly, it’s not really a course aimed at people like me. As a freelance translator, I’m already pretty au fait with a lot of the general stuff the course covers. Grammar, online glossaries, terminology, proofreading your work? Tick. Formatting? Yup. Writing effective headings? Well, maybe not from scratch, but I often have to turn headings in French or Swedish into snappy equivalents in English. Writing press releases? Ditto.

Secondly, it’s not really a course that teaches you copywriting. Yes, I know. You’d think that, in a copywriting course, that would be pretty basic. Instead – and I can kind of see why, but there must be a better way to do it than this – it teaches you to come up with fictional briefs and then write copy to fit them.

For example, an exercise might ask you to come up with a magazine for which you’d write an article about a company’s product. All/some of which could be fictional. And to my mind, that’s just so vast an assignment that I don’t even know where to start. So each time we had to do something like this, I ended up making up the entire thing. Which just made it an exercise in creative writing, rather than copywriting.

Thirdly, it’s incredibly dull. Each lesson consists, as you’d expect, of study notes concluding with an assignment. But there are up to 44 pages of study notes (yes, FORTY-FOUR). That was for the social media assignment, which took absolutely ages because you had to do umpteen different tasks (including creating a blog if you didn’t already have one, and writing at least two posts – which seems like an inefficient way to teach someone about blogging).

Fourthly, it’s not very well written. I began to expect the recurring use of “But”, followed by a comma, at the start of sentences, but I never stopped gritting my teeth about it. Surely if you’re teaching any kind of writing, you need to get the basic grammar right?

Fifthly, some of the marking is a bit dubious. I had one assignment marked as a B because I’d failed to include notes to the fictional newspaper editor. When I pointed out that I had, in fact, included these notes, but the tutor simply hadn’t scrolled to the bottom of the assignment, my mark remained a B.

And finally, it’s not up-to-date. As I mentioned above, one of the assignments involved creating a blog. Now, you can argue that blogging is still relevant for companies in 2022. But you can’t deny that Twitter no longer has a 140 character limit. In fact it hasn’t since 2017! I did point this out in my submission, but I stuck to 140 characters anyway because I guessed that if I’d gone with the current 280 character limit I’d probably have been marked down. In any case, I’d have had to write another 140 characters of this depressing stuff, and by that point I was just desperate to get the damned thing finished.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for that accountability group I mentioned at the start of this post, I’d never have done it. (Thank you all – you know who you are!) Other members deprived themselves of chocolate when they didn’t submit assignments on time. One member notably strode through the entire course, finishing it in what felt to me like seconds but was probably a much more reasonable few months. Meanwhile, I found the entire thing so soul-grindingly awful that I needed to bring in the nuclear option on repeated occasions: I threatened myself with having to make a 50€ donation to Nigel Farage’s latest party. It never failed. Nigel, you’re a mean-minded, self-serving arsehole and you’ve single-handedly made racism acceptable in the UK again and condemned ordinary young people to suffering under the British government for their entire lives, instead of escaping as I was fortunate enough to do… but at least you helped me get through this dreary desert of a course.

I should perhaps point out here that I’m not incapable of appreciating online courses. In May I finished “Proofreading 1” from the CIEP, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, and I’m on target to finish “Proofreading 2” in the next week. And they’re wonderful. Challenging, instructive, high-level, well-written and constructed… In other words, a lot of fun, and absolutely worth the price. In fact, I have to stop myself thinking “Oh, I could just do a little bit more of the next assignment” so I can actually get some work done. I’m really looking forward to being able to announce my qualification as a full Member of the CIEP.

But the College of Media and Publishing’s copywriting course has had exactly the opposite effect. I’ve done copywriting for clients in the past. I’ll continue to do it for existing clients who ask for it. But I won’t be looking for new outlets for my copywriting skills. I’ve even left ProCopywriters, a network I joined a few years ago, and whose conference I attended and found to be extremely enjoyable. I’m not sure why the course had such an extreme negative effect on me – maybe it was having to admit over and over for a whole year, in yet another Friday accountability thread, that I still hadn’t done the next assignment?

In any case, as I’ve said above you may feel different about it. It may teach you all you ever wanted to know about copywriting and fill you with enthusiasm for the profession. Personally, I wasn’t lovin’ it.

*If you do decide to do this course, make sure you sign up during one of the CMP’s frequent special offers. You can usually get it for less than half the RRP.

Are you the same you as before the pandemic?

It’s not a trick question, and I’m fully aware that the pandemic is not even remotely over – even though we’re all supposed to be panicking about the war in Ukraine now, and have forgotten about the pandemic, because, you know, we needed a distraction since it’s not really possible to stop society in its tracks because it turns out that the economy tanks, and who could have thunk that? I dunno, it’s a mystery.

But in the fairly imminent future I’m going to be going back to Sweden, where I’ve spent time but not met any of my friends since 2020. Early 2020, in the vast majority of cases.

And it’s suddenly occurred to me that I’m not the same person I was when they last saw me. For a start, it’s been two years, and two years of extreme stress haven’t been kind to my very-nearly-54-year-old self.

But the main changes are on the inside. I’ve become even more of an introvert in many ways. I expect that’s normal, given the events of the last two years. But I’ve also become far less tolerant of poor behaviour. I haven’t been able to meet the people I want to for two years. I’m buggered if I’m putting up with rudeness, bad communication or being taken for granted by anyone I don’t particularly want to encounter. I’d already been edging in this direction before the pandemic – so maybe it’s just an age thing, after all? – hence the question.

Are you the same you as before the pandemic?

For example, today has been a pretty good day. It’s even held a couple of pieces of good news, unlike almost every day in the last 700-odd. I’ve gone for a walk, worked sitting at a table in the garden, done a moving meditation that gave me a lightbulb moment, and listened to techno and birdsong simultaneously. That sounds like Jane. And yet… not quite.

How about you?

The moving meditation I did today. It’s the voiceover that really makes it, I think.

TrumpBrexitCOVIDUkraine in Shockity Shock Shock Shock Shock

This could be a really long post, but I just can’t be arsed. So here’s my thinking. It’s not very elegantly done, but I’m sure you get the point:

  1. I’m very sorry for the Ukrainian people.
  2. Putin is indeed a megalomaniac loon.
  3. I know very little about the issues on either side, apart from it being historically extremely complex.
  4. There are plenty of other conflicts going on in the world that are not being rammed down our throats with hysterical language by every media source.
  5. Most of the other conflicts involve brown or black people, but that’s OK because they’re brown or black.
  6. We’ve just had the shock horror reactions to the virus. Before that it was Brexit/Trump and there were other things before that.
  7. I freely admit to having written many angry posts about Brexit, largely because I was personally involved. That was wrong of me. I don’t know how Brexit’s going to work out in the long run. Nor does anyone else.
  8. There are plenty of other issues going on in the world that are not being taken as seriously as the war in Ukraine or the virus. Poverty, overconsumption, overpopulation, energy prices, climate change, biodiversity loss, mental health, equality… If we’d put the same effort into fixing those as we have into “staying safe” and standing with Ukraine, we might actually be getting somewhere.
  9. And some of the things people are doing to “support” Ukraine make me boggle. I mean, booking Airbnb places so the owner gets your money directly? Exactly how many of those do you think are owned by the average Ukrainian???
  10. And I ask myself why doesn’t everyone see the Facebook I stand with Ukraine frame as the same thing as clapping for the NHS and kneeling to show support for Black people and all the rest of the virtue signalling BOLLOCKS it clearly is.
  11. And then I go and get on with the rest of my day, exactly as if I had put the Facebook frame on my profile.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Headphone Buyer

The tl;dr, in case you’re thinking of buying Kamtron Marathon 2 headphones –
DON’T. They’re rubbish compared to the old ones.

It isn’t often that I feel the need to take to WordPress to review something. I think I’ve wittered on about my preferred keyboard on Emma Goldsmith’s blog, but that’s about it.

But I’ve been trying to submit Amazon reviews about my favourite wireless headphones for ages. Years. Every time I try, Amazon reject the review, for no obvious reason, and I think “Oh well, never mind” and just carry on using them. Because these things are absolutely brilliant. They’re dead cheap, lightweight, flexible, really comfy, stay put even if you’re using them for yoga and spend a lot of time in downward dog, have an excellent range and a battery life that’ll make you forget you have to charge them. They have on-ear controls for volume, play/pause and forward/back.

The sound’s probably not all that but given I wear them primarily to listen to audiobooks and for emergency supermarket muzak blocking it really doesn’t matter. I can even chuck them in my handbag without a case (although they do come with a rather nice one) and they stand up to that pretty well too. The only downside is that eventually – probably because of aforesaid chucking them in my handbag – they always crack about half way along the cable that goes around the back of your neck. But even then they last for at least a couple of years before that happens, and at about 25 quid a pair, they are, quite simply, fantastic.

Two pairs of headphones, each with a crack in the neck cable.
Two pairs of Marathon headphones, both with the same crack in the cable

Or at least… they were quite simply fantastic.

I should explain that the paragon in question is the variably named Marathon. Sometimes they appear to be made by a company called Kamtron, sometimes it’s Levin. Sometimes they’re called something else altogether.

And the last time I ordered some new ones, it turned out that they’re now called Marathon 2. “Never mind”, I thought, “I’m sure they’ll be just as good but with a different Bluetooth standard or something”.

Mais non.

Two pairs of headphones, one with an obviously thinner cable than the other
Old on the left, new on the right

As you can see above, the new ones have a cable that’s a good bit flimsier than the previous ones. Indeed, the whole build quality feels much less solid. Nor do they come with that rather nice hard case any more. You can’t get them in white (very handy for spotting in a dark handbag). And they drop the Bluetooth pairing at irregular – and extremely annoying – intervals. Sometimes I pause them and they drop it immediately. Sometimes I pause them once and they’re fine, and the next time they drop. And when the pairing goes, the sound goes first and the control goes afterwards. So I press the button to start the audio again, and it starts – but not through the headphones! The sound comes out of my phone. In my pocket, in my handbag, on the front seat of the car, in the bag on my bike frame… And there’s no way to get it back into the headphones without unpairing and re-pairing them. And of course I can’t stop the audio without doing so manually on my phone.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that after a month or two (or less, in the case of the last set I bought), they simply fall to pieces.

Pair of broken headphones with wires exposed
So new I never got around to taking the “Made in China” sticker off them

Now, I know all of this sounds like first world problems. The fact that I can afford headphones, an Audible subscription, the electricity to recharge them and so on means I should be grateful about my lot rather than whinging about cheap consumer goods. Right?

Well, no.

Because cheap consumer goods are killing the planet. Cheap consumer goods are killing companies that make quality products. Cheap consumer goods are killing people in China who have to make the useless things. I wish they were throttling the purchasing department people who say “Yeah, fuckit the quality’s not as good but we’re going to sell them anyway because most people won’t bother to complain”, but sadly not.

After two sets of Marathon 2, both as crap as each other, I’ve just attempted to buy a different brand of folding wireless headphones. These ones appear to have been made for someone with a head the size of an orange, so that’s more of our planet’s precious resources wasted to return them and I’m still left searching for a replacement for my Marathon 1s.

Or would be, because I’ve had a bright idea since I’ve been writing this post, and that bright idea is…. electrical tape! I can just fix the old ones and keep using them. Haha! Take that, cynical purchasing department person!

What are your words for this year?

I don’t do New Year Resolutions. I haven’t done them for ages, mainly because since the millennium it seems a bit of an anticlimax to celebrate the end of a year in any way.

However, just like fellow translator Fiona Gray, in recent years I have found myself coming up with words for the year, usually sometime in January, in a completely unforced way. Last year my words were Strength and Joy, though the former disappeared during the house move from hell in March/April, and it was often hard to keep Joy going for reasons that, I’m sure, are only too obvious.

This year I’ve been a bit more structured with my words. I’m doing Strength again, because I still think I’m going to need it, both mental and physical, and Balance ditto. I’ve always been either wobbling all over the place or firm as a rock when standing on one leg, and I’m a bit like that mentally too. So I’m doing a couple of exercises a day to improve my physical balance, and I’m about to start a mental fitness coaching programme.

Last night I was in a Zoom call with the group of women I’m going to be getting to know a lot better over the next few weeks, as we do that programme together. And we split into a couple of breakout rooms to do brief intros. There were five of us in my room, and three of us had words for the year. One of the women had Joy as one of hers last year, one of them has Strength as one of hers this year. So I think we’re already on the same wavelength!

How about you? Do you set words for the year? Or set broad goals for what you want to do/make/be in some other way?

You have to crawl before you can fly

What can I say about IDLES? At the most fundamental, of course, they’re just a band like many others. To me, personally, they produce the music that’s kept me going through the coronapocalypse. I’ve started carrying them in my pocket when I go into a supermarket, ready to block out the inevitable hideous muzak (why is it so loud and so screechy?) . And any time I feel like humanity is a lost cause, I just have to go into the AF Gang group on Facebook to see people supporting each other as they talk about the toughest of subjects and feelings. Above all, I see a band that’s developing, thinking, both about their own personal situation and the wider state of the world. And I like that. We need more thinkers, desperately.

What I didn’t like, on first listen, was IDLES’ latest album, Crawler. It was announced out of the blue six weeks ago with a single, Beachland Ballroom, that was also – to me – not at all typical of IDLES. It sounds like something Amy Winehouse might have sung. And I absolutely hated Amy Winehouse’s music. But it took about 30 seconds to realise how not all soul songs are equal. How the very fact that Joe Talbot is an unlikely soul singer, and Bowen, Lee, Dev and Jon are an unlikely soul band, makes it work. And that break… breaks me. Every time. I began – like many other fans – finding myself singing the words “Damage. Damage. Damage” to myself everywhere I went.

So I was looking forward to the album. Then two weeks ago another single, Car Crash, was released. And this one gave me such a visceral reaction that I only listened to it once. Partly that’s because of the video, which consists of clips of car crashes from old films, and is frankly unwatchable if you happen to have a severe headache, which I had, and which continued to haunt me for the next ten days. But it seemed aggressive yet without the grace-in-violence combination I’ve come to expect from IDLES.

By now I was getting worried. I’ve never before been aware of the arrival of an album to this extent. I’ve never been this invested in a band, this eager yet terrified for the new release.

So when the album dropped, I waited a whole ten hours before listening to it (and not just because I was asleep for eight of those hours). And, as I’ve already said, I didn’t like it. I couldn’t see IDLES in there. It felt like another band. A band I didn’t know. I couldn’t see myself watching this live, I couldn’t imagine listening to it over and over.

And yet, even then, there were things I liked. Really liked. MTT 420 RR, a spooky, pulsing number with Joe’s voice drawling over it, feels like it’s pulling you into an alternate universe. The rousing lyrics of Crawl. The fantastically eerie Progress, with a complex, rambling bass and apparently random electronic chimes wandering across the soundstage. The brief, John Peel-esque shoutiness of Wizz. The triumphant, dumbfounded, beautiful conclusion of The End.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe I did like it after all?

Crawling to Crawler

I listened to it again, while laying carpet. And on the second time around, it all suddenly fell into place. The reason why it felt like another band is because it is another band. This isn’t just IDLES shouting about the injustice of it all, or being the self-conscious caricature of themselves we saw in Ultra Mono. (Although we still get that version of them in tracks like The New Sensation, probably my least favourite song, largely because I just don’t believe Rishi Sunak’s inhumanity deserves a whole 4 minutes of anyone’s time.)

No, here, in Crawler, the theme of the album in some way replicates the journey of the band, not just Joe’s personal journey – being at the bottom, being ashamed of it and wanting to do more, and finally realising that they’ve come out of it, and that the terrible journey to redemption was, in fact, also beautiful.

I still don’t like all of it, but I don’t have to. Neither does anyone else. If there’s any band working today that means a million different things to different people, where a group of fans will all have different favourites on different days of the week, and depending whether they’ve just seen a snowflake fall or a Rottweiler or a headline about immigrants, or a daisy, it’s IDLES. To have injected warmth and magic into so many mundane references for so many ordinary people is admirable in itself.

But this, Crawler, this album that sounds like it’s another band – this is IDLES in full, majestic flight. The butterfly from the chrysalis, the flower from the seed. This is a band that’s gone through the searching to find itself, the re-inventions it needed to get where it needed to be. From here, they can do anything, go anywhere. Because they know who they are – and they know they deserve this now. It’s brave, it’s complex, it’s got layers of meaning and reference, both musical and spiritual. It’s just wonderful.

And it occurred to me in the middle of the night, with such clarity that the thought woke me up:

That moment at Glastonbury where Joe starts crying on stage, at the end of Danny Nedelko, when he realises how far they’ve come, and what a beautiful, powerful thing they’ve achieved?

That’s the moment Crawler was conceived.

A year in whatnow?

Back in the days when I used to meet new people – or indeed people of any kind other than supermarket checkout operators – once we’d gone beyond the initial phase of the conversation they’d often ask me why I live in Sweden. For some reason, the other end of my peripatetic existence, in rural France, never seems to attract so much comment!

What’s perhaps more peculiar is that I don’t actually have a simple answer. I mean, now I can say that I’m happy with the Swedes’ approach to the pandemic, and shortly before that I could, and frequently did, bang on and on about how grateful I am to have been plucked from the slobbering jaws of Brexit by Migrationsverket.

But it’s hard to say exactly what it is about Sweden that makes it feel like home. The people tend to be a bit stand-offish, the grey bit of winter goes on far too long even in the far south, the food is execrable, they’re more than a touch racist and their habit of mixing light – and even heavy – industry with residential and historical construction has resulted in some horrifying juxtapositions (my ‘favourite’ example of this is the probably 11th century castle in the pretty Baltic Sea town of Åhus. Google “Åhus castle” then use StreetView on the red marker for the full effect – it really is worth those few minutes’ effort).

And yet… it is home. Partly because that’s where most of my friends are, despite the stand-offishness, and I suppose partly because when Swedes do technology it generally works, unlike the French version. In Sweden you really do feel like you’re in the 21st century. At least, you do in the new bits of the towns. Out in the sticks, not so much.

Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of saying that I recently re-read a book I edited a few years back which tells the story of two Brits moving to rural Sweden. And it reminded me what it is I enjoy about being in Sweden.

Red Swedish farmhouse in the background, mossy wall with rusted horseshoe in the foreground.
Sweden is a lot scruffier than you’d expect!

A Year in Kronoberg” is, of course, modelled along the same lines as Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence”. Each chapter relates the events of a particular month, from the snows of January to… well, the snows of December. But in between are descriptions of what it’s really like to live in Sweden. Not in the cosmopolitan cities of Gothenburg and Stockholm, but a small village in the rural south.

How do the Swedes cope with snow? Are they really all blond-haired and blue-eyed and obsessed with fika? Are there moose everywhere, and do they actually get drunk from eating apples? And is it true that you can’t buy alcohol in Sweden? As the seasons change and the two Brits become increasingly Swenglish, we get answers to all of these questions, together with many others.

We meet a variety of the colourful characters who really do seem to be everywhere in rural Sweden, from beautiful Carina who works in the village shop to Olof the plumber and his terrible jokes, encounter huge Vikings and their even more enormous tractors, learn how to pronounce “Växjö”, discover the Swedish obsessions with sheds, ice-cream and hotdogs, and find out why you should never get excited about a Swedish history trail – or go swimming outdoors after mid-August.

In other words, if you want to know the truth about living in Sweden, you should read this charming, light-hearted and humorously informative book.

You can buy it here.