Read it in books

My life isn’t all glamorous launches and rock concerts, you know. Sometimes I’ll stay in and read a book, usually a music one. Here are a few recent reads:

Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out by MARTIN ASTON

This is incredible. It’s the queer equivalent of Revolution In The Head, an incredibly exhaustive (592 pages!) chronicle of the history of LGBTQ musicians in modern culture.

Anything that begins with John Grant’s Glacier and segues into 1920s lesbian blues guitarists is going to win me over, and that kind of contrast is what makes the book so much fun: it’s not a dull historical tract, but a celebration of some incredible music by some equally incredible people.

It’s also a sober reminder of how much progress has happened in a very short space of time. The chapters on music in the time of the AIDS panic are particularly sobering.

UNCOMMON PEOPLE BY DAVID HEPWORTH

I’m a big fan of Hepworth, who helped create Q Magazine, Empire and the much-missed Word magazine. This felt more like a collection of one-shot magazine features than a book, though.

The uncommon people of the title are rock stars, with Hepworth giving each of his chosen ones a chapter (or in the case of The Beatles, a few chapters). He argues that the era of the rock star is over: today, even financial traders call themselves rock stars. The book is his attempt to illustrate the rise and fall of a group of people we probably won’t see the likes of again.

It’s still interesting in places but felt a little insubstantial: perhaps the problem is that it feels aimed at the kind of people who don’t normally read rock stars’ biographies for whom the tales of Fleetwood Mac, The Who and Led Zeppelin may feel sparkling and new.

PLEASE KILL ME: THE UNCENSORED ORAL HISTORY OF PUNK BY LEGS MCNEIL AND GILLIAN McCAIN

I hated this one.

I hated it because like most oral histories, the talking is mainly done by the people left behind by those who ascended to greater things – so it can be hard to concentrate over the sound of axes being ground.

I hated it because it’s terribly edited, giving very minor characters far too many column inches.

But the main problem I had with it is that I was reading it with a 2018/2019 sensibility. Reading about your supposed rock idols committing statutory rape, abusing groupies and generally acting like misogynist arseholes palls very quickly in our more enlightened age.

SMALL VICTORIES: THE TRUE STORY OF FAITH NO MORE BY ADRIAN HARTE

This promises to be the definitive biography of one of my favourite bands, and it’s well-researched with good access to most (but not all) of the band past and present.

But beware: it suffers from the rock-biog curse of pomposity, with some sections almost hilariously overwritten.

If you can get past that – and if you’re not a picky, whinging writer like me, you probably can – it’s probably as good a biog as FNM are going to get.

Hat’s entertainment

This is one of my new favourite things: it’s I Want My Hat Back, a children’s book by Canadian writer Jon Klassen. It’s just wonderful, a simple tale told with style and great wit. My son and I both giggle like loons when we read it and its follow-on books This Is Not My Hat and We Found A Hat. There’s a wickedly dark sense of humour to it all, which of course is what makes the books so appealing.

Another writer my son and I are really enjoying is Chris Haughton, whose books are just as economical and just as funny, if not quite so dark.

This image is from Shh! We have a plan, in which a group of hunters attempt to track a bird while shushing one of the group. Inevitably the shushed one turns out to have the best plan of all.

It’s a great time to be reading to your children, because not only are we having something of a golden age of picture books but we also have access to all the classics too – so the work of these writers and illustrators sits happily in my son’s bookshelf alongside Dr Seuss and Maurice Sendak. Reading is one of life’s great joys, and introducing it to your children is another.

“It was my first taste of what it meant to have my freedom taken from me.”

Helen Taylor is the author of The Backstreets of Purgatory, which is ace. She’s a hell of a writer, a genuinely lovely person and the writer of this heartbreaking piece about being sectioned.

We were supposed to have one-to-one sessions where I told him what I was feeling. It was meant to help, to give me some kind of release.

‘Ronnie, I think you are a prick,’ I told him.

‘I don’t give a fuck what you think,’ he told me in reply.

If you’re not familiar with the term, “sectioned” means being detained under section 25 of the Mental Health Act. Taylor was sectioned after a traumatic experience made her existing depression considerably worse.

It’s not an easy read, but it’s a powerful piece.

Oh, the places you’ll go!

I’ve written about my love of children’s books before, but I didn’t mention one of my absolute favourites: Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

It’s the last of Dr Seuss’s books to be published during his lifetime, and it’s a very warm, witty and wise book that’s as relevant to adults as it is to children: apparently it’s a popular gift for newly graduating students, and I got a new copy as a birthday present from a great friend.

I was reading it to my son last night and I could barely get the words out: while the book is full of joy it’s also touched by sadness, and reading lines such as…

All alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
You’ll be quite a lot

…is devastating when you’re reading it to someone you want to keep in bubble wrap, protected from sadness forever. But of course, we’ll all experience sadness and loneliness in our lives. That’s one of the reasons the book resonates so much.

This video should be everything I hate: it’s a bunch of people at the Burning Man festival reciting the book. But you can’t mess up such beautiful words, and just like the book this video made me cry.

And when you’re alone there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

Writing For Social Media, by me

The second of my British Computer Society books was published as an ebook today.

The print editions of the series (there are four books in total) will go on sale in a couple of weeks.

Here’s the info:

Writing for social media is different to standard business writing and it can be difficult to get right. Even big brands can get it very wrong. This book walks you through how to deliver maximum benefit for your business through your social media writing. Topics include how to develop a consistent online persona, how to tailor your messages across different social media platforms, how to appeal to your core audience, and useful tools to help you craft and monitor your posts. The dark side of social media is also explored, with examples of social media writing gone wrong, tips on how this can be avoided and advice on how best to handle online criticism.

Beauty and sadness in children’s books

One of the great joys of being a parent is reading to your children (or as is happening more and more often these days, having them read to you). There are more kids’ books to choose from than ever before, and I’m often struck by the power and beauty of them.

This, from Town Is By The Sea (Joanne Schwartz; illustrated by Sydney Smith) is glorious.

It’s a deceptively simple book set in a mining community in Nova Scotia but relevant everywhere. In it, a child talks about his day and his routines while his dad mines for coal under the sea. It’s quietly heartbreaking – the book very cleverly hints at the danger and fear of the men working underground without breaking the spell of the main narrative – and very beautiful.

Another writer I’ve come to love is Oliver Jeffers, whose children’s books are just perfectly pitched: my son’s current favourites include The Great Paper Caper, in which a bear is ruining the forest because he wants to follow in his father and grandfathers’ footsteps. I don’t want to spoil the excellent twist. My son also loves How To Catch A Star, which really evokes the way kids think, and pretty much everything else Jeffers has produced. We’re big fans.

Jeffers is probably best known for Lost And Found, a tale of a boy and a penguin that was animated for TV, but I think his best work may be The Heart And The Bottle, which I can barely think about without getting all teary.

It’s about love and loss, and it will take your breath away.

Back to the day job

I don’t usually post links to my work because I do an awful lot of it, but it’s been a while since I’ve had the thrill of seeing my name on the cover of a book.

Business Writing for Technical People is part of a series I’ve written for the British Computer Society, and I believe the ebook is now available for BCS members. Other editions will come out in September.

The book is aimed at technical experts who want to communicate more effectively, and like all my work it contains some really bad jokes. However, it also contains some good advice on getting your message across in the most effective way.

I don’t get to see endorsements before publication, so it’s a nice surprise to see quotes like this on the Amazon page:

Carrie takes the fear factor out of writing. Her clear tips and guides will make your writing instantly more readable. Practice what Carrie preaches and start to get complements on the style, persuasiveness and impact of your written work. Don’t write another word until you have read this book from cover to cover. — Prof. Brian Sutton, Professor of Learning Performance at Middlesex University and author

I love the cover designs too.

I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years now, and I still get a rush seeing my name on a cover or spine. And when that name is “Carrie”… let’s just say I got a little bit emotional when I saw the cover proofs.

“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”

douglas adams inspired “Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy” H2G2

I started re-reading The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumous collection of Douglas Adams’ bits and bobs, a few days ago; I didn’t realise it was so close to the anniversary of his death (May 11, today).

I can’t overstate how much of an influence he was on me. Chances are if I make a joke, I’ve nicked it from him. I’ve definitely borrowed huge elements of his writing style, as have many of my writing peers. If you work in media or tech and you’re around my age, you’re a fan of Douglas Adams. Not being a fan is just unthinkable. And eventually you get old enough to have children, and you get to see those children absolutely howling with laughter at the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

I could post Douglas Adams quotes all day long but I’ll just link to 42 of them.

A quick word about words

Gendered language is weird sometimes. The comedian Frankie Boyle does a hilarious and uncharacteristically safe routine about the early French deciding which gender various inanimate objects were, so for example a lemon was clearly male⁠1 because a lemon is a little yellow man.  And some language is unnecessarily gendered, such as “firemen” when “firefighters” would work just as well.

Sometimes requests for inclusive language are hailed as examples of “political correctness gone mad”, but I can’t see what’s wrong with wanting language to be inclusive rather than exclusive. If the gender of the person isn’t relevant, why do we need to know it?

 

Airline stewards and stewardesses, police men and women, actors and actresses, hunters and huntresses, waiters and waitresses, chairmen and chairwomen, comedians and comediennes… it’s the same job whether they’re male or female. The configuration of their genitals has no impact on how they help passengers, fight crime, pretend to be other people, track creatures, serve coffee, run meetings or tell jokes⁠2.

Imagine if every time we mentioned a person we had to add “…who is a man”, “…who is a woman” or “…who is trans” immediately afterwards. We’d quickly get sick of it: the ugliness of it, the unnecessariness of it. We’d stop doing it fairly quickly. We should do the same with gendered words when the gender is completely irrelevant.

Titles are pretty straightforward for people who aren’t trans. If you’re a man, you’re a Mr. If you’re a woman, you’re generally expected to indicate whether you’re the property of a man or sexually available at this point, because the world is often stupid and terrible. But it’s even more stupid for some trans people.

Some trans people are fine with Mr or Ms, or even Miss and Mrs. But others aren’t, and would like to use a title that’s gender neutral. So for example you might be Mr Don or Ms George, but I might not be either.

We have a word for that: Mx, pronounced “mix”.

 

No, not that little Mx.

Some people have a real problem with Mx and related titles.

When HSBC announced that it would let its trans customers choose from ten titles⁠3 on their bank statements, cards and apps, people were appalled. Commenting on the story in a newspaper I don’t need to name, the why oh why brigade were out in force.

Here’s Mr Simmons, who clearly thinks grammar is his mum’s mum:

There’s two genders, male and female, that is it so none of this nonsense just Mr, Mrs, Miss or Master.

Cookie Cat, who is a cat:

I’ve got a title for the dweebs who come up with this nonsense….Prat.

Dolly Duck, who is a duck:

the world has now totally gone mad, who needs a title whats wrong with just stating your name this is absolute nonsense

Doing It Tuff, who is of course the son of Dave and Irene Tuff:

OMG. I would choose all of them just to hear some idiot try and get their tongue round it. HSBC should have more important things to worry about.

Mariama Deep, who seems to think the new titles are compulsory for everyone and doesn’t bank there anyway:

I want to be called by title which is, Mrs. If I had an account with this bank, I would leave.

Carine 88, daughter of Olivia and Brian 88:

oh please , ffs

(Incidentally, 88 is often used in the user names of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in a kind of secret handshake kind of way: it’s shorthand for Heil Hitler. I suspect here it’s a year of birth, but that’s not going to stop me posting my go-to GIF:)

I use this a lot.

Lakesider, who identifies as something that is next to a lake:

As a shareholder in HSBC, I shall be letting them know that I object to this shocking waste of money pandering to the whims of a tiny number of PC obsessed fools.

And last but not least, Julian And Sandy, who thinks he is two people.

World’s gone mad.

Is the the world that’s mad, Julian and Sandy, or is you? Maybe it’s one of you, or maybe it’s the other one. Maybe it’s both!

It’s not just HSBC either. The Royal Opera House⁠4 uses Mx too, as well as many other silly, probably made-up titles such as:

Advocate, Ambassador, Baron, Baroness, Brigadier, Canon, Chaplain, Chancellor, Chief, Col, Comdr, Commodore, Councillor, Count…

 

…Countess, Dame, Dr, Duke of, Earl, Earl of, Father, General, Group Captain, H R H The Duchess of, H R H The Duke of, H R H The Princess, HE Mr, HE Senora, HE The French Ambassador M, His Highness, His Hon, His Hon Judge, Hon, Hon Ambassador, Hon Dr, Hon Lady, Hon Mrs, HRH, HRH Sultan Shah…

We’re not even at M yet, where the trans people who think they’re too good for Mr and Mrs like to hang out, possibly in bathrooms.

HRH The, HRH The Prince, HRH The Princess, HSH Princess, HSH The Prince, Judge, King, Lady, Lord, Lord and Lady, Lord Justice, Lt Cdr, Lt Col, Madam, Madame, Maj, Maj Gen, Major, Marchesa, Marchese, Marchioness…

Am I labouring the point like Stewart Lee does, taking the joke so far it stops being funny but might become funny again if I stick with it?

 

…Marchioness of, Marquess, Marquess of, Marquis, Marquise, Master, Mr and Mrs, Mr and The Hon Mrs, President, Prince…

 

Of course, he preferred to use a symbol.

…Princess, Princessin, Prof, Prof  Emeritus, Prof Dame, Professor, Queen…

But strangely not “Flash! Ah-ahhh!

Is it my imagination, or is this Scots comedian Gary Little's doppelganger?

…Rabbi, Representative, Rev Canon, Rev Dr, Rev Mgr, Rev Preb, Reverend, Reverend Father, Right Rev, Rt Hon, Rt Hon Baroness, Rt Hon Lord, Rt Hon Sir, Rt Hon The Earl, Rt Hon Viscount, Senator, Sir, Sister, Sultan, The Baroness, The Countess, The Countess of, The Dowager Marchioness of…

That one sounds like someone Sherlock Holmes would visit.

…The Duchess, The Duchess of, The Duke of, The Earl of, The Hon, The Hon Mr, The Hon Mrs, The Hon Ms, The Hon Sir, The Lady, The Lord, The Marchioness of, The Princess, The Reverend, The Rt Hon, The Rt Hon Lord, The Rt Hon Sir, The Rt Hon The Lord, The Rt Hon the Viscount…

We’re in the home stretch now. Be strong!

…The Rt Hon Viscount, The Venerable, The Very Rev Dr, Very Reverend, Viscondessa, Viscount, Viscount and Viscountess, Viscountess, W Baron, W/Cdr.

The Aristocrats!

 

1 Of course I looked it up. He’s right. It is.

2 Women aren’t underrepresented in comedy because “women aren’t funny”. It’s because comedy is still quite sexist, with women being told they can’t be added to the bill because the venue already has its token woman in the line-up. Count the female faces on TV comedy panel shows or comedy showcases and you’ll see it’s endemic.

3 Mx, M, Misc, Mre (pronounced “mistery” – excellent!), Msr (“miser” – rubbish!), Myr, Pr (short for person), Sai (used in Asia) and Ser (used in Latin America). And another one I can’t remember.

4 https://www.roh.org.uk/register – current as of 1 December 2017