Writing 101: Serially Lost.

I’m going to write about the loss that always barges to the front of my mind when I think about loss. This is still the case even though the loss in question happened over thirty years ago.

The being that I lost, and whose loss still leaves a hole in my heart is the dog that I grew up with. He was bought by my parents when I was four years old, and he was there at my side until I was fifteen.

In the wider world he wasn’t a special dog. He wasn’t a pedigree, but he was the dog who was there through my childhood. He was the dog who would greet me excitedly when I got home from school, the dog who would sit beside me when I was watching TV or doing homework. He was the dog who I would throw sticks for, but who would look at you as if to say ‘You threw it, you go get it.’.

And years later I realised how much I felt I owed him. I learned the strength of love, all encompassing, unconditional love, and how dogs are better at that sort of love than just about any other animal on the planet. I also learned how important it was to have someone that could listen to what you wanted to say, and they wouldn’t interrupt, and they definitely wouldn’t pass judgement on what you had to say.

When I got older Rex was getting older too. He didn’t run as far or as fast, but he still had a joy in life, in chasing cats and in finding new and interesting smells. He never got used to being left on his own in the house, and would complain vocally until one of the family was home. We suspected that it had never really occurred to him that he was a dog, and he expected human company.

Old age came suddenly upon him. He got old, and slow, and suddenly walking was obviously painful. He could hardly make it out of the door to go to the toilet. Pretty quickly we found out he had advanced cancer and my parents had the awful job of having him put down. I didn’t get to see him go. I’m never sure whether I would have wanted to, to be able to say goodbye, but I know that I will always have such strong memories of him.

Nowadays, we have another dog. It took a long time to make the decision to get a dog. A lot of thought, and one of the things that held me back for so long was the concern about leaving the dog at home during the day. Our dog gets a walk each lunchtime with our local dog walker who loves her almost as much as we do. And my daughter I can see gets as much out of her relationship with Smudge as I did with Rex.


Writing 101: A Room With A View.

On arriving at the beach the first thing to do is squeeze into a wetsuit. There are many types of beach. There are beaches for walking on with your dog, there are beaches for lying on to absorb the sun and there are beaches where you can surf.

Apparently the things that make a beach a good surfing beach all happen out in the sea. The shape of the sea floor and the prevailing tides and winds are what makes a beach have good waves. But this beach is a good surfing beach on-shore too. The fact that the wide ribbon of sand butts up against a craggy vertical cliff face gives it an insulated feel. People don’t spot the beach from the road. The people who are here know someone who knew someone else, and the word got around.

The cliff itself is magnificent when you are close up. You can see individual layers, stones and shells. Grass and small plants hang tenaciously to this surface.

The sand is golden yellow, fine and soft under your feet. Where it is wet, closer to the waterline it is darker, more solid. Walking on it leaves perfect impressions of your feet that slowly soften and crumble until the next wave washes it away.  The bay is west facing, and the sun has just passed its zenith. The afternoon belongs to me and my surfboard.

Having secured the board to my ankle I walk quickly into the sea. Salt water slides under the cuffs, wetting my calves. The immediate shock of the cool water fades quickly as the wetsuit does its job, holding a layer of water, warmed by my body, against my skin. As the water gets deeper I lower the board to float on the sea surface. Holding it, I push on. Once I’m up to my chest I jump onto the board and start to paddle outwards. The waves lift the nose of the board, but the breakers are behind me, and I can swim out to the depths easily.

Sitting up on the board, hanging my legs over each side I turn to face the bay. The sun glints on the waves and illuminates the water and the sand. Out here the cliff’s roughness is softened by distance. I can still see the layers of the rocks and soil that make up the cliffs, but not the details.

Turning to look over my shoulder I see a likely candidate for a wave I can ride. I sink back down onto the board, and begin surfing. Riding waves is a strange way to spend time. There are periods of inactivity forced on you, waiting for the right wave to come. There are moments of excitement, and even moments of terror as you lose all concept of which way gravity is pointing. Those who like it know that it is a magical experience. A way of connecting with nature, with its rhythms and its rules. Time after time I ride the board in towards the shore, then paddle back out to catch another wave, thrilling, my nerves singing with the joy of being alive, here and now.

Later, when tiredness has sapped my ability to go for another ride, I head back to shore. The sun is dipping towards the horizon, but still warming the sandy bay. Carrying the board away from the water’s edge I find a patch of sand, put my board down and then lie down. Being by the sea, being washed in its seemingly limitless expanse, and being serenaded by the crashing and splashing of its wave heartbeat is always a contemplative time for me. I think about how I love the sound and sight of waves, how lucky I am to be alive in the here and now. I think of friends and family, of the people who have touched my life over the years.  And I think about how I love to watch a setting sun sinking towards the sea, heralding the closure of a beautiful day.

My First Book Club Meeting.

For someone who really likes to read, it is strange that I have never been to a book club before. Of course, it helps that this particular book club meets in lunch time at work.

There weren’t a lot of us, but that helped in not feeling overawed. It is a fact that working at a University (particularly this University) means it is easy to feel like you are a long way from being the smartest person in the room!

The book we were discussing was Regeneration by Pat Barker. It tells the tale of Siegfried Sassoon and his time in a hospital in Scotland during the First World War.

I found that the book was an excellent read. I hesitate to say that I enjoyed it. A story centring on men both physically and mentally scarred by their experiences feels like something I wouldn’t want to label as enjoyable. But the story was compelling. There was plenty to talk about too.

Lots of things to digest. The multiple meanings of the title, the nature of war and propaganda and what feels like a morally justifiable war.

I will add my thoughts on the book in another post, but I will definitely want to attend the book circle again.


Book Review: Zombie Crusade – J.W. Vohs and Sandra Vohs.

I have neglected my blog for a long time now, but I have still been reading, so I need to catch up on various books that I’ve read, my thoughts about them and a rough review. I have abandoned, for the time being the reviews in order which I tried initially to use as a way of keeping track on my reading habits. A more anarchic approach will have to suffice for the time being.

Another Zombie Apocalypse? Enough Already.

I have been reading a lot of zombie apocalypse books recently. I’m not sure why. I think they serve a useful purpose in that they are suitably ‘horror’ in their nature, but they aren’t really disturbing to me because I’m really not expecting a zombie uprising any time soon.

My experience has shown that in common with other genres, there are really two important foundations to a good story. The first is a good idea, the second is the ability to tell the story well.

This book had as its foundation an interesting idea which, according to the preface came from one of the author’s students. They had asked how the author thought armies of the past, the Romans, or medieval European, might fair against a zombie horde.

This clearly appealed to the author, steeped in history as he appears to be, and his book is based on the idea. However, it doesn’t try and tell the story of a zombie event in a different time period, but instead tells the story of an ex-soldier who has seen the effect of the biological warfare in Afghanistan which would eventually lead to the zombie attacks, and who, having left the army is conveniently very rich and a lecturer in medieval weaponry.

Okay, But All Zombie Apocalypses Need A Set Up.

The process of getting to what is essentially a modern day castle, full of people ranging from old army buddies to a convenient love interest is handled okay. The narrative is sometimes quite awkward, and you can see the way its had to be built up to get where the author wants to go. Unfortunately, while efficient, the process feels anything but organic, and that impacts strongly on things like whether the characters are believable or whether you want to have empathy with them.

But the strangest things are what have to be described as the obsessions of the author. At every turn his protagonists are required to hydrate themselves ready for the next encounter. I think this is meant to indicate how hard it is to fight the zombies in a hand to hand situation, but it left me feeling like the film adaptation would have to be sponsored by Evian or Perrier.

There is also a strongly American tilt to the story. The central character, Jack is a former Ranger, a unit repeatedly described at the best soldiers in the world. This felt like little more than ego massage from the beginning, and when each of the soldiers that joined the survivors was described as ‘having kept in ranger condition’ it just felt faintly ludicrous. There were some other related issues in the telling of the story, most especially regarding just how many people had guns, though there was a bit of a twist that the zombies were attracted by sound, so gun usage was usually kept to a minimum, and where they were used they were ‘suppressed 22s’, or guns with silencers.

In Summary.

So, in summary, this book was built on an interesting idea, but the idea was watered down so that the author could write it from a stance of what he knew, diluting some of the more interesting aspects of the story. The writing itself was stilted, though it didn’t lose itself during fights nearly as often as some other books that I’ve read. But it did highlight one of the issues which it feels to me has become an issue with the ePublishing phenomenon. Books can get written and published on kindles and other readers, and can do this having never been through the hands of either an editor or a proof reader. This book suffered from this issue, as have many of my other recent reads. A good editor would have cut through the guff where there was guff and called for clarity when it was needed.

Unfortunately, as I say, this book isn’t alone in crying out for this.


2013 Book Report 23: American Gods – Neil Gaiman.

I read this book in a special ‘Author’s Cut’ edition. Available from:



The main protagonist, ‘Shadow’ is in prison, counting down the last few days of a prison sentence. He is called to the warder’s office to hear the news that his wife had died in a car accident, and that Shadow is to be released.

The story now takes on a mythic dimension. Shadow starts his journey home, but then meets up with a man who calls himself Wednesday. After learning the truth about the accident that killed his wife Shadow accepts a job as a henchman working for Shadow.

And so doing, Shadow becomes a lead character in a mythic tale which involves all the old gods who migrated to the Americas, but whose powers have waned as the number of believers decreased.

This is a big book, filled with big ideas about the nature of belief, and thoughts about a world where gods are real, amongst us and reliant on other’s belief in them to derive their powers. At the same time it manages to be a thrilling page turner which sometimes felt like a boys own adventure.

I will be looking out more Neil Gaiman in the future…

2013 Book Report 22: Superstition in Pigeons – B.H. Skinner.

I work in a Department of Psychology, but I’m no psychologist. However, I had read something that put me on to the idea of reading about a bit more around the subject.

There is a Wikipedia article on B.F. Skinner. It outlines both his life and his theories.

Like many giants of their field, the things that Skinner did and said now seem pretty much obvious, but were clearly radical in their day. Skinner’s research was largely targeted towards the nature of free will and responses to punishments and reward.

This short book (available for the Kindle here) is a summary of the investigations of responses given by pigeons to various stimuli. The behaviour seems to indicate that the pigeons become, in some way superstitious about their behaviour, and start to carry out series of rituals which they somehow associate with being provided with rewards.

Anyone who has tried to train any animal will know that it is vital to give a clear, consistent command and then reward the correct behaviour. If the command is inconsistent then the animal would associate the wrong thing with the behaviour. It seems pretty self explanatory.  But then, as one of the presenters of Myth Busters once said ‘The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down” –@donttrythis #MythBusters‘. This stuff didn’t become science until Skinner tested the various hypotheses and wrote them down.

Given the combination of quite a technical subject and a stilted, academic and older English idiom, this book is surprisingly readable, and a starting point to learning much more about psychology.


2013 Book Report 21: When It Was Dark – Guy Thorne.

I read this book on my Kindle, available here.

I can’t remember why I went out of my way to get this book. I have a feeling that it was mentioned somewhere else, and I made a mental note to get hold of it. I’m glad I did, though I have a feeling that Guy Thorne wouldn’t have approved of my feelings on reading the book.

The book was written in 1902, and it reflects the time when it was written. Summarising the story as bullet points:

  • A respected and well known biblical scholar has a weakness for the high life beyond his modest academic salary to support. He also has an ongoing affair with a lady of the stage.
  • Because of his proclivities the scholar finds himself in serious debt, having already been rescued from ignominy several times by a rich patron who is a member of parliament.
  • The patron offers a way out of debt for the scholar, offering to clear all his debts and to set him up with a regular payment in the future for a simple service. The academic is to travel to ‘The Holy Land’ and set up a tomb with indications that show the tomb to have been the one in which a crucified Jesus is laid. Evidence is then to be added to show that Jesus did not rise, but that his body was removed by Joseph of Arimathea.
  • The protagonist in the story is a young priest working in an industrial town in the north of England. He keeps the faith in the face of the doubts sweeping the world’s Christians. And it is he who eventually finds a way to expose the falsehoods.

Reflecting The Early Twentieth Century Norms.

There are many aspects of the book which look odd or quaint from the early years of the 21st Century. There is clearly an anti-Jewish bias in the book demonstrated by the fact that the rich patron is a Jew. This was quite normal for Christians of the time (a fact which is glossed over by Christians desperate to blame atheism for Hitler and the Nazis). The idea that the loss of faith immediately leads to a break down in law and order is the sort of thing that the more fanciful evangelicals cling to as well.

As an atheist myself, I found this an enjoyable vignette which demonstrated the thought processes of a simpler time. It is undoubtedly a product of its time, something that could never have been written later, at least in Western Europe. As far as I can tell, the Americas could still produce material like this and expect it to sell by the bucket load!