I am really grateful to my school history teacher (we had the same amazing woman for 5 years) who taught us to write an A4 page in 10 minutes. She knew that if we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t pass our history exams. That was in the pre-computer era.Then when I became a teacher, in the computer-era, I had a real struggle to teach my students the same skill. By then it was more imperative (can that be possible?) for handwriting training so students had the stamina to get through an exam writing by hand when everything else was done on computer.
There are pros and cons to both handwriting and typing, but overall I think the skill of handwriting is far more valuable than that of typing. Fine motor skills which can’t be developed on a machine. For many of us, our initial thoughts take place on paper – words or doodles, there’s invariably a piece of paper to write on irrespective of where you are whilst a computer or android, mac or other tablet is not.
As a writer, I use both handwriting and typing – depending on what I’m doing, where I am and what my deadlines are. Interestingly, my writing approaches and styles differ between the two and I noticed when experimenting with voice-activated typing systems that my style was completely alien to what it was when I wrote. It must be that different parts of our brain are stimulated by each respective recording method.
This seems to be supported by others. The Guardian reports Freakanomics found mixed results – I think more quickly writing than typing (less distraction) BBC claims the writing is on the wall – so true. If I haven’t written for a while, my handwriting is ill-formed and doesn’t flow as smoothly
How does it all differ to caligraphy? Chinese calligraphy is a prize-art form.
Importantly, children with dyslexia and dyspraxia should be encouraged to write – not for writing’s sake but because of the other benefits. Some helpful advice can be found on how to manage the challenges these children face. And there’s a National Handwriting Association.
Convinced that handwriting is important and need to improve yours? Here are some handy tips.
How do you create your masterpieces? Please share but don’t forget to let us know what type of masterpiece you create. That is just as important in determining the most appropriate creative process.
“Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”
― Walter Benjamin
I’ve come to the conclusion I’m a fussy reader. As an historian, my reading material although narrowly focused on World War One in Africa varies between traditional academic texts to self-published ancestral memoirs, biographies and autobiographies as well as official reports and letters. This means I read widely in terms of style, accepting the document for what it is – a vessel to impart fact or interpretation that I can use to understand a particular event or circumstance.
As a publisher, however, I read a wide variety of texts and genres, many taking me out of my comfort zone. Similarly, belonging to a local reading group, I get to share thoughts on texts with others more comfortable with the fictional world. From this it’s become apparent that I much prefer what I call an authentic read – something original. I seldom read the blurb of a fictional book as that invariably puts me off reading the book. And another quirk is that I am trying to read my newly bought books in order with to be reads scattered throughout, so I seldom know what is coming along other than the title which peers up at me from the pile.
This random approach to my reading meant that I read two novels concerning the Great War in Africa one after the other with no preconception of that being the case. The one was brought to my attention soon after its publication – Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah and the other Weep Not, Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Both are by African authors and both by all accounts written while the authors were in England. However, despite the reviews which I have since caught a glimpse of claiming Afterlives being ‘entrancing storytelling and exquisite emotional precision’ (Evening Standard) and a ‘shatteringly powerful novel’ (The Notorious Reader), I found it a poor comparison in terms of tone and reader-captivity to Weep Not, Child – finding a review of the book might be a challenge as this first novel by Ngugi has been analysed by students with summary plots and interpretations available instead. Weep Not, Child was written in 1962, published in 1964, whilst Afterlives was published in 2020 – different political contexts and authors writing for different reasons and audiences.
What I love in Ngugi’s writing and which he hasn’t lost over the years is his African voice. He hasn’t tailored his writing to an audience that struggles with African imagery: A young boy walking along the road sees ‘devil’s water’, otherwise known as hallucinations; the First and Second World Wars are referred to as the Big Wars, first and second. ‘The road which ran along the land had no beginning and no end …’ are just a few. Sadly, his description of what happens in the classroom in terms of teaching English has little changed from what I saw regularly over a nine-year period first-hand in Tanzania 60 years later.
Abdulrazak’s writing is crafted, tailored to an audience removed from his home country (Tanzania) and continent and for me it’s lost this vibrancy. I was struggling to work out what the book was missing, why it hadn’t grabbed me until I was reading Ngugi and it hit me full-force. With Ngugi, I could smell his Africa (Kenya), sadly not with Abdulrazak. I had a similar experience reading Half a Yellow Sun by Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another well-crafted text but something was missing.
And this is one of the aspects I love about being a small publisher – keeping the author’s authentic voice, writing for the minority who want to experience the world the author is trying to create, not the one the marketing gurus suggest people want to hear about. One of my favourite images is by Sudanese TSL author Amna Agib: ‘I always smell the sound of your drums’ (The Roots that gave birth to Magical Blossoms). And there are so many more, by authors from all walks of life and continents in the TSL catalogue.
While Afterlives did not transport me back to another time and place in the same way Weep Not, Child did, I take comfort in the fact that Abdulrazak’s topic and it’s positive reception by the critics raises the profile of those who were caught up in the Great War in Africa – and in particular from the German colonial experience.
What is a ‘good’ book? For me, it’s rarely a best seller. It’s a book which makes me think and spot something new every time I read it or one I’m not likely to go back to read again because of the emotions which remain with me. Here’s what other think:
'I rather agree with C. S. Lewis that a book that isn't worth reading when you're sixty isn't worth reading when you're six.' Richard Adams pic.twitter.com/nZGNdvb2Va
With the increase in cross-boundary and cross-cultural writing, it’s important that the writer gets the language of the protagonists right but also to ensure that the reader knows what is meant.
The importance of this was brought home to me quite early on in my stay in England – in South Africa what we call pants are called trousers in England, while pants in England refer to underwear. There are different definitions/understandings of the term now which I won’t even venture to explain in text – if you’re curious, find a South African and ask them to explain the difference between now, just now, and now now. Engaging with a Caribbean colleague enlightened me to a different meaning behind the verb to cane. In South Africa and it appears British school slang this was to get a hiding whilst in Jamaica it meant to get high on drugs. An article in the Harrow Times brought introduced another meaning of the verb to ride. But sometimes, it’s more straightforward than double (or triple) meanings. Sometimes, terms are used from another language.
So how do authors convey these different interpretations of words to ensure their readers get the point?
Anna Ryland’s A Second Chance has a glossary at the end of the book for those who want to double check they’ve understood the Polish terms used. John Samson’s Shaka are Dead and Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband make the meaning explicit through the context in which the slang is used, while Pamela Howarth explains the slang and accronyms as part of the story she’s telling.
Why do we label people? Labels get in the way yet despite (in spite) of the barriers many creative people have to face, they achieve. TSL values the diversity learning and other challenges bring – we all have them if we’re honest with ourselves. My nephew (11 years old) told me that ‘we’re all clever, we just don’t put it into action!’ I wonder who’s had words with him?
Paul Ross, author of the wonderful Chimney Sweep series, talks about his dyslexia. This influenced how we published his work, allowing space for young people to interact with the paper through drawing, scribbling or writing as well as electronic engagement.
The innovativeSir Chocolate series was the inspiration of young Michael as co-author and mom, Robbie Cheadle, explains, while some of our other authors and playwrights left school early to enter the world of work – their messages are powerful even if commas and spelling are not standard (that’s when we get the manuscript).
You might wonder why an English man writes about Irish history. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself.
It’s more than 60 years since I left school so I can’t vouch for the present day history curriculum in English schools. Back in the mid-fifties, in a small grammar school, there was only a limited number of subjects available to take at ‘O’ level. One of the choices I and my cohort were offered was between history and art. Much as I enjoyed history, especially writing essays based on what I discovered from reading the approved text books, I went for the easy option.
Art would not require me to spend hours studying, learning dates and the names of kings and politicians, leaving more time to concentrate on the science I thought would be essential for a career. It was not until I reached my fifties that I began to take an interest in British history, inspired by Simon Sharma’s television series and three volume book, as well as Peter Snow’s documentaries about various battles.Soon after I came to Ireland I visited a castle ruin not far from where I live. An information board at the entrance mentioned that the building had once belonged to Roger Mortimer. Having grown up in the Welsh border I had heard of the Mortimers, and the centuries’ long dispute between them and the Welsh princes. I had learned enough history in school, before I gave up the subject, to know that one of them had, for a brief period, held the Crown as regent. I had no idea how they became involved in Irish history.
Once my interest was thus piqued I began reading about the Norman influence in Ireland and came across several other names with connections to the Welsh borders that also appeared as leading players in Irish history. De Lacy, De Braose and De Clare. The more I read, the more I became fascinated by the events of the second half of the twelfth century; of how a minor Irish noble, having been defeated by rivals, sought help from the king of England in an attempt to regain his position of power; of how he offered the hand of his daughter in marriage to the man who would lead such an expedition. What was it like to be that girl, traipsing with her parents and a small entourage, across England and Normandy in order to track down the king, only to be dismissed with a vague promise that, if he found someone willing to take on the task, the king would not object? Back in England the search for such a man ended at the door of Richard De Clare, nicknamed ‘Strongbow’, a man who had also lost a lot of power, influence and land through having been on the wrong side during the reign of Henry’s predecessor, King Stephen. Perhaps here was an opportunity to curry favour with Henry, at the same time gaining power and influence elsewhere. Not long after this, another event that every school child learns about would also come into play. Someone misinterpreted a remark made by the king and decided that getting rid of the Arch Bishop of Canterbury would please him. Henry’s need to atone for the death of his Arch Bishop would lead him to attempt to bring dissenting Irish bishops to heel. So was born the idea that became ‘Strongbow’s Wife’.
Not long after it was published a friend asked me to help with his researches into the famine that brought devastation to the island between 1845 and 1852. Once again I encountered an aspect of British and Irish history of which I was previously only vaguely aware. ‘A Purgatory of Misery’ takes its title from the words of the chancellor of the exchequer in Lord John Russell’s government in a speech about conditions in Ireland. It is a brief survey of the history, geography, religion and other influences that created the conditions in which the impact of potato blight upon the Irish was infinitely worse than in any of the many other parts of Europe and North America subjected to the same fungal disease. It was whilst carrying out this research that I came across the story of Captain Arthur Kennedy who left the army to join the Poor Law Commission as an Inspector. His role, to ensure that the Poor Law was properly administered, including the management of the workhouse, as well as the distribution of relief, would inevitably bring him into conflict with the land owners in the district to which he had been assigned. Funding for relief, and the upkeep of the workhouse, was by means of taxes imposed upon them and to which they had a natural aversion. But it was the brutal eviction of tenants that most angered Kennedy, and he set about exposing the practice at the highest level of government. Here was a story I felt needed to be told. To me it epitomises the everlasting conflict between rich and poor, between those who regard themselves as superior and those they see as lesser beings. More than that, it exemplifies the debate that still rages about the best way to lift people out of poverty. Which, of hand-outs, jobs and education, is most effective? Which combination of two or more of them? There are echoes, too, in the way in which people of colour are regarded in the USA, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement there and in the UK. The question of population and the distribution of food and of the means of producing it are also central to the story. It remains important in the twenty first century with famines occurring somewhere in the world year after year, often exacerbated by wars and, now, by climate change.
In my version of Arthur’s story, he muses that there is ample land to be claimed in the colonies, including what were by then former colonies, in North America. Encouraging people to seek new and potentially prosperous lives in those territories seems, to him, to offer an easy solution. A solution that is no longer available as the world’s population approaches 8 billion.
Why Irish history, then? First and foremost because, as I discovered, it is an integral part of British history. But, thanks to the success of the empire builders, so is the history of most of the world. Within my lifetime we have seen how the descendants of former slaves came willingly to Britain, first to take part in, and then to rebuild after, the second world war. Irish came too. Neither were accorded a warm welcome by all of the nation’s citizens. Many are still regarded with distrust by some English people, including some who are charged with administering the latest manifestations of ‘poor law’, the welfare system. Every time I hear someone complaining about immigrants, or see the arrogant behaviour of some young English men and women in foreign parts, I cringe. Britons have achieved much, and it is only right that those achievements be applauded. But so have others from all corners of the world, including Ireland. But along the way some Britons did terrible things to those they regarded as foreigners.
In my first few years in Ireland I tended to respond to criticism of the British in Ireland by pointing out that the people responsible were not ordinary Britons. They were the aristocracy; the same people who mistreated their own citizens, with women and children working long hours for little reward in the mills and mines. Modern history teaches that such things were wrong and lauds the men and women of the labour movement who fought for change. Those who carried on the same fight in the colonies are viewed as enemies, as terrorists. That needs to change. Children need to learn that injustice frequently extended beyond Britain’s shores.
I see irony in the way that both Britain and Ireland use a distorted picture of the past to lure tourists. The heritage industry, though temporarily suspended thanks to the pandemic, is an important contributor to national income in both nations. Both peoples, British and Irish, are proud of the great houses and country estates, showing them off to all comers, including the descendants of those who suffered at the hands of the families who created them. Much historical fiction romanticises the lives of the servants who worked ‘below stairs’ and in the gardens and on the estates, ignoring the long hours, the back-breaking labour and the inadequate rewards their ancestors endured. Those fictions – and they are fictions – now take pride of place on our television screens and in our cinemas.
I hope that what I have written goes some way towards restoring the balance.
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