How do you handle the elephant in the room?

I wrote recently advising you not to be like Basil Fawlty when choosing a career. https://johnharveymurray.co.uk/blog/wp-admin/post.php?post=123

I thought of him again this week, when I was in a discussion about how to handle race and religion in fiction.  It seems as if almost anything can give offence to people who are easily offended. (This includes white people who overreact on behalf of ethnic minorities.  Moves to ban Christian images from Christmas did not come from Moslems or Hindus.)

Yet avoiding the subject of race or religion seems wrong.  Not that it is the theme of the book, but there are lots of people in our country of diverse origins.  To have all the characters as white British would make the setting seem unreal.  But to bring in black or Asian characters and not have anybody mention the most obvious fact about them would seem like ignoring the elephant in the room. Like the ‘don’t mention the War’ sketch.

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Stop pretending you’re an elephant!

So what to do?  I have tried to bring in some examples of different, but, I hope, equally realistic reactions.  Some friendly banter among friends, (at one stage, an Asian woman and a white Welshwoman compare suntans)  some serious discussion of how someone had been wrongly labelled a racist by the press, someone making bad jokes about somebody’s colour and an encounter with some racist yobs.  I think all these scenarios are to be found in real life.  Some are based on incidents I have witnessed.

I hope readers of whatever background will appreciate these elements in the story without being offended.

Are the animals in my book red herrings?

When my detective novel, Accounting for Murder: Double Entry, is published, you will find animals appearing at various points in the story.  The following are not examples.

 

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‘Was he thick-skinned or just thick?’

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The Old Bill were in the dark.

However, other animals do appear.

You may wonder what is their relevance to the main plot.

They are there partly to show my hero and his family are more than one-dimensional.  They are people with interests and relationships like anyone else.  Even accountants.  In particular, they are all fond of animals.

Secondly, I want to give some bad publicity to crimes against animals. In this case, dog-fighting.  In future books in this series, I hope to give dishonourable mentions to other such activities.  Some will be illegal, others should be.

You may well ask whether the dog-fighting story links with the murder mystery.  Is it a clue or a red herring?  You may well ask.  Read the book.

I hope to publish by Easter.

Should old words be culled or treasured?

Someone knocked at my door and asked “Have you got any old clothes?”

I said, “Yes, I’m wearing them.” They looked confused.

I mention this because I have a tendency to hang onto things I like, even when they get a bit worn.  This applies to words too.  I do not always notice when a word or phrase falls out of fashion.  I do also pick up new ones, especially if they express an idea better than any existing words.  I do object to using existing words in such a way as to lose sight of their original meaning.  Literally should mean what it says.  So should unique.

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I have been thinking about this a lot this week, because I have been having discussions with my editor about the draft for my novel, Accounting for Murder: Double Entry.  Many of the expressions I use are a bit old-fashioned for a book set in the present.  Not Shakespearean, just Twentieth Century.  We are in the process of deciding which ones to replace and which to keep.

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I love the English language for many reasons, but one is that it is so full of synonyms.  You can choose an exact word to convey a particular shade of meaning.  Hope, expect, anticipate and await all mean ‘think about something that might happen’ but do not all express the same feeling towards that possible event.   It would be a shame to use one of them all the time and forget about the others.  This is as true for at least some slang words as for more ‘proper’ ones, in my opinion.

Here are some examples of words and phrases that have given rise to discussion.  You might have views on which ones would enhance my manuscript and which would detract from it.

Not half.  Phwoar.  Wally.  Snake in the grass. Trollop.  Seduce. Stone me. Strewth. Bit of stuff. Old trout. And how. Knickers in a twist. Apparent. Bonhomie. Bathers (= people in the sea). Acquire. Acknowledge. Loquacious.

I am not saying how many of these will appear in the final version.  As to my overall style, you will get a good idea if you read any of my non-fiction books or even my blogs and E-zine articles.

Some say I should look at other current writers. That is a good idea for several reasons, including sheer enjoyment.  But do I want to be just like them?  Is my individual style worth nurturing?

You will find out what I decide if you read the book.  I aim to publish just before Easter.

 

 

Another step to happiness: count your blessings!

I have written about some of the research into happiness and advised against becoming a square peg in a round hole.  I now want to examine an old cliché: count your blessings.

It is important to remember that a saying becomes a cliché through being overused.  That is usually because it has been found to be true or helpful over the years.  That is certainly the case here.  Studies have shown that people find it makes them happier and healthier if they literally count their blessings from time to time.

This does not always come easily.  It can become a habit to moan about the weather, the Government, the boss, the referee or some other easy target for our discontent.  Sharing our negative thoughts often leads to expressions of agreement from those around us, making us feel better, temporarily out of camaraderie.  However, in the long term, this seems to build up a negative view of the World, which is depressing.

This thinking is encouraged by the media.  Good news is usually less newsworthy than bad news.  You cannot blame the press too much.  A thousand aircraft making successful flights are less likely to be of interest than one aircrash.  A thousand social workers, doctors, teachers, priests or even politicians working hard and doing a good job are less likely to sell newspapers than one making a big mistake or being found to be corrupt.

We cannot blame the media, but we need to be careful in interpreting what we read or hear.  To count your blessings means to remind yourself occasionally of all the good things in the World and in your life.  If you have reasonable complaints about your job, be happy that you have one.  If you have several aches and pains, be glad we have the NHS.  If you have criticisms of the Government, remember that we have the right to protest, to question and ultimatelty to vote them out.

I am not saying we should look at the World through rose-tinted spectacles.  We should just stop doing the opposite.

Can we trust the Police?

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the head of the Metropolitan Police, has called for the public to trust the Police, especially those using firearms.  He is understandably concerned that officers will not volunteer for firearms duties if they are afraid of being prosecuted and/or sued if they shoot anyone.

I can well understand the negative response this appeal is likely to elicit from much of the public.  There have not only been several incidents where police officers have apparently shot innocent people.  More worrying, to me, are all the occasions when the Police lied as they tried to cover up what may have been an honest mistake.  Not only regarding firearms.  Hillsborough comes to mind.

You might expect a writer of crime fiction to defend the Police.  Or you might remember that I have said that my hero is not a copper.  He is an accountant.  Like all amateur detectives, his success depends on the Constabulary’s failure.  If the Police got it right all the time, there would be no role for amateurs.  Allow me some licence!

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So you may well ask, whether I have a poor opinion of the Police in real life, whether in detecting crime or in managing firearms safely.  Let me be honest.  Somebody should be.  The Police Force is a large organisation, whether you think of it in national or local terms.  Like all large organisations, it consists of hundreds or thousands of individuals.

In my experience, dealing with banks, insurance companies, local authorities, the NHS, various charities, the Church of England and other denominations, one thing has been apparent: not all their employees are the same.  Of course, training, procedures and culture affect behaviour, but I have encountered a wide variety of people in all these organisations. Some have been brilliant and a credit to their employers.  Others have managed to do a decent job in difficult circumstances.  Many have been inexperienced and would probably improve in time.  Some were in the wrong job.  A few should have been locked up.  Actually, I can think of some who have been.

Why should the Police be very different?

As a Risk Management Consultant, I have often spoken of the reputational risk.  It is as important to manage that as to manage the underlying physical risks.  My advice is to admit, apologise, learn the lessons and put right any systemic faults.  Where appropriate, compensate.  What is not good practice is to deny the facts or to defend the indefensible.

Sir Bernard should know that trust cannot be commanded.  It has to be earned.  The Police have a long way to go.  But they could start by being more honest.  I want to trust them.  I want to be able to.  Help me, Sir Bernard.

The way to enjoying life is to…enjoy life!

I am having another look at how to be happy, drawing on a lot of modern research.  One of the most seemingly pointless pieces of advice is to enjoy life.

You could well say that if you are not happy you cannot enjoy life.  It reminds me of the old joke about a general who had a notice put up in an army camp saying ‘Happy Christmas.  You will enjoy it.  That’s an order.’

This advice is not as silly as it seems.  We so often fail to notice the pleasant things in life.  We certainly do not always savour them.  We are too focused on other things, such as our complaints.

I am thinking of the little things that can make all the difference – if you let them.  A nice meal, a lovely view, a flower in your garden, or someone else’s, a piece of music, a TV programme you like.  Try to consciously notice these things.  Say to yourself, ‘that was good!’ perhaps out loud, or even to someone else.  You might help them to get more out of their day.

Do not remember only the annoying or disappointing things in life.  Over a period, enjoying life can become a habit.  An enjoyable one.

Open The Book Week 12th to 19th February

One thing I love, apart from writing, is taking part in Open The Book.

What is that?

It is part of the Bible Society’s national Open The Book project which has been running for some ten years and now involves 14,000 volunteers in 2,500 schools throughout the country.  Children in primary schools  are hearing and seeing stories from the Bible every week, read and acted by groups of volunteers from a dozen different churches.

Why?

I agree with this statement from the Bible Society.

Today many children could miss out on the great classic stories from the Bible – Noah, Daniel and the life of Jesus could be closed chapters if youngsters don’t get an opportunity to engage with the Bible.  That’s why Open The Book is so important.  Volunteers use drama, mime, props and costumes to present the stories in lively and informative ways.

So what?

I remember a few years ago hearing Jeremy Paxman on the radio.  He said he was amazed at the lack of knowledge of the Bible by otherwise well educated young people, such as those on University Challenge.  He commented that, regardless of your faith, the Bible is an important part of our heritage, along with Shakespeare and Chaucer.  It has influenced our language, our laws, and our culture.  We should at least know what is in it, even if we want to move on away from it.  I quite agree.

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What is happening in Warrington?

So far Open The Book has been welcomed in five schools in West Warrington, involving 29 volunteers from 9 churches.  There are also groups in Appleton and Thelwall.  The latest school to join is Meadowside Primary in Orford, where the new team has made a good start but they need more volunteers.  Of course, if there were more volunteers in other parts of the town, more schools could have such presentations.

What about me?

I was one of the earliest volunteers in Warrington in 2014 when Rev. Paul Hockley of St Paul’s Penketh led a team of five from three churches to bring the stories to Penketh Primary.  I loved it from the start.  It is so simple and takes up only an hour a week, yet it is so rewarding.  You do not need any special skills or experience.  The material speaks for itself.

Want to know more?

Open The Book Week is from 12th to 19th February and it is a good time for schools, churches, parents or anyone to find out more from the Bible Society’s website: www.openthebook.net or from Linda Murdoch, co-ordinator of the West Warrington Team, on 01925 6637466.  Or just ask me.

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What do castles mean to you?

Many of us look on the castles which dot the landscape of much of Britain with pleasure and even pride.  They are part of our heritage.  Why not celebrate them?

There are some people in Wales who see the many castles in the Principality as symbols of English oppression.  Reminders of an unhappy past.  They were not built to defend Wales or its people, rather to keep them in their place.

It is worth pointing out that the castles of England and Wales were mostly built by the Normans, who used them to keep all of us in our place, apart from those around the coast that were to defend us from overseas enemies, mainly the French.  By the way, does that mean that they are an unwelcome symbol of anti-French sentiment?  I hope that even after Brexit, we will be able to maintain good relations with our neighbours across the Channel.

For many people in Wales, however, whether of Welsh or English ancestry, and even those of Irish, Scottish, Italian or Asian origins, the castles have come to be regarded as “ours” – just as our history belongs to us all, even the unpleasant bits.

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My hero, Frank, in the Accounting for Murder series of detective novels, is an Englishman settled in Cardiff and married to a Welsh woman born on a farm near Caerphilly, a town with a castle of its own with its leaning tower.  You do not need to go to Italy to see one.  Frank and his wife, Sian, both love Cardiff Castle as a symbol of their home city and its community.  It is not something that divides them.

This picture is from another watercolour by George Dolman.  It shows part of Cardiff Castle, seen from Castle Street, a familiar sight to most residents and visitors to the capital of the Principality.  It shows one of the many elements rebuilt in the Nineteenth Century in a quirky but fascinating and distinctive style.

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What is happening with my new book – Accounting for Murder: Double Entry?

I have almost finished writing Double Entry, which I hope will be the first in a series called Accounting for Murder.  I will review it once more before sending it to my copy editor, who will try to correct all my mistakes and make suggestions for improvements.  A big job, I expect.  Then I will have to do a lot of changes and send it back for proofreading.

I hope to publish it around Easter.

What is it going to be about?  It is a whodunnit and here are a few clues.

The hero is an accountant.  (Seriously!)  A private eye asks him to look for some assets that have conveniently disappeared just before a divorce case.  One thing leads to another, and he finds himself investigating a murder.

Most of the suspects are accountants, apart from the odd celebrity.  How could he be putting himself and his family in any danger?  How many murders will there be?  You will never think accountancy is boring after this.

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Two words I would like to ban: two wrongly diagnosed phobias

I have said before that certain words are overused or used inappropriately.  Iconic and literally come to mind.  There are another two words that are misused  more than almost any other: homophobia and Islamophobia.

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A phobia is ‘an exaggerated or irrational fear’.  See any dictionary. Not everyone who dislikes dogs is ‘canophobic’, or whatever the word is.  But some are.  They are terrified of even a picture of a dog.  Ask yourself if you really think that everyone who is critical of Islam or of the gay rights movement has an exaggerated or irrational fear of it.

I am a Protestant.  I am not anti-catholic but I have views contrary to the Roman Catholic religion.  There is a lot I like about it and I certainly like a lot of Catholics.  Nobody would call me ‘catholophobic’ just because I have my criticisms of that Church or its doctrines.

So why can I not be allowed to express views critical of certain aspects of Islam without being called Islamophobic?  I am not afraid of Islam or of (most) Moslems and I do not accept that my criticisms are irrational.  That is for others to demonstrate.

In the same way, you might disagree with gay marriage without being afraid of gays.  The view that marriage is essentially between one man and one woman is no more irrational than is the opposite.

If this thinking spreads to other subjects, (Brexit?) all criticism and discussion will be stifled.  Words convey meaning.  We should be careful how we choose them.