Monday, September 29, 2008

Succumbing to chocolate and other temptations

A relaxing weekend with the family - the Son&Heir and the entourage. We haven't seen them the whole of the summer because either we or they had arrangements. Fortunately the grandchildren are old enough not to forget us. We had all sorts of indulgences at/with lunch and the evening meal. By popular demand, I had made a double size apple crumble, but I also bought some very chocolatety icecream - Carte d'Or Chocolate Inspiration. I saw it advertised on the TV and thought, GD3 would like that - and so would I. She did - and so did I. In the mean time, the family had brought some Belgian chocolates; they didn't last the day, and a lemon drizzle cake acquired at a coffee morning in aid of Macmillan nurses. I had brought out of the freezer my New Year honey cake and some chocolate brownies. I tried them all. This explains why, even though we went straight out after lunch for a walk in the woods and to the 'Pooh-sticks Bridge', that afternoon, by this morning, I had put back the same 2lbs I'd managed to gain and then lose during last week.

On Sunday, we took the family out for a Chinese meal. GD3 had asked, the previous day, if we might be able to go there. They love getting up and down to get things from the buffet. We had a table with a central revolving glass, and GD1 delighted in putting her drink just out of reach, so that she had to turn it, to the increasing irritation of the S&H. Poetic justice, I suppose, when you consider all the torments he put me through. It's about three months since our last visit to the Chinese, and they were very much more empty than usual. Credit crunch biting, perhaps.

And another building society has bitten the dust today. All very worrying because each collapse heralds a downturn in everyone's fortunes. I'll give that some more thought to that in a few days' time.

Last week, I also turned my attention to a new PDF file for Tainted Tree. There were errors, particularly in the layout of the original version and I spent some time trying to correct them. No doubt, I have still missed an error that the rest of the world will spot in 30 seconds. I've sent off the new PDF to Antony Rowe with an order for more books. We have an event at the Guildford Book Festival and at Arts Alive in Leatherhead at the end of October, so hopefully there will be more sales. I'm nearly out of copies now. I also got organised enough to send off some short story entries to a competition. And I'm still peeling apples!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reading, Writing, Walking and Speculating

I thought maybe I was overstating the case with my gut feelings about hedge funds. Then I read this by a Fund Manager who says, (regarding a company in his portfolio):

(This Company’s) problems were compounded by the loathsome short selling activities of some equity holders whose fleeting interest in the company are completely incompatible with its long term development. Our trust has never, and will never, while I’m running it, engage in stock lending activities.

I thought this was strong stuff by another financial body. It was also interesting to realise that in some cases, the short sellers have to borrow their stock from large institutions, and when they do, these institutions are complicit in a transaction which may have the effect of damaging the shares they themselves own.

But to move on, I have finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Despite my initial prejudice, I became hooked - I would even go so far as to say, haunted by it. I think it is a brilliant and ingenious novel.

My prejudice was because I thought it would be a science fiction book, and instead, I found it was a book about relationships. It was necessary to suspend disbelief, but to do that is not so difficult, because there is so much truth in the emotional lives of the characters. himself.

At Guildford Writers, last night, I read out the penultimate section of my holiday writing, which brings me up to nearly 45,000 words. I am going to have to work out what happens next very soon. I went to the hairdresser today, and she asked if I was writing anything else. She's not the first persons to ask when my next book's coming out and I’m beginning to realise how it feels to have a two-book deal. (If only.) She also told me she enjoyed A Bottle of Plonk very much, even though she read it after Tainted Tree. (It’s a much less substantial book.) And three other people told me how much they liked TT, including the mother of my neighbour, who telephoned from Norfolk a few days ago especially for that purpose. I’ve put her comments on my website.

When the sun shone at the weekend, I was so overwhelmed that, on Sunday, I insisted that M & I go to Wisley (RHS) Gardens, where we wandered around for hours, looking at late summer plants and following the Sculpture Trail. We also had a walk on Saturday, through our woods. After all this walking, I felt sure I would have lost weight, but I ended up putting on 2lbs.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Long and the Short of It

For anyone with any sort of equity investment - unit trusts, shares, pension funds, it will be a great relief to see the dramatic rise of the stock market today, partly as a result of rescue strategies of failing banks and partly because of the stop on ‘short’ trading. As many professionals have pointed out in the media, short trading has not caused the media crunch or the failing banks, but to laymen like me, they have - like an animal spotting a wounded prey - gone in for the kill. The injured beasts, the failing banks, may have brought it on themselves by their foolish behaviour, but the short sellers are not entirely innocent of helping them along a bit.

I picked up two expressions from my radio in the car yesterday. Trash and Cash; Pump and Dump. This apparently was the act of spreading rumours about specific shares. In the first case - a rumour could be spread that a company was doing badly; as the price dropped, so the short sellers would ‘sell’ a large batch of shares. In practice this would be borrowed from large institutions; this is a normal way of dealing in the financial world. As the price dropped significantly, the seller would buy back the shares; without every having owned them, he/she would make a considerable profit. The other way round would be for a trader to spread a good news rumour; I assume he would have already purchased these shares; as the price rose, so he would ‘dump’ them, having ‘pumped’ up their price, via rumour. This may not be the norm, and in fact, it probably isn’t, since short and long trading is normal, and financial markets, on the whole, work well with small ups and downs allowing them to tick over. And these practices would not have brought down a bank. It was a probably a justified lack of confidence that affected the currently suffering financial organisations. Pension funds and unit trust managers, were apparently taking their money out, to safeguard their own customers/pensioners.

Halifax BoS will now be merging with LloydsTSB, who are apparently, old fashioned bankers, who haven’t been getting involved with all the fancy means of parcelling up debt in things called derivatives. Well thank goodness for some old fashioned banking.

If confidence is returned to the market place, then things will quieten down, and most of us can sleep easier in our beds. Because the financial organisations need our confidence. Probably none of them could go down to the vaults and take out the large sums of money that would be needed in the case of a run on the bank. You only need to watch - for the 100th time - It’s a Wonderful Life - to realise that. But the credit crunch hasn’t gone away. Nothing changes the fact that many people borrowed money that they should not have done and financial organisations irresponsibly allowed them to do that. We are still going to have to learn caution in the next couple of years.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A layperson's guide to high finance

Today a prestigious financial institution - Lehman Brothers has gone down. The reason - too many risks taken in the mortgage market.

The attitude to risk may be something to do with youth and age. Perhaps there is too much emphasis on being young these days - at least in the media and the job market. Alas, when the over-fifties are turfed out, something - call it experience - is lost. It’s unjust and in some cases, very damaging.

People of a certain age have experience of previous disasters. We’ve all heard of the Wall Street Crash (haven’t we?), though I wasn’t around at the time in the 1920s. To a lesser extent, the Stock Market crashed in the late 1980s and during the period after Nine Eleven and before the War on Iraq. As far as property is concerned, those people who put all their faith in the unending rise of the property market may not remember, as I do, the property crashes in the Seventies and in the Nineties.

There are other parallels. Some years ago, Lloyds of London suffered a crisis when the Names (people, often laymen, who gave unlimited guarantees to Lloyds in exchange for a very good income when their money was not needed) were called upon to back up their guarantees with cash. It was a disaster and many of those Names lost homes and fortunes. The reason for the call upon their money was because Underwriters in Lloyds had taken on unreasonable risks in the course of insurance. I was told that some experienced underwriters would not have touched those risks, but inexperienced underwriters just wanted to get business, so took on things they shouldn’t have touched.

Does this seem familiar? Just change this to people in the mortgage lending business and you’ll get the picture. Same old, same old. They wanted the business and so they took risks. These risks were parcelled up and sold on - just as they were in the insurance business. Sooner or later, the slices of debt went full circle and losses were made, as they were in the insurance business - and the reason these risks were taken on, in both cases - greed. And, of course, inexperience - because the risk takers presumably have no memory of the crashes of their similarly inclined predecessors.

Another example is the Dot-Com bubble. People ploughed money into a risky area - the dot.coms which became seriously overpriced and eventually came crashing down to achieve what was probably not far off their true value. People who took more than a punt on them lost dramatically. Among them were big companies like GEC who, bored with their ex-MD’s cautious stance, threw their funds into this area of the market, and, as a result, eventually crashed down, transforming themselves into a minnow.

Bubbles, in case you didn’t know, are commodities or similar, whose value become over time inflated beyond their true value. They continue to be bought because of a kind of hysteria - if you haven’t bought, you will fall behind. (In the UK, this particularly applies to property.) At the time, it seems the prices will never fall, but once the end comes, it seems they will never rise again. Neither assumption, of course, is true. This is what caused people who couldn’t afford property to buy at inflated prices and subsequently default for that reason. Their debts were in the parcels handed around from one financial organisation to another. These debts are those now coming home to roost.

If it seems unfair that individuals will suffer, ask yourself if those individuals have been too greedy. Is it the Want It Now attitude that has caused such people to take on risk? An earlier generation would tell you that they - I include myself - were more cautious in their purchases. We personally did buy our plot of land and built a house on it, but very, very slowly, only as we could afford it - and it took as three years (as told in my book The Fruit of the Tree.) In addition, we were restrained with all our other purchases. We didn’t buy anything on credit, and, in fact, I didn’t own a credit card until I reached the stage when I knew I’d be able to pay it off. We (M & I) were married about fifteen years before we could regard ourselves as comfortable enough not to worry about buying clothes, furniture, etc.

It is frightening that such a large institution as Lehman Brothers has come tumbling down. None of us know what repercussions will arise from it - how this will transform itself into higher prices, lower pensions, lost jobs, as the domino effect takes over. But maybe this is the time to learn from the oldies - home cooking, frugal purchasing. For once, let your grandmother teach you how to suck eggs.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Apples and honey cake; autumn and time travel

I have been updating my website. I felt it was time to include some of the comments I have received from readers of Tainted Tree. In addition to that, I have included the whole of the artist, Janice Windle’s comments on its own page. My programming is still somewhat trial and error, and sometimes new headings suddenly dive to the bottom of the page because of the removal of some small command. I have thought about upgrading my site so that I have a domain name. If I did that, I ought to call it, but the question is would anyone ever be able to spell it.

We have to face the fact that despite having had no summer, it is now autumn. Apples are falling from our tree and part of my routine is to peel, cook and freeze a dish of apple for future desserts. I normally try to make an apple cake too and put it in the freezer; I can only serve it in small quantities, because the apple on top makes it go mouldy very quickly, but it’s always very popular. Bearing in mind that we have a vast crop this year, I have no excuse for not trying to produce desserts for later on when the tree is bare. I have been giving away apples when wanted, and one friend is feeding her horse and a friendly sheep on the smaller ones. She’s taking about 4 or 5lbs a week - that’s about 2 kilo.

Because I feel I am rapidly becoming a computer addict (including blogging and playing patience) I didn’t switch on today until 9.30 p.m. Instead, I sorted out the washing, talked on the phone to son and daughter, went for a walk with M, and since the sun was shining, sat out in the garden for about an hour reading the latest book - The Time Traveller’s Wife. I have to say, this is the third book in a row I’ve read about a weird character. Next time, please, can we have someone normal.

Talking of which, I finished Engleby by Sebastian Faulkes) for the reading circle on Thursday last. The eponymous hero (?) was extremely weird to start with and very unlikeable. But during the middle part, I started to like him much more and at least admire his wit and humour. But I suspect that Sebastian F allowed his own personality to seep through there - and certainly elements of his life were portrayed in the plot - Cambridge/ journalism. Sebastian F is always a treat to listen to on The Write Stuff on BBC Radio Four.

To round off the day, I have been in the kitchen making a honey cake the traditional Jewish New Year cake, which also contains ginger and spices (I accidentally put too much spice in it, so I hope it will all right.

Now, I’m switching off and going to watch the last part of The Last Night of the Proms. Always worth watching the British at their most eccentric.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sex in the Novel

My MySpace friend, Beth, asked my opinion about sex in the novel, prompted by something I’d said in an earlier blog. This caused me to think about the whole problem (as it sometimes is) of writing about sexual matters. My novella, A Bottle of Plonk came out about three years ago; my novel, Tainted Tree, this year. Neither was very sexually explicit - that’s not my way - but would I have wanted my mother to read it? Probably, even though you could say that I’m a mature person (in terms of years), I could well have been embarrassed, even despite my restrained descriptions.

My mother died in 1997, my father many years before that, so it was never an issue. But what about my children? Surprisingly, I am not embarrassed at the prospect of them reading my work; my daughter read some of my stuff when she was in her late teens/early twenties, though she’s never read the polished up versions. (At the time, she told me she stayed up half the night finishing them - but now she runs a book business, she is a bit sniffy about would-be writers and in fact authors at all levels.) My son has not really read my work at all, apart from the occasional short story. It would be all too easy to say that he wants to retain his vision of me as ‘just a mum’, though this may be the case, I’m not too sure about it. If anything, I suspect my writing is too tame for him - simply too feminine - and he wants something a little more masculine and muscular in a writer. However, Beth’s question centred more or less on whether I felt inhibited with the prospect of the offspring looking over my shoulder, as my hero and heroine found themselves in flagrante delecto. Did I moderate what I wrote as a result of that, or because of any other person who I respected potentially being shocked at my writing.

This reminded me that when I sold books at the local Flower Show, I spotted a neighbour in her 80s, who regularly goes round the village collecting for church funds. She had many years ago, bought my autobiography, The Fruit of the Tree. I shrank into my chair. Unusually for me, I did a little prayer that she would not buy Tainted Tree. There were scenes in it and words (I did use the F-word, once, though only once) that I would not have wished her to see. Fortunately, she smiled and walked on. I breathed a sigh of relief.

So why do we feel embarrassment. Our parents - and our children - pick for yourself which ones you would be most embarrassed by - know we have had children; they know we know how these things happen. They know we hear swear words, all too often, on the TVand in the supermarket, these days; they know we see nudity and have knowledge of pornographic magazines and of all sorts of appalling behaviour, even on the news. So why do we think they will expect us to remain innocent and on a pedestal?

That isn’t to say that you might not feel embarrassment once the book is written. My immediate neighbour and her husband (both of whom enjoyed the book) said they had to put out of their minds the fact that I was the writer. And I suppose by the same token, when you’re writing, you have to put out of your mind the fact that your book will be read by friends, family, the children, the elderly neighbour.

I do not put into my books explicit sex, but that is not because I’m inhibited by my potential readership; it’s because I don’t like reading stuff that’s very explicit any more than I like writing it. Subtlety, is, in my book, more erotic than a description of every bit of the anatomy; less is more, as they say. Explicit sex is for teenagers who are still trying to work out what happens. The rest of us know. As for me, I try to view the event from the point of view of the emotional impact on my character, and in the main, leave the other bits out.

So what happens when I get to a scene in which my hero and heroine are going to make love? At that point, I could not write if there was anyone else sharing the scene with me. When I write descriptive narrative, I may be me, reporting on something I have seen, or researched. But when I play out a scene in my head or on paper, I must be one of the protagonists - an actor who has forgotten that the stage hands are all watching her love scene - she has become the principal person in that scene; and that must apply to me too. So, Beth, and any others who may be reading, forget the observers, clucking their tongues in horror, or, in the case of the children, astonishment, that their parent has learned so much more than they expected. Throw yourself into it; be there - and forget the audience.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Books and bookkeeping; back to normal

First, another view of the unusual Parliament building in Edinburgh.

The figures in my last blog on one of the shops in Queen Street, Edinburgh, were probably carved out of Bath Portland stone, which seemed to be used extensively in Edinburgh and also Glasgow. I wondered if Bath Street, where we stayed, was modelled on a street in Bath. Certainly many of the buildings around there were constructed from carved, square white blocks, reminiscent of Bath.

We journeyed home on Tuesday last week, up early enough to walk down to Central Station, even though the suitcase had a wonky wheel, which had caused problems since the beginning of the journey. The photos show highlights of our journey in reverse - Edinburgh, Berwick upon Tweed (Hadrian’s Wall) and Newcastle, including the Tyne, a great majestic river that looked like a wide, flat road, when I first glimpsed it.

On the outward and the return journeys, I read the third book of my prize from the Winchester Writers’ Conference last year (for Tainted Tree). Called One Dance in Paris, by Julia Holden, I suppose this would qualify for the description ‘chick-lit’. At first I thought it was better than the first two of my prize books; then towards the middle, I got a bit irritated by the ‘boy meets girl’ romance which happened all too quickly. The book centres around a girl’s search for information about her dead mother. (I told you it had a familiar plot and that’s why I chose it.) I was interested to see how different it was from my own novel, but it bore no resemblance to Tainted Tree, despite its similar theme. Nevertheless, I found it particularly interesting in the first half, when the heroine is following up clues to her mother’s life. Despite the fact that the mother’s life was as a nude dancer at the Folies Bergere, there was very little explicit sex in it. As a writer, you worry (at least, I do) about how much sex should go into a novel and it seems that there’s no great necessity for an excess. Some of the writing seemed rather formulaic, as one after another, old contacts and flames of the mother are wheeled into the story - and, for me, there was too much emphasis on the outfits that the mother wore. Full marks for the character, though. I liked her and I wanted things to go her way. But when I saw that the writer’s earlier book was called A Dangerous Dress, there was no doubt I’d give it a miss. The heroine is left a ‘beautiful vintage Parisian silk evening dress’ and investigates its origin. Another outfit, different main character, but, no doubt, same story.

I’m now reading the Reading Circle book, Engleby, by Sebastian Faulkes. A very different kind of book. I’m reserving my judgement at the moment.

In the mean time, things are getting back to normal here, after a quiet weekend and a session of Goldenford bookkeeping, which I hope has got everything up to date. I’ve also managed to lose the three pounds I seemed to have gained whilst in Scotland - even though I was not tempted into eating any haggis.

Irene came over for lunch today, despite not being at her best, and last night, we and Jennifer went to the Mole Valley Arts Alive launch party in Dorking. We met up with Peter Snell who took copies of our books at his shop, Corbett's in Leatherhead, and he tells us that he has now moved the shop, changed its name to Barton's - and, good news - he's still stocking the books. I don’t know what the party did for my diet, as I was stationed next to a bowl of crisps and made deep inroads into them. Goldenford has a slot in October, when, as part of this arts festival, we will do a presentation at The Green Room in the Leatherhead Theatre, one of a few events in which we will participate in the autumn. There are compensations for the end of summer.

Monday, September 01, 2008

We'll take the low road

For us, it was not just the wedding which was important, but the whole trip, including the coming and going. Apart from crossing London on the tube, at which point M behaved exactly as if he was driving a car, charging everywhere at speed - a definite 'A-type' personality, all the rest of it was very relaxing. Much, much nicer than flying - and for an overland trip, there is no necessity to fly. Just book your tickets (and seats) early, and you can get a very good deal.

We were staying very close to Sauchiehall Street, at the Hotel Abode in Bath Street, a 25 minute walk from the station (going upwards) and a 15 minute walk in the opposite direction. Because the centre of Glasgow has a grid system, very much like New York, I found it very easy to navigate, more so than M, who does not remember names (street names or people's names), and consequently, we walked around quite a lot, looking at shops, restaurants, etc., despite the weather, which was no better than in the South - mainly grey, with occasional drizzle. We found the Glasgwegians to be very friendly, welcoming and helpful, including the hotel staff.

We are good friends of the groom's parents, so not important principals on the occasion of the wedding, and so though it was nice to see all the star players in their kilts, the little bridesmaid, including our friends' granddaughter, looking cute, and the bride, of course, looking gorgeous, I didn't take pictures of the event. The venue though was a rather lovely place called House for an Art Lover, with an Art Deco type building and most attractive gardens. Another guest and I discussed the cake, at one point, wondering if it, too was an Art Deco exhibit. However, when we got close enough, we saw it had icing on it. Needless to say, it did not have a miniature bridge and groom on the top of it.

The day after the wedding, M and I took a train to Edinburgh, where the weather was worse than on previous days. We didn't therefore get the full benefit of the trip and did not climb up to the castle. Once again we got tickets for the tourist bus, but had to come downstairs because of the rain. We also stopped off at a beautiful cafe bar, (Tiles) where I had a really good cup of tea. If it had been later, I would have stopped there for a smoked salmon sandwich too, but it wasn't lunch time yet. Later, on the tour, we heard it described as an Art Deco building. I am gradually realising that I like the Art Deco style very much, this label apparently applies to the Chrysler building in New York, which I also liked.

We stopped off at Our Dynamic Earth - Edinburgh's millennium project - an interesting looking place. We had lunch there, but somehow time was moving on too quickly, and we didn't go to the exhibition about global warming. On the right is a shot of one of the stone sculptures on the outside of the building. From there I took a photo of the Scottish Parliament Building (Left). When we got back into the centre of Glasgow, we wiled away an hour or so at the Museum on theMound, belonging to HBoS, and from there took some shots looking over Edinburgh. But even that little slope was tiring and we chickened out, after that, and took the train back. Spent the evening with our friends at a Chinese Restaurant in Sauchiehall Street.