Category Archives: Writing

Reading Festival 2015

Saying Farewell To Old Friends – What I Learned About WordPress

It has been a funny few days.

Earlier this week I decided it was time to prune the number of blogs I am following on WordPress.  I didn’t want to lose any blogs that I read frequently or bloggers with whom I interact.  As a result I decided to go through every account I was following and prune the ones who don’t actually post on their accounts.

I was really surprised at the number of accounts I was following that had been dormant for years.  As a result I decided to prune any blogs that had not been used in the last six months.  It was interesting to see that the vast majority of the blogs that were dormant had very few followers and that they all followed a very clear pattern.

I suspect that many of the people I unfollowed abandoned their blogs because they didn’t have a readership and as a result they lost interest and gave up.  I believe this demonstrates a few simple truths about blogging.

We all blog for different reasons, but I think we all share something in common.  We believe we have something to say, and of course we want others to hear us.  A blog without a following is simply a public diary.  We use our blogs to express ourselves whether through our writing, photography, art, craft,  cooking or whichever medium we choose.

The thing is if you want people to buy into your blog you need to work at it.  It takes time and effort to build a following and it is a slow process, but the more you put into your blog the more readers or viewers you will attract.  It is important to post regularly, but it is even more important to interact with other bloggers, especially those with whom you share an interest.

WordPress has something like 13 million blogging accounts and you really need to be a part of the community if you want to gain followers.  With that many blogs around your relationship with your readership needs to be a personal one.  I was sad to unfollow so many accounts, but following those accounts was a pointless exercise.  My blog is important to me, but so is being part of the community.  I enjoy blogging but interacting with others is important too.

I hope to be here for a long time, my blog is a part of my day and I hope it will remain so for many years to come.

Iceland Geysers,

Weekly Writing Challenge – Ice, Water Steam

This weeks writing challenge is to consider what it mean to be the same thing, in different forms?  To explore different facets of ourselves.

This challenge through up a host of ideas, past, present & future perhaps.  Maybe, school, work & retirement or single, married & divorced or child, youth & adult.  So many choices, so many ideas.  I eventually settled on three aspects of my love of music. the three facets of which are musician, listener and critic.

I love to play music, as a child I played flute and tin whistle to a reasonable standard.  I was self taught and learned mostly by ear.  I enjoyed playing, mostly for my own pleasure.  When I joined the Navy I stopped playing, the lack of somewhere to practice in the confines of Her Majesties war ships was a major factor and whilst I never lost my love of music I did stop making my own.  Many years later I decided to learn to play guitar.  Initially I took some lessons but in all honesty I found lessons too restrictive.  I wanted to play and sing songs I knew, I had no intention of going for grading exams, I just wanted to have fun.  Once again I developed a passion for playing and over the past 18 months I have taught myself to play a long lust of songs.  I play most days and really enjoy it.

My major passion in life has always been music (after my family and dogs of course).  I have built up a huge collection of CD’s and Vinyl though the Vinyl has been packed away for many years.  These days I love the simplicity and the accessibility of streaming and downloads.  My iPod is a constant companion and with a 160Gb drive it has  over 16000 songs on it with plenty of room for more 🙂  The only downside with digital is it is far too easy to spend a fortune on music every month 🙂  Any regular reader of this blog will know how much time and effort goes into my music.  In 2014 my festival programmes and ticket stubs revealed that I have seen at least 270 bands and artists this year, quite a haul in anybodies book.  I am looking forward to having an attempt to surpass that record in 2015.

The final facet of my musical self is as a music critic.  The primary reason for the existence of this blog is that I wanted to share my thoughts, feelings and experiences of my music listening with anyone who cared to listen (or read).  Creating this blog has been a massively uplifting experience.  I have gained over 1200 followers, have written almost 500 pieces and reignited my love of photography.  My career as a reviewer is still very much in its infancy but it has lead to me writing for an online music magazine (echoesanddust.com) and even to paid writing work with U.S. based online magazine Inquisitr.com.  All this in six short months.  I find the WordPress community incredibly helpful, sharing and caring but above all they inspirational.  That inspiration has driven me on to use my creativity as a means of coping with my depression and it has even lead to me earning some cash to supplement my pension.

They say that if you can earn some money from doing something you love then you are really in a good place.  So thanks to my music and thanks to the WordPress community the three facets of my musical personality have come together in a hugely positive way.  Happy days.

Adam Duritz

Happy Happy Joy Joy – Daily Prompt

Todays Daily Prompt ask when we last cried tears of Joy?

I actually didn’t have to think too hard about this one as I remember it clearly and it wasn’t very long ago.  On November 1st 2014 I had the pleasure of seeing the wonderful Adam Duritz and Counting Crows live in Birmingham, England.  I have been a huge fan of the band for years but had never had the chance to see them live before.  My wife, son and I went to this show and we all had a great time.  If you didn’t see my review of the gig you can check it out here.

I feel an affinity with Adam Duritz as he is a fellow suffer of the dreaded black dog of depression and he puts a huge amount of himself into both his songwriting and his performance on stage.  Make no mistake Duritz can hold you totally spellbound.  So it was in Birmingham, he was amazing.  As Adam sang it was clear he was in a very good place which was great to see as he had been on the road for the whole summer.  He was happy and his delivery was so very moving as he went through a fantastic set of the bands classic songs and tunes from the new album ‘Somewhere under Wonderland’.  I was already feeling quite emotional when Adam started to Sing ‘Washington Square’ from the much underrated album ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’.

Adam Duritz

Adam Duritz – Counting Crows

As Adam sang the opening lines:

I sold my piano, it couldn’t come with me
I locked up my bedroom and I walked out into the air
Nothing I needed is left there behind me
I walk out through the shadows of Washington Square

Well I thought my heart was going to burst, it is such a beautiful song and he delivers it with such feeling, such imagery that the tears just ran down my face.  It was the musical moment of my year and will live long in the memory.

Thanks Adam Duritz.  Stay well and keep spreading the love.

The Photographs here are from the bands Show in London the following week.

Goodbye 2014, Thank You, And What A Ride It Has Been

So it is here, the end of yet another year and what a year it has been.  It is traditional to spend a little time reflecting on what has gone in the past year as we make our way into the new one to come.  So often we reflect on the sad or bad things that have happened and we think about how things will be better in the year to come.  As I sit here I cannot think of a single bad thing that has happened to me or my immediate family this year, it has been a year of almost constant highs.

My lovely wife has as always been a source of constant love and support, she recently left her job and is looking forward to an exciting new chapter in her life in January.  My son is doing well at school and is developing into a caring, happy, pleasant and well adjusted young man.  My nieces have made us all proud this year, Erin is doing well at Cambridge University, Dani did well in her GCSE exams and continues to develop her love of horses and her equestrianism.  Kirsty and her husband Clint have brought a new member, baby Lucy, into the family and her sister Karlyn and partner John will be bringing another new arrival in 2015.

I retired from work as a result of my depression back in February.  I confess I was a little apprehensive about this but it has been wonderful.  Only by leaving the police service behind have I come to realise how much it dragged me down, how deeply unhappy it made me.  Retirement has allowed me to leave behind the people who drained me and left me so unhappy.  I made a resolution last year to break away from negative people and to make more effort to spend time with friends, family and people I care about.  I have managed to do this and it has been a hugely freeing experience.  I was concerned about how I would spend my time, a concern that was totally unfounded, my days now are filled with creativity and things I enjoy doing.

I have written well over 400 articles on this blog, had well over 50k visitors and close to 1200 followers in 6 short months.  The blogging community is friendly and supportive and my blogging has lead to me waiting articles for an online music magazine and an online news outlet.  I have developed my interest in photography, completed a University short photography course and upgraded my camera equipment.  I look forward to undertaking more courses and developing my skills in the year to come.

Musically my year has been off the scale.  I have seen at the very least 270 live bands at the gigs and festivals I have attended.  I have continued to learn to play guitar, I am far from great but I do love to play and I look forward to continuing to learn and improve in 2015.  Over the course of the summer the weather was even kind with just one festival being a wet one.  I have my fingers crossed for similar in 2015.

Over the course of the past year I have made so many new friends and acquaintances, people who expect nothing from you other than to share your company and a beer.  people who want to share good times, spread happiness and enjoy life.  Thank you one and all, you know who you are.

So 2015 arrives with so much to look forward to, new lives to welcome, weddings to attend and no doubt numerous more happy experiences with friends, new and old.

So come on 2015, bring it on, we are ready and waiting.  Happy New Year to all my friends, old and new, to my family, but most of all to my wife and son.  it is going to be another great year.

Taliban attack Pakistan school

Taliban Attack A Pakistani School More Than 100 Reported Dead

News agencies across the world including Reuters are reporting that Taliban gunmen have attacked a military-run school in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. Latest reports indicate that the Taliban have killed around 100 people, including 80 children, and hundreds of students have been taken hostage. The Taliban threatens to destabilise Pakistan, where they control areas in the north-west of the country. In recent weeks the Taliban and have been blamed for a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks.  Read more here

Santa

Christmas At Risk: Santa Claus Blames A Lack Of Qualified Labour

In a huge scoop for the Sound of Summer blog reporter Alan Ewart was last night flown to the North Pole to interview Santa Claus.  Alan was flown to Santa’s secret North Pole base by Reindeer Express.  In a first for the Blog Santa told our reporter that he was deeply concerned for the future of Christmas.

Santa said

“There are a number of things causing me concern this Christmas but my biggest worry is the difficulty in attracting suitably qualified elves to make the toys.  Elves seem to be unhappy that I can only offer seasonal work”.

Santa went on to say

“Some of my reindeer are getting old and are close to retirement.  Flying reindeer are not easy to find and it seems that some young reindeer simply don’t want to undertake the hard physical labour that pulling a flying sleigh full of toys for all the worlds children requires.”

Santa Claus said that he had seen in The Guardian that traditional toys like dolls of characters from the hit movie ‘Frozen‘ were likely to be in very high demand.  Santa did say that he was concerned that many children were asking for technology based presents like Apple’s  iPhone or iPad that were being produced cheaply in Chinese factories.  Santa said that he could not compete with these vast factories that seemed to have a never ending supply of cheap labour.

Santa did say that the decisions taken in some countries to cancel their Christmas celebrations to help to control the spread of disease would mean that there would be a reduction in demand for some toys.  Santa went on to say that he understood the necessity for these measures but he felt very sorry for the children affected.

Whilst at Santa’s North Pole base our reporter also managed to grab a few minutes with Mrs Claus, Santa’s wife.  When asked how Santa managed to keep the reindeer flying so fast for so long Mrs Claus said

“Throughout the year we feed our reindeer on a special diet of whole grain foods.  This keeps them in tip-top condition.  At the beginning of December their food is supplemented by a specially developed magical ingredient, this gives them a huge amount of energy, enough to help them to ensure that all deliveries are made on time.”

Santa finished the interview by saying that he believed that he would be able to deliver a normal Christmas service this year but to ensure that he could meet future demand he needed to recruit suitably skilled elves and more reindeer.  Santa said, I can offer great working conditions, good rates of pay and an excellent holiday package.  If you are an elf interested in working for Santa you can apply by sending you CV to media_elf@emailSanta.com or by sending a copy addressed to Santa Claus, Santa’s Grotto, Reindeerland, XM4 5HQ

I love free write tasks.  I don’t know why but they always arrive just when I am in the mood for a streams of consciousness piece.  I had already been stimulated this morning, unsurprisingly by a piece of music I listened to when I was on my daily dog walk. I was at a gig on Tuesday evening and the support act was a young folk singer named Will Varley.  I got talking to Will after his set and he asked me to write a review on his latest album.  Regular readers will know that i do a lot of album reviews and was delighted to be asked to do this one.

As I was listening to the Album “As The Crow Flies” I got to a track called ‘When You’re Gone’ the song starts with two amazing lines;

“Well her eyes were as wild as a Cornish storm,

Her heart like the cliffs, all battered and worn”

What a stunning lyric!  It throws up images of a wild eyed free spirited stormy and angry woman.  I see bright blue eyes, touched with anger, perhaps in the midst of an argument.  Her anger perhaps a response to mistreatment or hurt over years.  Treatment that has worn her down and that has bruised and battered her heart, shaking her ability to trust and to love.  Perhaps she has had a succession of painful blows in her life, small painful things that over tie have eroded her self worth and confidence in the way that the seas gradually wear down those wild windswept cliffs.  Is she standing on the edge of a precipice, a personal conflict.  Is there a crisis that has her on the edge of a wild Cornish cliff as the storm batters the Coastline?  Is she standing there today as a wild atlantic storm approaches the UK, the effect of a so called ‘weather bomb’ that is due to arrive later today?

Isn’t it amazing what one or two well written song lines can through up.

Conversation Management – Writing 201

I was fascinated to see todays Writing 201 Topic which talks about the use of an interview as a means to provide both information and inspiration for your blogging.  Of course this writing 201 class is specifically for a particular type of writing – Longform writing.

Now I know a thing or two about conducting interviews so I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences with my classmates.  To provide a little context, I recently retired from a UK Police Force and whilst I was serving I developed an expertise in interview skills, in fact I spent many years teaching interview skills to Police Officers.  Over the course of my career I conducted thousands of interviews with witnesses, criminals and victims of crime.  Many of those victims were subject of horrific crimes and needed support whilst it was imperative to get accurate and in depth information from them.  Hopefully you won’t have to interview anyone in traumatic circumstances.

Now Mark Armstrong is totally correct when he points out that the best interviews are conversations. I would take that principle just one stage further and say that the best interviews are a ‘managed conversation’, with you as the manager.  For the sake of this article I am assuming that you are going to be interviewing someone who is willing to be interviewed.  If you are looking for blogging information it is unlikely that you will be dealing with a hostile interviewee.  Many of the principles I am going to outline for you can be used in a variety of situations, (e-mail interviews etc) but I will outline the principles based on the assumption that you are conducting your interview face to face.

To help you to conduct an effective managed conversation I am going to introduce you to a model devised by Professor Eric Shepherd in 1983.  The model is designed to offer the best chance of spontaneous information disclosure.  Conversation Management is a tool that is applicable to any investigative interviewing context. It combines empirical research findings in cognitive and social psychology and sociolinguistics, with research into reflective practice, skilled practitioner performance, counselling psychology and psychotherapy practice (see http://www.forensicsolutions.co.uk/CM.htm) for a more in depth explanation.  The overriding principle is that the method is used ethically as an information gathering tool.  In order to help you to use the model effectively I will explain the stages of the model.

Before I explain how the model works a word about questioning.  How you use questions will have a huge effect on how smoothly the interview goes.  If you remember nothing else from this post then remember this!  Open questions are your friend.  Put simply open questions are those that encourage an interviewee to talk and disclose information.   By contrast ‘closed questions’ are those that lead the interviewee to a one word answer, typically ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.  To help you to remember what open questions look like I will refer you to some lines from Rudyard Kipling who said “I KEEP six honest serving-men, (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.  Questions that are ‘closed are typically things like ‘Did you…’, ‘Could you’, ‘Would you’ etc.  As a rule of thumb the interviewee should be doing 80% of the talking during the interview.  Your job is to listen and you must listen actively.

Planning and Preparation 

I cannot over emphasise the importance of this stage.  If you go into an interview without a plan it is a near certainty that it will fail.  Even if you manage to muddle through the interview without making a total fool of your self you will definitely miss important information and you will probably not manage to get all of the information you need.  You most definitely do not want to have to go back to an interviewee because you forgot to ask an important question.

Start by conducting some research, find out as much as you can before you go to the interview, you don’t want to waste time exploring information that is freely available elsewhere.  Use the background information to outline a number of topics you want to discuss.  These do not have to be framed as questions but should be identified in advance and written down.  As an example if I were interviewing a musician I would always have some topics preplanned.  These might be: Influences, instruments, latest recording, latest tour, future plans, band mates, family, how do you relax and so on.   These topics would provide what I call ‘my agenda’.  You should remember that the interviewee will also have their own agenda and you need to give them the opportunity to cover it during the interview, it will contain information that is important to them.

Write your plan down and take it to the interview with you.  I typically need no more than a list of bullet points identifying the topics on my agenda.  You should ensure that you have everything you need before you sit down, pens, paper, a tape recorder, spare tapes, spare batteries, perhaps a drink if it is likely to be a long interview.   It may sound silly but use the bathroom before you start.

If you remember nothing else from this section remember this!  Know what you first question is going to be!

Opening Exchanges

Introduce yourself, be relaxed and encourage the interviewee to relax.   If you are going to record the interview ensure the interviewee is happy with that and explain that you will take notes as the interview progresses.

Once you are both settled you can begin the interview.  Your opening question should aim to get the interviewee talking freely.  To achieve this I often use what I term an instruction.  Using my musician example again I might say something like, “Tell me about your new album”.  This should encourage a volunteering of information.  Whilst the interviewee is talking I would be jotting down key words or topics that I want to explore in more depth.  You should look to see where the topics identified are the same as your own.  Where they match you are onto a winner, these are the topics that you should start with.  As the interviewee is talking encourage them to continue by making eye contact, nodding making encouraging noises or saying ‘Go on’ or ‘tell me more about that’.

When the interviewee has finished talking summarise what they said and finish your summary by linking to the next topic.

Topics

We now move into the main part of the interview by selecting a topic to discuss in more detail.  Start by asking an open question about the topic and let the subject talk.  When they have finished ask some more probing questions, clear up any ambiguities and clarify your understanding.  When the topic is exhausted, summarise and move to the next topic.

A little word of warning, if a subject provides information that you know or believe to be untrue do not challenge it, just make a note and let it go for now.  If you challenge their account they may feel threatened and clam up.

Work your way through all of the topics you have identified in this way until they are all exhausted.

Summing Up

When all of the topics are exhausted wrap the interview up by summarising and agreeing what you have discussed.  Now is the time to challenge any inconsistencies, falsehoods or misunderstandings.  At this stage it won’t matter too much if the interviewee clams up and you can always just point out the inconsistencies in your article.

Review

Having completed the interview and before you write up your article you need to review the interview.  Ask yourself if you covered everything you needed to.  If you didn’t is the commission important enough to need another interview or a follow up question.  In many cases omissions will be minor and can either be left or dealt with by a follow up e-mail.

You should also reflect on how the interview worked, what went well, what didn’t go so well, what can you improve on next time.  When you are listening to the tape (if you made one), check out how your questions worked, was your linking between topics smooth, did you bluster, what questions worked and which didn’t?

Writing

You are now ready to write your article.  Make sure you accurately reflect what the interviewee said even if you don’t agree with them.  By all means offer an opinion but ensure that you identify the opinion as your own, don’t twist the interviewee’s words to suit your own purposes.

I accept that taking this approach may seem very structured and perhaps time consuming.  To be honest it really isn’t.  Once you get your head around how it works it doesn’t have to take long, it becomes an automatic process and with the exception of a few minutes spent planning it need not take any longer than any other interview.  If you can gain a bit of proficiency with this approach it will save you a huge amount of time in the longer term.

If you are confused by any of the information provided or have any questions then please leave a comment and I will try to clear up any ambiguity.  Take care and happy blogging.

This weeks writing Challenge; Digging for Roots

100 years ago J B Woodburn said of the ‘Ulsterman’:  “He is determined to the verge of stubbornness and will accept no compromise; stern, dogged, and strong of purpose; independent, self-contained, and self-reliant, able to stand up on his own feet, and intensely proud of the fact. He has the passion, alertness and quickness of the Celt in addition to the adventurous spirit of the Norseman. He is steadfast and industrious beyond most races. In his uncultivated state he is blunt of speech and intolerant of shams, and lacks the attractiveness of manner of the Southerner”.

I think that this describes the Ulsterman and indeed myself perfectly, I would add a few observations of my own.  The Ulsterman is sometimes scathing, dryly humorous and rarely suffers fools at all (never mind gladly).  Again I would include these traits in my own ‘pen picture’.  Sadly there are a couple of other common traits that I (thankfully) do not share.  The Ulsterman has a view of gender roles that borders on Misogamy and all too often carries an overt religious and racial prejudice that borders on sectarianism and frequently spills over into violence and murder.

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s was challenging, sectarianism had spilt over into terrorism and the Army was on the street.  In some ways life continued as normal but security checkpoints, being body searched going into shops and seeing armed soldiers on the street was a part of daily life.  As terrorism took hold both sides of the community retreated deeper into their Loyalist or Republican enclaves and distrust grew creating a king of religious apartheid.  I come from a large family, my father was one of eleven, my mother one of six.  When we were all together the atmosphere was raucous and making fun of each other was the norm.  If you showed any weakness you would be pulled to pieces, it sounds brutal and it often was.  It was rarely malicious, it was meant in fun, but being the butt of other peoples ‘fun’ can still hurt and be damaging.  Over time you learn to hide your emotions, to build walls.  I believe that developing this trait is directly responsible for my being a depressive later in life.  I learned to bury my emotions, to keep them in until the dam burst at the expense of my mental health.

At around the age of 9 my family moved from Belfast to a small seaside village some 20 miles away. it was a pretty idillic environment, beautiful beaches, open countryside and the freedom to roam.  We  were often outdoors from early morning to late evening and we spent our time outdoors, swimming, climbing trees, building dens and hanging out with our friends.  I have no doubt that this environment led directly to my love of nature and the outdoors, I am never so happy as when I am out walking and enjoying the countryside.

At 16 I left home and travelled to the South of England to join the Navy.  It separated me from my family and friends, and in the days before air travel, mobile phones and e-mail it was very difficult  to maintain contact with those back home.  Joining the services exposed me to a whole new way of life and to people from different backgrounds.  It was immediately apparent to me that I did not care what religion or social background people came from, if they were open and friendly that was good enough for me.  These changes undoubtably led to my abhorrence of prejudice, discrimination and inequality in all its forms.

Growing up I detested school, I had always been a bright kid but looking back in hindsight I can now see how bad the teaching was at my school.  In the late 1980’s I decided that I wanted to improve my education and took a degree course with the Open University.  I was hooked. I immediately developed a love of independent learning, I developed a more questioning mind and learned never to take things at face value.  I learned a lot more about politics and economics and how the less well off in society are often demonised by the law, the media and the ruling classes.  This, without doubt, deepened my understanding of social issues and my belief that it must be possible to improve social mobility through education and welfare support.   It strengthened my beliefs that a fairer and more equal society is not just desirable, it is imperative.

Obviously as I matured, married, had children and faced all of the challenges that life sends our way, I have had many more experiences that have changed my life, my thinking and my health, but I think those are stories for another day.