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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Genealogy & family history research: Lessons to learn from the Aussies

Let me offer a huge recommendation for the Australian newspaper archive, Trove. It is brilliant, and I choose this word carefully.

Trove is run by the Australian National Library and if you are attempting to track down information about your relatives in Australia, it is an excellent starting point. It is free and navigation around the immensely-informative resource can be learned very quickly. Another plus is that new material is being added every day. The only downside is that it becomes quite addictive, but what fun!

Now, let me turn to the British equivalent, the British Newspaper Archive. This is no -- repeat no --  fun at all. It is infuriatingly and quite unnecessarily difficult to navigate and, further, makes corrections to the text very difficult. Add to this, you have to pay to access it. It is incredibly user-unfriendly and you have to wonder if it was ever beta tested on the public. I bet it wasn't. I spent the best part of an hour rummaging around the archive this afternoon. There is just one word to describe my experience as I bang my head against the wall in frustration: Aaaaaaaaagh!!!!!!!!

UPDATE: Coincidentally (?) my Facebook page came up with a sponsored posting from the British archive, but when I posted a complaint about the site, it was promptly deleted. And when I complained about the deletion, it was also deleted. So much for free speech at this British institution.

SECOND UPDATE: If you take out a subscription to the archive, be careful that a month's subscription doesn't become open ended. Make sure you read the small print "Your subscription is sold on a continuous membership basis, meaning it will continue until you cancel it." and hunt down and untick the automatic renewal.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Does borrowing a book or buying one second-hand help the author?

The other day when I was searching for some family information in old Australian newspapers I came across this heart-felt advertisement in a provincial daily published in 1880:

It reminded me of an issue that must bother the overwhelming majority of authors: the fact that they get no financial return from books that are loaned to friends or family or are re-sold in second-hand bookshops or charity shops.

I have one friend who was so enthusiastic about my book God's Triangle that she bought a number of copies and gave them away as presents. That greatly cheered me, but there are a number of people who have written to tell me that they enjoyed the story so much they passed the book on to their friends to read. I'm sure they tell me this because they think it will please me. Yes it does -- up to a point.

Every author likes to know that all the hard work that has gone into a book is appreciated. There is no point writing something that no-one wants to read. But, the downside is that loaning books to friends undermines the often-meager financial returns for an author. Even best-sellers can result in very modest returns. A few months ago, I was at a talk given by an established writer who had authored several high-selling books and a screen play. These were listed in the chairwoman's introduction to the talk, to which he replied: "Thank you very much for reminding me of my works, but what I want to know is why haven't they made me rich?" I once asked a friend who wrote a highly-regarded book on Italian politics if he felt it had been worth it. "Well, I suppose so," he responded without enthusiasm, "but only if I try not to think about the fact that my royalties demonstrated that I'd worked for just 25p an hour!"

A real problem for authors are the charity shops -- especially those that deal almost exclusively in second-hand books. Hundreds of pounds can change hands each day in these shops, but none of it will go to the authors. Oxfam has a second-hand bookshop in Ealing Broadway, and I am convinced that it has played a part in the closure of two independent bookshops in Ealing in the past couple of months.

I now have to make an embarrassing confession. Looking through our own book shelves, I see that a substantial number of books have not been bought new at a bookshop or from Amazon. They have been given to us or we have bought them from a charity shop. And that is the real problem isn't it. It means that most authors will just have to be grateful that their books are being read by someone, even if the financial returns are not what they hoped.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Are snails like homing pigeons?

Personally, I have never had any problem stomping on snails. It's a speedy death and, I imagine, a painless one. They would probably prefer that to being slowly poisoned by those horrible little green pellets that people spread around their gardens. And for us, it is better than having to eat them, as the French like to do, and better than have them chewing away at our beloved home-grown vegetables.

This post was prompted by a Facebook friend who said she could never kill a snail. Instead, she would pick them up in a gloved hand and throw them over the fence into a neighbour's garden. Well, I am glad this friend doesn't live near me!

My response to my friend's admission was that she was wasting her time because snails were like homing pigeons and they would always find their way back into her garden. I meant this as a joke, but is it true?

A friend of my friend said she had once tested this out. She had gathered all the snails she could find in her garden and painted their shells with bright red nail polish. She then dropped them into a garden a couple of doors away. Sure enough, the snails were back in her garden flaunting their nail polish a few days later.

This got me sniffing around the internet to see if there had been any research into the possibility that snails had homing instincts. Sure enough there was a Guardian article that said they did know their way back to their original homes, but only if the distance was less than 20 metres.

There you are. My joke turned out to be true after all. So, you might as well do what I do and stomp on them, although some of you will no doubt write me off as a truly cruel and nasty snail-hating bastard. Perhaps that is also true.

LATER ADDITION: On a more serious note, hedgehogs are very good at keeping snails and slugs under control. The difficulty is getting one of the various hedgehog societies to agree to you having some, as they need to be carefully housed and looked after.