Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

Do you know anyone going to university or college who will need to write a dissertation at some point in their course?

 Under the name April Taylor, I have just published a short e-book aimed at students. “Cutting Through The Academic Crap: An Informal Guide to Writing Your Dissertation” is available from Amazon. http://amzn.to/OYcuoT

 Why did I feel the need to write it? Read on.

There used to be a joke, which turned about to be the truth regarding an EU directive about cucumbers. It amounted to a terrifying number of words when compared to the American Bill of Rights. Scary when you consider that the first deals with a salad vegetable and the second the rights of a nation’s individuals.

 My mother’s generation always believed in the value of long-winded pomposity over short, clear and to the point writing. There are still people around who believe that they will appear more intellectual if they use fifty words when five would do.

 I have to admit to a prejudice against some academics on this score and never more so than when I wrote the dissertation for my M.Sc. I remember sitting in the lecture room feeling that I made two short planks look intelligent. And why? Because instead of explaining and advising us in clear concise English, the tutors spouted terminology and jargon sowing confusion and fear.

 Fast forward a few years and the incredibly intelligent and talented son of a friend was working himself into a nervous breakdown over his dissertation. I was angry. More than that, I determined to do something about it. We spent a long weekend making sense of his jumbled notes. Had he been given guidance by his tutors? Yes, but they kept changing their minds. The saddest thing was that he knew exactly what he wanted to say, but nobody had told him in plain uncomplicated language how to say it. Worse, they hadn’t even hinted at how much knowledge of the software he would need. Hence the book.

 It covers not just how to put a dissertation together, but how to organise your notes, how to use your time effectively, how to manipulate Word and what to do if it all goes wrong. If it saves just one student from the hell my friend went through, I shall be delighted.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Perils of travel in Tudor England

Research. Important, like butter in a baked potato. Too much and it makes you sick, too little and you can’t swallow the potato.

I am currently firming up the research for the third Luke Ballard novel, working title “Sweeter than Flowing Honey”. In this book, Luke is forced to travel back to Lincolnshire and his childhood home. Young Prince Arthur, only 8 weeks old has been abducted and the end of the thread of detection seems to be in the Lincolnshire Uprising of 1536. Luke has other difficulties to face besides finding the prince. His relationship with his father, meeting again the lord of the manor whose son, Luke’s best friend, died on the Mary Rose after enlisting following an argument with Luke over a woman and his own inability to ask for help when he needs it.

Following the clues, Luke travels to where he thinks the prince is being held. Too late. Leaving a tantalizing clue for him to follow, the abductors have moved on, with their trophy. So, minus the baby, Luke must travel half the length of England back to Hampton Court Palace to face the wrath of the King. But, will he get there?

The roads in Tudor England were thronged with a variety of dangers. When the Wars of the Roses ended with the accession of Henry VII and his marriage to Elizabeth of York, private armies were more or less abolished. This led to highly trained men discharged from service with nothing but their clothes and weapons, turning to vagabondage or violent robbery. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, most of the monks were given pensions. Not so the staff such as cooks, gardeners, laundry people etc. Most of them had no option but to become vagrants. At that time, the wool trade to Europe was in full swing, the demand for English wool was voracious. This made landlords turn whole swathes of land to grass and farm sheep. Result? Many more people out of work. One shepherd to look after a flock of sheep was all that was needed. Other workers were turned out of their homes and jobs and left to fend for themselves. Then there were the gypsies, who, most people believed, were descended from the Ancient Egyptians. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s main bully-boy, issued instructions that all gypsies were to be rounded up and deported, even if they produced paperwork saying they were legally in England. If they refused, then they were to be summarily executed.

The state of the highways in Tudor England was dire. In winter they were almost impassable with mud and snow and in summer the depth of the rutted surfaces were a danger to both horses and men. Most of the countryside was still covered in thick woodland, an ideal spot for footpads to lurk and prey on those who could not afford an escort or could not join a group of travellers. There is a delightful story about Gamaliel Ratsey, a celebrated highwayman, who waylaid a preacher and demanded from him a sermon. The parson chose charity to the poor as his topic and so moved Ratsey that he became something of a Robin Hood character, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. With ostlers and tavern staff giving information to the robbers about who was travelling and what they carried, few were safe.

All in all, travel was not to be undertaken by those of a nervous disposition. Will Luke be safe?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

New Year. New thoughts.

Christmas has, once more, come and gone in a twinkling. For me, it’s been a very enjoyable time with family, feeding our souls as well as our faces. With Paul being at home for almost 3 weeks, we’ve also been able to get long-standing jobs in the house done, too. Of course, one cannot get everything done. We have a former loo, now cleaning materials storage room halfway between the ground and first floor. The handle falls off the door with sickening monotony mostly because the spindle isn’t long enough. This was top of the jobs for Paul to sort out. Is it sorted? No.

But that’s like life, isn’t it? When I lived in the city, I formed a group of close friends and we all met one afternoon a week to do our cross-stitch embroidery and put the world to rights. Being enthusiastic stitchers, we went to all the exhibitions around the UK collecting cross-stitch kits that we couldn’t live without. The joke was that we would have to live to 100 just to get the ones in our collections finished. Then we decided that we must go through our kits and be really ruthless about weeding them out. The ones we didn’t think we would get round to were to go to the local charity shop. One of my friends counted how many kits she had - 58. She went through them, stringently according to her, and managed to put 3 aside. Sadly, a year later, she died of a sudden heart attack and there were still 52 untouched, unopened, kits in her stash.

There are so many things we want to achieve before we go to the great embroidery circle in the sky. And for all of us, the danger is that we start to concentrate on doing instead of being. We complain that the world is moving faster and faster and we can’t keep up. But, when you look at it in a clinical manner, for those who work a 40 hour week and sleep 8 hours each night, that still leaves us 72 hours unaccounted for. Three days in every week when our time is our own, not driven by an employer. Time to do what feeds our spirits and balances us.

Modern mantras tell us we can have it all, so long as we manage our time effectively. But effectively for what? Certainly not for us as living entities with emotional needs. We have to accept that we will die with a long list of things not done and that is nothing to be worried about. It is simply the nature of existence. So my resolution for 2012 is to bring balance back into my life, to enjoy the sun when it decides to put in an appearance, smell the roses, go and gaze at the sea for a while on a regular basis and do the things that make life a happier place to inhabit.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to remember that we are human beings, not human doings.