Firstly, to get the big question out of the way, if I was Scottish, I’d vote yes. Not because I’d think it will be easy. I don’t. I think it might be quite hard – worthwhile things usually are. I’d be voting yes because ultimately I’d rather be a citizen of a small democracy of five million people whose destiny I have a say in, than a citizen of a large democracy of sixty million people whose destiny I largely don’t.
But I would ask one thing of the post-Yes, Scottish people: can we keep Faslane and Coulport as Guantanamo Bay-style, leased sovereign enclaves. (In return for a currency union, use of the Bank of England, and first pick at the House of Commons wine collection).
It’s not about saving the several billion pounds it would cost to move the site, nor the undesirability of storing a shitload of nuclear weapons right next to Plymouth. (I know some might ask how come it was okay to store a shitload of nuclear weapons right next to Glasgow, to which I’d reply that pondering on that question a while might help them understand why so many Scots are keen to leave the union). No, it’s not about that. Personally, I’m in favour of abandoning Trident anyway.
No, the reason why I’d like us to keep Faslane is because it would create a wonderful new setting for stories. Stories need conflict, and nothing generates conflict like a few dozen megatons of someone else’s nuclear weapons stored right next to your biggest city. It only needs relations between the Scottish and rUK governments to deteriorate a tad and you have a wonderful Cold War-esque thriller with a twist.
“With the United Kingdom and Scotland on the verge of war, the last thing Redcap detective Jim Conner needed was a killer loose in Faslane’s nuclear submarine yards. With Prime Minister Farage’s visit only three days away and the five infantry regiments of the Scottish Army poised to attack the sovereign enclave, the clock is truly ticking.”
Tell me that’s not awesome!
I’m a vegan, and here’s the thing: people who, for perceived health reasons, follow a plant-based diet and then refer to themselves as vegans – when they’re not, not really – kind of annoy me.
The Parable of the Regency Anti-Slavery Campaigner and the Regency Health Freak
Imagine it’s the 1810s. Slavery is legal in the British Empire, but a small group of abolitionists are fighting to stop it. Jeremiah is one such campaigner. He abhors slavery, and has vowed not to consume the products it produces. In practice, this means that he will eat no sugar, and wear no cotton.
If Jeremiah is attending a social gathering and is offered a dish that contains sugar, he will politely explain that he cannot eat it, and – if asked why – explain that he is an abolitionist.
Then we have Zachariah. Zachariah has no problem with slavery. He quite happily wears cotton clothing made with cotton sourced from slave-using plantations. But he has come to the conclusion that sugar is an unnatural product, and so refuses to eat it. And he’s decided that the best phrase to describe his avoidance of sugar is… abolitionist.
If Zachariah is attending a social gathering and is offered a dish that contains sugar, he will politely explain that he cannot eat it, and – if asked why – explain that he is an abolitionist. (If then asked why he has become an abolitionist and what an abolitionist is, he will give an explanation that is entirely about sugar’s unhealthy properties with not a single mention of slavery).
People’s reactions to Jeremiah’s polite refusal of the sugar dish will be significantly affected by whether or not they’ve had their understanding of the word “abolitionist” corrupted by people like Zachariah.
If they haven’t, if they immediately realise that Jeremiah’s stance is born of a moral abhorrence of slavery, then they will likely respect him greatly for making sacrifices in aid of people he will never meet, even if they do not personally agree with him. And deep down, they probably will agree with him, and his example may start them down a road that will lead to their rejecting slavery and its products.
But what if they have had their understanding of the nature of abolitionism corrupted?
If they assume that Jeremiah is refusing the sugar dish merely out of a desire to enhance his own health, they may react very differently. At best, they will be neutral – unbothered as to whether or not he wishes to eat the dish. But at worst, they may perceive him as rude, selfish, faddy, and perhaps even narcissistic – a man who puts his obsessive attention on himself ahead of the norms of social interaction.
Imagine how it would feel to Jeremiah if, every time he mentions that he’s an abolitionist, he receives the response: “Oh, is that for health reasons?”
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” – The Vegan Society (who created the word “vegan” in 1944)
Imagine an artist who paints as a hobby. Every now and again – weekends, or holidays, perhaps – he’ll head off with his watercolours and find a spot and paint. He might sell some paintings; others he might give away as presents. He doesn’t feel like a failure. And no-one thinks of him as a failure.
Writing isn’t quite like that. It’s a creative art form, but there are a few key differences between it and other creative art forms that can make pursuing writing as a hobby somewhat challenging.1
DIFFERENCE ONE: THE CONSUMER CONSUMING
It takes only seconds to glance at a painting; only minutes at most to hang it on your wall. Different people might like different types of art, but generally a nice piece of art is a nice piece of art, especially if it’s an original to which you have a personal connection. You’re happy to put it up somewhere and look at it occasionally when you walk by.
A novel isn’t like that. If a friend gives you a copy of their novel to read, it’s often not a gift but an obligation, and not a blessing, but a curse. It takes several hours or more to read a novel. You have to concentrate. And if that novel hasn’t seized your imagination it’s going to feel like work, and unpleasant work at that.
DIFFERENCE TWO: THE CREATOR CREATING
An amateur writing novels as a hobby might only be able to manage one decent, edited book every two years; unless an artist is painting huge canvasses I’d hope they’d be able to produce paintings at a better rate than that, even as a hobby on top of a day job.
DIFFERENCE THREE: THE PUBLICATION MODELS
While art does have the concept of prints, limited edition or otherwise, the tradition is in originals. You paint a painting and then you sell it to someone. Sure, there might be a bloke out there who sells his paintings though Sotheby’s for £1 million, while you sell yours through a local gallery for £30, but you and he are doing the same thing – it’s just a difference of scale.
In novels (in all fiction come to that), it’s always worked in a very different manner (except for this guy, and what he was doing was so different from the norm that he became the subject of a series of piss-taking Internet memes and received a torrent of hate and abuse)2.
With text, it’s the content that’s the art, not the vessel within which it resides, and a piece’s worth is measured not by how much one person wishes to own the original, but by how many people value the work enough to wish to spend their time consuming a copy of it.
This is a point I think that many people miss when they talk about giving their fiction away for free, or for very small amounts of money. It’s not money that’s ultimately the barrier to someone reading your work: it’s the time and effort it will take for people to read it (i.e. difference #1 above).
A novel self-published at £0.99 a copy that sells only five copies isn’t a failure because only five people bought it; it’s a failure because only five people wanted to read it.3
This also changes how other’s opinions affect the creators view of the work. If you paint a painting and one of your friends likes it, and all your other friends hate it, then great – you give it to the friend who liked it. Only one person needs to like a painting – the person who ends up with it on their wall.
But it’s not enough for one single person to like a work of fiction. When you show your novel to a friend you’re not simply hoping for them to say they like it; you’re hoping that they will say that they think many other people will like it too.
WHAT THIS MEANS
What it means is that painting (or sculpting, or freeze drying dog turds you found on the street and arranged into stick figures, or whatever the hell it is that floats your visual artistic boat) works better as a hobby than writing does. A hobbyist artist can spend some enjoyable free time painting paintings and then get the satisfaction of seeing other people enjoy viewing those paintings, and perhaps even displaying them in their homes.
By contrast, a hobbyist writer typically spends their time writing stories that might never get read, or if they do get read (by friends and family, as beta readers, perhaps) will be done in circumstances that amount to the reader doing the writer a favour. Its not “Here’s a copy of a novel I wrote for you as a present for your birthday.” It’s: “Could you do me a favour by reading my novel and telling me what you think?”
When judged by contemporary expectations and standards, the default is to judge amateur/hobbyist artists as successful but judge amateur/hobbyist writers as failures. The former is an artist whose works are found in various homes; the latter is an unpublished writer, who is yet to have a work published. Friends and family don’t generally ask to read your novel; they instead ask how your writing is going, which often amounts to asking if you’ve found a publisher or an agent yet.4
Imagine an artist spending evenings and weekends painting paintings that no-one ever sees, all part of some big series of paintings. Each month they finish a painting and put it in a stack with the other paintings. Then after two years maybe, they take the paintings round various galleries, but each gallery owner simply shakes his or her head, sadly, and tells them that it’s not what the market is looking for. So they put the paintings in the attic and start painting more paintings, more paintings that are probably destined to never be viewed. That’s not how it works with art.
But it is how it often works with writing.
An obvious point some might raise at this point is the possibility of self-publishing. But I think that’s a non sequitur. Self-publishing doesn’t eliminate any of the three differences I outlined above; it just shifts the responsibility of surmounting them onto you.
IS THAT IT? I’M INTO WRITING. SHOULD I TOP MYSELF NOW?
Well firstly, no, you shouldn’t top yourself now. I think what it really means is that when it comes to writing you have two choices: you can treat writing a career you’d like to aspire to (albeit, a part-time career you will do in addition to your day job); or you can treat it as a hobby. And then plan how you’re going to go about it accordingly.
In my case, for now, for the moment – given that I’m at a particularly busy period in my life – I’ve decided to treat it as a hobby4. So I’m now writing Selene, an episodic SF/urban fantasy/alternate history story set on the Moon (explanatory blog post, actual story), and publishing it as I write it, in instalments, on Wattpad. Wattpad is sort of a publishing platform combined with a social media platform. It allows people to follow you, both via the website, or via an app on their phones, and then get an alert each time you publish a new instalment.
If you just want to write for fun, for your friends, as though you were spinning anecdotes by the fire, then I’d recommend checking Wattpad out. (But in true BBC fashion, I’m sure that other social media styled, authoring platforms are available). But of course, as they say on the Net, YMMV (Your Milage May Vary)6.
1This entire blog post is the result of a conversation with my friend Warren, in which he pointed out the differences between writing and other art forms. So the credit for the actual idea should go to him.
2I think his story really illustrates the difference between written and visual art forms. Every city centre tourist spot in the world has street artists offering to do a one-off, custom sketch for a moderate fee. No-one bats an eyelid at that. Make the same offer, but for a written piece, and you’re treated an eccentric curiosity at best, and a freak to be hated at worst.
3I am making a value judgement here that a story that no-one reads counts as a failure. Some might argue that they write purely for pleasure, and get that pleasure even from a story that no-one other than they will ever read. If so, that’s great. But I think most writers get their pleasure from storytelling, and it is rather hard to tell a story if there’s no-one to tell it to. No-one ever told stories around a campfire at which they were the only person sat.
4I should stress that it’s lovely that people take an interest. But one of my intentions in writing this post is to explain to non-writers how writing can feel from the other side, which is why I’m pointing out this difference.
5That I’m treating writing as a hobby doesn’t mean that I don’t think I’m any good, or that I don’t care about what I write. Several years ago I had a novel published (it’s wasn’t technically self-published, but it was down to me to sell/market it) which has now sold around two thousand copies in paperback and a few hundred in ebook, got a load of good reviews, and got nominated for an ENnie award. So I’d like to think I can write a bit.
6i.e. What works for me might not work for you.
For as long as men had looked up at the heavens, the Moon had been a dead world of desert-dry dust set beneath a windless void. On the 5th February 1971 that changed, utterly. When men of today look into the night sky they see a blue-green marble wreathed in clouds, the greatest enigma in the whole of human history.
Jason Duke came to the Moon in search of the truths behind that enigma, but found only betrayal and disappointment. Now the man responsible for the Moon’s transformation is dead, and it’s Duke’s job to find out why.
[Click here to read the first instalment, straight away.]
What’s Selene? Well if I was going to get all technical, I’d say that it’s an episodic science-fiction / urban fantasy story that I’ll be serially publishing in instalments, in the hope that by doing so I’ll be able to interact with the reader like a surfer interacts with a wave. I’ll be getting immediate feedback, which I can then feed back into the story. This isn’t a user-directed plot, but if enough people say they like a certain element, it might start to work a bit like that.
If I’m not getting technical? Well all of the above is true, but I really just want to have some fun writing. I want to write as a hobby in the same way that other people paint, or make pots, or weave things. They do it for fun and give the results to their friends, and for the moment, right here and now, that’s what I want to do. I’m not necessarily giving up on the conventional writing path, but for now I’m just looking to enjoy the process of creating a story1.
I should stress that this isn’t a good way to write a novel, although I should equally stress that Selene isn’t a novel. If you want to write a good novel then you’ll want to go away and spend a couple of years on it, working through several drafts, cutting, refining, polishing. You’ll probably want to plan it all out in advance, too.
I’m not doing that. I’m heading out into plots largely unknown2, just as I would if I was running a roleplaying game for my friends (with an RPG, there’s no point planning the plot too far ahead, because that’s practically an invitation to your players to instead head off in the opposite direction). It won’t be a story designed to be read in one sitting. Instead, it’s written as bite-sized chunks that will hopefully unfold over the months in a satisfying manner.
I’ll be using a platform called Wattpad, which you can access via either a website or by an app on your phone. If you use the phone app, add Selene to your library, and allow the app to use Push Notifications, you’ll get an alert (like when you get a text message) each time I publish a new instalment (which should be once or twice a week).
Here’s the first instalment of the story. Hope you like it.
[Selene - the first instalment]
1I do have a draft post written about how writing compares as a hobby to other creative pursuits, but it’s a bit negative and depressing, so I thought I’d get Selene going before I post that piece (i.e. demonstrate my proposed solution before I outline the problem).
2It’s also a bit more like an ongoing TV or comic series, where the writers are only ever a few episodes or issues ahead of their broadcast or publication schedule.
I have just had the greatest idea I will ever have in my entire life. Ladies, gentlemen, those who’d rather not say, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri, I give you – the ExplainTo Bear!
I’m a programmer, and in programming – and I suspect many other professions – it’s a truism oft repeated that the best way to solve a problem that’s stumping you is to get one of your colleagues to have a glance at it. Why? Because a good 50% of the time you’ll figure the solution out yourself while you’ll still explaining the issue to said colleague, without him or her doing anything more than listen, and occasionally interject with, “I see”, “Right”, “Okay”, and “Got it”.
Which is where my invention comes in. The ExplainTo Bear is a small cuddly toy with a built-in sound detector. When it detects more than a second’s worth of silence a hidden speaker emits one of a set of stock phrases, such as: “I see”, “Right”, “Okay”, and “Got it”. If you’re a manager1 and one of your programmers reports that they’re stuck, all you have to do is hand them the department’s ExplainTo Bear and tell them to work together with the bear to solve the problem2.
The potential of this is genuinely huge, so much so that I really ought to patent it and make a fortune. But I’m not going to, partly because in a world where the UK government is about to write off £300 million of Universal Credit IT spending3 I think this needs to be available to the whole of humanity, but mostly because I’m absolutely knackered right now and I really can’t be bothered.
Knighthood if it takes off would be nice, mind.
1This applies equally well if you’re a ScrumMaster in a company which uses an agile methodology and a programmer reports a problem during the daily scrum meeting.
2There is a type of programming called Extreme Programming, where programmers work together in pairs. This is a bit like that, but you only have to pay one salary.
3I should stress that I’m not necessarily claiming that the impending disaster that is the Universal Credit IT system could be solved simply by someone in charge spending twenty minutes talking to a stuffed toy, but it might have perhaps averted the cock up had someone done such a thing back in 2010, and realised that the plan they’d adopted was complete bollocks.
Yesterday, I was reading John Inverdale’s column on sports in City AM. Inverdale is a supposed sports journalist who recently, famously, nearly lost his job with the BBC by making sexist comments live on air about new Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli. So I wouldn’t necessarily expect him to be the sharpest tool in the journalistic toolbox. But I was nonetheless amazed to see him saying the following in a column decrying the practise of knighting sportsmen and women whilst still active:
Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins are waiting in cycling’s hall of fame for Sir Chris Froome, who must surely receive a similar accolade – why is his Tour de France win this year less remarkable than Wiggins’ 12 months ago?
Sir Chris Hoy was knighted after winning his seventh Olympic medal (six gold and one silver), making him the greatest British Olympian of all time, taking that accolade from… Bradley Wiggins. In 2012 Wiggins not only became the first British man to win the General Classification (a.k.a. Yellow Jersey) of the Tour de France, he also won Olympic gold in the time trial at London 2012, to go with the medals he’d previously won at Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. That total of four golds, one silver and two bronze made him the most decorated British Olympian of all time until Chris Hoy overtook him a few days later.
So Bradley Wiggins has a Tour de France win, plus seven Olympic medals, four of them gold. Chris Froome has a Tour de France win, plus one Olympic bronze medal.
With respect, those two records are not comparable. Froome’s Tour de France win is one hell of an achievement, but the Tour de France win was only a part of what got Bradley Wiggins a knighthood. Given that Chris Hoy got a Knighthood purely on the basis of a similar Olympic medal haul to Bradley Wiggins, it’s arguable that Wiggin’s Tour de France win played only a minor role in getting Wiggins his knighthood, that he might have got it anyway.
John Inverdale is supposed to be a sports journalist. Is it really possible that he doesn’t know that Bradley Wiggins is one of only two Britons in history to win seven Olympic medals? Is it conceivable that he doesn’t know what Wiggins got his knighthood for?
Or was he just skipping facts to make a lazy point in his column?
I’m not sure what’s worse.
To those who believe that George Zimmerman is innocent…
Imagine that everything happened pretty much as Zimmerman claimed it did, with one difference: he wasn’t able to get off a shot and as a result Trayvon Martin beat him to death. You’d say that Martin was guilty of murder right? You’d say that if you were on a jury, you’d convict him, yeah? Really?
Let’s say that the police arrived to find Martin standing beside a dead Zimmerman and he gave them the following story:
“I was coming home when I realised a guy seemed to be following me. He didn’t look like a cop or anything. I tried to walk faster, but he kept on following me. I even tried taking short cuts, but he still kept following me. I was getting scared. I wasn’t in an area where I felt safe knocking on people’s doors. Eventually, I doubled-back and told him to stop following me. I thought I needed to stand up to him. Let him know that he couldn’t just follow people around at night.
“Then he pulled a gun out. Now I was really terrified. I thought maybe he was some racist out to kill someone black, for kicks. He didn’t look at all calm or in control, like he was hyped up or something. I didn’t have a gun myself. I knew I couldn’t run because he could just shoot me in the back. But if I did nothing, he could just shoot me whenever he felt like it. Then he looked away, just for a moment. I knew this might be my only chance, and I knew I had to seize it right away.
“So I jumped him. I knew I had to move fast and not let him get a move. I knew that if I let up, just for an instant, he’d be able to get his gun on me and shoot me. I got on top of him and started to bang his head on the sidewalk, again and again. I didn’t like doing it, but I knew I couldn’t stop until he was completely out of it. Otherwise, he’d just shoot me and kill me.
“Eventually, I felt him just go limp and I stopped. I realised then he was dead. I didn’t want to kill him, but he pulled a gun on me.”
Imagine then, at the subsequent trial, his defence’s argument basically boils down to:
“Zimmerman followed our client in a highly suspicious and threatening manner and then, when confronted, pulled a gun on our client. Our client had reasonable cause to fear for his life, and given that he was unarmed himself had no option but to use lethal and sudden force to defend himself. It is for this reason that our client is pleading not guilty to the charge of murder.”
Are you really saying that you would convict him in this case? Are you really going to argue that a man doesn’t have the right to defend himself when he finds himself being followed by an armed man?
Wouldn’t you decide that Trayvon Martin had the right to stand his ground?
As discussed previously, last week an article of mine about Monopoly went viral. The article is on the Critical Miss website (www.criticalmiss.com), but since that’s now merely a subdomain of my main Jonny Nexus site, visits to it appear in the overall site’s webstats. For the first time since the whole kerfuffle hit, I’ve just found time to look at those statistics. Here’s the main usage graph.
May was clearly quite a month. I’d say that to receive 150 thousand visitors to your website is not a bad achievement. But when exactly within May did this happen?
What’s interesting there is that we had an earlier, mini-viral peak around the 16th to 18th May – which was when Penny Arcade published their piece about the article. This then almost dropped away, before exploding back on the 26th. Of course, at the time this all passed me by: I don’t make a habit of browsing my server stats. The final question is where all these readers are coming from? Well here’s the top ten of visitor countries:
That’s pretty much what I’d expect based on the surveys I did back in the Critical Miss days (the top four’s identical to the results I got then). But it is an interesting illustration of: a) what an interconnected world we now live in; and b) just how widely Hasbro (Parker Brothers as was) have licensed Monopoly.
Seven years ago, as part of the penultimate issue of my gaming web fanzine Critical Miss, I wrote a short filler article about an interesting fact I’d discovered about the board game Monopoly (which was that if you land on a property but opt not to buy it, it gets auctioned off by the bank). Critical Miss was never serious; pretty much everything in it was very tongue-in-cheek and not to be taken literally. I’m not actually expecting you to start invading people’s space at wedding receptions or introduce yourself to complete strangers in the street, for example.
Yes, they’ve even done a version for Brighton
I always aimed to give Critical Miss articles a good angle and a snappy title; for my Monopoly article I wrote it using the narrative conceit of a “campaign for real Monopoly”. There was never any campaign. It was just a neat story angle and an eye-catching title. The issue came out and a good few people read it, but I don’t recall there being much in the way of comment about that short filler article about Monopoly. And that was that. Except that it wasn’t, because in the digital age of the Internet, nothing truly dies; like Great Cthulhu it merely waits, sleeping.
The article first woke nearly two years ago, after someone – I was never able to track down the “patient zero” who’d started it all – found it, read it, and tweeted about it, causing it to go viral. For three days the link was passed around the digital world. According to the web stats of my web site, around 40,000 people read it during this period, and it even found its way into an online blog published by the Washington Post. That was cool, but it pretty much passed me by. The pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook (pre-blog even) technology and design of Critical Miss was so old that none of it traced back to me in any way. It wasn’t my Tweet that was being retweeted, and so I got no “digital dividend” from the attention my article was getting.
Then, last Wednesday, when I was on holiday in Spain with my family, I received a text from my friend who back in the Critical Miss days had gone by the nomicker of “Bubba”:
Your monopoly post just hit twitter, buzz feed and gizmodo.
This was news to me, as with data roaming turned off on my phone, I was completely out of the digital loop. I didn’t expect this to be anything other than a rerun of the “viral event” of two years before, but I figured I ought to just touch base with what was going on. So when we got back to the hotel I bought a 24 hour wifi card and hauled out my laptop. (I wouldn’t normally take a laptop with me on holiday, but I’m just in the process of finishing off my latest novel, prior to submitting it to agents, and so had been sitting in beach cafes for an hour or so a day, working on it).
What I found waiting for me was pretty stunning: an email from someone working for the BBC World Service, asking if I’d be available for an interview. Within hours, other requests were coming in, from stations in the UK, Australia, Ireland and, for British expats, in Spain.
The Daily Mail (Spanish edition) from Thursday 30th May 2013
The next day things got even stranger, when my article hit the newspapers, with pieces referencing it being published in the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Metro and the New Zealand Herald to name just some, to go with the online articles at Buzzfeed, Gizmodo, AOL, news.com.au, the Huffington Post, Yahoo Games, FoxNews.com, Time.com and Penny Arcade (who might have been the people who started the event, as their piece was dated 16th May). Even my favourite paper, the Guardian, mentioned it, albeit tacked onto the end of an article about single mothers.
But the newspapers had completely misunderstood the nature of my article as well as getting certain details incorrect (in a manner that showed all their articles had come from one common news source). The situation was actually summed up rather nicely by Mark Green (@mgreen) in a post on Facebook:
I can’t believe that several actual newspapers today are running a story about “Are you playing Monopoly properly?” and talking about the “Campaign for Real Monopoly” run by Johnny Nexus and his “London-based gaming blog”, Near Miss.
– The guy’s name is Jonny Nexus, not Johnny Nexus.
– The site is a fanzine, not a blog.
– It’s called Critical Miss, not Near Miss.
– The “Campaign” thing was just the article title, not an actual organization.
– The article was written in 2005.
Seriously, what the heck news agency managed this one?
When I talked to the various radio stations, they all turned out to be operating under the same misapprenhension: that this was an actual, real campaign that I was running now, as opposed to merely an article I wrote seven years ago. Obviously, I wanted to get onto the radio. What aspiring author wouldn’t? But equally I didn’t want to go on under completely false pretences, nor have to pretend that I was actually running a serious campaign on this issue. After all, while being on the radio is one thing, being an apparently obsessed nutter on the radio is something quite different. So when I had a chance to discuss things in advance with a producer I made sure to explain the full situation to them, whilst stressing that I was still keen to go on and discuss my “tongue-in-cheek” campaign.
BBC Radio 5 Live dropped out after this discussion, although in a very nice email they said it was because they’d decided to go with stories about the Mary Rose and Simon Schama, and I’ve genuinely no reason to doubt that. I’d also been in talks with a programme on the BBC World Service (which apparently also goes onto NPR in the US), but that fizzled out. And finally, I was asked if I’d be available for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with John Humphrys, but while they did go ahead with the feature, it was with a Monopoly world champion explaining what I’d said rather than me, a decision which I am in no way bitter about. Honestly. But I did end up doing four interviews:
- The Peter Levy Show on BBC Radio Humberside.
- iTalk FM (an English-language station broadcasting in Spain to the expat community).
- Call Kaye (with Kirsty Wark standing in) on BBC Radio Scotland.
- The breakfast show of Phantom 105.2 in Dublin (this is a pre-record that will go out some time this week).
Monopoly is more than eighty years old. In that time, great advances have been made in game design and better games have been created. Two that I would recommend, for both adults and children, are Mississippi Queen and Trans America.
In each one, I ended up making the same points. I wasn’t running a campaign, but if I had been, it would have been for people to see board games as a reasonable leisure pastime for adults.
That in the English-speaking world we have a weird attitude to board games. Unless it’s Chess, Scrabble or something that uses playing cards, we think it has to be targeted at children. As a result, we dumb down and sanitise games in order to render them child-friendly – making them, as a result, boring for adults – only to then make the circular argument that board games are only for children because adults find them boring.
And finally, that the way we consider Monopoly to be the archetypical board game which defines what a board game is and who it should be enjoyed by is a stupid as it would be were we to use the Wizard of Oz to define what a feature film is and who it should be enjoyed by. Children can be entertained by a cardboard box; do we really want to restrict and retard an entire category of leisure pursuits to fit in with their tastes?
It wasn’t all plain sailing. It turned out that the direct line into my hotel apartment didn’t work, so I did the first interview standing up at the reception desk after sprinting across the complex, using the reception desk’s phone, and hoping to God that no-one tried to check in or complain about their toilet not working or ask when their bus to the airport was arriving (because they’d have been standing right next to me). For the other three interviews, the hotel was kind enough to let me use their admin office, although this might just have given me more time and space in which to worry.
Since getting home, I’ve listened to two of the interviews via the wonderous tool that is the BBC’s iPlayer. I think that narcissists aside, listening to yourself being interviewed on the radio is always going to be a cringe-worthy experience. It’s bad enough hearing your voice as others hear it, rather than as it sounds after vibrating up through your skull; but to know that tens of thousands of people were listening to you is a truly weird thought to have. I’ve always hated the sound of my recorded voice; to me I sound a bit posh and just a tad pompous. But having listened back to two of the interviews on iPlayer, I actually think I came across okay.
Since then, I’ve been interviewed by the local Brighton Argus, and hunted down a few links, but I think that for now my little viral Monopoly adventure is over and it’s time to get back onto the novel. I’ve enjoyed it though. It’s been fun. It’s very cool to be able to put appearing on radio on my writers’ CV. And I’m walking away knowing that in one trivial, but hopefully fun way, I’ve changed the world a little bit. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of thousands of people now know something they wouldn’t have known had I not wrote that article seven something years ago.
And you know what? That’s a pretty cool feeling.
It’s been several years now since the 020 code was introduced in London, and yet I still see people putting the code 0207 (or 0208) in their phone numbers, on signs, business cards, web pages, email sigs, and so on. So here, again, is the quick primer to the way that London’s phone numbers have evolved, and how they should be written. Let’s imagine someone back in the 1980s living in central London, with the following phone number:
01 123 1234
There are three elements to this code, reading from right to left: the number, the area code and a regional code. If you were dialling that number from anywhere inside of London you would dial:
If you were dialling from outside of London you would dial:
01 123 1234
However, by the late 1980s, after the Big-Bang fuelled explosion of activity in the City, London was running out of numbers. So it was split into two areas, one for inner London (071) and one for outer London (081). So now, if you were phoning from inner London, our number would still be:
But if you were dialling from either outer London, or from outside of London, you would dial:
071 123 1234
This new solution lasted a few years, but by the late 90s the entire country was running out of numbers. In addition, there was a desire to rationalise things such as premium rate numbers and mobile numbers. So as an initial, interim measure, all land-lines had a one added at the start of there regional code, after the zero. This meant that our number now became:
0171 123 1234
But of course, as always, if you were phoning from the house next door you would only have to dial:
That was only ever an interim solution, and of course, the intention was to use the extra numbers thus released. London needed still more numbers, so an ambitious plan was arrived at. All the London area codes would be expanded from three digits to four, but at the same time the two London regions, inner and outer, would be consolidated back into one big region, just as it had been fifteen or so years before. The effect of these two changes was to increase the numbers available by a factor of five (adding an extra digit to the area codes increased the numbers by a factor of ten, but combining two areas back into one then halved it).
The new, all London code, was 020, which meant that our number would be:
020 x123 1234
The question was: what would x be, the number that would be added to our area code? Well given that previously, both the inner London (0171) and the outer London (0181) regions would have had an 123 area code, they clearly needed to have different values of “x” to avoid them clashing. The nice, easy solution picked was to give x a value of 7 in the old inner London area, and 8 in the old outer London area. Obviously, this only applied to the old codes, with a whole load of new codes now available with initial digits of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 9. So our number would now be:
020 7123 1234
But if you were calling from anywhere inside London (inner or outer) you could just call:
But what your number would never, ever, ever be, is:
0207 123 1234
That’s just wrong, and if you don’t believe me try dialling 123 1234 from inside London and listen to the automated error that you’ll get back. It’s not 0207 (or 0208), there’s no such thing as 0207, and there never was.