The Life and Times of our Mutual Friend (Volume One)

I have in front of me a remarkable and unique work of art created in 1994 and given to my sister and I as a Christmas present at the end of that year.

Nowadays, this would be called an “Art Book” but this was created before the days when such projects were fashionable.

I’m referring to “The Life and Times of Our Mutual Friend (Volume One)” by Friends of a Friend INK. Back in the day when this project was conceived, my sister and I spent holidays with our friends Hoagy and Jessie constructing advanced versions of the game of “Consequences”.

In its simplest form, the players take a sheet of paper and write a name of someone real or imagined on the top and pass it to the next person after folding the paper over to hide what they have written. The next person writes another name and folds the paper. The next person writes a place, the next writes what the first character said, the next person writes the reply and the last person writes the consequence.

When read out, the resulting story goes something like this:

Winston Churchill
Napoleon Bonaparte
Churchill said:
 “Lovely weather for the time of year”
Napoleon said:
 “I’m tired of washing socks”
And the consequence was:
 They sailed away in a viking longboat

This lends itself to a surrealism that we took to its ultimate heights.

We drew pictures with various heads, bodies and legs, composed rambling stories, invented books (complete with excerpts and reviews), wrote letters and made up recipes using the consequences approach. The art form reached its peak in this monumental volume, composed, as the fly-leaf describes, between November the 6th and December the 30th 1994.

Well, to share the contents would only baffle the reader because every third line is a clever in-joke that makes reference to some of the other games we played, the code names we invented for some of “our mutual friends”, and the characters we assumed on long walks along the Cornish coast. However, the meticulously realised watercolour illustrations are instantly accessible.

Here is my sister:

And here is me:

Turning over these pages, I am reminded of the endless inventiveness and creativity of children (well, early teenagers) growing up WITHOUT TELEVISION.

All four of us have grown up to be writers of one sort or another. You can read Jessie’s literary blog “The Filthy Comma” and look forward to the novel that I believe is in progress. My sister blogs at “Through The Lattice” and is working on a series of books for children while home-schooling her own brood. Hoagy was a fairly prolific generator of online content and gave me some solid pointers when I started out freelancing. I’m podcasting my short stories at “Stories from the Borders of Sleep.”

In the meantime, here are some sample exam questions from The Life and Times of our Mutual Friend:

– What colour did the passing people turn at the very thought of it?
– What is the music in the hall of the mountain king and who does he point at with his left ear?
– What should you do when a smooth rich texture has been achieved?
– What was Don Quixoat doing in the moat?
– What does Princess Taiwan break over her knee?
– What is the need of the person Jim gives his pension book to greater than?

Google Contextual Ads Bring a Tinge of Irony to Apocalyptic Predictions

So I only just found out about the end of the world, too. So I checked in to – it was hard to focus on the facts with all those adverts offering me one last bite at life on earth:

Errr ….

Thank you, how very welcoming!

Salvation or sushi? The choice is yours!

Whatever happens tomorrow some people are going to be quids in. I predict that making predictions could become a big business in the future.

Writer’s Wednesday: Why be Original When a Cliché Will do?

Pick up any magazine with a few feature articles in it and play “spot the cliché“. We all use clichés and often without noticing them; they all too easily pass into professional copy. Is this sloppy writing or a stylistic conformity to idiom? Either way, here’s an exercise to hone your writerly chops: Get your clichés together from your chosen publication and play with them, see if you can’t rewrite them with something more original, or give them an unexpected twist.

This selection is culled from the current edition of Jazzwise magazine.

… the list goes on and on …

It is hard to get around this one. To me it feels like a longhand way of saying “… etc …” which is “a definite no, no.” It is also better than “a list as long as my arm” but the second “and on” is what pushes this phrase over into my kill zone. So how about:

… the list has more items than a record-breaking origami crane collection …

… sterling performance …

Sterling is a standard purity of silver and implies quality and durable value. How about:

… a performance of peerless purity …


… an enduringly bankable performance …

… he was feeling the competition …

Ho-hum … trying to get the innuendo out of my head, I came up with:

… he was struggling to ignore his rival’s halitosis …

… one to watch …

Wouldn’t we all love to be the one to watch? The rising star of the future? Or would we rather be some sort of:

… futurologist’s crumpet …

… more than you can shake a stick at …

Where on earth does this ridiculous phrase come from? Received wisdom suggests that it dates back to the olden days when armies would rattle their sabres (or sticks) at each other before engaging in combat. The sense is of being confronted by an outnumbering force. So:

… more than Atilla’s hordes could eat for breakfast …

… not a bed of roses …

Nothing is a bed of roses except, perhaps, a bed of roses. Is there an underlying allusion to thorns here, too? If it’s not a bed of roses maybe it’s more akin to:

… a fakir’s bed of nails …

… scraping through …

Whenever someone is described as “scraping through” I can’t help thinking of the Shawshank Redemption when (following phrase contains spoilers) the hero picks his way out of prison with a geological hammer. Or even someone:

… leaving a lot of skin on the door frame …

… a wake up call …

That’s what I get from the hotel reception when I need to wake early – shades of turning over and groggily answering the phone. Normally when this phrase is used people mean something more like:

… a smack in the face with a wet halibut …

… wide of the mark …

I think this is another martial phrase from days of bows and arrows. Is it wide of the mark or is it:

… a frigate’s length off target …

Cliches are unavoidable and not necessarily a bad thing but a writer needs to be sure, if they are going to use a cliché, that they mean to use it and it is not an unconscious habit.

Hatherleigh Market

Hatherleigh Market
Petrified Farmers at Hatherleigh

Hatherleigh, in the heart of Devon, lays claim to being the smallest town in the county and it is a proper “market town”. Not many towns with a market heritage can own that title in the present tense but on at least two days a week this is an important commercial hub for the locality.

Monday is auction day for sheep and cows. Tuesday is for rabbits, bantams, geraniums and any other old house clearance croc of the sort that makes its way here as if the nation were tilted sharply down to the left so all the floggable junk eventually tumbles into the south west.

Pic of a Headless Chicken
Headless Chicken For Sale

At Hatherleigh, men in flat caps put on a tie to go to market and there are beards and side-burns to be seen that make the Tyroleans look baby faced. There are auctioneers who talk faster than a New Monkey MC and punters at the sales who are so much part of the fittings that they get nicknames like “Shoot” and “Lofty”.

Hatherleigh is a great place to break the ice if you want to get into bidding at auctions. There is all sorts of stuff that goes for a couple of quid so it won’t break the bank. Be careful not to scratch your nose at the wrong moment, though, or you might be going home with a rusty milk separator or a cockrel for a fiver.

Prostate Scrappage Flyer!
This is why the world needs Copy Writers

If you are ever in North Devon on a Tuesday, the Hatherleigh market is not to be missed.

Be careful to ask for a “Devonshire Pasty” and not a “Cornish Pasty” at the cheap-as-chips, on-site cafe – or they will run you out of town. And if you have any unused prostates kicking around, then please consider participating in the “prostate scrappage scheme” that the rotary club are organising (see picture).

Five Wise Things I Learned From My Dog

Watching my dog and how she thinks and acts, I feel a bit jealous at times, she’s got some stuff nailed down that I have been struggling with for years.

Dog Diving
Jump in with all four feet.

Live For The Moment

In any given moment, my dog is completely immersed in whatever she is doing. When the bone is being chewed, there is nothing else in the world, she is completely present to the moment. The “now” is what matters to her. This enables her to give her best to every moment and the idea of procrastination just doesn’t occur to her.

We All Need To Be Loved Today

It doesn’t matter that she had a cuddle yesterday or will get one tomorrow – she wants affection now. This spins off from living in the moment but I think it is true of humans – we have short memories when it comes to affection and encouragement, we need it in the present moment.

The Smallest Things Can Bring Pleasure

You can keep your ipad – a battered stick or a tennis ball covered with drool is all you need for hours of fun.

Labrador on a Chair
Get plenty of rest while you can.

Conserve Your Energy For The Big Stuff

Like most carnivorous predators, dogs sleep and sleep and sleep for at least 15 hours a day. Their systems are designed to rest for long periods so that the energy for hunting is there when they need it. I run around and dissipate my physical and emotional energy on hundreds of non-essentials instead of keeping myself primed for the big stuff. Even when my dog is resting, she dreams of chasing rabbits – use the between times to mentally prepare.

Going Barefoot Is Nature’s Best

My dog never wore shoes. Her feet are well toughened and she can manage any sort of terrain with them. She has been naturally provided with the best footwear for an outdoor lifestyle as have I, if I would only make good use of it.

Related Links:

The Labrador Retriever: An Endearing and Enduring Pet

A Labrador for All Seasons – a set on Flickr.

Google Insights Reveal that Good is Prevailing over Evil

Researching for articles is a massive time-sink. Many are the distractions that offer themselves under the guise of “research”, not least, messing about with keywords on Google Insight. This great site enables you to “compare search volume patterns across specific regions, categories, time frames and properties”, making it possible to identify rising trends, neatly presented in a graphical format.

Thanks to Google Insight I am able to reassure readers that Good continues to prevail over Evil. Internet users in Lesotho appear to be showing the most interest in “Good”, and the rising star in the “good search” war is someone called “Mister Good”.

Good and Evil Graph
Good Prevails Over Evil

Google Insight also reassures us that Cats are more popular than Dogs in spite of the trending interest in “lol cats“, which was an unknown phenomenon prior to late 2006 and peaked in 2008.

Popeyes’ favourite vegetable, spinach, also has a very slight edge on broccoli although broccoli is catching up and, not surprisingly, brussel sprouts continue to bump along the bottom.

Use Google Insights to take the pulse of the world and waste a few more hours in dubious research activities …