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The Writer’s Voice

In which FP reads, and learns more about writing as a result

Writing this post from the other week, with its long rant about the poor quality of the worldbuilding in BBC3’s Being Human, has made me think more in general about the quality of writing, and the quality of my own writing. After all, am I in a position to excoriate other people’s ability to write and worldbuild, when I don’t exactly have much to demonstrate on my own behalf there?

It set my brain off on a tangent, though. Not so much about worldbuilding, but about the authorial voice. Because that’s something I used to worry about, years back: I would never be any good at writing because I didn’t have my own voice. If you read any of my prose, there would be nothing at all distinctive about it. Whether that was true back then, back when I used to worry about such things, I don’t know, and I have no real desire to go back and read anything that old. It probably isn’t true any more, though. Certainly, one of the things K likes about my blog posts is that, she says, in my writing I sound just as I do when I speak.

I’ve been a reader since I was small: I’ve been able to read since before memory, since before virtually all of my memories, so I have no conception of what it feels like to see words and not understand them. Ever since I started reading for myself, though, I’ve been a silent reader, a very quick reader, and I also tend to be a very poor reader. Because I’m a quick reader I skim too much. I miss things. I miss things out, have to go back, don’t notice Important Plot Points and don’t take in any of the craft involved in the work. However, I think I’ve found a solution to this. I’ve started reading things aloud, and it has turned around the way I look at writing.

What started all this was: I’d just started reading a book I’ve had sitting around unread for a couple of years almost, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.* Only on the second or third chapter, we had to take a plane journey, and K didn’t have anything interesting herself to read. “Read to me?” she asked. So, since, I’ve been reading a passage of Wolf Hall to her in bed every evening. It’s been a couple of months now; reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, and we’re not awake enough for a chapter** every single night. In doing it, I’ve learned a lot about syntax, prosody, and prosody’s representation. Hilary Mantel has been one of my favourite novelists for many years now,*** and Wolf Hall, award-winning and all, is very readable, but it’s not always the easiest novel to read aloud. Its long sentences are just slightly too long for comfort in the voice: lists of things, and there are many lists of things, always have one term too many to easily read aloud. Her authorial voice is very readable, very concise and very accessible, but her sentences are sometimes a little too long to know automatically where the stresses are intended to fall. Which isn’t to deny that it is, absolutely, an excellent novel; it just isn’t perfect for me to read aloud, at least not without a rehearsal.

Wolf Hall‘s sequel will be coming out before too long, and no doubt will be something I will read to K at some point. In the meantime, we are assembling a list of books to be read: The Third Policeman after last week’s opera;**** some Peter Ackroyd, such as Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem; maybe Lanark, although that will be a mammoth adventure. In the meantime, I am taking a lot from reading aloud. It makes me confident that I do have a voice when I write, a voice I can manipulate if I want to. It makes me confident, too, that I have a readable voice, a voice that might be publishable. Most importantly, it has helped an awful lot to reconnect the craft of writing with the act of reading. The two, obviously, are very closely linked; but I think I’d forgotten just how closely linked they are. I think I’d forgotten to write for the reader.

* I can tell you where I started reading it, too: waiting for a train in Frankfurt an der Oder.

** Strictly speaking, it would be very hard to read a chapter every night, because Wolf Hall has very uneven chapter lengths. Some are getting on for a hundred pages of the book; others are no more than two or three.

*** At root, her earlier historical novel about the lives of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins is one of the things to blame for the time I got myself on the telly the other year.

**** Tricky, with all its footnotes.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part the tenth, maybe)

In which we criticise a Great Writer, at least by volume

With such a big pile of books each for Christmas, there was bound to be something that I wouldn’t be able to make it through. The ironic thing, though, is that this Book I Haven’t Read is probably, in one sense, the easiest read on the pile. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett.

Back when I was a teenager, I read an awful lot of Pratchett. I must have read every Discworld book at some point by now, and I’ve got copies still of most. The Parents, being unusually observant, picked up on this: and at some stage they started buying me a copy of his latest book every Christmas. As he’s kept on producing books, this kept on happening.

Now, at one time, I did enjoy Pratchett’s books. Back when I was a teenager. He’d published about ten, fifteen or so; so there were plenty to get through without it seeming too daunting. Moreover, he hadn’t run out of ideas, and the Discworld series hadn’t started to reach critical mass. Back then, Pratchett didn’t worry too much about making his world consistant, and presumably his readers didn’t worry about it too much either.

It’s something to do with that sort of fan, though, the sort that tends to be a fan of Pratchett, that they crave consistancy and reliability. They want the world to be as solidly-built as our own, even when the fraying at the edges is fairly obvious; even when its development over time is extremely obvious.* Even if the author doesn’t worry about tying up loose edges and gluing bits of geography together, assiduous and energetic readers will start doing it for him. And they did. A lot of effort started to be put into making the whole thing “make sense” in some way, to the extent that Pratchett ended up writing entire books apparently just to make incoherency a coherent part of his universe.** That should, really, be the point where you realise that a good idea’s been taken too far.***

All of that, though, is by-the-by compared to why I didn’t manage to read this specific book. I gave up on Unseen Academicals because, well, it generally isn’t very good. It’s not a book that gave me any sort of urge to keep reading at all. The characters are rather flat and lifeless, and the Deliberate Air Of Mystery surrounding the Mysterious Characters seems, well, all too deliberate, as if someone had written it all according to the How To Write A Discworld Novel manual. If I was a fan, I might have managed to finish it. Not being, I didn’t.

All novels, as you know, like to have review quotes in their blurb. For writers starting out, it may well be from a better-known writer who has taken a shine to this novel. For better-known writers, it will be an impressive quote from a review in a Top Newspaper. You can tell a writer who’s gone too far, though. They have what Unseen Academicals has: a quote from the writer themselves, about how great their own book is.**** It’s not a good sign, when you think you’re your own biggest fan.

* Note for non-Discworld readers: the Discworld started off as a parody of swords-and-sorcery fantasy. With the sixth book it started to expand to cover parodies of other literature, and by now has covered just about every aspect of Real Life of the past 200 years or so. As a result, it’s not actually a “fantasy” world any more, apart from magic used for comedic effect.

** Well, at least one. I’ve read it, and it does read like it’s largely filler.

*** And, yes, I know I complain about consistancy in Doctor Who. But the annoyance there is more the selective consistancy; the have-your-cake-and-eat-it grab-stuff-from-anywhere approach that Russell T Davies tended to take with the programme’s backstory.

**** Douglas Adams, I have to admit, did manage to get away with this once, by not sounding serious about it.

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In which something is hard to understand

Both K and I now have big stacks of books we collected over Christmas. As there are some books I had last Christmas that I haven’t read, yet, there’s plenty now to keep us both going for a few months.

As mentioned the other day, one of the books I received this year was Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas R Hofstadter. I asked for it specifically, but in doing so, I was already aware that it may well end up on the “Books I Haven’t Read” review list. Because, after all, its reputation precedes it. It’s a long book, a complex book, and it deals with some complex and subtle ideas.

Luckily, though, it’s also a very readable book. With its detours and its playfulness, it reads almost like a more complex, grown-up version of a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series. It’s definitely not going onto the Books I Haven’t Read pile, because I’ve almost finished the whole thing. However, I might have to start a new pile specially for it: the Books I Don’t Think I’ve Properly Understood pile. Many of its arguments are rather gentle and subtle, others are brutally subtle, and others I admit to having to skim over. This may well, according to some of its arguments, prove that I am indeed conscious and intelligent. Either that, or I’m slightly tortoise-like in my thinking. I’m not, as yet, sure which.

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Filing System

In which it may be a good idea that FP no longer works in a library

Looking at our overstuffed bookshelves the other day, I started idly thinking about more interesting ways to file our books. It’s fairly impossible to come up with an entirely useable filing system, because of the way the shelves are stacked three-deep, so I thought it might be more fun to come up with a hard-to-use but more creative system. Filing by number of syllables in title, for example.

Any project like this, it’s important to do the cataloguing. Here are the books I could spot on our shelves* with one-syllable titles:

and Inga Muscio’s Cu

Regular reader E Shrdlu of Clacton writes: But surely, this isn’t going to work? How are you going to find books you need for research? What about subtitles? What about factual books? I mean, surely, for easy access you’re going to need to have all books on the French Revolution in one place, and all the books on the history of the London & North Eastern Railway in another?

Well interrupted, E Shrdlu. I’m not sure it’s practical enough to be going on with. But all those books would definitely look good on a shelf together, I’d think.

* as I said, they’re stacked three rows deep, so statistics suggests we may well have three times as many

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The World Turned Upside Down And Back Again

In which a book of history is the start of a thread back to the present

A while ago now, I bought a book, and predicted that it would quickly go on the Books I Haven’t Read list. Well, seven months later or so, I’m pleased to say it’s finished, and moreover, it sparked off a desire to read and know more. The book in question – if you didn’t follow the link – is The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill.

Hill is popularly known as something of a “Marxist” historian. It’s hard to judge, on the strength of one book, whether or not that’s true. Certainly, it’s not a book of armies and battles; or of great men and events, at least not the men whose names are still widely remembered. It is, instead, a book which examines the effects of those events on ordinary people. The events of the 1640s, whether you call them the “Civil Wars”, the “English Revolution”, or the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”, gave ordinary people the opportunity to participate in political debate for the first time, and for a brief period, made it possible for radical politics to firstly define itself and secondly enter the mainstream.* Before the reassertion, first by Cromwell, later by Monck and Charles II, of military-monarchical power, various groups of Puritans, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and Ranters were given the chance to express themselves and posit alternative forms of religious and/or social organisation and growth. It’s hard for an ordinary unlearned like me to distinguish between them all, and understand the fine differences of policy between people such as Gerrard Winstanley, John Warr, George Fox, James Nayler and Abiezer Coppe. And what great names they have! How many people do you know, nowadays, with a name like “Abiezer Coppe”?

The 1640s and 50s are not, as I said, a period I know much about. I know there was a complex series of wars through the British Isles, that Charles II hid in a tree, and that Oliver Cromwell died, but still managed to get himself hanged afterwards – not to mention, his head stuck on a pole, of course. But really, that’s about it. I have a little idea about a few other things: the men of Hull meeting at the White Harte pub and barring the king’s entry, for example; or James Nayler, the leader of the Quakers, comparing himself to Christ by entering Bristol on a donkey; but I know they are all just isolated scenes from a complex series of physical and mental wars. And, to be honest, reading The World Turned Upside Down hasn’t tidied up my knowledge of the period, because, as I said, it’s not that sort of book. It has on the other hand given me an eye into what ordinary people were doing and thinking, and what they felt able to say once the dead hand of government censorship was lifted from the presses.

It made me think of a book I’d like to write, and made me wonder how to start going about writing it. Regular readers might remember that last month we popped down to London for the London Zine Symposium; and were slightly disappointed by a talk on zine libraries and archiving. I particularly remember, during that talk, an audience member asking when zines originated; and the panel all giving wrong and misleading answers. One said they started with punk; another said they started in the 60s. In actual fact, the word “fanzine” comes from the science fiction scene of the 30s and 40s; but the idea of the amateur press goes back a lot longer than that.

That panel included people who thought that zines are intrinsically political; or, rather, that a self-published “zine” which doesn’t embrace radical politics isn’t actually a zine at all.** The people who hold that opinion also tended, I noticed, to be the ones who didn’t think zines existed before punk zines appeared. They would, I assume, be completely unaware that the radical self-publishing scene first established itself in the 1640s, when England first gained press freedom. The political pamphlets published then by the people Hill wrote about are, in essence, the direct ancestor of the punk zines of the 1970s or the Riot Grrrl zines of the 1990s.

So, then, this is the book I’d like to write. A history of radical self-publishing, starting in the 1640s, going through the French Revolution, Chartism, and ending up with punk, Riot Grrrl and anticapitalist zines. The only problem is, I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of those topics to actually write it. I can see there the common thread, but I don’t have enough in my head to put flesh on the bones. The World Turned Upside Down, though, has shown me that there’s something there, that if only I had the time to investigate the existing material available discussing 17th-century pamphleteers, I could come up with something interesting.

* Much as the French Revolution, or rahter, the events preceding it, did 150 years later; which is probably why the term “English Revolution” was retrospectively applied in the last century. At least I’ve managed to relegate Robespierre, Mirabeau and co. to a footnote this time.

** like this person who read my thoughts on the topic and disagreed.

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In which FP must have upset someone

I woke up, to find a bright, sunny morning outside. I threw back the front room curtains, and noticed something outside, on the window sill. Someone had left a book there. Curious. I wonder what it might be. Maybe it’s something good.

I looked closer. And then: I saw the author’s name in bright shiny letters. Jeffrey Archer.

What have I done, I wondered? What have I done to annoy the neighbours so much, that someone would leave a Jeffrey Archer book on the window sill? Or was it some random visitor from Weston-super-Mare, maybe? It’s a mystery to me. And, moreover, what should I do with it?

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In which we are shocked by vintage sexism

If you get involved in some hobbies, some fields of interest, you have to get used to the fact that you’ll end up finding yourself alongside older men with unpalatable views. If you like trains, for example, you will sometimes find yourself alongside elderly trainspotters who haven’t yet worked out that there might be a link between “being single” and “not washing”. You get used to hearing them espousing rather reactionary viewpoints, such as “we should send them all back to their own countries”, and so on.

Nevertheless, occasionally, something comes along which makes you think: I can’t believe they said that. Or, in this case: I can’t believe they printed that. I was reading a book I picked up recently in a charity shop: Victorian and Edwardian Railway Travel From Old Photographs by Jeoffry Spence, a 1980s reprint of a 1970s book, and came across this delightful passage in the introduction. It starts off with saying how Edwardian railway timetables were far too complicated for women to understand, and goes on:

But even today, with so many regular-interval services and absence of complexities, there is something rather irritating to us chauvinistic males about the sight of a woman standing haughtily in the circulating area of a big station, telling us firmly what time the train goes, which platform, where to change, and even the time of arrival at the destination; it makes a bad impression on our younger children.

I’m sorry? It “makes a bad impression” for children to be allowed to see a woman advising a man? To see a woman having responsibility? To see a woman speaking firmly? Or, indeed, all of the above? Even for something written in the late 70s, that’s a bit much to see in print.

A bit of research suggests that Spence was born in 1915, so was probably in his early 60s when he wrote that. He died* in ’92, at 77 or so. Getting a bit elderly when he wrote those words, then, you could argue. But I don’t think that’s an excuse, given that feminism was already alive and well when he was growing up; and that there are plenty of people of his generation who weren’t such terrible bigots. Thirty years later, it comes across as a shockingly sexist piece of writing. The worrying thing is: I’m sure there are still men today, lurking in the backwoods and writing down the numbers of trains, who would probably still agree with him.

* Assuming I’ve found the right man, but the unusual spelling helps

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The Future Of Things

In which we return to Mario Reading and his inability to admit to his mistakes

Flicking through my viewing figures and my search keywords, I spotted one that caught my eye:

Is it true that nostradamus predicts that George W Bush is going to get assassinated?

Well, no. No, I have to say, it isn’t. It has been claimed that he did, though, by a writer called Mario Reading. As I do try hard to maintain this blog’s position as the top source for Mario Reading information on the internet, I thought I’d better mention it. Mr Reading’s prediction is based on this quatrain by Nostradamus:

The successor will avenge his handsome brother
He will take over the realm under cover of vengeance
The obstacle slain, his dead blood seethes
Britain and France will hold together for a long time

This is Reading’s own translation. He interpreted it as: a powerful world leader, whose main international ally is the British government, undergoes an assassination attempt; and this will lead to Britain aligning itself more with the EU. Oh, and, all this will take place in ’06.* He stepped carefully around the issue of naming the leader in print:

One of many possible targets, of course, might be US President George W Bush

but this is after mentioning that “under cover” in the quatrain, souz umbre in the original, probably means something like “under a bush”. Not to mention, Reading was rather less guarded when, as part of the pre-publication publicity, he went on the telly and said specifically that it was George W Bush that he meant.

Needless to say, none of this has come true, as you might have noticed, and the time for Reading’s prophecy to apply is well past. Nevertheless, he’s since declared that his prophecy did indeed come true! He wrote on his blog that:

I’m very sad to say that the predicted assassination did indeed take place, with the murder, on the 27th December 2007, of Benazir Bhutto. … The prophecy was further vindicated by the fact that both of Benazir Bhutto’s brothers had also died under unnatural circumstances, and that their brother-in-law, Benazir Bhutto’s husband, was elected President of Pakistan. … I rest my case.

Hang on a minute there, Mario! Yes, I know, “handsome brother” might be a mistranslation of “brother-in-law” – but in your prophecy there, it’s the brother who’s been attacked. Benazir Bhutto may well have been assassinated, but she definitely was no man’s brother. Having said, back in 2005, that you thought George W Bush was going to get attacked, it’s a bit misleading of you to go back and say “aah, someone else was assassinated, see, I was right all along”. Particularly as that someone else doesn’t at all fit the prediction you wrote.

I’ve been meaning, for a while, to write a full and proper critique of Reading’s book; something which is only going to get easier over the years as fewer of his prophecies come true. I’ve had more important things to write about,** but I’m getting round to it. Once I have, I’m tempted to go on to Peter Le Mesurier, who, in the mid-90s, predicted, using Nostradamus and astrology,** that an Islamic army would have invaded Europe from North Africa by now.*** He’s still writing books, and his website is actually pretty useful, despite not acknowledging his past predictive failure. But, on the other hand, there is a whole world of future-predictors to debunk out there. All I can ever do is scratch the surface.

* Reading has his own dating scheme which links the year to the number of the prophecy; according to that, the prophecy applies to a year ending in 06, although he goes on to link it, because of his interpretation, to the vaguer period “2006-2008″.

** which does make sense in a way, as Nostradamus was basically an astrologer himself. Le Mesurier sets the dates of his predictions by looking at repeating astrological cycles.

*** This is why, as I wrote a while back, the work of people like Reading and Le Mesurier really needs a Ron Howard voiceover, to say things like “It hasn’t”.

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Road trips

In which we discuss similarities between books and blogging

Last week, in the last Book I Haven’t Read post, I mentioned By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal, and predicted that – in contrast to the book I was actually writing about – I’d have BHOBC rattled through and quickly finished off.

Well, indeed, I have: it’s read, finished, and back on the bookshelf now. Prediction correct. And, as I said before, I think it was easy to read precisely because it mirrors the way I think. To recap: it’s written as a road trip, during which the writer muses on anything, really, that he finds of interest as he passes. A nearby manor house reminds him of a railway engine named after it, which prompts him to muse on railway engine names in general. The journey from Anglesey to the mainland prompts him to recount the history of the Menai bridges,* and a trip to Hay-on-Wye leads to the history of inn signs, coats-of-arms, and many other things besides.

It’s a book of associations, and a celebration of associative thought. I’m sure that it didn’t actually take place as a single trip, and that when Crystal sat down to write the book he didn’t just muse on whatever came to mind; it’s too carefully structured and crafted for that. But it does read as if that’s what he’s doing. It made me think, moreover, of the way I write this blog, which isn’t at all carefully structured and crafted. But, as I move through the world, I see things which spark my brain alight and give me something to think about; and this blog is the result. It’s full of rambling and digression, but, rambling and digression with a common thread behind it, the thread being the things I encounter.**

I was thinking about this as I got towards the end of BHOBC. So, I was quite amused when I reached Crystal’s thoughts on blogging.

[Blogging] is writing which is totally spontaneous, put up on a screen without the intervention of an editor or proof-reader, so it is much more like ‘speaking in print’ than anything before. And it shows many of the properties of spoken language, such as loosely constructed sentences and unexpected changes of direction. Bit like this book, really…

David Crystal has a blog.*** He started writing it at the end of 2006; he said, as a sort of FAQ page. Given that BHOBC was published in ’07, though, I’d assume that he started blogging either a few months after the book had been written or when it was in the final stages of completion. I’m wondering if writing that book was one of the other things, though, that prompted him to start writing a blog. Because, really, they’re often exercises in a similar sort of vein. Spotting something that interests you, and telling other people about it.

* from building up to burning down, you could say

** Which is all a bit of a longwinded and pretentious way of saying: I write about whatever’s on my mind.

*** Which I linked to above, so you may well already realise this.

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Books I Haven’t Read (I’ve lost count which part)

In which we compare two David Crystal books with the inside of FP’s head

Yesterday’s post, about how we can’t stop ourselves buying books, segues quite nicely into today’s. We didn’t just buy books on Saturday; we bought more on Sunday, from the weekend bookstall outside the Watershed that I remember mentioning not that long ago. I picked up a copy of By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal; and then, thought to myself, should I really be buying a David Crystal book when I already have a book of his on the shelves that I haven’t yet read? I didn’t pause for long, because “you’ve already got one by him” is hardly a very good reason for not buying a book, but it’s true that the one Crystal book already on our shelves is one that I’ve never been able to get very far with. It is: The Stories Of English.

I find the language fascinating: both in use and in history. It’s such a playful thing, can be twisted and swerved, can be squeezed and stretched, and can be bent into truly awful puns. I love playing with it, I love its richness and I love its history, its constantly fluctuating and mercurial history. And so, I thought – rightly – that The Stories Of English would be an extremely interesting book. Crystal, moreover, is a very engaging and lighthearted writer. He’s very easy to read, very interesting, and clearly knows what he’s writing about very thoroughly.

So why, then, is it that I’ve never managed to get past the Middle English chapters? I’ve tried to read it several times, I’ve always enjoyed the sections I have read immensely, but I’ve never been able to get through Middle English. Every time, my enthusiam’s petered out somewhere in the fourteenth century, I’ve not come back to the book, and its later chapters have remained untouched. And so – given the number of times I’ve made an effort to read it – it definitely counts as a Book I Haven’t Read, even though it’s actually very good.

There’s one thing, only one thing, I can put my finger on. It’s quite a non-linear book. There are excurses and diversions. There are lots of box-outs. This is understandable. All histories can be highly non-linear, and The Stories Of English is deliberately written in a non-linear way, to take account of the parallel histories of different dialects of the language. I’m used to reading non-linear texts, or in a non-linear manner when I’m online,* or when I’m researching something: flipping between tabs in my web browser, or shuffling through several open books on my desk, comparing pages and stopping to take notes.** But when I sit down to read a book for pleasure, I’m not used to doing that. I expect my books to have a beginning, middle and end; a linear structure if not a linear narrative; flipping back and forth, both physically and mentally, needs more concentration. Crystal’s straightforward writing style, in this context, is deceptively easy to read. Especially when you reach the Middle English period, and the stories of English really start to get complex,*** it needs a lot more mental effort to keep track of things than you might think you’d need when you open the book.

By Hook Or By Crook, by contrast, is structured in a linear way, but one that’s orthagonal to its linguistics. It’s a road-trip book, essentially, with Crystal musing on anything of linguistic interest – or of any interest to him at all – which he comes across on the way. And it’s ideal for me to read, particularly because that’s the way my own brain works.**** I’m racing through it, and I’ll probably have read it by the weekend; and I’ll probably read it again and again over the years. Its mode of writing complements my own favourite mode of reading, and my own favourite mode of thinking.***** The Stories Of English, by comparison, is something I have to concentrate on to get my head around. That, I suspect, is why it’s a Book I Haven’t Read. Yet.

* Wikipedia particularly

** only the other week I could be found in the city reference library comparing between several books on railway history and taking notes on the development of Great Western Railway wagon handbrakes, for example.

*** which is not so much due to a lack of complexity in Old English as due to a lack of texts in Old English – complex diversity requires a certain amount of evidence in order for the diversity to be visible.

**** I am, like him, the sort of person who would do an emergency stop and jump out of my car to photograph a mis-spelled sign at a level crossing.

***** It must also help that I know some of the places he writes about. When I first opened it, at random, for example, I saw: a photo of the toll house at Boston Lodge, apparently taken from either the works or a passing train.

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