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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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Subtlety

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:

Tithe
Stiff
Bonk
Bitch
Lust
Prime
Fludd
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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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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The reading pile

In which we start reading something


Never mind about all the Books I Haven’t Read that I’ve been posting about here; since Christmas I’ve turned over a new leaf and started to cut the to-read pile down a bit. The way I’ve found time: spending half of my lunch hour every day with a book. Currently I’m in the middle of At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, who…

The Plain People Of The Internet: Huzzah!

Oh, god, I should have known you lot would turn up if I mentioned O’Brien.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Why, it’s kind of expected.

Anyway, At Swim-Two-Birds is one of those books that I probably should have mentioned in Books I Haven’t Read, because it’s a classic of Irish literature. Flann O’Brien is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to write about here, but haven’t. His first novel is about a student writing a book, about a man writing a book, whose characters escape from his control.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Like this, you mean?

Well, sort of. But ruder.

Hopefully, I’m going to manage to finish it this time; and then get on with the rest of the to-read pile. There’s plenty to go at, after all.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part eight)

In which we fail to read “House Of Leaves” by Mark Z Danielewski


Books I Haven’t Read has come round once again. I considered leaving it for a while, after the last Book I Haven’t Read – the Author I Hadn’t Read managed to find it, and left a comment calling me “pathetic”. Ah, well, if you’re going to ego-surf, you have to be prepared for what you might find.

No risk of that happening with this post, though, because there’s already so much on the internet about this installment’s author, he’s unlikely to get around to discovering this place. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is one that I’ve already warned you* would be coming. It’s House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski.

When I mentioned I’d be writing about House Of Leaves, I invited people who had read it to own up and tell me how they managed it. Nobody did. Whether that means noone has managed it, or, more likely, not very many people read this site, I’m not sure. No responses, though. I’m not the sort of person to get rid of books,** but a few years ago when I was very short of cash I did try taking some down to a local second-hand bookseller to see what I could get. House Of Leaves was turned away, unsellable. I ended up using it as a doorstop.

It has some good ideas in it, but in the end it’s just too hard a read. There are too many things packed in, too many different layers. It has to be unpacked like an onion; like an onion there seems to be nothing solid in the centre, but it has no flavour to make the unpacking worthwhile. Take the endless academic footnotes, for example. Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman famously includes a parody of academic footnotes, long ones, telling a whole story in themselves. It’s done with a light, delicate, comedic touch, though. Danielewski’s parody of academic footnotes, with notes going on for page after page after page, is dull and heavy-handed.***

If you have managed to read House Of Leaves – all of it, without skipping bits – then I’d still like it if you let me know. I’d like to know if it’s worthwhile getting to the bottom of it all, if there is anything lurking to find in the middle. I strongly suspect there isn’t, though. I strongly suspect that was supposed to be the point.

* if you’re a regular reader

** Heresy! Heresy!

*** although the list of buildings in footnote 146 – which is spread out over eight complex and densely-typeset pages – does include one building that I used to live next-door to. Mind you, the list is so long, every reader of the book has probably lived within 100 yards of one of the listed buildings at some point.

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Miscellany

In which various things happen, and FP listens to Thought For The Day


First Christmas present bought already, but I’m still going to have to devote the weekend to running around the county hoping desperately to find something inspirational. I’m not saying what I’ve already bought. It’s for my dad, and I don’t think he reads this place, but you never know.

When I get up in the morning, I have Radio 4 on in the background. I like Radio 4, but I normally try very hard to avoid listening to Thought For The Day, in case of the very real risk that it will make me want to throw the radio through the kitchen window.* Today though, I caught a quick flash of it. I can’t remember the exact phrase I heard, but it was something along the lines of “lots of Christians use phrases like ‘God willing’ and ‘if God wishes it’ all the time”. Which left me rather puzzled, because even though I’ve known a large number of devout Christians over the years, none of them have ever said any such thing in normal conversation. Maybe one of the good aspects of Thought For The Day is that it makes you realise there are people out there whose view of the world is so partial and skewed, that they really do believe they are standard conversational phrases, just because that’s what all their friends say.

I was talking to someone last night about the next Book I Haven’t Read that I’m going to write about: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. “Oh, I don’t think anyone’s read that all the way through,” she said. “I don’t think you can.” So maybe I should invite additional contributions to the next Book I Haven’t Read post – if you have read House Of Leaves all the way through without cheating, let me know.

Big Dave says he’s found a flat now. A “one-bed studio flat”, or what people Up North** still call a bedsit. At least this means he has the weekend to do his Christmas shopping in, rather than worrying about property-hunting trips down to Barking and Beckton.

* especially if Anne Atkins is the writer/presenter.

** apart from if you’re a property developer, of course. Or you live in Leeds, probably.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part seven)

In which we fail to read “Victorian Railway Days” by Francis Bennion


I haven’t read Ian McEwan‘s novel Atonement. It is fetching a lot of publicity at the moment, because McEwan has been accused of copying phrases from the biography of wartime nurse and romantic novelist Lucilla Andrews. He, of course, says the claims are ridiculous, and that all he did was normal research. Other people have said the same thing, noting that he has acknowledged his large debt to Andrews.

I haven’t read Atonement; nor have I read No Time For Romance, the book he is accused of cribbing from. This post, though, is about neither of them. It’s about another book they reminded me of, a book that I read some time ago, but was unable to finish, because I felt the author had gone rather closer to his source material than he should have. It’s not a book you’re likely to have heard of, either. It’s by a top lawyer and Oxford don* called Francis Bennion, and it’s called Victorian Railway Days.

It’s an episodic novel about the social changes wrought by the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, owing quite a bit in its style to Charles Dickens’ Mugby Junction stories. I found it in my local public library when I was a teenager, and took it out. I didn’t get very far into it, though, before I found a passage that I recognised, about the importance of the railway station to rural village life. It’s quite long, and I’m not going to quote it. But I am going to quote something very very similar.

The Jones’s who don’t associate with the Robinsons, meet there. Mr Jones would not like the stationmaster to touch his cap to the Robinsons, and pass him without notice, so he sends the stationmaster a hare. The Rev Mr Silvertongue is always wanting to take a party somewhere at single fare for the double journey, or some other concession, so he honours the stationmaster by conversing with him, as an equivalent for concessions. The old lady with her dog would not, on any account, have the little dear put into that dreadful dungeon of a dog box when she travels, so she sends the stationmaster a basket of plums once in the year […] ‘My lord’ knows he has no right to bully at the railway station, so he brings a brace of pheasants, and thus adds Mr Station Master to the train of his servants.

That quote is from an obscure Victorian autobiography called Memoirs of a Station Master, by Ernest Simmons. Obscure, yes, but republished in the 1970s by Leicester University Press courtesy of the historian Jack Simmons.*** It’s the sort of thing that would be vital research material for anyone writing a book set at a Victorian railway station. Moreover, the same passage was also quoted in a well-known book about railway history, The Country Railway by David St John Thomas;**** and that book is definitely one I’d expect Bennion to have read when researching his own.

So, when I came across an extremely similar passage in his novel, I was rather disappointed in it. It was extremely similar indeed. I can’t remember, now, if it was indeed a word-for-word copy, but the basic structure was very clear, and it closed in a very similar way indeed. I wish I’d been able to find a copy of Victorian Railway Days to write this post, so I could put them side-by-side for a comparison.***** I was so disappointed to read something which seemed to my teenage eyes to be such a blatant lift, that I stopped reading immediately, and put the book aside. I’m not going to accuse Professor Bennion of the P-word. For all I know, his echoing of Simmons’ words may have been entirely unconscious. It was enough, though, to make me stop reading. Victorian Railway Days remains another book I haven’t read.

*with a long list of personal achievements – drafted the constitution of Pakistan, formerly ran the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, drafted the Sex Discrimination Act, managed to put Peter Hain on trial for his anti-apartheid protests, and get him convicted, and chaired Oxford United FC, among other things.

** because I don’t actually have a copy of it to hand

*** no relation, as far as I know.

**** originally published in 1976 by St John Thomas’s own publishing company, David & Charles, although the copy I have is a Penguin paperback edition from 1979.

***** I suppose I could always buy one from Bennion’s website and revisit this post another day.

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