Simplify, then exaggerate.


I was struck by this quote from the editor of the Economist in the 1950’s (Geoffrey Crowther) who held by his personal maxim to “simplify, then exaggerate”.

Now, many of my readers will agree that I have rarely had any difficulty in living up to the second part of Crowther’s instruction and I do my best to live up to the primary challenge so it struck me as a perfect rule by which to live one’s writing life by.

Indeed, much of my professional writing has involved editing of complex proposals and tender documents to a variety of commercial and public sector organisations and I’d like to think that what I bring to the party in this respect is Crowther’s approach.

It’s one I didn’t realise, until today, that I believed in wholeheartedly.

But I do now.


Why can’t people write any more?


I must confess I am becoming increasingly irritated by the poor quality of the written word these days.  Now, I’m not setting myself up as some modern day Leo Tolstoy but Bart Simpson’s lines at the start of the programme each week are better constructed than almost anything I see emanating from the pen of most people under 30 years old.  Put it this way, it’s as if English teachers have thrown in the towel.  Good syntax is as prevalent as an effective pass at Easter Road.

William Burroughs would be having a field day.  His cut up technique (also known as non-linear narrative – how appropriate) now looks like one of  the most visionary movements in world history.  Only he didn’t know it.  And if you are unfamiliar with his challenging (and frankly pish) work.  Here’s a wee Wiki definition…

Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text (printed on paper) and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text. The rearranging of work often results in surprisingly innovative new phrases. A common way is to cut a sheet in four rectangular sections, rearranging them and then typing down the mingled prose while compensating for the haphazard word breaks by improvising and innovating along the way.

I’d have thought blogging might have brought youngsters back into the literary fold, the thought of publishing their prose publicly maybe incentivising a bit of attention to detail.  And maybe it does but then, we’re not all bloggers.

I despair.  I really do.  In my short sentence, short paras and starting sentences with conjunctions ways.

A long way down by Nick Hornby


I missed the ‘release’ of this, mainly because I thought Hornby’s early promise had run out of steam.  ( I loved Fever Pitch and liked Hi Fidelity.)  He seemed to be becoming a bit ‘four weddings and a funeral’ for my liking and the snob in me saw him selling out.

His “about a boy’ book was kind of pish really.

But I picked this up in a charity shop and it sat in the pile for a while before I decided to read it.

It’s overrated, I have to say that to start with.  It will win no literary prizes , but the critics seem to hold Hornby in some sort of thrall.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that actually if you ignore the startlingly unbelievable critical tosh it’s rather good on a simple storytelling level.

It has no great insights on life (or death) but it is a good read and Hornby creates four distinct characters; two of which work very well (the comedic ones ) Jess and Martin; one who nearly gets there but is underdeveloped (Maureen); and one that’s just a bit crap (JJ).

And yet, still, it works.  I liked it on the whole.  Quite a lot actually.

Maybe I liked it because it’s just a good story with an unpredictable ending, well told, and actually a very good mix of humour and pathos.

Oh, it’s  about four people and their take on suicide, and how they collectively fight it, in case you didn’t know.

Engleby by Sebastian faulks

I can’t review this book without *SPOILERS* so if you don’t want to know too much about it look away now.

I think he might be a) dodgy or b) misunderstood.

I think he might be a) dodgy or b) misunderstood.

So, oh you’re still with me? Good.

I just finished this intriguing book. And quite a few people I know have read it before me so I’ve been able to gauge reaction. It is a classic game of two halves. The first half is a slightly surreal coming of age story building up the detailed circumstances that explain the second half. It’s hilarious in parts, light, page turning and quite frothy. The prevailing mood is sarcastic and details how Michael Engleby (or is it Mike, or Mike(!) or Michelle or Michael Watson or Toilet?) struggles through childhood, a crummy public school and Cambridge (for some reason unnamed until the end). Clearly he is a social misfit. Hardly surprising given the rough treatment he received from his tough dad and his uber cruel schoolmates.

At Cambridge he adopts the role of a loner, petty thief, alcoholic and junkie, quietly stalking the most popular girl in the college, Jennifer Arkland.

The book dramatically turns soon after Jennifer suddenly disappears. It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that Engleby has killed her. And, indeed, the remainder of the book gradually unravels the truth behind the events leading up to her inevitable death, the very drawn out police hunt and Engleby’s final arrest and subsequent 17 year term in a mental hospital overlooking his old school.

What makes this book so intriguing is the way that Faulks uses it as an exercise in deconstruction. This makes it quite an extreme writerly experience.

Ostensibly, Faulks tears the first half of the book apart, paragraph by paragraph to reveal what it was that turned Engleby into, as it turns out, a serial killer.

But it’s cleverer than that. He uses the deconstruction technique not only as a key plot device but also as a way to play with the notion of time, memory and, dare I say it, existentialism.

Latterly the book is no page-turner, but I found it incredibly clever. It’s open to criticism as a piece of cod philosophy and self-indulgence of course. But I’m not a philosopher so I don’t know how grown up his observations are.

At times I was inclined to think he was showing off a bit (as some say Ian McEwan did in ‘On Chesil Beach‘) but I’m not so sure.

The final page is a brilliant twist. Or is it? Nah, it isn’t. It’s just another wee bit of writerly trickery and closed the book with a resounding smirk.

Good stuff Seb.

Juno – oh yes!



I’ve just seen back to back breathtakingly good movies (No country for old men and this) and I’ve got “There will be blood” to come.  This is a vintage movie year, make no mistake. There will be no embarrasement like “Crash” in 2008’s Oscars (The Scottish remake is “Pish”)

It was really interesting that every award at the BAFTAs last week seemed justified and yet Atonement’s first award of the night was “Best Film”.

Made sense to me.

They say it’s all in the writing; and of course it is.  Of course it is – because that’s where the ideas lie.

Juno is quite extraordinarily written by this year’s original screenplay Oscar winner (if not I will eat my hat) Diablo Cody – great name by the way: well written.


The script apparently has a bit of an autobiographical streak to it but who cares really because this script hums, zings, kerpows, shocks, amazes.

It is the best written movie I can remember.   I don’t buy that old school Casablanca was genius approach – because I think the writing was wooden – hence the acting.

The Coen’s movie from last week (which is brilliantly directed and acted) is largely lifted from McCarthy’s novel, so that maybe doesn’t compete as a “script”.

Juno, the film and the character, is ascerbic in the extreme, but that is where the film’s second great quality kicks in – Ellen Page.

In the hands of a lesser actress this would have turned into a vitriolic, acidic, bitchlike performance.  Instead it is funny, charming and endearing.  She too has a chance of an Oscar (I’ve not seen Julie Christie, so can’t comment, and as much as I loved Keira Knightley’s Atonement performance I do believe this is superior.)

This film is much funnier than I expected and when I say funny I don’t just mean “funny”, I mean “Dad, shut up you’re the loudest person in the cinema.” funny. (Said Tom.)  In a completely different way it is as funny as Borat.

And that’s funny.

I laughed out loud 20 times.  That makes good value for money in my book.

But it is also poignant, beautiful, well observed and has the kick-assest soundtrack you could ever conjure up from the fey fraternity, led by the likes of Belle and Sebastian who feature twice.  I will (sadly) buy the soundtrack (as will Kenneth Fowler).

Sorry to be so unoriginal but it really is another 9 out of 10 movie.

It really is.