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henry cordier

It’s happened to me before, this thing with computers and writing. The manuscript I’ve been working on, maybe for years, gets lost, the file corrupted, the computer hard drive eats its self, the pen-drive fails to connect in the slot at the critical moment, or I yank it out too soon, there’s a power cut,…

It happened with The Singing Loch, The Road from Langholm Avenue, The Last Guests of La Maison Du Lac, and now The Sea View Cafe. Okay, I was able to recover stuff from earlier back-ups, rewrite the gaps from scratch and generally piece things back together one way or the other, but it’s still a blow when it happens. We think to ourselves: all that work? GONE. It’s a very existential moment.

Computers have many advantages, but the most important of them is simply the ability to backspace and delete. Storage is another plus, so I’m not suggesting they’re a bane – they’re not.  I’ve got everything I’ve ever written on a Micro SD card. A novel as a paper manuscript is about a kilogram and a lot of shelf of space. As a computer file, it’s about a megabyte of RTF, which is basically a flyspec. I don’t need a library or a study to keep my tomes or my reference works, which is just as well because my house isn’t big enough.

Some might say it’s a disadvantage, that I might now lose my entire life’s work down a gap in the floorboards, but my house could get burned down, or flooded, and all that paper destroyed anyway. Nowadays, wherever I am, it’s there, and it’s backed up in so many places I’d have to be very unfortunate to lose them all. Computers are a boon to the writer, but like anything else we need to understand the weaknesses of the system, adapt our approach accordingly and never forget it’s the word that’s king, not the tech.

DH Lawrence famously left his final draft of “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in the Cafe at Reading Station, never to be seen again. The version that survives is one he cobbled together afterwards from earlier drafts. Jilly Cooper left her only copy of the manuscript of “Riders” on a London bus. It was never found. She rewrote it from scratch, but it took her nearly fifteen years. Robert Ludlum’s first novel “A Literary Effort” was lost “somewhere” in San Francisco during a heavy drinking session. That was never found either, and he didn’t re-write it. Dylan Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood three times, the last one being eventually found in a Pub. The manuscript of Carlyle’s “French Revolution” was mistaken for waste paper and burnt,…

It happens. We get over it, we move on.

My advice is never to save your working copy to a computer hard drive, ever, to use removable media instead, say a pen drive or a memory card, make regular backups, guard your primary source with your life, and have it backed up all over the place – say on other pen drives, on your computer, or in the cloud. But regarding the cloud, remember we should never rely on anything someone else has the potential to switch off or screw up. For my works-in-progress, Dropbox provides occasional peace of mind, but that’s all, and of course anything of a potentially embarrassing or explosive nature should never go into the cloud at all – your personal journal say, or your juvenile ventures in writing pornography, even if, or even especially if, it’s encrypted.

It’s not a foolproof system, and no matter how paranoid you are, you’re bound to lose something sooner or later. The first time it happens it’s like the end of the world. You’ve worked for years on this manuscript, and it’s the best of you, and it was going to change the world, have people fall down and worship at your feet, and suddenly it’s GONE, or it’s shredded into fragments interspersed with vast blocks of ASCII. But what you learn from the depth of your despair, and the time it takes you to get over it is perhaps more important than if the novel had been finished and published to resounding applause.

I mean, it’s not like you lost a loved one, is it? It’s not like your soul-mate took off with your best friend, or your house got flattened by a hurricane. These are also challenges in life, and the things they teach us about life and about ourselves are arguably more important. The most we can learn from the loss of a manuscript is to laugh at our literary pretensions. We see our ego, and if we’re lucky we see also how naked and stupid he looks.

My last backup of the Sea View Cafe was in June (I know, shameful!). Fortunately, since I’m struggling to make headway with it at the moment, this amounts to just four chapters, or about ten thousand words. And since I was struggling with it, I’m looking upon it as an opportunity to find a new direction rather than trying to rewrite the chapters from memory. Call it fatalism if you like, or a drastic editorial intervention by the muse, but maybe those lost scenes just weren’t meant to be, and who cares anyway?

Philosophically speaking, writing for the online world, the fact a thing is written in the first place is the most important thing for the writer, no matter if it’s then instantly deleted, and no one else sees it because it’s already served it purpose, to you , the person who wrote it. And if you can’t remember what it was you said, sufficient to rewrite it, or you can’t be bothered, how can it have been that important someone else gets to read it anyway?

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booksI’ve heard this question asked a lot over the years,  and several times just this week by professional writers plugging their upcoming novels in the national media. It’s about attention span, they say, the average reader no longer able to focus on anything for more than five minutes. We’re addicted instead to the click and swipe of instant gratification, shunning the immersive print experience in favour of the video game and the TV box-set. It makes us all sound quite dumb, actually, doesn’t it, with only the writers managing to retain their literary virtue.

It’s true, I do spend a lot of time clicking and swiping on my ‘phone – get all my news from there these days, also endless snippets of trivia that informs my world view. I’ve also spent a long time playing video games and bingeing on box-sets – nordic noir being a particular weakness. But I’m not reading fewer novels. In fact I think I’m reading more these days. The internet broadens our awareness of what books exist, tells us of the lives of writers, and the critical appeal of certain works, so when I encounter books in the wild, so to speak, I am more likely to buy them. But what I’m not doing is buying them new. I buy older fiction, and I wait for new fiction to become old before I take the plunge. In short, I have forsaken the bookshop for the charity shop where books are abundant and ever so cheap.

Assuming I’m a typical buyer, then, I suggest the main reason for the novel’s decline is simply how much it costs to buy a new one. Measured as a monetised commodity, and judged on sales, your new best-seller may well be in decline, but it’s wrong to assume this suggests reading is in decline as well. And then there’s always this class thing at work in writerly circles, where the aristocratic top one percent earn most of the money – the so called A-listers – while the rest can’t earn a living at it any more. The vast bulk of published material is no longer lucrative enough for your average artist to justify toiling at it. Fewer books are being written for money because, simply put: there’s no money in it now. So it is writers themselves who are losing their faith in the novel, and blaming its decline on the readers and a shrinking market that’s not our fault.

The last time I looked even a moderately successful also-ran author was earning less than minimum wage, so there would be no point giving up the day job. As for your amateur sending stuff in on spec, the financial rewards for beating the stupendous odds and gaining acceptance for your book are looking pretty shoddy now, not much better than giving it away online. Which brings us neatly to self publishing.

Nowadays anyone who has a story in them, and that’s most of us, can self-publish and be damned, and a lot of us are still doing it, damned or not. Yes, we’re a shambolic and eclectic bunch, us self publishers, careless of genre and spelling, and yes, we could probably do with the cut and trim of a professional editor behind us, but the novel, the short story, the novella, even the poem, as a means of artistic expression seems, from my perspective, a long way from dying out. It’s just that most of us doing it now aren’t even recognised as writers at all, and especially by those who think they still are.

It’s professionals then who are fleeing the field, leaving amateurs like me to man the barricades.

The novel is not dying, it’s just changing tack.

Be not afraid, oh you lucky people!

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man writing

Eve of September at half past ten,
Dark at the window,
I see my face
Reflected in isolation again.
Withheld from grace and the subtle path,
Eluding with ease my inadequate craft.

 

 

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requiemSo, I drove into town this afternoon. I had no plan, just wanted a change of scene. I was feeling reflective, a little down, in need of space. I purchased a charging cable for my iPad (original) £4.99 from B+M Bargains. The last one I bought, years ago, cost me twenty quid. Then it was the charity shops, St Catherine’s – easily the best book shop in town, where I picked up Dylan Thomas’ Miscellany One for a pound, ditto Proulx’s Postcards. Then I checked out Age Concern, picked up “The Visible World” by Mark Slouka, and “The Statement” by Brian Moore. It was three for a pound, but I couldn’t find a third, so we’ll say fifty pence each. All told four books for three quid, and a charging cable for a fiver. No one can accuse me of being high maintenance. None of this is relevant.

Actually, my mind has been elsewhere since Friday morning when I learned of the death of an early mentor, a great man the world has never heard of. I knew him best for a year, commencing Winter ’81, through to the Summer of ’82. It’s hard to describe the depth of the connection, nor the awakening into my personal adulthood it presaged. I was twenty one, he was ten years older, an engineer of the first rank, yet a man who’d left school at fourteen unable to read or write. His is the stuff of legend, and inspiration.

When I met him he was a C Eng and member of the venerable Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Astute, courageous, married with a young family, he was everything I aspired to be. We were solving problems in fluid dynamics, trying to equate the physical results we were seeing with theoretical concepts. I was a dullard with maths, until I met him. He joined the dots for me, woke me up to my career. Sadly though I reflect that nowadays someone leaving school at fourteen, illiterate, has no means of bettering themselves – the ladder has been kicked away. He would be considered unemployable now.

But academia aside, he was also a deeply sympathetic man, fatherly, the sort of man who managed to make an insecure twenty one year old lad he’d never met before feel he was worth something, set him down on a path I’ve been following pretty much since those early days. I became a C. Eng myself at twenty six. I would not have bothered had it not been for him. His was the mark I set for myself.

He studied philosophy and psychology later on, and though I’d lost touch with him by then, I think there was still a subliminal connection. This was in the late nineties, around the time I discovered Jung, and the worthlessness of that C. Eng. Even though I was no longer working with him, he was still an influence in many unexpected ways, and I often thought of him.

He retired early, first decade of the millennium, a bit of a square peg in a round hole by then, having grown to the point of seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes, and calling it out for what it was. None contested his going – the truth is often uncomfortable to those who cannot see it. He fell ill with MS shortly thereafter, and suffered a long, debilitating decline, ending with complete immobility and cancer of the lung. I’m told he maintained an unassailable optimism and enthusiasm for life throughout, and is on record as saying how little one actually needs in life to be profoundly happy.

What shook me was the news that in later years he had become a prolific poet. I wish I had made more of an effort, beyond simply asking after his health and passing on my regards through others. I’m sure there was much we could have shared.

He gained precious little time from his retirement. Few remembered him from the old place, just the lifers like me. When I heard the news, I took myself into a side room where I could be quiet for a while, and there I wept. It was for more than his passing, which I felt keenly enough, but also for a sense of lost opportunity. I have often thought about him, gratitude for his kindness, and his presence during that formative period of my life.

I’m not sure what will happen to his poems – if they will ever see the light of day or not. He never owned a computer, never discovered the internet, his intellect unsullied by it, and none the worse. As a man  I loved him, that much is plain. He was the coolest guy on earth, but I remember him with his bushy moustache, his long hair and his sport’s coat, not as he was at sixty six, and looking ninety, his body knackered, distorted into indignity with MS, only the smile recognisable as belonging to the soul I knew and connected with all those years ago.

God rest you man. Those were the days, indeed. The decades since have felt like I’ve been biding my time for something else, but news of your passing reminds me there is nothing else to come, that this is it.

Flipping through the books I bought, though it’s it’s way past midnight and I should be abed, I realise don’t know Dylan Thomas very well. His opening to a Miscellany is a kind of stream of consciousness, reminiscent of Joyce. But I like the Celtic voice and I’ll hear him out, though no doubt with minimal understanding. The years slip by so easily now, so quickly and each one seeming the same and bringing nothing new, it’s incredible the years ’81 and ’82 could have contained so much its remained with me and proved to be of such intensity it was wept out in a private moment some thirty five years later.

I drove home from town with the top up on the Mazda. I did not care to drop it, though the afternoon was fine and warm. I’m wondering about my last blog piece, describing my novel’s drift into polyamory. I read a poem my mentor wrote, and it shames me with its effortless prowess. I’m sure he would have put me straight, like he did with those equations years ago, set me on a surer path.

I need to get my head together much better than this.

Thanks for listening.

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trio - giorgioni - 1510So, boy meets girl, boy meets another girl. The other girl meets the first girl and while he’s still thinking about what each of them means to him, the girls fall in love with each other, while both still being attracted to the boy. Thus, the boy doesn’t necessarily lose them both by his dithering, because the girls have a plan. He can enter into a polyamorous relationship with them, if he wants. So, will he or won’t he? Or, more to the point: should he or shouldn’t he?

It’s an unusual scenario, some might go so far as to say unlikely in real life, and I’d be one of them, except it does happen. What’s interesting about it is it reveals love as a more richly nuanced thing than is suggested by the traditional mythology of the one true love, and the eternal soul-mate thing. Somehow the jealousy and the exclusivity inherent in the one-on-one relationship is dissolved by love itself. Egos are transcended, rendering the presence of an intimate additional “other” not only psychologically acceptable, but essential in creating a uniquely robust and profoundly rewarding, life-enhancing relationship. Or so the theory goes.

My problem in trying to write about it is it’s never happened to me, nor would I particularly relish the prospect – not out of disapproval, but more that I would probably, in all honesty, find it impossibly confusing. That said, it’s a motif that’s popped up a couple of times in my stories so I’m obviously intrigued by it.

I don’t mean the sexual mechanics. There’s plenty to satisfy one’s curiosity in those terms elsewhere online. No, it’s not so much what happens in the bedroom that’s interesting as what exchanges take place over the tea table, say after a twelve hour working day when everyone’s tired and stressed and the washing up still needs doing and the bins need taking out. How would it mesh emotionally? Could it really produce something positive and stable into old age, or would it disintegrate into acrimony even faster than a conventional relationship? Or might it be an advantage, a third pair of hands, especially now in a society when two partners busting their guts on minimum wage are still struggling to make ends meet? Could it be that what we need now in order to beat a system that’s increasingly stacked against us, is a bigger matrimonial team?

I suppose like any relationship, it comes down to the individuals and the chemistry between them.

When I write, I let my characters develop without actively plotting. Loosely translated, this means I make it up as I go along, and this occasionally lands me in an emotional paradox or a plot maze from which there’s no plausible escape – and this may be one of them. A poly-amorous threeway is a hard sell in polite society, because there’s always going to be a suspicion one of the three is being taken for a mug, while another is having everyone’s cake and eating it.

I’ve only followed through once, in the Lavender and the Rose, but that was an odd story of blurred time-lines, ciphers, dreams and ambiguous identities, where the past informed the present, and vice versa and characters crossed from one historical period to the other, being both real and unreal at the same time. With all that going on, a bit of polyamory was the least challenging thing I was asking the reader to swallow.

But I’ve run into it again in the Sea View Cafe, the current work in progress, a single time-line, contemporary romance, in post BREXIT Britain – no room to hide in the fuzzy sanctuary of fantasy. Both women and the guy are looking to protect each other amid a creeping zeitgeist of bigotry, lawlessness, inhumanity and near societal collapse – yes I’m a bit of a Remoaner. The polyamory thing came up unexpectedly, an unlikely solution to the old “obstacles to love” chestnut, but there you go.

Which girl does he choose? Well, stuff that, say the girls, we choose each other but he can join in with us if he wants because actually we still quite fancy him. Yes, I’m expecting the reader to accept that as plausible, but we’re not really there yet. Having the women in charge removes the danger of accusations of misogynistic abuse, but what it doesn’t avoid is the danger of puerile male sexual fantasy. And I don’t think that’s what this is about. So what is it about?

Well, polyamory is not like swinging. In the swinging relationship, couples exchange partners for casual sex, and the relationships thus formed are not intended to be long lasting. Polyamory is different, it operates at a deeper emotional level. Operating as a closed, long-term relationship, all the needs of the individuals – emotional and sexual, are met within the group, which forms a safe, exclusive zone of love and trust and loyalty. But perhaps the defining characteristic, as with a conventional relationship, is that the loss of one partner, be it to death or infidelity, would be devastating to the whole – or at least that’s the way it’s turning out in the Sea View Cafe.

For now I’m hung on up on the plausibility of it and it’s slowing me down, but as one of the protagonists, Helena, keeps challenging me: what is plausible about the times we live in, Michael? Who could have dreamed up the headlines we are assailed with on a daily basis now, even so little as five years ago. And if we are to survive this tumultuous era is it not essential we become much more open and flexible in our thinking?

Until a decade ago it seemed we were making great strides in creating a more open and inclusive society. If our response now to the economic decline and political disruption of the west is no more sophisticated than a reversion to social conservatism, we have much darker days to come. But a loss of wealth and global significance need not result also in a decline in emotional intelligence and a narrowing of minds, though sadly those headlines suggest the contrary. Only an ever greater openness and a willingness to cooperate will overcome the evils oppressing us, but we’ll also have to ditch our mobile phones, through which small voices and small minds these days are amplified far beyond what is reasonable, manufacturing consent even among intelligent people for much worse things than bending the rules on what love is supposed to be, exactly, and how best to act on it.

As a dream symbol, polyamory can perhaps best be read as a need for us to transcend convention. While of course I do not advocate it, literally, as a solution to society’s ills, what I am coming around to thinking at last as I finish my meanderings through this ponderous blog: dammit, Helena, you’re right. If it moves things in a positive direction,…

Let’s just go for it!

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the master

Things move on. Gone are the days of Feedbooks when any old noob indy could self publish on there for free and have a hundred downloads by morning. Feedbooks is still going but for the self publishing indy it died ages ago. Stats suggest very few readers find their way to my stuff any more so I do’t bother with it – might as well stuff it in a drawer for all the good it will do.  But all is not lost: there’s always Free Ebooks.

This is another of those sites you can load your fiction onto. The model is a simple one – thousands of writers provide free content around which the site owners serve advertising and marketing packages which pay for site’s upkeep. Like Smashwords they want your manuscripts in MS word format, but don’t seem as fussy over the formatting – or it may be that I’m submitting stuff that’s already passed the Smashword’s meat-grinder test.

Downloads are encouraging – quite a spike early on, levelling off to a few clicks per day thereafter. I suspect it’ll be like Smashwords in the longer term, eventually flat-lining at a thousand clicks or so with only the occasional flutter thereafter. Yes, they want you to sign up for their marketing packages and all that, but I’m not going to advise you to ignore them because you know it’s a cardinal rule writers never pay publishers anything, don’t you? As for Free Ebooks paying you, well, there is an option for readers to donate through Paypal, but I wouldn’t expect more than the price of a cup of coffee now and then, and it’s certainly not worth giving up the day job.

Smashwords is still very much alive and well of course, and well worth submitting to if only for the free ISBN, and Wattpad is picking up in a strange kind of way too, though it requires a bit of engagement on your part, being more of a community thing, but that’s cute and I’m finding it has a nice feedback vibe for stuff you put on there piecemeal. I’ve been trying out the Sea View Cafe on it for a while now – at least up to the point where it got quagmired in my usual three-way polyamory trap – more on that in the next blog. I can recommend it for early drafts, but again it’s not going to change your life much. And once a story’s done on there, well,… it’s done and you might as well delete it.

So yes, things move on, but they’re not dying out. Online and digital are still the only way to go for the majority of unaffiliated wannabe writers. I predict the only bookshops in a decade’s time will be charity shops selling increasingly dog eared and spine busted samples of that old paper-tech, that actual books will have become an upmarket thing, paperbacks costing thirty quid a go. And us ordinary folk will have no recourse to libraries anymore, so this mad bagatelle of free online stuff will be our daily fayre.

So don’t despair, you young uns might have robots to contend with for your day-jobs by then, but at the end of it you’ll still be able to kick back of a night inside your cosy plastic nano-pod, with whatever passes for a mobile phone, and read, and think how: quaint, those days of paper. Hopefully some my stuff will still be around, scraped up by the content farming sites. And maybe amongst my writings you’ll discover a lost world where people fell in love face to face rather than dialling partners up via an app, a world where our dreams still meant something and we used to laugh at the idea of cars driving themselves.

So, anyway, if you’re a writer looking to share some ideas, some stories, do check out Free Ebooks! It’s like Smashwords, and a bit of a dead-zone as far as feedback’s concerned, though I have picked up a couple of four-stars. But if you want people to talk to you about what you write as you write it, go to Wattpad. Whatever you do though don’t get hung up on the mechanics of self publishing, on the clicks and stats at the expense of,… well,… writing. Just get your stuff on the Internet any which way you can and whoever was meant to read it will find it.

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great wave croppedI lost an evening writing because my laptop, which runs on Windows 10, decided to update itself. I’ve tried various ways of stopping it from doing this, but it’s smarter than me and it will have its updates when it wants them, whether I like it or not, even at the cost of periodically throttling my machine and rendering it useless. Then I have to spend another evening undoing the update.

I don’t suppose it matters – not in the great scheme of things, anyway. I mean it’s not like I’m up against any publisher’s deadlines or anything. I feel it more as an intrusion by an alien intelligence, adding another non-productive task to the list of other non-productive tasks of which my life largely consists these days.

No, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I write, or what I write, or how I write, because there’s this aphorism that says something to the effect that in spite of how we feel, virtually all the time, things can never be more perfect than they are right now, that attaining this glorious state of being is simply matter of removing the scales from our eyes, of seeing and feeling the world differently. From that perspective, blogging’s just a big box I dump my spleen into now and then and my novels, what I once thought of as my reason for being – struggles for plausibility, for meaning, authentically channelling the muse, desperately seeking the right ending and all that – I mean,… really, who cares? It’s just some stuff I made up.

As you can tell, I’m feeling very Zen at the moment. Either that or depressed. The difference between Zen and depression? Depression is to be oppressed by emptiness. Zen is to embrace it. It’s to do with the same existential conundrum, I think, just opposite ends of the scale.

The writing life is one of negotiating distraction. You hold the intention to write at the back of your mind while being diverted by all these other activities – making a meal, washing it up, You-tube, Instagram, mowing the grass, cleaning your shoes, scraping the squished remains of that chocolate bar from your car seat,…

Such tasks are not unavoidable. You could simply ignore them, flagellate yourself, force yourself to sit down and write, but sometimes if you’re too disciplined, you find the words won’t come anyway because the muse is slighted, or out to lunch or something. So you fiddle about, you meander your way around your distractions, all the while building pressure to get something out, to sit down when you find a bit of space and peace, usually late in the day when you’ve already promised yourself an early night, and you’re too tired to do anything about it anyway. And then you find Windows 10 is in the process of updating itself.

Damn!

So what is it with this technology anyway? Does a writer really need it to such an extent? I mean, computers seem to be assuming a sense of self importance way beyond their utility. I suppose I could go back to longhand, like when I was a schoolboy, pre-computer days, or for £20 I could go back to Bygone Times and pick up that old Silver Reed clatter bucket and eat trees with it again – do they still sell Tippex? Neither of these options appeal though, being far too retrograde. No, sadly, a writer needs a computer now, especially a writer like me who relies upon it as a portal to the online market – “market” being perhaps not the best choice of the word, implying as it does a place to sell goods when I don’t actually sell anything. What do you call a market where you give your stuff away? Answers on an e-postcard please. But really, it doesn’t matter, because remember: nothing could ever be more perfect than it is right now.

Except,… everything is weird. Have you noticed? America’s gone mad, and we Brits, finally wetting our pants with xenophobia, have sawn off the branch we’ve been sitting on for forty years, gone crashing down into the unknown. And if this is the best we can come up with after all our theorising and thinking, and our damned Windows 10 with its constant updates, it’s time we wiped the slate clean and started afresh with our ABC’s, and a better heart and a clearer head.

I don’t know,… if I actually I knew anything about Zen, it would be a good time to retreat into monkish seclusion, compose impenetrable Haiku, scratch the lines on pebbles with a rusty nail and toss them into the sea. We’ve had ten thousand years of the wisdom of sages and the world’s getting dumber by the day. How does that happen?

Not to be discouraged, I bought a copy of Windows XP for a fiver off Ebay. It’s as obsolete as you can get these days while remaining useful. Indeed, it’s still probably controlling all the world’s nuclear power stations – except for those still relying on DOS – so I should manage okay with it. I have it on an old laptop, permanently isolated from the Internet, so the bad guys can’t hack it, and it can’t update itself. It responds like greased lightning. Okay, I know I still need Windows 10 to actually publish stuff, but at least I have a machine I can rely on for the basics of just writing now.

But did I ever tell you I don’t like writing about writing? Well, here I am doing it again aren’t I? But have you noticed, if you search WordPress for “writers”, or “writing”, that’s what tends to pop up, all of us writers writing about writing, when what I really want to read is their actual stuff, what they think about – you know, things, what the world looks like from their part of, well, the world, and through their eyes and their idiosyncrasies, and all that, which is what I thought writers were supposed to do. Or maybe that’s it these days and, like Windows 10 we’ve been updated beyond the point to which we make sense any more, become instead a massive circular reference in the spreadsheet of life, destined soon to disappear up our own posteriors.

Okay, we’ve tripped the thousand word warning now, when five hundred is considered a long piece these days – just enough to sound quirky and cool, while saying nothing at all.

Brevity, Michael! No one likes a smart-arse,… especially a long winded one.

Graeme out.

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