Archive for May, 2012

Dear lovely readers,

Since I posted my article “Fifty Things That Annoy Me About Fifty Shades Of Grey”, it’s become by far my most popular blog entry. Lots of you have mentioned it in various forums, tweeted about it, shared it on Facebook and generally spread the word. Thank you all so much – you’re all fabulous, and I’m delighted everyone’s enjoyed it so much.

Anyway, I’m thrilled to announce that thanks to your fantastic response, I was commissioned to write a whole e-book on the subject. “Lighter Shades of Grey: a (very) Critical Reader’s Guide to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” covers the whole of the magnificent folly that is “Fifty Shades of Grey”, chronicling the many, many more things that annoy me about it. If you’d like to find out how many times Ana uses the phrase “Oh my”, how often her lip is bitten, whether Christian Grey is a diagnosable psychopath and exactly how he gets away with a kidnapping, it’s available right now from e-book distributors on both sides of the Atlantic, from prices starting at £1.49 / $2.34.

Thank you again for your support, your tweets, your links and your many, many kind comments.

And if you were just wanting to read the original blog entry that started it all, below is a copy of the original post.

After weeks of dithering, it finally dawned on me that I can’t blog about genre fiction and not face up to the existence of the Genre Fiction hit of the year. On the other hand…well, frankly, I don’t want to face up to the existence of the Genre Fiction hit of the year. It annoys me. I wish it wasn’t there.

So I decided to read it until I’d found fifty things that annoyed me, and then stop. Here’s my list.

1. We meet our heroine.
“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal…Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu.”

A bad start.

a. In the scheme of things, bad hair is not a problem. Please try to be less self-absorbed.

b. I seriously doubt that Kate got flu just to spite you.

2. Anastasia arrives at Christian Grey’s headquarters and takes the elevator.
I walk into the enormous – and frankly intimidating – glass, steel and white sandstone lobby. Behind the solid sandstone desk, a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman smiles pleasantly at me…[after taking the lift] I’m in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I’m confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman dressed impeccably in black and white.

a. It is not possible to create the impression of luxurious yet understated opulence simply by over-using the word “sandstone”.

b. Maybe you just got in the lift and forgot to press the button.

3. Anastasia waits outside Christian’s office to start the interview
“To be honest, I prefer my own company, reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library.”

In literary terms, there is no such thing as a “classic British novel”. There are Romantic novels, picaresque novels, High Victorian novels, epistolary novels, Utopian novels, satirical novels, Condition-of-England novels…but not “classic British novels”.

Therefore, merely by the use of the phrase “classic British novel”, you have entirely undermined the impression you were intending to create by the use of the phrase “classic British novel”.

4. Anastasia speculates on what Christian Grey will be like.
“Judging from the building, which is too clinical and modern, I guess Grey is in his forties: fit, tanned and fair-haired to match the rest of the personnel.”

a. A more logical way to estimate his age would be to consider the likely length of time it would take to reach the position of CEO of a multinational conglomerate, make the working assumption that he attended college, then adding the likely length of career to his likely graduation age. There is little or no point trying to estimate people’s ages based on the architectural style of the building they happen to be in at the time.

b. Really successful businesspeople almost never hire people based on how much said prospective employees resemble them.

5. Further speculation on Christian Grey’s hiring practices.
“Perhaps Mr Grey insists on all his employees being blonde. I’m wondering idly if that’s legal, when the office door opens and a tall, elegantly dressed, attractive African-American man with short dreads exits. I have definitely worn the wrong clothes.”

a. Between 2% and 4% of the world’s population are naturally blonde. Even if this were legal (which we’ll get to shortly), insisting on all your employees being blonde would constitute a ridiculously restrictive limit on your available talent pool, as well as making everyone who came across you question your sanity. Since Christian Grey is apparently very successful and well-regarded, the chances of him imposing such a bizarre requirement for people working for his organisation are small.

b. Please stop speculating if this is legal or not. You have been to college.

c. Your entire theory is based on meeting a grand total of two employees. This is a ridiculously small sample and any conclusions drawn from such an inadequate range are highly likely to be wrong. For example, if I were to judge your entire novel based on the one per cent I’ve read so far, I might accidentally conclude it was written by an idiot.

d. This is the best example of tokenism I have ever seen. You may be eligible for some sort of award.

e. Your statement “I have definitely worn the wrong clothes” implies that briefly sharing physical space with a black man requires some sort of special outfit. Please elaborate.

6. Anastasia enters Christian’s office.
“I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet, and falling head first into the office.”

a. I am aware that “Fifty Shades” began life as a Twilight fan-fiction. I know that falling over with absolutely no provocation is one of Bella Swan’s most recognisable traits. However, the minute you used the Find / Replace function to convert from Bella Swan to Anastasia Steele, you instantly became free of the constraints of your original genre. Anastasia is not obliged to fall over. You may want to consider this, because…

b. I have been in a lot of meetings in my life, and I have seen a lot of people walk through a lot of doors to get into these meetings. However, I have never, ever, ever seen a grown adult (man or woman) fall over and land face-down on the floor of a meeting-room. And I’m including meetings where half the participants were drunk.

I’m not saying it never happens. I’m just saying it doesn’t sound very plausible, and therefore it sounds dumb.

7. We get to see what Christian Grey looks like
“He’s tall…with unruly dark-copper-coloured hair”

This in itself is not annoying. However, I am flagging it now because it represents the start of a disconcerting love-affair with Robert Pattinson’s Twilight hairstyle that will soon be absolutely doing my head in.

8. Christian Grey’s office
“His office is way too big for just one man”

That would be because his office is also his meeting room, where he holds his meetings, which involve other people coming into the room and being in it.

9. Christian Grey holds forth on the subject of success in business
“Business is all about people, Miss Steele, and I’m very good at judging people. I know how they tick, what makes them flourish, what doesn’t, what inspires them, and how to incentivise them.”

a. Nobody talks like this in real life.

b. Especially since the idiom you are actually looking for is “what makes them tick”.

10. More magnificence from Mr Grey’s Big Book Of Business
“My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that.”

Dude, you are talking about yourself in the third person. Even the Queen can’t do this without sounding weird. She is eighty-six and has never had anyone correct her on it. What’s your excuse?

11. Even more magnificence
“I make decisions based on logic and facts.”

Christ almighty, as opposed to what?

12. This is all from the same unbroken paragraph of direct speech, by the way
“I have a natural gut instinct that can spot and nurture a good solid idea and good people.”

I bet you can also design roller-coasters in under six hours and stare at the sun unblinking.

13. Christian decides it’s time to show Anastasia his human side
“Immense power is acquired by assuring yourself in your secret reveries that you were born to control things.”

a. No, I think it’s probably acquired by a whole lot of hard work.

b. This is really more of a third-date revelation.

14. Bizarre hiring policies
“I employ over forty thousand people, Miss Steele…If I were to decide I was no longer interested in the the telecommunications business and sell up, twenty thousand people would struggle to make their mortgage payments after a month or so.”

Possible explanations for this extraordinary remark:

a. Your entire empire is based on telecommunications, therefore forty thousand telecoms employees. Your business is so lamentably over-staffed that any buyer would be able to instantly lay off at least half your workforce within a month of purchase with absolutely no consequences whatsoever – something which you (despite your apparently ruthless dedication to business success) have completely overlooked. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

b. Telecommunications represents half of your business empire, and is staffed in proportion. If you were to sell it, the buyer would somehow be able to run it at a profit without needing anyone working for them at all – a point which you (despite your apparently ruthless dedication to business success) have completely overlooked. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

c. You’re indulging in a spot of dubious grandstanding to impress Anastasia. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

15. Christian in his spare time
“I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.”

Soon he’ll be offering to show her his special gold-plated toilet-paper.

16. Question: “You invest in manufacturing. Why, specifically?”
Answer: “I like to build things.”

I laughed so loudly at this that the cat got up and ran out of the room in a panic.

17. More wisdom on the subject of manufacturing
“I like to know how things work: what makes things tick, how to construct and deconstruct. And I have a love of ships. What can I say?”

a. “Investing in manufacturing” is not the same as “making stuff”. Most CEOs are too busy running the company to get deeply involved in understanding the exact construction of everything the company makes. This is why the rest of us have jobs as well as them.

b. “Manufacturing” is not a synonym for “liking ships”.

18. “Are you gay, Mr Grey?”
“I cringe, mortified. Crap. Why didn’t I employ some kind of filter before I read this straight out?”

Hell if I know, Ana. Maybe you’re related to Ron Burgundy?

19. Christian’s PA is astounded by a last-minute change to his schedule
“We’re not finished here, Andrea. Please cancel my next meeting.”

Andrea hesitates, gaping at him. She appears lost.

Later that day, Christian asked for a different sort of biscuit with his coffee, and Andrea keeled over and died.

20. World’s creepiest job offer
“We run an excellent internship program here,” he says quietly. I raise my eyebrows in surprise. Is he offering me a job?

Since he doesn’t know who you are, what you’re good at or even what your major is, I sincerely hope he isn’t. That would be the act of an idiot. And I would so hate to have to think of Christian Grey as an idiot.

21. Anastasia has no self-awareness
“No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why. Is it his looks? His civility? Wealth? Power?”

Yes; finding yourself attracted to a good-looking, age-appropriate billionaire who clearly also fancies you back makes absolutely no sense at all.

22. Anastasia and the Law: Round Two
“As I hit the I-5, I realise I can drive as fast as I want.”

Um, no. No you can’t. You can drive at speeds up to and including the applicable speed limit. Same as always.

23. Sauce for the goose: Kate’s commentary on Anastasia’s love-life
“You, fascinated by a man? That’s a first,” she snorts.

Just out of interest, why does no-one ever ask Anastasia if she’s gay?

24. Obligatory piece of clunky intertextuality (1)
“I work on my essay on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Damn, but that woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong century.”

Yep, she should have been born in our time. These days, we’re totally down with stabbing your lover through the heart because he makes an ill-judged crack about your ex-husband.

25. Things that are not dreams (1)
“That night I dream of dark places, bleak cold white floors, and grey eyes.”

Really? How does that work, then? Are the bleak cold white floors in the dark places? If the places are dark, how can you see the bleak cold whiteness of the bleak cold white floors? Or do you move from one to the other – like, one minute you’re in a dark place, the next minute you’re standing on a bleak cold white floor? And how about the eyes – are they just rolling around loose on the floor, or what?

26. Fundamental misunderstanding of how home-based businesses work
“[My mother] proceeds to tell me about her latest venture into candle-making…I hope she hasn’t mortgaged the house to finance this latest scheme.”

a. Unless she’s actually built a candle-making factory in the back garden, which seems unlikely, I seriously doubt she will need to mortgage the house to pay for her starter-kit.

b. Also, I doubt that any bank would actually sign off on a mortgage where the stated purpose was “Start candle-making business. Get rich. Buy island in sunshine. etc.”

27. Obligatory piece of clunky intertextuality (2)
“Ray is a skilled carpenter and the reason I know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw.”

a. No, the reason you know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw is because they are absolutely nothing alike.

b. Clearly you think so highly of this reference that you feel compelled to make it again later.

c. Being able to quote from someone else’s masterpiece does not imply that you yourself are actually clever.

28. Anastasia the alcoholic
“Standing on our doorstep is my good friend Jose, clutching a bottle of champagne.”

At this point I would just like to flag up that – despite a later claim that she never gets drunk – Anastasia gets through a really quite astonishing quantity of alcohol in this novel.

29. A poor basis for a friendship
“Not only do we share a sense of humor, but we discovered that both Ray and Jose Senior were in the same army unit together.”

I doubt my dad could pick my friends’ dads out of a police line-up. Does this mean we should cancel our friendships and start hanging out with the children of people our parents went to war and traumatically shot foreigners with?

30. She has read too many books, and it has addled her brain
“Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high.”

a. Mr Rochester was rude, sarcastic and frequently cruel. Mr Darcy was rude and socially awkward. Alec D’Urberville was a rapist, and Angel Clare ran for the hills as soon as he found out he wasn’t marrying a virgin. Heathcliff was a psychopath.

Exactly which of your ideals and expectations would you say these men have set far too high?

b. Has anyone ever met anyone who died a virgin and a mad old cat lady solely because they never met anyone who matched up to Mr Darcy?

31. The Mark Of The Sue: Wilful blindness to another’s obvious devotion
“I watch Jose open the bottle of champagne…Jose’s pretty hot, but I think he’s finally getting the message: we’re just friends.”

Yeah, when I was a penniless student I used to take bottles of champagne round to my male friends’ houses for absolutely no reason all the time.

32. Surprise about things that are inherently not surprising (1)
“Saturday at the [DIY] store is a nightmare. We are besieged by do-it-yourselfers wanting to spruce up their homes.”

You are working at a DIY store, and have been for four years. It should not take you by surprise that Saturday is your busiest trading day.

33. Mr Grey has entered the building
“Holy crap. What the hell is he doing here…? I think my mouth has popped open, and I can’t locate my brain or my voice.”

a. Unless you have suffered an injury to your cerebellum, resulting in a disorder of proprioception, you should be perfectly capable of determining whether your mouth is, or is not, open. Please consider consulting your nearest neurologist.

b. Your vocal cords are stretched across the front of your larynx, as always.

c. Your brain is in the jar where I’m presuming you usually keep it.

34. …or something.
“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel…or something.”

Description 101: if you need to qualify your simile with the phrase “or something”, it probably wasn’t that good of a comparison to start with.

35. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (1)
“I shake my head to gather my wits.”

While this adequately conveys the notion that the heroine is overcome by the presence of her
leading man, the unintended consequence is to force the reader to picture her in the guise of a large wet dog that has just exited a body of water.

36. Basic anatomy fail (1)
“Why is he in Portland? Why is he here at Clayton’s? And from a very tiny, under-used part of my brain – probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata where my subconscious dwells – comes the thought: He’s here to see you.”

a. Pretty much by definition, your unconscious is just that – unconscious. It is not possible to engage in dialogue with it.

b. Similarly, your Medulla Oblongata takes care of the boring-but-necessary housekeeping stuff like breathing, heartbeat, temperature regulation, etc. As such it is not capable of generating active thought such as “He’s here to see you”.

c. The word “subconscious” has no real scientific meaning and as such, does not belong in the same sentence as “located at the base of my medulla oblongata”.

37. When there are two explanations for someone’s behaviour, and one of them could pose a serious threat to your life and liberty, and the other is lame and doesn’t really fit with the available evidence, always pick the lame one. Because that’s better in a lot of ways.
“He gazes at the selection of cable ties we stock at Clayton’s. What on Earth is he going to do with those?

…”Is there anything else?”

“I’d like some masking tape…no, [I’m] not redecorating,” he says quickly then smirks….”And some rope, I think.”

Yeah, nothing remotely threatening or disturbing here. And I’m sure the guy who came in and bought seventy-five pounds of ammonium nitrate and sixteen detonators was just planning to give his garden a really, really deep feed this season.

38. Another item in Anastasia’s collection of slightly stalky Just-Good-Friends
“Paul hugs me hard, taking me by surprise…”You’re looking well, Ana, really well.” He grins as he examines me at arm’s length. Then he releases me but keeps a possessive arm draped over my shoulder. I shuffle from foot to foot, embarrassed. It’s good to see Paul, but he has always been over-familiar.”

If he is touching you in a way you don’t like, you have the right to say no. Please forget about shuffling from foot to foot in embarrassment and consider kicking him in the nuts with your foot in righteous outrage.

39. Paul gets dazzled
“Mr Grey,” Paul returns his handshake. “Wait up – not the Christian Grey? Of Grey Enterprises Holding?” Paul goes from surly to awestruck in less than a nanosecond.

a. Think back to your college days. How many CEOs of major corporations could you name? Yeah, I thought so.

b. Even allowing for the fact that Paul is studying Business Administration at Princeton, “Christian Grey” isn’t that unusual a name. It’s a pretty big leap from “You have the same name of someone who has absolutely no reason to be in my family’s hardware store” to “You are that actual person”.

c. The name “Grey Enterprises Holdings” is stupid.

40. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (2)
“Would you like a bag?”

…”Please, Anastasia.” His tongue caresses my name, and my heart once again is frantic.

a. In pronouncing the name “Anastasia”, the tongue stays entirely behind the teeth and is not visible at all. In order to accept the premise that Christian is, indeed, caressing Anastasia’s name with his tongue, I am forced to conclude that he is licking her name-badge.

b. On the other hand, I quite like the idea that this is what he’s doing, so I’m quite tempted to let this one go.

41. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (3)
“My scalp prickles at the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might like me…I hug myself with quiet glee, rocking from side to side.”

Why not try this one in public and see what happens?

42. Basic anatomy fail (2)
“Ana, you’re the one with the relationship.”

“Relationship?” I squeak at her, my voice rising several octaves. “I barely know the guy.”

The average human voice has a natural span of about an octave and a half. A trained singer can generally manage between two and three. At four octaves, Freddie Mercury’s range was so exceptional that almost no-one can sing his work the way he sang it.

For your voice to rise “several octaves” (i.e. three or more), you would either have to have a natural speaking voice somewhere in the range of James Earl Jones, or be capable of producing a pitch somewhat beyond the range of normal human hearing.

43. Things that are not dreams (2)
“I am restless that night, tossing and turning. Dreaming of smoky grey eyes, coveralls, long legs, long fingers, and dark, dark unexplored places.”

I especially like the introduction of “coveralls” into this bizarre still-life collection. Sort of like a collision between “American Gothic” and an abattoir after dark.

44. Good hair, pants that hang from hips
He’s wearing a white shirt, open at the collar, and grey flannel pants that hang from his hips. His unruly hair is still damp from a shower.

a. I refer you to Item 7. From here on in, Hair References will be coming thick and fast.

b. The other thing Ana really goes for is pants that hang from men’s hips. Mentioned once, this is not annoying. Unfortunately, this is not the last we’ll be seeing of Christian Grey’s well-hung pants.

45. Social mobility fail
[Kate] shakes [Christian’s] hand firmly without batting an eyelid. I remind myself that Kate has been to the best private schools in Washington. Her family has money, and she’s grown up confident and sure of her place in the world. She doesn’t take any crap. I am in awe of her.

Welcome to America; the land of opportunity. FFS.

46. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (4)
“Christian Grey has asked me to go for coffee with him.”

Her mouth pops open. Speechless Kate! I savour the moment.

a. As an experiment, spend a day telling people mildly surprising things like “I thought I might give up sugar in my tea for a week” or “I have six tattoos” or “I met the Queen once when I was small”. Count the number of times anyone’s mouth pops open. If n > 0, I will humbly retract my objection.

b. Kate has been telling Anastasia for pages and pages and pages that Christian likes her. Therefore, speechless shock is not an appropriate reaction to them going to get coffee.

c. Unless she knows Anastasia is gay, of course.

47. Coffee shops do not only sell coffee
“I am going to have coffee with Christian Grey…and I hate coffee.”

Then you will just have to stand outside the shop like a dog waiting for its owner while he goes in on his own, won’t you.

48. In the coffee-shop, Anastasia comes over all sophisticated
“I’ll have…um – English Breakfast tea, bag out.”

“…Okay, bag out tea. Sugar?”

For a moment, I’m stunned, thinking it’s an endearment, but fortunately my subconscious kicks in with pursed lips. No, stupid – do you take sugar?

“No thanks.” I stare down at my knotted fingers.

a. Since the word “Sugar?” is modified by a high-rising terminal, and you’re in a coffee-shop, this is clearly a contextually-appropriate question rather than an endearment. Interpreting it as anything else makes you look like an idiot.

b. We’ve already covered the impossibility of engaging in meaningful dialogue with your unconscious, so I’ll just refer you back to Item 36.

c. As any mother but yours would undoubtedly tell you, staring down at your knotted fingers when someone asks you a perfectly civilised question makes you look surly and rude.

d. In a post-SATC world, any reference to “tea, bag out” or “bag out tea” is automatically funny.

49. Good hair, pants that hang from hips (2)
“He’s tall, broad-shouldered, and slim, and the way those pants hang from his hips…oh my. Once or twice he runs his long, graceful fingers through his now dry but still disorderly hair. Hmm…I’d like to do that.”

a. There is a limit to the number of times I want or need to be told how well these pants hang from his hips, and we have now exceeded it.

b. While it’s traditional for TwiHarders to venerate Robert Pattinson’s hair, as this book is not officially Not Fan Fiction any more, it’s okay to get rid of this particular trope. In fact, I insist.

50. Idle speculation about things that normal people already know
“He has a coffee which bears a wonderful leaf-pattern imprinted in the milk. How do they do that? I wonder idly.”

Oh come on.

That’s the first fifty things, and they haven’t even kissed yet – never mind got to the recreational floggings. However, I was tragically compelled to finish the entire book, getting more and more annoyed with every page. And then I was commissioned to turn it into an e-book. Which is for sale, right now! If you’d like to buy it, that would be lovely.

And if I have managed to inspire in you a raging appetite for Fifty Shades Snark that cannot wait to be satisfied, you may like to swing by my friend Heidi’s blog and enjoy her musings on the subject.

Laters, baby.*

*Just so we’re clear, I’m quoting “Fifty Shades Of Grey”. Yes, really.

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A Surprisingly Delightful Website

Here’s an illustrated transcript of the conversation that took place regarding the website of the National Insulator Appreciation Society, www.nia.org.

Ian shared a link:

Another page for Cassandra Jane Parkin‘s archives. The quarterly newsletter (Drip Points) is worth a look.

Ian: For the record, this is one of my favourite insulators:

Ian: Also there’s an amazingly detailed guide to things which look like insulators, but aren’t. So that will keep you on the straight and narrow.

Cassandra: These are ace. ACE. Thank you!!!

Ian: I actually really like this website. When Deb [Ian’s wife] saw me looking at it she said “is that that insulator website again?”

Cassandra: I can see why you like it actually. There’s something pleasing about insulators.

Cassandra: OMG. I like some of the insulators more than others. I have an Insulator Aesthetic.

CD 158

Ian: Insulators are great. There are some purple ones on there. You like purple.

CD 162

Cassandra: I do. I like the purple one a lot. And also CD 145.6. That one’s very nice. And CD 268.5 is lovely, I’d have that as an ornament.

I don’t like the House Telegraph insulator, though. That one’s horrible.

CD 145.6

House Telegraph Insulator

Ian: http://www.nia.org/general/cd_text/cd106.htm

CD 106

Ian: Oooh wow. I like CD 268.5 too.

Ian: Yep with you on the house telegraph insulator too. Yuk.

Cassandra: They’re very comforting objects.

Cassandra: It would be nice to go to a quiet American motel built out of old, grey wood, and stay in a very bare room on the first floor, and put an insulator on the windowsill and look at it by the light of the street-lamp outside.

Cassandra: I’m writing Insulator Porn now, aren’t I. I need to get out more.

Ian: But you’re so right! Maybe some of your friends in the US can make this happen.

Cassandra: One day we can take a road-trip. And when the Immigration people at the airport ask us the purpose of our trip, we can say, “We’re going to find a small motel and sit and look at insulators.”

If you, like me, now find yourself strangely drawn to these unexpectedly compelling industrial components, you may be interested to know that they quite often come up for sale on eBay. Only let’s try not to get into a bidding war, m’kay? As long as we conduct ourselves like ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure there are plenty of insulators for everyone.

And if you, like me, now have a Favourite Insulator, why not leave a note of it in the comments so everyone else can enjoy it too?

Note: to date, the proposed road-trip has not yet been undertaken.

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Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Spice-Rack

I hardly ever buy the Sunday Papers. This is because the colour supplements terrify me. They have articles telling me things like which narcissus bulbs I should be planting this month to ensure my garden stays on-trend next spring, or how to choose the right tutor for my children over the summer break, or which Greek islands are worth adding to my six-week summer tour given the current Euro-zone crisis. Even the advice columns (“I’m going to my friend’s wedding at Claridges in June and I can’t decide which designer I should be wearing. I’m bored with Armani, but Stella McCartney is so girly this season and I wore Marc Jacobs to her hen weekend in Bath six weeks ago. I’m five foot nine and a size eight and my budget is £2500”) scare the shit out of me.

But, in the same way I occasionally stay up till 2am on a Monday night drinking gin and drawing moustaches on my friends when they pass out on the sofa, every now and then I give in to the siren call of the Sunday paper. And I torture myself with the supplements. And to try and prove I could be a Sunday-Supplement yummy-mummy if I wanted to, but I just don’t want to, I choose and then cook one of the inexplicably faffy recipes from the Food section.

I don’t know why I do this to myself. It always requires me to go off and buy a whole lot of odd new ingredients, which I inevitably don’t know where to find, and which always ends with me going to at least three different supermarkets and sobbing in frustration in front of the herbs and spices. This time, it was fennel seeds, two different kinds of mustard, and…something else that I can’t even remember. Calves livers in aspic, possibly. Peacock brains. Unicorn spit. I also remember a stern injunction about the sausages that went something like “while you may want to invest in some speciality recipes, this will also work perfectly well with a good butcher’s sausage”. (I simply love the inherent judginess implied by “a good butcher’s sausage”. I’m guessing Walls are off the table, then.)

But the part that really tipped me over the edge was the Two Kinds Of Mustard. You had to add your Two Kinds Of Mustard in two stages. Stage One was just as you started to simmer everything. And Stage Two was near the end. Not right at the end, but near the end…only not too near. Because the final line of the recipe read: “…bearing in mind that mustard will lose its interest if it is cooked for too long.”

This one line epitomises everything I dislike about Sunday Supplements. It’s enigmatic, but terrifying. It makes me feel patronised, but it also makes me feel like I deserve it. If you deviate from these instructions, your dinner will become unspeakably dull. But we will not give you enough information to accurately interpret what we mean. If you don’t know already, you don’t deserve to know. We are going to our villa on a Greek island now. Goodbye.

I made this recipe a lot of times, following the instructions to the letter and agonising over each step. But I never really enjoyed it. I was always miserably convinced I’d cooked it for too long and made it boring, or added the wrong quantity of fennel, or got the mustard ratio wrong, or forgotten to add the unicorn spit. And then a couple of months ago, I had a revelation.

Hang on, I thought. Sausages are peasant food.

Sausages are glorious. They’re the unexpectedly delicious consequence of using up all the nasty bits of the pig you’d rather not think about. They are the poster-children for the kind of achievably good cooking we can all do, because if we couldn’t we would have been extinct by now. Peasant cooking isn’t about hunting down exquisite pinches of the rarest ingredients. It’s about brilliantly improvising with what you happen to have available.

So I threw away the Unicorn Spit recipe, and I improvised. And it was delicious. Then I did it again, a bit differently. That was also delicious. And again. See above. Also, I was happy while doing it, because making it up as you go along is fun. This isn’t a recipe, it’s more of a guideline. Feel free to ignore it entirely. The only thing I forbid you to do is to burst into tears in the Herbs and Spices fixture in Sainsbury’s because you can’t find the fennel seeds.


Six sausages, any variety as long as you know you like ’em
One big onion. I tried it with a red onion once and it was lovely, but any onion is fine
A tin of tomatoes. Alternatively, some actual tomatoes, chopped up
A tin of butterbeans, kidney beans, chick-peas, black-eyed peas, baked beans…whatever you happen to find lurking in the back of the cupboard. If you have some tinned potatoes (oh come on, we’ve all done it), they’re good too
A splash of oil for frying
A splash of whatever alcohol you happen to have open (optional)
Some garlic (optional. Although if you don’t like garlic then I’m afraid we can no longer be friends)
Some herbs (a selection)
Some spices (optional)
Anything else you like the look of (optional)

A nice big casserole or saucepan

1. Chop your onion. I like to leave the pieces quite big and chunky, but just go for whatever shape and size you’re happy with.

2. Soften the onion (and garlic if you want it) in the casserole. The original recipe had dire warnings about getting it soft but not brown. Hell with that. Soften, brown, whatever. Just don’t burn it. Unless you like burned onions. In which case, knock yourself out.

3. As an optional step, you might want to get a frying-pan and slightly brown your sausages. This is really only an aesthetic decision. The sausages will cook perfectly in the casserole and will taste delicious – they just won’t actually turn brown. If brown sausages are important to you, now’s the time to achieve this. If you’re cool with your sausages looking all pale and emo, save yourself some washing up and give this step a miss.

4. Add your sausages to the casserole.

5. Pour over the tomatoes.

6. Add in your tin of beans / peas / potatoes.

7. Add in a nice slosh from whichever wine, beer or cider you happen to have open. If you don’t have one, go and open a bottle of beer, wine or cider. Now you have a bottle open, add in a nice slosh from whichever wine, beer or cider you happen to have open.

8. Go through your herb and spice rack and pick out some things you think might be nice. This is a surprisingly wide category. My favourite is rosemary, bay leaves and maybe a bit of chilli powder, but I’ve also used marjoram, mixed herbs, thyme, basil and ginger. Add them in small quantities, though. You can always add more, but once it’s in, you’re stuck with it.

9. Add some salt and pepper (or not. But all recipes seem to include this, so I thought mine ought to as well) plus a slosh of water for luck.

10. Pop a lid on and leave it to simmer for a bit. It will take about fifteen to twenty minutes for the sausages to cook through. After that, it’s done when you say it’s done.

You might like to serve this with crusty bread and a green salad. Or you might not. Maybe you are the kind of person who always has salad and crusty bread available, and maybe you’re not. Maybe you remembered to throw some in the trolley while you were buying sausages this afternoon. Or maybe you got those sausages out of the freezer because you’ve been glued to your keyboard all day and only just realised you were starving to death. It’s all good.

If you’ve got a great new riff on this improvised recipe, why not share it in the comments?

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Here’s the kind of deliciously stern consumer labelling I always like to see:

Want to know which incredibly dangerous consumer product we’re being protected from here? Course you do.

So remember – no removing the tag from the premium cotton batting UNLESS YOU’RE THE CONSUMER. Otherwise the Premium Cotton Batting Tag Police will come and put you in jail.

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Did I mention I was one of the editors for FlashFloodJournal – the flash-fiction twenty-four-hour blog project headed by the brilliant Calum Kerr, director of National Flash Fiction Day? Because I was. It was amazing to be part of such a great initiative. If you’re one of the many hundreds of writers who submitted a piece to us, thank you.

Quite a few contributors asked us for feedback on why their pieces hadn’t been accepted. Unfortunately, being frantically busy, we simply couldn’t provide any at the time. Instead, we thought we’d use our blogs to share some thoughts and ideas on how to improve your chances of success next time. Just in case, for example, we decide we’re going to do it all again one day or something. You never know.

Before we start, a few housekeeping points. These are my thoughts; not the FFJ Hivemind’s thoughts, not the thoughts of anyone official, just mine. Because these are my thoughts, it’s more than possible I don’t know what I’m talking about. I was twenty-four years old before I realised that when you look at a flat map of the world, you don’t need to traverse the globe to get from left to right because it all joins on round the back, so to speak. So feel free to ignore every word I say.

Well, I am King
The way it worked was, each editor took charge for one day. For that day, we were the only ones steering the ship. So the first thing to remember is, it was down to the personal opinion of the editor. We’re all different people with different tastes, so what might have one of us leaping off the sofa going “OMGthisisbrilliant!” may leave the next one cold.

Good writing is good writing, and we hope we didn’t miss too many gems. However, there’s always going to be a decent element of a particular piece just being to a particular editor’s particular taste. But then, that’s how our entire industry works, so, yeah.

And At The End They All Must Die
Please note, this is not me saying, “Don’t write sad stories”. Sad stories, written well, are a thing of beauty. A quick look at our blog will show you we were thrilled to accept a large and indulgent helping of very sad stories indeed.

It’s just that this year, for this contest, rather a lot of people decided to write them. Since one thing we were really keen to achieve was variety, I declined some very well-written pieces about loss, death, loneliness, widowhood, divorce etc – just because they were too similar to a piece we’d already got scheduled.

Again, I’m absolutely not saying “Don’t write sad stories”. I’m just observing that this time, all the sad stories had a hell of a lot of competition. Also, if you’re reading a lot of sad stories one after another, you start to get cynical and desensitised. This is probably why medical students like to throw body-parts of each other when they’re off-duty.

But He Was Upside Down With His Skin Missing When I Got Here, Officer
For some reason, quite a lot of authors who submitted on my shift wrote stories about carving up bad people. Again, there’s nothing objectively wrong with this. In fact, frankly, some of you were bloody brilliant at it and will probably take over whenever Elmore Leonard leaves off. Maybe next time there won’t be any schlock at all and I’ll be wishing I’d kept schtum…

Anyway, if you were one of the excellent writers whose gangland executions I had to turn down, I’m sorry. It’s just there’s a limit to how many dead bodies we could accommodate.

The Fish-Slapping Dance
Just in case you don’t know what the fish-slapping-dance is, here’s a link to the YouTube clip. Now that we’re all on the same page, let me explain. In flash fiction, a Fish Slap is when your entire story is just a pleasant interlude leading up to a monumental WTF surprise at the ending. It’s sudden, it comes out of nowhere, and it hits me right around the face and knocks me into the water.

The point I’m making is this. Like the Monty Python sketch I just linked to, the Fish Slap move is not new. In fact, Fish Slaps are probably one of the most common tropes of the flash fiction genre. I don’t like saying they’ve been done to death and I may never want to see another one, but occasionally we all have to do things we don’t like. If you’re genuinely convinced to your very bones that you’ve got a brand new Fish Slap that’s never been done before and everyone will love it, then by all means go for it. Just bear in mind that your editor may well have been Fish Slapped quite enough for one day.

Eats, Shoots And Leaves
When I was at school our English teachers used to trap us inside gigantic tarantula-filled bell-jars when we made minor errors of spelling and punctuation. What can I tell you? It’s grim up North. As a result, I have near-crippling phobias of both spiders, and people who can’t spell or punctuate. You are now free to go through my entire canon of work with a fine-tooth comb and point out the many, many times I have undoubtedly screwed up on this. Then I will have to go and lock myself in the bell-jar and make nice with the hairy-legged arachnids.

Seriously, though. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes – but please, please do your best to catch as many of them as you can. Five hundred words is not a lot to proof-read. If I spot more than a couple of errors, they rapidly become the defining feature of your work for me. Sorry about that.

Fifty Shades Of Copyright
Occasionally, some of us like to dabble with fan-fiction. That’s absolutely shiny with me, but we can’t publish work which recognisably features other people’s creative properties. Since we don’t know everything that exists in the world, if your fandom is obscure we may well not recognise character names, locations and so on. However, the people who originally came up with them certainly will.

Gimme gimme gimme
Here are some of the things I’d love to see even more of if we get to do it again:

1. Stories that made me feel something (other than a bit miserable)
Stories that came with their own massive jolt of strong emotion almost always made my final pick. There was one that I actually felt like I needed a shower after reading. It’s still one of my favourites out of the whole blog.

2. Stories that made me laugh
…especially when the humour was dark and / or unexpected. In fact, I may even break my Fish Slap embargo for a truly funny black-comedy end-line.

3. Stories that were idiosyncratic, unexpected or just engagingly nuts
I wasn’t on duty when the Zombie Stripper piece came in, but if I had been, I’d have snapped your hand off, too.

4. Stories that were just…different
During my stint, I often walked away from stories that were well-crafted, well-written and thoughtful, because they just didn’t break any new territory. I did this to make room for other stories – stories that were a bit raw and rough around the edges (and might even have had the odd spelling mistake) but were utterly fresh and distinctive.

And finally…
In case I haven’t made it clear enough – it was an absolute privilege being a FlashFloodJournal editor for a day. I think we were all pretty bowled over by the superb standard of the work we received (not to say a little bit intimidated when it came time to submit our own stories to the editorial team). Apparently I don’t use this blog enough to promote my own work, so here’s a link to mine.

If you submitted, then thank you – thank you – thank you. You were all amazing. And we all need to say thank you to Calum Kerr, for organising FlashFloodJournal – and indeed, for directing the whole Flash Fiction Day. I can’t wait for the next one.

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Just found out I’m the runner-up in The Journal’s National Flash Fiction Day Competition with my piece “Doorstep”, hoorah!

Apparently “Doorstep” will be going on their website at some point, so as soon as it does I’ll post a link.

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Happy National Flash Fiction Day everyone!

We’ve had a fantastic week reviewing entries from talented Flash Fiction authors from all over the world. The FlashFlood blog has been live since midnight, and will be publishing six new flash-fictions an hour until midnight tonight. My piece, “Lucky”, will be going live at around 3pm.

It’s been the most amazing fun to be part of such a great initiative. Why not come over and have a look at the results?

ETA: And here’s the link to “Lucky”, which went up as part of the 3:00pm collection.

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I was originally going to dedicate this Guess-The-Search-Term entry to the wiki-page on Cymothoa Exigua. For the record, C. Exigua is a parasitic crustacean that earns a living by eating, and then replacing, the tongue of its fish host. Apparently it does this without the fish ever noticing; a thought which has all sorts of horrifying implications for our own existence.

“You – you mean this isn’t how it’s supposed to look…?”

Cymothoa Exigua made its appearance on my brother’s Facebook feed with the enigmatic statement, “I’d forgotten all about these until today” – a remark which, all by itself, opened up whole avenues of questioning for him to skilfully evade. For example: How could anyone ever forget about this? What happened today to remind you? Does it seem weird to you that your FB friends have started leaping in with their own choice of hideous parasite which they feel is even worse than C. Exigua? Do we both need to fear for the future careers and habits of our children?

Honestly can’t decide who gets the worse end of the deal in this transaction.

And then my brother casually let slip that he was currently quite well versed in horrible parasites, thanks to his recent discovery of the frankly outstanding blog, dailyparasite.blogspot.co.uk.

Any website that can pose the question “Why do organisms have sex?” with an apparently straight face is all right by me.

Check it out; it’s really sort of awesome. If you (like me) suffer from the persistent delusion that when it comes to life on earth, mammals are where it’s at, then prepare to have your horizons thoroughly stretched – in that good but also quite uncomfortable way. As my brother put it; “It’s like one of those tear-off quote-of-the-day calendars. Only with parasites.”

And, as always, your idle speculations on what he might have been searching for when he happened across this little gem are more than welcome.

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Tonight I’m doing a shout-out for submissions! We’re looking for talented flash-fiction writers to submit their work to the fantastic blog project FlashFlood, which will be posting a fabulous new flash fiction every few minutes throughout National Flash Fiction Day.

The rules are dead simple:

1. Write a Flash Fiction of 500 words or less.
2. Post it into the body of an email (no attachments, please) to the editorial team. You can reach us at flashfloodjournal@gmail.com. You have until MIDNIGHT ON 15th MAY 2012.
3. The editorial team will review it and get back to you in an eerily rapid fashion (we can’t absolutely promise, but we’re aiming to reply within 24 hours of you pressing “send”).
4. If we like it, we’ll post it up to our blog during the course of 16th May, National Flash Fiction Day.

And that’s it! So what are you waiting for? Come on, you know you want to.

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