The Brighter Picture

It was a grey day, spent largely talking with other (grey-haired) authors about Kindles (which are grey) and how Amazon is about to destroy our world. Apart from a jolly lunch with Helen Hollick, it was all hard work, this Society of Authors seminar, held to tell elderly quill-pushers how to blog, tweet and be free of our mainstream publishers.

I staggered out at 5pm to a bistre evening, monochrome, damp, Piccadilly as painted by Edward Hopper. I met an author called Kate on the way up St James and we discussed the day. We both had an hour to spare; I had my eye on the Patisserie Valerie, if only for old time’s sake, and was about to suggest tea and a slice of cheesecake when Kate said she was a member of the Royal Academy. Would I fancy seeing the David Hockney exhibition?

WOULD I??? I don’t like big blockbuster exhibitions full of shuffling people and avoided going to Leonardo recently, but when you’re outside a place, have an hour to kill and someone is offering to take you in for nothing. Well. Hold me back.

From the charcoal evening I walked into an explosion of colour. The naughty boy who gave up proper art to do weird stuff in the 60s, then went to the States and sent back the occasional swimming pool or canyon, has come home – in every respect. The Yorkshire lad has rediscovered Yorkshire and reconnected with nature. The results are absolutely staggering. You reel backwards from pictures of England like you’ve never seen her before: green, watercolour England in Tahiti colours, flamboyant, rich and not inaccurate. I have seen the countryside that golden, that red, that blue – maybe not that cerise or turquoise, but Hockney’s the artist and if that’s what he sees, that’s fine. I must look again.

There are an awful lot of pictures of one wood in East Yorkshire in all seasons. Apparently most of the pictures were painted specifically not only for the exhibition but for the walls of the RA, which explains the striking unity between the giant pictures and the space containing them. Hockney often chooses a low viewpoint; in one room in particular, you walk in and gasp, like everyone around you, because suddenly you are on a path into a beech wood, feeling like a Startright kid walking into the sunset. Strangers begin talking in front of this work.

Hockney is a dauber on speed. These giant pictures, made up of rows of separate canvases, have been given dates like 21-22 March. Two days work to cover one Academy wall. But his mastery is the sense of space (you could hug those deep woods) and colour. An hour in this exhibition is like an hour in a spice market in New Delhi.

It’s still too big, of course, and grown people start to whimper, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ in room 5 (answer, ‘yes’).

You think you’re going to go out on your hands and knees, colour-saturated and weak, but Hockney has a last surprise. A room of pictures he did while the exhibition was being installed. Misty places – can’t remember where – my eyes were losing focus. But they were drawn on an i-Pad!

I didn’t have time for the video show. I think I need to go back when I’m fresh and haven’t spent the day considering tweets, blogs and kindles.

For a little taster, go to

And for a very interesting view on Amazon which I don’t disagree with, see ‘Amazon will destroy you’ on


Text layout and how not to do it

Something vile this way comes: double line spaces between paragraphs as the norm. What am I talking about? Here, this. This very blog message: no indents at the start of the paragraph, and a double line space at the end.

All you have to do is press the enter key and it happens automatically.

When I was learning to type, I was taught to indent. Everything was indented: the address, each paragraph, the signature at the end. Address and signature having multiple lines, each line went in another five spaces. I’d show you what I mean, but know what? – I can’t do it here.

If I press the tab button, nothing happens. Apparently I COULD go into the code of my cascading style sheet and rewrite it. If I wanted to, you understand.  Alas, I just can’t find the time these days to rewrite code. So I’m stuck with this layout as a norm.

A friend of mine, a little bit older, still indents her signature on emails. Following an indent of five spaces ‘Lots of Love’, new line and another five spaces, ‘Rosemary’, new line and another five spaces ‘xxx’. Boy, it looks weird.

In the seventies when I worked in the picture research department of a publishing house, I stopped indenting the address and got told off. Later, when the fuss had died down and everyone was doing it, I stopped punctuating the address. So you see, it’s all my fault and I’ve only myself to blame.

Now every time I write something by way of complaint about this trend, I write it in the new style, as I’m doing here, but I still write my books in the old style, with indented paragraphs (apart from the first in any new section or chapter, which is left flush) and no space between paragraphs. Why? Because it looks better. And perish the day when publishing houses and typesetters adopt the new style for their publications. It’s already happening in magazines.

Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like double or more columns of block text separated by space. It’s as if I’m being forced to think in small pieces. I like arguments that build gently over many paragraphs to a resounding conclusion, not a bullet-point list of more-or-less connected notions.

I had a student last year who was fundamentally incapable of producing a paper that developed one idea. All she could do was string together gobbets of information. For her I coined the term ‘google-brained’. I dread to think she may represent the norm, but she may.

Where the new style fails, and fails terribly, is in laying out any text with dialogue.

“Because,” says I, “it just looks awful.”

“I don’t agree,” says he, “I like it like that. What’s your problem?”

“I don’t have one, whereas your problem is visual insensitivity. You just can’t see it, can you?’

All that space, wasted!

OK, writers could have become visually insensitive by having to submit typescripts that are double-spaced throughout. That’s industry standard, because it gives editors somewhere to write. (Editing on hard copy – those were the days!) (Editors? – those really were the days).

Combine the two and you have madness. Believe me, I’ve seen it done.

[At this point I had a silly piece of dialogue, each line separated by three-line spaces, but, do you know, it was corrected for me and I don’t know how to uncorrect it. Pah!]

Forests of trees have been sacrificed to this stupidity. But most writers – not understanding what flimsy excuses rejection can be based on – assume the editors or typesetters (editors? typesetters?) will sort it all out. Nooooo. They won’t. They barely exist.

I’ve grumbled my way through the past couple of years, banging on about all this to whoever will listen. Given that most people now have little plugs in their ears running to a music box, I’m going to shout. Because this week my DB bought himself a Kobo (how kute) and the first book he purchased (after a day spent browsing and downloading free titles) was Jennifer Worth’s ‘Call the Midwife’. We both love the series on TV and he wants to read the book. I looked over his shoulder and there it was, the new style layout.

Well, the book began life as a self-publication I believe, and the new style layout is a sure sign of amateurism, but surely the big guys have picked up this title? We went to the imprint page (no easy task on ebooks) and found it was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. I stared at this noble name of publishing in horror. I can only imagine their IT geek who does the ebooks has never read a proper book, and no one in the firm knows enough about ebooks to check his work. Because there it is: double line spacing between all paragraphs including the copious amounts of dialogue. On a screen the size of your hand with a moderately enlarged font, that doesn’t give too many words on a page. He bought Kobo Touch and is tapping the screen to turn pages – tap-tap-tap like a ghost at the window.


Wake up, world! For the new technology the old style layout is PERFECT and cannot be improved upon by any twenty-year-old who thinks she knows better.

Of course, I blame Microsoft. It’s the default layout style now for emails, blogs and, worst of all, word docs. And who can be bothered to go into the innards to change the settings?

But here is what to do to change your layout in Word. Go to Page Layout on the ribbon, and then Spacing. The bottom box will have a figure in it. Change it to O. Voila! No space between your paragraphs. You’ll find that the tab button (just left of Q for the seriously young) is preset for indents.

The Goddess of the Returning Light

‘It will be ten degrees below freezing,’ they said on the news this morning. ‘For the first time since it was devised, the government is calling this a Level 3 alert.’ Looking out of the window I saw the sun rising over the frosty meadow, a peach of a morning.

There didn’t seem to be anything in between the end of autumn and the beginning of spring. It happened sometime over Solstice and Christmas, a brief token winter put on for the occasion. As the days began to lengthen, so it warmed and in the last couple of weeks squirrels and hedgehogs have come out of hibernation saying they’d had bit of a bad night when they couldn’t get to sleep properly, so they thought they might as well get up. Where are they now, poor darlings?

Unaware that the seasons have changed their order, the snowdrops and primroses have come out, hazels have their catkins and the great tit is proclaiming spring throughout the woods. Equally unaware is Brigit, the Goddess of the Returning Light, who arrived this morning in that dazzle of  sun and winced when her bare, dancing feet landed on the frozen ground.

Like it or not, O Weather, by the clock of the cosmos and the beams of light falling through the doors of neolithic long barrows, today is Imbolc and the beginning of spring.

Hellebores and snowdrops - the flowers of Bride

It was a very potent time in the ancient calendar of the first farmers, the time to begin sowing, at least of the hardier plants like beans and peas. Because I’m doing my veg biodynamically this year, I sowed mine last week, but then in ancient times, this festival of light would have probably been held last week, because then they followed the lunar calendar and not a set of dates thought up by the Romans. That’s when everything began to get mechanical, when we gave days numbers. We stopped looking at heaven to know where we are and started looking at almanacs.

The festival was so potent that it was adopted by the Christians as St Brigit’s day. For Brigit and Bride, see The Wheel of the Year  for an excellent article on ‘The Exalted One’ (woman of wisdom… goddess whom poets adored). Soon it becomes evident that with Brigit we are touching the pulse of our earliest ancestors.

In the article it says some scholars think her name originates in the Sanskrit word brihati, ‘an epithet for the divine’. Here is the definition of brihati from Monier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary: lofty, high, tall, great, large, wide, vast, abundant, compact, solid, massy, strong, mighty. (What’s that if not a perfect description of Earth? But there’s more…); extended or bright (as a luminous body).

Go back to the age before any European language, back to earliest times when we were closer to our source, both human and divine, and there was a word that became the name for the Goddess of the Returning Light. Her name lingers still in our English word, bright. Doesn’t that make you goose-bumpy? It does me.

Happy Imbolc and may all your sowings bear glorious fruit.