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Nostalgia – or progress?

I am feeling for the characters in my book right now. Everything they knew is disappearing around me, building by building, brick by brick.

It was a strange experience going back to places I was last in over twenty years ago and finding that I recognised next to nothing there. Entire streets were gone, replaced by shiny new buildings that bore no resemblance to the places I had once studied or eaten in or just walked outside of. Admittedly, the new buildings have moved on a bit since 1950s East Germany architecture was being realised, but all cities change and after a while, we can often not even remember what was there before.

That’s one of the problems of trying to go back to somewhere we had an emotional connection to. I had to give up on anything much in Leipzig being as useful to me as photos of the city in the 1970s, but it reminded me that it is those personal associations which make a city for us. The buildings might go or change, but we remember what we did there, and with whom, and it is those memories which matter most. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t sad when what we knew is no longer there, and that’s one reason why there are some places I probably will never return to. I prefer them frozen in time in 1992 (Tübingen) when the restaurant underneath the town hall served huge savoury pancakes and we met an American couple on holiday, acting as (probably rubbish) tour guides for them for a day or two. The restaurant is (I am told) gone now, but in my mind, it’s still there and we can go there any time we like in our memory.

This one used to be a rectangular block of cement. But the new building means nothing to me. It’s just a building. In time, however, it will bring back memories for the students now at the university there, and that’s all as it should be. Nothing stays the same forever. I have my memories, and they have theirs, and maybe some time we can share our different experiences of the same place.

In the last six months, the last two buildings two of my characters worked in have either been demolished (cue heart sinking as I arrive at the spot and just know that hole in the ground is the building I wanted to see – the perils of thinking ‘I’ll go there next time’!)…

… or are losing their old occupants. The Berliner Zeitung newspaper is moving out of the building it has been in for decades:

As well as those two, this landmark university tower in Leipzig is now being used by a media organisation rather than the university:

I have the luxury of several sets of memories of these places, some of them even mine. And the buildings might go or change, but the memories stay and, in some cases, are captured in stories where they never disappear. But sometimes I am still sad to see them go because it feels as if a bit of me goes with them.

Why I walk

The one thing I do when I’m away from home is walk. A lot. I might just set off in a random direction to see what I come across. Or sometimes I will try retracing a route I have walked a hundred times before because once in a while this is when I see something for the first time. One of the differences between me and a proper photographer is that I might have to go somewhere that many times before I finally see the photo that jumps out at me and then seems obvious. But perseverance is also one way of getting to the answer you want.

I think I cracked Berlin this time photographically, finally managing to capture some of the contrasts I see in the city. I also spent most of the time with plasters on my heels so I could walk for enough hours of the day, but it was worth it.

Here’s what came of it this time, in an entirely random order with some recurring images.

Welcome to my Berlin.

One of my gripes about digital versus film is that I get different colour renditions depending on which digital camera I am using, and the colours often bear absolutely no resemblance to the ones my eyes see. Now it might be that colour film has/had the same issue, but I have only used black and white film for so long that I can’t remember if I had the same problem with film. In this case, it worked to my advantage – the subtle colours from a winter sunset were nowhere as near as pleasing in ‘real life’. There are three layers of Berlin in this photo. In the foreground the wreck of a ship, to the left in the middle the two towers of the famous Oberbaumbrücke and behind that (and hazy) the television tower which dominates the landscape of the city (more on that later). And yes, I walked all the way from that tower and discovered so many things I had never seen before, including walking past the power plant that sits near the centre of the city.

In the middle of sophisticated residential streets, you come across abandoned, graffiti-covered structures which always catch my attention. This one had so many padlocks on the gates that I decided they really did not want me going exploring any further. Spoilsports.

The television tower again from an angle I had not seen before because I had never walked right beside this church. The city is an eclectic mixture of the old and the new and I thought this captured that part of the city. You can see it in colour in a minute and decide which you prefer. 

That wreck of a ship is back again – you can see it in the middle on the left – but this walk beside the river started with these massive structures in the middle of the river which I had never got round to seeing close up before. Definitely better in the evening light.

I am finally happy with this photo. It’s taken me a long time to get it as I wanted it. The pointed part of the structure is part of the wider complex the tower sits within. As I’ve said before, it’s just a matter of perspective.


The same tower and church as before, but from a different angle and this time emphasising the religious element contrasting with this symbol of East Germany. 

What you won’t see on a postcard. This, for me, introduces the side to Berlin.

The skyline of Berlin is still sprinkled with clusters of cranes as the latest building projects take form. It’s been that way for decades and there is no sign of anybody slowing down. So maybe it was right that the crane was in this photo, even though at the time it annoyed me because it seemed to spoil the overall image.

Yes, you’ve seen it before, but I liked the vibrancy of the colours. When you get a day like this in winter, you have to make the most of it.

Still love my geometric shapes and I loved the way the shadows accentuated the structure.

I was busy taking a photo of something that it turned out was not worth bothering with, and then I turned around.

I will admit that I recognised Marx and Engels immediately from behind. Just don’t blame them for everything that was done in their names. But they changed history.

And it’s done…for now

There is a reason for my blogging silence for six weeks. That, it turns out, is how long it takes me to write the first draft of the novel from beginning to end, and it doesn’t allow for an awful lot of head space devoted to anything else.

Right now, I’m back in Berlin for a week. It gave me the total space I needed to do nothing but write and walk (not at the same time) for the first few days, eating when I remembered to and just doing one more scene…and one more…and just one more…maybe one more before I stop… then it was done.

I spent a long day walking through Leipzig reacquainting myself with the city where Natalie (all names you’re hearing for the first time are of characters in the book, and all bear no similarity to etc etc etc) went to university, and finding the place unrecognisable from when she was there (because it was unrecogisable from when I was there – they have been knocking down all the parts I knew over twenty years ago). I could still retrace her route between the two university building she was in, but as for the rest – too much has changed to be able to see where anything else happened, until, with an hour before my train back to Berlin was leaving and a 45 minute walk from the station, I finally found the place I needed, unchanged in forty years and exactly where she would have gone with…ah, no, not telling you that bit. The lights, I admit, are a modern addition, but this was what I had been looking for – the kind of thing you know when you see it:

Today, I walked for hours through Berlin tracing routes to make sure they worked, to see what became obvious only when I actually retraced someone else’s steps, and then I checked what I could see when I stood on the corner of a street I had previously only imagined, and saw that it was slightly different when I got to the spot. Ninety something percent will never get written down, but I will know that the descriptions I do include will be right, even if I am not going to start listing off every street name (seriously, some people do that, and when it’s set in Berlin and they get it badly wrong, I get pretty grumpy). 

I think I am finding that this part is also helpful to allow me to let go of some of the characters. I have way too much invested in them and spend too much of the last couple of days of writing bursting out into tears as I got towards the end. I’m sure I’ll go over it again and think, what was that bit meant to be about?, but right now, I’m just reliving events that happened here when I was only just born.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the process of getting this far:

  • No matter how good or bad any of this turns out to be (and everyone’s going to have an opinion!), it took me a lot longer to get it even this far than I had ever imagined. A lifetime – and a career – of writing non-fiction is not a good preparation for writing fiction, except for the part that means I get a kick out of the research!
  • Over the last few years, I think I have probably written around 500,000 words. That’s five times the length of To Kill a Mockingbird (told you I liked the research part) and most of it will sit in a folder stuffed full of handwritten pages or in computer files – but all of it was useful because all of it was part of the learning process.
  • In the process of writing all that, I gave up twice. As in, totally decided this was never going to happen and I should just accept it and move on. Then the next day, I decided to have another go. Dealing with the emotions of this kind of writing is part of the challenge.
  • You can spend a lot of time finding out how other writers ‘do it.’ Stephen King, for example, says write 2,000 words a day, no matter what, then leave it. It works for him, not for me. But what all successful writers say is read a lot and write all the time. It turns out that, for me, I scarcely read anything else once I’ve started for real, and all I do is work from beginning to end, getting down 8-10,000 words a day towards the end of each of the main sections because I just could not imagine stopping for anything. I had to find out what happened (there were some things which only came out towards the end, which answered questions I had been trying to figure out since the beginning) and I just had to get to the end of the story.
  • Plot it out. Oh my goodness did I fight against that one. Many, many times. Then I saw a plot outline which James Patterson did for one of his novels, and something clicked. It worked for me. I just opened up the outline and wrote what I had said happened in that scene. No worrying about whether it worked or not, because I knew I had already dealt with what came next, and that there was an ending it was all leading up to. I did change the odd thing as I went along, but that was more as I was finding out things myself. But even with that, I kept telling myself, I don’t know how this works out – then I went through all the scenes ahead of me and realised that I did know. It turned out that I actually plotted the whole thing while I was ill for two months and thought I had got nothing done at all, then I had a look and saw that, somewhere in that time, I had managed to get from beginning to end. I had just forgotten that I had done it.
  • Fast works for me. I probably already knew that, but I did try being disciplined, along the lines of so many words a day and then stopping. And it did help on the days when it just wasn’t working and I said, you just have to get it down and change it later. But I found that too many days were either, I don’t know what to write for this scene, or I don’t want to stop now. So I accepted that I was always going to have to up the intensity massively and immerse myself in it. It’s addictive. Deal with it.
  • Write every day. Sorry, family. Yes, on Christmas Day as well, but it was only about 1,000 words.
  • Yes, you will start to think and feel like your character sometimes. Note to self: stop writing characters who like cigars and French wine. It’s not my fault, it’s just who Theo was. And I dealt with Theo’s character not by drinking and smoking but by telling LoLo what Theo had said recently and judging whether it would stay or not by how much she laughed. When she said weeks later, ‘what was that thing Theo said?’ and laughed all over again, I knew I had at least one line that was a keeper. When your teenage daughter goes around quoting what one of your characters said…wow.
  • Delegate. Yes, seriously. I wrote a lot by hand until I simply could not write fast enough without every word looking like a line with a few bumps, and I paid the girls to type it up for me. They almost got it all done as well. As I said to them, at least someone is making some money from my writing. Pity it’s not me!
  • All those words I wrote along the way… there’s at least one other book in there and I figured out on my long walk today how I can use it. I have a good chunk of the next book sitting there, and it’s something I care enough about, I just needing to turn it into a proper story and written like that now. And then there’s the other book I plotted out in the course of a 14 mile run a few weeks ago. Running is good for that. Got the main character, got the set up, got an idea of how it might play out, and got the historical (1800s for a change) period it might mirror. Oh, and a title for that one. Emma. I tried writing a few scenes the other day to see if I had her voice, and I started to like it. So there’s a pipeline for the future.
  • The main thing I think I’ve learned is that it’s the story that matters, not everything you know. You want to show someone how much you have learned about the facts, write non-fiction. You want to tell a story which brings it to life? – write a novel. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was memorable for me for the writers’ comments on the final episode where they said something along the lines of, We knew it was all about the characters, and that final episode is just beautiful as a result.

So, first draft done, now it’s on to the editing. Which I keep saying to myself is ‘rip it all to pieces.’ I already know (because I peeked) that I am going to hate some of what I wrote at the beginning, and that’s fine. I have a better sense of the characters at the end than I did at the beginning, some things have changed along the way, there’s the odd plot hole I created later on that I need to fix now and I already have one character who is just going to disappear, that you will never know anything about. Sorry, Max, love you but you didn’t add anything I needed, and did I mention that the first draft is waaaaay too long for you to be in the next version? 215,000 words is too much. So now I get to be ruthless. I am so looking forward to that.

See you again in another six weeks when I’m through with the big edit. Then I get a holiday. Literally. In the meantime, I get to eat again. And read books. This is going to be weird…

The allure of cemeteries

Last week I wrote about the now much easier way of going back in our family’s history, thanks to the technology available to us. For all that, there is still a fascination with the physical memory of a person’s life which a gravestone represents. In most cases, this is primarily of interest to that person’s family and friends, those who knew the individual personally and for whom there was and remains a direct emotional connection.

In some cases, such as Highgate cemetery in London, there are memorials to people who have had a much larger impact on the world. I have yet to make it to Highgate, mainly because it is not easy to get to, but one of these days we will get to Karl Marx’s grave.

Audrey Niffenegger’s book (she of The Time Traveller’s Wife fame) Her Fearful Symmetry is set around Highgate cemetery and, as you would probably hope, contains a mixture of what we would regard as the real world, and the supernatural which we might associate with cemeteries in fiction. The book took me a couple of times to get into. It happens. Sometimes because I am distracted by something else, sometimes because I am reading too many things concurrently, sometimes because the book just isn’t my thing (not the case here!)

The story is of two American twins who inherit their aunt’s house overlooking the cemetery. The only condition of their inheritance is that they have to live there for a full year. The twins have never lived apart and one theme of the novel is the extent to which they can, or want to, change this and become independent of each other. Both twins form a relationship with the two men who live in the same building, one romantic (with the former lover of the aunt who left them the house) and one more of a caring friendship. And then the supernatural element comes in. (If you want to read the book, skip to the next paragraph – spoiler alert). The girls’ aunt Elspeth is indeed dead, but she is currently an invisible ghost trapped in the apartment. Valentina, the younger and weaker of the twins, begins to sense Elspeth’s presence and later to see her. When Valentina discovers that Elspeth has the ability to scoop out a person’s soul and put it back again, she thinks she has found a way to break free of the stifling relationship with her twin which has defined her life. And that’s as far as I will go with the story – if you want to know what happens and what secrets the family has been hiding for decades, you will have to read the book. I loved it. And the ending is beautiful. As is the ending in The Time Traveller’s Wife (if you have only seen the film of that book, forget the ending, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong!). I tend to cry at the end of her books. And find myself rereading the last few pages now and again.

Karl Marx might be one of the most famous Germans and a celebrity resident of Highgate, but Berlin has its own cemetery where a number of the great and the good from different walks of life are now gathered together. Seeing some of the graves is like walking through the story of Germany and of Berlin. I went armed with a mental list of all the ‘people’ I wanted to see, and managed to find almost all of them despite the lack of any kind of map and the impending darkness of a Berlin evening.

Bertolt Brecht needs little introduction, but I gained a different view of him – and of Anna Seghers, who was previously unknown to me – from reading another novel, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin.


We also have philosophers…



…one of the men who built Berlin (it took me ages to find this one!) …


…and a pastor who saw that the challenge of Jesus is to act and take a stand, not to stand by and wait for a miracle.


And just so you know, this is what I want for a gravestone. Just not for a while, I hope.


A year of photography

The other project I’ve had on the go in the background has just passed its one year mark. My dalliances with black and white film photography have been fun, even if I haven’t taken quite as many photos as I optimistically planned to at the outset. But this is strictly for fun and learning so it doesn’t really matter. It has, however, helped that LoLo decided to do her class project around the same thing so we have been spotted in similar locations with similar cameras throughout the year, even if she has gone over to the dark side and embraced autofocus, auto exposure and auto winding on, leaving me with the manual everything camera. I’ve now taken to referring to her current favourite camera as ‘that piece of plastic junk you keep using’ just so she can remind me how much better she finds it. At least I’ve managed to ensure she puts a decent (non-zoom) lens on the front of it so at least she has to think about where she’s standing instead of just zooming in and out.

Anyway, a year on and I’ve had one of the cameras with me a lot of the time, including trips to London and Berlin. It was supposed to be one camera for the whole time, but I got a second, different one, so LoLo and I had the same one for a while and it was so inexpensive it would have been silly not to get it. Plus it’s brilliant.

My hit rate has increased from 4 or 5 per roll of film to a much better ratio. There are still some duds in there where I think ‘have I learned nothing?’ and others where I’ve consciously tried something different and it hasn’t worked quite as I had hoped. The picture you see in your mind is not always what the camera tells you is actually there. In some ways, digital is good for that in that you can see the results immediately and try something else, but I find that I end up thinking more about the shot in advance, taking it and then moving on. None of this instant replay business. I like the surprise when I find a film and realise I haven’t developed it for several months.

Here’s a few I quite liked from a trip to London (yes, this was the film I found a few months later).

We came across a lovely garden hidden in the middle of Hackney. Turns out pumpkins aren’t just about their colour:

London 2016 003

I liked the juxtaposition of the crumbling bricks, the stone carving and the addition of the modern art:

London 2016 007

I was guessing the light and therefore exposure all the time and this one should probably have been a bit lighter, but I quite liked how the black stands out (it was actually the middle of the day!)

London 2016 011

And this one was a surprise – I really wasn’t sure how it would come out but the texture of the wood and the different shades caught my eye. The way the leaves stand out was not what I had anticipated – sometimes it turns out better than you had thought!

London 2016 010

And you can imagine how happy I was to find this structure outside the Gherkin. A good way to burn half a film. The last one is my favourite. Black and white is great for patterns.

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The food container hovering in the middle was pure luck – I think there’s a hand holding it (all right, there must be one there) but it helpfully blends in to the background.

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London 2016 029

The original idea was to do the project for a year and then either carry on with it or sell the camera. Anything except leave the camera lying in a corner unused somewhere. The beauty of a Leica is that, while it does cost a lot to buy, it doesn’t lose any appreciable value, so you can think of it as having the use of a Leica for free for a year. And the Olympus only cost £50 to begin with. I’m hanging on to them. I am still having fun with this and every once in a while, the Leica just bowls me over. When I get the focus, exposure and composition right, at least. But that’s down to me.

Berlin in pictures

We managed to develop five films yesterday. Well, we (LoLo and I) did two so she could see how it was done, then develop her own one herself, after which she decided it was time for a break and I did the other three. So today, something of Berlin and surroundings (aka Potsdam) as I saw it for a couple of weeks. All black and white of course, part of this year’s photography experiment. There’s another film to come (still in the camera) with some shots I’m already rather excited to see.

Wherever you go in Berlin, history is not far away. The Reichstag, for example, was once burned down by Hitler’s henchmen and has now been redesigned by Norman Foster, with an amazing structure inside the dome covering much of the roof:

Berlin 2 012


And then there’s the Berlin cathedral, with its magnificent organ:

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But enough of the tourist traps.

I like shapes and the way they can frame a picture:

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Berlin 1 006

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There’s a bike theme developing here:

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That last one I just found amusing really.

I found that I was seeing shapes and patterns everywhere:

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Berlin 3 006

Some of which were entirely more sombre. These are the train tracks where Jews were deported from Berlin in the 1940s:

Berlin 2 037

Potsdam is famous for its palace, modelled on Versailles, but my favourite building is hidden, a few minutes’ walk from the palace and most of the people. I love its geometry and the light and shadows within the same space. At the end of the day, photography is all about light.

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Berlin 2 033

And a few from just walking around:




Berlin 3 001 Berlin 3 008


And finally, some of the people, who really do come from all over the world. In some parts of the city, all the signs outside the shops are in English only because of the diversity of the population living there. It’s not unheard of to encounter a native German having to order something in English because the person in a shop speaks no German.

Alexanderplatz is at the heart of the city – we were watching an impromptu show of some description and I turned around and saw this person having a sleep in the middle of the day.

Berlin 1 004


These three were playing some very unusual music which seemed to be trying to blend jazz and hip-hop:

Berlin 4 033


And then one of them came across the road to where were standing waiting to order our burgers (they are very good burgers, even if they are made in what used to be a public toilet, right under a railway track):

Berlin 4 025

It turned out that he was from New York and we got chatting – he was encouraging everyone to get involved with a cause which had something to do with the further evolution of mankind and how mushrooms are the answer. We should, he said, be more like the trees which evolved from mushrooms. I tried to establish what that meant in practice, but then we got onto mushrooms and Chernobyl – “Google it,” he said.

And this musician was playing “The Sound of Silence” when we came by. I suspect he has an interesting life story. And I am always grateful when people are happy for me to take their picture.

Berlin 3 020


And that’s some of what I see when I’m in Berlin.


The Berlin blog – part 1

I should probably give a bit of background to my experience of Berlin, given that it’s where I keep returning to, with or without various family members in tow, and also where my novel is set, so even when I’m not physically here, my head still is. I use the present tense because I am writing this blog on holiday in Berlin – in fairness, I spend much of the time travelling around in trains, buses and trams just observing the place and we do end up going down an abnormal number of side streets in case we encounter something unusual I can use or that prompts a thought. Or a photo.

I first came here in early 1990, just after the Wall came down. I was living in Munich at the time, but as an 18 year old living and working away from home for the first time, I don’t have any real memory of the political events happening just a few hundred kilometres away from me. But a few of us decided to take what seemed like a new opportunity to travel to the East. Some memories of the trip:

– Driving along the transit route between what was still East and West Germany and seeing the Trabants and other Eastern bloc cars at the side of the road being or needing repaired. There were a lot of them. An awful lot.

– Leaving the transit route and ending up driving through the suburbs of Dresden. I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to do that, but my only regret now is that I didn’t have a camera with me. The Dresden you can visit today looks nothing like the outskirts did back then. End of understatement.

– Driving through a forest (we were fairly convinced we were lost by this time) trying to get into what was still Czechoslovakia in the middle of winter, with snow on the road and in the trees that rose up close to the road on both sides. Yes, it was exactly how you imagine a cold war spy thriller. We did eventually come to a border crossing and despite the lack of a mutual language managed to get whatever stamp we needed in our passports and continued on our way to Prague.

– The restaurant menus in Prague had two prices, one for the locals and one for the tourists. It was easy to ensure everyone paid the right price because we couldn’t have ordered from the Czech menu if we had wanted to. It was still ridiculously cheap for us of course.

– And then there was Berlin. We stayed in the West, in a grotty hotel over a bar. I think that’s what happens when you don’t think to book anything in advance because the internet isn’t something anyone has heard of yet. My memory of West Berlin is that it was loud, bright, and brash. I didn’t like it at all. The next day, our car had disappeared. We found it in a nearby street with no sign of any damage, but as one of our group had been in the British Army, he was convinced that we had to check for bombs under the car. Why I had to check instead of him might have been testament to my youth and his experience. The mystery was solved a few weeks later when the Berlin police sent us a bill for having towed the car that was apparently partially parked over a bus stop. In the meantime, we had to go over to East Berlin. We drove through, exchanged our money at the border, and were suddenly in a different world. Gone was the glitz of West Berlin, the familiar cars, the familiar shop names and brands. We walked around for a while, partly trying to find something to do with the Eastern Marks we now had. It must have made an impression on me even then because when I returned years later, I instantly recognised the streets we had walked down which at the time had seemed so forgettable.

The clincher for me was of course living in Berlin for almost a year. But that was almost twenty years ago now, and parts of the city are unrecognisable from the chaos I experienced back then. There were stations that had been blocked off for thirty years that were being not just reopened but rebuilt from the inside out. Just to change trains at those stations, we had to go out of the station building, walk around it to a different entrance and then go back in there. It took for ever changing at Friedrichstrasse, the station that had symbolised the division between East and West and then became past of the largest building site in the world that was Berlin.

Skip forward a couple of decades and it turns out that there are still things we haven’t seen in Berlin that are well worth a visit. More on that next week. I have four rolls of film to develop first!

The thing that my eye has been drawn to this last week has been the things that are still the same, caught in time.

Houses that could still be in East Germany:


Buildings falling apart between expensive villas (I said it was worthwhile going down the side streets):


And others whose exteriors look like they have missed the last 25 years, beside spectacularly renovated buildings:


And finally, the Glienecke Bridge, where East and West swapped spies.


The centre of the bridge marked the point those two worlds met, and today we could walk across it, see the plaques and tell the stories of when it was all so different. Because eventually the buildings will be gone, one way or another, and we will be left with the stories.

Cheap, cheerful and fun

Last week I mentioned writing with pen and paper, the way it was done for longer than word processors and computers have even existed. Not that anything would ever get published without technology, but there’s a lot to be said for slowing things down and thinking before committing words to paper.

So when it came to our summer holiday, I found myself thinking along similar lines about what camera to bring. There is not a scenario where I go somewhere without a camera of some description, even if it’s just the one in my phone, which has done me more than proud in the past when I suddenly saw something I had to take a picture of. This time, there’s no particular event that requires a particular type of camera, and I’m long since through with the tourist photos of Berlin. So what I wanted needed to be different. And feel different. Oh yes, and not cost much if I wanted to try something else out, mainly because I just want to be able to throw it in a bag and not worry about it, but also because I don’t want to be worrying about someone trying to steal it. So indestructible and small and light and cheap.

Right, that ruled out anything made since I was born then.

Which was just fine with me, because I wanted it to be a film camera, and I’m limited to black and white this time – I have more than enough colour photos of Berlin.

Hello, eBay (please tell me you see the irony of using an internet giant to find something pre-technology).

The answer in the end was really simple.




A forty year old Olympus with manual focus – just the job. But it also has automatic exposure setting, which should please the rest of the family as I don’t have to mess around with measuring the light all the time. Or guess it, which is a fun exercise.

And for the photo geeks – an f1.7 lens, how good is that?

£80. That was it. About as much as a couple of filters for a Leica.

Plus film is cheap in Berlin (what, you thought I hadn’t checked?) – about a quarter cheaper than the best I can get in the UK. So I don’t even have to take loads of film with me. It turns out Berlin is quite the place for photography. Not sure how I missed that before.

About week after it arrived, I had my first roll of film through it, answering the first question – it’s fun to use. And it just felt right, everything where it should be – and where it used to be when I was first messing around with cameras.

And I managed to get some shots I was pretty happy with. My hit rate was certainly better than I was expecting.


Yes, it’s hanging off the side of a building.




The side of Edinburgh you don’t see on postcards.

One for the writers – and cat lovers

Warning – this blog contains photos of cats. No, you haven’t strayed onto some YouTube advert…

I’ve been laid up in bed for the last four days with some random winter bug that beat me this year, despite the copious amounts of Lemsip I managed to down. I decamped to the attic (aka my office aka the food storage area) to keep my germs to myself, which also had the advantage of being able to have the window open for some fresh air without everyone else complaining about the cold. I had the advantage of a warm duvet and a body that seemed to be struggling to regulate its temperature downwards. And I slept a lot. You would think you would come out of that feeling better than before, wouldn’t you? But it will pass. And it might explain my sluggish run the week before.

Right, sob story over.

Let’s talk about technology for a minute. Last week I wrote about my new mini photography project – one camera, one lens, one type of film, one year. Still waiting for the film to arrive… but it’s hardly life or death. It’s fair to say I have a few cameras of different types. Fully manual to fully automatic, very large and very small, analogue and digital. And my phone. And of course no camera that’s sitting at home while you’re out and about is going to give you a good photo that day. Sometimes, just having something in your pocket is all you need. These pictures were taken on my phone because I didn’t have another (dedicated) camera with me:

Out for a run in Berlin at 5am (seriously. There was a story. But when else do you get to see this without a single tourist in the way?). I had my phone in my pocket in case I got lost (I was running, not navigating). It’s a bit squint  – I was on about mile 11 at this point! – but I haven’t got round to sorting that yet.


And this is my favourite which I would have missed without having my phone with me:


And the cat photos (the cats actually live in different countries, two of them were tiny kittens and just needed to have their photo taken).



Amazing what you can do with a phone these days.

And when it comes to writing, I’ve yet to find how technology can help you write better. It might make books about writing more accessible (the US has a lot more which are now available elsewhere and probably wouldn’t have been ten years ago), there are more than enough tips about writing out there all over the internet. Some of them are even helpful. But none of it is ever a substitute for actually writing. There is a difference between writing by hand – cue list of famous writers who always wrote with a pencil, or a certain type of pen, watch sales of said objects rise – and on a typewriter and on a computer. My first book (that sounds good, as if there were lots more of them… give me time!) was written on that ancient laptop I showcased a few months ago, using WordPerfect (let’s discuss the benefits ten years later of using software that everyone else still uses…). It was great at the time. My current laptop weighs about half as much, is probably a thousand times faster and has more memory hidden under one of the keys than the old one had on its massive hard drive. But in the end, writing is one word at a time, again and again and again. And then editing it again and again and again.

But there are things which can make the process of one word at a time and later editing a lot easier. Word or one of its free or less expensive alternatives is great for some things. My experience is that it’s not great for long documents. Like books. It does the job, but it’s not really designed for that job.

Enter the answer – Scrivener. I’m not sure how exactly I came across it, but it will have been through a review I found from a search for ‘best writing software’ or something. Their website has a great title – ‘Literature and Latte’ – which appealed from the word go as a bit quirky and a bit ‘getting it’. And it comes with a proper free trial and isn’t expensive if you do want to buy it. And it’s simply brilliant. Here’s why:

  • It can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be
  • It allows you to chunk up your very long text into smaller, discrete sections, which you can then move around at will. That will be chapters, then. Or blog posts.
  • It saves everything automatically, and keeps copies of previous versions of the text somewhere in the background.
  • You can use it almost like an old-fashioned typewriter, blacking out everything else except the text you are working on at that point, no menus, no options, no distractions. And it scrolls up so that the line you are typing at that time is in the middle of the screen. Simple and brilliant. I have it in this mode all the time. All you have is a blank sheet of paper in front of you with your words on it. This is what it looks like – it’s the entire screen:


  • You know all those bookmarks you have in your web browser, the ones you know you should have categorised? All that research material you printed out and is now somewhere in that pile on the floor, or the desk, or did you file it in your cabinet? I am not very organised, I accept this. And Scrivener does it for me. It stores research material like nothing you have ever seen before. Web pages (not just links, it pulls in the page), character profiles, random scraps of thoughts, lines, words, whatever you want. So everything I have come across that I think might be useful, all saved with the actual text in the research section. For me, it’s almost worth it for that alone:


And, for me so far, that’s it. All I need at the moment, but everything I’ve needed. It does a lot, lot more if you need it to. I’m happy with the simplicity right now.

When I finally get to the editing stage, it will be so much easier, each chapter will be separate, can be moved around or simply wiped from existence. There are few that are already destined for oblivion, but no editing is taking place until I get to the end. Is Scrivener helping me to write better? No, I don’t think so. Is it making the process of writing easier? Definitely. And is it saving me from spending a lot of time doing things which are important but distract from actually writing? Most certainly. I can’t imagine ever using Word again for anything other than opening documents which other people send me. Scrivener does everything a writer needs much better. Oh, that will be because it was designed for writers. Funny that.


There are number of reasons I enjoy writing. One is definitely the challenge. I was reminded of this recently when I met with a former colleague I hadn’t seen in several years. I remembered something he had said to me when I was leaving the company we were both working for at the time (note – never underestimate people’s ability to remember for a very long time something which was meant just as a throwaway comment). I was bored there, with no realistic prospect of that changing. We had been talking about what it would have taken to get me to stay and he said ‘we were going to give you incremental challenges.’ That stuck in my mind until now because it encapsulated what I don’t want, need, or benefit from. I don’t do incremental challenge as an approach. It’s simply not meaningful enough to me. Of course, that has to be balanced with keeping a degree of sanity because you can’t do everything at once. And it doesn’t mean that new challenges feel any easier at the time, but they certainly aren’t boring.

My personal challenges in 2015 are, in addition to those associated with my main job, running a marathon at what seems a ridiculous time (under 2 hours 45 minutes, there, now I’ve said it) and finishing my novel. The marathon time comes from it being a round number that isn’t something I already know I could do. Last year, I finished in 3 hours 13 minutes, so I reckon I could do under three hours. That feels like incremental improvement to me. What I don’t know is how much faster I could go. 2:30 is definitely too far a push, so I settled for 2:45. It might even be a time that gets me automatic entry to the Berlin marathon, which would be even better. Last year, I was running for a Boston marathon qualifying time, even though I then found out how much it would cost to get there and run the race, so I’m waiting until I’m fast enough to make the trip worthwhile. My new training plan for next May started a couple of weeks ago, so I have that goal in mind now.

On the writing front, I also have a plan with dates on it, backed up with my updated goal of writing every day, without fail. The basic principle is 1,000 words a day, 2,000 on weekends unless I really am away all day, in which case it reverts to 1,000 again, and somewhere between 2 and 5,000 on Mondays. I’ve also been applying a lesson I learned when I started running. I would get out of bed an hour earlier to get a run in because otherwise I wouldn’t have the energy in the evening. And then it was done, not hanging over me all day. So I’ve been getting up at 6 again (and going to bed earlier!) and writing for an hour in the mornings, while having breakfast, all in peace and quiet. Lovely, if very dark. When everyone else gets up, I’m done or finishing up and can get on with the rest of the day.

And I’m also trying to figure out what makes (fiction) writing work. A book I’m working through at the moment is Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing.

Sol Stein

Stein has written nine novels, edited other books, taught creative writing, and written non-fiction books, screenplays and TV shows. So I’m going to listen to what he has to say. Here’s what he has to say  on page 3:

‘The correct intention [of writing] is to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life.’

Right, that counts as a challenge.

The chapter I’m currently reading – I’m taking this book slowly, there’s just too much to take in – is about characters. But the chapter title says it much better – ‘Competing with God: Making Fascinating People.’ It is incredibly helpful to see sentences and paragraphs through Stein’s eyes and see the techniques he describes in action. And better still to then try them out and see the difference. It’s a good job you can edit your text afterwards.

So those are my current challenges, both are something I don’t already know I can do based on previous experience, and that makes them interesting. And they aren’t incremental. Anything other than incremental…