Friday 28 September 2018


I've found a new love, next to EtymologyOnline and Omniglot.

It's called WordHippo.

I'm currently doing a massive amount of editing for development agencies, we cover lots of subject from gender-base violence through to undertaking aid work in conflict-affected areas and, most recently, making money transfers to regions where there are no banks.

That's how I stumbled across WordHippo. I was looking for the plural of hawala, which I was fairly sure was hawala, but someone kept typing hawalas.

I was surprised to find the answer so easily. Not only did WordHippo give me the plural straight away, it told me where the word originated from and even told me how to pronounce it!

The site hadn't come up for me before, so I assume it's a new one or maybe I'm just late to the party, but I love it.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid

I was a big Young Guns fan when I was growing up. I think you kind of have to be born in the 80s to understand, what with American Adventure theme park and stuff. I had a collection of model cowboys and Indians, and stole a few more mounts from our edition of The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game. I think that was always the fascination for me - horses. The thought of riding across the open prairie on the fastest horse, pursued by the law, guns blazing - to the the sound of Bon Jovi - it was appealing.

One of my greatest pleasures nowadays is watching a movie, then reading the book to find out what really happened. Most people prefer the book first, but then you can be disappointed by the movie, whereas if you like a movie, the book tends to add to the pleasure afterwards. When I saw this on Kindle, I couldn't resist.

The Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood made His Name A Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico - By Pat Garrett - Sheriff of Lincoln Co., N.M., By Whom He Was Finally Hunted Down and Captured By Killing Him.

Pat Garrett, played by William Petersen, is a major character in Young Guns II, but really doesn't go into his association with Billy prior to tracking him down. A little disappointing, but he did publish it the year after he killed the Kid, and, given his position as Sheriff of Lincoln County, that wouldn't have gone down well. Not being a historian, I'm not entirely sure exactly what their relationship was prior to his deputisation, but he does say he knew Billy well and spent time with him.

The book itself is very short, but then so were their lives. Billy was 21 when Garrett shot him, and Garrett was only ten years older. The end of the film says Garrett himself was shot and killed by a 21-year-old, but that still seems to be a point of contention.

The films took material from the book and gave it a bit of gloss, but still, I was surprised how much of it had one foot in reality.

One thing that slightly irritated me was that Garrett kept spouting verse throughout the book, but didn't credit the poet. I spent a bit of time trying to work out whether Garrett actually wrote the verse himself  - turns out it was mostly Sir Walter Scott. This led me to wonder if that's where the quirk in Keifer Southerland's character came from, as Doc keeps reciting other people's poetry and passing it off as his own.

The two films made a sort of mash-up of Doc Scurlock and Charlie Bowdre. Josiah Scurlock only appears to have been referred to as 'Doc' once by Garrett, but was in there. He eventually split from the gang and, unlike Young Guns II, wasn't dragged back from a teaching position to face down mob justice. He appears to have skipped town with a huge amount of flour, later owned a mail station, became a respectable citizen and died aged 80.

Bowdre on the other hand, well, he didn't quite go out in a blaze of glory. The scene in YG2 where Doc is fatally wounded and comes out of the house shooting at the law in one last stand, so that his friends could escape - that was really Charlie's scene. As Garrett explains:
[Wilson] called to me and said that Bowdre was killed and wanted to come out. I told him to come out with his hands up. As he started, the Kid caught hold of [Charlie's] belt, drew his revolver around in front of him and said: "They have murdered you, Charley, but you can get revenge. Kill some of the sonfs-of- before you die."
Unlike fake blood, the real stuff took all the fight out of Charlie and he teetered towards Pat Garrett with his hands up and his pistol hanging in front of him, dying soon after.

So, the real Charlie Bowdre didn't die after being thrown out of a burning house in a clothes chest. However, about that burning house...

It happened. 

They were cornered at McSween's place:
A magnificent piano in one of the front rooms was hit several times by these marksmen in the hill-tops, and at each stroke sent forth discordant sounds. This circumstance elicited from a Lamy, N.M., correspondent of the N. Y. Sun, the following: "During the fight Mrs. McSween encouraged her wild garrison by playing inspiring airs on her piano, and singing rousing battle songs, until the besieged party, getting the range of the piano from the sound, shot it to pieces with their heavy rifles."

The truth is Mrs. McSween and three lady friends, left the house before the fight commenced. It was also true that she requested permission to return for some purpose, the firing ceased - she went bravely in - returned almost immediately, and the firing was resumed.
They then burnt the house to the ground.

A moment's silence for the piano, please.

The outlaws escaped through the back, even Bowdre, but McSween was shot and killed.

The other part that was true was him shooting his guard whilst under arrest. Although no one gave him the gun, he stole it from the munitions cupboard in the jailhouse, which some genius had put next to his cell. He ran up the stairs, took a gun, turned around and shot the guard who was coming up the steps behind him.

I'd always wondered whether that part about him being able to slip handcuffs was true. In the film he says:

Another historical and biological fact is that I had small hands and big wrists and that has saved my life more times than Colonel Colt's Equalizer. 

Garrett confirmed it:

His hand was small and his wrist large.

Apparently, he really could slip off the cuffs pretty easily, and did so on many occasions.

One of my favourite scenes also turned out to be a mash-up of two incidents.  Seems the guy he shot was based on a man called John Longmont, who was a brash bigmouth and insulted Billy and his friend in a bar without realising who he was talking to. But taking the bullets out of the gun was another incident, when he killed a guy called Joe Grant who also insulted him in a bar:

The Kid had his eye on him, and remarking "That's a beauty, Joe," took the pistol from his hand and revolved the chambers. It was his design to extract some of the cartridges, but he found only three in it, and deftly whirling the chambers until the next action would be a failure, he returned it to Grant... turning his pistol full on the Kid, who was smiling sarcastically, he pulled the trigger, but the empty chamber refused to respond; with an oath he again raised the hammer, when a ball from the Kid's revolver crashed through his brains, and he fell behind the counter.

Tom O'Folliard was an interesting portrayal in YG2, as he's made out to be a young, butter-fingered boy whereas in reality he was Billy's best friend and a hard-core outlaw. This picture is widely believed to be Billy, on the left, and Tom, on the right, playing croquet.

Both shot by Pat Garrett
More Here
Although Garrett didn't talk about what became of Dave Rudabaugh, Christian Slater's character, his ending in the film seems to have been drawn from other events in the book. In real life, he was shot and decapitated after a card game five years after Billy was killed, but during Billy's lifetime they were both being escorted to jail by Pat Garrett when a Mexican mob attempted to board the train and take revenge on Rudabaugh, apparently for the killing of Mexicans in the past. They were easily dissuaded and nothing more is really said of him after that.

It was all really interesting stuff. One of the things I love most about reading old literature is the quirks in language. I was surprised to see Garrett use 'programme' in the English spelling, and assume it's the same in the original text? Perhaps it hadn't mutated to 'program' by 1882. 

Some other words I picked up included monomaniac (having a one-track mind for something, in Billy's case killing all those responsible for John Tunstall's murder), Indian Root Pill, mouth-fighters (those 'brave mouth-fighters', derogatory term for people who fight with words instead of fists), buckboard (type of open cart for moving goods, buckboard driver) and moonling (imbecile).

Some things really don't translate through the ages, and gave a good laugh. They refer to bullets and buckshot as 'balls', people are constantly riddled with balls or have balls in them. When they shackle an inmate, they iron them: we ironed the prisoners. Which just brings to mind a whole load of neatly-pressed outlaws. At one point they talk about taking charge of the prisoners, but it's written: with the prisoners in charge. So, now we have a whole load of neatly-pressed prisoners packing balls, in charge of the sheriff's office. Ah, language.

At one point, I was happy to see mention of a Marion. Both a girl's name and a boy's name, this was Marion Turner from Roswell, New Mexico (yay, aliens and cowboys!), deputy to Sheriff Peppin, who later testified against the Kid.

So, I guess one of the main reasons I, and probably many others, read this account is to figure out whether we believe the version of events - did he kill the Kid?

Yeah, I reckon. I find it weird that Garrett and Maxwell were having a conversation in Maxwell's room and there was no light. Strange Maxwell didn't strike a lamp or anything, but the account leaves little room for doubt with Maxwell there and two of Garrett's men who saw the body. Like he says in the movie, even if he wanted to, he couldn't exactly let him go. Someone like Billy the Kid wouldn't stay out of sight for the rest of his life.

It's sad it all ended so suddenly, no great showdown - and all for a cup of coffee and a piece of beef.

It's also a shame it's written so matter-of-fact, and why we need a bit of fiction to bring characters to life. But it's clear Garrett had a lot of respect for the Kid. It seemed it wasn't easy on him to kill him. I think he probably could have said a lot more that he didn't put in the book, again because it was so soon after the event and the people he wrote about were mostly still alive. 

An interesting read, though.

Monday 24 September 2018

Musical Interlude: Lord Huron

Like just about everyone else on Netflix, I first heard of Lord Huron because of The Night We Met. It's through that I found this and realised that I really like their lyrics. Not to mention, I'm a sucker for kookie animation.

Friday 21 September 2018

Unexplained Book Tour

Huge shout out to one of my favourite podcasts, Unexplained. Creator Richard MacLean Smith is releasing a book, which you'll have heard about if you've been listening to the show recently. Here's the UK tour dates, kicking off at the Wigtown Book Festival. Make it if you can, pre-order your copy if you can't.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Reading the Landscape

Oooh, this blew my mind the other day. I caught up with my friend Ineke at a local café and interrupted her whilst she was reading. She was face-first into a tiny little book about the size of my hand. Turns out it's actually a full-length novel condensed down into small print and inked onto the page horizontally.

She assures me there are loads of novels printed like this, but it's the first time I'd ever seen one. I think it's the compromise for people who don't like Kindle. You can certainly fit a lot more of them in your bag. 

Is there a word for this print format?

Sunday 16 September 2018

What's Going on with the 'BBC'?

I wrote a while back about how many spelling mistakes and typos were cropping up on the BBC website, fuelled by its need for 24-hour rolling news, which editors and proofers don't seem able to keep pace with. Naturally, all articles have one or two mistakes, this blog's got plenty of them, but they were persistent and often in really noticeable places like bylines and even headlines.  

Whilst that continues to be noticeable, there's another, much stranger, trend occurring. I've only really noticed it over the past few months, but the whole of the BBC website seems to be littered with single quotation marks as though half the headlines contain words that are not to be believed. It gives current affairs even more of a sense of unreality than usual.

Why 'The 'Scotch-Irish' influence' and not simply 'The Scotch-Irish influence'? What possible benefit does adding quotation marks to headlines have other than making them sound sardonic? Almost every second headline seems to have a set of inverted commas. You can almost picture the author pausing at her keyboard to crook her fingers in glee. 

If the Pussy Riot man was 'poisoned', was he poisoned, or suspected of being poisoned? Wouldn't it just be easier to express doubt using words, like normal journalists? 

An absolutely baffling trend, and one that adds no clarity whatsoever for the reader.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

Violet Evergarden

I'm enthralled by this.

A long-ago ex and I used to be fanatically devoted to Ghibli because of the beauty of their animation: Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Tales from Earthsea. My early twenties were awash with anime. This just brought it all back, and then some. 

Occasionally a little saccharin, but on the whole it hits the emotional nerve dead on. Fantastically observed, exquisitely drawn, and all about the power of writing letters.

I've made up my mind. I wish to follow in the footsteps of Violet Evergarden and become an Auto Memories Doll.

I will travel to wherever you are.

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Stuart: A Life Backwards

Whilst in the UK last July, I was talking books with Aunty Patsy. We were talking about what we were reading, and she brought up a book called Stuart: A Life Backwards. She spoke of it in such high terms that I promptly bought a copy for Kindle and started reading it on the flight home. 

I got through 30% on that flight, then readjustments to daily life took over, and I've just finished it now. 

It's an extremely important book:

‘Stuart does not like the manuscript. He’s after a bestseller, “like what Tom Clancy writes”. “But you are not an assassin trying to frazzle the president with anthrax bombs,” I point out. You are an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath, I do not add.’

This is the story of a remarkable friendship between a reclusive writer (‘a middle-class scum ponce, if you want to be honest about it, Alexander’), and Stuart Shorter, a homeless, knife-wielding thief. Told backwards – Stuart’s idea – it starts with a deeply troubled thirty-two-year-old and ends with a ‘happy-go-lucky little boy’ of twelve. This brilliant biography, winner of the Guardian First Book Award, presents a humbling portrait of homeless life, and is as extraordinary and unexpected as the man it describes.

It isn't too often that you find yourself reading biographies about people who are not A-list celebrities or important historical figures. It's a book about a man you might find in a doorway in any British city.

There are numerous types of homeless person:
There are those who were doing all right beforehand, but have suffered a temporary setback because their wife has run off with another man (or, surprisingly often, another woman). Their business may have collapsed. Their daughter has been killed in a car crash. Or both. Self-confidence is their main problem and, if the professionals can get hold of them in the first few months, they'll be back at work or at least in settled, long-term accommodation within a year or two.

Right at the bottom of this abnormal heap are the people such as Stuart, the 'chaotic' homeless. The chaotic ('kai-yo-ic', as Stuart calls them, drawing out the syllables around his tongue like chewing gum) are beyond repair. When Stuart was first discovered, Kaspar Hauser-like, crouched on the lowest subterranean floor of a multi-storey car park, the regular homeless wanted nothing to do with him. They called him 'Knife Man Dan' and 'that mad bastard on Level D'.

What unites the chaotic is the confusion of their days. Cause and effect are not connected in the usual way. Beyond their own governance, let alone within grasps of ours, they are constantly on the brink of raring up or breaking down. Charity staff fuss especially hard over these people because they are the worst face of homelessness and, when not the most hateful, the most pitiable extremity of street life. - Full Guardian Article

Harrowing and honest. It gives an insight into 'the System' (all of them, from the police and care homes through to social workers and media), into life on the streets and the origins of how a person loses themselves. It offers no easy answers, but definitely raises a lot of questions - and a little more compassion.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Will Davis Showreel

This is the lovely Will Davis, not only a breathtaking aerialist but also a fantastic author. I highly recommend his book The Trapeze Artist. You can also book him for shows via his website

Saturday 1 September 2018

Widows and Orphans: Adventures in Self-publishing

Well, I've learnt a new publishing term.

I'm having a little fiddle with self-publishing. A long time ago (or a long, long time ago, if we're telling a story in the style of Don McLean), my publisher took up a novella I'd written, asked for two more stories to go with it, then promptly dropped the project. 

The original novella was shortlisted for the Leapfrog Press Award last year, but didn't hit a chord with the handful of other publishers I sent it to. I did receive some lovely compliments, but no one was accepting adult fiction below 70,000. 

So, I've decided to use the stories as an experiment in self-publishing. I've always been interested in how that works, but never been brave enough to sit down and give it a go. I've opted for Amazon's CreateSpace, as it seemed a lot more user-friendly than Lightning Source, even though I do have an account with them.

I sat down and had a good read through the PDF submission specifications.

At first, I felt a little queasy, though it's nowhere near as gratuitous as Smashwords's 117-page beast of a style guide - and that's just for e-books.

Eventually, I turned to YouTube and found a really helpful set of tutorials by Killer Book Marketing which takes you through the whole process. The four that were particularly helpful were:

I had a bit of a meltdown over getting headers and footers in the right place with continuous page breaks, which Word doesn't handle very well, but got there in the end.

Then, when I uploaded it to CreateSpace and checked out the preview, I discovered the issue of 'widows and orphans'. There's a nice little article called Improving the Bottom Line which explains it quite well. A widow is where the first line of a new paragraph appears by itself at the bottom of a page. An orphan is where the last line of a paragraph appears by itself at the top of a page (I think). Word automatically readjusts the layout of a page to avoid this, moving the widow to the next page to form a whole paragraph. This means you end up with opposite pages in your book having a different number of lines, usually resulting in the page that had the widow now having a blank line at the bottom, so the bottom lines of your page don't line up in the same way the top lines do.

You can knock off the widow and orphan control on Word, so that it doesn't do this, but most typesetters seem to agree that allowing widows to appear is a cardinal publishing sin.

Mostly, I was wondering which is the greater sin - allowing widows to appear, or leaving blank spaces where a line of text should be?

I went to my bookshelf and had a rummage through. I discovered that most self-published and POD books had the blank space, even when the overall quality of publication was very high. But I did find a professionally published book by Anchor (part of Random House at that time) which had them. 

Ideal Alignment
Missing Widow (Right)
With Widow (right)

That last one is from a copy of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which is a pretty famous book. So, I decided I'd follow their lead and knock off widow control in Word. Apparently there are ways around it if you play with character spacing, but that seems like a huge amount of effort throughout a 345-page book. I think I can live with the odd floating line. Definitely looks better than a missing line.

Having said that, I had never noticed the blank lines in books I had previously read until I became aware of this issue through trying to publish my own book. Now I see them everywhere. To the average reader, I doubt it makes a lot of difference.

The manuscript has now been adjusted and re-uploaded to CreateSpace. Just waiting on the cover to come through. I'll talk about that another time. Then I'm going to order a hard copy and make any final adjustments.