Love, Death and Wyrds




Nobody tells you what it’s like to press that little green button marked “go”. Publish that book I’ve been working on forever.

That’s when all the doubts creep in. Will they like it? Is the writing good enough? Have I winnowed out all the spelling mistakes? If it makes me a gazillion, what colour should I choose for my first Ferrari?

There is never a perfect time to press that button. There are always procrastination excuses. My website isn’t up to date. Just one more spell check. Is the cover exactly as I wanted it? Should I do some pre-marketing first?

The doubts gnaw on you like leeches. Or if that’s too gruesome, think of procrastination as being like those little fish that eat the dead skin from your toes. Come to think of it, that’s almost as gruesome an idea as the leeches.

But I can’t put it off any longer. So here we go folks … it’s time for a sequel to Love, Death and Tea. My new book – Love, Death and Wyrds – is a gentle romantic comedy about a woman fighting to save her relationship in the apocalypse. The end of the world shouldn’t mean the end of you and me, should it?

Expect more of the kind of humour in Love, Death and Tea, but this time told from Libby’s perspective. We get to see the world from under a witch’s pointy hat – magic cats, girls who can walk through walls, baskets of herbs and … ahem … Shakespeare.

Why Shakespeare? Because.

You can get your copy of Love, Death and Wyrds from Amazon.

Click here to buy it from the UK.

Click here to buy it from the US.

The ideal reading order is Love, Death and Tea first, followed by Love, Death and Wyrds. You can read Wyrds first if you really want. All that would happen is that some of the surprises would become spoilers.

Now I have to sit back and see what the world makes of my humble little offering. Will they like it? Will anyone care? Will it sell by the bucketload or the thimbleful?

Is the world ready for some witchcraft apocalypse comedy?

Crosses finger and press the “publish button”.


I’ve got the fence-post blues


wrong on the internet

I think I’ve worked out what the internet is.

It has taken me several years, at least two keyboards and countless thousands of words. But I think I’ve found the secret. Or at least one of them.

Of course, I haven’t figured out all of the internet. There are huge bits I haven’t yet experienced, let alone understood. There is quite a lot of the internet that I don’t want to visit. As the old map-makers used to say about undiscovered lands … “here be dragons”.

The bit of the internet I think I’ve worked out are the chat rooms. The online debates. The comment sections of online newspapers, like the Guardian or BBC News or the Mail Online.

The best analogy I can come up with is that this part of the internet acts like a fence post for a community of dogs. And we’re the dogs, or as our transatlantic cousins might say, a dawg. We leave messages on the fenceposts with our wee.

Take Brexit as an example. This is a subject which has divided the nation. Some think that the EU is a big nasty organisation like Spectre and that the referendum vote to leave was our “independence day”. All of the UK’s ills would be solved if we could only kick all the foreigners out.

Others see Brexit as an unmitigated economic disaster. And every shade of opinion in between.

So what do we do with our deeply held opinions? We head on over to the Guardian website or Mail Online or Mumsnet and we sniff the fenceposts. We want to see what the other dogs have been saying. We spot a comment that annoys us, and we have to obliterate it with our point of view.

BigBoyTed had left a wee-mail saying that “Brexit is going to be brilliant”, so we have to wee all over it saying that it’s going to be awful. And vice versa.

Later, BigBoyTed sees our wee-mail and gets annoyed by it. So he wees all over our comment with another pungent wee of his own. You say Remoaner, I say Brexshitter. Let’s call the whole thing off.

And on it goes. Layer after layer of wee.

It’s not just Brexit. It’s also Trump, climate change, Boaty McBoatface, Corbyn, ISIS, austerity, building a wall.

It goes beyond politics into the things we buy. Pick any make of car or computer or watch or clothes … and there will be a group of people weeing about how wonderful it is and another group counter-weeing that it’s awful.

My car is better than your car. Splash. Oh, no it isn’t. Splosh.

I admit it. I’ve been a dawg from time to time. I’ve wee’ed (how do you spell that?) on a fair share of fence posts. Some things are just too damned important. Some statements are just too crass and outright wrong to let them stand.

So I’ve pounded the keyboard. Cocked a leg and splashed my opinion over someone else’s. Guilty as charged. Someone is still wrong on the internet.

I’ve been pee-ed on too. There have been a few occasions when someone online has tracked me back to one of my websites to see if they could dig up some dirt on me. One even found out that I was (a) male and (b) white, which they then used to argue that I was too privileged to have a view about sexism. Woo.

Bless. It’s a hobby for them, I suppose.

Then I had a revelation. I realised that we’re never going to change each other’s point of view. There is no piece of evidence, no finely crafted argument, no elegant bon mot, nothing that will induce someone to slap their foreheads and switch to your point of view.

That’s the problem with weeing on a fencepost. It might feel good at the time, but it soon gets washed off in the rain. Or covered over by the next dawg’s offering.

So I’m trying to ween myself off the fencepost weeing. It’s addictive, but the high is only temporary. It doesn’t solve anything. I’ve stayed away from particularly incendiary forums (including one that I set up). I’ve signed out of my Guardian account. Hit the ignore button to block one persistent troll.

I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s going well so far. Then again, don’t all addicts say something like that?

Keats had this inscription on his tomb: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. It’s a great line, although a little ironic and too self-deprecating perhaps.

Perhaps the modern equivalent is “here lies one whose name was writ in urine” for those who spend a large chunk of their lives weeing on fenceposts.

With further ado


Some words and phrases bother me. I know they shouldn’t. I know I should let them slide by graciously. But sometimes I can’t help myself.

I have developed a bit of a thing.

Take “without further ado”. People generally say this when they have waffled on for too long by way of an introduction and they realise they have got to get the main event going.

“And without further ado, I do declare that the Little PiddleHampton-in-the-Basin summer fete is now open.”

We all have a vague idea of what “without further ado” means. Or do we? If we can be without “further ado” surely we can also be with “further ado”. And I have no idea what that means.

For that matter, I’m not too sure about “ado”. Can it be used in any sentence other than “much ado about nothing” and “without further ado”?

“Ruthless” is another one that puzzles me. Can we be “ruthful”? The internet says we can:

Ruthful is indeed a word that derives from an old definition of ruth meaning “the quality of being compassionate.” But unpaired negatives, like ruthless, unkempt, uncouth, or disgruntled, are common words that lack positive correlatives in common speech.

I quite like the idea of “unpaired negatives”. They sound like the Billy-no-mates of the dictionary. The sad singlies who can’t go to the party because they have no-one to go with.

Mind you, that’s not the funniest thing I’ve seen today. I couldn’t help noticing Her Majesty’s hat at today’s State Opening of Parliament.

queens hat

On a day when the Government announces its legislation for leaving the EU, is our monarch trying to tell us something by wearing a hat that looks like the flag of the European Parliament?

I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that is much ado about nothing. And you’d probably be right.

A writing update


lovedeathandwyrds-WOIt is that time again. I have a new book about to come out.

Love, Death and Wyrds is the sequel to Love, Death and Tea. It’s the same post apocalyptic world, this time told from the perspective of Libby. We get some of the same scenes told from a different perspective and then a whole new adventure deep in a dungeon underneath London.

The official publication will be in July, but if anyone wants a review copy for free, just drop me a comment or an email.

The mythical manual


I’ll admit it. When I started to learn photography, I was intimidated by the dreaded manual modes.


The internet, where everyone is an expert, told me that real men shoot in manual only, but it’s so difficult to learn that it would fry my little brain.

Now I have been on a photography course, I can reveal the secret handed down from one grand master camera-ista to another. It’s the thing that they don’t want you to know…

Nearly every shooting mode on a modern camera is an automatic mode in some form or another.

Yup. Those frightening PASM modes on the mode dial? The first three – Program, Aperture and Shutter – are all automatic or semi-automatic modes. Even the M mode can be partially or mostly automatic if you want it to be.

Yes, you can shoot the camera entirely on manual if you have the letter S on your shirt and wear your undies over latex tights. Mmmm, nice. Some professionals will do this some of the time (that’s use manual, not wearing the costume). But in 99.99% of the time you will want to let the camera do some of the work for you.

There’s no shame in using a semi-automatic mode. It’s not a sin. The photography gods won’t rip your invitation to spend the eternity of the afterlife in luxury on Mount Olympus. Or Mount Canon, Nikon or Sony, if those are the particular gods that you make credit card sacrifices to.

There is something else. Remember that I said that the camera doesn’t want you to take a bad picture? That still applies to the so-called manual modes. They are nowhere near as scary as they look. The camera is still trying to look after you. Use as much manual control as you need and the camera will adjust everything else to give you a good picture. Usually.

We’re going to need a little theory. Don’t worry – it won’t be too heavy, I promise.

It turns out that nearly all photography is based on three basic factors. The unholy trinity are aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

The last of these – ISO – is both incredibly useful and mind-numbingly boring, so we’ll park it for now. Until you’re ready for ISO, stick your camera into its “auto ISO” setting and forget about it. We will come back to it later.

That leaves us just two things to worry about – aperture and shutter speed. In short, the aperture is how big the hole is to let in light to form your photo. Shutter speed is how long the hole is left open.

Shutter speed and aperture are linked to each other. If you try to set them totally independently of each other you could get a bad picture.

To illustrate this, we ought to go back to the first ever man-made photograph. What do you think it is?

The history books will say that it’s something like this:

first photo 1

Now that’s all very well, but I like to think that in reality the first man-made photograph was something like this:

first photo tan line

Huh? I’d better explain.

All photographs are made when light falls onto a light-sensitive substance. That light sensitive thing used to be a roll of film, now it’s the electronic sensor in your camera. Other light-sensitive substances are also available. When your curtain fades in the sunlight, that’s a photograph (of sorts). And it’s the same when sunlight tans your skin.

Admittedly the “tanning on skin” form of photography isn’t very good for selfies or pictures of cute cats, but we can get a little creative with it …

tan lines funny1

tan lines funny 2

How do we get a good tan line photo like those? We need two basic things – a hot sun giving us lots of light and we need to stay out in it for a long time.

The hot sun part is our aperture. It’s how much light is falling on our image at any given moment in time. It’s hard to get a tan-line on a wet and cloudy November in Blackpool.

Shutter speed is how long we are in the sun. We probably all know from bitter experience that it can only take a couple of hours to get a tan line if the sun is hot enough.

And that’s the magic link between aperture and shutter speed. We would get more or less the same results from a short amount of time in a very hot sun that we would get from a longer amount of time in a cooler sun.

Or think of it like baking a cake. You can bake it on a low temperature for a long time or a high temperature for a short time. The cake won’t taste the same, but it would have had the same amount of heat overall.

On a camera, a wide aperture letting in lots of light would usually match well with a fast shutter speed. A narrow aperture would generally want a slower shutter speed. You get the same amount of light in each case.

As we change aperture, we also need to change shutter speed. And vice versa. More of one usually means less of the other.

Okay, okay, I can see you throwing your hands up in despair. This is one of those Harry Potter moments when it all descends into mumbo-jumbo and wizardry. Aperturo confusum!

How the Hasselblad are we supposed to know what a “good” picture looks like? How will I know how much aperture and shutter speed I need?

This is where the automatic-ness of your camera comes in. Your camera can tell you what it thinks a good photograph looks like. It isn’t always right, but it is right more often than it is wrong.

Let’s say that you don’t know what aperture or shutter speed you want. Put your camera into P or “program” mode and it will act like a posh auto. The camera will control aperture and shutter speed for you. There are other tricks that P mode can do, but we don’t need to worry about those just now.

In P mode, the camera sets both aperture and shutter speed.

Now let’s say that you want to set a particular aperture. I’ll explain why you might want to do this in a later blog. Then you would turn your camera to A (or Av on a Canon). Choose your aperture. Your camera will automatically set a shutter speed to “match” your aperture for the picture you want to take.

It doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes you might be asking too much of the camera. But on the whole it works like an automatic mode where you are changing only one setting and the camera is doing the rest.

In A (or Av) mode, you set the aperture. The camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly.

Let’s say that you don’t care about aperture, but you do want a certain shutter speed. Maybe you want a very fast shutter speed to take a picture of a fast-moving sport. Then you would choose S mode or Tv (time value) on a Canon. You then choose the speed that you want. The camera would automatically change the aperture to compensate for your new shutter speed.

In S (or Tv) mode, you set the shutter speed. The camera adjusts the aperture for you.

That only leaves the dreaded M mode. You have to set both aperture and shutter speed. That’s much more complicated, yes?

Well, no, not really. Not these days. In the bad old days, you had to work out aperture and shutter speed without much help from your camera. Those were indeed the age of wizards.

Modern cameras will tell you if you are about to take a good picture or not in manual mode. When you are in manual modes, somewhere on your camera there will be a display like this one:


When the little indicator is next to the zero or in the middle, the camera is telling you that the photograph is correctly exposed (in its opinion). If it’s in the minus range (usually to the left), then you may need to let in more light – either with a wider aperture or a slower shutter speed. If the indicator is at the positive end, you may need to let in less light. That means a narrower aperture or a faster shutter speed. You keep on fiddling until you get the settings that you want. Then you take the picture.

But here’s the funny thing. You could use manual mode and always aim to hit the zero on the exposure level indicator. But then you would be getting more or less the same aperture and shutter speed values as someone who used the semi-automatic A or S modes. In each case, you would be getting the exposure that the camera reckons you need for a good photo.

There is a lot more to learn about aperture and shutter speed. But for now all we need to say is that they are linked to each other and that the camera can do the linking for you if you ask it nicely.



Demystifying those buttons


I’ve had two comments already asking about all those darned buttons on the camera. So I’m bringing forward a piece I had intended to write later. This is all you need to know about those mysterious buttons … probably.

The secret that nobody tells you is that the company which made your camera really doesn’t want you to take a bad photograph. They hate bad photographs with a passion, because the word would soon spread: “Don’t buy a Nikon/ Canon/ Sony … whatever … I had one and it was rubbish.”

But that leaves Nikon, Canon, et al with a problem. They have to sell their cameras to absolutely everyone, ranging from total novices to professionals. The same camera has to hold your hand while you’re taking your first baby steps and it also needs to help a pro earn a living.

That’s like expecting a car to be both a city runabout which your granny could drive and which is also a Formula One race car. At the same time.

The camera manufacturers achieve this through a Jedi mind trick. They do their version of Obi Wan’s hand waving thing … “these aren’t the buttons you’re looking for.”

In broad terms, camera users can be split into four groups. We have snappers, fiddlers, old-time pros and tweakers.

The snappers just want to take a photograph. They want the camera to do nearly all the work. But they certainly don’t want a bad photograph. The picture they’re taking could be very precious to them. It might be a family picture, a graduation, a wedding, a precious memory.

All snappers need to know is to turn the mode dial to either “auto” or “intelligent auto”. Not the big letter A, that’s a different thing. Auto or intelligent auto is the way to go.

Now compose the shot. Zoom in or out if you want. Frame the picture up nicely. Then press the shutter button half way and keep it there. The camera will autofocus. Depending on your camera, it might beep to tell you that it’s happy. It might show you the points it has decided to focus on. When you’re happy, try to hold the camera as steady as you can and press the shutter the rest of the way down.

That’s it. It’s all you need to know to take average to good photographs. Unless you do something extreme, you are very unlikely to take a bad photograph. Auto is looking after you.

The difference between “auto” and “intelligent auto” is that auto will just take an averagely good picture. Intelligent auto will try to guess what kind of a picture you’re trying to take and it will adjust itself accordingly. Intelligent autos are getting better all the time.

If that works for you, then that works for you. You’re taking photos that you like. Happy days. Feel free to categorise almost every other button into “don’t need to know”. Take lots of photos. It’s all good.

Ignore anyone on the internet or in the pub who says you have to shoot in manual mode. That’s tosh. Content matters much more than technique.

After a while, you may want to take it a little further. Your auto pictures are okay, but you start to realise that they could be better. Welcome to the wonderful world of the fiddler.

We’re still not getting into all the buttons and you don’t need to know how this works. Need to know still applies.

If you look at the mode dial on your camera, you’ll probably see a number of little pictures, like the ones on the upper left hand side of this picture:


These are the scene modes.

Some cameras put them in a different place. I have a Sony which hides them under an option called SCN for “scene”. This is where you will need to look in your manual. Fellas, I know that goes against all our caveman instincts, but sometimes we have to do it.

All cameras are different, but you’ve probably got at least a little picture of mountains, a lady in a hat and a running man.

What these scene modes do is to tweak the camera’s settings to give you a better chance of taking a good photograph.

The pair of mountains is landscape mode. The camera assumes that you want everything in focus from the foreground to the distant background. It may pump up the greens to make grass look greener and a few other wizardly tricks besides. We don’t need to know. All we need to know is that this is our Ansel Adams mode. Great for taking pictures of landscapes where everything is in focus.

Ansell Adams didn’t have a landscape mode, but if he did he would use it for photos like this:

ansell adams chelly canyon

The glamorous lady with the hat is portrait mode. Use this scene mode when you’re taking pictures of people’s faces, like this photo by David Bailey:

scene modes - david Bailey

Portrait mode ensure that the face is in focus and properly exposed, but will blur or darken the background. Some cameras use fancy face detection software to lock onto the nearest face in the picture and make sure it’s looking good.

The running man is sports mode. This uses a fast shutter speed (I’ll explain later) to freeze the action in sports. Then you might get something which looks a bit like this:

scene modes sports

Put your camera into whatever scene mode makes sense, and then take a picture as before with a half-way press of the shutter button to lock the focus in.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it. Your pictures won’t look as good as these and these pictures were almost certainly not taken in landscape, portrait or sports scene modes. But you will get closer to these shots than you would have in auto mode.

If you want to shoot photographs like these, you’re going to need to graduate into what I call old-time pro mode. It’s time to take direct control of exposure.

This is much too big a topic to cover here, so I’ll give the briefest of introductions now and we’ll talk about it later.

There are three main things that we can control when we take a photo – aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Aperture is how wide the lens opens. Shutter speed is how long it stays open for; usually expressed in a fractions of a second. ISO is how sensitive the camera sensor is to light.

We need to balance these three things to take a photo to make sure that the picture is properly exposed. Auto and the scene modes do this for us automatically. Old timers like to set their own values. That’s where the PASM modes come into play. An old-time pro would put the camera into one of these modes and then directly control which aperture, shutter speed and ISO they wanted.

Canon have decided that the A and S of the PASM modes could be confusing. Instead they have Av and Tv, which are the same thing.

If that is gobbledegook to you, then fine. Let it stay as gobbledegook. Ignore the PASM modes. Let your camera set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. We’ll talk about them later.

But here’s the funny thing. If you are using auto or the scene modes, you don’t need to worry too much about aperture, shutter speed and ISO. And if you are dealing in aperture, shutter speed and ISO, you don’t have to worry about the scene modes.

There’s more, I’m afraid. The manufacturers have also stuffed their cameras with other toys of varying usefulness. You can tweak all sorts of settings and produce many weird effects. But only if you want to.

I have a mode on one of my camera called “sleeping faces”. It’s allows you to take pictures of someone asleep. It seems to be a portrait mode but without a flash or any noises so that you don’t wake the person up.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds a little creepy to me. I bet 99% of camera owners will never use it, but it’s in there in case you do.

When all is said and done, the buttons on your camera probably fall into four categories:

  • The basic buttons that we all need just to take a photo, including the on/off switch, the shutter release button and the zoom.
  • Scene modes for people who want to take more advanced pictures than auto will allow.
  • Direct control of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, if you are into that sort of thing.
  • Tweaking buttons to do optional extra things when and if you want to.

You almost certainly don’t need to know them all.



This is where it starts to get weird.

I was at a photography class last week when we had a strange difference of opinion. The tutor showed us a picture like this one:


The taxi is in focus (ish), the background is blurred. This gives us the impression of speed. The taxi is the thing we’re focusing on and not the background.

Most of the people in the class nodded. Yes, good photo. Something of a cliché perhaps, but a good photo.

“I don’t like it,” said one lady in the class. “It looks wrong.”

I think I know where she is coming from. When I was a youngling (a long long time ago, in a galaxy far away) we wanted everything to be in focus. We would try to hold our primitive film cameras as steady as we could. We would dutifully stand with the sun behind us. “Say cheese”.

And then we would send the film off to Boots the Chemist to be processed, crossing our fingers that it would all turn out okay. We would live in dread of our prints coming back looking all blurry. Okay, maybe “living in dread” is a little OTT, but you get the picture.

Back in the day, it was all so simple. Poems rhymed. Stories had beginnings, middle and ends. Authors wrote in impeccable English with good grammar and proper sentences. Heroes were heroes. Foreign Secretaries were diplomats. And photos were in focus.

Something like this:


Or this:


It’s our old friend Ansel Adams, putting everything into focus. Because that’s what he did. He didn’t want to have anything to do with those experimental painterly types who went all arty-farty.

Focus was very important in the early days of photography. The pioneers made their money by selling prints which were as life-like as possible. Rich customers paid huge sums to have their portraits taken and they wanted it to be perfect, dammit!

The public would buy photographs of foreign lands and exotic sights that they could not hope to visit in person. And again they wanted those images to be perfect – as if they were there.

Photography’s first trick was being able to reproduce an image accurately. And for some people, that’s still what they want. In these days of high definition this and 4K that, we expect lots of pin-sharp detail in our images.

But …

There are problems with having everything in focus. For one thing, your eye doesn’t know where to settle. Unless the composition is tight on a single subject, your attention might wander all over the picture.

In some instances, having everything in focus means that nothing is 100% pin sharp. It’s all more or less there, but nothing truly stands out.

Photos where everything is in focus can also be a bit humdrum. If we all stood in front of the Pyramids and took a shot with everything in focus, all our photos would look more or less the same. That might be very booooring.

Instead, how about an image like this?


The model is in focus. The background is in outer space. We have no idea what is going on behind her and we don’t need to know. She’s the star.

There’s more. It’s not entirely true to say that the model is in focus. The photographer has actually focused on her face, because the human eye is usually drawn to faces.

No sniggering at the back, please!  This is not that kind of photography. And I did say ‘usually’.

You might notice that her right shoulder is out of focus and possibly a little over-exposed too (too white). Her hair falling over her left shoulder is also not sharp. None of that matters because we are meant to look at her face.

There’s even more. The photographer has focussed more precisely than just her face. He or she has focused on her eyes. And if the model had been standing sideways so one eye was closer than the other, the photographer would have focused on the eye which was nearest to the camera.

The out of focus elements of the photograph are used to draw your attention to the parts that are in focus.

Which is better – the Ansel Adams approach or the deliberate use of out of focus?

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Both styles of photograph are fine. The point is that we have to choose which style is most appropriate for the emotion we want to transmit to the viewer.

There are parallels with writing. We can choose to write long, descriptive passages where we describe everything in minute detail. That would be the equivalent of an Ansel Adams image where everything is in focus.

Or we can strip the description out and focus only on the main action. That’s also a valid choice. New writers can sometimes struggle when they use lots of description that they really don’t need.

“I hate you,” snarled Rex, angrily. His eyes blazed with the angry fire of a mythological beast. He wanted her to know how angry he was.

Woah! Too much description. I can tell he’s angry, okay? No need to slather it on with a trowel.

When I was being taught public speaking, the trainer said something which has stuck with me ever since. No matter whether you are speaking for one minute or an hour, hardly anyone in your audience will remember more than five things that you said. Most of your audience will only remember three things. In fact, the majority will only remember one thing.

That one thing might not be what you want them to remember. They might remember that you were wearing an awful tie or that you repeated “um” or “like” a lot.

Your job is to decide what that one thing is, and make sure they don’t miss it. Keep repeating your one thing. Justify it. Explain it. Reinforce it.

In other words, focus.

There are some very arty photos with little to no focus at all. But most photos – and most writing – has at least one clear point of focus. How much of the background you show is a deliberate choice for the artist – the writer or the photographer.

Whenever we add a new element into a photo, and whenever we add a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a character into a piece of writing, we need to ask ourselves these searching questions …

What is this thing achieving?

Why am I focusing on it?

What is the point?

The techie stuff about how to focus, I’ll cover a little later. For now, the point is to start noticing focus. One interesting little exercise is to look out for focus when we’re watching television or movies. Sometimes the camera will go all Ansel Adams and hyper-focused on everything. At other times, the background will be blurred to a greater or lesser extent.

Once you start to notice it, you’ll never think of focus in the same way again.